Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2009

Reprinted from Benny Girard’s much-missed fanzine, The Frozen Frog

PLATO IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN

Alexis Gilliland

illo by Taral Wayne

The evening before Professor Chilton’s final for Philosophy 217 they went down to the local Night Kitchen franchise for coffee and onion rings. Well, the menu called them onion rings; what they were was Bisquick, eggs and onions run through a blender and deep fried like funnel cake. The girls took the booth under the Sendak poster of their favorite Wild Thing, and Mario pulled up a chair to the end of the table rather than trying to crowd three on a side.

“This essay question on a ‘just state’,” said Alex, “How do you get a handle on it?”

“You should have been reading the assignments on Plato’s Republic,“ replied Judith unhelpfully. Then she relented because she knew enough to fake the answer. “Old Socrates started off explaining ‘what a just person was, and either he didn’t know or his mind wandered, because he wound up saying that, well, a state is bigger than a person, you know, so you can see it without squinting, and once you knew what a just state was, a just person would be the exact same thing, only smaller.”

L’etat, c’est moi,” said Susan. “Was that Evita Peron or Mao Tse-dong?”

Joe-Bob took a sip of coffee, ignoring her. “A just state,” he said, pensively. “Well, I suppose one could exist. But only momentarily, for just the barest instant, as it swung between equal and opposite perversions “

“Well no,” replied Mario. “That assumes that the state changes continuously and in an orderly fashion. If you want to mix Poli-Sci with Plato, the halfway point is where you have a 50-50 chance of being screwed by either of two mutually exclusive injustices.”

“The just state is a Platonic Ideal,” mused Alex. “Just like a clean, clear river is the ideal river. The problem with the river is that everyone wants to use it for irrigation and sewage disposal and so forth so that the flow gets all drawn down and polluted.” He broke off a length of onion ring and dipped it in salsa. “You don’t denounce the river because people used it badly or the rains made it flood the lowlands; you build a levee or a sewage treatment plant.”

“Spoken like a true civil engineer,” said Susan. “Then a just state would be one that nobody has used, yet?”

“Well, the just state is a Platonic Ideal,” replied Mario. “Which means that it’s what you’re aiming at, not anything that’s actually going to get installed in the real world.” He took a sip of coffee to hold the floor while he was thinking. “So the ideal state is sort of the plan … no, the prospectus, actually. The plan is the blueprint you work from, in. order to build what actually is going to get built. The prospectus is what you go around showing people to persuade them to invest in this Wild Thing of Yours, explaining what a great deal it’s going to be. The just state is the prospectus, what Prof Chilton calls ‘the Way it s’posed to be’.”

“The just state is Socrates’ prospectus?” asked Judith. “What was he trying to sell?”

“Textbooks for Plato’s Academy,” said Susan and Mario together.

“No, no, no,” said Joe-Bob. “The just state is part of a system, along with just people and honorable politicians.”

There was a general laugh at the table. “Plato conceded that wasn’t likely to happen,” said Alex, scrolling through his notebook. “He was talking about philosophers becoming kings, or maybe vice versa, which isn’t all that different if you figure the odds.” He dipped onion ring in salsa and took a bite. “Do you suppose he wanted to put those beautiful, logical theories of his in practice?”

“Depend on it,” replied Judith. “Plato spent his life ‘arguing’ with the students at his academy; who figured to be a bright but docile bunch sucking up to him for their grade. If they couldn’t catch him in some gross logical error, they let him have his way. So even if he knew the real world wasn’t like that, old Plato thought his academy was ‘the way it s’posed to be.’ “

“Professor Chilton will want to know what Socrates and Plato were thinking about, though,” said Joe-Bob, scrolling through his notes. “Here’s Socrates: ‘When everyone minds his own business, that is justice and will make the city just.’”

Judith took another piece of onion ring. “Socrates could never quit while he was ahead,” she said, dipping it in salsa. “What about his argument for having all women and children in common?”

“That was only for the guardians,” corrected Alex. “Otherwise the ruling class to which old Socrates so ardently aspired to belong.”

“Looks like what Socrates really wanted was a no-fault divorce from Xanthippe,” said Susan. “So he figured out the philosophical equivalent.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it, Joe-Bob. Socrates was a social-climbing jock-sniffer. What he liked to do was hang out with the affluent and athletic Athenian youth. Those young and impressionable men, who, it goes without saying, would become the future movers and shakers of the city.”

“Which is why they slipped him the hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens,” said Mario. “His former students kept trying to overthrow the government.”

“You saw how Professor Chilton liked that idea,” Susan reminded him. “Historical accuracy will not get you through Philosophy, young man. The way I see it Socrates came up with a plan that would let other people service Xanthippe, because he wouldn’t have the duty to her more than once a year.”

“You can’t blame him, Susan; Xanthippe was a notorious scold and shrew.”

“Hellfire and damnation, Joe-Bob! Who was it wrote that lying and pernicious history? Socrates and the good old boys at Plato’s academy is who.” She held out her coffee mug and the waitress refilled it for her. “If they ever discover the Socratic dialogues with Xanthippe, you can bet your sweet ass that Socrates came off a sorry second best.”

Alex looked up from scrolling his notes. “Got it,” he announced triumphantly. “The quote, the summary and a crib note. What do you want?”

“Just the summary and the crib,” said Susan, stirring sweetener into her coffee.

“Right. The summary says: ‘The community of women and children is good because it promotes the unity of the state.’” Alex paused. “The crib note says: ‘Discuss the ideas of Socrates, not his sexual preferences.’ Which means you can skip Xanthippe and go directly to unity.”

Leaning over, Mario studied the quote for a moment. “Unity. Solidarity. Cohesion. Ever righter thinking by ever larger majorities, wanting only what is best for the state. What was it Kipling said? ‘This is the state above the law. The state exists for the state alone’?”

“Men are so easily distracted,” mused Judith, resting her chin in her hand. “What the old boy should have said was: ‘This community of women and children is a neat idea which would be good if it did, indeed, promote the unity of the state.’”

“It doesn’t?” asked Joe-Bob.

Judith shook her head. “In practice, men are all too likely to run off and abandon their women and children, weaken the family bond like the old boy wants to do, and when times get tough they’ll bug out. I’ll bet that’s what Xanthippe told him and the son of a bitch didn’t want to hear it.”

“A platonic red herring,” said Susan. “Tres elegant.”

“In the real world,” Judith continued, speaking with the calm authority of a sociology major, “the communal sharing of women and children has been destructive of the community wherever it was tried. You get these goddamned duty rosters listing who sleeps with whom, and when, because somebody has to sleep with ugly old Xanthippe.” She took a sip of coffee.

“So what we have is Socrates advancing this logically impeccable but practically appalling idea, an idea he must have known was wrong, to support what? The greater unity of the state. Guess what gets argued about, and what gets to slide by in all the confusion?”

“Unity slides by, of course!”‘ said Joe Bob. “But look, a state needs some degree of unity to keep from splitting into warring factions.”

Mario put down his coffee cup. “Look, yourself. If you want a just state you need to have some way of dealing justly with dissent. Which means that dissent ought to be expected and ought to be tolerated so that you can have too much unity as well as too little. Too much unity means an unjust state.”

“Well, a 99.98 percent majority means somebody is lying,” Joe-Bob conceded. “A just state could do with less.”

“States don’t get votes,” said Alex, “politicians get votes. A just state tries for an honest count, but look – ‘unity’ expresses the degree to which people are in agreement on things. How can you have too much unity?”

“When Isabella was Queen of Spain,” replied Susan, “she instituted the Holy Inquisition, which was extremely popular with the Spanish people because it confiscated Jewish property and burned Jews who wouldn’t convert to Catholicism. The persecution of minorities is always popular, usually inspires a feeling of unity in the majority, and is not done in a just state. Too much unity on any issue could demand – and get – unjust solutions.”

“I’ll buy that,” agreed Mario, “although Philosophy Class may not be the best place to argue that a just state functions within limits, including limits on unity. But when Plato quotes Socrates as saying the more unity the better, he isn’t thinking about a real state, never mind whether it’s just or not, but about the Platonic Ideal of a state. The man is touting his own intellectual property and doing it in a shabby, dishonest fashion because the truth won’t serve.”

Judith scribbled in her notebook. ““Yes, yes! That takes care of unity and commonly held women and children. Self-promoting propaganda hidden inside a scandal. What about the ‘golden lie’ Socrates advocates telling?”

“You mean the ‘royal lie’,” said Alex. “The idea that some people – men, I mean, Professor Chilton marks down far anachronisms – are gold, so we make them guardians, while others are silver so they get to be auxiliaries, while the rest are brass and iron and have to be tradesmen and craftsmen.”

“Ri-ight,” exclaimed Joe-Bob, looking up. “And that good old boy of an oracle who says that, hey, when a man of brass or iron is elected president, the city will be destroyed.”

“Elected president,” said Mario. “Better to follow the text and say ‘guards the city.’ The idea seems persuasive on the face of it, though. “ .

“You think so, oh man of gold?” asked Susan. “This is more snake oil, packaged so you argue interminably about whether the lie is justified, and never look to see who it is that gets to do the gold to iron rating. A job that looks to be tailor-made for Plato’s Academy. Surprise, surprise.”

“Is the royal lie justified?” asked Joe-Bob. “Chilton asked the question in three out of the last five finals.”

“You slop over from Philosophy into Political Science,” said Judith, resting her chin in one hand. “Every state justifies itself to its constituents, using whatever lie is handy – slogans to rally the plebes around the cause du jour. They wear out, the gummint replaces them. The slogans, that is; the plebes have to replace themselves.”

“States lie because they have to,” said Joe-Bob. “Philosophers are held to higher standards, at least, they’re held to higher standards than politicians. Can the royal lie ever be justified?”

“Can you justify Machiavelli?”‘ asked Mario. “The Question never comes up in Poli-Sci, only in Philosophy.”

“Philosophical justification would have to be operational,” said Judith, pensively. “Otherwise, philosophers are right down there with lawyers and used car salesmen.”

Mario emptied the plate of onion rings.’ “What do you mean, ‘operational’?”

“The answer is yes, if, and only if, Plato’s Academy aspired to become a government,” replied Judith. “As a theoretical exercise describing the Platonic Ideal State the royal We promotes cynicism, bad attitudes, and dearly tends to corrupt the youth. However, as part of the manual for an imaginary politica1 machine, it has a certain – call it Machiavellian – appeal. Since nobody ever bought into the idea, the question remains academic, but it seems to me that the royal lie can only be justified by the intent of Plato’s Academy in uttering it.”

“For Professor Chilton, the answer would be no,” said Alex. “Philosophically, the royal lie is a bad idea, and since Plato’s Academy was for philosophers, it clearly had no business pushing bad, ideas. However! If the academy aspired to turn out a philosopher king or two, then deviations from wisdom and truth can be winked at.”

“Right!” agreed Judith, making a note. “And since they never did turn out a philosopher king, that is clearly proof that they never intended to do so, from which it logically follows that the royal lie has no justification whatsoever.”

“What about our just state, though?  Is that everybody minding their own business?”

“That might get a pass, Joe-Bob,” said Mario. “If you want an excellent, you need to expand on it a little. What’s the usual reason for people messing around in other people’s business?”

“Curiosity?”

“Oh, hell, Susan. Paying attention isn’t messing with other people’s business. The reason for putting a spoke in somebody’s wheel (assuming they aren’t your enemy, in which case that makes it your business) is usually envy. So a just state, at least the justest state you’re going to get, is one in which law and custom have combined to minimize envy.”

“Aha,” said Susan. “A just state does not have TV commercials. Pushing expensive toys at the rich arouses the envy of everybody who can’t afford them.”

“A just state doesn’t have the rich?” suggested Judith. “No, surely not. In a just state the rich just don’t flaunt their wealth. For the wealthy, modesty and discretion are necessary virtues. Alas for contemporary civilization.”

“For Professor Chilton’s exam,” said Mario, “the just state is the .prospectus for the Platonic Ideal State that Plato’s Academy was trying to sell the Athenians. Which justifies the royal lie, by the way.”

“How do you figure?”

“Plato’s Academy aspired to play at philosopher­ kings, Susan, but the Athenians were just too smart to trust them crafty intellectuals.”

“Okay,” she said, writing it down. “How was it supposed to work, this just state?”

“One infers that ‘the way it s’posed to be was trying to achieve the Socratic ideal of everybody minding their own business.” Mario picked up his empty coffee cup and put it down again. “Chilton always says to ask the next question, which is: How does the state seek to achieve that noble goal?”

“What noble goal?” asked Joe-Bob. “Minimizing envy? That’s the political equivalent of Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill.”

“Poli-Sci says it ain’t practical, but philosophically, that constitutes a complete and elegant answer,” said Mario. ­

Alex looked up from keyboarding his notes. “Would it work?”

“Long enough for you to say that we achieved the Platonic Ideal State at 12:01 Tuesday morning,” re­plied Mario. He looked at his watch. “Ach du lieber, the last bus leaves in five minutes.” He put his share of the check on the table and stood up. “Good night, y’all.” He saluted the Wild Thing poster with horns and claws and fangs and bare human feet and grinned at the artistic depiction of the Platonic Ideal State. “Good night, Blue.”

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