Distortion of Idea and Reality for Plato, Dostoevsky, Hannah Arendt

In this essay I will follow Plato’s method of building “in speech” a paradigm which confirms, through its inner philosophic texture, the validity of a general assumption. While the objective of his endeavor is to build an ideal city and man (The Republic), my objective is not to reach a type of absolute truth, but a more humble one: to confirm, through a circular argumentation, the validity of a… perplexity. So what I call “general assumption” is more likely to be named a weak type of truth, a zero-sum game.

My claim is that any narrative on the interaction between religion and political thought would inevitably have to account for a fundamental, transcendental gap between Idea and Reality (human existence). What is bewildering about this gap is not only concerned with their specific ontological definitions, but the fact that there is something mysterious and almost absurd in the human condition which regularly distorts Ideas; however, and this the truly tragic issue, the relation is reciprocal: at the moment of their entry into Existence, Ideas have their own power to distort it. Sadly enough, this distortion can be understood in its most literal sense: the inadequacy of Ideas turns into aggression and the more Reality proves to be different, the more the degree of this aggression escalates into an effort of molding human existence according to a model. But this model is already different from the pure, initial form of the Idea and a second reason for calling this issue “absurd” is the fact that this transformation occurs precisely at the moment of contact, without anyone noticing it. This shift is under the sign of necessity. There is a story about king Midas who was under the spell of a curse to turn into gold everything he touched. He soon realizes that even his food and drink could turn into molten gold. A slightly different thing happens when Idea meets Reality: both of them turn into ashes and dust.

The condition of action

In my proposed model, I have chosen The Republic of Plato, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition as a late link and confirmation of this ancient problem. I shall start with the Arendt. The definition she gives to action is one in which human freedom is linked with the model of the polis as a public space in which common good and common sense are the single limits. Common good can only be looked upon by the man who is free from the necessity of labor and work- two specific activities of the private realm. A free citizen would have enough resources and slaves in his household to ensure that he is able to step in the public realm and attend only to the search for common good. Common sense, in turn, comes from the ancient Greek’s realization that action and not making is the true measure of freedom and moderation. This was all-too clear in the status of the law-maker, who was chosen from among the non-citizens or foreigners; his specific assignment of creating, establishing boundaries was seen like any other craft, as an activity which is inferior to politics.[1] Moreover, an enduring suspicion was directed against anyone who tried to apply the category of making to a territory of unpredictability and freedom like the agora. Therefore, action and speech are the true signs of a free man, one which recognizes both the dignity of himself and the others and the inherent limits of any human being in its power to force a solution of molding reality according to his own will. However, freedom comes with a factor of responsibility and uncertainty. The first attribute of action is its boundlessness:

The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation.[2]

The striking thing about human affairs is its frailty, and this has been realized long ago, ever since the poets have put existence under the sign of Fate. The second attribute found by Hannah Arendt for action is “its inherent unpredictability”. Man seems in the awkward position of attaining freedom with a paradoxical loss if it. The preservation of his dignity can only be achieved in a public space of equals united under the sign of their own condition and for a common good. But this comes with the cost of knowing that action is only a beginning with an end which is unknown for the actor; only the future historian may see the outcome. And this is why, for Arendt, the whole course of political philosophy after Plato, directed for defining the good ends and the means to obtain them, is nothing but an ambition to escape this factor of uncertainty. There is no use, she says, for endless discussions of which means are justified for certain ends:

For to make a statement about ends that do not justify all means is to speak in paradoxes, the definition of an end being precisely the justification of means; and paradoxes always indicate perplexities, they do not solve them and hence are never convincing. As long as we believe that we deal with ends and means in the political realm, we shall not be able to prevent anybody’s using all means to pursue recognized ends.[3]

What is crucial is a fundamental gap between intention and realization. The actor will always live an uneasiness concerning the results of his actions, as they unleash not a series of domino series, but in an infinite number if these series multiplying exponentially. The agent may even become a sufferer, more often than not in a moral sense, as his conscience is confronted with the results of his own deed. Arendt sees the only escape from this paradox in a sort of personalization of action and speech, in perceiving the other for who he is rather than for what (as a generic term of a category: humanity, Greeks, citizens etc.) he is. From this come two solutions: promise, as way of securing a tiny element of predictability in an ocean of uncertainty, and forgiveness as an act of respect or even love. The actor may be freed from the burden of his own deed by receiving forgiveness in an act of recognition by the sufferer of the doer’s weakness. For Hannah Arendt, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.”[4] He says the an action inspired by love, such as is the case with forgiveness, is the equivalent of a miracle; rather than acting in a decisive manner, through a classic political action or craft in order to stop as many unforeseen consequences as possible- therefore restricting freedom, He calls for an act directed backwards, towards the person of the agent, towards who he is, offering him love and forgiveness, shadowing his action with an invisible stream of affection and leaving his freedom intact.

For the moment, I shall leave aside these last considerations on the Christian solution, and summarize the basic source of perplexity: the basic feature of human affairs is their frailty, unpredictability, boundlessness. Any action has unknown consequences which is the equivalent of saying that intention and realization are radically apart. Therefore, human existence has the potential of transforming, through human weakness, an Idea in any direction and degree. One of the ones who lived and reenacted this central drama of existence is Plato.

First part of The Republic: Becoming

The Republic starts from a problem about which common sense would say that it is political: how to define justice. Is it to do good to friends and to harm your enemies, is it the advantage of the stronger? Is it, as Socrates responds, to avoid doing harm because what does harm is necessarily unjust? Or is it good because it produces unanimity and friendship? The beginning is played in classical terms: the argument is derived from the goal of political goodness. Ideas bear the mark of Existence, they are the mark and product of it. Adeimantus’ outburst is the most vivid expression of the contradiction implied in the weak character of a definition of justice in terms of political utility. For, he says, in reality it is enough for a man to seem just in front of the people while doing the most wicked of deeds in private in order for him to achieve glory and for the city to be in well-being. Not only that, but the poets say that even the gods are content with receiving a public offering and will forgive the vilest of men. In other words, the public space is the ultimate point of reference in judging good and evil; good is what is shown, played in front of an audience not interested in absolute truth, but in collective tranquility. So Socrates is forced by his companions to provide a much better definition of justice if he is to be taken seriously.

“‘If we should watch a city coming into being in speech’, I said, ‘would you also see its justice coming into being, and its injustice?’”[5] His phrase, the start of a new road towards justice, deserves some attention. Apparently, nothing has changed: the argument still relies on political categories or, still better, in Existence. The new thing is that it is coming into being in speech, that is, in Idea. Socrates proposes an abstract experiment with unforeseen ending:

You see, I myself really don’t know yet, but wherever the argument, like a wind, tends, thither must we go.[6]

And, at first, it seems that- and more likely for a modern viewer- although everything happens as an abstract entity, there still is a strangeness of the words, a peculiar and radical nature of the utopian political solutions. At the very surface of the contact between Idea and Reality, a sort of inevitable reaction takes place and which distorts, in this play of words, only the former. The necessity to find the perfect political community leads to solutions which become stranger and more radical in the flow of arguments. Ironical, Socrates begins by refuting the saying of the poets about the imperfect gods by saying: “The god must surely always be described such as he is, whether one presents him in epics, lyrics, or tragedies.”[7] Lies, would seem, harm the political community, because of their intrinsic inadequacy towards Truth. But this gives a false impression. As the description becomes more specific and as the power of necessity and utility catches the attention, the Idea- Justice, Goodness- changes into a slave of immediate, ephemeral goals. No stories should be told about lust, greed, vices. Courts and hospitals are a sign of idleness, of imperfect souls who find their cure in oratory or medicine. Each man has a single role, and justice means to mind one’s own business. Children are selected and assigned randomly to adoptive mothers. No private property or accumulation of wealth is allowed. Everything is directed for the achievement of common good.

But Plato knows that this isn’t enough. Allan Bloom puts it in this way:

The question is whether the two possibilities are identical, whether devotion to the common good leads to the health of the soul or whether the man with a healthy soul is devoted to the common good.[8]

This tension is equal to the destiny of men and their communities. For the classical Greek understanding of politics cruelty and justice are separated by a very fragile border; Asclepios, tells Socrates, treated men according to their usefulness for the city. But can justice or any Idea be found in relatedness, means-ends relations, utilitarian terms? In this uneasiness the dialogue shifts slowly to the second possibility stated by Bloom. Adeimantus had just put a simple question: but would these guardians be happy?[9] From this point onwards, they realize that a bad soul necessarily leads to bad politics. Laws are useless; education is vital.[10] But before the argument even properly commences, however, Socrates intuits that it is vital that a god “grants them the preservation of the laws described above.”[11]

Once at this point, it becomes evident that common, earthly, good is not enough to find justice. The point of reference shifts from the exterior to the soul, but also in heavens, where the god is the ultimate guarantee of the well-being and wisdom of men. The first radical question on the nature of existence is thus put.

Second part of The Republic: Being

Like a clumsy child learning to walk, the new man of Plato has to travel a hard, dark road out of the realm of the ephemeral. The four parts of Virtue are named: Knowledge, Courage, Moderation, Justice; but Justice still is derived from political happiness: it is minding one’s own business. Parallels are drawn between the parts of the city and those of the soul- both of whom should be ruled by the calculating part. It still is not clear which one has the primacy and what is the aim of this analogy; the argument is still on the threshold and still not devoted entirely to the education of the soul. It swings inwards and outwards, from the four parts of virtue to the necessity of hiding “bad” children and bringing the good ones into a pen where they would be collected by nurses and given to other women. But all of them sense the strangeness of the image, the cold appearance of this utopia. At this point Glaucon legitimately asks: How does this regime come into being? Socrates responds: “Can anything be done as it is said? Or is the nature of acting to attain to less truth then speaking, even if someone doesn’t think so?” This is precisely the tragedy of action present in Hannah Arendt’s thought; it is the crucial difference between thought and realization. A kind of cautious optimism seems to arise from Socrates’ resignation about the nature of acting; it is not so much an intrinsic attribute of men, but an abstract ontological concept, a mysterious, exterior force which subject human action to its constant influence. The paradox of the whole argument as it had developed so far seems all-too clear for them and the next thing said by Socrates bears a subtle mark of drama and despair:

Unless, I said, the philosophers rule as kings or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize, and political power and philosophy coincide in the same place, while the many natures now making their way to either apart from the other are by necessity excluded, there is no rest from ills for the cities, my dear Glaucon, nor I think for human kind, nor will the regime we have now described in speech ever come forth from nature, insofar as possible, and see the light of the sun. This is what for so long was causing my hesitation to speak: seeing how paradoxical it would be to say. For it is hard to see that in no other city would there be private or public happiness.[12]

Neither the proposed regime will come into being, nor will the general frailty and unhappiness of human affairs will be avoided in the absence of philosophers-kings. This could sound as a condemnation of existence for not being good enough to support a specific utopia. But it is more likely that Plato finally exposes the radical turn of his scenario[13]: the paradox to which Socrates has arrived in speech is the sign of ontological incompatibility between Idea and Reality; if a project fails in speech, there is reason to believe that in reality the breakdown would be truly painful. Through the boundlessness and unpredictability of action, any Idea inevitably degrades itself in the realm of human affairs.

The frame is now set for exposing the main conditions of knowledge. The philosopher looks at the things themselves and aims at knowledge and not opinion- which is about appearances. Adeimantus responds and expresses the same temptation of measuring virtue through existential categories, namely the polis. “What if the philosophers become, through their practice, useless to the cities?”[14] What Socrates responds constitutes the first significant break from earthly necessity. For what would be an alternate meaning of the image of the ship, with its crew fighting and praising the bully who manages to win the helm through violence and deceit and mocking the only man who knows how to pilot for him being too shy, if not a rejection and relativization of all those empty ideals of the lover of glory and of the clever politician? What other fate than error and oblivion awaits those who praise public success at all costs? This obsession with the public space and the equal one with “common good” only leads, through the degradation of souls, to disaster. Socrates sums this up by pointing to the sophists’ error of calling the necessary just and of not drawing a distinction between necessary and good.[15] Apparently, there is no place for the philosopher in the realm of human sociality. The tragedy of existence underlines Socrates’ melancholy:

At the same time, they have seen sufficiently the madness of the many, and that no one who minds the business of the cities does anything healthy, to say it in a word, and that there is no ally with whom one could go to the aid of justice and be preserved. Rather- just like a human being who has fallen in with wild beasts and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficient as one man to resist all the savage animals- one would perish before he has been of any use to city or friends and be of not profit to himself or others.”[16]

So the response to Adeimantus’ question about philosophers seeming useless would also sound as: So what? If no city is suitable for philosophy[17], would this deter the wise man from pursuing the things themselves? There is something greater than justice[18], says Socrates and amazes his companions: The Good which makes possible, like the sun, not only the perception of passing things but their very existence also. Hence the myth of the cave gets its true value as an ultimate metaphor of the human condition. A man is released from the bonds and sees the true light of the Good outside of the cave. Once back, he would seem clumsy, inadequate in judging the fleeting shadows, useless. They would kill him.

But his duty to come back into the cave and tell the people, at all costs, about their error still remains. And would not the shadows and darkness of the cave also stand for the enslaving political necessity of the common good, for glory, prestige and, in all, for all the categories of socio-historical existence? Plato says “no” to the frailty of human affairs, to the world which had killed his master for corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city. These gods, shows Plato, are nothing but shadows of political necessity, the error in which men desperately want to believe in order to make sense of their miserable, tragic world, a projection of historical life. To all these he assigns the term “Becoming” as opposed to what truly matters, “Being”. He says no to a world which corrupts souls in order to maintain its own comfort. What comes after the myth of the cave- the mechanism of the regime-change or what some might point as another error of applying an Idea to Reality- the attack against the poets who deceive people by their imitation of the imperfect things, themselves imitations of the things which are, is, in my opinion, the same radical plea for taking care of the souls through the contemplation of Being. His error against the poets is obvious:

Dear Homer, if you are not the third from the truth about virtue, a craftsman of a phantom, just the one we defined as am imitator, but are also second and able to recognize what sort of practices make human beings better or worse in private and in public, tell us which of the cities was better governed thanks to you, as Lacedaemon was thanks to Lycurgus, and many others, both great and small, were thanks to many others? What city gives you the credit for having proved a good lawgiver and benefited them? Italy and Sicily do so for Charondas, and we for Solon; now who does it for you?

But his reason for reproaching the poets (and it could have been any other category which does not fit in the pattern of contemplation) is for their portrayal of Becoming, of what seems, of moving only the part of the soul which reacts to emotions and passions. The only measure of truth is Being, and his exigency is drawn from a simple statement: the only way for a soul to be healthy is the contemplation of Being through philosophy. The final, paradigmatic in an ontological sense, irony of The Republic is the fact that it ends at the border of sublime and error. The only stake that matters is becoming good or bad, which would have consequences in the other world and in future lives. Do you say that it is profitable to be unjust? Look at the beast which mocks and controls the man and look at the damnation awaiting after this life. However, if viewed from another light, the deadly embrace between Idea and Reality again manifests itself. Infinite love and infinite exigency oriented only towards Being immediately produce problematic results in the moment of looking towards the city: the poets are expelled. The first example is set for a series of tragic defeats of intellectuals who have been unknowingly drawn into Existence through uncompromising love and consuming belief in Ideas.

The archetype of the Grand Inquisitor

In order that the paradigm which I have spoken of in the beginning to be complete, some final considerations have to be made on what constitutes a revelatory refinement of Plato’s intuitions into the Unknown, namely Christianity. For I believe that the sad outcome of the reason’s endeavor to apply one form or another of Truth to Reality as it is clearly shown in The Republic has been replicated time and again in the interaction between religion and political thought. The names and nature of actors have changed, but the result is the same: instead of Idea there is Revelation. Reality, however, has the same power of viciously transforming a noble intention in hell. A vivid example is the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan tells this story to Alyosha after the latter brings the example of Jesus Christ into attention. This, in turn, had been a response to Ivan’s radical questioning of the meaning of love in the face of humanity’s bestial nature. “And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures.”[19] Would Hannah Arendt call this action or making? As the “measures” seem to imply violent action, it is more likely that she would choose the second. But the question still lingers on (and still more in the specific Christian ethos of The Brothers Karamazov): with this almost absurd condition of the Idea to be inevitably degraded through action, is not action, in fact identical with making? If so, which is the only action possible and permissible?

This central question of human existence has received an unequaled account in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor. For I believe that it is not directed only towards the Catholic Church, but it is the portrayal of a universal dilemma of how to intervene in the world without destroying the chances for salvation through the mockery of the original Idea and the alteration of Reality. The Grand Inquisitor, though starting from a truth of faith and not from the truth of reason as Plato, achieves less and destroys more. The irony, again, is that everything starts from love; It is a love of the weak, of those left behind, the people who were not able to endure the burden of free will and of abstaining, through faith, from subjecting themselves to miracles and earthly power. This love, however, is applied in a peculiar type “Why hast Thou come to hinder us?”[20] His second coming would only hinder their safe world in which people have been understood for their weakness and have been cared for through power and deceit. This is, after all, public good. And it also is action, public intervention towards obtaining order, comfort, collective happiness. What starts as a good intention ends in hell, a crude confirmation of Eric Voegelin’s theory of political religions as methods of “immanentizing the eschaton.”

But Jesus kisses the Inquisitor. What Hannah Arendt sees as the only escape from the unpredictable consequences of action- forgiveness and promise as expressions of love- may prove to be as the only action possible and permissible; or, at least, the only one which can never lose its initial form and intention. And it asks not for public action of an authority, but for an education of the soul in the absence of God, through faith only. This love does not act for any help or reward, it’s not stimulated or attained through policy, law, ceremonial. It shadows patiently any visible action and does not act to sort out the tares from among the wheat until harvest. (Mat. 13.24-30) And, in fact, there is no tragedy of Ideas and Existence. There is only us and the Truth. The road is hard and responsibility is ours alone.

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh

through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.

Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I

came out; and when he is come, he findeth [it] empty,

swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh

with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself,

and they enter in and dwell there: and the last [state] of that

man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this

wicked generation. (Mat 12. 44-45)


Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Constance Garnett, Introduction by Marc Slonim, Random House, New York, 1950

Plato, The Republic, Translated with notes and interpretative essay by Allan Bloom, Basic Books Inc. Publishers, New York, 1968

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, With an Introduction by Margaret Canovan, Second Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1998

Bible quotations are taken from the “King James” version.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, With an Introduction by Margaret Canovan, Second Edition, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 194-195

[2] Ibid., p. 190

[3] Ibid., p. 229

[4] Ibid., p. 238

[5] Plato, The Republic, Translated with notes and interpretative essay by Allan Bloom, Basic Books Inc. Publishers, New York, 1968, p. 45

[6] Ibid., p. 73

[7] Ibid., p. 56

[8] Ibid., p. 337

[9] Ibid., p. 97

[10] Ibid., p. 102

[11] Ibid., p. 103

[12] Ibid., p. 153

[13] And probably this the strongest argument in support of Allan Bloom’s theory about the ironical underpinning of The Republic.

[14] Ibid., p. 167

[15] Ibid., p. 173

[16] Ibid. p. 176

[17] Ibid., p. 176

[18] Ibid., p. 184

[19] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Translated by Constance Garnett, Introduction by Marc Slonim, Random House, New York, 1950, p. 290

[20] Ibid., p. 305

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One thought on “Distortion of Idea and Reality for Plato, Dostoevsky, Hannah Arendt

  1. Pingback: Topics about Christian life and Bible readings » Archive » Distortion of Idea and Reality for Plato, Dostoevsky, Hannah Arendt

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