Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Darwinian Reading of Cropsey's Plato

Against my argument for "Darwinian natural right," many of my critics have insisted that any defensible conception of "natural right" requires a cosmic teleology in which human ends can be understood as fulfilling the natural ends of the cosmic order. Since Darwinian science cannot support such a cosmic teleology, they conclude, it cannot support the idea of natural right.

My response has been to point out that even if human ends cannot be sustained by cosmic nature, those ends can be sustained by human nature. And insofar as Darwinian science explains the evolutionary emergence of a natural moral sense rooted in human nature, such a science supports an immanent teleology that is sufficient grounds for natural right. Some of my many posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Many of my critics on this point are Straussians who think they are following Plato in arguing for a cosmic teleology of moral ends. I believe, however, that Plato (or Plato's Socrates) is actually close to what I have in mind in defending an immanent teleology of human nature as understood by Darwinian science.

In some ways, Joseph Cropsey's book Plato's World: Man's Place in the Cosmos (1995) confirms my thinking about the link between Plato and Darwin on this point. (Many years ago, Cropsey was one of my professors at the University of Chicago.)

The most persistent theme of Cropsey's book is "care." Human beings are said to care about their existence within an uncaring world of nature and without any divinity to care for them (2, 7, 62, 64, 110, 114, 118-21, 125, 127-31, 136-38, 145-47, 151, 155-57, 160, 164-65, 170, 180, 212, 218, 222, 225). At times, this sounds more like Heidegger than Plato. Cropsey never mentions Heidegger in this book. And yet, for Heidegger, the being of human being understood as Dasein is defined as "care" (Sorge), and "care" is grounded in historical temporality. Cropsey seems to be suggesting that Heidegger elaborates what is implied in the Platonic dialogues. This impression of mine was confirmed when I saw that Catherine Zuckert in her review of Cropsey's book also spoke of "the evocation of Heideggerian themes--the temporal limitations of human knowledge, the centrality of the confrontation with death in the definition of human existence, and the importance of care." (Aren't these all Humean and Darwinian themes as well?)

Cropsey indicates that for Plato the primacy of human care shows itself in the need for a human conquest of nature. According to Cropsey, Plato did not believe that nature could provide "the criterion and incentive of human excellence," because Plato actually anticipated the modern teaching that nature is "indifferent or unfriendly to our well-being until we learn to exploit it" (185-86). Cropsey's Plato thus affirms "the moral neutrality of nature" (210).

Although Cropsey does not explicitly associate "care" with any particular Greek word, he implicitly links "care" to two Greek words--epistatike and epimeleia (138, 151, 156, 160). The second word is used by Socrates in the Apology (24c, 31b, 36b-c) when he claims to "care" for the Athenians by trying to persuade them to "care" for virtue rather than for money and power. Both words are used by the Stranger in the Statesman (305e, 308e, 311c) when he speaks of the statesman as the one who "cares for" his city by weaving the diverse characters of his people into a common fabric.

Cropsey says that human caring has neither natural nor divine support. Here is where I disagree with Cropsey. Even if one grants that cosmic nature is uncaring, why not say that caring is natural in the sense that it is rooted in human nature?

After all, Cropsey indicates that caring for their existence is natural to all human beings in some manner, and a special kind of intelligent caring is natural to Socratic philosophers (110, 121, 125, 129-31, 147). Although Cropsey depicts philosophy as a struggle against nature (157, 161, 176, 185), he also makes much of Socrates' philosophic caring as dictated by his nature (157, 161, 185). He describes Socrates as having "an innate inclination toward right and good" that is part of his nature, and this shows us "that nature sends the better angels of caring and nobility as well as the afflictions of cruelty and baseness" (157). According to Cropsey, the Socratic philosopher is "guided by his understanding of the good for the humanity he has insisted was an object of his caring" (212). But where would this philosopher get his understanding of the human good if not from his understanding of human nature (218)? How could we even identify "an innate inclination toward right and good" in Socrates if there were no natural standard of "right and good"?

Cropsey says that human nature does not clearly support human care because of the natural conflict between the indispensable virtues of hardness and softness. "Courage or manliness or aggressiveness (andreia) is in conflict with restraint or accommodation or passivity (sophrosyne), each being a virtue or a part or kind of virtue" (139). True statesmanship is "according to nature" when it contrives a union of these virtues that "conflict by nature," which requires "weaving by which the hard-natured and soft-natured are united as warp and woof to form the protective web of state, procuring the mingling that uncorrected nature would preclude" (139-42). Statesmanship as weaving is the artifice that overcomes "the conflict in equivocal nature between the aggressive and the accommodating virtues" (170).

What does Plato mean in calling this statesmanship "the truly genuine political art in accord with nature" (Statesman, 308d)? Cropsey would say that although the materials are natural, the political order that is woven out of those disorderly materials is an artificial construction of the philosophic statesman. Like other students of Leo Strauss, Cropsey interprets Plato as denying Aristotle's claim that human beings are political animals by nature.

But I would say that what one sees here is the trichotomy of political order as manifesting natural inclinations, cultural traditions, and individual judgment. A fundamental insight of Aristotelian and Darwinian political science is that human political nature must be nurtured through custom and judgment.

If the philosophic weaver cannot look to human nature for guidance, where does he find the pattern for the cloth? How does he know that the best pattern must include an interweaving of courage and moderation? Plato's Stranger explains that the combination of courage and moderation is necessary for the survival of a city in war and peace (Statesman, 307e-308b). Cropsey suggests that "his implication is that the natural reward of survival is conferred on those regimes that sit most bearably on their subjects because the polity respects the law and keeps undivided counsel." Therefore, "survival is the natural reward that signals the presence of true and authentic statesmanship (136).

Doesn't this indicate that the standard for the political weaver is by nature? Given the nature of human beings, they cannot live together in stable political communities without some combination of courage and moderation. Darwin recognized this in his account of how group selection in war contributed to the evolution of cooperation and the moral sense.

Nature can provide no standard for the philosophic statesman if nature is irrational. Cropsey seems to think that the irrationality of nature is indicated by the fact that certain kinds of geometric relationships require irrational numbers for their numerical expression (111, 125). But this makes no sense. These geometric relationships--such as that between the diagonal of a square and its sides or that between the radius and the circumference of a circle--are regular and thus intelligible relationships. Indeed, the wondrous intelligibility of such geometric patterns would seem to manifest the rational order of nature.

If the pattern for the political weaver is purely artificial, as Cropsey suggests, we are left with many questions. Does the weaver simply invent his pattern arbitrarily? Or is his pattern only a modification of a pattern that he has inherited from others? Does the weaver weave himself into and out of his own pattern? Or has the weaver been woven into someone else's pattern?

Cropsey claims that Socrates is the model statesman. If so, was he produced by the pattern woven by Athenian political weavers? According to Cropsey, "Socrates is under the influence of an unfeigned if subdued patriotism that is born of the understanding . . . that the human authority erected in political society is our nearest guarantee of prosperity in an uncaring milieu" (160).

Socrates realizes, however, that "human authority" is not sufficient to sustain the right opinions of the multitude of people. Socrates as the superior human being who cares for humanity cannot speak simply in his own name, because "the natural human suspicion of human superiority gives rise to the urgent need for a presence and a judgment above suspicion." Therefore, Cropsey concludes, Socrates had to create a new religion as a "noble lie." "His own care for the Athenians seems to reveal itself in his effort to conceal from them their human loneliness and to make up for it, as far as possible, with a simple theology of the nameless god. . . . What could better illuminate the paradox of the human condition than this act of human caring for man on the part of one who teaches that the oblivious deity is diligent in righteousness" (165)? In the words of a more recent philosophic weaver of noble lies, "Only a god can save us now."

Cropsey speaks of Socrates's "new religion without theophany" as "a religion of reason and justice rather than faith and charity" (177). But it seems to me that "a religion of reason and justice" might well be a natural religion in the sense of a religion adapted to human nature, a religion that might be the product of natural human evolution.

If nature were not the standard for the Socratic weaver, then the pattern of his weaving would be set not by reason and justice but by will and power. This might be Cropsey's view of the matter. But I do not think it is Plato's.

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