Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Dialectical Forms of Government

The dialectical forms of government

Plato spends much of the Republic narrating conversations about the Ideal State. But what about other forms of government? The discussion turns to four forms of government that cannot sustain themselves: timocracy, oligarchy (also called plutocracy), democracy and tyranny (also called despotism).

Socrates defines a timocracy as a government ruled by people who love honor and are selected according to the degree of honor they hold in society. Honor is often equated with wealth and possession so this kind of gilded government leads to the people valuing materialism above all things.

These temptations create a confusion between economic status and honor which is responsible for the emergence of oligarchy. In Book VIII, Socrates suggests that wealth will not help a pilot to navigate his ship. This injustice divides the rich and the poor, thus creating an environment for criminals and beggars to emerge. The rich are constantly plotting against the poor and vice versa.

As this socioeconomic divide grows, so do tensions between social classes. From the conflicts arising out of such tensions, democracy replaces the oligarchy preceding it. The poor overthrow the inexperienced oligarchs and soon grant liberties and freedoms to citizens. A visually appealing demagogue is soon lifted up to protect the interests of the lower class. However, with too much freedom, the people become drunk, and tyranny takes over.

The excessive freedoms granted to the citizens of a democracy ultimately leads to a tyranny, the furthest regressed type of government. These freedoms divide the people into three socioeconomic classes: the dominating class, the capitalists and the commoners. Tensions between the dominating class and the capitalists causes the commoners to seek out protection of their democratic liberties. They invest all their power in their democratic demagogue, who, in turn, becomes corrupted by the power and becomes a tyrant with a small entourage of his supporters for protection and absolute control of his people.

Ironically, the ideal state outlined by Socrates closely resembles a tyranny, but they are on opposite ends of the spectrum. This is because the philosopher king who rules in the ideal state is not self-centered but is dedicated to the good of the state insofar as the philosopher king is the one with knowledge.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Vita Contemplativa

Vita Contemplativa

It may already be September. I drank tasteless coffee
in the cafe garden of the Museum-Insel
and thought about Berlin, its dark waters.
Black buildings that have seen so much.
But peace reigns in Europe, diplomats doze,
a pale sun, the summer dies serenely,
spiders weave its shining shroud, the plane trees'
dry leaves write memoirs of their youth.

So this is the vita contemplativa.
The black walls enclosing white sculptures.
The bust of a Greek beauty. So this is it.
An altar before which no one prays.
So this is the vita contemplativa.
Narkissos--a Roman copy of a Greek boy
on prosthetic limbs of bronze (a veteran of which war?).
Then a kuros with his pouch of testes (a vanished phallus).

We seem to occupy a desert island.
Time moves deliberately, without haste.
Helpless rapture, so this is the vita contemplativa.
Bliss. An instant with no hour, as the poet said,
the poet killed in Lublin by a bomb.
But what if, in this or a different city,
the vita activa surged again, what would Artemis,
fourth century B.C.E., do then? Hermes? Narcissus?

Parchment faces stare at me with envy--
I still make mistakes, they can't.
Comparing day and night, so this is it.
Sleep and waking, mind and world, this is it. Joy.
Tranquility, taut attention, the levitating heart.
Lucent thoughts smoulder in black walls.
So this is it. What it is, we do not know.
We dwell in the abyss. In dark waters. In brightness.

By Adam Zagajewski, Translated From the Polish by Clare Cavanagh