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STEINBERG: Plato’s ‘Republic,’ ripped from the headlines

SHARE STEINBERG: Plato’s ‘Republic,’ ripped from the headlines
SHARE STEINBERG: Plato’s ‘Republic,’ ripped from the headlines

Computers prevailed, remember, because they are far better than what came before.

Writing, you can edit easily. No Wite-Out necessary.

Reading, the endless resources of the internet are a few keystrokes away.

But books are not entirely mooted. They retain advantages, which is why, unlike typewriters, they’re still here. Books do one thing technology is still terrible at: they stick around for a long, long time. Any given technology has a way of blooming dramatically then wilting fast. Everything I wrote on my Kaypro is lost unless I printed it out. The Zip drive I bought with my Dells? Useless. With the Cloud, thumb drives are as convenient as thumbscrews.

But the copy of Plato’s “Republic,” translated by G.M.A. Grube, that I bought in 1981 for a college class is still here, booted up, ready to go when, on a whim, I plucked it off the shelf to pass an idle hour.



The “Republic” vibrates with relevance, from the very first page, when Socrates and his pal Glaucon head down to check out a festival and, wobbling homeward, are overtaken by friends, who deliver an ominous invitation to stick around in town.

“Do you see how many we are?” Polemarchus asks.

Socrates does.

“Well,” Polemarchus continues, “You must either be stronger than we are, or you must stay here.”

Socrates isn’t buying that.

“Is there not another alternative,” he says, “namely that we may persuade you to let us go?”

“Could you,” Polemarchus replies, “persuade men who do not listen?”

Again wow.

“Could you persuade men who do not listen?” Is there a sentiment embodying 2017 more than that?

Some descriptions are missing only orange skin and dyed hair.

“By such evils then does the man who is badly governed within himself, whom you just now judged to be the most miserable, reap an even greater harvest of ills if he does not live as a private citizen but is compelled by some chance to be a dictator and, while not master of himself, to attempt to rule over others.”

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t point out that Socrates, in the lengthy discussion of the ideal city and its leaders, does endorse tendencies we decry in politics today. Justice, to him, means helping your friends and hurting your enemies. And the continual bald fabrication that is the defining element of the current administration? Bring it on!

“Our rulers will probably have to make considerable use of lies and deceit for the good of their subjects,” says Socrates. “We said that all such things are useful as a kind of drug.”

Though underline “for the good of their subjects.”

I almost wouldn’t mind if President Donald Trump were lying for the greater good. But he does so for such puny purposes, to pump some air into his eternally sagging ego and to flatter some continually shrinking remnant of American yahooism still cheering him wildly no matter what.

An expensive, unnecessary wall along our southern border is no good to any American but those contracted to build it.

Arbitrarily ejecting servicemen and women from the military because you disapprove of their sexual identity does no good to any American but the vindictive religious zealots who glory in such things.

Alas, I can’t do the book justice in 670 words. My point is that you can try to escape into the classics, but current events will find you there and drag you back to today. Still, there is comfort realizing how much is the same, and to humanize what from a distance seems lofty.

I was feeling guilty for watching the Mayweather-McGregor fight until I noticed that one of the Athenians tries to get Socrates to stick around, saying: “Do you really not know there is to be a torch race on horseback this evening?” whereupon Socrates, intrigued, replies “On horseback? That is a novelty” and stays.

All this thinking about stuff is fine, but every now and then a guy needs a spectacle. If it’s good enough for Socrates, it’s good enough for us.

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