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It’s hard to imagine the Great Conversation without Plato’s Republic. Even when my class was reading modern works, barely a week went by without mentioning some aspect of Plato’s utopian vision, or referring again to his cave analogy. Like Augustine’s City of God or Homer’s Odyssey, the Republic is inescapable.
Critic Harold Bloom likes to talk about the “anxiety of influence,” which refers to his belief that some authors have such a strong voice that later authors are constantly thinking in their terms even as they try to distance themselves. Not only does Plato exert this influence on philosophers, but also on theologians, sociologists, psychologists and would-be utopians.
We hear the anxiety of influence from Plato’s brightest student, Aristotle, when he writes, “While both [Plato and truth] are dear, piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.” Cicero feels Plato’s influence in a different way: “I would rather be wrong with Plato than right with such men as these . . .” Millennia later, C.S. Lewis feels the influence of Plato just as keenly: “To lose what I owe to Plato and Aristotle would be like the amputation of a limb.”
Initially, your students will be puzzled by the enormity of Plato’s influence. As they read the Republic, they will discover an almost constant stream of silly and wrong-headed ideas: only the rulers are allowed to lie, wife-swapping, fear of musical innovation, etc. How could someone be so wrong about so many things, and still matter so much to a Christian thinker like C.S. Lewis?
Any brief attempt to explain the significance of Plato will sound glib, but at least part of the reason for Plato’s immense influence lies in the restlessness of Plato’s mind—he understood what questions most needed to be answered. The deeper students plunge into the Great Conversation, the more they will find that Plato’s questions point to crucial tensions which are the catalysts for that dialog.
by Jeff Baldwin