You would think the scholars who study the canon of Western literature would agree about what the Great Books say, but disagree about how great they really are. Well, there is a good deal of debate about how great they are, but even more about what they say -- though this is more true of some books than of others.
Take Plato’s dialogue, Republic, which includes a famous analogy between the city and the soul. Some call it the first true work of political philosophy. Others say the book is only about the soul, and the political parts are just metaphor.
Among those who do think it is about politics, some say Plato really believed all the outlandish things he put in Socrates’ mouth -- that philosophers should be kings but spout noble nonsense, that the ruling class must share everything in common including wives and children, and that men and women must lead the same way of life. Others have treated the work more nearly as a satire -- as though he had said “Here is how you would have to live to have peace, but of course it would be ridiculous.”
And then there are those who see the book as navel-gazing, holding that its real concern isn’t politics or the soul but the tension between philosophers and the city. Or that its true concern is education. Or that the true topic of the dialogue is dialogue itself.
There are devastating objections to all these views.
The puzzle is so vexing that I sometimes assign grad students who are reading Republic for the first time simply to work out what question they think the dialogue is chiefly trying to answer. Initially, most assume that the question is “What is justice?” But as soon as discussion begins, their consensus collapses.
The first thing they notice is that almost immediately, the participants in Plato’s dialogue are sidetracked into asking why anyone should even care about being just, considering that it seems contrary to selfish interest. Plainly, “Why should I be just?” is not the same question as “What is justice?”
But wait – but wait – but wait –
By the time they finish they have a dozen theories of the real question of the dialogue. And that, of course, shapes their understanding of everything else about it, including whether the question has been answered.
I enjoy such mysteries, but only up to a point. As my favorite saint wrote about another riddle of authorial intent, “The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.”
How easy that is to forget.