Investing in the Classics

Plato’s Republic: On Education

Please note that for the purposes of this analysis, I use the Allan Bloom translation of Plato’s Republic.

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The Republic (Greek: Πολιτεία, Politeia) is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 380 B.C., concerning the definition of justice, the order and character of the just city-state and the just man. However, the title ‘Republic’ is a bit of a misnomer, as a more accurate translation would be ‘On Citizenship’ or ‘On what it means to be a Citizen’. Nevertheless, the Republic is Plato’s best-known work and has proven to be one of the most intellectually and historically influential works of philosophy and political theory. In my opinion, this timeless text is endlessly rich, brilliantly constructed and undoubtedly deep. Indeed, the famous twentieth century philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once wrote “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” That is not to diminish the contributions of subsequent philosophy, but to highlight how Plato was the first major figure to address almost every major philosophical issue and subject. Investors would be amiss to think that there is nothing that can be learned from Plato, let alone one of his most, if not the most, comprehensive of his works: the Republic.

 

In order to approach any Socratic dialogue, one must keep the structure and the setting of the dialogue in mind. First, in terms of structure Plato wrote in dialogues where Socrates is the main character. In Plato’s early works faithfully replicated Socrates’ viewpoints. However, by Plato’s midyears, which included the Republic, he grew into many of his own views and began using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views as well as those of Socrates, all the while being very subtle in hinting where the two might diverge. Second, the Republic was written around 380 B.C. and had its setting in probably about 422 B.C., placing it during the Peace of Nicias, a time of optimism, peace, and stability.  Like most Greek dramas, the secret of its genius was that its setting and context created a tension that was peculiar to its time. The Republic follows this suit in its very first line, which Socrates says to an unnamed character: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon” (327a). As it would have been well known to the audience of Plato’s time, the Piraeus the setting of the resistance movement that fought against the Tyranny of the Thirty, the brutal group of Spartan sympathizers who in 404 B.C., at the end of the Peloponnesian War, who had overthrown the Athenian democracy, which had been proudly in place for a century. Thus, from the onset the audience is to be well-aware of the horrors that are to befall, producing a sense of apprehension and anxiety.

 

In the Republic, Socrates along with his young Athenians interlocutors discuss the meaning of justice and examine whether or not the just man is happier than the unjust man. However, finding the meaning of justice proves to be elusive, so the group sets out to uncover how justice and injustice originate so as to understand its meaning. Socrates says “If we should watch a coming into being in speech, would we also see its justice coming into being, and its injustice?” (Book II, 369a). Socrates intends to use the cities as an analogy for the soul, where the caricatured social classes in the city in speech reflect the conflicting elements within the soul of man. However, one of the earliest themes in the Republic is not the soul nor the city, but education. Socrates soon realizes that his primarily interlocutor Glaucon, brother of Plato and distinguished war-hero, is incapable of seeing justice because his conventional, traditional education has ill-equipped him.  Thus, in order to discover the nature of justice, Socrates must first re-educate Glaucon. For investors, education is invaluable. In an industry where it takes 15 years to build a reputation and only 5 minutes to ruin it, the importance of having a proper education from the beginning is invaluable, if not crucial, for long-term success for second chances are few and far between. Without a proper orientation from the beginning, one is most likely to fail at some point as they will have already been doomed from the start.

 

Glaucon represents the conventionally, traditionally educated aristocratic man, and in particular, the Homeric man. Glaucon is described as “always most courageous in everything” (Book II, 357a), where ‘courageous’ is more accurately translated as ‘manliness’. Glaucon is a warrior for he is the “divine offspring of a famous man” (Book II, 368a), which is a testament to both his noble, aristocratic heritage and prowess in battle. He is described as an extreme lover of victory (Book VIII, 548d) and as an intensely passionate man (Book V, 468b-c, 474d-475a). However, due to his aristocratic upbringing, Glaucon is an educated man (398e), that is, educated in the traditional Homeric ways. Though he is educated, he was not properly educated as he is a slave to his own spiritedness and intense desires. Therefore, Glaucon in unable to engage in philosophy-proper.  Glaucon is the epitome of the traditional Greek hero, I argue, the Homeric figure of Achilles. A god-like warrior so inflamed by his pride and passions that he ignores the just and the true. For investors, Glaucon is the archetype of the greedy speculator. One who is so enslaved by their passions, despite one’s intellectual potential, that they lack the prudence to follow the prudent and time-tested path.

 

Glaucon’s ineptitude as a philosopher first comes to fruition in Book II when Socrates first embarks on the journey to build a city in speech. Socrates constructs a peaceful city, where its inhabitants live a simple, rustic, and harmonious life. Then in the midst of Socrates’ serious attempt to find justice in the first polis, Glaucon abruptly interrupts Socrates stating, “You seem to make these men have their feast with out relishes” (Book II, 372c). Socrates responds, stating they will have “salt, olives, cheese” (Book II, 372c), simply relishes for moderate men. However, Glaucon objects stating that Socrates’ city is a “city of sows” (Book II, 372d) and demands relishes “As is conventional, I suppose men who aren’t going to be wretched recline on couches and eat from tables and have relishes and desserts just as men have nowadays” (Book II, 372d). Glaucon is a prideful and vain man, much like Achilles. When Socrates describes his ideal, just city, it is obvious that there was no mention of men of either Glaucon’s manliness or noble origins. Glaucon’s pride, perhaps stemming from his elevated sense of self-worth because of his ‘divine’ military stature, is apparent as he sees Socrates challenging and devaluing his conventional social status, thus he interjects calling Socrates’ city a ‘city of pigs’ and one that is ‘wretched’ – where wretched refers to ‘low class’ or ‘base’. Note that Glaucon uses ‘sows’ – the term for a female pig – instead of ‘pig’  as ‘sows’ was also is a pun for the female genitalia in Ancient Greek plays, thus reinforcing Glaucon’s view that Socrates’ city is not masculine enough for his tastes. Glaucon objects because Socrates’ ideal city is not aristocratic either, as its modest inhabitants to not have the conventional relishes that he is accustom to. Socrates refers to Glaucon’s demands as “luxurious”, “feverish”, and ‘unnecessary’ desires (Book II, 372e-373b). Thus, Glaucon epitomizes today’s speculator, who is so misguided by his conventional education that he is blinded by his own greed and unable to invest prudently.

 

At this point, Socrates realizes that Glaucon’s ignorance, as a result of his conventional education, will prevent them from inquiring into the nature of justice. Thus, Socrates realizes that he must re-educate Glaucon if they are to proceed any further in their investigation. Socrates begins his re-education by systematically attacking everything that Glaucon desires, thereby correcting his misguided, conventional upbringing. Socrates proposes an educational regimen of “gymnastic for the body and music for the soul” (376e) – which was the equivalent to a well-rounded education of physical exercise and academic studies. However, Socrates immediately proceeds to the musical; Glaucon, a proven warrior, needs re-education of his soul, not more exercise. The first item of Socrates’ agenda is to censor the poets – the traditional stewards of education in Greek society – who he deems to have been bad influences on Glaucon.  Socrates not only shows Glaucon that the myths he grew up with were impious, but that these stories have implicitly fostered Glaucon’s immoderation. Similarly for investors, whether one is prudent or not, the technical aspects of investing, such as accounting and valuation can be learned by any and all. It is the philosophy, the investing orientation that is crucial in making sure one’s gifts and work is put to work properly, that is, with prudence.

 

First in his criticism, Socrates cites how impious Hesiod’s tales about Uranus, Cronos, and Zeus are because they encourage youths to be unjust in their ambition and desire revenge at the expense of harming a fellow citizen. Socrates condemns the conventional conception of Zeus as lacking “self-mastery” (Book III, 390b). Socrates states that these poets make “a bad representation of what gods and heroes are like, just as a painter who paints something that does not resemble the things whose likeness he wished to paint” (Book II, 377e). Socrates accuses the poets of misrepresenting gods and heroes by glorifying their impious qualities, just as Heisod describes the insatiable erotic passion of Zeus and just as Homer exalts the pride and passion of Achilles. These figures, Zeus, Achilles and others, become the idols of young malleable men, like Glaucon, who strove to be like Achilles. Similarly for investors, young aspiring investors are often drawn asunder by the ludicrous examples of ‘The Wolf of Wallstreet’, speculators, talking-heads, and celebrity-activist types. Without a proper orientation, most are lost from the outset, inevitably, and the chance of realizing one’s mistakes is low; and where mistakes are realized and a proper orientation is achieved from failure, second chances are fewer yet for these tragic souls.

 

The Socratic critique of Achilles highlights the deficiencies of Glaucon’s conventional values. Glaucon, a military man of divine abilities, not only closely resembles the spirited Achilles, but it is also likely that Glaucon identifies himself with Achilles, the most glorious of Greek heroes, as a model of manliness.  Of Achilles, Socrates says “was so full of confusion as to contain within himself two diseases that are opposite to another – illiberality accompanying love of money, on the one hand, and arrogant distain for gods and human beings, on the other” (Book III, 391c). Socrates contests that Achilles, and other conventional heroes like Theseus, who “so eagerly undertook terrible rapes” (Book III, 391c) are horrible role models for no poet should portray:

“[a] hero [who] would have dared to do terrible and impious deeds such as the current lies accuse them of. Rather we should compel the poets to deny that such deeds are theirs, or that they are children of gods, but not to say both, nor attempt to persuade our youngsters that the gods produce evil and that heroes are no better than human beings. For, as we were saying before, these things are neither holy nor true. For surely, we showed that it’s impossible for evil to be produced by the gods” (Book III, 391d-e).

Socrates condemns the conventional education for creating terrible role models for the gods and heroes they praise are prideful, arrogant, rapacious, and vain and are responsible for those same defects that now lie in Glaucon and others. Socrates argues that these false idols ought to be rectified or not be made idols. Similarly, those bad representations for aspiring investors ought to be rectified into good, prudent examples worth emulating or ought to be shown for their true colors as failures.

 

Socrates says that any god or hero “must surely always be described as he is” (Book II, 379a) and cannot be made to be “neither holy, nor advantageous for us, nor in harmony with one another” (Book II, 380c). Anything less that Socrates calls a lie for to be a god or hero one must be good and just, by definition, if he or she is to be a true god or hero. Socrates states, “the real lie is hated not only by gods, but also by human beings” (Book II, 382c). Lies are hated because they make men worse. Similarly, bad role models, who result from a conventional education, make worse investors, which is a kinder term for speculators. Thus, it is no wonder that Glaucon’s conventional education has so poorly equipped him to engage in philosophy-proper.

 

Socrates not only criticizes the poets for telling false tales and bad representations, but also criticizes Glaucon for not rising above these examples. When Socrates criticized Heisod’s tale for portraying a god, Zeus, as lacking “self-mastery” (Book III, 390b), Socrates is also alluded to a story that Glaucon told earlier (see Glaucon’s story of Gyges, Book II, 359c-360b). Socrates is thereby implying that Glaucon lacks self-mastery – or moderation – which includes “being obedient to the rulers, and being themselves rulers of the pleasures of drink, sex, and eating” (Book III, 389d-e). This comment stands in stark contrast to Glaucon’s erotic desires and demand for ‘unnecessary’ relishes as compared to the modest relishes that Socrates’ ideal city possessed. Given that Glaucon is too ingrained in conventional values, Socrates cannot fully re-educate them, but tries to steer him from the example of prideful Achilles to that of humbled Odysseus (390d). Similarly, for speculators who come to realize their tragic fate, it is far too common to see them make a half-full shift toward prudent investing; reaching only the lower forms of value investing, such as wide-moat and GARP ‘investing’, as opposed to truly investing with a margin of safety. Without the proper education from the beginning, it is all the harder to set forth on the prudent and wise path.

 

Having reshaped Glaucon’s mythic identity, Socrates proceeds to redefine Glaucon’s traditional social values by attacking everything that he wrongly desires. Socrates chastens Glaucon by revealing that his ‘luxurious’ relishes and desserts are excessive (Book III, 404b-e), and deprives Glaucon of his ‘luxurious’ couches and all other ‘unnecessary’ forms of property (Book III, 416c-e).  Socrates rectifies Glaucon’s feverish desires that he demanded in the Socrates’ healthy city. More importantly though, Socrates redefines Glaucon’s perception of social value:

“Just as refinement there gave birth to licentiousness, does it give birth to illness here? And just as simplicity in music produced moderation in souls, does it in gymnastic produce health in bodies? … Will you be able to produce a greater sign of a bad and base education in a city than its needing eminent doctors and judges not only for the common folk and the manual artisans but also for those who pretend to have been reared in a free fashion?” (Book III, 404e-405a).

Sophistication, Socrates argues, comes from enlightened moderation and simplicity, whereas baseness comes from conventional notions of status based on birth, licentiousness, and refinement (404e-405d). Socrates implies that Glaucon is among those most base because he pretends to have been raised so finely, yet in reality he is a slave to his pride and lust, and is just as ill as Achilles was. Glaucon calls Socrates’ moderate city a city of ‘pigs’ and of ‘wretched’ – or vulgar – people. Yet, Socrates’ city is based on the merit of its people, a people who are rationally enlightened enough to enjoy food, drink, and sex – just as Glaucon desires – but with moderation so as not to be a slave to their own passions. Therefore, in ultimate Platonic irony, Glaucon is shown to be most ‘wretched’ and the ‘pig’ all along. For investors, moderation, or prudence in our terms, is the result of a proper education. Without a proper education, it is doubtful that one will be able to find long-term success. The capacity to change is rare enough and second chances are fewer, thus these chances rarely intersect making the imperative is all the more important. As Socrates surmises, “For sound rearing and education, when they are preserved produce good natures” (Book IV, 424a).

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