Inspired by Raymond K. Hessel

Health and Thinking for Ourselves

The better our mental, moral, and physical health, the more we can understand ourselves for ourselves, but that means we have to work to do

I am deeply impressed by the work of Raymond K Hessel, not only because of the variety of the texts he reviews and the depth of his analysis, but also because of the consistent and profound themes he consistently explores. Particularly, I want to focus on his two part series on “The Guardians” in Plato’s Republic, as can be found on his channel.

The Republic is full of physical exercise and stresses on discipline, which seems out of place. Why do philosophers need to be physically fit? Raymond points out that The Republic is extremely pedagogical, which is to say it is extremely concerned with the question of “How should we teach?” In his lecture, Raymond posits the possibility that the prisoners in Plato’s Cave are not born there but placed there, as a test to determine “fitness,” which is an innovative take I had never considered. Furthermore, Raymond stresses that The Republic is not therapeutic or militaristic, but how then are we to make sense of the gymnasium and physical exercise? It sure seems like Plato is training a standing army…

If we think of everything in The Republic as primarily educational and about training people, which is for people to “think for themselves” and meditate upon “forms,” then we have to assume there is a connection for Plato between Physical Education and the ability to engage well in philosophy. Raymond notes how if we are controlled by our passions, vices, and desires, we will struggle to think clearly, and hence we can see in this way why Plato would stress discipline and discipling the mind. This is a well-known understanding of Plato’s concern, but Raymond brings to our attention a new understanding that I personally had not encountered before but upon hearing found undeniable.

Anyone who visited a modern hospital knows the feeling of not having any idea what is going on, of being completely at the mercy of the expertise of the doctor. We are told there is something wrong with our heart, but we ourselves cannot examine our heart to tell. We are told we need a certain procedure and that it will help us feel better, but we can’t even remember the name of the procedure and have no way of knowing for ourselves if the doctor is right in his assessment. We have to believe him, and this means we can’t think for ourselves, not because the doctor wants to think for us, but because the situation is necessarily specialized.

To maintain our health is to avoid situations in which we must rely on authorities, which for Plato is critically important. This is not because authorities are bad, and in fact we require them in situations of great complexity and expertise. Plato is not denying that or claiming some “medical tyranny,” but rather he wants us to rely on authorities less than more. And the healthier we are, the less we will depend on doctors to guide us, doctors who we will have no choice but to trust. After all, they’re the experts.

Philosophy is difficult to engage in where authority must be relied on (where we lack “a clearing”), and yet authority is necessary. The best we can do is avoid it as much as possible, and the healthier we are the more we can indeed succeed in this endeavor. Raymond also brings up lawyers and the idea that a society which constantly needs lawyers and doctors is a society that will not even have the expertise to say when the lawyers and doctors shouldn’t run the society (even if the lawyers and doctors don’t want the power). And the sicker the society, which for Plato would also suggest the more unjust it is and thus in need of lawyers (“sickness” is both a moral and physical consideration), the more it will have to rely on experts. Hence, we must fight for our health, and we must fight to maintain moral life.

“The Authority Circle” by O.G. Rose describes the difficult and paradoxical reliance on authority we find ourselves in, and Plato wanted us to avoid “authority circles” as much as possible. Where specialization increases, authority becomes more difficult to avoid, and health and law are indeed radically specialized fields. We simply can’t think for ourselves in those situations, and hence why Plato would have us avoid them by maintaining our health. And though Plato focuses on health and law, the logic could apply to many other fields and what I call “Pynchon Risks” like conspiracies, as described in “The Conflict of Mind.” No, we cannot avoid authorities all the time (and shouldn’t), but less is more.

Plato is not saying that doctors and lawyers are bad, and in fact it is precisely their necessity that he is concerned about. If everyone in a society was sick, the doctors would have to rule and run the social order: there would be no choice. And in that world, there would be little room for philosophy, because philosophy requires a level of self-direction and autonomy that would prove impossible, because we would have to listen to the doctors and do what they said. This is not because the doctors would want us to be sick or want to run the society, but because this would simply be a logical necessity, even if they had no desire for power (they would practically be “forced” to rule, like the Philosopher Kings in Plato’s famous allegory).

Plato is interested in the most “just” and good social order, and for Plato the best society requires a prominent role for philosophy, and this is not possible in a society where everyone is ill, for then the society relies on the expertise of doctors. Likewise, if the society is immoral, lawyers will be everywhere all the time. Plato wants us to avoid “red tape,” per se, and yet we cannot do that by expelling doctors and lawyers. We in fact need them, for there will be sickness and there will be immorality. But neither must be prevalent, and if we meet the condition of containing our passions and maintaining our health, we can meet the condition necessary for a “philosophic society.”

To focus on morality, Raymond suggests that a reason Plato expels the poets is because Plato is concerned that poets will represent the gods and divinity in such a manner that will devolve people’s moral ambitions to seek morality. If we think the gods are ridiculous, we might be more prone to give into our passions and base desires, at which point lawyers will play a prominent role. And so Plato would expel artists and poets, for Plato sees them as often deconstructing the gods in the society. Now, it is written about elsewhere in O.G. Rose on how Plato’s views of the poets are perhaps more nuanced than what is originally thought, but I found Raymond’s take on this fascinating. It further suggests that Plato is concerned about us failing to meet a condition that would keep us less reliant on authority. And indeed, this means the best society is “conditional” (a term I like to use): we must do something to be able to philosophize, and here that means we must maintain our health and maintain our ethics (we must maintain “a clearing” for ourselves, per se). Otherwise, we must rely on doctors and lawyers: philosophers cannot have a primary role.

It’s another subject, but it is possible that efforts today in Modernity to ignore the body and think “abstractly” and “disembodied” contribute to us failing to take care of our health, thus making us reliant on doctors and medical experts. In this way, “disembodied philosophy” may unintentionally contribute to the death of philosophy, because in failing to take care of our health, we come to rely on specialists, at which point we are reliant on authorities and cannot “think for ourselves.” Does ignoring the body make it more of a problem? Indeed, if we don’t understand our body and it started to do things we didn’t understand, how could we think about it? To others, for good and for bad, we would have to turn and trust.

If we are disciplined, we are not at the mercy of passions; if we are healthy, we are not at the mercy of good doctors; if we are moral, we are not at the mercy of good lawyers. And if we are at the mercy of things outside of ourselves, Plato wants us to believe it’s our fault (even if it isn’t). We should not blame passions, doctors, or lawyers — they are simply doing their jobs — it is our fault for not training ourselves. Or so Plato would have us assume, only accepting the role of forces outside our control as a very last resort (and indeed, there are some illness we cannot help but get, and certainly we all age). Plato wants us to believe there is always more we can do and to take responsibility for our bodies. Indeed, ignoring the body is ignoring the soul.




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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart.