On Sullivan on Plato on America
Since Andrew Sullivan’s newest article was linked to at this site, I thought I’d give my analysis. You can read my fuller account here. Sullivan seems to argue that Plato was an American style democrat, which is a contentious Straussian oriented reading. And this makes sense in that it was under Straussian Harvey Mansfield in graduate school at Harvard that Sullivan learned Plato.
But I think Sullivan makes an arguable mistake when he writes:
Part of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Plato. To guard our democracy from the tyranny of the majority and the passions of the mob, they constructed large, hefty barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power.
The second sentence is accurate. The first sentence needs to be unpacked. Did the Founding Fathers read Plato? Sure. But it’s almost certainly not the case that they understood him the way Sullivan and the Straussians do. We could substitute “Plato” for “Hobbes.” As in “[p]art of American democracy’s stability is owed to the fact that the Founding Fathers had read their Hobbes.”
The Founding Fathers tended to cite both Plato and Hobbes negatively. They cited Locke positively; they cited a great deal of Ancient Roman Stoic types positively. And even though the Ancient Greek influence on the American Founding was not nearly as evident as the Ancient Roman influence, they tended to cite Aristotle positively.
The Straussians have notably posited that Locke’s teachings were esoterically Hobbesian. So if Hobbes influenced the American Founding it was because his teachings were smuggled in by Locke.
Likewise if Plato had any kind of influence on the American Founding it was because some other ancient philosopher whom they respected — i.e., Aristotle, Socrates — smuggled Plato’s message in as well.