Lehigh University
Lehigh University


New light in the cave

After three decades of studying the dialogues of Plato, Roslyn Weiss Weiss believes she may have uncovered important new meaning within the philosopher’s most complex and winding work.
It could be said that Roslyn Weiss is an accidental philosopher. Weiss, now recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato, says her academic career has in many ways been the result of pure happenstance—of finding herself in the right place, at the right time, inspired by the right professor, teaching the right text. That bolt of inspiration would arrive during her freshman year at Brooklyn College, when she found herself sitting in an introductory philosophy class. It was the class that shaped her career and changed her life.

“That’s the interesting thing about philosophy,” Weiss says. “Unless you’re very lucky, you don’t have any exposure to it until you’re in college, and then you actually have to elect to take it. You know in high school if you’re interested in math or English, but you don’t know until you take your first class in philosophy in college if philosophy is something you might be interested in. 

“But I knew as soon as I was there. I had found myself. My interest in philosophy dates to that very first class.”

It’s an interest that has evolved over the years, as Weiss has grown from curious undergrad to accomplished scholar. In the course of an impressive academic career that has taken her to six universities, she has written extensively about several of Plato’s dialogues, including the Crito, Meno and Gorgias, and has developed an additional specialty in medieval Jewish philosophy, with much of her work focused on the philosopher Maimonides, a figure whose approach to writing she compares with Plato’s. She has earned five degrees, including three from Columbia University, and has published dozens of well-received papers.

But in many ways, Plato—and, specifically, his classic work The Republic—remains her greatest focus. The philosopher and his text, Weiss says, are endlessly fascinating; the writer and his winding dialogue ask difficult questions and offer no easy answers. But with close reading—and a great deal of patience—there are valuable lessons to be learned from both, says Weiss. Though Plato’s text is now more than 2,000 years old, it remains as relevant as ever—a book that offers insights and lessons about government, politics and leadership even today, and even in a world so completely removed from the one that Plato would have known.

“The Republic is a wonderful book,” Weiss says. “It’s very long. It’s very involved. It’s very complex. There were times when I really felt I’d never have a handle on it.”

That is, until a couple years back, when upon her tenth or perhaps even twelfth reading of the book, Weiss says she noticed something that “nobody had ever seen before.”

What she saw, she says, hinted at a completely new reading of The Republic, one that would in her mind not only further establish the text as an essential volume in Western culture, but also challenge long-established ideas about what Plato was actually trying to say with his signature work.

“I believe that Plato teaches us amazing things—amazing things about what good government and leadership are all about,” she says.

The second of the two groups Plato describes, explains Weiss, are the “philosophers by design”—the philosophers of the Allegory of the Cave—who, once freed by knowledge, “wish to remain in the intelligible realm, having nothing but disdain for human affairs.” These philosophers, having been freed from their chains and shadows, are certainly enlightened, Weiss says. But that’s about all they are. “Once they’re out of the cave, they never want to return to the cave,” she says. “They have to be coerced to come back down. At some point I realized they are not true philosophers—because they are not good people—if they are willing to let everyone else sink or swim.”

The earlier group Plato describes, she says, are the “philosophers by nature.” These, by contrast, are the “true” philosophers and, by extension, the true leaders—the ones who are more acutely aware of the responsibility that they have, upon reaching enlightenment, of returning to the proverbial cave and leading those imprisoned by ignorance into the light, even as they understand that to do so might come at great risk.

These philosophers will indeed experience some trepidation as they consider returning to the cave, Weiss concedes, because of the corruption and danger they are likely to face. Nevertheless, “these [philosophers by nature] are really good guys. Although they are individuals who love the transcendent realm and would do anything to get there,” she explains, “they are also willing to lead, so long as their lives are not threatened. As I thought about this I asked myself, ‘Wait, what’s going on here? These philosophers look completely different from the others.’ That’s when I began looking at The Republic with completely new eyes.”

In other words, Weiss says, the philosophers by nature recognize that to lead is, quite literally, to serve. They understand that their enlightened status and lofty position is as much a responsibility as it is a blessing. They accept the weight of the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of those who rule. They see the risks of leading, and choose to lead anyway.

That is where the key leadership lesson comes in—and why Weiss believes that this 2,000-year-old text, written by a man who could not possibly have imagined the Information Age and all of its unique challenges, remains as important today as it was when it was first written.

What Plato understood, Weiss says, and what some leaders today apparently don’t, is that leadership is about service. “That’s such an important message today—that ruling is a craft, and that it is one which the ruler must use to serve the interests of the ruled,” she says. “It’s not about exploiting the weaker to promote the advantage of the stronger. On the contrary, leadership is about seeking the advantage of the weaker. Physicians must care for the sick. The shepherd must care for his sheep. Ruling is the same.”

In the end, Weiss says, The Republic offers a “very insightful vision of what ruling is all about.” It’s up to the reader—and the leaders of today—to ultimately decide if that vision is one worth pursuing. “Leadership is about improving souls,” she says. “It’s not about the economy; it’s not about power; and it’s not about defense. It’s about asking the question, ‘As a society, what kind of people are we becoming—and what kind do we wish to become?’”

Story by Tim Hyland

Posted on Tuesday, October 01, 2013

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