Movement : Hagar Kotef

In his critique of the democratic polis, Plato marks a triangularity connecting liberty, movement, and danger that is central to what follows. Democracy’s excessive love of freedom means it constantly fails to produce and sustain order. This failure has to do with the status of the laws, hierarchies within the family or between citizens and foreigners, and, above all, the structure of the soul itself. Yet across all these levels, this failure is configured by Plato also via the image of a disordered, uncontrollable mobility. It is not merely that democracy fails to confine those who should be constrained, so that “people who have been commanded to death or exile” can be found “strolling around” the city’s streets. The democratic man himself engages in politics in a frantic manner, “leaping up from his seat and saying and doing whatever comes into mind.”3 “Leaping” and “saying whatever comes into mind” are presented here as somehow linked. This link would return repeatedly in the history of western political thought, connecting particular patterns of movement—or certain images thereof—to questions of rationality. It folds thought and movement into one another, so that one is thought of in terms of the other, imagined and demonstrated by appealing to the other. We will return to this point and its significance later.

Indeed, as the rule of the demos, democracy is the mode of governance of those who are bound to move. While we have become accustomed to thinking of demos as the body of citizens or “the people,” its original meaning was “country” (or land), and later the concept came to refer to the people of the countryside, and thus the poor.4 The demos, therefore, was composed of those who did not live in the city but had to walk to participate in acts of legislation and governance. Accordingly, the necessity to labor, which was contrasted to the freedom of the citizens of Athens—a freedom, precisely, from this necessity—was interwoven into another necessity and another contrast: the contrast between the privilege of stability, of the ability of staying put, of having an estate on the one hand, and the curse of requisite movement on the other. This curse, it seems, has stained the demos’ political organization (democracy) with some form of excess.

This emphasis on stability reflects a more general Greek paradigm within which the ordered movement of almost all things gravitates towards rest. Movement was seen as a temporary interruption, a process by which things find their proper place. Accordingly, moving away from one’s place, as necessarily occurs in the case of the demos (if they are to participate in matters of politics), was a problem, a disturbance in the order of things. When the demos-as-a-mob entered the city, their movement violated the stability which is the privilege of the citizens-as-the-few, and subjected the city to its rule of excessive freedom. With that movement, the city was contaminated with wildness and savagery that ultimately manifested itself in one of the most horrifying effects of democracy in Plato’s satirical version of Athens: animals “roam freely and proudly along the streets, bumping into anyone who doesn’t get out of their way.”5 It is eventually the animal (and the animal-like-savage), not the free citizen, whose freedom of movement is unlimited.

Nevertheless, Plato was not a thinker of motionlessness. And even though he dreaded the movement of the many, a complete lack of movement on their part was also a problem. Here we return to the cave. The desired movement of the many in the cave is but the ability “to turn . . . their heads around.”6 It is a metaphorical movement of heads (thinking? souls?) towards knowledge. Yet, we must bear in mind that in Plato this “metaphor” is quite literal. It is a movement towards knowledge that is quite literally a moving towards—turning towards (and returning to)—its objects: the ideas. Undoubtedly, it is a constrained and moderated movement:

a kind of resistance to flux is necessary for anything to come to be, according to its order, to its law and rhythm. Life does not flow in a broad, undifferentiated course. It flows through shapes, forms and configurations. As shapes, forms and configurations it flows.7

Knowing—moving one’s head in circles, if not untying oneself and climbing out of a cave—necessitates lingering. Nonetheless, we can see that even in its platonic formulation—the formulation that is often seen as emphasizing one of the most stable metaphysics—the question “what is x?” has to take movement into account. And already in its platonic formulation, this lexical question—the question of both language and knowledge—is a political question, a question of forms of rule which is also the question of the distinction between the movement of the many and that of the few.

3. Plato, Republic (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1992), 558a and 61d.

4. Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire Etymologique de la Langue Grec (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck), 273-74; J. A. O. Larsen, “Demokratia,” Classical Philology 68:1 (1973): 45; Kurt A. Raaflaub, Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 158.

5. Plato, Republic, 553d.

6. Plato, Republic, 514a.

7. Claudia Baracchi, Of Myth, Life, and War in Plato’s Republic, 25.

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