Plato and Drones

In September, Bard Classics professor Thomas Bartscherer delivered a lecture about drones and Plato’s Republic. Here are the notes.


I. Background reading

1) Virgil, Aeneid, Book III (excerpt)

2) Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica, Book II (excerpt)


4) Conor Friedersdorf on the “Living Under Drones” report:

5) Joshua Foust on the “Living Under Drones” report


II. On literature, literary criticism, and persuasion


From “The Soul and the Harpy: Reflections on the Aims and Methods of Literary Historiography” (in Signs Taken for

Wonders, 1988 revised ed.)

By Franco Moretti



Rhetoric is concerned with so many and such different activities (law, politics, ethics, advertising . . .) that it would be mistaken to restrict it just to literature, yet literary discourse is entirely contained within the rhetorical domain. As Preti puts it in a flawless passage: ‘Epideictic discourse, which was the least valued in antiquity (precisely because it is the most . . . “rhetorical” in a derogatory sense) is nowadays however the one which takes on the greatest importance. It can even be said that in present-day philosophy of culture it is the only one with any interest, precisely because it does not have narrow practical ends, but a cultural, “paedeutic” aim. And above all because it provides the genus of literary discourse in prose. It bears on moral values, and in general on the values of a civilization. It aims at reinforcing or arousing attitudes (feelings) not just as regards a contingent (legal or political) decision, but as regards the great values that make up a civilization. Precisely because of its non-practical character, it is unlikely to degenerate from a discourse of persuasion to one of propaganda. It is above all the structures and rules of this kind of discourse which are the object of the new Rhetoric.’ (4)


The evaluative and persuasive character of literary discourse emerges sharply in that area of the rhetorical tradition with which literary criticism is most familiar, namely ‘figures,’ and particularly in the ‘queen of poetry’–metaphor. Far from being ‘aesthetic’ ornaments of discourse, places where the strategy of persuasion is attenuated or disappears, figures show themselves to be unrivaled mechanisms for welding into an indivisible whole description and evaluation, “judgements of fact” and “judgements of value.” [ . . . ]


Cf. The Moral Hazard of Drones by John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, on the fact/value distinction in relation to the use of military drones


III.  Socrates: drones are “the greatest of all these evils”


Plato, Republic 552a-553a


“Now see whether this regime [oligarchy] is the first to admit the greatest of

all these evils.”


“Allowing one man to sell everything that belongs to him and another to get hold of it; and when he has sold it, allowing him to live in the city while belonging to none of its parts, called neither a money-maker, nor a craftsman, nor a knight, nor a hoplite, but a poor man without means.”

“Yes,” he said, “it is the first.”

“Then this sort of thing is at least not prevented in oligarchies. Otherwise some wouldn’t be super rich while others are out-and-out poor.”


“Reflect on this. When such a man was wealthy and was spending, was he then of any more profit to the city with respect to the functions we were mentioning just now? Or did he seem to belong to the rulers, while in truth he was neither a ruler nor a servant of the citt but a spender of his means?”

“That’s the way it was,” he said, “he seemed, but was nothing other than a spender.”

“Do you wish us,” I said, “to say of him that, as a drone growing up in a cell is a disease of a hive, such a man growing up in a house is a drone and a disease of a city?”

“Most certainly, Socrates,” he said.

“Hasn’t the god made all drones with wings stingless, Adeimantus, but only some drones with feet stingless while others have terrible stings? From the stingless ones come those who end up as beggars in old age, while from those who have stings come all who are called


“Very true,” he said.

“It’s plain, therefore,” I said, “that in a city where you see beggars, somewhere in the neighborhood thieves, cutpurses, temple robbers, and craftsmen of all such evils are hidden.”

“It is plain,” he said.

“What then? In cities under oligarchies don’t you see beggars present?”

“Just about everyone except. the rulers,” he said.

“Aren’t we to suppose,” I said, “that there are also many wrongdoers with stings among them, whom the ruling offices diligently hold down by force?”

“We must certainly suppose so,” he said.

“Shall we assert that such men arise there as a result of want of education, bad rearing, and a bad arrangement of the regime?”

“We shall assert it.”

“Well, anyhow, such would be the city under an oligarchy and it would contain all these evils, and perhaps even more.”

“That’s pretty nearly it,” he said.

“Then let’s take it,” I said, “that we have developed the regime called oligarchy, one that gets its rulers on the basis of a property assessment, and next let’s consider how the man similar to it comes into being and what he’s like once he has come into being.”

“Most certainly,” he said.

(Allan Bloom, trans.)


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