The Degradation of Plato's Regimes and Charles Taylor's Individual depicted in the song Handlebars by Flobots

Philosophy

October 31, 2011
Word Count: 3,728

Abstract:

The research question for this investigation is as follows: How are Plato's degradation of government and Taylor's Ethics of Authenticity presented in the Flobots song Handlebars? By examining the degradation of governmental structures and the degradation of an individual's soul, the definition of each stage and how it leads into the next can be seen. When in contrast to modern lyrics, the digression is apparent and the characteristics seen within the regimes and the souls are described. Each level of both the regimes and of the individual contains weaknesses and a digression of moral values. These levels parallel each other showing their connectedness between the regime and the individual, creating the image of the human being that would incorporate both characteristics.

By using a modern song as the anchor source for this essay, the present day applications to the governmental regimes of Plato and the individual of Charles Taylor is better understood and applied. While the examples within the song are more present day activities and situations, they still transfer to the characteristics described by Plato and Taylor, showing how the characteristics of governmental regimes and souls do not change with time. The song progresses in the same order as aristocracy leads to tyranny and subjective morality leads to narcissism. It is through this digression of both the song and the satellite sources that the digression of human beings and the soul is discovered. Finally, because there is no lower regime or individual than tyranny and narcissism, there is only one option to proceed which is back up. Like the song, the regime and the individual would find themselves back at the beginning of the levels, creating a repeating cycle.

Research Question: How are Plato's degradation of government and Taylor's Ethics of Authenticity presented in the Flobots song Handlebars?

Introduction

Plato discusses the degradation of regimes in Book VIII of The Republic, showing how they relate to one another and how they degrade from aristocracy to tyranny. Charles Taylor describes a similar degradation in The Ethics of Authenticity, presenting the downfall of the individual from subjective morality to narcissism. Both of these viewpoints can be applied to the modern music lyrics of Handlebars by Flobots. As the song progresses, there is a psychological digression from aristocracy to tyranny. The same sections parallel Taylor's individual degrading from the individual of subjective morality to the narcissistic individual. Both Plato's governmental regimes and Taylor's individual share characteristics that display certain parts of the soul to create the overall human being represented within the song.

Aristocracy and Subjective Morality:

"Look at me, look at me,
hands in the air like it's good to be alive
and I'm a famous rapper,
even when the paths're all crookedy.
I can show you how to do-si-do,
I can show you how to scratch a record,
I can take apart the remote control
And I can almost put it back together.
I can tie a knot in a cherry stem,
I can tell you about Leif Ericson…"

Plato places aristocracy at the top of his list of regimes in The Republic, claiming it to be the closest to the idea of the Good. He describes the regime as a "good and just" (Plato 544 e) balance. Aristocracy is also known as the rule of the best which indicates that the rule is not passed down a blood line but rather through those best equipped to rule wisely and mercifully. The idea of aristocracy is perceived within the song when the lyrics state, "I can ride my bike with no handlebars" which shows that he is the best at what he does. He has confidence to know that he is able to do whatever he chooses while still being good and just and minding his own business, which is Plato's definition of justice (Plato 433 d). Aristocracy is also a regime with very little violence and disrupt because it is ruled by rulers who are merciful and wise. By saying "I can take apart a remote control/ And I can almost put it back together", the song describes a very neutral state which is neither specifically a destroyer nor a creator. By not involving in war or hatred, the neutrality seen from these lyrics show the innocence and versatility of the regime.

In Charles Taylor's Ethics of Authenticity, Taylor describes the idea of subjective morality as "human beings [that] are endowed with a moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong" (Taylor 26). Those that have an ingrained moral conscience, which is unaffected by external influences, are placed at the top of Taylor's levels of the individual. The idea of full being develops in Taylor's Ethics from having a moral connection "with some source- God, say, or the idea of the Good" (Taylor 26) which comes directly from the moral obligations seen in the individual of subjective morality. The song continues with "I'm a famous rapper/ Even when the paths're all crookedy" which contributes to the idea that the individual's soul described in the song has been able to be good and just despite the external influences from the outside that are causing negative temptations. There is a degree of morality pursued within the lyrics and it can be implied that while the individual is a "famous rapper", he has stayed on track with what he wants to do and has stayed moral and just throughout the journey.

Plato realizes that it is the people within the regimes that create the nature and the outcome of the regimes he describes. When he says "that [he] would class a city such as [he] described, and the man like it, as good" (Plato 543 c-d), Plato shows that the individual controlling the regime must be a major aspect of the nature of the regime. Because Plato believes that the man and the regime must be both good and just, he is in agreement that the individual within the aristocratic regime must also have characteristics, similar to those of subjective morality, to become a leader of Plato's highest regime. Both subjective morality and aristocracy are the ideals within The Ethics of Authenticity and The Republic. However, because this regime is an ideal, it is not easily maintained because the love of mercy and morality digresses to a love of honor. Both aristocracy and subjective morality become consumed with gaining honor and become the regime of Timocracy and the individual of self-fulfillment, thus minimizing these characteristics.

Timocracy and Self-Fulfillment:

"…I know all the words to "De Colores"
And "I'm Proud to be an American".
Me and my friend saw a platypus.
Me and my friend made a comic book,
And guess how long it took?…"

Plato places timocracy below aristocracy on his decline of the regimes and defines this regime as "not being poor put rich by nature- [leading] the souls towards virtue" (Plato 547 b) or more plainly, the rule of the honorable. This rule developed from the need to attain honor rather than wisdom and justice, which included war-like actions to gain the honor that was craved (Plato 549 a). Plato also states that timocracy is "a certain middle between aristocracy and oligarchy" (Plato 547 c), showing how this regime neither loves wisdom and justice nor money but is the sort of in-between stage of the two. When the lyrics say, "I know all the words to De Colores and I'm Proud to be an American" these characteristics are described. The honorable nature is amplified here because he is demonstrating the amount of patriotism and nationalism that can be applied just through the knowledge of lyrics. Some aspects of aristocracy are apparent at this point because there is a certain degree of wisdom that comes from learning the lyrics of the songs, but timocracy becomes apparent when the character described states that he knows the lyrics for the pure honor and acknowledgement of knowing the lyrics. A much more innocent and simplistic characteristic is described in the song when it is said, "me and my friends saw a platypus/ me and my friends made a comic book/ and guess how long it took". These activities symbolize Plato's description of the regime as "not having a bad man's nature" (Plato 550 b). Finally, because these activities are being done with a 'friend', Plato could make the assumption, based on his idea that the timocrat has "kept bad company with others" (Plato 550 b), that this company will eventually contribute to the demise of the regime.

Within Ethics, Taylor states that "being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover… I am also defining myself… it is what gives sense to the ideas of 'doing your own thing' or 'finding your own fulfillment'" (Taylor 29). This level of the individual is intent on discovering the purpose of their existence. Taylor's individual can be seen in the lyrics, "I know all the words to De Colores and I'm Proud to be an American". The simple act of knowing the lyrics contributes to the overall individuals originality and aim for fulfillment. There is also no indication that these lyrics were learned in response to another person or with any help, contributing to the idea that self-fulfillment is discovered without external influences (Taylor 27). Therefore, the individual betters himself by taking the initiative to learn these lyrics and defines himself with them.

The characteristics of a timocracy are linked to the idea of trying to attain honor and recognition rather than wanting to attain wisdom for the sake of wisdom or wanting to attain money for the sake of gaining money (Plato 550 e). This is the one regime that Plato describes as being more inwardly rewarding and outwardly accepting. In both the individual and the regime, honor is the priority and the method in which others will be able to define them. Unfortunately, this self-fulfillment quickly turns into self-absorption and the unequal distribution of honor leads to the pursuit of money and equality. It is seen that when individuals begin to search for monetary self-fulfillment, "society takes a turn towards corruption and injustice [and] people begin to desire preferential esteem" (Taylor 48). Without the discovery of identity, human beings become hollow and empty, similar to dying without having lived which contributes to the decline of both the regime and the individual (Reisert 307). Coby describes this digression by saying that "timocrats are defined by their love of honor, but they harbor a secret attachment to wealth" (18). Honor disappears when the regime or individual degrade, causing the regime of timocracy to become an oligarchy and the level of the individual turn from self-fulfillment to instrumental reason.

Oligarchy and Instrumental Reason:

"…I can make money open up a thrift store,
I can make a living off a magazine,
I can design an engine sixty four
Miles to a gallon of gasoline.
I can make new antibiotics,
I can make computers survive aquatic conditions,
I know how to run the business,
And I can make you wanna buy a product…"

Oligarchy is the third regime Plato describes in The Republic. He defines this oligarchic regime as "instead of men who love victory and honor, they finally become lovers of money-making and money; and they praise and admire the wealthy man and bring him to the ruling offices, while they dishonor the poor man" (Plato 551 a), or simply the rule of the rich. The oligarchs within Plato's governmental degradation are primarily concerned with money. It becomes more important than honor until wealth is the only measure of a person, rather than their goodness or virtue. The oligarch, when its virtues are lost in the indulgent life, becomes tempted by unnecessary pleasures and "is unjust when out of the sight of the law" (Colby 25). Within the song, the lyrics state "I can make money open up a thrift store/ I can make a living off a magazine", describing a distinct correlation with money and the making of money which is a major point described by Plato. There is no prestige in the act of opening a thrift store for the priority is to make money. Thus, the oligarchic man loses his love of honor in exchange for the monetary result.

Charles Taylor defines instrumental reason as "the kind of rationality we draw on when we calculate the most economical application of the means to a given end. Maximum efficiency, the best cost-output ratio and its measure of success" (Taylor 5). Wealth is the measure of success within the level of instrumental reason. How much wealth one has or can attain is more important to this individual than the value of human life or ethical obligations. Instrumental reason does not have a moral outlook but serves more towards the indulgence of the individual. It is the "more of what you want" (Taylor 21) rather than the more of what you need. Taylor also sees this cost-benefit domination as that of involving "grotesque calculations, putting dollar assessments on human lives" (Taylor 6) which in the end would be unethical in society as well as self-serving. Morality has disappeared by this level and the honor that was previously present before has transformed into wealth as the measuring value and the method attained has no importance. These ideas of instrumental reason are expressed within the lyrics "I can design an engine sixty four/ Miles to a gallon of gasoline./ I can make new antibiotics,/ I can make computers survive aquatic conditions". This belief is symbolized by various multiple choices described in the song about how to gain money. Morality is not a major factor in what the individual wishes to pursue. The words are very conditional as if he is saying 'I could' design a new kind of engine, or 'I could' make a new antibiotic but it isn't necessarily something they would do for the better of the people. This is apparent when it is said "I know how to run the business/ And I can make you wanna buy a product". Instead, the cost-output ratio is being calculated that would best serve the individual.

The Oligarchic regime is similar to the individual of instrumental reason in the way that they are both concerned with attaining and measuring wealth as the form of success and stature. Plato states that "money, at any event, is held in honor above all by the city and by the man like it" (Plato 554 b), amplifying the idea that money becomes more important than human life and the good of the city. Dollar assessments are placed on the lives of the people and on the necessities of life which aid the rich but hurt the poor. The problem is that neither are stable and will eventually lead to the desire of equality and the desire to become "as rich as possible" (Plato 555 b) and "spend money for the sake of good reputation" (Plato 555 a). Eventually this leads to an uprising and the oligarchic regime will fall because of its love for money and the created desire for equality. Democracy is developed from the unrest created from inequality and the desire to be able to make as much money as possible, pursing happiness beyond that of the oligarchic regime.

Democracy and Self-Determining Freedom:

"…Me and my friends understand the future.
I see the strings that control the systems.
I can do anything with no resistance.
Cus' I can lead a nation with a microphone
…And I can split the atoms of a molecule,
…Driving and I won't stop.
And it feels so good to be
Alive and on top.
My reach is global,
My tower secure,
My cause is noble,
My power is pure.…"

Plato places democracy as the fourth regime of his degradation, defining it as the rule of the people. A democracy forms "as a result of the insatiable character of the good that oligarchy proposes for itself-the necessity of becoming as rich as possible" (Plato 555 b). The regime of democracy developed because people wanted money and wished to continue to attain it. This is not possible within an oligarchic regime because the rich would get richer while the poor would get poorer. When this inequality is met with demand for equality, the city and the regime become exposed to "freedom and free speech" (Plato 557 b) which allows the people to do what they want. Freedom and equality in this way allows for private lives and social diversity within the population. Democracy celebrates freedom for it is a major aspect within society. However, it is from this freedom that uncertainty is promoted. Anything becomes as good as anything else, causing the regime to be malleable and fluid (Saxonhouse 279). In this way, democracy is formless and runs on the mere opinion of the people. It is this "dependence on a 'formlessness' that challenges claims of equality and identity" (Saxonhouse 273). Similarly, within the lyrics of the song it states, "I see the strings that control the systems" which display these democratic characteristics. By saying that one can see the "strings", the idea that the regime is easily affected by outside forces is apparent. The "dependence on the formlessness" (Saxonhouse 273) results in a need for structure and hierarchy, thus depicted by the strings. Even when the strings are argued to not exist, they are necessary in the end to attain a functioning, democratic government. Plato also describes the people within this regime as puppets or drones, controlled by the higher forces in the government (Plato 564 b). The "strings" being the means by which the government is able to operate demonstrate the need for structure and eventually will contribute to its degradation.

Self- determining freedom becomes the fourth level of Charles Taylor's individual proceeding instrumental reason. The idea of self-determining freedom revolves around "the idea that [one] is free when [one] decides for [themselves] what concerns [them], rather than being shaped by external influences" (Taylor 27). The freedom to be oneself and create oneself is freedom without laws or influences from society. External factors become unimportant in discovering the self. The freedom gained from self-determination creates individual diversity without imitation and with the idea of being true, expresses the idea of finding one's own originality and reaching the point of self-realization. Discovering is the basis for self-fulfillment and self-realization thus being the moral force of authenticity which ultimately allows for the creating of a unique individual (Taylor 29). The personality of the individual within the song carries aspects of this idea when it says, "I can do anything with no resistance" and "it feels so good to be alive and on top" for they both show an aspect of self-determination. To do anything without resistance shows a sense of individualism and also an aspect of a privatized life because there is no external interference within the choices of the individual and is thus defining himself accordingly (Taylor 27). Independence and diversity without imitation is also present when he describes himself as "alive and on top" because the individual isn't gaining experience or support solely from the world but is internalizing that independence and displaying it as a personal success (Taylor 27). The individualism is apparent within the words in this part of the song which displays the self-defining qualities Taylor sees in the individual.

Democracy's characteristic of having freedom and equality for all people is similar to Taylor's characteristics of an individual of self-determining freedom. Freedom to do what one wants without interference from the government or from other people is the basis for both, and they are able to continue because of this societal independence. However, both also are very alterable and are not well supported and defined. Regulations within a democratic regime take away from the freedom of the people making equality subjective and blurry, even though it is the definition. Equality is difficult within a democracy because there is that need and that desire to be better and to do better, whether in occupation or individualism (Plato 562 b-563 e). In the same way, the individual in self-determining freedom seeks to be an individual but ends up conforming with the crowd because of the fluidity of freedom and the formless quality of the individual. This conformity is what causes the digression from democracy to a tyranny and self-determining freedom to narcissism (Taylor 15). Form and structure are necessary and after being in this state of freedom, the rule of the one becomes necessary to keep the society and the individual from falling apart.

Tyranny and Narcissism:

"…I can hand out a million vaccinations
Or let'em all die in exasperation.
Have'em all healed of their lacerations
Have'em all killed by assassination.
I can make anybody go to prison
Just because I don't like'em and
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command.
Cus' I can guide a missile by satellite

…And I can hit a target through a telescope

…And I can end the planet in a holocaust…"

The final regime of Plato's degradation is tyranny, or rule of the one. This regime develops from democracy but is "bigger and stronger as a result of the license-and enslaves democracy" (Plato 563 e). Developed from the formlessness of democracy, tyranny is able to exist because the people become so dependent on their freedom to do what they wish that there becomes no obligation to the regime. From this, the dictator is able to take control of the democracy and the people do not fight because he becomes the structure that keeps the society together (Saxonhouse 278). Plato describes this relationship by saying that "the most courageous part of them leads, the less courageous part follows. It's just these whom we liken to drones" (Plato 564 b), similar to puppets on strings or a colony of bees. The lust for power that is created after honor, money, and freedom degrade causes the dictator to take command by promising benefits to the people, killing freethinkers, and installing fear. These characteristics are displayed within the lyrics when stating, "I can hand out a million vaccinations/ Or let'em all die in exasperation/ Have'em all healed of their lacerations/ Have'em all killed by assassination". The tyrant appears great and good at the end of democracy and the beginning of a tyranny while actually being self-consumed and unconcerned with the world. By having these very different situations that show the bipolar actions of the tyrant, the song shows how the tyrant would "hint" at being good and just but then would allow the people to die (Plato 565 e-566 a). The mention of "killed by assassination" also alludes to the idea that the tyrant would kill those that were freethinkers or had the possibility of getting in his way.

Taylor places narcissism at the bottom of his levels of the individual because it represents "the dark side of individualism… centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning and less concerned with others or society" (Taylor 4). Narcissism ensues when the individual becomes self-absorbed and begins to believe that he is the most important human being on earth. There is little concern for other people or for the direction society is headed because none of it matters to the narcissist. Self-indulgence and egoism are the primary expressions of the individual and the actions which they inspire prove morality to be non-existent (Taylor 4). This idea is presented within the lyrics when it says, "I can make anybody go to prison, / just because I don't like them" because the narcissistic personality is revealed, displaying the lack of caring and the need to benefit and please themselves. This personality would thus draw narcissists to activities that would benefit only them and bring happiness and pleasure to themselves (Taylor 48). When the individual within the song says, "I can guide a missile by satellite/…And I can hit a target through a telescope/…And I can end the planet in a holocaust…", he is describing all the activities he would do in order to make himself happy but the activities which he chooses are dangerous to the society as well as the regime.

The tyrannical regime is directly related to Taylor's narcissistic individual because the tyrant would have to have the narcissistic qualities. Because the regime is openly accepted in The Republic as the rule of the one, the one would need to be self-absorbed and unconcerned with society and other people in order for the regime to be considered a tyranny. Individuality and solitude are considered dangerous at this point, similar to a totalitarian regime, for it goes against the conformity of societal norms. In 1984 by George Orwell, a totalitarian government is described and a connection to the regime of tyranny can be seen, especially with the idea that individualism disappears and is not accepted once the tyrant arises and the narcissistic individual is in command. Orwell describes "ownlife… meaning individualism and eccentricity" (Orwell 84) which he states as being dangerous and punishable under Big Brother. This "ownlife" that was once present under a democratic regime is carried to excess so as to make no one an individual except for the tyrant and the narcissistic individual (Coby 29).

Conclusion:

"I can ride my bike with no handlebars

…I can ride my bike with no handlebars"

When reaching the lowest degraded form of the regime and the individual, the only way left to go is up. The end of the song repeats the lyrics originally played at the beginning, showing that the degradation is a cycle that cannot be broken and will continue in both the regimes and the individual. By the end, they are invariantly connected; their relationship depicted within the lyrics through the degradation of Plato's regimes from aristocracy to tyranny, and the degradation of Taylor's individual from subjective morality to narcissism. Coby describes the rationality of this digression when he writes, "even the best regime and the rational soul are prone to change, defective regimes and irrational souls are hopelessly unstable" (Coby 19). Therefore, these irrational souls become the initial catalyst to the degradation of the regimes and the individual, depicting human beings ultimate degradation.

Bibliography

Coby, Patrick. "Socrates on the Decline and Fall of Regimes: Books 8 and 9 of the Republic." Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 21.1 (Fall, 1993): 15-35. Web. 06 Aug. 2011

Laurie, Jamie, and Stephen Brackett. "Handlebars." Fight with Tools. Flobots. Farhad Ebrahimi, 2007. MP3

Orwell, George, and Thomas Pynchon. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: Plume, 2003. Print

Plato. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan David Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991. Print.

Reisert, Josephy R. "Authenticity, Justice, and Virtue in Taylor and Rousseau." Polity 33.2 (Winter, 2000): 305-30. Palgrave Macmillian Journals. Web. 06 Aug. 2011. stable/3235492.

Saxonhouse, Arlene W. "Democracy, Equality, and Eide: A Radical View from Book 8 of Plato's Republic." The American Political Science Review 92.2 (June, 1998): 273-83. American Political Science Association. Web. 06 Aug. 2011. stable/2585663.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. Print.

Appendix

"Handlebars" – Flobots

I can ride my bike with no handlebars,
No handlebars,
No handlebars.

I can ride my bike with no handlebars,
No handlebars,
No handlebars.

Look at me, look at me,
hands in the air like it's good to be alive
and I'm a famous rapper,
even when the paths're all crookedy.
I can show you how to do-si-do,
I can show you how to scratch a record,
I can take apart the remote control
And I can almost put it back together.
I can tie a knot in a cherry stem,
I can tell you about Leif Ericson,
I know all the words to "De Colores"
And "I'm Proud to be an American".
Me and my friend saw a platypus.
Me and my friend made a comic book,
And guess how long it took?
I can do anything that I want cus', look:

I can keep rhythm with no metronome,
No metronome,
No metronome.

And I can see your face on the telephone,
On the telephone,
On the telephone.

Look at me,
Look at me,
Just called to say that it's good to be alive
In such a small world,
I'm all curled up with a book to read.
I can make money open up a thrift store,
I can make a living off a magazine,
I can design an engine sixty four
Miles to a gallon of gasoline.
I can make new antibiotics,
I can make computers survive aquatic conditions,
I know how to run the business,
And I can make you wanna buy a product.
Movers, shakers, and producers,
Me and my friends understand the future.
I see the strings that control the systems.
I can do anything with no resistance.
Cus' I can lead a nation with a microphone,
With a microphone,
With a microphone.
And I can split the atoms of a molecule,
Of a molecule,
Of a molecule.

Look at me,
Look at me,
Driving and I won't stop.
And it feels so good to be
Alive and on top.
My reach is global,
My tower secure,
My cause is noble,
My power is pure.
I can hand out a million vaccinations
Or let'em all die in exasperation.
Have'em all healed of their lacerations
Have'em all killed by assassination.
I can make anybody go to prison
Just because I don't like'em and
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command.
Cus' I can guide a missile by satellite,
By satellite,
By satellite.
And I can hit a target through a telescope,
Through a telescope,
Through a telescope.
And I can end the planet in a holocaust,
In a holocaust,
In a holocaust,
In a holocaust,
In a holocaust,
In a holocaust.

I can ride my bike with no handlebars,
No handlebars,
No handlebars.

I can ride my bike with no handlebars,
No handlebars,
No handlebars.