Sunday, January 29, 2012

Second Thoughts on Plato

Socrates must be considered one of the most influential men in history.  It's difficult to think of others.  Jesus, the Buddha and the man whose latinized name is Confucius (I like latinized names) come to mind as rivals in influence.  Socrates would be a difficult act to follow.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I've never taken to Plato.  Perhaps Plato is to Socrates what Paul is to Jesus; the great architect of a colossal system based on a revered personage that cannot speak for himself, or whose sayings and character have become models of wisdom, whose person has become divine if not merely godlike.  One must always wonder how much of the system is Socrates, how much Plato.  To a cynic like me, the answer is arrived at quickly.  The tendency is to assume Plato used Socrates for his own purposes.

Another may be the resort to artifice.  For me, there is no form of communication more annoying than that which consists of creating characters to parrot one's thoughts at each other in some imagined scenario pretended to be an encounter or dispute, particularly when one's thoughts are philosophical.  It is obvious that no matter what the author contrives for his characters to declaim, the author will inevitably come to the conclusion he has already come to; he will convince his creatures of the propriety of a particular position no matter how they contend otherwise.  It is a kind of ruse.  But it was, and perhaps still is, a popular method of communication.

Another is certainly the horrid, indeed terrifying and miserable, state he swoons over in The Republic.  It has seemed to me that no person with any self-respect or respect for others could countenance such totalitarianism.  And yet it is here, I must confess, that my second thoughts begin.

I've always suspected claims such as those which have been made constantly over time that we humans are in a sorry state, the worst in our long history of depravity.  But it seems that we are in such a state at this time.  It may not be the worst we have been in, but it is pretty damn troubling.  And I fear that when we force ourselves to consider the means by which we may escape from our endless squabbles, wars, killings, frauds, superstitions, etc., we necessarily begin thinking like Plato.  That is to say, we begin to become totalitarians.

"First things" as they say, "first."  To achieve any significant, lasting, change, one becomes convinced, one must change people.  Of course Diocletian, faced with a crumbing empire, came up with the idea that to keep it from crumbling it was necessary to stop it, and stop everyone, from changing.  Therefore, he decreed that the citizens and inhabitants of the empire must stop changing; all must continue to do exactly what they have been doing, and nothing else, forever--their descendants as well.  Well, we haven't changed much in any case, really, when it comes to how we think or feel or desire, so it follows that not changing hasn't done us much good in the long run.  Let's try changing, then.

How does one foster change?  Necessarily through education, the social institution devoted, ultimately, to teaching and training.  Philosophers from Plato to Dewey have realized the importance of education, and have pronounced on the manner in which humans should be educated.  To change the way people think, feel and desire, one must teach them to think, feel and desire in a different way.  One does that most effectively if one starts early, and if one separates those being educated from those who have thought in the way that it has been determined is inappropriate, because otherwise they will come to think in the same, inappropriate manner.  It all seems so clear.

Such change cannot be obtained except through mandates, people being their troublesome selves, and the imposition of requirements of this kind necessitate the restriction of what we call liberty.  One acknowledges that this restriction is unfortunate, but realize it to be necessary.  Of course, the goal will be that liberty be experienced by all, but in order for it to be experienced in a stable, lasting manner we must first be changed.

And that's the way of it.  Good men when falling into this way of thinking strive to fashion systems which will minimize the harm resulting from the restriction of liberty, and minimize the chance of such a society and government from becoming cruel and tyrannical, and I think that a fair reading will establish Plato did so as best he could.  It may well be he did so better than anyone else has yet to do.

If we could learn to change ourselves, of course, we need not be compelled to change by others.  Some of us can, and do.  But we have little evidence that many of us can or even care to do so, and this becomes more and more of a concern.

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