Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Does USA need Plato?

(Philosophy of double-thinking)

One of the main objectives of schooling is to master the ability to think critically and understand clearly. What usually happens is that, through our learning we tend to think critically about historical events and understand somewhat clear the events and processes but when it comes to times in which we live, we lose that grasp as contradictory information fill our space and of course we have our own fears and biases that make us more vulnerable to confusion than clarity. I should acknowledge that I am in great debt to one of my middle school teacher who was aware of the problem and was using historical events as thought experiments to make us free ourselves from our biases and fears and to make us understand clearly our current positions. He was drawing clear pictures of personalities and events and once we were clear about them then he was asking us to replace ourselves with one of characters in those events and write down, what would we be doing on those situations? We had to read our constructions in front of class. It was amazing exercise as we were learning the strategies of fellow classmates and also their feedbacks on our own…. This middle school methodology of thought experiments is of course very rare and we see a rich example of it in the dialectical works of Plato.

In these days, if one reads New York Times, Time Magazine, Foreign Affairs, The economists and like media giants, one gets a general feeling that he doesn’t really need critical skills to not point out the prevailing confusions. There is a general trend of escaping from the core issues and instead trying to convince by expert analyses of by-product issues. It doesn’t matter how much data one pours and how much one tries to appear professional or scientific in his analyses, by-products will still continue to rain until the core issues are not addressed. Reading these trends for long now, I decided to dust off my middle school exercise…

It seems that history is repeating itself. It is repeating itself not in terms of place, characters and events but in shared Psyche and thinking. One who is familiar with the history of Athens of the time when Plato was living there, can see very clearly the shared anxieties with that of today’s US citizen. Engaging in prolonged wars have cost economy, economic meltdown, fear of the rising powers (esp, China) and Occupy Wall Street movements (In fact there is two parallel movements, movement of rightest rich by name of Tea-Party movement and movement of somewhat left + Poor, the Occupy Wall Street movement; Whatever, my discussion is not about movements but a struggle within society) all these cumulatively have intensified the fear of losing the glory that US was enjoying generally after WWII and specially after Fall of Soviet Union. This fear of losing glory is what Athenians were feeling at the end of 5th BCE. I am not really sure if USA can parallel in number of great men that Athens produced in very short amount of time (we come to that in coming paragraphs) to give birth to a Plato (As almost all previous superpowers and empires like Soviet Union, British Empire, Ottoman Empire, Mongol Empire, Caliphate Empire, Persian and Roman Empire couldn’t do when there were a prevailing fears of falling) but who knows…. It will be interesting that we go to circumstances that made Plato create “Republic” and imagine what if the Plato was living right now in USA, how he would responds to current situations and how his “Republic would look like,

The fear of losing is one of the strongest drives just to second the very immediate needs. What this drive can do is not really a secret. When this drive, drives great spirits they make history. As I mentioned earlier, one of the greatest spirits in the Philosophy that have deepest impacts on major civilizations after him is Plato. One who is familiar with Western and Muslim civilizations can easily see deep impressions of Plato, in social, political and intellectual thinking. It may be even a little funny that each era had rejected the basic principles of previous ones but has adapted Plato by reinterpreting it. Plato’s strength is in the ingenuity of his dialectal methods. In his most popular work, “Republic” he constructs his Philosophical arguments around the character of Socrates. Socrates is a character that left no writing of his own so there is doubt on his existence yet he is a character that has inspired all generations of Philosophers and will continue to inspire. In “Republic” Plato construct ideal “Just City State” with an ideal “Just Government” headed by a “Philosopher King” through Socrates and his discussions with some other Athenians especially Glaucon and Adeimantus who challenge Socrates in uncovering Justice and Good in the house of Cephalus in the city of Piraeus . Socrates went down to city of Piraeus to see the festival in the honor of a new god and there, Cephalus invited him to his house and with his insistence somewhat forced Socrates to go with his to his house. At house of Cephalus a discussion began within Sophists and Philosophers challenging each other on concepts of Justice and Good and in reply to challenging questions that are mostly based on thought experiments and human nature, Socrates constructs the “Just City State” with a “Just Government”.

My aim here is not to discuss the Plato/Socrates’ Just City State but Why Plato felt the need to write the “Republic” and how it is relevant to our time,
Athenians had rightfully deserved to think themselves as a hub of excellence of their time. Their cultural, political, social, economic, artistic and especially philosophical excellences were unparalleled. A lot of you may be familiar with Golden Age of Athens or The age of Pericles (named after great statement and orator, Pericles) but a brief introduction is useful for those who are not much familiar with that period and it might be even become more interesting to parallel the events of that piece of Athenian history with history of USA,

In 507 BCE (Before Common Era), the Pisistratid Tyranny was overthrown to be replaced by democracy (US history; American Revolution and independence; the birth of a democratic country) and for next 100 years democracy become part of souls and heats of Athenians. Athens formed a league of city states (like union of states to form United States) against Persian (Persia was superpower of that time with mightiest military and economic power and expansionist in nature) and defeated Persians in 480 BCE and rose as a hegemonic military, economic, political and cultural power of its time (USA by leading the allied forces defeated Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan rose a hegemonic military, economic, political and economic power after WWII). Of course this is what a lot of other great nations may also share but what made Athens’ Golden age distinct from all, was the number of great men that it produced in very short period of time of several decades ranging from Great Philosophers, Sophists, Historians, Mathematicians, Play writers, Physicians and orators and that is really unparalleled throughout of history even to our time. Let me give you a few names so you could have at least a picture of it (all dates are in BCE),

Socrates (469-399)–The greatest Philosophical teacher with deepest impact on Plato-, Democritus (465-400), Empedocles (493-433), Anaxagoras (500-428), Pythagoras (570-495)- The great mathematician-, Heraclitus (540-480), Parmenides (515-440)- Plato called him as his intellectual father – Aristophanes (450-385)- Great comic poet, wrote a play in which he made fun of Socrates- Euripides (486-406), Sophocles (496-406). Hippocrates (460-370)–The great Physician and founder of Hippocratan School of medicine, Herodotus (460-370) –The first true historian that analyzed events rather than just recording them; also called father of modern history, Thucydides (460-395), Aeschylus (525-456) and some great Sophists like Protagoras (485-400), Gorgias (483-376), Isocrates (436-338)- The greatest rival of Plato-

Plato being born in such a great and dynamic time and also due to his personal tendency and accompanying wealth to have full time to devote in learning and absorbing the knowledge all around him, he had a deep consciousness of this glory. But on other hand he was also witnessing the fall of this glory (And this intensified his feeling of losing the highest glory),
A lengthy war of 27 years (431-404 BCE) broke out between Athens (and it’s allied city States; some may like to call it Athenian empire because Athens had started to play the role of master and it was an unequal alliance) and Peloponnesians (Greek heartland) under leadership of Sparta. Persians helped Sparta and Athens accepted defeat at the end of war and Athenian democracy was replaced by the Tyranny of Thirty. After this defeat Athens never recovered fully to claim back its golden age.

Plato was 24-25 years old at the time of defeat of Athens. Besides he had also seen the execution of his beloved teacher Socrates at the hand of a democratic government at 399 BCE so all these events, the glory and then fall of glory because of corrupt and opportunistic nature of rulers impacted him deeply so when he was writing Republic, he had specifically considered some basic points based on all these experiences,

-Stability is the most important aspect of a city state (based on his experiences of fall and fear of losing glory of his beloved city state)
-It is important to understand human nature and based on human nature and through human nature one should understand what is Good and what is Just……..
- Inequality among citizen based on their nature; Cast systems based on the metal nature of citizen (Gold, Silver and Bronze)
- Education is key in bringing useful citizen and also preventing chaos so Plato suggest things like censorship that we might not like in our age……
- Specializations of roles, only aptitude are not enough…
- The ruling class should be Philosophers; The corrupt and opportunistic rulers were the main cause of fall of Athens so he suggest Philosophers as king.

These are only some of the suggestions; What I want you to consider is the doublethink (double-standard) suggestions of Plato…. Philosopher King, Cast System, Censorship, communism seem very controlled society and harsh to us but it was Just to Plato. There is one main cause for it and that is to bring Stability and Stop Losing…

As I mentioned in the beginning, the Fear of Losing, is the strongest drive after very immediate needs, and when it comes to society and government the Fear of losing develops into a unique Psychology in which we accept “Double-Standards” as Just and Good and it is what one can see clearly in Plato’s Republic and also in our time. Let me elaborate very briefly,

Killing is called murder and is considered unjust but murder by Military is considered just and it is called war (It is favored because it provides stability). An intentional dying is called suicide and is considered bad but death in war is considered good and heroic (it is favored as it provides stability). People overwhelmingly accepts this but what is amazing that we accept double-thinking or double-standards in our lives, like We think of unequal taxation as Just because people who provide stability (by creating job and increasing productivity) to country deserve certain privileges while knowing that it gives competitive edge to some.

We can go on and on, on countless examples but in short we tend to accept double-standards as Just either within society or to foreigners and that Tolerance for Injustice silently grow in terms of accumulating powers and privileges to authorities to actually destabilize the society instead of stabilizing it. Then we see people come to streets and demands for restoration of their rights…

To make sure that I am not out of track, once again the main idea of Republic is to the construction of a “Just City State” with a “Just Government” but what if the concept of “Justice” itself is flawed? The same problem is still prevailing. This is the core issue that people escape from. It doesn’t matter how much data you compile, how diverse charts you use and how much sophisticated statistics you present, IF THE CONCEPT OF JUSTICE IS FLAWED, then you can’t expect JUSTICE…. And as long as Injustices are tolerable, people tolerate them but when they become intolerable then people revolt….. It doesn’t matter where it happens; the consequences are the same….

We live in very different time than that of Plato. It is a time that both Sophists and Philosophers teach in institutions, work in think tanks, works as journalists and write books and blogs and make policies but none of them parallel to Sophists and Philosophers of Athens. Were there real Philosophers, we would definitely see a Plato who would try to bring concepts of Justice compatible with our time and construct a Republic to give a clear idea and intellectual backing to people who come to streets around the world for their rights. What Arab Spring, London Riots, Occupy Wall Street movement, Green Movements of Iran, Burmese democratic movement and feeling of uneasiness in EU, South Asia and Latin America, Central Asia and Africa are lacking in general is the lacks of a clear idea of what they want (some ask democracy but really doesn’t know what democracy is). Of course a new version of “Republic” would help them in refining their demands….

Coming back to our title, every day we see a flood of news, articles, analyses and a lot of books with complicated language in US but still we see confusions prevailing because there is no Plato. If there were a Plato, people would not agree with him but his dialectical methods, of course would help people to consider the most fundamental questions and do not get lost in by-products….

1 comment:

  1. Good article with solid points. I'm not a philosophy student but I do find the subject very interesting.

    I think in this world we live in today, a Plato would simply be assassinated because he would be deemed to be a threat to those in power.

    Thankfully his great works have been preserved and we live in a world today where the knowledge is accessible for curious minds.

    What I think we need in this world today is wisdom. We live in a scientific time, and we have technology that was unable during the time of the great philosophers; We truly have the potential to shape the world in our own vision because of this.

    Carl Sagan wrote something along the lines of this: "Knowledge can give us the ability to kill or to let live, but only wisdom can teach us which to do."

    I like the idea of having a philosopher king, but think it's just as necessary to have philosopher subjects. Of course that would probably mean the end of capitalism, but as if any true philosopher would care about that!

    Good day.