Friday, December 31, 2010


Anyone who recalls anything about Greek history for their school days remembers the name of Plato. Most know that he was a philosopher who studied under Socrates and mentored Aristotle. If pressed, these people could name one or two of his books, usually the Republic and Plato's Apology. Beyond that, your average person knows nothing about the man or why he is important. Not was, is.

I, being the great nerd I am, love reading the ancient Greeks. Just to upgrade my nerd credentials, I wish I could read ancient Greek just to avoid any bias in the translators, but alas I am not that talented. Usually during the winter, I make a point of reading something by Aristotle or Plato, though I also enjoy the playwrights and historians. Plato tends to be more interesting to me for various reasons. He combines story telling with philosophy, he alone knew the three most influential people on Western political thought (himself, Socrates, and Aristotle), and it is safe to say that Plato is the father of philosophy.

And for those who think, he is also very frightening to read. Plato is frightening precisely because his vision is so alluring. Imagine, a perfect society guided by truth and justice under the tutelage of a wise and impartial philosopher king! Man is perfectible; the philosopher can illustrate the traits of perfection, giving us a goal for all to strive for. Alas, it is a pipe dream.

Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that. The totalitarian regimes that have plagued the last century have all been based on the philosophy that man is perfectible through the state and collectivization. It is hard to tell what Plato himself thinks of the actuality of the perfectibility of men. Many thinkers who witnessed the rise of totalitarian regimes during the 20th Century saw Plato as either a dangerous man who created the blueprints for modern tyranny or as a philosopher who wrote books like The Republic to warn us of the inhumanity of such schemes. I haven't studied their works in depth (though Karl Popper and Leo Strauss are high on my reading list and currently in the mail). Reading Plato, however, it becomes almost unavoidable to view his thoughts through a modern historical lens.

That is half the reason why I enjoy reading a philosopher who has been gone for nearly 2,300 years. I cannot help but imagine what Plato's reaction would have been to the tyrannies of the 20th Century. Given that he did consider tyranny to be the worst form of government, both for those who live under the tyrant and the tyrant himself, I doubt he would be surprised that such governments did exist and that they were as horrible as they were. Perhaps it would be more interesting to see his reaction to the liberal revolution that occurred during the early 18th Century, a belief in the danger of government and its inability to improve people.

I have read the Republic numerous times, but today I finished Statesman. The goals are similar in both: the government, under a true statesman or philosopher king, exists to weave men together into a perfect society. Again, his analogies and goals are beautiful, but they are wrong and misleading. Plato himself doubts whether a true statesman will ever exist, but even if he did, I would not have him rule. Plato errs in believing men can be made subservient to the needs of society. In Statesman, Plato says the true rulers may rule and that "it makes no difference whether their subjects be willing or unwilling." That is the seed of fascism and communism. We are human beings, not bees or ants, and I cannot consider a government or society just if it fails to recognize the individual value of mankind.

Despite this, I absolutely love reading Plato's works. Reading the Republic for the first time in college will probably always be among my fondest memories. Between the class that focused almost exclusively on that book (led by the most brilliant woman I ever met) and everything else that happened that semester, I felt like I was reading the mind of God. Even though I disagree with many of his ideas now and disagreed even when I first encountered his thought, he touched on a remarkable number of subjects and his genius is hard to deny. If given the chance to be anywhere in all of history for a day and understand the language, I would almost have to pick the best conversation between Plato and Aristotle. The two titans of thought debating the theory of the forms, the existence of reality and our perception thereof; I can only imagine.

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