Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Let Plato Entertain You (II)

A little while back I wrote up some lessons from reading the first third or so of Plato. Having now completed the entire 1800 page tome, it's time to report on the next bit. In a future third post I'll look at the Republic and Laws, Plato's attempts to design an ideal society. The other works in the final third, quite honestly, aren't really worth bothering with - they're rather long-winded works of theological cosmology and for the most part they're just boring. Republic and Laws, as we shall see, are both an intriguing mixture of wisdom and madness.

It's unfortunate that the Republic is such a popular work. I first read it many years ago as a stand-alone work, but reading it in context is quite a different experience. This post is (partially) an attempt to explain why, without the need for the reader to read the entire thing themselves... though it would be better if you did. If Plato's ideal societies are deeply flawed, then I still contend that the first thousand pages of Plato's works are a monumental achievement. A brief Google search reveals that modern philosophers agree with only about 5% of his work today, but honestly, anyone who thinks that's either meaningful or important wouldn't understand philosophy if it successfully argued that them into a state of continuously questioning their own assumptions.

Here, then, in no particular order, are what I found most interesting in the first, best section of Plato.

Tautological Analysis

This is my term for a common tactic of the Socratic dialogues (I mentioned it last time but it deserves a fuller treatment). The most common manifestation is that Plato's Socrates will ask someone to define a term - justice, courage, virtue, that sort of thing - and they will respond by giving an example-:
SOCRATES : He's asking you not what a fine thing is, but what is the fine.
HIPPIAS : My friend, I understand. I will indeed tell him what the fine is, and never will I be refuted. Listen, Socrates, to tell the truth, a fine girl is a fine thing.
SOCRATES: That’s fine, Hippias; by Dog you have a glorious answer. 
Socrates is of course being very sarcastic in his response, something which happens a lot. He wants to know what fineness itself is, not an example of things which are fine. A fine girl is indeed a fine thing, but she's not fineness itself. Not even if she's Sarah Michelle Gellar.

But nearly. Maybe Scarlet Johannson... ?
That's a facetious example, and there's often a large element of sarcasm and mockery in Plato. Other works are deadly serious, and highlight how deep our assumptions can run. Is justice a good thing ? What about freedom and democracy ? Often they're thoughtlessly chanted as being the defining, crowning achievements about modern civilisation... but they are not goodness itself. Which forces the question as to what the nature of their goodness is, in what circumstances it applies and if there are any situations in which they're actually bad things. But that's for next time.

Plato is famous for this theory of forms : that there are perfect "forms" of ideals like justice, goodness, mercy, beauty and so on, in which individual things can partake. So Mrs Gellar isn't the Platonic form of beauty*, she just shares some aspect of the beautiful. The law courts aren't the ideal of justice, they just have something in common with it.

* With wonderful irony, Plato does go on about the importance of physical beauty quite a lot, while cheerfully acknowledging that Socrates, his hero, was considered to be extremely ugly.

Platonic forms can't exist in the real world. They are, I think, a useful linguistic theory and a way of understanding thought processes, but I wouldn't get caught up in more theological approaches where they actually exist in some higher plane or whatnot. Even though Plato himself tended towards a strongly mystical view of cosmology, which I reject, the theory of forms is extremely useful. Are good things always beneficial ? Must that benefit be immediate or should you integrate over some time ? What if it benefits one person but harms many ? Is pain always bad or is it just unpleasant ? Are bad things always unpleasant ? They can seem like simple, silly questions, but as Plato examines, they are revealed to be anything but. Plato hints at utilitarianism, at one stage (in Protagoras) even praising the importance of mathematics in order to behave ethically :
How else does pleasure outweigh pain, except in relative excess or deficiency ? Isn’t it a matter (to use other terms) of larger and smaller, more or fewer, greater or lesser degree-? And if you weigh pleasant things against painful, and the painful is exceeded by the pleasant — whether the near by the remote or the remote by the near — you have to perform that action in which the pleasant prevails; on the other hand, if the pleasant is exceeded by the painful, you have to refrain from doing that. Since it has turned out that our salvation in life depends on the right choice of pleasures and pains, be they more or fewer, greater or lesser, farther or nearer, doesn’t our salvation seem, first of all, to be measurement, which is the study of relative excess and deficiency and equality ?
How much Plato really believed this is unclear. He often does advocate maximising goodness, especially for the whole population rather than the individual, but he rarely dwells on the prospect of being able to quantify moral actions. And in other dialogues, he's very much against the idea that "goodness" and "pleasure" are the same thing. If you're the sort of person who thinks that terminology problems are straightforward, a few dozen pages of Plato will soon cure you of that.

What I like about this approach is that at his best - which is very frequent - Plato offers a tremendous, somewhat perverse, clarity of thought. Having knowledge means that you know things, right ? And there's no way you can know things you don't know ? OK, then... what does it mean to know things ? Clarity of thought does not mean clarity of conclusions, but this approach of questioning the very basic assumptions forces acknowledgement of one's own ignorance. Which is no bad thing at all.

Conclusions are for losers

Many of Plato's works have no firm conclusion - or they do, but other works reach the exact opposite conclusion. This more than anything else should be borne in mind while reading anything of Plato : for every dialogue, there is an equal and opposite dialogue. In Phaedrus, he goes on for many, many ironic pages that one shouldn't put too much trust in the written word :
And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.
Or in other words... Don't. Take. Plato. Literally.

In one of his letters - the editor's notes say we're not sure if any of these are genuine, so bear that in mind - he elaborates further :
On this account no sensible man will venture to express his deepest thoughts in words, especially in a form which is unchangeable, as is true of written outlines... Only when all of these things — names, definitions, and visual and other perceptions — have been rubbed against one another and tested, pupil and teacher asking and answering questions in good will and without envy — only then, when reason and knowledge are at the very extremity of human effort, can they illuminate the nature of any object.
Ironically for a man who wrote so much down, he seems quite sincere when he says that you can't learn everything from books. Yet this is absolutely consistent with his other works, which often reach no conclusion or contradict one another. There are no absolute conclusions beyond all reproach, revision is always possible - and usually stated so : "here is what anyone who disagrees with us will have to show in order to refute our conclusion". Take no text as an authority, question everything. Only through repeated questioning and discussion with others is there any hope of glimpsing "the" truth, if there even is such a thing. It's a echo of one of the most powerful sections of the Apology :
On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.
Without bearing this in mind, large parts of Plato can seem monstrous. Indeed, even remembering this some sections seem today to be irredeemable, as we shall see.

Plato's world view was undoubtedly complex, both morally, theologically, and rationally. At times it seems like he thought everything was relative, at other times he's a staunch material rationalist (almost an atheist), at others devout (though never the equivalent of a Creationist - he certainly didn't believe that a big beardy Zeus hurled thunderbolts from atop Mount Olympus). Despite his relativist leanings he still seemed to be searching for an objective ethical theory, even if such a theory couldn't be absolute. His theory of forms had led him to the idea that he could never express his deepest thoughts correctly because language is fundamentally limited and flawed : a name is not the same as the thing itself. So as for what he really meant, we'll simply never know.

Rhetoric is the same as pastry baking

He literally says this. Or more accurately, and with that characteristic ironic streak, he says that oratory is the same as pastry baking. So written text can't convey literal truth, and the spoken word is as useful as a pastry. What's a philosopher to do ? Well in Gorgias, with typical wit and verve he goes off on one about pastry baking :
SOCRATES : Ask me now what craft I think pastry baking is.
POLUS : All right, I will. What craft is pastry baking?
SOCRATES : It isn’t one at all, Polus. Now say, “What is it then?"
POLUS : All right.
SOCRATES : It’s a knack. Say, “A knack for what?"
POLUS : All right.
SOCRATES : For producing gratification and pleasure, Polus.
POLUS : So oratory is the same thing as pastry baking ?
SOCRATES : Oh no, not at all, although it is a part of the same practice... I call it flattery, basically.
In fact in context "oratory" really means "rhetoric" - the art of persuasion, though specifically in this case by using appeals to emotion through the spoken word. "Pastry baking" means flattery, in the sense that sweet pastries may taste nice, but they aren't good for you. You might enjoy them for a while, but you can't live off them forever. The art of persuasion is important, but it must be accompanied by a search for the truth. Those who seek to persuade without an understanding of the truth - who just want whatever whimsical fancy comes to mind without caring if it's good for them in the long term - will soon come to ruin. In essence, ignoring the truth and caring only for your base desires is a terribly bad idea.

A more modern way to phrase it is the question, "Do you want to be right or do you want to win ?". For Plato - as it should be for anyone - the only sensible answer is both.

Obvious ? Not really - at least not to politicians of the time, and certainly not to politicians of today. Politics seems utterly consumed with one side being right and the other wrong, and barely pays any attention to the objective evidence at all. The other side must be attacked, whether that's because they're argument is flawed or because their character makes them untrustworthy... whatever. It's not about discovering the best course of action, just about winning. No wonder the world is in such a mess.

One might perhaps conclude that therefore "post truth" and "fake news" are nothing new. And they're not. It doesn't mean that they're excusable, however, or that the current state of affairs isn't worse than it was in the relatively recent past.

Crime never pays

The importance of respecting objective truth ties in with another crucial idea of Plato's : that it's better to suffer an injustice than commit one. I don't mean that it's morally superior - everyone would agree to that trivially - but that it is literally better in every material and spiritual sense to suffer an injustice than inflict one on other people. In Gorgias, Socrates argues that even suffering the physical punishments the law demands (so long as they are truly just) after conviction of a crime is a benefit to be enjoyed by the criminal. The problem is, of course, that for this to work the criminal must understand the punishment. If he does not, then he won't gain anything.
Yes, my good man, I take it that these people have managed to accomplish pretty much the same thing as a person who has contracted very serious illnesses, but, by avoiding treatment manages to avoid paying what’s due to the doctors for his bodily faults, fearing, as would a child, cauterization or surgery because they’re painful... For on the basis of what we’re now agreed on, it looks as though those who avoid paying what is due also do the same sort of thing, Polus. They focus on its painfulness, but are blind to its benefit and are ignorant of how much more miserable it is to live with an unhealthy soul than with an unhealthy body, a soul that’s rotten with injustice and impiety.
Gorgias is a particularly brilliant and lively work. While Socrates often acknowledges that most people disagree with him, what he doesn't seem to appreciate is how many tyrants brought to justice also disagree with him. He argues very convincingly that pleasure is not the same as moral good (of course), but he seems hell-bent that no-one would willingly choose to commit an injustice. And perhaps they don't; perhaps they are truly ignorant of what they're doing, but this is never really convincingly explained. There are just too many examples (then and now) of people who do seem to know that what they're doing is wrong*. But in Plato's view this sort of thing is an abnormality, a sickness of the soul for which there is only one cure :

* His argument would be strengthened considerably if he focused more on the aspect of ignorance required to commit an injustice, the everyday lesser injustices rather than the extreme evils of tyrants and despots, and the extent to which injustice results in the physical, material suffering of the wrongdoer (rather than the corruption of their soul).
For a corrupt person it’s better not to be alive, for he necessarily lives badly.
He means that literally, both for the corrupt person and those around him. Sometimes this takes the remarkably crude theological perspective that evil-doers will be punished in the afterlife. Occasionally it almost takes the from of the "everything happens for a reason" crap that's popular on dumb internet memes. Socrates himself says in the Apology :
I assure you that if I am what I claim to be, and you put me to death, you will harm yourselves more than me. Neither Meletus nor Anytus can do me any harm at all; they would not have the power, because I do not believe that the law of God permits a better man to be harmed by a worse. No doubt my accuser might put me to death or have me banished or deprived of civic rights, but even if he thinks  as he probably does, and others too, I dare say  that these are great calamities, I do not think so. I believe that it is far worse to do what he is doing now, trying to put an innocent man to death.
Socrates had it that if he himself was innocent, then death could not be a disaster. But not just from the religious perspective of being rewarded in the afterlife : Socrates considered the other option, that death is an annihilation :
Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything, or, as we are told, it is really a change — a migration of the soul from this place to another. Now if there is no consciousness but only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvellous gain. I suppose that if anyone were told to pick out the night on which he slept so soundly as not even to dream, and then to compare it with all the other nights and days of his life, and then were told to say, after due consideration, how many better and happier days and nights than this he had spent in the course of his life — well, I think that the Great King himself, to say nothing of any private person, would find these days and nights easy to count in comparison with the rest.
For Socrates and Plato alike, there is no prospect of an unhappy death for a good man - without any need for the crude notion of being compensated in heaven. Yet Plato (arguably) disagreed that lesser men cannot harm their betters. In a moving passage in Gorgias, Plato has Socrates recount how other great Athenian statesmen had been put to death and so could not have been the skilled leaders and teachers of men that they claimed to be. The reader then realises that Socrates too claimed to be improving those around him yet he suffered the same fate. Plato then has him say, in apparent contradiction to his own words in the--Apology :
If I do come into court involved in one of those perils which you mention, the man who brings me in will be a wicked man — for no good man would bring in a man who is not a wrongdoer — and it wouldn’t be at all strange if I were to be put to death... I’ll be judged the way a doctor would be judged by a jury of children if a pastry chef were to bring accusations against him.
Or is this a contradiction ? Not necessarily, if you accept that "death" and "harm" are not the same thing. Still, it's hardly the "everything happens for a reason" or "there's a Big Plan" rubbish that fills stupid internet memes. It's simply that the accuser would be evil and would accomplish his goal, whereas the noble philosopher is not able to persuade people that he acts in their best interests. Socrates will die, even though he doesn't particularly want to. So a good man can be harmed by a worse... it was hardly the most just outcome possible. On the other hand, Socrates seems to have genuinely believed that by his death the city would be harmed even more than he would. There wasn't any kind of plan or reason at work, but there was an underlying justice. Killing Socrates stopped his advice, which he thought a far worse thing done to his accusers that his own misfortune by merely being executed. If nothing else, it was a remarkable theory to actually put into practise.

Education, Education, Education

Whenever he addresses the topic directly, Plato arrives at different conclusions as to whether virtue can be taught - that is, whether education can improve people. It can make them more knowledgeable of course, but can it make them wiser ? Or does wisdom - knowing how to use that knowledge to achieve the greatest good - come from nature rather than nurture ? Plato never really had an answer.

... at least, he didn't during his direct examinations. Yet the constant implication of his whole corpus is that it can be taught, that by reading and studying his works the reader might become wiser. "A life without self-examination is not worth living" were perhaps truly the words of Socrates himself, but Plato's relentless questioning, considering different perspectives (including ones he clearly disagreed with), his different and contradictory conclusions, his understanding of the importance of rhetoric... these are all hardly the actions of a man who thinks that education doesn't matter. If self-examination is so critical to life, then it follows that everyone should do it.

Many of his dialogues feel like genuine accounts of real exchanges. Even if they weren't, the protagonists often behave so much like real people, it's clear they must have been inspired by actual discussions even if they're not verbatim reproductions. Protagonists get angry and upset, they threaten to leave or even violence. And sometimes - just sometimes - they change their minds. People can be persuaded by the appropriate arguments. Which I think makes the conclusion inescapable : education matters. It can make people better. Though it's worth mentioning that often the participants feel trapped by the logic of an argument but not really persuaded by it.

Quotes (very lightly edited) are from Euthydemus and Gorgias.
An alternative interpretation is possible. In Meno, Plato describes the possibility that learning is actually recollection. The knowledge already exists inside us - or at least the tools to understand it do - so discussion and examination are methods to find out who's best at what, rather than improving people. This would fit with his statements in other dialogues that we should act according to our natures. Education would then still be extremely important, but for the purpose of discovery rather than change. It would be a sort of hunt to find the best young people, and then lock them away to prevent their corruption... though it wouldn't fit with his repeated statements that justice is necessary as a sort of teaching tool in itself, that mends the corruption of the soul.

Perhaps the most direct clues to Plato's beliefs come from his statements about ignorance, a topic about which he had much (probably worth its own post eventually) to say - nearly all of it well worth scrutiny. Ignorance, for Plato, is a vice that actually makes people worse. Knowledge and wisdom are virtues, but they must be properly taught. Upstart youngsters who learn the methods of debate before they're ready like to employ them as a game :
And isn’t it one lasting precaution not to let them taste arguments while they’re young? I don’t suppose that it has escaped your notice that, when young people get their first taste of arguments, they misuse it by treating it as a kind of game of contradiction. They imitate those who’ve refuted them by refuting others themselves, and, like puppies, they enjoy dragging and tearing those around them with their arguments. Then, when they’ve refuted many and been refuted by them in turn, they forcefully and quickly fall into disbelieving what they believed before. And, as a result, they themselves and the whole of philosophy are discredited in the eyes of others. But an older person won’t want to take part in such madness. He’ll imitate someone who is willing to engage in discussion in order to look for the truth, rather than someone who plays at contradiction for sport.
Teaching methods are deemed to be supremely important in his world-building exercises, but in the present context, strictly speaking, he doesn't commit to saying that virtue can be taught. But he's tremendously keen to encourage the practise of philosophy, and thus far there's no hint that any particular group of people would be better at it than any others. In fact there's very little hint of any kind of class system in Plato at all, certainly nothing anyone is born in to. Excessive wealth (which of course would be for the upper echelons of society) is seen far more as a dangerous vice than something to aspire to. Instead of the boring question, "will earning more money make me happier ?", Plato focused on the much more interesting, "can I make myself a better person through learning-?"

Further evidence can possibly be found in Hippias, but we must be careful. Hippias is a an arrogant sophist who boasts of his own money-making skills as evidence for his cleverness. It's with withering irony that Socrates tells him, "The mark of being wise, I see, is when someone makes the most money."*. Yet he also declares that "early craftsmen are worthless compared to modern ones", and, for example, "Daedalus also, according to the sculptors, would be laughable if he turned up now doing things like the ones that made him famous". It's much harder to tell if he was being ironic here. Elsewhere he has nothing but praise for the ancient poets, but sculptors and craftsmen haven't had much of a look in.

This is coming from someone who shouts loudly and often about wealth not being goodness and poverty not being a mark of stupidity; irony is the only sensible interpretation here.

Well I wouldn't call it a masterpiece anyway.
The argument I find most convincing is one in Protagoras, using a method of Plato's I described last time : consider the opposite case. Specifically, Protagoras argues that OK, perhaps the son of a great flute-player won't necessarily become a great flute player himself even though he has such a wonderful teacher as his father... but he'll become a damn sight better than if he had no teacher at all. Protagoras argues that it's the same with virtue. Education is necessary for people to reach their innate limits, even if it's not necessarily so powerful as to be able to alter those innate limits. You still need education for people to reach their full potential. If you don't teach people how to behave, then left to their own devices they become - in gloriously politically incorrect terms - "savages such as the playwright Pherecrates brought on stage at last year’s Lenaean festival".

A closely related, reoccurring theme is that morality is objective. It's not necessarily absolute by any means : the moral status of any action can depend on context. But if you have the full facts of a situation, you can always assess what's right and wrong. In the Symposium, Plato has Pausanias say :
The reason for this applies in the same way to every type of action : considered in itself, no action is either good or bad, honourable or shameful. Now, in itself none of these is better than any other: how it comes out depends entirely on how it is performed If it is done honourably and properly, it turns out to be honourable; if it is done improperly, it is disgraceful.
You have to be taught how to do things correctly otherwise you'll end up as one of Pherecrates' "savages". But who is to teach you ?

Expert knowledge matters

This is an almost ubiquitous theme in Plato. Virtually every dialogue seems to contain at least one reference to shipbuilders, flute players, carpenters and the like. You don't hire a bricklayer to prescribe medicine. You don't get a philosopher to conduct a choir. You don't hire a shipbuilder to write rhetorical speeches. Unless they're about ships, presumably.

One would think that this would be obvious, but it wasn't at the time and to vast numbers of morons on the internet, it still isn't today. Plato went to extraordinary lengths to refute the then-popular notion of Protagoras that, "man is the measure of all things" : that opinions are the only thing that exist and are true for the individual. This is taken to comical extremes in Euthydemus, in which a couple of sophists declare that everyone knows everything about everything :
But perhaps, Euthydemus, said Ctesippus, you are not uniting flax with flax, as the proverb has it. Because you are making an alarming statement if you say your father is the father of all.
But he is, he replied.
Just of men, said Ctesippus, or of horses and all the other animals ?
All of them, he said.
And is your mother their mother ?
Yes, she is.
And is your mother the mother of sea urchins ?
Yes, and so is yours, he said.
So you are the brother of gudgeons and puppies and piglets.
Yes, and so are you, he said.
And your father turns out to be a boar and a dog.
And so does yours, he said.
Dammit, philosophy !
There's a much more serious discussion in Theaeteus, but even here Plato cannot resist a snarky quip or two. The discussion revolves around whether knowledge is the same as perception and if opinion is the only form of knowledge. Socrates refutes this :
I was astonished that he did not state at the beginning of the Truth that ‘Pig is the measure of all things’ or ‘Baboon’ or some yet more out-of-the-way creature with the power of perception. That would have made a most imposing and disdainful opening. It would have made it clear to us at once that, while we were standing astounded at his wisdom as though he were a god, he was in reality no better authority than a tadpole —let alone any other man.
Here he's taken the idea of expert knowledge and perverted it. If all creatures are the judges of what's true, then human intelligence is equal to that of a god or a baboon. Yet how can Socrates be a better judge of his own health than a doctor ? Plato has Protogoras get very grumpy :
You keep talking about pigs and baboons; you show the mentality of a pig yourself, in the way you deal with my writings, and you persuade your audience to follow your example. That is not the way to behave... I certainly do not deny the existence of both wisdom and wise men: far from it... Now what we have to do is not to make one of these two [men] wiser than the other — that is not even a possibility — nor is it our business to make accusations, calling the sick man ignorant for judging as he does, and the healthy man wise, because he judges differently. What we have to do is to make a change from the one to the other, because the other state is better
Protagoras denies the existence of objective truth, but not that some things are better than other things. Therefore some men are better judges than other men, and gods are better judges than baboons (fortunately the ancient Greeks didn't have any monkey gods...), though how one determines who's better without an absolute, objective standard for comparison isn't clear. Plato plays both views off against the other with equal credibility, never trying to make one seem more ridiculous than the other. For a man who vehemently insisted not to take him literally, it's hard not to take him sincerely.

Yet ultimately, reading between the lines, one gets the impression that Plato hated the idea of knowledge as opinion (and especially that false judgement is impossible), but he respected it. There are strong hints in these oft-repeated comparisons to shipbuilders and musicians that he made the now-standard scientific assumption that the external world is real, objective, and measurable (although he toys with the idea that dreams represent another reality in Theaeteus, elsewhere it's pretty clear he thinks they're mere illusions). He holds that you can judge the skill of a shipwright by the quality of the ships that they built - you can judge them on their reputation or examine their ships for yourself. If there is a single key to science, it's this evidenced-based, provisional, objective judgement.

... except, perhaps, where it comes to justice. In Protagoras :
And so it is, Socrates, that when the Athenians (and others as well) are debating architectural excellence, or the virtue proper to any other professional speciality, they think that only a few individuals have the right to advise them, and they do not accept advice from anyone outside these select few. But when the debate involves political excellence, which must proceed entirely from justice and temperance, they accept advice from anyone, and with good reason, for they think that this particular virtue, political or civic virtue, is shared by all.
This is one of those dialogues in which Plato attempts to directly tackle whether virtue can be taught. But whether knowledge in general can be taught (even, as we've seen, critical thinking skills), whether you can objectively examine the world and test it, doesn't seem to be open to much doubt (Theaeteus aside). In Alcibiades, Socrates discusses with the Athenian general what it is he wants to talk about in the Assembly (here edited to remove Alcibiades one-word affirmative answers) :
Then what will they be discussing ? I presume it won’t be building, because a builder would give better advice on these matters than you. Nor will they be discussing divination, will they ? Because then a diviner would be better at giving advice than you, regardless of whether he’s tall or short, or handsome or ugly, or even noble or common. And when the Athenians are discussing measures for public health, it will make no difference to them if their counsellor is rich or poor, but they will make sure that their adviser is a doctor.  I suppose that’s because advice on any subject is the business not of those who are rich but of those who know it.
In general, Plato doesn't seem to have had much truck with the idea that reality is a simulation or the imaginings of a god. Like the idea that the Earth goes around the Sun, this is widely taken for granted these days - but it's very, very hard to prove it from first principles (as we discover at length in Theaeteus and hilariously in Euthydemus), and that's something well worth remembering. You may fairly assume that it's true, but that's not at all the same as proof.

As for the popular idea that Plato claimed to know nothing, this is pure frickin' nonsense. Even in the Apology, when Socrates passionately defends his right to ignorance, he doesn't claim that wisdom is knowing you know nothing. That's only a relative state : it's knowing you know nothing when you actually do know nothing and everyone else thinks they know things but actually know nothing. If they know nothing and know they know nothing but you know something, then you're wiser.

In other words, Socrates only claimed to be the wisest man in Athens because he knew he knew nothing, whereas everyone else professed to know many, many which things they didn't. He never denies that they do actually know some things, especially the craftsmen, it was just offset because of their massive professed knowledge of all other areas which they didn't actually have. The wisest person of all would of course be someone who really did know everything and the best actions to take in all circumstances. In Statesman, Plato advocates for benevolent dictators :
... the truest criterion of correct government of a city [is] the one according to which the wise and good man will govern the interests of the ruled. Just as a steersman, always watching out for what is to the benefit of the ship and the sailors, preserves his fellow sailors not by putting things down in writing but offering his expertise as law, so too in this same manner a constitution would be correct, would it not, if it issued from those who are able to rule in this way, offering the strength of their expertise as more powerful than the laws.
The only way in which ignorance is a virtue in Plato's discussions is when you're aware of it and try to change it, and try to get others to acknowledge their own ignorance when they claim false, damaging knowledge.

I know that's skipping ahead of my stated limit of the first thousand pages, but it sums up the situation very well.
What's frustrating is that we never hear Plato's voice directly, except possibly in his letters although we don't know for certain that they're genuine. So, just like a play, we get to examine all the issues, but not what Plato himself really thinks or prefers, except by looking for trends and persistent themes (of course, he did warn us not to take him literally !). Although it's clear that he didn't claim to know everything, it therefore remains frustratingly ambiguous as to what he did claim to know. What effects had the all-important examination of the self had on him personally ? To what extent should his world-building exercises be seen as hypothetical explorations and to what extent did he think they should be applied practically ? More on that next time.

It's also worth mentioning that the heroic Socrates of the Apology - the one who died not for knowledge but for ignorance and the right to question - re-emerges on many occasions throughout Plato's corpus. He is the principle protagonist in most dialogues, and usually gets the upper hand with all the cleverest arguments. But we also get an altogether more human view of Socrates in the other dialogues. He's sarcastic, mocking, doubtful, unsure of himself (often floored by an opponent's argument and has to sit out the discussion for a while) and sometimes even extremely petty - on one occasion even threatening to walk out if his opponents won't argue on his terms. He achieves moments of greatness, and you could even call him a truly great man, but he's not a saint and his conclusions certainly aren't held as dogma. Dogma, if anything, is anathema to everything the examinations stand for.

Freedom of speech

This one is only discussed directly on occasion. Most notably, a throwaway line in Gorgias :
You’d certainly be in a terrible way, my good friend, if upon coming to Athens, where there’s more freedom of speech than anywhere else in Greece, you alone should miss out on it here. But look at it the other way. If you spoke at length and were unwilling to answer what you’re asked, wouldn’t I be in a terrible way if I’m not to have the freedom to stop listening to you and leave ?
This is the heart of the problem of so many issues surrounding free speech then and now : freedom from versus freedom to, the right to offend versus the right to be offended, freedom of actions versus freedom of consequences. If you force people to listen to things they don't like, you've take a freedom from them. But if people are allowed to speak, what's the point if no-one's listening ? What kind of freedom do they have if, say, they can be fired from their job for saying things people don't like ?

More famously, the Apology is a powerful rallying cry for the virtues of free speech and the dangers of oppression by the state :
If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. It is literally true, even if it sounds rather comical, that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly, and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will take Anytus' advice and finish me off with a single slap, and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.
I tell you, my executioners, that as soon as I am dead, vengeance shall fall upon you with a punishment far more painful than your killing of me. You have brought about my death in the belief that through it you will be delivered from submitting your conduct to criticism, but I say that the result will be just the opposite. You will have more critics, whom up till now I have restrained without your knowing it, and being younger they will be harsher to you and will cause you more annoyance. If you expect to stop denunciation of your wrong way of life by putting people to death, there is something amiss with your reasoning. This way of escape is neither possible nor creditable. The best and easiest way is not to stop the mouths of others, but to make yourselves as good men as you can.
Throughout the other dialogues, Plato considers all manner of crazy ideas. Despite one of the charges against Socrates being impiety, at times he even flirts quite brazenly with atheism. He surely cannot have been unaware of the importance of free speech, how critical it must be to tell people things they don't want to hear without fear of reprisal by the state - otherwise how can people learn and grow ? It ties in closely with his often highly ambiguous conclusions and contradictory statements : being able to explore different ideas, even offensive ones you don't actually believe, is paramount.

Much more on that next time.


This is an impossibly crude summary of a thousand pages of beautiful dialogue, but there are some reasonably clear overall points :
  • Rigour is important. Plato analyses any statement by reducing it down to its most basic components, often to the level where it seems tautologous. He also blends theory (by trying to rigorously define what words mean) with observations (by employing supporting analogies). He never quite gets to the notion that if there's a clear conflict between observation and theory then observation must win (the modern scientific view), but he comes very close.
  • Conclusions are provisional. His dialogues sometimes contradict one another (quite starkly) and often fail to reach any definitive conclusion at all. Even those that do usually contain statements about what would be necessary for anyone to refute them. The search for the truth is usually more important than the truth itself. Revising a conclusion is light of new evidence or theory is essential.
  • Ignorance isn't bliss. While we can't know everything about the world around us with 100% certainty, we can know some things. Just because some complicated notions (like the concept of virtue or knowledge) are difficult doesn't mean that everything is. You can learn how to build or ship or play the flute and objectively test your abilities. Knowing your own ignorance is important (the Delphic inscription, "know thyself" features several times), but it's even more important to actually try and bloody learn something.
There are other themes which re-occur in the dialogues which are less important in general but are important for anyone to bear in mind if they specifically want to read the Republic or Laws. For example, Plato takes the great poets as authorities on various matters, virtually never contradicting them on anything. He's frequently unsure as to the existence of the gods, veering wildly between a devoted believer and quasi-atheism (even though he never questions the existence of the soul, he does question if it's immortal). Moderation too is a very common theme, often held to be an essential part of virtue ("Nothing in excess", says the Delphic oracle*), as is the notion that things should be done in a certain correct way by experts. Expertise is a common theme; only slightly less common is the idea of elite experts : "in every pursuit most of the practitioners are paltry and of no account whereas the serious men are few and beyond price", he says in one of the more serious moments in Euthydemus. Homophillia runs rampant, to the extent of almost completely ignoring what certain people would deem to be "normal" heterosexuality today.

* But also nothing too little, tying in nicely with the ideas of wisdom being knowledge of how much is appropriate.

The surface level topics of the dialogues vary. They cover rhetoric, theory of knowledge, how to judge expertise, wisdom, the nature of happiness, morality... that sort of thing. Plato's famous forms are woven throughout many different dialogues rather than being given their own explicit section. Don't make the mistake I made of trying to choose a particular topic, because they're all (with the possible exception of Parmenides, which is an exceptionally tough piece about the nature of one) very broad-ranging. In fact, they're like nachos. The surface level topics exist only as a substrate by which to deliver the cheesy goodness of their nutritious subtext - the constant running theme being, "what's the best way to live ?". The answer being, "by eating lots of nachos", obviously.

However, in recent years a rival theory has emerged stating that the best way to live is by teaching your cat to drink wine. I'm not entirely digressing here. Dozens of pages of the text are (I swear !) about the best way to organise a drinking party.
Plato has this other frustrating habit which has a perverse appeal : he'll explain an idea with beautiful rhetoric (often the most commonly-held position on a topic) and them demolish it seconds later with a series of ugly facts or counter-arguments (for particularly extreme examples see Phaedrus and Symposium, both partially about the different kinds of love and both with some of Plato's most eloquent dialogue). This is not a scientific method, of course, but it strongly supports Plato's sincerity to find the truth. While Plato does value both physical and rhetorical beauty, it's abundantly clear that they're much lesser concerns. As Socrates mockingly says of himself in Hippias :
He’s like that, Hippias, not refined. He’s garbage, he cares about nothing but the truth.
Of course, being biased myself, I've picked out the things that I find most interesting and tend to agree with most strongly. Still, I find it hard to imagine that the three main points would be disputed by more serious scholars.

There's one final point that must be made, however, because I think I may have given a rather rose-tinted view of Plato thus far. Some of Plato's throwaway lines are profound, but others are downright mad. For instance, while in Statesman he finds that the best form of government would be a single ruler who was a paragon of wisdom, the next best thing would be a state in which the penalty for disobeying any law is death. He says, as we've seen, that the corrupt deserve death with virtually no analysis of this. There are many hints that he believes that morality is so objective that it should be forced on people against their will. And, as discussed previously, he clearly believes that people are not equal - not merely in flute-playing abilities, but overall some people are better than other people.

Most damming of all is what he does not say, which is anything at all about whether slavery is moral. For other men, imprisoned as they are in the thoughts of their own times, we might perhaps forgive that lapse. But for a man who foresaw the transporter problem through sheer reasoning, who repeatedly stated over and over again that it's a person's actions and abilities that matter, not his wealth or social status, who dedicated himself to the pursuit of virtue... well, for such a man I don't think we can allow the same leeway. Which doesn't negate anything that he did say, but it cautions us to do the very thing Plato advises : continue the process of examination, both of his conclusions and our own.

No comments:

Post a Comment