“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
I never understood why I hated Alfred North Whitehead’s comment about Plato so much.
I won’t argue its truth. I’m not a good enough “philosopher” to do that. But it’s always stuck in my craw.
Finally, Plato’s most famous work The Republic gave me some answers. And the source of my disdain for Whitehead’s sentiment boils down to perhaps the most pitiful of human emotions: self-congratulations.
I suppose that we can conceive of the Republic as being the founding text for the theory of Western liberal education. Plato himself started the practice of what we might call “higher education” with the establishment of his Academy. Modern universities often think of themselves as successors in this Platonic tradition.
The Republic establishes the conception of education as being the foundation for a just society. “Philosopher Kings”, or the best and brightest of a nation were to be the guardians of this society. Plato’s thought wouldn’t be without controversy of course. Karl Popper would even trace him to the beginning fascist thought. I won’t go that far, BUT the legacy of Plato…and the Republic specifically….has left us a tyranny of different sorts.
A tyranny of education? A tyranny where other “smart” people tell each other that they’re smart and the masses should specifically listen to them? A tyranny that has, in theory, led directly to the establishment of Ivy League institutions and universities which falsely claim to be the “guardians” of knowledge?
Is this even a tyranny?!
What if Plato never established the Academy…or the model for today’s Western liberal education? Would the Republic even be discussed? Would Plato HIMSELF still be considered the seed out of which ALL of Western Philosophy sprouts ?
It occurred to me while watching a video from Yale Courses, titled “Philosophers and Kings: Plato’s Republic” (just go to YouTube), that there’s an entire “mythology”, for a lack of a better description, surrounding Plato’s work. It’s a mythology that helps those within academic circles reinforce their own sanctified position within society. “If Plato is a fascist, what does that make all of you?”, the speaker asks his full of Yale students…as if he wants to turn the room against Popper’s allegations of Plato. To challenge the Republic would be to challenge the very fabric on which academic institutions are based.
As a side note, I’m not dismissing the Republic, or Plato himself, from the canon of Western thought. It’s certainly the most well written and important documents in all of philosophy.
Nevertheless, I am joining the chorus of those who ARE challenging it.
Perhaps the most famous section of the Republic is the “Allegory of the Cave”. Again, since you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume that you already know what this is, so I won’t go into the details. But Socrates (Plato’s Socrates. No the actual one) is assumed to have been freed from the chains and no longer relies on the shadows to form his reality. Meanwhile, the general public finds the light too bright to face, and prefers the illusion (and comfort) of the shadows to continue a false sense of reality.
The way of philosophy allows us to face the light, and once when we see the TRUE reality…then simple shadows on the wall become insufficient. The warning Plato was trying to give us is that those who remain in the cave can become hostile to the one that’s been liberated from it, which can lead to unjust consequences (like the death of Socrates). Therefore we need to establish a method of education that can peacefully bring the masses out of this cave of mere “phantoms”.
I’ve never taken such an optimistic view of philosophy. I’m not quite sure I’ve found it “liberating”. With my wondering mind, I’ve found philosophy to be more of a CURSE. In my view, it’s Plato’s Socrates that is banished to the cave…chasing shadows…while everyone else is above ground, underneath the light that is not “philosophy” but genuine existence; or the bliss of living in the world of phantoms, but not under the torment of what they might be.
But in the end, we’re all limited to the cave of the human mind. It’s all shadows….even those living in the light. We only act on what we believe these shadows represent, not what they actually are. When the shadows (or Zizek’s “veil over the nothing behind it”) are lifted, it’s true revelation is nothing or even terrifying: sex as being nothing but the exchanging of bodily fluids, food being nothing but dead animals or plants, life itself simply being matter in motion, etc. Therefore, what’s behind the shadows is irrelevant…the shadows, the phantoms, or the “veil” ITSELF is what we’re concerned with.
It doesn’t matter if you’re in “the cave” or above ground.
“So you’d rather remain ignorant of truth and remain in the shadows?”, you might ask.
But the question is irrelevant. What lies beyond the shadows is irrelevant. I was born “in the light” of Western education, yet unjustness still persists. Unhappiness still persists. Suffering IN THE LIGHT of Western comforts still persists. The “truth” changes nothing.
There’s a tendency to trash the time before philosophy…before the birth modern thought. “Human’s must have been savages”, is the common conception. And they were. And they still are. But some of these “pre-civilized” cultures still exist.
To some of these cultures, whom I’m certain Plato would have considered “living in the cave”, does having a lack of knowledge of things beyond the shadows limit their conceptions of justness, happiness, and suffering? Or are they simply acting in accordance with nature and such “knowledge” is unnecessary?
This is one of the many places where the Republic becomes problematic.
I’ve said before, that technology, education, and other modern convinces don’t BETTER our lives in terms of making us happier, moral, etc. But only set the parameters for contemporary life. But it’s through ancient works like the Republic where we find the genesis of such myth making.
Higher education specifically wants to think of itself as an institution that has had a part in bringing about a just and knowledgeable society. But it doesn’t want to face that it’s also been an instrument for injustice and division (and quickly finding itself out of place in the Age of the Internet). Plato’s Republic allows it to continue its myth-building, believing itself in being a proud successor in its tradition.
But it’s nothing but a shadow on the wall.