Plato and Movement Conservatives: A Match Made in Form
I just read Plato’s Republic for the first time and it just zipped by – 400 pgs in 2 days. Maybe because it was a good translation or maybe because most of the ideas supporting Plato’s “ideal state” turned out to be so childish that I didn’t have to spend much time thinking about them. I covered most of them in junior high, at which time I located and identified the serious flaws in concepts like domination by the state, forced unity, a single definition of Good, and a concept of Truth that didn’t actually include any.
The Republic suffers from all of these and a good deal more, and I suppose his critics (starting with Aristotle) have probably done a much better job than I could delineating and then deconstructing them. The truth is that I found the book mildly amusing (except for Book 7, Chap 2, which introduces a couple of concepts that were to be the basis of philosophical thinking for the next 2500 yrs) in the same way one might chuckle at a memory of the paper he wrote in 9th grade Social Studies supporting Barry Goldwater for President because “maybe an atomic war is just what we need to clean the slate and start fresh.” That’s how you think when you’re 14.
Life, of course, not to mention politics, are a little more complicated than that and even Plato recognized it when he insisted at the end of the book that he never expected to see his Republic in the real world. Still, that he thought a state run by a complicated procedure that married uncomfortable opposites – the “ideal” Republic is part autocratic/militarist dictatorship, part democratic free-for-all, and part elitist aristocracy run by “philosopher kings” who turn out to be characterized by dispositions and beliefs exactly similar to, well, Plato’s – would actually work if someone would just give it a chance is so adorably clueless that I had a pleasant few hours imagining the horrible results of philosopher-rule.
Plato, a student of his, uses Socrates (who was dead when The Republic was written) as the long-winded fictional designer of his fictional ideal and I had to wonder if Socrates was actually anything like Plato’s portrayal of him. Plato’s Socrates is weak on logic with a tendency toward tricks and manipulations which his listeners appear too blind to notice. His syllogisms are loaded with fallacies and unwarranted assumptions which his students never seem to question. He usually begins with a comparison so obvious that of course everyone agrees with it, and then builds onto it analogies and comparisons that even in his own time would have been considered outlandish. For instance:
“In boxing and other kinds of fighting, skill in attack goes with skill in defense, does it not?”
“So, too, the ability to save from disease implies the ability to produce it undetected [no it doesn't, especially not in Plato's time]…”
“I certainly think so.”
“So a man who’s good at keeping a thing will be good at stealing it?”
“I suppose so.”
“So if the just man is good at keeping money safe he will be good at stealing it, too?”
“That is at any rate the conclusion the argument leads to.”
“So the just man turns out to be a kind of thief…”
And so on. There are enough logical holes on most pages that if they were actual holes, the paper would disintegrate. I began to wonder if Plato was a teacher’s nightmare: the student who just didn’t get it but nevertheless became the guy who explained the teaching to everybody else. Could Socrates really have been this dumb? this totally unaware of glaring inconsistencies, assertions without proof and assumptions based on no evidence?
And then that last phrase rang a bell. I’d heard them – hell, written them – before. About the modern conservative GOP. In fact, the more I thought about it the more familiar it all sounded: easy answers; policies based on word manipulation, sourceless assertions, and simplistic assumptions without proof; a division of the world into bi-polar, Good/Evil extremes with no recognition that there may be a BIG middle ground – Friend/Enemy, War/Peace, Elite/Common.
It was the last that made the final connection. Plato, like all aristocrats, is highly skeptical of democratic forms because, really, the “mob” doesn’t know anything and is easily led by anyone who will play to its meanest instincts and desires. Plato, like all aristocrats, is convinced that an Ideal State must be governed by superior prople trained to govern, that left to the common people, they will elect/choose leaders who will pander to them and stir them up against the rich. Sound familiar?
But unlike, say, Cicero, Plato is almost as terrified of aristocratic rule as of any rule by non-aristocrats. Unlike Cicero, who thought only the rich should govern, Plato saw quite clearly that government by the rich would soon devolve into oligarchy, a state which -
- elevates the profit motive to the throne and lets it govern like an oriental despot…[w]hile reason and ambition squat in servitude at its feet, reason forbidden to make any calculation or enquiry except how to make more money, ambition forbidden to admire or value anything but wealth and the wealthy, or to compete for anything but cash or cash-value.
So the identification isn’t perfect. Still, the similarities are often striking. Plato’s naive belief in simple answers – if families will distract our philosopher rulers, eliminate them – would resonate with the kind of people for whom “Nuke em!” is the answer to every foreign relations problem. They would also recognize his distrust and total misunderstanding of the arts. He condemns fiction, poetry, music and painting because they’re shadows of a reality rather than being real themselves. Conservatives distrust any art that doesn’t glorify war or making money. Which more or less leaves them with John Wayne’s WW II movies, 300, and 24. (It is perhaps not a co-incidence that Plato’s favorite “art” was mathematics.)
But it’s Plato’s childish belief in a linear, bi-cameral SuperReality where the correlation is the closest. Like conservatives, Plato believed that something could be or not be and that there was nothing in between. A man who was a shoemaker shouldn’t try raising sheep. A doctor should never write poetry as it would clearly be something he wasn’t equipped to understand. (Tell that to William Carlos Williams.) No matter what the subject, Plato’s belief allowed only a black-to-white spectrum, no colours, no shades, no middle ground or mixed shades. One either was or was not. He broke that rule only once, characteristically when he had Socrates build and educate his philosopher-kings first to war and then to Ultimate Beauty. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, as it doesn’t to conservatives, that war is the antithesis of Beauty, Ultimate or otherwise.
Conservatives see everything in black/white terms as well. Who can forget Bush’s infamous warning to the United Nations that “whoever isn’t for us is against us”? There has always been an “our way or the highway” quality to conservative debates. Like Bush & Cheney, conservatives prefer issuing orders to negotiation (or “spineless yap yap yap” as Rush would put it) simply because they only see two alternatives, final victory and unconditional surrender. There’s never anything in the middle.
In a way, we can thank Plato for that. Plato is the one who taught the Western World to think in such simplistic, childish terms, to believe that all of existence could be squeezed into a tiny room and then bisected with a slide rule to keep it in line. Though, speaking of lines, Plato may have drawn one at Rove.