Thursday, 13 December 2012

The Republic

Plato The Republic (approx. 375BC)

In which Plato, philosopher and mathematician of Classical Greece, student of Socrates and tutor to Aristotle, author of Socratic dialogues, founder of the Athens Academy and by association - so it might be argued - western philosophy and the entire methodology of modern science, tells us:

When they are young, children should only tackle the amount of philosophic training their age can stand; while they are growing to maturity they should devote a good deal of attention to their bodies, if they are to find them a useful equipment for philosophy. When they are older and their minds begin to mature, their mental training can be intensified.

I suppose this is why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Plato, or at least to reading things which have pointed me in the general direction of reading Plato, these being in no particular order Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Andrew Hickey's Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and Richard Flowers' aNARCHY rULES.

Additionally, having spent a great deal of time immersed in Precolombian Mexican culture, I've come across numerous aspects of Nahua theology bearing apparent comparison with Plato's theory of forms. Said theory very generally holds that each object has an immaterial essence describing its properties in relation to which the physical form is merely an imperfect manifestation. I have long been keen to further the model of Precolombian Mexican cultures as essentially civilised and progressive by some definition, or at least very different to the popular and sanguinary image that Mel Gibson chose to reiterate in his shitty film. My basic theory has it that, for the most part, Mexica and related cultures differed from those of Ancient Greece and Rome only in terms of regional detail and methods by which intellectual achievement was preserved for the benefit of generations to come. Alphabetic script was well adapted to this latter task and so we are able to look back on Greece and Rome with due reverence. On the other hand, Mixteca-Puebla pictographic script was unfortunately less suited to the preservation of philosophical rhetoric, and oral tradition could only carry so much over to the Postconquest era given the general demonisation of the Prehispanic past, a demonisation which unfortunately continues to this day.

So with this in mind and to get to the point, it seemed like time I made the effort to read Plato rather than relying on what I imagined he might have said.

Plato was the student of Socrates, and many of his dialogues reputedly capture the philosophical discussion of his esteemed tutor and associates, which is handy seeing as Socrates himself never bothered writing any of that stuff down. What we have is therefore, in essence, some blokes talking about stuff for a few hundred pages, although the significance of this should be not underestimated given the topics discussed and the methods by which they are debated. Socratic dialogue approaches a subject - in this case society - and bombards it with questions, rhetorical and otherwise, so as to test its limits and assess relative values until a conclusion can be asserted. It's the basis for the modern scientific approach which favours evidence over supposition, and I guess Greece was either where it began, or at least where it was first described in surviving media.

The Republic builds a perfect society consistent with the values of Socrates, Plato, Glaucon and assorted buddies dropping in for a beer and a chin wag about life and that during the course of the narrative, so aside from what philosophical ideas arise during the course of debate, it's also precedent to Thomas More's Utopia and its kin. Thanks I suspect to Desmond Lee's sympathetic translation and insightful notes, The Republic is nothing like so dry as I feared it might be, and is even illuminating in places. That said, I found it a little difficult to get beyond the formula for this perfect society  delivered as part and parcel with all sorts of crazy shite that suggest not so much the cultural differences of people living in a very different world as a basic failure to understand human nature. Most obviously absurd is the notion of a society which takes infants from their mothers at birth, and which communally raises its children without the supposed weakening influence of familial affection. It's this sort of uninformed idealism which somewhat undermines Plato and his pals as being the enlightened champions of reason to which they clearly aspired, but never mind.

Equally curious - and equally redolent of more recent aspirationally totalitarian states - is the dim view Plato takes of poetry, and seemingly of artistic expression itself:
'...we shall have to follow the example of the lover who renounces a passion that is doing him no good, however hard it may be to do so. Brought up as we have been in our own admirably constituted societies, we are bound to love poetry, and we shall be glad if it proves to have high value and truth; but in the absence of such proof we shall, whenever we listen to it, recite this argument of ours to ourselves as a charm to prevent us falling under the spell of a childish and vulgar passion. Our theme shall be that such poetry has no serious value or claim to truth, and we shall warn its hearers to fear its effects on the constitution of their inner selves, and tell them to adopt the view of poetry we have described.'

I didn't quite get this at first, but then I thought of all those Doctor Who fans insisting on the mighty power of their belovedly brilliant marketing franchise by virtue of everyone else thinking it's brilliantly brilliant so your (sic) just jealous; and thinking of them in respect of all the wonders they'll never experience because, lacking screamingly brilliant jokes about brilliantly wearing a fez and shit, anything not directly related holds no interest. It's that sort of militant resistance to curiosity in respect of anything beyond the immediate object of fixation that I find terrifying, and I guess it put the wind up Plato too.

The Republic is an interesting historical document, and almost certainly fascinating if the Greeks are your thing. Oddly, and rather gratifyingly, it presents a snap shot of a society at an equivalent level of intellectual development to that of Mexico, superior in some respects, markedly inferior in others - which is what I had hoped for, but didn't really anticipate finding. I'm glad I read it, but I'm equally glad that it wasn't longer.

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