Victor Nuovo: A platonic digression
The title of this essay calls for an explanation. Four weeks ago, I began a series entitled “The Life of the Mind in America.” This essay, the fifth in the series, is about Plato. But what does Plato have to do with America? He was an Athenian who lived more than 1,800 years before European explorers ever set foot on this continent. I will explain.
To begin with, philosophers have long pondered whether a proper inquiry into the nature of things proceeds from the bottom up or the from the top down; whether it is proper to start at the bottom, observing how everything evolves from minute particles of insensible matter or surges of energy, which, by their random motions or erratic dances, collide, combine, embrace, and cohabit to produce the chain of being that extends upwards from senseless lumps of matter to intelligent beings with hopes and values; or whether we should start from the top, with transcendent things, with ideas and intelligent spirits, with the primal Good, Being itself, from which all things flow as from a copious fountain. Jonathan Edwards was without doubt a top-downer. He inspired me to start at the top.
I should make clear that I use the terms “bottom up” and “top down” metaphysically, not socially or economically.
For a long while, I have been a complacent “bottom-upper”; but, over the past four years, events have caused me to reconsider my point of view. In particular, since Jan. 20, 2016, a moral nihilist has occupied the highest office in the land. I will write no more about his character or his misbehavior, for it is upsetting even to think of them, and I would spare my readers this discomfort. He has been defeated in a fair election, and soon he will be gone and, let us hope, forgotten.
This unhappy episode in American history has made me wonder about the sources of moral goodness: Is this after all a moral universe? Is this universe a place where the right and the good, truth and beauty come first? If it is, then the proper way to view it is from the top down; intelligence and value must come first; all else must flow from there.
Several weeks ago, I stood outdoors observing the night sky; storm clouds were dispersing and a full moon appeared. Notwithstanding the blemishes on its face — craters, the products of chance encounters of matter in space (evidence for a bottom-upper), I was struck by the very shape of the moon itself, a perfect circle, which in the darkness gave me assurance of intelligence and order; as though it were designed by a supreme intelligence. The moon in its fullness appeared to me as a symbol of infinite wisdom, true to itself, a token of all that is right and good.
I have no doubt that Plato gazed at many full moons and had similar sentiments, seizing on the shape of the moon and its brightness as proof of eternal forms. What is more, he developed a philosophical theory to justify his sentiments, and through it, has enlightened the world. He has become supreme example of a top-downer; its archetype; the founder of a transcendental way of thinking. This achievement is his warrant for a place in this series, for the life of the mind wherever it is lived must be a pursuit of goodness pure and unblemished.
Besides, Plato is our contemporary: he conceived his philosophical system against a background of political corruption and disaster, he experienced firsthand the tyranny of the few and the tyranny of the many. His idea of a moral universe was a remedy for his discontent. It has proved its worth. The world is greatly in need of Platonic wisdom.
Plato (426–346 BCE) lived almost his whole life in Athens, a city noted for its culture and wealth; it acquired a colonial empire through its unrivalled sea power, and achieved its greatest power and influence under the leadership of Pericles (496–429 BCE), to whom Plato was related. But its glory was eclipsed when it suffered a humiliating defeat in an ill advised war with Sparta, which engulfed the entire region (The Peloponnesian War) followed by the Plague, to which Pericles succumbed; politically things went awry.
Citizenship in Athens belonged only to adult males; women were excluded, as were indentured servants, and slaves; its legislative body was a public assembly, including all citizens, which operated under the principle of majority rule. To advance in political influence required the ability to influence others through speech. There were no liberal arts colleges or universities. Education was private. Travelling teachers were its providers. They were called “Sophists,” teachers of wisdom, who were especially skilled in rhetoric, which is the art of persuading or instructing through speech. They taught other subjects: mathematics, physics and ethics, and household management, a.k.a. economics; but for well-connected men, like Plato, who were destined for a public life, rhetoric was key.
Socrates (470–399 BCE) was one of these, but he had a way of teaching that was different from the Sophists. He practiced the art of dialectic, or critical thinking, a method of questioning or testing any claim to know. It made him unpopular, for the effect of his art was to burst people’s bubbles. Claiming to know nothing, he went about questioning those who professed knowledge, Sophists and their acolytes, among them well-connected ambitious men. The effect of his questioning was to force his respondents reluctantly to admit that what they claimed was certain knowledge was in fact mere unexamined belief, or prejudice. He wanted to learn from them, but proved them to be ignorant.
Socrates was the first to discover the essential difference between knowing and believing. In any case, he became a public nuisance, an annoyance. In the end, annoyance turned to resentment, and resentment to hate. Socrates was charged with impiety and misleading the youth. He was sentenced to death, and executed by poison, self-administered. Plato wrote of it in his dialogue “Phaedo.” Read it, and learn that “the unexamined life is not worth living!”
Socrates also had followers. Plato was one of them. After Socrates death, he went into exile and abandoned plans to enter public life. He returned to Athens and founded a school, The Academy, perhaps the first institution of higher learning. Chief among the things he taught and wrote about was the idea of a moral universe. Which brings me to my theme. To be continued.
Postscript: The handiest edition of Plato’s works in English is a volume edited by John M. Cooper, “The Complete Works of Plato”; every household should have one. Thucydides, also an Athenian, wrote a history of the war with Sparta, “The Peloponnesian War.” Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) translated it into English and made it into an English classic. Visit your local bookshop. Reading Plato and Thucydides is a good way to cleanse the mind of the filth that has been cast upon it during the last four years.
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