Fila Sophia

applied philosophy, deep democracy, sustainability / by A.R.Teleb

What does Plato have to do with anything?

Cover of "Meno"

Cover of Meno

What does “Idealism” mean to you?
I am referring to philosophical Idealism not the psychological variety–the kind that would call someone naive or unrealistic. Idealism in philosophy (and likewise just about every science) has a more interesting meaning. It refers to how mind affects the world and our experience of it–that the two are intimately intertwined.

Plato was probably the first to point out that Idealism is what allows us to to talk about what is inside our heads, to talk about the future or the distant past, to talk about reform, to discuss our values and goals–our Ideals–or simply think beyond what we’re experiencing at the present moment, to use our imaginations or, in a sense, to think at all.

The Ideal is “real” in so far as it guides our inquiries, frames our questions, motivates our actions, and molds our experience of the world. Ideals underlie our structures of government, education, entertainment, religion.

Why Plato? Just to be difficult?
One could ask, why the classics at all? After all, they addressed issues so far removed from our time, and held beliefs utterly different from ours. I can think of at least four good reasons.

First, despite coming form a different world, Plato’s works address issues universal to the human condition. The Meno, for example, asks: What is virtue? Can it be taught? How do we inquire into the meaning of something we are not sure we can articulate? What is the nature of learning?

Second, much of Plato is timeless. Most of the questions posed are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago, but more importantly, they still speak to us at a gut level. There is a reason we still read Plato. His works are poetic, deep, but funny and ironic at the same time. Characters take jabs at each other and at famous Athenians in a playful way; yet the overall effect is moving and inspiring.

The third, is tied to those qualities. The Dialogues are simply that good. Lastly, the reason I would start with Plato is that his themes have recurred throughout the history of philosophy and up to this day.

We have a tendency to caricature what we do not understand, or what makes us uncomfortable. I say this because I’ve been guilty of this crime myself. And Plato is perhaps the most caricatured thinker of all time.

The simplified, Philosophy 101 version of Platonic Idealism that comes to mind–often taught (or tolerated)–involves a grand Creator at a workbench turning out objects of all the things and concepts in the world according to a mold he maintains of each. To make a horse, He pulls out the “idea” of “horse” and plops one out/down into the world.

This is absurd. This is not how literature or philosophy–especially poetry–should be read.

Idealism takes as starting point what’s inside our minds: our ideals, desires, beliefs, or even the structure of our mind itself. What’s “ideal” is not something in opposition to the “real” but part of it. In fact, the Ideal cannot be avoided if we want to do any sort of talking with one another. Perhaps, at the end of the day, that’s the principal point of the Meno.

Here is a 30 second synopsis:
Plato, through the character of Socrates, begins an inquiry into the nature of virtue with his interlocutor, a sophisticated lad from the Athenian elite; but, not arriving at a satisfyingly non-circular definition settles instead on asking: Can virtue be taught? Through some examples of virtuous, heroic Athenian Statesman, who nevertheless were unable to teach their children to be likewise–George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush?–Socrates demonstrates that virtue cannot be taught. Then, using Meno’s uninstructed slave he shows, through a series of questions, that anyone can be prompted to recollect the Pythagorean Theorem. This is taken as proof of the immortality of the soul, since the only explanation how a slave boy can recognize something he never learned is that he had experienced it in a previous life.

What does this have to do with politics?
Since this blog is mainly about reform, change, or evolution of the way politics is done, it presupposes that we can talk meaningfully about what ought to be, both in the sense of how things should work and in terms of what our ideals of perfection we imagine–or would strive towards. If we get bogged down in the mire of “That’s not how things are done” or “That’s ‘unrealistic,'” “It goes against too many interests,” we could never discuss anything interesting whatsoever.

As an illustration of how Idealism is used: let’s replace the word “something” in the following questions with government, democracy, justice, or fairness.
What do we imagine when we think about (something)?
What do we want from (something)?
Toward what point–ideal–are we striving when when we claim that (something)?
What moves us when (something) is done right? What emotion does that evoke?
What endures beyond a particular time and place?
What’s more than mere custom or tradition?

Am I the only one who feels that American culture no longer has tolerance for normativity–that we tend to think that what ought to be should matter little to a people concerned with what “is”? Is this true, or is that the talk of reactionary or unimaginative people?

If we want to take sortition seriously–and normative political theory in general–we could begin with giving Plato due credit. He began pulling us along the path of inquiry, urging us not to accept the lazy answers of the Sophists, or the unquestioning complacency of the Traditionalists.

It’s time to take Idealism seriously; it’s time to circle back to Plato, not for answers, but for a push forward against the sophistry of cynicism or the solipsism of unreflected, gutless relativism.

[Last Sunday night, I was on Hollow Earth Radio, the Moondog Medicine show, in the third of a series meant to serve as a short intro to philosophy for a non-academic audience. The topic was “Meno,” one Plato’s earliest dialogues–thought of as the debut of his theory of Ideas and the immortality of the soul. I summarized that conversation and connect it to political theory.]

6 comments on “What does Plato have to do with anything?

  1. Pingback: The Egg Came First: Plato’s Parmenides or How Progress Exists in Philosophy | Ahmed R Teleb

  2. Pingback: Remembering Mubarak: Tahrir, Zuccotti, & Future Democracy | Ahmed R Teleb

  3. Pingback: Remembering Mubarak: Tahrir, Zuccotti, & Future Democracy | Ahmed R Teleb

  4. Pingback: Almost Everywhere: The Plato in Calculus, your computer, your lawyer, Alice’s Queen, & you? | Ahmed R Teleb

  5. Pingback: The Key To Politdoche: Hologramic Representation

  6. Pingback: Redeeming Rousseau: Politdoche & the General Will | Fila Sophia

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This entry was posted on 2012-12-13 by in Philosophy, Poetry, Political Theory, Politics and tagged , , , , , , .
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