Misunderstanding Plato

Plato is, arguably, the most important philosopher in the Western tradition.  This is not because everyone is a Platonist, or has been a Platonist.  Though many have.  This is because Plato started, at least in codification through writing, the discipline we remember – and still practice today – as philosophy.  But Plato is a deep and dense thinker that often eludes many, and the caricatures of Plato, as someone who works with Plato deeply, is quite disheartening.  Here we will dispense with some of worst misunderstandings of Plato.

I. An Imperfect or Evil World

Perhaps the most common misapprehension when reading Plato is the conclusion that the world is bad or imperfect.  Plato, and by extension Plotinus and the myriad of other Platonists after Plato, never asserted the world was bad or evil.  While certain quasi-Platonic outgrowths, such as Gnosticism and Manicheanism, which embraced partial Platonism and partial Christianity (heretical), would come to assert this, Platonists in their own time (like Plotinus) took it upon themselves to deny the material world being evil (cf. Ennead 2.3).

Plato’s cosmos is rationally ordered and hierarchal.  It is a reflection of the perfection of the Forms, but not the whole cosmos is a perfect, or ideal, reflection.  For instance, we all know the form of beauty looms large in Plato’s philosophy.  The cosmos, taken as a whole, is a perfect reflection of the form of beauty.  Constitutive parts, the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the rivers and trees and hills, etc., are not a perfect reflection of the form of beauty and never will be.  Instead, every part of the cosmos has some beauty to it in differing degrees.  This is only made possible, and makes sense, when you subscribe to a hierarchy of value and beauty as Plato did (which many moderns no longer do which makes it easier for moderns to misunderstand Plato).  That is, in a hierarchy some things are naturally greater than others.  Those things that are greater are closer in reflection to the ideal.  For Plato, wholeness is the perfect reflection of the ideal.  Smaller parts, breaking down to individual pieces, while having some embodiment of the ideal within them, are lesser than the whole.

Thus, the earth, and all that is within the earth, possess nature, a reflection of the ideal, but in comparison to the whole of the cosmos, the earth is lesser.  Hence, the earth (alone) is not the fullest reflection of the form of beauty.  Instead, the earth, when brought together with the sun, moon, stars, and other planets – that is, when the earth is properly situated in the whole of cosmos – becomes far more important and precious when you understand what function, or role, the earth plays in the perfect beauty and reflection of totality.  This coming to know the truth magnifies the beauty of the earth and all within it.  The earth is not an imperfect reflection of the forms, per se.  The earth plays the role and function that it is meant to play within the scope of the whole.  It is humans, who do not know the truth – that is, do not know the role or function of the earth in union with the whole – who come to view the earth as an imperfect reflection because they are, in effect, self-centered and earth-centered.

II. Plato was a Tyrant

Another common reading of Plato, at least that has emerged in the 20th century thanks to Karl Popper (his condemnation of Plato in volume 1 of The Open Society and Its Enemies) is that Plato was a tyrant, or that Plato’s philosophy is a precursor to historicism and the tyrannical movements of Marxist-Communism and Fascism.  Such readings of Plato were not in the consciousness of readers until Karl Popper published what is regarded as his magnum opus, even if many Plato and Hegel scholars took to rebuking Popper’s reading of both Plato and Hegel.  The argument is that Plato hated the sophists and democratic Athens.  More to the point, Plato was horrified by the sophists openness and commercialism and the democratic ethos of Athens (after all, Plato had some harsh things to say about democracy and what it would exhaust itself into within the pages of Republic) and, in his criticism of the openness of the sophists (the open society for Popper) commercialism (capitalism for Popper) and ancient democracy (liberal democracy for Popper), Plato stunted political philosophy for millennia and inculcated an anti-democratic bias in Western political philosophy.

The reality is, to be fair, the opposite – at least from Plato’s perspective.  Plato believed himself to be an opponent of tyranny in all forms.  For Plato, tyranny is not simply the rule of a powerful one or few, tyranny is a combination of when the powerful take advantage of the weak (because humans are not equal in Plato’s philosophy but naturally different with some stronger and some weaker, some with intellectual talents, others with physical talents, etc.) but where chaos reigns supreme.  In chaos, which is what leads to tyranny, the body is not in sync with itself.  The body is discombobulated and out of order.  Thus, the arms, the legs, the stomach, and the mind, to stick with body language that was common to ancient philosophy, are all in opposition to each other because they are all engaging in their self-interest.

In Greek, the word for someone who was entirely self-centered was idios.  Idios is the word that became the basis for idiot in English.  People who are self-interested, or self-centered (like the sophists) do not realize that they are part of a greater whole.  This is because humans are naturally social and communitarian according to Plato.  (Popper, being a liberal, believed humans are naturally a-social and atomistic.)  Being social and communitarian, people are brought together to function together in a body.  When people do not function together in a body, when people go off and pursue their own short-sighted self-interests, the body suffers as a result.  In the resulting chaos that ensues, the physically stronger, and the materially wealthier, come to dominate the masses.  This is part of the meaning of the allegory of the Cave in Republic Book VII (which is not simply about epistemology but also about political society).  As a result, the masses are often enslaved and kept in darkness by their masters (the masters of material wealth and physical prowess evidenced by the masters of the cave carrying material goods to cast shadows and having the cave dwellers enchained).

The problem with democracy, from Plato’s perspective, is that it will simply exhaust itself in absolute chaos and the tyranny of the majority over the minority.  Majority rule does not make anything right.  Right is not a product of force or numbers.  Right is about living in accord with the Truth, Forms, or Nature.

Contrary to Popper’s reading of Plato, Plato is very much a friend of anti-tyrannical movements and ideals.  Much of Plato’s political philosophy is concerned with how to understand when you are suffering from tyranny.  Plato is asking us “what type of city do we live in”?  And this requires, on the part of the reader, a genuine reflection.  To abandon flag-waving patriotism and jingoism and exceptionalism, and to seriously reflect on the type of society that we do, in fact, live in.  And Plato’s answer is that we most likely, if not living in a savage city of the strong ruling over the weak (e.g. the city described by Thrasymachus), live in the tyrannical city of the cave.  We are blind to this reality because we are drunk on the world of opinion and comfort fed to us by the elites of the cave who seek to control us because it is to their benefit to do so.  Self-interest, according to Plato, is the root of all tyranny once enacted on a large scale.

Plato’s political philosophy is premised on the view that most political societies are not living by the standard of nature but by the false opinion of men.  As a result, people are left in ignorance.  The city is ugly (not beautiful) and the actions that occur within the city are ugly (e.g. the strong taking advantage of the weak, etc.).  And the city and its inhabitants are not only miserable, but are on a rendezvous with death and destruction (reflected by the city described by Glaucon in Book II of Republic).

This is where Plato becomes controversial to modern readers who subscribe to the relativism of liberalism.  Plato’s society, since society is the embodiment of the social animus, ought to be a reflection of nature.  In being a reflection of nature we will all benefit and attain greater satisfaction in life.   We will be beautiful, our city will be beautiful, and our lives made meaningful as we live in union with the natural order of the world.  Again, this returns us to the great Platonic principle of the rationally ordered cosmos and nature that, when living in union with, leads to human flourishing and fulfillment which is the highest liberty possible.  (Liberty comes from the Latin word “liber,” which is the god of fertility, ergo, liberty is about flourishing.)  Plato’s real argument, as seen primarily in Laws and Republic, is that human society lives by the standard of opinions which, ultimately, reduces society into an atomistic, conflictual, and self-annihilating state of being where tyranny reigns supreme.  We are also miserable as a result of all of this because we are not living by our nature and, by that token, not fulfilling our telos (happiness).

III. World Flight

Another common misreading of Plato is the issue of world flight.  Like with the evil world, it is understandable how this possibility to exhaust itself in world flight is possible.  After all, if the goal of life is to live in accord with the Truth of the Forms, and the earth can only be a lesser reflection of that perfect Form, why wouldn’t you do what you could to reach the perfect Form?  Historical phenomenon is not on Plato’s side insofar that it was quasi-Platonists who did move in the direction of world flight and utilized Plato’s philosophy to make their case.  However, Plato qua Plato never advocated world flight.

As already highlighted in the first section, Plato advocated coming to understand the function and role that the lesser part plays within the cosmos whereby you come to understand the perfect Form from this situated position and, in this manner, come to live by that perfect Form.  Therefore, living in accord with the perfect Form, or Truth, is possible from our corporeal situatedness.  There is no reason that we have to shed away our corporeality, as if the soul is trapped and weighed down by the body, in order to reach the realm of the Forms.

The pursuit of world flight in coming to be in union with the Forms is really a misunderstanding from those proponents advocating world flight who despise their human nature.  Befitting Platonic irony, such persons hate being human.  They would rather be the cosmos, or the prefect Form, rather than being human.  This causes them to hate their humanity and rather be the Form itself.  Plato’s philosophy is rather humanistic in that it grants humanity a nature and, by extension, telos, in which living in accord to that nature and telos will bring about human happiness and fulfillment.  But this requires humans living in accord with the rationally ordered cosmos and “knowing their place” in the cosmos.  This also means humans need to know their proper relationship with the Forms.

We can know the Truth, we can know the Forms, and we can know Nature, in this life and in this world.  This is what the Myth of Er reiterates.  The coming to know the light – the Truth, the Forms, Nature, etc. – is the key to our happiness and fulfillment.  For living in accord with Truth and Nature brings us closer to the Forms and the consummation of our telos since nature must have an end.  Therefore, this is a simple logical syllogism, if you’re living in accord with nature you are living in accord with your end, and if you’re living in accord with your end and the end of human existence is happiness, then you will be happy.  We can know the Forms from our position in the world.  We need not to transcend it at all.

IV. Remaking the World

Because it is common to read Plato as suggesting an imperfect world, there are those who argue that Plato advocated a remaking of the world to be reflective of the perfect Forms.  This, again, is a terrible misreading of Plato.  It is a misreading of Plato because, in Plato’s cosmos and hierarchy, the earth (world) has been situated in a certain place/location which makes the total whole (the cosmos) the perfect reflection of the Forms.  The earth was never meant to be, in other words, the perfect reflection.

Instead, just like how I ended the second section, Plato is not advocating remaking the world per se, he is advocating that we live in accord with nature which means we must understand our place in the cosmos.  As it relates to the earth, this means we must understand the earth’s place in the cosmos so as not destroy the whole by thinking everything should bend toward us.  (This is why Christians, in particular, came to strongly embrace Plato – Plato’s condemnation of the turning everything to us is the root of sin in Christianity, the incurvatus in se; the “inward curve to the self.”)  Rather, we must conform to the whole.  We must conform to nature.  This sounds oppressive to moderns because moderns, thanks to liberalism, have a completely different understanding of basic anthropological premises: no nature, no telos, and that freedom is about the power of doing whatever I want to do.

The coming to live in accord with nature, the natural order of things, and the function and role that has been bestowed to us is not remaking the world.  It is living as we should.  It is living as the world, the cosmos, or God, always intended.

V. Conclusion

The key to understanding Plato is that we live in a rationally ordered and hierarchal cosmos.  We are but a small part of a unified whole.  The whole is what is good, true, and beautiful (writ large) but all lesser things contain reflections of the good, true, and beautiful.  It is pertinent that our situatedness comes to understand our situatedness, whereby one understands the truth of the whole which then magnifies our situated position.  Only then can we begin to live in accord with the truth of things, the order of nature, and the order of whole, whereby we are free, flourishing, and happy.

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