My best friend is ABD in philosophy. This means–among other things– that we have had some weird discussions along the way, especially when she was still in graduate school (How do we know that tree is really a tree?), but by and large, it has benefitted me immensely; she’s introduced me to material I wouldn’t have read otherwise and required me to defend my more half-baked ideas.
So when she recommends a book, I buy it. Most recently, the recommendation was Plato at the Googleplex, which–after a pretty eye-glazing introduction–has proved to be a delightful modern-day take on Platonic dialogues.
The contemporary relevance of one passage in particular really struck me, because it revolved around the central question with which every society must grapple: who decides? Who gets to make the rules, and how do would-be rulers defend their right to do so?
Plato says philosophers should rule. “The one difference is that [philosophers] are able to discover, through the special talents and training that are theirs, what the facts are [about the way people should live]. So they are not imposing their personal will on others, any more than mathematicians are imposing their wills on others by informing non-mathmeticians what the mathematical truths are. They are simply sharing their knowledge with others, knowledge that others cannot access for themselves, lacking the requisite cognitive skills, a matter of both talent and training. This seems to me no more unfair than that the mathematically intelligent share their knowledge of mathematics with the mathematically unintelligent.”
I have always wondered why people–mostly but not exclusively religious people– feel entitled to tell the rest of us how to live, who to love, when and whether to procreate, and why they see themselves as victims when government won’t order us to follow their dictates. How is it they don’t recognize this as chutzpah? Why can’t they live and let live?
This passage lays bare the lack of self-awareness and immense arrogance that motivates zealots and theocrats.
That arrogance is why I’ve always preferred Aristotle–who evaluated social arrangements based upon their ability to facilitate human flourishing– to Plato.
There is something chilling about the contemporary (self-styled) philosopher-kings who are quite sure that they know what morality looks like, and how others should live their lives. These scolds aren’t just sharing insights that have had meaning for them, in hopes that others will find them persuasive. They aren’t sharing at all–they are imposing, secure in their conviction that they know, and if you disagree, you are wrong. End of discussion.
Plato got one thing very wrong. Morality isn’t like math.