An Epiphany…

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.


  1. Your second to last paragraph describes what they are doing. Many of them also like to condemn others by stating that you cannot choose to read and follow the parts of the bible that you want to. I love to point out to those “holier than thou” people that they are, in fact, doing exactly what they are preaching against.

  2. The 1st Amendment keeps government out of religion; sadly, it cannot keep religion out of our government. The GOP abuses this portion of the 1st Amendment along with freedom of speech – truth is not a requirement. The “press” is specifically referred to but the founding fathers had no way to see into the future or even imagine the forms of media running 24/7 to pass along information without researching for truth. As for the right to “peaceably assemble”; that right depends on which side you are assembling for whether it is “peaceable” and if it is allowed or not. Remember those who were escorted out of the Indiana State House for holding up signs against the GOP. They pick and choose and alter facts to suit their purpose and blatantly claim it is in the Bible. There are many versions of the Bible in print; with wording that can change the meaning to suit individual religious organizations to further their cause and to make laws. The GOP has become a pseudo religious organization and 5 Catholic men on the SCOTUS turned their backs on the rights of women to chose their preferred form of birth control after all but removing our civil right to register to vote. These men are self-appointed prophets and legends in their own minds – they can do this because they are appointed for life and the public has no say in the matter. Now we are looking at our president being sued by Boehner, Congress and their owners, using out tax dollars to pay for it, and the probablility of impeachment close behind. November can’t come too soon this year.

  3. There are two (at least, arguably more) kinds of high stakes decisions that a great deal of thought has been invested in designing a process for, that is as reliable as possible in determining truth. The jury trial system and the scientific method. What’s notable is their similarity.

    They both discount everything but hard, fast, evidence. They both require consensus by those considering the evidence alone. They both are founded in skepticism. For example the presumption of innocence in criminal trials.

    They both have long histories of continuous improvement in the details but always within these principles.

    Both are properly regarded as being right as often as possible due to the high stakes, high consequences of being wrong. Having the wings fall off a plane for instance. We really do trust our lives daily to civilizations ability to be right with these processes.

    It’s God like responsibility thrust on always fallible humans.

    Sheila’s blog asks ” who decides? Who gets to make the rules, and how do would-be rulers defend their right to do so?”

    While that is hugely complex when considered in the realm of politics, it has been well considered in the realm of science and criminal law. We know very specifically the who and how that leads to the most reliable possible conclusions.

    What’s irrational about the human race, is how often and how perniciously folks using no process and only scattered evidence and expertise, question the results of the most reliable processes that we know.

    And yet everyone of us trusts our lives most every day to the assumption of that reliability while we are second guessing it.


  4. The political and religious establishment have a long history of being united in their goals. One of the Goals is conquest. We can see the Ancient inscriptions of Kings, and Emperors pictured along side their Gods or God extolling the Rulers. The message is clear the Political Elite and their aims are Divinely Blessed. Thus, you have entire Industry of Religion protected by the Ruling Class and dedicated to the Ruling Classes preservation.

    The idea of Separation of Church and State is relatively new. Without this Separation of Church and State we see the results of Religious Extremism all over the world.

  5. Louie has referred t o religion as an “industry.” Yea verily. I am a practicing Christian and I stand in awe of the many ways that each denomination has distorted its message to the point of toxicity. But not all the time. There are still moral theologians – and moral philosophers – who do not quantify morals and ethics – and who allow for the phrase”it depends” to be spoken aloud. They should be heard.

    But some wise old wag has said that Christianity began in the Middle east as a religion, went to Greece and became a philosophy, went on to Rome and became a system, to Europe and became a culture and then to America where it became a business. And, to look at TV Christianity today, it has taken a new step. It has now become an entertainment business. O tempera, O mores!

Comments are closed.