tiistai 23. helmikuuta 2010

Man of ideas

The philosophical career of Plato begun from his acquaintance with Socrates, and like so many of his contemporaries, Plato was affected by Socrates' fate: a man who was accused for false reasons and who still accepted his punishment dutifully despite the possibility of escape, because obeying laws was a proper thing to do, was an honourable ideal of life. Plato began then writing dialogues with Socrates as their main proponent. Many of them seem like conversations that Socrates could have actually had, Plato lets us see Socrates speaking with his fellow Athenians, asking things as was his habit and often no conclusive answer for these questions is ever found.

One aim of Plato's dialogues was to purge Socrates' reputation. While his accusers had maintained that Socrates had corrupted youth by showing them the lack of knowledge in views of ordinary men, Plato thought that Socrates had actually helped people by revealing how inadequate the opinions of common men usually was. Indeed, Plato held that it was the company of masses that usually corrupted young people, because they tried to teach the secret of good life without being experts in that area: Plato thought that this lack of expertise could be seen in the discordance of opinions common when people started to speak of good life.

While purging Socrates' reputation Plato showed how ridiculous the self-appointed wise usually were. Thus, a learned scholar loses a battle of interpreting Homer to Socrates: the scholar cannot defend his view that an unconscious liar like Achilles is a more able and truthful person than a conscious liar like Odysseus against Socrates' argument that actually those who know what the truth is would be better in telling lies, because they can lie systematically. Similarly, a singer of Homeric poems, who claims to have knowledge in everything just because of his ability to quote Homer's view on anything, is shown to have no special knowledge even of Homer, but only to be guided by an unconscious inspiration.

Sometimes Socrates does not win disputations, but shows in a more mischievous manner how silly his opponents are: thus, he loses a verbal battle against expert disputers, who love to turn one's words upside down, but wins the moral battle by showing how futile such play with words is in comparison with a search for good way of life. But the greatest irony is left for the Athenian people, whom Socrates ridicules although outwardly praising it.

In some occasions Socrates in Plato's dialogues tries to find what is meant by certain words, for instance, beauty or friendship. The task of these dialogues is stated in the form ”what is beautiful”, which especially in Greek suggests that Socrates is asking what things are beautiful. When the partner of Socrates then answers ”beautiful girl” or ”gold” or ”beautiful funerals”, Socrates can at once note that this is not what he was interested of. Instead of beautiful things, Socrates tries to find what makes these things beautiful, and furthermore, what makes things beautiful in all cases: gold can in some cases make things beautiful, but not in all contexts. After the partner of Socrates has understood what he is looking for, he usually makes some suggestion based on the examples given thus far: for instance, beautiful might be defined as pleasure given through sight (as in case of beautiful women) and hearing (as in case of beautiful music). Yet, Socrates then usually notes some deficiencies in this first proposal: firstly, there are things like beautiful laws that are not seen or heard, and secondly, the proposed definition does not explain why pleasures of other senses cannot be called beautiful. Similarly, friendship cannot be defined as a relationship between opposites – good and wicked cannot be friends – but also not as a relationship between similar: friendship should be beneficial, but wicked cannot benefit on one another, because they would merely ruin one another, while good people do not need any help from other good people in being good.

Although an almost suitable definition would be finally discovered – e.g. that beautiful is usefulness or power to make things good – these definitions would often require changes in the commonly accepted ideas. For instance, beautiful would be something with a power to make things good, but we would perhaps want also to call beautiful things good, which seems paradoxical, because usually the producer (e.g. a shoemaker) is not of the same nature as what is produced (shoe). The dialogue thus leaves us with a choice: either discard even this definition or accept that some things don't follow the apparent laws of common life. Similarly, friendship might be defined as a relationship where a person between goodness and wickedness would be helped by good people to be good themselves: the only problem is that then friendship would end, when the person taught would learn to be good.

Plato's dialogues concern often the question that interested also Socrates most, namely, how should one live a good life. Socrates is sometimes presented by Plato as discussing the merits and especially the faults of behavioural patterns that Greeks had traditionally held as good: so-called virtues. For instance, sophrosyne was supposedly an ability to recognise who was the professional and had true knowledge in what questions and thus to follow that person's advice in such matters. Plato pointed out with the mouth of Socrates that such ability couldn't really be scientific knowledge like mathematics or medicine: in order to determine whether to believe teacher of any science one first has to learn this ability, but if this ability itself would then be another science, one couldn't really be certain of anything. Thus, this ability would have to be more like an instinct and thus not very reliable. Similarly, a courageous attitude in times of both war and peace will lead person to stubbornly hold her position in any case, but without guidance of either one's own reason or the reason of someone else this person cannot decide, when it is appropriate to be courageous. Furthermore, Plato attacked the traditional notion of justice as a habit of doing good to friends and bad to enemies, because, firstly, we don't know if our friends truly deserve goodness more than enemies, and secondly, as in Plato's view the best thing to do to anyone is to teach him to live justly, it is more beneficial to do good to all, that is, to educate everyone in ways of good life.

Socrates of Plato's dialogues showed also that one could not justify one's actions merely by gods' commandments, because actions are not made good by anyone's decree, even if they are gods. Plato lets Socrates even ridicule the traditional cults of sacrifice and worship, which claim to do something for gods, although gods should be perfect and thus require nothing.

Even bigger clash separated Platonic Socrates from the teachings of sophists. Their disagreement started even from matters of style: Plato often lets Socrates complaint that sophists like Protagoras just make long speeches and thus their teaching is only unidirectional, while the true form of inquiry should be a free discussion where the learner is actively involved in the teaching process. The more serious complaint is that Protagoras and other sophists claimed to be capable of teaching how one should live, although they showed their ignorance in many cases. Thus, when Protagoras says that everyone has their own ideal form of life and that guidelines for good life could therefore be learned from anyone in the society, Plato answers that it is just the true expert of good life who should be consulted in these matters, just like art of seafaring is not learned from whole society, but only from experienced sailors.

Even worse than sophists in Plato's eyes were rhetoricians like Gorgias, because while sophists at least tried to educate their pupils, Gorgias merely gave his pupil means by which to enthral people and make them follow the will of the this pupil. Such skill could then be used by a person who did not have knowledge of the true good of the people nor even of the good of themselves, but who merely used pretty speeches in order to gain a high position, from which they could satisfy their desires. This person might even think that he was following the law of nature, where stronger were meant to rule over the weaker, but he would have forgotten that a life where one tried to fulfil every desire is also a life full of pain in comparison with a life where one tried to govern desires: it would be life of a leaky jar, never full, because losing at once what it gained. Truly vicious persons couldn't even form a community, because they would be constantly backstabbing one another, and indeed, the personality of a vicious person would also be in a discord, because his every desire would try to win his other desires.

Protagoras then only thought he could teach how to live a good life, while Gorgias even refused to speak of any good life, but why is Socrates any better in Plato's opinion? True, Socrates admitted against Gorgias that one should at least try to live a good life, but also unlike Protagoras he gave no definite rules how good life should be achieved. Socrates thus helped people to remove their false opinions on what good life consisted of. The problem still remains how one is then to find a good way to live, if one is not yet aware what one is searching. Plato notes that many persons who have been praised of living a good life have just accidentally stumbled on it: this is evidenced by their incapacity to teach others how to live. Such accidence as yet gives us no proper certainty that one is truly living as one should and that one could go on living in the same way. Plato then suggests that a true knowledge of how one is to live or indeed true knowledge of anything could only be gained if one already in a sense knew what the answer was. If person is to know anything new with certainty – and on basis of mathematical discoveries, Plato thought it to be plausible – she must have learned it before she was born. Gaining new knowledge would then be only a recollection of what one had already known, but had forgotten during one's enter to the physical world.

In his idea of knowledge as recollection Plato clearly shows himself to be part of the religious tradition of Greek philosophy. Indeed, Plato uses Socrates to show his own disfavour against the more scientific trends in earlier philosophy, which left unanswered the important Socratic question how one should live. Philosophers of nature tried merely to discover the basic components of physical world, but telling e.g. that my legs consist of bones and flesh does not yet reveal where I should move with them. Such truly important knowledge could not be discovered through our senses – one cannot see, hear or smell what a truly good life would be – just like one cannot through mere senses discover any mathematical truth or at least know that it is certainly true – indeed, one cannot even sense perfect mathematical figures, e.g. perfect circles, although one can think of them.

When Plato then says that such knowledge can have been gained only during a time when we were not yet in contact with our senses, he is endorsing the Pythagorean idea of human personalities having a life beyond their bodies and returning from time to time from that life without body to a life within a new body. Yet, Plato wished not to justify this Pythagorean thought merely through the idea of knowledge as recollection. Indeed, the idea of recollection implies that full certainty of these matters couldn't be gained when we are still attached to our bodies and their confusing influence. Still, some further reasons speaking for the existence of human personalities beyond the life of bodies could be given. Humans must have some component beyond body and the relationship of its material parts, because we can influence and control our bodily impulses – this component Plato calls the soul, which is the true identity of human personality and merely lives within the body. The body consists of material parts and is thus decomposable, while the soul must be in Plato’s opinion immaterial and hence indivisible, because unlike body it deals with immaterial and indivisible things like goodness. Soul has then more endurance than body, Plato says, but we could say even more. Without soul body wouldn't even be living. Soul is then a giver of live, somewhat like sun is a giver of heat, and as absurd as it would have been to think in the eyes of a Greek of Plato's time that sun would lose instantly its hotness, as absurd it would also be to think according to Plato that soul would suddenly cease living and making other things live. Thus, Plato concludes, soul must be immortal.

The life of soul beyond its body Plato of course cannot describe perfectly, but he has to satisfy himself with mere use of allegorical myths and comparisons of the immaterial world with material world. Because the immaterial things are more stable than material things, the things of physical world are in comparison like mere shadows and mirror images: the physical things exist because of the immaterial things and not vice versa. A part of the immaterial world consists of mathematical objects – and not of physical triangles and circles etc., which are always imperfect, but of triangles and circles of thought. But not even mathematical entities are the highest among the immaterial objects, but lie somewhere between the physical and the ”superphysical” world. The true denizens of the immaterial world are the things like justice, wisdom, beauty and courage, which the question ”What is it” of Platonic Socrates tried to uncover beyond particular instances of wisdom, beauty etc. These ideas, as he calls them, are for Plato like models and blueprints of beauty etc. by which to decide, for instance, whether a physical thing is beautiful. Furthermore, they are also what cause other things to be beautiful etc., just like sun is not just hot, but causes other things to be warm: the actual mechanism how an idea makes other things resemble it Plato cannot explain. The highest place in the hierarchy of ideas is occupied then by the idea of goodness, which is then like a criterion, by which to decide which things are good, but also a cause of making other things good.

The disembodied souls then, as it were, fly in this space of ideas, that is, they think and study what is beautiful, wise, good etc. It would seem that soul would then have no reason to want to embody itself, and indeed, if human souls were purely reasonable, they would never lower themselves to the physical level. Plato then supposes that a part of human soul is intrigued by the physical world and its fleeting pleasures: this desiring part of soul embodies the whole personality of a human into a material body and struggles to remain attached to the body as long as it can. If human souls would consist merely of these two parts, they could never attain any decision, but would be in a constant state of strife. Thus, Plato has to suppose human souls to have a third part, which is also desiring, but which has more noble desires than the”lowly” part of human soul. This third part may then ally itself with any other part of the human soul and thus makes a definite decision possible.

The religious attitude of Plato is evident, but more puzzling is the manner how he supposedly has gained even a hint of knowledge of the realm of ideas that supposedly is completely shut out from senses. In other words, the means of reaching the ideas is still unclear. One gate to the supersensible world goes through mathematics, the study of which raises person at least partially above sense world: a mathematical truth does not concern just some particular physical figures, but all triangles, and ultimately, an idea of triangle or the blueprint for all triangles. But the gate Plato speaks most of and that is most striking in our eyes is love. Love in its proper sense is an explicit or hidden desire towards the intellectual world and especially the idea (cause and model) of beauty, which everyone desires because of the possibility of immortality inherent in it. Plato suggests perhaps jestingly that even sexual relations are caused by a desire to immortalise oneself in the physical world by bringing forth copies of oneself. Yet, true love is not a sexual event. Man sees in a beautiful boy – Greeks of Plato's time considered homosexual love to be more valuable than heterosexual love – a reminder of the beauty of the soul world. He may be led to a wild goose chase by hope of sexual fulfilment, which does not release one from the sensuous world, but binds one even more to its temptations. Instead, the perfect lover must refrain from such physical disturbances and just behold the beauty of the boy. Slowly he learns to appreciate beauty in other boys and other things, and if he is comparable with Socrates, whom the Platonic description mostly resembles, he will find more subtle beauty in the actions and thoughts of good and wise persons. In this life he may even get a mystical glimpse of the model and cause of the beauty that these earthly forms of beauty can merely resemble. This is the highest form of love, philosophy or love of wisdom, as it literally translates into: philosopher aims for wisdom, that is, for knowledge of how man should live a good life, and this knowledge is attainable only beyond senses.

Language, on the other hand, is according to Plato a deceptive means for grasping the supersensible world. The main problem in language is that it does not present things directly, but only through words: when I say ”lion”, I am not giving to you any true lion, but only a collection of sounds meant to indicate a real lion. Plato supposes that language could be truthful only if its components or the words resembled in some manner their referents. Even if there once had been a perfect language that pictured things correctly, perhaps by using appropriate sounds to indicate the very essence of things they described, it must have been changed through passage of time because of arbitrary variations in linguistic conventions. Furthermore, words are particularly bad in describing the supersensous world, because the sounds they consist in are fleeting events and thus are better at indicating sensuous things that do change, while e.g. an idea of good life should not change over time.

Language and especially dialogical speech can still be of some use in attaining truth of the ideas. We can use it for proposing definitions of various ideas – for instance, definition of what is good – and we can then test these definitions by comparing them with a series of examples that should correspond to these definitions. Because written treatises cannot be so tested – we cannot interrupt the author and ask for a clarification – they are even further removed from revealing what is truly important. It is thus somewhat unclear how seriously Plato took his dialogues. Perhaps they were meant only as reminders for those initiated who had learned the truth already by discussing with Plato himself.

Supposing that we can find at least an approximately correct picture of Plato's thought in his dialogues, what is good life according to him? Firstly, one needs to guide his life not by his sensuous impulses, but by the knowledge received from the world of ideas: that is, he should live as it is truly good to live and not as it merely seems to be good to live. If the person has the necessary talent or enough reason for reaching the idea of goodness, she can just follow herself. Otherwise, she must listen carefully what wiser persons have to say on the issue. Secondly, she needs then to follow the guidance of reason – her own or others' – and be firm in her decision, never being led away by other desires: e.g. she must courageously fight a person if it is good to do so. If she is incapable of that, then she must leave tasks where such steadfastness is needed for persons with stronger character. Thirdly, she must moderate her desires according to the wisdom, and furthermore, know instinctively whether the wisdom she needs is to be found in herself or in others.

The description of Platonian good life reveals already that for Plato a person is always dependent on the other people and on society in general: an ignorant person requires guidance of wise and even wise people couldn't develop their abilities to full fruition if they lived by themselves. It thus seemed probable in Plato's eyes that a life in well-managed community is a necessary presupposition for good life. In any case, it is much more efficient to divide different jobs to different people according to their skills and capabilities: for instance, if Peter and Paul farm for the whole society, then John could concentrate on metal working etc.

Plato surmised that in a well-balanced society no need for luxury should exist, because all would tend only to their necessary needs. Still, some societies are inevitably attracted by such frivolities, and the need for gathering riches and wealth awakens in them the desire to conquer other people. In order to resist such attacking forces a good society must then have a class dedicated for defence and military skills: after all, Plato argues, a cobbler or peasant couldn't have time to educate himself in the art of warfare.

Now, it is this warrior class that Plato pays a considerable amount of attention: after all, the very existence of state depends on their capabilities. The choice of new warriors and their education must thus not be left to mere fortune, Plato says. He suggests that the most well-mannered persons are to be selected as warriors and then they are to learn all sorts of warfare, while at the same taking care of their physical condition. Still, this is not enough. A warrior class with mere skill for battle might well wish to enslave its fellow citizens. Thus, the members of warrior class must also be educated to be loyal to their city and gentle towards those whom they are to protect. Plato imagines that such loyalty could be awakened through stories with moral and through right sort of music. Hence, he proceeds to make strict regulations as to what sort of stories and what kind of music the warriors-to-be should listen to. Plato is especially suspicious of story tellers, actors and musicians who tell they are telling great truths of how to live, although their tales are at most merely images of true events of the world, which in turn are merely images compared to the eternal norms according to which we should live our lives.

Intriguingly, Plato suggested against the customs of Greek culture that women should be able to take part in all jobs, even that of warfare and government. Women in general might be less able in all skills than men in general, but evidently there is similar divergence of capacities among women as among men that justifies the admittance of some of them in class of warriors, Plato argues

Plato's wish to restrain the might of warriors of taking over the community leads him to ordain some hard restrictions on them. The members of the military class are not to have any private property or any luxury in order not to be tempted by a wish to obtain them. Furthermore, they are not to have any private families, but they should share their spouses and children, so that they would not hold their family in higher esteem than their home town. Plato posits strict regulations by which the sexuality of the warriors would be regulated. Copulations of the warriors in breeding age would be determined apparently by a lot, but actually by the wise governors who would mate the ablest and most well-mannered warriors with one another. Children of unapproved copulations would be killed or transferred to worker classes. The children who were deemed fit for life in the warrior class would be separated from their parents and raised in a public kindergarten, where they would learn to call all the elder warriors parents and all warriors of same age siblings: in this way, Plato thinks, the warriors would learn to love the whole society more than any single person.

A society requires some governors, and Plato suggests that they are to be selected from those warriors who are most loyal to their society and who have the quickest mind and best memories. These governors should know at least so well as it is humanly possible how a good person and a good society lives, thus, they should be philosophers in the Platonian sense: they should be acquainted with the world of ideas. Plato suggests a detailed educational plan that should lift the minds of the governors -to-be from the sensible word to the world of ideas. The main point in the training of the governors is to let them show how the world of experience fails to show any stable patterns: e.g. hand looks in some sense a unity, but from another viewpoint it is just a collection of many fibres and thus a multiplicity. This lack of rule is then to be contrasted with the rigour and stability of conceptual differences. Here Plato conceives mathematics to be a good elementary course to abstract thinking: mathematics appears useful also in the experience and especially for a warrior, although it also lures us away from the fickleness of senses. Thus, arithmetic uses perfect unities and geometry perfect figures and bodies, none of which can be found in sensuous experience. Similarly, Plato even ponders the possibility of a non-sensuous astronomy – a theory of perfect movements which cannot be found in our experience, where even planets move irregularly – and a non-sensuous theory of music – that is, a theory of beauty in numerical relations. These mathematical disciplines are then mere preamble for training in Socratic manner of conversation or dialectics, where things are to be defined and definitions tested. The result of this dialectical education should then be that the governors form a clear view of what is truly good. They are then ready to govern the society, although not because of a desire, but only because of a duty.

Plato points out that the ideal society he has described is actually like a larger copy of an ideal human. A good society is such where all classes are appointed their proper tasks and where they do not meddle with things they know nothing about. Similarly, in a good person all parts of personality must take their proper place and not try to meddle with things they can't handle. A good society should be ruled by wise governors and similarly a good person should be ruled by his reason. The society should be guarded from enemies by professional warriors loyal to the cause of the society, and person should be guarded by his strength of character. Finally, the other classes of the society should know their place and listen to the guidance of their wiser, and similarly desires should be restricted by reason and good character.

Good and even the best societies are open to degradation and decadence in Plato's opinion. Breeding of perfect governors is a delicate matter even for the wisest, and sometimes the result might well be less than satisfactory. Such failed attempts would one by one lead to the overtaking of the governing class by those who do not have the ability to govern. The new governors would perhaps be honourable, but in an unconscious manner, that is, without the capacity to see what is truly good. Thus, they would be sometimes ensnared by their desires and hence would inevitably enslave the subjects they should have guarded – this is a governance of warriors, similar to the rule in Sparta.

Just like a perfect society might fail to keep itself stable, similarly a perfect person might fail to educate his children to be as good, especially if the society surrounding them would not help him in his efforts. These children would admire the life of a perfect person and in some manner perhaps would try to imitate this life style. Yet, they would lack the means to rationally justify such a life style or they would be guided merely by habit. Thus, they would often be tempted by glory, honour and riches.

Both the society and the person based on habit and honour would then necessarily fail to sustain their way of life. The society of honourable warriors would little by little be overtaken by desire for money. Furthermore, the riches would concentrate on few, because the unwise governance of the society would allow people to lose their whole fortune. The city ruled by honourable warriors would change into a city ruled by rich and would thus actually be divided into two: the poor majority would be completely oppressed.

The habitually honourable person would fail to become rich, because he would not have the guts to mercilessly rob anyone to the last penny. Thus, in a society where wealth matters most he would quickly fall to the lower caste. Because he would have had no proper training in reasoning, he could not educate his children to respect the honourable way of life. Hence, his children would learn more from the society around them and would grow loving money more than anything. They would become misers who suppressed other wants if they had to pay for their fulfilment, but who would gladly satisfy all their desires for free.

The government of the riches and the miser are not the end of the process of decadence. Because the city ruled by the riches would have a considerable portion of poor people under them, these beggars might rise against their rulers, and with the help of other societies, might also be able to banish them. The result of this revolution would be a rule of people or democracy: the apparent victory of liberty, which in Plato's eyes is actually a victory of haphazard governance without any possibility for a long-term planning.

Like the governance of riches fell through the help of foreign societies, so is a child of a miser corrupted by the influence of other people. While his elders imprint on him the respect of money and despise of unnecessary waste, his friends tempt him with all sorts of pleasures. The result is a person without any sure capacity for self-governance: in some cases he follows good instincts and moderation, while in other cases he lets his desires take him over. Although such a person thinks himself to be liberal, he is actually almost the opposite, being a prisoner of whims and fancies.

The final stage of the corruption of society and person awaits us. The democratic society suffers from the struggle of warring parties. One of the parties might then decide to place their faith on a strong-willed person purging the town from followers of other parties. But after the purging, this person would quickly seize the whole power to himself and would make himself a dictator enslaving the whole community.

Similarly a child of an undecided and unprincipled person would receive too a liberal education. He might let free his darkest desires that normally come forward only in dreams. One of those dark desires would raise itself above others, and the person in question would spend his whole fortune and even his life for the satisfaction of this highest desire. The major part of the personality of such person would be enslaved by the one desire controlling everything else. Such a person would be the furthest away from the ideal of perfect life, just like dictatorial communities were the farthest from the ideal community.

Plato thus deemed it possible and even inevitable that his ideal community would degenerate, but did he have any notion as to how such an ideal community could arise in the first place? Plato suggests that this would require philosophers taking over the governance of some community. The problem was that in the imperfect societies true philosophers wouldn't have the proper soil from which to grow. On the one hand, people who were completely incapable of reaching the ideas might try their hand at philosophy: such pseudo philosophers Plato thought most of the sophists to be. On the other hand, people with true gifts for philosophy might be corrupted by the society around them: such skilled, but corrupted persons, Plato thought, would become the worst tyrants.

Despite all these difficulties Plato thought it conceivable that one day some true philosopher might gain a throne somewhere or that some king would become truly interested of philosophy. Indeed, we know that Plato had the hope of educating the ruler-to-be of Syracuse in the ways of philosopher. But Plato's hopes were shattered: the tyrant was actually not very interested of Plato and even imprisoned him for some time: so did Plato's idea of perfect society remain a mere idea.

Ei kommentteja:

Lähetä kommentti