I’m in the process of reading Plato’s Republic, and, incidentally, this 2500-year old text is also at the center of a recent Andrew Sullivan treatise about how a democracy can be susceptible to tyrannical forces.
Plato’s political sentiment might not play well in our modern-day uber-democratic approach to politics. He devotes chapter after chapter to building a case for a caste of Philosopher Kings – a group of people, selected through rigorous mental and physical training, to rule the Republic. They are required to forgo the pursuit of material accumulation and fame and only concern themselves with the wellbeing of the state. They would subsist on a modest public allowance. In popular culture this kind of selfless servants of the Republic can be found in Star Wars mythology – the Jedi Knights.
Plato is aware of the many pitfalls where during the training, or later, during the actual governing, one might veer off the intended path. There are just too many temptations along the way – fame, riches, vanity, military glory. He acknowledges this risk, and while his solution – more rigorous selection and cultivation of the needed qualities (which include wisdom, courage and moderation) – might seem weak and susceptible to various impostors, he believes it is still our duty to proceed on this path. Just because something is difficult and has not been done before it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried. Or, as Tyrion Lannister would say: ‘It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be.’
Further, in a beautiful allegory about how we perceive the world, Plato employs a thought experiment that came to be known as Plato’s Cave. Imagine there’s an underground den, a cave, where people are chained to a wall from their birth. They can’t go outside and they can’t even move their heads, as the heads are too constrained by a vise-like device. During the day a sunlight comes through the hole and those cave dwellers can see images on the wall, shadows of objects that live and move outside the cave – people and animals. But the prisoners have no concept of life outside the cave, so for them the reality is represented by those shadows projected on the cave’s wall. That’s all their eyes can see. And, of course, they believe their eyes and thus think of the shadows as ultimate reality.
This is a metaphor for our own epistemology, a way of learning about the world. We believe our eyes and what we’re able to perceive with our senses, and describe the world around us according to those findings. This method involves, of course, more than just our vision; our sense of touch and smell and hearing are also a part of that big illusion.
Plato argues that in order to come closer to the truth – a universal truth – one has to abandon such method of inquiry and employ a purely dialectic method, that of reasoning alone.
The cave metaphor carries greater implications. Imagine someone from that cave somehow made it outside. It would take him a while for his eyes to adjust to the light. (Btw, I love it how Plato recognizes that enlightenment is both the sunlight illuminating objects so that we can see and learn about and describe them and also that light, in this case, is a facilitator of knowledge that is outside of our immediate surroundings, an allegory of pure knowledge.) As soon as the prisoner is able to see in the light he would be perplexed to see strange things that have no definition in his old underground world. Plato believes that there are a lot of perplexed people out there – whether by stepping from darkness into the light or vice-versa – and it is for us to determine the reason for a person’s confusion and to help him along the way. Plato takes it even further to posit that it is the duty of those residing in the light world above to descent into the cave and help those still chained to the wall, even at risk of being ridiculed and/or executed.
But modern-day elites forgot what their position of power should be all about. Such amnesia is thoroughly examined by Thomas Frank in his recent book about elite liberals who, in their pursuit of meritocracy, forgot the very people (the working class) they were supposed to represent. Instead of going into the cave and helping the prisoners out, the modern-day liberals ridicule those unfortunate for their ignorance, while sipping champagne at Davos and TED talks, wallowing in their superiority.
There’s someone who went into the cave though. Trump.