Thursday, March 22, 2012

Foundations of the West

I’m listening to the audio version of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy for the third time, and I think I’m starting to get it. Will Durant had a great ability to bring history to life. He starts, as many histories of the Western civilization do, with the great Greek Philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These philosophies managed to survive the fall of the Roman Empire, although sometimes in corrupted or partial forms. They led to the beginnings of the scientific method in Baghdad and the long discussion of science versus faith in Christian Europe. They were taught in every University when the Universities were still run by the Roman Catholic Church.

But I’m not going to defend their impact. That is well documented elsewhere. Instead I want to focus on a few pages from Plato’s Republic that don’t get much air time, but I think have had a huge impact on Western religious organization. In Book III of his Republic, he discusses how society could go about training its next generation. The training would start with the physical, then music and poetry, then arithmetic and geometry and eventually philosophy and logic. Those who excelled in all of these would become the guardians of the State.

Obviously, whoever gets to decide who advances in this system holds a lot of power. He doesn’t say how the first guardians would be picked, but he suggests that they be a class that does not directly own anything. They would lead a simple yet comfortable life, one that could not be corrupted. To get the students to accept the system, he suggests creating a founding myth. This is a rare case where we have a document of the creator of a myth who was planning on using it to justify a political system saying that he is creating a myth to justify a system. His system was never instituted, and his myth did not flourish, but when comparing it to those that did, and knowing that the leaders of those systems read Plato, you gotta wonder. Durant makes that comparison to the Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe.

The founding myth, that only the guardians would know was a myth, consists of “metals”. We now have the word “mettle”. A few hundred years ago “mettle” and “metal” were two spellings for the same thing and then “mettle” started being used to mean the strength and fiber of a person, their ability to handle problems. In Plato’s myth, he would tell the students they were born with a specific metal essence; iron, bronze, silver or gold. The metal that you were born with would determine if you would be a farmer, craftsman, warrior or part of the ruling class. The rigorous education, guided by the guardians would determine what metal you had.

Before getting to this brief discussion, Plato presents the system as a merit based system. He is claiming that it is quite logical to proceed through these stages and only bother to continue on to the advanced stages with students that are showing aptitude in the remedial ones. He makes a good point that politicians are skilled at selling themselves and garnering votes. Once elected, they may not be the best at actually administering a nation. If we could all agree on an educational system that could create the type of leaders we all want, that would be wonderful.

But, creating an educational system that we all want would require about the same amount of politics that creating leaders currently involves. Plato no doubt recognized that. He doesn’t say it, but he recognizes that his idea for a school to create philosopher kings won’t be easily accepted and he will need to make up a belief system to get people to accept it. I sometimes wonder if politicians today are thinking along these same lines. When I hear a politician today that I strongly disagree with, I assume they are stupid, crazy and/or lying. When I was younger, I assumed they were part of the Illuminati, Knights Templar or some other conspiratorial organization. With Plato, I can see his intentions were good, so I forgive him for considering the lie. For today’s politicians, I don’t know what to think.

That they are simply lying to benefit themselves does not quite live up to complete plausibility. That they have bought into the reification of the lies they were told is more likely, but still difficult to grasp. With only a little work, I have traced the lies of the threat of communism, that America is a Christian nation and the denial of global climate change. The evidence is not exactly common knowledge but isn’t exactly hidden either. My work was made easier because I began with wanting to agree with the people who I now understand, based on evidence, are right. I also agree with those people that the rich should pay more taxes, that children should be taught to think for themselves, that we are destroying our environment. So, what seemed easy for me might be very difficult for someone who distrusts people with those same values and does not want to end up agreeing with them. But I still find it difficult to grasp that the facts would add up differently for them.  

That the facts are adding up in the same way would mean that they are lying. But that would mean that they are able to speak consistently and vehemently from a point of view that they are always aware is a fabrication. That also seems unlikely. Plato saw the difficulty of holding the myth as a secret that only he and a few others could know. When he is done describing it, he says to his companion in the dialog, “and let us never speak of this again.” 

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