Monday, August 30, 2010

Plato Tripped

Every now and then I’m seized by a sick desire to revisit my old schoolbooks. I gave into it and repaid Plato a visit, starting with The Republic, in which he describes the beauty of a proto-fascist state that has all the charm of a high security prison. Plato’s imagined Republic comes complete with its own selectively bred Guardian Class, for which Schutzstaffel (SS) is a pretty fair German translation.

There is much that is right about Plato, but what is wrong with him is evident even in his description of the gestation period for human beings:

"For the human creature the number is the first in which root and square multiplications comprising three dimensions and four limits of basic numbers, which make like and unlike, and which increase and decrease, produce a final result in completely commensurate terms."

Uh, yeah. If you are thinking this must be clearer in the original Greek, you are mistaken. It wasn't until a century ago that classicists figured out exactly what he was getting at, and then only by bothering colleagues in the Mathematics Department down the hall. The initial "number" has been determined to be 216, or 3 cubed plus 4 cubed plus 5 cubed. Then, 216 + [(3)(4)(5)] = 276 days. This is such a monumentally stupid way of saying "nine months" that only a man as brilliant as Plato could have come up with it. Much the same can be said about his entire Republic.

There is a totalitarian streak in many intellectuals from Plato’s day to our own. This stems from a belief that they are surrounded by fools, which no doubt is true, and that they themselves are not fools, which is very dubious indeed. Many find it impossible to resist the impulse to tell the rest of us what is good for us and then to try to ensure we get it good and hard. The results can be as minor as pettily annoying vice taxes or as catastrophic as the slaughter of millions by the social theorists of the Khmer Rouge.

Plato, in another dialogue, records Socrates' conclusion that he is the wisest man in Athens because he at least knows he is ignorant. Plato apparently forgot this when he wrote The Republic.

One fellow did challenge Plato’s pretensions during his lifetime. Dionysus of Syracuse, who provided Plato with accommodations and a cushy salary, grew tired of being lectured that a “wise man” could be happy either as a slave or as a king, so he sold Plato into slavery aboard a galley. Plato’s friends caught up with him in Aegina and purchased back his freedom. We are not told if Plato was still happy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

“Oedipus schmoedipus, a boy should love his mother”

A friend of mine is a gold mine of information on pop culture. He can rattle off the hit singles of The Marvelettes or the cast of the 80s horror flick Chopping Mall the way some other people can recite baseball stats. Yet, I often discover he hasn't seen, read, or heard the actual movie, book, or recording. He simply enjoys knowing about entertainment more than he enjoys experiencing the thing itself.

Most of us have a similar kind of acquaintance with weightier parts of the culture. We learn a Cliff Notes version (sometimes literally) of history, arts, and science in school with very little exposure to the original sources. We read some opinionated modern summary of the "real" causes of the South’s secession, for example, rather than read, say, the detailed 1861 farewell speech to the Senate by Jefferson Davis (D-MS). We read a paragraph about Nietzsche that describes him (inaccurately) as dark and dangerous. Sigmund Freud may get a whole page.

At the moment Freud is broadly unfashionable, though only a few percent of the people I meet have read a single one of his books. Why is he on the outs? For one thing, pharmacology and neurophysiology largely have elbowed aside psychoanalysis. Sigmund never disputed that the mind was physiological. He insisted on it. He simply argued that medical approaches were too blunt and systemic to effect the nuanced physical changes in the brain that could be achieved by analysis. Nowadays folks are not so sure.

Freud’s biggest image problem, however, is not medical but political. Freud didn’t flatter people in order to boost their self-esteem. Minds are unpleasant things, full of base and embarrassing motivations, and Freud didn’t hesitate to say so. He suggested some things about men, about women, about the sublimation of the libido, and about the social dominance of heterosexuality which don't blend well with contemporary political platitudes. To make matters worse, many self-styled “Freudians” who followed him were narrow-minded bigots who confused "this is the way it usually happens" with "this is the way it properly happens." They notoriously classified homosexuality until very recently as a disorder, for example. Freud himself, though, was surprisingly open-minded about this and about alternative sexuality in general:

"The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone, disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings; it cuts off a fair number of them from sexual enjoyment, and so becomes the source of serious injustice." (Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1930)

The contents of the libraries of the world overwhelm us. We simply don’t have the time to check the original sources in every subject. We have little choice but to rely on the Cliff Notes versions most of the time. Nevertheless, we should treat these summaries with caution, and, at least sometimes, check the original sources, especially if something seems off. Whoever wrote the notes might have got it wrong.