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.

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