Perturbing Plato

This post continues on from my last two about Plato’s The Republic, which were about the problems I had with reading the book, and the things I liked. Today I will write a little about the ideas/quotes that made me a bit worried about where he was going to go with the argument.

There were some sentiments I found troubling, probably because of historical situations that we know about, but which came after Plato.

“He would reply at once, that he has no time to be ill, and that he sees no good in a life which is spent in nursing his disease to the neglect of his customary employment; and therefore bidding good-bye to this sort of physician, he resumes his ordinary habits, and either gets well and lives and does his behaviour, or, if his constitution fails, he dies and has no more trouble.”

“if a man was not able to live in the ordinary way he had no business to cure him, for such a cure would have been of no use to himself, or to the State”

There is a part of me that quite likes the first quote. Currently we live in a very individualistic society- generally people believe in living in whatever way makes themselves happy and fulfilled, and then service to society comes second to this. Another worldview, one which most of this book is based on and on which was much more common until only recently, is that an individual’s primary goal or responsibility in life is to the society and family in which they find themselves. Both worldviews do have positive things about them, and both can contribute to a person’s happiness. I like how the stoic worker in the first quote maximised his contribution to society and decreases his focus on and worry about his ill-health. What is the point getting upset about an illness, when either you die and you can’t do anything about that, or you don’t and you can just keep on. The troubling thing about all of this though, is the idea that a person’s worth is only in what they contribute to society. When followed through to extremes, this leads to regimes that think it is ok to kill the elderly off, and perhaps even the young if they are less intelligent, disabled etc.

“The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be”

I don’t think I need to explain why this quote is troubling. Deformed babies and babies of the lower classes you be put away in some mysterious, unknown place( i.e left to die)… not something I can get on board with. I wonder whether this was part of the seed of idea for epigenetics (and the nazi’s policies), or whether people have always thought like this.

“And they (the guardians) will have to be watched at every age, in order that we may see whether they preserve their resolution, and never, under the influence of either force or enchantment, forget or cast off their sense of duty to the State”

While we do want the leader to be good upstanding people, this is starting to feel a bit like a big brother scenario.

“None of them (the guardians) should have any property  of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary”

And this seems to be leading up to communism, which does have some good ideas in principle, but my knowledge of history makes this an uneasy path to go down.

 

 

There were then some arguments I just disagreed with:

“for madness, like vice, is to be known but not to be practised or imitated”

“we [have] no need of lamentations and strains of sorrow”

Plato argues that in his perfect society, to create the perfect guardians, there should be no poetry or theatre that is not historical or about famous people. Anything that is made up, tragic, romantic  etc is not attempting to reflect the higher truth and thus will lead people astray. I think that learning of the breadth of life can decrease prejudice, and be an education in itself. The idea is similar to an idea in Christianity to “think on these things” (pure, good things), but that verse was in context of text about not being anxious, and of acting on good teachings. I think you can learn about a whole range of things without acting them out in your real life.

 

The sections on women were a bit of a roller-coaster. Firstly I felt that the phrase he used to introduce the topic was a bad sign:

“the possession and use of women and children”

But then he seemed to advocate equal access to education and work:

“But can you use different animals for the same purpose unless they are bred and fed in the same way? Then, if women are to have the same duties as men, they must have the same nurture and education”

But the argument wasn’t over yet, and at the following quote made me await in trepidation what their answer would be:

“Let us come to an understanding of the nature of woman is she capable of sharing either wholly or partially in the actions of men, or not at all”

And the final two quotes summarise Plato’s position, which is better than it could have been, but would have been better if the final thought had been left off!

“There is nothing peculiar in the constitution of women which would affect them in the administration of the State”

“All the pursuits of men are the pursuits of woman also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man”

 

All in all it has been interesting read in the sense that it makes you think, even if it was not interesting at times in the sense that it was rather tedious!

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