I’m not exactly bored with Trump, but I’m tired of him. So today I’m going to write about Plato, who was very wise.
It’ll be a nice change of pace.
By definition, Plato was a Pagan, since he wasn’t Jewish and lived before Jesus. When he describes the founding of an ideal state in the Republic, he asserts that religious questions should be left up to the Oracle of Delphi, because “we know nothing about all these things ourselves,” and therefore must defer to the “traditional authorities.” In the very same work, of course, he condemns the traditional Greek myths at length for their alleged immoral tendencies. Subsequently, the Christians considered Plato a precursor of themselves, but by then he wasn’t around to defend himself.
Plato’s political theory developed out of trauma – a series of shocks, up close and personal for him. The first of these was the disastrous defeat of his home town, Athens, by the rival city of Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. It appears Plato didn’t personally fight in the conflict – he was a little young – but his brothers did, and the city suffered plague, devastation, and great loss of life. This spelled the end of Athenian hegemony in Greece and – in Plato’s eyes – utterly discredited Athens’ democratic leaders, who’d brought on the war and conducted it.
The next shock was the rule of the Thirty, an oligarchical clique – including two of Plato’s relatives – installed by the Spartans to control Athens after the war. Since Plato had the right aristocratic connections, he was invited to join them but, put off by their terroristic methods, he declined. The regime of the Thirty became a byword for cruelty and brutality. After holding power for only a few months, they were overthrown by a popular revolt, and were themselves brutalized in turn.
Then – for Plato, perhaps the profoundest shock of all – in 399 BC came the trial and execution of his beloved teacher, Socrates, on charges of corrupting the youth and atheism. Socrates refused to feign contrition, affirmed the worth of his truth-seeking vocation, accepted the judgment against him, drank the prescribed hemlock, and died while in the act of philosophizing with his friends. In fact, there was a political aspect to Socrates’ fate. He’d made a practice of criticizing everything, including the Athenian democracy, and several of his pupils – young aristocrats – had less than stellar records during the war and its aftermath.
The bond between teacher and pupil was exceptionally close in Athenian society, even veering into areas strictly forbidden today. Be that as it may, Plato seems to have been deeply affected by this tragic affair. He concluded that Athens wasn’t a safe space for a philosopher or an aristocrat – and he was both. So, he left town and spent the next dozen years sojourning in various places around the Mediterranean. He stayed for a while at a port in the Nile Delta, engaged in mercantile pursuits – but well positioned to sample the esoteric lore of the Egyptian priests. He then proceeded to Southern Italy, where he communed with the Pythagorians and studied math, harmonics, numerology, and the science of governing states justly. He ended up in the city of Syracuse, in Sicily, where he strove to bring wisdom to the court of the tyrant, Dionysius I.
That last didn’t work out too well. Dionysius felt that he had all the wisdom his city needed, and he found this wandering truth-teller irritating. So, he had him arrested and sold into slavery. Plato was rescued by an acquaintance who bought him and freed him, but since a philosopher’s life seemed to be kind of chancy everywhere, he decided he might as well go home. He returned to Athens, where he established his school, the Academy, and wrote some dialogues to advertise his brilliance.
The rest is history.
Thus, by age 40, Plato had undergone – counting the episode of Sicilian slavery – no less than four big politically-induced shocks. He’d gone into exile to escape danger at home, only to be driven back by the oppression he found abroad. The ancient Greeks debated the relative advantages of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, but Plato had felt the heavy hand of all three. Dionysius I had sufficiently shown that monarchy – the rule of one – could be arbitrary and cruel; the Thirty had demonstrated the same of an elite, allegedly the best and brightest of society; and the vaunted democracy of Athens, the free government of which Plato’s fellow citizens were so proud, had revealed itself to be incompetent for the conduct of great enterprises, and as homicidal as any tyrant when challenged by speech and forced to face the truth.
Plato could’ve been forgiven for concluding that the quest for justice in politics is futile, but he wasn’t one to give up his ideals. He never lost hope. He simply reckoned that no form of government will be successful without wise and good leadership – and, therefore, the really crucial task of a political system is to make sure that wise and good leaders are always at the helm. Impossible, you might say – but necessary, Plato would reply. The most perfectly designed republic can be fatally undermined, he points out, if unworthy claimants are allowed to take command.
So, I guess we did get back to Trump, after all.
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