PLATONISTS

Who was Plato? 

Plato (pictured right in Raphael’s School of Athens) was Socrates’ most famous student. He lived in Athens from 424 BC to 348 BC.  After Socrates’ death, he founded a philosophy school on the outskirts of Athens, called the Academy. He also wrote many books, usually in the form of ‘Socratic dialogues’, or dramatisations of philosophical conversations that Socrates had with other Athenians or with visitors to Athens. The dialogues are usually known by the name of Socrates’ main conversation partner: Gorgias, Protagoras, Euthyphro and so on.

Some of the early dialogues may have been accounts of conversations that actually took place, but academics think that in most of the later dialogues, Plato is using the figure of Socrates as a sort of puppet to explore philosophical ideas that interested him. It’s also a distancing device, so we don’t know for sure what Plato is trying to tell us. He doesn’t simply deliver pre-fabricated philosophical dogma. Rather, he makes the reader follow the philosophical dialogue, to see the practice of philosophy and to learn to think for themselves.

So in each dialogue, Socrates engages someone in a conversation, and persuades them to put forward their life-philosophy, or value system, to see if it makes sense. Typically, Socrates will insist they define their terms – defining exactly what they mean by terms like ‘justice’ or ‘piety’. Then Socrates will test out the coherence and validity of that definition, through dialectic. If the definition is found to be wanting, as it usually is, Socrates and his conversation partner will try to find a more coherent definition and then test that out in turn.

What’s the point of this process? 

The point is that our ideas and values are usually unexamined. We sleepwalk through life, as Socrates put it. We pick up our values from our parents, our friends or our culture, and we don’t think about them. This can be psychologically and morally damaging, because some values and beliefs are toxic, and will make us sick. Philosophy teaches us to ‘take care of our souls’. It teaches us to examine the beliefs and values we carry around and see if they make sense.

This ‘Socratic method’ has been taken up by psychologists in the 20th century and made the foundation of their therapeutic method. For example, Aaron Beck, one of the two pioneers of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, told me he was inspired by his reading of Plato’s Republic to use the ‘Socratic method’ in CBT. He engages his patients in a Socratic dialogue, and tries to get them to examine their unconscious beliefs, to see if they make sense or are making them sick. We can practice the Socratic method simply to achieve personal happiness, as the Epicureans did. But Plato had a grander vision of philosophy: he thought we should practice it in order to free our souls from the cave of false beliefs, so that they can fly up and become one with the divine realm of truth.

Before we fly up to the divine realm of truth, tell me a bit more about Plato’s theory of psychology, and whether it’s valid today. 

Sure. Plato recognised, as modern psychologists and neuroscientists recognise today, that we don’t have one self, but many. We have several different systems in our psyche, each with their own agenda, each pulling us in different directions. We are legion. According to Plato, our psyches have three main parts or systems: the intellectual or rational system, a ‘spirited’ or emotive system, and a basic system of physical appetites. Plato thought that most people have no hierarchy or order in their psychic systems. They’re like ships without a captain, with every member of the crew shouting out contradictory directions. We can’t steer a coherent course through life, until we have learnt how to govern ourselves.

How do we do that? 

Plato introduced into western culture the allegory of the charioteer of reason steering the horses of the passions

Plato, like Pythagoras, thought we need to bring the different parts of our psyche into harmony, like notes in a chord. That means putting them into the proper hierarchy. The ‘highest’ part of us is our reason. Plato thought our reason was divine, a fragment of God. It’s what makes us different from other animals, what makes us homo sapiens. We need to cultivate this divine part of us, and use it to govern our emotions and our physical instincts. We need to learn to steer ourselves.

This involves ascetic practice: we need to control our physical appetites, to discipline the body as if we’re breaking an unruly horse (Plato introduced the metaphor of the horses of the passions and the charioteer of reason into western culture, though variations on it also appear in the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad-Gita). And it also involves theoretical philosophy: examining our values, seeing if they make sense, and trying to ascend to better and better definitions of truth until we get closer to the perfect, absolute and eternal forms of the Good, the True, the Just, and so on. Plato believed that, just as there exists a realm of pure maths where two plus two always equals four, so there must exist an eternal realm of moral values, which philosophers can ascend to.

When we have become masters in practical and theoretical philosophy, then we will finally become ‘masters of our selves’. We become self-possessed, although there’s a paradox there, in that the true philosopher is not really ‘self-possessed’, they’re really vessels for the divine. Their individual ego is lost in ecstatic union with God.

It sounds very mystical. 

It is. Plato created a sort of rational, philosophical version of older shamanic religions. Where before the shaman worked themselves into an ecstasy and then flew up into the spirit realm, in Plato’s philosophy, the philosopher frees themselves from false beliefs and bestial passions, and flies up to the divine realm of truth. This idea of the ‘ascent of the soul’ was very influential on the mystic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

So what does any of this have to do with politics? This chapter of the book is in the politics section after all. 

Good question. As I said in the last answer, when philosophers first appeared in the sixth century BC, they were sort of a new version of the older figure of the shaman, witch-doctor or priest. Pythagoras, for example, was as much a shaman or magician as what we’d think of today as a philosopher. Even in the late fifth century, Socrates and Plato were both somewhat magical, shamanic figures. But shamans had a settled tribal role for millennia, while the philosopher, by contrast, was a much more recent arrival, and a more controversial and insecure figure in Greek society. Philosophers often aroused public hostility, because they seemed to be questioning the settled conventions and values of their time. This popular hostility towards philosophers led to the execution of Socrates, Plato’s teacher.

The death of Socrates was a traumatic event for Plato, and for western culture

The death of Socrates was a traumatic event for Plato. He lost faith in Athenian democracy, which he decided was simply mob rule, with the base passions and prejudices of the public fanned by unscrupulous demagogues. So he turned away from politics, and declared that the true philosopher had nothing to do with their society, but focused entirely on God. That was a radical rupture: the shaman may have been an other-worldly figure, but they had a well-prescribed social and political role. But now the philosopher stands apart from their society, and there is mutual hostility between the intellectual and the masses.

Yet Plato couldn’t help wondering, what if philosophers were in charge? What if they took over society, and reshaped it according to their own Utopian scheme? This is the conceit of The Republic, perhaps the most famous book in Western philosophy.

What would Plato’s perfect society look like?

The Republic makes an analogy between the individual and the state. In the individual, as we saw, justice means arranging the various parts of the psyche in the proper hierarchy, so the rational part of us governs the emotional and instinctual parts of us. Plato then suggests that each part of the psyche corresponds to a certain class in society. The reasoning part of us corresponds to the intellectual class, who desire truth. The spirited or emotive part of us corresponds to the soldier class, who desire glory. And our physical appetites correspond to the merchant class, who desire money. A truly just society would put these classes in the proper order: the society would be ruled by the intellectual class, by an elite of ‘philosopher-guardians’. They would be raised in state-run boarding schools, with every aspect of their upbringing controlled so that they are totally devoted to the state and to the divine realm of truth. This elite of philosophers would wield total control over society, shaping it into a harmonious whole, dedicated to God.

An authoritarian theocracy, then. 

Indeed. Only the philosopher-guardians have any say in how the society is run. Everyone else should shut up and mind their own business. Anybody who didn’t agree to this, who refused to respect their place in the whole, should be cut out or ‘purged’ from the body politic. To some critics of Plato, such as Sir Karl Popper, this sounds like a recipe for totalitarian dictatorships. However, defenders of Plato like Leo Strauss argue The Republic is an ideal rather than a practical political programme. He’s building a ‘city in words’, his defenders say, not actually putting forward a political plan of action.

What do you think? 

We certainly have to be careful of taking Plato too literally. He’s quite a playful and ironic author, despite his reputation for being stern and forbidding. Personally, I think The Republic’s political vision is dangerous, and has inspired some very illiberal and authoritarian regimes. I think the main problem, politically, is this: how can Plato be sure his philosopher-guardians really have accessed the eternal realm of divine truth? Might they not simply rule in their own selfish interests? There are no checks on their power – anyone who disagrees with them should simply be exterminated according to Plato. It’s an incredibly illiberal and authoritarian vision. But I also think The Republic is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read, in terms of its psychology, its political analysis, its spiritual insights, and the sheer beauty of the writing and imagery. I just don’t trust philosophers enough to give them absolute power over the people.

Could Plato’s philosophy perhaps be the foundation for a smaller community, rather than an entire state? 

Yes – in fact, I end the chapter by looking at the School of Economic Science, which is a global community dedicated to Platonic, Neo-Platonic and Vedic philosophy – you might have seen their adverts selling courses in practical philosophy. SES is an interesting organisation (its members include Hugh Jackman, by the by), which has tried to turn ancient philosophy into a genuine religious community. But there are risks to that process. Such communities can become very authoritarian, they can promote mindless obedience to a charismatic leader. And they can be very hard on the children of the community, who might not want to follow weird counter-cultural values. I explore in the book how the School’s bold spiritual experiment went somewhat awry in the 1970s and 1980s, when they set up two schools for their children. You can read an independent report into the violence and abuse that ensued here, and you can also read former pupils’ rather chilling accounts of their time at SES’ boys and girls’ schools during that period here.

Finally, I begin the chapter by talking to Alexander, a Platonist living in Dallas. We hear how Alexander arrived at Platonism as a way of life via a spiritual odyssey to Yemen. He now runs a meetup group called the Platonists of North Texas. There may well be other Platonic communities around the world – let me know if you find one, or set one up.