Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Plato - A Graphic Guide

After reading half of Will Durant's 'Story of Philosophy' a couple of years ago (I will complete it this year, I promise myself), I did not venture too far out into philosophy. The other day I saw this nice book - 'Plato, A Graphic Guide' - which is like a Plato for Dummies at Harsha's house and picked it up. It gave me a good insight into how the greatest philosopher (arguably) thought. It also grounded me a bit into Socrates, Aristotle and how they went about their own philosophies and lives too.
Icon Books, 174 p, Rs. 199 

Plato (427-347 BCE) was an Athenian. Athens was then a place festering with philosophers and ideas and was a great place for ideators. the place was also full of slaves so these chaps had enough time to discuss all sorts of things unlike now when we have to slave and ideate at the same time. Leading the charge was Socrates (470-399 BCE) who encouraged youth to ask questions and not take anything for granted. Socrates had a distinct style where he would engage in discussions and arguments on various topics concerning human nature. Plato was one of Socrates's shining disciples and learned much form him. In fact since Socrates never believed in writing down any of his thoughts ( he believed they are ever changing and hence should be in the mind), it was Plato who preserved many of this thoughts in his writings. After Socrates was sentenced to death by the government for misleading the youth and Socrates refused to apologise and chose instead to drink hemlock and die, Plato started his own Academy which lasted for 1000 years. And he trained pupils like Aristotle the famous Macedonian who in turn tutored Alexander the Great.

Plato's believed that questions relating to the universe, politics, philosophy, had to have a base in an exact science like mathematics. For him maths was the key to all understanding. Plato was perhaps influenced by three main thoughts - Pythogoras who had the same view about a mathematical nature of the world, Heraclitus who believed that everything changes and is a relative process and Socrates. Socrates had the greatest influence on Plato with his focus on human beings and human virtue, knowledge. Socrates seemed to favor morality than a collective legislation and sought to find the essence of goodness in people.

Among the many works he wrote, Plato wrote 'The Apology' which is based on talks with Socrates before his trial. Socrates was not apologeic at all of what he had done - though he was submissive of the state's will. In 'The Crito' Plato writes aout discussions that took place the night before Socrates's execution. Crito in fact arranges for Socrates to escape but the great man refuses. 'The Phaedo' is an account of Socrates's death. Socrates believed that the soul is eternal.

In their times of course these scholars in pursuit of pure knowledge also faced competition, as we do today, from chaps called Sophists who propagated that morality is a personal choice, that it was better to push oneself ahead at all costs and that human selfishness was a virtue. Only don't get caught they said. Of course Socrates and Plato vehemently opposed this falsehood but Sophists were like a bunch of self-help gurus offering overnight success and had a market too. Nothings changed obviously.

It was in the 'Republic', Plato's greatest work that he attempted to provide a permanent moral code with values. The ideal state, knowledge, religion, soul, ethics, politics, war, art, right conduct were all discussed in the Republic. Among the many arguments - that beliefs of the strong would always be imposed on the weak, that a strong authoritarian govenrment was required to enforce a contractually agreed moral code etc make sense. The world somehow arranges itself that way.

There was much talk about universals and particulars. There is what we see and there is what we perceive. In the universals we have classes or the perfect forms of each class. In particulars we have the individual copies, mostly inferior of the pure forms of universals. The forms or universals would be perfect, permanent and would not change. Like maths.

From this came the idea that those who know perfect knowledege should rule. That real knowledge is 'an event not communicable to others'. Plato at one point believed that the state has priority over the individual. He examined how societies form division of labour - starts with man's quest for luxuries, desires. This leads to desire for land, which leads to wars. Military expertise is required. Most importantly Plato believed that the ruler's job was one of skill and it was a skill that can be taught to those who show the aptitude.

Plato had devised a caste system similar to what we have in India - the gold, silver, iron and bronze classes. Golden classes were called Guardians, these were those with atptitude and they would be bred separately and trained to rule. Their word was law. They knew what to do and were all powerful. The silver classes were the sodiers and civil servants, the iron clases were the farmers and the bronze classes were the workers, (Only in India we went a step further and had a class below the classes and called them untouchables.) He was clear that in two generations time people will believe that these myths about different classes and abilities were true. Then these myths will persuade everyone that people have different abilities and hence must do ther type of work. There will only be two classes, the ruler and the ruled. Philosophers, he felt should advise politicians. Plato had no qualms about furthering the myth in the people.

He even advocated a form of eugenics where these guardian classes will breed with such similar high class specimens in a breeding festival. Any defective offspring were quietly disposed of. The word of the guardian classes was the law. Naturally Plato believed then that democracy was pointless. He had no faith in the ordinary man and felt he had no idea of what was right or true and hence cannot be trusted to make the right judgment - as in the death of Socrates which was ordered by the people. Plato also had no place for art in his scheme of things and thought that art only made copies of copies and was a waste of time. Plato believed in benign dictatorship. He disliked ordinary people.

In his book 'The Laws' Plato recognised the importance of laws as opposed to believing in the guardian class. He realised that none could be above the law as humans are weak. More aware of checks and balances in his later years, he now advocated that one should ensure that power is never concentrated. In his second Republic 'Magnesia' he writes about 5046 eugenically selected land owning citizens. A society based on theorcracy becomes boring, dull and is led by those who 'know'. who spy on others, start censoring everything and stamp out anything irregular. Dissenters are kept in military confinement and executed.

In 'Symposium', there were discussions on love - homosexual and heterosexual. Of course homosexual was more in vogue then and heterosexuality was considered inferior. One of the finest thoughts on this was that of the comic playwright Aristophanes who believed that originally man, woman and hermaphrodite were one and were separated by Zeus. Love he says is the eternal quest to find one's lost self i.e. man for woman and vice versa. It makes so much sense.

More thoughts - that our limited perception of the world and its actuality may be different. That there is a difference betwee having sensations and intelligent awareness.

Other books by Plato include Phaedrus (much referred to in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to the extent that it drove me mad) - which is a book about love, rhetoric and language. Rhetoric is referred to as high flown, windy talk.

Plato's star pupil, Aristotle, who finally founded his own school, the Lyceum, argued with many of Plato's theories but said that Plato always asked the right questions.Thus then, does the progress begin. By asking the right questions always. Plato was hailed as an escape artist, never pinned down on anything. For him philosophy was the beginning, not the end.

I enjoyed reading this graphic guide because it gave a me a simple perspective, without breaking my head, into the minds and thoughts of these great men. Now perhaps I can try and read 'The Story of Philosophy' again and try to udnerstand how thought and knowledge developed.

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