Monday, July 18, 2016

The Historical Significance and Practical Irrelevance of Plato

For the past week, I have been focusing on Plato – and, in particular, The Republic.


This is actually a question I ask myself. Plato’s Republic is of great historical significance. It is the first lengthy treatise on moral and political philosophy – about how to be a good person and how to create a good state.

However, the relevance of his ideas to today’s political systems is little different from the relevance of Hippocrates to today’s medicine.

Hippocrates, too, is a significant historical figure. One of his major accomplishments was to establish a set of practices that effectively started the science of medicine. Practitioners were to record symptoms, the steps they took to try to deal with those symptoms, and the results. This way they had a chance of identifying options that were not effective, discover options that were effective, and promulgate that knowledge.

However, there were some significant problems with this system.

One set of problems revolved around coming up with an accurate theory of biology – a way of explaining what was effective and why. Greek and Roman physicians had become fixated on the idea that health had to do with balancing four bodily fluids to the point that they could scarcely consider options outside of this model. This caused them to interpret all of their observations in terms of effects on these liquids – grounding all of medicine on a set of false premises.

Another set of problems concerned the objectivity of those observations. Researchers today recognize that humans have an amazing capacity to see what they want to see. Researchers who have a particular theory in mind will “see with her own eyes” that they theory is either confirmed. People inherently focus on those things that support a favored belief and dismiss those things that would falsify the favored belief. Science did not actually make much progress until scientists recognized this innate human failing and began to design research and take measurements that circumvented these biases.

Anybody who is suffering from a physical ailment may pay Hippocrates her respects regarding his historical significance, but is well advised against seeking a cure in ancient Greek medicine.

Similarly, somebody who is interested in creating a healthy political system may pay Plato his respects regarding the fact that he introduced the habit of thinking about these issues and was one of the first to address many of the relevant questions. However, he founded his idea of the best state on assumptions regarding human psychology and “the forms” that are as fictitious as the relevance of Hippocrates’ four bodily fluids. Consequently, he is a poor authority to appeal to if one is more interested in the practical problem of improving an existing political system.

Accordingly, looking at Plato’s political philosophy can be interesting in the same way that looking at ancient Greek medicine can be interesting. Some people simply have an interest in ancient theories – in the ways in which different cultures have seen things.

There is, however, another – more practical – reason for somebody in political philosophy to become familiar with these ancient theories. For some reason, political philosophers are expected to have a working knowledge of Plato’s ideas, whereas physicians are not expected to have a working knowledge of ancient Greek “humours”. It buys a political writer some “street credit” if the philosopher can write or speak knowingly about what Plato wrote. Where, in contrast, a physician who spoke knowingly, and perhaps even reverently, about ancient ideas in medicine might actually generate a little bit of worry.

Of course, that “street credit” likely gets taken away from any such writer who then writes a blog posting where he questions Plato’s importance. This may happen even if that writer acknowledges Plato’s historical significance, and merely denies that a 2500 year old political theory created at a time of primitive understanding has much relevance in a quest to improve modern political systems.

1 comment:

Alex said...

Plato does not use the Republic to expound any serious political theory. This is the consensus of a large body of the scholarly community (for example, you should read Robin Waterfield's introduction at the beginning of his translation of the Republic). It is Plato's stated aim from the first book that the Republic is about "what is justice?". The Republic is a work defending the just life, not about politics. The idea that the Republic is a political text is an idea handed down through the centuries from the time of Aristotle who criticizes Plato in his own Politics.

Plato sets out a more rigorous political theory in two other works that are often overlooked by the majority of people, the Statesman, and the Laws. In these works one can read a very different view of politics than in the Republic.