Don't Eat the Plato

After many months, I finally knocked out the next item in the list: Plato: Complete Works. First, as per the usual, here a few words about this edition. It has a few things going for it. It's relatively cheap for the massive amount of content--roughly $50 for 1,800 pages or so from one of the pillars of Western thought. And as an added bonus, you won't get just the works of Plato, but also the works of people who have pretended to be Plato gotten away with it for at least a century or two. So, it's plenty of the prolific Plato and pieces from the petty posers. The translations themselves were quite readable. The footnotes aren't extensive but I feel like the editors hit the sweet spot on that front. I think I found about half of the footnotes useful or interesting so though they are few, they aren't a huge waste of useless information or obvious information like some of the stuff I've picked up in the past. And hey, they're actual footnotes, not the endnotes that cheap publishers seem to like so much these days. The only criticism I really have about this edition is that it's a single volume. While it may sound handy to have it all in a single book, I found holding this thing up to read to be a serious pain. Reading it in bed before falling asleep just isn't possible. But I suppose its metaphorical weight is just as much an impediment to reading that way as its physical weight. I think I would have preferred it in a handier 2-6 volume set. That would certainly drive up costs, however. So all in all, good job John M. Cooper and Hackett Publishing.

My view of the text itself is not quite as universally positive. Don't get me wrong, a lot of Plato is pretty amazing, especially for the first-time reader. His Republic is an absolute must. Laws is also really good but much it felt like a watering down of Republic. Symposium is also a must if you have any interest in the topic of love. Just kind of work around the fact that it's broadly praising relationships between adult men and teenage boys. The dialogues are where things get rough. They all work off of a system of questions and answers. That's where the dialogue bit comes in. It's a perfectly reasonable way ofapproaching problems. Unfortunately, there's a lot of repetition when you put them all in a big collection. By Plato's reckoning, all of life's great questions really begin with establishing that a shipwright is one who builds ships, a farmer is one who farms, and a doctor is one who treats the body. Plato also relies heavily on the so-called "method of division". This involvesa process of trying to identify and categorize all things of a related type. Plato is quite bad at making these sorts of divisions and it often throws the remainder of the dialogue off the rails. A man can only take so much. For that reason, the bigger, non-dialogue works went much quicker for me.

There are plenty of gems to be found in the dialogues if you're willing to put in the work. If you're in a hurry, you may want to pick and choose dialogues based on Cooper's summaries at the beginning. Covering them all here would not be practical. Of the smaller dialogues, I think Theaetetus was one of the stronger arguments and the most relevant today. Here Plato tackles the problem of whether reality is objective, subjective, or a mix. This is a topic somewhat dear to me and I even wrote a paper on it a long time ago for an applied philosophy class as a teenager in community college. However, I hadn't actually read Theaetetus at the time. Given the similarities between my argument and Plato's, I now understand why the professor found it both worthy of an A and so damn amusing. Basically, if there is such a thing as objective reality, our job is done because everything is just like we perceive it. Now, we know that isn't, strictly speaking the case. Our senses fool us quite often under certain circumstances. But by and large, with the right methodology, we can usually produce consistent observations. Our prior technological progress kind of depends on that fact. Now, let us suppose that someone comes along, maybe from the local Zen center, and insists that perception determines reality and there's no such thing as an objective reality. This is usually followed by an explanation of how reality "really" works. Now, first off, if reality is really subjective, logically you don't have any real need to listen to the guy at the Zen center. His assessment of reality cannot be proven to be any mor ecorrect than whatever you already have in your head. And if perception does determine reality and you are perceiving a reality that behaves entirely like an objective one, then that "fact" really doesn't change anything at all. So, in short, objective reality either truly exists or you've created your own functionally objective reality through self-deception and the difference is purely academic.

Now, as I said, the really good stuff is really in Republic and Laws. Since I think Laws is largely a dilution of Republic to make it more palatable and practical for real-world implementation, let's just stick to the more philosophically pure Republic. The goal of Republic is to outline an ideal society that would be productive, secure, and full of virtue. Now, this virtue bit is a little circular. Plato's arguments about the virtues usually end up arguing that certain virtues are what they are because it's what's good for the city. So, an ideal city is one full of virtue and virtue is what makes an ideal city. Now, it's important to understand that the Greek "arete" that gets translatedas "virtue" basically means the qualities that make something fit for its purpose. So, for example, sharpness would be a "virtue" of a knife. Now, if Plato feels that virtue is whatever is good for the city, that implies that Plato thinks that man's purpose is to serve the State. I don't know about you, but I certainly have other priorities. But defining virtue gets a lot harder toa dvocate when it doesn't have a clear payoff. Why be good? Because it makes the State stronger and/or makes God happy. There's a clear payoff in most virtue systems because simply saying "It's the right thing to do, man." isn't the most obviously logical of arguments. I don't have any better answers but I remain dissatisfied with Plato's conception of virtue.

Now, things get even creepier for the libertarian-minded when we get to Plato's actual planned implementation. He outlines a process for testing children from a young age to determine who is the most talented. These children would then be placed in a rigid caste system with virtually zero social mobility once the testing is done. Further, all forms of stories would be censored to ensure that they advocate Plato's system of virtues. Even the myths about the gods are up on the chopping block. Plato believed that control of literature, performance, and myth was the way to make virtuous society. I find it fascinating to see just how old this idea of making society "better" through extreme authoritarianism really is. You could say that any mythical group like the Illuminati is really just a bunch of Platonist extremists. And somehow I find that idea hilarious. I mean, if you just switch it from "there's a secret organization controlling everything" to "there are radical Platonists trying to control everything" it seems a lot more plausible. I mean, obfuscation of the real mechanisms of power is pretty central to Plato's plan. It's such an old idea, someone out there has to have at least attempted it. I've read that people did in Byzantium at least. The idea really just breaks down in the logistics of controlling that much stuff and in assuming that media and education dictate thought enough for reliable control. Or maybe I'm wrong about that part, radical Platonists really do control the world, and I'm going to get thrown into a black van and kidnapped tomorrow for writing this.