Saving Plato

On January 25, 2023, Joe Bessler and I will be presenting an online lecture for Westar. We will be doing a program called, “When Jesus became Plato.” My friend Joe will do most of the work, but I will get the honor, maybe the dubious one, of defending Plato.

Why is it a dubious honor to defend Plato? It is because Plato is frequently cited as the source of all things wrong with Western thinking. I have even accused Plato of this. The accusation is based on three main criticisms and defending Plato against these criticisms is not easy. Here are the criticisms.

  1. Plato is guilty of dualism. He separates an ideal world from the physical world, and he thinks the ideal world is of greater value.
  2. Plato is guilty of vilifying the physical world. He thinks the physical world is an illusion, and he thinks that typical concerns about the physical body or the economy are delusional.
  3. Plato is guilty of false science. His theories make it seem like the physical world is unreliable. Therefore, the study of physics is a waste of time.

When these three critiques of Plato are upheld, it is easy to see why a final criticism falls upon Plato the hardest. Plato is guilty of inventing theology. He invented the pursuit of speculative ideas about a God who dwells in perfection beyond our world who has no time to value our sinful existence.

The job of defending Plato is slightly embarrassing because it feels like defending a conservative and orthodox thinker whose cultural authority has led us astray. As usual, however, when dealing with a difficult subject, there is more to the story.

Plato by Leonidas Drosis

Plato was born, it is believed, in 428 BCE in Athens. He is regarded as the greatest philosopher in Western history. He is so ingrained in the tradition of Western thought and beyond that we often do not even recognize how we are all “Platonists.” Every time we raise questions within a community context, every time we seek to determine a common course of action, and every time we value the common good, we are standing with Plato. Whenever we say that honesty is the best policy, we are tipping our hats to Plato. Whenever we affirm that men and women have the same qualities, the same intellect, and the same abilities, we are recognizing Plato. When we forget these important virtues, we are not only forgetting Plato, but we are also forgetting the values of our culture.

Plato did not write dissertations; he wrote dialogues because things have to be worked out in community. He was committed to the “dialectical method.” Ideas emerge from give and take, from struggle, and from remaining open to critique. This method is the foundation of philosophy, not just some philosophy but all philosophy.

Plato is famous for his theory of the forms. The forms are ideals that reside above us. They are perfect and unchanging. They are like objects in heaven invoking golden streets and many-roomed mansions. The theory of the forms makes us think that Plato was against materialism and that he was a dualist. This is wrong.

Plato was not sure there was an ideal world of forms. In fact, in the dialogue called Parmenides, he twists and turns the notion of an ideal world around so many times that he makes a mockery of himself. Plato ridicules his own theory. Why would he do that? He does that because no one, not even himself, knows what the truth is. His theory of the forms is about thinking things out. It’s not about making truth claims.

There is another, even deeper reason why Plato makes fun of himself. Ideals are wrongly understood if they are taken literally. Ideals are guidelines. They help us live the best we can. They are not things that ever come into real existence. Nevertheless, without them, real existence is not possible.

Carl Schurz famously said that “Ideals are like stars. We can never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.” For Plato, this is right on the mark.

In everyday life, our job is to integrate ideals into practice. Plato called the highest ideal the Good, and every ideal that we hold, like courage and justice, must aim at the highest ideal, the Good. True justice is never achieved, but our efforts to achieve justice must have one aim: the Good. Courage is something we struggle to hold, but every act of courage must have one aim: the Good. Everyday life takes on meaning when it uses its mundane chores and sometimes boring moments to value the Good. It is no surprise, then, that the idea of the common good is Plato’s most enduring imprint on Western thought.

Sometimes thinkers today imagine how much better our world would be if not for Plato. Imagine a history where the physical world, including our bodies, was valued. Imagine the advances in science that could have happened a thousand years ago if not for the suspicion of nature. Imagine if we never thought that the most important world was heaven rather than earth. It seems that without Plato we would have been better off.

There is an opposite point of view, though. Imagine if we never valued beauty. Imagine if we never understood that truth is a social struggle, not an individual possession. Imagine if we lost the idea of the common good, and if we failed to understand that our small lives are made large when we aim to become the Good in flesh.

Today we risk losing Plato, and with that loss we risk losing the social idea of truth as well as the importance of being someone who lives beyond selfish goals.

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