Greece in the news: Plato explains it all

Okay, I admit, Plato was a founder of Western philosophy. Many of our ideas have roots in Plato’s works, for better or for worse. One thing that I’m pretty sure Plato didn’t talk about? Trigger warnings.

This has not deterred The Daily Beast. Columnist James Poulos (who, by the way, is not a philosopher) compared the reaction of Oberlin students to a talk by Christina Hoff Sommers (who is) to an imaginary conversation between Socrates and his interlocutors. Because that makes sense.

So first, Sommers’ description of what she said (all quotes from the DB article):

… women could narrow wage gap by changing majors from, say, sociology to engineering. Room erupted. Horrified gasps & jeers.

Well, I can’t understand why they were upset. Perhaps Sommers has missed the memo that women in STEM are paid less than their male counterparts?

Still, I admit it — I clicked for the Plato, not the feminism. So what does this have to do with Plato? For that, we turn to Poulos:

From the perspective of mainstream, old-school philosophical liberalism, this is inexplicable. From Plato’s perspective, however, it makes perfect sense.

Does it? I thought Plato believed in elitism. I guess his Guardians were both male and female, and it seemed like they got the equivalent of equal pay for equal work (451c-454d)… hmmm.

In the Republic, Plato presented Socrates as claiming that different types of political regimes follow one upon the next in a depressing slide from the rule of the best to the rule of the worst. Plato’s Socrates theorizes that society declines this way because we humans imitate each other even in spite of ourselves. Although succeeding generations reject the flawed models of their forebears, their attempts to improve those models can’t help but smuggle in the flawed ideals at their heart. By trying to fix what’s broken, we only get better at brokenness.

Sort of glib, but okay. It’s been a long time since I read The Republic. I don’t remember the decline of governments being related to imitation. In fact, it was the opposite: complacency breeds contempt for the good that you have.

(Any philosophers want to weigh in on this? Is this only true in Polybius?)

I’m pretty sure it’s also in Plato.  But to continue:

Plato’s Socrates explains that one generation’s love of honor strikes its children as too warlike, cruel, and hard a life to secure happiness. So the children replace it with a love of money. But their children see oligarchic life as too materialistic, shallow, and all-consuming to secure happiness. So they replace it with a love of all things equally. From there, says Plato’s Socrates, this “democratic” taste for respecting all values causes a new generation to embrace tyranny in political life and trivia in cultural life

Wait, what?

I guess I see that oligarchy = luxury = “materialistic [and] shallow”. But democracy = “respecting all values” = “tyranny .. and trivia”? I thought the luxury of the oligarchs led to the democratic revolution, where all offices were distributed fairly and this is bad because Athanasios the pig-farmer is put in charge of olive production while Lukianos the olive-farmer is put in charge of pig production? And also it leads to tyranny because the pig farmers say that they have the right to let their pigs root around in the olive groves and the olive farmers say that that’s all well and good but then they have the right to spear the pigs with a hayfork and when the fight starts to get really ugly, the charismatic tyrant shows up and betrays them all with his smooth talking? And what the stupid farmers don’t know is that tyranny is slavery under another name?

I’m pretty sure that’s in Plato.

I guess knowing the basic ideas behind Platonic philosophy is considered “trivia” among the pundit class? (He could just read the Cliff’s Notes.)

One final word from Poulos, explaining how he got from here to STEM:

Why would a call for more women in engineering provoke a hideous outcry? Because, Plato might say, although the longing to close the wage gap is strong, it is not as strong as the longing to protect and privilege the meaning of experience.

…. I’m not really sure that I have the words to express the blankness of my look at this moment. In fact, I’m not even sure that I know what “protect and privilege the meaning of experience” means (this analysis gets his prose right in the first few paragraphs, although I didn’t read further).

So let’s try, once more, to put this in Platonic terms. If we agree that we are on a search for The Good, The Just, and The Happy, whatever those terms may mean, we arrive at Kallipolis, which is ruled by a philosopher king whose primary claim to be the best ruler is the fact that he thinks more than any columnist who tries to sound smart by writing about Plato? Maybe that was too snarky.

I’ll happily accept corrections and comments from the philosopher crowd!

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