As you may know, Platonism refers to the philosophy propounded by Plato and his followers, which holds that things here on earth are mere ‘reflections’ of ideals which exist in a more ideal realm (which some have argued is a prototype for the judeo-christian notion of “heaven”). Alternatively, these ideals might exist in the “mind of God.”
Well, as a scientist, I can’t say that I “believe” that there are indeed ideals out there, or that “the mind of God” exists in any intelligible way, but I do strongly suspect, that if we live our lives here as though they did exist, this provides us with a very good blueprint for creating ideal selves, and an ideal society.
Plato was not just an idealist; he was also a philosopher, and this means that he believed that pursuit of the “truth”, that is, an active and honest search for separating fact from fiction, myth, and dogma, was crucial to moving forward. History shows that philosophy and science are in fact the only way forward out of a crushing traditionalism which has characterized most societies. Only philosophy and science have created democracy and capitalism, for example, the two systems which together have single-handedly brought man out of the dark ages, and into the enlightenment, and beyond into the modern era of humanism (but only in those places which have embraced philosophy, science, democracy, capitalism, and humanism, together, as a unit).
So the aim of “Platonism” as defined on this site, then, is to combine the ideals of Plato, with his unwavering search for scientific advancement both of our understanding of the natural world, and of human society. Because we cannot create an ideal society, unless we understand how it and its environment, including the natural world, works. Equally important however, is the maxim that there is little point to figuring out how society and nature work, unless we intend to do the best possible things with our new knowledge. If we just use our knowledge of science to create a repressive and corrupt society, for example, or one in which media moguls cynically deceive people for their own selfish ends, then we are going down the wrong path.
These then are our general goals. More specifically, the purpose of this website is the following:
1) To disentangle the various components of personal and social development, and arrange them in an intelligible whole, so as to give a truer picture of how society actually works. (Part of the problem is that it works on both a personal and a systemic level… and that both levels are simultaneously true. This is hard for us to conceptualize, and/or to build accurate models of, but we can do it, if we apply ourselves enough).
2) To examine each of these components in turn, and suggest ways that they can help us to build an ideal world.
3) To point out that the path to an ideal world can be put into a relatively simple format, which goes as follows:
a) We need individuals who are suited to living in an ideal society.
b) We need institutions which establish and regulate an ideal society.
These are the guidelines which lie behind most of the posts on this site.
And in the opening lecture of my classes, I stress the following 3 points:
1) We are born hopelessly egotistical, and we won’t become wise unless we learn empathy.
2) We can learn empathy through travelling, and learning what other people in the world today are thinking.
3) We can learn even more empathy through reading, and learning what people in other cultures, both past and present, have thought. Reading the proper things can bring us in touch with the best minds of the best people who have lived at any time and place.
4) Plato’s allegory of the cave suggests that all of us are born in a cave, in chains, but that we don’t realize it. Most of us are content to stay here, all our lives. The Matrix dramatized this, with the choice bewteen the red and blue pill (the Matrix writers were philosophy majors). Most of us choose the easy path of least resistance. But the path to wisdom, Plato says, lies in true education, which challenges our assumptions. Those of us who go to schools which merely reaffirm what we already thought, are not receiving an education, by this definition.
And, if you look, you’ll see that most of the posts on this site are highly complimentary; in other words, they all get at aspects of problems which are all interrelated. That is because our individual mentality, our actions, our beliefs, are all shaped by and help in turn to create the family, educational institutions, political and social theory and dogma, and other social institutions. These things are all in dialogue with one another, in what Hegel called a ‘dialectical’ relationship: i.e., everything both influences and is in turn influenced by everything else.
And that was my logical half talking. I’m ambidextrous–and so I have equal measures of the scientist and the artist working through me. I will therefore end with a more mystical version of the lecture I give on the first day of my classes, which gets at these ideas in a poetic, rather than a philosophical, format, though it is no less true:
Pico* says this: “You are a god.”
Only, you’ve forgotten.
Your intelligence is capable of reaching the ideal,
That you once knew in heaven, before you were born.
You’ve forgotten it consciously, but your intellect is a spark of the Divine Mind.
The Divine Mind is the ideals: Truth, Justice, Beauty, the Good.
These ideas are part of every human mind – hardwired into them. We can all see them, feel them instinctually.
Therefore beauty is not entirely relative, despite the fact that (in a universe without god) it cannot be absolute.
This is why nearly everyone realizes that Michelangelo’s David is beautiful, while 1960s apartment buildings are ugly. No one can say the opposite without feeling that they are lying.
But to fully live and appreciate the ideals that are housed within us, we need to awaken them.
We start as the ultimate egoists – newborns – who don’t even know their mothers are separate from them. When we begin, everyone is “other”– a potential enemy–except mother.
Then, we learn to identify with our family… our neighbourhood… our town… we further define self versus other. Though we identify with a larger self-group, most people remain ‘other’ to us.
By high school, we watch the news, listen to the radio, maybe read the papers… and the news is all biased towards our national self group. This is where most of us stop.
But some of us travel: spend a year in Egypt, in Asia – and see first hand that the people there are every bit as real, every bit as human as we are. So we break the bonds of nationalism.
Thus, by travelling, you can gain perspective.
But the earth, at any one time, can only provide us with so much perspective: it is always accessible only from the present moment.
Animals always see in the present. And so they cannot understand causality. They never understand processes, except in the most elementary way. Most people remain like this, too.
Once writing was discovered, people could record their thoughts. Those thoughts with proved wise, were cherished and revered over time, and were not lost.
People no longer had to rely on oral history, which died with its teller, and changed every time.
Through reading, people could gather the wisdom of other people from far away, and from far back in time.
People now had the ability to gain a whole new kingdom of perspective – one which would decisively raise them above the animals.
The parable of the garden of eden, and the tree of knowledge, shows that the ancient Hebrews knew this.
But, few people read. Most cultures remained bound to the human default: violence and hierarchy.
But in ancient athens, in 500 b.c., something unique happened.
A democracy was formed, and reason replaced violence: equality replaced hierarchy – for the first time in human history.
In all traditional governments, power is based on violence, and the authority of “the gods.”
In this new democracy, in order to gain power in the council, men required good arguments; they had to convince their peers, rather than flatter kings.
Thus, the arts of rhetoric and logic became tools to advancement, so the rich pursued them.
With a whole cityfull of rich men honing their skills in rhetoric and logic, they stumbled upon the notion of scepticism, which states that: if it cannot be proved, then it should not be believed.
And almost immediately, this democracy gave birth to all of the arts and sciences that we study in universities today.
Philosophy and science are the children of this Culture of Reason. Philosophy and science are the same thing: only in the old days, they called science “natural philosophy,” because it was philosophy applied to the natural world.
Most of the subjects: art history, literature, political science, philosophy, and the sciences, are in fact, the history of these disciplines. Without history, these sciences could not evolve, and thus they would not be science. History, then, is the organizing principle of the philosophies and the sciences.
People who learn the history of these disciplines, and understand how they are related, can gain the perspective that is required to regain the ideals: truth, beauty, the good, justice. The sciences are fairly straightforward: their objects are simple material objects. The sciences which encompass society and culture, these are much more subtle, since they deal with the human mind, and the complex organization of the species. Here is where the greatest challenges lie, and where the greatest rewards await.
Our goal, is to journey out of the cave of our ignorance, after first removing the chains of intertia into which we were born. This is not an easy journey… but in the company of books, which means the company of the words of the wisest people who have ever lived, together with the company of those few kindred spirits whom we happen to stumble across in this life, we can make progress.
Our species goals are to become immortal, to become omniscient, and to become omnipotent. These are goals which we always transferred onto “God,” or “the Gods,” becasue we felt that these goals, though we desperately desired them (see our literary heritage from Gilgamesh onward), were technologically (and thus physically) impossible. But now, with the advancement of science, and really since the renaissance, we have realized that, if we keep moving forward, then not our generation, or perhaps not several to come, but at some time in the future, we will gain immortality (freedom from the gene of death), omnipotence (the ability to manipulate energy and power in a godlike way), and omniscience (the ability to call up any piece of information instantly). We can genetically manipulate ourselves, so that our capacities can reach their fullest potential.
But, in order to benefit from this: we must ensure that our minds, our philosophies, and our ideologies are ideal: as close as possible to the ideal morality that we all feel to be right: that all of the major religions and philosophies know to be right.
The clock is ticking: we are moving towards our species goals. The question is: will we be philosophically and morally prepared for the responsibility that we are taking on? Right now, as a species, we remain fairly pathetic, though we have made good advances in the second half of the 20th century in the sphere of human rights, and equality for all. It’s time to realize the fuller implications of equality, of the enlightenment, and extend them to other spheres of human activity. Only then will we be able to create an ideal society, which will maximize the ability of all living people to live an ideal life – and to achieve our ancient species goals of becoming like gods.
We have the spark. We just need to fan it.
This is the goal of the platonist: to stumble out of the cave, through the medium of education, with the goal of glimpsing the ideal.
With the goal, that is, of becoming the god that we can all imagine, but that few of us dare to be.
*Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), “Oration on the Dignity of Man.”