Plato is at once the most loved and possibly the most hated philosopher of all time. This episode explores why.
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At some point in the latter part of his career, Plato did something he had never done before and would never do again. He gave a philosophy lecture to the public. Normally he only lectured within the confines of the Academy to quite advanced students. He had come to the idea early on that the masses would not appreciate his ideas, especially his more technical ones. It would be like giving a calculus lecture to people who had never learned arithmetic.
But, for some reason – and we don’t why, because we only find this story in a few later writers, who obviously weren’t there, and they don’t give us many details – for some reason, Plato decided one day to venture out of the Academy and present one of his signature theories to his fellow citizens. He was going to give a public lecture titled “On the Good.”
On the appointed day, a large crowd gathered. According to one source, even workers from the farms and the vineyards and the metal workshops started to trickle in, their curiosity peaked to hear the famous philosopher.
But Plato’s lecture on the good was a big flop. The crowd was disappointed. Some people, we are told, quietly despised what was said, while others openly voiced their disapproval. It was a PR disaster. And Plato never gave another public lecture again.
Why was this lecture such a failure? That’s a mystery that scholars have puzzled over for thousands of years. The oldest attempted explanation we know of comes from Aristoxenus, who was a student of Aristotle’s and is our most reliable source for what happened on that fateful day. He suggests that the reason for the crowd’s disappointment was unfulfilled expectations. People came to the lecture with certain preconceptions about the topic at hand. They expected Plato to talk about things they thought are good, such as money, pleasure, health, happiness. But Plato didn’t call any of those things good. Instead, he made such enigmatic claims as “the good is one,” and argued that it can only be understood through mathematics and geometry and astronomy, and he even started drawing geometrical figures and talking about the stars. Until people were like, "WTF, Plato? This is whack."
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy that explanation for why the lecture was a flop. Aristoxenus implies that if only Plato had done what Aristotle always did, which was to announce at the outset what he intended to argue and through which methods and so set the expectations for the audience at the beginning, that Plato’s lecture would have been more successful.
As if! Do you actually think that if Plato had started off by saying, “Alright everyone, listen up. In this lecture I’m going to argue that everything you think you know about the good is wrong, and I’m going to do so using math and astronomy.” Would it have gone any better? I’m not so convinced.
And neither are most other scholars. And so they try to find alternative explanations for the flop, some of which are extremely interesting and probably true in large measure. But, none of them seem to me at least to fully explain the reaction of the crowd as reported by Aristoxenus. It wasn’t that the crowd was just disappointed or got bored or disagreed with Plato. They despised what he said. So, what was it that provoked such antipathy?
Of course, we don’t have the lecture Plato delivered that day. But if we go looking through his written works in search of a discussion on the good, the most obvious place is Republic books 6-7. There too, Plato discusses the good, and how it’s not what most people think it is, and how you need math and astronomy to understand it. So, that section of the Republic may be the closest thing we have to what Plato said in public, and might help us understand why the crowd was incensed.
But you might ask, why should we care about why some crowd 2 ½ millennia ago got upset? Well, because books 6-7 can also help us understand why Plato even today remains a controversial thinker, one who has perhaps more detractors than he has fans.
You see Plato is, on the one hand, I would argue, the most loved philosopher of all time. I mean, People found his writings so sublime and inspiring that they started calling him “the divine Plato” a few centuries after his death. And that title stuck with him for thousands of years. That’s how Galileo referred to him in his writings. On the other hand, I would argue that Plato is also one of the most hated philosophers of all time. I mean, even though he has never been without fans since 340BC, I think that at any specific moment in history, you would’ve found more people who disliked him than who loved him. It’s just that over time, the love wins - at least in this case, the love of Plato has won. His fans were able to preserve his writings and boost his status in the canon, while his detractors have been largely forgotten.
This imbalance between fans and detractors of Plato persists to this day. More people today, even among philosophers, or perhaps especially among philosophers, dislike Plato than the other way around. I mean, there’s no official study about this that I’m aware of, but from my own experience talking to many hundreds of people in and out of philosophy departments over the years, most people in philosophy don’t like the guy.
If you had the chance to take a course on Plato in college, you probably know what I’m talking about. I just got an email a few months ago from a student at one of the nation’s top universities who was taking a course on Plato taught by one of the big names in ancient political thought right now. And the lecture on the Republic started with a slide that said the following:
Plato’s Republic - the foundation of all political elitism.
That’s it. Full stop. Everywhere you’ve seen some elitist, oligarchic regime or philosophy, it goes back to Plato. He’s to blame.
After encountering this type of hostility from philosophers towards Plato again and again and again and again over many years, I became interested in understanding why there is so much antipathy to this thinker, and yet he still remains at the top of the list of great philosophers. Like every year there are various polls conducted in different philosophical circles about who the greatest philosophers are, and Plato is always up there in the top 5. So why is that?
In this episode, we’re going to finish our coverage of book 6. And in particular we’ll discuss two crucial analogies that come up: the ship of state and the divided line. And along the way, I will offer my own humble opinion about why this part of the Republic, like Plato’s lecture, upsets a lot of people. And I do want to stress that this is my opinion; this is what I’ve come to believe after fifteen years in the business. That means a) this episode is going to be more personal than previous ones, and b) for almost every point you’ll hear me make today, you can be sure that there are scholars out there who disagree, perhaps even despise what I say. So take everything you hear with a big grain of salt. And maybe sprinkle that salt on the five-course meal you’re about to be served. Cause I’ve broken this down into five main reasons why the ideas we find in this part of the Republic continue to make people hate Plato.
The first time I read the Republic was in Sophomore year of college. The instructor was actually reading it for the first time along with us students. And when we got about half way through he declared, “I find this book offensive. Cause in the regime described, I couldn’t hope to be anything more than a craftsman or artisan.”
That reaction of his points us, I think, to the most basic reason a lot of people hate Plato, which is that in reading him they feel slighted by him, like they are being judged as inadequate. It’s like that line from the movie A Knight’s Tale. “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting. Come back when you're worthy.”
Nobody wants to hear that. But that’s what it often feels like when you first come across the argument that only philosophers are fit to rule in the ideal state. If you see yourself as not a philosopher, but as an artist or athlete, or maybe an entrepreneur or entertainer, you might understandably feel slighted.
But what about readers who do see themselves as philosophers? Do they look at that argument and feel validated? Do they read this and say, “Right on, Plato. Go team!”
Actually, no. Because, you know what Plato does right after completing the argument in book 6 that non-philosophers are unfit to rule? He tells philosophers – or at least the people who call themselves philosophers – that they are unfit to rule too.
Why aren’t they fit to rule? Because, he says, the vast majority of people who claim to be philosophers are quacks. They’re charlatans. They don’t do what philosophers are supposed to do, which is to pursue the truth. Instead, they spend all their time having debates with other people and trying to look smart.
It’s funny because when people today first encounter Plato’s claim that only philosophers should rule, they usually find it ridiculous, because when they hear the term “philosophers” they imagine a bunch of bespectacled nerds in ill-fitting tweed jackets, surrounded by heaps of dusty books and arguing endlessly about words no one outside their discipline even understands. “Your post-structuralist critique of the semiotics of epistemological relativism only works through the lens of a materialist ontology.” What?? Those people should be in charge of our government? I think I’ll pass on that idea, is the standard reaction.
But it’s important to realize that when Plato talks of “philosophers” he’s not talking about professors of philosophy. He’s not talking about any of the sophists in ancient Greece who could enthrall large crowds with their debates and speeches. The ideal that he has in mind – cause it is an ideal – is more akin to a superhero than a professor. A true philosopher for Plato is equally skilled in the art of war as in mathematics. He or she is a pro athlete in both body and mind, highly trained in geometry, poetry, gymnastics, physical endurance, survival skills, warfare, and philosophy.
So when Plato says only philosophers should rule, he doesn’t mean go and round up all the people claiming to be philosophers in your society, and behold, there’s your best possible government. He’s saying, if we had a good education system (which we don’t), and brought up our kids to value truth and virtue over money (which we don’t), and if our society actually valued great thinkers over celebrities and demagogues, then we might be able to build a system where the most impressive minds become true philosophers and are incentivized to rule with wisdom and selfless devotion to the good of the community.
We’ll revisit Plato’s ideal of the true philosopher in a bit. But before that, let’s wrap up this first main reason people dislike Plato. Which is, whether you see yourself as a philosopher or not, either way he tells you that you are inadequate. In fact, to read the Republic is to be told that you are unfit to rule. There isn’t a single human on the planet who, upon reading the Republic, could honestly say, “Oooh, this sounds like my job description. I would be a great philosopher king.” If that’s your reaction, then you’re a delusional psychopath. Seek help immediately. Because the criteria for being a philosopher ruler that Plato lays out are incredibly demanding.
I think Plato would be the first person to admit that he doesn’t satisfy his own criteria for philosopher king. So, don’t feel slighted when you read this. Instead, ask yourself, what kind of people would you like to see leading your country? Are you happy with the people currently running the show? If not, how would you improve the system to make sure that better people get put in charge? That question brings us to the second reason why some people hate Plato.
When you spend a lot of time studying the history of democracies and republics, it may start to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. Because the same basic political rivalry seems to play out time and time again. My favorite example of this is from the very beginning of the emergence of democracy in Greece. In the 6th century BC in the city of Miletus there were two political factions, and guess what their names were. One of them was called Labor, and the other was called Capital. I mean you can’t make this stuff up. It’s the same story again and again. More on that when we get to book 8 on the cycle of political regimes.
Where am I going with this? The second reason why some people hate Plato is that he refused to pick a side in this endless recurring factional rivalry, and to partisans at the two ends of the political spectrum he says, “you’re both wrong.”
Now, in recent decades, Plato has sometimes been portrayed as a partisan himself, as a pro-oligarchy thinker, an enemy of democracy. It’s like that slide I mentioned earlier where the professor called the Republic “the foundation of all political elitism,” ever. But the truth is, while Plato is certainly a harsh critic of democracy, he’s also a harsh critic of oligarchy. The type of regime he envisions in the Republic is obviously not democratic. But it’s also unlike any oligarchy or authoritarian regime that’s ever existed.
This is worth emphasizing because you’ll often hear people say, “Plato is a typical aristocrat who wants the ruling class to be basically the rich kids who can afford to be educated in music, mathematics, philosophy, all that fancy stuff.” And it’s like, no! That’s what oligarchy is like. But Plato is saying the opposite of that. He’s saying strip away all money, luxury, and property from the ruling class. Only those willing to give it all up shall be entrusted with power. In other words, the “elites” in Plato’s Republic are poorer than the commercial and producer class over which they rule. This political vision of Plato’s is not going to make your average oligarch or aristocrat very happy.
Like the first reason why people hate Plato, the second one revolves around a difficult question. In the first case it was, who is fit to rule? And in this one it’s, What political system do we want? And in both cases, Plato refuses to join any of the traditional sides of the debates. Cause that would be boring philosophically. What’s more interesting is to find the faultline that’s causing the debate. What is the impasse that we keep bumping up against that is fueling the divide amongst us?
To explore that question, we need to look at one of the key passages of book 6, where Plato discusses perhaps the most important metaphor in ancient Greek political thought: the ship of state. This is an image that you find in all the great political thinkers of the time, by the way. They all made use of it to make different arguments.
The idea is you imagine a ship as a metaphor for the polis. And it’s not surprising btw, that a thalassocracy like Athens – a maritime power that is – would use the ship as its go-to political metaphor. Much like for the Romans, whose civilization was built not on ships but on farms, the farm served as the go-to microcosm of the state.
So Plato says, instead of a state with various factions vying for power, imagine a ship with various groups of sailors trying to overthrow the captain and take control of the vessel. Now imagine one group is successful. They throw the captain overboard, kill a bunch of their rivals, and then use their new power to throw open the cargo bay, bust out all the wine and delicacies stored there and throw a great feast. And as they toast their wine, they say to each other, “This is it, man. This is the life. This is justice. No more tyranny, no more working long hours below deck for the people up above. My friends, long live freedom!”
These sailors might believe that they’ve just achieved utopia. But we all know things won’t end well for them. At best, they’ll make it to some port without any goods left to sell and more likely, they’ll end up in a deadly storm or their ship will get dashed on some rocks somewhere. Because these sailors have made a mistake that partisans of all stripes tend to make. They’ve confused the art of seizing power with the true art of exercising power.
Wresting control of a ship is one thing. Any bully or criminal can pull it off under the right circumstances. But navigating a ship requires a lot of skills and knowledge that most sailors are not familiar with. A good captain understands weather patterns, knows the signs that a storm is coming, has learned the currents, studies the geography of the regions to which they sail, understands astronomy and how to use the stars to navigate. All these different things, which the average sailor doesn’t know. And the reason why the sailors don’t understand them isn’t because they’re stupid. It’s because you can’t train everybody to be a captain. Someone has to man the ship. Just like you can’t train every employee of American Airlines to be a pilot. You need flight attendants and mechanics and engineers and booking agents.
Plato’s use of the ship of state metaphor has many, many implications and possible interpretations. But among other things, I think it reveals a perennial paradox of good governance under any political system. On the one hand, good governance requires a certain body of knowledge. On the other hand, the majority of the community won’t be able to fully appreciate what that knowledge is. There will always have to be some level of faith in the system as it were. Just as passengers on a plane will never fully understand the pilot’s art, but we fly because we have faith that they know what they’re doing.
The difference is, we all have a pretty good sense of what the pilot knows, even if we ourselves don’t know how to fly. But there is wild disagreement among us about what it is that a good leader is supposed to know. So the question then is: what is the body of knowledge that good rulers need to have? And since Plato is claiming that the true philosopher has it, we can rephrase the question thus:
What does the true philosopher know that others don’t that makes him or her uniquely qualified to rule?
The short answer is that the true philosopher, according to Plato, knows what the good is. That’s why philosophers should rule. Because they can use the true nature of the good as the fixed guiding principle in leading the state. They’re not going to be swayed by the interests or demands of this party or that. They’re not going to change the constitution based on some emergency or moral panic. They will maintain a steady course, with their mind’s eye fixed on the good, like a ship’s captain who navigates by the north star.
That’s a bold claim that Plato is making – that only true philosophers can attain knowledge of the good. Since so much hinges on that claim, Plato takes up much of books 6 and 7 of the Republic in discussing the nature of the good, which, as you’ll recall, was the topic of that ill-fated lecture he gave to the Athenians.
The problem is that knowledge of the good is the pinnacle of human knowledge. It’s only accessible through many years of hard work. So, how do you explain in ordinary language something so difficult?
Like many great educators, Plato tries to do this by offering analogies as starting points for understanding the good. There are two analogies that come up here and are very famous: the divided line at the end of this book and the cave, which is in the next book, book 7, and we’ll discuss it next time.
Before we can try to pick apart the divided line, we need to take a step back and consider two fundamental questions of epistemology. Because you can’t talk about what the knowledge of the good entails without first establishing:
a) What is knowledge?
b) What is truth?
Each of these questions is the source of one more reason why some people hate Plato.
Earlier in this episode when we mentioned Plato’s harsh words about self-styled philosophers, and how he claimed that most of them are frauds, some of you might’ve been thinking, “Why would philosophers today take offense at that? Like, why wouldn’t a modern philosopher simply read that and say, wow, I guess most philosophers back then were ridiculous.” Why would they in any way feel targeted by Plato’s criticism?
Well, let me try to answer that with an anecdote. I once attended a seminar where a brilliant scholar of ancient philosophy Jimmy Doyle (who’s now at Harvard) was presenting an analysis of a highly controversial article in modern philosophy. The article in question is called “Modern Moral Philosophy” by the late Elisabeth Anscombe, who was a brilliant thinker and student of Wittgenstein. But she, like Plato, drives a lot of philosophers today crazy. And this article is notorious because in it she basically tells modern moral philosophers that they’re wasting their time because their whole enterprise is built on a shaky foundation. And that one of the things they need to do to fix that is to drill down through the unstable ground they’re standing on until they reach the more solid bedrock of earlier thinkers like the ancient Greeks and then build a new foundation for some of their main concepts and ideas.
Well, let’s just say most philosophers today don’t appreciate that point of view very much. But in this seminar, Jimmy Doyle, who is coming at this with an expertise in ancient philosophy, was giving a sympathetic interpretation of the article. Now, there were a lot of professors as well as students in the room who were bombarding him with questions. And at some point, the chairman of the department, who does modern stuff of course, said, “Ugh, every time I read this paper I can feel my blood boil.”
And Jimmy replies, “well, I once heard someone say that you can measure how important a philosophy paper might be by considering how many professional philosophers it would put out of a job if it were true.”
And everybody cracked up, including the chairman, because that was such an eloquent and delicate way of saying to him, “of course you don’t like it, because if it were true you wouldn’t have a job.” If Anscombe’s argument were true, that would invalidate what most modern moral philosophers spend their days writing and talking about. And btw Jimmy eventually wrote a book about Anscombe’s critiques of modern philosophy. If anyone’s interested it’s called No Morality, No Self.
How does this all relate to Plato? If Plato’s philosophy were true – if his basic principles were true and the things he argues in the Republic were true – then not only would most professional philosophers today be put out of a job, but most humanities professors in general would too. Now, I’m not saying that Plato is right on all counts and that therefore most humanities professors should lose their jobs. I’m just saying that if he’s right, then they have a problem. And so it’s understandable that many of them aren’t his biggest fans.
What are these points of disagreement between Platonism and the modern humanities? Let’s start with the most basic one. The question of absolute truth. Plato is a staunch defender of the notion of truth with a capital T. He thinks that even if we don’t know the truth about a subject, we have to believe that there is a truth about it that’s out there, and we should strive to attain it. But a lot of the superstar intellectuals of his day rejected that notion. Many of Plato’s dialogues portray Socrates in intellectual duels with such thinkers who deny that there are fixed truths at all.
Fast forward to today, some academic philosophers and most humanities professors in the west similarly reject the notion (or are highly skeptical of the notion) of absolute truth.
When I tell this to people who haven’t spent time in a humanities department, they often don’t believe me. They’re like, that makes no sense. How can you do scholarship of any kind if you’re not going after the truth?
Well, I’m not saying that they deny that there are true and false statements, or that they deny that the laws of physics are true. But in the realm of social, moral, and political debates, most academics today scoff at the presumption of fixed truths.
I once made the mistake, early on when I was just discovering what philosophy is and I got a little too excited, of telling my professor that I wanted to study philosophy because I wanted to pursue the truth. And he looked at me with a smile and said, There’s no such thing.
You see the thing about postmodernism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, all these various modern movements in academia as well as popular thinkers like Foucault and others, is that they tend to see knowledge and truth as constructs of the powerful or as conventions that come and go in an ever-changing world. It’s kind of like what Thrasymachus was saying in book 1, that justice isn’t a fixed thing. There’s no absolute truth about justice, it’s the advantage of the stronger. It’s a construct of this or that ruling class through which they maintain their hold on power.
Now, to be clear, not all humanities professors espouse these views. There are plenty of academics who strongly defend the notion of fixed truths, especially among professors of philosophy. But they too – the majority of them – are at odds with the Platonic view of truth.
You see, just as in the previous two reasons for why people hate Plato, where we saw how he had identified a faultline in human thought and made both sides of the divide unhappy, the same thing applies here once again.
Today’s “believers in truth,” if I may use that term, who inhabit the philosophy departments of the English-speaking world almost all belong to the school of analytic philosophy. What that is exactly is hard to define and hotly debated. But the key feature of analytic philosophy that is germane to our discussion is its focus on propositions – another term that’s difficult to define. If you don’t know what a proposition is, the easiest way to understand it is just to think of it as a sentence. “The sky is blue” is a proposition. Now some people will say, no, it’s only certain types of sentences that qualify as propositions. And others will say, it’s not the sentence itself but the meaning of the sentence that is the proposition.
Let’s not get lost in the weeds here. The point is, analytic philosophers think that propositions are the primary bearers of truth or falsehood. They think that whatever truths there are in the world can be expressed with language and logic. Truth consists of propositional content.
This is a very un-Platonic conception of the truth. Because for Plato the highest truths are ineffable. Language alone can never fully express them. We reach the truth by grasping the forms – the platonic forms – with our minds. For example, we understand the true nature of justice only when our mind’s eye beholds the form of justice itself. But if we manage to do that, we can’t just turn to our friends and say, “hey, wanna know what the form of justice is like?” They have to get there on their own. That’s one of the reasons why Plato describes the form of the good by way of analogies instead of trying to explain what it is directly. Because it can’t be done.
Now, this might sound like mysticism. But actually, there are some rational considerations in Plato’s favor.
Many mathematicians today intuitively find the Platonic view of truth more compelling than the analytic philosophical view. Because in math, there are all kinds of cases where some truth or some object can’t be expressed using a finite number of terms. Like if you took calculus in school, you may remember what a Taylor series is, and how sometimes, in order to perfectly describe a certain curve, you need an infinite number of terms. Or, think of irrational numbers, where you need an infinite number of digits to fully represent a number.
Now, the Pythagoreans had already discovered irrational numbers before Plato’s time. They knew that pi, for instance, was a fixed quantity, and they could calculate increasingly better approximations of it represented as fractions. But they could never get to pi exactly using fractions. And, what’s perhaps more important, they could prove both that pi is fixed and that it can never be fully represented using fractions. Wow! Can you imagine how mind-blowing of an idea that would have been in 400BC. We can prove that there is this fixed quantity. And we can also prove that it can never be fully spelled out with numbers. That’s an incredible breakthrough in human thought. And it’s not hard to imagine Plato, who was obsessed with geometry, looking at that and saying, “hmm, maybe there are truths about the world, even ethical truths, that are similarly fixed and absolute and yet can’t be expressed using language and logic alone.”
We’re told by later sources that the Academy had a sign over the gate that said, “Let no one ignorant in geometry enter.” It’s no surprise then that throughout history mathematicians have loved Plato. Galileo, as mentioned earlier, called him the divine Plato, as many before him had done. And today, perhaps the most eloquent and impressive defender of platonic epistemology is the mathematical physicist and Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose, of whom you can find many fascinating interviews on youtube if you’re interested.
In sum, the third reason why some people hate Plato revolves around the faultline – the perennially-debated question – to what extent are there fixed truths in the world and what do those truths consist of. Just as in Plato’s day, so too today, the two main camps around this faultline are 1) those who deny that there are fixed truths and 2) those who say they do exist and they can be fully expressed using language and logic. Plato’s view is a challenge to both positions. And we can see why it provokes so much antipathy if we recall Jimmy’s aphorism from earlier, that the potential importance of a philosophical work is proportional to the number of academics that it would put out of a job if true. Well, if an angel appeared from heaven and settled the debate once and for all by declaring, “The platonic view of truth is the correct one” – then most universities would lose virtually their entire humanities departments.
The sciences would remain largely intact if Plato’s notion of truth were definitively established. However, the next reason why some people hate Plato that we’ll discuss does pertain to them, and is something that drives some scientists absolutely bonkers.
Just as in the case of truth, Plato’s position on the topic of knowledge doesn’t make a lot of academics very happy. Case in point, here’s what Richard Dawkins had to say about Plato in a tweet that went semi-viral in 2019. He said:
Richard Dawkins (12/16/2019): Surprised by common reverence for Plato. Alexandrians like Eratosthenes made superb progress. But what did Plato say that was actually right? And didn’t he mislead generations of theologians & philosophers into thinking you could find truth by making stuff up in an armchair?
This tweet is, I think, really helpful for our discussion because it points us to the most common problem people today have with Plato’s epistemology. And that is that he was supposedly an idealist who had disdain for empirical knowledge. Empirical knowledge, of course, is knowledge that comes to us through our sensory experience. Empeiria in Greek means experience. But Plato supposedly didn’t care for that. He thought the armchair was superior to the laboratory for finding truth.
The thing is, from looking at various other tweets Dawkins wrote in that thread and elsewhere about Plato, it’s clear that he’s getting this impression from books about Plato, rather than from a careful reading of Plato’s own work. And that’s fine. Not everyone has time to read Plato. And if you pop open almost any book on the history of philosophy or science, you’ll likely find a version of this claim that Plato was an idealist opposed to empirical research. As a result of the near ubiquity of this claim, many scientists and other academics arrive at more or less the same viewpoint that Plato is not a scientific thinker and so he’s not someone they need to take seriously.
The question is, Is that viewpoint accurate? If you look at Plato’s most scientific work, a dialogue called the Timaeus, you’ll find in it an impressive synthesis of the latest advances that had been made in biology, astronomy, and musical harmony – all of which are heavily empirical fields of study. So, he obviously spent a lot of time studying those fields. Now, why would he do that if he had contempt for empirical knowledge, as so many books now claim?
Clearly Plato’s view was more nuanced than is commonly represented. And if you remember from the last episode, when I asked our guest Gabriel Richardson Lear if she bought the common notion that Plato was anti-empirical, she said “no.” Plato does value experience because that’s where you start from. You just can’t put all of your faith in experience. Because experience can be misleading.”
So, what is going on here? I think Plato’s position has been misunderstood, not just in popular accounts but even in some scholarly ones. A lot of scholars will disagree with me on this, so once again take this with a grain of salt. But I think that if you look carefully at what Plato is saying, it’s actually not very different from the viewpoint of many scientists today.
Let’s start with a few pieces of the common critique of Plato’s epistemology that I think are true. It is true that Plato was an opponent of empiricism. But that’s not the same thing as being anti-empirical. And I think the confusion between those two things – empiricism and empirical thinking – can explain much of the dismissive attitude some people bear towards Plato. They think his anti-empiricism means he’s anti-empirical.
So, what’s the difference? All scientists are empirical thinkers by definition. They’re supposed to be ready to change their mind on any topic if presented with empirical data that disproves their previous assumptions and theories. But not all scientists are empiricists. Empiricism is the theory that knowledge comes to us only or primarily through sensory experience. In other words, empiricism denies that there exists any knowledge that is independent of sensory experience, or what philosophers call a priori knowledge.
The main reason why many scientists are not empiricists is that they believe mathematics entails knowledge that is independent of sensory experience. To be a true empiricist, you would need to deny that math entails a priori knowledge. And some scientists do, either by claiming that math is a human invention and thus doesn’t constitute real knowledge per se, or by saying that math does entail knowledge but it’s not really a priori, it’s ultimately derived from experience. So, those arguments exist. But the point is, many scientists, including famous ones like Roger Penrose, mentioned earlier, don’t buy them and think that there is mathematical knowledge that is real and non-empirical. And that makes them not empiricists, just like Plato.
Another piece of the common critique of Plato’s epistemology that is true, is that Plato thought that empirical knowledge can never be certain. That, again, may sound like an anti-empirical claim, like he’s denigrating empirical knowledge. But actually that view is also shared by many scientists today, although they don’t express it in the same language. Even a lot of self-proclaimed empiricists agree that empirical knowledge is never 100% exact nor 100% certain. In every measurement and prediction there is a margin of error. Even such seemingly perfect equations as e = mc^2 don’t work in all cases. Relativity breaks down at the quantum level just as quantum mechanics breaks down at the macro level. And even if we were able to discover a grand unified theory of physics that worked in every case, we could never know for sure that it’s perfect. There could always be some new discovery in the future, some new data point, that would poke a hole in it and send the scientists back to the lab or to the telescope or particle accelerator to try and devise a new theory.
So, Plato’s denial of the certainty of empirical knowledge is fully in line with the modern position shared by many scientists that empirical knowledge is, by its nature, tentative and subject to falsification.
This brings us to the third and final component of the common critique of Plato’s epistemology that is true but doesn’t imply what some people think it implies. It is true that Plato makes the claim in book 6 of the Republic that non-empirical knowledge is superior to empirical knowledge. That, once again, may sound anti-empirical and unscientific. However, if you look closely, what he’s actually saying follows logically from the previous two positions that we said many scientists today agree with.
If you believe, as many scientists do, that there is non-empirical knowledge, such as math. And if you also believe, as many scientists do, that empirical knowledge is never perfect or absolute. Then, it follows that non-empirical knowledge is more pure, in a sense, more perfect than empirical knowledge because, unlike empirical knowledge, it has no margin of error and it’s not subject to falsification. There is no empirical data that could ever debunk the Pythagorean theorem.
To recap. I don’t think it’s correct to say that Plato is anti-empirical or unscientific. He is anti-empiricist, but so are plenty of scientists today. And that just means they don’t think that empirical knowledge accounts for the entirety of human knowledge.
Now here’s where Plato really gets in trouble, because he takes things even further. First, by claiming that there are ethical truths that are just as perfect as mathematical truths. That’s obviously not a view that most scientists or academics would agree with today. And second, because he says, “since we agree that there are two tiers of knowledge. There’s perfect knowledge like math that’s independent of experience, and there’s tentative knowledge like empirical science which is dependent on experience, why are we using the same word for those two different things? Why not distinguish between them linguistically?
What he then proposes is that the word knowledge or episteme in Greek be reserved for the pure non-empirical tier only, while for the second tier he suggests the label doxa, which is often translated to opinion or belief. In other words, we shouldn’t speak of empirical knowledge but rather of empirical belief.
Now, when scientists today read that proposal, they may understandably find it denigrating to their fields. And yet, if they look past the terminology at the actual distinction Plato is making between pure and empirical knowledge, they might agree with him. So, I think Plato’s suggested nomenclature here might be what irritates people more than his actual argument. (And this terminological problem is exacerbated by the translation process from Ancient Greek to English. Because there is no exact equivalent of episteme in our language. It has a more restricted meaning than our word knowledge. You could never say in Greek that you have episteme of where you parked your car, or episteme of what the best restaurants in town are. Episteme really means something like mastery of a subject. To highlight its more restricted meaning, some translators render it into English as scientific knowledge. But that’s even more confusing, because we think of scientific knowledge as empirical. So perhaps a better rendering might be precise knowledge. And when you think of it that way, Plato’s hesitancy about applying that term to empirical claims, which by nature never are 100% accurate, seems a little less extreme.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to argue here that Plato’s theory of knowledge is perfect or unassailable. What I’m saying is, if we want to look at where it might actually have some serious problems, we need to move past the endlessly-repeated easy attacks on it and dig deeper.
If anybody actually wants to mount a serious critique of Plato’s epistemology, the best place to start is probably right here in book 6, where we find one of the most famous analogies in all of ancient philosophy: the divided line. And this analogy is going to play in with reason number five, so let’s give a very brief overview of it.
The passage in book 6 that modern scholars refer to as the divided line is one of the most difficult ones in all of Plato’s works and one of the most controversial. Scholars don’t even agree on what precisely it’s trying to achieve.
On one level it seems to be a map or, rather, two maps in parallel: one that shows various levels of reality, and another showing an equal number of types of human cognition, which line up perfectly with the levels of reality. The implication is that the structure of reality and the structure of the human mind track each other and interface with each other. In other words, the various kinds of cognition we can engage in correspond to the various levels of reality that are out there.
Ok, so what are these levels of reality and of cognition?
Well, the lowest level of reality consists in shadows, reflections, images, and other indirect representations of objects. And the corresponding mode of cognition Plato calls eikasia, which means something like conjecture or guessing through images. The word eikasia is related to the word eikôn, where we get icon from, and it means image. So you see a shadow or reflection of something and you gain a basic but probably not very accurate sense of what that object is.
The next level up in reality is the object itself that is the source of these shadows, images, or reflections. And the corresponding second tier of cognition Plato calls pistis, which means something like confident belief, and it occurs when you grasp or behold the physical object directly, not indirectly as before.
The thing about physical objects though is that they are transient in nature. Nothing physical lasts forever, not even diamonds. Moreover, no physical object perfectly instantiates any shape or characteristic. Like, there’s no perfectly round physical circle in the world. And there’s no perfectly symmetrical object either. And there’s no perfectly beautiful physical object, despite what Bruno Mars might say. If you look closely at any physical object you can always find some flaw or imperfection in its form. And yet our mind can imagine a perfect circle and a perfectly symmetric shape. And if presented with, say, the most beautiful statue in the world, we can imagine a more beautiful one, where any little imperfections of the physical one are corrected.
And so, for Plato, this means that there is a higher level of reality and of cognition. And here we are leaving the perceptible world and entering the intelligible world, the world that our mind perceives.
The next level of reality consists of what we might call essences or definitions. After studying and drawing a lot of circles on paper you eventually understand the essence of a circle and its definition. And that allows you to think about circles without relying on physical drawings of them. When geometers work with circles they’re not working with physical circles. They are working with perfect ones which they can never draw but their mind can see.
But the definition or essence of a circle is not yet the ultimate reality of a circle. Because definitions of objects in geometry rely on certain assumptions. And this also applies to definitions of words. When you try to define something, you have to appeal to simpler concepts. And when you define those concepts you have to appeal to even simpler ones. But eventually you get to concepts that are so simple that there’s just nothing more basic to appeal to in your definition. In math those are called primitive objects, like point, line, or plane. Mathematicians kind of just agree that they understand what they are, even though they can’t really define them.
Plato calls this level of cognition dianoia, which is usually translated as understanding. The dia- prefix in dianoia means through, which suggests that you are moving past a superficial grasp of an object and seeing through to its essence.
But there’s an even higher level of cognition, Plato suggests, which he calls noêsis, and through which our minds access the highest level of reality, which consists of the forms, the Platonic forms, which don’t depend on any assumptions. When you grasp the form of a triangle or of justice or beauty, Plato thinks you are freeing yourself from the assumptions you’ve been using, because you’ve reached the ultimate first principles, as it were. Just as when you move from shadows or reflections of an object to the object itself and you see the source of those shadows and reflections, so too when you make the leap from essences and definitions of mathematical objects or other concepts to the forms themselves, your mind is now grasping the ultimate causes of those things of which you had understanding or dianoia. In other words, essences and definitions are like shadows and reflections of the forms.
So that, in a nutshell, is the double hierarchy that the divided line is mapping. Now, there’s a lot more to the divided line than that. And I think I might do a YouTube video in the future where you can really see all the parts of it and we can go a little more in depth. But for this episode, we’ll leave it at that.
But since the Republic is ultimately about justice, let’s just briefly consider what it would mean to attain noêsis of justice.
Well, you start off as a child by hearing the word justice, and maybe some phrases about it, like “justice is blind,” and maybe you watch a movie called The Justice League. In all these cases you’re operating at the lowest level of cognition, eikasia. These are just shadows and images of something else. You’re not directly observing any real example or instance of justice. But then, one day you meet a remarkable human being, perhaps a mentor or role model or relative, who embodies the virtue of justice. And that experience makes a deep impression on you. Suddenly all the earlier things you heard about justice and saw in movies make sense in a deeper way. Now you’ve attained pistis or confident belief in what justice is because you’ve actually observed a real example of it. If you then begin to study this person’s behavior and compare it to the behavior of other people, both just and unjust, you might start to understand what the underlying essence of their behavior is that constitutes justice. You’ll be able to formulate a definition of justice that explains in each case what makes something just or unjust. Now, you’ve achieved dianoia or understanding of justice. But that’s still not the end of the intellectual journey. As you continue to study justice as well as other related concepts, at some point you make the final leap and grasp the form of justice itself.
The details of how this leap to enlightenment might work are left unexplained. And it seems that only the students of Plato’s Academy were privy to that information.
In any case that is the gist of the divided line. I think dwelling on it any further at this point is going to be information overload. But I will say one thing regarding the common claim that Plato supposedly had disdain for sensory experience. Nowhere in this passage does he claim that you can achieve noesis without empirical thinking. Sensory experience seems to be necessary for getting to dianoia, from which you make the leap to noesis. So he leaves open the question of how much of our knowledge is ultimately derived from experience.
And as mentioned earlier, if you want to mount a serious critique of Plato’s epistemology, you should move beyond the facile accusations of anti-empiricism and really dive into the divided line. Study it carefully and consider: What are its strengths and weaknesses as a model of human cognition? But enough of that. Let’s move on to the fifth and final reason why some people hate Plato.
What is best in life? That is the question with which we began our exploration of book 6, and it is the question to which we finally return to end it, because it brings us to the fifth and final reason we’ll talk about today, which may be the biggest reason, the underlying cause, for why so many people hate Plato. And that is Plato’s stance on the question, What is good? And, by extension, what is the highest good?
Now, first of all, why would these questions be a source of contention? Well because they are some of the most important questions in all of ethics. Your position on what the highest good is determines a huge amount of your value system, your morals. You see, in order to be able to make decisions in life and to justify your decisions and actions, you need a hierarchy of values. Each of us has one, whether we’re aware of it or not. And you also need a highest good at the top of your hierarchy of values.
You can see why if you imagine the kind of conversation that four-year-olds have with their parents, where the parents say, “Johnny, don’t take the toy from your sister.” And Johnny says, “but why?” “Because you should share.” “But why?” “Because sharing is good.” “But why?” “Because that’s how you make friends. And you want to have friends in life.” “But why?” And so on and so forth.
Unless you want to cut the conversation short with “because I said so!” you need to land somewhere. You need to arrive at some profound good that outweighs all other considerations.
Now, philosophers may be a little more sophisticated than four-year-olds, but they too play this “why game” with each other when debating moral questions. And in order for any of them to withstand a barrage of why’s, they need to land somewhere in their arguments. They need a highest good. Cause without one, your argument continues ad infinitum. And if you have more than one that you deem equally good, then you’re in trouble because what do you do when you’re forced to choose between them?
This brings us back to that fateful day of Plato’s public lecture, when we’re told that he made the enigmatic claim that “the Good is one.” People have been puzzling over what that means for ages. It was probably a very loaded claim, with several layers of meaning to it. But I think part of it must have been this simple point that you need to have a single, highest good in your hierarchy of values in order to have an effective decision-making framework.
So, what is the highest good according to Plato? Well, it’s the form of the good. We talked a bit about what that is last time. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly because, as we saw in our discussion of truth and knowledge, Plato thought that the highest truths cannot be fully expressed using language. And so, I can’t report to you what Plato himself can’t report.
But the key feature of Plato’s view of the good that makes it unique, controversial, inspiring to some, horrifying to others, is that it’s intricately connected with beauty – so closely connected that Plato sometimes uses the terms as if they are synonyms. Plato’s notion of the good is also closely connected with truth. It’s almost as if these three concepts – goodness, truth, and beauty – form a kind of holy trinity for Plato. They are sometimes referred to today as the three Platonic ideals. And some institutions, e.g. Hillsdale College, have it as their motto: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Now, why would this conception of the good upset a lot of people?
I’ve wondered that for many years, because whenever this idea came up in a philosophy class or seminar, some of the students would be impressed with it and might even say, “Wow, this is a really interesting idea.” And the professor would often warn us against buying into it. They’d be like, “You guys realize that this is a very dangerous idea, right?” And a few times, I asked the professor, “Why is it a dangerous idea?”
And I never really got a satisfying answer. One professor said, “Look at the Nazis. They idolized beauty (or what they thought was beauty), and look at all the terrible things that came from that.” It’s like, Wait, you’re going to blame what the Nazis did in WWII on a philosopher who lived more than two thousand years earlier? That didn’t make a lot of sense.
But over time, I think I got where a lot of the worries come from. And they are legitimate concerns. For instance, imagine if important decisions in our society were made based on people’s looks. Imagine if the job you could get, or the house you could buy, or the offices you could hold depended on your looks. This already happens to a degree unfortunately. But if it were institutionalized. That would be scary. So, I understand those concerns completely. But they don’t seem to me to apply to Plato’s philosophy, because think of who the paragon of beauty is that Plato sets forth in his dialogues? It’s Socrates. He’s not a particularly attractive man in the traditional sense. He’s an old dude with a receding hairline and a monkey nose, according to contemporary accounts.
So, when Plato talks about beauty, he’s not thinking of the kind of superficial good looks that might get you Instagram followers, or might get you past the velvet rope at a fancy nightclub. He has something deeper and more profound in mind. So, the answers I got for why Plato’s view of the good is dangerous never satisfied me, and I kept wondering why this connection between goodness and beauty bothers some people.
But now, after many years, I think I’ve figured out at least a large part of the reason. And I’d like to share my thoughts with you on that. And then we’ll call it a day.
The big breakthrough for me came when I was reading Cicero, who is a Roman philosopher writing 300 years after Plato. He was very interested in the question of the highest good, which he called in Latin the summum bonum, which is a term you should know if you’re interested in this topic. He reports that in his day and age, after centuries of debate about what the summum bonum might be, philosophers had come to realize that there’s really very few candidates available for it. In fact, by his time there were only three that, according to him, seemed tenable. And we’ll get to them in a moment.
Now, when I read this it blew my mind. Because I looked around at all the modern ideologies, political movements, and religions etc. and tried to see if I could find one with a different highest good from those three, and I couldn’t. In the two millennia since Cicero we haven’t been able to introduce a new candidate for the highest good, as far as I can tell. If it’s true that your view of the highest good determines a huge chunk of your ethics, and I think it is true. That means that all ethical frameworks, including religions, philosophies, and political ideologies can be organized under three main camps.
When you look at things that way, I think you’ll find that virtually all of the dominant narratives and ideologies that we’re surrounded by today in the West fall under two of those camps, and Platonism falls under the third. So, the Platonic view of the Good is at odds with the implied highest good in almost everything we consume today.
Now some of you might be thinking, can you please stop beating around the bush and just tell us what these three highest goods are?
Ok. So, as Cicero reports, the only viable candidates are 1) pleasure, or as a modern utilitarian might say, the most pleasure for the most people. That’s what capitalism e.g. promises. And it’s the implicit highest good in a lot of movies that end happily ever after as well as songs and commercials that talk about enjoying life to the fullest.
The second candidate is, as Cicero puts it, the avoidance of pain. An ethical system with that as its summum bonum would seek to eliminate as much suffering as possible from as many people as possible. And this, I think, is actually the most pervasive highest good in our moral frameworks today. Just think of any political movement or activist organization. It’s always about this or that group of people or animals that is suffering, that’s victimized, and we need to protect them. The elimination of suffering is also the most pervasive implicit highest good among philosophers in the west today (more on that later). And it’s not just among philosophers, by the way, but in academia more broadly. Virtually every single course I ever took in college that had anything to do with values or justice or civic engagement was focused on “tearing down systems of oppression.” Almost every moral question was discussed in relation to some victim group.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Working to protect victims and reduce suffering in the world is a noble endeavor. And so is trying to bring joy to as many people as possible. Furthermore, both of those goals seem to be rooted in our biology. So, clearly they always have been and always will be part of our moral calculus. The question is, Can either one of those goals function as the highest good in a moral framework?
Well, let’s consider a few quick thought experiments. What if you could end all suffering in the world by placing every human in a vat with their brain hooked up to a simulation in which they never feel pain. Would that be a good thing to do? Would you want to live like that? Most people say no. Because they feel that it isn’t real. So, there is some other criterion, in this case reality/truth, that overrides the elimination of suffering. And therefore, the elimination of suffering cannot be the highest good.
Now consider the first candidate for the summum bonum – the most pleasure for the most people. This time, imagine a situation like the one described in Huxley’s Brave New World, where citizens engage in promiscuous sex, frequent orgies, and are literally sprayed by the authorities with euphoria-inducing drugs. So, they experience huge amounts of sexual and chemically-induced pleasure. Would you want to spend your whole life in that world? Again, a lot of people would say, no. Not just because, like in the previous example, there’s something fake about it. But there’s also, arguably, something ugly about it. This is the famous aesthetic argument against the kind of utilitarian ethics that sees pleasure as the highest good. Critics of utilitarianism have said, you can make humans live like happy pigs. But is that what you want? Where’s the beauty in that?
So, pleasure doesn’t work as the highest good either. Because there are cases where our sense of beauty overrides the pursuit of at least certain pleasures.
It’s for reasons like these, I think, that Plato, Cicero, the Stoics, and many other thinkers since concluded that neither pleasure nor pain, nor a combination of the two, can provide sufficient guidance for us to navigate difficult moral questions. And that’s why they prefer the third candidate for the summum bonum, which is hard to say in a word. But it’s something like… order is the highest good. Alternatively you could say that virtue is the highest good, where virtue is conceived of as the set of behaviors and mental states that promote order both in one’s community and in one’s own soul.
We might say, if we’re trying to update this conception with modern language, that the highest good is complexity. And that we should seek to sustain and maximize the complexity of our world. So, anything that destroys complexity is bad, and anything that’s good can be ultimately seen as somehow contributing to the sustainability or even augmentation of the complexity of our world.
So if you remember from our discussion last time, or if you’ve read book 6, the good is seen as an analog to the sun. It is a source of generation. Just as the sun allows for physical complexity to grow all around us, the form of the good allows for complex forms that the mind can see to grow. So, we can think of justice and symmetry and beauty and truth and all the other forms as intelligible plants, so to speak, that grow under the shining form of the good.
Earlier, I said that the elimination of suffering is the most pervasive implicit highest good among philosophers in the west today. And the reason I said “implicit” is because, unlike the ancients, philosophers today don’t really talk about the highest good explicitly. They kind of act like it’s not an issue for them. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there, at the core of their systems of thought, determining many of their ethical positions. I challenge you to find a single public intellectual today or prominent moral thinker in the West who doesn’t espouse the elimination of suffering as the primary goal of ethics.
The dominant approach to ethics in the anglophone world today is what people call utilitarianism or consequentialism, which means you judge actions based on their consequences, and that usually means based on the pleasure or pain that those actions cause people. Under the three-fold division of ethical systems based on Cicero’s three highest goods that we’ve been talking about, all flavors of utilitarianism/consequentialism have one of the first two highest goods. They either seek to maximize pleasure or reduce suffering for as many people as possible.
Seen in that way, there’s really not that much diversity in modern ethics. At least that’s what Elizabeth Anscombe claimed, who we mentioned earlier, and who, like Plato, modern philosophers love to hate. She said that if you dig past all the myriad fancy debates that philosophers today have on a million different issues, they’re all standing on the same foundation. And that foundation, she thought, was shaky.
Anscombe was not alone in thinking that. Another prominent British philosopher of the twentieth century, Bernard Williams, wrote a book on utilitarianism in the 70’s at the end of which he prophesied the downfall of such an approach. He thought the flaws of utilitarian ethics were so glaring that “the day cannot be far off in which we hear no more of it.” (Utilitarianism: For and Against, 1973, p. 150 )
And yet, 50 years later, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “that day looks further off now than it did in 1973” when Williams made his prophecy. (entry for “Bernard Williams” n.18).
Why is that? Have subsequent philosophers solved the problems that Anscombe and Williams highlighted? Have they filled the gaps in their system, stabilized their foundation?
I don’t see any such fundamental progress having been made. If someone wants to come on the show and debate me on this, I’d be happy to have that conversation. But as far as I can tell, academic philosophers today just keep calm and carry on as if the critiques of Anscombe, Williams, and others have passed their expiration date and there’s no need to worry about them anymore.
While a lot of utilitarians and consequentialists today think that their approach to ethics is modern, Cicero’s framework seems to suggest that it’s as old as philosophy itself, and maybe even older. The goals of increasing pleasure for people and eliminating suffering are rooted in our biology. Those are the obvious first-order approximations of what the good might be. But when you try to build an ethical system that is consistent and solid and can hold up to scrutiny, and isn’t controverted by obvious thought experiments, you realize that they simply don’t work as the highest good. And I think Plato realized that. And so he came up with this third way, let’s say.
And while his conception may seem too metaphysical and weird to us, I think he would say, “Yea, well what’s your alternative? And don’t come to me with utilitarianism or consequentialism because they don’t work.”
So, yea, it is weird. And yet, I’m not aware of any philosopher who has debunked Plato’s conception of the good in the way that the other two candidates can be easily refuted by so many thought experiments. And I’m not aware of any philosopher who has proposed an alternative conception of the good that holds up to scrutiny. Meanwhile, I see great moral thinkers throughout history, like the Stoics, like Cicero, or more recently Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who all seem to share a similar intuition about a non-utilitarian, non-consequentialist, transcendent, ultimate good. And that makes me wonder whether there is something to it.
So why does Plato’s conception piss people off? Well, because it implies that we’re all deluded in our morality. It’s like telling someone who is in a cult that the god they believe in isn’t the one true god. When you tell people that the good that they orient their life around isn’t the true good, it’s a shocking thing. It’s terrifying. Again, it goes against all the narratives we consume on a daily basis.
And so, it doesn’t just piss off philosophers. It’s not just that it would put philosophers out of a job if it were true. This goes beyond academia. It extends to all of us. All of us operate with an internal compass that points us to a highest good. And we’re all programmed by society to be utilitarians. And Plato says, you’re misguided. You might as well be sleep-walking.
And I think that, whatever other points Plato made that day in public in his lecture on the good, that was one of the implications. And that’s why people hated that lecture. And that’s why people still hate him today.