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Return of the Reassessed: Plato in the Modern World

Plato, like Starbucks, is ubiquitous but not in that terrible “sacrificing local flavor and spelling your name wrong” kind of way. The second of the three philosophers is simply EVERYWHERE if you are able to “see” him. This might, at first blush, appear to be a rather exotic or even deluded notion.

Where is all the street art adorning walls and bus stations with spray painted stencils depicting Raphael’s The School of Athens with the hirsute figure holding the Timeaus highlighted by Hot Pink Krylon Fusion-All-In-One®? Why have I yet to meet a single school aged child named Gorgias or Minor Hippias? Hell, wasn’t it Socrates that Bill and Ted picked up for their excellent adventure, and NOT his student (despite the fact that Socrates composed not a word of his own for posterity)?

But it’s precisely Plato’s ability to hide that renders him so effortlessly diffuse in all things that encounter thought. True enough—popular entertainment (whether it be MMA or Hulu) will most likely not bear a clear stamp of the Platonic in some sort of overt fashion. Even the celebrated “philosophical sitcom,” The Good Place, was essentially a farcical romp through a superficial understanding of “ethics” with its “trolly problem” jokes and the like (but no real substantial attempt to engage with the Athenian dialectician).

Yet when it comes to thought itself, it is rather easy to stumble across the Ring of Gyges as we shepherd through our mental landscape (so to speak). Alfred North Whitehead famously stated that “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” In my opinion Whitehead was potentially too modest (or too processed, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) in his thinking. Not merely philosophy but, literature, art, political debate, and everyday conversation/observation are all, if not a series of “footnotes to Plato,” at least heavily interspersed with veiled hyperlinks to the great thinker. In fact, a very real understanding of ourselves is DEEPLY Platonic, as will be shown. But before illustrating WHAT is so Platonically present in our lives it is better to explain HOW Plato has uniquely made his mark possible and lasting.

What is now considered philosophical discourse is almost always a third-person account wherein a subset of a subset of a branch (say not “epistemology” or even “phenomenology” but “phenomenology of X”) is laid out on the page in prose that (whether stylistically accessible or woefully wooden) possesses an elevated degree of demanding terminology while married to a gargantuan universe of secondary or tertiary literature. There is nothing “wrong” about this innovation and, in a sense, while one can indeed begrudge the all-too-often over-specificity which is unduly common among contemporary philosophers (it is hard to imagine anyone of our day and age/culture producing a work akin to Sein und Zeit/Being and Time or even Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) the move to a critical, heavily annotated, and academically informed philosophy is an inevitable good. And yet, if we can meaningfully say that philosophy as we know it begins with Plato (not Socrates, his primary dialectical amanuensis, let alone the mysterious pre-Socratics who we truly only “know” via references by later lovers of wisdom) then it is clear that what we are now wont to read, discuss, think over, and debate in lecture halls and across the pages of academic journals is rather alien to Symposium or Cratylus.

Plato’s only literary form (with the possible exception of two of the oft ignored epistles that are considered authenticated) was the dialogue. While his student Aristotle would have no trouble whatsoever composing more “familiar” prose treatises, Plato himself did not find it necessary or valuable to render his indelible remarks as anything other than ostensible closet dramas. Why he did this is difficult to answer and may deal with what Jesuit, professor, and philosopher Walter J. Ong referred to as “residual orality” in the Athenian culture of Plato’s time. Such residue is not unique to that time and place, however, and can be seen throughout literary history all the way up to this very day (although only in rare pockets of the contemporary Occident). For instance, at the dawn of the western novel it was not uncommon for authors to go out of their way to construct false fortifications of “authenticity” to buttress their fiction. Thus, the pages of Robinson Crusoe are the “real and true diaries” of an “actual ship wreck” while the second part of Don Quixote begins with a discussion of all of the “false” Quixote stories that were being published to bandwagon off of Cervantes’ success. Ironically such a move now (signaling directly to the reader that one is NOT reading “fiction” a la Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves) is considered remarkably postmodern and contemporary.

All of this, then, is to say that Plato is now both the definitive originator of the Western philosophical tradition as well as a shockingly alien presence considering what that tradition has become and come into. You cannot “get anywhere” if you do not start on “his” path but almost none of us abide his preferred mode of travel. So how, exactly, is Plato able to haunt everything we take for granted in intellectual life on both a grand and miniscule scale if he bears no passing resemblance to the contemporary philosophical treatise? Furthermore, how can this giant still leave an impress upon a world that most of us consider quite implacably hostile to higher exercises of thought?

First, we must begin at the beginning, that is, an appreciation and interpretation of the dialogue. Ultimately a dialogue is the ur progenitor of dialectics, if not merely the most simplistic variety of dialectics as such. Both terms are clearly related as can be seen by their shared (and originally Greek) prefix δι for “two” whereby neither can be accomplished monistically. Dialectics, therefore, is the art (or even technique/science) of undermining our false (and spontaneous) relationship to reality (via IMAGERY/sensation/perception/reaction) through an intense meditation on the world oscillating between at least two “points of view.” In this instance “image” is not a poetic term or one that should be simply associated with the visual sense but a haphazard and often ill-conceived construction of this or that facet of the real world which is taken as true, even if only passively (or often unconsciously) so. The image, then, is always false. However, imagery cannot simply be confronted and dislodged by some sort of sheer intellectual individualized “will power.” Staring intensely as possible at a mirage will not replace a phantom lake with the reality of dust and dirt. Rather, some other “move” must be attended to, whether that be actually advancing toward the image, asking others about what they themselves perceive, or interacting with some other corpus of knowledge. Far too often we believe that contrast, comparison, disharmony, harmony, conflict, and attractions/repulsion between concepts “weaken” our intellectual understanding or, we find ourselves hopelessly confronted with a naive Ding an sich, accepting that the “thing in itself” will ALWAYS outpace our comprehension. In the former instance a mental voice says, “you’re not focusing on the matter at hand” while in the latter that same voice cries “stop wasting your time!” But dialectics allows us to approach reality if not “head on” then through a “work around” of indirect investigation AND disputation. It is also not some sort of “binary thinking” (which itself is an overly and overtly maligned concept in popular “intellectual” life).

Dialogue, when done well, is this sort of dialectics par excellence and Plato makes this apparent already within the very first book of Republic when Socrates questions the rather ancient Cephalus about what it means to be old and to possess riches. Right off the bat a point should be made–while Socrates’ whole business (apart from his rumored stone masonry) was ambling about and talking to strangers the quandary he lays at the feet of his elderly interlocutor is quite banal, displaying that Socrates has little worthwhile he can think of to ask the elderly festival goer. And Cephalus’ answer is, frankly, uninspired and morally obtuse. For Cephalus the great benefit of old age and wealth is that one can finally “afford” to be virtuous. Where once he was strong enough to pursue his passions (whether they be philandering or prodigality) now he is simply too tired to chase after ladies, libations, or loot. Thus, while others might lament that they simply no longer possess the wherewithal of youth, Cephalus is quite pleased that he no longer feels the “pull” to indulge his appetites. Instead, he is content to finally get around to enjoying rhetoric and the “finer things” in life. And even better–while in his youth his passions led him to spend greatly (and thus, find himself frequently in debt) he now has coin aplenty and thus, is always able to give what is owed and not have to “cheat” anyone financially while also being able to “pay” for his past transgressions by performing often elaborate and expensive sacrifices at various temples. To sum up then: aging allows one to be just because it makes “sinning” labor intensive and possessing adequate pecuniary resources frees one to bribe man and divinity when necessary and not engage in fraud.

This gives Socrates an opening to a broader topic; what is justice? To that end Socrates partially distills Cephalus’ observations about age and wealth noting that to be just is to essentially pay back debts, to “give what is owed” to “whom it is due” whether they be man or the gods. Cephalus ultimately finds this to be a reasonable purification of his thought. But here Socrates strikes, offering Cephalus a somewhat fanciful hypothetical. Suppose one were to borrow a sword from their neighbor only to find that, when they are ready to return it, the original blade owner has become too mentally unfit to wield sharp instruments, such that he would attack himself or others. Would it be just to give what is due in this situation?

Without rehashing the rest of the argument (which literally takes up the entire remainder of the dialogue with multiple interlocuters but not Cephalus who is the ONLY one “allowed” to leave) it is safe to say that here we see the power of dialectics at work. While it is quite true that Cephalus, perhaps due to age and overall mental/ethnical untidiness, exits stage right without an altered approach to reality the rest of the (young) men at Piraeus will become, through the meandering quality of Socrates vigilant give and take, enlightened to some degree or another. What began as some rather insipid, superficial, and even counter-ethical musings on the relative benefits of old age and wealth turns into a massive thought experiment aimed not simply at defining justice but an even more important consideration–is justice a “good in itself” or something all men pay lip service because of what it delivers to you? In other words, what false images of justice do we keep ready-to-hand and how, by examining one another, can we approach a truth, if not the entire truth, of this most important yet abused social concept? Is the idea that justice itself is “good” merely another false image or can we finally offer an affirmative that the just life IS the good and right life in and of itself?

But, doesn’t this simply further underscore the utter absence of Plato in contemporary life? While quite a few of us may have had some stimulating conversations from time to time they didn’t necessarily culminate in marathon colloquies around necessary but slippery abstractions like justice, not to mention the fact that, if we are honest, such “great conversations” seem utterly absent in the forums and halls of power wherein they are most wanting.

This is, to our utter shame, undoubtedly true but, just as Flannery O’Connor had her “Christ haunted South” it seems equally appropriate to gesture towards a “Plato haunted West” and recall that hauntings, as such, are most “visible” in the dark. Now, it would be tempting to make much of Plato’s broader and above-board significance (returning to the fact that the philosopher as such is ALWAYS engaging with Plato even if she is unaware) but doing so would be akin to “dead lettering” the good Athenian thinker whereby he is “only good” as source material to argue for, against, or ignore. Plato, in this estimation, is akin to a controversial work of public art, say a gargantuan abstract aluminum statue of vaguely serpentine aspect which, even if one is choosing to dispassionately disregard it on their daily commute must do so conspicuously. But such a Plato, while very much present, does NOT have a true hold on us or our culture. It might be “spectacular” but is no spectre.

Rather I submit that there is one particularly powerful Platonic idea (also from Republic) that does beset our sensibilities–the tripartite soul. Oddly enough this notion, perhaps even more than the famous allegory of the cave, is his most “well known” concept but only in what I suspect is its highly perverted and inverted pseudo-doppelgänger: the Freudian psyche.

For Freud the mind is akin to an iceberg with only a small portion peeking up above the frigid waterline. Just above the surface is a portion of the ego and an even smaller portion of the superego. While the ego itself is *mostly* above the water, in consciousness, the majority of the superego is submerged while the entirety of the id is completely sunk. Before going onto define exactly what role each of these “components” plays it is important first to emphasize their “topographic locale.” Again, the ego is almost all “conscious,” (and “preconscious”) with only a sliver “unconscious,” the superego is predominately “unconscious” (and “preconscious”), while the id is utterly “unconscious.”

So, while the iceberg analogy elucidates placement, another analogy illustrates function–let’s call it the rider, the horse, and the instructor. Here the ego is the rider, the rational “I,” his head scanning the horizon, attempting to stay on the social trail and navigate an often-hostile frontier. The horse is the id, completely below the rider, the seat of pure passion and drive without which there is no forward movement. And then we have a riding instructor walking besides the horse and rider, the superego, which offers something akin to moral support and guidance. Of course, this analogy as presented is woefully lacking because the truth is, this small ensemble is NOT playing in tune but actively in a sort of polytonic war.

The id does not “have” desire but IS desire, principally an often brutal, frequently childish, “sexual” desire and it has no wish to be ridden/controlled. The ego attempts, often at near breaking point, to negotiate with the id, wanting to perform the basic civilizational and social functions as an upstanding member of the human race. But the ego must also confront and conflict with the superego, an “instructor” that is by no means an ethical agent but something like the worst of both worlds. Instead of offering true aid and inspiration, the superego is mostly a creature of severe chastisement, reminding the ego of how far it is form being “ideal,” throwing the various rules, regulations, and codes of civil, familial, and even “spiritual” order in its face and, when not also conflicting with the id (in its own way) is more often than not actively conspiring, just beneath the surface, to excite the id. One can imagine the riding instructor screaming at the rider, berating his lack of “proper form” while simultaneously and clandestinely injecting liquid cocaine into the buttocks of the horse. Nor should one believe that the ego itself is necessarily a “victim” of the id and superego–it may in its own way “conspire” with either “partner” against another or simply, and voluntarily, fall into the twisted passion play. At its worst all three might have a desire to simply fall into a ditch and never rise again!

It is easy to see why and how modern persons, whether they are aware of Freud’s actual ideas or not, would find this conception true and attractive. After all, so much everyday living on a purely individualistic level feels less like a battle of “all against all” and more like a protracted campaign of “me against myself and I.” We don’t do what we want to do, and that which we do we wish we had not. We want to fashion excuses both for actions we take and those we abstain from, and we want a cure, not necessarily to make “better choices” or even to avoid destructive behavior but more often than not to “accept who we are” and feel fine about falling off the path. We are highly aware of this.

And that, perhaps this is our first clue that the Freudian psyche is a “problematic” construction because it really ISN’T unconscious, is it? One might argue that “ideas have consequences” and thus Freud “gets into the tap water” as it were and now, we all sort of think this. But Freud himself was the first to find ample evidence for his ideas throughout the grand (and often ancient) literature and ritual of the West, although he had to often “contort” those works to fit beneath a new “veil” of meaning. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex springs readily to mind. Now, I would be remiss to claim that Freud identified nothing “real” with his understanding of the psyche, but I would be equally remiss to claim that the (purported) explanatory power of such a model is either sui generis or only made apparent by the hard work of psychic excavation.

Plato’s tripartite soul, on the other hand, while not an exact correspondence or inversion (which, to my mind, proves its higher claim to truth and authority as it could not simply be “turned on its head”) is clearly the Geist which haunts the Freudian psyche. For Plato the soul (which can just as easily be translated as “mind”) is in three distinct portions that, while not dramatically and traumatically ‘at war’ do often work in concert and conspiracy. There is the “rational,” (somewhat similar to the Freudian ego but without having to be necessarily and exclusively fueled unconsciously by sex and drugs), the “appetitive” (not too far off from the id, but again, by no means identical as the appetites are much “wider,” quite literal, and palpably overt), and finally the “spirited” (not at all like any of the three components of the Freudian psyche, especially the superego).

The appetitive, as its name suggests, is all about “appetites,” and such appetites are primarily bodily (hunger, thirst, comfort, rest, shelter, sex). The spirited is best seen as being the seat of emotion and, for Plato, is the more “powerful” driver of the soul (love, joy, fear, honor, duty, et cetera). Finally, the rational is, as its name suggests, all about thinking through and with situations in everyday life, attempting to solve problems, remaining focused on what matters, and pondering (hopefully when appropriate) the big questions of life.

It is ultimately the fully conscious quality of Plato’s soul that is most at odds with Freud such that, for Plato, the true philosopher is not necessarily a reader or writer of books but one whose mind is fully honest, in “proper” (as opposed to “equal”) balance, and always striving to be totally aware. While Plato might agree with Freud that there is a distinct need to “know thy self,” where he would be most at odds with the Austrian neurologist is in believing that a) the cause of such (ultimately spiritual) ignorance is part and parcel of a bestial human nature and b), the cure is hours and hours and hours languishing upon the analyst’s couch. For Plato the cure would also be lifelong but far simpler (and, in a way, far more labor intensive). The psychoanalytic patient and the philosopher must ultimately part ways for the simple reason that the philosopher is not becoming aware of something self-consciously hidden within the “dark recesses” but coming to true enlightenment through dialectic which involves not an individual “ego” but a fully formed person with a nature crying out for cultivation as opposed to pure libertine excess.

Plato, for instance, makes note of the fact that while the appetitive may very well be instinctual, it is clearly not “unconscious.” Of course, Plato would not have had access, let alone use, for such strange language as “unconscious” but it seems obvious to him (and frankly, too all of us if we can be honest) that our appetites are evident and quite conventional. There is no mystery to hunger and no truly “pathological” hunger—only a hunger that is, for lack of a better term, undisciplined. And, unlike the id, the Platonic soul knows exactly when the rational and the spirited allow or encourage the appetitive to go out of bounds.

Take, for example, that odd verb we so often deploy at others (and hopefully towards ourselves) to critique decision making processes. “You are just rationalizing,” you claim, when you hear your roommate calmly explain that the “reason” they spent their share of rent money on a pair of vintage Air Jordans was “for an important job interview.” To “rationalize” in the popular sense of the term is to rationalize in the Platonic sense; one is finding an “intelligent” excuse for their appetites that they will communicate to others and to themselves. But even when we rationalize “in the mirror” we all know that we are “rationalizing.” It might help for another to point it out but in the final analysis we are not ignorant of WHY we married the rational to the appetize in this or that particular instance of the passions.

But perhaps the more dangerous conspiracy is when the spirited and the appetitive join forces. Here the basic passions of appetite are hyper-charged by the emotions such that the rational may very well abdicate responsibility out of weakness or not even attempt to rationalize the experience. This is something, in a way, far worse in that while we cannot outright call it “mindless” it is indeed “guideless” with the highs and lows of the spirit clearing hurdles for the appetite. Yet again there is nothing truly unconscious about this. The soul, as a whole, knows what it is doing and why and it would take good “philosophical training” (day in and day out) to either halt or even avoid such moments of complicity between appetite and spirit.

This is why Plato actually doesn’t encourage any sort of basic “equal harmony” between the three parts of the soul but actively calls for a hierarchical collusion with the rational on top working with the spirited as both of them actively subordinate the appetitive. This is not to suggest that the appetitive has no role, but it is to say that “the appetites will take care of themselves” as is expected. Rather, Plato makes note of the fact that often a hero will actively (knowingly!) repress their appetites by the aid of their spirt such that the rational can complete the necessary task at hand. In this way one will forgo not simply vices or temptations but honest necessities like food and sleep, beating their breast at a moment of weakness and tell themselves “NOT YET! There is work to be done!” While it is the rational which is ultimately responsible for deciding WHAT must be done WHEN (and WHY), it is the spirit that drives the rational to the finish line. And I cannot help but feel that Plato’s promotion of emotion/motivation is radically fresh and legitimate, especially at a time when the populace tends to set “facts” and “feelings” at odds (or attempts a very poor form of rationalization wherein numerous schools of thought bloom to excuse every instance of the appetite and the spirit making a mess). One might even claim that Plato very expertly, by roughly a pair of millennia (and a third) presaged the contemporary field of the psychology of motivation which could only emerge out of the wreckage of classical psychoanalysis, its exact opposite (Skinnerian behaviorism) and the not very helpful “third position” of Rogerian humanism.

This, then, is just one profound example of not only why Plato remains relevant but abides with us, even in an attenuated form. The tripartite soul IS the self-understanding that everyone almost instinctually possesses and ultimately “defaults” to when they are honest about who they are, what they have accomplished, and where they should next venture. Which is another way of saying that everyone really DOES want to be a philosopher (even if the very idea dampens their appetite, scandalizes their spirit, and pokes at their rationality like a sharp stone in their shoe).

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