Really, I’d prefer to spend my time discussing things that are interesting, enlightening, insightful, informed or, if not, at least mildly amusing, but sometimes, I come across something that is so shockingly none of these things that it is difficult to let it go and move on. So, against my better judgment, but in the ever-more-quixotic hope of trying to point the finger at something bad in order to make things better, let me spend a few moments considering this article the Huffington Post recently ran on the subject of Plato’s Republic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-witte/plato-on-the-dead-white-m_b_10633342.html.
To save you the pain of reading this, allow me to summarize: someone with no apparent qualifications or background in philosophy (or certainly no background that he displays in this article) picks up what is perhaps the single greatest book of philosophy ever written — Plato’s Republic — identifies a few out-of-context passages that sound outlandish to us today (though our ideas about what makes for a good republic would probably sound outlandish to Plato and many of his compatriots, and who’s to say we’re any wiser than they were?), ignores every single one of the great contributions to philosophical thought The Republic made, concludes that Plato’s reputation is undeserved or on account of a tradition that favors dead white males and then ends by telling us to read Plato at our own risk. I mean, look, I’m not a mindless idolater of anything that is considered old or great, and I’d certainly be open to someone questioning The Republic‘s many controversial ideas, but it has to be done by someone who can discuss the ideas intelligently and discuss the relevant context. For instance, how about mentioning the allegory of the Cave that has been a powerful philosophical and literary metaphor that influenced everyone from the Gnostics to Kant? Or how about focusing a bit on the details of Socrates’ discussion about the nature of morality and justice with Thrasymachus and Callicles that then becomes critical for Nietzsche’s idea of “slave morality”? Or how about talking a little bit about why Plato proposed the radical move of kicking out the poets, which has everything to do with the fact that The Republic proposes the radical move of creating, for the first time, a government based on reason rather than tradition, while the poets merely reinforce and amplify tradition, thereby preserving people’s illusions and reinforcing their complacency in the face of the status quo? (I don’t agree that this is what poets always do, and I certainly don’t agree with the idea of banishing them from a good state, but to disagree with Plato, you have to first appreciate what he’s saying and why.) Or how about dealing with the serious challenge Plato poses to the way we tend in our traditional societies (as well as his) to deal with the upbringing of children, where children are raised in completely unequal environments and subjected to the whims and life circumstances of their (often idiotic) parents, whereas Plato proposes that they be raised in common, equally, in a rationally devised system of education? Or how about discussing Plato’s idea that a government should be based on reason rather than the pure exercise of power or majority rule? Or how about discussing how Plato’s views introduced the notion of moral realism, which some analytical philosophers now subscribe to in a different form (I think they’re crazy, but you have to take these arguments seriously and respond to them on the merits rather than ignore them)? Or how about discussing Plato’s relationship to the pre-Socratics and the Sophists and explaining how far he advanced philosophy as compared to where it was when he entered the picture. I mean, there’s a reason that, as Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of the history of philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. He raised virtually every question that we’re still out there discussion and trying to resolve, and he did it in a form that was poetic and captivating.
My point here is not to defend The Republic, which needs no defense from the likes of me, or to pick on one particular uneducated rube who’s not worth our time, but rather, to ask the more important question of why an ostensibly well-established, mainstream, authoritative publication such as The Huffington Post would publish nonsense like this. How did this get by the editors? Have we really reached the point as a culture where challenging someone as a “dead, white male” is sufficient to get traction for an otherwise mindless rant that reads like a junior high school book report by someone who obviously knows nothing and doesn’t care to read carefully or thoughtfully? The answer, it seems, is yes.
I am doing my part in upholding the standards of civilization by pointing the attention of anyone who cares to the publication of this truly embarrassing piece. Please do your part by making sure The Huffington Post gets a loud and clear message that you don’t think the publication of these kinds of uninformed screeds is acceptable.