From the nursery of reason to the old people’s home of philosophy
“Plato is one of those world-famed individuals, his philosophy one of those world-renowned creations, whose influence, as regards the culture and development of the mind, has from its commencement down to the present time been all-important.” (Hegel)
“Our present language and conception of the world are permeated throughout by the results of ancient philosophy.” (Windelband)
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Whitehead)
Be careful when praising and honoring tradition! Perhaps it isn't all that favorable to blurt out that, as a matter of principle, you haven’t wanted to learn anything new for 2,500 years. The more so since it has not yet been established what the ancient Greeks knew and could have known and – this is not the same! – what the insights drawn from them by the moderns are worth. A sober examination is obviously a violation of good manners if a discipline has decided to guard its tradition like a treasure – “One of the most beautiful gifts that fate has given to us from antiquity are without doubt the Platonic works” – and does not feel ridiculous, given this high responsibility, uttering warnings that the jewel’s shine might fade if a scrutinizing look is cast on it by an unbiased mind. Is it really a pity for a work of literature if it is broken by that?
But this danger does not exist for philosophers. In every lecture the sigh turns up: “One should be able to read him in the original Greek!” It is said that there is an enormous loss of substance in translation. Nobody needs to specify what this substance is supposed to consist of and what is lost in the rather harmless process of translating it into another language. Rather, tt is a matter of declaring in advance that one is incapable of ever sufficiently grasping the meaning of a text. This pose implies that there is more in and behind a text than it ever reveals. This general basic dogma of interpretation has inspired Plato experts to come up with the idea of distinguishing between an exoteric and an esoteric philosophy in Plato: the exoteric is what Plato has written down is his writings and what has been handed down about him – but is not supposed to be his real philosophy. The real one is the esoteric – one wonders what this is supposed to consist of – it’s what he didn’t write down! It is as if they want to say that they admire Plato much more than he deserves because of his writings.
“Science begins with Plato.” That may be. But why does this widespread judgment come as praise? After all, one can’t expect great and still groundbreaking insights if a mind which until then had been occupied with imagining a mythological world of gods is exercising judgment for the first time. Rather, it suggests comparison with a childlike mind which also doesn’t immediately start talking in print-ready thoughts when it emancipates itself from the ideas of its imagination.
I. Plato and science
In all the dialogues Plato has his characters searching for definitions. In this respect, the art of shipbuilding takes up as much space as the question of what distinguishes man from animal; the question of what is a statesman is just as interesting as that of the difference between appearance and reality; and of course the good, the beautiful, and the true must not be left out either. And in all these cases the question of what is a definition actually is first fiddled with. Where is one actually when Socrates lectures his pal Theaetetus, who wanted to answer the question of what knowledge is with a list (knowledge exists in the art of measuring, in the art of shoemaking, etc.), as follows?
“But what we asked was not what there was knowledge of, nor how many kinds of knowledge there were. For we did not ask with the intention of enumerating them, but in order to comprehend knowledge itself, what it might be.”
Or when in the Phaedo – the dialogue is about beauty – the beautiful words are uttered, “that by virtue of beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.” All right, the answer to the question as to what distinguishes beautiful things really couldn’t be more tautological. Plato obviously didn’t get any further than the need that recognition should be about determining the general nature of a thing. So he made a fool of himself with his definitions among his contemporaries. The interlocutors in the Politikos, for example, try hard to answer the question of what is man and they finally end up, to everyone’s satisfaction, with the opinion that man is “a non-feathered, bipedal creature.” He has searched for a difference from the other animals. And he got himself a plucked chicken, which the joker Diogenes threw over the walls of the academy to the followers of Plato. And this is still one of the better cases in which a dialogue ends with a positive result. In most cases, after all, the effort fails, which, as we know, earned old Socrates his reputation as a great philosopher.
– The basic elements of the delivered judgment are characterized by every sign of theoretical weakness. In someone who is celebrated for his parables! As if a defect in theoretical determination couldn’t be gathered from this thinking technique! No sooner is a judgment required than the imagination is called on to replace the missing predicate with an appeal to another idea. So what then is the famous allegory of the cave saying? Direct perception has to deal with the shadows of things and not with the things themselves. In order to grasp what things themselves are, one has to recognize their idea, their general nature. Perceiving and recognizing should therefore be two different things. Precisely for this reason, however, it is stupid to put recognition in an image that equates it with perceiving: In recognizing, we do not look at the shadows, but at the things themselves, it says. Anyone who continues thinking in this image will promptly come up with completely wrong ideas: For him, recognition has nothing to do with the content of perception and does not explain this content, but moves in a completely different, separate world. Ideas are a realm of their own which have nothing to do with things as they are known from perception. Nevertheless, ideas should be their general nature. So there must be a relation: The things are something, the ideas something completely different. Plato flounders here. He says: The things have “a share” in the ideas. At 50 or what? All this nonsense, by the way, is Plato’s theory of ideas. – The defect of this technique of thinking in images was also quite well-known to the participants in the dialogues.
In the Theaetetus, for example, the assertion is made: “Knowledge is like a block of wax; the stamp one makes on it is to the impression it leaves as reality is to knowledge.” And while everyone continues thinking about the metaphor for a while instead of thinking about knowledge, one of them comes up with the idea: “When knowing, it depends on the difference between true and false – but imprints cannot be true or false.” So knowledge is not the same as a block of wax. But since no one in the dialog has anything better to offer, the question is again left open.
What is praised as Plato’s dialectic actually gives a clue about this thinker’s bleak state of mind: he gets stuck in contradictions without being able to resolve them. The dialogues, which are considered particularly profound, are of this type. The Parmenides, for example: Someone comes along and claims: “Everything is Being. Then everything is one and the same – just Being, and all differences, the fact that there are different things in the world, the fact that they sometimes change, are mere appearance, lies, and deception.” And of course the next one says: “And what is appearance? Not Being? Then it doesn't exist at all. So there is Being after all.” First of all, everything is thrown into one pot – Being – and then the participants are surprised that they can no longer tell anything apart. Another substitute for knowledge. Anyone who doesn’t know anything makes do with universals that no longer contain anything specific, but which are supposed to explain everything.
Not for nothing does the whole thing come across as a dialogue. Not exactly a document for science either. Not every piece of crap should hold true; well-founded opinions should matter. Therefore, the reasons for and against the presented ideas are weighed against each other. But the objective reason of the matter has obviously not yet been proved – then there would be an end to the back and forth.
By the way, it did not matter at all that the ancient Greeks did not know anything. In their slaveholding society, they got along quite well without knowledge. What inspired their first scientific exercises was not their enormous thirst for knowledge. They would have had every reason to be dissatisfied with what they had achieved theoretically, and they would not have considered it an expression of wisdom that old Socrates succeeded time and again in proving that his contemporaries knew just as little about anything as he did. Rather, Plato and his crew were driven by the need for universal validity. The wise man in the dialogues is not someone who knows a lot and from whom others can expect an objective clarification of their questions. Rather, the person of Socrates stands for the imperative: “Agree on a universally valid definition!” Anyone who talks like this does not offer one himself. Producing agreement through knowledge is not his business. Socrates gets involved in every dispute in a completely nonobjective way: Plato brings the existing views of his time to the table. Socrates opposes them, lets them contradict each other, and rejects them in this way. So he does not examine and criticize any of the views, but applies the criterion of universal validity: Because and as long as there are still conflicting views, none of them may claim validity. He does not say: knowledge produces agreement, but makes the agreement of the participants the criterion for knowledge. He does not demand the proof of the correctness of the respective view, but that its representative succeeds in dissuading the opposing parties from their positions. On the one hand, this criterion requires less than knowledge: All that is required is to win over the opposing parties to one’s own point of view and this is an art that goes quite beyond the question of whether one’s own point of view grasps the matter. On the other hand, more is required: The best proof is of no use if people insist on wrong stuff for reasons that are completely different than theoretical. Philosophers refer to a universally existing will to reach agreement and are at the same time its only representatives. Because it is not present on all sides, they have to keep citing it as an imperative. That’s why their business is completely mendacious. In the name of a fictitious “we-are-all-about-the-same-thing” they deny the right to exist of any point of view about which there is not general agreement.
It becomes really philosophically profound where this requirement for agreement no longer has anything to do with a thing that exists separately from it, but only with itself. And this is the case when it is about the true, the good, and the beautiful – as actually in all Platonic dialogues. In these ideas, the need for universal validity has created its own fictional objects: Plato and all philosophers after him are very concerned with the true. So much so that they completely lose sight of the knowledge of anything. They are not concerned with examining whether this or that judgment gets to the core of the matter, i.e. whether it is true. They also do not bring out truths about anything, but devote themselves completely to an ideal. What does one have to know when he says: “For me it’s about the true!”? Zero! But he does have a message. He is committed to the ideal of unity which exists only on the basis of conflicting opinions. Beyond the objective differences that people present in their opinions; beyond the question of who is right or wrong with their opinion and why; and regardless of any examination of what people are after when they advocate their issue, one thing should be certain: that everyone involved wants to honor the truth with their thoughts. In the factual differences and in the persistence with which they insist, however, something quite different becomes evident: That competing interests are trying to justify themselves and are quite indifferent to the difference between true and false. Just like the philosophers when they declare the true to be the common concern of humankind. – Philosophers have also given a name to their own contradictory supposition: The good is the notion of an ultimate purpose unifying humanity, the ideal of competing interests. These are not hidden from philosophers, but they do not interest them either. Therefore, beyond the practical differences that make people clash, they posit a common ultimate purpose of all purposive action; a common denominator of opposing concerns. Beyond what people want, however, they want nothing. So on the one hand the common denominator remains empty, the ideal of a commonality without content, because that is precisely what is in dispute. On the other hand, the philosophers present people with an ultimate purpose of their will which they see as an obligation. Without having to examine even one interest for its reasonableness, without having criticized a single concern, philosophers see themselves called upon to reject it. To do this, they only need to measure the interest that disturbs them by whether it fits into the fictitious community of interests. – This, of course, raises the question why one should want the good if it contradicts one’s own interest. And here too philosophers make explicit their own contradictory assumption: If one must want the good, then one should also be able to imagine it as the epitome of well-being – the beautiful.
In the spirit of these three favorite philosophical ideas, i.e., with the self-confidence that the goals that unite all human impulses and aspirations are at stake, the most beautiful discussions are then initiated. And it goes like this: For example, there is a drinking bout (Greek: symposium) and the participants talk about love. Of course, everyone can think of something on the subject of who’s with whom. And this is how Plato’s dialogue begins. But we are dealing with philosophers and therefore it does not stop there. For the noble representatives of the good, the true, and the beautiful, the transition to the essential is quickly made: Doesn't love need beauty? One cannot love the ugly. Much needed, O Socrates! – And is not the good also beautiful? – Thus the good too. – And doesn’t knowledge of the good require truth? etc. It is about nothing. The worshippers of the good, the true, and the beautiful pull off a hell of a bluff – should we not be for the ugly, the bad, the untrue? – only to assure each other that they are only concerned with the best in everything. And with this confession, they finally successfully talk their young philosophers into bed.
The invocation of a will to reach agreement that is located beyond all possible points of dispute stems from practical disputes that cannot be decided objectively; otherwise, agreement would be reached on the matter at hand and not beyond it. And it promises a mendacious way of dealing with these disputes because it commits the disputing parties to a fictitious common standpoint. The philosophers came up with this because the political situation in ancient Athens had became contentious. The common judgement on this is: The moral conditions of that time had become confused, the constitutions were constantly changing, uncertainty spread and brought about the need for theoretical clarification; philosophy was born.
II. Plato and the state
In ancient Athens there was a struggle for power and for participation in it. The relations were not so clear that political power coincided with the interest of the particular prince who held it. Through the wars they waged, they had made themselves dependent on previously subordinate estates. And these estates made demands on them as their importance for power grew. The agenda included such practical questions as: Whether power and warfare existed for the wealth of the princes and their clans, or whether the wealth of the princes existed for warfare. This question was anything but theoretical. The disputing parties had been cheerfully trying to kill each other in order to decide it in their own favor. – And then came Plato: He got involved in this dispute with the strange assertion: “We are all concerned with the same thing, namely the good. So let’s clarify what the good is and thus resolve the dispute objectively.” Of course, even this introduction to the dialogue, called Gorgias, is not objective at all. The matter should be a common interest of the disputing parties. But this does not exist. They are just expressing their conflicting interests; but Plato is not interested in what these interests consist of. An aristocrat, Callicles, speaks up and insists on the old conditions: “The good is what benefits the powerful.” Such an honest answer would have deserved an honest reply: “That’s good for you, but bad for me.” That would have been the end of the conversation. But, yes, we are among philosophers, so the conversation takes a different course. In answer to his question, Socrates obligates his opponent to his question and challenges him to prove that what is good for Callicles is good in general. If Callicles had been a little brighter, he would have said: “My friend, you are introducing a point of view that denies any interest. What is universally good? Even the shoemaker’s art only produces shoes and not the good. The good fits in with no interest, it is itself good for nothing. So why take that position?” He could have continued: “It just seems to me that you are asking me to be hypocritical. I could have replied, of course: ‘Happy leaders are good for everyone because then they don’t take out their bad moods on their subjects.’ But hypocrisy is not my business, it’s yours. You intervene in a debate. Not honestly, by justifying what you don’t like, but by appealing to a fictitious universal interest.” But Callicles lets himself be embarrassed and, as always when a dumbass gets stuck in Plato's dialogues, it counts as proof of how right Socrates is. And that’s why Socrates is allowed to explain what is meant by the good: A point of view that negates every special interest and only accepts what can be thought of as a service to and functional component of an imagined general, higher interest. His opponents have to let Socrates ask them the question: “What is your benefit good for?” and based on the general statement that benefit is actually generally good for nothing, Socrates finally arrives at the result, assumed from the start, that the benefit consists in what everyone is good for; that everyone proves himself as a functional element of the state as a whole in the place to which he has been assigned: the slave as a slave, the statesman as a statesman, the master builder as a master builder, and so on. This is the ancient idea of justice. It insists on a radical separation of right and benefit because right coincides with the benefit of the aristocrats; that is why, in the case of the subordinates, only the service matters. The ancient doctrine of virtue is the corresponding status racism. Virtue is what one is capable of; and capable is he who is what the estate demands of him: bravery for the warrior estate; prudence, namely the art of restraining one’s desire, for the crew that brings in the wealth; and for the rulers, wisdom, which is needed in order not to upset what the services of the estates bring in.
With the Platonic idea of the state, philosophy produced one of the greatest absurdities of Western intellectual life in the very first chapter of its history. On the one hand, it reflects the practically valid perspective of a Greek aristocrat who, starting from the self-evident fact that his particular interest is the raison d’état, does not accept the validity of any other particular interest and regards the society under his rule as a functional whole which exists to increase his private power and is structured according to the services necessary for this. On the other hand, Plato does not relate all these services to this decisive interest, which is the only reason they exist, but to a general interest that was not present in the Greek state and in the struggle for power within it. Plato’s point of view was called: philosopher kingship. The aristocrats are supposed to exercise political power, but not in their own interest, but for the sake of a philosophical idea. For this purpose he wanted to turn them into philosophical cranks, educate them with music and mathematics – which would still have been possible – but above all forbid them from having their own property and their own wives in order to prevent them from pursuing their own interests and thus from arguing; but they should be allowed to retain their power. For what actually? Instead of using their power for themselves, they should use it to impose a point of view that denies their interests. And all this merely to help the idea of the good gain power.
But that was too much for the rulers! For all their love of philosophy – the noble and powerful figures of that time endowed themselves with the insignia of the spirit, the princes themselves often had philosophical ambitions, seen as entertainment, and in order to glorify their own interest in the light of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to regard the violence they exercised as statecraft which only the wise are capable of – this relationship between power and spirit, in which the spirit exalts power and gives it the appearance of spirituality, is something quite different from the mendacious pretense that the spirit is the determining factor of power and that the philosophers take power. Plato, himself from a noble family, who had a philosophical friendship with the Sicilian ruler Dion, went so far as to draw up a constitution for the Sicilian king in which he incorporated the ideas of the state developed in his Politeia. This constitution never came into effect. The wise king simply could not come to terms with the idea.
Change of scene: As if they all wanted to say “We are not responsible for our thinking,” modern thinkers use tradition to refer to historical “sources” to which they supposedly owe their stuff. At the same time, they relate to the historical necessity to which they want to be subject in the most sovereign way possible. Which point of view Plato “founded” and today puts into the right, they still decide with their standards. And they jealously they guard over it so that no “false prophets” make use of their ancestor.
III. Moderns and Plato
References to a representative of the old slave-owning society obviously ennobles the democratic conditions of today as much as the science committed to them. Nobody simply wants to offer a more or less useful idea of his own, but to share in the imagined dignity of a 2500 years old occidental tradition. Admittedly, certain differences are also noticed in relation to what the democratic mind of today considers responsible thinking. Then a deep longing for the lost innocence of philosophy comes to the fore. How one would still like to invoke the unity of the true, the good, and the beautiful today as “naively” and impartially as they did back then! How beautiful were the ideas that knowledge = virtue and mind = power! But unfortunately the times when one could philosophize like this are over.
For as long as there has been real science, philosophers have felt compelled to engage in polemics against knowledge. Because nobody should imagine that their insight and knowledge should henceforth be sought after when it comes to the question “What should I do?” So a strange phenomenon comes about. In addition to and separate from the actual sciences and at the same time institutionalized as an independent science, there exists at the universities a team which, as if the idea of science still had to be invented, is still on the question “What is knowledge?”; and which, with all its efforts, always ends up in the aporia attributed to old Socrates: that one cannot know anything except that one cannot know anything. And this in the nuclear age! This makes the confession of ignorance a bit dishonest. It makes a difference whether an ancient Greek says that he and his contemporaries lack knowledge and confuses the plea to understanding in moral questions with science or whether today someone makes a law of humankind out of ignorance and makes skepticism towards an existing science compulsory. If someone comes along today and propagates the dialogue as a method of finding the truth, then he obliges the use of the mind to keeping theoretical questions open.
This polemic against knowledge appeals to Plato, but can just as well reject Plato – one can see what moderns let their venerated ancestors tell them: whatever they want to get at. So Plato shows up in a book about “the enemies of the open society,” which the philosopher of science Popper apparently feels is one of his duties. For Popper’s taste, Plato with his “perfect eternal ideas” encouraged the misunderstanding that science could answer the question about what to do in practical matters. And he identifies this as an undemocratic attitude. This says nothing about Plato, who could not have been familiar with the western democracies of our times and their intellectual life. But it’s an interesting clarification about the self-image of a modern philosopher of science: He doesn’t need to have an idea about democracy and does not need to take a closer look at one Platonic idea in order to unerringly sniff out any thinking connected with the claim to knowledge as an undemocratic attitude. Because of his preference for democratic conditions in which really nobody is allowed to make anything dependent on his insights, he propagates ignorance as a virtue of the mind.
Because of their love of the spirit of subordination, the philosophers' critique of the equation knowledge = virtue should not be misunderstood as a critique of the program of virtue. They want to claim that morality is reasonable and should apply. The moderns smoothly "deduce" morality from their own skepticism: "Because knowledge does not create security, that's why we need ethical foundations." Or: Because knowledge does not provide security, ignorance provides the necessary moral security. With these skeptics, the whole old rubbish - about the good that one must do, about prudence and honor, about gratitude and friendship - comes into its own in a completely dogmatic way. As a duty whose fulfillment does not have to be a question of better understanding. That is why modern philosophers only like the equation spirit = power in its inverse: they consider power to be very reasonable, because ultimately someone has to deal with non-spirit, evil, people endowed with will and understanding.
Because of their love of the spirit of subordination, the philosophers’ criticism of the equation knowledge = virtue should also not to be misunderstood as a criticism of the program of virtue. They want to claim that morality is reasonable and should be valid. The moderns “deduce” morality from their own skepticism: “Because knowledge does not provide security, we therefore need ethical foundations.” Or: Because knowledge does not provide security, ignorance therefore provides the necessary moral security. In a completely dogmatic way, all the old nonsense – about the good one must do, about prudence and honor, about gratitude and friendship – comes into its own with these skeptics. As a duty, the fulfillment of which is not a question of better understanding. That’s why modern philosophers only like the equation mind = power only in its inversion: They consider power to be very reasonable, because ultimately somebody has to cope with the non-mind, evil, people endowed with will and understanding.