Monthly Archives: September 2015

What is closer to present-day education

Owing to the fact that I am from a traditional and time-honoured Asian country, reading Plato’s philosophic thinking is no doubt harder than other books which contain plots such as Greek tragedies or Shakespeare’s plays. However, the part of education and cultivation set me thinking about the difference of education system between countries in different historical and cultural background.

In Republic, Plato mentioned the importance of cultivating people comprehensively. He advocated that people should learn fields like music, arts and literature in order to bring them up and explore the kindness and spirit in their heart. A combination of learning knowledge and humanity at the same time would benefit the development of society to a great extent, and students may get more pleasure simultaneously. I found it related closely to the education system in this day and age, especially the basic education, which western countries and Asian countries have approaches that are widely divergent.

All-life education is what else closer to present-day society compared to the argumentation of justice and injustice. He gave the idea that people are supposed to learn dialectics for five years, and go to that “cave” to receive tests and gather experience for another fifteen years. Then they will be able to see the kindness itself, and study philosophy in the rest of their life and surmount the post of archon in the end. Thus it can be seen, people who study and challenge themselves ceaselessly are likely to tackle more problems and get to the summit of life.

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Tainted With Superiority

My experience reading Plato’s Republic was a frustrating one. The entire work felt like Plato giving himself a huge pat on the back because he thinks that being a philosopher makes him better than everyone else. Regarding one of the central questions of the dialogue, how to define a just society, he comes up with the idea of Kallipolis, a civilization in which philosophers rule from their rightful place at the top of the public hierarchy. It came across as Plato whining about how he doesn’t think anyone who isn’t a philosopher (essentially anyone who isn’t like him) has any place being in a position of power. The allegory of the cave is regarded as one of the most beautiful metaphors in philosophy, yet to me it just seems like another tool Plato uses to prove his superiority. In the allegory, the only people who can reach the literal and metaphorical “light” are the philosophers. Again, all he is trying to do is show off how much smarter he is than all of the people that he thinks are below him. The fact that he was using Socrates as a mouthpiece infuriated me even further. Its as if he is trying to validate his arguments by presenting them from the point of view of another person, but it is obvious that they are from the point of view of the author himself. Basically, Plato needs to get over himself.

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Socrates’ Inconsistency

Plato’s Republic is considered a keystone work in the development of western philosophy. Interestingly enough, the famous dialogue is not concise and cohesive — on the other hand, it often contradicts the very arguments that it provides. In the attempt to understand justice, Socrates proposes a method to investigate. He states that in the city there must “be more justice” than in an individual, as it is “the larger […] and will be easier to discern” (Plato 368e). This appears to be true enough, as it makes logical sense that one may find it easier to analyze the more tangible interactions within a population as opposed to the then-new and abstract concept of justice and the workings of the human soul.

However, as the men begin to theorize how a just society would be constructed, they discovered that their initially simple and small idea of an ideal city would not have been sufficient. They had “to enlarge [their] city again [as it was] no longer adequate” for living (373b). This means that in their attempt to discover justice within in a city, they realized that the city was much more complex than they had originally thought; this in turn shows it may actually be no easier to discover justice within a city as opposed to a single individual. Despite this contradiction being apparent, the issue is not revisited — they simply move on, as if nothing had happened. It seems that each time Socrates brings up a seemingly straightforward analogy, powerful rebuttals could be given should the individual responding give even just several seconds of critical thought. This definitely bugged me as I read further into the work; countless times Socrates shows inconsistency within his own arguments — and the others almost never probe him about it. 

Interestingly enough, as my annoyance faded, I realized that there may be a lesson to the many inconsistencies present within the work. Republic is a dialogue filled with countless analogies and visual images upon which a majority of the arguments are built. The way in which the metaphors and concepts are often not as linear and ‘true’ upon careful thought as Plato would like readers to believe teaches a valuable lesson about the Socratic method: the execution will never be as linear as presented in argument. While the Kallipolis may sound wonderful in theory, the argument is overly simplified and an attempt to carry out such a plan could easily be disastrous.  As Karl Popper would argue,Plato’s Republic is a testament to this fact.

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Creating the Kallipolis

In Plato’s Kallipolis, power is held by an elite class of guardians who are a perfect synthesis of both the roles of the philosopher and the statesman; someone who is able to understand the Form of the Good that underlay reality and guide his people toward that ultimate destination. This ideal of ruler-ship has been influential one and several attempts to realize this particular component of Plato’s vision has been made through out history, to varying degrees of success. In this blog post, I will offer an overview of an attempt made during Plato’s own lifetime to transform a tyrannically governed city into one centred on justice and the contemplation of the good and its subsequent outcomes.

During Plato’s latter years, he made an effort to help shape the tyrants of Syracuse (in what is now Sicily in Italy) into philosopher kings which ended in utter failure. During his visit to there, he became the mentor of Dion of Syracuse, the brother and close adviser to the tyrant of the city, Dionysius the Elder. Dion was a keen philosopher and wanted to reform the tyrannical system of Syracuse to something more closely resembling the Kallipolis as described in Plato’s republic, with an aristocrat guardian and king watching over the commoners.

When Dionysius passed away, he was succeeded by his son Dionysius the Younger, who was said to lead an overly lavish and decadent lifestyle. Dion, in the hopes of reforming his mislead nephew into becoming a philosopher king, called upon Plato to become Dionysius II’s tutor. Though at first the young king seemed to accept Plato’s teachings, he was eventually persuaded by opponents of the new reforms to banish Dion from Syracuse and establishing himself as the absolute ruler of the city. Without Dion’s guidance, he became increasingly tyrannical and lost the support of both the army and the citizenry.

When Plato pleaded for Dion’s return, Dionysius confiscated his uncle properties and gave his wife away to another man. Dion, who until then had been living prosperously in Athens off the sizable income from his Syracuse properties, decided to take action by assembling a small army of mercenaries to conquer Syracuse. With the popular support of the people, Dion quickly took over the city and established himself as the new ruler. However, Dion’s popularity did not last as he soon alienated his new subjects with his autocratic attitude and financial demands, including his refusal to implement democracy and to equally redistribute the land (policies which Dion’s chief rival Heraclides supported).

In the end, the exiled Dionysius II bribed a close friend of Dion, Calippus, to assassinate his uncle. Calippus was a native Athenian who had attended Plato’s Academy and accompanied Dion in his takeover of Syracuse. Using Dionysius’ money to buy over Dion’s own mercenaries, Calippus stabbed Dion moments after taking an oath of loyalty and established himself as the new tyrant of the city. In an even further turn of irony, Calippus himself was assassinated thirteen months later by two of the mercenaries that he bribed earlier using the same sword that he used to kill Dion.

Dion’s efforts to establish the ideal city only sent his beloved Syracuse into an extended cycle of social and political chaos as one despot succeeded another in a seemingly endless series of assassinations and coups that lasted for nearly two decades. During that time, Syracuse’s reputation in the region rapidly plummeted and its economy fell into further ruin as the city fragmented to form smaller cities with their own local tyrants vying for power. Dionysius even managed to come back power towards the very end, only to be deposed yet again by the invading Timoleon of Corinth who finally managed to restore some sense of peace and order to a thoroughly exhausted Syracuse.

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The Flaw in Plato’s Republic

Plato’s ideal polis requires the parents to corporate and give their children to the state. Thus allowing the molding of the children from an early age, to become model citizens. However, Plato does not explore the possibility that they will not relinquish their guardianship of their own children.  Plato assumes that the parents would be patriotic and offer their children, to serve the greater good for society. Without the consent of the parents, removing the children from the households would cause an uproar, no matter the class. It is against human nature to leave loved ones and having children to fulfil a civic duty, is not a popular belief.

Plato writes The Republic with the certainty of the parent’s willingness to give their children to the state, this is the flaw. It is human nature to do the best for one’s children and abandoning them is not often perceived to be the greatest option. Many would believe that their own style of parenting would be better than the state’s and would not give the state complete control over their children.

In Plato’s republic, the young minds would be taught from beginning with the telling of specific legends that do not position the gods in a bad light. Without complete control over the lessons that the children are taught, the children will be influenced by all of the allegories and legends that they are told. Without the constant lessons taught to every child throughout the polis, there would be a greater chance of individualism and an array of personalities. The variety amongst the citizens would minimize the chance for maximum potential within the auxiliary guardians, guardians and the labourers in their respected classes. The diversity would pose a challenge to the class system that is based on their dominate traits.

In The Republic, the children are bred from the strongest of each class, therefore producing the most optimal offspring for the state. This implicates that having children is a civic duty, which it is not. The citizens are not cattle that can be forced to procreate the perfect children.

Without the flawless children to teach in the best possible way, Plato’s theoretical polis would cease to exist.

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Kallipolis: Is Plato for Real?

In trying to define justice and injustice, Plato creates–in theory–a “good” or “just” city, the Kallipolis. This city in his mind expands as the dialogue goes on, with a class structure, education, a constitution (or, as Plato details later on, a Philosopher-King) and even how to deal with children and women.

What drew me further into the text was the complexity of this governance that did not fit with neither right, left, or centre. On one hand, Plato thinks that power within the city should lay only within the Philosophical Rulers and that stories and music should be controlled; suggesting a more of a right wing governance. However, he also suggests the sharing of land (& to stretch it even further, women and children), which is more of a left wing governance (though to be fair, Marxism, or Communism, only suggest sharing of land as well as personal belongings). Another fair point of Communism was when Plato said that everyone would get things according to their needs being met. He also mentions that men and women should be treated as equals–and while in the USA women were being shoved back into their roles as housewives even though they helped in the war effort of WWI, USSR allowed women to work alongside men (Communism: ANYONE can WORK).

The Republic was one of most foundational texts in Western Philosophy, so it struck me as strange when it seems to me that, while most constitutions today has implemented parts of the Kallipolis whether consciously or not, Plato’s Kallipolis as a whole itself has not been attempted to be bought into existence.

Karl Marx, the philosopher who penned the Communist Manifesto, had his Kallipolis bought to life by Lenin, 69 years later after its publication at the first attempt at a communist government. It was a failure as it never reached the fourth and final stage: the leader stepping down and allowing the People to rule themselves. As time passes, communism never surpasses its third stage–with the likes of Cuba and China–therefore one cannot call these countries to be 100% communist.

As I read The Republic I’d desperately done just what Glaucon had questioned & what Lenin probably thought as he read through the Communist Manifesto, to attempt to see Plato’s Kallipolis in real life, or perhaps, in the modern world. I wonder how it’d work out, every last bit of it. While Plato was correct when he said that the type of constitution he’d described so thoroughly would be hard–but not impossible–to be brought to existence, there has to be some flaws, right? I became frustrated with the text, trying to dissect where it could go wrong if it was brought into existence, but how could I when such a constitution has never been attempted?

When I brought this up to my sister, who’d studied Plato before, she brought up the fact that one of my favourite books, The Giver (also, did you know that this is A SERIES?), was based upon Plato’s Kallipolis. The Giver was the Philosopher King, who is able to see the “real” world (to relate, Plato refers to this as the Sun), children were birthed from fertilization & assigned a specific role in society once they reach a certain point in their lives, and it was a very controlled society (remember when they were like, “You’re hungry, but you’re not starving,” when this one kid was like, “Man, I’m starving,” at lunch). Much of the general public in The Giver were in the cave Plato described in Book 7.

But The Giver, while perhaps posing some questions and problematic things that could occur should Plato’s Kallipolis comes to fruition, is still just a fictional novel and does not completely paint Plato’s dear city exactly.

Will Plato’s Kallipolis ever be realized? If so, then what kind of governance does it categorize as?

 

 

 

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The dynamic of justice and injustice : Why such a tough debate?

One of the many challenges in the debate of justice and injustice is to find evidence that one is desirable over the other. Plato uses several examples, such as the shepherd and the sheep analogy, in which he argues that acting justly to others directly benefits oneself. Moreover, he uses the analogy of “The Just State”, an idealized city in which everyone benefits one another to achieve a good life. On the other hand, Glaucon’s Ring of Gyges story raises interesting questions about whether or not men can be truly just. Glaucon makes a convincing case that men may act justly simply out of fear of punishment.

Furthermore, it’s even more arduous to define the two concepts in the first place. The popular definition of justice is equatable to fairness, while injustice is essentially the opposite, or to act or treat others unfairly. However, these definitions can pose problems as human society diversifies and grows. Some may have different needs than others, or individuals may have personal desires that conflict with the law.

Personally, I think greater conclusions can be drawn if we challenge the logic of justice and injustice as mutual ideas. In other words, I think it’s important to look at both concepts in innovative ways, rather than just as two opposites. Eric Heinze, a professor at the university of London, shares this view as well. He argues that both ideas were not formed out of “strict deductive logic” but instead from the “arbitrary etymologies” of the words themselves.

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No Freedom In the Kallipolis, No Problemo!

Who needs freedom when we have law and order? This seems to be Plato’s argument throughout Republic. For proposing such an argument, Plato’s been bashed and trashed and smashed many times by modern day philosophers. Some people say he’s a coward who hides behind idealism; while other say he is responsible for creating totalitarianism. So why do we still read his works? Well, in my opinion, Plato’s got a pretty good grasp of humanity, and this is why we still read him.

Plato spends most of the book explaining the kallipolis, and ideal city where there is an almost absolute control over its citizen’s lives. They are to be given to the state as children, be educated according to the state and placed into their “roles” in society. There will be three classes, soldiers, workers, and the elite rulers. The first thing I thought when I saw his class system is that “wow, this is totally the system of our society in a nutshell.” Why? Well, can’t our society be divided by the same way? We have workers/merchants, soldiers, and an elite ruling class, don’t we? I know this is democracy but let’s be honest, we don’t rule, the prime minister and his cabinet and advisors do all the ruling. They are the “philosopher kings” in Plato’s republic, who decides what to do with the economy, pass laws, and declare war on other nations. I personally can never recall when was the last time the government came to me for advice, even if they did, it clearly didn’t matter to them. (Referendum fails? No problem, pass law anyways.). Well, to be honest, my advice will probably screw up the country really bad. But isn’t this what Plato says about the average individual (working class), they don’t have what it takes to rule, so it’s better to leave it with the elite class (politicians). So let’s admit it, our society totally resembles Plato’s kallipolis.

We are all used to freedom. This is one of the things Canada pride itself upon. But, if we think about it, who the heck needs it? We all need food right? And clothing, and shelter, other than that, nothing is necessary. So sorry freedom, but we really don’t absolutely need you… it would be nice to have you though, but without you, life goes on just fine. Does China have as much freedom as Canada? Obviously not. But does that mean in China, people are not as happy as they are in Canada? Well they are, but not because of the lack of freedom, it’s mainly because of poverty (in the countryside and among low skill workers), and pollution, as well as just having too many people. Rarely do Chinese people say that China is not as good as Canada because it doesn’t have as much freedom (except for the rich maybe), as an immigrant from China, I understand the reason why people want to leave China for Canada. Canada has better education system, better environment, less people, more civilized people, and on the bottom of the list, IT HAS FREEDOM! Yeah! But we would have come here without you buddy…

Since freedom isn’t a necessity, people will only want it when they have all the necessities, and more importantly the idea for freedom (how can people want something they don’t even know about?). This means that the people living in Plato’s Kallipolis will live happily since they have the necessities but no idea of what freedom is. Again, I just want to say that many of the things in life are not necessities, but due to our ever-growing greed, (or can we call it greed? Isn’t it just nature?) every time we get something, we will want something else immediately, and the thing we want will seem to be a necessity to us. Freedom is one of those things, if we don’t have all the necessities, if we can’t guarantee all of our meals, if we have to work hard all day just to make ends meet, we won’t give a shit whether we have freedom or not.

The following is not directly about Republic.

One of the problems I have with the way people use democracy, communism, totalitarianism is that these words are given different connotations. In my opinion, words like these should not have pre-determined connotations. Communism as well as totalitarianism or even dictatorship, has the potential to create great society as well as great countries. It is not idealistic at all to think so, for example China can be seen as a totalitarian country that is doing quite well, while Iraq is struggling with its newly acquired system of democracy, had it remained under Saddam’s dictatorship. We probably won’t be getting this ISIS crap right now… communism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism all have their unique perks, but I’m not saying that Canada should turn to dictatorship right now, NO! Countries such as Canada is probably the happiest under democracy, but we should never assume, just as the US has assumed that “democracy > everything”. Some countries works under dictatorship, or communism, or totalitarianism, messing up other people’s countries just because they have a different political system is simple idiotic.

Alright, sorry for bashing you, USA, I still love you because of MacDonald’s…

 

 

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Ok Plato, I see you

Although Plato’s Republic was incredibly dry and a rather difficult read for me, I found a few of his nuggets of wisdom to be quite interesting. Plato, speaking through Socrates, is annoyingly very full of himself and his ideas, but a few of them stuck out to me that I quite appreciated. When I read the Republic I tried to focus less on the most popular philosophical ideas like the Allegory of the Cave (which took me forever to comprehend when I read it in high school) and the Myth of Er. Instead, I wanted to familiarize myself with some of his ideas that I hadn’t ever heard of before.

When I took world history, I remember learning that Ancient Greece was not in the least bit friendly towards women, so Plato’s ideas of equality between the sexes came as a bit of a surprise. Although what Socrates and his companions say is still biased and not completely encouraging ideas of equality in a politically correct way,  it warmed my feminist heart to read at least the start to some justice for the women of Ancient Greece. On page 144, 455d-456b4, Socrates argues to Glaucon that women who show strength in the qualities of being a guardian have just as much of a right to be a guardian as men. Although he still refers to women as “the weaker sex”, his argument is progressive for the time. Admitting that some women could be suitable in the role of a guardian is definitely a start to shedding positive light on gender equality. You go, sort-of feminist Plato!

Another piece of wisdom that stuck out to me was Adeimantus’ opinion of being blunt with people. On page 110, 426b 3-4, he says, “Being harsh to someone who tells the truth is not charming.” Although the general argument that Plato is making in that passage is a bit extreme, I quite liked the small wisdom that Adeimantus says. I like to think that this can reign true in our own lives today, to appreciate those who give you the honest truth, even if you don’t like it. Pertaining to Arts One, this can be applied to tutorial. Although we may want to be told that our paper is the best ever written, it won’t help us to be lied to. We may hate the person for pointing out our flaws, but it is incredibly helpful and will only help us get better. Even though it can be hard to hear, I agree with Plato on this one, we should appreciate the truth over false niceties.  As rapper G-Eazy puts it in his song Been On, “criticism’s worth some more than compliments.”

So even though the Republic was hard to get through, thanks Plato for sharing some wisdom I can agree with.

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Who Gets to Decide What’s Bad? (not you)

As I was reading through the Republic, I can say with 100% certainty that I embodied the yes men Plato used to further his conversations. Yes, Socrates, that’s great. Yes, that sounds fabulous. Stories that show unflattering sides of the gods should not be told to guardians? Yeah, sounds great to me. None of what you say is realizable in reality, so just keep on talking. Get rid of sad songs, relaxing songs so the Guardians won’t feel any sort of emotion that could prevent them from being strong and courageous? I disagree with that, but I don’t want to think too hard right now because this book is giving me a headache, so, a yes for that too. Anything with a lack of grace, with bad rhythm, with disharmony is akin to bad speech and bad character and therefore cannot be part of a Guardians upbringing?

This is where I took my first break. All examples above were from when I was reading Book III, pages 72-84, and every single bit of it, in unflattering terms, pisses me off. The Guardians are the protectors of society, the strong and courageous military police that protects the people from threats both within and outside the city walls. Putting aside the physical requirements of a Guardian, I can say with every bit of confidence that my strength and courage come from what Plato is trying to get rid of in his teachings to the Guardians. But I could ignore all that, if just for the moment. When Plato brought up that disharmony etc. was akin to bad character, I just couldn’t say yes anymore.

The key to my anger is his assessment of disharmony. One of my favourite composers is Claude Debussy. His works are a harmonic wonder, and always enjoyable to play, but he wasn’t always regarded as a good composer. Why? He was the first to use 7th, 9th, and 11th chords in a chain, and structuring music on 4ths or major seconds. His tonal organization is ambiguous. What does this mean? It means that he was the pioneer of utilizing non-harmonic tones and the father of impressionist music. Today, we hear them and go “Yeah, that sounds kind of haunting and creepy. So what?” But back then, his works embodied disharmony. His piece,  Prélude à l’Aprèsmidi d’un faune is the landmark piece that marks innovation in 20th century music. Today, his works are no longer non harmonic. He created a completely new type of harmony.

Another example would be Arthur Schoenberg. Famous for his 12 tone tonalities and his experimental atonalites, the resulting music can be described as chaotic. Listen to his atonal experiments and call that traditional harmony. It isn’t traditional. This is an atonal harmony, a new harmony of the modern era.

I could go on about rubato rhythms and how there is no such thing as a bad rhythm in music and that everything is subjective, but knowing that Plato is a monomaniac, I won’t go there. I’m just going to put out there that disharmony has nothing to do with bad character.Using Plato’s own circular argument, if the definition of musical harmony and disharmony can change over the years, does that not mean the definition of internal harmony and disharmony in a person will change also? Therefore, if former disharmony in music is now modern harmony, does that not mean that what in the past may have been considered disharmony in the person is also now harmony? If this past disharmony is current harmony, does that not mean there is no such thing as true disharmony? If there is no such thing as disharmony, how can it contribute to bad character?

Or that’s how I see it, anyways.

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