Friday, 27 January 2017

What Plato had to say about the rise of Trump.

A lot of people say that they really aren't interested in history because it has nothing to tell us about the state of the world today. Obviously I disagree. One of the many things that it does tell us is that not a lot has changed over the centuries. Here, for example, is Wellington's view on party politics:
"... the feeling I have for a decided party politician is rather that of contempt than any other. I am very certain that his wishes & efforts for his party very frequently prevent him from doing that which is best for the Country; & induce him to take up the cause of foreign powers against Britain, because the cause of Britain is managed by his party opponents."

Anyway, since I wrote my last post the latest president of the USA has been inaugurated  and social media have been full of references to Plato. It's very easy to take quotes from ancient philosophers out of context, so I went away and read the relevant parts of The Republic, so you don't have to. (No, I didn't read it in Greek: I used Benjamin Jowett's translation, available free from Amazon.)

The full passage is very long. Originally I meant to put the extract in pretty well unedited, but rereading it I can't help notice that Plato does like  to talk on – even more than me – and I've had to cut it down a bit or nobody at all would ever get to the end. It was written as Socratic dialogue, which here means that a straight man  keeps on saying things like, "That's an incredibly wise remark. But what other fantastically sensible things follow on from it?" I've edited these out to make it  a piece of continuous prose. I have tried hard to keep the original argument intact.

You don't have to read it all, although I found it fascinating. What is interesting to me is that the quotes that appear relevant to President Trump's rise, and probable future course, are not taken out of context. On the other hand, we should perhaps be careful of basing our ideas about modern politics on the views of a man who considers that women's rights are a symptom of moral degeneracy. I think it is best taken as  a fascinating demonstration that life has changed a lot less since 380 BC than you might expect and a jumping off point for future discussion, rather than a finished template  for the organisation of society. Of course, if you are in the happy position of owning a lot of slaves, you might feel the Plato's views on the proper ordering of society should be accepted wholesale.

Enjoy. Or be scared. Probably best be scared.

When a democracy has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them. Loyal citizens are insultingly termed slaves who hug their chains; [democracy] would have subjects who are like rulers, and rulers who are like subjects. By degrees the anarchy finds a way into private houses. The father grows accustomed to descend to the level of his sons and to fear them, and the son is on a level with his father, he having no respect or reverence for either of his parents; and this is his freedom, and the metic [like an immigrant with residency rights] is equal with the citizen and the citizen with the metic, and the stranger is quite as good as either.

In such a state of society the master fears and flatters his scholars, and the scholars despise their masters and tutors; young and old are all alike; and the young man is on a level with the old, and is ready to compete with him in word or deed; and old men condescend to the young and are full of pleasantry and gaiety; they are loth to be thought morose and authoritative, and therefore they adopt the manners of the young. Nor must I forget to tell of the liberty and equality of the two sexes in relation to each other. As the result of all, see how sensitive the citizens become; they chafe impatiently at the least touch of authority, and at length, as you know, they cease to care even for the laws, written or unwritten; they will have no one over them.

Such is the fair and glorious beginning out of which springs tyranny — the truth being that the excessive increase of anything often causes a reaction in the opposite direction. The excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery. And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty. 

[There's a long bit here about the types of people involved in Athenian politics, which rather over-extends a metaphor with beekeeping. I've cut it.]

The people are a third class, consisting of those who work with their own hands; they are not politicians, and have not much to live upon. This, when assembled, is the largest and most powerful class in a democracy. Their leaders deprive the rich of their estates and distribute them among the people; at the same time taking care to reserve the larger part for themselves.

[Plato argues that, in these circumstances the rich will try to defend themselves by oppressing the people. It's an argument that you still see from some Marxist groups. Once the rich suppress the people enough, the people will revolt.]

The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness.

This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears above ground he is a protector. 

[Eventually, Plato argues, the untrammelled power the tyrant has will lead to him behaving so badly that people will try to assassinate him.] Then comes the famous request for a body-guard, which is the device of all those who have got thus far in their tyrannical career— 'Let not the people's friend,' they say, 'be lost to them.' The people readily assent; all their fears are for him—they have none for themselves. And he, the protector of whom we spoke, is himself the overthrower of many, standing up in the chariot of State with the reins in his hand, no longer protector, but tyrant absolute. 

At first, in the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes every one whom he meets;—he to be called a tyrant, who is making promises in public and also in private! liberating debtors, and distributing land to the people and his followers, and wanting to be so kind and good to every one! But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader. Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?

History has nothing to teach us? Perhaps we should have paid more attention to Plato.

No comments:

Post a Comment