Andersen: Some choice — honey or hemlock?
December 19, 2016
I'm forming a support group for disillusioned liberals who remain shell shocked by the Trump revolution. We will sit cross-legged on mats of woven hemp, burn incense, watch reruns of Woodstock, listen to Joan Baez albums and chant Noam Chomsky screeds.
Realistically, philosophy offers the only solace because in philosophy is the reason for events, the foundation for ideologies. A good place to start is with Plato, prize student of Socrates and mentor to Alexander the Great.
Plato would be very concerned about Donald Trump, but he would be more concerned about the electorate that voted him in. Plato's misgivings about democracy would be confirmed by the election of a businessman — an avowed materialist — into the elevated role of governance.
Plato believed that only the best educated, most thoughtful and able philosophical thinkers should be trusted with ruling a state. Their motives should be pure, with no personal gain other than the altruistic gratification of serving the greater good.
As Will Durant put it, a philosopher king must accept that "truth is more glorious, incomparably, than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world." Philosophical values, achieved through the pursuit of wisdom, must be a first principle.
American politics are a far cry from an advanced civilization ruled by selfless, high-minded leaders. But assume, for the sake of argument, that truth is a higher good than sex and stock options. Then what, Plato asked, is the best form of government?
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Here we must look to Socrates, who quaffed a hemlock highball because he was on the losing side of a civil war in Athens, where democracy triumphed over aristocracy. Socrates disdained "mob rule," so the mob leaders sentenced him to death.
"Is it not a base superstition that mere numbers will give wisdom?" asked Plato in defense of his teacher. "How can a society be strong except it be led by its wisest men?"
Plato searched the known world for answers, looking for states ruled by wise elders. The closest he came was Egypt, which was led by a sect of high priests. From the knowledge he collected, Plato described a utopian state in his bestseller, "The Republic." His concepts were later modeled by a humble little principality known as the Roman Empire, which lasted a thousand years.
Much of Plato's insight is encapsulated in his summation of human nature: "Men are not content with a simple life: they are acquisitive, ambitious, competitive and jealous."
Democracy fails, Plato explained, because, "The people have no understanding and only repeat what their rulers are pleased to tell them. The crowd so loves flattery, it is so hungry for honey that at last the wiliest and most unscrupulous flatterer, calling himself the protector of the people, rises to supreme power."
How could Plato have envisioned Donald Trump? Because he knew that human nature derives from three influences: desire, emotion and knowledge. Desire is in the appetites of the body, "the loins." Emotion is in the heart and the blood, the feelings. Knowledge is in the head, "the pilot of the soul."
Plato knew that desire is No. 1. How else to explain Black Friday and Ebay? "It's the economy, stupid" is the crude basis for capitalism, commercialism and materialism.
Plato's utopia was based upon meritocracy where the best are elevated to positions of highest trust and authority, where leaders are ranked on aptitude, wisdom and purity of spirit. Plato warned against those possessed by lesser ideals.
"Men engrossed in the pursuit of money are unfit to rule a state," he wrote. Ruling should be left to qualified "guardians," men and women who rise to the highest standards of excellence and give themselves wholly to enlightened leadership.
Policies of governance, Plato said, should be left to those trained specifically for governance, not "men who stumble out of commerce or manufacturing into political office without any training in the arts of statesmanship." (Hello, Vladimir! Hello, Taiwan!)
We now have such a leader; a protector of the people, a commercial mogul who pledges honey for all. And while it might be honorable to imbibe hemlock, the honey goes down easiest.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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