Plato and Considerations on System and Ethics

Perhaps Whitehead’s comment on the marginal nature of all philosophy in respect to Plato is something of a truism, but it is also a truth. Platonism suffuses all subsequent philosophical and much mystical thinking in the occidental world. Even in opposition to it many still find much of their definition. Nietzsche and Deleuze attempting to invert the Platonic system are still finding themselves within the Platonic system. Significant factors of the world of the early Christian church were rooted in the Alexandrian world of Platonism and syncretism and it was Plotinus and Plato who wrenched St. Augustine away from materialism and thus were accorded a special place in the Christian imagination and thought-life.

Though Scholastic thinking tended either toward Ockham or Scotus if not to Thomas Aquinas and his Averroes (and his Aristotle), Platonism as such would soon burst back into Europe with fury thanks to its newfound Medici patrons and Italian humanist admirers. And in Europe he would remain, taking on manifestations sometimes more or less overtly heretical to the doctrine of the Magisterium. Today, we can scarcely get away from the question of being as put forth by Anaximander and shaped by Parmenides and finally handled and made his own by Plato. The pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle all differed to their extents but the frame that allows and encourages their various epistemologies to take shape and root and flourish feels as though it holds them all together in similarity more than they can stand apart from one another in difference.

Have we not, in so many ways, been living in something of a sad cosplay convention for those of the Greek fandom? Is that not the source the uncountable columns and facades and statues and paintings and allusions to the Iliad and the cult of democracy and so on? Is not all classical culture something of this crisis of originality for the people of northern Europe? If we can have something positive to say about modernity perhaps it is that capitalism finally began to free us from this.

What of Plato, then? Do we hunt him as he hunts the sophist? I had occasion to consult Dr. T.K. Seung’s volume Plato Rediscovered. Seung performs a synoptic reading of the entire Platonic corpus and arrives at the theory that Plato extensively revised his epistemology, ontology, and thus theory of forms and consequently his political theory. He reads together, as many have done, the late dialogues as giving us a picture of what the later Plato’s philosophical system was. The final chapters boils all of Platonism down to one basic proposition: There exists transcendent norms which we can apprehend intuitively and thus construct society based upon these. He claims that every moral and political theory is either Platonist in this sense, or it is normative only in the sense of societal convention and will thus always live in danger of becoming a nihilism.

He gives a complex account of what the building up from these norms entails and how it is performed from close readings of the Sophist, Statesman, and Timaeus. It is an interesting and worthwhile book. It has been pointed out by one critic that much of his reading is not out of the ordinary, some of it strains credibility, and ultimately his reduction of Platonism to mean transcendent normativity is almost so reductionist as to remove all of the sense from the word. I am not inclined to fall on any side of these observations but my own reservations with the work are that Seung provides a very brief but misleadingly simplified account of the role of revealed scriptures and laws in human society and juxtaposes this older time of following the laws given by God to the time of following the laws generated by humans, thus necessitating Platonism.

In following the laws of God there is the problem of interpretation and various other ontological considerations that have been historically worked out in a variety of ways. It has never been so simple, as Seung claims, that you simply receive the law and then follow it. The first generation of Muslims had constant recourse to the Prophet for interpretive and practical guidance and the following generations subsequently developed highly sophisticated methods of answering such questions as they arise. Early Muslims debated whether or not there exist transcendent norms to which God would be beholden, and the predominant traditionalist answer, as well as the Asharite kalam answer, to this were both squarely negative.

The Islamic encounter with Greek thinking would introduce a host of such debates between traditionalists, mutakallimun, and the falasafa. As Al-Ghazali notes in the opening of his Incoherence of the Philosophers, what caused those who were among the camp of the Platonist-Aristotelians to abandon the traditional understanding of their religion in favor of new Greek systems of metaphysics was not the coherency of these new views but the splendor and renown of the intellect of the names that were attached to them. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, in a talk delivered at a conference on kalam, has highlighted this as a significant and often overlooked psychological criticism that precedes the logical criticisms of their systems. Without a disciplined and regulated self, theory choices are often the manifestations of pride or fear that are filtered through a sieve of rationality as if to render them thus spotless. Nietzsche was always skeptical of this maneuver’s use of reason as an instrument of hiding the irrational origins of supposedly rational doctrines that really flowed directly from the impulses and drives.

This problem leads Sh. Murad to outline the need for a regimen of self purification via Sufi practice as a necessary propaedeutic and constant companion of rational inquiry, as was the case of so many renowned thinkers throughout the history of Islam. Likewise, it would be utterly unthinkable for a scholar of Rujia (the school of Kongzi, or Confucius) to be engaged in the investigation of things with no thought of rectitude and the cultivation of virtue and regulation of the self and family. Those things are in fact the end goal of the investigation of things. There is no amoral rational inquiry. They are bound together, as are body and mind, and all of the ten thousand things, in some way or another.

As one later Rujia scholar observed, those who have not approached the cultivation of virtue in their lives but still seek out mystical doctrines and teachings are a bad kind of people. They leave what will benefit them for what will not benefit them and cause their own moral decay. And so it has been said that I have never seen a tree with sickly and rotten roots that gave life to healthy branches.

I am quite responsible for spending much of my time in this way. I have sought the cure to what ails me in Platonic Ideas and Dasein and so on. These are not medicine for the disordered life. If anything, they are symptoms of the disordered life. As time has passed, I have found that the play of such ideas as being and quiddity suit me very little. I initially thought that upon discovering them I had located the source of what tormented me but in fact it was merely another loop to find oneself in, with no exit. They do not solve any problems I have or even problems that I have seen. Perhaps the space of Greek thinking which pervades the occident is conducive to the development of some but I am tired of it. You are unconsciously forced to frame every problem and question so Greekly. You can’t get out and get any fresh air.

Recent philosophy has begun a turn away from this of course, even if still within its logic to some degree. Thus, Derrida and Deleuze and so on. I have found their thought enjoyable to this extent, as it has a taste of freedom of thought from the dominance of the will to totalize and systematize within very limited concepts and frameworks. Perhaps in time I will be able to appreciate the Greeks and their ancient society as if it were one more in a long list of them, and not the subtle shadow of every thought ever thought on several continents.

I respect Dr. Seung’s towering intellect a great deal, but perhaps the solutions to moral problems have never been something we can find by appeals to Plato, or by logically insulating and justifying a system of morality. As if the only obstacle to an ethically guided society was the correctly rational articulation of a Platonic moral and political system, and not the hearts of the people who people such societies.

Indeed, what if Nietzsche was correct about Plato and Kant and all philosophers of moral systems? What if their Will to Truth has in fact always been a veiled Will to Power? And what is this drive to systematize if not a drive to subjugate and control? And why are so many systematizers eager to denigrate that which is proverbial, aphoristic, open, and alive? They say such things lack the integrity and sophistication that they exemplify but is this not one more power move among many?

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