Populism and Plato - A Relook at 2019's Politics
People’s disposition towards politics is undergoing a change. The widespread attitude of distrust with the established politicians, is often accompanied by disillusionment, and - in the most extreme cases - hate. Those managing public affairs are viewed with much suspicion. What is note-worthy is that this does not only apply in states where democratic forms of power are not installed; on the contrary, it is especially true of established democracies – from United States, to Europe, Turkey, India, Brazil, and Philippines. Whatever be the declination, democracy does not soften the bitter perception of politics.
This omnipresent feeling of a hopeless decay – an inevitable harbinger of negative things – has essentially two possible effects: a detachment without illusions, or an intellectually violent fear. The first effect is illustrated by the drastic drop in the percentage of voters in many of the internal elections to the old European democracies. The second effect manifests in the seal of conservatism, that each election seems to bear. Politics is seen as a mix of corruption, oppression, bad management of all that is public and consequently, it is feared. This leads to a preference to close politics in its past contrivances, rather than open the space to new possibilities, seen as risky – look at how spectacularly the liberal manifesto of the Congress Party in India failed to sway the public. Brazil, Hungary and - to some extent – the UK, demonstrate a similar aversion to risk taking for welfare politics.
However, for the West, this is nothing new. Indeed, it can be said that the political reflection has taken hold of this very point. The injustice of power, its corruption, its inability to conceive what is good for citizens and to pursue it, in fact, were the inspiring motif of Plato's philosophizing. Therefore, we can say that one of the greatest pillars of our culture is made of the same material of our modern concerns. And don't believe that Plato, in 4th century B.C. Athens, raised the questions of Justice, of the Good, and of the State, in a theoretical way alone, or for some abstract thought exercise - quite the opposite. As a young aristocrat immersed in history’s first democracy, this was an extremely practical and concrete problem for Plato. It was a matter that concerned his own life path: an existential knot. To really understand all this, we can read his words in the Seventh Letter, an echo from the voice of a man so far and yet so close:
“I fancied that if, early in life, I became my own master, I should at once embark on a political career. And I found myself confronted with the following occurrences in the public affairs of my own city. The existing constitution being generally condemned, a revolution took place, and fifty-one men came to the front as rulers of the revolutionary government […] The effect on me was not surprising in the case of a young man. I considered that they would, of course, so manage the State as to bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one. So, I watched them very closely to see what they would do.
And seeing, as I did, that in quite a short time they made the former government seem by comparison something precious as gold-for among other things they tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution, in order that, whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct; but he would not obey them, risking all consequences in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds-seeing all these things and others of the same kind on a considerable scale, I disapproved of their proceedings, and withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time.
Not long after that a revolution terminated the power of the thirty and the form of government as it then was. And once more, though with more hesitation, I began to be moved by the desire to take part in public and political affairs. […] But once more it happened that some of those in power brought my friend Socrates, whom I have mentioned, to trial before a court of law, laying a most iniquitous charge against him and one most inappropriate in his case: for it was on a charge of impiety that some of them prosecuted and others condemned and executed the very man who would not participate in the iniquitous arrest of one of the friends of the party then in exile, at the time when they themselves were in exile and misfortune. As I observed these incidents and the men engaged in public affairs, the laws too and the customs, the more closely I examined them and the farther I advanced in life, the more difficult it seemed to me to handle public affairs aright. For it was not possible to be active in politics without friends and trustworthy supporters; and to find these ready to my hand was not an easy matter, since public affairs at Athens were not carried on in accordance with the manners and practices of our fathers; nor was there any ready method by which I could make new friends. The laws too, written and unwritten, were being altered for the worse, and the evil was growing with startling rapidity. The result was that, though at first I had been full of a strong impulse towards political life, as I looked at the course of affairs and saw them being swept in all directions by contending currents, my head finally began to swim; and, though I did not stop looking to see if there was any likelihood of improvement in these symptoms and in the general course of public life, I postponed action till a suitable opportunity should arise. Finally, it became clear to me, with regard to all existing communities, that they were one and all misgoverned. For their laws have got into a state that is almost incurable, except by some extraordinary reform with good luck to support it. And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.”
The quote is long but so dense and extraordinary that it deserves to be read in its entirety. It contains each of the elements we talked about above: disillusionment with public affairs, detachment, corruption, injustice; and fear. Yes, because - once democracy was restored in Athens and hope’s feeble flame rekindled - young Plato saw "the most upright man" Socrates, his friend and mentor, tried, convicted, and executed for being free from social bondage, for dissent. For this reason we should not think that Plato's philosophizing is only the metaphysics of hyperuranion, discourses on soul’s immortality, and other intangible abstractions. While these elements are present in his theories, they are means to solving the starting problem – the political anti-thesis that we discussed earlier. The questions he discusses concern justice, checks on power so that it does not generate corruption, safety of citizens, etc. Plato’s attempts to conceive of a state where those who prove themselves obstinately bound to the laws and take care to instruct young people through virtue - like Socrates – are not condemned to die drinking hemlock. Plato, shocked by the death of his mentor, decided that the first thing to do was to try to answer those questions, so as not to incur the same errors and wickedness that had so much disillusioned and frightened him.
The similarity of the political and existential questions of Platonic thought’s origin, with that of many contemporary young people’s, is evident. The answers elaborated by Plato are the roots of many lines of thought that even today, more than two thousand years later, resonate with our problems. In the above passage, the ethical question (ehtos), the political one (polis) and the cognitive-scientific one (aletheia) constitute the same thing: they are a whole (as Foucault argued "The Government of Self and Others"). According to Plato, only someone who knows that the Good cannot fail, is brave enough to pursue it, and therefore, only that person should hold power.
The concept of "will" (voluntas, which detaches knowledge from action) is rejected by the Athenian philosopher (and it will be brought to the fore a few centuries later by Seneca in the context of Roman stoicism). Plato defines the activity that allows us to define Good, as Truth, Virtue and Justice, under the broad umbrella of "philosophy". In fact, philosophy is opposed to philodoxy, which is the activity that is content with opinions, i.e. of what is uncertain, unsound and therefore, open to manipulation. Philodoxy is the cause of the political evils witnessed by Plato and that shocked him, it also led him to the realization that in the absence of cognitive development, opinions could wreck havoc – and were responsible for Socrates’ fatal fate. Philosophy, on the other hand, stands at the polar opposite as it attempts to define solid points through near physical effort.
According to Plato, philosophy is not a specific field of knowledge, such as physics, grammar or medicine. Philosophy is the act, first of thought and then of action, through which anyone can take care of himself to get to the Good, and therefore be able to live better with others. Philosophy is not a technical work; it is a way of taking care of yourself and the others. For this reason, in the “Seventh Letter” as in the famous Vth book of “The Republic,” Plato maintains that rulers must become philosophers, and vice versa – aka, Socrates’ notion of a Philosopher King. The movement is double: if there is someone who has already traveled fruitfully along the hard practical paths of philosophy, it will be convenient for the power to be given to him.
The other possibility, however, is that the rulers become philosophers; and here we can clearly view Plato’s concreteness: whether it is a monarchy, an oligarchy or any other constitutional form where there is not an opportunity for anyone to get into power, then the restricted circle of those who can hold it must devote itself to philosophy, that is to the hard work of self-improvement; and this leads - eventually - to virtue. In a very pragmatic way, Plato essentially says:
"If we are in a dictatorship or a monarchy, where the holder of power is already designated, then we must not waste time persuading him to leave power to the wise ones. We must ensure that he starts asking himself those questions and strives to find answers. In short, we need to make him a wise man.”
And that's exactly what Plato - many times in his life - tried to do in Sicily: he went to Syracuse four times not to take power himself (not to make the philosopher a ruler) but to train and advise the city’s tyrant, so that the State could be governed according to the Good (to make the ruler a philosopher).
Here we have reached the focal point; let’s to dwell on it: among the great and eternal teachings we can draw from Plato, one is certainly is that the philosophy’s reality is achieved through word and action jointly (logo kai ergo). Some readers may still frown upon philosophy as a complete and definitive solution. To convince even the most skeptical about these particular Platonic teachings’ actuality and strength, we’ll remove the word 'philosophy' from our reasoning: what the Greek philosopher tells us is simply that - in order to escape the setback of disillusionment and fear towards politics - we must first of all concentrate on ourselves, put ourselves out there and work hard: in order to listen, learn, reason, know and - above all – in order to change our own habits and lifestyle for the better; towards the Good. Here it is a formative-educational work that requires great constancy and great capacity to act on oneself. First of all a listening work, understanding, analyzing: one must always tend the ear in the direction of the world and of men and their voices; secondly, it is an almost charity work, in the sense of attention that must be placed in taking care of oneself, in changing one's life habits to new ways, opened up by the first listening work: in fact, to take care of the others, or to be able to govern them and make good use of the power one has over them (whether he was given by themselves or whether obtained it by force or inheritance), one must have given proof he has the ability to do this very same thing with his own life, first of all.
Whoever has the power must not only be a man of speech and theory, he must be - as mentioned above - also a man of action; this is the real ruler/philosopher. Before acting on the someone else’s life, he must successfully prove that he knows how to properly act: his life has to be the most solid proof. Finally, while looking for the Good through these ways, one must be willing to fail; to recognize that so much effort to live virtuously has been made - according to what has been learned and discovered - only to find out that something went wrong; and therefore having to start all over again; it is a long work of rubbing down, which can lead the flame to ignite suddenly, but it is not certain and it is necessary to be aware of this; of course those in power need this awareness (and those who deal with politics in general: Plato himself lived this kind of experience on his skin when at the end of his first trip to Syracuse, Sicily, he failed and was sold as a slave by the city’s tyrant). The Athenian philosopher speaks of “asceticism”, but in its etymological sense: indeed, the askesis was not a meditation and a spiritual strengthening to the detriment of the body but, on the contrary, it was precisely the athlete’s physical training. Therefore, doing philosophy is a concrete act, aimed at taking care of oneself and one's daily existence; a part of this also includes the cognitive and speculative effort. But it remains a sterile part if it does not lead to action.
These, therefore, are the suggestions coming from Plato’s thought and biography; these are the ways though which he tried to overcome the disgust and distrust towards politics, arisen in him with Socrates’ death. As a result of all this, in his personal search for certainties, he has come to build the world of hyperuranic ideas, the doctrines on souls’ immortality and transmigration, and - in general – all of his metaphysics. But these grandiose and so influential constructions find their origin in the very practical considerations that we have tried to expose above. In the middle of Athenian confused, corrupt and deviated politics, Plato did not lose heart; he asked himself the eternal questions; he rolled up his sleeves and realized that to improve things he needed sweat a lot, to fatigue and to take the risk of changing direction - first of all - to his own life. He focused on the moral knot of self-care as the preliminary step to taking care of the others (i.e. to govern): he didn’t make too many distinctions between ethics, knowledge and politics. He came into play, dealing with the world. He failed and tried again. But one thing is for sure: for him, the sense of detachment and fear towards politics were a starting point for an action focused on his life. Perhaps, then, it is precisely from these points that we -human beings of 2019 - should realize how close Plato is to us and how pragmatically fruitful its millennial lesson still remains.
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About the Author
Francesco Ziveri holds a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from Università Statale in Milan, Italy; he also attained a first level Master's Degree in Strategic Management for Global Business from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Holding a long experience in public debates, local politics and newspapers, he strongly believes in the tools of dialectic and methodological skepticism. His unconditional love for western philosophy, perpetrated by reading books, by dialoguing and by writing, brings him in a tireless journey in search of new and alternative points of view on the world. He aspires to grow a mustache as thick as Nietzsche's.