Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

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Rise of the Sophists

kierkegaard

Surprisingly this is not a post about a new Terminator movie. It isn’t even a post about the rise of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson; but let’s mention them for the bonus clicks. This post is actually a short essay I wrote last year as part of a philosophy course I did on Soren Kierkegaard. As you will see there is quite a bit of relevance to the current political and media climate, although looking back as far as Socrates reveals that not much has changed: sophists have undue influence on our society.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Kierkegaard saw parallels between his time and Socrates’ time. Once again there was a rise of Sophists in society, people who knew very little but pretended they did. While it could be argued that the Socratic Method is always relevant in society, Kierkegaard came to see certain aspects of Socrates differently to his peers. He was interested in using the negative as well as drawing people into argument by asking questions from feigned ignorance. These tactics could be used to expose those who were lacking knowledge or understanding.

Kierkegaard expanded upon his interpretation of the Socratic Method and has subsequently influenced many, both in the field of philosophy and thought, as well as wider society. Notably his ideas have influenced things like existentialism and post-modernism, which have influence into such diverse areas as the arts and science. But Kierkegaard was a precursor to modern philosophical movements, as he wasn’t trying to educate or enlighten, but rather stimulate and encourage people to look for the truth.

There is a downside to Kierkegaard’s influence on society. In our modern age we have seen the rise of those who would use Kierkegaard’s negative and questioning as a tool, rather than for helping others find the truth, but for harassment. While the idea behind aporia and maeuetics is to question what we and others know, there is a point at which this stops being about questioning knowledge for understanding and starts being about someone just trying to annoy others.

Obviously this comes down to the intent of the person: are they trying to help others understand, or understand themselves; or are they more interested in having an argument, or annoying someone. But is it subtler? Is it a progression whereby someone has engaged in discussion only to run up against something they disagree with – due to whatever personal bias – and thus use the questioning as an attack or avenue to annoy others? Regardless, those who are trying to annoy are not following the intent of Kierkegaard, nor Socrates, and will miss the essence and benefits of aporia and maeuetics.

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

Much like the parallels Kierkegaard saw between his time and Socrates’ time, there exists a similar parallel today. Once again in the modern age we see the rise of the Sophists. They are our elected officials, they are our media, and through technology they have the ability to reach more people and influence the world.

With more information available more easily than ever, people have come to receive that information in bite sized pieces. Often a headline – which may have been designed more for attracting attention than providing information – will be as much as a person will read about a topic. Our leaders and elected officials are reducing their policy statements to sound bites that can be easily remembered. And while we have this overly simplistic form or information presented to us, we are seeing less critical assessment of the information.

Kierkegaard was correct to look at the rise of Sophists in his time and act to apply Socratic methods to their arguments. By taking the approach of “knowing nothing” and questioning the person presenting information, it can be revealed how little the person actually knows. This is something that our media, and we, are failing to do. By taking the negative position it is possible to force the Sophist to explain themselves.

The most interesting aspect of Kierkegaard’s connection with Socrates is how comedians are applying it today. Irony was something Kierkegaard regarded as an invaluable tool. Today we see comedians such as John Oliver using irony – and other comedic devices – to dissect topics and arguments in the public space. It could be said that the modern Socrates or Kierkegaard comes in the form of the satirist news programs. Their viewers are noted to be better informed about news topics, and this comes from the use of Socratic tools.

A little more on Kierkegaard from The School of Life:

Kids these days.

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Something I’ve noticed on social media, and the media in general, is the denigration of kids these days. Whether it be Gen Whatever complaining about the Millennials, or just people complaining about how (insert disparaging adjective here) the younger generation are, I never fail to be amused with the curmudgeons and their ironic statements.

Complaining about the younger generation has been a popular pastime for old people since the invention of young people. Usually the complaints are followed by the creaks of arthritic joints as canes, walking sticks and Zimmer frames are waved at the sky; because everyone knows kids live in the sky these days. Even some of the great philosophers have gotten in on the act of denigrating these uppity kids:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers. – Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.)

That’s right, since the dawn of time, old people have complained about young people and how they are destroying society. And we should know, just look at how terrible society is now: deaths from war are at a thousand year low, homicides are also on a steady decline, the economy is on a 2000 year high, literacy levels are at an all time high, we live longer, and less kids die so they get to grow up, become old, and complain about the kids these days. How can we live in such a terrible time in history!

You see what is happening is a form of nostalgia, pining for a time that never really existed. This golden age only appears golden through a pair of rose coloured glasses, from which only the good memories remain, the bad memories having been covered over with years of alcohol abuse. The kids these days are doing the same stuff the oldies were doing at the same age (as witnessed in this Daily Show video).

We really need to stop with this ageist nonsense. Society has advanced: kids learn different things at school because different things will be expected of them in the future, computers are a thing now, phones are really handy, pop music is as dull as ever, and nobody cares how far you had to walk to school back in your day. So let’s stop picking on different age groups and get back to criticising the things that really matter: sport referees.

Kids+these+days_7fe0b2_4939074

More articles worth a read:
http://xkcd.com/1227/
http://www.anxietyculture.com/antisocial.htm
http://mentalfloss.com/article/52209/15-historical-complaints-about-young-people-ruining-everything
http://startupguide.com/world/the-world-is-actually-getting-better/
http://readingsubtly.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/the-self-righteousness-instinct-steven.html

Update: Vsauce did a fantastic video on Juvenoia (i.e. fear of kids these days) that is well worth a watch.