Wednesday, September 14, 2005

AMERICAN PLATO

One of my favorite themes in Plato's philosophy is Socrates' distinction between myth and reality. Of course, Plato didn't mean by this distinction that myth is 'what you think' while reality is 'what you see', the intellect versus the senses. Quite the contrary. Plato favored the world of thinking, wisdom, and memory over the deceptive world of the senses. The intellect was literally 'in-formed' by the unchanging, absolute truth residing somewhere 'out there' in the heavenly cosmos. The perfect triangle, for example, does not and could never exist in the material world, no matter how accurate your protractor and straight edge; it can exist only in its transcendent Form.

Myth presented something of a problem for Plato. Here were stories of ancient Greece handed down orally and eventually recorded with the burgeoning technology known as writing. They weren't factual accounts, so they didn't really fall within the fallible realm of the material-sense world. And yet, they clearly weren't rational stories revealing an abiding logic or intelligent design, so to speak. But these stories were very effective with the masses.

In fact, Plato realizes that in drawing a blueprint for the ideal city-state in the Republic, myths would serve an invaluable purpose keeping the masses in line, what Socrates calls the iron and bronze class of farmers, artisans, and other producers and practitioners, who he considers incapable of comprehending the more complicated logic of philosophy.

It's no accident that Leo Strauss, who many believe to be the intellectual father of neoconservatism, was an avid admirer of Plato, and in particular his class-based design of the perfect republic. Strauss in fact draws a direct line from Plato to Machiavelli to himself as vanguards of the best form of realpolitik.

As much as I dislike Strauss and his neoconservative progeny who now dictate policy in Washington, it should now be obvious that he was on to a universal truth about the masses. That truth, which both Plato and Machiavelli knew so well, is that the people, a nation's masses, prefer myth over reality. That is, they will always choose the comfort and assurance of a myth rather than a complicated, gritty truth.

Examples:
1) Most Americans prefer the myth that we live in a democracy; rather than the complicated, gritty truth that we live in a constitutional republic with the levers of power controled by big corporate interests.

2) Most Americans prefer the myth that going to war will unite the nation, vanquish our enemies and eliminate the 'evil doers'; rather than the complicated, gritty truth that going to war will cost thousands of lives, cost billions of dollars, traumatize an entire generation of soldiers' families, create more enemies abroad, divide the nation, and invite more terrorism.

3) Most Americans prefer the myth that they are middle class; rather than the complicated, gritty truth that they are working class, and that no matter how shiny the new kitchen, no matter how fancy the car, no matter how stylish the dress, no matter how articulate when speaking and writing, no matter how high the college education, they will forever remain working class.

4) Most Americans pefer the myth that the United States represents freedom and human rights to the rest of the world and that our government would never do anything morally wrong or evil or irreligious in the world; rather than the complicated, gritty truth that the U.S. government is an agressive, greedy imperial power that cares very little about human rights in the many regions it has invaded to protect coporate interests or shore up political image; places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Haiti, Angola, Guatemala, and Liberia, just to name a few.

There are many others; too many to recount here. The point is, from a political and sociological viewpoint, Plato was right: the masses do prefer myth over reality. It looks, smells, tastes, sounds, and feels so much better. And why should anyone want to not believe in these myths, dismantle them and confront the complicated, gritty truths of the human condition and respond to the call of conscience to make the world a better place?

"Would you hand me the remote. I want to see what's on TV."