Mark Edmundson teaches English literature at the University of Virginia. As a part of his duties he teaches a course in great philosophers and great religious teachers. He tells us that the course comprises works by Plato, Homer, the New Testament, Confucius, Buddha and Shakespeare.
One applauds the fact that students are being exposed to great minds and influential thinkers. One would be happier if Edmundson was not using the course to seduce students into embracing leftist thinking. And one would be much happier if he did not present Plato as the last word in ethics.
After all, the Greek word for ethics derives from the word that means “character.” Ethics is about building character, not embracing an Ideal.
Since the greatest ethical thinker of antiquity was Aristotle, not Plato, it is somewhat surprising to see that Edmundson is selling Platonic idealism as an ethical system that shows the way to human happiness. Surely, Plato had ideas about happiness, but, as the Stanford Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy explains, Aristotle wrote the book on ethics.
The Encyclopedia explains:
Plato's Republic, for example, does not treat ethics as a distinct subject matter; nor does it offer a systematic examination of the nature of happiness, virtue, voluntariness, pleasure, or friendship. To be sure, we can find in Plato's works important discussions of these phenomena, but they are not brought together and unified as they are in Aristotle's ethical writings.
Whereas Plato’s thinking has served as the foundation of Western idealism, Aristotle’s philosophy has grounded Western empiricism and pragmatism. Plato was about ideas. Aristotle was about facts. Socratic dialogues begin with an idea and end with an idea. It followed that, for Plato, human beings could only achieve happiness by giving their lives for an ideal. Aristotle thought more deeply about happiness. He defined it in terms of excellence: as doing a job well for the sake of doing it well. Where Plato veered toward belief and conviction, Aristotle emphasized action in the world.
The Encyclopedia offers Aristotle’s view:
He says, not that happiness is virtue, but that it is virtuous activity. Living well consists in doing something, not just being in a certain state or condition. It consists in those lifelong activities that actualize the virtues of the rational part of the soul.
Let’s be clear about what this means. A pianist achieves happiness by playing the piano well, because there is a special joy in excelling at playing the piano. His happiness does not come from getting paid to do so or from the fame and adulation he receives. If he focuses on the latter his playing will suffer.
Platonism leads people on a different path. It does so by using various kinds of sophistries, among them false dichotomies. When Edmundson presents Plato’s ethics he does not mention Aristotle, but compares the Platonic view to a materialist, consumerist vision. He asks why people who have so much, have so many goods, who enjoy the benefits of modern communication and transportation are not happy?
Apparently, Edmundson wants to connect with his Freshman students, because he channels the wisdom of someone called Louis C.K., who is not one of the great philosophers or religious leaders. Apparently, Louis said that no one is happy. It’s what you would expect from someone who is never going to belong to the pantheon of great minds.
On its face, the statement is nonsense. Some people are unhappy and some are happy. It is absurd to say that everyone is the one or the other. Thus, the dichotomy that Edmundson is using to seduce the minds of his young students is false.
But once he establishes it, Edmundson can answer that people are unhappy because they are too involved with material things, to the exclusion of what he and some people call meaning. Of course, this makes happiness something like a mental state, one that involves how you feel about other people and what you believe. It is no longer about how you do or do not behave in the world, or whether or not you are good at anything.
Obviously, Aristotle was responding to Plato when he defined happiness in terms of good character and doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. Thinking and doing are not the same. We note that doing the right thing because we want to help other people, as in giving charity, is really not what Aristotle was talking about.
Yet, Edmundson, marrying Plato to the Christian virtue of compassion, is selling that sentiment. One notes in passing that no less a theologian than Augustine had long since declared Plato to be a “near Christian.”
Effectively, Edmundson is teaching his students to be liberals and progressives. In this passage he describes Plato’s view:
Plato believed that the best of all lives were based upon a quest, and an arduous quest at that. People who sought the Truth were the ones who, to Plato, lived with the most intensity and even joy. They cared nothing, or very little, for the trappings of successful life: They would be inclined to sneer at our gizmos, except as they were means to an end. The end? The discovery of what is actually the case. Contact with the real!
This might very well appeal to college students, but we emphasize that for Plato the realm of the real is the realm of the Forms and Ideas. His theory induces people to try not to excel in the world, the better to salve their low self-esteem by thinking that they are right, that they think like all of the other students think.
As for reality, in the sense of empirical data and concrete objects, Plato did not believe that we ever make contact with them. What we consider to be real objects, he said, were mere appearances, images reflected on the wall of a cave.
In Platonic terms, the Truth does not mean true to the facts; it does not mean true to experience. Truth means thinking what Plato and Socrates want you to think. Plato does not lay down rules for living your life well and successfully; he does not care whether you excel or not. His is not a guide to life. It does not teach as much as it seduces the minds of those who are young and gullible. It is about mind control.
According to Edmundson, Plato was interested in finding the one Truth that applied to all people at all times and in all places. Good luck with that.
And yet, the promised transcendence is supposed to trump all that is required of you when you belong to a specific community, when you go out and master a trade, when you build a home and care for a family. Platonism cuts you off from your community and turns you into a citizen of the world. This makes you dysfunctional except to the extent that you can be compassionate toward the poor and support leftist causes.
As Edmundson enthuses:
The quest for Truth is an ideal. When men and women engage it, their days are alive with meaning and intensity. They know what they are doing on Earth. They know what they want. They don’t need everything to be amazing. They know that happiness comes from picking out a noble goal, an ideal, and dedicating themselves to it.
When you have detached yourself from reality, you will be chasing down an Ideal and you will never return to reality. Your passionate intensity, your conviction that you are right will be so strong that you will never allow a mere fact to cast doubt on it. If you allow yourself to doubt you will be moving toward the empirical or scientific method, and that is precluded by Platonism. Your quest for an ideal is designed to blind you to the facts.
One must note an interesting point, namely that Plato trotted out the example of warriors in his perfect state who were fighting for an ideal, for their idea of honor.
Plato admires those who quest to be martial heroes, though not as much as he admires aspiring thinkers. Plato understands how the best of warriors fight not for material wealth or for conquest, but to defend their families and their nations and to live up to the code of honor. Homer’s warriors, who fully embody the heroic ideal, are often afraid of nothing.
One might question whether a warrior can be afraid of nothing. Plato is obviously trafficking in caricatures.
Warriors do live up to a code of honor. The code of honor is not an ideal, but a set of specific behaviors that constitute the activity of being a warrior. From Aristotle’s perspective warriors try to excel at what they do. If your mind is distracted by your family back home you will be a less effective warrior. If your mind is troubled by the injuries you want to inflict on the enemies you will not be a very effective warrior.
And one must also notice that in most wars there are winners and losers. Aristotle places more value on negotiation, on the ability to compromise, to find common ground, to discover the mean between two extreme positions and to make deals.
Edmundson shifts focus to the notion that he calls compassion. He might be thinking of Christian love, agape or charity, but he might also be thinking of benevolence and magnanimity, which are not really the same thing. There is a fundamental difference between giving charity and giving a job.
He explains compassion by invoking the good Samaritan:
A man is beaten and robbed and left on the roadside. Members of his own group pass him by, leaving him to suffer. But a Samaritan comes along and lifts the afflicted man from the side of the road. He binds the man’s wounds and mounts him on his own beast. He takes the sufferer to an inn and pays his bill and says that he will return to visit and also to settle accounts. Then the teacher’s question: “Who truly was a neighbor to the unfortunate man?”
Every man is my neighbor. Every woman is my neighbor. This is the central teaching of Jesus, and though it is not an easy teaching to put into practice, it may confer upon living men and women a sense of wholeness, full being in the present, and even joy. It will almost certainly provide what the world of fast travel and fine food and electronic gizmos will not: It will provide meaning.
One assumes that this is presented as a rationale for Obamacare. But, there is a very large difference between having a heart filled with compassion and inventing and purchasing the gizmos that can treat the man who has been beaten and left by the roadside. Western civilization underwent a major transformation when it decided to dispense with the notion that meaning (or ideas or a state of mind) could cure, and that it was better to have hospitals and antibiotics. (True enough, a good state of mind helps, but it does not take the place of medicine.) Moreover, the more the trauma surgeon feels compassion for his patient, the less effective he will be as a trauma surgeon. Physicians know that it is best to be able to put aside the fact that they are treating someone’s nephew or husband. This is why they do not, as a rule, treat family members.
I am not going to tell you what does or does not constitute the teaching of Jesus. I will simply mention that to make every man and woman your neighbor can easily lead you to believe that that you are responsible for everyone who is walking on the planet. It is part of a doctrine that the Obama administration trots out as a rationale for getting involved in some conflicts and not others.
As for filling your heart with joy and meaning, I think it far better to consider the happiness that accrues to the emergency room physician who does a great job healing the trauma victim because he is happy to do excel at what he does. He is happy to work on the trauma patient even though he knows that it is a practical impossibility for him to do the same thing at the same time for every man and woman and child on the planet.
Plato was trafficking a grand illusion. It has not yet finished doing damage to the minds of the young.