Plato’s March of Folly, Round One

It was the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who said that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

The influence of Plato on the Western philosophical tradition cannot be overstated. Whitehead was correct in that Plato’s ruminations led countless generations after him to “play ball” by taking his ideas seriously. Plato led to Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great.

In the Middle Ages, philosophy was seen as a “handmaiden to theology,” while in the Byzantine East it provided, through neo-Platonism, the language and terminology for theology. Then with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the western philosophical tradition really took off, often grouped into geographical regions that mirrored the rise of nations and European empires (i..e, British Empiricism, French Rationalism, German Idealism, etc.).

Think of this — is it a coincidence that the last five hundred years of Western history have also involved absolutist inter-state conflict on a large scale, as nations and empires with different philosophical traditions vied for dominance? One worldview fights another.

All this can be traced to Plato and his Republic. Plato’s Republic was not just a pitch for a new model of society. It was a cultural re-programming, so much so that the introduction of Plato to any region would entail, de facto, a re-wiring of a society’s norms and traditions. This re-programming is written into the DNA of philosophy, since the philosopher lives a quest for a newer society. Of course, newer for whom?

The thought of having this power over the society is tempting and beguiling fruit (Genesis 3.1 – 7; The Rise of Scripture, chapter 1), and is a foreign and corrupting practice introduced into the garden of the Earth created by God.

While Plato was even too much for the ancient Greek city-states to handle (as far as we know, no one in the city-states accepted his sales pitch in his lifetime, as each local society had its own traditions they likely wished to preserve), after his death Alexander of Macedon introduced Plato’s writings to the ancient Near East and to a foreign peoples no less who were conquered by him. These people, with a civilization predating the Hellenistic peoples, were on their way to being culturally erased from history.

So, the cultures of the ancient Near east became a kind of “test case” of rule by a philosopher-king (Alexander). As we saw in the previous post Tasks, though, the project was doomed to fail from the beginning.

Interestingly, it is not known whether these writings were introduced to Afghanistan, also a place conquered by the Macedonian armies. There are places, in fact, where Greek is spoken to this day in remote Afghani villages. Had Alexander not actually introduced Plato’s writings there but did so only in the more developed Near East, then this would support the contention that Plato’s march of folly (a term I borrowed from the late historian Barbara Tuchman) is a cultural re-formatting of society.

Yes, this was an attempt at a cultural reformatting of an entire people, of many languages and traditions, from the least to the greatest. While Alexander was the first to accept the challenge, others have followed after him, with even more passion and destruction, and their own special self-affirming brand of philosophy. As conquerors try to create their perfect world (perfect for who?), the beguiling quest and thought remains that, “I just might succeed where others failed.” This is why, in the history of the West, kinetic wars have been fought to advance ideology, thus affecting entire societies.

With Plato, the march of folly clearly has its costs.

One thought on “Plato’s March of Folly, Round One

  1. Pingback: Plato’s March of Folly, Round Two — Jesus Avoids the Trap | The Literary Liturgist

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