That which has been, is that which is to be, and that which has been done, is that which will be done, and there is no new thing under the sun.
King Solomon – Ecclesiastes 1:9-10
Solomon was a wise guy. He noticed that people are curious and naive, and these qualities make it hard for them to learn by mentorship. They prefer to learn by their own experience, which makes things much harder, with big consequences, and slows down the life of everyone. Imagine if no one repeated old mistakes. If we made only new mistakes we would go much farther, much faster. But by going through the same errors we have always the same outcomes, and then we are stuck here until we learn to think differently. What Solomon noticed was that people always did the same things that were done before them, and because of that he says there is no new thing under the sun. It is always a repetition. The girl gets pregnant at 16 just as her mother. The guy doesn’t value his time and wastes it just as his dad once did. The brand new idea which will certainly lead to a secure life of 10 years ago is not the same as today’s secure idea. Actually, last year’s secure future is not the same as today’s. So, was it ever a secure future? The great new thing of today makes everyone act just like the 80’s great new thing. Cazuza, a famous Brazilian singer, said “The world is a museum full of news”. And Plato also knew that.
More or less 2435 years ago Plato was born. He grew up and became a pretty clever fellow. He studied 8 years with Socrates, burned all his poetries, and started to philosophise. Plato’s main idea is that there are two worlds, the one we can see, which he calls the sensible world, a world that is always changing and that can trick our eyes and by doing so it also tricks our thinking of it. But there is also another world, the world of the forms, where nothing changes because everything is perfect —they don’t change because being perfect it can’t get any better than that, so any change would be for the worse. Imagine you draw a circle in a sheet of paper. It doesn’t matter what kind of magic tool you use to draw it, it will never be a perfect circle, it is only an attempt to represent the ideal circle. It is a shadow of the “real thing”. Your drawn circle is not the real circle, it is only a copy of it. And that’s the way Plato thought. He called the world of the ideals the real world, and the world we live in, a fake world, where things are not really what they seem. He constructed an allegory, which got very famous, to illustrate that.
Imagine there is a big cave, and in the cave there is a people who is chained since birth and the chains hold them in a way they can only look to the wall of the cave. In a high place behind them there is a fire which reflects in the wall (like a cinema room) and people pass in front of the fire, some carrying stuff, some just walking, some talking, others quiet, but the chained people can only see their shadows in the wall. They have never seen anything else than the shadows, so they don’t think the shadows are a silhouette of some other thing, or that they are caused because of something else, they think the shadows are real deal, the real stuff.
Well, that’s us. That’s us looking at our ever-changing world and thinking that the lights and movements we see are in fact reality. That’s us thinking that an act of courage is courage itself, or that laws are justice itself, or that something beautiful is beauty itself. But then he says, imagine you take out the chains of one of these cave-landers. He will now be able to look around and see the fire, and see the things that pass by the fire. He will be able to walk and go out of the cave. Obviously it will hurt him in the beginning, hurt his eyes because they aren’t used to looking directly to light, hurt his body, because it isn’t used to moving so much. He will walk out of the cave and see the sun and all things that he illuminates, he will be amused.
Here Plato is talking about the Philosopher. The things he sees outside of the cave are the “real world”, the world of the forms and ideals. He sees all that and notices that all his life he was looking at just shadows.
And then it gets even better, he says that the ex-cave-lander goes back to the inside of the cave to tell his friends all he had seen and to tell them that all they are seeing is nothing more than representations of real stuff. But when he get’s there no one believes him, they think he is crazy and they mock on him. People are hard to be taught. People where hard to be taught then and they are still hard to be taught now, just as before. You still eat this shitty stuff even though everyone knows it’s going to clog your heart veins.
Plato’s Republic is an attempt to define justice. At some point in the book he says that justice is when there is agreement on everything. And injustice, in the other hand, is when you have disagreement. He depicts a city-state and says that for it to be just there must be agreement in the government. You can’t have a parties, each one with a different opinion. You should have just one party, and this party shouldn’t take measures based on opinion, but based on the truth, and being it the truth no one would argue against it.
In his city, the King and the high leaders of the city (which he calls guardians) should all be philosophers. They should have been freed from the chains and should have already gone out of the cave and looked at the real world, seen the real things, and thus should know the truth.
In a very interesting passage Plato explains what is the opinion. He asks “Does he who has knowledge know something or nothing?” Adeimantus says “Knows something, of course”. Then he asks “Something that is or something that is not?” “Something that is, how could someone know something that is not”. Then he associates knowledge with things that really are, and ignorance with things that are not. After that he asks “What about something that is and is not at the same time?”. This something is the opinion.
The leaders of the city wouldn’t argue because their opinions would be rationalized analysis proved to be true, and not an opinion. And being so, there would be justice in the city. Of course he points out many other things that make the city a just city, but that’s the centre of the idea. He knew he put the stakes too high, and no real city would ever be able to work exactly as he proposed. But it doesn’t matter. The idea is that cities would try to get as close as they could to this city, because that was an ideal, a perfect form of his “real” world.
Plato’s idea of a different world, a place of perfect things is more usual to us that it firs appears. Our modern world is completely immersed in the concept of ideals, things that we can never reach, but our mission is to try to get as close as we can. Be it in poetry with Dirceu’s Marilia, be it with Jesus, be it in your day to day life, where you are constantly struggling to get to this ideal of a happy person, even though the happiest person in the world still have hard moments, it doesn’t matter, the ideal is always happy.
And what did Plato want from us? he wanted us to think a little more, to try a little harder to understand things instead of keeping vomiting our prejudiced opinion on everyone else. If we get our reasoning right we will eventually arrive in a coherent and rather sober conclusion, not just a poorly backed opinion. Have you noticed that when you are arguing with someone, most of the times, it doesn’t matter how good your arguments are or how much you proved the person wrong, you will never convince him? The other person already has his mind made up and nothing you say will change that. People’s ego is just too big to admit they are wrong.
But I have good news, if you are ever wrong don’t worry that’s a good sign. It means that you just discovered a new opportunity to improve yourself. As soon as you notice a flaw, correct it right away! People spend a whole lot of time grumbling about stuff, don’t do that! Correct it right away, and then move on. Plato had a thought of that:
“..And, instead of stumbling like children, clapping one’s hands to the stricken spot and wasting the time in wailing, [we should] accustom the soul to devote itself at once to the curing of the hurt and the raising up of what has fallen, banishing threnody by therapy.”
People usually have a hard time admitting they are wrong. They think that if the person who is exhorting them is also wrong, it means they aren’t wrong at all. That’s a great, but nonetheless common, mistake.
Plato and the Posers
In Plato’s time there were a group of teachers who were called sophists. Sophists were teachers of oratory who taught the pupils to win an argument. Notice, they weren’t teaching them to think and to reason as to get to a good solution for a problem, neither were they trying to put the truth in first place, they were only teaching people to be good debaters. By that time, sophists were often mistaken by philosophers, and vice versa. That confusion were outrageous to Plato, and during his work he put a lot of effort into clearly differencing them both.
Plato taught using elenkhós. A method of teaching using dialectic. As opposed to the dissertation, where one person makes a monologue explaining something, in the dialectic method the teacher leads the student to the knowledge through questions, making him think and thus making him get to the answer himself by his own reasoning. Doing that, they built a chain of propositions, all of them agreed as truthful, and the main goal was to get to the truth.
The moral of Republic is that if we base our viewpoints on opinions and suppositions we are very likely do diverge in many things, and thus create disorder, which leads to injustice. But if we think well, if we don’t get too attached to a thought or a tradition, if we become willing to discover the immutable truth and from this truth we change our ways, then we will be happier and live in a just and happy place. The book concludes saying that intrinsic in the idea of justice, is happiness. If you are just, you will be happy.
That’s Plato’s resolution for 2013. That was his resolution for years before Christ. But surprisingly, even though our society and our knowledge have evolved in a way that couldn’t even be described, our inner self is still the same. We are just as insecure as people were in Plato’s days. We cling to an opinion because we are afraid of being wrong, of being regard as ignorant, of having no importance. We try to be right always, and we try to justify ourselves and give excuses. Plato wants us to be happier, to free ourselves from the chains, let we all make a toast to knowledge and to discovery, to change and to redemption. Because once we all agree to change, then we will arrive in the beloved just and happy, Republic.