Plato’s Resolutions For a New Year

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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.

School of Athens (Which never really existed) by Raphel. In the centre there are Plato and his student, Aristotle.

School of Athens (Which never really existed) by Raphel. In the centre there are Plato and his student, Aristotle.

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.

The Cave

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.”

Republic 604c-d

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.

I think women are kind of sophists too. It doesn't matter how good is your argument, they always win.

I think women are kind of sophists too. It doesn’t matter how good is your argument, they always win.

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.

So, What’s The Way To Decide?

Thoughts

I’m moving to another country in three weeks. Everything I accumulated during 20 years will have to fit in two 23 Kg suitcases and a 5 Kg handbag. I will leave a lot of stuff behind. But do you know what is the best thing? The best is that I could use just one of the 23 Kg ones and I would be happy. The most precious things I have are my books, my guitar, my Buzz Lightyear toy, the photos and songs in my hard drive and the picture frame my girlfriend gave me. If I can take that with me I will be satisfied.

I always thought that what gives value to people are qualities they would still have if they were naked in the middle of the desert. Be rich, have good taste for clothes, play well the piano, drive like Speed Racer. These are things that can impress a lot of people, but who are you when there is no wealth backing you up or status drawing a line between you and them, or no audience to regard you as a credible person?

Actually, that’s quite unfair. People have great qualities that can shine only when there’s something else in the scene. Like a good talker, a good negotiator, a good writer or good listener. These are qualities many people, myself included, seek to learn, and they can add value to the bearers lives and to society, but invariably need the presence of things (like other people) to have value.

People very often create a set of expectations over a subject, and then, after that, they create a prejudice.  People want to get in shape, they hear they have to do exercises, they see that people sweat when they exercise, and then they think that if they are sweating they are exercising. That may seem like a dumb example, but we actually do that much more often than we think.

When we draw that kind of silly conclusions we are trying to define the content of something by looking at its form. It’s like fever! Fever is not an illness. When you go to the doctor he doesn’t say “yeah man, you got a Fever, take this ice cube”. That’s because fever is the by-product of a real problem. You can almost assure that if someone has some specific illness, then this person will have fever. But it would be foolish to state the opposite.

Well, that’s exactly what we  do when we invert form and content. And when a huge group of people, sometimes our whole world, have this wrong perspective, we tend to believe that’s the real deal, the truth (remember your “whole world” is everything and everyone you know, not more than that).

Warren Buffet cites Benjamin Graham’s advice in his biography:

“You’re neither right nor wrong because other people agree with you. You’re right because your facts are right and your reasoning is right”

Benjamin Graham

Based on these prejudices, people often-times look more to the form than to the content of some stuff. Here is my top ten list of form-content inversion and an attempt to explain how it happens.

Relationships – Undoubtedly the most recurrent topic in young minds — and not so young too. People have defined relationships in their heads with what happens in relationships instead of with what really is a relationship. On internet you see a bunch of images of people hugging or kissing, with a sepia effect and a moving phrase; all of them supposedly showing how a relationship should be like. And then, when it’s time to have a relationship, the girl assumes the “role” of the girlfriend and the boy the “role” of the boyfriend. From friends to boyfriend and girlfriend they have a drastic change in behaviour instantly. The girl feels she should ~behave like the girlfriend~.

That’s adopting the form of the thing, Mimic the movements of someone else, someone else’s experience. Relationships should be spontaneous! You don’t have to act like that just because that’s the way couples do, you should act in a way that makes you feel good; not focusing the form of a relationship but its content, its meaning.For example, a form-oriented couple and a content-oriented one walk on the street. Both are walking hand on hands with their respective partner. One couple thinks: “we have to change our facebook status, we have to spend more time together, we have to watch romantic films in the theatre; we ought to do all that cuz that’s what a couple does”. And the other one thinks: “I’d love to tell everyone that I found you, ill change my facebook status so people will know it faster; It was so good being with you, I can barely wait to see you again; Hey Star Wars episode VII is out! how about we see it instead of it’s boring romance competitors?”.

One is guided by what they want to do, and the other one by what they think they should do. Well, not surprisingly, the wrong interpretation brings along problems. This flawed conception creates undue fears like insecurity. A good example of a content and meaning-focused instead of form-focused film, is undoubtedly “When a Man Loves a Woman”. What a great film!

The thing is that some people see relationships as a structured model they should adapt to if they want to partake of its feelings banquet. When in fact, relationship is just a name for what happens when two friends like each other so bad they would like to kiss. If your partner is not your best friend, then that can be a big warning that maybe you are living the form-focused paradigm.

Religion – Needless to say that the conception people have of religion is wrong time and time again. Even religious people sometimes can’t get this one. And the worse thing is when someone tries to explain the subject to someone else and either makes it more confuse, or explains it wrong.

I’m a Christian. With Christianity the idea is simple, there’s a book that states some values, we gotta follow that. Some people ,attempting to bring more people to think alike, build big places and gather great amounts of people. Nothing wrong with that; actually, that’s the idea. But people are used to routines, and when you are dealing with other people there must be order or else you won’t get anywhere.

The problem arises when people are so worried about the routines and customs, and they come from so long ago, that people forget the real purpose for which the habits were adopted. Then they start to think that the customs are the real thing, and forget about the values. And that’s what generates the bunch of controversy we see everywhere. And that’s how they invert form and content.

Formal Studies – I’ll go straight to the point: Formal Studies are overrated.

People go wild when they hear this, but that’s the ugly truth. They get pissed off in front of such a statement because if they did’t go to University they at least want their children to go. And they don’t really think about all the pros and cons of  choosing to study or not . But that’s a discussion for another post, let me focus on the  inversion.

Nowadays a graduate degree is almost essential. There are specifications on whatever your mind can imagine. That’s very different from 60 years ago, when superior studies were not only uncommon but rare. With the increasing demand, the Universities’ supply augmented but the quality of the new players were not exactly the best.

Once that two people doing the same job have different salaries if one of them has a degree and the other hasn’t , people begun to look at graduate studies as a degree instead of a place to learn to do something. As our world grows more and more capitalistic, people little by little lose sight of the idea of creating something, and replace it with a desired salary.

It is when the degree is regarded as more important than the own knowledge acquired that the content has been substituted by the form.

Advices and Advisors – Who do you listen to? When you hear an advice, what is the criteria of evaluation? Sometimes we get pretty bad advice from respectable people. Sometimes we can be well advised by some atypical people. Sometimes advices come well constructed and beautifully worded, but nonetheless wrong. And sometimes they come clumsy, but worth a listen.

The problem with this discussion is that everything depends on the person. Maybe you think that “Live fast, die young” is a good life philosophy. I’d certainly not agree with you, but we would be stuck in a dead-lock. But there is something in common between the two outlooks, and it is how we decide if a advice is good or bad for us. I’d like to highlight more the “for us”, because an advice is not inherently good or bad. It is good or bad for you. And your goals and your life expectations are the criteria to decide whether the advice is useful or not, for you.

“Don’t ever lie, to anyone” can be an excellent advice, this advice can make your career advance fast as you win a good reputation. But if you want to be an infiltrated agent in a foreign army, you will probably die if you follow this advice.

But we don’t have to go this far to find an example, simple and common sayings like “work a lot” or “get married, have children and buy a house” can be good or not depending on our goals. There are also advices that don’t really favour our goal, but show that perhaps we are treading the wrong path. That change our core ideas. And these are usually the most important ones. Because if you are heading to a cliff it’s better to change the way before you get there.

And here’s where it gets tricky. You are hearing someone saying that what you think is inherently wrong and that you should think differently. How do you decide who is wrong, if it is you or the adviser?

The inversion of form and content enters the scene here. When the way the argument is exposed matters a lot, and it can cloud the real consequences of believing it. Like the little child in a poor neighbourhood who is approached by a gangster, at his eyes a successful guy. And then the gangster conveys distorted values to the kid, and shows the life and the world as they are seen by him, a viewpoint he firmly believes is the only one right, and teaches the kid to behave in a way that leads to a cruel path. How can the kid ever go against such a convincing argument? He will grow and then at some point in his life he will be told the contrary. Maybe by someone who doesn’t look as successful as the gangster, but someone who understands that the values the grown kid now stands for are wrong. And he will have to weigh that. The form might not be pretty, but the content should not be ignored.

But again, that’s just my opinion. I think that a gangster is not qualified to educate someone to live in a fair, just and moral society. Even though our society is not like that, we should act as if it were. Because as long as we behave selfishly we will have a selfish society. But you might think otherwise anyway.

In the end we understand that to weigh advices’ contents we must have not only a set of goals, but a set of values. So, then you are able to separate the form of the message from its content, and are not deceived by its appearance. Now, philosophy has some great theories on that and I won’t go on into this subject now, the purpose here is just to stress the important difference between form and content in advices and advisors, and to point out the inversions that commonly occur.

If you would like to know more about society’s values I strongly recommend this video:

Is God Necessary for Morality? – William Lane Craig vs Shelly Kagan Debate

Shelly Kagan in the debate “Is God Necessary for Morality?” with William Lane Craig

Material things – Well, with stuff it is very simple, you pay a lot for something that isn’t really worth that much. And I’m not talking about paying for the design, I’m talking about paying for “reputation”.

Entertainment – I’m deeply disappointed with latin-american TV, the idea of adding value to society and being a mean of conveying information and healthy entertainment is lost. All you see are shows prepared to keep hypnotized fools. They show things that may attract us, but by no means are beneficial to us.

I loved to watch a show called Castelo Rá-tim-bum. It was great, I loved the characters, the people who were invited as special guests, it was  a great show. The great thing about it, although at the time I didn’t realised that, was that it showed the reality I, as a Brazilian kid, was used to seeing. It was produced by a channel called Tv Brazil — a far from popular channel. All the other channels with their audience explosions showed fake scenarios with fake people doing fake things. It was always a big and beautiful house with blond kids, and that’s definitely not the reality of 99% of Brazil. Castelo Rá-Tim-Bum showed barefoot kids playing in the street in many of their songs.

Besides showing my country’s reality it also transmitted a very good message. It taught kids the importance of taking a shower, importance of friendship, games to play with your friends and even taught how some things worked. Now I look at the “series” — that in fact are soap operas with teen sluts — that my sister watches on Nickelodeon and everything I can think is: Oh my God, my sister’s brain is being shitwashed. The series teach lies, deceiving, a lot of bad behaviour, stubbornness and selfishness, besides teaching how to be a teen slut too.

All the values are lost in this example. Now, I’m not saying there were anything like the ‘good old times’  were values were important and bla bla bla. No! As I said before, the channel that taught good things was an unpopular channel. Trash is being transmitted by mainstream channels since ever. I am also not saying that today there is nothing that provides good entertainment either. Disney-Pixar films like Toy Story, Nemo, and Brother Bear are here to prove that.

Form and Content – People can even mix up form and content. Let me be clear, form is not bad. It is not bad to look at the form of something, the form is part of the whole. The problem is when a product, or a person, or a situation, or whatever, is accepted just because of the form. And that’s what was happening in most of the situations above. But wouldn’t it also be bad if we chose stuff just because of the content?

The form is the way the content looks like, or the way it is transmitted. Now, imagine if I’m a super genius and I will give you a class. The things I will say will blow your mind, but I will give this class for 19 hours straight. I will have no dynamic at all in my speech, there will be no break and you will have to be standing the whole time.

Will this class be good? You will probably enjoy the first 30 minutes, or even the first hour, but after some time the situation will be unbearable. The content is still great, but the form is bad. So, the class, which is the combination of both, is bad.

Nowadays people think that it’s cool if you have something that no one else has. Some people try to run from the mainstream. “Oh it’s a great band, they are sooo underground, it is just a guy and a recorder, the guy never had a singing lesson in his life and has no talent at all, but he’s sooo deep”. “Oh this film is slow, ugly and has terrible acting but what a good plot!”.

Things are made of form and contend, if one of the two is missing, value is lost.

Books – I have a bit of a controversial opinion on books. You see a bunch of people everywhere bragging about having read a book before seeing it’s film, or bragging about being passionate about reading. That by itself has no sense! It is not because the trash you are consuming is written in a book that it will magically turn into wisdom.

People think that the fact that they read, no matter what, makes them intelligent in some way; not only intelligent, but more intelligent than those who don’t read.

The flaw in this conception is the widely spread prejudice that the form, a book, is by itself enough to make the content valuable. That’s a fallacy. Reading does have inherent benefits; it improves your grammar and — that’s highly dependant on what you’re reading — gives you better text interpretation skills.

Hence, although reading has intrinsic advantages it does not guarantee that you are getting smarter as you read; actually you could get dumber if you read some stuff.

People – This one is easy, you look at the person and judge her right away. It’s not your fault, it is an instinct, everyone has it, and it’s in you for a reason. The reason is protection. For the same reason our mind is set to consider any kind of secretion and excrement as disgusting and nasty, so that we don’t get close. It is set this way because these things can be harmful to us, and if we didn’t think they were nasty we would probably eat, drink, or have some kind of contact with these stuff, and then we would get sick.

Our brain works almost the same way when it comes to people. It’s a defence mechanism. We are programmed to accept people who have more in common with us more easily. That’s why there is racism , that’s why you see poor against rich, women against men, nation against nation, and so on. We are prejudiced by nature. But that’s obviously not an excuse. We are also violent by nature, polygamous by nature and jerks by nature, and that doesn’t mean that we are fated to act like that. We grow in a civilised society and learn to control our instincts. That’s why we are the ones pastoring sheep, not the other way around.

You judge people the moment you see them, but that’s not the problem here — that can even be a good thing, you should use you prejudices to guide you in a first approximation to the person. The problem arises when you think that your first impressions are right. And that’s when you invert form and content.

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I’m sad to say that I lied about the top ten, as you can see there’s only nine items in the list. But that can be your homework. What do you think has an inversion of form and content?

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As for my trip, I firmly believe that my 23 Kg suitcase, in spite of its clumsy way, will hold a far bigger value to me than its form can reveal.