Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Dialectic; A Platonic Interlude

More theory on what Dialectic is and where the Dialectician would take us

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 02, Qawl 11, 166 BE

In the seventh book of the Republic, Plato held that future rulers "should not be like posts, having no reason in them and yet ... set in authority over the highest matters." In other words, society should not be led by a dumb structure, formula, machine or ideology but by highly trained individuals ready to adapt to circumstances by seizing the spirit of the age. Furthermore, Plato stipulated, the training of these experts must be ordained in the constitution. "There should be a law that they shall have such an education as will enable them to attain the greatest skill in asking and answering questions." This transcendent skill, so ably demonstrated by Plato's great teacher, Socrates, he called dialectic, the "coping-stone" of the sciences.

By means of dialectic the individual seeks truth and groups come to serve the highest order. As a coping-stone, dialectic is by definition the highest level that knowledge can attain. All other trades support it and, like the capstone in a stone arch or building, it in turn gives the entire structure compressive strength. When society stagnates, the dialectician acts as a gadfly to a lazy horse, goading it to act when it is disinclined to move.

But the dialectician also has a conservative role. When society slips out of balance, the dialectician rediscovers its moral center and subtly guides it back into sync. Generally speaking, the closer one comes to the center, the easier it is to mess everything up and do more harm than good. This principle of not fooling with a good thing seems to be forgotten now that we have cracked the genetic code and have learned to fool with nano-structures. The need for prudence and restraint with the highest goods Plato emphasized in his latter work, the Laws, which I regard as his true masterpiece, far greater than the Republic.

"The argument affirms that any change whatever except from evil is the most dangerous of all things; this is true in the case of the seasons and of the winds, in the management of our bodies and the habits of our minds - true of all things except, as I said before, of the bad. He who looks at the constitution of individuals accustomed to eat any sort of meat, or drink any drink, or to do any work which they can get, may see that they are at first disordered by them, but afterwards, as time goes on, their bodies grow adapted to them, and they learn to know and like variety, and have good health and enjoyment of life; and if ever afterwards they are confined again to a superior diet, at first they are troubled with disorders, and with difficulty become habituated to their new food." (Plato, Laws, Book VII)

Today we are literally in just this situation. Poison seems normal, and medicine tastes like poison to our tongues. Science has discovered ways of supplying more meat than ever before. As a result North Americans have become accustomed to eating cheap meat several times a day, at tremendous cost to the environment. Although I am a vegetarian, I myself was caught in this bind last spring. I bought a gas-sipping Toyota Echo last spring, but was also talked into getting my son a puppy. Then I read in New Scientist that getting a carnivorous pet like Amber is more costly in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions than if I had bought a gas guzzling SUV or minivan. Anyway, Plato continues:

"A similar principle we may imagine to hold good about the minds of men and the natures of their souls. For when they have been brought up in certain laws, which by some Divine Providence have remained unchanged during long ages, so that no one has any memory or tradition of their ever having been otherwise than they are, then every one is afraid and ashamed to change that which is established.

"The legislator must somehow find a way of implanting this reverence for antiquity, and I would propose the following way:-People are apt to fancy, as I was saying before, that when the plays of children are altered they are merely plays, not seeing that the most serious and detrimental consequences arise out of the change; and they readily comply with the child's wishes instead of deterring him, not considering that these children who make innovations in their games, when they grow up to be men, will be different from the last generation of children, and, being different, will desire a different sort of life, and under the influence of this desire will want other institutions and laws; and no one of them reflects that there will follow what I just now called the greatest of evils to states. Changes in bodily fashions are no such serious evils, but frequent changes in the praise and censure of manners are the greatest of evils, and require the utmost prevision." (Id.)

Now Plato knew that his beloved teacher Socrates had in his early years been mocked by a playwright. It is often understood that Plato as a result had it in for the poets and artists who had -- and still have -- first dibs at the stories and tales that make up most of the education of early childhood. I do not think that this is necessarily the case, however. For one thing, Socrates himself had changed his teaching in response to the criticism of an artist he counted as a friend.

In the above passage at least, Plato is simply arguing for first things first, that we instill "reverence for antiquity" along with the search for novelty that the creative artist values. The important thing is to improve people by improving customary habit. Dialectic is a conversation, and conversation must do both, inspire change and muzzle needless meddling with the best of traditional ways. If it is directed by love of wisdom -- and Aristotle defined wisdom as "understanding why things are the way they are" -- then the dialectic method must lead to improvement, not the blind, headlong rush to progress that is prevalent today.


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