Saturday, December 05, 2009

Plato's Virtua Program

Platonic Teen Idol

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 05, Qawl 13, 166 BE

A recent New York Times editorial gloatingly noted the spread of American culture through variations of "Britain Has Talent" and "American Teen Idol" television contests to cultures around the world. It featured two women who won "Idol" contests, one a poetry competition in an Arabian Gulf nation and a singing show in Afghanistan. Anybody familiar with the world of antiquity would smile at this hubris on the part of the two great English speaking nations of our age. Open competitions in sports and the arts were routinely held throughout Hellas, if not the rest of the ancient world. Athens' playwriting contests and the Olympic Games were only two of many periodic events where artistic skill and physical prowess were tested. In every case, the event was sponsored in honour of the local gods. Indeed some might argue that this has not changed, since today's Idol contestants openly seek the favour of the gods of our time, Fame and Fortune.

Such contests had practical ends, such as training youth in skills of warfare and encouraging writers to inspire the public in the name of religion. In his own utopian plan, Plato suggested that such contests be planned by the state. That is, they should be consciously used in a scientific way, not just for spiritual and militaristic ends. In the Laws, Plato says that rulers,

"should always provide that there should be games and sacrificial feasts, and they should have tournaments, imitating in as lively a manner as they can real battles. And they should distribute prizes of victory and valour to the competitors, passing censures and encomiums on one another according to the characters which they bear in the contests and their whole life, honouring him who seems to be the best, and blaming him who is the opposite. And let poets celebrate the victors -- not however every poet, but only one who in the first place is not less than fifty years of age; nor should he be one who, although he may have musical and poetical gifts, has never in his life done any noble or illustrious action; but those who are themselves good and also honourable in the state, creators of noble actions -- let their poems be sung, even though they be not very musical." (Plato, Laws, Book VIII)

Celebrity should not, then, be handed out automatically just because a contestant happens to be the winner. Fame should be earned not only by accomplishment in any one activity, but by living a balanced, temperate life overall. The goal of every such exercise is to further moral and social progress. Fame need not be fickle; she should come only to those who display qualities that benefit everybody. Plato saw these and all such occasions as part of the selection process of the next generation of wise leaders. Plato anticipated Darwinism when he suggested that rulers be chosen for a nature that has proven its mettle,

"the preference again given to the surest and the bravest, and, if possible, to the fairest; and, having noble and generous tempers, they should also have the natural gifts which will facilitate their education." (Republic, Book VII)

According to evolutionary theory, sexual reproduction selects for fitness among different organisms. All the virtues that Plato mentions here, sureness, beauty, nobility, virtue, are good indicators of fitness, that is, health and effective adaptation to the environment. Each quality helps an organism succeed in reproduction. I think that Plato would have been shocked at the narrowness of our modern selection processes. A species would hardly make it past a single generation if it selected for fitness in the same way that modern democracy chooses leaders. We break up into arbitrary parties, and let only partisans choose potential leaders, and only the winning party gets power. Not only elections but everything we do, art, sports, work and recreation should all "facilitate education," and be a part of selecting our future, and our future leaders. We need a more comprehensive approach to selecting virtues, and having virtues in turn select our leaders. In other words, we need to plan. If we put our heads together we should be able not only to catch up to but actually surpass nature's brutal methods, which are notoriously "red in tooth and claw".


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