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Jul 16 2010

Rocamadour, France

I should have covered more distance today, France is a big country and there is still a long way to Paris from Granada. Going on the motorbike is different than going in a car. You get close to nature, you feel the smells, the wind, the bugs and the vibrations of the engine. You can take it all in. It is a complete feeling of freedom. But it is also a lot more physical and you need to keep alert. That is why I should not have left 500 km for tomorrow. But when I came to Rocamadour I realized I had to stay the night. Villages up on mountain tops have that effect on me.

Cabecou Rocamadour

My plan for this little trip vertically across France is to learn about some of the 400 types of cheese. Wine tours are done to death. Around the hillsides of Rocamadour there are mostly goats, so the local specialty cheese is not surprisingly goat cheese. I picked up some Cabecou Rocamadour in an amazing cheese shop in Toulouse and it served me as road food. It is a quite soft cheese with a perfect salt balance and it melted in my mouth..and my bag.


On the road you have time to think. And my companion today has been Plato and his conception of what philosophy is, what a philosopher does, and how it relates to society as depicted in his magnum opus The Republic. (Get it in EPUB format for the iPad). Why Plato? Partly because in many ways the modern world begins with him and The Republic may be the most influential book in history, but more so because it deals with a subject I care about a lot, namely is philosophy for everyone? Specifically, would society benefit from more philosophers or would it disintegrate? Because The Republic was the first of its kind, while it is esoteric it is also naive in a refreshing way. Later in history, it is hard to find people defending both sides of this issue with equal honesty. It is the nature of the beast that those who do not believe in an open and transparent society keep it to themselves. Thus, those that Plato inspired became sly, self-conscious and secretive in a way he appears not to be. He is full of contradictions though. For Plato, a philosopher is a lover of truth, but the more I think about him the more I come to doubt he was a philosopher according to his own definition.

“And will the love of a lie be any part of a philosopher’s nature? Will he not utterly hate a lie?

He will.

And when truth is the captain, we cannot suspect any evil of the band which he leads?


Justice and health of mind will be of the company, and temperance will follow after?

True, he replied.”

This all sounds like you would expect from the proverbial philosopher by definition right? Is this why The Republic is so influential? No I would think its influence does not come from it being widely read by common people. It comes from one singular idea which is contained within it, and which has served the basis for all modern societies, and is still shaping the world today. The idea is this:

For a society to be functional and coherent its citizens need to be made to believe in common myths with which they can identify, and in the name of which they are made willing to subordinate themselves.

You should be surprised by this. Maybe you thought Plato was a humanist inspiring critical thinking  in the youth and rebellion by reason? After all that is why they killed Socrates. But no, Plato does not find it neither a realistic nor a desirable aim too make of the citizens free thinkers. Free thinkers are not willing to lay themselves down to die for the State. Instead, to maintain stability and constancy, common people are supposed to be made to believe in lies, and he realizes the process must begin with children.

“You know, I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious…”

He knew, like most societies know, that the mind of the young is mouldable, and once given a certain shape tends to remain that way. Even if adults consciously reject childhood stories, an emotional attachment remains that is virtually impossible to break. (Perhaps it is unbreakable because to break it would be to reject the happiest years of our lives? Who wants to admit to having lived a lie?) So why would Plato, a self-proclaimed lover of Truth, want to spread lies to children knowing full well they would, on the whole, never abandon them as adults? He thinks the stories are for moral education and he lets Socrates discuss with Glaucon about what material was apt for a developing young mind. (He is for instance prescribing that the parts of Homer that depict the gods as overcome by laughter be censored as it is not becoming of a god to behave thusly. He also considers the mixolydian musical scale unsuitable for the youth. So much for the Laughing Buddha and Sweet Home Alabama.) No big deal, you might think, all parents lie to their children, and mostly it is for their own good. But Plato takes this further and in his ideal society the philosopher king is the father of all the children in his society. The leader alone has the right to tell fairy tales.

“Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.

Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind; and although the rulers have this privilege, for a private man to lie to them in return is to be deemed a more heinous fault than for the patient or the pupil of a gymnasium not to speak the truth about his own bodily illnesses to the physician…”

Thus, the ruler, in spite of being a lover of truth has got the exclusive right to lie, for the good of the State. This is when Plato introduces the concept of the noble lie, and by doing so has planted the seed for what is yet to come. Propaganda, manifactured consent, organised religion, censorship, marketing and PR agencies. Lies in the name of…

“How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places, (as the poets say, and have made the world believe,) though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.”

Here he is showing that he has realized that all beliefs have a history and have been invented. Since he is so clearly aware of how religious myths are invented, and gives himself complete freedom to censor and edit Homer´s religious tales, I cannot for a second believe he believed in the Greek gods. We seem to have here an atheist who is embarrassed because the lies seem so idiotic to him they cannot possibly fly. Ironically, some 350 years B.C. he doubts rulers and common people alike could be made to believe these kind of stories again. He continues:

“…I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.

You had good reason, he said, to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son….

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.”

Why does a lover of truth want to spread lies? Is it because individuals cannot handle philosophical truths? Is it to spare people’s feelings, the same reason parents do not want to talk to their children about where granny really has (not) gone? No, that does not seem to be Plato´s concern.

“…fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.”

Essentially, Plato is talking about indoctrinating soldiers to defend the State. He talks about education and philosophy being a part of it, but he knows clearly that no philosophically inclined student would be prepared to lay down his life for the country he has out of happenstance been born into. He knows that any philosopher would question the validity of country borders, and hail what friends and enemies have in common rather than what separates them. The State that Plato hails, only really exists to subjugate the many for the benefit of the few.

Also, Plato is not concerned with progress. His State is something that needs to be preserved as is. It is the seed of a totalitarian, fascist, conservative ideology, and unlike natural seeds, ideas that make it into the soil of history always have some fruits. Ideas once introduced do not tend to go away. Who are the most influential modern interpreters of Plato? Two Jews escaping Nazi Germany took radically different approaches to his view on philosophy versus society: Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The former is most famous for his philosophy of science, but in this context most relevant for his defence of liberal democracy and critical thinking. The latter is less known, but his students should ring a bell: Irving Kristol (the god father of American neo-conservatism), Paul Wolfowitz (Bush´s Secretary of Defense, and the unofficial author of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive strike).


Essentially Strauss understanding of Plato is that it was right to kill Socrates. Philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Philosophy unveils what Nietzsche called “deadly truths” and ordinary people need to be protected. He did not think Plato believed in God. He thought Plato was an atheist and committed “pious fraud”. Both Popper and Strauss agree that Plato was not honest, that he kept secrets, but they disagree about whether it was a good idea. According to his fiercest contemporary critic Shadia Drury, Strauss clearly thinks open debate and liberal democracy is unrealistic ideals at best, and genuine dangers at worst.(I cannot speak with any authority about Strauss since I find his writing style almost incomprehensible, as opposed to Popper who is extremely lucid and accessible. I think this is symptomatic of their attitudes though.)

So the question is: Will a society full of free thinking creative minds disintegrate into chaos? Why would it? Does thinking deeply about something always lead to the same end? Does philosophy lead to nihilism? If it did, would nihilism be bad for society? Philosophy inevitably leads to intellectual changes. You grow out of some beliefs and pick up new ones, and in doing so your “faith” in each becomes less absolute. Change of mind gives the wisdom of not taking anything too personally. If fanaticism is evil then nihilism is definitely on the side of the good or at least the harmless.  But if nihilism means not to care about anything then philosophy is not the train to take you there. You can be passionate about something and at the same time keep a healthy perspective. Philosophy is not a threat to the healthy society, on the contrary, it is what can save it from degeneration.

I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.

What I am driving at is that it is not in the interest of the little ordinary citizen not to philosophize. It is in the interest of the elite that the masses do not question their authority. Thinking people are harder to control and subjugate, and they would be harder to send as cannon fodder to protect oilfields. Philosophical people are harder to control because they are harder to fool. Trying to keep people from thinking for themselves is an issue about maintaining power, not caring for people’s moral education. The most efficient way of keeping people united in a state of non-thinking is to invent enemies and engage in perpetual war.

For myself, I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.  My reasons for this are not those of justice or natural rights, nor that it may be a realistic hope, simply that a million critical minds stand a better chance to solve the novel problems ahead than a self-serving conservative elite. When someone says “one shouldn’t think too much” what I hear is another one biting the dust.

You should think too much!

It is good for you.

It is good for the world.

What do you think?

I’m off for some more goat cheese.

À bientôt.