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Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

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.

Oct 23 2009

In this second post of four I am looking at the domain of reality our beliefs and actions help create and how it is different from the non-human universe. I argue that by applying the same way of thinking about ourselves as we do about independent objects we get into trouble. We mistake something plastic for something solid. I am looking at some implications a more psychological and participatory view of history might have for how we should think about our future. My thoughts are work in progress, brush strokes on my philosophical canvas, neither without tension nor contradiction. As usual I welcome any criticism you might have.

What Doesn't Kill Me

What Doesn't Kill You

The Window of Opportunity

In the movie What Doesn´t Kill You, a recovering alcoholic and criminal thug is contemplating whether or not to rob an armoured truck. As he is staring at himself in the mirror the different futures he can imagine are being played out in his mind. This could be his last job. He will either be able to raise his kids and be a father to them or end up serving lifetime in jail. Life demands him to make a choice.

In passing moments in our lives our choices make a difference. There is an opening in the road, several paths are available, but they will not stay open forever. The rules of the game are waiting for our input into the game, and how the future will unfold is dependent on it. Time is moving ahead and its direction is determined by what has been settled into some shape or other, and that which is still shapeless and open to influence. In the whole universe creativity lives between what has already become reality and that which could never become real. It exists in the realm of possibilities, in moments of choice.

Reflections in the Window

What are we supposed to do? What is the purpose of our existence? Where should we go? These are universal and ancient questions, and instead of offering my own opinions I want to look at why we ask them, what kind of answers we tend to expect, why we expect them and perhaps should not. I believe that in this as in everything we tend to look for emotional certainty, the kind of existential foundation that makes it possible for us to get on with our daily lives without doubts. Our lives are demanding, we have little time to question things. We are looking for the kind of answers that make the questions go away. Thus to begin with, we not only want answers, we have an existential bias towards definitive answers that eliminate the questions. A part of us would even feel the safest if our destiny was written in stone, we had no personal responsibility and that the nature of things was fixed independently of us. Some find comfort in the idea that their individual life narrative is a thread woven into in a divine story evolving towards a glorious end. Others look to astrology, careerism, Marxism, Mayan prophecies, visions given by political leaders or academic futurologists, but the common theme is a future that is relatively fixed. For some such a notion offers the comfort that comes from having something solid to hang on to and we all need comfort from time to time. This tranquillizer however is not without side effects. In casting the future as something fixed we loose sight of the extent to which we ourselves participate in creating it, and we not only make ourselves less free, we actually destroy possibilities we did not even know existed.

The answers we find are largely the reflections of our own assumptions.

I believe we give this treatment not only to the future but to others and even to ourselves. To show how we – consciously or unconsciously – help shape the world we live in I will choose some examples from the financial markets, cultural trends, motivational, social and dream psychology. To add insult to injury I will then point out how some people who have understood this dynamics perfectly, do not want the people that have not realized their own power to shape their own lives to do so. People who take responsibility for their own lives, make conscious choices, question conventions and are self-driven are threats to their authority. I am not saying this to stir up conspiratorial fervent but history is full of examples of leaders not only asserting their own authority but also trying to enforce it by undermining the self-confidence of their inferiors. I will look at Plato for examples, but you probably need look no further than kiss-up-kick-down middle management in any hierarchical modern corporation.

The Myth of the Final Destination

Firstly, from where do we get the idea that the future could have a final destination? Arguably from Aristotle, who distinguished between four types of causes: material, efficient, formal and final. For him material cause was the material out of which something was made. The efficient cause the agent that makes something happen. The formal cause the idea the agent had of the end result. The final cause the purpose or end result itself. Today the word cause means more or less Aristotle´s efficient cause.

For Aristotle the final result of any process existed within it as a potential, and was acting on it as a pull from the future. The future goal was the purpose of the thing, the telos. When the Christians took over this idea the purpose of human existence came from being created in the image of God. Today, even if modern people no longer believe in such fairy tales the connection between purpose of human existence and a fixed goal still remains. It is as if life could only have meaning if there was one destination. It can take the earthly shape of the “love of your life” or a heavenly shape of Paradise. Failure to reach that final destination would spell disaster. Unfortunately if this was true we would have been fucked from the get go, as there are trillions and trillions of possible futures and the likelihood of whichever-would-be-the-right-one to happen is negligibly small. That is not the case when we look at the past of course since it is 100% likely that the past that actually happened actually happened. Still, it is tempting for some to argue that since it was highly unlikely for humans to appear in the first place and that happened it a proof a plan is unfolding and, however unlikely it may appear, we can still get to the final destination. That line of “reasoning” however is begging the question, since it assumes that the existence of humans proves that some great plan is unfolding whereas it proves nothing of the sort. If the planet was populated by religious lizards they would argue in the same self-serving way.

Why both Aristotle and the Christians got it wrong is quite understandable as they could do little more than guess. They knew nothing about quantum physics, DNA, germs, vacuums, or strange attractors, and they could not run computer simulations or test their ideas experimentally in the “Large Headroom Collider“. Even so they both offered helpful attempts at giving meaning and purpose to life, but now we need to think more carefully about how we phrase those questions. We drastically limit our options by phrasing questions about meaning in terms of one goal. What we should be asking – individually and collectively – is not what the final destination is, what we ought to do, or what our destiny is, but rather what are our possibilities, and what we want to do out of that which is possible.

Under Social Construction

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

So how do we know what is possible? That is the first difficult question, and the prayer of the Alcoholics Anonymous captures the human dilemma in a succinct way.

“God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”

How do we know what is possible to change, and learn to accept that which we cannot change? Studying science is a starting point, but science tends to prefer mechanistic and functional explanations and does not take into consideration how the explanation of a social process can itself become an influential factor. The genuinely significant questions, those that decide the fate of man, are not primarily concerned with merely natural potentials. Processes in social and private life are intrinsically reflexive. Our anticipation about our potentials itself influences and shapes those potentials. It is naturally true that a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, but it is only reflexively true that the American dollar has value or that France lies in Europe. Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be true. If you were the only maniac to believe the dollar had value you would not only not be able to buy anything, but would likely qualify for the asylum.

Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be so.

Some “realists” attack people that point out that reflexive truth are only conventions by calling them “idealists”, but is it not the realists who are stuck in their ideas without realising? Do they really know how to distinguish ideas from things? It seems they do not have ideas as much as ideas having them.

There is a massive divide between the natural world and the world we create. Now and then, the gap between the independent natural world and the mind dependent conventional world makes itself know it dramatic ways. Let me borrow the first example from George Soros, who writes extensively about reflexivity and has managed to make himself the 40th richest man in the world. He claims he owes his wealth to his understanding of his teacher Karl Popper´s philosophy and his own ideas about how reflexivity affects financial markets. In The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998) he gives the example of the crisis in 1997 Southeast Asian economy that the Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused him of causing. He writes:

“The Southeast Asian countries maintained an informal arrangement that tied their currencies to the U.S. Dollar. The apparent stability of the dollar peg encouraged local banks and businesses to borrow in dollars and convert into local currencies/…/ by the beginning of 1997 it was clear to us at Soros Fund Management that the discrepancy between the trade account and the capital account was becoming untenable. We sold short the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit early in 1997 /…/ Subsequently Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused me of causing the crisis. The accusation was totally unfounded. We were not sellers of the currency during or several months before the crisis; on the contrary, we were buyers when the currencies began to decline/…/ If it was clear to us in January 1997 that the situation was untenable, it must have been clear to others. /…/ ” (p. 137)

The crisis was “a self-reinforcing process that resulted in a 42 percent decline in the Thai currency and a 59 percent decline in the Thai stock market /…/ The combined result was a 76 percent loss in dollar terms, which compares with an 86 percent loss in Wall Street between 1929 and 1933.

The panic was spread to the neighboring countries by the financial markets – I used the image of a wrecking ball, others have referred to financial contagion as a modern version of the bubonic plague.” (p. 145)

Nowhere is it quantitatively so tangible and apparent how the beliefs held by people affect what is possible than in financial markets. The moment people lost faith in the value of the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit the herd changed and ran madly in another direction, draining the Southeast Asian market of capital as if it were water and a plug was pulled on the other side of the planet. The reason the markets are so volatile and vulnerable he claims is that investors are not independent thinkers but move in herds.

“Fund managers are judged on the basis of their performance relative to other fund managers, not on the grounds of absolute performance. This/…/forces fund managers into trend-following behavior. As long as they keep with the herd, no harm will come to them even it the investors lose money, but if they try to buck the trend and their relative performance suffers even temporarily, they may lose their job.” (p. 130)

In financial markets you can see the movement in clear digits on a screen, but the process of socially constructing reality is at work in every area of human life. A good friend of mine is a book publisher. At our last holiday together he was about to publish a book that was a rewrite of Jane Austen´s Mansfield Park. A journalist from a book review magazine called him and asked if he saw a new trend in rewriting classics. My friend agreed wholeheartedly and mentioned another example of the same. On the following Monday the magazine ran with the story on the book and a separate article on the new trend of rewriting classics. Is there a trend? You tell me. It is if enough people believe there is. It is a reflexive truth and it is quite possible that because of the inclination to imitate other writers will read the article and jump on the idea as well. This is a clear example of a socially constructed reality and should other writers follow suit it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our Plastic Souls

Reflexive potentials require our participation, and this in turn depends crucially on our ideas about what other people are going to do. What people do however is not fixed either as they respond to our expectations. We are largely unaware of what expectations we hold.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Consider a meeting between two friends – Jim and Jules. Jim has an “image” of Jules, in that he has an idea of what Jules is like, what he thinks about things, how he reacts and so forth. Jim has also an idea about himself. On top of these he also has an image about Jules image of Jim, assumptions about what the other knows about him. Then there are the images of what Jim wants Jules to think of him, and also what he thinks Jules wants him to think of Jules. Further there is the image Jules really has of Jim. The situation is naturally symmetrical for Jules, and in the end we end up with a small village of semi-conscious images and reflections, all capturing some aspect of what Jim and Jules are like.

Which image captures the true Jim? You tell me.

To some extent the accuracy of their images of each other depends on how well they know each other, but even if they were familiar like an old married couple, the one would still not truly know the other´s motives. We often make the mistake of thinking we know what others are thinking, or why they behave the way they do, but we cannot really know this. There is a simple reason for this. We do not even know our own motives, so how could someone else know them? You may object and say that you know perfectly well what your motives are, and I would agree to the extent that you may have a clear idea of why you think you do things. This idea however is one out of several possible ways of making sense of what you are doing and feeling and not the final and ultimate truth. As we grow older we look back and now we understand our past motives differently than we did back then, however clear they appeared to us at the time. People undergoing psychoanalysis speed up this process and find that they hate the person they thought they loved, or love the person they thought they hated. The images we have of ourselves and the meanings we give to them are plastic, and keep changing throughout our lives. I do not believe we are shapeless or entirely without an essence but the quest for the True Self is as illusory as chasing after one´s True Love or a Heavenly Paradise.

What Doesn't Kill Me


If it is true that our souls are plastic why do we think they are fixed? I think some answers are to be found in how the child develops a sense of self by reflecting itself in its parents. A 3 years old girl in front of me at Heathrow airport is playing around in the queue. I look at her and smile, and the moment she meets my gaze she instantly becomes self-conscious and timid and runs off to hide behind her father´s legs. She sees herself through my eyes. The child psychologist Piaget noticed that children often solve problems through their own bodies. A child is trying to open a box. Suddenly he opens his mouth, then the box. This I believe is our original self-image, and through an extension of that we understand ourselves not from inside but from outside as it were. The psychological language we use is full of concepts and metaphors borrowed from domains of reality different from ourselves. We let someone in, we have a thought in our head, we go deep into the subconscious, we fall in love, we close the door, we look down on someone, feel uplifting feelings or we go to pieces etc. While these expressions are useful and we find them meaningful, they at the same time present us with an image of ourselves much the same as we would get from seeing ourselves in a mirror.

Space extends. Mind intends.

What is wrong? Put simply: Space extends. Mind intends. Thoughts do not exist in physical space. They do not have physical dimensions. What is the size of an imagined orange? 6 cm or 125 miles? Mental images are scale independent and even if you put a matchbox next to the orange you could not say if it was the size of a teaspoon or a galaxy. Likewise emotions do not just sit around like firemen on a break until some situation flares up. An emotion can be repressed and exist in some way, but not like a forgotten summer cat exists when family goes home from holiday. The nature of subjective phenomena is very different from the concrete determined objects in our environment. We need another way of thinking about ourselves, because something goes fundamentally wrong when we try to look at ourselves through the mirror of our environment. When we see ourselves only as objects, we loose ourselves as pure subjectivity.

We are the observer, not the observed. In The Observing Self (1982) the psychotherapist Deikman is arguing that “at the heart of psychopathology lies a fundamental confusion between the self as object and the self of pure subjectivity. Emotions, thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations are the contents of consciousness: we witness them, we are aware of their existence. Likewise, the body, the self-image, and the self-concept are all constructs that we observe. But our core concept of personal existence – the “I” – is located in awareness itself, not in its content.”

Basically there is a witness to what is happening in the mind that itself is not part of the content. We can have a direct awareness of the witness, but it is not something constant or given. More a flickering flame and like Kierkegaard observed it is the easiest thing to forget oneself.

It is the fact that we are plastic that makes it possible for us to be shaped and told what we are. The fact that we are not transparent to ourselves makes us susceptible to influence. Different traditions have different ideas about what humans are, and if we had a fixed essence and at the same time direct access to ourselves we would not be so amenable.  Now instead depending on where we were born we soak up identities like ink on a soft paper.

The Myth of Fixed Archetypes

Intuitively I feel there is a connection between our belief in a predetermined future and our belief in fixed mental objects. This is more of a hunch but somehow I think these two notions depend crucially on the idea of something transcendental, superhuman, eternal and fixed. Furthermore I think the culprit is Plato, that Greek intellectual giant. He was so ground breaking that some have called all subsequent European philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato and the reason for this is that he not only touched upon almost every area we have been capable of thinking about, but to a large extent also (reflexively) helped define what those areas would be. In many ways he both opened and closed our minds at the same time.

Arguably Plato´s most influential innovations to our plastic mindset was his notion of the world of Ideas. To him, the world of Ideas was the real world; the material world, though seeming real to our senses, was only an illusion. The Ideas were the Ideal Forms that shaped our transient chaotic domain of reality. They alone were absolute, unconditioned and eternal realities. This I think is one of the worst myths to have haunted mankind, and it seems that in the same moment the idea was born did Plato realize how it could be abused. He instantly declared the philosphers the guardians of the Absolute Truth, and ordinary people mere sleepwalkers. While the content of the Absolute Truth has change throughout generations, the thought pattern has remained where the Truth is one and accessible to the few. Thus their authority is secured. This pattern has never gone out of fashion and is present in any fundamentalist movement, from Jesusism, Nazism to Communist North Korea. It provides the bricks and mortar for any value hierarchy that does not welcome destabilising criticism.

Jung´s vision

One of Jung´s visions

The claim that there is an independent, fixed, eternal realm of meaningful mental objects is absurd. Let me show its absurdity as it appears in the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung´s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. For Jung the archetypes were the prototypes, the original forms that gave shape to our mental content. He traced them in religious icons, myths and dream symbols, claiming they were not merely individual or reducible to subjective interpretation, but having a fixed and independent existence in the collective unconscious. Since the young Jung wanted to be scientific he did not claim the archetypes were eternal and timeless, but inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and somehow tied to our biological past. Later in life this concern was not so prominent, and Jung downplayed the ´biological´ aspect of his psychology, and even discarded it altogether, preferring to see the archetypes in a more Platonic sense of prexistent spiritual entities.

Jung inherited the notion that dreams are the golden way to the unconscious from Freud. If the idea that there was mind independent ideal forms with a fixed meaning that expresses itself in our dreams was true, one would assume that two of the pioneer explorers of this transcendental realm would reach similar conclusions. Not only is it widely known that Jung and Freud disagreed on the nature of the unconscious, but I would claim that in discussing their disagreements Jung is pulling out the Platonic rug from underneath both of them. In a passage discussing dream interpretation in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul I see him suffering the essential tension between how he wants the world to be and how it appears in practice. He is the great explorer of the Underworld, and if it would turn out he just invented it all himself nothing much would be left of his scientific aspirations of objectivity. He says “If there were no relatively fixed symbols, it would be impossible to determine the structure of the unconscious.” , yet he then goes on to suggest that to apply this hypothesis in practice can be a “grave blunder”.

“Just as the interpretation of dreams requires exact knowledge of the conscious status quo, so the treatment of dream symbolism demands that we take into account the dreamer´s philosophical, religious and moral convictions. It is far wiser in practice not to regard the dream-symbols as signs or symptoms of fixed character. In addition to this, they must be considered in relation to the dreamer´s immediate state of consciousness. I emphasize that this way of treating the dream-symbols is advisable in practice because theoretically there do exist relatively fixed symbols whose meaning must on no account be referred to anything whose content is known, or to anything that can be formulated in concepts.”

He then goes on to apply his own metaphysical speculations in practice, against his own advise, and discusses a dream a dying girl had about her mother committing suicide and a horse jumping out of a window.

“‘Horse’ is an archetype that is widely current in mythology and folk-lore. As an animal it represents the non-human psyche, the sub-human, animal side, and therefore the unconscious. This is why the horse in folk lore sometimes sees visions, hears voices, and speaks. As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype; the Valkyries bear the dead hero to Valhalla and the Trojan horse encloses the Greeks. /…/ As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype/…/ Also it has to do with sorcery and magical spells- especially the black, night horse which heralds death.”

From these readings he concludes

“It is evident, then, that ‘horse’ is the equivalent of ‘mother’ with a slight shift of meaning. The mother stands for life at its origin, and the horse for the merely animal life of the body. If we apply this meaning to the dream, it says: the animal life destroys itself.”

“Exact knowledge”?! “Evident”?! “Slight shift of meaning”?! Quoi? He might as well had said horses are related to frogs, foie gras and the Lilliputs, hence the Japanese eat with sticks. He knew from the outset that the girl was dying and no Valkyries or Greek Gods are needed to understand that she is trying to come to terms with it by consciously and unconsciously processing it. The dreams show death and is it not apparent that the meaning comes from her immediate life situation as he aptly says? As a matter of fact, Jung has problems with his own religious claim in an independent Platonic realm of fixed symbols.

“In each of the images given above we can see a relatively fixed symbol /…/ but we cannot for all that be certain that when they occur in dreams they have no other meaning./…/ To be sure, if we had to interpret dreams in an exhaustive way according to scientific principles, we should have to refer every such symbol to an archetype. But, in practice this kind of interpretation might be a grave blunder. /…/ It is therefore advisable, for the purpose of therapy, to look for the meaning of symbols as /…/ if they we not fixed.” (p. 23)

You can see that there is a tension between his Platonic belief and his practical experience that causes a lot of confusion for Jung. He at once believes in symbols with an independent meaning, i.e. not projected unto them by the individual psyche, while at the same time, in practice throws that assumption out the window, and when discussing his disagreements with his teacher Freud blatantly and honestly accepts that his own entire psychological framework is an expression of his own subjectivity and psychic make-up.

“To be sure, when we deal in ideas we inevitably make a confession, for they bring to light of day not only the best that in us lies, but our own worst insufficiencies and personal short-comings as well. This is especially the case with ideas about psychology./…/Is not every experience, even in the best circumstances, to a large extent subjective interpretation? /…/ What Freud has to say about sexuality/…/ can be taken as the truest expression of his own psychic make-up./…/ It was a great mistake on Freud´s part to turn his back on philosophy. Not once does he criticize his premise or even the assumptions that underlie his personal outlook. /…/ I have never refused the bitter-sweet drink of philosophical criticism/…/All too easily does self-criticism poison one´s naïveté, that priceless possession, or rather gift, which no creative man can be without. At any rate, philosophical criticism has helped me to see that every psychology – my own included – has the character of a subjective confession.” (`p.118)

By his own admission his metaphysical belief in fixed mental archetypes does not work in practice, his “scientific theory” is a subjective confession and his archetypes creative expressions. What then remains to substantiate his claim in collective fixed mental objects?

When we try to understand the world, the closer we get to ourselves the more our interpretation of an object itself becomes that object. We reflect ourselves in a hall of mirrors.

Why does he cling on to a notion of a fixed metaphysical realm when he must realize it is an impossibility?

Platonic Prozac

Another vision from The Red Book

Another vision from The Red Book

Jung himself was battling with psychosis, was hearing voices and seeing visions, for many years. While this is pretty well-documented, only last month was his family persuaded to publish his own notes and drawings of these episodes. The Red Book has been kept locked up in a bank vault for decades. I do not mean to say his inner turmoil disqualifies his insights into how our minds work in any way, but it explains to me why Jung was the more religious of the psychoanalytical pioneers. For someone for whom the plastic flooring in his mind is giving way there is a need for a solid foundation to stand on. Plato´s metaphysics offers just that. A belief in religious certainties is a prozac that measurably reduces anxiety (as this recent brain scan study on the neural effect of belief in an Almighty God shows). Faith and certainty give structure and thus help the believer to get on with his life without doubts. There are healthy practical consequences of believing and that is why the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is based on Jungian psychology. Uncertainty can be overbearing and faith is at any rate physically healthier than chemical addiction.

At the same time this human weakness makes us vulnerable to exploits. There is an inner need for certainty, and there are also outer political forces ready to make solid that which is plastic. Already in The Republic (380BC), while describing the Ideal State, Plato discusses the intentional use of lies to achieve political ends. His ideal society is heavily stratified with three fixed classes: the guardians, the auxiliaries and the craftsmen (workers, plebeians). To maintain social cohesion people must stay in their place or else violence and instability will ensue. It is prerogative the plebeians do not question their lot in life, and in order for them not to the Philosopher King is entitled to make use of “noble lies“, dispensed as a doctor would his medicine. In the dialogue Socrates tells Glaucon about the Myth of Metals which while prefectly fabricated is hoped by Plato´s Socrates to consolidate the state. It claims that each child is born with a specific metal in their soul, gold, silver or bronze, and accordingly is intended to be either ruler, enforcer or obedient subject respectively. Glaucon does not believe this myth will fly but Socrates hopes that future rulers will believe in it and thus it will gain in power. These myths have come and gone for thousands of years. Just now I am working in Dubai and while it is supposed to be some kind of democracy it is very clear that being a ruler is something you are born to be. In the United Arab Emirates the Platonic gold is not a metal in the soul but a name: Al Maktoum.

You can see how not only is there an inner need for certainty, there is also mounting outer pressure. And the same moment you accept there is an absolute truth you have to accept that the messenger of the existence of an absolute truth also has access to what it is. I claim there are rules of the game but not a fixed outcome. Unfortunately for us, there are not only rules, but also rulers of the game, and they often want us to accept their vision of the future as final.

The Rulers of the Game

If the future is open and we participate in its creation, who are those that actually produce most of the drafts? Who are the potters that mould the plastic clay of our souls? Who benefit from people staying in a state of docile Platonic haze? From where do people get their visions of the future? From those who understand how to build the social reality. Freud´s aim was to liberate people from misery by helping them understand their own minds. His disciple Jung tried to give us a new type of spirituality where the aim was individuation, growing whole by integrating our unconscious shadow. Freud´s nephew Edward Bernays however applied his uncles knowledge to quite the opposite end. Bernays is the father of modern Public Relations (a word he coined), and his seminal book Propaganda (1928) opens with the lines:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Later he writes:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible…”

Read these lines well because you do not get many chances to hear these ambitions spelled out. Today strategic social architects keep their cards very close to their chest. Obviously Bernays was trying to market himself to the business elite and make his own influence appear greater than it was, but even so he has had a massive impact on the world. He was not only extremely successful marketeer for many major US corporations, but also hired by President Calvin Coolidge to improve his image, and his book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) was used by Hitler´s propaganda minister Goebbles to consolidate the German people´s hatred of Jews.

Leaving the Window Open


"...fresh air into a murky cellar..."

Psychological knowledge about about human motivation is a power tool that can be used for many goals. Those who understand the influence you can have over people who believe in fixed values have no interest in making people loose their naïvité and learn to see things from many angles. An aspiring leader does not want people to realize that there are many ways to interpret the issue he proposes to have solved, he does not want people to see that everybody´s idea of how they choose to spend the few moments they have on this planet is equally valid, that in social matters we participate in creating reality. Such sophisticated abstractions would only undermine his authority. A situation where people feel existential anxiety yet believe there is something out there in the world that can rid them of it, that they “should” not feel it, and that others do not, such a situation is ready and ripe for whoever is trying to control the masses. This is equally true of religious and secular ideologues. Thus the belief in an objective and fixed ultimate reality helps to provide a glorious purpose and goal for human existence. This is the kind of idea that serves the masses and the leaders alike. People want to hear they have the Truth, the Way and the Life on their team, and leaders want people to be docile. The Platonic attitude is thus exploited, externally by leaders but also internally by the unconscious defence mechanisms that want to keep uncertainty, cognitive dissonance and existential anxiety at bay.

The possible number of futures is nearly infinite while at the same time determined by the limitations of the rules, and each moment those possible futures are changing. It is creativity that makes the universe historical. If there was no creativity there would be no history since the past and the future would be determined in the present and whether or not it unfolded would be uninteresting. Time would be irrelevant. Creativity makes history by actualising one of the potentials in a window of opportunity.

We live at the horizon of the evolution of the universe and when we try to anticipate our next step, the universe is trying to anticipate and realize its own future through us. We are the cutting edge of evolution. We are the cosmic window of opportunity. Any potential that can be actualised in the real world, i.e. the world of res, things and bodies, must have been possible by the rules of the game, but when it comes to reflexive potentials it is not enough that they should be possible in theory; Somebody must discover them and believe in them for them to be real possibilities. We do not know how many different potential futures we have on this planet but we need many creative and imaginative thinkers to come up with as many scenarios as possible. We need our dreams, but not the Platonic-Jungian reveries of our sleeping mind, but visions of potential futures. The more fantastic visions, the more fertile the soil for beliefs and subsequent behaviour to bear them out. The more imagination the better the future. Unfortunately our culture is getting increasingly streamlined and the trend following behaviour greatly limits the capacity for independent thinking, and therefore it is unlikely that we explore more than a tiny fraction of the reflexive potentials we really have. There are many dangers with a homogeneous society, but the inability to adapt to sudden changes might be the biggest. With more diverse ways of living, more crazy odd people, we keep lots of alternative ways of living alive. The odd alternative people offer the conventional society not only a healthy contrast with which to compare itself, something that provokes critical reflection, but also maintains these alternatives alive as concrete viable options. If alternative lifestyles disappear, they will also in all likelihood disappear from our imagination. If we cannot even think it, it truly no longer exists. The reflexive potential is gone, and the window of opportunity has closed.