Monthly Archives: June 2017

What’s That Sound?

In my last blog, I promised further reflections on Platonic justice. That can wait. I have something more urgent to say. Yesterday I was reminded of a song from my youth:

Stop children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s goin’ down.
~Steven Stills

So what’s goin’ down? A lot, surely, but as I see it there are two things that demand attention at the moment: the increasingly stringent rules controlling the White House Press Room, and Trumpcare (which I prefer to think of as Trump-Doesn’t-Care).

First the White House Press Room. Tyrants cannot abide a free press. A free press will expose them for what they are: lying, cheating, selfish, and cruel leaders who care nothing for the people and everything for their own power, position, and prestige. And so among the first things a tyrant does is to control the press, labeling a free press “enemies of the people”. Control the press and you control the people. These onerous regulations are nothing but a step toward the destruction of our free press, with all that implies.

Second, Trumpcare. The plutocrats in power would have us believe that governments are not in the business of distributing and re-distributing wealth. Do not believe it. They are lying to us. The questions we should be asking is to whom and from whom is the wealth being distributed and for what reason. Equally, no one should make the mistake of thinking that Trumpcare is a health care bill. It is not. It is a tax bill, and taxing is on of the prime avenues governments use to distribute and re-distribute wealth.

So to whom does this bill re-distribute wealth? The already wealthy. From whom is it being re-distributed? The poor and the middle class. And for what purpose is it being re-distributed? They would have us believe that it is to stimulate the economy. Again, that is another a bald-faced lie. Do not fall for it!

Economies are not stimulated by a few people and corporations accumulating wealth. That is not even capitalism. It is the long-discredited theory of mercantilism. Economies are stimulated by sustainable consumption of goods and services. This understanding actually grounds both capitalism and socialism. They have differences, to be sure, but both understand that consumption, not wealth, is at the heart of an economy.

Wealth is about money, and money is about power. And so the real reason for this attempt to redistribute wealth upward is that it will increase the power of a few people to control the nation. They will leak it out, slowly and carefully, in ways that make them appear to be benevolent benefactors of the rest of us. But in fact they will be controlling every aspect of our lives, from our bedrooms to what we can read, from what medical care we can expect to receive to how and when we die. And woe be unto any of us who has the audacity to expose or even criticize them. The wealthy will become the tyrants of America, be it via oligarchy or dictatorship.

So what’s goin’ down? We are. America is goin’ down an increasingly slippery slope into tyranny. We have but two choices open to us: Resist or Weep for the nation that once was ours.

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Plato? Who Cares?

We all should care. Here’s the deal. One fine day Plato sat himself down and wondered about justice. “What does it mean,” he pondered, “to say that something is just? Is it a simply a matter of strength, evenhandedness, or law, or is there something deeper going on here?” And the more he thought about it, the more complex he realized the question actually is. And so, eventually, he invoked his alter ego, Socrates, and together, the philosopher and his alter ego, wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of European philosophy ever written, The Republic.

It turns out that in order to answer the question, he had to work out his entire philosophical system, from aesthetics through metaphysics and on to politics and psychology. It was a bumpy ride, indeed. Quite clearly no mere blog can possibly do justice (snicker!) to such a monumental book. But his final definition of justice is, I think, well worth thinking about.

First, he dismissed such ideas as justice is what is in the interest of the strongest, or justice is punishment for wrong-doing. That’s not too difficult. But then he tells us that justice is not primarily a legal concept after all. Legal justice is derivative from something much more profound. Just laws are those that produce just people. Therefore, before we can think about what makes laws just, we must understand what makes a person just. Justice, Plato tells us, is first and foremost a quality, not of law, but of people.

So what does Plato think a just person is? He begins by noting that there are three aspects to the soul: a rational aspect, an emotional aspect, and an appetitive aspect. The rational aspect is that part of us that deals in argument, evaluating evidence, drawing conclusions, and the like. The emotional aspect is that part of us that deals with our feelings. The appetitive aspect is that part of ourselves that deals with our basic drives, like sex, hunger, safety, and the like. A person is just when these three are in balance and each carries out its proper function without encroaching on the others.

This is easy to misunderstand. Over the centuries, the idea of a soul has taken on a religious meaning that it did not have for Plato. As a result, those who may reject that religious meaning can be tempted to dismiss it out of hand. But suppose we think of this rather differently. Suppose we think of Plato to be talking of our human minds in their entirety. Then what?

Then what we are looking at is Plato’s psychology. Now, psychology has gotten a lot more sophisticated since Plato’s time, and we have many different ways of thinking about the mind. But pick your favorite psychology and grant for a moment Plato’s notion of the primacy of the just mind. What would a just human mind be?

However many aspects there are to the mind, Plato would say that in a just mind they all function well together, in balance, none usurping the proper functioning of another. For example, think about our emotions. We have evolved to have our various emotions for very good reasons, even those emotions that are sometimes unpleasant.

To be concrete, consider anger. It is not hard to understand how our ancient ancestors needed the occasional fit of anger. If you could not get angry when someone tried to steal your stuff, you would starve to death. And we still need anger to motivate us to correct social ills and oppose oppression. As Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out, there are things about which we ought to be angry. But. Anger can take over our consciousness and become paranoid, dangerous, destructive, even murderous.

Similar observations apply to all of our emotions. We need to be able to be afraid, but fear, like anger, when it takes over the mind, becomes paranoia. Even the so-called positive emotions can get out of hand. Love, when it takes over the mind, becomes obsession, the will to possess rather than the will to nurture. And so it goes. When our emotions cloud our rationality and try to take over our minds, the result is injustice.

 

Not a bad idea, eh? To be just is to live a life in proper balance. Platonic justice begins to look rather like what we have come to call self-actualization. And just as self-actualization is an ideal that is never quite within our grasp even while it calls us onward, toward it, Platonic justice leads out into deeper and deeper levels of our humanity.

 

This has a lot of implications. It carries us to law, to education, to proper relations among each other, even to environmental action. In my next installment, I want to explore some of these implications. But just to whet your appetite, let me leave you with a couple of questions: Under this understanding, what would a just penal system look like? When we call for justice for the victim of a crime, what are we asking for? What would Plato say we are asking for? Could he be right? Hmmmm.