Plato is always a good read. Not only does one feel terribly intelligent reading works that have shaped the course of all subsequent Western philosophy, and not only is he a lyrically beautiful writer at points (I think particularly of the breathless hymn to love that his ìSymposiumî becomes) but his 2,500-year-old words manage to be baffling, compelling, disturbing, and enlightening, all at once.
Reading Plato's "Republic" a year ago in Contemporary Civilization changed me, and only at this distance can I get some idea of exactly how. It articulated ideas I had previously dimly felt: of the ephemerality of material life, of the priority of searching for the transcendent, of the glorious solidity and structure and meaning of the world that we would see if only we could raise ourselves beyond our limited consciousness. It made me want to leave the Cave far behind.
If the example of Aristotle is anything to go by, Plato succeeded in instilling in his disciples a restlessness in the face of what Walker Percy called "the everydayness" of life. It brews a healthy rebelliousness against the broken order of things that we humans experience: against suffering, against injustice, and against our own foibles and follies.
Even as I was frantically cramming to finish "The Republic" during the second week of CC, I was forced to pause and examine myself to see if I was a truly happy person, one whose reason, appetites, and deepest desires of the spirit were all aligned to seek the good. I couldn't measure up.
Plato didn't just make me feel inadequate he brought real depth and perspective to my outlook. After having glimpsed the light of pure Being beyond the Cave, celebrity gossip comes to feel cheap and trite. After having dared to imagine the justice and wisdom of the philosopher-king, the dirty tricks and vindictiveness of election campaigns seem rather pitiful. Our political discourse almost wholly lacks a means to talk about the common good we should be seeking together as a people, and thatís a tragedy.
But there's a dark side to Plato. Few of us would probably wish to live in the kallipolis, Plato's ideal city of justice and happiness, with its caste system and mass censorship. In my case, thatís partly because the stateís micromanagement of reproduction smacks far too much of something the eugenicist and racist Margaret Sanger would have applauded.
Interpretations vary abundantly as to whether Plato intended the kallipolis to be a genuine goal to be sought or merely a vast metaphor for his metaphysics. The deeper problem inherent in Plato's thought is visible right in the allegory of the Cave: Those few of us who escape inevitably will feel condescension at best and contempt at worst for those poor blind souls left down in the dark.
G.K. Chesterton said that Plato's defense of the primacy of ideas is both what makes him attractive and terrifying: "Plato seemed sometimes also to fancy that ideas exist as men do not exist; or that the men need hardly be considered where they conflict with the ideas."
The problem with a love for the high, the lofty, the ideal, and the abstract is that they bleed over too easily into elitism, a willingness to impose one particular vision of the good through top-down coercion. Ideologues throughout history have gone down that pathóand have created reigns of terror and gulags.
I would dearly love to see our political culture leave crassness behind and take goodness, truth, and beauty seriously. That would mean a very different city than the New York we live in, one where the mayoral race was first about the lecherous creepiness of one man whose folly the Internet made public. Then, only after Weiner finally plummeted in the polls, it became about the de Blasio rhetoric of division and class antagonism.
Strife and sensuality both fall so terribly short of Plato's lofty vision of politics. At the federal level, too, America discusses matters of life and death in light of congressmen's re-election prospects and presidential approval ratings. Witness our dismal failure to substantively debate the real plight of minority populations in a Syria being torn apart by the power games of the world. None of Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Hezbollah, France, or our own Congress truly cares about the goodness or evil of taking action in the crisis.
When we work to hold our politicians accountable, we can benefit from the grandeur of Plato while being leery of his ugly side. We've got to expect leaders to provide an ennobling vision of our common life together, and debates that take moral realities into account.
But ideologues do dangerous things with words that sound grand. Political language must also attune itself to the lived reality of real people, the glorious dignity of men and women and children grounded in their cultures and contexts, the precious uniqueness of each human story.
That change can start right here on campus. Class of 2017 Columbia College and Engineering Student Council candidates, I'm looking at you. Let's hear compelling stories of how you'll help us make Columbia more and more the place of learning and growing and joy that it ought to be.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum, and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.