Friday, January 20, 2012

The Mighty Plato Has Struck Out

A couple of days ago, I wrote in praise of Plato for all the good conclusions he reached, through reason, about things beyond his human comprehension, as for instance the existence of one, eternal, perfectly good God. I also mentioned a couple of ideas that were charming if not exactly true, such as the creation of the gods of the planets out of fire, and an early atomic theory involving particles that look like RPG dice. But after a couple more days of reading, I’ve soured on Plato some, and for this at-bat, I’m calling him “out.”

Plato’s first strike is a mammoth whiff that misses the ball by a mile. In the Timaeus, when speaking of the senses, he describes some surprising color combinations. A mixture of black and white, it seems, produces blue. Red mixed with black and white produces purple. And a combination of “flame colour” with black yields green. These mistakes are bad enough, but Plato clings to them with a terrible defense of “probability” over experimentation:
There will be no difficulty in seeing how and by what mixtures the colours derived from these are made according to the rules of probability. He, however, who should attempt to verify all this by experiment, would forget the difference of the human and divine nature. For God only has the knowledge and also the power which are able to combine many things into one and again resolve the one into many. But no man either is or ever will be able to accomplish either the one or the other operation.
Previously in the book, Plato explains that we depend on probability only for explanations of things beyond our comprehension. Now he’s afraid to mix paint. The result is a God-of-the gaps theory that completely stultifies science. The same eschewal of simple investigation leads him to say other silly things, such as that when we expire air through the mouth, it comes around and reenters the body through the skin, since nature abhors a vacuum and the space of the expelled air must be filled with something. Did he not see that the torso gets smaller when we exhale?

Strike two comes on that sinker ball that fools Plato time and time again in every dialog. “No one is voluntarily bad,” he says here in the Timaeus; evil actions are always caused either by disease or by ignorance. “Just teach kids that drugs are bad, and they won’t use them,” our school systems say. Right. See how well that’s worked? Aristotle and Aquinas say something similar but significantly different when they say that people always choose what they believe is in their best interest, although sometimes it isn’t. Pleasure is good as far as it goes, but often it seems to be in our best interest when it’s actually not worth the price to be paid later. People might have all the knowledge they need (“Doing this now causes regret in the morning”) but simply not take it into account when faced with an object that excites passion for a meritricious pleasure. Sometimes people even say out loud, “I know I shouldn’t, but . . . ,” just before commiting a vicious act. So, Plato, of course people can be voluntarily bad.

Plato blasts the third pitch down the left-field line, missing a home run by inches. Blood, he says, circulates throughout the body, bringing nourishment to all its members in order to provide growth and replenishment of decaying material. Very good and amazingly prescient. The only problem is that this nourishment comes in the form of triangles that separate and combine to form new particles of earth, water, air, and fire. But substitute minerals, amino acids, proteins, etc., and Plato looks pretty good here.

The manager is a little wary of his pitcher after Plato making such good contact, so he brings in a relief pitcher: George Gordon, Lord Byron. I started Byron’s Don Juan a couple of days ago, and coincidentally found him picking a bone with, of all people, Plato. Very near the beginning of Byron’s poem, young Juan begins his life of lechery in an encounter with a young, pretty wife who thinks she can hold the handsome youth’s hand while pursuing a strictly “Platonic” relationship, a plan that naturally does not work out as she pretends to hope it will. The poet comments:
O Plato! Plato! you have paved the way,
With your confounded fantasies, to more
Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
Your system feigns o'er the controulless core
Of human hearts, than all the long array
Of poets and romancers:—You 're a bore,
A charlatan, a coxcomb—and have been,
At best, no better than a go-between.
By the way, Plato’s original idea of the highest love, as found in his dialog called Symposium, involves sex. It’s just that the sex is all in the service of a love for a person whose exceeding comeliness lifts the lover’s thoughts and inspires him to contemplate divine beauty. The expurgation of carnal knowledge from the idea is a modern alteration.

Either way, it’s strike three. Plato is out.

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