Problems with Secular Platonism (or, Why Cara is Wrong in Every Way Imaginable and Will Probably Die Alone)

Hi there everyone. Today I’ve decided to sit down and do some hard philosophy revision – in the form of an unnecessarily vicious and public shouting down of my friend Cara on the internet. This is largely because I’m a bad person and pointing out the profane ignorance of those around me is the only way I can get out of bed in the morning. That and punching kittens. Moving right on to the philosophy, then.

Cara, the majority of the arguments I will be associating with you today are things I remember you saying while I was tipsy, so already there are definite flaws in my premise here. However, from what I can recall, your views on Socrates are actually kind of relatable. You steered clear of the Platonic ‘world of forms’ and all that supernatural mumbo jumbo, and basically seemed to be saying that you  thought Socrates sounded like a nice enough guy, and that the lifestyle he was exemplifying seemed more morally on-the-level than that proposed by Nietzsche. And – putting Nietzsche comparisons aside, as we’ll come back to that in a bit – I agree with you. When you’re reading the Gorgias, that’s what you’re intuitively supposed to think. Plato wrote this play with the aim of making us like Socrates, and at no point does he say anything overtly horrible. He seems like a nice enough dude. In this essay – hell let’s be honest, ‘rant’ – I want to look into why we like Socrates, and also why we’re wrong for doing that.

This is actually really convenient, as the topic I just described is also a topic covered to a degree in Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’. I think Nietzsche might be even more the focus of this upcoming rant than Socrates is, because frankly when you look close enough Socrates’ arguments are just inane psychobabble and who cares what the old dinosaur had to say, but I really think you’re not seeing the good in my old pal Fred. His book that we’re studying is all about why we instinctively like Socrates’ values, even if we think the arguments he uses to justify them are shaky. In the end Nietzsche was just trying to liberate us from the way of thinking that Socrates established, not primarily because it’s based on stupid logic (even if it is) but because Nietzsche didn’t think this way of looking at things was helping us to live good lives. I don’t mean to say Nietzsche’s arguments don’t have flaws, but what I am saying is he’s not an idiot. He’s got some ideas here.

I want to highlight here that in the interest of giving you, Cara, the best defence possible in this one-sided discussion, I will be presenting the most moderate and defensible interpretation of your arguments that I can imagine. Cara’s The Gorgias contains no allusions to any form of afterlife, or a world of eternal forms, or any of that jazz. I’m also not going to tie you down with any of Plato’s arguments outside of this text – things like how artists other than Plato himself should be banned and that only the most ‘enlightened’ Philosopher Kings and Queens should rule. To tear you down mercilessly given such assumptions would be far too easy. I am however leaving myself open in the future to pointing out where Socrates is fundamentally stupid in the text we’ve studied, on which you base your allegiance to him; arguably because if we took all the dumb out of Socrates’ logic in the Gorgias we’d be left holding a bound ream of blank paper.

Okay, so we’ve established the rules. Firstly I’d like to return to the point I made earlier that Socrates is, in this text, aside from being a bit smug, inherently likeable. He cleverly debunks all of Callicles’ hedonistic remarks with ease, and the image of a ‘good human being’ he presents is one that seems relatively harmless. I want to look closer at this good human being. He or she doesn’t steal, doesn’t take more than their fair share, doesn’t even want more than what they have. They are contented and equitable and best of all, possessed of a discipline of mind and an internal balance. They live an ordered life of peace and harmony. It rocks. I’m not even making fun here, this person seems all good. Really good.

… too good?

Just think about it. Look at this person. The image being presented to us is, in my mind, an oddly familiar one. In fact I put it to you, Cara, that Socrates’ benign hero exists among us today! His name? Ned Flanders. 

Stay with me here.

Just look. Ned Flanders is “disciplined,” he “acts in an appropriate manner” towards all things, “as and when he should.” He is a “paradigm of goodness.” Socrates also says he’s “religious” – which I add because it makes the Flanders comparison all the more spookily appropriate – but we’re going to ignore that because Cara’s wisely leaving religion out of the discussion.

The point I’m trying to make is the same reason Ned Flanders is a valuable part of the Simpsons’ cast: he’s too good. He is the manifestation of an idea that, as we’ve just seen, has been alive in the Western mindset since Ancient Athens, of a person who is perfect. They always do the right thing, they are fair and correct in every judgement, they have a strong set of morals and they stick by them and the world around them is made intrinsically better just by its brief presence in the warming glow of their utter awesomeness. We all know this guy, in our heads. We might even see this person in the street, because at a glance a lot of real people look a whole lot like Ned Flanders. That person who’s better, stronger, smarter than you’ll ever be; and even if you don’t like them, even if you hate them, you still kind of want to be them. Ned Flanders is funny because we all recognise him, but we’re all at the same time at least partially aware that he doesn’t exist. No one is that stupidly good.

This is something we all know. Nobody’s perfect. We shouldn’t try to be perfect. But… does Socrates know that? This might seem like nitpicking, but bear with me. You see, Socrates isn’t just over-emphasising our capacity to be perfect in this one part of the text. It’s the fundamental assumption that colours his entire world-view a bright, perky shade of stupid.

Let’s look at one little bit of the Ned Flanders persona Socrates is constructing here: the ordered mind. For Socrates, there’s a cosmic order to the universe, that is should be reflected with our own thought processes in order to allow us to exist within the world in harmony with it. I’m going to assume you take no part in that heap of balderdash, Cara, and good on you for seeing through the dogma of Socrates’ pre-historic space religion in this instance. But I think the idea of an ‘ordered mind’ is interesting on its own, isn’t it? I think we all have those days when we’re feeling on the ball; when we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it well and we’ve got just the right balance of work and procrastination going on. We all like that, don’t we? Being in control of the situation, and also in control of ourselves. It’s great.

This is how Socrates appeals to us. These are familiar ideas he is talking about, and nice ones. It’s a blissful, peaceful dream he’s conjuring up for us, and where I think it falls down is that Socrates thinks we can live in this dream forever. Let me give you an example, Cara. Next time you’re feeling really angry – say some wanker’s written a two-thousand word rant about how much smarter he is than you – try to get into that ordered state of mind. Think about everything rationally, read some Socratic dialogues, and exchange that white hot rage for a sense of contentment with what you have, and a wish to heal the soul of that condescending dick-head, rather than bash his head in with a trowel. How’s that working for you? Are you any less angry? Are you finally at peace with this ordered, mathematically precise and beautiful universe of ours?

The point, that has apparently taken me a thousand odd words to wind my way towards, is that Socrates legitimately does not believe you and I are animals, Cara. We’re higher beings, for him, capable of transcending irrational thought patterns and primal instinct by thinking really hard. We both know that’s stupid, and we both know he and loads of other people in Ancient Greece thought the same thing, because hey, science was pretty basic back then, and we could talk while sheep could not. It was only logical. But the point is that Socrates’ arguments are not based on real people in the real world. In Socrates’ head, everyone can be Ned Flanders! Again, I’m not going to use how stupid the ‘world of forms’ is as an argument, but let’s just remember that Socrates exists here as a character written by a person who did well and truly believe in these abstract concepts being more real than the physical world. Would that not lead to a perspective of reality and humanity that was over-simplified? For Socrates things like Good and Bad and Cowardice and Justice are all real, easily-defined things – and while I am contractually obliged not to knock that, it helps to explain why this man’s arguments are, under close inspection, and to put it lightly, ‘total and utter stark raving bull crap!’

Let’s look at some examples from the text: “a good person is bound to do whatever he does well and successfully… whereas a bad man does badly and is therefore unhappy” – this ‘good man’ still being Ned Flanders, by the way. Socrates seems here to be ignoring not only the fact that everyone is a mixture of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – if such things exist at all – but also environmental factors. Don’t good people get shot down by bad people all the time? And what about earthquakes? Where is your ‘ordered universe’ now?!? And while we’re on the subject of order, here’s Socrates stating that ‘what it takes for these states of goodness to occur in an ideal form is not chaos, but organisation and perfection,” basically linking the words ‘organisation’ and ‘perfection’ together without any prior evidence, seemingly because they’re both words with positive connotations, and so links order and structure to ‘the good’. Nobody challenges him, so it’s set in stone, and the big old dinosaur trundles on down a roller-coaster made of matches and prayer. Socrates pulls this rhetorical crap all the time. Look at how he justifies the idea that to wrong is worse than to be wronged, namely by calling criminal activity ‘contemptible’ and therefore ‘worse’ – literally placing all our moral judgement in the hands of the society of the time (which in Socrates’ time was freakin’ A-OK with pedophilia, btw) because if the people around you see something as ‘contemptible’ it must be fundamentally worse!

What I think I’m getting at here, in the most round-about and long-winded way possible, is that while Socrates sounds fantastic, and uses lots of positive words to describe the values he approves of while using negative words to describe people who don’t subscribe to his particular morality, all of his arguments are either knocking over Callicles’ stupider assertions (again, written by Plato. Socrates is winning a fight between two sock puppets with the same puppeteer) or outright hypothetical crap. He tells us nothing about what is ‘just’, only that ‘justice’ itself will magically cure your sick, criminal mind – no matter what society you’re in or what crazy arbitrary justice system they use. He believes everybody has access to perfect judgement and perfect control over their own irrational, subconscious-riddled little heads, and there is just nothing of substance there.

It all sounds great, Cara, but in the end of the day we’re not arguing about who can write the prettiest fairy-tale of the bestest life ever, or which philosophy feels the most right. That’s how we pick religions. (GASP!) Philosophies can be great if they make us live better, but Socrates’ idea of the good life is based on – say it with me – Ned Flanders! A fake person! He thinks everyone who ever stole anything felt really crummy about it and themselves and their lives sucked forever. He believes this.This is not the man you want to entrust with the way you see the world. Look real hard at the text, Cara. Try and see if you can’t poke a few holes in everything Socrates says. See if you can’t think up new ways to look at this or that choice he forces you to make with his language. (Good, bad? Why not have both? *cue mexican party music*)

And that’s not really the main problem, because we can poke holes in any argument. But that’s just it, Socrates doesn’t even win on a practical level. He thinks you should only do things that are good for you, that you should avoid things that are only fun and not in some way healthy or improving you as a person (say goodbye to like, alllll the TV. Just fun in general. Bye.) Also Art, actually. That’s in here too. If you’ve ever painted a picture that looked awesome but didn’t tell the viewer something about what’s good and what’s bad, it’s a ‘knack’, not an area of expertise, and you suck for doing it. This from your best buddy, Socrates. He’s an extremist! Maybe if he had been a bit less gung-ho about the whole thing he’d be okay, but the fact is he’s not. Socrates wants you to be Ned Flanders, Cara. Is this the set of values you want to live by?

You probably don’t, actually. You never said a word about any of this junk, I’m just extrapolating out from nothing here. But when you say ‘I like Socrates’, this is what everyone around you hears. This is why we all make fun of you, Cara.

Aaaand I’m gonna wrap up there. I know I said I was gonna talk about Nietzsche, but maybe that can be a different rant. Sorry for being so mean and condescending about all this Cara. It’s just… you’re so wrong!

SO wrong! Like oh man. Have you even read this thing? It is batshit crazy! I’m just sitting here reading it going like ‘Whaaaaaat?’ I’m actually half-way convinced that Plato wrote this whole thing ironically. Like, as an example of why rhetoric is dangerous and awful. Not to mention the fact that Socrates is famous for his ‘Socratic irony’… Wait. Wait a second.

Cara, you’re not a Platonist, you’re a hipster! Platonists were the original hipsters!




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