Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Not...

When Jimmy Carter wrote Why Not the Best, he had Plato's Republic (Cornford's translation free) in mind. The leaders he argued ought to be the best in terms of experience, knowledge, practical as well as theoretical, and ethics. Without saying so, he supported some of what Plato meant by aristocracy (rule of the best). Sadly, because of what Plato wrote about poetry in the Republic, he has gotten a bad rap. 

The discussion among those who actually understand Plato over his views on poetry and writing in general is best found, I think, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: 

"Plato on Rhetoric and Poetry" (click)

At times, we all hear the uninformed comment that Plato's Republic is like a dictatorship, or an evil oligarchy, a fascist state, or something resembling the present Republican control of the government in the U.S. today. Never has a proposed or idealistic state been further from the above. 

First, the leaders in the Republic own nothing. They have arrived in the leadership category by proving their intellect, their knowledge, their ethics, and their tests of experience. Their elaborate education has, contrary to the current popular misconception, included all of the arts. Music is especially important for giving future leaders a sense of harmony. Plato's world is anything but materialistic. What the leaders know is that true wealth is of the mind, not money or material possessions. To be a leader is to forego not only material possessions, but private interests altogether, including a private family. Such leadership repudiates the interests of a dictator, a money-based oligarchy, the power and ego of fascists, and the greed, lust, and materialism represented by Republicans and their party. 

My own view of what Plato does say about poetry can only be comprehended by realizing what Homer and epic poets presented as a worldview. Socrates was sentenced to death for, among other things, not believing in the traditional gods. Those gods are represented in all their greedy, selfish, petty, immoral detail by Homer and others. Both Socrates and Plato saw the damage irrational religion can do. They saw how leaders in other forms of the state, especially dictatorship and democracy, can use religion to manipulate and control people. Plato prophesied what has happened in the U.S. where "even an actor can become the leader," by popular manipulation, lies, pretense, and promises. Pretend to be a follower of the popular religion and the votes and devotion overflow, even for a despot.

Jimmy Carter was in fact the sort of leader Plato had in mind for the Republic. Educated, experienced, ethical, he dared tell the people the truth about needing to conserve energy, to be mindful, or as John Kennedy proposed, to ask what you can do for your country. Carter refused to go to war or to do and say things only in order to be re-elected. He has proven his ethics and his devotion to the country in all the decades since he lost the election to the smooth talking actor. 

The only Republican President I can think of who fulfilled Plato's requirements for a leader was Lincoln. Most of the others were the very false product of popular sentiment and delusion Plato predicted for an uninformed democracy.


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