Monday, 3 September 2012

Romney and Cameron: the platonic view

It’s a commonplace in the West, accepted by virtue of being so frequently repeated by so many people, that the great philosophers of antiquity have moulded and formed the cultural structures on which our societies are based.

I rather suspect many of those who hold this view are of the kind who regard certain literature as 
good’, though they may not have got round to reading the books themselves. Busy people, you know, but they know whats good for others. Like, say, reading Plato.

On the basis that it’s never too late for a good resolution, I’ve recently been trying to remedy that great void in my own education, and fascinating I’ve found it. There are certainly aspects of Plato which have inspired much (relatively) recent history, such as what he has to say in The Republic about children with disabilities:

‘...the offspring of the inferior [parents], or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be.’

Hardly a very Paralympian spirit, one can’t help. Not a view to find favour with the founder of that fine movement, Ludwig Guttmann, though it would not have been out of place in the mouth of his persecutor, Adolf Hitler.

So in this respect at least I’m disinclined to join in the general chorus of admiration for Plato. There are however other passages of the same book that strike me as far more useful. Take what he says about different types of government.

For Socrates, the main speaker in Plato’s dialogues, aristocracy is the best government because it is the government of the best people. Which would be fine in my view except that I find that in most such governments, the people who choose the best are, coincidentally, generally the very people who get chosen.

Oligarchy, on the other hand, was much less appealing.

‘And what manner of government do you term oligarchy?.

‘A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.’.
No good, Plato reckons, can come of this arrangement:
‘And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money; they honour and look up to the rich man, and make a ruler of him, and dishonour the poor man.’
Overdoing respect for the wealthy, dissing the poor. If they could see in Athens two and a half millennia ago that this was a pretty bad show, maybe it’s time we relearned the lesson now.

Is that something to bear in mind in the States this autumn when voters on ordinary incomes take a look at Mitt Romney and his near quarter billion dollars? 

And in Britain when David Cameron, with the wealth he inherited and the wealth he married, decides to slash a load more benefits?

Mitt and Dave: a Platonic couple but not an ideal one?

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