Thursday, June 27, 2013

Plato and the Power of Lies

Greek culture has had profound effects on the development of modern nations, and its influence is still apparent in American politics, architecture, language, art, etc. However, I only found out today that referring to Ancient Greece as a single nation is not correct; during the 15th century, Greece was a series of independent city-states, the largest of which was Athens. One of the most important figures in Western philosophy is Plato, a Greek philosopher and mathematician. 

Plato was the student of Socrates, and while his mentor did not write any texts that we know of, Plato has written 36 dialogues and 13 letters, cumulatively known as the Socratic dialogues. In his works, Plato discusses a wide range of subjects from mathematics to politics. Arguably his most notable piece is The Republic, an extended attack on Greek democracy and defense of a counter ideal of rule by the intellectual elite. The title is actually a poor translation of the Greek word politi, meaning a political system. 

I stayed after class for an optional discussion
session with Professor Kramnick.
In The Republic, Plato attempts to describe the Just Person by first theorizing the Just Community. He reasons that rather than trying to read small print on small paper, it is better to read the same text in large print on large paper before moving to scrutinize the smaller version. Plato formulates a tripartite theory of soul in which a human's soul is composed of three parts: the logical fraction, the courageous fraction, and the appetitive fraction. Each part of the soul corresponds, respectively, to a caste of society: philosopher kings, auxiliaries, and the mechanics or working class. The guardians of the society will be the auxiliaries and philosopher kings, while the working class focuses on self-preservation. 

In the just society, each individual does as he is naturally inclined or best suited to do. In essence, if a person is most skilled in thought, he will pursue to be a philosopher; if a person is skilled in battle, he will be an auxiliary; if one is ruled by passions, he will be a producer for the community. The three classes are not to mingle, and procreation in the upper two castes is strictly monitored so as to breed the most suitable children who are to be of the best benefit to society. However, philosopher parents may bear a child who is best destined to be an auxiliary or auxiliary a philosopher. To justify the caste system and the regulated procreation, Plato devises two noble lies: the myth of metals and lottery procreation. 

The myth of metals categorizes each class as a metal of value: the philosophers are gold, auxiliaries are silver, and producers are copper or iron. All of mankind has a common origin from Mother Earth, and so each individual, whether he is gold or copper, contains strains of each metal. Thus, gold can deliver bronze children, silver can deliver gold, copper can deliver silver, and vice versa. Breeding in the upper two classes will be organized in a way so that the citizens will think it is a lottery system, but in fact the best individuals are selectively favored so as to produce more beneficial offspring. 

Roth prepares for the lecture while he chats with
Professor Kramnick.
Plato's inclusions of two noble lies exemplify his belief that the perfect society does not necessarily require perfect honesty. He utilizes two great lies in order to justify his society and keep harmony for the greater good. It is fascinating to see that a lie can be used for good, but one must keep in mind that lies can also be used for evil. 

Today's biweekly guest lecture was facilitated by Cornell University lawyer Nelson Roth. Roth gained fame during a particular incident which occurred in Ithaca many years ago in 1989. The case involved a quadruple homicide and evidence tampering by the New York State Police. Fingerprints were planted at numerous crime scenes to frame individuals such as Shirley Kinge. Officer David L. Harding had simply obtained a fingerprint sample and claimed to have found it at the crime scene. 

Whether it be to justify a social system or fabricating evidence, the power of lies is not to be underestimated. 

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