December 10, 2018 | ° F

FINNERTY: Applying ancient princinples in modern politics


Opinions Column: Waxing Philosophical


More often than not, I read the political headlines each morning and find myself thinking, “What would an ancient person think?” From certain candidates snatching women by the genitals, unfortunately both figuratively and most likely physically, to calls for a unified space program to Mars. Imagine, along the streets of Washington D.C., a himation-laden Plato viewing the sights and sounds of a bustling modern city. Yes, assume that he now speaks and reads English fluently for the sake of entertainment. What would he think? Would he be astonished by technology and the like? The following is merely for entertainment purposes, but sometimes exercises like this are necessary for honing the mind and expanding the imagination.

“Dust … wind … dude,” says Bill and Ted to a baffled Socrates in the movie “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” In some sort of strange, quasi-breech of knowledge the popular Kansas song “Dust in the Wind” conveyed fictional enlightenment upon the world’s most ignorant philosopher. Now, in our hypothetical, Socrates’ narrator Plato opens the newspaper and reads about the second Presidential Debate.

First, Plato would perhaps notice many similarities between the modern polis and his own. Two candidates, backed by a half democratic, half oligarchic system, charged with tasks of creating new laws and communicating with foreign powers. Plato, it seems, would not have liked either candidate, as he didn’t seem to care for any politicians in his own time as is evident in his “Republic.” In the latter work, our hypothetical time traveler explores ideas on justice and virtue in the polis. Candidates like Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton surely would not have been up to his standards. Plato writes in the “Republic” that, “The just man then, as it seems, has come to light as a kind of robber, and I’m afraid you learned this from Homer.” Essentially, Plato believed then that people were corrupted by false idols, that of the heroes of Homer, such as Achilles or Odysseus. I surmise that he would feel similarly now, with two oligarchic bats, concerned more with character flaws than any type of beneficial legislature.

Speaking of legislature, how would Plato feel about the laws in this country? Perhaps the proposed wall of Trump, or the universal healthcare of Clinton would catch his attention. During Plato’s time, Athens was surrounded by a massive wall that effectively kept out Spartan invaders. Speaking off-the-cuff, non-Athenians were usually viewed in a less than favorable manner, as is our case as well — or at least in some percentage of the population. Trump’s wall would not have seemed so out of place to Plato, but then again, America is also not Athens so I doubt he would have cared about immigration issues here.

Healthcare, however, would probably get the old poet philosopher thinking. Ancient medical practice aside, what of universal healthcare? I believe Plato would have been fond of such a system. In order to pursue knowledge and wisdom, one must necessarily be in peak physical form, so as to not distract one from the task at hand. And if anyone is concerned about the polis, it is definitely Plato. He would most likely feel that in order to bring the population towards a greater good, they would first need to be healthy. However, I think he would have trouble grasping this whole notion of healthcare in the first place. Classical Athens did not require a physician’s license nor a degree in pharmaceuticals to prescribe medicine.

What of gender roles in America? We are on the verge of perhaps having our first female president, and one candidate has been charged with misogynistic banter, to say the least. In many, far too many, accounts of the ancient world women are held in little regard, especially in the world of politics. However, our man Plato is a visionary. In the “Republic” he does not exclude women from being philosopher kings, or from any role in society for that matter. The soul, according to Plato, is genderless. Only bodies have genders and that to Plato meant little. Bodies die and decay, but the soul, it lives and is essentially eternal. Therefore, I think he would be more shocked at how candidates with such poor character could even be considered for office, more so than woman running for president — a real non-issue in his eyes.

Overall, Plato would have gasped at how far things have advanced, but also balked at how little we have done in the search for the ideal polis. Rhetoric is still king and the Sophists’ legacy has reigned alongside his own contributions. Perhaps, if Plato was present, he would start a new chapter in the “Republic” or, a more likely possibility, feel vindicated in the most timeless sense.

Jonathan Finnerty is a School of Arts Sciences senior majoring in classics and philosophy. His column, "Waxing Philosophical," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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Jonathan Finnerty

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