Perhaps a little one, as insights go, the title of this post came to me last week. I’ve long railed at the power of a reductivist, Newtonian world view that has given those who see the world as a series of problems to be solved the tools, from ballistics to The Calculus, to run down any aspect of life’s complexity and reduce it to an equation. Likewise, from the first time I read Plato, I just knew we couldn’t trust the guy. He was the model of the all-knowing expert, the imbecile with a high IQ. What finally came to mind though was that Newton, besides his scientific life and his political/financial ambitions at the Mint, was an Alchemist. Plato’s writing is our only detailed view onto Socrates’ life, but Plato was not Socrates.
Alchemy, ask any Newtonian and they will tell you, is the highest form of chicanery! It rivals Astrology as a “pseudo-science” whose practitioners are worthy of nothing but scorn, or perhaps pity. Of course, that is taking the word of people with a very narrow view of life, a view they inherited from Newton himself in large part! But that’s not how Newton himself saw it.
There’s no need or time to go into the whole subject of Alchemy here. I suggest anyone interested read John Michael Greer. Let’s just say that if you leaven the common view with a bit of Jung’s perspective on Alchemy, what it has really been about, and you will see that it is much more than a hubristic act of greed and wish-fulfillment practiced by those merely concerned with finding a cheap way to make gold. For our purposes what’s more important is that this demi-god of the reductivists, Sir Isaac Newton, dedicated his life to its pursuits with at least as much vigor as he focused on the Calculus.
When it comes to Plato, things get a little more complicated. Plato was a person. He was also a writer. He was the kind of writer who puts words in the mouths of others, real and imagined characters, for the purpose of making his points. He was a clever boy, and rich, and he had the best teacher money could buy. In Athens at that time, that meant Socrates! Lucky boy!
Plato built his world-view and his reputation on the back of Socrates. He has also, by default – no other accounts of Socrates’ life of any consequence have survived – his teacher’s sole “biographer.” He was able, posthumously – it gets hard to pin it all on Plato as a person, it’s been more the traction of Plato as an “idea,” a very Platonic notion in itself, Plato has garnered over the millennia; to control who we see when we think of Socrates. Socrates became, in effect, Plato’s creation.
But Socrates was a real person! Even in Plato’s own words we cannot help but see that he was not, and would not have been, the willing accomplice of that callow cold fish he taught and argued with until his execution at the hands of the Athenians. And, Socrates would not have, in his full grasp of the complexity and grittiness of life, put-up with the colorless abstractions Plato put forward to explain our place here on earth.
Where does this all lead? What can we learn from these examples?
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the quintessential examination of the way what have come to be known as “foundational thinkers” have consistently been derailed and their messages diverted back into the Juggernaut’s course of business-as-usual. The followers of the left sandal versus the followers of the right sandal. The crowds mouthing the words after him,
“We… Will… Think… For… Our… SELVES!”
If we are to focus our efforts on avoiding the traps of futility and all of the paths to short-circuit that have so successfully brought every effort to escape them right back into the folds of the machine, then this is a process, and these are examples, that it will repay us to keep in mind.
How does this happen? Why does it work so well? What is at the root of its successes? Without examining these questions, and heeding what we find, we will just blunder into the first U-turn provided and either be co-opted, corrupted, or destroyed in the process.