Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Plato Maligned Again

"Back in 1984, Culianu defined himself as one of the rising stars of the academic firmament with a book titled Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. The academic study of Renaissance magic had been a hot field since the Sixties, when Frances Yates finally blew the lid off a generations-old habit of scholarly disdain for occultism, but even by the standards of the Eighties Culianu’s book was startling. It took magic seriously as a system of psychological manipulation that used the cravings and desires of its target—the “eros” of the title—to shape human behavior. It suggested on that basis that modern advertising, which does exactly this, is simply the current form of magic, and that contemporary Western nations are “magician states” governed by the magical manipulation of public consensus...."

Even the archdruid isn't getting it quite right.

"In the dialogue Meno, to note only one example, Plato has Socrates demonstrate a point about the deep structure of the human mind by walking an illiterate servant boy through a geometrical proof. The boy doesn’t know a thing about geometry, but he is able to follow Socrates’ logic, and by the end of the process has understood what at that time was cutting-edge mathematics. Socrates’ point is that anyone, anywhere, could be taught the same thing—and that’s a point for which Plato’s Republic has no room at all. In the Republic, reason is for the few; honor and social commitments are for another minority, separate from the first; the majority has nothing but appetite. It’s therefore fair to say that in the Republic, nobody is allowed to be more than one-third of a complete human being.

That’s always the problem with utopian schemes; the inhabitants are never allowed to be fully human, though the restrictions are rarely handled with the geometric precision Plato displayed. When a utopian scheme is put into practice, in turn, what inevitably happens is that whatever dimension of the human is supposedly abolished happens anyway, and defines the fault line along which the scheme breaks down. Marxism is a great example; in theory, people in Marxist societies are motivated solely by noble ideals; in practice, getting people to go through the motions of being motivated solely by noble ideals required an ever-expanding system of apparatchiks, secret police and prison camps, and even that ultimately failed to do the job. One way or another, trying to create heaven on earth reliably yields the opposite; whatever resembles Plato’s Republic on paper turns into Pluto’s Republic in practice."
The problem with this analysis (and I heartily recommend his distinction between theurgy and thaumaturgy, Culianu and Ficino!) is that it assumes that societies can be run on "geometry" - that what is true in mathematics is true in the social sphere, legal sphere, etc. Certainly, anyone can learn mathematics - most men (for instance) are fairly good at it, as opposed to women.

While I heartily recommend his theurgy/thaumaturgy distinction (later in article), note that mathematics isn't governed by the same laws as the sphere of human action. This is a pervasive problem with all critiques of caste orders or traditionalism - they simply don't accept the fact that very, very, very few people have the aptitude or ability to govern themselves, let alone other people.

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