THE GUARDIANS FILE: Plato actually gets it right!


Our "philosophers" get it bad wrong:
Sacred greats though they may have been, Plato and Aristotle did, in fact, get quite a few things wrong.

You can't exactly fault them for this. Each fellow held forth "at the dawn of the west." For that reason, they didn't have oodles of prior scholarship to draw on.

That said, when Aristotle turned to basic physics, he made at least several mistakes. As we've noted in the past, the leading authority on his work spells it out like this:
In his On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle related each of the four elements proposed earlier by Empedocles, Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, to two of the four sensible qualities, hot, cold, wet, and dry. In the Empedoclean scheme, all matter was made of the four elements, in differing proportions. Aristotle's scheme added the heavenly Aether, the divine substance of the heavenly spheres, stars and planets.
The basic four, plus the heavenly Aether? The majority of modern physicists will say that this looks to be wrong.

In a somewhat similar vein, it's somewhat comical to see a brilliant mathematician like G. H. Hardy offer a statement like the one posted below. Hardy offered this assessment in his iconic 1940 essay, A Mathematician's Apology, which is still in print:
HARDY (1940): I believe that mathematical reality lies outside us, that our function is to discover or observe it, and that the theorems which we prove, and which we describe grandiloquently as our "creations," are simply our notes of our observations. This view has been held, in one form or another, by many philosophers of high reputation from Plato onwards, and I shall use the language which is natural to a man who holds it.
Alas! When it came to "mathematical reality," Plato believed in something resembling our own modern-day "flying spaghetti monsters."

Have "other philosophers of high reputation" believed in much the same thing? Sadly, possibly yes. Meanwhile, Jim Holt, summarizing Rebecca Goldstein, tells us that many mathematicians believe in these mystical flying forms, as we'll remind you below.

Through no particular fault of his own, Plato advanced all kinds of claims which are hard to make sense of today. In at least one area, though, he rather plainly got it right. According to Plato, the healthy community—the sacred polis—needs the help, perhaps even the rule, of a well-trained guardian class.

What the Sam Hill is a guardian class? Given the way our modern-day guardians have tended to walk away from their posts, it's only natural that you might feel the need to be refreshed on this point.

Luckily, Encyclopedia Brittanica asked Princeton professor Melissa Lane to discuss this foundational concept. We'll start with this part of her essay, which appears under the title "Philosopher king:"
LANE: In Plato's Republic the leading character, Socrates, proposes the design of an ideal city as a model for how to order the individual soul. Such a just city will require specialized military “guards,” divided subsequently into two groups—rulers who will be “guards” in the sense of guardians, dedicated to what is good for the city rather than for themselves, and soldiers who will be their “auxiliaries.” Already at this stage of the Republic it is stressed that the guardians must be virtuous and selfless, living simply and communally as do soldiers in their camps, and Socrates proposes that even wives and children should be in common.
Lane's submission appears under the title "Philosopher king." She defines this as the "idea according to which the best form of government is that in which philosophers rule."

The form of government in which philosophers rule? Taken literally, that almost surely isn't the best form of government, though we'll never find out here, given the way our nation's "philosophers" walked away from their posts.

In Lane's treatment, Plato said the ideal city would have to have a soldier class. But above that group, the ideal city will need "guardians"—rulers who will be "dedicated to what is good for the city rather than for themselves."

As Lane continues, we reach the key point in her discussion. In Plato's mind, these "guardians"—these philosopher kings and philosopher queens—must in fact be philosophers, whatever that might mean:
LANE (continuing directly): At the outset of Book V, Socrates is challenged by his interlocutors to explain this last proposal. In response, Socrates expounds three controversial claims, which he acknowledges will expose him to ridicule. The first is that the guardians should include qualified women as well as men; thus, the group that will become known as “philosopher kings” will also include “philosopher queens.” The second claim is that these ruling men and women should mate and reproduce on the city’s orders, raising their children communally to consider all guardians as parents rather than attach themselves to a private family household. Those children, together with those of the artisan class, will be tested, and only the most virtuous and capable will become rulers. Thus, the group to become known as “philosopher kings” will be reproduced by merit rather than simply by birth. Finally, Socrates declares that these rulers must in fact be philosophers:
A society's rulers—its "guardians"—must in fact be philosophers? As she continues, Lane provides the specific statement where Plato's Socrates expresses this key point:
LANE (continuing directly): "Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide...cities will have no rest from evils...there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other city."
"Socrates predicts that this claim will elicit even more ridicule and contempt from his Athenian contemporaries than will equality for women rulers or communality of sex and children," Lane says as she continues. "Many Athenians saw philosophers as perpetual adolescents, skulking in corners and muttering about the meaning of life, rather than taking an adult part in the battle for power and success in the city."

There you have it! According to Plato's Socrates, "political power and philosophy [must] entirely coincide." The pitfall to his proposal was this: "Many Athenians saw philosophers as perpetual adolescents, refusing to take an adult part in the battle for power and success in the city."

That's what many Athenians thought, back at the dawn of the west. As we survey our own failing society, we'd have to say that, allowing for a few adjustments, those "many Athenians" may have gotten it right!

In our badly floundering, failing society, the philosophy departments of our colleges and universities are clogged with logicians and ethicists, along with practitioners of other specific types. But alas! Despite our desperate need for their services, these people have long ago abandoned their guardian posts.

As we've looked at our failing culture over the course of the past many years, we've seen a crying need for the assistance of a class of logicians.

According to eighth-grade civics texts, our journalists are expected to provide such services. But as you know if you've ever watched a prime time "cable news" program, our highest-paid, most visible journalists often stumble over themselves as they work on the metaphorical level of 2 + 2.

Good God! Tomorrow, we'll ponder a few recent examples of the work our journalists provide. But as we the people beg the gods to give us the boon of a cogent discourse, our greatest logicians never intercede in these destructive gong shows.

They've walked away from their guardian posts! They spend their time, quite literally, on questions involving the "logic" of 2 + 2:
HOLT (page 8): Gödel entered the University of Vienna in 1924. He had intended to study physics, but he was soon seduced by the beauties of mathematics, and especially by the notion that abstractions like numbers and circles had a perfect, timeless existence independent of the human mind. This doctrine, which is called Platonism, because it descends from Plato’s theory of ideas, has always been popular among mathematicians...In the philosophical world of nineteen-twenties Vienna, however, it was considered distinctly old-fashioned. Among the many intellectual movements that flourished in the city’s rich café culture, one of the most prominent was the Vienna Circle, a group of thinkers united in their belief that philosophy must be cleansed of metaphysics and made over in the image of science. Under the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein, their reluctant guru, the members of the Vienna Circle regarded mathematics as a game played with symbols, a more intricate version of chess. What made a proposition like “2 + 2 = 4” true, they held, was not that it correctly described some abstract world of numbers but that it could be derived in a logical system according to certain rules.
What makes a proposition like 2 + 2 = 4 true? Our greatest logician since Aristotle devoted his time to such puzzles! To all intents and purposes, this nonsensical situation still obtains today.

Our logicians and ethicists, theoretical guardians all, have long ago walked off their posts. The lunacies of our failing discourse continue apace, night after night, absent any intercession from this lapsed guardian class.

Did you see Tucker Carlson on Monday night? Did you catch Hallie Jackson the following morning? Have you seen players from each of our tribes fervently saying Who They Believe in our current attempt at debate?

We're badly in need of the help of a guardian class. But our journalists are unable to serve, and our society's "philosophers" have largely walked away from their posts.

This pattern has given us President Trump. Neither of our warring tribes seems able to deal with this fact.

Tomorrow: Tucker Carlson, right and wrong, as "rational animals" flounder


  1. This may be a good time to reread "The Responsibility of Intellectuals."

    1. This is a great example of why I dislike Chomsky.

      For example:

      "To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. "

      Previous to bombing (which was seriously considered as a war crime following WWI), warfare included siege and blockade, in which the civilian population was starved until it surrendered to surrounding troops. Is that more or less humane than the destruction of buildings while people hunkered in bomb shelters? Has Chomsky done any thinking about what is more or less damaging to civilians during war, of the extent to which civilian populations contribute to war (through manufacturing and labor) or of the extent of popular support for war as opposed to opposition to it?

      Chomsky is a propagandist. He isn't writing about intellectual participation in society. He is writing a guilt piece to mobilize dissent against our presence in Vietnam. If he ever wrote anything balanced or honest, he wouldn't be remembered today as an activist instead of a Philosopher Guardian.

    2. Consider the siege of Leningrad, for example, during which people ate rats and sometimes each other while they waited out the Germans for nearly 900 days. Is this an unspeakable crime because of the torture it inflicted for so long on so many people, or does it have to include a fireball to be unspeakable?

      Chomsky is as big an ass as Somerby.

    3. Hitler's Willing Executioners by Goldhagen

      This book illustrates the ways in which everyday Germans carried out Hitler's extermination of the Jews (and others) during WWII. In a broader sense, everyday people enthusiastically supported Hitler in Germany and in other occupied countries. Yes, there was resistance but there was also collaboration and the latter outweighed the former.

      Chomsky's call for people to rise up against war isn't realistic because people tend to support war. Even Somerby's quotes about Plato's ideal Republic include a warrior class -- that means soldiers who kill people. The best Guardians, Plato himself, couldn't envision a world without war. Chomsky whistles against the wind with regard to one particular war in Vietnam, but Trump is beloved by his supporters because he is perceived as Strong.

      Somerby seems to love Plato because he is similarly strong -- proposing those wonderful guardians who will protect the people and keep them from any responsibility for their own participation in democracy via active thought. What a man of the people Somerby has turned out to be!

    4. If this is our reasoning:

      The Nazis besieged Leningrad, therefore bombing Hiroshima was not a crime.

      we need to consult both a logician and an ethicist.

    5. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not "surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history". On the contrary, they saved American lives and probably saved Japanese lives.

      Without the atomic excuse, Japan’s leaders would have ordered that the military continue to fight despite the Soviet’s declaration of war against Tokyo. The fighting that would have ensued before they surrendered would have resulted in far more deaths than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

      P.S. the victory by America and our allies over the fascists who ran Germany and Japan is something all Americans should take enormous pride in. I have no patience with armchair generals who, after the fact, claim they could have won the war by some different means, with less bloodshed. I have even less patience with Chomsky who doesn't even say what alternative he thinks would have been superior.

    6. Caesar, you said it better than I ever could have. 11:35, 11:42, 12:41 all seem to be the same person. One good answer to three screeds at once.



    7. I left out 4:25 by mistake. Make that four screeds. My bad!


    8. In the link provided, Chomsky characterizes the bombings of WWII and Vietnam, and by extension Americans, as uniquely horrible. I took issue with that. I never said that one excuses the other, but I do consider the holocaust worse than Hiroshima's bombing, whether it ended the war or not.

      Go read the Chomsky essay, Leroy.

    9. Chomsky, early on, made it plain that other horrible atrocities had occurred, but chose to focus his own criticisms on his own country - the USA. Perhaps you might enjoy this, where he made that point quite clear:


  2. Now we cut to the chase. Somerby believes he should have been ruling all this time. Because Philosophers should be kings. Despite getting lots of things wrong.

    Never mind that no one considers Plato to be today's model of political thinking. He equated people to base metals and suggested that those who are Gold should rule over those who are brass or iron (e.g., laborers and slaves). Plato owned five slaves at the time of his death.

    And here is something interesting from Plato:

    "It follows from our previous agreements, first, that the best men must have sex with the best women as frequently as possible, while the opposite is true of the most inferior men and women, and, second, that if our herd is to be of the highest possible quality, the former’s offspring must be reared (as guardians) but not the latter’s. And this must all be brought about without being noticed by anyone except the rulers, so that our herd of guardians remains as free from dissension as possible. (Resp. V, 459d-e, transl. Grube rev. by Reeve)"

    This sounds like an excerpt from White Supremacist literature, where women are to breed superior children to prevent substandard people from dominating society.

    While Plato was willing to include women within the Guardian class (which implied that they should receive equal education too), he also wanted to abolish marriage and have children be raised communally, so that superior children would receive proper education. So, superior women would be assigned to superior men. Women without children would become warriors, like superior men. Of course, this never happened because Plato's Republic is fantasy. Like other Greeks, Plato considered anatomy to be destiny.

    There is no chance of this having any appeal in modern society. So why is Somerby talking about Philosopher Guardians? Is he yearning to be protected from dangerous times? Is he complaining that no one has listened to his own wise guardianship over the past years? Does he think Trump is an example of a Golden Guardian? (Why shouldn't he claim that role -- who is to identify today's guardians?) Does Somerby think the practice of philosophy is the same today as it was in ancient Greece? Is he seriously arguing that the intelligent should rule the stupid? We've seen what happens when people who believe that seek and obtain power. And what has happened to his disdain for elites?

    Somerby is being an ass today.

  3. How would philosophy professors at academic institutions become "guardians" of our discourse? Their job is primarily to teach. And not that many students are enrolled in philosophy courses anyway. To the extent that they teach their students critical thinking skills or ways of making philosophical arguments or just open their eyes to the history of philosophy, then they have done their job.

    And how in the world are philosophy or logic professors supposed to control the behavior of the corporate news media, much less the internet? In general, academics, particularly philosophy professors, have very little power against the corporate world, like many of us.

    And does Somerby really believe that "the philosophy departments of our colleges and universities are clogged with logicians and ethicists"? The average philosophy department is either non-existent or quite small, compared to other departments, business, for example. And since they "long ago abandoned their guardian posts", when exactly did they occupy these posts? And who were they? Specifics here would be nice.

    1. Plato was not a Guardian in his time. He was born to an aristocratic family and founded an academy where he wrote and taught philosophy. But he didn't run anything, had no more influence than philosophers today, other than among other philosophers. This idea of guardians is wishful thinking on his part.

  4. Leave it to Somerby to misstate and/or misunderstand a mathematician like Hardy, and then ridicule Hardy based on his misstatement/misunderstanding.

    There is nothing crazy about a mathematician believing that he/she is discovering truths about the "real world" in the same way that physicists believe that. Why can't or won't Somerby at least try to entertain this notion? It isn't a crackpot idea. If he would read his comments, he might see some ideas along these lines. For example, once you formulate a physical theorem mathematically, you can use pure mathematics to predict other physical truths that you might otherwise not have discovered. Einstein's theorems were pure mathematics, but their truth was later verified experimentally. But Somerby is closed-minded about this, his agenda is to ridicule and blame. Perhaps his lack of exposure to mathematics is part of the problem.

  5. "Despite our desperate need for their services, these people have long ago abandoned their guardian posts."

    They never had a guardian post. Plato wrote fiction.

  6. I think that in Plato's time, "Philospher" had a broader meaning than it does today. Plato's "philosophers" studied and opined on all kinds of subjects. Today, most of those subjects are parts of other specialized fields of knowledge.

  7. Bob giving up on the events of the day is a thankful event
    on some level, of course. It is also ignoble, pretty obviously.
    The people Bob has spent years defending, sometimes
    merely by omission, have crossed the line even in his
    morally destitute analysis.

  8. No music today. How about a nice podcast?

  9. Finally - after all these years - a decent post in Consortium News:

    1. Ditto with The Intercept:

  10. "تسوق اون لاين من خلال موقع بوروروم أكبر موقع للتسوق و إكتشف أفضل العروض.تمتع بخصم يصل الى 70% على العديد من المنتجات والماركات العالمية. وإدفع نقدا عند التسليم!

    احذية رجالى
    ساعات رجالى
    ملابس رجالى
    قميص رجالى"

  11. Nice post. The article is very interesting in. I know very well.


  12. As a professional philosopher, I am somewhat sympathetic to Bob's view that:

    In our badly floundering, failing society, the philosophy departments of our colleges and universities are clogged with logicians and ethicists, along with practitioners of other specific types. But alas! Despite our desperate need for their services, these people have long ago abandoned their guardian posts.

    But I wish he would engage with attempts to be of use, like Nussbaum's Monarchy of Fear, Stanley's How Fascism Works, and this open letter:

    Maybe the problem isn't that philosophers aren't offering their services but that society isn't taking them up on their offer.

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