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