Plato is an important figure in human thought but he has something very important to offer to us. More that 2500 years ago, he wrote down issues and themes that remain extremely relevant for us. Plato lived in an age which was markedly different yet it had many ingredients of our times, in seed form.
Think More : Plato transmitted a revolutionary idea and it remains always revolutionary. This he learnt from his Master Socrates who did not write anything. He advised us to think critically. He tells us to examine everything – the habit of mind becomes such that a profound sentence in whole human history was uttered and codified : An un-examined life is not worth living. This is literally true. How many times in our lives, in our career, in our relationships we have observed that how we have been deceived just because we have allowed to live un-examined lives – peer pressure, parental pressure, celebrity advice, fear of boss, advertisement’s lure, our own judgement, politician-priest-high achiever – academicians or very hallowed personality, spiritual gurus. In our times, if you read some of the accounts of disillusioned cult-members, you can see the price we pay for living un-examined lives. Or scientists who sound like medieval preachers when you ask them to question the basic premises. This is the wisdom that only the wisest can dare to give. Because of this idea in Plato, any history of science cannot overlook Plato.
Beauty is Balance : Plato wrote extensively on Beauty and he was one of the intrepid thinkers who had asked : “What is Beauty and where does it sit in our Life ?”. He came with some very pragmatic and surprising answers. A thing of Beauty evokes something perfect and deeply gratifying inside us. The objects of Beauty evoke this and take us into a deeper realm and we become more virtuous. It also balances something inside us. Beauty teaches us in an unconscious manner of essentials of our Existence – death, joy, mortality, virtue, grace, poise, balance, elegance, striving for excellence. In Renaissance Art, many artists used the motif of skull, bones, grave -diggers (Hamlet’s soliloquy with human skull and presence of gravediggers) in their composition within beautiful objects. This was teaching or rather always keeping the truth of human mortality in front of all. Art was education on the themes of existence for all. Imagine such feelings were there when modern corporation announces their bonuses and the terrible soul searching, fear, guilt and anxiety. Beauty has a miraculous effect on us to make us more virtuous.
Organization is Prison (The Parable of the Cave) : In this famous parable, Plato has compressed ideas and thoughts enough to keep us busy for two thousand years. Plato predicts that all pioneers and true thinkers will be considered enemies by the majority and will be persecuted. But there will be always some people in an organization who will try to see beyond their cubicles and they will not be understood and they will either leave or will live a half-dead life. It tells us to understand why people watch pornography in office – in the absence of Beauty, the innate hunger of human mind for Beauty and noble purpose will like to escape and the screen swap will allow him to escape into a devilishly alluring world where Beauty will take its most degenerate, direct, hard-wired form. As Beauty and training to communicate with Beauty diminishes in our lives, sex (or the grossest aspect of it) will be the last resort of communication.
Choosing our Rulers : Plato asked difficult questions : who should rule us ? What should be the qualification of our rulers ? By analyzing available data on this theme of his time, he did not say that the most-glamorous, the most technically trained, the richest, the most-powerful or the most physically attractive or the someone who was son of a king. He said : (good life for citizens) will not be there until philosophers are kings. Note the plural. Note that in Plato’s time, philosophy did not mean tenured professors, it meant – someone, any citizen who was conversant with the wisdom (sophy) of living a good (philo) or happy life. Citizens with greatest wisdom can only be trusted with the responsibility of ruling. In our times, we have outsourced ruling to a professional class who are elected through a process, mastery of which does not need wisdom but money, tact, glamour, propaganda and this has amply proved why neither the rulers nor the ruled are happy. Plato forewarned all future democracies of the pitfalls they have unless they are eternally vigilant about it.
Relationship : Plato was a bachelor but he has a great advice for young people of our times on relationships, even conjugal relationship. He is refreshingly modern. He reminded us that to be happy in a relationship, thinking of prepackaged soulmate is foolishness. Many lives were wasted or destroyed while pursuing a chimera – not understanding one’s own mysterious, flawed, unique self and looking for a panacea in the form of soul-mate. Plato violently and quite derisively disagreed. This ‘soul-mate’ concept was the invention of later Romantic period and from literature it gripped public consciousness (just like public consciousness is gripped by some products, innovations, ideas, gadgets in our time). Plato rather advised to look for learning-mate – someone from whom we can learn something – to practice virtue better. Marriage then becomes not a solution or perceived solution but a learning process to balance our capabilities to practice virtue. Schopenhauer, another bachelor in actual sense, argued two hundred years back that when we fall in love or search for our mates, soul-mate or not, Will (Wille zum Leben) pushes us to balance and our choice, although we are unconscious about it. As all married men (and women) will testify that to have a happy, productive and sane married life, one needs to be a philosopher. But, alas, philosophers seldom marry !
High shelf-life writing : Plato was a poet in temperament and whatever he touched, how prosaic, the subject dazzled by some poetic dust. His writing, style and a stand on an existential theme (the immortality of soul) secured for him something which all writers should consider shrewdly. Since it is not possible to know what happens after death, all evidences are hearsay or indirect. It is impossible to have a decision on this. Now, a materialistic explanation may be very sound and quite convincing (but never conclusive) but there remains in human heart a great desire or if you wish, consolation, to have some modicum of immortality of soul. Of all men who lived in the planet, most wished for some form of “future” of the soul. Since this feeling is general, pervasive and enduring, those who write about this always gather readership and a validation. This validation cannot come from the other world nor can come from those who are dead but only from those living who have reflected upon it intensely and wrote in a way that captured some deep cord inside us.
Plato remains a very towering figure in the history of philosophy and a blessings of God for all tenured and salaried philosophers – theistic or atheistic of our modern universities for allowing them to have plenty to take classes and write papers. But that is the specialist and technical side of Plato.
For us, citizens of a larger, broader, more-equal but less free, no slavery but more crushing slavery of mental anxiety and the fight against failure, of distracted and burnt-out, Plato is a kind, compassionate and dear friend.
Unlike many Eastern or Western Gurus of our times, who demand worship and uncritical allegiance, Plato does not. The light of thought he radiates is so powerful yet so humble that even Time cannot dim its radiance.