Monday, December 05, 2011

Book Review

This is a book review I recently wrote on Amazon for WH Uffington's The Greatest Lie Ever Told.
I've recently been reading a bit about early Christian history and the evolution of pagan ritual and iconography which effected those in Christianity. My first stop along the way was to read Edward Carpenter's Pagan and Christian Creeds: their origin and meaning which describes an origin to Christ mythology in very early sun god worship and how that took shape out of a combination of agricultural and astronomical phenomenon. I've also read Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities : The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and I'm very comfortable with the idea that The Bible is not a literal interpretation of the word of God and that has also been manipulated over time to meet people's political and economic ambitions.

I picked up Uffington's The Greatest Lie Ever Told expecting it to be a bit more scholarly than it ended up being. On the surface it seems extremely well researched and the author is careful to cite sources for most of what he presents. I'm always glad to see that, but there are several ideas in the book with which the author makes some great leaps of imagination, leaving the realm of sure footed research and diving headlong into the untested waters of wishful thinking.

The book has a central thesis that I find both appealing and potentially realistic. Uffington's idea is that:

1. The single generation of monotheism established by the pharaoh Akhenaten around 1,300 BC was kept alive after his death by priests and scribes who did not want to revert to polytheism.

2. These Aten worshipping priests left Egypt and settled in Canaan and over several hundred years their ideology evolved into early Judeism.

3. The early Judaic mythologies of the Old Testament about Jewish slavery in Egypt and the Exodus out of Egypt were a complete fabrication by Jewish writers in the 7th century BC for mostly political reasons.

4. Other influential aspects of Egyptian mysticism were kept alive over the centuries and collected together in Alexandria after the Ptolemy dynasty built the library there. Greek philosophers (Pythagoras, Plato, etc.) studied in Alexandra and brought these ideas back and spread them around the Hellenized world.

5. In the 500 years or so before Christianity, this mysticism took the shape of the many "Mystery Cults" that existed all over the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. These cults generally had a central hero or mythological figure with common characteristics, such as a virgin birth on or around December 25 and a death plus resurrection in the spring. Uffington contends that the priests of these cults understood an allegorical meaning behind their myths which was not to be taken literally, however...

6. After Rome sacked the Jewish homelands and brought back many slaves into Rome itself, the Jewish people's latched on to these allegorical myths and adopted them as literal teachings. Uffington makes a case for Jesus never existing, even as a historical figure and that Christianity became a literal bastardization of a set of allegorical mystical teaching that originally began in Egypt a long time before. Finally...

7. The original allegorical mysticism was kept alive through a sect of gnostic Christians who passed it on to the Templar knights and the Freemasons who encoded their symbols on many Christian monuments and cathedrals. Thus, this passing down of the original Egyptian mysticism explains why we continue to have Egyptian symbols on our money and around our government buildings.

If this were Uffintgon's only argument I would find it compelling. In and of itself it isn't enough for me to believe it to be "true", but it is enough for me to want to read more on the subject so that I can come to a more informed opinion later. At the very least I find it pretty clever and I do enjoy theories of how religion and mythology evolve over time and are carried on from one group of people to the next.

However, Uffington goes a bit further and makes two claims that throw the whole argument into the realm of wishful thinking. These are:

A) That the "original" source of Egyptian mysticism came from ancient aliens who helped build the sphinx and the pyramids about 10,000 BC, and,

B) That the truth behind the Egyptian mysticism and the mystery cults really actually IS TRUE and if we can figure out what that truth is then we can really understand how the universe operates for the betterment of all mankind.

This is where the book is at its weakest. Uffington's argument for an unusual interpretation of the development of monotheism along with subsequent Judaic and Christian history is both interesting and worth consideration. I would have preferred it if the author would have kept his personal desires for universal truth separate from his historical research.

I actually think it would be cool if aliens HAD visited ancient peoples on Earth and gave them technology and culture. But I've never been convinced that this is what happened. Like they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, whether those claims are about God or aliens. (One thing that has always puzzled me is this: If aliens gave so much technology to the ancient Egyptians, why didn't they also give them some basic engineering knowledge like the wheel or the pulley or the arch? Why help them levitate giant stone blocks and not give them the wheel?)

At the end of the book Uffington uses one of his several appendices to describe his version of cosmic truth. His idea (not a new one) is that human souls evolve in much the same way life evolves and that, as we learn to master the lessons of one plane of existence we evolve after death into a new, higher, plane of existence with more "lessons" to master. I'm a little murky on the details, but if I understand him correctly, I believe he is suggesting that God is not a separate entity who created the universe, but is instead the collective consciousness of all living things and that our goal through the process of life (or lives) is to reunite with and become one with that God. (If you google search the world "gnosticism" you'll find more information on that idea.)

I'm religiously agnostic and I've never been a member of a major religion. If I had to choose a way for the universe to operate I would certainly find these ideas appealing. They at least are more attractive to me than the morality plays of the Judeo-Christian tradition with their promises of eternal salvation and their threats of eternal damnation. But, just because I like the ideas doesn't make them true. At the very least this brand of gnosticism that Uffington is selling promotes the idea people should work together for the betterment of ALL of us; that there are no "chosen" members of an elite religion and that we should respect and tolerate our differences because of that. This is a very humanistic ideology and I respect it for that.

So, in the final analysis, I'm very glad to have read this book. I found it fascinating and often compelling and I'll be thinking about it for some time. I'm just not ready to drink all the Kool Aid that Uffington is selling. There are a lot of questions for which the answer "I don't know" is really the best option. It's really tempting to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge with all the things we wish were true, but we should take that leap very carefully and be honest with ourselves when we do so.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Article - Homeschooler Goes to College

Salon posted this article recently. It's a good read, but the many bitter comments also drew my attention.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Teaching Math

I don't know if this will be a long post or not, but I just wanted to quickly comment on teaching math at our house.

I always wanted to be a math teacher....I thought it was my true calling...that is, until I had a job teaching 5 remedial classes at a high school--six weeks of my life I will never get back.

Right now we are using Singapore math to teach both Simon and Gwen. Gwen is on level 2 and Simon is on level 5. For the most part, it is just a book with worksheets that are about 1-3 pages per lesson. I used to always think "practice makes perfect" and the more problems you did, the better you were at math....but my opinion has changed. It turns out, I can usually tell by 4-5 problems whether or not my kids understand the math. I know Simon hates long division (as do I) and if I see him doing everything right, I usually cut the assignment in half. Most of the pages seem to have about 10-14 problems, but again, half of the problems is plenty, especially since I know they'll be repeating the skills again in another lesson.

I guess I find it interesting (to me) how much my opinion of how kids learn has changed since we started homeschooling. It is obvious when they are frustrated, and definitely clear when they are enjoying the lesson....but I guess that is easy when you have a classroom of 2 kids plus teacher...

So, I am enjoying this new school year. I really look forward to coming home after work and doing math and science lessons with the kids...

That's back to my lazy Sunday...

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Born This Way

I am writing this blog post to vent my frustration at the many well meaning parents of angel children, or better yet, the friends who have no children but apparently know exactly what it takes to be perfect parents and how they would handle every situation or how it would NEVER happen to them.

I just read another article, Permissive Parents, Curb Your Brats, that just about put me over the edge again when it comes to other people's opinions about other people's kids.

I would have posted this on facebook, but I figure less people read our blog and I have a smaller chance of offending those I might be referring to, even though I know these people do not know I even co-write a blog. In fact, I am not even facebook friends with these people so I don't know why I worry about appearances.

But really...I am happy for you parents out there who have mastered, "The Look" or "The stare" or whatever magical ability it is you claim you use to control your children. I am glad that YOU are never frustrated, overworked, underpaid, exhausted, etc. enough to let me know that I am a bad parent. Thank you for that. All of us with the "children who run wild" REALLY appreciate knowing how much we suck!!!

Thank you for letting me know my child is a brat and is annoying everyone around them. Believe it or not, the screaming child in the restaurant does not annoy me--it makes me feel normal.

My kids are not BAD or EVIL or anything like that. I have one super sensitive child who practically sobs if he thinks he has done something that we disapprove of. I have another child who could care less what anyone else's opinion is other than her own and truly seems to believe at the ripe old age of 6 that the world does indeed revolve around her.

Did I raise these kids differently? Not that I am aware of...they have grown up in the same house, with the same two parents who rarely fight, who have been married for over 16 years.

Am I impressed by my childless girlfriend's tales of her sister's kids who once threw up at the dinner table and the sister made the kid clean up his own vomit? Not really. Am I upset when I see a kid crying their eyes out in a shopping cart at the store to a mother or father who is begging them to stop? No, I am just feeling a little bit of empathy for mom, dad and the kid...I don't know who is the most exhausted and I wish I could give all of them a break.

I am reminded by my own mother, while once in Kmart I remarked at the wise old age of 7 that if she BOUGHT my little sister the toy while she was having a temper tantrum, then she would merely learn that if she throws a tantrum she will know she gets her way. I also remember my mom's response to my wise advice which was, "Talk me me again after YOU have 8 kids."

As far as I know, I was a fairly shy and quiet child who didn't misbehave a lot. But my dad ruled by the iron fist (spanking) and yes, I was deathly afraid of him when he was mad. My mom usually just left the room. I have 7 siblings that range from shy and nerdy to outspoken and fashionistas. We were all raised by the same two mom and dad, still together after 52 years.

At this point I am sure it just sounds like I am babbling, but I do have a point. I honestly think that each kid's personality, for the most part--your kid was born that way. So for those of you lucky enough to have one or more angel children who do everything you say when you say--congratulations. I am very happy for you. And for all of my well-meaning friends out there who have no children (but want children) and have all this great advice on what we are doing wrong, well...I can't wait until you have kids of your own.

And finally, to all my friends who do not have any kids and never want to have any kids....if you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything. We don't need your help and it only hurts our feelings when you tell us how much our kids annoy you!

And finally, for all the parents of kids like mine who may or may not listen to me at any given moment of the day, I feel for you and I they were born this way....


PS...I love my kids JUST the WAY THEY ARE!!! Thanks!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Teach Yourself

I've been following a conversation on homeschooling at one of the Amazon forums. In it, someone made a couple of points that I felt the need to follow up upon. The first of these was that teaching a child to read required specialized knowledge and the second was that teaching most subjects through the high school years required a professional, "expert" teacher. Here's my response:

I have to disagree that teaching reading requires specialized knowledge. I've taught two of my kids to read in the past few years and all it took was researching a good phonics program to use, and then using that program for just a few minutes a day. (We used "The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading"). Reading is just not a difficult thing for a child to learn, nor is it difficult to teach.

Regarding more complicated subjects in the high school years, there are a couple of schools of thought about this. A parent can first teach themselves a subject and then teach their child; a parent can, instead of "teaching" the subject, learn it alongside their child but act more as a facilitator of the process; an especially self directed kid may simply be able to teach themselves if they have a good set of books to use; or, by the high school years, a teen can often just take a class or two at a community college, which also helps get them college credits.

Earlier this year I decided to teach my son Latin (He's 9 years old). I took 2 semesters of Latin myself in college almost 20 years ago, but I didn't remember much about it. Instead of hiring a tutor (which I couldn't afford anyway) I studied the language myself every day for about 6 weeks and then researched and purchased a good Latin primer directed at elementary school kids. Now we do 1-2 lessons together from this primer each day and we're both learning the language together. It really just takes a conceptual change in now we think of learning. A teacher who lectures and then tests isn't necessary for most subjects up through high school (or perhaps beyond) when an adult and child together can learn alongside each other with great success.

I believe that one of the problems with our school system is that it conditions people to think that experts are required in order to acquire all new knowledge and skills. In school someone else always decides what you learn, how you learn it, when you learn it and (most importantly) whether or not you've succeeded. I believe that this process has conditioned many people to over-rely on expert opinion rather than trust their own capabilities. Don't get me wrong, there are definitely times when a good teacher is critical, but I believe that we've come to rely on them too much.

There is so much we can learn ourselves, and all it really takes is planning and dedication. As a homeschooling dad, part of my job is to teach my children, but it's also critical that I teach them how to teach themselves.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Last Guardian

A couple of years ago I wrote a bit about two video games I'd been playing called Ico and Shadow of the Colossus (here). I was very moved by the stories in both and was excited to hear that a third game in the series is coming out for the holidays of 2011.

Here are a couple of trailers for the new game, called The Last Guardian:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Homeschoolin' - Fall 2010

I've been meaning to write up another post describing this year of homeschooling, but just haven't gotten around to it until now. It's pretty similar to last year except that Simon is now in 3rd grade and Gwen has joined us for a few formal lessons as part of Kindergarten.

Prior to last year there was a big difference in how much school we planned in August and how much we actually got done as the year progressed. Last year we felt like we hit a sweet spot where we accomplished pretty much what we planned so this year we took the same approach.

Here's what our days look like on Mondays through Thursdays:

7:00am: Wake up. I drag the kids out of bed and drop them on the couch in front of the TV. They are allowed to watch 3 short shows while they wake up. During this time I usually either clean the house or, if I'm too darned tired, I go back to bed until 8:30am when they come to get me.

8:30am to about 10:30am: Lesson time.
  • First Simon does his spelling. We ask him to do one page a day from the Spelling Workout series. This year he's on book D. He generally does this on his own without my help.
  • Next he does his English Lessons. We use Jesse Wise's First Language Lessons, volume 3 for 3rd grade. We did volumes 1 and 2 in the past couple of years and have been very pleased with them. This involves learning a lot of basic grammar rules and parts of speech along with memorizing and reciting short poems, such as Robert Louis Stevenson's My Shadow.
  • Following that Simon does his writing lessons. For this we use Susan Bauer's Writing with Ease program. We're on the grade 2 version of this series for two reasons. First, only volume 1 existed last year when he was in 2nd grade and second, he was initially having a bit of a hard time with writing. He's doing a bit better now and I'd like to somehow skip up to "grade level" for him, but I don't want to push him too fast with it. Overall, though, I can't speak well enough of this program. There's a great emphasis on reading passages from classical stories and then working together to summarize the passage which he then has to write down (generally 1-3 sentences each). I think the skills it is building are invaluable and are progressing at a nice slow pace for him.
  • Sometime during this part of the day Gwen does her reading lessons. Just as we did with Simon, we've been using Susan Bauer's Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading. It is a phonics approach which does an excellent job of slowly building on each previously developed skill. She's picking is up very quickly and does a great job of sounding out the words she doesn't know yet.
I should note that even though it takes us about 2 hours to get all this done, most of that time is spent "taking a break". Each individual lessons takes 10-15 minutes and then they run around and play for 15-20 minutes. I try to keep a close eye on their attention span and don't ask them to sit still for longer than they can do so comfortably. As I write this they are playing "Secret Agent" in the giant cardboard box our new recliner chair came in which I cut a door and air holes into. They filled it with blankets and pillows and are trying to convince "Secret Agent Daisy" (our new kitten) to play in the box with them. (Daisy thinks they're nuts and would rather hide behind the couch.) When I'm done writing this we'll go finish another lesson.

Around about 10:30 we do one of two things. Either we get out of the house to go shopping or playing somewhere (The mall, a local park, a McDonald's Playland, Apple Orchard, etc.) or we decide to hang around this house and just goof off here. If we stay home then how they spend their time is up to them. They might watch TV or play video games or they might spend the day drawing pictures, playing pretend games, reading Garfield books or whatever they like. I used to worry that they watched too much TV or played too many video games, but they seem to self regulate that pretty well. And, even if they are watching TV it is usually something like Martha Speaks or Cyberchase which generally teaches them much more about language or math than I'm doing myself.

Then, about 2pm Mommy comes home from work and we have 1/2 hour to all spend together before I have to go to work myself. While I'm gone Mommy does Math, Science and Arts & Crafts with them.

For Math we're still using Singapore Math, which totally rocks. They are both a year ahead of their grade level. Simon is using the 4th grade books and Gwen is using the 1st grade books. Simon is able to complete his required 1 lesson per day pretty much on his own. Barb has to help him a bit with long division, but he's pretty darn good already with fractions (thanks to Cyberchase!) Gwen can't read the instructions yet so Barb has to help her with those, but she's really picking up basic addition and subtraction and learning things like ordinal positions and whatnot. In fact, Gwen has been so excited about math in particular that she is about a month ahead of where we planned her to be right now. She's something like 3/4 through the first book, which we planned for her to finish by Christmas. Both kids appear to have their mother's innate math skills and my appreciation for the finer things in life... like video games.

For science we're still looking for a curriculum we like. So Far Barb's been doing ad hoc projects like raising butterflies or visiting local nature centers. That portion of our lessons is still pretty unschooly, but we plan to research to find something more formal.

Then, I get home from work around 7pm or 8pm. Around 8pm the kids get the "3 shows before bedtime" warning where they can have another hour and a half of PBS shows (or the Simpsons or Scooby Doo) while Barb and I collapse in bed and watch a movie.

This is a bit different on Tuesdays because we have now joined the cub scouts. Barb and I are both assistant den leaders and we go to meetings at a local elementary school. This has been a ton of fun because the whole family is invited and there is even another 5 year old girl there for Gwen to play with.

That pretty much describes Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays we don't do lessons at home at all. Instead we've signed the kids up for lessons at Palaestra. This is a private local homeschooling organization that offers classes for homeschoolers of all ages all day on Fridays. They both have a 10am class and an 11am class.

Simon is taking "Literature Explorations" in which they read two novels over the course of the semester and discuss them with added short writing assignments. They are currently reading the Newberry winner "Lilly's Crossing" which he seems to be enjoying. His second class is called "Molecules in Motion" which is a science class focusing on Chemistry.

Gwen is taking Ballet and "Great Artists". Ballet is self explanatory. The art class discusses great art of the past and then lets them create their own pieces out of different mediums (pencils, crayons, paint and clay, mostly).

The only other thing I think I've forgotten to mention up to now is bedtime reading. After their three shows every night we read one or two chapters of something before sending them off to bed. Currently we're reading the Little House series. We've been working on it for about 6 months and are now on book 6 (Little Town on the Prairie).

Then, we send them off to bed. Our general rule about bedtime is this: You can stay up as late at night as you want as long as certain conditions are met. You can't leave your room except to go to the bathroom and you have to be quiet. We intentionally don't allow them to have a TV or video games in their rooms, although they do have CD players if they want to listen to music (this rule will apply until they go off to college someday). Gwen tends to fall asleep fast and is almost always unconscious within 20 minutes or so. Simon, however, stays awake until at least midnight every night. We've stocked his room with all sorts of books. His favorites are his collections of Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, although he's recently begun reading his own "chapter books". The first of these was Stuart Little and now he's reading Lilly's Crossing for his class. He still prefers comics, though. Someday, when his interest switches from Garfield to super heroes, I'll give him access to the thousands of comics I have in the basement from my own wayward youth. I'm looking forward to that, but it'll be a few years.

So, in a nutshell that's how homeschooling is working for us. We've found a nice sweet spot between organized and systematic learning combined with lots of free time for fun and play. As they get older we'll add more lessons. For example, I've been putting off adding history and a foreign language to our repertoire. I'll definitely add history next year. I'm still thinking about the foreign language. I would still like to have us learn Latin together, but it might be too much. I don't want to upset the balance we've found so I need to think about that some more and / or wait until their attention span increases enough to allow the extra study without too much frustration.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Plato's Republic

No proposition is likely to scandalize our contemporaries more than this one: it is impossible to establish a just social order. -Bertrand de jouvenal, Sovereignity

There are two primary threats to reason. The first is the idea that you have found truth. The second is the idea that there isn't any. -Allan Bloom (paraphrase)

Plato's Republic has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. I've tried to read it a couple of times but I couldn't even really figure out what it was about. I've always felt that I "should" read more classic literature, but it was always too dense for me to get through. However, after reading two summaries of western philosophy by Russell and Durant this Fall I took another stab at it. This time I felt like I understood the point of the book and its historical context before I started. Knowing that gave me a handhold to grasp on to.


In a nutshell this is what I learned that let me get started with Plato: For almost 2,400 years people in western culture have been thinking carefully and writing a lot about what it means for a person or a society to be "good" or "just". There are a lot of different ways to look at "goodness" and how you do so determines what sort of person you are. How a society does this determines what sort of society it is. In western society Plato started this conversation with his book The Republic, which was written about 380 B.C. in ancient Greece. This was the first book about political philosophy and the first book about education in the west. In the last 2,400 years every serious book or idea about western politics or about how to educate young people has been based on addressing what Plato wrote, whether it admits it or not. This conversation was started by Plato and was carried on by people like Aristotle, Kant, Rousseau, Machiavelli and John Dewey, among others. In order to fully understand modern politics, you have to first understand where it all began, which is with Plato.

Actually, it is likely more fair to say that it all began with Socrates, who was Plato's teacher, mentor and father figure. That's really where Plato got many of his ideas. But, Socrates never wrote anything down so everything we know about him is filtered through the writings of others, like Plato. In any case, The republic has a couple of different things going on within it that must be understood to fully grasp its meaning. First and foremost it is a very personal story about the ideas of Socrates as written by Plato. Here's a little background.

Ancient Athens was the world's first Democracy. It was not a country but a "city state". Not far away was another city state named Sparta, which was the world's first totalitarian, single party state (as popularized by the recent movie 300.) Around 400 B.C these two city states began a war called the Peloponnesian War. Sparta won this war and for a few years Athens' democratic government was destroyed and an oligarchy was propped up by Sparta. Then (I'm fuzzy on the details) the city revolted again and the democracy was restored. As a political power, Athens would never recover. It dwindled out after that. However, as a cultural power its influence would last until today.

During the period of the war, leading up to the collapse of democracy, Socrates was a philosopher in Athens who tried to convince others to examine their culture through a very critical eye. He saw a number of problems with democracy and wanted people to think carefully about their form of government. He got a lot of young people to follow him and one of these young people was Plato. After Athens collapsed and was then rebuilt, the new democratic leaders blamed Socrates for "corrupting" the young and essentially helping Sparta to conquer them. They were pissed about it and put Socrates on trial for treason. He was convicted and executed by the government of Athens. Socrates had a number of ways out of his execution. There were things he could have said or done that would have allowed him to live, but he was deeply idealistic and chose to gracefully drink the poison hemlock rather than betray his ideals. (The picture at the beginning of this post is The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David in 1787.)

(I had known that Socrates was executed for his political beliefs and somehow died for "freedom", but I had always assumed that he had died in the name of democracy at the hands of a non-democratic group. But in fact he was executed by a democratic government for being critical of democracy. Grasping this was one of my first "Aha!" moments which told me that many of my historical assumptions were incorrect.)

Plato wrote a number of dialogues about Socrates. Plato's Apology was about the trial. His Phaedo was about the death of Socrates (he was there... that's him sitting facing away from Socrates in David's picture) and The Republic is a recreation of Plato's political ideas written in a way to explain them to the people of Athens to make them understand exactly what it was Plato was saying that they killed him for. It is written as a dialogue, which is very much like a modern play, with different speakers taking turns speaking. The characters in it are Socrates (of course) and some other historically real people in ancient Athens that Plato uses to convince in the absence of the real people themselves.

So, on a very personal level Plato is writing about a man he loved like a father, a man who taught him everything he knew and who was unjustly executed by the government. He is bringing Socrates back from the dead to describe for everyone what he really thought about politics and how he was trying to help rather than hurt society. On that level The Republic is very much an act of love, as much as it is a treatise on politics. It is the story of a son defending his father (figuratively, if not literally) who is now dead and lost to him forever.

Defining Justice

On the political level The Republic is about the individual and social virtue of "justice." Plato considered there to be four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. In later years Christianity would determine seven deadly sins and focus the lives of Christians more on the avoidance of sin than the pursuit of virtue, but to Plato there was really only the pursuit of virtue. In The Republic, Plato attempted to define justice, to describe what it means to be a just person and what it means to be a just society.

The Republic is arranged in ten "books" and the first four or five primarily examine different definitions of justice. The minor characters in the dialogue (everyone except Socrates) offer some options, which Socrates examines but finds lacking in some way.

The first of these is that justice occurs when good things happen to good people and when bad things happen to bad people. This is rejected because Socrates decides that justice must always improve those who are touched by it. If someone is not improved by being punished, then that punishment cannot truly be called justice.

Another definition offered is that justice is a purely social construct and is fulfilled whenever the desires of the rich and powerful are met. In other words, might makes right. Whatever is good for the ruling class is just, whatever is bad for them is unjust. This leads to an interesting conversation on whether it is necessary to actually be just, or just to appear just. Plato also considers whether an unjust person can really be happy or if a just person can be unhappy. Under this definition it sure sounds like it, but the discussion is problematic and not fully completed.

By the end of this portion of The Republic Plato fails to find a complete and satisfactory definition of justice. And that is part of the whole point. There are, however, a couple of ideas that get close. One of these is that justice is the knowledge of how to direct a person (or a society) toward the "good". That is to say, when considering justice as compared with the other virtues (moderation, wisdom and courage) justice is both the sum total of the other three and the principle that guides them. As such, moderation, wisdom and courage might have an analogy in the crafts of bricklaying, woodworking and plumbing, justice is the architect that assembles that knowledge into a greater purpose which is able to use them to design and build a house.

Another critical aspect of justice lies in the first definition offered. Plato suggests that, rather than justice occurring when the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, a truly just person takes a different tack. A just person, in Plato's view, will be drawn toward the good, but will be indifferent toward the bad. A just person does not want to punish the bad, but instead shrugs his shoulders and turns way without interest. This is wholly different from Christianity in which evil is punished and even the most petty evil is punished repeatedly for all eternity.

Universal Ideas

A key to understanding Plato is in his view of the notion of "universals" and the extent to which he is an idealist. The word "idealist" is very specific in this case and is not used in quite the same way we use it in ordinary speech. Consider this - when you think of the idea of "cats" you can imagine a house cat, a tiger, a lion, one of those ugly hairless cats or even an animated cat like Garfield or Hobbes. We can say that all of these are cats, but each individual example of a cat does not properly describe everything you mean when you say "cat." If you try to specifically describe "catness" (without resorting to a scientific definition using kingdom, phylum, order, etc.) it is hard to do so without using the specific examples mentioned. For Plato there is an ideal concept of "catness" that is real, but cannot be pointed at, touched or defined with much specificity. The ideal exists, but is so much bigger than any one example that a definition of the ideal must be abstract. So, what is true for "catness" is also true for justice. It cannot be truly and easily defined, but it can be held up as a perfect example of what we can strive towards in our understanding of human virtue and excellence. The important thing to remember is that justice, like "catness" cannot fully be achieved. It is an impossible goal. However, for a person to be happy (or just) it is not important to achieve the goal, only to pursue it. Just like in Taoism, it is not perfection that is important, but the path that leads you there.

One of the things that I found most interesting about Plato is the way he uses some specific words that are common today, but mean different things. Two of these words are "virtue" and "idea". In Allan Bloom's introduction to his translation of The Republic he calls attention to this, but I didn't really absorb what he meant until I had finished the book and thought about it for a few days. When we say "virtue" we apply a specific moral meaning. And, when we say "idea" we mean merely a thought or an imaginary concept. However, I really didn't feel like I understood Plato until I understood what he meant when he said these words. In summary, "virtue" is a path towards an unattainable human excellence and "idea" is a collective sort of oneness that all things of a common type share.

Bloom warns that understanding these two words is critical to understanding all western philosophy from Plato to the present because all western philosophers are in some way responding to Plato's argument about them. Bloom specifically warns against common translations of Machiavelli because they frequently take the Italian word "virtu" and translate it as "freedom" instead of "virtue". Bloom says that this is a source of misunderstanding because the reader loses the sense that Machiavelli is part of the same conversation that Plato started. This makes me want to read Machiavelli with this in mind.

Because of this unscientific way of looking at the world, Plato is viewed as a "pre-Christian" philosopher. He was himself a monotheist in an era of polytheism and sets the stage for later Christianity. (Aristotle has a huge part to play in this as well, but I haven't read him yet.) However, as we have seen, there are some important differences between Plato and later Christians. Specifically he is not interested in punishing sinners. To Plato a happy person avoids "sin" not because it is bad or because of a fear of punishment, but because "sin" simply does not offer further happiness; it does not lead one toward virtue. Therefore, it is not hated, but simply avoided because it is uninteresting. For Plato this type of person is a "philosopher" which becomes important a short bit later.

Describing Utopia

After spending about half of The Republic trying to define justice as an abstract idea, Plato switches gears and sets about to describe a perfectly just society. While he does this it is important to remember what is happening in the world around Athens at this time. Athens has gone through a point of high culture (especially under the leadership of Pericles from 495 – 429 B.C.) However, by the time Socrates and Plato were around, the city's culture was in decline and they were being conquered by Sparta. Unlike Athens, Sparta was not a free society. It was what might be described as a military aristocracy in which the ruling class were warriors who lived an ascetic and communistic lifestyle. So, Sparta was a communist, military and totalitarian regime. So, it is not hard to imagine an Athenian in a declining city admiring them and being in awe of their social structure. When Plato described the perfect city, he has Sparta in mind. It is the basis on which he builds his own ideal because pure democracy has not worked out well in the end for the Athenians.

One of the interesting things about Plato's Republic is that it does not at all seem like the sort of republic we would recognize. Instead it seems like a combination aristocracy / monarchy ruled by a highly intellectual philosopher-king who is specifically trained and educated to rule. There is also a very strong element of communism built into it, but it would be a mistake to call his ideal society communism in the way we know it today. His city, in fact, combines elements of democracy, communism, aristocracy and monarchy. I'll try to describe each of those elements in turn. (In order to keep things somewhat clear I will refer to Plato's book as "The Republic" and the perfect city he describes as "The City.")

Problems of Democracy:

It is important to note that democracy in ancient Athens was not exactly what we know today. Athenian democracy was not a representative democracy. All citizens (not slaves) came together to vote on public affairs. There were both elected leaders and those chosen by ballot (in a process called Demarchy), but Athens did not have a senate in the way that Rome and America would later adopt. Plato has some very particular problems with democracy. Specifically he felt that masses of people coming together were not truly in a position to make the best possible decisions. It seemed to him that decisions would in fact be made by strong personalities within the city who could best flatter the multitude and tell them what they want to hear. Thus, elected leaders would not be those who had best proven their leadership abilities, but instead those who had proven their ability to become elected by pandering to public opinion.

Another problem Plato has with democracy is the individual personality and value system it encourages in its citizens. Later in The Republic Plato describes that specific types of government will invoke specific personality traits in its citizens and that the character of the government and the character of the individual are one and the same. While this may not be literally true, I appreciate the spirit of the idea and recognizing it was my first step in understanding Plato's allegory of the cave, which will come later.

The personality of democratic citizens, according to Plato, is one in which people have lost a higher set of ideals and instead value things and ideas merely on the their ability to deliver personal pleasure. In other words, people in a democracy are not governed by a sense of universal "truth." Instead they define the "good" as whatever pleases them and "evil" as whatever displeases them. The reason for this is that, in a democracy, all ideas are equally valid and subject merely to public debate. There is no grand, universal "good" there is only public opinion.

I think both of these criticisms are very valid in America today. I think our two party system virtually guarantees that our leaders, our representatives, senators and presidents, are not elected based on their ability to lead us, but instead on their ability to create the most effective sound-bites. We don't elect them for their abilities to govern, but instead based on their charisma, their personality and their ability to tell us what we want to hear.

Likewise we are a people who cannot agree on what is "good". Conservatives have one definition and Liberals have another. In my most cynical moments I think we are so addicted to being entertained at all times that the greatest good for Americans is what entertains us and the greatest evil is simply what bores us. I think that the American founders (who had all read Plato) anticipated these problems and tried to bake into the system an overarching ideal of "natural rights" for Americans to collectively gather under regardless of demographic characteristics, but this ideal is no longer firmly in place.

We have replaced the universal ideal of natural rights with ideals of cultural and moral relativism. Instead of teaching our children that there is a grand and universal set of truth that apply to all people regardless of time and space, we instead teach them that all ideas and cultures are equal and that they all deserve our respect. Thus, to paraphrase Allan Bloom, we give our children infinite possibilities in what to be, but no particular reason to choose one idea over another and surely no real mechanism for assessing the merits of one set of ideas over another. Cultural relativism is a mistake, I think, because it doesn't allow us to pick individual cultural practices and decide that some are good and some are bad, but rather it coerces us to believe that there is no good or bad at all, merely what we like or do not like.

This switch to emphasizing tolerance and openness over natural rights is in some ways understandable given America's history of racism, sexism and imperialism, but it fails to recognize why America's founders built the system of natural rights in the first place. I think one reason was to prevent Americans from becoming what Plato predicted, a people who emphasized personal pleasure over the greater good. Or, as Tocqueville put it: "in democratic societies, each citizen is habitually busy with the contemplation of a very petty object, which is himself."

Democracy, Aristocracy and Monarchy in The City:

In Plato's perfect city democracy is limited to the way in which people are educated. For Plato the problem of who is to rule a city is one of the primary problems of society. Because he sees so many difficulties with the traditional democratic approach to choosing leaders, Plato suggests that leaders should be chosen based on their ability to progress through a rigorous educational system. In this system everyone who succeeds will be of the ruling class, regardless of gender or the social status of their parents. The "philosopher-king" would not be allowed to rule the city until he or she has been educated for a full 50 years (since birth).

Up until puberty the education focuses primarily on "gymnastics", by which Plato means physical fitness. Then as the child ages they are to learn more and more "music", which refers to all the arts through which the artist is guided by a muse. So, "music" really means art and literature, as far as I can tell. Then, the focus of school is art and literature until the student is about 35 years old. At this point he or she is to leave their ivory tower and spend the next 15 years among the people, running a business, negotiating deals and generally getting to know intimately the people they will someday rule over. Then at age 50 they have the opportunity to actually govern.

The point is that all students enter the educational system, but at specific points throughout this system the students are tested and those found lacking are kicked out and will not be allowed to govern or be a member of the ruling aristocracy. It is important that the children of the rich and powerful be allowed to fail, if necessary, and that the children of the poor be allowed to succeed if they merit doing so. This is how Plato plans to avoid a hereditary aristocracy.

Those who make it almost, but not quite to the end will become the city's "Guardians". They are an aristocratic ruling class who are not only expected to administrate the political needs of the city, but also to act as its army. That's right... the aristocratic ruling class become the warriors of society. This seems crazy to us, but it made sense to anyone who had watched the warriors of Sparta kick ass at the battle of Thermopylae. That battle was not fought by poor Spartan conscripts, but by its ruling elite.

Now that I've read it in Plato, I think this is the source of Thomas Jefferson's idea of the "natural aristocracy". Here's a quote from Jefferson. Note the use of the word "virtue". It makes more sense now that I've read Plato.

For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent it's ascendancy.

I highlighted the above section which, I think, makes a very specific reference to Plato's Republic. The best government is one that provides the best education. And the goal of this education is not merely to get a job and provide a good living for one's family. The best education is one that prepares all citizens for the eventuality of governing, if they are competent to do so.

Jefferson intended something similar to happen in America to that which Plato imagined. That hasn't really happened because we do not have "governing" as the goal of education. Also, we have decided that no child should ever fail and that everyone has a right to all levels of education. It seems that we've reached a point that if children are failing in school, we simply make school easier to compensate. Either that or we determine a very limited set of skills required to succeed and then teach to the test to make sure everyone succeeds. Rather than focus on an equality of opportunity, we have instead insisted on an equality of results, which is doomed to frustrate us. We would probably be much happier with our school system if we allowed people to leave a the purely academic line of instruction and to enter trade schools where skill sets (and "virtue") coincide.

In any case, equality of education is the primary area in which Plato retained an element of democracy in his utopia. The result of the education is to create a governing aristocracy which is renewed with each generation not by the children of the Guardians alone, but by the children of all classes who show merit and virtue.

Plato is unclear about how the actual philosopher-king is to be chosen from the body of possible candidates or how long that person will rule. It is possible that the education is so difficult that there may be only one final candidate in a given generation.

Communism in The City:

Along with democracy, Plato sees a great difficulty in ownership of private property. Anticipating Marx almost 2,000 years later, Plato sees private property as a source of avarice and greed. In essence, private ownership will distract people from the common good and therefore, it must be restricted or forbidden.

I think it is important to pause here and describe what I think to be the absolutely most critical problem in all political philosophy. Anyone who is creating a society (or even an organization) must address this problem. It is this: Individuals have needs and desires to serve the self. Societies have needs and desires to serve the whole. These parallel sets of needs and desires are generally in conflict with each other. All political stances must ultimately address the problems that arise when you mix individual needs and desires with those of a collective group. On one hand they might consider the needs of the individual to be supreme (as in libertarianism) and rationalize that the needs and desires of the individual ultimately support and sustain the needs of the society. On the other end of the spectrum, a society might decide that individuals should have no individual needs and desires and that the needs of society are paramount. This is my interpretation of communism. Beyond the needs of food, shelter, basic sustenance and an overriding equality, the needs and desires of individuals under communism must be denied.

This is why Plato offers up communism in The City. He is not concerned with happiness of any individual person or of any individual group within society. He is rather only concerned with the happiness of society as a whole organism. For that reason, all things are to be held in common, including children and wives. (This isn't strictly true, however. There is one person in The City that Plato is very concerned about. That is the philosopher-king himself.)

In The City everyone must give up the idea of an individual family. Children are not told who their parents are, but rather grow up being raised by the community as a whole. That way, no particular parent can influence their child's future educational attainment, because they don't know who their biological children are. This also prevents parents from thinking that their child might be "better" than anyone else. They are thus in a position to judge all children without bias.

The City in Summary

So, this is Plato's perfect society, with elements of communism, democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. He does an excellent job having Socrates present it in the dialogue and the other characters are suitably impressed and are ultimately convinced of the necessity of such a city. When asked by the other characters how they can make it happen and actually found this city in real life, Socrates responds in an interesting way. He tells them that all they have to do is start with their current city (Athens) and convince everyone over the age of 10 not only to leave the city, but to leave their small children behind. Then, Socrates and the other characters (the first of the Guardians) will begin the education of the children and found The City with a fresh batch of new citizens.

A careful reader might begin to wonder at this point if Plato's utopia is even remotely possible, or even if it is intended to be presented as such. Most interpretations assume that he is serious. My opinions are tainted by the fact that I read Allan Bloom's companion essay to The Republic that suggests otherwise.

At this point I should mention a problem I noticed while comparing Bertrand Russell's interpretation of The Republic to that of Will Durant, in their respective histories of western philosophy. The problem is that when Plato describes the communistic lifestyle of his utopia, he only does so fully with respect to the Guardian class. He does not completely extrapolate this idea and apply it to the whole of his city. There are some things that are assumed to apply to both, such as the collective raising of children and the educational system, but he does not explicitly say that private property is banned for all citizens. This appears to have led Durant to conclude that Plato's communism only exists for the Guardians, but not for the lower classes. Russell concludes that it is universally applied. The only thing I could find that suggests that Durant is correct is one passage where Socrates advises that the Guardians should not interfere with the contracts and negotiations of business. This suggests that the lower classes live in a free market system while the Guardians are an ascetic anomaly looking over them from on high. To give examples of this political system in action, Durant points to the social makeup of ancient Egypt and that of the ecclesiastical period of Medieval Europe after the fall of Rome, but before the rise of powerful nations around the time of the Protestant Reformation.

As an intellectual exercise it is interesting to imagine both versions of The City and compare them. Durant's version is more appealing to me, but it is hard to imagine how the class of free-marketeers would allow the communal raising of children while being given free reign over commerce. For the sake of a pure reading of Plato I have to agree with Russell that Plato's communism is universal in his utopia. However, it is important to note that this is open to interpretation.

The Cave

At this point in The Republic Socrates stops discussing his ideal city and takes a new direction in an apparently unrelated concept. He describes the allegory of the cave, which is probably the single most interesting and evocative element of The Republic. I had seen and heard references to it for many years and knew it as a concept I "should" understand, but didn't until I read it for myself.

Here is the allegory in a nutshell:

Imagine a cave in which a large number of people are seated facing a blank, white wall, like a movie screen. The people are not only chained to their seats, but their heads are held in place so that they can look at no place except the screen in front of them. Behind the people is a light source of some kind. The light source is either a fire or sunlight from outside the cave shining in. Behind the seated people, between them and the source of light, there are figures moving. Puppeteers are operating marionettes and the light source shines on the moving puppets and projects shadows up on the wall in front of the seated and immobilized people.

The seated people have been chained there for their entire lives. The only reality they know is that which is made of shadow and projected on the wall. They are free to discuss these shadows with each other and comment on the substance and nature of the shadows, but they have no reason to think that the shadows are anything other than real objects.

Here are a couple of pictures representing the cave:

Every once in a while someone comes along (a philosopher) who is able to stand up, turn around and walk outside the cave. This person is initially blinded by the light of the sun and does not fully realize what he now comprehends. But, in time he realizes that he is seeing a new and different form of reality; a "real" reality unhampered by the former perceived understanding of the shadows on the wall. Then, the person goes back into the cave, but his eyes are now accustomed to the light and the interior is too dark and shadowy to see clearly. The philosopher sits again with his comrades and tells them what he has seen and experienced and how everything they thought was real is really imaginary, but his friends fail to comprehend. How could they? Instead they ridicule and terrorize him, blaming him for their own narrow vision.

This is a great allegory for a couple of reasons. First, it is fairly simple to understand. At least, it is not difficult to come up with "an" interpretation that suits you, if not to exactly figure out what Plato meant. Second, once it is understood and internalized (and made one's own) it gives a seeker of truth an idea of action that they can follow to find that truth. That is, one can imagine oneself standing up and leaving the cave and gaining a new perspective on life. Finally, it clearly describes what Plato believes happened to Socrates in real life. He pursued truth, examined that truth and brought it to the people but they recoiled at the thought that their treasured interpretations were being called into questioned so they killed him. Many people have suffered in society for questioning the established order of things.

But, what does it mean? I think there is a general and specific meaning to be found in the cave. In general, I believe the cave represents a set of knowledge and experience one has become accustomed to over a long period of time, which binds a person together with others with a similar set of knowledge and experience. But, eventually a small number of people become dissatisfied with the set of knowledge and experience because it reveals itself as containing an unacceptable amount of internal contradiction and paradox. So, dissatisfied Christians who become atheists due to gaining a greater understanding of science might be said to have left the "cave of Christianity". The same could be said of atheists who read C.S. Lewis and convert to Christianity or of any ideology, religion or political movement.

However, I don't think this is what Plato meant. It works in that general sense, but I think he was driving at something more specific. Plato does not interpret the cave for the reader, but he does something else that is very telling. He walks the reader through a set of systems of government, including his City, Timarchy (military aristocracy without a philosopher king), aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny, and describes the personalities of citizens of those cities. His point is that every system of government creates people with personality traits and opinions which sustain that government.

So, the point of the cave is, I believe, as follows. The cave is the culture you live in. Without realizing it, most if not all of our opinions and desires, along with how we perceive reality and politics is based not on our own intellectual interpretation, but on the formal and informal education we have received as a member of our society. Unless we take rigorous measures to prevent it, we cannot say that our perceptions of reality are "real". We have to admit that what we think it real is merely a reflection of a greater reality whose existence we've never even guessed at.

(I should note at this point that after reading The Republic, but before writing this summary, I've read Allan Bloom's interpretive essay about it. This has definitely shaped my view of Plato, but it was necessary because I'm studying this on my own without a teacher or classmates to share ideas with. I hope that I am not merely adopting Bloom's interpretation, but am instead mixing it with my own thought.)

That sounds very metaphysical, but I don't think it is necessarily meant to be that way. Regarding our society, here in America in the early 21st century, I interpret the cave in a specific way where politics are concerned. If we view the political reality around us through the lens of being a "Liberal" or being a "Conservative" or being somewhere in the middle, we are doing ourselves a disservice. Labels like Liberal, Conservative or Moderate have no real meaning outside of our specific point in history. Or, if they do have meaning, then they mean something different than they mean today.

If you study ancient Rome, for example, you cannot point to Augustus, Caesar, Hannibal or Cicero and decide that some are Liberal and others are Conservative. Those labels would quickly lose their meaning and reveal themselves to be shallow constructs. To me this means that, in order to gain a fuller, more complete sense of "reality", in order to leave the cave, one must stop viewing the world from inside our own culture looking outward, but rather from the outside of our culture looking in.

Over the past few years I have been gradually becoming more and more critical of Liberalism. I have always been critical of Conservatism so expressing that is, for me, like beating a dead horse. Likewise with organized religion... that horse has sailed (if you'll pardon my mixed metaphor). The political predicament I've found myself in is that, if I distance myself from liberalism, I'm not sure what the other options are. Must I stay on the continuum and merely walk further to the right and become more conservative? That has been nagging at me a lot over the past four years or so. I don't like that result. I find both the political Left and the Right to be rife with contradictions and internal paradoxes which I find problematic and no longer satisfying.

If nothing else, reading The Republic and especially the allegory of the cave has taught me that I have other options I didn't know about. First and foremost, I am no longer tied to believing that the Left-Right continuum. I am able to stand aside from those ideologies altogether and ask more important questions. I am not close to answering those questions. In fact, I've just begun to realize that there are other questions to ask, but I am at least terribly excited to realize that there is another way.

Another thing I was excited to realize was how often Plato's ideas have worked their way into popular culture without my knowing it. Now that read and digested The Republic I see how the movie The Matrix was adapted from the cave myth, although in the movie, the "cave" was technology and the way that machines control our lives. Also, I think it is safe to say that the science fiction novel Ender's Game was adapted from The Republic; not using the cave allegory, but instead the manner in which the students are isolated from family and taught to save humanity while being segregated from humanity. Good stuff.


In order to get a handle on the entirety of Plato's message in The Republic, it is helpful to summarize again what he is attempting. First, he defines justice, or attempts to do so. In the end he develops a grand idea of justice, but fails to fully satisfy what we want to hear about it. He never gives us anything concrete and easily packaged. As I mentioned earlier, I think this is part of the point. He is saying that justice, as a figurative architect of the other three cardinal virtues (moderation, courage and wisdom), is no more easy to define than it is to be a just person. It is an ideal idea, an unachievable goal, but it is not necessarily the goal which is important, but rather our ability to question the variety of definitions available to us and direct ourselves toward this goal. That is, it is the path to virtue that is critical for humanity, even though we must admit we will never fully arrive there. It is discovering the questions that leads one to truth, not in discovering the answers.

In any case, this leads into the concept of Plato's "universals", which I described earlier. In order to accept this argument at all, one must first agree that there is a universal concept of justice, of good or of evil that apply to all human beings regardless of space and time. This is a problem for modern readers unless they are specifically religious in some way. Those trained to view the world scientifically will not be able to accept such a proposition because ideas of good and evil are generally viewed as pure superstition. However, acknowledging this idea is necessary to understand Plato's thesis, whether you accept it or not. In the end these universal ideas are meant to apply to all humans, but are not completely within the grasp of any of us. They are out of our reach, except as abstractions. So, at this point we recognize justice to be a universal ideal whose very definition cannot fully be described and which can never be fully obtained by any individual or society.

After spending considerable time trying to understand justice Plato describes The City itself; his version of a just society. In it, citizens must give up their own individual goals and desires for the sake of the community. The only individual goals a person in The City has are those related to fulfilling bodily needs, food, housing, and general sustenance. All other goals are directed toward the benefit of the city. Even family, permanent romantic love and particular relationships with children must be sacrificed to this greater good. Then, on top of this extreme communism sits an aristocratic but ascetic warrior class trained not only in combat, but in philosophy, art, literature, mathematics and history. Of that group, in every generation, one person is chosen to be the philosopher-king of The City. There is no voting or public debate, only a perfectly democratic system of educational opportunity by which to select the ruling class.

Then, after convincing all the characters in The Republic of the necessity of his just society, Socrates lays out a plan for implementing it. He suggests that all adults have to leave the current city and abandon their children who will be raised by Socrates and his friends as the first generation of new citizens. There is a bit more to The Republic related to music and poetry but I've had enough of a struggle to understand this much, so I will end my summary here.

My understanding is that most interpreters take Plato fairly literally and examine the nature of his utopia just as he describes it. However, Allan Bloom, in his companion essay, makes a strong point suggesting why Plato's city should not be interpreted literally. In doing so Bloom is effectively putting words in Plato's mouth that Plato never said. This is inherently dangerous, but Bloom is convincing. If I understand it correctly his point is this:

First, the city Plato invents is patently impossible. He describes it as if it is fully possible, but when he suggests that the current adults in Athens should abandon their children he cannot possibly believe that this will happen. He must be being ironic in some way because it is completely absurd that people will willingly give up their children or their families in such a way. And, if force is used to compel this social change, it would be like creating a new and free America with an established order of slavery pre-existing within it. The internal conflicts and strife would be tremendous and long lasting, which would prevent the citizens from happily disavowing their personal goals and desires for the sake of society. It simply cannot work as Plato describes.

Secondly, in the first part of The Republic Plato has already created the expectation that what he defines for the reader will be unattainable. Justice and truth, he says cannot be grasped, but can only be journeyed towards. He does not apply this explicitly to his city, however. But, if the reader makes this leap and connects the dots, it is additional evidence that Plato may not be being intentionally literal.

Why not? It may be that Plato is making a political argument not for all future readers, but for his particular time and place. What he wants is for Athenians in the 3rd century BC, to question the specific problems inherent in their democracy that have lead to an overthrow by a neighboring state. In doing so he points out the particular strengths of their conquerors and creates an imaginary new society which combines elements of both Athens and Sparta. He wants them to begin a process of analysis and change and wants to give them an ideal they might morph into. He recognizes that this ideal is unattainable, but cannot tell them that because it might discourage them and prevent them from taking on the project at all. Or something like that. This paragraph is completely my own interpretation so it is subject to the fact that I don't really know what I'm talking about.

But, Bloom's argument is that Plato is intentionally creating an impossible system. He is acknowledging that perfection is unattainable and is highlighting specific contradictions in the system to draw our attention to the problem. The problem, thus, is the balance between individual and social needs and desires. In order to fully meet the needs of society and create a complete idea of "justice", individuals must abandon everything they hold dear. They must become pawns of society who have no internal desires other than the good of the whole. Then if they do this, the Guardians (and specifically, the philosopher-king) will be free to not only fully explore the world of ideas, but to make those ideas manifestly real through their political power. Related to this, Bloom makes this comment:

"What is so intolerable about The Republic, as Plato shows, is the demand that men give up their land, their money, their wives, their children for the sake of the public good, their concern for which had previously been buttressed by these lower attachments. The hope is to have a happy city made up entirely of unhappy men." (TCAM, p. 130).

Bloom's point is that, if parents give up their attachments to their children, they will no longer have an incentive to work toward the betterment of society. The family acts as a buffer between the individual and the collective whole. The social contract tells the individual parent that if they work towards a better society, society will return the favor by assisting in the protection of their children. If you remove family from this equation, it is doubtful that solitary individuals will maintain a strong loyalty to the greater good. Thus, such an extreme requirement of collectivism may paradoxically lead to greater individualism, or a different sort of individualism.

So, Plato is not really describing the perfect city for everyone. He is describing the perfect city for philosophers. He is making a hidden argument that the only truly happy person, without reservation is the philosopher because only that person is free to pursue the excellence of the human spirit without ties to the material world around us. Everyone but the philosopher must sacrifice all that is important to them (philosophers do not tend to have families, apparently... interesting but true if you examine their lives throughout history). Ultimately, Plato is not saying that "justice" is to be found in any particularly "just" political design, because those are either filled with flaws or are impossible. He is instead saying that true justice can only be found by those who lead a philosophical life, regardless of the politics of the world around them. Of all the governmental systems that Plato describes in The Republic (His City, Timarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy and Tyranny), Bloom says that there are only two in which the philosopher is free to think and teach openly. The first is in Plato's utopia, which Bloom says is impossible. The second is in democracy. So, Bloom concludes that the only political system which can realistically lead to maximum happiness for its citizens is that of democracy, despite its several flaws.

I will leave it up to the reader to make their own conclusions as to how much Plato should be taken literally or ironically. I'm still working on that myself. At this point, however, I find Bloom's argument compelling.

What I've Learned

A full description of the historical impact of Plato's Republic is beyond my capabilities. It is fair to say, however, that is ideas have dramatically influenced every corner of Western culture in the past 2,000 years. For my purposes, there are a couple of ideas I wanted to conclude with about how I am incorporating his thoughts into my worldview.

First and foremost, what I've appreciated about Plato's perfect society is the fact that education is used to create a ruling class because the primary purpose of education is to prepare students to govern. This is completely different from our notion of education today. We are not preparing students to rule, but merely to get a job.

Second, regardless of whether or not Plato intended his Republic to be taken literally, I have to conclude that his city would be impossible to implement in reality. And, if it were attempted with any degree of accuracy, life within it for the non-Guardians would be dreariness incarnate. In our time we have seen a number of attempts at communism and, without exception they all seem to be horrible places to live for the citizens. The Republic, at least, encourages real philosophical thought and exploration. Real life communist societies never allow this. They are forced to limit free thought to those ideas that explicitly support the regime because they are in a constant struggle against human nature. Thus, communism in reality will always quickly become tyrannical.

Also, in the area of personal sacrifice to social groups greater than the individual, in our time we are witnessing a harsh and outspoken public battle between Liberals and Conservatives. Liberals seem to be making an argument similar to a literal reading of The Republic, which is that in order to make a healthy and "fair" society, people should sacrifice their individual selfish desires for the sake of the greater good. Conservatives, however, react with great anger to the idea that they must give up the things that belong to them in the name of fairness.

There are elements of the Conservative argument that, I think, are just silly and based on bigotry and fear. They seem to be forever trying to prevent a full adoption of civil liberties to groups who don't match their particular moral standards, e.g., gay marriage today or the full rights of women in the workforce throughout the proceeding few decades. However, if you strip away those more emotionally charged issues and consider the concerns that Conservatives have about the family, I think they become a bit more sympathetic.

Since the cultural revolution of the 1960's the far Left has been instrumental in reshaping the way that Americans think of family. In one way this has been good, in that it has resulted in greater gender equality, but in other ways it has brought about changes that I find disturbing. As both parents left home to work, the loudest message from the far Left during the 60's 70's and 80's was that true personal satisfaction cannot be found at home with family or children. Those intimate relationships (especially with men) were viewed as inherently oppressive and, thus, to be viewed with suspicion if not avoided altogether. Children, also, were not viewed as a source of personal growth and fulfillment, but as an obstacle to such fulfillment. But, prior to this time it was women who had the primary role and dedication to child rearing. When women left the home to join men in the workforce, nobody remained at home who was dedicated to this role. No person stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Some of this attitude has changed in the last 10 or 20 years. Women are likely very familiar with the public "Mommy Wars" that appear on the internet with some frequency. One side of these battles is held by traditional Feminists who argue that women who stay home with family are somehow betraying the efforts of the original Feminists who fought so hard for equality. On the other side are women who found their lives severely split by work on the one hand and by motherhood on the other. They often find that work is not as fulfilling as it was promised to be and they yearn to be home with their children.

My opposition is not to women's equal rights, but instead to the idea that the home stopped being the place where children were raised and taught to be adults. Instead, outside organizations such as day care centers and government schools took over to a greater and greater extent and for decades the length of the school days and school years has been steadily increased as parents became more and more willing to allow the government to effectively raise their children for them. Ultimately, in order to rationalize and justify such a system, people must begin to believe that for any child, the adults in their lives are largely interchangeable and that it doesn't matter who is raising them. It also must not matter if the adults in the children's lives are no longer permanent fixtures, but rather change periodically as people leave one job to begin another.

The primary social message for everyone in this system, parents and children alike, is that all relationships are impermanent and that everyone has more important things to do than to develop true intimacy. And, for men especially, who stereotypically avoid lifetime commitments until they are foisted upon them in some way, the idea that adults are interchangeable where children are concerned gave them even fewer reasons to dedicate themselves to family life. Why not leave your family for another woman in this environment? As long as you pay your child support the kids will be fine. We have eradicated the days of "duty" and "honor" and "responsibility" in respect to our personal relationships. We celebrate their loss because they resulted in unequal gender roles, but we have not replaced them with anything but a vacuum of rationalized self interest.

The irony is that the far Left is very focused on an individual being willing to sacrifice their personal desires for the greater good... as long as that sacrifice is for society at large and not for an individual or small group. Selfishness regarding individual relationships is applauded because it frees you to maximize your economic potential, but selfishness towards the needs of society (or the environment) is criticized and held up as the greatest evil. Our current fears about global warming are an excellent example of this.

So, when Conservatives complain about the deterioration of the American family, I believe that they are unconsciously invoking Plato's Republic and their fear that the Left is leading them towards an even greater sacrifice in family relationships for the sake of the greater good. In this regard I think they have a very strong point.

On the other hand, where conservatives approve of self sacrifice for the sake of family, they appear to have no sense of any collective responsibility to solve social problems. They complain endlessly about how their tax money might be spend to help poor people get to the doctor and insist (privately) that poverty is mostly a problem of laziness and lack of ambition. They are loudly and openly selfish whereas the selfishness of the Left is a bit more hidden beneath a surface ideology of social justice.

For these reasons, although I tend to continue to vote for Democrats because I find them less objectionable, I am no longer willing to consider myself a "Liberal" but I'm surely not willing to adopt the "Conservative" label.

In my efforts to figure out what I might call myself, or what social and political perspectives I might call my own I have turned to the ancients because, even if they don't offer easily pre-packaged answers, they have much better questions. So far, Plato has taught me a considerable amount, not just about what I am not, but about what I might become and what I might teach my children to be.

Whereas Liberalism is, I think, a valuable political philosophy but a poor personal philosophy, Conservatism is just the opposite. I like the personal, internal family values of the Conservative but find their politics objectionable. What I'm looking for is a single philosophy which is both personal and political. What I have learned from Plato's Republic is a very strong admiration of his description of the four cardinal virtues of courage, moderation, wisdom and justice. And, within the elements of justice, what I have learned to value most is the idea of selflessness. For me a single philosophy reflecting both my personal and political ideas must be centered on a universal and not a partial virtue of selflessness.

One of the definitions Plato has of justice is that it is served when someone does good things to good people, but is indifferent to the bad. Plato's problem is in how to determine who is good and who isn't. He says that we cannot be trusted to label our family as automatically good, because we are biased. Thus, we must distance ourselves from family in order to make an unbiased interpretation of what and who is "good." Now, I like Plato and am not sure if he is meaning this literally or ironically, but I have to say that I find this argument to be, essentially, bullshit. I agree with Bloom and a core belief that one's family is the greatest example of an ideal social group is instrumental in maximizing a greater sense of social loyalty. In order to fight for a greater good, we must first have something real and tangible that we are fighting for.

I believe that justice is best served for the individual to begin by giving the most of themselves to their family and then working outward from there. That is, I believe that selflessness should be inversely proportional to the social distance between the individual and the target social group. Imagine this group of concentric circles:

I believe that justice exists in part when a person is selfless to the needs of them closest to them. Selflessness is important to community, nation and humanity but decreasingly so as you leave the center of the circle. It is unrealistic to link selflessness directly between the individual and humanity without considering these more central groups along the way. Humans are not herd animals. We are pack animals. We do not easily stand together in a multitude and feel comfortable and secure without first feeling that there is an intimate group protecting us like a barrier from the greater whole; a group that deserves our primary loyalty. But, we must also acknowledge our part in the greater human whole. Thus, as individuals we have less personal responsibility towards all of humanity than to those closest to us, but we still have that responsibility. It is good to be most loyal to your spouse and your children above all else, but that does not mean that you should have no loyalty at all to mankind. I think one of the critical elements of this idea is that selflessness does not detract from the person being selfless, it rather adds to the greater whole of the group being selfless towards, including the individual who is being selfless.

Thus, in this model it would be considered a vice to ignore the realities of social inequality and social injustice, but it would also be a vice to put your personal needs and desires above those of your family. It would also be a vice to put the needs of your job, your community or your nation above the needs of your family. Patriotism is secondary to family, but the needs of society cannot be ignored. In the past several decades we have been taught to mistrust an "us vs. them" mentality because it produces prejudice and inequality. But, if no one has an "us" to call their own, then we have nothing to feel duty and honor and responsibility towards. In attempting to destroy all prejudice we have killed off even the good kind.

This is what I have learned from Plato's Republic so far. I'm still not sure if his City is to be taken literally or ironically, but his lesson of justice and the other cardinal virtues of wisdom, moderation and courage is one I have taken to heart. I especially love it that his idealism is tempered with an ingrained sense of moderation. In our time we consider idealism to be fanatical and extreme, but to the Greeks virtue necessitated that idealism should be measured carefully and moderated within the human soul. It is a shame that we no longer teach these virtues or Plato's ideas of justice in our schools. We no longer seem to be much interested in duty and honor.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Schoolin' time... Playin' time

A couple of months ago the New York Times ran this editorial on its op-ed page. The author raises a number of good points critical of how we teach kids the things that we believe they should know.

Here are a few paragraphs I liked:
So what should children be able to do by age 12, or the time they leave elementary school? They should be able to read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers; detect patterns in complex phenomena; use evidence to support an opinion; be part of a group of people who are not their family; and engage in an exchange of ideas in conversation. If all elementary school students mastered these abilities, they would be prepared to learn almost anything in high school and college.

Imagine, for instance, a third-grade classroom that was free of the laundry list of goals currently harnessing our teachers and students, and that was devoted instead to just a few narrowly defined and deeply focused goals.

In this classroom, children would spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often. A school day where every child is given ample opportunities to read and discuss books would give teachers more time to help those students who need more instruction in order to become good readers.

Children would also spend an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another. People write best when they use writing to think and to communicate, rather than to get a good grade.

In our theoretical classroom, children would also spend a short period of time each day practicing computation — adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people. These are all activities children naturally love, if given a chance to do them in a genuine way.

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

One of the things that stuck with me about this is the continued realization we have while homeschooling that a good education is neither expensive nor terribly time consuming. We spend about 45 minutes (max) in the mornings and another 45 minutes in the afternoons on formal lessons (spelling, grammar, reading, writing, history, math, science, etc.). The rest of our time is spent just having fun, goofing off, playing games, reading books, watching TV, going to the zoo, park, mall, grocery shopping or whatever.

I'm sure the time spent on formal lessons will increase as the kids get older and their attention span increases, but I can't imagine spending anything like 6 hours a day on school. That just seems absurd. In any case it is hard to compare the amount of things the kids learn during formal lesson time vs. what they are learning during the whole rest of the day. All that free time is not just wasted time seeking out various forms of mind-numbing entertainment. That's the time for the kids to process things on their own, to explore their own world, to design their own art projects and to play with other kids.

For some reason our society has reached a point where we only really value those skills we imagine to be tied to future economic success. But, as the article above notes, we don't seem to really understand how those skills originate. And, along the way, we have forgotten that economic success is not the only goal in our lives. We don't seem to know anymore what it means to be a "whole" person or to pull from life anything other that a kind of competitive success to allow us to buy more stuff or have bigger houses or fancier cars.

Those things are nice, but for me education also means gaining an understanding of the whole story of humanity as well as a deep appreciation for the kinds of relationships we build with others or especially the mechanisms we use to define core philosophical principles that help us define what is "good" or "just" and which ultimately help us to define our political ideas.

I don't believe that these things can be forced on a kid by sitting them in a room, filling them with one kind of knowledge, ringing a bell, moving them to another room and repeating the process all day, 5 days a week, 10 months a year for 12 years (at least). Learning these things requires a deep curiosity and creativity. The way we currently design schools seems designed to stifle curiosity and creativity through years of repetitive busy work and a denial of personal creative freedom.