Mengzi argued and believed that all humans are filled with an innate sense of compassion, deference, disdain for evil, and the ability to tell what is right from what is wrong. I too believe that humans are born with these qualities; however, I would argue that not all people stay this way for their entire lives. This is where the argument for nature versus nurture comes into play. Although humans are innately good they can be corrupted by how they are raised and what they are told to believe in. Take for example a boy who was raised in a home that was filled with love and respect which began to reinforce the aforementioned qualities, but due to circumstances beyond his control, he is placed into the care of another family. This family treats him cruelly and without love and slowly the good qualities he was born with and that were further nurtured by his original family begin to crumble. His sense of compassion, deference, disdain for evil and his ability to tell what was right from wrong begins to decay resulting in a sentient being Mengzi would refer to inhuman. In conclusion, when people are born they are innately good, but how they are raised is what decides whether that goodness lasts them their whole lives.
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Mengzi believes that human nature is inherently good and we can become more virtuous through the practice of Ren Yi Li Zhi. First, Mengzi points out that the quality of Ren is the attitude of being kind and always thinking of others. For example, a person demonstrates the quality of Ren when he wants to help an elder lady who falls on the street. Interestingly, Mengzi believes that having the intention to be kind is actually more important than the act of kindness itself, which means even if the person does not end up helping the lady, the virtue of Ren is being demonstrated in the person. Readers can notice Mengzi’s philosophy which places primary importance on what the Chinese refer to as the heart (or mind), that every action is measured by the place it comes from. Similarly, the quality of Yi, which refers to having a sense of justice, is also an element of the virtuous heart inside us. On the other hand, Li, which refers to custom or ritual, is something in our outside reality. For example, if the prime minister of a country wears pajama to visit the president of another country, such action is not in accordance with Li. In order to act according to Li, apart from having Ren and Yi, one also needs to develop the quality of Zhi, which refers to wisdom. If the prime minister of a country wants to build up friendship with the president of another country privately, it is a good idea for him to wear pajama and have a chat over the dinner table together. Since doing so will make the other person feel more at ease, however, if they were to meet publicly, it is then only appropriate to wear something formal. Mengzi suggests that it is this quality of Zhi which allows an individual to determine what action is appropriate under different circumstances. Once upon a time, Mengzi traveled with his students and they were met by a farmer who took their horse away from them. A student then walked up to the farmer and kindly asked the farmer to return the horse; the farmer ignored the student and kept walking. The student then walked back to Mengzi to seek help, Mengzi laughed at the student and told him what he did was like singing a song to the deaf. Mengzi then sent the horseman to fetch the horse back. Upon meeting the horseman’s aggressive attitude, the farmer quickly returned the horse. After the incident, Mengzi gave a quick lecture to his students on developing the virtue of Zhi. According to Mengzi, we need to enhance the goodness that we are born with and the way to do that is through developing the principles of Ren Yi li Zhi. From the qualities of Ren and Yi we become virtuous inside and through the application of Zhi we are able to appropriately act according to the Li outside.
In the early 20th century, Saussure’s theory of linguistics was published. It delineated the gap that lies between what we say and what is – that is, the relationship between language and the reality it attempts to describe. Saussure’s theory of signs divided words and meanings into two; the signifier (the word) and the signified (the meaning). The relationship between the two is arbitrary. The meaning, or signified, does not exist concretely within reality, but is rather a space in meaning that is defined by absence. For example, take the word door. When identifying an object such as a door, we tend to think we grasp its type through similarities common across all doors. However, if we deconstruct this process of reasoning it becomes more complicated. A door is usually wood, it usually has a handle, it opens from the side – yet this description is ambiguous, and applies to a number of other household objects, like dressers and armoires. A window, which is glass and also can open from the side, in this system of deduction may mistakenly be classified as a door, and vice versa. Instead, Saussure argues that words function through a negative system of definition. A door is a door because it is not a window, or a wall, or a cat or a dog or any other signified space of meaning. This methodology of defining by what is not allows us to categorize new and ambiguous objects with relative ease, and allows vastly disparate objects to be collected together despite their physical or abstract differences.
The dissimilarities between Saussure and Plato are extreme. However, Plato does, in places, prefigure Saussure in the Republic, recognising and addressing the separation of language and reality through his theory of the forms. Plato’s true forms and their direct connection to the words that describe them – beauty and goodness – are diametric opposites to Saussure’s theory of definition by absence, but both philosopher and linguist agree on a conceptual space of meaning that rests above language. This metaphysical realm that Plato attempts to reveal in the Republic is, by its nature, ineffable. As a result, the text remains incomplete, as the reader is led to the brink of a second, true reality and left hanging without resolution. Plato cannot take use any further. Language cannot convey the full truth of the form of the good, the form of the beautiful. It is our mind’s own challenge to transcend this language, to grasp the meaning of knowledge, and to understand ‘what is’. But as Saussure reveals, the question of what is isn’t quite as simple as a singular meaning.
I am writing this post as a way to present some of my thoughts on the essay question (#12) that didn’t make it into the essay.
Book 5 of Plato’s Republic is highly fascinating because it makes propositions unlike anything that we have seen so far. First of all, Plato argues that women should be afforded the same opportunities as men, which, during his era, must have been seen as borderline ridiculous, but less so nowadays. But what is even more surprising is are his propositions that marriages must be controlled by the state (Plato, 149, 459e), people should live and dine together (Plato, 155, 464b) , women should be shared amongst the men (Plato, 147, 457c), and children should be raised by special nurses. This results in a society where the idea of a family unit disappears. Instead, the city, the polis, is your family. Your brothers and sisters are those who are of similar age, your fathers and mothers of older age, and children of younger age (Plato, 154, 463c). You feel pleasure and pain together as a whole (Plato, 155, 464a) .
Amidst all this strangeness however, is the idea of equality staring back at you from the other end of the tunnel, opposite that from which you came. It is not equality of opportunity or equal rights for everybody, but another form altogether. Everybody is equally happy (Plato, 103, 420c); the city smiles as a whole. You are not responsible for any people, nor is anybody responsible for you. You love each other, but you love no one.
Turning back from this puzzling sight, you return to a society that you are familiar with. There, you are faced with a conundrum. Two trains are about to crash, and you can only stop one of them. A handful of family and friends has boarded the one on the left, and a crowd of strangers occupy the one on the right. Which one do you choose. Your family and friends will be forever grateful, some strangers may forget your face altogether.
In Kallipolis, no such problem exists. The distinctions are erased. You try to save the most people as possible. Is that really a bad thing? Or are we bound by the unquestioned belief that family, and those who you value more than others, are a natural part of human existence. Should we take for granted our freedom to choose who we want to be with, love who we love, avoid those who we hate, and does that count as equality and a representation of a just society? Perhaps Plato is more of a supporter of equality than we are, with our multitude of separate communities, distinctions, conformists and misfits, all vying for control of our minds. Or maybe he’s just an eccentric.
After start reading Plato’s Republic, the realization that Arts One is probably the most demanding first-year program at UBC became acute. Over the course of 12 days, I had to overcome a strong headache and an impulse to go to sleep in order to maintain my focus on the book. The philosophical and political theories included in the book are extremely complex that I don not expect to get a good grasp of them in a period of two weeks. In comparison, I am more interested in the ways in which Plato explains his ideas to his reader. In other words, I am interested in Plato’s use of Philosophical discussions or dialectics.
Through the use of Dialectics, Plato surely made the book more appealing to his reader in more ways than one. Thought the book, Plato never existed as a character. Instead, he hides behind every character in his book. To me, it’s unclear why Plato would use the identity of his Mentor Socrates as well as his brother Glaucon and Adeimantus. But there is no doubt that he did this intentionally and purposefully. In the first 4 books, it looks as though the conversations in the book are records of actual conversation that happened in ancient Greek.The characters seem incredibly real to me mainly because of the tone of the language. For instance, in the beginning of book 2, Glaucon says
” Do you want to seem to have persuaded us , Socrates, that is better in every way to be just than unjust, or do you want to really persuade us of this……Well, then, you certainly are not doing what you want” (36)
From this quote, it’s pretty clear that Glaucon is not convinced by Socrates’s argument. On top of that, he is challenging Socrates to provide a better explaining in order to truly persuade him. The tone of his language seems disrespectful and a little rude. But this is possibly exactly what Plato want us to feel. He depicts Glaucon as a challenger to Socrates’s argument. later, as the conversation continues, Glaucon becomes uncertain of his own opinion of what justice is. The same thing happened to Adeimantus. But through these discussions which I am going to quote because I don’t have the time, Plato gradually explains how he arrived at his conclusion. For readers, this use of philosophical discussion/ dialectics made the text a lot easier and interesting to read.
In Plato Republic, he explains his famous cave analogy; which describes a process of education on particular individuals that will ultimately lead to them becoming ‘philosopher kings’ if they succeed. These philosopher kings are stated to have seen the sun at the end of the cave metaphor (they know and understand the real truth), and have the obligation to go back to the cave and lead the rest of the people in the best way possible. Thus, the cave analogy provides a metaphor in which it is possible to create philosopher kings who would best lead the city they have hypothesised (Kallipolis), because he would know the form of the good (the real truth). Therefore, the king would be deemed as omniscient and capable of leading the city they have formed in the best possible way.
This argument that Plato brings forward in his analogy is critically flawed in the sense that it is impossible to teach something to someone that you yourself don’t know. Socrates explains several times himself that they will never be able to reach the real truth through discussion: “You would no longer see an image of what we are describing, but the truth itself as it seems to me, at least” (Plato, 228). Through this statement it is shown that Socrates himself doesn’t know the full truth himself; hence, his assumption that he can teach people to know the real truth through a certain method of teaching that takes years and years of education is utterly ridiculous, and the sacrifices these people will have to make in order to attempt to become a philosopher king is much to great on its own.
Kallipolis, as described in Plato’s Republic appears to not allow for any societal growth. To understand this we must separate the longevity of The Republic as a whole from the longevity of Plato’s Kallipolis. Though not intended to be an exact blueprint of an ideal city, Kallipolis is used as an example of a just society.
This society seeks to fulfill the individual’s basic needs but does not take into account the individual’s thoughts, desires, or humanly vices. Later, Aristotle would say that to develop character, you need to have certain traits. For example, to be human, there are certain traits, virtues, and vices. Plato leaves no room for uniqueness, where there is a combination of your roles as an authentic individual. In Kallipolis, there isn’t really any room for movement, everyone has a vocation. This is seen in the Myth of Metals, where everyone is divided up into gold, silver and bronze or guardians, warriors and producers.
In this division of Plato reduces us to a single role, and does not accept any potentiality. He argues that a person would do better work if he only practiced one craft (370b5, pg. 48). Arguably, humans do have strengths and weaknesses, but the citizens of the theoretical Kallipolis would not be given the chance to explore these things. The greater good mentality totally loses the individual. Plato’s utilitarian ideals focus too much on the aggregate good.
Because of this, he has not truly come up with an ideal society because it could not withstand the test of time. An ideal society would be dynamic and able to adapt to new technology, scientific discoveries, social movements. It would support both the individual and the community on equal levels.
During the latest seminar one of the questions posed to the class was whether Plato’s Republic laid the groundwork for totalitarianism. A nice little debate ensued, but was unfortunately cut short by the end of class. During class I argued that yes, Republic was partially to blame for totalitarianism. Now that isn’t saying that it was the sole cause. Hundreds of social, economic, political, and philosophical factors throughout the course of history contributed to the creation of totalitarian states, but surely the fact that one of the most highly regarded works of philosophy is basically a love letter to totalitarianism must have had some impact.
As soon as Plato begins describing his ideal city, the Kallipolis, he starts to limit the freedoms of it’s inhabitants. He creates a hierarchy of laborers, soldiers, and philosophers, and establishes that each class must only do that which it is best suited for. Obviously Plato selects philosophers as the rulers, being himself a philosopher.
The residents of Kallipolis are limited not only in what they can do, but in the very stories and melodies that they are allowed to hear. This is because Plato decides that the poetic stories of the gods and heroes, while entertaining and beautiful, ultimately corrupt their listeners and strip them of the platonic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. By depicting the gods as liars or the heroes as cowardly Plato fears that citizens will mimic that bad behavior. This very paternalistic approach absolutely reeks of totalitarianism.
While discussing poetic narration and mimicry Plato gives an example of an extremely wise, gifted man, who is able to perfectly imitate many things. While acknowledging that his performance would be beautiful and amzing, he says the man would be turned away from the city in favor of a less interesting poet who would conform better to his totalitarian story guidelines.
When discussing a man who prolonged his life through medicine and healthy living, Plato decides that he should have given in to his illness and died. He justifies this by saying that if you are preoccupied with staying alive, you won’t contribute to society and therefore would be better off dying.
Perhaps most importantly, Plato makes the case that Kallipolis isn’t meant to bring great happiness to any individual resident, but that by functioning perfectly it would allow each person to be “as happy as their nature allows”. This focus on the system over the individual is a core part of totalitarianism and Plato absolutely adores it.
Plato explores the concepts of freedom and beauty from very unconventional angles in Republic; unusual in the context of both contemporary and modern understandings of the two terms. Freedom to a contemporary audience of Athenians could be defined as the ability to think and do as one pleases. Plato explores and ridicules this definition through Socrates’ description of the ‘free’ man; one who goes about “putting all his pleasures” and appetites, whether necessary or indulgent, “on an equal footing”, “dishonouring none but satisfying all equally” (358, 561b). This life, according to Plato, carries “neither order nor necessity”. In the realm of politics, he vehemently expresses the belief that “democracy’s insatiable desire for what it defines as the good”, namely freedom, is “also what destroys it”. Plato’s own hypothesis on freedom is strongly juxtaposed to that which the people “call total freedom”. For him, the concept only gains meaning when set into the context an entity. Socrates establishes through his dialectic that “we do not allow” man “to be free until we establish a constitution in” him.
This relationship between the adherence of rules and principles, and freedom [which could be seen as contrary to the modern understanding of freedom] is one that also reflects in Plato’s opinion on the role of the individual within society. Plato’s conception of freedom is very much functional – according to him, a man is truly free when he is fulfilling his role to the state to the best of his abilities. The utilitarian perspective that Plato maintains on freedom also extends to his attitude towards the concept of beauty. It is best expressed when he says that “if the fine habits in someone’s soul and those in his physical form agree and are in concord with one another”, “wouldn’t that be the most beautiful sight?”. Beauty in the state is, similarly, when all classes work together harmoniously – from the philosopher kings through to the auxiliaries and craftsmen.
One particular area in which Plato’s opinion on freedom diverges from our modern ideas of it is in his plans for the education of the demos in his kallipolis. The ideas that he explains predominantly in book 3 concerning the ways in which the guardians of the state should be brought up would seem radical in any modern concept – the mass censorship and lying that he proposes go against the ideas of freedom as we know them. But to Plato, the resulting harmony within the classes and the ability that each individual gains to best fulfil their role in society eclipses the need for individuality.
While looking at 21st century politics in the eyes of Plato, I am absolutely mortified. I finally understand now why our system is so corrupt. It begins with democracy, which is ineffective on various levels. First of all, everyone is eligible to make decisions; this is problematic because anyone who is not a philosopher, does not know what is best for a city. Normal people do not have the intellectual capacity to know and think like philosophers do.
The ship analogy explains a scenario in which passengers on a ship are fighting over who the captain should be. These people have no experience with the craft ship of boats yet believe they should be captain regardless. “They do not understand that a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft if he is really going to be expert at ruling a ship” (182, 489a). While the passengers are running around convincing others that they should be captain, there is a silent person studying how to actually be one. It’s the same as people today seeking a political position using all their time campaigning, while they should be furthering their knowledge. “But by far the greatest slander is brought on philosophy by those who claim to practice it– the ones about whom the prosecutor of philosophy declares, as you put it, that the majority of those who take it up are completely bad, while the best ones are useless” (182, 489d). In 21st century terms, Donald Trump who claims to understand the truth about politics is actually, ‘completely bad’. With democracy, the wrong person will almost always be in charge.
In Plato’s perfect city, power holders are allowed no wealth. “We will tell them that they have gold and silver of a divine sort in their souls as a permanent gift from the gods, and have no need of human gold in addition” (102, 416 e). Rulers who are motivated by wealth or are great holders of wealth are not fit for the job. People with genuine souls already have all the wealth they need within themselves. By this concept, basically every power holder in western culture is not right for their job. Every power position in western culture is based on wealth: gaining it and holding enough of it. Donald Trump is known for holding a share of the top one percent of wealth in America, so it is obvious where his intentions with lay. Plato would rather his city fight a war with brains and bronze than ignorance and money. Plato’s city would kick America’s butt.
Plato’s most basic foundation for a solid political system is justice, beginning with its ruler. A just person acts justly purely for the sake of goodness, not for their reputation. “We must strip him of everything except justice, and make his situation the opposite of the unjust person’s. Though he does no injustice, he must have the greatest reputation for it, so that he may be tested with regard to justice by seeing whether or not he can withstand a bad reputation and its consequences” (40, 361 d). Donald Trump has failed the justice test before he has even taken it. His bad reputation is talked about around the globe, and he withstands the consequences by being racist, sexist, and worst of all, ignorant.
I hope Plato will come save us all soon.
Works Cited: Plato, and C.D.C. Reeve. Plato’s Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004. Print.