Travelling by airliner is deeply emblematic of the modern age. All that steel and heat inexplicably hurtling through the atmosphere would be unthinkable in any age other than our own. Naturally, I find it a pretty gruelling affair. For the first few hours, I’m thrilled at the idea. Then I realise I’m stuck in a steel tube with hundreds of my fellow humans. In such an environment it seems inevitable that civilization will break down. Perhaps that’s why they strap you into those horrible little seats and feed you gruel every few hours.
Ironically, the upside of such an environment is it isolates you completely from the other modern horrors you’d have to deal with during every-day life. I usually get a lot of reading done on long flights, which is quite good. On my flight to Kuala Lumpur I read all of Plato’s Gorgias. This follows from a recent run on Plato; I read The Symposium and Protagorus and Meno a while back, and I’ve been working towards The Republic.
Plato is good reading for those with a day job, for the simple reason that a lot of his works are comparatively short, written as dialogues, easy to read and entirely comprehensible. The Penguin Classics versions have superb introductions for those, like myself, who went to state schools and were thus denied their education in the Classics.
A bit like Wodehouse, they all follow roughly the same plot and conventions. Instead of Jeeves, Plato substitutes Socrates, who invariably goes to someone’s house, asks them a bunch of questions and then they eventually say, “Geeze, Socrates. You sure are wise!” I find this regularity very comforting.
Plato was a student of Socrates, and wrote about him as a means of immortalising him. Moreover, it was a way of getting back at the Athenians who’d condemned Socrates to death for “not acknowledging the gods which the city acknowledges, but introducing new divinities and corrupting the youth’.
Plato obviously didn’t accept his tutor’s guilt and harboured a lot of discontent as to the way decisions were made in Athens; through a mixture of group consensus and elaborate public speaking. The dialogues are, in varying degrees, a critique of the language of power and examination on how language alters logic. There’s a great quote in Chris Emlyn-Jones’ introduction to Gorgias, supposedly taken from a letter Plato wrote shortly after Socrates’ execution:
…I, who began full of enthusiasm for a political career, ended by growing dizzy at the spectacle of universal confusion…
It’s a pretty adept summary of the discourse that permeates governance. There’s a perception that law, regulation and policy is the product of logic, research and democratic debate, whereas the more I rub up against it, the more I realise it’s in roughly the same class as pre-modern myth and fable.
Take the flurry of Richard Florida influenced urban planning, and the fetish for ‘place making’; these ideologies are wildly popular, instituted all over the world and provide a central pillar of much contemporary urban planning and regeneration policy. Yet even after Florida admitted his theories don’t work, they remain popular. The notion that installing some vibrant laneways will fundamentally alter the demographic and economic structure of a city makes about as much sense as sacrificing a lamb in an attempt to ward off a marauding army. From Plato, I take this simple lesson: whilst there’s a relationship between language, logic and power, it’s not a causal relationship.