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A Book Explorer's Odyssey : A conversation on Plato

【明報專訊】There was a conversation I remember particularly vividly though it happened about a decade ago. He was an old university classmate; we had both been doing a master's degree in literature. It was a joyful coincidence that after several years of loss of communication we happened to be working with the same company, for I had always admired his breadth of knowledge and refined artistic taste.

One winter night, we met at the company canteen and engaged in a rambling conversation over the dinner to the rumble of a blaring TV and chattering colleagues. One subject was the state of affairs in our city. We bemoaned the falling governance standards, from which he advanced his political proposition. "Plato's philosophy is the remedy. As Plato said, political leaders should be..." "Philosophers," I interjected, happening to have been reading the chapter on the great thinker in Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy. He nodded and smiled approvingly, pleased that he had found someone who shared his political ideals.

Except I didn't. I find Plato's politics, as summarised by Russell, impractical at best and despotic at worst. They consist of dividing society into three castes: the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians. The guardians are first chosen by the legislators. "After that, they will usually succeed by heredity, but in exceptional cases a promising child may be promoted from one of the inferior classes, while among the children of guardians a child or young man who is unsatisfactory may be degraded". Reproduction is an affair managed by the state on the principle of eugenics (優生學): "all children will be taken away from their parents at birth, and great care will be taken that no parents shall know who are their children, and no children shall know who are their parents". Deformed children, and children of inferior parents "will be put away in some mysterious unknown place, as they ought to be". One is forgiven to feel that Handmaid's Tale, the harrowing dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, is directly from Plato's playbook.

It is Karl Popper's The Open Society and its Enemies that offers one of the most scathing (嚴厲的) critiques on Plato's political thoughts. An Austrian philosopher who fled Nazi Germany right before the Second World War, he devotes the first volume of this classic work for liberal democracy to an analysis of Plato's philosophy. His conclusion is that Plato's espousal of totalitarianism qualifies him as an enemy of open society. Like us, Plato lived in a time of great change. He was born right before the Peloponnesian War, the major military conflict between Athens and Sparta. Prior to that, the rise of democracy in Athens caused panic among the vested interests, and so-called Old Oligarch. In fact, the term "patriot" originates from their slogan: "Back to the old paternal state".

Plato was a supporter of that anti-democratic movement. There was both a personal and a philosophical side to this. His revered teacher, Socrates, was sentenced to death by the democratic government, though Popper argues that Plato's philosophy is a complete betrayal of Socrate's. On the philosophical level, Plato argued that things in this world have their original "forms", and governments are no different. Plato believed that there is a form of ideal government that is "free from the evil of change and corruption", the "perfect state". But there are "copies" of this perfect state that are prone to decay, and social change (including democracy in Athens) is such decay. Such is Plato's view of historicism, the focus of Popper's book.

In Popper's view, the emergence of democracy in Athens is the beginning of open society, which he advocated (and which I, as many others, wholeheartedly embrace). But Plato longed for a return to the "closed society" of pre-democratic tribalism. He preferred Sparta to the Athenian democracy (a phenomenon called "Laconophilia"), and advocated strict censorship in education.

Reading Popper's book after so many years, it has struck me that this is perhaps the thinking of my friend. Though not a great philosopher like Plato, he has always come across as an admirer of a bygone glory, thus explaining his profound interest in classical music and cynicism about the way of the world. His contempt for the masses puts him against any form of social activism and even democracy itself, which I find most repugnant. It has been many years since we lost communications again, and I do not have the slightest idea about how he makes of the current turmoil in our city. I simply want to share this observation by Popper with him should we meet again:

Arresting political change is not the remedy; it cannot bring happiness. We can never return to the alleged innocence and beauty of the closed society... The more we try to return to the heroic age of tribalism, the more surely do we arrive at the Inquisition, at the Secret Police, and at a romanticised gangsterism....There is no return to a harmonious state of nature. If we turn back, then we must go the whole way — we must return to the beasts.

■Writer's Profile

If life is a voyage, Terence Yip (葉凱楓) likes to navigate by the books. That's what he does in this column.

(Email: terenceyipmingpao@outlook.com)

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