A classic example of the “academic attitude”

I got a bit of a chuckle out of a blog post by Chris Mathews at Philosophical Misadventures.  He quotes some passages from Plato’s Laws on the treatments proposed therein for recalcitrant atheists—none of which are especially nice by today’s standards. He then concludes as follows:

 “All of which is of course utterly monstrous. It’s not so much prominent-philosopher-bashes-atheism as it is prominent-philosopher-advocates-incarceration-and/or-death-for-atheists. Dissent and debate are out; replaced by state sanctioned execution of enemies of the good for thoughtcrimes. It’s the type of material over which Platonists have long striven to defend the philosopher from those who see a strong totalitarian streak in his political works. And it’s fairly easy to see where such criticism comes from—it’s hardly standard philosophical practice to demand death of those who don’t accept one’s worldview. The overall combination of dogmatism, intolerance, and recourse to coercion and capital punishment in Book 10 of the Laws will hardly endear Plato to anyone who already has their doubts about him and the conclusions his metaphysics lead him to.”

I smiled at this because it’s the perfect example of an attitude toward the past that is so common in the academy that it deserves to be called the “academic attitude.” Allow me to summarize the hermeneutic: the only orientation to take into the study of the past is your personal sentiments; judge what you read in accordance with them. Think of it as the “lite” version of Ricoeur’s “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Notice that Plato isn’t even permitted to be an object of study, let alone a subject. It’s never allowed to cross Mathews’ mind that Plato might at least be pointing to a fundamental truth about all political regimes. Adopting such an attitude would require the unthinkable of the modern bien pensant: that he set aside what he thinks he knows to reflect on another’s thoughts. But how could that be an option in the face of such monstrous words? There could never be truth there! Never!  And so he follows the tried and true approach to the past befitting the contemporary academic, which is to pour over old thinkers looking for unsavory sentiments for which one can declare one’s disdain.

Perhaps you think my judgment too harsh, just the kind of elaborate misdirection that an apologist for Plato would have to engage in to save his favorite. Well, consider whether the following indictment is so monstrous to our way of thinking:

 “Dissent and debate are out; replaced by state sanctioned execution of enemies of the good for thoughtcrimes.”

It’s true that we in the West haven’t strung up atheists in awhile, but do we not proscribe certain thoughts and punish those who think them?  In Canada (as in other Western nations) we have made “hate speech” a crime and we have institutionalized quasi-judicial “human rights tribunals” that have the power to summon, fine and publically humiliate those who utter unpalatable thoughts. If “publically humiliate” sounds over-the-top for justice in milquetoast Canada, consider that our human rights bodies can legally compel (i.e., with the threat of imprisonment) the convicted party to publically apologize for his remarks and order him never to speak on the subject again. Stern punishment for hurting someone’s feelings is it not? It seems downright egregious when, under Canadian law, a convicted murderer cannot even be forced to apologize to his victim’s family.

Now you may object that there’s no comparison between being legally forced to apologize for offending someone and being put to death for being an atheist. But consider for a moment the severity of each punishment against the threat it poses to the regime.

The constitution of Plato’s regime reflects the transcendent order. That the gods ordained the laws of the city and that they are inviolable are essential beliefs not only for everyday law and order, but to the self-understanding of the citizens themselves.  To have even one person in this small community (Plato allows just over 5,000 citizens in Magnesia) to openly attack its foundations (even after being “re-educated”) and to persuade others that their very lives are based on a pious fraud is to undermine the city and the life it affords. Hence, the choice for the legislator is not between dissent and free speech, but between order and chaos. The legislator can hardly allow someone to foment insurrection.

Compare this with the punishment doled out to the man who utters some hateful thing in public in a modern democracy of some 33 million souls (Canada), which, it’s worth acknowledging, depends on free speech and the much-ballyhooed “market place of ideas” for its effective functioning. Does the single citizen who offends one other citizen represent a threat to the regime? No one would argue that.  So why is he prosecuted? Why the public humiliation for a thought-crime?  It’s no doubt because we want to make an example of him pour encourager les autres. But look at how heavy-handed we are for such a small thing that can have little traction beyond those immediately involved.

So Plato would execute the recalcitrant atheist as a threat to the regime and we’ll publically humiliate grownups over hurt feelings.  I come down on the opposite side of this debate: Plato: 1; us: 0.

 “…it’s hardly standard philosophical practice to demand death of those who don’t accept one’s worldview.”

I loved this one. You and me and bazillion other people believe that it’s morally wrong to demand the death of our rhetorical opponents.  I bet Mathews believes it’s morally wrong too. But modern academics get used to speaking in a special dialect that avoids directly mentioning moral beliefs, unless deriding someone else’s.  They know moral beliefs are subjective, and they dread the thought of being taken for a moralizer, even while in the process of passing moral judgments. So they insert boilerplate like “standard philosophical practice” in a jokey sort of way to avoid saying what they mean. But are they really even fooling themselves?

“…combination of dogmatism, intolerance, and recourse to coercion and capital punishment…”

Dogmatism! Intolerance! Coercion! Capital punishment! Will horrors never cease! Seriously, what makes these things so self-evidently wrong that it’s enough to utter them in an unqualified way? He doesn’t even bother explaining what “dogmatism” means, though he expects us one and all to recoil from it in disgust.

 “…will hardly endear Plato to anyone who already has their doubts about him and the conclusions his metaphysics lead him to…”

A perfect statement of the attitude I mentioned above.  One should study Plato if Plato perfectly mirrors one’s own beliefs.  The slightest variation, however, is grounds for immediate rejection.  This raises an interesting question: if you only want to read what you already agree with, why bother reading anything at all?  Why not write down your thoughts and then read them back to yourself? It seems the only thing you be missing out on the frisson of righteousness you get from condemning others, which according to your creed, is wrong anyway.


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