A Footnote to Plato
The word does not forget where has been and can never wholly free
itself from the dominion of the contexts of which it has been a part.
We have Plato to thank for the way we view the world around us. Often regarded as the founder of political theory, Plato’s contribution to Western thought is fundamental to understanding how we think, act, organise ourselves and society, and for nearly two-thousand years, even how we worshipped. For its was this fourth century (BCE) Greek thinker who devised a strange and totally unique approach to what we now call ‘dualism,’ a division of body from soul, a concept that was picked up and carried forward by the early fathers of the Christian church. So deeply did this form become embedded in the Western psyche, that for most, “we no longer ‘think of soul’, we no longer argue about it” – the view of French philosopher François Jullien – who adds: “we inevitably still think along the lines it laid down long ago.” For Jullien, Plato’s dualism is a kind of a inalterable “stratum of our mental landscape, and acts as a controlling idea that defines our epistemic axioms.”
Indeed, we live in ‘Plato’s Universe’. The ideas of this remarkable man are now so entrenched and rooted in our thinking and being that dualism informs every thought and action of those of us who are descended from Western humanism. There is no escape. Hence, history itself, philosopher and cultural critic, William Irwin Thompson tells us, “is inescapably a tragedy in which man may choose between forms of tyranny but never escape the tyranny of form.”
Plato, the political thinker par excellence, and subsequent generations of philosophers have always made a simple but plausibly true assumption about politics – it follows nationality. We are more comfortable in living among our own; indeed we have often used force to ensure we are with those who look like us, speak the same language and share the same values. In the words of political theorist Michael Walzer in his 1982 essay, The Politics of Ethnicity:
. . . for the moment, it must be said that politics follows nationality wherever politics is free. Pluralism in the strong sense – One state, many peoples – is only possible under tyrannical regimes.
Do we have here an example of the Tyranny of Form? Is nationalism itself a virtually inescapable way of organising the affairs of men?
Walzer saw the United States as the only exception to his observation. E Pluribus Unum, the “One out of many” motto that adorns the Great Seal of the United States, is seen by many Americans as the rationale for American exceptionalism. America is indeed an exception in this regard, and for obvious reasons – 19th century mass immigration left those who arrived on America’s shores with little alternative except to become something other than what they had been: citizens of a new country with a singular culture and a singular future.
Today, those who would create history’s second manifestation of voluntary pluralism – a united Europe – seemingly face a task worthy of Sisyphus: how to persuade millions of otherwise disparate nationalities to join a supra-national enterprise that would undoubtedly benefit all. Perhaps it would be helpful in this endeavour to think through what we are asking of this super-state.
One of the pioneering thinkers about the possibilities of pluralism was the English Anglican priest and philosopher, John Neville Figgis. More than a century ago, in the midst of an upsurge in nationalist fervour that led to the first World War, Figgis attempted to define the role of the state in a novel way:
We are thus led to see more plainly the true character of the State as a source of pervading adjustments and an idea-force holding together a complex hierarchy of groups, and not itself a separable thing like the monarch or the “government,” or the local body with which we are tempted to identify it.
For Figgis, what emerges when the state successfully arbitrates and blends the differing interests of its inhabitants can be seen as materialization condition in which . . .
the general will is present in its degree in every co-operating group of human beings, one with which the theory of the State is fully in accord. Where two or three are gathered together with any degree of common experience and co-operation, there is pro tanto a general will.
Today Europe struggles to achieve through persuasion and urging, what happened in the United States more than two centuries ago: a voluntary, halting, but ultimately successful coming together for the greater good. It is a process – unending and on-going – in which there is a continually negotiated trade-off. Again, John Neville Faggis:
There is therefore no technical difficulty in the modification of the Nation-state towards larger forms of authoritative co-operation, so long as it is made clear to what system of authorities every separate human being is subject in respect of the ultimate adjustment of claims upon him. And it would seem that there must always be at least a machinery for making this clear (like the Court which interprets the constitution of the U.S.A.), if civilised life is to be possible.
Mike Ungersma, Benicassim, Spain