One of my biggest sources of frustration with the teaching of philosophy is that it focuses far too much on good philosophers and far too little on what is actually good philosophy. Nowhere is this clearer than in a course I’m taking, History of Ancient Greek Philosophy, which is devoted entirely to teaching philosophy that is over 2000 years old, and is also mandatory in order to get a philosophy degree.
I’m sure that when I imply that a course being devoted to 2000+ year old philosophy is a bad thing, most philosophers would object that being old, even 2500 years old, doesn’t mean that it’s bad – that old philosophy can still be some of the greatest philosophy ever written.
I completely disagree with this. Plato is terrible.
Now, please excuse me while I backpedal. I’m sure Plato was good, great, brilliant, or whatever else you want to call him, at the time he was alive. It’s just that his philosophy is no longer good in a modern context. Just like Newton’s Principia Mathematica was once the cutting edge of physics but is now outdated, and thus not taught from, so Plato’s philosophy, and that of the rest of the ancient Greeks, is outdated and should no longer be taught from, no matter how good it was “for its time.” Not that it has nothing of use, but only specific concepts should be isolated and paraphrased and expounded on by modern philosophers, leaving out all of the now-useless filler, fluff, and fallacies (which, for the record, is the large majority). This really shouldn’t be a radical proposition: it’s done in soft sciences as well as hard, and is in fact done by basically any subject that actually tries to get things done. There has been significant improvement in logic, morality, and clarity of writing since the ancient Greeks’ time, and this leaves the majority of ancient Greeks’ philosophy incoherent and irrational by modern standards.
For this piece I will focus on Plato, though I believe his problems can be found in the other ancient Greek philosophers as well. What are his problems? One: his logic is very poor; whenever he attempts rational argument he instead falls back on misleading analogies and fallacies. Two: his writing is unnecessarily verbose; he takes FAR too long to say what he says. Three: the majority of his philosophical “theories” offer no true predictions (they are unfalsifiable) and have no content, in addition to lacking good justification.
In support of problems 1 and 2, look at how Plato argues. The arguments found in Plato’s works are long and meandering; they never seem to even try to directly tackle the problem . Instead, Socrates’ arguments will comprise solely of a series of poor analogies and obvious logical fallacies. And each one of these fallacious steps will, instead of being a single sentence or paragraph like it should, be drawn out into a page or ten.
An example of Plato’s long, winding, faulty argumentative style would be when Socrates is asked in Republic why one should pursue a good life rather than pursue one’s own pleasure. He spends ~90 pages laying out a useless (more on this later) model of cities and the human soul, then suddenly concludes, without any good justification (not that there was any good justification to be found in the previous 90 pages either), that if you act selfishly your soul will be out of proportion and thus you will be miserable.
Maybe you found this convincing when you read the Republic, I don’t know. But actually look at the core of his argument: he is arguing that you should not act badly because if you do you will be miserable. Does anyone seriously think that it is impossible to be selfish and happy? I won’t take the time to argue this out here, but even if you do (somehow) think that it is impossible, realize that Socrates offered next to no support for this proposition. He spent over ninety pages on his stupid model of the soul and then all but skips over the only part of the argument that actually has anything to do with the problem at hand. His only attempt at justification is his assertion that acting badly will make your soul “diseased” and that “good practices lead to virtue, and evil practices to vice.”
Problem number 3 is a very common Greek theme, and also, in my opinion, the primary reason people like ancient Greek philosophy in spite of its myriad flaws. Plato (usually speaking through Socrates) will claim to have some incredible revelation – e.g. Socrates arguing in Republic that the human soul is composed of three parts: appetite, will, and reason – that in fact says nothing at all. In the case presented above, is there any way to disprove Plato’s claim about the soul? Of course not, because his model is so vague that it makes no predictions. There is no possible human behaviour that you could point to and say, “see, this person’s soul clearly must not be composed of appetite, will, and reason!” In other words, it is unfalsifiable. If you don’t believe this, let’s look at one of the predictions Socrates himself tries to draw from his theory; that you will be miserable if you act selfishly. This did not follow at all from his theory of the soul, but let’s assume it did for the moment. Imagine you found someone who clearly acted selfishly and, equally clearly, was very happy. Would Socrates bat an eyelid? No! He would declare that this person was secretly very unhappy, despite all appearances. And his compatriots, instead of challenging this ridiculous assertion, would cry “I cannot imagine anything more obvious, Socrates! Anyone who disagrees with this is most certainly stupid beyond belief!”
I know that the typical response here is that while Plato’s theories may need some fleshing out, they are a great starting point for thought and discussion. I simply disagree. Philosophically speaking, these theories have no content. Not only that, but they have have no relation to the truth; they are usually extremely arbitrary, as in the case of the tripartite division of the soul. Socrates came up with the division out of nowhere (at least, he had no good justification, neither rational nor intuitive, for it) and only made it work through making the idea vague enough that it made no predictions. These vague “theories” are only helpful for sparking discussion and thought in that they mislead people into thinking they have some degree of understanding of an issue when in fact they have none (e.g. thinking they know the basic way the soul/mind works because of Plato’s “theory” of soul). Poor Socrates has become what he hated!
A more specific problem with Socratic dialogues is… the people Socrates dialogues with. The characters opposed to Socrates seem to serve the sole purpose of breaking Socrates’ speech into manageable bites, punctuating his speech with some variant of “Yes,” “Certainly,” or “Of course.” Nowadays we have invented the paragraph, which renders these other speakers largely obsolete. I suppose that they are also occasionally allowed to serve as straw men, if they are lucky. In these cases, their job is to present an opposing idea, and then immediately revert back to their default setting: “agree enthusiastically with everything Socrates says, no matter how absurd.”
Going back to problem number 2, Plato takes forever to say anything, spinning what should be a single sentence into a page or more. This makes it very difficult to quote his argument directly so that I can show why it’s fallacious; instead I have to attempt to paraphrase his arguments, which takes away weight from my claims. But there is a brief moment in Plato’s discussion of the soul, why we should be good, and so forth, where Plato is far more succinct than usual, although he still takes about three times longer to communicate his idea than a modern philosopher would (not that a modern philosopher would ever, ever try to make this argument). This moment is when Socrates “shows” that concepts that work for cities will necessarily work for individuals:
“Socrates: Well, then, are things called by the same name, whether they are bigger or smaller than one another, like or unlike with respect to that to which that name applies?
Socrates: Then a just man won’t differ at all from a just city in respect to the forms of justice; rather he’ll be like the city.
Glaucon: He will.”
My main point in quoting this is to show how terrible Plato’s logic is (by modern standards). Here he literally argues that a city is just a really big person (or, to be generous, a large collection of people, not that this makes his argument any less invalid), and that because of this what applies to a city must also apply to a person. And this is someone we are expected to learn from?
Incidentally, this quote also shows how Plato is unnecessarily hard to read: “are things called by the same name, whether they are bigger or smaller than one another, like or unlike with respect to that to which that name applies?” How about: “Are like things called by the same name, regardless of size?” The answer being “no,” and also being, “a city is not a really big person Socrates, come on.” To be fair, the quote I’m hammering here is from the translation in the book I was given for ethics class, but a different translation words this section in much less certain terms. So maybe this is partly a translation error. But you know what? Whatever. I don’t think anyone can deny that in Plato, even extraordinarily simple concepts are wrapped up in big, long sentences filled with unnecessary words. This makes it harder to pin down what Plato is saying, which is an invaluable asset when so little of what he says is of any worth. However, given that our motive here should be to conduct philosophy, not to hide the fact that we have nothing of value to say, there is no reason to read strict translations of Plato; instead he should be thoroughly paraphrased if he is taught at all.
To conclude, Plato’s logic is generally bad, examples being his terrible “city” argument and his complete non-argument for why we should be good; his theories are usually useless, e.g. his tripartite theory of the soul, and his writing is far longer than it needs to be, e.g. pick up anything by Plato and read it and you will see this is true. Because of these things there is no reason to teach directly from Plato or focus on Plato’s ideas.
I realize that this piece is not by itself very convincing; I have drawn entirely from one specific section of Republic and have still relied primarily on paraphrasing his argument rather than quoting (hopefully I didn’t distort the truth; if so I didn’t do so intentionally, but rather out of extreme incompetence) But I still maintain that my general claims about the problems with Plato and the rest of the ancient Greeks are true. This piece isn’t intended to definitively prove the claims true, but to lay them out so that I can prove them in the time to come, and so that hopefully you will start to recognize these problems when you next read Plato (if you hadn’t already).