will-ariel-durant

Will Durant with his wife and longtime collaborator.

William Durant ( 1885 – 1981) was an American writer, historian, and philosopher. He made an important contribution to popularize philosophy, and therefore an important contribution to the world culture and freedom with “The Story of Philosophy” (1926). We should emphasize that he intended with this book to make it useful for citizens, offering it for contemporary application, because philosophy is the backbone of civilization. Hence, I quote some pages from his book that can be downloaded from the link down this page. In the text quoted below, we recognize the backbone of our civilization, at least prevalent until now…

 

«And now what shall we say of this whole Utopia? Is it feasible? And if not, has it any practical features which we could turn to contemporary use? Has it ever in any place or measure been realized? At least the last question must be answered in Plato’s favor. For a thousand years, Europe was ruled by an order of guardians considerably like that which was visioned by our philosopher. During the Middle Ages it was customary to classify the population of Christendom into laboratores (workers), bellatores (soldiers), and oratores (clergy). The last group, though small in number, monopolized the instruments and opportunities of culture, and ruled with almost unlimited sway half of the most powerful continent on the globe. The clergy, like Plato’s guardians, were placed in authority not by the suffrages of the people, but by their talent as shown in ecclesiastical studies and administration, by their disposition to a life of meditation and simplicity, and (perhaps it should be added) by the influence of their relatives with the powers of state and church. In the latter half of the period in which they ruled, the clergy was as free from family cares as even Plato could desire; and in some cases, it would seem, they enjoyed no little of the reproductive freedom accorded to the guardians.

Celibacy was part of the psychological structure of the power of the clergy; for on the one hand they were unimpeded by the narrowing egoism of the family, and on the other their apparent superiority to the call of the flesh added to the awe in which lay sinners held them and to the readiness of these sinners to bare their lives in the confessional.

Much of the politics of Catholicism was derived from Plato’s “royal lies,” or influenced by them: the ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell, in their medieval form, are traceable to the last book of the Republic; the cosmology of Scholasticism comes largely from the Timaeus; the doctrine of realism (the objective reality of general ideas) was an interpretation of the doctrine of Ideas; even the educational “quadrivium” (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music) was modeled on the curriculum outlined in Plato. With this body of doctrine the people of Europe were ruled with hardly any resort to force; and they accepted this rule so readily that for a thousand years they contributed plentiful material support to their rulers, and asked no voice in the government. Nor was this acquiescence confined to the general population; merchants and soldiers, feudal chieftains and civil powers all bent the knee to Rome. It was an aristocracy of no mean political sagacity; it built probably the most marvelous and powerful organization which the world has ever known.

The Jesuits who for a time ruled Paraguay were semi-Platonic guardians, a clerical oligarchy empowered by the possession of knowledge and skill in the midst of a barbarian population. And for a time the Communist Party which ruled Russia after the revolution of November 1917, took a form strangely reminiscent of the Republic.

They were a small minority, held together almost by religious conviction, wielding the weapons of orthodoxy and excommunication, as sternly devoted to their cause as any saint to his, and living a frugal existence while ruling half the soil of Europe.

Such examples indicate that within limits and with modifications, Plato’s plan is practicable; and indeed he himself had derived it largely from actual practice as seen on his travels. He had been impressed by the Egyptian theocracy: here was a great and ancient civilization ruled by a small priestly class; and compared with the bickering and tyranny and incompetence of the Athenian Ecclesia Plato felt that the Egyptian government represented a much higher form of state (Laws, 819). In Italy he had stayed for a time with a Pythagorean community, vegetarian and communist, which had for generations controlled the Greek colony in which it lived. In Sparta he had seen a small ruling class living a hard and simple life in common in the midst of a subject population; eating together, restricting mating for eugenic ends, and giving to the brave the privilege of many wives. He had no doubt heard Euripides advocate a community of wives, the liberation of slaves, and the pacification of the Greek world by a Hellenic league (Medea, 230; Fragm., 655); no doubt, too, he knew some of the Cynics who had developed a strong communist movement among what one would now call the Socratic Left. In short, Plato must have felt that in propounding his plan he was not making an impossible advance on realities which his eyes had seen. Yet critics from Aristotle’s day to ours have found in the Republic many an opening for objection and doubt. “These things and many others,” says the Stagyrite, with cynical brevity, “have been invented several times over in the course of ages.” It is very pretty to plan a society in which all men will be brothers; but to extend such a term to all our male contemporaries is to water out of it all warmth and significance. So with common property: it would mean a dilution of responsibility; when everything belongs to everybody nobody will take care of anything. And finally, argues the great conservative, communism would fling people into an intolerable continuity of contact; it would leave no room for privacy or individuality; and it would presume such virtues of patience and cooperation as only a saintly minority possess. ‘We must neither assume a standard of virtue which is above ordinary persons, nor an education which is exceptionally favored by nature and circumstance; but we must have regard to the life which the majority can share, and to the forms of government to which states in general can attain.”

So far Plato’s greatest (and most jealous) pupil; and most of the criticisms of later date strike the same chord. Plato underrated, we are told, the force of custom accumulated in the institution of monogamy, and in the moral code attached to that institution; he underestimated the possessive jealousy of males in supposing that a man would be content to have merely an aliquot portion of a wife; he minimized the maternal instinct in supposing that mothers would agree to have their children taken from them and brought up in a heartless anonymity. And above all he forgot that in abolishing the family he was destroying the great nurse of morals and the chief source of those cooperative and communistic habits which would have to be the psychological basis of his state; with an unrivaled eloquence he sawed off the branch on which he sat.

To all these criticisms one can reply very simply, that they destroy a straw man. Plato explicitly exempts the majority from his communistic plan; he recognizes clearly enough that only a few are capable of the material self-denial which he proposes for his ruling class; only the guardians will call every guardian brother or sister; only the guardians will be without gold or goods. The vast majority will retain all respectable institutions property, money, luxury, competition, and whatever privacy they may desire. They will have marriage as monogamic as they can bear, and all the morals derived from it and from the family; the fathers shall keep their wives and the mothers shall keep their children ad libitum and nauseam. As to the guardians, their need is not so much communistic disposition as a sense of honor, and love of it; pride and not kindness is to hold them up. And as for the maternal instinct, it is not strong before the birth, or even the growth, of the child; the average mother accepts the newborn babe rather with resignation than with joy; love for it is a development, not a sudden miracle, and grows as the child grows, as it takes form under the painstaking care of the mother; not until it has become the embodiment of maternal artistry does it irrevocably catch the heart.

Other objections are economic rather than psychological. Plato’s

Republic, it is argued, denounces the division of every city into two

cities, and then offers us a city divided into three. The answer is that

the division in the first case is by economic conflict; in Plato’s state, the

guardian and auxiliary classes are specifically excluded from participation

in this competition for gold and goods. But then the guardians

would have power without responsibility; and would not this lead to

tyranny? Not at all; they have political power and direction, but no

economic power or wealth; the economic class, if dissatisfied with the

guardians’ mode of rule, could hold up the food supply, as Parliament’s

control executives by holding up the budget. Well, then, if the guardians

have political but not economic power, how can they maintain

their rule? Have not Harrington and Marx and many others shown

that political power is a reflex of economic power, and becomes precarious

as soon as economic power passes to a politically subject group

as to the middle classes in the eighteenth century?

This is a very fundamental objection, and perhaps a fatal one. The

answer might be made that the power of the Roman Catholic Church,

which brought even kings to kneel at Canossa, was based, in its earlier

centuries of rule, rather on the inculcation of dogmas than on the

strategy of wealth. But it may be that the long dominion of the Church

was due to the agricultural condition of Europe: an agricultural population

is inclined to a supernatural belief by its helpless dependence on

the caprice of the elements, and by that inability to control nature

which always leads to fear and thence to worship; when industry and

commerce developed, a new type of mind and man arose, more realistic

and terrestrial, and the power of the Church began to crumble

as soon as it came into conflict with this new economic fact. Political

power must repeatedly readjust itself to the changing balance of economic

forces. The economic dependence of Plato’s guardians on the

economic class would very soon reduce them to the controlled political

executives of that class; even the manipulation of military power

would not long forestall this inevitable issue any more than the military

forces of revolutionary Russia could prevent the development of

a proprietary individualism among the peasants who controlled the

growth of food, and therefore the fate of the nation. Only this would

remain to Plato: that even though political policies must be determined

by the economically dominant group, it is better that those

policies should be administered by officials specifically prepared for

the purpose, than by men who stumble out of commerce or manufacturing

into political office without any training in the arts of statesmanship.

What Plato lacks above all, perhaps, is the Heraclitean sense of

flux and change; he is too anxious to have the moving picture of this

world become a fixed and still tableau. He loves order exclusively,

like any timid philosopher; he has been frightened by the democratic

turbulence of Athens into an extreme neglect of individual values; he

arranges men in classes like an entomologist classifying flies; and he is

not averse to using priestly humbug to secure his ends. His state is

static; it might easily become an old-fogey society, ruled by inflexible

octogenarians hostile to invention and jealous of change. It is mere

science without art; it exalts order, so dear to the scientific mind, and

quite neglects that liberty which is the soul of art; it worships the

name of beauty, but exiles the artists who alone can make beauty or

point it out. It is a Sparta or a Prussia, not an ideal state.

And now that these unpleasant necessities are candidly written

down, it remains to do willing homage to the power and profundity of

Plato’s conception. Essentially he is right he not? what this world

needs is to be ruled by its wisest men. It is our business to adapt his

thought to our own times and limitations. Today we must take democracy

for granted: we cannot limit the suffrage as Plato proposed; but

we can put restrictions on the holding of office, and in this way secure

that mixture of democracy and aristocracy which Plato seems to have

in mind. We may accept without quarrel his contention that statesmen

should be as specifically and thoroughly trained as physicians;

we might establish departments of political science and administration

in our universities; and when these departments have begun to function

adequately we might make men ineligible for nomination to

political office unless they were graduates of such political schools.

We might even make every man eligible for an office who had been

trained for it, and thereby eliminate entirely that complex system of

nominations in which the corruption of our democracy has its seat;

let the electorate choose any man who, properly trained and qualified,

announces himself as a candidate. In this way, democratic choice would

be immeasurably wider than now, when Tweedledum and Tweedledee

stage their quadrennial show and sham. Only one amendment

would be required to make quite Democratic this plan for the restriction

of office to graduates in administrative technique; and that would

be such equality of educational opportunity as would open to all men

and women, irrespective of the means of their parents, the road to

university training and political advancement. It would be very simple

to have municipalities and counties and states offer scholarships to all

graduates of grammar school, high school and college who had shown

a certain standard of ability, and whose parents were financially unable

to see them through the next stage of the educational process.

That would be a democracy worthy of the name.

Finally, it is only fair to add that Plato understands that his Utopia

does not quite fall within the practical realm. He admits that he has

described an ideal difficult of attainment; he answers that there is

nevertheless a value in painting these pictures of our desire; man’s

significance is that he can imagine a better world, and will some part of

it at least into reality; man is an animal that makes Utopias. “We look

before and after and pine for what is not/’ Nor is it all without result:

many a dream has grown limbs and walked, or grown wings and

flown, like the dream of Icarus that men might fly. After all, even if

we have but drawn a picture, it may serve as goal and model of our

movement and behavior; when sufficient of us see the picture and follow

its gleam, Utopia will find its way upon the map. Meanwhile “in

heaven, there is laid up a pattern of such a city, and he who desires

may behold it, and beholding, govern himself accordingly. But

whether there really is or ever will be such a city on earth, … he will

act according to the laws of that city, and no other” (592). The good

man will apply even in the imperfect state, the perfect law.

Nevertheless, with all these concessions to doubt, the Master was bold

enough to risk himself when a chance offered to realize his plan. In

the years 387 B. c. Plato received an invitation from Dionysius, ruler

of the then flourishing and powerful Syracuse, the capital of Sicily, to

come and turn his kingdom into Utopia; and the philosopher, thinking

like Turgot that it was easier to educate one man even though a

king than a whole people, consented. But when Dionysius found that

the plan required either that he should become a philosopher or cease

to be a king, he balked; and the upshot was a bitter quarrel. The story has

it that Plato was sold into slavery, to be rescued by his friend and pupil

Anniceris; who, when Plato’s Athenian followers wished to reimburse

him for the ransom he had paid, refused, saying that they should not

be the only ones privileged to help philosophy. This (and, if we may

believe Diogenes Laertius, another similar) experience may account

for the disillusioned conservatism of Plato’s work, the Laws.

And yet the closing years of his long life must have been fairly

happy. His pupils had gone out in every direction, and their success

had made him honored everywhere. He was at peace in his Academe,

walking from group to group of his students and giving them problems

and tasks on which they were to make research and, when he

came to them again, give report and answer. La Rochefoucauld said

that “few know how to grow old.” Plato knew: to learn like Solon

and to teach like Socrates; to guide the eager young and find the intellectual

love of comrades. For his students loved him as he loved

them; he was their friend as well as their philosopher and guide.

One of his pupils, facing that great abyss called marriage, invited

the Master to his wedding feast. Plato came, rich with his eighty

years, and joined the merry-makers gladly. But as the hours laughed

themselves away, the old philosopher retired into a quiet corner, of the

house, and sat down on a chair to win a little sleep. In the morning,

when the feast was over, the tired revellers came to wake him. They

found that during the night, quietly and without ado, he had passed

from a little sleep to an endless one. All Athens followed him to the

grave.»

Ref: Will Durant, The Story of philosophy, the lives and opinions of great philosophers (Time Incorporated Inc, NY,1926) link: https://ia801300.us.archive.org/35/items/THESTORYOFPHILOSOPHY1TheLivesAndOpinionswillDurant1926/THE%20STORY%20OF%20PHILOSOPHY1%20The%20Lives%20and%20Opinions%20(will%20durant)-1926.pdf

 

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