12th Grade: Plato’s Philosophy and Constitutional Interpretation


This week we looked at the philosophy of Plato as it relates to our study of government, and ultimately I want the students to relate what we examine with Plato and Aristotle to their understanding of our own constitutional convention activity that we will begin next week.

Plato and Aristotle in some ways, represent two different approaches to government.  Plato (on the left) stressed the eternal, and spirit as opposed to matter.  Aristotle (on the right) focused on the observable, experience, and “nature” as a fixed point.

Detail from "The School of Athens

As for Plato. . .

  • Plato and Truth
For Plato, truth is not to be found in our experience in creation.  Creation itself is at best a mistake, at worst an evil act.  Creation is the “Fall” for Plato.  Truth, therefore, resides “up there” in the world of perfect form and function, the world of ultimate truth and beauty.  This truth is fixed, eternal, and unchanging.
  • Plato & People

Plato believed that most people were guided primarily not by their intellect, but by their appetites.  We should not restrict this idea of “appetites” to  food — it involves all things that we want.  We want to “feed” the self, based on the whims of the moment.  Only a few, according to Plato, let themselves be guided by  their perception of the truth.

  • Plato and the State

We put our focus here.  Since only a few had the intellect and the will to escape the material and physical and be guided by ultimate truth, democracy was a foolish path to disaster.  Plato uses a few important analgies to help make his point.  A ship at sea, for example, does not take advice on how to sail from the crew.  Why then, should the state take advice from the majority, who are guided by their appetites.  The state needed guidance from ‘philosopher kings’ who had the ability of true perception.

This sounds harsh, but wise decisions benefit all.  We think we would be happier following our whims, but in reality, we would be better off as a part of a well-run state, at least according to Plato.

Many things, however, stood in the way of achieving this, among them the institution of the family, which only serves to perpetuate ignorance.  All kinds of culture and context needed swept away to achieve this ideal state.  Of course this ‘context in creation’ had no value anyway because creation itself led us into error.

There is much good and bad to say about Plato.

On the plus side:

  • Plato put great emphasis on seeking ultimate, eternal, and absolute truth.  He believed that the state needed this fixed guidance, and that leaders needed a firm and clear vision of what they wanted to achieve in society.

On the negative side:

  • Plato’s lack of respect for creation led him to treat individuals as cogs in the machine of the state.  Very few have rights, freedoms, or choices in Plato’s ideal Republic.
  • Plato’s extreme emphasis on the intellect meant that music, poetry, and other such things had to be removed as, in Plato’s view, they obscured rather than revealed the truth. The same holds for the emotions.  For Christians, Plato’s gnostic influence led to the introduction of a variety of Christian heresies denigrating creation and the Incarnation.

On Thursday I plan on listening to 9780815722120legal scholar and author Jeffrey Rosen, who has written extensively on technological change and the constitution.  While this was a detour of sorts, our discussion of Plato does relate.  Do we see the Constitution as an absolute, fixed, standard, no matter what changes around it?  Or, do we see the Constitution having certain key principles, that apply differently given the context of the times?  The first view obviously would have more in common with Plato, the second has more of an Aristotelian influence.  Plato, of course, would not want “Truth” to be influenced by context, as that would mean that truth had to be bound up in “matter,” which had inherent inferiority to “spirit.”

I hope the students saw the importance of the issues Rosen raised, among them. . .

  • How ‘private’ are public spaces?  We understand that when we walk down the street, someone could look at us and observe us, and this does not violate our privacy.  What if a person filmed us walking down the street, uploaded it on YouTube set to a techno song.  Would that violate our privacy?
  • Most of us are probably fine with surveillance cameras in stores.  Perhaps fewer or us (I’m guessing) are alright with traffic cameras at dangerous intersections.  Would we be comfortable with cameras monitoring dangerous neighborhoods?
  • The 4th Amendment prohibits government from violating our privacy.  Now, however, digital cameras and other such technology are readily available to the public, or at least private companies.  Does the 4th Amendment protect us from Facebook violating our privacy?  Or what about Google and its roving band of cameras?  Can private entities violate the 4th Amendment?  Do we need to add an such protection into the Constitution?

Next we will look at Aristotle, a pupil of Plato’s.  While in some ways his vision is complimentary to Plato’s, for the most part he takes an entirely different approach to truth, human nature, and government, and I will update you on him next week.

Many thanks for all your support,

Dave Mathwin