Dmitry Pisarev 1861

Plato’s Idealism

Written: 1861;
Translator: J. Karzer;
Source: Russian Philosophy Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture, Quadrangle Books 1965;
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss, February 2008.

Plato is unquestionably entitled to our esteem as a powerful mind and a remarkable talent. The colossal mistakes this talent made in the sphere of abstract thought derived not from weakness of mind, shortness of sight, or timidity of thought, but from the predominance of the poetic element, from deliberate contempt of the testimony of experience, and from an overweening desire, common in powerful minds, to extract the truth from the depths of one’s own creative spirit instead of examining and studying it in particular phenomena.

Despite his mistakes and the complete untenability of his system, Plato may with all justice be called the father of idealism. Whether this was a signal service to humanity is, of course, a question that will be answered in different ways by representatives of different schools of abstract thought. But whatever the answer, nobody will deny Plato a place of honor in the history of science. Geniuses sometimes make felicitous mistakes that have a stimulating effect on the minds of whole generations. At first highly popular, later they are criticized; the popularity and the subsequent criticism together long serve as a school for mankind, as the ground of an intellectual struggle, as an occasion for the development of capacities, as a guiding and determining principle of historical trends and radical changes.

Plato, however, did not confine himself to the realm of pure thought, and he failed to realize that the true meaning of historical and political life cannot be understood while experience and individual phenomena are neglected. He tried to solve practical problems without even knowing how to pose them properly, so that his efforts in this direction are so feeble and groundless that they collapse completely at the lightest touch of criticism. His efforts show no rational love for mankind, no respect for the individual, no artistic proportion, no unity of purpose, no moral loftiness of ideal.

Imagine a fanciful but ugly edifice – one with arches, pediments, porticoes, belvederes, and colonnades, none of which has any practical purpose – and you will get an idea of the impression produced on the reader by Plato’s treatises, the Republic and the Laws. “The primary aim of the state,” Plato thinks, “is to make its citizens virtuous and ensure the material and moral welfare of all.” Recent investigators, as for instance Wilhelm Humboldt (Ideejt zu einem Versuch die Qrenzen der Wirksam-keit des Staats zu bestimmen), view the matter in a different light and define the state as a protective institution that safeguards the individual against abuse and attack by internal and external enemies. By this definition they release the adult citizen from the peculiar and unwanted guardianship imposed upon him throughout his life in Plato’s republic.

Apart from the erroneousness of the basic view, we find that the aim Plato pursued cannot even be achieved by the means and methods he suggested in his treatises. Virtue is required of the citizen, but Plato places the latter under humiliating restraints, against which moral and aesthetic feeling must rise up. The reader is faced with a dilemma: either the citizens, as self-respecting people, will not put up with this constraint, in which case all of Plato’s institutions go by the board; or else they will submit to it and, systematically perverted by it, will lose the capacity to be virtuous. Virtue (even as Plato understands it) and the observance of the laws in his ideal state are two incompatible principles. Wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice are the four cardinal virtues in Plato’s moral philosophy. Which of these four virtues denies man the right of free criticism and results in absolute submission? If none of these virtues is fit for the dutiful citizens of the ideal state, then that means that Plato separates the ideal of man from the ideal of the citizen.

Many thinkers of antiquity, among them Aristotle in his Politics, say that virtue can be achieved only by the fully enfranchised citizens and does not exist for the slave, the artisan, or the woman. But Plato, who imposes unnatural and offensive restraints upon all the citizens of his state, goes much further. He gives society a structure which, by its very existence, makes it impossible not only to attain the ideal but even to strive towards it. Coming from a thinker who believes that there is no salvation apart from an ideal, such an arrangement must seem exceedingly peculiar. If a man’s ideal cannot be achieved even theoretically in civil society, the conclusion follows either that man must live and develop outside society, or else that the notorious ideal is a useless plaything of idle imagination. Neither of those conclusions would have pleased Plato, but both can be eliminated only by rejecting Utopian theory or revising the ideal. In Plato’s republic there are officials, warriors, artisans, tradesmen, slaves, and females – but there are no human beings, nor can there be any. Each individual is a cog, a pinion, or a wheel of a certain size and shape in the machine of state: aside from this official function he has no significance in any quarter: he is neither son, nor brother, nor husband, nor father, nor friend, nor lover. He is taken from his mother’s breast at birth and placed in a home for children; he is not shown to his parents for several years, and his origin is deliberately forgotten. He is brought up in the same way as other children of the same age, and as soon as he begins to remember things and to be aware of himself he feels that he is state property, linked to no one and to nothing in the world around him. When he grows up he is assigned a definite post; he becomes a warrior, and warlike exercises become his chief occupation and amusement. As a good citizen he is obliged to put into these exercises the remnants of energy and soul that have not been dried up by his schooling. When his beard appears and his masculine strength has developed he is examined and certified by a special dignitary, who then brings him a young girl fit, in the dignitary’s opinion, to become the young man’s wife. The offspring accrue to the advantage of society and are treated in exactly the same fashion as the parents were. When a man grows old, he is made a civic official and appointed to some existing department: he becomes a judge, or a treasurer, or is placed in charge of young people, according to what he has been found suited for. Trade and the handicrafts are considered demeaning to the full-fledged citizen and are forbidden by law.

The external forms in which these political convictions must be embodied are barely sketched in Plato’s works. He thinks that the wisest and worthiest must stand at the head of the state, but it is a matter of supreme indifference to him whether it be one sage or several.

As an aristocrat by birth and a man who thought himself immeasurably superior to the masses in intellect and moral dignity, Plato found the democratic form of rule repugnant... . According to Plato, rulers have no obligations towards the individuals they rule, so that deceit, violence, and arbitrariness are permitted as tools of government. The laws of morality which are binding on private individuals do not apply to statesmen; the latter must be wise but the right to judge the degree of their wisdom is taken away from the individuals most interested and is, it seems, granted only to the Demiurge. On the one hand, arbitrariness has only the limits he deigns to give it. On the other hand, no limitation is placed on submissiveness, and if it begins to slacken it must be increased artificially, by measures moral or physical, stringent or mild, depending on the patient’s constitution and the doctor’s discretion. The removal of harmful influences must play an important role in the moral education or medical treatment to be applied to the citizens of the ideal state. Homer is banished as an immoral teller of fairy tales; myths are rewritten and stuffed with exalted ideas; statues of Apollo and Aphrodite are draped in the interests of decency. To prevent citizens of the ideal state from being led into temptation by neighboring peoples, intercourse with foreign lands must be made as difficult and limited as possible. ... It would be useless to analyze such regulations, for they speak for themselves loudly and eloquently.

I shall permit myself the observation that to mankind’s credit, the spirit of Plato’s political ideas has never attempted to win a place in real life. The most unbridled despots – men like Xerxes of Persia, Caligula, and Domitian – have never tried to destroy the family or to reduce their nation to the level of a stud farm with – a stroke of the pen. Fortunately for their subjects, these gentlemen were not philosophers; they butchered people as a pastime, but at least they did not try to remake mankind or systematically pervert their fellow citizens. Enlightened and intelligent despots like Louis XI, Tiberius, and Ferdinand the Catholic exerted a conscious influence on their subjects, but their projects and indeed their wildest dreams never achieved the majesty and boldness that mark Plato’s ideas. They shared the same aspirations, but Plato, spurred by his poetic genius, pursued these aspirations with unparalleled energy. The mighty spirit of criticism and doubt, the element of freethinking and individuality was the worst enemy of such aspirations and was therefore hateful to Plato. The slogan of national welfare provided all these men with a moral support, and Plato, too, employed it. The army was their material support, and the same force plays an important role in Plato’s republic. Like the sages of the ideal republic, these rulers thought themselves the worthiest and the best of their fellow citizens, men called upon to be the instructors and physicians of an underdeveloped and morally sick humanity. Roman torture and executions, the Spanish Inquisition, the campaigns against the Albigenses, Cardinal La Balue’s cage, the flames that licked Huss at the stake, the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, the Bastille, and so on and so forth may be termed bitter but useful medicines which at various times and in varying doses the healers of mankind have administered to their patients willy-nilly, without asking their consent. The principle advanced by Plato in the Republic and the Laws is not unknown to latter-day European civilization.