READ PARTS I to IV HERE
While Socrates was defending his opinions in the great halls of Athens, the city-state was falling apart. Wars were being fought, and people were becoming poor. Perhaps this was the reason for the ultimate condemnation of Socrates, who, instead of propping up the structure of Athenian society was constantly eroding it with his endless questioning. There is only so much subversive thinking that a city under pressure can take, and Socrates had to go. So he did, quietly, in a kind of suicidal pact. The courts of Athens, the first democratic court of its day, demanded that he either recanted or took poison. So he ingested his dose of hemlock and thus acquired his reputation as one who preferred to die rather than give up his right to say what he thought. He remains as a martyr to the cause of freethinking, a man who chose ultimate silence over imposed silence.
Plato was present at the court during the trial of his master, listening and watching. It was a lesson, and one that Plato the student would never put aside. As a kind of tribute to his master, Plato set his words to paper. But whether they were his words or Socrates’, is never really clear. Only when Plato sat down to write his greatest work, The Republic, did he show his true colours — colours that seemed more Spartan than Athenian.
South of Athens and Plato, stood the city-state of Sparta. In the Ancient Greek world, Sparta mattered. It still matters. The reason it does, is because it serves as an example of how far one man can take his idealism, and how dangerous his vision can become.
Sparta could almost have been called an experiment, or even a myth, but in fact it was a real place, modelled on the utopian vision of one man, the legendary Lycurgus, a man who was rather like an Ancient Greek Hitler for the kind of society he wanted to create. Whereas Hitler ultimately failed, Lycurgus pretty much succeeded, albeit without the genocide. In a nutshell, Sparta was a place where there was no liberty – it was oligarchic, utopian (but just for them), infused with military idealism and a kind of false virtue.
It even had its own ‘Nazi youth’, where young people were disciplined according to the Spartan model of the ‘perfect citizen’. The Spartan model influenced the German Romantics, and German Nationalism Socialism also drew its inspiration from the same source. Plato too was influenced by the Spartan ideal when he penned his Republic. The Republic was a great work of philosophical thinking, but ultimately it was a conservative, autocratic and potentially dangerous view of how a society should be run. Equally significant were Plato’s views on metaphysics, because they became almost a part of scripture, and provided the foundation for the Christian belief in the separate existence of the body and the soul.
What then were the consequences of all this? Religious power? Nazi Germany? Aristocratic rule? Perhaps. But, in any event, it is certainly true that when Plato wrote his Republic, and set out his theory for a social and political utopia, philosophers had an enormous influence, and the actual implementation of his idyll was not impossible. And if in the end it didn’t happen, it was because, as usual, someone else came along to make their mark on the philosophical landscape of the Greeks.
In the kingdom of Macedonia, far to the north beside the border of Thrace in the Balkans, a boy called Aristotle had been born. One day he would become Plato’s student, and the questions he would raise would divide Greek thinking once again. For Plato, absolute truth lay in the hands of the philosophers; it was in essence idealistic, abstract, God-like. Aristotle disagreed; truth, he said, could be grasped. It could be touched, felt and analysed. Aristotle took the truth out of the hands of the philosophers and gave it to the scientists. He also did something else: he took the power out of the lap of the state, and gave it to the individual. Even though it did not die, the idea of Sparta had at least been superseded. It belonged in the hall of myth and legend — to be resurrected by a madman and discredited by the sane.
Read Part VI next week…
by Lucille Turner
A compelling tale of prophecy and intrigue
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