Was Plato a Trump Supporter?
I have died and gone to Tartarus. There is no other explanation for an article I just read at (gulp, blushing) American Thinker, “Was Plato a Trump-Supporter?” Author Jeffrey Folks manages, in a fairly brisk essay, to prove that (a) he has never read Plato, (b) he has never even watched a coherent YouTube video about Plato, and (c) civilization has ended.
Folks begins his butchering of Plato, history, and rational discourse with this extraordinary statement:
As far back as 360 B.C., thoughtful individuals recognized that career politicians are bad news. In Book VII of the Republic, Plato wrote that ordinary citizens, accomplished in areas other than politics, make the best leaders. These wise individuals are those who “have other honours and another and a better life than that of politics.”
In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors are in the final stages of laying out the practical, or quasi-practical, conditions that would have to be met in order to bring their abstract model of a perfectly just city to life in the real world. The most famous condition of this practical implementation, and probably the single most famous (or infamous) idea in the entire Platonic corpus, is that the only plausible rulers for such a city would be “philosopher-kings,” i.e., a tiny minority of men of the most spiritually actualized and intellectually advanced nature who would be intentionally bred, trained, and selected to become rulers, in which capacity they would serve the city for exactly fifteen years, having previously completed an apprenticeship within an elite guardian class subordinate to the previous cohort of philosopher-kings.
This meticulously worked-out regimen of political training and vetting, issuing in a permanent, carefully rotated ruling class, is apparently what Folks is here identifying as “ordinary citizens, accomplished in areas other than politics.”
Ordinary citizens? Well, Socrates has already informed us that the actual ordinary citizens of this just city would have to be systematically indoctrinated with a new, stability-inducing religious myth, the so-called “noble lie,” to the effect that all citizens are born with a certain type of metal in their souls, determining their proper station in society, and that the ruling class alone comprises those born with gold souls. (Not gold toilets, Mr. Folks; gold souls.)
As for these Platonic Trump-kings being “accomplished in areas other than politics,” yes they are — specifically, according to Plato, they are accomplished in philosophic wisdom, meaning the noetic quest for the true, immaterial Idea of the Good. From that alone, it is obvious that Plato was envisioning Donald Trump as his ideal ruler, right? Such is Folks’ assessment of the evidence, at any rate.
Plato was talking about Donald Trump, not Nancy Pelosi (or Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and the entire gang of lifetime politicians). The quality that President Trump possesses, and that so many in D.C. lack, is real-world experience of practical matters. From this experience, he has derived insight and wisdom.
No, Plato was talking about none of the above. Plato was in no way, and at no time, advocating rulers with “real-world experience of practical matters.” He was advocating philosophers: men without practical priorities or concerns, and in fact without any practical role in the society outside of ruling — apart from their preliminary training in the military class. In other words, he was advocating rulers with the precise qualifications of skill, temperament, and experience that Trump lacks in every possible respect.
To continue with my somewhat superfluous proof that the sun is hot, let us dig deeper into Folks’ fallacious exploitation of one of civilization’s foundational political theorists in support of one of history’s most determinedly uncivilized leaders.
It’s not just that professional politicians have no experience in the private sector – they hate the private sector because it is at odds with their interests.
Folks, having dealt so loosely with Plato’s proposal that a new kind of ruler is needed, is able to slide blithely all the way into the absurdity of implying that what Plato meant by a ruler with “insight and wisdom” was a man with private sector experience, i.e., a businessman!
But as I have explained in some detail in a recent article here in Limbo, the whole argument for philosopher-rulers, developed gradually and in great detail from Books II through VII of the Republic, is precisely that the only person suited to lead a society without being corrupted by the temptations and opportunities of authority is a man without any stake in, or desire for, the “goods” of practical life — that is, a man without material goals or inclinations. To identify this requirement as being satisfied by a billionaire real estate investor and TV conman is, to put it mildly, a distortion of cosmic proportions. On the contrary, businessmen, and in general those identifiable with the “private sector,” are exactly the sort of people who should never have a hand in governing, according to Plato, and who should therefore be raised to believe they have iron in their souls, so they will submit happily to the authority of the gold-souled wise men.
Folks continues to press the point that he is the least informed interpreter of Plato in the history of political thought, with this pathetic gem:
Future rulers should be educated in “useful” arts such as mathematics, he wrote (Portable Plato, p. 557ff) – a subject Donald Trump would certainly have studied at the Wharton School. As Plato went on to explain, “those who have a natural talent for calculation are generally quick at every other kind of knowledge” (Portable Plato, p. 563).
“A subject Donald Trump would certainly have studied at the Wharton School.” So the entire ten-year program of mathematics Plato was working out for his Academy, and that his Socrates outlines in the Republic, is just the sort of thing every business student studies at Wharton?
Perhaps the following exchange from Book VII will clear this up:
Then this is knowledge of the kind for which we are seeking, having a double use, military and philosophical; for the man of war must learn the art of number or he will not know how to array his troops, and the philosopher also, because he has to rise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being, and therefore he must be an arithmetician.
That is true.
And our guardian is both warrior and philosopher?
Then this is a kind of knowledge which legislation may fitly prescribe; and we must endeavour to persuade those who are prescribed to be the principal men of our State to go and learn arithmetic, not as amateurs, but they must carry on the study until they see the nature of numbers with the mind only; nor again, like merchants or retail-traders, with a view to buying or selling, but for the sake of their military use, and of the soul herself; and because this will be the easiest way for her to pass from becoming to truth and being. [Emphasis added.]
Mathematics is not a course of study for Plato’s rulers-in-training because it’s the sort of thing they study at Wharton, but primarily because it’s the sort of thing that, if studied in a non-business-oriented manner, can lead the soul away from its attachment to material interests, and into the realm of pure being, the Ideas, true knowledge. Again, I ask you, doesn’t this sound exactly like Donald Trump!
Here is the language with which the study of arithmetic is introduced by Socrates as a necessary component of the guardian’s education:
But what branch of knowledge is there, my dear Glaucon, which is of the desired nature [i.e., a nature such as to lead the soul from the world of change to the world of unchanging Being]; since all the useful arts were reckoned mean by us? [Emphasis added.]
The eventual answer to Socrates’ question is the knowledge of “number and calculation.” In other words, mathematical studies are valuable to the guardians not because math is “useful,” as Folks alleges, but precisely because it is not simply a “useful art.” It is useful for military training, to be sure, but more importantly because it leads the mind toward the immaterial — i.e., the practically “useless” — realm. No one qualified to be a philosopher-king, I dare say, ever came, or ever could come, out of a Wharton School math class.
To explain this more seriously, Socrates’ reference to the guardian-student learning to see “the nature of numbers with the mind only,” along with his discussion, right there in Book VII, of mathematical studies leading to an intellectual understanding of “great and small,” are hints of what Plato really has in mind. For as Aristotle tells us in Book I of his Metaphysics, Plato remained, at heart, a friend of the Pythagorean secret society, i.e., one who regarded “number” as somehow the essence of the sensible world. Specifically, he considered numbers in a quasi-Pythagorean, neo-mystical sense, as constituting an intermediate realm between the physical world of change and the ideal world of Being, and identified number as essentially the measure of Great and Small — this latter pair of opposites functioning metaphysically as the “intellectual matter” of the Platonic Ideas. The Ideas, as Aristotle simplifies it, were filtered through Number as through a matrix, thus producing the world of multiplicity and dimensionality that we experience through the senses.
In other words, pretty much what they were saying at Wharton back in Trump’s day, I gather.
Now, at the risk of impiety, I shall venture for the briefest moment into this benighted article’s most outrageous heights of ignorance, where Folks attempts to stare straight into Plato’s conception of philosophic wisdom as the chief qualification for just rule, and to respond, without blinking, that Trump fits the bill.
The ultimate goal of education is to arrive at the “perfection of knowledge” – a form of abstract reasoning that Plato called “dialectic.” The dialectician is “one who attains a conception of the essence of each thing” (574).
One could say President Trump’s gift for cutting through the “fake news” and arriving at the essential truth, as he did in his conception of his opponent as “crooked Hillary,” is just what Plato meant by dialectics.
Trump’s gift for cutting through “fake news” and arriving at the essential truth is “just what Plato meant by dialectics.” Good Lord. Or as Socrates is wont to say in response to hubristic or impious suggestions, “Hush.”
Dialectic, to begin with, has nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of “essential truth” Folks and Trump are concerned with, namely material facts about transient issues, of the “He said, she said” variety — as in “Fake News versus Trump Truth.”
Dialectic is a specific method of inquiry, which Aristotle tells us was born in Socrates’ teaching, and developed into a full-blown philosophical strategy by Plato and his leading associates (including Aristotle himself) at the Academy. It is a method aimed at finding the correct and unchanging definitions (or essences) of natural substances (e.g., man, soul) and qualities (e.g., justice, virtue), beginning from workable hypotheses and reasoning “upward” through question and answer, toward ever-more detailed and precise meanings, without deferring to the evidence of the senses, i.e., to the mere material manifestations of these substances and qualities. In other words, dialectic is the method of searching for Truth, the highest and overarching science, which, if properly studied and practiced for a lifetime, may lead a man of extraordinary perspicacity and diligence out of the cave of opinion and into the sunlit world of Being, which is to say at least to the antechamber of Wisdom. Dialectic is the science which, unlike other forms of thought, is engaged in exclusively through the highest intellectual faculty, called “nous” in Plato’s Greek — the activity of which, “noēsis,” is the most essential human activity, in the sense of being the activity in which the soul is most fully withdrawn into itself, and most detached from its bodily prison.
Here is the concluding paragraph of Folks’ hagiographic monument to Trump as Plato’s true philosopher-king:
President Trump is the epitome of the mature man of business that Plato so admired. A similar standard of service and practical experience can be found in many conservatives running for office in 2018. Were he around today, some 23 centuries after his death, Plato would recognize the value of President Trump – and he would see the liberal hacks in D.C. for what they are. Based on what he wrote in the Republic, he would be an enthusiastic Trump-supporter, delighted to see an American president bring “a better life than that of politics” to Washington.
“President Trump is the epitome of the mature man of business that Plato so admired.” I would love to see the passage where Plato expresses this supposed admiration for the “mature man of business.”
As for the claim that Plato would be “an enthusiastic Trump-supporter” — Why the hyphen in “Trump supporter,” by the way? — I prefer not to play the game of guessing what a man long dead would think of a current public figure, since it reeks of appeal to authority, one of the more childish logical fallacies.
I do, however, like to read Plato with some measure of care, for the purpose of applying his considerable wisdom to my own life and interests, including my interests in current political and moral issues. On that basis, then, without trying to put words in his mouth, but rather only to apply his own distinctions and definitions faithfully, I would offer the following Platonic observations about Donald J. Trump:
Donald Trump is at best the epitome of the man of the “iron” class, the commercial and productive class of society, the kind of citizen Plato believed should never be given political power. He believed the most just ruler would be a man without material ambitions, whereas Trump is a man who has built his entire adult life on the premise that personal material gain is the ultimate measure of human worth.
Plato believed that the just ruler would be a man utterly immune to concern for personal reputation or earthly honors, whereas Trump is perhaps the world’s poster child for self-aggrandizement, fame whoring, and the lust for public adulation: a personality cult leader whose business success is primarily identifiable with two things, (a) tall buildings with his own name blazing across the top in enormous neon letters, and (b) a reality television program based entirely on the mythology of himself as the ultimate judge of other men’s fates.
Plato believed that the just ruler would have to be a man whose soul is lacking the kind of personal ambitions that might be satisfied by the benefits of legislative power, whereas Trump has, for decades, been an unabashed and boastful exploiter of the greedy establishment, making cynical donations to politicians of either party when and as he saw an opportunity to buy material advantage for himself through his financial influence. Donating huge sums to the Clintons, both parties’ congressional funds, Chuck Schumer in New York, Rahm Emanuel when he wanted to build in Chicago, Mitch McConnell when he wanted to curry favor with the GOP establishment in advance of his presidential run — not to mention his vehement support of expanding the purview of eminent domain laws — these are the actions of a man who perfectly exemplifies the kind of self-regarding manipulation of the political structure that, on Plato’s teaching, ought to disqualify a man from ever being a part of the ruling class.
Plato believed that the just ruler would have to be a philosopher, in the proper sense of having learned, through years of study and spiritual training, to focus his soul on immaterial being, and on seeking the Good (genuine virtue, i.e., Wisdom) as the natural and true satisfaction of his erotic desire, and therefore to eschew and scorn the material world with its petty, false goods. Hence, as Socrates explains in the Republic, the ruling class of his just city would live communally, without luxury, and without any of the irrational pleasures that dominate the lives of ordinary men. Trump, meanwhile, is a braggartly billionaire who identifies success with wealth, virtue with “winning,” and whose observable “goods” are typified by: countless sexual conquests, including with pornographic models and actresses; multiple marriages with gold-digging arm candy; massive luxury homes and resorts where he can show off his wealth to the world; and a general disdain for the dignity of other human beings in favor of the assertion of what he regards as the privileges of fame, such as grabbing strange women by their private parts, seducing married women, and so on.
Plato believed the true philosopher-ruler would be the antithesis of the tyrant, because the philosopher’s soul is ruled by reason while the tyrant is ruled by “the many-headed beast” of immoderate material desires. Meanwhile, Trump openly praises actual tyrants, and has lived a very public life dominated by his obvious, megalomaniacal cravings for wealth, sex, and fame.
The Platonic philosopher is the precise opposite of a sociopath; Trump the precise definition of one.
What is most disturbing, however, about Jeffrey Folks’ cultish defamation of Plato in the name of exalting his idol, Trump, is not that he wrote such nonsense, but that American Thinker, where I published happily for years, posted it. A good friend of mine, who has also written for AT, has taken to referring to the site as The People’s Observer. Another friend, a longtime popular contributor to the site, has described how he used to be proud to tell people he wrote for AT, but now feels squeamish, almost ashamed, to admit it. #MeToo.
I am not saying that there is no room for different interpretations of Plato — there certainly is plenty of room. Nor am I saying that there is no room for disagreement about the value of the Trump presidency. What I am saying is that if a high school student submitted the article in question as a class essay, after having read only a brief bullet-point summary of Plato’s thought in his school textbook, I would probably give it back to him ungraded and demand that he try again after reading the textbook summary more carefully.
And I do not say that entirely fancifully, since I myself have contributed such a summary of Plato for an actual high school textbook, specifically the history of ideas textbook of one of the most prestigious Christian high schools in the United States, where I was asked to write synopses of all the major Western philosophers. Any high school student who read that synopsis would quickly see how false Folks’ essay rings. And yet Folks’ essay is the sort of thing that passes for “serious thought” among so-called conservatives in the Trump era.
As an intellectual and political movement, American conservatism, republicanism, constitutionalism, call it what you will, is in its death throes. The perpetrators of this ongoing murder are many and various, and prominently include the longstanding central players in the Republican Party establishment. Their primary murder weapon is Donald Trump.