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Socrates, Plato and Modern Life
Would Plato Allow Facebook In His Republic?
Jenni Jenkins argues, probably not.
What would Plato (428-348 BCE) have made of the Internet and social media? If the Internet had been around in his day, would he accept my invitation to be his ‘friend’ on Facebook? How many friends would he have? Would he even allow Facebook and other social media into the ideal state posited in his Republic?
In the Republic (written around 380 BCE), Socrates, speaking for Plato, deliberates with friends about what is needed to achieve the most just policies for the establishment of the ideal state. They consider the nature of the soul (this is important, because the ideal state will mirror the individual); what justice is; the nature of ‘good’; and, what knowledge is and how truth can be attained. After this, they go on to discuss how the state should be run to best achieve justice and political harmony. The ideal Republic will consist of three classes of citizens: the producers; warriors to protect the citizens; and philosopher guardians (or philosopher kings), who will be the rulers.
Let us imagine it is 381 BCE, and Plato is researching for his new book about a hypothetical Republic. Our question is whether he would allow the citizens of his Republic to have access to social media; whether only the rulers would be allowed access; or would he have banned it from the Republic completely?
My first thoughts are that he would have attacked Facebook and all social media on (at least) three grounds, which I’ll illustrate using examples from the text of the Republic. These grounds are:
1. The idea, common on social media, that one opinion is as good as any other.
2. The lack of identity, ownership and accountability of its users.
3. Plato’s views on censorship in the running of the state.
Plato portrait © Clinton Inman 2017. Facebook him at clinton.inman
First, the idea that one opinion is as good as any other. In Book VI of the Republic, Socrates and Glaucon discuss the character of the guardians who are to rule the ideal state. Because of their philosophical education, the guardians will have to understand the nature of truth and know that it comes from goodness. Through Socrates, Plato suggests that just as the light that shines from the sun enables us to see physical things, so goodness enables us to see the truth (507b-509c). But this knowledge comes only through philosophical knowledge, which is why the rulers must be philosophers.
Plato thinks ultimate reality consists in a set of unchanging independently-existing abstract entities, called the Forms, of which our physical world is only an imperfect reflection. Moreover, Plato thought that this truth embodied in the Forms is absolute, eternal, and unchanging, and knowledge of them demands the sort of certainty through pure reason that one would normally only expect to find in mathematics and geometry. Anything less belongs to the world of appearance – the world of the senses – and so could not count as knowledge of (ultimate) truth, only opinion. And since Facebook is a representation of the world of appearance, this makes it a representation of an imitation of reality (that is, the world of the Forms), making Facebook twice removed from reality, and therefore false.
Could Plato have been wrong about truth being unchanging and beyond the appearances of things? Today we give a lot more credibility to the evidence of our senses. The scientific method of observation and testing has become a respectable process for establishing truth and falsity. We might deride someone who missed or chose to ignore hard empirical evidence. That’s why the assertion by Donald Trump’s counsellor Kellyanne Conway that there are ‘alternative facts’ is both amusing and a little frightening. Rather, some citizens will simply not want to ‘see’. Like the pike who, prevented from reaching minnows by a pane of glass in his tank, will leave the minnows alone after the dividing wall has been removed, and will starve himself to death, so people often do not want to confront the truth of even their senses. Psychiatrists call this a ‘learned helplessness’.
Although Plato’s view might seem a little extreme, he is not denying that trusting our senses is necessary for life. However, our senses alone are not enough for complete knowledge, and we do have to use mathematics and logic to obtain that. To take a literally mundane example, Does the Sun go around the Earth? It certainly appears to, as I watch the sun move across the sky over my garden as the day progresses; but scientists will tell me that, measured objectively, the Earth goes around the Sun. To know this we have to resort, ultimately, to mathematics. Similarily, Plato is saying that we can never have complete knowledge of anything without reference to the Forms, which exist in another realm and which can only be known through reason. So only philosophers trained to use reason to discern the Forms are capable of discerning ultimate truth, including of what is good.
The philosopher A.N. Whitehead once said that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, p.39, 1929). Whitehead was referring to the fact that Plato’s ideas have been influential through Christianity down to present-day philosophical and political thought. Sadly, some of Plato’s grand ideas are now out of fashion. His notions of truth and of what constitutes knowledge have been largely demolished by seventy years of post-modernism, and information is often now seen as a series of narratives instead of a series of facts. A large percentage of the population obtain their news through social media with no checks on authority or authenticity, and are happy to do so. So Plato would certainly object to Facebook and other social media on the grounds that they deliver so much false information that his citizens would soon become corrupted.
That said, on 14th April 2017, Facebook set out guidelines to help readers judge whether the information they read on their site is true or false; whether the information they read is opinion, belief, or knowledge; and whether it’s a fact or a value judgement. Plato would have been delighted at this attention and concern over the knowledge of the citizens of his Republic.
Second, Plato would criticise Facebook because of the anonymity and/or unaccountability it allows people.
The Republic 359a-360d tells the story of Gyges, a shepherd boy who finds a ring which he soon discovers makes him invisible. As in all good fairy stories, he uses it to kill the king and seduce the queen.
The story is told to illustrate what happens when people are free to act anonymously. Plato is suggesting that if we could become invisible we would be far more inclined to commit bad acts. He also points out that the truly good man would not want to be thanked or praised for good acts. He even says “the truly virtuous man would be prepared for people to believe that he was unjust whilst staying just himself.” But how many of us are this virtuous? Matthew Parris, in an article ‘Anonymity is the Mask that Licenses Hatred’ in the Times of November 26th 2016, went so far as to ask, “Suppose that from dusk tonight, for one night, each of us could kill silently and at a distance (let’s call it telecide) with complete impunity, with absolutely no chance of being identified. How many millions of sudden and unattributable deaths would have occurred by dawn?” While perhaps I would not go this far, it is certainly true that people on social media vent their anger with very little or no repercussions. Using Facebook and other social media we certainly express views about others that we would not dare say to their faces. So for this reason Plato would surely ban social media from his Republic, as it encourages people to be immoral, since they can get away with things they would not otherwise do. He would see it as licensing hatred, which might lead to lawlessness.
Third, there is the issue of censorship. Facebook has recently been in the news for not censoring hate speech and indecent photographs thoroughly enough, even though it has a team of people checking and removing unsavoury postings.
Plato would have approved of this sort of censorship activity. In the Republic Books III and X, he is even keen to ban certain kinds of writing, music, and poetry, because they have the potential to corrupt. For one thing dramatic art stirs up people’s emotions, leading to irrationality, which in turn encourages immorality. There is also the point about art-forms being imitative only of the world of appearance. Insofar as this is true, art is essentially false and deceitful, and will corrupt the citizens. So Socrates says, “the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction” (377c). Through Socrates, Plato states that all fiction is corrupting because by its nature, at best it’s written by authors who do not have real knowledge of what they are talking about (the reality of the Forms), and at worst it’s simply lie-telling. Children must be protected from bad art because it is corrupting to the soul, so the state which is responsible for education must only allow non-corrupting art (401b, 595a).
This would mean a severe censoring of the Internet by the guardians. So Plato would approve of Facebook’s attempt to censor its content, but he would be far more discriminating about what ordinary citizens would be allowed to post. Political views opposing Plato’s would be quickly removed, and most discussions about the arts would be heavily monitored. And all those videos of fluffy kittens would be seen as distracting people away from their duties. Of course, the truly virtuous guardians would not themselves be corrupted by what they read on Facebook, and they would have to know about its problems in order to protect the people from it. The guardians are to be allowed access to the arts, but only so that they can guide other people who are less able to handle the intense emotions art provokes.
However, the Republic might well itself fail Plato’s own criteria for censorship. First, it’s a political tract, which might encourage people to criticise their own governments, or which could be used as propaganda. It is also a work of rhetoric, therefore it’s not necessarily telling the truth. Plato’s Republic is perhaps the perfect example of the rhetorical practices he depicts so pejoratively in his remarks on poetry and the arts. Moreover, as a work of art, it’s twice removed from the reality of the Forms – it is itself a representation of a representation.
How Plato Could Use Facebook
Plato was not totally opposed to ‘bending the truth’ if it suited his purposes, and he could justify a lie if, in his mind, it’s for the greater good of the citizens. So while promoting honesty, justice, truth and knowledge above everything else in both the state and the individual, he’s also not averse to occasionally deceiving the citizens. His ruler guardians who are responsible for the morality of the lower orders must themselves be willing to lie when it’s for the best for the majority of citizens (389b).
Plato justifies deceit twice in the Republic. Once is when he thinks it defensible to lie to the guardians when they’re being paired up in marriage. They believe they’re matched-up by lottery, but actually the lottery has been rigged so that the best of the male guardians will mate with the best of the female guardians (459e-460a). The second lie – what is called ‘the noble lie’ – is used to justify the citizens having different positions in society (Book III, 414b-c). Although Plato thought people might be born equal, he thought it better to tell the citizens that they’ve been born into a certain stratum of society, and this dictates what work they’ll do, whom they’ll marry, and how free they are. Through this lie, the citizens will not question their way of life, which questioning may make them dissatisfied. This will ensure efficiency and harmony in the state.
So for some reasons Plato might use Facebook in his establishment of his Republic. The anonymity Facebook (and the Internet as a whole) allows, means that it might serve Plato well in his distribution of propaganda. For this he would allow the lower orders of society to use it, then hack into their accounts to spy on them and to indoctrinate them with propaganda, “for the greater good” as he could have said. It is clear that on Plato’s conception, the guardians, as rulers of the state, would be allowed to use the Internet to disseminate false information, if it promoted a peaceful society.
However, Facebook does not have the intention of promoting morality, and does not particularly seek to educate its users, so I think Plato would have disapproved of it for this reason alone.
© Jenni Jenkins 2017
Jenni Jenkins is an associate lecturer with the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University in Wales.