One of the more interesting discussions I had with my class this week concerned a little quote I pulled from somewhere in Plato’s Republic:
Human affairs aren’t worth taking very seriously.
The quote is classic Plato, or at least it is how Plato has classically been characterized. Consider the famous painting by Rafael, “The School of Athens.” Plato stands with Aristotle in the center of the painting. While Aristotle points down to earth, to things like frogs and humans, Plato points up towards the heavens, towards the things that truly matter, the things that do not come and go but ever remain the same. Compared to the permanence of the heavens, to the sun and the stars, or to even more fundamental realities like the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, what is man? An insignificant little blip, a speck of animated dust that tries desperately to stay alive for 80 years or so. For Plato, it was not man, but these higher realities that truly merited our serious attention.
The top news stories lately could be seen as either confirming the truth of Plato’s assessment, or as challenging it. On the one hand we had the spectacle of a former child star, now slightly more grown up, cavorting around a stage in a state of undress and simulating sexual acts with a married man as part of a musical act at an awards show. No, I will not include a picture, you pervs. Besides, the real “story” in this is precisely that it was treated as a story at all. I claim no particular expertise in such matters, but this type of song and “dance” number is far from atypical of the American entertainment industry, which grows ever more shallow and pornographic. Most of what it produces these days is not worth the attention of serious human beings–and this is doubly true in regard to self-congratulatory “awards shows.” We need a little more Plato in our souls in regard to such things.
And, as my students pointed out, it is also a psychologically healthy attitude to have even in regard to one’s own life. It is good to be able to “let things go,” to avoid always being in “desperate haste and desperate enterprises” as Henry David Thoreau once wrote. Realizing that one is not, in fact, the pinnacle of reality often has a nice way of taking away some of one’s self-imposed pressures.
Yet as some of my other students pointed out, Plato’s thought could also operate as an excuse for complacency in the face of great evils. For Miley Cyrus has not been the only news story lately: in America, we just commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” a milestone in the battle against segregation based on skin color. It was only a refusal to shrug and accept the status quo that brought an end to such segregation. But if human affairs were not worth taking very seriously, why would anyone have bothered? Why endure humiliations, beatings, and bombings in the attempt to make a great changes in the human order?
It seems to me, however, that Plato’s wisdom can survive that challenge. I would contend–paradoxically, I know–that one has to endorse some aspects of this Platonic understanding in every struggle for justice. For every struggle for justice is going to involve sacrifice. If human affairs–things like jobs, families, and lives–were the truly most important things, the things to be taken “very seriously,” then struggling for justice would be an inversion of right order. One would be wagering the greater for the sake of lesser, and that is just a bad bet.
But that is not our intuitive sense of things. As much as we long for comfortable lives, we all agree there are situations in which it is right to risk “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” precisely because there are things higher than human affairs. We may not, ourselves, be courageous enough to actually take such risks, but we remain able to recognize the excellence of those who do.