More Reflections and Critique of Platonism

By | October 18, 2010

Need for Transcendent Justice?

[Here I reply a correspondent who argued that human-based justice is not real justice.]

Your reference to a “higher ideal of justice” suggests that you’re too mired in a Platonist view of reality. Unless you gain vision the form of justice, you only have a poor imitation of justice (or something to that effect).

Contrary to Plato and all other-world doctrines, ‘justice’ is a concept that arose in an earthly, human context. A rough statement of one notion of justice (in a moral context) is simply fairness or fair play. Treating someone fairly implies that her rights are respected and she is treated with the dignity each human deserves. This value is something that can be traced to the type of social beings that we are, social animals who evolved a large brain making a complex culture possible. Some of our moral values can be traced to the family and kin relationships. Justice and other moral values also came about because of the cultures, practices, institutions, education, training, etc. Yes, this is cryptic and incomplete; but we can explore extensive works on this issue, such as that of John Rawls, who offers an interesting theory as to how the concept of justice might have come about. But nothing here demands that in order to have a complete understanding of justice and just treatment of others we must believe in some other world or after life. Nothing demands — pace Plato — that one must have a vision of perfect justice in order to make sense of the down-to-earth value of justice.

The other point I shall make relates to the disconnect seen by some philosophers between a concern for social justice here on earth and an other worldly religion, such as that taught in the Gospels and in Paul’s writings. If the major concern is with salvation and gaining a position in the eternal realm, working for social justice here on earth may have a lower priority. Walter Kaufmann raises this objection against those liberal Christians who see the Gospel Jesus as working for social justice. (See his book, Faith of a Heretic.) Gospel Jesus is mainly concerned with teaching the message of salvation: how to gain eternal life in heaven.

It seems that Plato’s message in his dialogue, Phaedo, agrees with this general teaching. If the important point is the transcendent destiny of the eternal soul, how much concern does one have for achieving justice in this lower, physical world and reducing suffering of the body, which has little or no value after all.

With respect to your affirming the ideas of reincarnation and Karma as part of your account of justice: Of course, reincarnation is not part of the Christian otherworldly faith, but it is part of the otherworldly faith of several Eastern religions. It is not at all clear that this doctrine contributes positively to a concern with achieving some social justice here on earth. After all, what is happening now — no matter how unjust — is just Karma working itself out; and all things that happen — good or bad — have their just consequences in another existence. I take it this is what you mean by claiming that one will “meet justice in some future life.” Sorry, this just doesn’t do much for me.

Philosophy and Death:

“Philosophy as a preparation for death?” “Philosophy as the study of death?” Why should we accept such characterizations of philosophy? Maybe I’m being disrespectful to Plato, and his version of the great Socrates, when I say “thanks, but no thanks!”

Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo recounts a conversation that Socrates allegedly had with some of his friends and disciples as he awaited his death by hemlock. Here Plato credits Socrates with giving proofs of the immortality of the soul and with arguing that genuine philosophy is the study of death. Here death is understood as the soul’s separation from the body and from the physical-material world. This is a good thing because at death the soul returns to that eternal, higher reality, the realm of the forms. Given this picture of reality, we can see why, according to Plato, the philosopher should devote himself to a study of death, i.e, to the soul’s preparation for re-entry into the higher ‘divine’ reality.
The dialogue’s arguments only work if you assume, as this group of ancient Athenians did, that the soul is real and if you accept the reality of the realm of forms (an eternal, unchanging, non-physical reality). These are the background for the Socratic arguments that purport to prove that the soul preexisted birth, will survive after death, and is immortal. Also working in the background is Plato’s typical degrading of the physical and material reality, the body, and material values, as being less real and having less value than those ‘objects’ of the higher world. It is easy to see how Plato’s otherworldly philosophy became an inspiration and philosophical ground for some of the mystical, otherworldly philosophies that followed, including Christian other-world religious doctrines and Christian mysticism.

Relevance to contemporary Issues and Philosophies?

Admittedly Plato’s dialogues and his philosophy are very valuable as a piece of intellectual history. But I cannot imagine how his metaphysical philosophy has much relevance today to anyone sensitive to the work of the sciences and of critical, positive philosophies since the time of Spinoza and the Enlightenment. I believe that the biological sciences, neurology, cognitive sciences, linguistic sciences, and linguistic philosophies have shown that ancient arguments for the reality of soul, eternal and separate from the body, do not carry too far; and that the ancient Greek arguments for the realm of forms are no longer very persuasive. (None of this should be understood as discounting the relevance of the more down-to-earth, moral philosophy of Socrates.)

Some of us find more philosophical inspiration in the rational, humanism of an Epicurus (based on the atomistic materialism of Democritus), than we find in Plato’s dialogues. Certainly, as an ancient precursor to modern science and rational secular thought, Epicurus is as good an ancient source as Plato. Plato’s student, Aristotle, develops a philosophy which has more to offer the contemporary student than the other-worldly mysticism of Plato.


If philosophy retains any relevance and importance for people today [and that’s a big “IF”), it is as an attempt to make sense of life here on earth, not some purported afterlife or other-world — and as an attempt to help people deal with the challenges and problems that life presents. A philosophy obsessed with other worlds or ideal worlds, and which degrades our mortal, material existence on earth (like Plato’s does) or a religion emphasizing the life-to-come (e.g. Christianity) would propose such propositions as “Philosophy is a preparation for death” or “Philosophy is the study of death.”

Don’t we have enough to do just trying to deal intelligently and effectively with this life? Why spend our energies with speculations as to some ideal world (Plato realm of forms)? Why look on life as a preparation for some putative future existence following death? This is Plato’s unfortunate legacy to the Western intellectual world. Of course, the doctrine builders and theologians of Christianity loved him, as do most mathematicians who adopt some of his ideas regarding a higher ideal reality. But for the rest of us, this obsession with an ideal world, an afterlife, or an other-world — along with it’s devaluation of this world — is simply not a path that we wish to take. For many of us, this ‘philosophy of the other-world surely seems to be a premature, sorry resignation from this world, the only reality we can be sure about.

I’m as uncomfortable with this Platonist notion of philosophy as my correspondent is reassured by it. With apologies to all Platonists and spiritualists out there, I shall conclude with some lines of prose on this ever-popular obsession with other-worlds by Friedrich Nietzsche, who had some insight on these things.

“”It was suffering and incapacity that created all afterworlds — this and that brief madness of bliss which is experienced only by those who suffer most deeply.
“Weariness that wants to reach the ultimate with one leap, with one fatal leap, a poor ignorant weariness that does not want to want any more: this created all gods and afterworlds.”

(from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1st part – translation by Walter Kaufmann)

2 thoughts on “More Reflections and Critique of Platonism

  1. Firooz R Oskooi

    Forgiving and being generous is for individual. Society can only function under a system of justice, even it is a bad one!
    "The organization of the world and the tranquillity of mankind depend upon it.” “O people of God!” He exclaims, “That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.” “Justice and equity,” is yet another assertion, “are two guardians for the protection of man. They have appeared arrayed in their mighty and sacred names to maintain the world in uprightness and protect the nations.” “Bestir yourselves, O people,” is His emphatic warning, “in anticipation of the days of Divine justice, for the promised hour is now come. Beware lest ye fail to apprehend its import, and be accounted among the erring.” “The day is approaching,” He similarly has written, “when the faithful will behold the daystar of justice shining in its full splendor from the dayspring of glory.” (Baha'i Writings) I don't think Plato would have thaught otherwise, unless he spoke of Divine and other wordly justice.

    1. philosophylnge

      Plato's metaphysical philosophy might be applied to this kind of religious spirituality, but it requires a rather loose reading of Plato. But Plato surely did not teach the kind of religious spirituality that you propose or quote.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *