Archives For Plato

Senses of Cinema article: In Dreams and Imagination: Surrealist Values in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire

This article makes a differentiation between Surrealism and Post-modern aesthetic tendencies in the context of the films in the title. It also mentions a post-surrealist cinema. The term post-surrealist in my mind is limiting as in my view what we see in Mulholland Drive especially is an aesthetic that incorporates both post-modernism and surrealist aesthetic values.

The article thrusts upon Lynch’s work an activist agenda:

The future of this aesthetic, I argue, is determined by a work’s relationship to material reality, in line with André Breton’s 1935 paraphrasing and reiteration of Marx, namely that “the activity of interpreting the world must continue to be linked with the activity of changing the world.” (3) This contributes two appraisals: of the extent to which Lynch employs Surrealism and, therefore, of the extent to which his work might embody a political resistance to dominant filmic conventions.

Whilst there is something to be said for the counter-cinema and counter-industry position of Lynch and his films, when reading the text and engaging Lynch’s art as a whole (imagination, spiritualism, sensory experiences; fear, humour, horror, love) the politicised dimension is far less in proportion to the romantic dimension. By romantic I mean the alienation and subsequent connection of the individual with the wider environment (nature and self), the existential dilemma of waking up in a world without certainty and the subsequent appraisal of values and morals, and the impulse to move against the zeitgeist. This last point is however not to be confused with the status quo political activism of the second half of the 20th century (think of this brand of activism and intellectualism itself as the zeitgeist).

Surrealism has an uncanny relationship to the philosophy of Plato:

Surrealism is essentially a cerebral retreat of survivors who do not want to look back. The Surrealist poets, writers, and visual artists stage an psychological retreat from reality, either past or present, and seek what the late poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, called “sur-reality,” or a realism outside and beyond perceived reality. The regressive nature of Surrealism could be understood as healing and reconstructive, replacing an aggressive and public voice with a private exploration into the recesses of the unconscious. Dada was inherently reality-based and overtly political. Surrealism, on the other hand, shifted away from an oppositional stance towards a more theoretical position.

Just as Plato seeks truth through the Socratic dialogues (which essentially means an epistemological truth; truth lies in the foundations of our ability to reason, in the recesses of consciousness) Surrealism retreats inwardly. The antithesis of this would be an empirical outlook such as that of Aristotle (think European rationalism vs. British empiricism) which holds a similarly uncanny parallel with the Dada movement; anti-art that seeks to engage the world as it is, not through any artistic notion of realism but through activism and non-authoritarianism.

The primary topic for discussion in Statesman is the expertise in knowledge for how to rule well. An argument is made between sections 292 and 293 that sets up the precise definitions and characteristics for describing a type of government. It is determined that the way by which we should assess constitutions not by the numbers of its rulers, its wealth or poverty or its consent or constraint but as a branch of knowledge. A breakdown of the discussion:

Forms of government:
1) monarchy
2) when power is in the hands of a few
3) the rule of the many (Athenian democracy)

Take into consideration whether they involve constraint or consent, poverty or wealth, regard or disregard for law.

1) Monarchy can become kingship or dictatorship
2) when power is on the hands of the few can be divided as aristocracy and oligarchy
3) Democracy tends to get the same definition regardless of constraint or consent

This division of characteristics (wealthy, poor, consenting, constrained, law abiding, lawless) implies that they are excluded from being perfect systems. Plato now directs the discussion to a previous argument (The Republic – book 2??) that government by a king was a branch of knowledge. There are two branches of knowledge: an evaluative kind and an instructional kind. The instructional kind is further divided into the king that is responsible for inanimate things and the kind responsible for living creatures. By pointing out these categories it becomes clear that to understand a constitution (the organizing principles of the polis) such knowledge (even perhaps perspective) is required. So the question becomes ‘which of these systems in fact possesses this knowledge?‘ It is also implies that if to be a ling requires this knowledge the amount of candidates for kingship is limited to very few as in any particular field of expertise there are only ever few experts.

Visitor: The only true system – the political system par excellence – is one where it can be shown that the rulers are genuinely and not merely apparently knowledgeable. (The Statesman 293c)

This leads to an absolutism whereby the leaders based on an ideal notion of knowledge can decide the destiny of the city and all its people and they are morally justified, even if such a decision involved purges or lack of legal ethics and code. The young Socrates objects to this lack of need for the leader to abide by a legal code.

Visitor: Because legislation can never issue perfect instructions which precisely encompass everyone’s best interests and guarantee fair play for everyone at once. People and situations differ, and human affairs are characterized by an almost permanent state of instability. It is therefore impossible to devise, for any given situation, a simple rule which will apply to everyone forever. (The Statesman 294a)

Thus far a specific type of knowledge/expertise has been cited as the fundamental criteria for leadership of the polis. This expertise gives a mandate to the leader to make decisions without moral constraints (if the decision is taken in view of the knowledge and expertise of the leader it is vindicated). Next comes the discussion of how to educate such a person into such a role. Imagine a personal trainer instructing a group of athletes. They can’t find time to create individual regimens for each athlete and so create a collective regimen which will benefit the most amount of individuals. The argument goes that the same applies to a legislator. So a legislator creates imprecise laws that can date and become defunct and inefficient. If one is to go back on their original instructions and issue new instructions a bad faith occurs whereby the point of law making becomes absurd if the laws are changeable and not trustworthy. Not just this, but the laws become a constraint for the leader to deal with the unstable nature of human community and environment. The visitor cites the common response to this argument about the restrictive character of law:

Visitor: It’s the view – which is certainly plausible – that if a person knows of laws which improve on those of his predecessors, he should get them established, but only once he has persuaded his state to approve them, and not otherwise. The Statesmen 296a

The visitor points out that a decision can be made that affects the situation of the individual to which the individual may object, but for whom the decision is just and moral. The argument is about constraint by law and by ignorance via the influence of those who do not possess the correct knowledge. The visitor argues that the ruler with expertise is more effective at keeping the citizenry safe by making available his expertise, rather than enforcing a legal code. The one parameter:

As long as these wise rulers have the single overriding concern of always using their intelligence and expertise to maximize the justice they dispense to the states inhabitants, there’s no defect in what they do, is there? 297b

The availability of the wise rulers will be scarce as per the previous discussion point, and thus so will be the actual perfect society. An analysis ensues of the extent to which existing societies reflect this perfect set up. Plato has opposed the notion that not only are people not equally equipped to exercise political rule, but those who are equipped are extremely rare and reserve the right through their knowledge and expertise to rule with absolutism. It must be said however that Plato arrives at this absolute ideal by recognizing that generalized legislation and a static political system and economy cannot work as they do not adhere to the unpredictable and unstable character of human community and the environment in which humans live.

The Premise

Whilst Socrates is imprisoned and awaiting his death sentence, Crito comes to persuade him to allow an attempt to save him by allowing his friends to bribe the guards and ferry him out of the city and away from Athenian law whilst there is a window of opportunity. Socrates refuses. Crito’s arguments for and Socrates arguments against the escape form a narrative that explores the right of the state (the polis) to pass judgement and the nature of justice and injustice. This is also one of the first blueprints for what we now know as social contract theories.

Point to keep in mind: cited in The Republic Book 1, the status quo position on justice in Athens at this time is helping ones friends and harming ones enemies. Crito uses this position to argue that Socrates actions (accepting his sentence) are unjust as he allows his enemies to triumph over him and harm his friends and family. Also, society and the city in this context means the polis – Athenean democracy

Crito explains that if Socrates does not accept his escape offer, Crito will be the subject of scorn as friends will believe that Crito did not bribe high enough, and so values money more than his friend. Crito introduces a tyranny of the majority warning, explaining that if one becomes unfavored the majority can inflict the greatest evils, as evidenced by Socrates own sentence. Crito goes on to plead that Socrates actions in accepting his sentence will be perceived as cowardice (Crito and company did not act throughout the process to save Socrates), as shameful (cowardice is shameful) and as irresponsible and unjust (Socrates leaves behind sons whose education and upbringing will now be uncertain, hence he harms his family).

Is it just for Socrates to escape and evade his death sentence?

Socrates starts by breaking down Crito’s appeal. With regards to the tyranny of the majority, Socrates points out that in all past discussions it has been agreed that one need only value some opinions and not others:

” … one must not value all the opinions of men, but some and not others, nor the opinions of all men, but those of some and not of others …” (Crito; 47a)

This is typical of Socratic dialogue. The instant reaction is to see that Plato comes up with a generalised logic that should blanket all situations i.e. on matters of building a table one should listen to the opinion of a carpenter, but not necessarily a fish monger. In this case, the tyranny of the majority is an entirely different premise to which the logic is being applied. However, by breaking down to fundamentals Plato can build models; political, social and economic.

To walk through this argument: a man who is an athlete should pay attention to the opinions of a doctor or trainer. Therefore he welcomes the praise or fears the blame of this one person (doctor or trainer) and not those of the many. He must act and exercise according to the recommendation of the trainer/doctor and not that of the many. If he disobeys the one, and seeks the praise of the many (who have no knowledge) he will suffer harm. Therefore we should follow the opinion of one who has knowledge of the matter in question or otherwise harm and corrupt that part of ourselves that is improved by just actions and harmed by unjust actions. Justice and virtue are the highest ideals and Crito should seek only the opinion of he who knows about justice and injustice and not the majority. However, one could argue that the majority has the strength to inflict harm. Socrates response is that it is the good life that counts (justice and virtue) above and beyond life itself (a good point in which to refer to Nietzsche). By valuing a high ideal of the virtuous life, Socrates allows for the tyranny of the majority; the zeitgeist. The implications of this statement have huge consequences for the plight of the individual. Does Plato in his view of the state allow for protection against the tyranny of the majority?

Socrates establishes the premise that to do wrong is never good. One must never do wrong. When one is wronged one cannot inflict wrong in return. This is where the status quo point of view of justice is highlighted as a contradiction to the ideal of never inflicting harm.

” … when one has come to an agreement that is just with someone, should one fulfill it or cheat on it? {…} if we leave here without the city’s permission, are we harming people whom we should least do harm to? And are we sticking to a just agreement or not?”

Private individuals in this scenario have the ability to undermine the law and due process of the city and thereby also have the power to destroy the city. Ultimately to escape is to inflict harm upon the polis by destabilising the city. There are two important points implied here: that the city is justified in its rule over the polis, and the right of the individual to appeal to the ruling of the city. Socrates cites that the city provided the conditions for his birth, nurture, education and life. See Crito 51a. Essentially Socrates respects law and order and recognises the right of the city to govern and pass judgment. What is in question here is the right of the individual to appeal and challenge authority. By escaping Socrates confirms what he has been accused of as any city that would receive him would have to see that in escaping he disregards the authority of the polis and so as a teacher is a corruptor of youth.

Book 3 is essentially a treatise on education and the responsibility of the state (the polis) to provide the ‘right’ kind of education for its citizens. Myths and poems are examined for the virtues that they preach and those deemed not in the interests of the polis are to be censored. Besides the obvious hint of totalitarianism in the ideas behind censorship, the prominent concept here is the persons relationship to the polis and polis to the person. An individual is thought of as a future guardian. The program is a matter of survival and regeneration for the polis. Just about all aspects of life fall under the education program. Religion (perceptions about life after death) is the first discussion. Interestingly, the more poetic the literature, the more a person may fear death i.e. the fear of Hades:

“It isn’t that they aren’t poetic and pleasing to the majority of hearers but that, the more poetic they are, the less they should be heard by children or by men who are supposed to be free and to fear slavery more than death.” (387b)

A value set is constructed based largely on the faults of the gods. For instance, Zeus displays no self restraint when he caves in to desire and ‘possesses’ Hera on the ground, dashing his well laid plans (390c). This must be censored so as to not display examples of supreme beings showing lack of self constraint. Also, to avoid a culture of bribery, censoring of lines such as:

“Gifts persuade gods, and gifts persuade revered kings.”

These arguments are largely calling back to earlier work by Plato around the concept of individual responsibility and fate. Plato has previously argued that if the gods and fate preside over reality and our behavior is determined by their whims and will, then any murder can claim fate as responsible for his crime. Complex logic and theorizing lead Plato to system whereby man is responsible for his actions. See Plato and the Myth of Er

Next comes a study of prose and style. Plato essentially goes into a discussion about the ethical merits of 1st person versus 3rd person perspective. Plato suggects that tragedy and comedy are narrated by ‘imitation’ (1st person). This is considered an important topic for the proposal about education. Whether or not to allow tragedy and comedy into the city. Because tragedy and comedy assume the roles of many varied characters, Plato seems to be driving at the idea that it is impossible to ‘imitate’ reality via one poet/playwright or through one actor and therefore this will serve only as a distraction for the future guardian of the city who must be focussed on the sole craft of guardianship.

Essentially they surmise what is allowed to be said and how it is to be said.

Essentially Plato is searching for a system to create soldiers, or ‘guardians’, that will be consistent and serve the philosophical vision that defines the city: namely that of a city of justice and virtue.

“we must find out who are the best guardians of their conviction that they must always do what they believe to be best for the city. We must keep them under observation from childhood and set them tasks that are most likely to make them forget such a conviction or be deceived out of it, and we must select whoever keeps on remembering it and isn’t easily deceived, and reject the others.” (413d)

The guardians come out of this system looking somewhat like supermen, free of vice and full of virtue. At once serving the city, but at the same time being despised in order that their intentions remain pure and not materially driven. It is easy to start plotting the relationship between Nietzsche and the ancient Greeks once you start ‘struggling’ through Plato’s Republic. An individual comes out of this system reflecting the dominant ideology. This is an idea that is still relevant today though not necessarily in the totalitarian character as described by Plato. You could imagine when a person says someone is typically American, or the American dream, or the Australian fair go. What they refer to is a set of shared characteristics that come out of a particular culture, or the shared vision of a wide cross section of that culture.

Is injustice more profitable than justice?

Justice is “to be valued by anyone who is going to blessed with happiness, both because of itself and because of what comes from it.” (Book 2, 358a)

The alternative view is that common sense suggests that justice is valued for the rewards and popularity that come with a reputation for having it (the left). This idea of reputation makes justice a superficial possession suggesting that injustice is the true state of mans priorities.

What is Justice and what are its origins?

The argument represented by Thrasymachus goes as follows: To do injustice is naturally good. To suffer injustice is naturally bad. To suffer injustice far outweighs being able to be unjust. Those who lack the power to at once be unjust and avoid suffering injustice, decide that it is profitable to come to agreement with others neither to do nor suffer injustice. Those with the power to be unjust and avoid suffering injustice would not enter such a social contract.

Glaucon wishes to put this idea to the test and so devises a competition between two examples of the extreme version of an unjust man, and that of a just man. The unjust man must be absolutely successful in his injustice and so must be perceived to be a just and righteous man. If his injustice were to be found out he would have the powers of persuasion and force to turn this opinion, as they are tools of the unjust. On the other hand, the just man must be perceived by his community to be unjust and wretched in order that we are sure that his justice is for its own sake and not for reputation or other profitable motivations above the level of the righteousness of justice for its own sake.

Socrates takes up this task to respond to the formula as stated by Glaucon: that is, to account for the virtue of justice in and of itaelf, removed and separate from any notion of a beneficial reputation or other superficial reward.

1) there is the justice of a single man
2) there is the justice of a city
3) the justice of the city is larger than that of the single man.

The City:

A city comes to be because none of us is self sufficient. All of us need many things. This is the soul principle upon which a city is formed. Each person joins the settlement of givers and takers because they find it beneficial. The break down of labor and needs: a farmer for food, a builder for shelter, a weaver for clothing, a cobbler for infrastructure, a doctor for medical care. It is evident that one person is better at a trade if they focus only on that trade i.e. a builder focuses on building and not on farming. In this sense more plentiful and better quality goods are more easily produced under this principle of cooperation. A city will also need imports and so is, like the individual, not self sufficient no matter how organized. As a city grows, it grows exponentially as these demands are met. At this stage Socrates describes a ‘healthy’ city in which all needs are met and everything is functional and happiness is pursued and attained by the citizens. Next the discussion turns to a city with a ‘fever’. This is a city essentially with vice. To this formula artists, poets and musicians are added. The needs of the city grow exponentially as people engage in more and more luxury i.e. more cattle for more meat eating, and more doctors in response to more health problems. The need to seize the land of neighbors etc. Here we find the origins of war.

The conversation now turns to the appointment of guardians of the city. Just like a soldier must be trained in and devoted to the skills of soldiery, so must a guardian of the city. What is required is a person in whose nature it is to harbor these qualities (just as in the case of a soldier, or a woodworker etc). A guardian must be gentle to his own people and harsh to the enemies of the people: at once gentle and ‘high spirited’. To find such a person requires raising such a person. The justification is developed that children must undergo a state-specific education that will build their minds in the correct manner to hold these qualities of a city guardian. Second to this concept of education is the concept of state censorship as Socrates argues that stories with false premises as told by poets (such as the poems of Homer) must be kept from poisoning the reasoning of people. Therefore there must be laws enacted that prevent the telling of these stories.

Context: The scenario that begins The Republic suggests a dichotomy between strength in numbers (the mob) and philosophic reasoning (speech and argument). This is represented by the group that approach Glaucon and Socrates and insist aggressively that the two join them for the festival and for discussion. Is the will of the majority compatible with philosophy and reason and the better argument? Can a compromise be reached between the two? Is the just city this combination?

The opening of The Republic sets the scene for a lengthy Socratic dialogue on the nature of justice and the nature of hierarchy and leadership amongst men. First of all, justice is argued by Cephalus to be both speaking the truth and repaying what is owed. Socrates points out an immediate flaw: that is, to give back a borrowed weapon to a man who is out of his mind and could use it inappropriately is not just or responsible. At the same time to tell the whole truth to someone who is out of their mind could be equally unjust in some circumstance. Therefore, to be just actually means that one person owes it to another person to do good for them, and never harm. Enemies might therefore receive bad treatment as it is what is ‘owed’ them, therefore appropriate and just.

Next the usefulness of justice is brought into question. Justice is abstracted as a an intellectual skill, to be thought of in the same way as a doctor’s skill is to heal, and a sailor’s to sail. The just man performs the act of being just. Just as a doctor is only useful to those that are sick, when they are sick, the just man is only useful when what is owed needs to be ascertained and repaid (in times of war to deal with enemies, in times of peace for contracts). In business, in this case partnerships requiring contracts, a just person is not as useful as say a builder for a construction business. Plato is model building here. He breaks down all human qualities to the bare essentials to exam the relationships between things. In reality one would argue that people could have multiple sets of skills including just decision making.

With regards to this business side of the skill of being just, it is decided that a just man is adept at safekeeping: gold or goods. Interestingly the opposite is also deemed true; that if one is good at safekeeping, one must also be good at stealing. Justice is useless when things are in use, and useful when they aren’t and need safekeeping.

In terms of doing good for those believed to be good and worthy of justice, human subjectivity becomes a problem. If the perception of the just person is mistaken, good and useful people may in fact be bad and useless. The people they perceive to be good are therefore their enemies, and the bad their friends. The definition of friend and enemy shifts to being:

“Someone who is both believed to be useful and is useful is a friend; someone who is believed to be useful but isn’t, is believed to be a friend but isn’t. And the same for the enemy.” (Republic; Book 1 334e)

Next comes the question of a just person harming and enemy who is bad. Justice is seen as human virtue. To be harmed causes a regress in the victim of human virtue. Therefore a just person cannot harm an enemy as it is not just to cause a regression in human virtue; enemy or not.

At this stage Thrasymachus demands an opinion of Socrates. The dialogue frustrates him and he asserts:

“justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” (338c)

For Thrasymachus justice is structural in accordance with the governing powers. A tyranny makes tyrannical laws, a democracy makes democratic laws etc. Socrates breaks this down by observing that the rulers are not infallible.

1) it is just to obey the rulers
2) rulers are not infallible – prone to error
3) a law is correct if it is to the rulers advantage
4) a law is incorrect if it is not to the rulers advantage

therefore it is just to do what is disadvantageous for the rulers as they prescribed the law, and it must be obeyed, even if it is an error. In this case the weaker are doing what is disadvantageous for the stronger.

The term ‘precise’ is introduced to further clarify an action. A ruler is a ruler in the precise sense when thwy are performing the act of ruling. When they are not they are a ruler in a general sense. In the same way, a ships captain is captain in the precise sense that he rules over the sailors, and not in the sense that he is a sailor himself. There is something advantageous to the both sailors and the subjects and the captain and the ruler in these analogies. Human hierarchical relationships are mutually dependent and no one self sufficient. Skills in this hierarchy are aimed downwards. This is a market-place style analysis: horse breeding doesn’t seek its own advantage, but that of the horses. A skill is engaged in order to improve the lot of the receiver of the benefits of the skill. A doctor’s skill is advantageous to his patient. Therefore a ruler will seek what is advantageous for his subjects. Thrasymachus’ argument at this point has now been turned on its head. Thrasymachus now insists that injustice is more advantageous to the individual than justice, and therefore to any ruler.

Is injustice more appealing to the individual than justice?

Socrates employs an elaborate set of examples to demonstrate that justice is a virtue that benefits both the individual and the group in a mutual way. By the virtue of justice people operate at their optimum.

Key questions in this book:

1) what is justice?
2) is it vice and ignorance or wisdom and virtue?
3) is injustice more profitable than justice?
4) is the person who has it happy or unhappy?

Is nature or convention the basis of society and the state?

The ‘usual’ view of the nature and origin of morality:

Immorality is more attractive than morality as a way to live ones life. Plato asserts that in nature doing wrong is good, and having wrong done to oneself is bad. The disadvantages of having it done to one far outweigh the benefits of doing it. Therefore disadvantages are unavoidable, and benefits are unattainable. The most profitable course of action for people is to enter a contract with one another in which no wrong will be committed or received. Laws and decrees follow, as do the terms ‘legal’ and ‘right’. Morality is construed as a compromise which in and of itself is not ‘good’, but does have the value of preventing people from doing wrong. Morality therefore is only actually practiced by people who lack the ability to do wrong, as those with the real ability to do wrong would not recognize or legitimize the contract. Morality is a structure from which people will deviate given the opportunity.

This fits into the wider view that human society is a product of human agreement and convention. As such it is radically different from the world of nature. Society requires a universal commitment to conscience and justice in order that such contracts between people and the state remain viable.

This discussion comes about from what appears as an early recognition of the problem of relativism. The Athenian’s are demonstrating an awareness of differences in culture and society between Greek cities and between Greeks and other peoples. Society and culture happen to be the way they are because of particular historical development. The conventions and social contracts are man made and so therefore do not have to be the way they are. The ability to create such contracts and organise society is put forward as human kinds best defence against the superiority of the forces of nature and the superior (physical) powers of other animals. Humans are able to conceive a universal commitment to conscience and justice. One can see the grounding of all epistemological and ontological problems here. The separation between a constructed set of conventions and knowledge systems, and nature itself (the ontological world).