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Professor plugs Plato for the 21st Century

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Posted on March 11, 2010 |
By Angelo Lynn



MIDDLEBURY — For the past several months, Victor Nuovo, a Middlebury selectman and the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Middlebury College, has been drafting essays on Plato’s last and longest dialogue called “Laws.” He began the exercise, he said, at the urging of his wife, Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, who challenged him to take Plato’s work on the rule of law in a civil society and make it accessible to the layperson — not as an academic paper to other scholars.

He took up the challenge and partway into it, gave me a call to tell me of his “little project” that was a diversion, really, to his more serious work on the philosopher John Locke. We met at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café and shortly thereafter hatched an idea: We’d run a series of the essays in the Independent and post them on the Web. The hope is to bring Plato’s thoughts into the homes of Addison County readers and, perhaps, inspire conversation about the role of civil law and government, why they are important, and if the goals are on track. The object is to connect the relevance of Plato’s work to today’s society.

Neither this paper, this editor nor the author of these essays expect Addison Independent readers to be familiar with Plato’s works, let alone this particular book. Nor do you need to be. Rather, what is refreshing is to learn that what is old is also new when rediscovered; and, as Prof. Nuovo says, “What we thought we knew but didn’t.” And that there is joy to be found in exercising one’s right to be a good citizen, just as there is joy in attaining good fitness and a healthy body and that the two go hand-in-hand.

To introduce this series of essays, we asked Prof. Nuovo a few questions about Plato, his particular interest in the “Laws,” and what average readers can expect to gain from these essays or from reading Plato’s works.

AI: What are you trying to accomplish in these essays and why is Plato’s “Laws” important to us today?

VN: For me it’s important because of the theme of the rule of law, which really pertains to us today. We have a society that we like to believe is governed by the rule of law … Plato is the one who really gives definitive treatment to that theme, that’s what drew me to him. And it’s written by an old man, who was trying to figure out what life was all about.

“In our life the rule of law doesn’t work unless we do it all by ourselves individually; that is, unless we take control of our own lives… That’s the central theme of Plato: you don’t really have the rule of law in any humane sense unless the people who live under the laws govern themselves and recognize that the source of law is in themselves — that is, their rational nature, that it comes from self control.”

“One of the things I tried to do, and Plato suggests this, is to connect (this idea) to your body… In Pilates, for example, you learn that you really have control of your body if you build up the core of your body and get your gut strong… In the same sense, if you grab hold of this principle within us that makes sense out of what we’re doing and finds rules that make life more efficient and more peaceful, then we really do have something like the rule of law in the way in which a free and democratic society ought to have it.”

“This is a very old book, written in 347 BC, about 2,400 years ago. It’s foundational in the sense that we are going back to our own roots… One finds that this book is not exotic… It really does introduce us to ourselves, or maybe what we ought to be.”

AI: What topics or themes are discussed?

VN: It covers just about everything… It talks about education, treats the education of women, discusses the family, courts, crime and punishment, and in a very civilized way. We wouldn’t find (these discussions) so alien from our own preferences. What it does is it makes one think about what’s so great about the rule of law and how it works…

“It also talks about things like public festivals, the communal aspects of a society. What makes people bond with each other… There are also very strong anti-militarist and anti-global economy aspects of the book that make it rather interesting for the time we live in now… (Plato is also) absolutely pro-local economy, buy local… One of the classic rules of a republican society is the need to be in control of your economic well-being... which is one of the motivations for a local and sustainable economy.”

AI: Those are very familiar themes.

VN: Someone reading Plato’s “Laws” for the first time would be struck by how familiar some of these things are… It does give a person an opportunity to think about what sort of economy ought we to have… I think that what makes it important from the point of view of philosophy, is that a philosopher always claims that you should not make a claim on another person to do something unless you can give them reasons for doing it, so that they’re persuaded that it’s the right thing to do.”

AI: How would Plato address the political conflict we see in government today?

VN: “The sources of social conflict very often have to do with certain groups seeking special privileges for themselves. Plato was very concerned that an economy should not grow to such a point that you have massive wealth focused in particular groups, which leads to the dominance of society by one group and spurs class conflict.

“One of the ways of overcoming this is to acknowledge the equality of everyone, and to a certain extent he aims at that, although to be sure, he allows that people who are older might be wiser and might be given more authority… The interesting thing about the way Plato does that, is that it’s done with a certain light touch so you get the sense that he is mocking himself, with the lesson that one should never take oneself so seriously…

“That’s another thing about Plato: He understands the corrupting influence of power, that people who have it seem to think they have a right to use it… even to the point where they use it in harmful ways against people who disagree with them…”

“One of the constant themes in all of Plato’s work (when discussing types of government) is that he talks about the way that monarchies degenerate into tyrannies, aristocracies degenerate into the rule of the privileged few, and democracies degenerate into mob rule. It’s a consequence of having power and it often results in violence and oppression because you have conflicting interests at work…”

AI: What is your fascination with Plato?

VN: Professionally the work I’m doing is on John Locke. Many see Locke and Plato as polar opposites. Plato is an idealist who believes that transcendental ideas are real and the world of the senses is merely an imperfect copy of that. Locke, of course, is often considered to be the father of modern empiricism. In fact, there is an awful lot of Plato in Locke… but Plato, he’s such a beautiful writer; he… doesn’t come forth to say here’s my system of reality and spell it out in detail. You have to discover it yourself through this interaction of various people.”

AI: How do you make philosophy accessible to the average citizen?

VN: “A lot of people make out that philosophy is something very esoteric, very hard and really only for the privileged few who happen to be intellectually gifted, and that’s just bull. Philosophy is the art of being perplexed; it’s an ability to recognize that what you thought you understood and accepted as true might not in fact be the case and that you need to do a lot of rethinking and revisiting and looking at things differently. The whole purpose of all of this ought to be helping us answer the question: How should I live my life?

“It’s like learning to exercise your body in such a way that it gives you mastery over it… I don’t pretend mastery, but those moments when you have thought through a situation: Asked yourself, ‘What should I do in this situation,’ and begin to realize what it takes to do the right thing and discover that you are acting under your own power — that gives you the sense of great joy. That’s what philosophy, certainly for Plato, was all about.

“The bottom line is: Does it make me live my life better, does it put me in control of my life, does it give me the capacity to do the right thing, to treat people fairly?”

“The amazing thing about Plato is he was one of the earliest advocates for the education of women… he recognized the equality of women with men. This gave him a totally different view of what the family ought to be… there’s nothing patriarchal in Plato.

“The discipline of philosophy teaches you that when you recognize that you have no reason for living according to your prejudices, then you ought to get rid of them. That’s what philosophy ought to foster. It’s not a specialized discipline tucked away in an academic institution; it applies to everyday practices in life.”

AI: If Plato were alive today, what would he lecture about?

VN: “He obviously wouldn’t like our partisan political system… And I think he would be bothered by great wealth. Interesting enough, he would also be bothered by the separation of church and state, just because I think that he supposed that religion should be under governmental control… that is to say it should serve the interests of a civil society.”

AI: What of the current belief that the government is broken and movements like the Tea Party declare that the best step is to shut it down rather than fix it?

VN: “The ‘Laws’ makes it very clear that we don’t receive the plan for our governmental institutions in some kind of divine revelation, that government is our invention and we have to take full responsibility for it, and that simply to turn against it and to say it’s broken and I don’t want to have anything to do with it is really irresponsible.

“One of the interesting things you find in Plato is this juxtaposition of civil society and the soul, the individual, and the control of one and the control of the other are simply two poles of the same process. That’s why the theme of education is so important to Plato. What our schools ought to be doing is educating people so that they become self-governing human beings. It’s like raising your children… the whole point is that at some point you let them go and they’re free and can take control of their lives.”

AI: If you had to summarize what message Plato is trying to get across in the ‘Laws,’ what would that be?

VN: Well, one could be kind of a warning: That we need to think about how to govern ourselves, because if we don’t then someone else will govern us and we may not like the results. In other words, human life can’t be lived without government. We live in societies and we need to make them civil, if we hope to live happily and at peace. I think that it would be as foolhardy not to engage in thoughts about this as it would be to say, ‘I’m not really going to think about my health… I’m just gonna do as I please and let the chips fall where they may.’ And to a certain extent I think I lot of people really do live that way. Maybe one might say, I’ve never voted, I don’t really know what’s going on, I really don’t care, things are alright for me, I support my family… Well, it’s a warning that you shouldn’t be so confident that everything is going to be just fine… just as you wouldn’t say that about your personal health.

“The other message is to illustrate the great delight one experiences when one governs oneself; and the recognition that this is not only beneficial to you but to others. That maybe you enjoy your neighbors better when you recognize that you are all working toward the same goal — and not because you’re being forced into it, but because you made a rational choice.

“One of the things that makes Plato so attractive is that he helps you visualize the joy of an intellectual life; not in an esoteric way, but just the joy of being a rational being… which is similar to being physically fit. We’re missing something in life if we ignore this, and it isn’t because we don’t have the capacity for it.”

AI: Why is Plato important today?

VN: Just because of the fact that our political society is something that we’re responsible for, and the fact that he comes from a distant past and addresses us in a style (through dialogues) that … is quite different from our own, but are vaguely familiar. It causes us to rethink these things from the ground up. It’s the case of something old becoming new… if we read him, we’ll discover anew things that we thought we knew but didn’t, or we thought we understood but don’t.”

Read Nuovo's first essay here.

Click here for a full listing of Nuovo's Plato essays. We'll be adding one each week.

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