What would Plato do in a pandemic?

What did he do? He’d treat it not only as a problem to solve but as an experience to understand. And what might be understood? “Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.”

A piece at The Idler, launching our new Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues.

How might Plato address the pandemic events that now dominate our lives? It might help, first, to identify a route he wouldn’t have taken. It’s a thought experiment, beloved of modern philosophers, called the Trolley Problem.

Imagine a runaway train carriage that is about to kill six people. You are a guard with the power to switch the points so that the carriage is diverted. The catch is that this would result in the death of one. Should you do it? Should the one death save the many?

Philosophers today like it because it appears to mirror the ethical dilemmas that politicians and doctors are apparently facing. But the approach begs a far deeper problem.

Plato would have seen that treating life as, at base, a series of calculations is flawed. It’s not that there are not pandemics, that life isn’t agonizing and tragic, that death does not exist. Rather it’s that we’ve lost sight of the highest and widest horizons with which we’re capable of participating.

Modern people are attempting to live knowing only a fraction of what it is to be human.

He signalled a richer view with his invocations of “the good, the beautiful, the true.” He showed how the world’s soul and transcendent sight can be experienced intimately, by following the dynamics of love and longing. His most inspiring teachers were not logicians or debaters, figures he despised as sophists. They were geniuses of the human spirit, like the eccentric follower of the god Apollo, Socrates, and the adept in life’s mysteries, Diotima.

His dialogues contain lots of arguments, for sure. But don’t imagine that they are what is nowadays called “Socratic dialogue”, meaning the abstract quest for coherent definitions. The dialogues are weaves of inventive myths, everyday encounters, divine invocations and troubling experiences. When Plato deploys reason, it is used to take people to an edge where they are forced to let go of what they think they know, and discern something more tremendous, more surprising, more life-giving.

Plato’s aim is to use whatever life throws at us to show that there’s always more to life than meets the eye. He knew about plague and war, by the way. His life was affected by truly horrific incidents of both. But because he didn’t see life as a problem to be solved, but as an experience to be understood, he was able to inspire not only his generation, but generations for millennia.

There are some modern philosophers who understand the difference. Take Albert Camus, though it’s telling that he denied he was a philosopher.

His best-known works are novels and The Plague is clearly the one for now. It imagines an African city cut off from the world by bubonic plague. It addresses the crisis by telling stories, describing reactions, illuminating psychology, testing meaning. It is brave, direct, honest. It concludes: “There are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

To know such truths in your soul is to start to share Plato’s perception. He would help us have it once again. I hope that the new online Idler course, introducing Plato’s dialogues, can be a guide towards this alternative, the original, vision for philosophy.

An Introduction to Plato’s Dialogues with me and Tom Hodgkinson is now available at The Idler.

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