Weirdly enough, if we paid more attention to philosophy, we might have foreseen our current economic mess.
I’ve been reading Plato’s The Republic. It’s an interesting dialogue on the ideal structuring of governments and the education of its citizens. Some of its statements were pretty controversial in Athens during the 4th century BC when they were written (e.g. the concept that men and women could perform military and political functions equally well). Equally, some of these statements have not lost an iota of their controversy today, such as the systematic censoring of art for political purposes or the dissolution of the traditional family into a state-wide unit. Indeed, it has often been blamed (perhaps unfairly) for its endorsement of what the layman would consider to be totalitarian policies.
In The Republic, Plato details a pre-dinner conversation between his mentor Socrates and his contemporaries about the nature of justice, which segues neatly into a dissection of how a just society can be constructed and controlled. Towards the end of the text, their discussion then turns to the “imperfect” societies, including democracy, attempting to divine their origins and ultimate failings.
What does this have to do with the financial crisis? Read this excerpt discussing the rise of democracy from oligarchic capitalist societies (that is, societies where the wealthy few have power and the poor do not). These are the words of Socrates – I’ve edited out the dialogue of Glaucon and Adeimantus (Plato’s brothers), as their sycophantic agreement gets somewhat tiresome.
It should then be clear that love of money and adequate self-discipline in its citizens are two things that can’t co-exist in any society; one or the other must be neglected. This neglect and the encouragement of extravagance often reduces to poverty men born for better things. Some of them are in debt, some dis[en]franchised, some both, and they settle down, armed with their stings, and with hatred in their hearts, to plot against those who have deprived them of their property and against the rest of society, and to long for revolution.
Meanwhile the money-makers, bent on their business, don’t appear to notice them, but continue to inject their poisoned loans wherever they can find a victim, and to demand high rates of interest on the sum lent, with the result that the drones and the beggars multiply. Yet even when the evil becomes flagrant they will do nothing to quench it, either by preventing men from disposing of their property as they like, or alternatively by suitable legislation.
Sound familiar? Interestingly, identifying this situation with current affairs would imply that we currently do not live in a democracy, but are on the cusp of a transition from oligarchy to democracy via revolution (by who we would now describe ironically as the proletariat).
There’s always something thrilling when words transcend the millennia to warn us that despite our advances, we’re still the same damn silly apes that walked this Earth when Socrates did – and he was among the best of us. Human nature gives the illusion of change, but our deepest impulses are millions of years old, and they’re not about to change anytime soon.