The Greeks’ greatest gift to the world was civilisation. They have even defined it for those of us who have chosen to receive the gift. It is simply the change of government from one ruled by fighting to that ruled by thinking. Plato is the philosopher who made this happen.
I have always found it peculiar just how much an influence his teachings had on Christianity. His influence was said to have been through Aurelius Augustinus (St Augustine of Hipo) a North African bishop and Catholic intellectual who merged the works of Greek philosophy with the Holy Scriptures. St Augustine is the same man after whom one of the greatest schools in the history of Zimbabwe is named.
Plato has had such a profound influence on modern society to the extent of being skeletonised into just a name associated with the foundations of anything ‘organised into a system’. Historians have consistently found it a challenge to delineate between Plato’s actual words and those of his teacher (Socrates) or his student (Aristotle). There is near consensus that his actual works have endured more than any of his contemporaries; they are said to have survived for the past 2400 years.
The connection between Plato and Christianity has a sizeable following in the philosophy world. These ardent followers have even gone to the extent of describing Christianity as “Platonism for the people” and some have dubbed Plato “The Hellenic Moses”. If I were to join this gravy train I would be compelled to argue that Plato was the same man as Paul, the Scriptures’ greatest apostle and Socrates, Plato’s purported teacher, was actually Saul meaning they were the same man. The records are so hazy I feel this argument might just hold water if I were to be challenged to defend it.
Plato’s greatest work on politics, THE REPUBLIC, laid the foundation on which the relationship between intellectuals and politics in a civilisation is to be consummated. It paints a picture which is completely opposite to what we have in our ‘modern civilisation’. Plato taught us that the role of intellectuals in society is to guide the politicians into making decisions based on reason and to stop them from using force to govern. He also implores intellectuals to constantly challenge politicians’ decisions and hold them accountable to every action they take. It is such a pitiful tragedy to see how we have moved away from this exhortation to being a society where intellectuals close their mouths and ignore their politicians’ truancy.
Providence has provided our modern civilisation with another chance to take heed of this simple principle in the form of Noam Chomsky, the world’s greatest living philosopher. His seminal essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, published in 1967 essentially repeated what Plato had written two and a half millennia before. Chomsky wrote the essay in protest to the silence of American intellectuals against the US government’s role in the Vietnam War. I find it particularly interesting that his work with E.S. Herman in which they defended unconditional freedom of speech was well articulated by J.M. Cotzee in his first work of fiction, Dusklands, which was also published at the same time.
The purest breed of intellectuals have consistently castigated the use of propaganda as an abomination in any civilisation worth its salt. We have had first hand experience of this repression under the hands of an intellectual who went into politics and was put in charge of an oppressive regime’s information ministry. Parallels can be drawn with the Nazi regime in which an intellectual, Dr Paul Joseph Goebbels, was put in charge of propaganda. The men share remarkable similarities down to the tee. I almost made a sigh of relief when this certain academic recently held a press conference in which he lamented the betrayal of intellectuals who have not been actively reprimanding politicians but my sigh stopped mid-way when I realised that the conversation had revolved back to animals on t-shirts.
The relationship between academia and politics is not unilateral. It can run in the opposite direction and still bear fruit. Our country is a good place to start. The incumbent president has never made it a secret that he respects anyone with a sharp and educated mind. That explains the continued and inexplicable presence of the academic-cum-politician mentioned above. Education is our president’s legacy. For all his faults the man will always be remembered as the man who taught us the value of education. It has become the norm that in modern day Zimbabwe you have to be well educated to have any form of credibility. We are fast evolving into a society in which a doctorate is an absolute must if one is to hold any form of public office.