Plato and the Yahoos

Week 2 Discussion Question

To her esteemed majesty, Queen Bellicose of the Yahoos:

As the esteemed philosopher-queen of the Yahoos, Queen Bellicose, you have no doubt asked yourself many times: What is the purpose of human existence? Is it merely to dwell in a state of satiation, living happily because there is enough to eat and drink? If that is the only purpose of human life, the pursuit of pleasure, and that singular state required to enjoy the pursuit of pleasure called 'stability,' then you Queen Bellicose and your subjects the Yahoo are living a fully realized existence, thanks to the bounty of the land where you live and your iron hand through which you exercise a gentle, generous and wise rule. But as you are no doubt aware the Greek philosopher Plato has suggested that there is a higher purpose of human existence. This is happiness, something distinct from animal enjoyment of pleasure.

Happiness is the fulfilling the purpose of the individual's greatest potential -- whether that is to be a great cobbler, scholar, general, or queen. This philosopher would agree with the social structure of your society, noting how well and justly you fulfill your role as ruler, how admirably your military leaders and scholars do their work, and the excellence of your craftspeople. He would say that you are free from the illusions of his allegorical cave because you dwell in a world of Platonic ideals rather than imperfect realities and the individual's best role in society is pre-determined by 'those who know best' such as yourself. But this may be a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the stable, happy but autocratic society sustains itself through the use of autocracy.

The social contract of your society is that the ruler will care for the ruled, provided that everyone performs his or her social function and puts the good of the society over the good of the individual. But another, in my view, greater man than Plato named Pericles, as expressed in Pericles' "Funeral Oration" thought differently -- choice, autonomy, and accepting the imperfect nature of human existence and the joyful messiness of democracy is the higher ideal, according to Pericles. A perfectly engineered society, however functional on its own terms, is not perfect if it does not allow for individual choice, even individual failure. This does not mean that there is no social contract in a democracy -- there is a social obligation to fight for society's survival and good, as was done during the Peloponnesian Wars when Athens was at war against the autocratic, militaristic Spartan society. But how much greater and conducive to true happiness if this fight is conducted willingly, with open eyes about the truth!

According to Pericles, society has to allow for individual freedom because some of the most essential Greek values, such as that of honor and valor are best fulfilled in a democratic context. The ideal of perfection and Platonic suiting to what does 'what one is best fit for' -- harmony and symmetry -- must be chosen with a free will. Yahoo society shares these Greek values of aspiring to perfection but it must also incorporate Pericles' ideal of allowing choice, and fostering rational intelligence in every individual. In Pericles' classical Athens, rigor and discipline was combined with openness to the world -- people made choices to serve the state with their hopes, not their fears and thus they are better soldiers and also better self-governors. The citizens sought out happiness, not mere pleasure, and did not seek out happiness by compulsion under the strong armed rule of Platonic philosopher king. The Athenians learned to love honor. They were not subject to propaganda about honor and censorship, as advocated by Plato. Pericles said of the Athenian dead, noting that they did not need to be compelled to give up their lives to serve the state: "deeming…