Have you ever asked yourselves sufficiently
how much the erection of every ideal on earth has cost?
How much reality has had to be misunderstood and
slandered, how many lies have had to be sanctified,
how many consciences disturbed?
Nobody would talk about the mighty Plato being a fool.
He was one of the two towering figures of Western philosophy, along with his student, Aristotle. Despite a waning of their influence during the first seven centuries of Christianity and thanks to their revival by 10th century Islamic and Jewish intellectuals, Plato and Aristotle had a direct and decisive effect on European thinking well into the scientific revolution. This finally began to diminish after many of their findings were disproven, especially Aristotle who was so much more empirically-minded. So while they still are, or should be, an important part of anyone’s education, given all their original ideas and their place in history, they exist more on the margins of intellectual discourse today.
At least it would seem that way since so many other thinkers are referred to as being much more relevant. Nietzsche, however, never lost sight, however, of Plato’s enduring and powerful influence on us. He well understood, that Plato, as the first to formalize idealism as a study of philosophy in the West, was chiefly responsible for making it acceptable and respectable.
Idealism is essentially the idea that reality – as it can be known – is fundamentally a mentally constructed process and is therefore not materially composed. This is not the idealism we speak about when someone follows their ideals or hope for the future.
No, this concept of idealism, is dark, dangerous and destructive. It is the system of ideas that is behind all beliefs or suppositions that “this world”, as Westerners have tended to think about, while all too substantial, is not important compared to the way we think about it and other worlds. Plato, with his discussion of the forms (in the famous cave allegory) held that the essence of physical objects and living beings was only truly real and significant.
In other words, idealism supports the existence of worlds, ideas or concepts that we cannot apprehend except through the mind or the “soul.” Once you strip away the accretions of highly stylized metaphysics, and the enormous socio-cultural support, prestige and acceptance for them – not an easy task – idealism, generally speaking, boils down to belief in worlds that cannot be known.
“But the mind knows about them!”, is the platonic rejoinder. This is to explain one unknown with another, however, and to further fragment the psyche. It is also an example of how simple things are made unnecessarily complex and immediately confusing.
Although Plato formalized the study and practice of idealism, it existed without being so well articulated. The idea of a trivial world “here” and an important and real one “over there” had existed long before our Western version or the different one that predominated in India (that the external world is illusory).
So, let’s look back to see how this all got started.
As human beings left their lives in nature as hunter-gatherers and settled down in small proto-villages, social complexity began to markedly increase. Over time, with set-backs and advances, hierarchies arose, then hereditary hierarchies with the attendant need to reinforce the legitimacy of these new inventions. The first strong men probably just came out and said, “I’m in charge because I’m better at doing this than you,” and there well have been some merit to that. But how many generations elapsed between “better at this than you” and “better than you” (period)? Nobody knows but it was certainly a profound development in the history of homo sapiens.
Going from a reason based on skill or merit to an existential claim of superiority is absurd. This is so easy to understand but I have to explain since we all have been so well taught to accept this drivel.
Please do not cite the American classless society as evidence to the contrary because that is only to dispel one illusion with another. Human beings inherently, deep down, really do not believe in innate superiority (as is readily demonstrated by the great law of not taking cuts in line) so why did it become commonplace?
It would be astounding that this innate belief is so easily overturned by appeal to authority, to expertise, or raw power if we did not keep in mind that we have learned this over the course of thousands of years. In fact, this began not too long after our ancient ancestors left their lives in nature (the first time being 14,500 years ago in the strip of land on the Eastern Mediterranean known as the Levant).
The connection between superiority and everything is illusion may seem like a stretch, but it makes a lot of sense, as most things do with enough perspective and effort. The only way to believe – remember, now, entirely against your primal instincts – that someone is better than you, is to become accustomed – over numerous generations probably – to a lie.
Now, I don’t want to single out lies unnecessarily because all of us tell them most of the time. But this was not any run of the mill type of mendacity, rather it was the result of a very clever string of lies designed, most often unconsciously, to confuse people into dropping their defenses against nonsense.
Even then, it doesn’t come easily. In the beginning of complex societies, something very shocking and impressive was needed to show people that a new way of thinking about life arose from a very powerful source.
If you were to write the instructions for this, the first step would be to set aside an area that is as special as it is different. Then you build a very large platform of stones. This impresses people that come to view this because those who stand on top of this platform are not only far away and above you, but they are that much closer to the sky.
The metaphor of concreteness came after we began making the stuff of course but given the solidity and weight of the giant stones and the literal and great height of the platform, the leaders of the day were demonstrating, in a very substantial and striking way, …an idea.
It only makes sense that the first abstractions had to be so realistically demonstrated at first and in the material form that everyone was familiar with and accepted as real. That is, the idea of superiority was initially demonstrated in a very concrete manner. Well, just add priests, plenty of sacrificial victims, a lot of blood and proximity to the sky gods and mix vigorously and the great big lie of human superiority over others was born.
Even if some of the spectators didn’t go along with the logic of the spectacle, they were hardly going to admit that. And they might have gone to their deathbeds knowing what a trick had been pulled, but their children and grandchildren too?
To spell it out even further, the leaders had proven to that they are superior, because of the material ingredients of stone, bone and blood combined with the easy to understand concepts (abstractions yes, but simpler) of solidity, massiveness and height. From there it was not so much of a reach to say, while we are at it, we have power over life and death because the gods gave it to us.
And this is a dramatic representation of how it all got started – in civilization that is – since the antecedents for it had already been established in less spectacular ways thousands of years earlier.
But, after this first giant leap forward into the unreal, the next step did not need to be so substantial or impressive, and soon enough you could convince people about the validity of a new abstraction from a set of older (and less abstract) abstractions.
By the time the great sages of civilization began pronouncing or writing down that everything is illusion, long after civilization had been established, and our ancestors were very well accustomed to this concept in daily life, why, such a declaration was not that much of a surprise. And going back to the Buddha he was just borrowing this idea from the Hindus mostly, so it was even less so. But to his credit, a put a new spin on it although still very much consistent with the needs of the culture and time that he was living in.
Have I simplified too much?
No – I think – just enough.
2 Nietzsche Genealogy of Morals 1-24