Plato’s Big Mistake (Louis Markos, January 31st, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)

Every time I reread the Protagoras or Meno, I am surprised anew that a man of Plato’s towering intellect and searing insight into human nature could have been so mistaken about the human propensity to sin and rebellion. Luckily for the development of Europe, the dangers inherent in Plato’s big mistake were neutralized for two millennia, partially by the corrections by Aristotle and then fully by the Christian doctrine of original sin, especially as it is developed in the writings of Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante.

As the late Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, however, a rather unlikely character arose who gave new life to Plato’s belief that knowledge is virtue: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s motivation, of course, for adopting his view of human evil arose from quite a different source than that of Plato. As a pre-Christian thinker, Plato did not place himself in knowing opposition to the doctrine of original sin. Rousseau, on the other hand, as a post-Christian writer, was both conscious and intentional in his rejection of the biblical belief than man is by nature fallen and that his “problem”—that which keeps him from perfecting himself and building a perfect world—is his inborn propensity for sin and disobedience.

For Rousseau, man in his natural state was both free and innocent. It was external social corruption—not an internal state of rebellion—that was holding man back from his full potential. Man is born free, he cried out in the famous opening sentence of The Social Contract, but is everywhere in chains. It is only by throwing off the chains of convention and false hierarchy that man can return to his original state of purity: a state which Rousseau fancied he would find amongst the “noble savages” who lived on distant South Sea Islands and were thus isolated from the corruption of Western civilization. For Rousseau and his heirs the vehicle for freeing humanity from its chains was not so much spiritual as educational. Rousseau, though he would have disagreed with Plato in most other areas, agreed wholeheartedly that ignorance was the cause of most evil and that education was therefore the key to reforming the world.

Beginning with the French Revolution, an event which was inspired in great part by the writings of Rousseau, those who believed that the trouble with man was sin and rebellion would be labeled “conservative,” while those who countered that the problem was ignorance would be labeled “liberals.” What this meant in the practical political sphere is that conservatives were “law and order” rulers who felt the best way to deal with the sinful side of man was to establish social, political, legal, and religious barriers to contain and hem in that sinfulness. Liberals, on the other hand, nurtured a very different vision of government as an engine for the reforming and reshaping of man and society.

Up to this point, Rousseau, and Plato behind him, sounds like the teacher’s best friend. Can there be any nobler goal than that of eradicating ignorance? I know that I was motivated to pursue a career in education by the promise that I could use my gifts to help draw students up to higher levels of understanding and, by so doing, empower them to live lives of greater purpose and virtue. But then, I also knew that this promise was as exciting as it was illusory—that a man with a sixth grade education can be a saint, while a PhD can be both self-centered and immoral. And I knew—or learned—a third thing: that the promise and the illusion can be reconciled. As long as education is viewed within a realistic context of man’s natural propensity to sin, we can pledge ourselves with full gusto to the idealistic goal of moderating (rather than eliminating) the ignorance of that part of humanity which comes within our sphere.

But when the two views—the realistic and the idealistic—are cut off from one another, when society’s “planners” come to believe that they can reeducate all people in accordance with some national or global program, then is the lid of Pandora’s box thrown open wide and the world left prey to the egalitarian demons lurking therein.

It is the great tragedy of the Continent that the French led them into this mass murderous dead end.