Giles Fraser: I cannot eat at your table, Plato

16 January 2008

ETHICS can be generated from the ground up or from the top down. Contrast, if you will, the different approaches of those two Thought for the Day stalwarts, Rabbi Lionel Blue and Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford.

Rabbi Blue is famous for his homely observations about his mum, his friends, and cooking. His ethical sensibility grows out of a very specific pattern of life. Richard Harries, by contrast, prefers the big universal questions — like Iris Murdoch’s Platonic idea of the Sovereignty of Good.

One might say that Rabbi Blue offers the morality of the novel, always rooted in particulars, whereas Lord Harries offers the morality of the philosopher, concerned with understanding things in the widest possible sense.

It may be no surprise, therefore, that the fiercest contemporary attack upon Plato has come from the Chief Rabbi, the ever-challenging Jonathan Sacks. “The Bible represents the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilisation,” he argues in his brilliant essay “The Dignity of Difference: Exorcising Plato’s ghost”. And his charge against Plato is a hefty one, indeed: Plato is the great ideologue of totalitarianism.

The philosophical move for which Plato is best known is his idea of the forms. A form of something is its ideal, the perfect example of a thing which exists metaphysically. There may be lots of tables of different shapes and sizes existing in this world, but they are all copies of the perfect form of a table.

On this thinking, the true essence of something is its universal — this is real reality. The concrete things we live among are all derivative and secondary.

Here, then, is the weird idea that the abstract metaphysical world of universals is more real that the actual table I’m sitting at now.

One of the myriad of problems with this approach is that it always seeks to dissolve difference into sameness. Whether it is the nature of the good or the nature of a table, there is only one good and one table, and all examples of it must conform to this original archetype.

This means that difference is never fully respected, always being eradicated in the name of some putative oneness. And that, ultimately, is the thinking behind totalitarianism.

In the Bible, truth grows out of the earth (Psalm 85.12). It is rooted in human stories, not abstract universals. Plato is philosophical fascism because, as Dr Sacks puts it: “It is the attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity.”

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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