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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.

Plato never cared much for the sophists, viewing them as amoral peddlers of a relativistic kind of wisdom with the potential to corrupt the souls of those who hired them. It is therefore not surprising that when they appear in his dialogues, they are generally treated in a negative or at least suspect manner. In Protagoras, however, Plato treats the sophist of the title with considerable respect. He even has Socrates debate with Protagoras—on fairly equal terms!—a two-part question that Plato considered vital: what is the nature of virtue and can it be taught to others? Although the more elitist Socrates begins the dialogue by asserting that virtue cannot be taught, as the dialogue proceeds, he slowly adopts a position concerning the nature of virtue that drives him—almost against his will—toward the necessary conclusion that virtue can be taught.

In striking contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin, Plato argues in Protagoras—and elsewhere—that human evil is not the result of rebellion or disobedience. Although G. K. Chesterton was certainly right when he claimed that original sin was “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” Plato seems to have overlooked this proof in favor of a different cause for vicious behavior. “For myself,” says Socrates, “I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetrates any evil or base act. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary” (345e). Later in the dialogue, Socrates explains more clearly what the cause is of this involuntary evil:

…when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains—that is, of good and evil—the cause of their mistake is lack of knowledge….no one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course when he might choose the better. To “act beneath yourself” is the result of pure ignorance, to “be your own master” is wisdom. (357e, 358c)

Evil actions, that is to say, are caused not by sin but by ignorance. If we knew of another, better course of action, we would take it.

In Meno, a dialogue that picks up—thematically, at least—exactly where Protagoras leaves off, Socrates is even more bold in his assertions, claiming that 1) “nobody desires what is evil,” 2) “everything that the human spirit undertakes or suffers will lead to happiness when it is guided by wisdom,” and 3) “virtue is wisdom” (78a, 88c, 89a). How wonderful it would be if these assertions were true. Imagine a world in which all who truly understood virtue were thereby empowered to become virtuous. The father need only educate his children well, and he will be guaranteed virtuous progeny. If great teachers could be coaxed to visit prisons and open the eyes of all the murderers and thieves to the way of virtue, the prisons could throw open their gates and let these “reformed” inmates reenter society.

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.

Here is how it happens in totalitarian states. The state begins by positing, as both Plato and Rousseau do in slightly different ways, that evil lies outside the individual, rather than within. This gives it the rationale and justification for eliminating that external evil—whether it considers that evil to reside in a social class (the aristocracy or bourgeoisie), an economic group (kulaks or bankers), a political group (communists or fascists), or an ethnic group (the Jews or Armenians). Once it has eliminated the identified group, however, the state—which by now has come to identify itself with God or history or both—finds that there are still a large number of people within society who have been so corrupted by the evil elements that they are themselves a part of the external threat. So the state feels justified in eliminating them as well for the promise that those who remain can be reeducated into pure and perfect citizens is so tantalizing that it alleviates the consciences of those the state appoints to neutralize the threat. If the state and its agents succeed in this double liquidation, then they will be especially careful that those who remain are all educated in the same way, lest new evils spring up and demand a renewed purge of undesirable elements. Besides, any state that sets itself on this path to perfection will, of necessity, be dedicated to order, efficiency, and regimentation—and it will find that the best way to achieve such things is to carefully remove from the people all socioeconomic differences, cultural distinctions, and personal eccentricities. After a while, the state will come truly to believe that only when all are the same will all be truly free. The result is a state that should be—but alas is not—a logical impossibility: a state, that is, that is fully egalitarian and fully totalitarian.

Here is how the same scenario plays out in more democratic states. Being loath to target and eliminate undesirable elements, the more “enlightened” state will seek instead to target and eliminate undesirable ideas. Beginning with the belief that knowledge is virtue, the state will filter this belief through its devotion to liberty, equality, and fraternity so as to come up with three corollaries: that knowledge which unites people should be privileged over that which divides; that educated people, especially those educated in knowledge that unites, should make all the decisions for those who are less educated; that these educated folk should use their position to root out knowledge that divides. It will only be a matter of time before knowledge takes the place of Truth, and Truth becomes defined as that kind of knowledge which promotes what the state believes to be virtue (namely, liberty, equality, and fraternity). Since the state believes that its brand of virtue can be taught, and that people can be changed from within by such teaching, it will declare an intellectual and educational “war” on all ideas that it fears will promote exclusiveness, intolerance, or inequality. It will not rest until all its citizens have learned not only to behave properly but to think and to speak properly as well.

In the former state, those who will not conform are imprisoned or executed; in the latter, they are ostracized, ridiculed, and marginalized. In the one, secret police, paid informers, and brainwashing are used to bring about conformity; in the other, political correctness, media saturation, and multiculturalism are the less violent—though often more effective—tools of choice. In both states, there is a reduction, a diminution of the true human spirit of diversity and creativity. Each state, in its own way, believes that man can be reprogrammed and reshaped into a newer and better humanity; each feels that it can, and therefore should, build a utopia on earth.

If only Plato could have foreseen the upshot of his big mistake!

This essay was first published here in October 2013.

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The featured image is a marble copy of the portrait of Plato made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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