Reading Plato in an Age of “Alternative Facts”
I’d never read any of the works of Plato until I entered my Ph.D. program with Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. Upon reading several of his dialogues—Republic, Apology, Phaedo, Crito, Euthyphro, Meno—I felt I had been sorely robbed of intellectual inquiry. Nevertheless, it wasn’t too late for me to begin reading these works, and I entered a reading of them as a fly on the wall learning what an ancient Greek philosopher might teach me. The greatest lesson I took from Plato, who recorded these dialogues of his teacher, Socrates, was a sincere desire to want to search for truth.
For I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself. —Socrates in Meno
I believe that Socrates would have honestly been baffled by “alternative facts.” Facts are facts, or else truth is relative—something our postmodern society chooses to believe and preach. What I believe he’d first criticize about alternative facts is the certainty some hold about them. Socrates once said of his accuser, “He thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance” (Apology 21d). The certainty of belief in one’s preferred facts amounts to neglecting truth. Truth itself is something that cannot be denied unless one chooses to bury their head in the sand. At this point, truth for those who deny it amounts to believing in propaganda. This reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave.
In Republic 514a–520a, Socrates describes the nature of a person in its education and want of education. In the cave, prisoners are fastened so that they are forced to look at a wall where projections are given by those who control information. This information we might call propaganda because it’s controlled and only the “facts” are provided that the givers of the information deem necessary. This is what happens in socialist/communist countries, and it would appear that some are trying to make it acceptable to the United States as well.
Were one of the prisoners to escape their fetters, they would eventually make their way out of the cave and to the surface where the light shines, and they see the whole of truth for what it is. This, Socrates described, was the state of one’s becoming. However, once a person reached the surface, they can either remain and become, or they can return to the “safety” of the cave and keep on believing the lies.
We might wonder why one would keep on believing the propaganda, but some people only want the “alternative facts” because they suit one’s bias. While it’s true that the mainstream media and Trump administration’s spokesmen have faltered in their giving of truth, each must hold the other accountable. They should really both read Plato in order to truly appreciate the truth, but then the truth might not serve their agendas. At the least, the American citizen ought to read Plato, because then they would be capable, one might hope, of wading through the swamp.