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Fragment 149, word count: 635

Plato made philosophers the kings of his ideal republic because he asserted an essential relationship between politics (community leadership, the proclamation and application of laws) and knowledge of a transcendent force creating fundamental reality. For Plato, there is a structure to reality that includes a crucial transcendence feature, immaterial Ideal Forms. Philosophers are specialists in transcendence, uniquely attentive to the transcendence feature of reality. On Plato’s understanding, philosophical insight into transcendence is the guiding treasure of any society because an ultimately sustainable political system must actualize an alignment between human lives, the structure of their relationships, and the transcendence that is crucial in creating reality. As specialists in transcendence, philosophers uniquely are in a position to conceive and communicate appropriate political arrangements, according to Plato’s Republic.

Plato’s idealism made transcendence politically conservative by removing ideas from ordinary personalities, in whom we are first acquainted with ideas: intentions, caring, curiosity, anticipation, aspiration, evaluation, and orientation, for example. Plato separated category ideas from the life of particular personalities and spun a very influential cosmic conception from that separation, but it was a serious violation of the ordinary experience of ideas. As far as our ordinary experience is concerned, all varieties of ideality occur together in the arcs of spontaneity and creativity familiar as embodied personalities. With Platonic idealism, although the Ideal Forms create reality in some sense, there is no profound spontaneity or freedom. Nature and everything within it is nothing more than copies of copies of the immaterial Forms. Although some serious instability and unreliability enter those copies the more removed they are from the originals, there is a core to everything, a structure of categorical types, that must be eternally as it is predestined to be. When idealism is construed as Plato conceived it, there is a rigid eternal pattern that everything follows necessarily, but idealism can and should be conceived otherwise.

Idealism asserts the importance of a category of non-actuality which is supra-actual and still indispensable in any comprehensive conception of reality. As an affirmation of ideality as supra-actuality, it is latently explosive politically as an assertion of something more important than (and with power over and within) whatever nature, previous history, and the sagacious ancestors bestowed on the current generation in terms of social norms and ways of seeing the world. Such supra-actuality is a conception of transcendence, and any strong idea of freedom (as points and arcs of spontaneous creativity, novelty, and indeterminacy) requires such a conception. Supra-actuality could be eternally stable as in Platonic idealism, or, far more plausibly, it could be free agency in time. In articulating the importance of this non-actuality, any free-agent idealism goes “through the looking glass” as far as traditional social structures of all kinds are concerned, and so, much depends on the way idealism is conceived. Historical upheavals and catastrophes are inseparably involved with conceptions of idealism. (Consider the historical consequences of Hegel’s idealism.)

When the points and arcs of spontaneous creativity, of transcendent supra-actuality creating freedom, are not separated from the ordinary living of individual personalities, in whom we are well acquainted with ideas, then idealism implies a political situation which is completely different from Plato’s rigid hierarchy. With free-agent idealism everybody should qualify as a philosopher king. To align with ordinary embodied personalities as transcendence features fundamental in reality is to recognize every single person, every sentient being, every being who has a voice and breathes, as a creative agent, uttering a personal expression which cannot be completely pre-ordained or predicted. Such a conception implies protections, resources, and freedoms for individuals, and limits on what any power might legitimately claim from them. Plato certainly misconstrued ideas, but what he got right was that insight into transcendence is crucial for conceiving a sustainable politics.

Copyright © 2019 Sandy MacDonald.