Ayn Rand vs. Plato:

Two Philosophies, A World Apart

(Presented at the 20. October, 1997 meeting of the Lawrence University Students of Objectivism.)

DISCLAIMER: LU Students of Objectivism is not an official spokesman of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. While this essay is an attempt to apply Objectivist principles authentically and sincerely, any mistakes or misrepresentations are those of the writer alone.

Ideas matter. I believe deeply that ideas matter. I also assume that the rest of you think the same, as I wouldn't imagine your coming to a meeting such as this were it not the case. Perhaps we share this belief because we see the all-too-obvious consequences of good or bad ideas around us every day; perhaps we have noticed that the course of history seems to be determined by the ideas which men choose to adopt; or perhaps we are simply curious about ideas -- whether or not they are true or false. Plato and Ayn Rand shared our convictions. That they each decided to convey their philosophy in a literary form -- Plato in dialogues like The Republic, and Ayn Rand in novels like The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged -- illustrates their devotion to the real life importance of ideas. Rather than detaching philosophy from life in the form of dry, pedantic treatises, they chose to give us a vibrant picture of ideas in action, be it either in the form of Socrates, shredding the arguments of a blushing opponent, or of Howard Roark, architect, defending himself philosophically in front of a jury of his peers. To each of these thinkers, ideas mattered. Unfortunately, the parallel stops there.

I wrote on the poster advertising this event, that "there is a day and night difference between Ayn Rand and Plato, and that difference makes a difference -- a life and death one." This is the thesis to which I intend to adhere tonight. I will spend most of the time spelling out the difference between these two thinkers, and then I will suggest the historical impact which the adoption of their ideas has had, or could have. Having stated that much, I will say no more. I 'm not going to argue for Ayn Rand's philosophy tonight; I'm merely going to tell you what it is -- with Plato's philosophy serving as a foil. Then, you can derive your own conclusions -- which I hope will be the same as mine.

Let me make one quick preparatory remark for what will follow. Since we are comparing two different philosophies, and since some of you might be new to the topic, I must give a brief overview of its subject matter. Philosophy consists of five basic branches, each growing out of the other: Metaphysics (the study of existence as such), epistemology (the study of how we know what we know), ethics (the study of values which guide our choices), politics (the study of the nature of government) and esthetics (the study of the nature of art). I am going to present each of Plato's and Ayn Rand's essential views in each branch of philosophy. Please pay attention, because you'll see that each thinker's view in the more basic areas of philosophy logically determines their views on more derivative subjects.

The very beginning, they say, is a very good place to start -- and the beginning of a philosophy is its metaphysics. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy which studies the fundamental nature of all things. Plato's metaphysics is, perhaps, his most distinctive and famous achievement. As I am sure many of you are aware, Plato thought that reality was composed of two realms: the realm of the Forms and the realm of sensible, physical things. Take a look around the room. No doubt you are aware of many sensible things. Say that you decide to focus on that VCR. By virtue of what do we call it a VCR? According to Plato, we call it one by virtue of those characteristics which it has in common with everything else we call a "VCR". No doubt, you have seen many different VCR's -- Sonys and Toshibas, betas and vhs's -- but you have never seen VCR-ness, that by virtue of which they are all VCR's. This is because these individual VCR's are merely the "reflections" or the "shadows" in the ever-changing physical world, of the "Form of VCRness", which exists in an eternal and immutable dimension. This higher dimension, the "Realm of the Forms" is somehow more real than the physical realm.

At this point I would like to introduce a new term to describe the Platonic metaphysics: primacy of consciousness. A primacy of consciousness metaphysics is one which states that reality is, fundamentally, a form or function of consciousness. We can see evidence for this position everywhere in Plato's metaphysics. First of all, the "Forms" are abstractions, that is, universal ideas which we would normally expect to find in someone's mind. There is little coincidence, then, that St. Augustine easily converted Plato's "Forms" into ideas in God's mind when Christianity was introduced. Plato wasn't far from saying the same thing. In his dialogue, the Timaeus, Plato describes how the universe began in a state of chaos, but was rearranged into a certain degree of order by a god-like figure, the demiurge. Thus for Plato, mind -- be it the mind of the creator, or the intellectual realm of the forms -- is the operative metaphysical concept.

It is interesting to note, however, that in Plato's Timaeus, the demiurge does not succeed in crafting the universe into its desired pattern. He does not copy the forms perfectly, and thus the resulting physical reality is less than perfect. For man, this means that his body is somehow base and low, whereas his mind is detached and superior. This example from the history of philosophy is illustrative of the fact that any view which holds consciousness as possessing primacy over existence must result in a mind/body dichotomy. If one believes that someone (one's self or a God) can wish away the facts of the physical, and then discovers that this is impossible, one will perceive a split between mind and body. That Plato holds such a view is evident enough from his depiction of the tripartite soul, where reason and spirit are constantly at war with the lower appetites of the body. This mind/body dichotomy will have drastic effects on the rest of Plato's system.

From the very beginning, Ayn Rand opposes the direction of Plato's thought. In the realm of metaphysics, she opens by observing that existence comes first, not consciousness. Sure, there is consciousness -- we are aware of things -- but we are aware of things: independently existing entities which are there irrespective of our hopes, wishes, or dreams. Facts are facts, A is A, and wishing won't make it so. This description applies to the universe as a whole, as well: its existence is not dependent upon another consciousness -- as Plato argued in the Timaeus. It, and not a realm of Forms is eternal, not created by a hyper-consciousness which was not previously conscious of anything before the universe was created. The essence of the difference between Ayn Rand's metaphysics and Plato's is the difference between this world and "the other". Furthermore, because Ayn Rand does not hold the primacy of consciousness, she sees no reason for which mind and body must be at war with each other. Mind and body are integrated, and this is a principle which will echo throughout her system, just as Plato's mind/body dichotomy does for his.

Each of these views has profound implications in the realm of epistemology, the theory of knowledge.

On Plato's metaphysics, the physical world is merely a shadow of the higher, intellectual realm. Hence, all physical objects -- including our sense organs and the objects of our sensation -- are also less real. The consequence of this view is that we cannot trust our senses, i.e., they are not valid means of knowledge. How do we know anything, then? By resorting to a passive intuition which shall (somehow) instruct us on the nature of the forms. It is true that Plato lists an entire series of steps through which the philosopher must go if he is to have a chance of knowing the realm of the forms, but once he arrives at that process itself, no instruction is offered. In this view, Plato actually dispenses with epistemology, that is, the method of acquiring knowledge. If we are to have knowledge, we must simply be lucky enough to be around when lightning strikes.

As for the efficacy of any knowledge which we might happen to acquire, Plato's metaphysics has already insured that it won't go far. Because the mind/body dichotomy holds on his view, so does a theory/practice dichotomy, and a reason/emotion dichotomy. We may reach titan levels of erudition in our thought, but when it comes to applying them to Plato's physical realm, there is much to be desired, as the fleeting physical isn't conducive to ideas formed in accordance with immutable, eternal entities. We may achieve feats of rationality, but our emotions will distract us with inexplicable messages when it comes to applying those feats in the real world. Just as reality is cut in two for Plato, so is man.

Because Ayn Rand rejects the existence of two realities in favor of just one, she does not share Plato's desire to bisect. In her epistemology, reason is the only means of knowledge, but reason is not detached from the real world. Reason is the "faculty that integrates and identifies the materials provided by man's senses". According to Ayn Rand, physical reality is comprehensible by means of the senses -- they are as valid as far as they go, allegations of illusions to the contrary notwithstanding. This base implies the need for a rich epistemology, as compared to Plato, who dispenses with almost any need for a method of knowledge at all. Miss Rand's work, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology , is all about how to form concepts, i.e., abstractions. Rather than existing in another realm, abstractions are objective tools of man's cognition of this world, the formation of which requires an active process, in accordance with strict rules of economy.

Because Ayn Rand rejects the mind/body dichotomy, she rejects such Platonic injuctions as "it may work in theory, but not in practice". For her, if it isn't true in theory, it can't work in practice, because theories are to be evaluated with respect to the facts of reality. Reason and emotion are not at war, because emotions are based on intellectual value judgments, held either implicitly or explicitly. If you sense a reason/emotion conflict, what you sense is actually a conflict between two different ideas in your mind: one conscious, the other subconscious.

The next branch of philosopy, ethics, is the one where Ayn Rand and Plato are closest to each other, and here, only by default. The secret of Plato's system of ethics is that it is actually egoistic -- it promotes self-interest, as against self-sacrifice. Plato is actually revealing an inconsistency in his own thought here, in that his egoism arises becuase he is a Pagan. An ethics of altruism is almost impossible without justification by the command of a higher power. Although Plato's ethics is implicitly egoistic, he does not spell out a very good prescription for happiness. Happiness and virtue, for him, consist of a proper balance of the three divisions of the soul. By balance, however, Plato means repression. Because he adopts the reason/emotion dichotomy, he finds that it is necessary for reason to repress unwanted emotions. He is only able to conceive of this because he accepts the primacy of consciousness, which dictates that mind can mold reality into any shape it wishes. But emotions are facts like any others, and as any psychologist will tell you, they cannot be ignored. Repressing them is certainly not the route to happiness.

Ayn Rand's egoism is untainted by any element of the mind/body dichotomy. On her view, man can achieve happiness by acting in his long-term, rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself. In the long run, a man can erase conflicts within his soul, not by repression, but by an active process of rethinking the subconscious premises on which certain emotions are based. If a man lives a life of integrity -- of non-contradiction between his thought and his action -- his subconscious will have no reason to complain.

Politics is the study of the nature of government. In government, Plato's non-Pagan mystical aspect reasserts itself, as any vestige of egoism is dispensed with. Plato adopts an altruistic politics, one in which the individual must sacrifice himself for the whole -- this is the doctrine of collectivism. This theory of politics follows quite naturally from Plato's epistemological considerations. After all, if men suffer from a mind/body split, and the lower among them cannot help but succumb to their emotions, then those men must be ruled by the ones who are dominated by reason. Since the form of Man is charaterized by his rationality, the men of the mind are somehow "more real" than the others, and since, for Plato, the real is the good, they are better, and are thus qualified to rule. Furthermore, because Plato's metaphysics dictates that particular physical objects are somehow less real than forms, an individual man is not as real as the form of man. Hence, the emphasis on the collective over the individual. Finally, if you're worried about the untoward implications of communism, don't worry: Plato is there to tell you that it works in theory, but not in practice (along with any other form of government -- where have you heard this before?)

Ayn Rand's politics is the consistent application of the principle of individualism to social concerns. Government exists only for the protection of individual rights. The best expression of this principle is a system of laissez-fairre capitalism, in which all private property is owned, as against Plato's communism. Laissez-faire is not the same as social Darwinism. Some in society may be strong, and some may be weak, but they are all individuals, and none are justified in ruling over the others. Each man must live by his own mind and for his own sake, because each is capable of a mind/body integration. According to Ayn Rand, laissez-faire capitalism is entirely possible to achieve, in its purest form, although no such system has ever existed completely in history. There is no theory/pracice dichotomy.

The difference between Plato's and Ayn Rand's esthetic theories stems directly from the difference in their metaphysics and epistemology. According to Plato, a work of art may be bad because it is a copy of a physical object. But recalling that the physical object is merely a copy of a Form, it becomes apparent that the artistic representation is "twice removed from reality" -- and since the real is the good, art is really unreal, and really bad. At the same time, Plato notes that art has the effect of rousing the emotions. Emotions, however, are irrational and to be repressed. This, in addition to his politics, fully justifies censorship -- just as he advocates. Just as Plato's theory of knowledge really amounts to a rejection of epistemology, by dispensing with the need for a any method of knowledge, Plato's artistic view is tantamount to the wholesale rejection of esthetics, as the only truly beutiful objects on Plato's view are natural objects. Esthetics is the study of art -- beutiful objects created by man -- and the method of creating them.

According to Ayn Rand, however, universals (concepts) do not exist in some suprasensible realm. They are rather cognitive tools for dealing with physical reality. It is precisely because Ayn Rand's "forms" do not exist in Platonic heaven that man desperately needs art. Some of the most important abstractions man forms are ethical abstractions -- concepts which guide his action, and the course of his life. But an abstraction is still an abstraction; man needs the concretization of his values in the form of art to provide him with the "emotional fuel" he needs to go on living. He needs to see that his values are real, possible and attainable. On this view, art is not "twice removed from reality"; for man, art is an indispensible part of his existence. Thus, just as her recognition of the need of a method of knowledge resulted in her discovery of a rich epistemology, so too does her recognition of the need for a method of art result in a rich esthetics. Ayn Rand called her esthetics "Romantic Realism", because it sought to provide a picture of the way life is and ought to be.

It should be obvious by now that the adoption of either of these philosophies would have radical effects in the real world. According to Plato, what we call "the real world" doesn't really exist. The consistent and logical application of Platonism to life is the sort of existence which mankind experienced in the Middle Ages. In that time, men cloistered themselves away from mundane concerns, and attempted to gain insight into a higher, spiritual reality. You know what consequences this trend had. It was not a historical accident that during the middle ages, men walked from town to town, wearing hairshirts and flagellating themselves -- or that the life expectancy was in the twenties -- or that war and pestilence ravaged the land. That the earth should have treated men so poorly was no surprise: men had long since abandoned it for another dimension.

The best historical example of the adoption of ideas close to those of Ayn Rand was the period following the middle ages: the Rennaissance. The Renaissance represented a rebirth of reason, thanks mostly to the Aristotelian thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aristotelianism has always represented the antithesis of Platonism. When Plato saw forms in another dimension, Aristotle looked at the real world. When Plato sought refuge in intuition, Aristotle looked to logic. When Plato urged men to merge themselves with the collective, Aristotle stood for individualism. When Plato advocated a communist state, Aristotle advocated a sane polity, where law, not men, would rule other men. These ideas were the foundation of the Renaissance, and the subsequent periods of Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, and Industrial Revolution. The crown jewel of Aristotle's historical achievement was the creation of the United States of America.

If you looked closely enough, you might have noticed that the image on which the poster announcing this evening's event was embossed was of the great statue of Atlas in Rockefeller center, holding the world astride his shoulders. Across the street is St. Patrick's Cathedral. Nothing could better symbolize the difference between the philosophic worldviews which we have discussed tonight. Not only was Atlas the metaphorical subject of Miss Rand's great novel, but he is an eminently earthly figure -- facing off against the offspring of Plato: the Church. the essential difference between Ayn Rand and Plato is this difference between this world and the next. That difference in opinion has similar power to propel human civilization into one realm or the other. I invite you consider which you prefer.

Revised: 9. January, 1998 a.D.
Comments: lu_objectivism@yahoo.com

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