Yesterday, Lawrence Auster mused about whether Augustus was history’s first liberal or leftist in “History’s First Liberal.” His readers sent many responses and offered their own candidates, including the very sensible choices of Pericles and the Gracci brothers and the obviously right answer, Satan. However, Roland, one of Auster’s readers, gave this absurd comment:
Looking at Roman history, it’s pretty apparent that Catalina and his followers were leftists/liberals.
But I believe that the distinction of being the first identifiable leftist/liberal in history probably goes to Pericles, with things being carried to their logical conclusion by Alcibiades, who was shaped by his goo-goo liberal teacher, Socrates.
And although he came later, Plato also should be cited as a notable liberal/leftist, as well.
Pericles is an arguable choice, as I previously stated, but Socrates and Plato?
I wrote the following to Auster:
Kristor might beat me to this, but . . .
I choked when I read Roland D.‘s comment that Socrates was a “goo-goo liberal teacher” and that Plato was a “notable liberal/leftist,” and not because I think that there is any merit to Popper’s accusation that Plato was a fascist. I would like to know why Roland would label these men as ancient Greek leftists? Surely, that designation might make sense for sophists like Gorgias or Protagoras, but not for Socrates and Plato. What is leftism if not a rejection of order, a rebellion against the hierarchical structure of being where some goods are better than other goods? What is liberalism if not the refusal to articulate that hierarchy of goods for society as a whole? A liberal is skeptical that such an effort is possible for the human mind, and he certainly does not think that a society is just in imposing such a ranking of values on its citizens. Liberalism is a denial that there is a human good by nature or at least that men can discern it.
By the strongest contrast, Socrates (as portrayed by his disciples) and Plato (through the dialogues) make the very purpose of human life the struggle to know that which truly is. There is no higher life than to see the really real and to pattern one’s soul on this transcendent reality. The good is the center around which everything revolves in the Platonic understanding of the world. There is no moral neutrality in Platonism. Plato is the anti-nihilist and, as such, an intellectual enemy to the relativist, nihilistic Left.
The Left deifies politics, and in dialogue after dialogue, Plato’s Socrates (or his Athenian Stranger in the Laws) consistently posits the philosophical life that strives after truth as much higher than the bestial life that strives after power. Politics is important, and, as Plato’s student stresses, man is by nature political. Therefore, decent men have to involve themselves in matters of the state. Yet, that is a necessary evil for them. No leftist would see attaining political power as an evil. Political power is the Left’s idol.
The only thing that might lead someone to call Socrates and Plato leftists is their contempt for convention. Yet, all philosophy involves contempt for convention, at least for the seeker of truth. Yet, you can see how important convention is in the dialogues that deal with politics. Plato knew well how powerful education, myths, and civic celebrations are for a culture, and that is why the Republic and the Laws have so much to say about civic indoctrination. The Left shares this insight, but so does anyone who thinks. What you feed the soul alters the soul. Feed it trash, and it will become trashy. Nourish it with songs that celebrate virtuous men and with stories that depict the gods as benevolent and good, and the soul will become fine and noble. Plato, like all the wise, clearly saw the limits of convention, but he likewise appreciated its powers and the limits to which we can expect “enlightenment” among the masses. Leftists are principled egalitarians, and there is no illusion about equality in the dialogues. Indeed, I cannot think of any topic where the Left can claim Plato as its own, except when the Left happens to be right (which is rare and accidental).
At least someone who has poorly and unthinkingly read some of the dialogues could come away with Karl Popper’s position in The Open Society and Its Enemies that Plato was a proto-totalitarian. Evidently, there are legions of “scholars” who interpret texts in a bizarre way without reading them carefully. Take the “Jesus Seminar” folks or pretty much anything that originates in postmodern circles. Yet, it is inconceivable to me how anyone, even a freshman, could label Plato a leftist after reading his works. I suspect that Roland has never read Plato’s writing but developed an ignorant opinion against Plato from hearing about him. Perhaps, he has noticed how highly leftist academics speak of the “Socratic method,” and, judging that a hero of his enemy must be an enemy, he consigned Socrates and Plato to the likes of Mill and Marx.