Friday, February 02, 2007

Plato and Popular Culture

Most people have heard of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Some people may have some familiarity with his works. For example, Plato's Republic is often included in lists of the great books of Western culture, and is frequently taught in politics classes. What perhaps is less known is the influence that Plato has had on certain aspects of popular culture.

For instance, many people have heard of a mythical place called Atlantis, without necessarily being aware that the origin of this myth is Plato's dialogue, the Timaeus. A priest says to the character Solon in the dialogue,

"Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars."

The eventual fate of Atlantis is also described in this passage. It continues,

"But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island."

The story of Atlantis has proved a huge boon to documentary film makers and archaeologists. It has even provided the inspiration for luxurious vacation resorts. Indeed, a quick search on reveals a large number of books available on the topic of Atlantis, showing that the place still plays an important role in the popular imagination. All this came about, due to a few, quite possibly chance remarks in a Platonic dialogue.

Another way in which Plato has had an influence on popular culture, albeit indirectly, is through the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien's popularity has been on the rise of late, in large part due to the recent adaption of his Lord of The Rings trilogy as film scripts.

Central to story of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings is a ring with the magical power of conferring invisibility on it's wearer. The idea that inspired this magical ring is the 'Ring of Gyges', that appears in the Second book of Plato's Republic. The relevant passage of the Republic (359a-360d) can be found here. In Plato's version, the ring is introduced whilst Socrates is debating with Plato's brother Glaucon. The ring of Gyges confers invisibility, when worn a certain way. The story of the ring is introduced by Glaucon, in order to argue that people will act unjustly, if they have an opportunity to do so, without getting caught. While Tolkien's Golem, the long time owner of his ring, became a sad, pathetic figure, even after no longer having possession of the ring, no such ill fate befell the character in the Platonic dialogue. However, the sad fate of Golem should be a lesson to many. Plato's story is thus the happier one. The main point here is that, this is another way that Plato has influenced modern popular culture.

Of course, there are many other ways that Plato has influenced modern thinking. A particularly important manner in which his ideas and philosophy have exerted an influence, is through the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. However, Plato's influence can also be seen in philosophers of the Modern era, such as Rene Descartes. Indeed, the Twentieth Century philosopher A. N. Whitehead went as far as to remark, famously that, "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." [A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39.] Thus, although he has been dead for over 2,000 years, it should be no surprise that the influence of Plato is all around us, even today.

The CP


Blogger pj said...

I'm writing a short essay on what Plato would think of pop culture today for a phi 101 class. I'm arguing that he would love how it reinforces our desire to spend money and keeps the masses away from important discussions that should be left to the philosophers. As the class just recently started I've only read a little bit of his work(parts of the Republic), can you recommend any dialogues that I may find useful?

6:19 AM  

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