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Star Trek, Plato and the misreading of things

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Imagine I wrote a book in which I advanced a philosophical argument showing that state authority is not well-justified, but that nevertheless, it’s a bad idea to go around killing and bombing.

Now imagine that someone blew up a government building, and claimed to have been inspired by that book. Would that mean that my book is “really” pro-bombing? Or would a more reasonable conclusion be that the bomber didn’t read very carefully or was a very poor thinker?

Since I actually did write such a book, it might seem as though I have a vested interest in arguing for the latter, but it’s a perennial issue: can we fault an author A for “inspiring” bad actions B when it’s pretty clear that A was not calling for B?

I was put in mind of this issue recently when I felt obliged to reply to a new iteration of the common misperception that Plato’s “philosopher kings” thought experiment was the blueprint for 20th century collectivist tyranny, as opposed to an allegory for a life of rational self-control and moderated passions.

I haven’t actually read Mein Kampf, but I’d be surprised if there’s a reliance on Plato there. I have, however, read Mussolini’s treatise on fascism, and I couldn’t see any Platonism there at all. And Marx, the dialectical materialist, couldn’t be more anti-Platonic if he tried. In general, since Book 9 of Plato’s Republic is specifically about how awful tyranny is, it hardly seems fair to claim that this or that tyrant is inspired by Plato. 

People are often poor readers or bad making inferences. Worse, they often make poor inferences because they want to find support for things they already believe, so they read things in such a way as to support their preferences. In the original Star Trek series, there’s an episode entitled (gulp) “Plato’s Stepchildren,” where the Enterprise crew is taken captive by an alien race that had visited Earth in the time of the ancient Greeks. They admired the ideas of Plato, we’re told, and renamed themselves “Platonians.” Yet their society is ruled in accordance with a principle of “whoever is most powerful gets to rule”—the exact opposite of what Plato argues for. What is the right response to the Platonians? To criticize Plato, or to note that the Platonians were very bad students?   

Star Trek actually offers several examples of misreadings. In one of the three “comedic” episodes, a developing civilization inadvertently gets hold of a sociological text on organized crime in 1920s Chicago, and it literally becomes their bible—their society is entirely patterned on Capone-era stereotypes. One suspects that the sociologist who wrote the book wasn’t advocating mob violence, but merely describing it.

Besides the purely analytic, it’s easy to see misreading in cautionary tales. If I start ruthlessly murdering my political rivals, that’s bad, but it’s not an indictment of Shakespeare, and neither should we hold Martin Scorsese responsible for “inspiring” John Hinckley.

Both parable and satire have a particular intent. When Jesus says “Go and do likewise” after relating the parable of the Good Samaritan, the “likewise” does not refer to the acts of the robbers. It would hardly be a strike against Christianity if a robber misinterpreted the intent of passage. Similarly, Swift doesn’t literally advocate that the poor eat their children, and it would hardly be an indictment of Swift if some modern-day lunatic committed cannibalism.

In the real world, we see people attributing “influence” or “inspiration” in all sorts of implausible contexts. Darwin gets blamed for college fraternity sexual abuse. John “Ozzy” Osbourne gets blamed for teen drug use. And, as readers of this blog are aware, Adam Smith gets blamed for “influencing” the very crony-capitalist businessmen he disavows. Indeed, most of times one sees references to the “invisible hand,” it’s to mock the idea—not found in Smith—that markets would infallibly solve all social problems.

Say Mr. Jones bribes lots of politicians in order to obtain special privilege and hamper his competitors, and fleeces his customers as a means of increasing profit, and then says “Well, I draw my inspiration from Adam Smith and Milton Friedman—you know, capitalism.” Would we be right to infer from this that thinkers like Smith and Friedman are responsible? Or would the better conclusion be that Jones either is a very poor reader or else appealing to common misconceptions to rationalize his actions?

Reading an author carefully and charitably means not filtering the author’s writing through one’s own predispositions, trying instead to get the author’s intended meaning in its own context as fairly and accurately as possible. And when we see bad ideas or activities, we should not blame it on tenuous inspirations. It’s more likely that someone has been reading poorly, and in any case it’s more effective to place the blame on the actual wrongdoer.


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