Saturday, February 21, 2009

BOOK REVIEW9: THE REPUBLIC BY PLATO

I recall one bored evening when I was in Form Five where I strolled in and out of the many second-hand book shops along Macalister Road, Penang. I came across this book. Read it and re-read it. As a teenager this book shocked me for weeks. I never knew that many things which I had accepted as normal are actually "things" set up by experimenting adults.

I did not even realise that I could question so - called accepted concepts. This book challenged my teenage mind's acceptance of so many things and so many things I was unhappy with. It also opened my mind to the fact that not all adults are thinking people as I had assumed all were. This is one the books that changed my life radically.

Plato was born in 427 B.C. Plato was born into a distinguished family with many political connections. Though he had all the opportunities to be active in politics (since his friends and family members were), he withdrew because he was disgusted with the wickedness of the politics of his time. He also was very upset that the State had put his friend Socrates to death on a charge of impiety and corrupting the young. He had seen that even though Socrates himself had the opportunity for political power, he had risked it by also refusing to be part of any political ploys that not benefit the people of Athens. Plato, apparently met Socrates when Plato was about 23 years of age.

Socrates wrote nothing. But he was always engaged in dialogue with whosoever engaged him. Someone who had met Socrates wrote that Socrates was a wisest man in Greece. Socrates knew that he was not and set out to prove the person wrong. His method of doing so was to cross examine people he met about their beliefs, and their ethical belief in particular, since for a Greek, 'wisdom' had a strong ethical meaning. And his questions would commonly take the form of asking people what they meant when they referred to common ethical questions like self-control, or justice or fairness. He found that they did not really know, or at any rate could not give a satisfactory account of what they meant; and to that extent he was wiser than they - he was aware of his ignorance, they were not.

But the cure of ignorance is knowledge, and so in addition to showing that conventional moral notions were often confusing and contradictory, Socrates insisted on the importance in morals of knowledge. If only we knew what was right, the problems of morality would be comparatively simple; and in the quest of that knowledge he never ceased his constant cross examination of himself and others. It is from this book that I learnt that examination of oneself can lead to the discovery that what we thought we knew, we were actually ignorant of it!

Many, many years later I discovered the correct concept of this in the Quran -"conjecture". We live lives based on conjectures and due to lack of or absence of examination, we assumed it to be facts and norms. We confuse guesswork with facts and truths. Even worse, collective guesswork becomes norms for the society!

Since reading the book, I used to spend hours with Thinavan, a school mate every evening who will entertain me with examinations of various topics like, morality, justice, emotions, sex, "right and wrong" ,etc. I think I carried this attitude through life and sometimes, it does cause problems at home! (people do not like being questioned). It also made me my constant critic.

Back to the book,, if you are looking for a mental adventure into the process of inquiry, a discovery of how foolish our thinking can be, a shocking experience of how we transmit illogical and irrational thoughts from one generation to the next, then this is the book to give you that 'high'.

In this book, Plato records, Socrates's dialogues and conversations with various people on various subjects like education, the philosophical ruler, imperfect societies, the soul, the reward of goodness in life, etc. To me, reading this book is like a roller coastal ride because the journey will be in your mind and heart.

You will enjoy it and if you have the patience to read it through and think about it - it will change your perspective of life radically!

PEACE !

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