To answer questions of politics properly, one must understand the theories which produced the questions. Otherwise it is no more than blind stabs into an unknown dark. Most people alive today think that requires no more than some relatively trivial Google searches on political science. But POLITICAL SCIENCE, ultimately, can only describe that which IS or IS NOT, because it is a science rather than art. POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY takes a step beyond, to describe that which MIGHT BE.

Plato's cave: an artistic conception
Plato's cave: an artistic conception

Political science is faced with the quandary that it is based on prior conceptions of that which might be, so its models attempt to distill some minimal restatement of the work which went into those ideas. Yet any such minimalism removes the complicated points of controversy, whereupon the important political feuds occur, and so, on the actual issues where knowledge matters most, political science fails by itself. Over the millennia, many different political philosophies have been advocated, some of which persist to our modern world. To understand truly the flaws in political science, and to resolve properly issues of contention, one needs to understand the philosophies which led to their conception.

The Limit of Science

The first step is to recognize the primary limit of scientific theory itself, for which purpose I introduce one example: that of quantum mechanics. Contrary to most pundits on the subject, quantum theory was not at all some new revolutionary discovery. Several thousand years ago, Vedic philosophers watched motes of dust in sunbeams and asked "what is the smallest thing that can exist?" Thereon, they reasoned, however small a mote might be, it would still have an inside and outside. But the inside and outside would have to be smaller than the smallest thing. So, if it were the smallest possible particle, it would then be impossible to determine what is inside it and what is outside it. THEREFORE, they reasoned, matter consists of compartments of space, inside each one of which there may be solid matter or not, and it is impossible to determine which compartments contain solid matter, and which not, because the ability to measure the distinction would require the existence of something smaller than the smallest possible thing.

Fast forward to the modern world. Many are now still convinced that quantum theories and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle are 'discoveries of the way the world really is.' But they are not. They are the consequences of our own ability to comprehend the material world, and the experiments simply demonstrate that which Vedic philosophers deduced by reason several thousand years ago.

Science is only a model corroborated by experiment, and the model can only be as good as our minds can create. Within our brief time-bound existence, the ultimate nature of reality is beyond our absolute comprehension. When approaching the limits of science, we approach the limits of that which we can comprehend, which is the limits of our ability to reason, and not the actual limits of the material world--if indeed it exists independent of the domain of mind.

Those who dismiss domains of mind, independent of matter, have already dismissed much that can be explained. Attempting to explain to such minimalists any deeper understanding could be limited by their own lack of insight--while the minimalists will continue to deride attempts to explain alternative perspectives as flaky imagination. And with the exploding pseudosciences resulting from the decay of hermeneutic knowledge into the pseudodata of post-modernism, the minimalists can point to good examples. There are now many bizarre theories claiming to define consciousness perfectly in terms of quantum mechanics, or string theory, or whatever, because the actual metaphysical distinction between mind and matter still remains opaque to many people.

Similarly, many modern political theories are not really understood because people do not know the history of thought that went into their making. Most of their answers are no better than those provided by hypnotists seeking out your identity in a previous life, which even itself has been labeled a 'science' of 'regressive therapy.' To answer questions of politics properly, one must understand the theories which produced the questions, or it is no more than the blind stabs into an unknown dark, producing the ephemera of intangible and irresolvable debate that has already degenerated the 'age of enlightenment' into 'the information age.' First, simple data correlation slowly replaced analytical thought, over many generations of ignorant skepticism. From that, it was only a tiny step to the more rapid degeneration into the current 'post-truth era,' within which 'defining the narrative' replaces 'the search for rational truth' with an increasingly perilous rate of acceleration.

Science without Philosophy

When Vedic philosophers conceived of quantum theory two thousand years ago, they were imagining that which could not be directly seen. It took vast advances in empirical theories for science to catch up and be able to validate the idea. And sufficiently advanced laboratory tools were required too, of course. But in politics, there is no such laboratory. One cannot isolate one factor and vary it against a controlled environment to determine its effect. Hence much of that regarded as 'science' in politics is based on supposition. But when people debate politics, one could hardly believe there is any doubt to their views. Almost everything is stated as if necessarily true.

That is because, since the dawn of time, political ideas have rested on the art of rhetoric: the art of persuasion. Socrates is generally acknowledged as an early great master in rhetoric, but he himself deplored the rhetoric he was forced to use. He saw rhetoric as an enemy to the superior mind, which instead seeks only the light of goodness, through which truth is known. But surrounded by many inferior minds, he was driven into rhetorical tricks, to persuade them enough to look away from their squabbles and seek understanding without prejudice.

When I first started sharing thoughts about Socrates' ideas of justice, I shared the black and white picture of Plato's cave which starts this topic. I received hundreds of criticisms of it. This was not the first time, so I thought, maybe so many are disagreeing because it says something different on the Wikipedia (which is often the case now). So I looked on the Wikipedia. It had the same diagram of Plato's cave in color, but with the labels removed:

Plato's cave reduced to meaninglessness on the Wikipedia
Plato's cave reduced to meaninglessness on the Wikipedia

Apparently, so many people had squabbled about the words in the diagram, as they had squabbled with me, that the Wikipedia had to remove the labels entirely. The resulting picture still has dotted lines (indicating realms of forms) but they are now totally meaningless without the labels to describe what the domains are. That is highly ironic, for reasons I explain in the next section. First though, one needs to note how indicative this example is of the actual mechanics in political science. By removing the philosophy, much of the actual substance to the topic itself is also removed. In actuality, to understand philosophers, one cannot squabble about which ones one personally thinks are wrong. One has to accept each one as positing a position, and try to understand the position first, rather than judge it preemptively by one's prior experience. Then their ideas can be understood. We cannot understand someone else's ideas without first considering how they arrived at that conception. After understanding, the inferences each makes should not be a point of hostile contention, but of deliberative evaluation. If the position is simplistic, the deliberation is quick; but for great thinkers like Plato, the qualities of conceptions are far deeper, and sometimes take many years to master.

Truth and Plato's Cave

Plato held that only a few wise philosophers could perceive concepts like 'justice' correctly. The far greater number of people only know them as tenuous shadows in a cave, over which they bicker as to their shape. But they can never really decide, because the shadows are not only all that they can see, but even more crucially, they themselves think the shadows are all there is. Here lies the irony of the above debate; in attempting to explain the allegory of Plato's cave, philosophers themselves squabbled about the meanings of words, exactly like the ignorant squabble about the shadows in Plato's allegory itself.

According to Plato, only the real philosopher knows that the shadows are mere ephemera in a cave of ignorance. Above the cave, in the true light of goodness, ideas are found as the real natural things, which are now known in English as "ideal forms." Roughly speaking, the light of goodness casts shadows from ideal forms as pure ideas, like triangles and squares; and from those, the ideal forms of material objects are known. But most people never perceive that, and instead just perceive shadows of artificial things, such as dead objects, illuminated by the element of fire. The fire's flickering light casts shadows of artificial things onto the cave wall, which is all that most can perceive. Perhaps part of the wall is tinted blue, and another part tinted red; then from different angles, those in the cave see the different tints, and argue whether the artificial things are blue or red, instead of trying to perceive the real ideas that are casting the shadows.

The actual form of the real idea is unknown and unimaginable to those bickering in the caves. If one attempts to show the deluded the actual truth, it is so blinding to them, they can only turn away from it. Instead, they sneer and ridicule those who are able to see the pure ideas and ideal forms from the darkness of the cave, where they shackled like slaves by their own lack of will to seek greater understanding.

"At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? ...Until the person is able to abstract and define rationally the idea of good, and unless he can run the gauntlet of all objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth, never faltering at any step of the argument--unless he can do all this, you would say that he knows neither the idea of good nor any other good; he apprehends only a shadow, if anything at all, which is given by opinion and not by science--dreaming and slumbering in this life, before he is well awake here, he arrives at the world below, and has his final quietus."
- The Republic, Plato (Athens, ~380 BCE).

The problem of Plato's cave is, unless people can understand the idea of concepts as existing independently in a domain of mind, it is not only impossible to argue about it, but as Plato writes, painful to do so, for both parties. In philosophy, the full theory of the Platonic idea of forms is a fine issue for epistemology (the nature of knowledge) in metaphysics, and too complex for this short essay. The underlying point is that those who cannot understand further (or believe that understanding is illusory) regard philosophy as something like arcane magic. But to a philosopher, the common person's understanding is akin at most to that which a neanderthal could understand of an automobile's mechanics. So at this point, many people's comprehension ends. They are incapable of understanding something more than the shadows, so they believe the shadows to be all there is.

When asked to explain how a philosopher knows the true forms of ideas, Plato stated that some nonetheless strive to see the light, after which the truth is known to that philosopher as a kind of 'knack' of understanding, but only some people have that knack. The ability to express that knowledge is a skill, but no matter how much people work on it, they cannot improve their knowledge if they are not natively endowed with some necessary insight, yielded from the striving to know better truth.

Often this idea of how truth is known is conflated with the issue of whether Platonic forms exist, or whether philosophers should actually be the rulers of government. Really there are separate issues. Is it true that only a few people are capable of reason, as Plato says? If so, can there ever really be such a thing as a universal knowledge of justice and law in politics? Of are we forever condemned to squabbling, as we continue to define it as a science without philosophy?

The Hermeneutics of Politics

Ultimately, any system of politics must rest on an idea of what power is good for a society to endow to its authorities. Until a person is able to abstract and define rationally the idea of good, and unless the person can run the gauntlet of all objections, and is ready to disprove them, not by appeals to opinion, but to absolute truth, never faltering at any step of the argument--unless a person can do all this, Plato would say that the person knows neither the idea of good, nor any other good, nor truth, nor justice, nor even the nature of reality itself, but only the deluded bickering over shadows.

The most important word here is "until". It means that there is a process to be able to know the light, the truth, or the good. Probably the most complicated process a human can dare to do. Immanuel Kant has most prominently written: "sapere aude!" Dare to think! And with it, Kant tried to describe the first steps to enlightenment not only for one single agent, but for whole societies as well. For that to happen, the individual cannot accept an intuitive idea of goodness alone as the basis of a political system, but must seek guidance from the knowledge of those who have reasoned upon their ideas before, and advanced the concepts further than any one person can achieve in their own lifetime.

Should such a guide to knowledge govern, as Plato suggested? The term 'govern' derives from the Latin gauberare which means "to control, rule and guide." No intelligent man can hope to govern a complicated system without guidance. And States and countries are just that: complicated systems. So to advance society, a ruler needs to find help from philosophers to do so. And for that reason, political knowledge is not scientific alone, but also hermeneutic.

Good rulers not only seek to understand the thinkers before them, but also aspire to ensure a means of enlightenment for all people, regardless of their own political office. It remains up to the people to seek that enlightenment, or their demands on the rulers will only lead backwards, away from reason, into the Dark Ages again; such as we all too often witness: an attempt to define the rule of power as a material science, without considering the philosophies which led to its creation.

In this regressing post-truth era, such ideas are even worse than challenged. They are unfashionable! What greater criticism could a post-modernist levy as indestructible, while thinking their own naive ideas as superior because they are popular among their peers? They claim acquisition of knowledge and learning is elitist. They claim the conclusions from erudition only deserve to be dismissed, out of hand as arrogant delusion, arising from indoctrination, deserving only disparagement with contempt.

And so the debate in Plato's cave continues, much to the pain of all involved; and the idea of universal justice appears just as unattainable now as when Cicero sought to define secular law, almost exactly two thousand years ago. Thankfully, as philosophers, we know that appearances are no more than apparent; a simple tautology that remains true, no matter how unfashionable that truth is to the current, less informed, post-truth gestalt.


- Ernest Meyer