Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Plato on the EU Referendum

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: Plato on the EU Referendum

Article excerpt

Our politicians, realising that the referendum campaign will be settled not by themselves under the usual parliamentary constraints but by the Twitter-maddened populace under no constraints at all, have decided to abandon any principles they may have and play the straight populist game. Plato well understood the behaviour and its consequences.

In his Republic , he envisages a man in charge of a large and powerful animal who studies its moods and needs. He learns when to approach and handle it, when and why it is savage and gentle, the meaning of the various noises it makes and how to speak to it to annoy or calm it. He might then deduce that he has a scientific understanding of animals. But he would not really know which of the beast's tastes and desires was good for it and which not. He would base his expertise simply on its reactions, and conclude that what pleased it was good and what did not was bad. But he would have no means of giving a rational account of these judgments, and would remain blind to its real nature. …

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