By John Altmann
When one reflects upon the terrorist attack that occurred in Charlottesville Virginia that resulted in one death and nineteen injuries, it is of the utmost pertinence that one also be mindful of the catalyst of this terrorist attack. White Supremacists had galvanized after receiving word that a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee had been fated to be removed. They protested with tiki torches while chanting how they would not be replaced. To white supremacists, Robert E. Lee exemplifies whiteness and whiteness, in turn, is not just a racial category to white supremacists, but rather, whiteness is affirmed by white supremacists to be the entirety of their very identity. To the white supremacist, the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee is emblematic of what whiteness is and so by extension, who they are as a collective: powerful, courageous, masculine, etc. To put it succinctly, the confederate statue is an image that possesses an aesthetic value as it relates to whiteness, it is an image that validates the white supremacist ideology and so as a consequence, validates the white supremacist consciousness to exalt race above all other characteristics as it relates to identity.
When we examine the Charlottesville terrorist attack from the vantage point of white supremacists and their relationship to the Robert E. Lee. statue, we can begin to grasp the significance and aesthetic power that images possess and exude both in extraordinary circumstances and in our everyday lives. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato had a fundamental understanding of the nature and the power of the image, and he devoted extensive commentary to this very subject the most insightful of which can be found within the pages of his seminal text The Republic. Ironically enough, both Plato and The Republic are celebrated among the pseudo-intellectual circles of white supremacists, who laud Plato’s seemingly fascist political vision and the means which Plato utilizes to achieve it. While I ultimately aim to show how these same means can be appropriated for a more just society, it is vital that I first outline what exactly Plato’s attitude was towards the image in The Republic as well as afford an alternative interpretation of The Republic and its more controversial assertions. Once I have laid this foundation, I will show that the concept of Platonic education is one of immense power in these times, and that this concept needn’t align itself with white supremacy.
It is important to first note that when reading The Republic, one should not read it as purely a work of political philosophy nor should they read it as purely a work of psychology. Rather, one should read The Republic as both a psychological and political work. The construction of the just city in The Republic, or the more political aspect of the work, is a project originally embarked upon by Plato and his interlocutors as a thought experiment designed to find what justice in man looks like, with this end serving as the psychological dimension of the work. Plato reasons that after ascertaining what justice is on a macro-cosmic level through the erecting of the city-state, he will then be able to locate what justice is on a microcosmic level as it relates to justice in man. When we approach The Republic as a text that shows what the psychology of the just citizen looks like and the society that such a being could be expected to manifest, it casts the more controversial stances taken by Plato as it relates to the maintenance of the city-state in a new light.
In Plato’s view, human beings possess a tripartite soul which is to say, a soul comprised of three distinct parts. There is the part of the soul that loves truth and yearns for wisdom, there is the part of the soul that is spirited and emotional, and lives for honor and glory, and lastly there is a part of the soul that is governed by the appetites i.e. sex, drink, money and is always looking to satisfy its basest desires. Plato corresponds each part of the soul with a function of the city-state. The wisdom loving part of the soul corresponds to the philosopher king, who exerts dominion in the city-state, while the spirited part of the soul that pursues nobility and honor is represented by the military class, and the part of the soul that deals with appetites is represented by the merchant class. All three parts of the soul are vital to Plato and the soul as a whole is at its healthiest when all three parts of the soul are in alignment, with the part of the soul that loves wisdom in a position of governance over the other parts. With Plato’s theory of human psychology sketched out, as well as how each aspect of the soul of the just citizen corresponds to an aspect of the functionality of the city-state, we can now begin to address the question of the relationship between the soul and the image, and how Plato conceives of this relationship’s mediation.
The thought experiment of the ideal city-state takes its most fascinating turn when Plato begins detailing to his interlocutors the education of the youth within the city. Plato thinks that the youth of the city-state should only be raised on images and stories whose aim is the fostering of a sense of love and duty to the city state within the youth. As such, Plato would not have the youth engage artists such as Homer and his well known works The Illiad and The Odyssey, for those works depict scenes of cruelty from the Gods and prominent Greek figures exhibiting certain vices and qualities such as cowardice, greed, a fear of death, etc. Such scenes and representations, argues Plato, damages the soul because the soul is consuming falsehoods, and falsehoods in turn are deleterious to the flourishing of the soul which will ultimately prove pernicious to the city-state. We see here the essence of what constitutes a platonic education: the control of the flow of knowledge to cultivate a certain type of citizen. This is why Plato is weary of artists, because he wants to raise the youth on Truth, which to Plato amounts to the Forms, while at best what artists can hope to produce are mere imitations of a truth i.e. an imitation of an apple as opposed to the Form from which a real apple participates. Plato’s conception of a proper education, raising the youth on the Truth and rejecting imitations and falsehoods, reveals one of Plato’s more radical claims as it relates to the proper governance of the city-state: the image must be resisted.
Now it must be said, that the context in which the term image finds itself is significant for our discussion of platonic education in the modern age. In Plato’s time, he believed that the image offered no value as it pertains to imparting knowledge, which will henceforth be described as possessing epistemic value. This is why in Plato’s famed Cave allegory, which is also found in the pages of The Republic, we see a band of men chained to a cave wall as their reality is comprised of the quintessential image: the shadow. The shadow is utterly void of epistemic value, the ultimate imitation of a higher reality. In Plato’s view, the shadow, and the cave within which it is projected and enshrined, must be rebuked in favor of the Forms which are representative of the Truth. But, it is a readily accepted notion that the world has progressed to a more naturalistic metaphysics and that the Forms have gone the way of the chopping block. Furthermore and perhaps even more pressing to our present discussion, it is quite evident that art and by extension the image, has evolved to where it can be rich in both epistemic and aesthetic value, as is the case with the painting I Ran Toward My House Through a Sea of Flames by Yoshiko Michitsuji, which conveys on an epistemic level the horror and suffering experienced at Hiroshima during the dropping of the first atomic bomb. We see the flames engulfing the ruins of Hiroshima, as well as two human victims. We see one man bloodied and reaching his arm out as if to try and salvage something from the wreckage, but a woman equally bloodied reaches her arm out to stop him. Such chaos, violence, and bloodshed, is all communicated in one rich snapshot and illustrates with such gut wrenching clarity, the abhorrent destruction the atomic bomb caused Hiroshima resulting in 4,000 people killed. Given these facts, what, if anything, can Plato say about Confederate statues and white supremacy and is platonic education an adequate tool to arm ourselves with in the face of the white supremacist threat?
To effectively answer the question of Plato’s relevance as it relates to white supremacy and Confederate statues, it is imperative that one first make an evaluation of both the epistemic and aesthetic value of the Robert E. Lee statue that was the catalyst to the Charlottesville terrorist attack. In the case of the statue’s epistemic value, the knowledge it conveys is a kind one apprehends immediately. That is to say, it conveys knowledge of the existence of a man named Robert E. Lee, who during the American Civil War sided with the Confederacy and was one of if not the most, prominent Confederate generals during the war. Conversely, when an appraisal of the statue’s aesthetic value is conducted, the answer isn’t as straightforward as it was when assessing the statue’s epistemic value. This is because when we discuss the aesthetic character of an object, what we are concerning ourselves with is the beauty of that object which resides in a field of subjectivity. Despite the existence of this field however, not all evaluations of the beauty of a Confederate statue are asserted equally. When a government sanctions the erecting of such a statue, and when a group of white supremacists are emboldened by the threat of its removal to defend it, we can see that these affirmations of the statue’s beauty are legitimized more than the evaluations made by marginalized peoples who are most affected by the reverberations of slavery’s legacy which Robert E. Lee so proudly defended. The greatest proof of this being when President Trump said in a press conference that not only were there very nice people at the protest of the statue’s removal, but that when violence broke out both the white supremacists and those resisting them were in the wrong.
What does such a climate say about the statue’s aesthetic value, particularly in the eyes of white supremacists? It says that the beauty of the Robert E. Lee statue lies not just in the fact that it is vital chapter in American history, but that what the statue embodies as a whole is beautiful. To the white supremacist, the whiteness of Lee is beautiful, the Confederacy is beautiful, and the institution of slavery is beautiful. The white supremacist radicalizes the aesthetic character of the confederate statue for their own racialist agenda. This radicalization of the aesthetic by white supremacists serves another insidious function, which is the manipulation of the statue’s epistemic value. The manipulation is such that the aesthetic value of the statue is conflated with the statue’s epistemic value which is to say, that white supremacists aim to see their subjective attitudes towards the statue become objective truths throughout the state i.e., whiteness is objectively superior, slavery is objectively good, etc. It is at this moment that the statue takes on the platonic character of being a shadow, and white supremacy the cave where the shadow is born and the bigots dwell.
Now proceeding to our second inquiry, that being if platonic education is an adequate approach to effectively eradicating white supremacy? The answer to which being that the United States has already modeled its educational philosophy after Plato. Philosopher Alex Rosenberg, in his essay The Making of A Non-Patriot, Rosenberg details how we assimilate young children, specifically immigrants, to have a reverence for the U.S. and its iconography. Rosenberg talks about how we should never let the children see portrayals of Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt that exhibit the more immoral aspects of their character. We must see Wilson and Roosevelt only in the most exemplary light, so as to effectually communicate their goodness, patriotism, and heroism. This is a direct parallel to Plato’s condemnation of Homer in The Republic, for Plato thought that children raised on stories of the Gods being cruel to men, or certain Greek figures exhibiting traits of cowardice or malice, would prove malignant to the flourishing of their soul and subsequently, their prospering as a citizen within the city-state. The platonic education we have so far instituted in this nation has been a breeding ground for white supremacy and its ills, alongside a plethora of other social ills whose ends are the destitution of marginalized bodies. As such, this is not a call for a platonic education to be instituted but rather, for it to be reoriented and radicalized. Because only through this radicalization of the platonic education can white supremacy on an ideological level be adequately combated.
What does a radicalized platonic education look like? It does not care to bring up the citizen so that they may adequately apprehend the Forms, for this is an antiquated concept. Rather, it adheres to Plato’s admonition of the image and educates the citizen in Truth. What does our Truth look like? To follow Rosenberg’s lead, it is letting children know at the earliest possible age that white settlers massacred Native Americans for their land and resources, it is letting them know as they get older and progress in their education about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but not the versions of them made palatable by an educational system meant to breed patriotism no, but about the Malcolm X that advocated violent resistance to white supremacy, and about the Martin Luther King that offered a condemnation of Capitalism while in the Birmingham jail. It is an education that does not see our citizens consuming aesthetics that honor and glorify those who defend repugnant institutions such as Robert E. Lee defending the institution of slavery, those statues are razed to the ground and replaced with statues of people like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, and other strong figures representative of the liberation of marginalized peoples. Because justice in the 21st century means being cognizant of the images and stories we were raised on and raise our youth on, while also recognizing the historical character of these stories and the suffering they entail for the marginalized. Our platonic education seeks to end the phenomenon of the Other, to recognize the humanity of the marginalized and to afford them a platform for their narratives. For only when these stories replace those of the greatness of figures like Robert E. Lee, George Washington, and others, can history become more than an aesthetic enterprise whose ends are the projections of shadows to deceive the youth into patriotism.
The just citizen brought up on a neo-platonist education will carry on the task of resisting false images. This does bring to the forefront however, one of the most critical discussions regarding the neo-platonist education, the virtues that education seeks to impart, and the society that said virtues can be expected to create. That discussion being what constitutes a false image, and what images can be ethically permitted in our ideal state? To answer the inquiry of the false image one needn’t look further than the Robert E. Lee statue. By Robert E. Lee’s legacy taking the form of a statue, it attains an aesthetic character that serves to associate who he was and what he defended with the sublime and the beautiful. It follows logically then that a moral statement is being made that slavery and the legacy of the Confederacy, can rightly be associated with the beautiful. Images have ethical statements embedded in them and as such Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy he defended should be consigned solely to the archive, the textbook, etc. mediums that possess minimal to no aesthetic character and are objects that serve to impart purely aesthetic value.
So if the Robert E. Lee statue is emblematic of a false image, what images and stories are permissible in our neo-platonist conception of education? The answer is images whose aesthetic value serve to bolster their epistemic value. To put it another way, an image whose beauty lies in strengthening the knowledge the image seeks to impart to its consumer. Referring back to another form of art I referenced in a preceding paragraph, I Ran Toward My House Through a Sea of Flames by Yoshiko Michitsuji, that painting’s aesthetic value lies in the fact that it conveys in a more intimate way the suffering that occurred in Hiroshima. Such images impart to those the suffering that was incurred upon a group of people that under the old form of education were deemed the enemy and the Other, an indiscernible collective determined to bring about the ruination of our country. This piece makes us forge a connection with the artist and perhaps even more so, the historical period the piece depicts. Our just citizen exhibits empathy in this moment, he sees not a swarm of killers but men and women with families and aspirations. The history of World War II must be one that is told through a multitude of experiences, and this is true regardless of the medium employed with which to communicate this history. Because for our just citizen and our ideal city, a history that belongs solely to the victor, is one that is greatly impoverished. It is this very poverty, that endows white supremacy with its power, and makes terrorist attacks like what was witnessed in Charlottesville materialize.
One may wonder why we are so emphatic about both the occlusion and expulsion of false images, stories, etc. from our education of the citizen and from our ideal state as a whole? This is because while the essence of the just citizen is one that does not consume or perpetuate false images, the essence of the white supremacist is the image. The white supremacist is cultivated through iconography such as Confederate flags and Nazi Swastikas, through stories about the Aryan race or the Romanian Iron Guard, and deified imagery of the likes of Adolph Hitler and the KKK. It was stated in a preceding paragraph that the aesthetic object has an ethical character embedded in it. It should also be stressed that the aesthetic object can be the catalyst to action, which was made evident by white supremacists congregating in Charlottesville to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. When the white supremacist is brought up on these aesthetic objects, when they internalize them and become socialized by their messages i.e. the superiority of whiteness, the valor and strength of Hitler, etc. it emboldens them to act. The ideology of white supremacy is an ideology predicated on violence and it is a violence whose ends are the creation of a white ethno-state where the aforementioned aesthetic objects become the dominant representations of the culture. In this light, the white supremacist is only a few degrees removed from the patriot, for they both are ensnared by the shadows that the just citizen resists.
There still exists one glaring objection that is certain to be made by anyone who reads this, and that is that our conception of the just citizen, the education they receive, and the society within which they live and contribute, rests on a foundation of censorship which historically and perhaps ironically has been a practice that has been viscerally critiqued as a harbinger of fascism. The problem with these critiques, is that they are almost always act oriented which is to say, that the act of censorship is always condemned as bad or evil. But with every act there is an object, and so what we shall be putting forth is an object oriented defense of censorship. So what speech, iconography, etc. are we censoring? The answer is speech, iconography, etc. that is predicated on or has embedded within it violence and hate. Returning once again to Confederate iconography and white supremacy, what should be inquired is what was the Confederacy and what is white supremacy? In the case of the former, it was a segment of the United States that wished to maintain the institution of slavery. In the case of the latter, it is a racialist ideology that believes in the superiority of white skin and that subjects all other races to a place of inferiority. Both share the commonality of oppressing and committing violence against people of other races. If we are a state that celebrates multiculturalism and desires not to occlude people of differing races from participating in it, why should the existence of multiculturalism’s antithesis be permitted to occupy the public sphere alongside it? It should not and the just citizen is one that will expel the antithesis and fill the void left from white supremacy and its imagery’s expulsion from the state with stories and statues of Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, etc. in its stead. Aesthetic objects that are representative of bygone eras such as the Confederacy whose existence serves to remind marginalized bodies of the racism and violence that has persisted in the modern state, have no place in it nor do they have any place in the fostering of the psychological health of our just citizen. Because it is this guidance of the psychological health of the youth and future inheritors of our society, that will spell the end of systemic oppression of all kinds.
So if the Confederacy and Robert E. Lee have no place in our society as aesthetic objects and indeed, we expect the very expulsion of such objects to occur in our just society, are we not also arguing for the expulsion of an aspect of American history? Certainly not, for it must be remembered that history is a human invention, and one that ultimately amounts to a kind of archive whose contents can be conveyed in a myriad of ways beyond the purely aesthetic. This is precisely what I am arguing for as it relates to Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. Do not grant such figures and violent periods in history statues and iconography that are vulnerable to be celebrated and utilized maliciously by malignant factions. Rather, resign them to the textbook, and all other objects that can be more appropriately be categorized as an epistemic resource as opposed to aesthetic. For by leaving the task of education of such figures as Lee and periods such as the Confederacy to the textbooks and other epistemic resources, there is no moral ambiguity about the things in question to be caused by a certain aesthetic character. There is only the truth, and that will make more moral citizens than any Confederate statue ever could.
Can censorship, even if it is of Confederate imagery, racist speech, etc. lead to a new kind of psychological being and subsequently, a new kind of society? If Plato is to be believed, the answer is yes. In The Republic, Plato happened upon a radical idea that was vastly ahead of his time. That idea being that depending on how you control the flow of knowledge, you also control the kind of being that results. To put it more succinctly, Plato was one of the earliest thinkers to assert that no one is born a patriot, no one is born a racist, no one is born sexist, etc. When Plato details how knowledge would flow or if you prefer, how education would be conducted in the city-state, he envisioned the kind of citizen that would result from that education. By not speaking of the cruelty of the gods or the cowardice of men in the face of death, Plato knew that such an education would result in citizens who were pious, brave, and would defend the city-state with their lives if necessary. Plato laid the groundwork for how every subsequent society would educate its citizenry. It’s an education whose objective is patriotic citizens who would give their lives if it meant the survival of the state and its values. It is a methodology that terrorist groups like the KKK and ISIS appropriate and alter to align with their ideological ambitions. We who believe in a truly post-racial, post-gender, post-ableist, etc. society, can do the same.
John Altmann is an independent scholar in Philosophy and is both a member of the European Network of Japanese Philosophy as well as a regular contributor to the Popular Culture and Philosophy book series.
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