I was a child when I first heard the name Plato. I can’t remember precisely when it was, or what I heard, but I learned when I was quite young that Plato was a very wise man who had lived in ancient Greece.
I never made an attempt to find a copy of any of Plato’s works, although I thought I might one day. Then when I was in Columbia College, I took Humanities A1, as it was called then. I took it in my sophomore year, since I was an engineering major during my first two years in college, and that’s what engineering majors did back in the 1950s. The core courses at the college excited me no end. I found them stimulating, delightful, and enriching. I looked forward to reading Plato at last, and enjoyed the first few works that were assigned. Then came the Republic. As I was reading through Book III: 398-400, I read about banning the flute and other instruments “capable of modulation into all the modes.” I was startled. I am a music lover and often play the piano, and I know that most pieces have accidentals or modulate from one key to another or both. What would Mozart sonatas be like without the possibility of changing keys? And why on earth should any society ban instruments that can modulate from key to key?
At the time, I had no idea that Chairman Mao would place limitations on what sorts of music could be performed. Ayatollah Khomeini had not yet come to power, so I couldn’t possibly have known that he would one day place limits on the performance of music. On the other hand, I was told by my late classmate, Bernard Einbond, a disk jockey on WKCR, that rock’n’roll music couldn’t be played on the college radio station a ban that I considered ridiculous and snobbish. Rock’n’roll was the only kind of popular music I had ever liked.
Reading about banning the flute made me look at Plato with a more critical eye. Plato also called for the Noble Lie, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. In Book III: 414, he said that one should be taught that Rulers were made with gold, Auxiliaries with silver, and craftsmen with iron and brass.
When the time came to write a term paper, I wrote that Plato had described totalitarian society millennia before it came into existence. My Humanities teacher, Dr. Benario, gave me a C+ on the paper. He did not comment on my writing or my data, but wrote on my paper that it was wrong of me to judge Plato by the standards of my own time.
Years later, I was an exchange professor at Hebei University in Baoding, China. I taught linguistics there to English majors during the spring semester of 1984. That’s when I learned that Chairman Mao and his wife, Jiang Qing, had forbidden the performance of most western music. Traditional Chinese operas were banned as well, and only eight model operas could be performed. I immediately thought of Plato. And then I realized that the three categories of Rulers (gold), Auxiliaries (silver), and craftsmen (iron and brass) had come to be realized in Mao, the Party, and the laobaixing (the ordinary people, literally, the “old 100 surnames”).
Five years later, during the spring semester of 1989, I was once again teaching at Hebei University. Then Beijing Spring began, and everybody started talking about politics all the time. Strangers approached me on the street and asked me to explain separation of powers. Sometimes people who could speak only Chinese approached me as well. My Chinese is not very good, but I could occasionally manage to talk a bit.
One man came up to me and asked in Chinese if I had heard of someone whose name sounded like Bailatuo. I said no. The man was very patient and explained to me that Bailatuo had lived more than 2000 years ago in Greece and was a wise man who wrote about politics. I then understood that Bailatuo was Plato. The man asked me whether, if Plato were alive today, he would consider Chairman Mao as an example of the Philosopher King. Since I disapprove of the politics of both Plato and Chairman Mao, I said yes. I don’t know whether or not the man understood what I meant by saying that. My knowledge of Chinese was inadequate to deal with the situation.
Today I know that totalitarian rulers typically ban or limit music. Today I know that Plato and Mao divided humanity into three categories. Today the grade of C+ is much less common than it was in 1955. But I wonder how an instructor teaching Humanities today would react to the same paper. Plato described and called for totalitarianism more than two millennia before it appeared on earth. Today we know better than we did in 1955 just how bad totalitarianism is, but I think Plato is as honored today as he always was.