Western Civilization Idealizes the Simplicity of the Mind
Old Gold & Black
Opinion Editor
Friday, February 2, 2018

The notion that humans are complex is not as bald a fact as many take it. “We’re complex” seems to live in our vocabulary as a trite excuse, not something that calls for incessant investigation. In fact, there has been some shift away from the investigation of such complexity.

Although man’s vast internalities have always interested us, humans have also repressed complexity in favor of positing a simple, graspable impetus of existence. We can trace this cosmeticism all the way back to Plato, back to what could be termed the very foundation of Western civilization. What Plato does in Book 2 of the Republic is banish the poets who tell “lies” about the gods, lies that “even if they were true, ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence.” These lies involve stories of insidious castration, unbridled passion and many other “vulgarities,” in turn transformed into “lies.” It is this created ideal, Plato dictating to the gods themselves, that animates the reasonable human idol. The gods were infinitely bound-up by selfishness and turpitude, but that heinousnesss is not to be reported, for gods, in their natural state of depravity, are not something to aspire to. If humans are to become a perfect species they would have to aspire to heroes, who embody godliness, and such godliness was polluted. Reason and order must reign, not the labyrinthine, moral ambiguousness of human nature. We cannot handle such a thing. So Plato banished all those existing as a poet, an artist, an artificer of truth, because they contained insights, these so-called lies, into the roiling regime inside us.

This banishment, this exile, is perhaps the first instance of culture that represses the recursive nature of morality and of the human soul. Admission of these “lies” would provide for a barbarous culture, but a culture that lives by suppression can refine itself into the heavens. Human complexity is reduced to an isomorphic substance to be refined and distilled into airy good. Unfortunately such a “good” is founded on obfuscation and pushes us towards an unattainable mythos. 

And thus lies the western world as we (mostly) know it — a unilateral condemnation of turpitude based in willful ignorance. Any leader who has stepped in to claim both moral uprightness and moral forthrightness is masquerading, consciously or not, to cover the kaleidoscope of scenes inside us. An only moral good does not pervade us, it does not speak to a truth, it only speaks to a repugnance by it. And repugnance is indeed an available reaction, maybe even laudable one, if one finds it to be the only way to live; but engagement, exploration, experimentation, are forfeited. Inside the clasp of our consciousness is how the other half lives.

This moral superiority among the species lends itself to narrow interpretation, or rather slighted exploration. Since a right moral system exists, so does a wrong one, and so the two are in Manichean opposition. There is no such opposition though, if we can call it that, because there was never an initial split. Good and bad are not inimical because they are the born of the same human seed. They exist slim, somewhat permeable sides of the same coin. We exist, intricately, beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche claims. As humans we cannot claim either because it is in our nature to have both. This is not relativism, but an assurance that there are depths to us that have not been explained or discovered. It is not our duty to knock those parts into willful amnesia. That is impossible. The goal is to throw them under the microscope (or try to), in an attempt the reach a purer something, a more encompassing I. Moral certitudes disallow for curious investigation. It is what Camus calls a “facile joy,” to repress and become bunkered in. It is something too easily achieved and negotiated. To proceed at a deliberate pace of blindness is to step through a shallow pool. Living is more interesting than that, or rather, you are.

  • Hank Wordsworth

    I would say Plato feels about poets the way I feel about gangsta rap and CNN. Yet unlike Plato I don’t currently feel a need to banish the varieties of mysticism that compete with my internal ideals which I believe to be in harmony with external reality. Of course I have a luxury of place, timing and choice that Plato did not. For example, so far I am free to marshal both my rational and empirical agency to change the channel to FOX as well as to avoid the South Side of Chicago. So far.