Plato’s Iron Fist in the Soviet Union

I’ve been saying that we need to reexamine the influence of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle in politics and religion. As it happens, that conversation is already underway. The following discussion is based on an article about Plato’s influence in Russia. Mikhail Epstein, Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory and Co-Director of the Center for Humanities Innovation, identifies the Russian approach to Plato as the source of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. However, the Russian experience should have as much meaning for the West as it does for Russia.

He begins by asking, What is philosophy? He answers by saying that although there is no simple, universal definition, the most ‘credible attempt is a nominalistic reference: philosophy is what Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel were occupied with.’ Then he provides what he calls the most broadly cited definition, that of A. Whitehead: ‘philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.’((Epstein, Mikhail, An Overview of Russian Philosophy. Intelnet. Cited on May 16, 2014. Available: http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/rus_thought_overview.html))

If this is accepted, he argues, Russian philosophy must be seen as a part of the Western intellectual tradition. Russia, and especially the Soviet Union, has been unique in its literal incarnation of the teachings of Plato. This was made possible by the tendency of Russian thought to ‘philosophize reality, to transform it into a transparent kingdom of ideas.’ In the Soviet Union, this resulted in philosophy becoming a supreme legal and political institution, and ‘in its unrestricted dominion [it] was equivalent to madness.’ However, non-Marxist and anti-Marxist thinkers in Russia belong to the same tradition. The hard-won understanding they achieved in this process can provide an invaluable lesson for the West.

“One might even say that the philosophy of the Soviet epoch is the final stage of the development and embodiment of Plato’s ideas in the Western world. During this stage, the project of ideocracy came to a complete realization and exhausted itself. The czardom of ideas arrived at the threshold of self-destruction because the substance of Being resisted the yoke of idealism, and it is now in the process of returning to its primordial identity. Thus Russian philosophy both summarizes and punctuates more than two thousand years of the Platonic tradition and points the way for a return to foundations which are not susceptible to ideologic perversions.

“A relatively short period of years sums up a two-millenium adventure of Western thought which escorted Plato in his search for the world of pure ideas. Among these footnotes to Plato, Russian philosophy appears to the attentive eye as the final entry, signifying ‘The End’.”

Still, I suppose someone could argue that the problem is not Plato, but one particular approach to Plato. Epstein mentions this as a possibility, but says the question has yet to be answered.

“The question is: Now that Platonism in its Marxist guise, has been overcome by Russian thought, is it still possible to find inspiration in Platonism as such, in its sublime idealistic and religious interpretations? Or does the experience of Russian history convincingly argue that Platonism has exhausted itself as a spiritual resource for humanity and that all attempts to Christianize it are just wishful illusions? (Russia slipped into the pagan version of Platonism, while in the West, Plato’s ideas were Christianized.)

“Whatever the answer may be, it is indisputable that the ongoing relevance of Platonism for Russian thought will provide the ground for its intensive dialogue with…Western philosophy also rooted in Plato’s heritage.”((Epstein, Mikhail, The Phoenix of Philosophy: On the Meaning and Significance of Contemporary Russian Thought. Intelnet. Cited May 16, 2014. Avaliable: http://www.emory.edu/INTELNET/ar_phoenix_philosophy.html))

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