Plato rules, OK?

Alain de Bottonargues that, in our self-help age, the ancient philosophers are inevitably more popul

From a distance, few areas of knowledge seem more enticing or more profound than philosophy. In a secular age, philosophy can look like the ultimate authority on life's great questions, the natural place to seek answers to the riddles of human unhappiness. Philosophers, like rocket scientists, look as if they have access to some very complex and important truths. But despite an enticing exterior, modern philosophy often disappoints those who study it more closely. Issues that seem so urgent to many contemporary theorists and philosophers (What is the signifier? What is the subject?) don't often echo our own priorities (Why am I so shy? How can I be happy?).

This may explain why, in universities across Britain, more students are now enrolling in the study of ancient philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, the Hellenistic schools) than in the study of theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and Deleuze. Ancient philosophy remains far more faithful to most people's idea of what philosophy should be about. The ancient philosophers believed quite simply that philosophy should in some way help to change one's life for the better - a beautiful ambition almost entirely absent from modern philosophy (and relegated instead to the problem pages of magazines and afternoon chat shows). "Any philosopher's argument which does not treat human suffering is worthless. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind." These are the words of Epicurus, born on the island of Samos, a few miles off the Ionian coast, in 341BC. They also happen to reflect the aspirations of most students preparing to study philosophy at university, aspirations sadly shared by almost none of their lecturers. In ancient philosophy, we find a repository of the therapeutic ideals which most of us still associate with the subject, but which have largely disappeared from the modern curriculum. To listen again to Epicurus's exhortations: "Let no one put off studying philosophy when he is young, nor when old grow weary of its study. For no one is too young or too far past his prime to achieve the health of his soul. The man who alleges that he is not yet ready for philosophy or that the time for it has passed him by, is like the man who says that he is either too young or too old for happiness."

Philosophy is best defined not so much by its subject matter, as by its method of inquiry: logical, syllogistic and axiomatic. Many scientific subjects which became independent disciplines began life as branches of philosophy (up until the 19th century, physics courses in universities were described as natural philosophy). Over the long history of philosophy, there have been five areas in which the majority of practitioners have done their thinking: epistemology, ethics, political theory, aesthetics and the philosophy of religion.

Though the first of these branches regularly puts most people off philosophy, it occupies the dominant position in the modern curriculum. Ethics interests the majority of people, and was of the greatest concern in ancient times. The Hellenistic schools of Greece and Rome - the Epicureans, Sceptics and Stoics - were passionately committed to the idea that philosophy should address the painful practical problems of human life - death, love, sexuality and anger.

To take an example, confronted with someone who was worried about death, an Epicurean would break the problem into components, arguing that the only things we should fear were those that caused us pain. When dead, we would feel neither pain nor pleasure. Therefore, there was no reason to fear death. "The man who has truly comprehended that there is nothing terrible in ceasing to live, has nothing terrible to fear in life," concluded Epicurus.

The dialogues of Plato similarly engage with the eternally important questions. Few philosophers have had a more practical view of the thinking life. For a start, it wasn't necessary to disengage from ordinary commitments: philosophising could go on alongside shopping, working, bathing, loving; it was no alternative to an active life - rather, its necessary complement. The point was emphasised by Plato's decision to develop Socrates' thoughts within dialogues set in quasi-novelistic contexts. The central tenets of western philosophy were shown to unfold naturally during conversations between a man who didn't wash his cloak too frequently and some of his friends on their strolls to the harbour and visits to the gymnasium in fifth-century BC Athens. The dialogues were strewn with banter and gossip unexpected in philosophical treatises: such static belonged to existence, and thus philosophy, its illuminator, had a duty not to shy from it.

As Charmides opens, we find Socrates, just returned from the siege of Potideae, catching up with friends at the wrestling school opposite the temple of Basile, south of the Acropolis. They talk about the battle, then the subject turns to a young man called Charmides, said to be extraordinarily pretty, who is on his way to the wrestling school. Socrates recounts his arrival:

"Charmides came, and he caused a great deal of laughter: each of us sitting down tried to make room for him by pushing his neighbour away in a frantic attempt to have the boy sit next to him, until we forced the man sitting at one end of the row to stand up and tipped the man at the other end off sideways. In the event Charmides came and sat between me and Critias. Well, by then, my friend, I was in difficulties, and the self-assurance I'd felt earlier . . . had been knocked out of me . . . That was the moment . . . when I saw what was inside his cloak. I was on fire, I lost my head . . ."

Philosophy should not imply its emergence from a vacuum, suggests Plato; it is anchored in a world in which heads will be lost after glimpses inside others' cloaks.

Though we always associate the new with the superior, the ancient philosophers provide a humbling lesson. It seems that the earliest thinkers may have had a better idea of philosophy's task than later ones. It is even more humbling for the philosophical establishment to find that students are discovering all this, forcing a change to the way the subject is taught by drifting spontaneously to the consoling company of Plato and Epicurus.

Alain de Botton is the author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life", Picador, £5.99

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.