Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

November 3, 2011

I find it difficult to think about Plato and ecology without recalling Val Plumwood's remarkable 1993 book, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. For me the chapter entitled "Plato and the philosophy of death" remains the most challenging critique of a philosopher's legacy that I've ever read. Plato's dualism, we are told, issued in a "logic of colonisation" that sanctioned an oppressive hierarchy. By privileging spirit above matter, soul above body, reason above nature, Plato and his followers effectively denied the very life of the Earth.

While not engaging directly with Plumwood's argument, William Ophuls clearly thinks that Plato has been generally misunderstood. According to him, the philosopher was much closer to shamanism than to rationalism; he had a mystical view of nature, and his concern was consistently for the harmony of the whole. Where Plato's critics see a remorseless dialectic, we should rather respond to the imaginative, exploratory and dialogical form of his writings.

In this light, it is a shame about Ophuls' chosen title, Plato's Revenge. While this is clearly meant to translate as "Plato Proved Right", the word "revenge" unintentionally conjures up the aggressive impact addressed by Plumwood. Again, the title puts inappropriate emphasis on a single thinker, whereas Ophuls wants to align Platonism with Taoism, Stoicism and Native American religion. In fact, what he successfully demonstrates is that we have got ourselves into our current environmental mess by ignoring traditional wisdom generally, not just Plato.

Perhaps a phrase such as "The Way Lost and Found", although less dramatic, might be preferable as a title? That at least would convey the positive and persuasive case Ophuls is making. The best kind of society, he proposes, is one in which individuals are in direct contact with ecological reality, and so respect the necessary limits to their freedom, finding true liberty in observing "natural law". In order to do this they need to "live more simply and naturally in small face-to-face communities rooted in the land". At the same time, there is "no return to the primal innocence of the state of nature". So what is required is "a way of life that is materially and institutionally simple but culturally and spiritually rich", Ophuls says.

Reading such statements, we might be reminded of Leopold Kohr, who argued that it is "bigness" (big business, big government, big growth) that is the problem. He doesn't feature here, but perhaps he doesn't need to. After all, Ophuls has Rousseau, Jefferson and Thoreau to remind him of what might be involved in a truly ecological politics. He does a good job of demonstrating how their preoccupations are more relevant than ever: for instance, the need to facilitate "participation" and discourage "profusion".

But there's no way of ending this review without coming back to Plato. By way of support, I'd like to point out that the idea of a "Platonic ecology" is not so far-fetched. It was hinted at by Gregory Bateson 40 years ago, on the basis that "mind" is present in nature, as "the pattern which connects". In that sense, he could suggest that Platonic "form" is more real than the "things" of philosophical materialism. Bateson, however, features only very briefly in Ophuls' book, and the ideas just indicated don't receive due attention: an opportunity lost, perhaps.

That said, I would strongly recommend Plato's Revenge as a clear and compelling polemic that deserves to be read alongside Bateson's 1972 work Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology...and yes, alongside Plumwood's Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Beyond the debate about Plato, all three have something important to say about the fate of our planet.

Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology

By William Ophuls. MIT Press, 208pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780262015905. Published 21 October 2011

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