One of the basic divisions in the history of human thought is between the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Though they lived thousands of years ago, their approach to reality in their respective philosophies underlines much of the tensions in our own existence. Because I must simplify to make my point, I realize that I may not adequately represent the differences between them, but those differences are real and have daily importance in our lives. Therefore, I will attempt the impossible!
Plato is the more ‘otherworldly’ of the two and therefore the one that, at first, many religious people find helpful. There is somewhere in the universe a world of ideal forms that our world is a mere copy of. Some people are able to get to know this true state of reality and hence can help us find our way in life. True reality is in this other place, while it is only the few enlightened ones who can see and interpret this reality.
Aristotle, on the other hand, was more of the scientist who believed the real is to be understood not from an ideal world somewhere else but from the world of matter here and now; and that world is open to everyone. So all you have to do is let people discover it on their own. Everyone is capable of it.
Plato has always been favored by organizations based on hierarchies (the Church) and Aristotle is the darling of democracies. Platonists will say: if someone is sick you get a doctor, who has the knowledge about illness and medicine. You don’t summon a focus group of laymen who are ignorant about medicine. Aristotle would say that the people could sometimes see what the experts do not.
This long and perhaps difficult beginning to this reflection on authority is my attempt to base a wide-ranging loss of faith on a philosophical basis. All authority is now being questioned by the people (Aristotle) because of the failure of the people in the know in getting things right (Plato).
One of the chief architects of this modern stance is Martin Luther who questioned the authority of the Pope which led to the Protestant Reformation and consequently to the founding of the United States in opposition to the authority of the King of England. Even though a group of educated men whom we term founding fathers were the architects of this new experiment (Plato), it began with the words “We the people…” (Aristotle)
Similarly, while Hitler invoked the authority of the ‘Volk’ and Lenin of the ‘Proletariat’, all fascism of the left and the right is essentially the ‘philosopher king’ of Plato telling the People what is good for them. The collapse of Nazism and Communism signaled the end of any kind of trust in authority by the common people.
This, of course, has a good side. We must all be obedient in an intelligent and moral way. “My Country right or wrong” and “I was only following orders” are no longer statements that people believe in.
But there is a dark side to this lack of trust in authority. Can we trust God? Can we trust the Scriptures? Can we trust the Church? I think you see where I am going with this. For the results of this development in the collapse of faith in authority lodges itself in our own families. ‘Let the child decide for him or herself’ equals no more baptism. ‘We don’t need a piece of paper telling us we are married’ means we can live together and even rear children together without any sort of public commitment of stability and fidelity. To the community’s ‘It is not wise to do this!’ the modern person simply responds: “Says who?!”
The truth is that we can learn a lot from authority when it is limited by a commitment to stay within the confines of Tradition. Like our legal system, we learn a lot from the give and take of accumulated learning so that we are careful to view the precedents that may help us make an informed decision and not one based on whim or impulse. A healthy and intelligent trust in authority can harmonize the twin philosophical poles of Plato and Aristotle by putting together the wisdom of the past with the sense of where the people are right now. Like many things in life, it is not an either/or choice but a both/and proposition that balances all the wisdom needed to chart a solid course for the future. As President Reagan often said: “Trust, yes, but verify!”
When a teenager rebels against his parents, he cannot understand how stupid his parents can be. Give him a few more years of experience and he is amazed how much his parents have learned in such a short amount of time! It often does not occur to this youngster that he just began to see what his parents always saw.
Maturity means being able to understand and appreciate the value of authority in our lives when it is thoughtfully expressed and carefully accepted.