Rabbi Sacks on Plato’s Ghost
JInsider (March 2010)
There’s something I call Plato’s Ghost that’s been haunting Western civilisation for over 2000 years, and here it goes: Plato was fascinated by the question of knowledge and truth. How can we really know what a tree really is? If there are 250,000 different kinds of tree. And what’s more, even one tree doesn’t stay the same from one season to the next. Is a tree something with a lot of branches, but no leaves? Is it something with blossoms? Is it something with leaves? Stuff keeps changing and yet surely truth is eternal. So Plato said, if you really want to understand tree, you’ve got to move from this world of the senses, of sight and sound and smell and touch, and go up to the world of ideas. And there is one ultimate idea of a tree, and that is ‘treeness’. That’s the universal of trees. Now that’s the way Greeks thought because of Plato.
And it’s actually the way the West has thought, because a famous American philosopher called Western philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato. Now supposing Plato is right, supposing truth is universal, then if you and I disagree, well, obviously I think I have truth. And therefore you have error. And if you have error and truth is important, I have to cure you of that error. And I may have to convert you to do so, or I may have to conquer you to force you. And at worst, I may have to kill you to save your immortal soul. If there is only one truth, then there is only one way.
But the truth is there are many ways, many cultures, many nations, many civilisations. How can I really believe the truth is totally universal? Because I know that the Japanese have one way of seeing truth and the Germans and others and the Russians and the Greeks did, and Jews do, and Christians do and Muslims do.
And that is why I said, if we are to live in peace, we have to exorcise Plato’s Ghost. Truth up in heaven may be just one, but down here on earth, we each have a fragment of it. And that is what counts. Not truth in heaven because only God is up there in heaven. We’re down here on earth with the fragments.