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It's all Greek to me

The pondering of the most basic questions is crucial for anyone involved in 'politics'.

Thursday, March 21, 2024
18 mins

A debate worth having?

by Rab Clark

A few weeks ago we did a Twitter poll asking OTS readers (and anyone else who was interested) to select a classic work they'd like to see translated into modern Scots. This was following our publication of Aesop's Fables in Modern Scots which is available for purchase here: OTS (stripe.com)

We provided some options and invited suggestions. The options were The Meditations by Aurelius, the I-Ching (Chinese Book of Changes) and Plato's Republic. Plato 'won' so we started on it about a fortnight ago and have completed a first draft. We now set about the laborious task of proofing etc and would like to have the volume illustrated but we're not sure how long that will take.

In the meantime, we'd like OTS readers to have a wee preview of how it's turned out. The passage below is from the famous 'cave' allegory.

What's the point?

We've been asked, 'why bother?' (In itself a suitably philosophical question.)

Two main reasons:

Firstly, the pondering of the most basic questions is crucial for anyone involved in 'politics'. And they don't get much more fundamental than the questions raised by Plato's 'Socrates' in discussion with his friends. The process of establishing principles via lengthy reasoning is one that most of us haven't experienced, either in school or via mass-media political discourse.

Secondly, the use of modern Scots refreshes the material, be it about a fox plotting some mischief or two middle-aged Greeks, thousands of years ago, pondering definitions of 'justice'. It doesn't make the concepts less complicated but, by re-presenting the ideas in a form which 'sounds' more familiar to us, the process of trying to understand them becomes that wee bit easier.

Why shouldn't these ideas be discussed in one of our own languages? Why is it 'funny' to think about two Geordies in a pub discussing Kierkegaard? Are people unable to process difficult concepts in their own dialect?

There is a presumption, hard-wired into all of us from childhood, that such matters can and should only be discussed in 'proper' English. Many Scots have written about this at length and most of us have experience of being told not to use Scots terms in school. Something as basic as 'aye' rather than 'yes' is swiftly removed from permissible vocabulary in the earliest stages of formal education and, until fairly recently, was considered deserving of corporal punishment.

The only thing more 'political' than asserting the right to use one's own language is using it. MacDiarmid, a century ago, consciously deployed Scots as a political weapon. (We are old enough to remember letters from MacDiarmid appearing in the Glasgow Herald.) He knew what a powerful tool it was and the process of renaissance he launched is ongoing, as is the movement to regain independence.

We deserve better

Right now we're about to watch a recording of last night's Debate Night 'starring' some big names on the Scottish political scene. We'd rather scrub the underside of the oven or see how many drawing pins we can press into our forehead. But it has to be done because sites likes this exist for a reason - to keep reminding fellow Scots that we deserve better - much better - than we're being forced to 'make-do' with. We know what the programme will entail and how it'll all pan out because we've seen it hundreds of times before. The faces may have changed but the script and delivery will be the same. And it will never ever change if left to these characters because they do very well out of the system as it is.

At some point, we have to force change and we can do that in many different ways. Whether or not our efforts are a worthwhile contribution is for others to judge but we're doing this work in good faith and with high hopes that such change is coming.

Book 7

Socrates - Glaucon

An' noo, I said, let me show ye in a wee story how lichtit up or murky oor nature is: Imagine fowk livin' in an underground den that has an openin' facin' the licht an' that stretches aw the wey alang the den; they've been there since they were bairns, an' their legs an' necks are chained sae they cannae move, an' they can only see in front o' them, bein' stopped by the chains fae turnin' their heids roon. Up an' abin them a fire is blazin' a wee bit away, an' atween the fire an' the prisoners there's a raised path; an' if ye look, ye'll see a wee wa built alang the wey, like the screen that folk wha dae puppet shows hide ahint an' wave their wee dolls aboot.

I see.

An' can ye see, I said, fowk walkin' alang the wa carryin' aw sorts o' things, statues an' figures o' beasts made o' wood an' stane an' different materials, that appear ower the wa? Some o' them are talkin', ithers are silent.

Ye've shown me a strange image, an' thir are strange prisoners.

Jist like oorsels, I replied; an' they only see their ain shadows, or the shadows o' each ither, that the fire throws on the opposite wa o' the cave?

True, he said; hoo could they see anythin' but the shadows if they were never allooed tae move their heids?

An' o' the objects that are bein' carried in the same wey they wid only see the shadows?

Aye, he said.

An' if they were able tae speak tae each ither, wid they no think that they were namin' whit wis actually in front o' them?

Very true.

An' suppose on top o' that the prison hid an echo that came fae the ither side, wid they no be sure tae fancy whan yin o' the passers-by spoke that the voice they heard came fae the passin' shadow?

No question, he replied.

Tae them, I said, the truth wid literally be nothin' but the shadows o' the images.

That's certain.

An' noo look again, an' see whit wid naturally follow this: if the prisoners are freed an' made tae see things differently. At first, whan any o' them is let oot an' forced tae suddenly stand up an' turn his neck roon an' walk an' look towards the licht, he will suffer sharp pains; the brichtness will upset him, an' he will be unable tae see the real things o' whilk in his former state he had seen the shadows; an' then imagine some yin tellin' him that whit he saw afore wis an illusion, but that noo, whan he's gettin' closer tae bein' an' his ee is turned towards mair real things, he has a clearer vision, - whit will be his reply? An' ye can further imagine that his instructor is pointin' tae the objects as they pass an' askin' him tae name them, - wid he no be confused? Wid he no think that the shadows that he formerly saw are truer than the objects that are noo bein' shown tae him?

Far truer.

An' if he's made tae look straight at the licht, wid he no hae a sore een that wid mak him turn awa an' try an' tak in the things he can see, an' that he wid think are actually clearer than the things that are noo bein' shown tae him?

True, that's whit wid happen noo.

An' suppose again, that he's dragged up a steep an' rough path against his will, an' held on tight until he's forced intae the presence o' the sun itsel, wid he no likely be pained an' annoyed? Whin he gets near the licht his een will be blearin', an' he winna be able tae see anythin' at all o' whit are noo cried realities.

No aw at ance, he said.

He wid need tae get used tae seein' the upper world. An' first he wid see the shadows best, then the reflections o' fowk an' ither things in the watter, an' then the objects themsels; then he wid look at the licht o' the moon an' the stars an' the starry sky; an' he wid see the sky an' the stars at night better than the sun or the licht o' the sun by day?


Last o' a' he wid be able tae see the sun, an' no juist reflections o' it in the watter, but he wid see it in its ain place, an' no in anither; an' he wid see it as it truly is.


Then he wid maybe argue that this is the yin that maks the seasons an' the years, an' is in charge o' everything in the sichty world, an' in a wey the cause o' aw things that him an' his fellas hae been used tae see?

Clearly, he said, he wid first see the sun an' then think aboot it.

An' whan he remembered his auld hame, an' the ideas they hid in the den an' his fellow-prisoners, wid ye no think that he wid be happy aboot the change, an' feel sorry for them?

Certainly, he wid.

An' if they hid a wey o' giein' honours amang themsels tae the yins that wis the swiftest at seein' the passin' shadows an' notin' whilk yin came first, an' whilk yin came efter, an' whilk yins wis thegither; an' wha wis therefore best at guessin' whit wis gaun tae happen next, wid ye think that he wid care for sic honours an' glories, or envy the yins that hid them? Wid he no say, like Homer:

It's better tae be the puir servant o' a puir maister, an' tae put up wi' onything, rather than think like them an' live the wey they dae?

Aye, he said, I reckon he wid sooner bide ony sufferin' than be humbuggin' himsel' wi' thae fause notions an' livin' this dreich wey.

Juist imagine ance mair, says I, sic a fella comin' oot o' the bricht sun intae his auld steid all o' a sudden; wid his een no be fu' o' darkness?

Aye, for sure, says he.

An' if there wis a competition, an' he hid tae fecht wi' the prisoners wha niver budged oot o' the den, measurin' the shadows, while his sicht wis still weak, an' afore his een hid settled (an' the time it wid tak tae get used tae seein' again micht be a fair wheesh) wid he no be a daftie? Fowk wid say aboot him that he gaed up an' cam doon withoot his sicht; an' that it wis better no even tae think o' climbin'; an' if onybody tried tae let anither ane oot an' tak him up tae the licht, they wid jist catch the chiel an' pit him tae deid.

Nae doot, says he.

This hale allegory, says I, ye can noo stick on, deary Glaucon, tae the previous argument; the prison is the warld o' sicht, the licht o' the fire is the sun, an' ye widnae misunderstand me if ye took the jey up tae the licht tae be the saul climbin' intae the warld o' ideas, accordin' tae my puir belief, whilk, at yer wuss, I've screived oot richt or wrang, only God kens. But, true or fause, it's my thocht that in the warld o' kennin', the idea o' guid comes last o' aw, an' is only seen wi' a graip; an' whan it is seen, it's jaloused tae be the makar o' aw braw an' richt things, the faither o' licht an' o' the laird o' licht in this warld we see, an' the verra wellspring o' reason an' truith in the warld o' ideas; an' that this is the pouer that onybody wha wants tae act wi' heid, baith in public an' private life, maun hae their een set on.

I agree, says he, as far as I can follow ye.

Whit's mair, says I, ye maunna wundir that them wha reach this blissful sicht are no keen tae come back doon tae human affairs; for their sauls are aye fleggin' themsels up tae the upper warld whaur they lang tae bide; whilk langin' is richt natural, if oor allegory can be trusted.

Aye, richt natural.

An' is there onythin' surpreisin' in somebody wha gaes fae divine thochts doun tae the dowie state o' man, behavin' himsel' like a daftie; if, while his een are dingin' an' afore he's gotten used tae the mirkness aroon him, he's bein' made tae fecht in coort, or ither sic places, aboot the shadois or the shadois o' shadois o' jestice, an' is tryin' tae come tae terms wi' the notions o' them wha've niver seen true jestice?

Aye, that's no a wee bit surprising, he says back.

Any wan wi' a bit o' sense kens that bein' bewildered can come aboot in twa ways, for twa reasons: either fae comin' oot o' the licht or gaun intae it, an' that's just as true for the mind's ee as it is for the een in yer heid. An' if somebody remembers this whan they see someone wha's sicht is glaikit an' weak, they widnae be ower eager tae lauch. They wid ask first if that puir soul has juist come oot o' a braw bricht licht an' cannae see richt noo acause their een arenae used tae the dark, or maybe they've juist turned awa frae the darkness intae the day an' are bein' blinded by ower much licht. An' they wid consider the first fellae lucky in their lot an' state o' bein', an' wid hae pity on the other. Or, if they did fancy a wee chuckle at the soul comin' up fae the dowie intae the licht, that wid make mair sense nor lauchin' at the yin comin' back doon fae the bricht intae the den.

That's a richt fair distinction, says he.

But then, if I'm on the richt track, some o' thir teachin' folk maun be wrang whan they say they can pit learnin' intae a soul that wisnae there afore, like sicht intae blin' een.

They sure say that, says he.

Whit oor argument shows, though, is that the pooer an' capacity tae learn is already in the soul; an' juist like the ee couldnae turn fae darkness tae licht withoot the hale body, the gear o' learnin' can only be turned, wi' the movement o' the hale soul, fae the warld o' aye-changin' things intae the warld o' true bein', an' learn bit by bit tae bide the sicht o' bein', an' o' the brawest an' best bein', or, tae pit it anither wey, o' the guid.

Aye, very true.

An' wid there no need tae be some skill that wid mak this turnaroond happen in the easiest an' quickest wey? No stickin' the sicht in, cause that's already there, but juist turnin' it the richt wey, seein' as it's been swivelled wrang an' is lookin' awa fae the truth?

Aye, says he, sic a skill micht be possible.

An' whareas the ither so-called virtues o' the soul seem like they come alang wi' the body, cause even if they're no there tae begin wi', ye can pit them in later wi' habit an' practice, the core o' wisdom mair than onything else contees a wee bit o' the divine that aye bideth, an' bi this turnaroond it becomes useful an' profitable; or, on the ither haund, skaithful an' useless. Did ye niver notice the wee spark o' cleverness glintin' oot o' the ee o' a wheestler? Hoo gleg he is, hoo clearly his wee soul sees the wey tae get whit he wants; he's the opposite o' blin', but his braw sicht is bein' forced tae serve evil, an' he's juist as bad as he is clever.

Very true, says he.

But whit if thir natures hid been loppt clean, like ye wid a young tree, in their youth; an' they hid been severed fae thir bodily pleasures, like eatin' an' drinkin', that are like lead weichts hung on them at birth, an' that drag them doun an' turn the sicht o' their souls ontae the things that are doun belaw? If, I say, they hid been freed o' thir haurdins an' turned the ither wey, the very same faculty in them wid hae seen the truth just as sharply as they see whit their een are turned tae noo.

Aye, most likely.

Aye, I said, an' there's another thing that's likely, or rather a needie inference fae what we've been sayin' afore. Nae yankin' oafs or folk wha are blin' tae the truth, nor yet them that niver stop their learnin', will mak guid government ministers. No the first lot, cause they hinnae a single aim o' duty that's the rule for aw their actions, baith private an' public; nor the last lot, cause they widnae dae naething at all unless they wis forced, thinkin' they're already livin' the dream up in some paradise.

True enough, he says back.

Then, says I, the job o' us wha are startin' this state will be tae force the best minds tae get this learnin' that we've already shown is the greatest o' them all - they cannae just stop climbin' until they reach the guid; but whan they've gotten up there an' seen enough, we cannae let them bide whit they're daein' the noo.

What dae ye mean?

We cannae let them just stay up in that upper world; that widnae be richt; we gottae mak them come back doon amang the prisoners in the den, an' share in their wark an' honours, whether they deserve them or no.

But isnae that jist wrang? says he; wid we no be gievin' them a waur life, whan they could hae a better yin?

Ye've forgotten again, my friend, I says, what the fella settin' up the government wis thinkin' aboot. He wisnae tryin' tae mak ony yin group in the state happier than the rest; the happiness wis tae be for the hail state, an' he yoked the folk thegither wi' persuasion an' need, makin' them benefactors o' the state, an' benefactors o' ilk ither; that's whit he made them for, no tae please themsels, but tae be his tools tae haud the state thegither.

True enough, he says, I had forgotten that.

See here, Glaucon, there wid be nae injustice in forcin' oor philosophers tae tak tent an' care o' ithers; we'll explain tae them that in ither states, folk like them arenae obligated tae share in the hassle o' politics: an' that's fair enough, cause they grow up any wey they like, an' the government wid rather leave them be. Since they learn themsels, it widnae be expected that they wid show ony gratitude for a teachin' they never got. But we've brocht ye intae the world tae be leaders o' the hive, kings o' yersels an' o' the ither citizens, an' we've edjucated ye far better an' mair perfectly than they've been edjucated, an' ye're better able tae share in the double duty. Sae each o' ye, whan it's yer turn, maun gang back doon tae the dowie wharehoose unner the grund, an' get used tae seein' in the dark. Whan ye've gotten the knack o' that, ye'll see ten thoosand times better than the folk in the den, an' ye'll ken whit the various idols are, an' whit they mean, cause ye've seen the braw an' the just an' the guid in their true form. An' that wey oor state, that's also yours, will be real, an' no jist a dream, an' it'll be run in a way that's different fae ither states, whaur folk fecht wi' ilk ither ower shadows an' are oot o' their minds fightin' for pooer, that they think is somethin' grand. But the truth is that the state whaur the leaders are least wantin' tae govern is aye the best an' maist peaceful, an' the state whaur they're wantitin' it the maist is the warst.

Aye, richt enough, says he.

An' will oor students, whan they hear this, refuse tae tak their turn at the dreich duties o' runnin' the state, whan they're allooed tae pass maist o' their time wi' ilk ither in the lichtie paradise?

Nae chance, says he; for they're juist men, an' the things we're tellin' them tae dae are juist; there cannae be ony doobt that every single yin o' them will tak office as a sair necessity, an' no like oor current rulers who are aye gaun on aboot it.

Aye, my friend, says I; an' that's the hale point. Ye maun contrive for yer future leaders anither an' better life than that o' a ruler, an' then ye micht hae a weel-ordered state; for juist in the state that offers this, will the rulers wha are truly rich come forrit, no in siller an' gowd, but in virtue an' wisdom, that are the true blessins o' life. Whereas if they gang intae giein' orders an' runnin' things, puir an' hungerin' efter their ain private advantage, thinkin' that that's whit they'll get oot o' it, order there can niver be; for they'll be fechtin' aboot wha gets tae be in charge, an' the public an' private rows that come oot o' that will be the ruin o' the leaders themsels an' o' the hale state.


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