Sunday, 20 April 2014

More Misquoting Plato

     I just came across the following quote, pasted over a photograph of a Greek-looking sculpture and attributed to Plato.
"Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and fool."

     Again, alarm bells go off in my head. It's some years since university, but I did read a fair bit of Plato in those days, and something doesn't quite sound very Platonic about this quote. That is, while I'm sure Plato would have agreed with the observation that falsehoods are taught, it seems a little out of character for him to describe it as "strange"; I sort of get the impression that he took it for granted that there were and perhaps always would be people authoritatively professing nonsense.
      I mean, the character of Socrates is absolutely central to almost all of Plato's dialogues, and the whole story of Socrates (the historical figure as well as Plato's version) is all about how rare and subversive genuine wisdom is. Famously, Socrates was said by the Oracle to be the wisest of men, which Socrates could only explain as meaning that while all men were ignorant, all but Socrates were  unaware even of their own ignorance. Throughout Plato's writing, it never seems as if he thinks his moment in history is peculiar in this regard, that most people are ignorant and think themselves wise. So it would be surprising indeed for Plato to describe this state of affairs as "strange times".

     Another suspicious stylistic detail: the lines rhyme. They don't scan particularly well, so it doesn't come across as verse, but the writing is a little bit stilted, as if the author took pains to end with "school" and "fool". The construction "at once a lunatic and fool" is contrived versification. Plato's dialogues (at least in translation) always come across as a much more natural, conversational style, with more regard for precision of meaning rather than poetic beauty.

     So I searched for the phrase directly on Google. Lots of hits, just blandly crediting Plato, but (also suspiciously) never mentioning which work it was taken from. That in itself is suspicious; one would expect that if it was actually from Plato, somebody might have cited chapter and verse, but no.

I've just searched through all of the Platonic dialogues on Project Gutenberg, without success. The phrase "strange times" doesn't seem to occur at all, and no instance of "school" turns up anything remotely like the alleged quote. I'm therefore pretty confident when I say that this quote isn't actually from Plato. Dunno who it is from, but it ain't Plato.


  1. Face book taking all your time nowadays?

  2. It has been a good source of nonsense to make me angry.

  3. Thanks, Tom, I doubted this quote, too.

  4. "Strange times are these, in which we live, forsooth ;
    When young and old are taught in Falsehood's school:–
    And the man who dares to tell the truth,
    Is called at once a lunatic and fool."
    — George Francis Train
    [as published in Edmunds, A. C. (1871). Pen Sketches of Nebraskans - with Photographs. p. 5]

    1. An even better link is here:

  5. Tom,
    "just blandly crediting Plato,..."
    Did you mean "blatantly"?
    Either way, like you, it didn't strike me right, even thought I haven't studied Plato at all.
    The quote certainly seems to be true for our day and age though.
    Would you agree that this quote holds true for law school as well?

    1. I did not mean "blatantly", though perhaps "blithely" would have been better than "blandly". I meant to suggest that it was an unimaginative and unthoughtful attribution, as if the writer had just picked some famous philosopher at random and tossed in the name to blend in with all the cool people memes.

      As for the truth of the quote, I think I'm more with Plato on this one. That is, I don't think there's anything particularly strange about it; people have always and probably always will have a tendency to fall short of wisdom, and now is no exception.

      My experience with law school may have been unusual, but I found it quite refreshing. There were some very smart people there, and sometimes they were wrong about things, and it was great fun to engage in debate over what those things were. And I changed my mind on a few things, as well. So my experience was quite positive, and if they taught the occasional falsehood, they also taught us how to question them.

  6. Tom,

    Those darn "B" words! lol.

    As for the falsehoods taught in school, public school that is, it's easy to see why that is. because unlike your law school experience of teaching you to question, public schools are just here to develop consumers and tax payers. After all, does the gov't really want anything more than more money, power and control?

    Not being a lawyer has somewhat limited my ability to interact with lawyers, other than in my cases, to see if they in fact, question the less than occasional falsehood(s). In fact, based on my study of the law, I have yet to find one willing to admit an obvious truth. I understand that lawyers have a lot to lose from admitting the truth, but what is our reason for being here; to just play the game and continue the sham, or know the truth and express it?

    I believe I have a good example if you're up for it.

    1. I think it is much more complex than governments just wanting more for themselves; though imperfectly so, governments in democracies like ours ARE still in some sense constituted of OUR elected representatives, and to some extent responsive to our wishes. Schools are under pressure to develop consumers and taxpayers, but that's as much due to pressure from the public and students themselves. "Will this be on the exam?" and "How will this help me get a job?" are not questions motivated by a passion for learning. Some governments are only too happy to indulge these values, because who needs voters asking inconvenient questions about big-picture issues anyway? But chalking it up to government is a cop-out; we citizens must hold them to account at the ballot box and elsewhere.

      As for lawyers not "admitting an obvious truth", I am not sure this is a fair criticism. Lawyers (especially criminal lawyers) are trained to look for reasonable doubts, which are not always obvious. And there are a lot of things that may SEEM obvious, but on closer examination turn out to be false. So the fact that we might not be willing to acknowledge as true something which you firmly believe doesn't necessarily mean we're not admitting the truth.

      Of course, that's just general principles, and may not apply to the example you have in mind. Please share it.