What Would Plato Tweet? Probably less about what he had for lunch. And more about justice and wisdom

MARCH 16, 2014, 9:15 PM 158 Comments
What Would Plato Tweet?
It began when a writer friend asked me what my Klout score was. We were sitting at the sushi bar of a Japanese restaurant, the master chef assembling edible origami of torched fish and foam. My husband and I used to patronize this neighborhood place quite a lot, until a restaurant critic ruined it for us by his unrestrained rave, so that now you have to make reservations months in advance. But my friend had magically procured us two seats just like that, and when I asked him for the secret of his influence he responded by asking me about my Klout score.

I didn’t know what a Klout score was, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have one. And yes, under his raised-eyebrow questioning, it was revealed that since I didn’t use Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social media by which a website called Klout calculates your online influence, my score was probably low to nonexistent.
Perhaps studying the ancient Greeks might give me perspective on today’s social-media obsession.
On either side of us, diners were pointing their cellphones at their plates, taking pictures to be posted on their Facebook pages or Instagram accounts. I knew that’s what they were doing. People have taken to putting themselves out there in all kinds of ways, producing — in words, pictures, videos — the shared stories of their lives as they are transpiring. They disseminate their thoughts and deeds, large and small (sometimes very small), in what can seem like a perpetual plea for attention. I wasn’t that out of touch that I didn’t know about the large cultural changes that had overtaken our society while my attention was directed elsewhere.
The elsewhere was ancient Greece. For the past few years I’d been obsessed with trying to figure out what lay behind the spectacular achievements that had occurred there. In a mere couple of centuries, Greek speakers went from anomie and illiteracy, lacking even an alphabet, to Aeschylus and Aristotle. They invented not only the discipline of philosophy, but also science, mathematics, the study of history (as opposed to mere chronicles) and that special form of government they called democracy — literally rule of the people (though it goes without saying that “the people” didn’t include women and slaves). They also produced timeless art, architecture, poetry and drama. What lay behind the explosive ambition and achievement? I’d always planned eventually to catch up on the changes that were going on all around me — once I’d gotten the ancient Greeks out of my system.
Only now did it occur to me that I might be able to arrive at some contemporary perspective precisely because I hadn’t gotten the Greeks out of my system. Parallels between their extraordinary time and our extraordinary time were suddenly making themselves felt.
For starters, the Klout on which my friend prided himself struck me as markedly similar to what the Greeks had called kleos. The word comes from the old Homeric word for “I hear,” and it meant a kind of auditory renown. Vulgarly speaking, it was fame. But it also could mean the glorious deed that merited the fame, as well as the poem that sang of the deed and so produced the fame. The medium, the message, and the impact: all merged into one shining concept.
Kleos lay very near the core of the Greek value system. Their value system was at least partly motivated, as perhaps all value systems are partly motivated, by the human need to feel as if our lives matter. A little perspective, which the Greeks certainly had, reveals what brief and feeble things our lives are. As the old Jewish joke has it, the food here is terrible — and such small portions! What can we do to give our lives a moreness that will help withstand the eons of time that will soon cover us over, blotting out the fact that we ever existed at all? Really, why did we bother to show up for our existence in the first place? The Greek speakers were as obsessed with this question as we are.
Like us, the Greeks wanted to make their lives matter. And like a Twitter user, they did so by courting the attention of other mortals.
And like so many of us now, they approached this question secularly. Despite their culture’s being saturated with religious rituals, they didn’t turn to their notoriously unreliable immortals for assurance that they mattered. They didn’t really want immortal attention. Something terrible usually happened when they attracted a divine eye. That’s what all those rituals were trying to prevent. Rather, what they wanted was the attention of other mortals. All that we can do to enlarge our lives, they concluded, is to strive to make of them things worth the telling, the stuff of stories that will make an impact on other mortal minds, so that, being replicated there, our lives will take on moreness. The more outstanding you were, the more mental replication of you there would be, and the more replication, the more you mattered.
Not everybody back then was approaching this question of mattering in mortal terms. Contemporaneous with the Greeks, and right across the Mediterranean from them, was a still obscure tribe that called themselves the Ivrim, the Hebrews, apparently from their word for “over,” since they were over on the other side of the Jordan. And over there they worked out their notion of a covenantal relationship with one of their tribal gods whom they eventually elevated to the position of the one and only God, the Master of the Universe, providing the foundation for both the physical world without and the moral world within. From his position of remotest transcendence, this god nevertheless maintains a rapt interest in human concerns, harboring many intentions directed at us, his creations, who embody nothing less than his reasons for going to the trouble of creating the world ex nihilo. He takes us (almost) as seriously as we take us. Having your life replicated in his all-seeing, all-judging mind, terrifying as the thought might be, would certainly confer a significant quantity of moreness.
And then there was a third approach to the problem of mattering, which also emerged in ancient Greece. It, too, was secular, approaching the problem in strictly mortal terms. I’m speaking about Greek philosophy, which was Greek enough to buy into thekleos-like assumption that none of us are born into mattering but rather have to achieve it (“the unexamined life is not worth living”) and that the achievement does indeed demand outsize ambition and effort, requiring you to make of yourself something extraordinary. But Greek philosophy also represented a departure from its own culture. Mattering wasn’t acquired by gathering attention of any kind, mortal or immortal. Acquiring mattering was something people had to do for themselves, cultivating such virtuous qualities of character as justice and wisdom. They had to put their own souls in order. This demands hard work, since simply to understand the nature of justice and wisdom, which is the first order of business, taxes our limits, not to speak of then acting on our conclusions. And the effort may not win us any kleos. Socrates got himself a cupful of hemlock. He drank it calmly, unperturbed by his low ratings.
The divergent Greek and Hebrew approaches went into the mix that is Western culture, often clashing but sometimes also tempering one another. Over the centuries, philosophy, perhaps aided by religion, learned to abandon entirely the flawed Greek presumption that only extraordinary lives matter. This was progress of the philosophical variety, subtler than the dazzling triumphs of science, but nevertheless real. Philosophy has laboriously put forth arguments that have ever widened the sphere of mattering. It was natural for the Greeks to exclude their women and slaves, not to mention non-Greeks, whom they dubbed barbarians. Such exclusions are unthinkable to us now. Being inertial creatures, we required rigorous and oft-repeated arguments that spearheaded social movements that resulted, at long last, in the once quixotic declaration of human rights. We’ve come a long way from the kleos of Greeks, with its unexamined presumption that mattering is inequitably distributed among us, with the multireplicated among us mattering more.
Only sometimes it feels as if we haven’t. Our need to feel as if our lives matter is, as always, unabating. But the variations on the theistic approach no longer satisfy on the scale they once did, while cultivating justice and wisdom is as difficult as it has always been. Our new technologies have stepped in just when we most need them. Kleos — or Klout — is only a tweet away.
It’s stunning that our culture has, with the dwindling of theism, returned to the answer to the problem of mattering that Socrates and Plato judged woefully inadequate. Perhaps their opposition is even more valid today. How satisfying, in the end, is a culture of social-media obsession? The multireplication so readily available is as short-lived and insubstantial as the many instances of our lives they replicate. If the inadequacies of kleos were what initially precipitated the emergence of philosophy, then maybe it’s time for philosophy to take on Klout. It has the resources. It’s far more developed now than in the day when Socrates wandered the agora trying to prick holes in people’s kleos-inflated attitudes. It can start by demonstrating, just as clearly and forcefully as it knows how, that we all matter.
Mattering — none of us more than the other — is our birthright, and we should all be treated accordingly, granted the resources that allow for our flourishing. Appreciating this ethical truth might help calm the frenzy surrounding our own personal mattering, allowing us to direct more energy toward cultivating justice and wisdom. In fact, fully appreciating this ethical truth, in all its implications for both thought and deed, would itself constitute a significant step toward the cultivation of justice and wisdom.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author, most recently, of “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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