There was so much that I found enlightening and wondrous in Plato the first time I read through his dialogues. I couldn’t believe that we have possessed his thought, and later reflections upon his thought, for centuries upon centuries and yet so little of it has really managed to permeate society, in some ways, that page after page seemed in my eyes to contain new and unimagined revelations.
Some have tried to say that Christianity repackaged Platonism for the common people, and I can see the grain of truth in this … and yet, when I was first reading Plato, I already had a full undergraduate degree in Christian theology, and I must admit that to me, Plato’s thought felt not familiar but outrageous and revolutionary.
Intelligent friends of mine had even told me about Plato, and I thought I knew pretty much what to expect. I was wrong.
Out of all the thoughts in Plato that challenged and shaped me, one that I thought to be most profound, most incisive, is his ardent assertion that it is worse to commit an injustice than to suffer an injustice.
To put it in language that would be at once less strange to us and also far more explosive: the victim is better off than the victimizer.
Rephrased again: the one who commits aggressions (and perhaps, we might even suggest, microaggressions) has the worse end of the interaction.
This is not only counterintuitive. It sounds offensive, and dangerous, and maybe evil.
But I truly believe that within it is hidden the true understanding of goodness and happiness.
It’s not a rhetorical ploy. It’s not just the weaker party trying to puff up and look more powerful than reality will allow, for the sake of saving face.
It’s also not a tool to be used by the powerful to justify their violences and injustices, although doubtless it can be, and has been, so used.
Rather, it is the necessary starting place for moral growth. One of the hardest lessons to learn, a lesson that requires revisiting again and again and again, is that when we feel faced with a choice between suffering an evil on the one hand, or escaping that evil by committing some other evil, we should always strive to convince ourselves to choose whatever course will not involve actively engaging in deeds that we know are not right.
That doesn’t mean that we’ll be happy when an evil befalls us. It doesn’t mean that we’ll give the victimizer the permission or the ability to go on perpetrating injustice upon the world.
It does mean, at the bare minimum, that we would not be wrong in any such circumstances to tell ourselves, “At least I can be proud of how I acted.” To suffer injustice without being drawn into continuing the cycle is a difficult and praiseworthy accomplishment indeed.