If You See Plato on the Road, Kill Him

By Matt Swartz

A while back, I ran into a friend of mine at a pre-Halloween house concert; a few people were wearing costumes, but most of us were not. He asked me if I had anything planned for the week’s festivities, and I inadvertently let a little of my actual personality slip out: I told him that even in something so unimportant as making a costume, I was paralyzed.

I had an idea that I loved, but I couldn’t reconcile the perfect, hilarious idea in my mind with my actual costume-making skill set, and I knew it. The real thing, once extant, would be only a shadow of the perfect thing in my mind, and I couldn’t move forward for fear of exposing exactly how wide the discrepancy would be. I may or may not have said aloud that this specific instance of inability more or less illustrated my entire life in microcosm.

“Oh,” he said, lowering his voice a half-step like he does, “that just means it’s time for you to kill Plato.”
I quickly scanned my (hazy!) mental police lineup of Greek philosophers in hopes of figuring out what he meant. It took too long, and he could see what I was doing, so he went on: “I mean the idea that every thing has an imaginary, perfect essence, that there is some hypothetical perfect costume, or joke, or chair, or whatever, that the thing you’re making has to conform to. Those things are made up. Kill that Plato, with his idealized essences, and just do what you can do.”

I reflected more on my friend later. By trade, he is a graphic designer. His day job then, as close as I can tell, consists of applying abstract concepts to specific visual situations in ways that do not offend the eye. This is done, I’m told, with computers, by people who have studied and tweaked and formed strong opinions about text, color, fonts, white space, and the philosophy behind what sort of things people like to look at. One week he might be flown to San Diego to make sure that a certain batch of ink, when applied, matches, to the nth degree, the shade he had selected when designing some product packaging or advertisement. And when he comes home, he scratches his cat on the head, tromps downstairs to the basement, and just hacks.
He makes furniture. He retools, overhauls, and customizes his menagerie of tiny bikes. He likes this lamp’s stand, but that lamp’s bulb housing, so he cobbles the two together, he has a new lamp that is both new and old, and by this point I suppose it goes without saying that he’s never had a moment’s worth of formal instruction in the electrician’s trade. It’s as if, after chasing Plato and his idealized forms all week, he rushes home for the weekend, rolls up his sleeves, and finishes the hoary old fellow off.

An idea, before it is implemented, lies outside the scope of credible, objective judgment. Every opinion about that idea is speculative, in much the same way that the idea itself is. Neither exists. We call ideas “creative,” but on their own they create nothing. In fact, ideas are a hindrance to creativity, because at their idealized bests, they seduce us away from action, and it’s easy to throw them aside for new, less obviously flawed ideas rather than following them to fruition, out into the risky, frustrating, bitter, complex real world. But to chuck away the practice of making them real is to cut off a part of the human experience; a person who doesn’t make things, who thinks things up, talks about what he’s thought of, and then moves on to the next thing, is missing out.

Cliché-mongers often say that illiteracy is a self-imposed prison of the mind, that ideas cannot form fully unless they’re communicable. Maybe they’re right, but if they are, how much more imprisoned are those who only think of things but never do them? They think up lots of good costumes and inventions and dishes and stories, but finish none, dragging nothing from the womb-like privacy and safety of the mind out into the tangible, visible world we hold in common.

That’s a remark that I’m afraid I must say I resemble, even while I resent it. But to the extent that I learn to kill my inner Plato, I’ll resemble it less. And may the same be true for all who are similarly afflicted!