When Presidents Trump and Putin spoke to journalists in Helsinki exactly a week ago today, they appeared to make plain their preference for each other. Mr Putin said he wanted Mr Trump to be elected and Mr Trump was – well, craven, cowed, deferential.
It led some to wonder why America’s commander-in-chief would be so blatant about his Russophilia, if in fact, he had anything shameful to hide.
In the whole Trump-Russia saga – and all the allegations of the presidential candidate and his campaign gratefully receiving help from Moscow – surely Mr Trump’s behaviour alongside Mr Putin was the most exculpatory of all? That’s how the argument went. Its exponents also said that no one would be quite so blatant, if in fact, there were some things better kept hidden.
But I was reminded of Mr Trump’s behaviour in Helsinki as I read a philosophy text just the other day. It’s about the power of boldness.
The parable of the drunken mystic is in the Summary of Plato’s Laws by the 10th century Arab Muslim philosopher Al Farabi. Philosophers Charles E. Butterworth and Thomas L. Pangle tell the story as follows in their foreword to Muhsin Mahdi’s Al Farabi Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. It’s a good read. Here’s the story:
…a certain abstemious ascetic was known for his probity, propriety, asceticism, and worship, and having become famous for this, he feared the tyrannical sovereign and wanted to run away from his city. The sovereign’s command went out to search for and arrest him wherever he was found. He could not leave from any of the city’s gates and was apprehensive lest he fall into the hands of the sovereign’s men. So he went and found a dress worn by vagabonds, put it on, carried a cymbal in his hand, and pretending to be drunk, came early at night out to the gate of the city singing to the accompaniment of that cymbal of his.
The gatekeeper said to him, “Who are you?”
“I am so-and-so, the ascetic!” he said jokingly.
The gatekeeper supposed he was poking fun at him and didn’t interfere with him.
So he saved himself without having lied in what he said.
Al Farabi goes on to explain that the purpose of the story is to show Plato’s great wisdom in cloaking knowledge in “symbols, riddles, obscurity and difficulty, so that knowledge would not fall into the hands of those who do not deserve it and be deformed, or into the hands of someone who does not know its worth or who uses it improperly.”
But, the parable of the drunken mystic has resonance in other ways. It underlines the strategic genius of doing whatever it is you do in plain sight of everyone else. That way no one would quite believe what they were seeing.