Sunday, July 18, 2010

On some wonders of Plato

Hilary Putnam has written me a letter underlining the profound differences between Plato and Heidegger. As a national socialist, Heidegger was for racial world conquest and genocide, Plato for nothing of the sort.* This is entirely right. I am a great admirer of Plato and spend a lot of time with his magical works (he is a writer of the force, intricacy and mystery of Shakespeare, and what we have of Socrates, we have largely and most vividly from Plato. Here is Hilary’s letter:

“Dear Alan,

I have learned an enormous amount from you about the Strauss-Schmitt-Heidegger axis. But I do think you are too hard on Plato. Plato was, to be sure, anti-democratic, but he was, in my view anyway, no proto-fascist. Thus I cannot agree with you when you write: 'What Heidegger (and Plato) set out to do – characteristic of twentieth century fascism and, in America, a growing tyranny or executive power at the expense of law sharpened by Bush-Cheney – is to overthrow the democracy of the polis, the great development of human freedom. They also ignore any common good, and, in imagination, restore and accentuate the predatory rule of the one. A leader - a Fuehrer or Duce - expands power by rending his enemies.' Plato, on my interpretation, was proposing something more like a Hindu Ashram than like a fascist state. (Hence the asceticism and the denunciation of war ('we become like animals butting each other with iron horns'—I quote from memory). He had a religious vision. I know that theocracy is antidemocratic [and it doesn't help if if you substitute 'the form of the Good' for 'God'], and I have no yearning or nostalgia for it. But the worship of brute force, the ideal of triumphing over the Enemy, the glorification of one 'race'—I see no justification for suggesting that Plato had any affinity to these. (I have raised a similar problem with what you write about Nietzsche in an earlier message, but there you were less extreme.) Last, but very much not least, I see a great book in the making, but I hope writing all these blogs isn't keeping you from getting down to it! Warmly, Hilary

P.S. I don't think translating Heidegger's 'das man' as 'one' works for English readers who won't know German. I suggest ‘anybody’ as closer to the feel of the original.”

Hilary rightly points out that Plato was in vision an ascetic and not for war. Think of the guardians. They are to be rewarded by public praise and recognition, not by monetary or private advantage.** Though the guardians are warrior-athletes, Plato did not admire war. The Republic deliberately mirrors the Odyssey (the cave of Polyphemus in book 1, the images from Hades including Achilles in book 3 – “better a slave to the poorest lord on earth than king among the dead” - the waves of Poseidon in book 5, Odysseus as the last chooser of a guiding spirit in book 10). The Odyssey seeks to bring Odysseus home from war – and after the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, swords are at last made into plowshares. Similarly, Plato wants to replace the warrior Achilles of the Iliad with Odysseus (Allan Bloom rightly emphasizes this point in the "Interpretative Essay" accompanying his translation of the Republic). Plato wants to diminish or avoid war – he is not aiming for world conquest.

As I have stressed in other posts, the idea of the guardians is to be lean dogs that are difficult to conquer, though they hunt sometimes with the big dogs. That is a clear enough approach (perhaps tried once upon a time unsuccessfully by Albania in the modern world). But in Plato, the idea affirms wisdom, a preservation of independence through a care to avoid foreign entanglements; imperial belligerence in Heidegger and Strauss cuts in the opposite direction. The latter are “postmodern,” anti-modern counterrevolutionaries. War for Strauss is a panacea. Consider his stark memo to aspiring Republican presidential candidate Charles Percy on the US taking out Cuba as the USSR did Hungary after the near miss of nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis from the Strauss papers, box 5, folder 11 in Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago:

“12 February, 1963

Dear Mr. Percy

I believe that the following points have not been made, or at least have not been made with sufficient audibility: 1) To speak in the only language which Khrushchev understands, Cuba is our Hungary; just as we did not make the slightest move when he solved the problem in his back yard, Hungary, he cannot, and will not make the slightest move if and when we take care of the problem in our back yard, Cuba.”

One should also look at the thundering passage from the “Restatement” in On Tyranny, on a revolt against the final tyranny and escape from “the last men” which leads to blowing up the world – nuclear war – and the human “spring” of a radioactive stone age here, here and here.

In addition, Hilary draws a telling analogy between an ashram and the city in speech. He emphasizes, with the guardians, a kind of moral leadership. In this respect, Plato’s vision resembles Socrates’s, who as Gandhi and Martin Luther King recognized, founded civil disobedience (practiced philosophy and paid the penalty – his life). King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” written on the back of a New York Times in his cell, invokes Socrates three times. See my Do philosophers counsel tyrants? Constellations, March 2009 here.

Now, the Republic sketches in many ways an unappetizing regime. For instance, the city emulates Sparta by forbidding reproduction “out of season” and putting “defective children out of sight” (that is, it murders them, doing on a small scale what Nazis later did with “defective Aryan children” and some very large number of Jewish, Slavic and Roma children). I invite students to take in these passages for what they are (Bloom’s assertion that the city in speech embodies the idea of justice will not withstand the nausea occasioned by carefully reading the text), but also ask them to consider the context to which Plato’s “Socrates” sought some alternative.

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War describes the murderousness of the class war or stasis rending Greek cities in the context of the war between Sparta and Athens. At Corcyra, the Athenian empire encourages the democrats to slaughter the aristocrats and words memorably shift their meanings. Plato’s Thrasymachus (“justice is the advantage of the stronger”) and other passages in the Republic capture this view. Justice stands out – the question: what is justice?
of book 1 of the Republic, and even a very imperfect justice - against actual political murderousness. The regime, the “city in speech,” at least is not likely to be eaten or riven. Against the destruction of words in Corcyra, Plato’s ideas mean rightly to hold the meaning.

Still, there are two ways in which Socrates is vastly better than Plato here. First, Socrates goes down the line for questioning, for what he believes. (In the Crito, there is a hidden meaning; he does not quite believe the arguments of the democratic "laws" which he invokes to convince Crito, but something further and unstated. It is suggested by Plato, I have proposed, that he himself stands in an honorable relation to the laws intrinsically. Though the verdict is unjust, he, nonetheless, decides to do what the laws, given the Athenian decision, require him to do. See Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants? here). In contrast, the regime of the Republic (and, for that matter, in the Laws, of which Plato is perhaps more skeptical) is not a regime understood by its members, but only by philosopher-legislators (who rule wisely but tyrannically). It is a regime of the “noble lie,” one appealing to “a God” (Laws, 708-711).

Hilary uses the term theocracy to describe it, but an idea of Plato as a theocrat is ambiguous. It could mean: a) Plato (and/or Socrates) actually believes in the religion publically espoused. But nothing like this is true. The charge that Socrates does not believe in the gods of Athens is right, as Strauss stresses - see his wonderful lectures on the Symposium - though the punishment is monstrous. Or it could mean: b) appeals to the god are useful from the point of view of persuading the people to go along with laws they would otherwise not accept (in book 4 of the Laws, the wording of the passage about Klinias, fearful of tyranny, who welcomes “a god” is the most vivid example of this). Plato is a manipulative theocrat, not a believer (like his self-conscious successors, Machiavelli and Rousseau, Plato or at least the Athenian Stranger uses the God to put across laws).***

But of course Socrates’s daimon or inner voice is a form of spirituality. Socrates and probably Plato were participants in the Mysteries and had a complex relationship to them. Being spiritually awake when others are asleep – Socrates in a trance while the drinking party is beginning at the onset of the Symposium and awake when everyone else, even Aristophanes, has fallen asleep at its conclusion is a representation of this thought - is Socrates’s and Plato’s vision. In Socrates, the spirituality is consistent in what he did. But in Plato, theocracy is (also) a political tool…

Second, as I emphasize in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 3, in the context of murderous class and interpolis strife, Socrates asks often stinging questions. He does not claim to know. He does this, I suggest, because any opinion about justice leads to political murderousness. His view is a deeper, more coherent version of what is today called realism (one which, since it offers no political advice, does not run the risk of becoming, a la Kissinger, an excuse for mass murder). Realism is attractive as a criticism from below of imperial war and power; it often becomes from above, even at its best, an excuse to maintain unjust domination.

But mass militant nonviolence as a political strategy is a way to pursue radical or revolutionary politics, without engaging in murderousness. Martin Luther King does not accidentally invoke Socrates, but is the inheritor of his vision if nonviolence can succeed (a large question), Given the likelihood, through war and global warming inter alia, that humanity will destroy the conditions for its own existence over the next century or two, developing nonviolence is a far better, life-sustaining alternative. The Palestinians have recently discovered this as is shown dramatically by the Israeli government slaughters on the Mavi Marmara, the relief ship to Gaza, and Israel’s radical isolation from the rest of the world and even from Turkey, see here. In the end, Socrates’s integrity contrasts with Plato’s manipulative theocracy, his successors Gandhi and King, with Plato’s, particularly Heidegger and Strauss. But Hilary is absolutely right that Heidegger’s politics do not, in fact, inherit the spirit of Plato.

In addition, Socrates’s questioning is the opposite of what Plato encouraged in the academy or as in the Seventh Letter, in advising a certain kind of tyrant to become a philosopher. In contrast to Plato’ secret gatherings, training disciples hiddenly to advise tyrants, Socrates spoke with anyone in the agora or by the temple unless his inner voice (his daimon) told him not to. There is little reason to conclude, on reflection, that Plato’s “Socrates” in the Republic holds the views on a city in speech of the historical Socrates. Socrates said he did not know what (the idea of) justice was; the city in speech is a Platonic candidate for such knowledge, and thus, contradicts Socrates. Plato was not, politically, Socrates, and his views in the Republic – though not his politics - are, in fact, subtly understood by Heidegger (see my Do philosophers counsel tyrants? and Mirrors 1, here). Or put it differently, there is a basis in Plato for Heidegger’s (and Strauss’s) interpretation. To his credit, Heidegger does not argue that Socrates held these views; he mostly speaks directly of Plato whereas Strauss, with a bow to Xenophon, tries to depict Socrates, in decisive respects, as equivalent to Plato.

On Plato’s vision, one might say, following Hilary, philosophers are to make everything right in the big ashram invoking a god (like “The Wizard of Oz”). No wonder Plato makes such a point of silence about this – see the discussion in the Seventh Letter on how Plato, who is best suited to write on legislation and who has written the Laws and the Repulbic, will never write on legislation:

"But this much I can certainly declare concerning all those writers or prospective writers who claim to know the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or of other teachers or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my judgment at least that these men should understand anything about this subject. There does not exist nor will there ever exist any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it does not admit of verbal expression like other studies, but as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter nourishes itself. Notwithstanding, of this much I am certain, that the best statement of these doctrines in writing or in speech would be my own statement; and further, that if they should be badly stated in writing, it is I who would be most deeply pained. And if I had thought that these subjects ought to be fully stated in writing or in speech to the public, what nobler action could I have performed in my life than that of writing what is of great benefit to mankind and bringing forth to the light for all men the nature of reality. But were I to undertake this task, it would not, I think, prove a good thing for men save for some few who are able to discover the truth themselves with but little instruction; for as to the rest, some it would most unseasonably fill with a mistaken contempt and others with an overweening and empty aspiration as though they had learnt some sublime mysteries. (Seventh Letter, 341c-e).

This is a secret of the dialogues, what Plato taught his students. Thus, he spreads hints about the idea of philosopher-tyranny is in the Statesman, Laws, Republic and Seventh Letter inter alia. See Mirrors 1 and 2. I have suggested in Do philosophers counsel tyrants? that we need to take the Seventh Letter – and the question of what Plato taught his students in the academy - as a starting point to understand Plato (it is the context for the Republic rather than the Republic the context for it). This is a sharp break with anglo-american understandings, illustrated by Allan Bloom's commentary and with recent issues raised with me by Roger Masters (on whose letter I will post soon) and Peter Minowitz. The answer to how Plato taught I suspect is – students were to read the dialogues critically and argue with and about them. They might particularly take on the Athenian stranger in the Laws who is not Socrates,****

But Plato expected students to do the same with the different arguments of Socrates. Seeing what Plato intended to teach his students – and the idea of hidden as opposed to surface meanings which Plato eloquently announced in the Phaedrus – should be the center of the study of this dazzling writer.

What Hilary rightly criticizes is a sentence in which I mistakenly put: “(and Plato)" in parentheses after Heidegger. One of the virtues of putting these ideas in a blog is that I get quick reaction to remarks that are erroneously off-the-cuff. But my remark was anachronistic, an error. In the same post, I suggest that Plato’s version of wisdom might have improved many tyrannies at his time, and particularly with the death of democracy for a long period, califates in Al-Farabi’s time (Hazem Salem, my student who is working on Al-Farabi, however, has some skepticism about the decency of Farabi’s actual political influence). The twentieth century appropriation of Plato is a late and indecent one. I might also add: the project of reforming tyrants and making them wise is, even for Plato, fraught with difficulties. Consider the Seventh Letter, where Plato fails with Dionysius the younger, but his student Dion takes over miraculously and would be a far better candidate to be a philosopher-king. Yet Plato pointedly does not say this perhaps because Dion is quickly assassinated (in saying that even a good pilot is sometimes overwhelmed by a storm which he foresaw but is too fierce, Plato hints about Dion’s abilities as a ruler). Still, these twin failures underline how rare even the possibility is.

One might also consider best case: Aristotle and Alexander. First, Alexander was probably the driving force (the philosopher who ties himself to a tyrant had best watch out); second, he was a “good” conqueror, taking on the habits of the people he conquered, but nonetheless a conqueror and set the example for the more successful Roman empire. From a moral point of view, the Roman empire, however, was anything but admirable. As Montesquieu writes in the long concluding sentence of Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, all this heroism and virtue and tolerance of local leaders to convey the spoils to Rome – he spells it out - to produce 5 or 6 monsters…

But Plato was also the enemy of Athenian democracy (see Critias’s idea about a forgotten militarily superior ancient Athens, modeled on the city in speech, in the Timaeus here, a hint at a substitute for the democracy which had been defeated by Sparta, and the fact that the Laws praise many things about civilized Athens, compared to Crete, except democracy here. He did want kingship. He, too, wanted a nondemocratic Athens, a restoration/transformation of the rule of one. Plato still contrasts with Heidegger and Strauss, but the idea of commander in chief power – or Fuehrer power in Heidegger’s 1933 idiom – is adumbrated in Plato, even if it has ashram-like aspects and is, more importantly, not world-conquering, racist, genocidal. This similarity was the basis for my misstatement.

In this respect, too, Socrates differs from Plato. He was very critical of the many, but he went to war for the democracy and to his death with the voice of its laws in his ears, overpoweringly, as the Corybants – the participants in the Mysteries - hear the flutes.

On the issue Hilary raises about translation, I like to translate das Man “the one” because it has some mystery to it (falling into the one). Hilary is right, however, that it might be misunderstood, and that “anybody” is a better translation (certainly beats the “they”). What is good about Heidegger is his uncanniness. He really does work, when he gets it right, with a realm which is part of our thrownness, makes philosophy touch upon the uncanniness of being (in this respect, like Socrates and Plato), is poetic as much as philosophical. A dismissal of Heidegger – and I am pretty sharp on his Nazism - which fails to take this into account, is a mistake.

Being and Time has an Unheimlichkeit (an uncanniness) as he writes about the call of conscience. In the last post, I emphasized how Heidegger was vehemently a Nazi. But again, nothing requires that one read Being and Time that way. See Mirrors I. Faye is wrong.

To make this point more sharply, Being and Time is often read in America as having the following bent: instead of living in the corrupt everyday of the cave, falling into the one or the anybody about mortality, each individual takes into account her own death, becomes more fully there and leads an authentic life, a life in which she brings out her gifts, a Sophie Scholl or Martin Luther King. My student Nick Catanzarite gave a brilliant talk this spring about how King incarnates Nietzsche’s idea of a superman; the point holds deeply for what is good in Heidegger’s account as well. These ideas are in Heidegger. This (mis-)understanding, however, rests on an uncontroversial notion of ethics. We are all – equally – mortal individuals who have the potentiality to live our own lives creatively and in the service of humanity.

Heidegger denies this last point; he rejects ethics. Being and Time was written cautiously to get Heidegger Husserl’s job at Freiburg. He sought the ambiguity. It is thus a leading example of esoteric writing. For Dasein – being there – is being thrown into a particular place. German Dasein is different from French or Polish Dasein. Dasein which speaks German is capable of philosophy, as is Dasein which speaks Greek, but the French, to do philosophy, must speak and think in German, he says in the posthumously published Der Spiegel interview. This is a chauvinist acknowledgment of a sort of French possibility, but of course, as in his comments on Sartre, Heidegger denies its reality. German Dasein experiences its own mortality, becomes authentically there (Da) and takes up the task of its generation (its historicity) which is collective – to fight for the Kaiser in World War I and, in a few years, the Fuehrer in World War II. The individual has no being but to vanish into the decision of the Fuehrer (this is the "subjectivity" Heidegger asserts in 1940 below). Less individual than what Heidegger imagines for most it does not get (only philosophers have some individuality; Heidegger hoped to be the philosopher to Hitler’s tyrant).

Faye, Heidegger, p. 269 has a citation from Heidegger's 1940 lectures on Nietzsche which shows how even the term subjectivity is pitched to sacrifice (Opfer – a central Nazi term) and opposes individuality (what Heidegger and Strauss detest as “liberalism”*****).

“When a man sacrifices himself, he can do so only to the extent he is entirely himself – on the basis of selfhood and the abandonment of one’s individuality…Subjectivity can never be determined on the basis of I-hood or be founded on it. Though it is difficult for us to get the false undertone of the ‘individualist’ out of our ears when we hear the words ‘subject’ and ‘subjective,’ the following must be inculcated: The more, and the more universally, man qua historical humanity (people, nation) rests on himself, the more man becomes ‘subjective’ in the metaphysical sense. The accent placed on the community [Gemeinschaft] in opposition to the egotism of the individual, is not metaphysically conceived, the overcoming of subjectivism but indeed its fulfillment, for man – not the separate individual, but man in his essence – is now getting on track: all that is, all that has been implemented and created, undergone and overcome, must rest on him and be comprised beneath his domination.”******

Again, some trace of the regime in the Laws in which everyone assents to the same ideas, has even the same feelings (the big ashram) is still here. But as Hilary rightly emphasizes, they are not the same.

Hilary has kind wishes for the book I will write about Strauss, Heidegger, and Schmitt with some attention to Plato, and worries about blogging as a diversion. It is certainly a danger. But I have one book coming out – Emancipation and Independence, on which I am doing the final revisions this month (working on it since 1996). It will be published by University of Chicago Press next year (see here and here). And the subsequent book project is enormously difficult in the sense that Strauss is easily misunderstood, and one must go far into peeling back the layers of his view as some of the movement over the time I have been writing this blog has shown. Interestingly, after discovering many, often disturbing things, I have now found Heidegger at the center of Strauss, and am working towards a new and clearer understanding of Heidegger as a quasi-Platonist and Nazi. But Heidegger and Strauss also approach the mystery of Plato and Plato’s relation to both Socrates and his own students. Blogging turns out to be a wonderful tool to post and develop new understandings rapidly, and to get comments like Hilary’s or Matt’s or Tracy’s. The book I will do in the next couple of years will be very different from the draft I completed three or four years ago. If one does not get lost in it, this is a gift of blogging.

*Even Heidegger, at an early point in his argument, sees Dasein as existing in nature (the vorhandene) and breaks with a long tradition pitting man against nature. He used this to criticize modern technological ideas, for instance, those of liberalism and Marxism. W. J. Korab-Karpowicz, a political theorist at Bilgent University in Istanbul, sent me his interesting essay on “Heidegger’s Hidden Path: from philosophy to politics “from the Review of Metaphysics, December 2007, emphasizing this point . Unfortunately, he suggests that Heidegger opposed all modern ideologies, including Nazism as well as liberalism (democracy) and communism. There is no evidence that Heidegger opposed HItler. Quite the contrary, Heidegger was a loyal and often fierce adherent of the Nazi technology of genocide, not to mention the technology of blitzkrieg. This was perhaps inconsistent on Heidegger’s part, but there is now massive evidence about what he did, a commitment of many years, and one never renounced – see Strong, Kirsch and Faye: what does it mean to say that Heidegger is a philosophical national socialist? here and Faye, Heidegger.

**They are the opposite of today’s American bipartisan leaders for whom swift cashing in is sadly the point. I will post on the striking example of Zalmay Khalilzad and others in Kurdistan shortly.

***The justification for this is that a great legislator like Moses cannot shape a people who will not agree with his reasoning; the fear of god is needed….Of course, this discounts the possibility that Moses might have, also, believed or that founding arguments, as in the United States – that taxation without representation is unjust - might be widely believed.

****This is William Altman’s brilliant point in “A Tale of Two Drinking Parties” - Socrates, who goes to his death, is the leader of the drinking party in both the Symposium and the Phaedo; the stranger who speaks in the Laws is not Socrates runs away and in Crete, gets Megillus and Klinias to imagine Athenian drinking parties as an alternative to the fear-drug, the phobon pharmakon, by implication the hemlock that Socrates drank. Interestlngly, Plato informs us in another dialogue as Altman points out, that wine is the antidote to hemlock

*****See Strauss’s 1933 “Remarks on Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political," reprinted in 1962 in Strauss;s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion.

******”Wenn ein Mensch sich opfert, kann er das nur, sofern er ganz er selbst ist - aus der Selbstheit unter Dahingabe seiner Einzelheit…die Subjectivitaet an niemals von der Ichheit her bestimmt und auf diese gegruendet werden. Doch wir bringen den falschen Ton des ‘Individualistischen’ nur schwer aus dem Ohr, wenn wir das Wort ‘Subjekt’ und ‘Subjectiv’ hoeren, gilt es einzuschaerfen: Je mehr und allseitiger der Mensch als geschichtlisches Menschentum (Volk, Nation) sich auf sich selbst stellt, um so ‘subjectiver’ wird der Mensch im metaphysischen Sinne. Die Betonung der Gemeinschaft gegeneber der Eigensucht des Enzelnen ist, metaphysisch gedacht, nicht Ueberwindung des Subjectivismus, sondern erst sein Erfuellung, denn der Mensch – nicht der abgesonderte Einzelne, sondern der Mensch in seinem Wesen – kommt jetzt in die Bahn: Alles was ist, was gewirkt und geschaffen, gelitten und erstritten wird, auf sich selbst zu stellen und in seine Herrschaft einzubezeihen." (Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe, 48: 211-12; Faye, 399, n 96)


zxcvbnmnbvcxz123 said...

Wow. Thank you for making this public!

philosopher-animal said...

Do you have any comments on Johannes Fritsche's work which looks at Being and Time from the perspective of how the language would have been understood at the time? He concludes that it would have been read as extremely reactionary, to the extent that it is possible to make sense of the German, which (as it happens) is what others who were around a short while later say.

Professor Guerrero said...

My only problem with Plato is that he favored speech over the written text. So can writers 'like' Plato?

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