Monday, September 6, 2010

Hilary Putnam on the 7th Letter and Will Altman on the Athenian Stranger

Hilary Putnam wrote me a letter several days questioning again the wisdom of invoking The Seventh Letter as Plato’s. He had asked Gisela Striker, a great Greek scholar, translator of and writer on Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, inter alia, and she responded pointedly:

"Dear Alan, Yesterday I asked Gisela Striker, who is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Classics at Harvard (and former Professor of Classics at Cambridge), whether she thought the Seventh Letter is genuine, and what the consensus is among classical scholars. She said she does not think it is genuine, but there are some scholars who think it is, and there will probably always be a disagreement. I pass this on because I think it is unwise to categorically assume that it is genuine in your arguments. (I don't myself think it is, but I am not a Classical scholar of Gisela's stature, obviously, although I do read Greek and have published in the field.) Best, Hilary"

I reproduce a slightly modified (mainly for the sake of clarification for readers) response:

“Dear Hilary,

Thank you very much. Of course I know of Striker and respect her opinion, and even more Kant's* and yours. I suspect, as she says, that this will always be a great debate. But I notice that nothing in my argument about the Republic actually depends on the Seventh Letter. As you are suggesting, I could certainly do without it and when I publish a book on this, I will say something about the debate over its authenticity in the text and perhaps a long note that will make the possibility of dissociation clear and thus honor your warning.

But the Seventh Letter still works surprisingly with my argument – not as evidence of Plato’s affection for possible philosophical tyranny as it seems on the surface but as another of the emblems in his work – if it is genuine – that tyranny is a bad thing and that philosophical kingship, involving laws as with Dion, is, just then in Syracuse, the only hope against it.

That Plato went to Syracuse to advise a tyrant I think is independently known (my impression from Plutarch, but I will look into the matter). So the fact stands regardless of the Letter, and thus helps generate or reinforce reactionary interpretations of Plato (Heidegger, Strauss). But the reading I now have of the Letter creatively joins a new reading of the Republic and counters Heidegger, Strauss et al straight-up (if, for the sake of argument, the letter is Plato's). And I still think that the conjuring of philosophy by Dion, speaking about imagined death or exile, to shame Plato about his potential cowardice about going to Syracuse is a literary invention, parallel to the speech of the laws in Crito, that very likely, no one else aside from Plato himself was inspired enough to make. Likewise, the phrase that Plato wanted to be an action, not always even to himself just an argument. So I wonder what, based on reading the Seventh Letter carefully, entitles one to say that it isn't Plato or at the least somebody exceptionally good who was no ordinary student or follower of Plato. Perhaps as Kant suggests, the idea of hidden writing or not saying entirely what one means puffs oneself up and is pathetically elitist (there is some truth in this), but then Plato is elsewhere in the dialogues, plainly, something of an elitist. I should qualify this: there is nothing elitist in standing out for truth against current widely held prejudices. That is that non-partisanship of decency. But some of Plato's formulations have an aristocratic foolishness - sometimes possibly meant to be read in that tone (see note * below).

Of course, Plato had resourceful students as one can tell from Dion, Aristotle, and perhaps Demosthenes who could have counterfeited such a letter. But so far, except Kant, I have not seen much argument about its inauthenticity, except the obvious point that it is Plato speaking for the sole time in his own voice. Even there, I think the voice is, very likely, genuinely Plato precisely because of the subtlety and directness with which he says he will never write on legislation in the dialogues. One has to figure out what the dialogues are intended to mean for his students present and future, and he wouldn’t say directly. Upon many years of reading the dialogues, that point is plainly true. Now these sentences could have been written by a close student, but upon further reflection, even that thought becomes doubtful - few students including Aristotle would have said this as directly as Plato – "I am best qualified to if I had thought it beneficial, but will never write on legislation." No one else would have had the choutzpah to do so. Despite appearances, the Republic and the Laws, inter alia, are not about legislation, in this subtle sense, given Plato’s unstated views about what legislators and citizens need to do! One might assume that this statement was plainly false, a measure of distance of the author from Plato, except that on reflection, it may not be – and again who else but Plato would have had the nerve to say that?

In contrast, Aristotle’s writing on Plato is often deliberately misleading (book 2 of the Politics), and even in regard to disclosing the tyrannical hidden meaning of the Republic he favored, that the decline of regimes is part of a perfect, implied circle and that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher- king (book 5), is crafty, cautious and much more convoluted than the Seventh Letter.

In addition, there is a straightforward contextual answer to the question: why would Plato have chosen, this time alone in all his writings, to speak in his own voice? Plato had journeyed to Syracuse to counsel a tyrant; he would surely have had a need to speak with the Athenians, who would not have been favorably impressed by the effort. That, more than the direct impact of the Letter on its addressees, Syracusan friends and relatives of the dead Dion, was the motivation. The surface address also explains that he wrote a letter, but not its complexities.

So I still think that the Seventh Letter provides direct information on Plato’s intent toward his students in a way that the Republic or the Laws, by themselves, do not. My interpretation of these texts based on what he taught to very clever students is fiercely opposed to that of Strauss and Heidegger but sees, as they do, the dialogues as linked up in an intended interplay and with some use of hidden meanings. I am now happy to conclude, however, that the argument against tyranny on the surface of the Republic intentionally trumps the hidden pointing. Since Plato meant the surface to refute the esoteric meaning, it is thus not self-refuting as I initially surmised. following Strauss’s pointers on hidden writing. What is hidden is not, Plato of course thought, necessarily true. One needn’t stop the conversation, or fail to notice error there, let alone embrace it, as Strauss and Heidegger do.

The dialogues, concealing the author’s own view, imply a complicated way of teaching students – in Socrates’s and Plato’s era, I think mainly aristocrats, and thus in the midst of fierce class war (stasis) and the defeat and collapse of Athens, potential tyrants - to dissuade them from tyranny. “Socrates” says this explicitly in Phaedrus. Given the context, if this interpretation is right, Plato seems often to have failed, that is, some of the students who read him closely and enthusiastically, nonetheless became quite often would-be advisors to wise tyrants - Aristotle with Alexander, Al-Farabi, and of course, the twentieth century dementia. But in the Greek world, some of these students would have headed that way in any case (among those of Socrates, Critias, Alcibiades, etc.). It is not, as the Symposium shows Socrates who inclines Alcibiades toward tyranny. Alcibiades has a spiritual more than romantic eros for Socrates (saw his youthful charms as a way of beguiling Socrates into sharing what he knew rather than, as he did, prompting Alcibiades to follow his own path to wisdom) and rightly sees in Socrates a conflict with his politics, his soon defection from Athens for Sparta and tyranny. Yet Alcibiades yearns against this course to hang on Socrates’s words, seeking to find the golden statues within this outwardly unhandsome Silenus. He glimpses them (that is, the relation of philosophy and democracy) but never understands them.**

If one takes other letters as genuine (I am more skeptical about this), one might even think that Plato was quite open to future attempts to make tyrants better (it is tyrants and monarchs whom his students advise, to secure laws), but that the aim, as with Socrates, is to go down for democracy against tyranny or at least to fight for laws. One would have to know more - again Plutarch may provide independent evidence - about what Plato's students did, whom they advised. I again took the penchant for tyrants and monarchs and not advising democrats, as evidence for Plato's supposed anti-democratic penchant. But one has the case of Demosthenes and, beyond all else, Socrates.

Anybody who does not read Plato this way, including many deservedly well-known classics scholars, however, will probably not see the questions that I am troubled by in the same way. But I think the issue was in Plato's blood. Note that especially in writing on the actual tyrant Critias and the potential tyrant Glaucon – the shining one - his cousin and brother, Plato himself was profoundly - and in no abstract way - concerned with and implicated by philosophy and tyranny. Critias himself ordered Socrates to fetch for murder Leon of Salamis, trying to, as Socrates says in the Apology, implicate others including his teacher and friend in Critias’s crimes...

Socrates resisted*** – in a first great act of what came to be called civil disobedience – and now I am happy to think, so did Plato.

All the best,

Will Altman also sent me a striking note from a letter of Eric Voegelin to Strauss in which Voegelin – poor dear – identifies with the Athenian Stranger. The Stranger looks down on men, has become, in his own mind, a veritable god. Voegelin and Strauss both endorse a fierce inequality among humans or in Strauss’s quasi-Nietzschean inflection, between the divine (the Uebermensch) and the last men, the subhuman. At the end of his essay on the Minos, Strauss even wonders whether ordinary people, being so “deficient,” deserve to be called human. In his hubris, Leo is, in this respect, a sad and awful character. But I suggested, with Will, that Plato meant one to read the Stranger critically, to argue with him. This is what Will means by the right dialectic for students, as opposed to what Voegelin and Strauss take, the false path.

“Dear Alan:

Your right and wrong dialectic explains precisely why I'm calling my book "The German Stranger." I found a great quotation about Laws in Voegelin that you will like: he's right about the Athenian Stranger but wrong about Plato. See Order and History, vol. 3; Plato and Aristotle (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1957), 234n2. After making the assumption that Plato is the Athenian Stranger (234), Voegelin describes a three-stage process in which 'the great spiritualists' outgrow a belief in human equality. Although the entire passage deserves consideration (especially Voegelin’s apt reference to ‘the generosity of the aristocratic soul’), I will quote only his description of the final phase: ‘The Myth of the hierarchically differentiated psyche, with gradual transitions from humanity to divinity, allows for divinization in this last phase. And this has been the solution of Plato in the Laws. The current interpretations, which want to see in Plato a development from a more autocratic to a more populist or democratic position, miss this decisive point [this is true - WA]. The atmosphere of the Republic is still that of an appeal to the equals of Plato [this too is true]; in the Laws, on the contrary, Plato [here’s the error; it is only the Athenian Stranger who] has accepted the distance which separates him from other men; he now speaks [note that Voegelin nevertheless describes the Stranger perfectly] as the divine lawgiver to men who are equal because they are equidistant from him.’ If we read Laws with both fresh and suspicious eyes, distinguishing the Stranger from Plato by means of Socrates; if we permit ourselves to deplore the self-deification that Voegelin correctly identifies, and then, after all that, dare to assert the reality of our own equality with Plato and enter into a conversation with him about his dialogue, we will bristle (to use no stronger word)—as any good Athenian would—at the Athenian Stranger’s un-Platonic conception of equality. As a result, we would then read Laws as Plato intends that we should. The amazing secret of Platonic pedagogy is that both LS and Voegelin read Laws precisely the way Plato intended that they should and they reveal themselves thereby.

Thanks again,


Now some great republican theorists with more sympathy for ordinary people also make this mistake about the “legislator.” As Rousseau [and Machiavelli] say, it would take a god to give laws to men. They trace the thought, as does Farabi with Avicenna, to Plato’s Laws and the Athenian Stranger. Now there are surely differences among humans but nothing like this and nothing that is relevant for a decent politics which, as Rousseau articulated in the general will, must be based on equal liberty. Though Plato had no grasp of this idea – see here – he does see that in a variety of conversations, including that of Socrates and his students, there is an important and democratic equality which is necessary to a decent regime (one which opposes, as Plato argues, tyranny). In fact, Will adverts to another feature of that conversation, a conversation among equals, not of would-be gods with an already god as in Strauss (what Strauss takes a philosopher to be, also ironically missing that Plato never allows the Stranger to present himself as nor do Klinias and Megillus think that he is a philosopher). Recall Meno: Socrates gets any slave of Meno's to prove, with questions, an advanced theorem of Euclid and suggests that each of us has knowledge from eternity and an equal capacity to acquire it through questioning (not forgetting, aletheia - see here). No more egalitarian thought than Socrates and Plato's has ever been offered.

One other observation. Plato is especially Delphic (and I was quite confused about him for a long while) because he was writing to wean students who were aristocrats away from their enmity to democracy, and thus openness to become tyrants. This is the importance of contextualism, as one way of doing political philosophy. See here and here on John Mearsheimer’s contextualism about Leo Strauss. This point applies also to the relationship of Heidegger's national socialism to Being and Time. See here. Of course, all of Plato’s delphicness – he beats the oracle by a hoot and a holler – requires thought and conversation and will – so many have taken wrong turns – remain controversial. But if we understand who the students are whom Socrates enlightened and amused, whom Plato taught, we will get an idea of his strategy, across dialogues, for present and future readers to inspire the happiness that extends on into eternity.

But some as in the case of Heidegger or Stauss reveal themselves, as Will suggests, in a horrifying way. I don’t agree, however, if I understand his wording correctly, that Plato intended this. This is just a possibility, the blindness of those who refuse to see.

Thus, Rousseau read the Republic carefully, as a great work on education, and the Laws, apparently sympathetic to the Athenian Stranger. Yet he did not adopt their wretched politics, but instead, founded modern democratic theory (Rawls, for example, begins from Rousseau). Even Aristotle had some fine insights into democracy (see the first chapter of my Democratic Individuality), but ended up with Alexander. One can whiff on what Plato was trying to teach and still not become a Nazi.

Nonetheless, Plato makes himself very complicated to figure out, enough so that Heidegger who is a brilliant commentator see here and Strauss who is unusually erudite (not to mention Rousseau and Machiavelli) still get Plato wrong. Plato hoped his students would wrestle with these complex arguments, given his own anger about the execution of Socrates and theirs at democracy, and go down to fight tyranny. But if so, how many people have been fooled (not just good old Karl Popper)?

The intricacy of the writing across dialogues is literary. Plato is a more philosophical Shakespeare. But the dangers in his view – Voegelin was perhaps swollen (self-divinization is the definition of fat-headedness) and embraced the Athenian Stranger, but he was also very learned – are real. At the least, they allow the unself-conscious appropriation of Plato’s seemingly hidden message and attempts to assimilate Socrates by learned Nazi philosophers like Heidegger instead of recognizing Plato’s and particularly Socrates’s fierce opposition to anything of the sort.

* Of Kant, Hilary had written to me previously: "In a 1796 essay titled "Von einem neuerdings erhobenen vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie" [On a certain newly arisen elevated tone in philosophy], Kant rejects the authenticity of the Seventh Letter. He may well have been wrong about that; but what is wonderful is the way he attacks the elitism of the Seventh Letter and of its admirers (against one of whom he wrote this essay). This essay is a favorite of mine."

As Hilary says, the essay is startlingly brilliant and democratically amusing about (a perhaps pseudo-)Plato. Kant mocks "Plato the letter writer":

"This unalterable essence that can be interpreted only in and through the soul but as if by a leaping spark of fire spontaneously kindles a light therein," he claims (as an exalted philosopher), "to have grasped though it cannot be spoken of to the people at least since one would at once become convinced of one's ignorance, for every attempt of this kind would already be dangerous, partly because these high truths might be exposed to a coarse contempt, partly (and this is the only sensible point to be made here), "because the soul might become prey to empty hopes and the illusion of knowing great secrets."

There is much to be said for Kant's directness and I too side with it. But there is also something to be said for Plato's 'sensible point' - that frivolous readers like the tyrant Dionysius who would not study, who met with Plato on geometry just once over three years but wrote a book on legislation, Plato reports with some contempt, swell themselves up. This by the way is also Socrates's warning in Phaedrus - writings are like statues; ask them a question and they have no father to defend them. There is even something to be said for Plato's intricate literary machinery, designed as I try to show in these posts, for the purpose of curing, not making, obscurantists, cultists or tyrants. But of course they also can, as Heidegger and Strauss reveal, precisely for the reason Kant mocks, encourage such characters. Kant and the spirit of enlightenment he embodies do not.

Yes, the elitism of the Seventh Letter is off-putting, but of course, so is the seeming elitism of, at times, Plato's' "Socrates" - "the little bald headed worker in bronze who takes a bath, marries philosophy and begets sophisms" from the Republic...(of course, such a perhaps self-deprecating formulation would cast doubt on the onetime artisan Socrates...Perhaps that is why he just questions).

**In Strauss’s lectures on the Symposium, published only with the insistence of his wonderful student Seth Benardete and perhaps the best interpretation of a dialogue available from Strauss (since they were lectures, he was much more forthcoming about what he actually thought), he says that Plato reveals Socrates, who unlike the other speakers, does not see eros as a god, as a disbeliever (one of the two Athenian charges against him). Furthermore, Strauss infers, Plato hints that Socrates, and not Alicibiades who was exiled for it, defames the Mysteries (I think this last point is a clever but mistaken inference; that there is no direct evidence that Socrates opposed the Mysteries and actually, at the beginning and end, the Symposium depicts him as in some way a participant). I think the surface – the conflict of the two, Socrates drawing Alcibiades away from tyranny through philosophy – again trumps the hidden meaning, which is, I suspect, that philosophy challenges all pieties but not, in the least, all spirituality.

As Strauss also misses about the Apology, it would be hard to beat the calling given Socrates by Apollo’s oracle to test the saying that no one was wiser. It is a story and yet profoundly, at the cost of ridicule and eventual lynching, who Socrates was.

***“…the Thirty in turn summoned me [Socrates] along with four others to the Rotunda and ordered us to bring back Leon the Salamanian from Salamis so that he might be executed, just as they ordered many others to do such things, planning to implicate as many people as possible in their own guilt. But I then showed again, not by words but deeds, that death, if I may be rather blunt, was of no concern whatever to me; to do nothing unjust or unholy, that was my concern. Strong as it was, that oligarchy did not so frighten me as to cause me to do a thing unjust, and when we departed the Rotunda, the other four went into Salamis and brought back Leon, and I left and went home. I might have been killed for that, if the oligarchy had not shortly afterward been overthrown.” (Apology, 32c-e, Allen translation).


xenophon said...

Well, since you're beating up on Strauss for some early fascist-sounding remarks in letters why not attack Putnam for his early Maoism-he actively supported one of the worst tyrants of the 20th century. (Just Google Hilary Putnam and Maoism). To the best of my knowledge- correct me if I'm wrong- Putnam has never given a mea culpa for his early political foolishness. Maybe everything Putnam has written since is part of a secret, esoteric Maoist agenda, following your logic and should be interpreted in that light.

Alan Gilbert said...

Actually, Putnam was fighting the war in Vietnam (and paid a heavy price for it). And he was critical of Mao for many things, including suppressing mass movements like the Paris Commune. And Leo actually liked Nazism for a long time, how long is unclear. And recommended "the art of writing" in scholarship: saying "one writes as one reads." Do you actually have some comment or rejoinder on Strauss's texts which I have written about extensively on this blog (like his posthumous "Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism" or his last book The Action and Argument of Plato's Laws?) or are you just out to defame someone decent because an idealized Leo (and those of his followers who are neocons) must be protected at all costs?

I have repeatedly said that Strauss was a great teacher and a great scholar, and I even rather like him (am sad for him). Too bad you have seemed to miss that.

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