Monday, March 28, 2011

On the cave and resistance: a conversation with Blinn Combs, part 1

Blinn Combs wrote three responses to my post on the Apology’s Cave here and here which raise some important differences about what Plato and Socrates think and how to interpret Plato. Roughly, one difference is over whether a flickering invocation of an image in an earlier dialogue - shadows or shadow-boxing in the Apology - reveals or illustrates the same thought as a developed image – the cave metaphor in the Republic - in what we think of a later dialogue. Blinn actually gives more evidence than I of the similarity or literary resonance between the two dialogues, but then argues, in I think in an overly scholarly rather than attentively literary vein, that chronology, as we now understand it, establishes that Plato had only the full idea later on and, I guess, that one shouldn’t be drawn to the mutual resonance (though a comparison may be “independently interesting”).

The more important difference is that Blinn reads the dialogues somewhat differently, emphasizing general philosophical arguments or interpretations which he thinks Plato primarily meant; I tend to think that the actual philosophical and notably political meaning, often not quite on the surface, is given by a whole literary structure and is more difficult to discern, is sometimes a general philosophical point but more often a stance toward life, and in and perhaps for a particular situation as when Socrates decided to go to his death. I think it is easy, even common, to go off on a wrong track with Plato: Heidegger, a brilliant reader of Plato, see here, here, here and here, falls off the cliff into fascism; arguably, Aristotle, another great reader, got Plato wrong with Alexander the Great; and of course, Leo Strauss. My line of thinking takes in Socrates’s comments in Phaedrus, and is concerned with what Plato intended the dialogues to mean for his aristocratic students, who often worked with him for many years in the Academy (Aristotle for some 20) or devoted, in the long future, many years to reading, rereading and figuring out:

"Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself."

"…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-277a. See here.

I agree with Strauss that hidden writing or the art of writing is important in Plato, but disagree sharply about what it is that is hidden (Strauss’s interpretation is much closer to Blinn’s, makes Plato an anti-democrat simply and even a reactionary or proto-fascist). Socrates and Plato had fierce criticisms of democracy as Blinn thinks. They were not partisans in any obvious sense. But against tyranny including that exercised by democracy, they were fierce opponents. That is what it means to go down. And when tyrants attempted to replace democracy, both Socrates, as the Apology indicates, and more surprisingly, Plato stood up against this. This, of course, is relevant for how a Socrates or Plato might have responded to current imperial and police state trends in America today.

Here is Blinn’s first comment on the article and my initial response and his first rejoinder:

"Random User said...

While I really like the imagery you've used here, there's nothing to suggest the cave metaphor in the Apology. "Skiamachia" is just a Greek term for "shadow-boxing." Of course, the cave metaphor features shadows, too, and it is independently interesting to compare the two scenes; but it is something of a stretch to think that the mere use of the a term denoting shadows must be an allusion to what is, according to all our best assessments, a much later dialogue. I'm also not sure I see the point of your transition from the survival of a just man in politics to current events. Perhaps I'm simply a natural skeptic, but I see no reason to think that *any* well-known historical figure would come close to meeting Socrates' notion of such a figure.

But again, as always, an interesting read. Thanks.

March 12, 2011 8:18 PM"

"Alan Gilbert said...

Thank you very much for the perceptive comments. I didn't know about shadow-boxing as a sport, just took it to be a reference to fighting with shadows. Nonetheless, the accusation of the Old Accusers seems very much the sort of thing that the Republic indicates happens in the cave; Plato is a writer who ties many things together; the fact that "we" think one dialogue was written much later than another does not mean that Plato did not connect one image and another (that seems a pattern in much of his writing, and he is a startlingly literary author). On the transition, King and Gandhi too, inter alia, met deaths in politics for doing the right thing. I was trying to capture a difference between mainstream movements and later satyagraha, inter alia. King and Gandhi saw the connection (and Greek orthodox Christianity makes it strikingly visible for Jesus). I also doubt that Socrates would have found any of them an inadequate candidate to be considered a good man. One might suppose that he favored being a philosopher - and so any politician, even a nonviolent one, would not count. And if one could make such a case, then the connection would only go one way (which would still be striking; King emphasizes it but Strauss and Heidegger, misunderstanding Socrates, do not). But I doubt that Socrates meant that a good man (and any good man who might show up novelly, say a practitioner of nonviolence) must be a philosopher. What do you think is Socrates' sense here?

March 15, 2011 12:14 PM"

"Blinn Combs said...

You're certainly right that there's overlap between the Apology scene and the cave; but the cave is intended as a very general description of the arguments and actions of ordinary people; it will, a fortiori, apply to Socrates' circumstances in the Apology. (He uses the same verb, skiamacheo, tightly connected with dreaming--onar--at Rep.7.520c, to describe current cities very generally). His use is obviously in each instance metaphorical, but a general connection between falsehood or other forms of irreality to shadows, death, and dreaming is a regular feature of Greek thought well before Plato. The opening scene in the Protagoras, for instance, contains clear allusions to Odysseus' venture to the underworld, and uses similar metaphorical language. Further, the katabasis imagery of the cave is very likely of Orphic origin, and Heraclitus famously compared the common lot to somnambulists. Plato was startlingly literary, and there's no reason to suspect that he wouldn't have been able to draw fascinating parallels between the two scenes. My point was merely that there's no reason to suspect that the compresence of shadow-imagery in the two works is by itself sufficient to make a case for conscious allusion. And if our chronologies are even close to correct, such allusion would only be possible via an act of rather late and curious revision. A much simpler explanation is just that shadows are commonly (metaphorically) connected with falsehood and false representation, and trials (metaphorically) with battles; As luck has it, they are. The political point merits separate comment."

In one respect, Blinn’s comment is plainly true. Plato articulated the full story only in the Republic. Further, the image probably goes back to the followers of Orpheus and the underworld as he suggests, and is not distinctively Platonic. Yet in contrast to Blinn, Plato varies every tradition and image. To understand him as a literary figure, one must see how the image changes, magically, as it were in Plato’s hands. He does not simply repeat as Blinn’s comment might suggest; in fact, it is the different way he sees what is well known among Athenians – i.e that politics, in fact, the most intense politics. is often a dream or sleepwalking or shadow-boxing - which gives his stories or myths their particular resonance. In the Republic, a coincident image is of sleep (the daylight world, for Plato, is actually the underworld in which no one but the blind prophet Tiresias sees as in the Odyssey) and waking. See my comments on this in the Meno here and the Symposium here.

Thus, in another respect, Blinn’s comment is doubtful and misses a central point. The trial is a cave, as strikingly in Athens as at any point in Plato’s lifetime. Athens unjustly executed its wise man, Plato’s friend and teacher – and drove, as Plato describes in the Phaedo, all the students to tears (“unmanly” as Socrates suggests; I sent the women home, he says, and notably does not cry*). That execution is the low point of the democracy (it is not the regime which had flourished and long dominated, and in which Socrates had lived for 70 years, but was defeated, finally, in the Peloponnesian War in 404 bc; the trial and execution of Socrates were 5 years latter, in 399 bc). If this is not the real cave or realm of shadows or underworld Plato was thinking of in the Republic - the metaphor already resonant in the Apology - there is no example…

The cave was also, for Plato, the Athenian defeat in the quarries of Syracuse as my student Rich Rockwell has shown. And that suggests, contra Blinn, that Socrates and Plato did think a lot about how imperial democracy, through crazed expansion as Thucydides suggests, would die. But this paradigm, though very important, was a less significant example for Plato than the trial and certainly not one that governs every dialogue (forget the trial and execution of Socrates and few dialogues will make any sense to you; this is the context of every word Plato wrote). Yes, as Blinn and I both think, Plato is an amazing literary or poetic figure (good at stories, not only at argument). He had some semi-conscious if not self-aware (though it may have been) understanding that Socrates in the Apology goes into the cave. Blinn assumes that the point of the story in the Republic is a general argument about the way all ordinary people are with regard to justice. He is not wrong that this is an implication – and he puts it very well – but it was not, for Plato, the point. The metaphor of the cave is about what happens to Socrates, or a philosopher, who goes down. What happened with Socrates – who had risked death as he says in the Apology under the Tyranny of the Thirty and thus sided with the democrats, and yet the Athenian democrats then put him to death, incensed Plato (my considered guess as to who the writer was) at the beginning of the Seventh Letter. What happened to Socrates is a theme of every dialogue (hardly cancelled by the Phaedo’s metaphor that a philosopher apprentices to learn how to die, to free his soul from his body, though he must not commit suicide, a quasi-Xenophonian view). The cave metaphor is already there strikingly in the Apology. Though the full tale, plainly referring to the philosopher who goes down, sees more sharply than other citizens, but is profoundly threatening to leaders, misunderstood, slandered, tortured, and put to death (the Republic), is written down fully later by Plato, it is not different…

*Socrates (and Plato) also learn about the idea of love and beauty from Diotima in the Symposium, and imagine women as guardians. So Socrates is quite mixed on his vision of women (though it is also not incidental that the men turn out to be “women” at Socrates’ death….).

2 comments:

Blinn Combs said...

Thanks, Alan, for the stimulating discussion. Let me start by saying that I think there is more convergence between our respective views than your comments suggest. That said, your remarks pose some very intriguing questions, which are well worth pondering.

The Phaedrus passage is certainly remarkable in many respects, but I'm not sure what light it might shed on the notion of "hidden writing." (More generally, I have very little sympathy with Straussian interpretations that insist that the text itself really means something precisely opposed to its plain meaning.) In fact, the passage stikes me more as a general warning against careless or dogmatic learning. Plato often has Socrates chide the students of famous sophists for not even remembering their own masters' lessons, careless paraphrase, and more general incomprehension. There's a straight-forward lesson here that everyone familiar with, e.g. cable news, tea party protests, or the like should well understand: quotation is no substitute for comprehension (leaving aside the problem that much of what passes for quotation is actually inauthentic--Thomas Frank's notebook in the current edition of Harpers is a nice reminder of the point). Problematically, most quotation, then as now, is done with very little thought to the context or conceptual scheme in which the original work arose. People plunder the work of others primarily out of a desire to advance their own causes (I would say that both Heidegger, and more pointedly Strauss, were far from innocent on this score; as an aside, I have very little sympathy with Strauss' line.) Given Plato's eventual absolutist conception of what we might call conceptual space, together with his doubt of our grasp on it, it is unsurprising that he should warn against various forms of distortion and misinterpretation, and cousel dialectic as a potential remedy.

But on to the cave. I did not mean to suggest that the Platonic cave imagery is unoriginal. My point was the narrower one that the use of shadow-language need not suggest caves or, by extension, the broader thrust of the cave analogy in the Republic. It is plainly true that Plato's cave image--like virtually every mythical image he creates, is an ingenious mixture of the familiar and the extraordinary. The cave image consciously inverts the standard story. The cave and its shadows, commonly connected to death, dreaming, and shadows, in the hands of Plato come to represent our everyday waking life, just as death, in the Phaedo, comes to represent the possibility of the highest form of life for the disembodied soul.

(On a separate note, such inversion is typical of the dialogues. Just one example from the Apology: when Socrates describes his search for someone wiser than himself, he pointedly turns first to statesmen, then poets, and finally craftsmen. And he clearly relishes upsetting the jury's expectations by telling them that the wisest ones were those on the lowest rung of social respectability.)

(Continued below.)

Blinn Combs said...

Similarly, I would not dispute that Socrates' trial can be interpreted in terms of the cave allegory. I do not doubt that Plato had the fate of Socrates prominently in mind when composing the Republic. More specifically, since Socrates is convinced that no statesman he has conversed with has knowledge, it would be surprising to learn that his jury and accusers would do better in discerning the form of justice, and he clearly thinks that they fail to do so. (Indepedently, he need think no better of those who voted to acquit him. Haphazard voting is just that, after all.) But the point just as easily generalizes to the theater, in which the audience voted away prizes, or to the council, in which the citizenry voted on the livelihood of craftsmen. And clearly the procedure of voting is itself coincidental. The key point is that decision making in the absence of knowledge is profoundly insecure. Socrates (and Plato) are Athenian, and a lot of their language to this effect is couched in suggestively democratic terms, but when given the chance they do not spare other regimes or constitutional structures. Socrates is notably critical of virtually every great statesman within his living memory, most especially (and ominously!) in his conversation with Meletus toward the end of the Meno.

Moreover, while Plato does use the cave allegory to emphasize the sheer strangeness of the philosopher (particularly the incomprehension with which he will be met), this is one of many images that emphasize this in the Republic, including the image of the philosopher as the true ship's captain, the real lover, and others. The novel element of the cave image, in comparison to these other images, is that in spite of the profound desire to remain aloft, the guardian shall be *forced* (curiously, by whom we are not told, much as in the case of the educators of the guardians) to return to the cave in the capacity of rulers. This startling element, of course, is absent in the Apology, just as the knowledge of dialectic and the Forms which justifies is absent from the Apology's Socrates. Further, the point which you extract from it, namely, the danger of being a philosopher in the political realm, is much more forcefully presented in a prior passage emphasizing the ways in which the philosophical character is constantly corrupted by *all* existing constitutions (see esp. Rep. VI.492-495). Finally, After Socrates introduces the basic elements of the cave, he explicitly states that "this whole image...must be fitted together with what we said before" (517b). The point he goes on to emphasize there is just that "anyone who is to act sensibly *in public or private* must see [the form of the good]" (517c). This in turn becomes the device used to explain the heretofore odd-seeming appearance of the philosopher to ordinary people, as well as the justification for not just ruling, but forcing the wise to rule in a constitution which provided shelter for their philosophical maturation. Needless to say, this has implications for governance, and Plato makes much of them, but I would still say that the epistemic point is lynchpin of the allegory.

At any rate, thanks for the lively exchange! I'll try to get around to commenting on the second post soon.

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