Thursday, November 10, 2011

Socrates' worst argument ever: the philosopher and the barking dog

For recent posts on the Republic, see here, here, here and here. My friend Peter Minowitz wrote me that he especially liked the Platonic image of the visions of injustice in book 1 and 2 being passed among the interlocutors as in the torch race which Polemarchus reports at the beginning of the Republic. I should add that watching a torch race in the dark is a lot like what the people imprisoned in the cave watch and even, as my student Heather Gannon suggested, what those taken with the noble lie of the metals, censorship, and the absence of experience (they all have the same passions, repeat the same words) discern in the darkness as well: glimmerings.

Socrates warns that Plato’s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, have a divine spark in them, something gleaming amidst would-be wickedness, since otherwise, if he did not know them, the ferocity of their defense of the ring of injustice accompanied by the seeming of justice – giving rise to great works of literature far into the future – would suggest that they are in love with it. (368a)

This way of putting it is a warning to his readers and potential students, even though Al-Farabi, and later, Heidegger and Strauss who became Nazis, turn away. Glaucon is seriously tempted by injustice and will become a tyrant unless Socrates persuades him not to. This is the central action of the dialogue…

The image is also a warning that a first read must find the flickers in the apparent darkness, must enter paths of questioning to get further...

Socrates suggests that he will trace the lineaments of justice in a soul by trying to discern them in a city. This is a cautious approach. He is seeking a vision of justice in the city for another purpose seemingly than law-giving, than organizing a city. One might think the hidden message here for students is: look at the beautiful city, the city in speech. This thought is enhanced by the hidden message of the seemingly merely declining cycle of regimes: in Aristotle's words (Politics, book 5), that a tyrant of a certain sort would, to make it perfect and a circle (cyclos), become a philosopher-tyrant. See here. But Plato, I think, wanted his students to meditate on the several paths shown, including Polemarchus becoming a philosophical democrat against the Tyranny of the Thirty, to ask questions, and perhaps doubt that the city is entirely kalos.

In the Apology, Socrates goes to his death, saying that he is wiser than others only in this: that they think they know and do not, and he does not know nor does he think he knows. But the vision of justice, rather tentatively and we will see problematically sketched in the Republic, and the questioning, that Socrates offers in the Apology - "I know that I do not know what the idea of justice is" - contradict one another, cannot coexist in a coherent vision. One is false.

The Republic, I think, is tied to the charges in the Apology in a novel way. To show their absurdity, it answers them seriously, creates a regime in which the gods will not be defamed nor the youth corrupted (by seeing the emperor's new clothes, in Hans Christian Anderson's idiom) by censoring poetry, denying experience to the young, a la Siddhartha’s father in the story of Buddha, and creating a “beautiful city” in which no Socrates or Plato could come to be…See here.

In addition, defending the democracy as a city of cities, including the little circle of philosophers, against tyranny does not require a larger, more or less finished vision of justice. Thinking that one can decide wisely in each situation, each particular case, without laws – like a vision of Christ at the last judgment – is, as book 2 repeatedly says of those who use the ring of Gyges, to think of oneself as a god, commit many crimes and become that bloated corpse-in-life, the picture of Dorian Gray…

Socrates begins with a description of the guardians, which is a giveaway for his students. The guardians are like dogs, recognizing masters or friends and barking heedlessly at enemies. This recalls Polemarchus’s argument from book 1 (in case one had forgotten) and the downfall of Polemarchus and Thrasymachus: suppose one trusts false friends as the noble Dion, Calippus in the Seventh Letter, and treats those who could be made friends or neutralized simply as enemies? Suppose the stronger mistakes her advantage?

Here Socrates implicitly acknowledges a fact about most politics. Politics is routinely unjust (and often to the core, as in America, with slavery, segregation, and today the prison/probation system…). Justice or rather injustice in all such cases is indeed "nothing but the advantage of the stronger" (recall again, Occupy Wall Street).

But Plato wants students to take in and emulate Adeimantus, to be stopped by Socrates’s hilarious and foolish praise of the dog as a philosopher. For the dog relies on “wisdom,” knowing masters from strangers or enemies, and so the philosopher. If Polemarchus and Thrasymachus had been right in the previous argument (they were not), then this silliness has a hope. It doesn’t. Plato is warning his close readers, his present and future students, that much of what follows in the vision of the city in speech is false – including I suspect all the material about censorship and trying to make the subjects have the same feelings, the same habits – or, at the least, requires a long further discussion. If one reads it as: these are Plato’s views, he is writing a detailled account of what justice is, for instance, the regime can only come about by expelling everyone over age 10 (by whom?), one will miss the meaning hopelessly (viz. Karl Popper et al). Of course, with the dumbness of a statue and the inexperience or unwillingness to question of many readers (Phaedrus), the words do not defend themselves against seemingly straightforward and silly or self-contradictory interpretations.* Especially in writing this work, the Republic, of this seemingly shining city, a lean dog among larger hungry ones, Plato, if one does not look carefully, invites the standard misinterpretation...

Socrates is known to be ironic (an eiron or someone possessing eironeia). This has, except in one remark of Aristotle, some notion of slyness and dissembling, an aspect of the fear Socrates occasioned in would-be rivals. But what does this mean? My reading suggests something far more fundamental than others have imagined. Allan Bloom thought the city in speech simply a comedy - about which he is, I suspect, not right. Women like Theano, the discoverer of the golden mean reflected in the famous and mysterious divided line in the Republic and Diotima in the Symposium are as philosophical as men, a philosopher-king, one who gives laws as Dion and Plato wanted to do in Syracuse in the Seventh Letter, are obvious counterexamples. But perhaps the wider vision of the city in speech in the Republic is little but a send-up of what a regime would have to be like to make the Athenian charges "plausible."

Put another way, the Athenian stranger in the Laws is, in his origin, a doubtful character – a pseudo-Socrates who does not take the hemlock and likes tyranny (“the quickest way to change things, for good or ill,” he says; Socrates does not recommend changing things for the worse…). But perhaps Socrates in the Republic has also something of the aspect of the Stranger – that one must test each argument, think about it further, pick and choose with reasons…

Perhaps the Socrates Plato creates in the dialogues for his students always has an aspect of the stranger...

Perhaps Socrates joked around a lot with his students as he is shown as doing in the Republic), and thus hid, as Plato did in the dialogues, some of the path which one must do for oneself (or in a group) through further questioning. Perhaps Plato's love of Socrates - his vanishing in Socrates, "writing Socrates" in the postmodern idiom - is shown in this very aspect. Philosophy is a long course of questioning, of fashioning arguments daily with particular interlocutors, a journey that reaches into the years beyond the significant days or evenings of particular dialogues. What is that we might find if we follow Plato or Socrates in questioning...?

Perhaps philosophers – those who ask questions – are like poets, strangers in the everyday world, who, for those who want to sleep walk through life, numb them (Meno's complaint about Socrates on his journey to become a mercenary for and then be impaled by the tyrant of Persia at the age of 24…)

"You make my words get up and walk away from me," says the seer Euthyphro bitterly to Socrates on his way to charge his father with murder...

Questioning the dialogues and other matters might occupy Aristotle for 20 years in the Academy, for example, even if he eventually advised Alexander the Great, took the wrong side…

Listen to the conversation:

“Does it also seem to you that the guardian should have another quality in addition to that of spirit? Should he not be a philosopher?” [says Socrates]

“What are you trying to tell me?” [Adeimantus is, unusually, agitated}

“About something which is also to be found in dogs, and a remarkable characteristic it is, too.”

“What is it?”

“The fact that a dog will be fierce with a stranger, though the stranger has never harmed him, while he will be gentle with one he knows, whether he has received any kindnesses from him or not. Has this never struck you as quite marvelous?”

“I must say, I never thought much about it, but it is evident that dogs do behave in this way.”

“Surely this is an admirable trait in the dog’s nature. Indeed, it is this trait that makes the dog a philosopher.”

“A what?” [one should read this aloud and explosively, Adeimantus is not inclined, especially after the argument in book 1, to believe this]

“A lover of wisdom. Do you not see that knowing and not knowing are the sole criteria the dog uses to distinguish friend from enemy? Does it not follow that any animal that verifies his likes and dislikes by the test of knowledge and ignorance must be a lover of learning?” [Socrates is joking here, so broadly that irony is not really the right word]

“Oh, indeed.” [one should repeat this too until the explosiveness, the disbelief, is evident]

“And is not the love of learning the same as the love of wisdom which, in turn, is philosophy?"

“All are identical.” [here, one must find the solemnity and mocking}

“Then let us be bold. Having made the case for the dog, let us make the case for man as well; he who is gentle to friends and to those he knows must by nature be a philosopher.” [here what Socrates suggests is true, though much of the gentleness is playing around, even as we will see toying with Glaucon and Adeimantus; note that he leaves out enemies here, perhaps because one point of the dialogue is that one must not be wicked to enemies, return injustice for injustice]

“Let us assume so.” [That probably is genuine assent]

“Then we may conclude that the true guardian of a city is one who is strong, swift, high-spirited and a lover of wisdom.” [Here Socrates enumerates the characteristics of the military leaders, warrior/athletes, Glaucon and Adeimatus, though doubtfully of himself, at least "swift" – and adds, what neither seems gifted in, “a lover of wisdom.” But this is building them up with praise - it is Glaucon's city, the city of the would-be tyrant which repeats many aspects of what Athenian proto-tyrants - those who put Socrates to death- demand which the city in speech constructs]. The city in speech is the city of Glaucon's psyche, with the add-on of a conversation with Socrates, a shadowy projected philosopher-king. It is what Glaucon can understand of the good, of a "philosopher-king" ruling guardians with common property. Thus, as the Phaedrus tells us, a number of souls, reflecting a polytheism of diverse, inner voices, yearn for their destiny and construct different kinds of loves, different universes, different cities, and reach different places, each on a journey...**

“Without doubt” [Adeimantus, and by implication Glaucon rise to this martial characterization, without perhaps noticing quite as much that Socrates is also beguiling them, making them wag their tails…]

“So much for the basic character of our guardian.” As Socrates says in the Phaedrus, he has now put the sleepy reader (and perhaps even Adeimantus and Glaucon a bit) to sleep. Glaucon aptly sees that Thrasymachus is a tamed snake; he does not notice quite, how much he himself bobs and sways in the basket of the dialogue...

“But now comes the question of his upbringing and education.” (375e-376d)

And here the vast question of education, as Rousseau says, emerges in the Republic with the rivalry of philosophy and poetry, and the banalization or “martialization” of art. But will young men really become fighters if they are untested by poem and statue and dream, if their thoughts are purged in a quasi-Spartan way, if they cannot engage, as the little community does here in Athens but would be outlawed in doing in this “beautiful” city (kallipolis) – Socrates in his 60s not allowed to talk to the beautiful and fierce young dogs? Is there then much left of philosophy in the beautiful city? Does the city include the possibility of – Socrates or Plato? See here.

Recall the story of Socrates and Critias, his student and tyrant, told by Xenophon. See my comments on I.F. Stone's account here. Socrates had mocked Critias, who was attracted to Euthydemus (the brother of Lysias and Polemarchus), saying Critias wanted to rub himself on Euthydemus as a piglet scratches an itch upon a rock.

When Critias has Socrates rounded up and told that he cannot speak to young men (and thus, cannot seductively - also on behalf of philosophy - mock Callicles to Euthydemus), Socrates questions his companion tyrant, Charicles, about just what he can talk to young men about: is he allowed to say, if asked for directions, where the tyrant lives, for example…

To believe these proposals for a good (tyrannical) city are serious – that all would have the same beliefs, the same passions – one would have to believe something psychologically impossible. But more importantly, one would have to think that no philosophy could transpire. Note: the root of philosophy and democratic discussion in the assembly - questioning - is the same.

But in Plato’s Apology, Socrates indicates that he will go to his death rather than cease questioning in the democracy as well. If complete unity and the absence of questioning is “philosopher-rule” for Plato, it is a rule without philosophers.

There is the out for Heidegger and Al-Farabi that the young wrestle and learn music to become Glaucon-like warriors. And one can only become a philosopher when one is old, over 50. Perhaps Glaucon will grow up to be a philosophical tyrant. But the send up of Critias's order to Socrates - do not talk with the young, do not ask questions - is too perfect. Xenophon's Memorabilia reveals the flaw in this tyrannical thought if one does not notice it's psychological improbability (Socrates says his inner voice, his daimon permits him to be as he is, but many other potential philosophers lack this, become corrupt - this, too, is a point to dwell on, ask further questions about....)

The other charge in the Apology is corrupting the youth. As my student and friend Nick Catanzarite emphasized this week, the aim of the city in speech is to deprive the young of all experience. As Rich Rockwell suggested to me, this is like Siddhartha’s father surrounding him with beauty, denying him pain and knowledge that humans suffer (the universal experience of suffering is the first principle of Buddhism). The Buddha was having his experience at the same time as Socrates, 800 miles away. The Mystery religions, with their transmigration of souls - consider the Myth of Er in book 10 of the Republic - are Eastern, the trade routes in the empire, even before Alexander, real enough. That Socrates and Plato participated in the Mysteries, knew something of these things, is a good guess.

Rich also spoke with me of the Hindu story of the darkened room, the rope that appears to be a cobra, and this is, of course, the false perception of the cave or the shorter part of the divided line, as Heidegger emphasizes in the 1943 The Essence of Truth, and is to be found in the Seventh Letter as well as the Republic. See here.

Here is Socrates on how the beautiful city answers both charges in the Apology in the transition from book 2 to book 3: by purifying or censoring the poets on the gods, it shows what is necessary not to "corrupt the young":

"Nor can we permit it to be said that gods plot against gods and make war upon each other - which is in any case false - if we want our future guardians to abhor the thought of quarreling among themselves." (378b)

“Young minds are not able to discriminate between what is allegorical and what is literal. At that age, whatever their minds absorb is likely to become fixed and unalterable. This may be the most important reason why tales for the very young should epitomize the fairest thoughts of virtue.” (378e)

"Nor can we permit teachers to make use of such poets in instructing the young if our guardians are to become god-fearing men, and indeed godlike, in so far as that is possible for men." (383c - end of book 2)

"From childhood onward, then, these are the kinds of things we shall permit or forbid our guardians to hear about the gods, so that they will honor the gods and their mothers and fathers, and be true friends to each other." (386a - first line of book 3)

It is not too hard to see that here, again, Plato is doing a send-up of the charges from the Apology: no one "corrupts the youth" by questioning in the "city in speech." Music is carefully pre-edited...

As I insisted in analyzing the tensions in "the laws'" argument in the Crito, questioning father and mother is vital to becoming a free man. The appeal of the laws to Socrates' free consent and thus, a contract contradicts their first argument. Note also: the beginning of political philosophy in the Republic is when Socrates drives out the sententious Cephalus; it is the son, Polemarchus, the leader of the democrats, who becomes a philosophical democrat. See here and here.

In a different perspective, think of the story of the Buddha: Siddhartha starts his journey when he sees suffering and age, when he sees in the face of the beautiful young girls sleeping that human beauty has no perfection, that even the goddess-like has in it the hint of dissolution…

No experience, no suffering, no human life and no Buddha…When the women who was lost in grief about her child who had died came to Buddha, he asked her: have you met anyone who has not lost someone she loved?

Fascists cruelly get off on being the King to the nth degree, denying experience, being worshipped as little tin dictators who seek to engulf or possess everyone. But Hitler and Franco die and rot, too, and despite occasional celebrations by fascists to this day, particularly in Spain, what they did reeks with a stench beyond their corpses. How one goes to one's death, as Socrates's story suggests, lives after one...

Buddhism and Socrates are, in some respect, not so different. One must live in the present to drink the hemlock as Socrates does. Even Nietzsche, the founder of modern fascism who sometimes despised living for the future instead of in the present (living life as what is not yet as in Christianity or socialism or imagining the superman; yet became creepy as well as self-contradictory about the Wizard of Oz "Uebermensch") has some consonance with Buddhism; Heidegger as a Platonist, turned at last toward a conversation with a Japanese Buddhist. But for all his brilliance in philosophy and poetry, Heidegger was, of course, a monster in life, worse than Plato’s bad dream for two long days (the Republic, the Laws) of authoritarian cit(ies) in speech…

Heidegger shows that what is genuinely evil (he who worshipped Hitler's beautiful hands and every act of murder of innocents which Hitler executed) can still create words and images of great beauty. But Heidegger took the kallipolis seriously, where Plato, I think, was mocking...

Once again, what does it mean that Socrates (and Plato) are ironists? Perhaps ordinary readings, for those who intend to remain asleep and are not would-be students of philosophy, miss the boat. There is no life without experience, without mistakes, without suffering, without heart-brokenness, without a need to heal. There is no philosophy and no democracy without questioning...

The tyrant’s command - and so, the city in speech and fascism - is that no one sees that the emperor has no clothes, is a naked butcher…

One does not have to have a deep sense of humor or irony to see that whatever advice philosophers give rulers, it is not the advice, word for word, offered in the beautiful city or in the Athenian Stranger’s version. But Heidegger and Strauss were pre-committed Nazis. They took the false path…


* “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.

**"Now he who is a follower of Zeus, when seized by Love can bear a heavier burden of the winged god; but those who are servants of Ares and followed in his train [think Glaucon and Adeimantus] and think they have been wrong in any way by the beloved, become murderous and are ready to sacrifice themselves and the beloved. And so it is with the follower of each of the other gods [note the mirror of diverse psychologies or diverse dominant voices in polytheism...]; he lives, so far as he is able, honoring and imitating that god, so long as he is uncorrupted, and is living his first life on earth, and in that way he behaves and conducts himself toward his beloved and toward all others. Now each one chooses his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his character, and he fashions him and adorns him like a statue [recall the image of writings as statues who have no father to defend them] as though he were his god, to honor and worship him. The followers of Zeus desire that the soul of him whom they love be like Zeus; so they seek for one of philosophical and lordly nature, and when they find him and love him they do all they can to give him such a character, If they have not previously had experience, they learn then from all who can teach them anything; they seek after information themselves, and when they search eagerly within themselves to find the nature of their god, and as they reach and grasp him by memory they are inspired and receive from his character and habits, so far as it is possible for a man to have part in god. Now they consider the beloved the cause of all this, so they love him more than before, and if they draw the waters of their inspiration from Zeus, like the bacchantes, they pour it out upon the beloved and make him, so far as possible, like their god. And those who followed after Hera seek a kingly nature, and when they have found such an one, they act in a corresponding manner toward him in all respects; and likewise the followers of Apollo, and of each of the gods, go out and seek for their beloved a youth whose nature accords with that of the god, and when they have gained his affection by imitating the gods themselves and by persuasion and education they lead the beloved to the conduct and nature of their image of the god, so far as each of them can do so; they exhibit no jealousy or meanness toward the loved one, but endeavor by every means in their power to lead him to the likeness of the god whom they honor." (252c-253c)

This passage immediately precedes the image of the charioteer and the two horses, one white and beautiful, one dark and deformed, which to some extent mirror the account of the psyche, nous, thumos (spiritedness, the white horse) and epithumion (the appetites, the black horse) of the Republic. The heaven which the charioteer almost rises to see, dragged down by the dark horse, is the highest section of the divided line, one which requires reasoning dialectically - though murkily in the Republic - from idea to idea (511b). Here is an interweaving of dialogues which, if questioned, reveals the Republic more deeply.

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