Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A question from Hilary Putnam

I have been thinking about and teaching Plato and Socrates for a long time. Much of the argument that I had was worked out gradually - I had always thought of Plato as a fierce opponent of ordinary tyrannies, though a hidden enthusiast for a tyrant of a certain kind becoming a philosopher-king - and it was only a shift on certain questions, suggestive of an alternate interpretation I had wondered about, which brought many of these things into focus. Hilary wrote to me:

“Dear Alan,

Some of your earlier blogs described Plato as an enemy of democracy. When did you change your mind?


“Dear Hilary,

I have long seen Socrates as an exemplar of what we call civil disobedience, and of course, admired him. But I had taken the Republic and the Seventh Letter as suggesting that Plato differed from Socrates, was much nearer to the view about philosopher-kingship (philosopher-tyranny) of the "city in speech" in the Republic. When I studied Strauss on Al-Farabi and hidden writing, I realized that advising tyrants to become philosophical (or to listen to a philosophical counselor) was one hidden message of the Republic. Strauss never says this explicitly, but I had always been bothered by a cycle of regimes which didn't cycle - which merely declined from philosopher-king through aristocracy, oligarchy and democracy to tyranny. If this were to be a circle as Greek philosophers thought, Plato's implied message was that a tyrant of a certain kind becomes a philosopher-king. And I found evidence for this in Strauss's account of Al-Farabi in the middle chapter of Natural Right and History and later in Strauss's commentary in lectures on Book 5 of Aristotle’s Politics.*

Xenophon's Hiero is of course a paradigm for this view, invoked by Strauss in 1948 in On Tyranny (his first book in America), and it was perhaps this - most of all - that set me on to philosopher-tyranny. That was the view I gained 4 or 5 years ago and which shows up in the 2009 piece for Constellations on "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?" here.

This view, however, has the defect of pitting Plato against Socrates, to some large extent. Further, it ignores what we know of Socrates's actions and distorts him to the Right (Heidegger seriously, Strauss through Xenophon overwhelmingly...). A variety of absurd consequences seem to follow from this, for instance, Strauss’s view that Socrates went to his death sneering at the democratic laws of Athens, knowing that he would bring them into disrepute. One has to have no sense of what mortality is - and little of the Phaedo - to see Socrates’s resolve in this way. In contrast, Plato's affection for Socrates is palpable in the dialogues and, of course, at the very beginning of the Seventh Letter.

I also started to think about “going down” a lot. Kateben - "Went down" is the first word of the Republic. Socrates goes down to the Piraeus - to the center of the democracy - with Glaucon to persuade him not to become a tyrant. The possibility of his becoming a tyrant is certainly in the story of the ring of Gyges and his hunger for "pleasure" (book 7) or “relishes” (book 2). And going down in Socrates's life is in the context of fighting tyranny - the Thirty led by Socrates's student Critias, whom Socrates makes a point of offending in Xenophon's Memorabilia and whose order to join in the murder of Leon of Salamis Socrates pointedly disobeys in the Apology. In an act of proto-civil disobedience, Socrates went home instead...

Democratic tyranny - the majority that put Socrates to death (or the Klan) is obviously also a serious danger (the rule of a particular or tyrannical interest in Aristotle's idiom). It is evil and, at the least, on the way to become full-fledged tyranny. It was here and in thinking about how the dialogues relate to one another that I saw Plato more clearly. The "Athenian stranger" in the Laws does not go down, does not drink the hemlock - the drinking metaphor about the fear-drug in the first book is about Socrates and the poison. He is the not-Socrates…William Altman wrote a very useful essay on two drinking parties - in the Laws and the Pheado - which helped with this. The Athenian stranger to whom Strauss devoted his last book, The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws (1973), is a largely negative figure for Plato's students.

I had already had the thought (throughout) that Plato wrote primarily for long-term students of his work (Aristotle studied in the Academy for 20 years...) and in a complicated way. Socrates speaks in the Phaedrus about two kinds of writing: writings can be misinterpreted by ordinary readers and if you ask them a question, "they are like statues and have no father to defend them." But to those who can read dialogues carefully (take in every word and the action), they reveal their secrets, promote further thinking.

And I thought about most of the students gathered around Socrates who were aristocrats, with a potential to become tyrants (Glaucon nearly, Critias and Charmides actually). So the idea that the dialogues are a maze through which someone who does argument might begin a journey, as Polemarchus does in the Republic - a philosophical democrat - or Chaerophon (Socrates's best student in Aristophanes's The Clouds, also a democrat) became clearer to me. This is a main difference between my perspective on the dialogues and most others - that I am concerned explicitly with how Plato intended them to be read by those who studied with him a long time.

Of course, this does not prevent smart proto-tyrants from finding only themselves in the maze of the dialogues (Heidegger, Strauss).

And so gradually I have come to see Plato more clearly. But really, I came to this insight two years ago about the time I wrote three posts on "going down." See here, here and here. In these essays, I emphasize the idea that democracy is a city of small cities, one of which is the circle of philosophical discussants at Cephalus’s house. They ascend in the conversation, but need to go down to the cave to preserve democracy against tyranny. That is a more principled - civil disobedient - way of understanding Socrates’s and Plato's philosophical-kingship. And I have found a lot that it opens up, particularly about the Republic, since then…

All the best,

*In book 5 of the Politics, Aristotle reveals the hidden message in the midst of a seeming criticism of Plato (writing between the lines):

"Again as to tyranny he [Plato, Republic] does not say whether it will undergo revolution or not, nor, if it will, what will be the cause of it, and into what sort of constitution it will change; and the reason for this is that he would not have found it easy to say, for it is irregular; since according to him tyranny ought to change into the first and best constitution, for so the process would be continuous and a circle.." Politics, 1316a27-32.

In the Chicago transcript of his fall, 1967 course on the Politics, (lecture XII), Strauss comments on this passage:

"The last point is of course, especially interesting. Does it stop when it has reached the bottom? Tyranny. Or does it not by a kind of rejuvenation, almost miraculous rejuvenation, have a new kingship emerge out of the tyranny. The question is posed by Plato, but is not answered there."

The transcriber mishears “imposed.” The answer to the problem Plato implicitly “poses,” hinted at by Strauss’s comment, is that a tyrant becomes a “philosopher-king” – Strauss carefully says “king” for students and drops philosopher – who rules without laws.

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