Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The snare of words and the refinement of argument, part 3

As the repeated threats to Socrates in the first book underline, students of Plato, even in the Republic which seems to be about Glaucon's city, a militaristic city in speech with an obscure philosopher-king, are invited to think about going down...

From Thrasymachus's previous observation of Socrates - the background of their relationship is not sketched by Plato in other dialogues - Thrasymachus does have a rhetorical strategy to dominate. He means to ridicule Socrates for asking questions of others but never offering an argument himself. All of his rhetoric, spurred by hubris as well as fear of Socrates, is designed to wrestle with Socrates in this way. An egotist, he accuses Socrates of being an egotist (psychologically, this is projection on Thrasymachus's part). But in ancient Hellenic terms, Socrates is often - and in a not simply ironic way - moderate. If you follow the argument, he says, you yourself will find that you agree with a point that you previously doubted (see Alcibiades 1). Any witness who reasons well will see the point. This, in addition to realizing that he does not fully know the ideas beyond geometry (which is itself a work in progress), safeguards Socrates from egotism or bullying.*

As another way of putting this point, Thrasymachus takes in Socrates's method of questioning, even though he himself is incapable of questioning. For Thrasymachus thinks of questioning as in the service of winning a wrestling match, of dominating. Once again, he projects on Socrates, who is good at argument, his own bullying.

Thrasymachus is, however, otherwise an unarmed man. He has an assertion with some truth, but no arguments for it, a novice in chess, as it were, against a Bobby Fischer, a club boxer against Mohammed Ali, a high school basketball player shooting jump shots with Lebron James (h/t Robert Nozick). But Thrasymachus is still more anxious for applause and to be paid than to hold to his rhetorical tactic. His egotism overcomes his ability to hold out. His definition of justice is really a notion of the injustice which typically prevails (staggering, he even comes to praise the unjust ruler deliberately). That prevalence, and not any interest in the way he argues for it, is the sole power of his assertion. But once he gives his definition of justice, Socrates can get a hold on it. It is at this point that Thrasymachus loses the argument because he is unable to answer Socrates or to pursue Socrates’s questions in a way that helps his definition.

Turning the tables, Socrates reveals the snares that Thrasymachus, the rhetorician, sets for others: tear down the other rhetorically and your definition, however poorly argued, will be the one remaining standing. (In today’s American politics, one might say, Thrasymachus’s is the tactic of negative campaigning; Mitt Romney is, for instance, good at tearing down others, but even among the at best bewildered, what is left standing elicits no enthusiasm). Perhaps Socrates asks rather than answers for practical as well as theoretical reasons, for instance, a willingness to question all particular opinions about justice stems, in ancient Greece, from the fact that they were all connected to murderous (internal or civil) wars. See my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4.

“What if I formulate a definition of justice superior to any you have offered?" (says Thrasymachus) "What penalty would you accept?” (337d)

Socrates offers to learn from and praise him. If one is seeking the truth, that seems reasonable enough. Instead, Thrasymachus demands money. His argument’s shallowness – his obsequiousness to tyranny – is underlined at this point.

“I will pay when I have the money.” [Socrates]

“'You already have the money, Socrates', said Glaucon. 'You needn’t worry about payment, Thrasymachus; we shall take up a collection.'" [That Socrates is sustained by a kind of communal property talked about in his proposals on the guardians seems clear here - cf. Eva Brann, The Music of the Republic).

Thrasymachus of Chalcedon, the metic, is hungry for money (the class as well as polis or "national" difference between Thraymachus and Glaucon is marked, here). Thrasymachus struggles a little longer, but then speaks because the aristocratic boys shower money on him:

“Yes, and then Socrates will go through his well-known routine, refusing to answer anything himself but demolishing the answers of everybody else (337e).”

He sees the trap, holds back, and then, hypnotized by the money, plunges.

As also the narrator of this dialogue (what Plato thinks is at a third remove in this kind of dialogue – Socrates and others speaking, Socrates commenting on the discussion, and the silence of the author about both conversation and commentary). Socrates notes that Thrasymachus was “flattered” in being asked to tell them. “He was convinced that his definition could not be refuted. He was eager to speak and still more eager for the acclaim he assumed would reward his discourse.” (338a)

Again, Thrasymachus is motivated by hopes in the audience’s applause and money – he needs to make others’ ideas of justice go away - rather than to figure out whether his idea about justice is true.

“Then here is my answer: justice is nothing but the interest of the stronger.” (ton kreittonos sympheron - 338c)

Amusingly, Socrates asks if Thraysmachus were saying that “an athlete like Polydamos eats a great amount of beef to stay in shape. You are not going to argue that this diet is advantageous and just [note that Socrates slips in one of Thrasymachus's forbidden words - again sympheron - linked explicitly to what is just - dikaion - here and Thraysmachus is too slow to notice] for the rest of us.” Once again, to kreitton can mean the stronger or the superior, and what is superior here - a common good or questioning and following argument - is at odds with Thrasymachus's domineering.

Calling Socrates a “buffoon” which, mere sneering, is no answer to Socrates's question or the quip about interest, Thrasymachus again points out that Socrates “is effective enough in sabotaging other people’s arguments.” (338d) Thrasymachus describes Socrates's argument with hostility as but a blow in a match, does not see it as argument, and again, makes no counter-argument…

At last, Thrasymachus offers some evidence for his view (that justice in differing types of currently existing cities is the interest of a prevailing group, a particular interest as Aristotle names it in distinguishing tyrannies from decent regimes**). This is one of two times in their conversation that Thrasymachus attempts, fleetingly, to argue***:

"Now governments use their power to make tyrannical, democratic, or aristocratic laws, as suits their interests. These laws, then, designed to serve the interests of the ruling class, are the only justice their subjects are ever likely to experience [but subjects who go abroad, confronted with different laws from their own, might come to ask the question: what is justice?}. Transgressions will be punished for breaking the laws and sullying justice. This is why I say that justice operates on the same principle everywhere and in every society. Justice is what advantages the interest of the ruling faction. Since the ruling faction is also the strongest faction, the conclusion should be evident to anyone who reason correctly: justice is the same in every case - the interest of the stronger." (338e-339a)

But Socrates again turns the tables on his rhetoric, focusing repeatedly and devastatingly on the word interest:

“Now I understand your meaning. But whether it is true or not is something I must still ascertain. First I note you use the word ‘interest’ in defining justice, a word that you were unwilling to let me use.”

Socrates then adds: “I admit, however that you add the words ‘of the stronger.’”

Here Thrasymachus responds only with sarcasm, again ducking the argument: “A trifling addition, no doubt.”

A student might observe – someone who attends to the argument closely – that Thrasymachus whiffs entirely because Socrates is, once again, right…

“Trifle or not, [Socrates says] our main business is to find out whether your definition is correct. I will agree that justice is an interest of some sort. But then you add that it is the interest of the stronger. I question that. We must examine that point.” (339a-b)

Plato means this discussion to invite the question in its hearers: what might Socrates have said in response to a more probing version of Thrasymachus’s account? This path of conversation lay open to Plato’s students and they might, in the Academy, have hazarded other views, instigated, for another day, deeper arguments. That there is one path through the woods of a dialogue – and one that proves to be a dead end, not well stated - does not close off others. Each agreement might be taken back (recall Socrates's worst argument ever: the philosopher and the barking dog here), the argument formulated in a more complicated and compelling way...

For instance, Thrasymachus praises the life of injustice, seeking to refine it as “good policy” (or to the rich: Feed me! Feed me!; consider Scott Walker and the Koch brothers...). See Four paths through the Republic’s woods here. But Thrasymachus's injustice is just fleecing everyone. In contrast, Xenophon’s Simonides proposes a more complex injustice to the tyrant Hiero, benefiting a common good – imitating in reality, justice – while having his minions in the dark cut his imagined enemies’ throats. Simonides's image or argument is even superior to the story of the ring of Gyges, a striking realization of advice or counsel to princes, which supersedes Thrasymachus’ weak efforts in book 1 (see also Aristotle’s Politics, book 5, based on Xenophon’s Hiero, and a favorite of Leo Strauss****). In saying Thrasymachus is like a snake too easily charmed in book 2 (358b), Glaucon, a fiercer and more dangerous snake, offers the more complex tale of the ring, See here.

Noticing this feature of Plato, Heidegger - see here and here - and Strauss seek out the hidden or coded meaning of a dialogue. For instance, Glaucon's ring reveals the foolishness of Thrasymachus; further, in the decline of regimes from philosopher king to tyrant (book 8), there is the hint that a circle would be complete if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher king. But seen aptly, these insights are merely that better versions of an objection, with telling effects on the world, are possible. There is no reason to think, however, that questions cannot be raised, counterarguments given, against such refined objections. Socrates - Plato's repeatedly invoked example in the Republic - after all, went down to fight for justice and against tyranny (of the Thirty, of the democratic majority). Socrates did not become such a ruler. Instead, presaging civil disobedience, he died.

One might thus take any of the dialogues as a living thing for Plato’s students, who are invited to think about the arguments, not merely accept them, let alone with Strauss or Heidegger, point to, parroting, a supposed single, hidden meaning. Aristotle studied at the Academy for 20 years…

My guess is that Socrates might have said something like: all the opinions about justice around here are largely justifications for strife, democrats murdering aristocrats, aristocrats murdering democrats. For a full discussion, see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4. One of the meanings of the prima facie self-refuting thought: I know that I know nothing [better: I know nothing definitive about the ideas though I know some examples, for instance, of just conduct, and am making a long-term ascent through argument] is: if opinions about justice for political purposes become sanctifications of murder as in Athens, Socrates will not affirm one. “It is better to suffer wickedness than ever to do it.” Here is a starting point - one unusual in political philosophy but later taken up by Jesus, Gandhi and King. Socrates also asks questions and thinks about arguments. So the aspect of Socrates that Thrasymachus, speaking belligerently for the thoughtless (argument-less) and murderous Athenian majority at the trial, seeks most to bring down in this conversation, emerges from it shiningly...

In addition, through questioning Thrasymachus’s account, Socrates shows, if justice is the advantage of the stronger, then the subjects should obey the laws or commands (which secure that advantage). But suppose the stronger mistakes his advantage as Thrasymachus admits possible (and as the Athenians did, say, in invading Syracuse). Then justice for subjects would require: upholding the stronger’s real advantage against the laws or policies which the ruler commands.

It is here that Polemarchus – unusually - leaps again into the discussion. This, too, is a signal to Plato’s students to learn something about argument::

"'Now, most wise Thrasymachus, can you see how you contradict yourself? [said Socrates] Your indiscriminate equation of justice with what the strong command the weak obey leads only to its own negation; it actually requires the weak to injure the interests of the stronger.'"

"'Nothing could be clearer, Socrates,' said Polemarchus."

"'If one could believe Polemarchus's testimony.' said Cleitophon."

"'No witness is necessary,' said Polemarchus. 'Thrasymachus himself said that rulers may command what is not in their interest and that subjects obeying these commands are doing justice.'"

"'You are right, Polemarchus. Thrasymachus said that justice for subjects is obedience to rulers.'"

"'Yes, Cleitophon, but he also said that justice is the interest of the stronger, that sometimes the strong mistake their interest, but the subjects must nevertheless carry out what the stronger mistakenly order them to do. The inference is unavoidable that justice may equally be the advantage or the disadvantage of the ruler.'"

"'What Thrasymachus meant, said Cleitophon, is that justice is what the stronger believes to be in his interest. Obedience to this belief, in turn is the just duty of the subject.'"

"But he didn't say that, objected Polemarchus."

Here Socrates intervenes to allow the reformation or refinement of the argument. Socrates is not trying to win a wrestling match but to ascertain the truth (and invites students to follow him...): "'It doesn't matter, Polemarchus,' said I. 'If that is the position Thrasymachus now wants to take, let us accept it. Is that what you want to say Thrasymachus? Is justice what the stronger thinks is his interest, whether it really is or not?" (339e-340c) Socrates is also being ironic here: he sees that Thrasymachus is not arguing for a position, but asserting what the domineering which he is and in which he believes.

Amusingly, Cleitophon, a stupider ally of Thrasymachus, offers a weaker translation of Thrasymachus's argument, one that acknowledges that Thrasymachus, the would-be tyrant and peacock, might be mistaken. Cleitophon abandons the domineering that is Thrasymachus. So Thrasymachus goes a different way, driven to affirm the injustice that his ruler seeks...

Polemarchus's unusual interjection - and the conversation with Cleitophon - is to highlight again what the argument is. It is a message for students in how to question an argument, how to read. In contrast, once again, Thrasymachus is revealed as not seeking the truth. In Plato’s resonant image, he is a “bathman” pouring down a great stream of water on the listeners – here is the danger of long, external speeches designed to harry or dominate others into submission as opposed to questioning the internal structure of others’s arguments or assertions in order to seek the truth. Thrasymachus then attempts to walk away but Socrates and his students demand, instead, that he stay to follow out the argument.

When Socrates corners him, listen to Thrasymacus’s blustering peroration:

“And a captain, in the exact sense of the word, is a ruler of sailors. He is not himself a sailor.” [Socrates]

“That has already been granted.” [Thrasymachus]

“As captain and ruler he will provide for the interests of the sailors under his command and not his own interests.”

Socrates comments as narrator: “Thrasymachus resisted but finally conceded this point, too.”

“’So, too, with government. The governor – or ruler – insofar as he is to be true to his work, will never consider what is in his own interest. He will take into account only the interests of his subjects and the requirements of the art of governing. These are the sole criteria by which he plans and governs.”

“By now, it was clear that Thrasymachus’s definition of justice had been stood on its head [comments Socrates, underlining the point for Plato’s future students]. But instead of replying, Thrasymachus asked if I had a nurse.”

“’Why ask such a question? You owe me an answer to a question of mine.” (342e-343a)

Little could be more direct here, on Plato’s part, as a way of pointing out the importance of argument and answering questions to the extent one can. The coupled conversations of Socrates with Polemarchus and Thrasymachus underline this point. In this respect, book 1 is, despite Socrates’s announcement at the end that he has not found a definition of justice, complete. The rest of the dialogue is driven - and driven off track - by Thrasymachus whose argument is then refined by Glaucon. On the one hand, it does get into a profound discussion of the ring of Gyges and cures, though not entirely through argument, Glaucon’s hunger for tyranny.

On the other hand, the modeling of doing philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise – through these two exchanges - is complete in book 1. But the dialogue, however resonant, often goes off the rails, philosophically speaking, in the next 9 books. Much of Socrates’s later argument and imagery are both satirical (at least in part) - comparing the philosopher to a dog or a guardian or answering the charges in the trial by specifying what it would take to clean up the gods, to not corrupt the young - and incomplete. See here and here. And one is meant to notice that the incompleteness is driven by the hunger of Glaucon (as earlier by Thrasymachus), and that a student might refine the argument, as the interjection by Polemarchus, Cleitophon's response and Socrates's, by asking different questions.

Put differently, the torch relay on horseback occurs on the tracks of the Thrasymachus-Glaucon images, motivated by ordinary politics. But the search for justice might go in a quite different direction if Socrates (and Plato) were not driven to satirize a military city, the city of Glaucon…

The dialogue does, however, cast some light on the ascent, the idea of the good and the nature of philosophy. See my "If the city in speech is Glaucon's, what city is Socrates's?" here and "Pythagoras on the surface and in the depths of the Republic" here.

Returning to book 1, Thasymachus then adds: “Because your nurse evidently neglects to wipe your nose and leaves you sniveling. What’s more, she leaves you ignorant of the difference between shepherds and sheep.”

“Why do you say that?”

And here Thrasymachus pours down the bath:

“Because you fancy that the shepherd or cowherd has the interests of his charges at heart, grooming and fattening them for their own sakes and not to serve the master’s profit [Thrasymachus’s definition of justice again] or his own. You carry the illusion into politics with the consequence that you fail to see how rulers really behave. The actual ruler or governor thinks of his subjects as sheep all right [or in Goldman Sachs's defective terms today, "muppets" - see former Vice-President Greg Smith's letter of resignation in the Times here], but his chief preoccupation, day and night, is how he can fleece them for his own benefit. [think of the "Republican" candidates, obsequious only to the 1/10th of 1%, as well as what would be the Democrats’ abject acquiescence to such policies in the absence of the Occupy movement…]. You have strayed so far from reality that you cannot understand that what is just is simply something that is good for someone else. He who behaves justly does not benefit himself. It follows that a just subject serves the interest of the ruler but injures himself. The dynamics of justice, then, consistently operate to advantage the ruler, but never the subjects. The result is that injustice lords it over those who are truly simple and truly just. Because the unjust ruler is stronger, his subjects serve his interests and his happiness at the expense of their own.” [here in response to questioning, Thrasymachus goes where he can, makes some effective points, but then sinks, flailing, in quicksand…]

“The just man is always a loser, my na├»ve Socrates. He always loses out to the unjust. Consider private business. If a just man takes an unjust man for a partner and the partnership is later dissolved, it is invariably the unjust man who walks away with the lion’s share of the assets. Consider their dealings with the government. When taxes fall due, the just man will pay more and the unjust man will pay less on the same amount of property. Or, if the government is letting out contracts or disbursing money for some other purpose, those who are unjust will get all of it, and the just will get nothing.”

“The just man in public office will reap no rewards [here is a foreshadowing of the guardians – no rewards but recognition – and perhaps philosophers, though in Athens, Socrates will be scorned by the majority and put to death]. In the first place, as he conscientiously attends to the affairs of state, he must necessarily have little time left to attend to his own affairs [as Socrates attends to the question of virtue in discussions with others and is poor]. His principles forbid him to embezzle on his own account. They will also prevent him from handing out unlawful favors from the public treasury to others. [note how Socrates, as epistates for one time only, stands out against the defiling of the law when the Athenians want to hang the strategoi – naval leaders – in judging the battle of Arginusae in the Apology (line 32) and in the, in other ways differing account in Xenopohon’s Hellenica, 1.6-7]. In consequence, he will earn the enmity of his disappointed friends and acquaintances.”

“The unjust man is in exactly the opposite situation. I mean the same man as the one I spoke of before, the one who exploits others on a grand scale [here is Thrasymachus’s argument for the large-scale evil of politics, the one Glaucon will dress up with the image of the ring of Gyges and Xenophon’s Simonides and Aristotle’s Politics, book 5, will transform]. I speak, namely, of the tyrant and of tyranny, the highest form of injustice.”

In questioning Polemachus’s definition of justice as benefiting friends and harming enemies, Socrates had shown that this is the view of a tyrant like Periander or Perdiccas (336). Here the passing of the torch of a definition of injustice – of seeking to benefit oneself at the expense of an unnamed but implied common good – comes through sharply. And of course Glaucon (and Xenophon and Aristotle) will take up, in a more fiery way, that same torch.

“If you want to see how unjust acts benefit the tyrant, watch how he makes his crimes pay off. Watch how his own happiness and prosperity impoverish his subjects.” (343a-344a)

In contrast, Simonides at this point produces a far stronger argument for tyranny, urging that a smart tyrant benefit his subjects. This argument is but hinted at in the Republic in the decline of regimes from philosopher-king to tyrant in book 8 and the thought, traced by Aristotle in book 5 of the Politics, ostensibly as a criticism of Plato, that it would be perfect and a circle (kuklos) if a tyrant of a certain kind became a philosopher-king. Unlike Xenophon's Socrates in the Memorabilia, a gossip who offers savvy local advice, Xenophon’s Simonides advances what is close to a philosophical argument about tyranny, even though he never soars, as Plato does, toward the ideas…Smart or seemingly philosophical tyranny [kingship] borders on, has elements of a common good. Amusingly, this thought, already in Leo Strauss's first book in the United States On Tyranny focused on Xenophon's Hiero (1948), is as far as Strauss ever got with Platonism. But what are "philosophers" and "the light" without the ideas?

Strauss has no interest in pursuing the ideas; the idea - of ideas - shockingly goes almost unmentioned in Strauss's account of Plato. This is another way in which Strauss - no Platonist - is a follower of Heidegger...

The appropriate rejection of Xenophon's view is that tyrants who give themselves, with hubris, the airs of the "wise," do the worst (one thinks of Critias or of Cheney and the Straussian neo-cons here, and alternately, in certain respects, Stalin…).

In contrast, Thraymachus's tyranny which seeks to grab everything is often counterproductive. For tyrants often end up hung, like Mussolini, and of ill fame.

Thrasymachus’s long speech is thus like a bathman pouring down waters over the bather. Drowned as it were, one can hardly respond without Socrates's presence of mind:

“'Watch how he persecutes those who reject injustice and continue to act justly.'"

"'Force and fraud are the tyrant’s chosen instruments. He uses them to deprive others of their property, not little by little but in wholesale lots. He makes no nice distinctions among his victims [he has no political strategy, does not attempt to separate friends from enemies, is overreachingly grasping – like the American elite, though the latter exhibits a bit more policy, notably racism as divide and rule focused in the prison/probation complex, in the last 30 years]; private citizens, the public treasury and sacred associations are all fair game.'”

“'Any one of these acts perpetrated by a private individual would be condemned and punished. The guilty one would be branded a thief, swindler, housebreaker, cheat or robber of temples. But if a man not only steals from his fellows but also uses the power of government to enslave them, one hears no such unfriendly epithets. [consider the “Supreme” Court, Citizens United and the superpac billionaires keeping Romney afloat – or the pro-Likud funder Adelson who bankrolls Gingrich, or Foster Friess, the monetized hot air behind the bilious Santorum]. All the world applauds every instance of triumphant injustice; all the world calls the unjust ruler happy and blessed.'”

“'The reason for this is that people censure injustice only because they fear to be its victims and not because they have scruples about being unjust themselves. So it is, Socrates, that injustice when practiced on a large enough scale, [Thrasymachus races toward - Plato prefigures - the ring here] is stronger and freer and more successful than justice. What I said at the outset, then, remains true. Justice is whatever serves the advantage of the stronger; injustice, on the other hand, whatever serves the interest of any man.'”

"Like a bath attendant pouring buckets of water on our heads, Thrasymachus had nearly drowned us with his oratory [comments Socrates]. Now he wanted to leave. But we all demanded that he stay and defend his position. I was particularly urgent in my plea that he remain."

Socrates does not give the reason here. But it is perhaps that his effort is to struggle with tyranny and Glaucon, to neutralize proto-tyrants at the least…

*The dialogues go only so far in revealing what Plato thinks.

**The starting point for constructing political institutions, Aristotle suggests, is to combat or balance such particular interests. Ethically speaking, it is to realize a common good.

***The other is Thrasymachus's assertion that the shepherd fattens a sheep for the owner's profit or his own.

****See the discussion of the crucial passages from Strauss's 1967 lectures on Aristotle's Politics in the notes to my "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?," Constellations, May 2009 here.

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