Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The snare of words, pt 1

Some approach argument with a parti pris. They loom up, as the beast or wolf Thrasymachus in the Republic, book 1, to jump on others. They seek gain – either politically or monetarily (“for the money’s sake, speak Thrasymachus”) – and to rip their opponents apart. Where Polemarchus had become increasingly puzzled and learned from the argument, Thrasymachus, uninterested in learning, is willing only to teach. He fears Socrates’s questions. In Socrates’s dialogue with Polemarchus, the democratic war leader (his name means "war leader") seeks to follow the argument and thus, begins the journey of philosophy. In contrast, Thrasymachus strives all out to deter argument, to block Socrates’s “snares,” to mock and discredit questioning.

As a leader of the democratic party, Polemarchus will be murdered by the tyranny of the Thirty. As by then, a well-regarded student of Socrates, he goes down to defend the democracy against tyranny. In this context, one might well think of democratic freedoms - including a freedom to practice philosophy (a modified Athenian freedom) - defended by Polemarchus, as a common good.

In contrast, Thrasymachus, whose name means fierce fighter, is but a domineering rhetorician. He resembles Socrates's accusors and his theme - justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger - foreshadows a defective democracy putting Socrates to death. There are thus two complex and sometimes conflicting political dimensions in the action here which instigate thoughts in differing, sometimes opposed directions, and help to explain why figuring out what Socrates and Plato mean is so difficult.

On the first dimension, in Phaedrus, Socrates hails Polemarchus as someone who has made a turn toward philosophy. In Xenophon's Memorabilia and in Plato's Apology, Socrates is recorded as mocking and then refusing, in an act of civil disobedience, Critias's orders to fetch Leon of Salamis for execution (see here, here and Apology, line 32). Critias was also a student of Socrates (he features in Timeaus and Critias).

The which side are you on question - the democratic resistors like Polemarchus or the philosopher tyrants like Critias - is thus a burning one for both Socrates and Plato. As I.F. Stone underlines in the Trial of Socrates, Socrates did not leave Athens with the democrats as his student Chaerophon did. But as Stone misses, Socrates, more bravely and dangerously defied the Thirty. See here, here, here and here. This is opposition to external tyranny,

On the second dimension, oblique to the first, Thrasymachus's belligerent stance echoes those of Socrates's democratic accusers. He embodies the worst or proto-McCarthyite aspect of democracy. Thus, following his teachers Socrates and Plato, Aristotle rightly both praises democracy - the many frequently know more than the one - and denouces some of its verdicts: "by Zeus, some peoples are worse than a herd of beasts," i.e. those led by a Thrasymachus - Politics, 3.12).* This dimension pits defective democracy against philosophy, justice and perhaps, by implication, philosophical kingship. But the latter, in Athenian life, can have two meanings: either as philosophical rule to displace defective democracy altogether or rather, as going down to lead, as one person fighting for something right, as Socrates did, within the democracy. In interpreting going down - see here, here, and here - I have emphasized the circle of students including Socrates, in the Republic, as a small city within the larger city (a city of cities, circle of circles), one that might be moved to protect it against tyranny. In the action of that dialogue, for example, Socrates persuades Glaucon not to become a tyrant overthrowing the democracy and Polemachus not to become a "democratic" tyrant as a leader of the many who put Socrates to death. He even tames Thrasymachus...

Here Socrates opposes internal or democratic tyranny.

To fight for democracy against tyranny is to defend a common good (in Rousseau's later terms, a general will to equality or equal rights, a realization of the idea of justice, a starting point for any well-stated democratic theory). In contrast, defective democracy in the trial or a kind of internal tyranny is a murderous "will of all."* Defective democracy can also be understood as opposing the equal basic rights which underpin any decent theory of majority rule (see Rawls' A Theory of Justice, my Democratic Individuality, and all reasonable examples of contemporary democratic theory).

These conflicting dimensions highlight the choice about political action in the potential transition from democracy to tyranny as one man rule. But once again, a broadly similar kind of tyranny, or a rule of a particular interest as Aristotle puts it at the expense of justice (a common good), is also illustrated by the democratic execution of Socrates.

Thus, one could also think, as I have come to, that as a resister for decent democracy, Socrates opposed both democratic tyranny and the Thirty. But then so did Plato. So I think Plato's idea of philosophical kingship - as illustrated in the Seventh Letter, for example - is for a rule of law and thus also tends toward a decent democracy and to Socrates's practical example of philosophical "kingship": going down to his death to preserve the democracy (or to fight for acceptance of philosophy within democracy) against the twin tyrannies. Socrates's is a harsher road (pursued also perhaps by Dion, threatened by the tyrant Dionysius) than mere counseling of a tyrant to become a philosopher-king (Plato perhaps thought this an easier, though remarkably rare, route of achieving influence for justice, before he discovered in Syracuse that it was pretty much a non-starter).** But pursuing decency is always risky. Even in Syracuse, Dionysius held Plato prisoner and thought of enslaving him...

But we know of the idea of a philosopher-king (of the coming together of philosophy and politics) only from Plato in the Republic and the Seventh Letter, and, in a diminished form, as "laconizing" or sympathy for Sparta against Athens from Xenophon. But Plato himself seems to advocate going down with Socrates when the choice is posed so starkly by Athenian politics, and hence, also, in the potential or actual transition from democracy to tyranny (i.e. the Thirty), to side with democracy.

One further complication: much of Plato's philosophy and politics is also what I might call family philosophy and politics. Glaucon, the protagonist in the Republic, and Adeimantus, are Plato's brothers, military leaders in the battle of Megara, and sons of the best (the father's name, as we learn in the first line is Ariston). That Glaucon, who is no philosopher, is weaned away from enthusiasm for tyranny, is a great thing in the dialogue. But ironically and in contrast, it is Polemarchus, the leader of the democrats, who is shown in the Republic to take up the vocation of questioning.

In addition, among the Thirty, are the leader Critias - Plato's cousin and Socrates's student - and Charmides - Plato's uncle and also Socrates's student. At the beginning of the Seventh Letter, Plato remarks on how he himself was recruited to be part of the tyranny - he declined, and ultimately thought the Thirty made the democracy look like a "golden age" - by these two relatives. So the civil disobedience shown by Socrates against Critias for being a murderous "philosopher-king" in both Plato's Apology and Xenophon's Memorabilia decisively exemplifies Socrates (and Plato's) stand for a common good-seeking democracy against tyranny. The transition to the tyranny in question is ironically a bad or at most imitation/pseudo-philosophical tyranny.

In this context, that Socrates went home when Critias commanded him to fetch Leon of Salamis to his death, at the likely cost of his life, had the tyranny not fallen, is the central point. As Gandhi and King underline, Plato's Apology and Crito also exemplify civil disobedience as a form of dissent within a democracy, dissent to achieve a more decent democracy. Socrates thus stood for philosophical democracy (kingly in going his own way for the idea of philosophy, of questioning, of seeking justice, and of expressing democratic dissent). He did not stand with a quasi-philosophical tyrant, his student Critias, even at the potential cost of his life (the beginning of the Republic rightly emphasizes his determination to resist blows, even to be put to death, rather than to do wickedness).

The writing of Plato catches the stranger/philosopher Socrates in the complex drama of what the sons and relations of Ariston (the best) are going, politically, to do.

One may also focus on Socrates and the second dimension of politics. In his defense at the trial, Socrates stands up for questioning - goes to his death for refusing to stop questioning - and thus affirms philosophy, defending justice and dissent in a democracy against Meletus, Anytus, Lycon and those who carry themselves in the world like Thrasymachus (egotists, meaning someone who would put innocent others to death to prove themselves "right," win an argument...).**** In the Apology, Socrates says that he was surprised, of the sentencing, that the vote was so close. If he had had 4 days to speak to the Athenians as some cities had for a trial involving a death sentence, he suggests, he might have been able to convince them.

That thought is about a reform of the democracy - to make it tolerant of questioning and philosophy, to make it possible to overturn injustices to seek (aspects) of justice. It opposes a vision of replacing the democracy with (philosophical) tyranny. It moves toward a decent or tolerant democracy (one that affirms what Rousseau would call a general will) rather than a mob. It also opposes and mocks even a mob reconstructed with all the same thoughts, all the same habits and feelings as in the Republic and the Laws. Seeing the idea of justice - however incompletely or in the supposed case of "kallipolis" (the beautiful city) of the Republic, satirically - and fighting for decency within a democracy (what Socrates does in the Apology) contrasts with reshaping the regime utterly, constructing a military regime - Glaucon's city, the city of guardians - to be ruled by an obscure philosopher-king or tyrant acting wisely but without laws. See here.

Thrasymachus - a paradigm of the crass rule of the stronger including the democracy in killing Socrates as well as the Thirty (realized by the potential tyrant Glaucon, the "philosopher" Critias) - exemplifies the wrong or defective choices.

In contrast, Socrates's speaks for the idea of justice, in a going one's way vein in the democracy, and seemingly - as Strauss or Heidegger or Al-Farabi or surprisingly IF Stone concluded - for an ideal of philosopher-kingship. Now the latter of course may simply be Plato since he is the author of Socrates as we hear him, and Socrates himself neither founded a secret academy nor participated in Athenian politics except in three particular, life-threatening instances: refusing Critias's order to murder Leon of Salamis, being appointed the leader in the trial of the sea captains from the Battle of Arginusae and refusing to shun the law, and threatened with death, as a philosopher, in his trial itself). But philosophical "kingship," rightly understood, might just be to go down to defend the democracy.

*Rousseau contrasts a general will (a will to equal liberty, a common good, an affirmation in subsequent American terms, of the Bill of Rights, and the like) and a will of all (the execution of Socrates, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Ku Klux Klan/Democratic Party in the segregated South, and the like). Rousseau's distinction refines Aristotle's thought, and makes it central to modern democratic theory.

**Aristotle's efforts with Alexander are perhaps as good a form as it gets, though at the sacrifice of Athens as a democracy and of Plato's student Demosthenes. In this context, it is easy to see Aristotle as someone who went over to the "dark side."

Standard sycophants of power like the political Straussians or Heidegger impose authoritarianism on and rend others. They are as distant from Socrates (or Gandhi or King) as it is possible to be.

***I could just have said his students. But "careful students" is a term of art, referring to the passage in Phaedrus where Socrates names the problem of writing - words, like statues, if asked a question, have no "father" to defend them - and distinguishes this from speaking. Sleepy readers - or belligerent auditors like Thrasymachus - will miss what the argument says. The same problem exists in a less extreme way even in a spoken argument (that thought is what Plato's invitation to careful reading of a dialogue is designed to elicit).

Only those who know how to read, who can follow, for instance, the words in a dialogue in relation to the action, distinguish bad arguments and things left unsaid from good ones, test out each assertion and who makes it, can begin to glean what the hidden author, Plato, is saying. That this is a complicated process with much misinterpretation even on the part of the most sophisticated readers, i.e. Strauss and Heidegger, should by now be clear for readers of this blog. But one of the main reasons for confusion is these two somewhat clashing dimensions of political argument in Socrates and Plato: common good-sustaining democratic resistance v. tyranny; defective democratic execution of Socrates leading to the reform of the democracy and/or philosophical kingship. Were philosophical kingship good, it might pair with scorn for democracy; this is a common misunderstanding of what a dialogue is, a conclusion of those who assume Socrates and Plato are reactionaries and whatever their care in reading, always "know" that the argument points in this direction. But once one notices the complexities of the dialogues, the fact of Socrates's civil disobedience, and the two dimensions of argument/meanings of democracy, there is little reason to think that Plato or Socrates pursued a unique, let alone uniquely anti-democratic direction.

****Everyone, for instance, the bully Polemarchus at the outset of the Republic, has a naive egotism and unreflective purposes. Still, on the first page, the arrest and killing of Socrates is also a kind of joke. I name Thrasymachus an egotist because he wants to win at the expense of diminishing and potentially killing Socrates. One may thus distinguish naive or ordinary egotism about argument from belligerent or murderous egotism. But even Thrasymachus is ultimately tamed - the charmed snake - and Socrates says that they are now friends, although there is no evidence, beyond Thrasymachus's staying, that Thrasymachus now is beginning, parallel to Polemarchus, to follow argument.

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