Thursday, April 19, 2012

Initiation in Plato or how Thrasymachus throws the argument off track, part 4

Suppose the Republic, like many other Platonic dialogues, was brief and concluded after book 1. One would lose its driving power and greatness, its political character, the conversion of Glaucon from secret and subtle believer in injustice to foreswearing becoming a tyrant. And that would be - as a literary, moral and political matter - a huge loss. In addition, the resonant image of wrenching around from the cave to do philosophy, to ascend to the light, would also be lost.

But would what is lost be about how to do philosophy? In the latter perspective, do the last 9 books keep to the track of questioning and following argument, illustrated by Socrates and Polemarchus, or do they become something both satiric - a send up of the Athenian charges, a modelling of what it would take to clean up the gods - and often aslant of the direction of doing philosophy. Socrates asks questions, makes arguments, spins tales or gives images - but does the argument progress so well with Glaucon? Glaucon is dazzled and persuaded to give up the ring of Gyges, to not seek to become a tyrant, but does he do philosophy?

There is thus a kind of false track here - if one does not take in the argument with Polemarchus and his growth as someone beginning to do philosophy - on which this stunning argument is also propelled. Socrates defends going down beautifully in book 7 (elliptically, he says upon questioning, that the guardians in the city in speech are bred, as in a hive, to go down; in reality, Socrates goes down and is killed in fighting for a decent democracy - see here). But the way to ascend is actually modelled briefly - and signalled by Polemarchus's and Cleitophon's exchange - in book 1. See here. The last 9 books are only comprehensible if one practices it, notes the difference between the mostly satirical city in speech - Glaucon's martial city - and what a philosopher might create. See here and here. They are only understandable if one is not overcome with the brilliance of the ring of Gyges - Glaucon is clever, but one is also meant to think about what the object of his cleverness is. Plato perhaps expects the reader to take in the weaknesses of Glaucon, struck with admiration at Socrates, trying to please him, or stammering out what he really thinks (the idea of the good - you can't mean pleasure...). The track of how to do philosophy is often lost - hinted at negatively or by way of satire - in the last 9 books.

Perhaps these two tracks mark out a line of demarcation between the anti-tyrants (Socrates, Chaerophon, Polemarchus, Demosthenes, Cicero) who went down for a common good-sustaining democracy and the would-be advisors to ostensibly wise tyrants (Al-Farabi, Heidegger, Strauss) as well as those who in a more superficial and flattened way, one which misses any element of satire or complexity, echo that interpretation (Popper, but also much ordinary education about Plato's "utopia," what Plato must be taken to say in "our" way of reading, a dramatically different way from the one than Plato invites which does not seek to understand the complexities of dialogues. Plato's writings on how to read, i.e. the Phaedrus 275d-277a, and hence, Plato's writings, are a closed book to this common reading).

In this respect, the dramatic exchange with Thrasymachus is pivotal. Thrasymachus deepens the argument about injustice - makes the ordinary injustice of politics more vivid. He incarnates the forces that killed Socrates in an attempt to kill his way of arguing. Thrasymachus thus moves the argument, as argument, away from philosophy.*

What Socrates says in response to Thrasymachus and later Glaucon is, once again, a kind of send-up of the Athenian charges of blasphemy and corrupting the young. See here. In response to Glaucon's challenge about the austere city - "where are the relishes?" (Glaucon is hungry for the "pleasures" of tyranny...), Socrates creates a regime in which poetry is censored - what it would take to keep poets from saying anything frightening about death, anything derogatory toward the gods. But he does so on the basis of doubtful arguments, the most amusing: that dogs, relying on knowledge, are like philosophers - see here. The amusement here stems precisely from the fact that Socrates has already shown this claim of Polemarchus - to wag one's tail for friends or masters and to bark ferociously at enemies - to be false in book 1. For what if the ruler mistakes his friends and enemies? That questioning started Polemarchus on the way to doing philosophy. One has to forget the insights gained in the questioning in book 1 to swallow Socrates's depiction of the beautiful city...It has some truth, but many untruths. Its beauty is mainly in heading off Glaucon from becoming a tyrant.

Plato here, as author and teacher, signals the serious reader to continue to question.

Revealing the complex nature of a dialogue, the Republic elaborates a dual theme: 1) Plato expects students to think about the strengths and weakness of each argument, as Polemarchus was invited to. This is connected both to satire or Socrates's famous but unspecified irony - some of the arguments aren't very good or are not to be believed and one has to think about them, ask further questions, work towards a more refined version, and 2) the argument is, in fact, driven by the power of injustice in the world, emblemized by Polemarchus's and Thrasymachus's assertions - justice is harming enemies and benefiting friends; justice is the advantage of the stronger - and then realized memorably in Glaucon's image of the ring of Gyges. On this second theme, Socrates is the opposite as much in his going down in the trial and the execution as in the argument. But the Republic gains its compelling power over the centuries from duelling metaphors - the ring of Gyges, the descent and fate of Socrates - which reveal and cure the deep temptation of Glaucon to become a tyrant. This second aspect is so fascinating that it will draw most readers away from Polemarchus and the first. It is thus hard to gain initiation, as Plato intends, through studying this dialogue into doing philosophy.

In addition, one learns that Polemarchus, Lysias's brother (Lysias is in attendance, but silent in the Republic), has made a turn toward philosophy only in the Phaedrus. There, Socrates holds Polemarchus up as an example to Phaedrus, the lover of Lysias and of Lysias's oratory which they are discussing. Only a (potential) student of Plato would get the track of Polemarchus from reading and asking questions about the Republic and Phaedrus. That questioning, in turn, opens a path to the steep ascent of seeking the idea of the good, the mystically invoked sun in the larger noetic universe which, comparable to the sun in the physical universe, brings all things to life (the two realms are in ratio of pi to one another - see here).

Note in contrast, that Glaucon (and Adeimantus) appear in no other dialogue.

The drama of the persons, Socrates and Glaucon, and their fates - Socrates's death, Glaucon's historical anonymity and thus non-tyranny - makes the Republic unique among the dialogues (and among writings in political philosophy). And yet the Republic is, as I have also underlined, a sendup of the ideal city of Glaucon - the pattern or paradeigma of justice glitters in the Republic, but it is not this pattern - and each particular exchange Plato means to be thought about and questioned deeply by his students/careful readers. This subtly fractured or two track nature of the Republic - the theme of Polemarchus beginning to do philosophy, the wrenching turn from being a democratic thug (the arrest in the initial page) toward the light (the opening of book 7) and the ascent, the aslant theme of the censorship of poetry and the manipulation of guardians all to have the same passions, the same habits, the same experiences - is something that even the most careful listeners and readers might need some time to take in.

Thus, Thraymachus's challenge about injustice throws the argument off its course - by the rhetorical way he tries to defeat Socrates - and Glaucon deepens this process. A reader or student is meant to think back and forth about the quality of the argument, the person who makes it, and how it is made. The Republic is thus, a living thing, a multifacted, perhaps inexhausible argument/imagery to be engaged with, not merely absorbed. In this context, teachers who offer students the surface meaning of the Republic as what students "must" know about it, have taken the wrong track, reached the wrong conclusion. They teach students in a dogmatic or more precisely, aphilosophical way, both teachers and followers lost to the actual questioning.

The Republic is thus an invitation, with Polemarchus, to learn from Socrates how to question and argue. As a Platonic initiation, it is not a source of true opinions about regimes or as, with the later intervention of the Catholic Church and its residue in English, doctrines about what Plato and/or Socrates thought.

Still by reading the last 9 books and asking questions, one can learn quite a lot about what Socrates and even Plato thought, but not simply or even mainly what is surface. For instance, as the Seventh Letter reveals, Plato did advise Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, to adopt laws; he thus experimented, at the behest of Dion, his best student, with philosophical-kingship, just not the rule of the wise tyrant largely without laws in the Republic.** And from the first line, the Republic moves with metaphors of going down (Gyges finds the ring in a chasm opened by a storm in the earth, the cave and the ascent, the Myth of Er); Socrates goes down to fight tyranny both in the Republic and in life....

After Glaucon finishes conjuring the ring (forging it in the literary fires of Mount Doom one might say, as Tolkien later suggests), Socrates remarks that if he did not know Glaucon and Adeimantus well, he would conclude that they really believed these arguments. Here too, one must listen carefully to Socrates. He is making a deep psychological point. For he does know Glaucon and Adeimantus some, and as we will learn from the dialogue, takes Glaucon's hunger for pleasure, his desire for tyranny, seriously. He thus makes the statement ironically, and yet also means it - that Glaucon and Adeimantus make this challenge as what they nearly, hiddenly believe, but also want to hear Socrates refute it. Were Socrates to fail, however, the stakes are high.

That the refutation, if one forgets Socrates's life - truth in Greek is not-forgetting, aletheia, as Heidegger insists - is imperfect is revealed by such readers as Al-Farabi, Heidegger and Strauss....

The stakes are about how each of us is to live, the challenge powerful, the setting of a dialogue ambiguous about what Plato means, who Plato (and Socrates) are. The exoteric meaning of the dialogue is that a philosopher-king is good - a legislator who sets the laws in the beautiful city such as they are, expels the children over 10, and molds everyone to the same habits, the same passions - and thus, Hitler, with his "beautiful hands", advised by a want-to-be philosophical tyrant Heidegger, might be good. See here. Socrates seems to defeat a narrow tyranny with Glaucon, but does he - or Plato - not advance " philosophical" authoritarianism, Heidegger or Strauss might ask? Is this not the deception, they might ask, which Plato is pursuing? (Once again, they forget the trial and death of Socrates...See The snare of words, part 1, here):

"I have always admired the brilliance of Glaucon and Adeimantus," comments Socrates, "but on this occasion their words gave me special pleasure." The Myth of Gyges is brilliant - and yet, brilliance differs from ability to follow argument carefully, incarnated by Socrates and praised in Phaedrus, as a "turn toward philosophy."

Socrates continues, partly warningly, partly sincerely, to build Plato's brothers up, alerting the student that Glaucon, an actual hero in battle, is a potential tyrant in Athens. In this, Glaucon resembles Critias or Charmides, the cousin and uncle of Plato, as Glaucon and Adeimanus are his brothers...Once again, these specific dialogues are, for Plato, a kind of family and psychological drama (see here).

"So I said to them. 'Sons of a noble father- Glaucon's friend put it well when he wrote to honor you both for your heroic deeds at the Battle of Megara:

'Sons of Ariston, you honor the godlike
heritage of a famous father.'"

Adeimantus had, of course, described the ring as enabling one to live like a god...:

"Will they not ask with Pindar***:

'Which way to climb a loftier tower
where all my life will be safe
by justice or by unjust deeds?'

They will say that to be just without seeming so will bring no profit; instead there is only pain and loss. But if a man chooses injustice and at the same time fabricates a reputation for justice, he can expect to live like a god." (365b)

To be a god of Athens is to do what one wants, good or evil. Socrates's external or poetic praise conceals, as the dialogue shows us, the ring of Gyges.

"'There must be some divine spark at work in your natures that you should be able to make such formidable arguments on behalf of injustice and yet resist being convinced by your own reasoning. And I believe you are not really convinced. I infer this from my knowledge of our characters; if I had to deal with your words alone I would be suspicious of you.'" (367e-368b)

Once again, these words are, on one level, true - as many things Socrates says are. Glaucon and Adeimantus do not simply believe these arguments (their character forbids it). But in a deeper way, plunging in emotionally - what we would call unconsciously, ruled by his appetites as Leontias is, finally looking, against his will, at the corpses in book 4 - to the seeming pleasures of tyranny, Glaucon also does. That is another illustration, in the action of the dialogue, of Socrates's irony.

As a logical matter, Socrates (or Diotima in the Symposium) sometimes says, when you think about it you yourself do not agree with the assertion you are now making. See Alcibiades 1. This psychological warning is a variant on this kind of ambiguity.

For we learn later in book 2, that Glaucon is disturbed at the austere city, a city without war, a potential city of philosophers. He demands: “relishes” and stigmatizes it as a “city of pigs.” (372c-d) That throws the argument into forging a city of war, a fevered city, a city that conquers unjustly:

"Then we must further enlarge the city. The well-founded city we started with will not be enough. It must be extended and filled up with superfluities. There will, for example, be hunters aplenty. There will be crowds of imitators, those who paint and sculpt. Others will make music; there will be poets and their attendants, rhapsodizers, players, dancers and impresarios.There will be a market for a greater variety of goods, and stylish women will want dressmakers and more servants. Will not tutors be in demand as well along with wet-nurses and dry-nurses, barbers and beauticians, cooks and bakers? We shall also require swineherds. There was no need for them in our original city, for there were no pigs there. Now, however, we shall need pigs as well as other kinds of animals for those who will eat them." {Socrates]

"You are right" [Glaucon]

"And this way of life will require many more doctors than were needed before." [Socrates]

"That is certain" [Glaucon]

"Must we assume that the territory that was once sufficient to feed the city will no longer be adequate?" [Socrates]

"Yes." [Glaucon}

"So we shall covet some of our neighbor's lands in order to expand our pasture and tillage." (373b-d)

And after the whole discussion of his just city, once again, Glaucon gasps in book 7 at the idea of the good – “you can’t mean…pleasure.” Socrates responds: “Hush”.

The complexity of Socrates's irony, of what he means by the truth in the things he says as well as distancing himself, in specific ways, from them, what he says and does not say, needs to be taken in by each reader and thought about.

The dialogue - or in this case, the narrator's commentary on the conversation - is an invitation to questioning. And the example of how to question is also in the conversation with Thrasymachus, though Thrasymachus fights against it, does not pursue it.

“’Thrasymachus, after unloading all these ideas, surely you won’t run off before ascertaining whether they are true or not. Have you so little concern for the real question before us, the question how each of us may live the best life?’” ( 344a-e)

Here the question: what is justice? is made personal. Thrasymachus has just advanced the idea that injustice is best for an individual, and Glaucon (and Adeimantus) will develop his argument more vividly. That is the supreme egotistical idea – the idea to "triumph" by silencing and murdering others.

Thus, the example of Socrates’s death haunts every word of this discussion. In contrast, Socrates leads a life of integrity, goes down the line for justice, seeks the truth.

Getting up to leave following big speeches is a sign, in the action of these dialogues, that truth is not at issue in rhetoric, Thrasymachus's form of communication. Big speeches are characteristic of the Athenian stranger in the Laws (the Athenian stranger is, once again, the not-Socrates, the one who does not take the poison - see William Altman, 'A Tale of Two Drinking Parties"). A big speech is also Protagoras’s democratic creation myth, even though it has in it some truth and is also poetry. And the other myths or stories do in Plato as well: the cave and the ascent or the myth or Er or the ring of Gyges...

Poetry differs from rhetoric or big speeches: it tells us something about the territory that philosophy or questioning has yet to stake out or perhaps needs to stake out in a more complicated way or even, cannot, beyond conjuring a luminous image, get a hold on at all. The point of the journey is that the destination is not yet known, and that the exact significance of what Plato reached is hinted at, but not given in the dialogues...

As Socrates questions Protagoras about whether virtue can be taught, he recognizes that his interlocutor is getting angry. And Socrates suggests that he has to go; Alcibiades and others then intervene to get Socrates and Protagoras to continue.

The movement to get up and leave on Thrasymachus’s part or, more unusually, on Socrates’s part, is a striking indication that big speeches as opposed to questioning, dialogue, conversation, are not a way to seek the truth. They sometimes do not reveal the truth even as a hint or intution. For they are sometimes also - and in Thrasymachus's case, mainly - a way to avoid that seeking,

In addition, Socrates in the Apology comments on how his daimon warns him about continuing some conversations, though not what he said to the court – a speech in defense of questioning – which led to his death. Socrates's questioning is genuinely democratic - one seeking a common good, a general will - against the deficient, will of all rhetoric of Thrasymachu and a crusading, unjust, murderous "democracy." Dissent is, once again, the life-blood of decent democracy as well as philosophy..

Much as Socrates was moved (and he is not only being ironic) by Protagoras’s speech about democracy, his inner voice - while Protagoras became angry and resisted arguing - apparently warned him to leave. Why this is true is one of the important questions raised by the action of that dialogue (perhaps a showing to students that even admirable egotism, which pours down its bath as the inspiration of democracy, almost a poetry of democracy, is but a preliminary, is not the way…).

Strauss seems oddly to have felt that Thrasymachus represents the truth about justice in cities, and largely about policy. He seems to have thought that Plato was pointing to Thrasymachus in this way, and that that would be the answer to why Thrasymachus stays; he and Socrates later, in Socrates’ phrase, become friends, “though we were not enemies before.”

For Strauss, Socrates, in a modified Xenophonian image, seeks to become a tyrant, a philosopher/legislator who can use rhetoricians (see his letter to Kojeve, April 12, 1957 in Strauss, On Tyranny, p. 275). Socrates is, as it were, a grander rhetorician, a legislator or creator of a new regime, and thus a tyrant with a higher purpose, a greater attention to (some aspects of) a common good. Socrates (Plato), for Strauss, is the Athenian Stranger. It is in this sense, Strauss suggests, that Socrates means his statement that he and Thrasymachus are now friends though they have not been enemies before. Thraysmachus is to be Socrates' "charmed snake."

But on the contrary, Socrates could, in that expression of friendship toward Thrasymachus, prefigure Gandhi. There are no permanent enemies, no one to be treated unjustly or as without a soul. Thrasymachus and Socrates were not enemies before, because Socrates does not live in enmity...

The point of philosophy is to ask questions, to uncover such truths. And Socrates's example of doing what we call civil disobedience and giving his life for questioning is the opposite of Heidegger or Strauss.

In fact, Strauss ignores the spiritual perspective on the trial and death of Socrates and the magnetism of Socrates’s argument; these realign people, Polemarchus on the path of philosophy (see Phaedrus, 275d-277a), Thrasymachus, inexplicit though staying, perhaps listening, and Glaucon, no philosopher - acting good for appearance's sake - and the most dangerous, choosing not to become a tyrant.

*For parts 1-3 of "the snare of words," see here, here and here.

**The "beautiful city" has laws for a three class structure, for no private property or family, and the like. In contrast, the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman and the Athenian Stranger in book 10 of The Laws recommend the rule of the best man as an antidote to the rigidity of laws. Both of these Strangers are non-Socratic or in the case of the Athenian Stranger, the one who escapes, who does not take the poison, anti-Socratic characters. Plato, it should be noted, was almost sold into slavery by the hoped-for "wise" tyrant Dionysius. Socrates wisely says that he does not know. One has to study Socrates and Plato with an extraordinary predilection for tyranny or fascism - as some have - to see in a "wise" tyrant a hope. As Leo Strauss put it in a 1938 letter to Klein: "Nomoi [Laws}: a book about laws with an antidote [Gegengift] to laws [Nomoi]," This issue of whether a wise tyrant, like Jesus at the last judgment, should see into the souls of each and make the right decision in each case divides Plato and Socrates (who do not believe it) from, for example, Strauss who does. The idea that in a nation of 300 million people, one would want a wise tyrant - "executive" or "commander-in-chief power" or "prerogative" in the Straussian (Herbert Storing, Robert Goldwin)/Bush slogan, now taken up to some extent by Obama and rendered bipartisan - is literally crazy...

***Pindar's words blandly invoked by Cephalus for seemingly noble purposes are now cited by the clever Adeimantus to reveal a darker side.

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