Thursday, December 20, 2012

Images of the cave: how to read the contradictions in the Republic, part 1

The metaphor of the cave is perhaps the most well-known story from the Republic. It is also, on careful reading, contradictory and mysterious.

Socrates has spoken of the visible and invisible/intelligible world, the world of sight – despite seeming accessibility, one often plunged in darkness and confusion – and the world of reasoning and the ideas.

The visible world is governed by the sun; the invisible world is governed by the idea of the good. The latter is larger and more powerful than the visible universe.


The metaphor for the invisible universe is only – a metaphor. A brilliant student of mine, who is a Taiwanese Buddhist, once surmised that Socrates was speaking of a kind of enlightenment. On an obvious level, this is true. The presentation, pitched around Glaucon’s stumbling about what Socrates could be driving at, his hopeless demands about how Socrates must - immediately!!! - fill in everything, and Socrates’ warnings that this is as far as Glaucon can get, gives no more. What is not – and perhaps cannot be said here – hence, Hsiang-hsuan Lin’s surmise about enlightenment – is at least as important as what is said.


I sometimes use the Sterling and Scott translation of the Republic which is mostly decent but does something unique among translators. It stops between books 6 and 7 and gives a four page explication of what Plato must mean by the divided line.

There is some arrogance in doing this. Translators usually save their comments for introductory notes or postscripts; the best figure the translation itself does what it does.... Poor Plato, they seem to imply, he must really have screwed up this cardinal point 2400 years ago, but we the translators will straighten him out for the reader...


Plato orbits around his translators as it were, not the translators around Plato.

If one spends many years translating, the thought that one has mastered the text, one has really understood, perhaps possesses one...*


But something nearly opposite might be true. Perhaps the Republic is not the kind of text that one “masters” (if there is such a text; the patriarchalism of the phrase mocks the ambition...). Perhaps Plato deliberately opens further questioning and argument for his students and close readers (see Phaedrus, lines 275d-277a), those who will not be put off, but awakened by contradictions to go further.

Consider what Polemarchos learns, early in the Republic: to follow argument, to become a philosophic youth. See "Polemarchus as a symbol of the Republic's theme: a philosophical warrior for democracy against tyranny" here.

Perhaps the Republic opens questioning, like the Apology, rather than giving answers. If I know that I know (almost) nothing, as Socrates says in the Apology, how can I then “know” that the city of the guardians is the “beautiful city” (kallipolis), the “city in speech,” the just or best city…?

But then a whole reading of the Republic, characteristic of much of the past 2500 years and elevated in Karl Popper and clever philosophy departments and political theory courses and even in Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss, would be wrong….


Let us focus on how badly Glaucon fails to follow the argument.

Socrates outlines the ascent through questioning to the invisible world. At line 509a, Glaucon absurdly blurts out:

"If the good is the source of knowledge and truth and at the same time surpasses them both in beauty, you must have in mind a beauty quite beyond imagination. Surely you cannot be speaking of pleasure (edone).'

Socrates responds "Be still (euphemei)." And then goes on.

On the most obvious level, Glaucon glimpses, given his own psyche, his predominant desires for power (his resonant tale of the ring of Gyges story) and pleasure, but simply does not get what it is going on. In the dramatic action of the Republic, he is tamed by Socrates. At the end, he expresses the desire not to become a tyrant. Glaucon is, one might say, dazzled by philosophy. The sunlike idea of the good overcomes him.

But though clever, a military leader and a powerful figure, Glaucon does not do philosophy.


The remark about pleasure reveals his psyche (as does Socrates's silly proposal about the city in speech that the big warrior-athlete - could it be...Glaucon? - gets the most girls...

Glaucon is taken by the ring of invisibility with which, as in Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray which learns from this story, he can commit many crimes, his psyche becoming uglier from within (the portrait), but live seemingly beautiful from without.

The ring ostensibly prevents the face from being the mirror of the soul. It is deceptive.


For Gyges journeys in a storm down into a chasm, finds a wooden horse with metal doors – a Trojan Horse, the deception in Greek wars that prompted the fall of Troy-and a naked corpse wearing a golden ring within…

Why is the corpse naked?

We are each mortal; the deceptiveness of corpses fades.


Wilde's later Portrait recalls the corpse.

When Dorian stabs his ugly portrait, he dies. The servants identify the bloated corpse only from the rings on his fingers...


The corpse (though in a chasm and inside a wooden horse) is visible to Gyges. It is not hidden by a ring.

The man or woman who goes to her death has no emperor’s clothes, fantastically arisen, to garb them.

In life, that soul has done what it could and departed. The shell is naked.

Gyges, grave-robber, takes the ring…


This is an intrepid shepherd. Having no light, he went deep into the earth (with candles?) against the storm, got into the horse, spotted the corpse and the golden ring, swiped it, and ascended.

It is an underworld journey or, as we might say, a journey into rivers of the unconscious...

So is the cave in which Socrates goes down – the first line of the Republic - to his death.

For the ring of Gyges and politics, see here and here.


Plato, the invisible author, does not expect to be found without a certain effort. He is warning the reader that Glaucon really doesn’t get it.

Sterling and Scott, with much effort of the wrong kind (intoning with deep seriousness what Plato means, acting as unquestioning - if there is such a thing - students of "philosophy"), don't get it either.


In Phaedrus, Socrates contrasts two kinds of readers, one who makes of writing whatever he wants. For him, a book is like a statue; if asked a question, it has no "father" to defend it. But for others who know how to read, a happiness opens up which lasts into eternity.

Glaucon is not one of the latter…


Sterling and Scott avoid in their philosophical clarification any mention that Glaucon expresses amazement at Socrates's hyperbole that is daimonic, any mention that Glaucon stumbles around, buffeted by what Socrates says, any mention that Socrates does not give the stages of the ascent for which books 6 and 7 are a brilliant metaphor or hint...

They choose, without argument or even recognition, to give a literal reading of the metaphor.


Glaucon can recite the skeleton of the metaphor. Sterling and Scott further clarify...Glaucon...


Plato’s writing is pitched in irony and humor, and with many warnings about how far - not very - his listeners can get right away, and that Glaucon is really not on the journey.

"How?" Glaucon continues.

"I assume you would agree that the sun not only confers visibility on all the can be seen but is equally the source of generation, nurture and growth in all things."

"I agree"

"If we pursue the comparison, the objects of knowledge are not only made manifest by the presence of goodness. Goodness makes them real. Still goodness is not in itself being. It transcends being, exceeding all else in dignity and power."

Glaucon had to laugh (literally, said amusingly - geloios - or perhaps ludicrously). Note how Socrates adds this unusual interjection about Glaucon's amazement and befuddlement.

"My god [Apollo]," Glaucon adds an oath to emphasize the force of what he is saying, "hyperbole can go no further than this." [it is a daemonic hyperbole - daimonias uperboles]

"It's your fault. You pushed me to express my thoughts."

"Please don't desist. At least elaborate on the metaphor of the sun if there is anything you have been omitting."

"I have been omitting a lot."

"Well, omit no more, not the least bit." Glaucon, rhetorically, stamps his foot.

But how would Glaucon know that Socrates was omitting parts of the account? Does Glaucon have any idea of what Socrates might be omitting...

"I imagine I shall have to exclude a grood deal. Nonetheless, as far as is practical at this point, I shall not willingly leave anything out." As is practical as this point - Socrates has barely initiated a long journey or trajectory, sketched metaphorically.

Aristotle studied with Plato in the Academy for 20 years...

Glaucon, again, stamps his foot: "Please don't."(509b-c)


The cave and the wrenching ascent to the light are metaphors, hints, glimpses, ones that capture Glaucon and many readers. But how to proceed out of the cave is not clear from them, let alone each step and handhold along the way.


Further, who is in the cave and out of the cave is unclear. For Socrates is in the cave - prisoners "like us," he says - but not of the cave. He has ascended and returned.

Polemarchus studies argument and sees contradictions. He, too, is on the path.

Glaucon tries to impress Socrates, and as Plato's writing signals, stumbles around...


No other dialogue mentions Glaucon, Plato’s powerful older brother. His name means shining like the sea and suggests the owl-eyes of Athena (he is sharp in the cave). Here he shines intensely about the problem of doing evil - the image of the ring - is converted by the image of where philosophy goes, and fades.


In the Republic, Socrates heads Glaucon off from becoming a tyrant; at least, he has remained otherwise unknown to history. Here, Socrates does teach him virtue contra the – in this respect - badly argued, as Socrates underlines, Meno. See here and here.


In contrast in the Pheadrus, Socrates praises Polemarchus (the brother of the rhetorician Lysias) for genuinely beginning and doing philosophy. The Republic, book 1, shows the emergence of Polemarchus from democratic bully, humorlessly threatening Socrates and disarmed/befuddled by wit, into someone who follows argument. See here.

Polemarchus is the leader of the democratic party; his name means war leader...


It is significant for Plato that this democrat, murdered by the tyrant Critias - another student of Socrates, an unrestrained Glaucon - becomes a philosopher. The democrats as a party murder Socrates (their's is a narrow majority at the trial embodying a defective or will of all democracy). That is what Polemarchus stood for in metaphorically arresting Socrates at the outset of the Republic.

But in the Republic and Phaedrus, Polemachus emerges and is remarked on as philosophical, as someone who questions and follows argument.


This does not mean joining an anti-democratic party. That is only the vision of philosophers of the defective democrats led by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon. It ignores, for example, Socrates's refusal to obey Critias's order to go with four others and seize Leon of Salamis, an incarnation of civil disobedience for which he could have been killed, as he remarks at his trial, if the Thirty had not fallen.


In fact, Socrates is a complicated critical or philosophical democrat, one who strives to make space in Athens for questioning (the theme of the Apology) and engages in no effort to overturn the democracy or support tyrants.

For instance, Critias would have been a seeming "philosopher-king"\tyrant along with Charmides (the former was Plato's first cousin; the latter his uncle; much of the drama of Athenian politics is for Plato familial). Socrates resisted and, as Xenophon underlines, mocked Critias.


Socrates returns from philosophy, goes down to the cave to fight for a decent democracy, one characterized by debate and some deliberation, against a defective, will of all, Meletus- or McCarthyite pseudo-democracy. See here, here and here.


As a philosopher, Polemarchus is in but not of the party of democracy. He fights, with the minority of the citizens that vote for the acquittal of Socrates, to include questioning in the democracy politically. In addition, he fights to make space in the democracy for philosophy.

Polemarchus turns from the defective democracy to a public good-sustaining democracy. Political questioning - dissent which is not murdered or suppressed - makes democracy serious, moves toward a common good.

Philosophical questioning begins to move out of the cave toward the light...

The two kinds of questioning coincide, to an extent, within a democracy, though they are not the same, and in philosophy, for Socrates and Plato, move out of the cave.

From the standpoint of learning to do philosophy, i.e. for students of Plato trying to understand the dialogue, the conversation with Polemarchus is the most important in the Republic.


Thrasymachus, whose name means "fierce fighter" though no soldier, a rhetorician without interest in argument but only in winning (domineering and lustful as Hilary Putnam suggests), breaks the philosophical conversation, even though Polemarchus reemerges to clarify the argument. See here, here, here and here. Glaucon’s story of the ring of Gyges thus takes the discussion further away from philosophy.

Put differently, each argument for injustice - from Cephalus through Polemarchus's helping friends and harming enemies to Thrasymachus's nothing but the advantage of the stronger to Glaucon's ring of Gyges - is a deeper, more serious challenge to Socrates's way of life and commitment to justice, the story of his going down and dying for questioning in Athens (disobedience to the unjust law against questioning the gods, acceptance of the punishment of a majority of the people judging him according to law).

In this sense, the Republic, a succession of ever deeper, connected challenges to Socrates, is unbroken.


But in the midst of book 1, Polemarchus turns to thinking about Socrates's questions and tries to make sense of the argument. He begins to do philosophy. If followed, that discussion and questioning, with Socrates, would take the argument in a different direction. It is this alternative possibility that Thrasymachus deflects, and Glaucon, with his classier formulation but weakness about argument, makes the ordinary reader forget.


The Republic becomes grand as a dialogue about the cloak of invisibility (a Harry Potter version of the ring as Trina Griego, my student at Metro, suggests) and injustice, but Plato's close students are meant to notice that it is not the dialogue it could have been.

Put differently, the music of Polemarchus's discovery is a counterpoint to the soaring surface of the argument.


Now Socrates continues to make arguments, along with jokes, throughout the Republic. In this sense, the work limns, when not satirical (as it is about the banning of poetry or the city in speech), philosophy - recall how much he cannot say, he insists, to Glaucon...

But the subtler theme of the Republic, a kind of counterpoint, is to continue thinking with Polemarchus about the argument. For the surface argument sometimes involves contradictions, often very important ones. The reader can either nod (as Glaucon often nods) or can take in the tension and try to think it through for herself.


For instance, Socrates demolishes Polemarchus’s argument of book 1 about helping friends and harming enemies (sometimes, one mistakes enemies for friends and friends for enemies, and in any case, justice does not harm anyone). But Socrates's arguments in book 1 are then contradicted by Socrates’s thought, in book 2, that a philosopher is like a dog, barking at strangers and wagging for masters (even when the masters beat them). In the context of book 1, this is, rather obviously, Socrates's worst argument. See "Socrates's worst argument ever: the philosopher and the barking dog" here.

Plato tests whether the reader will notice...

He signals an alternate way to those students who are on a path out of the cave.


Socrates’s defense of justice, his inquiry into the cave and the ascent is thus solo, the gestures or tracks towards it often implied, hidden.


Glaucon is an interlocutor with an important question, a very clever challenge about justice, but he often does not recognize – as Polemarchus and the careful reader come to - what the arguments are about. Trying to impress Socrates, often confused, hungry to already "have knowledge," to be in the light before he has acquired eyes, without ever working for it or questioning...

Glaucon staggers around.


It is thus the tensions or contradictions in Socrates's argument - thinking about this undercurrent, with, as it were, a continuing Polemarchus and what it means - which must be seen to get the dialogue, to see the first steps out of the cave.


Glaucon is passionate, clever, political and dangerous. But he is no neophyte philosopher. Though convinced not to use the ring, not to become a tyrant, he is, and remains, in the cave.

Because of Socrates, he glimpses distantly the light. But he cannot ascend towards it.


Polemarchus follows argument. Questioning and argument are a way out.

*Dhanajay Jagannathan, a translator at Oxford, has something of the same arrogance. See my "Plato and the consensus-police" here and here.

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