Saturday, September 20, 2008

Plato, Ancient Escape Artist

A lot of people seem to think that philosophy is about finding the good, the true and the beautiful, and these people are often the same ones who are pretty convinced that they know what those things are already. This is what I could never stand about the presentation of Plato: the Socratic dialogue is supposed to be a means of self-help, a way of getting to an answer if you just nod "yes" at the right moments.

Plato is a whole lot more interesting than that. I read the Gorgias a little while ago, and what struck me most was its vertiginous pessimism. The Gorgias is the story of a public debate, involving Socrates, two "philosophers," and the politician Callicles. The fact that the debate is in public, essentially on a stage, is key. Nobody in it is going to be persuaded of anything. Socrates gets the philosophers, Gorgias and his student Polus, to agree with him in proper Socratic fashion. But then Callicles messes it all up, basically saying, sure, Polus (Gorgias's student) will agree with Socrates that tyranny's bad--because there's no way he's going to stand up in front of a room and give them an answer they don't want to hear. And then Callicles accuses Socrates himself of rehearsing arguments that will be palatable to the listeners, and repeatedly calls him on playing to the audience.

That is in fact what Socrates is doing, as when he challenges Callicles to say one good thing he's done, and Callicles says, "You're being contentious." I'm pretty sure that the way we're supposed to take this is that Callicles means, "Look, I said my piece. And now because you know I have political ambitions, you're backing me into a corner and forcing me to give you nonsense about the public interest at heart, because that's what people expect."

Here the initial positions have gotten totally reversed. Socrates is the one who started out saying he doesn't care whom he persuades or how many people are with him. But now he's tweaking Callicles; he's saying, "Well, if you want to persuade people to let you govern, you're gonna have to start talking about what's just and good."

Nobody, including Socrates, is really speaking freely and what is supposed to be a dialogue about virtue turns into a discussion of whether the actors are actually saying what they think or just flattering the audience. The dialogue is not about tyranny or virtue, but about persuasion. The best line occurs when when Socrates asks Callicles if he should be the city's physician or its flatterer. And Callicles say, "You should be the flatterer." The intro to the online edition calls Callicles's answer "ingenuous," which is 100 percent off base.

That just totally ignores all the next lines, which make clear that Callicles is being the opposite of ingenuous: he's openly insulting Socrates. Callicles' insult really gets to the core of the issue. His concept of debate is that it's a tool to get the power that you want. And on Callicles' view, someone like Socrates, who has no "power" in the conventional sense, is limited to saying the things that his audience won't object to.

Ultimately Socrates wins the point, though it's a close call, and there's no pretence that he's actually persuaded anyone. He wins on Callicles' terms, by demonstrating that he holds the trump card:

If I died because I have no powers of flattery or rhetoric, I am very sure that you would not find me repining at death. For no man who is not an utter fool and coward is afraid of death itself, but he is afraid of doing wrong. For to go to the world below having one's soul full of injustice is the last and worst of all evils.

Let's put this in context for a second. Callicles has said that he has the power to kill, maim, and torture. Which may be all well and good, except that Callicles, a man trying to maintain or achieve political power, does not have the power merely to say what he really thinks in front of an audience. Socrates does have that power, while Callicles' sort of power is no concern for Socrates because Socrates is not afraid of death. Socrates' indifference to death makes him untouchable, and so his power trumps Callicles'.

Or so he claims. Whether in fact Socrates, or especially Plato (who had more interest in political power) believes this is an open question. Socrates drank the hemlock. Plato several times lost the goodwill of his political patrons, and each time he chose the much less philosophical path of cut-and-run.