26 April, 2010Issue 12.1Philosophy

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Politics, Persuasion, and Power

Dhananjay Jagannathan

foerMalcolm Schofield (editor) & Tom Griffith (translator)
Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras
Cambridge Unviersity Press, 2009
264 Pages
£17.99
ISBN 978-0521837293

The Seventh Letter attributed to Plato tells a tantalizing story of the philosopher’s encounter—and subsequent disillusionment—with the practical world of politics. Invited to serve as tutor to Dion, the young tyrant of Syracuse, Plato finds himself trapped by court intrigue and only barely makes his escape back to Athens. His dreams of moulding a philosopher-king dashed, he bitterly reflects on the problems inherent not only in teaching, but even in disseminating important ideas in writing.

Although quite likely a clever fiction of the kind common in antiquity, the Letter has found defenders of its authenticity. These defenders detect not only its close kinship to ideas in genuine Platonic dialogues, but also a narrative that seems plausible in light of Plato’s evident concern throughout his career with politics and its relation to philosophy.

Indeed, the two magna opera of the Platonic corpus, the Republic and the Laws, seamlessly interweave political themes and abstract philosophizing. Many critics in our liberal, democratic age have concluded that Plato’s politics are, at best, a regrettable backdrop to the serious business of his philosophy, such as the metaphysical and epistemological investigations of the central books of the Republic. The “Noble Lie” of the Republic and the shadowy “Nocturnal Council” of the Laws have inspired charges of totalitarianism, most famously advanced by Karl Popper in the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). How, then, should we approach another volume dedicated to Plato in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (the third, following editions of the Republic and the Statesman)? Is there anything of value in Plato’s political thought aside from historical interest?

Malcolm Schofield, the volume’s editor, does not make the case in his erudite, though idiosyncratic, introduction; nor indeed does he provide an explanation for the selection of the three texts presented here in Tom Griffith’s lively and accurate translations. The Gorgias and Protagoras are among the longest of the dialogues usually considered “early” or “Socratic”. Both feature Socrates in verbal combat with the itinerant teachers of rhetoric known as the sophists. In these dialogues we do not find Plato constructing grand schemes for a rational political order. Rather, we see Socrates in a sense fighting for his life, the life of philosophy, for which he was ultimately put to death. The Menexenus, by contrast, is much more of a curiosity, consisting largely of a parodic funeral speech delivered by Socrates for the wartime dead. The Menexenus‘s strangeness has led some to doubt its authenticity, and it has attracted little scholarly attention compared to the other two dialogues. For that reason alone, it is a welcome addition to the volume.

One may doubt, however, that these three works are in any sense political, or at least, more political than others of Plato’s dramatic works where Socrates rubs shoulders with the movers and shakers of late fifth-century Athens. By way of reply, Schofield rightly points out that the three works have much to say about the notion of power and who really possesses it. In so doing, each in its way constitutes a radical challenge to politics as practised in Plato’s time. But this is no bully pulpit. The aspiring politician Callicles, Socrates’s final discussion partner in the Gorgias, is perhaps the philosopher’s most dangerous opponent. His complex anti-moralist position ultimately breaks down, but not before we are driven to wonder whether society’s talk of “justice” is not really a pretext for suppressing the most impressive individuals.

Protagoras, in the eponymous dialogue, presents a stirring defense of democracy as composed of rational institutions that aim at and achieve moral education. Urbane and astute, he too eventually runs aground in a morass of Socratic dialectic that has more than a hint of chicanery about it. The Menexenus, in turn, wears its irony lightly, and one must read carefully to detect Plato’s implicit criticism of the sycophancy required of democratic politicians, a theme echoed in the Gorgias and the Protagoras.

As the title of the series indicates, this collection is aimed at readers more interested in Plato as a political theorist than as a philosopher. Nevertheless, a few more explanatory notes would have made the text smoother going, especially if the editors had assumed no familiarity with Platonic philosophy. Some readers, for instance, might come up short on why Socrates makes so much of “What is it?” questions (such questions reflect the Socratic preoccupation with discerning essence as an antecedent to securely grounded knowledge). On historical and cultural matters, though, the notes are excellent, and the dramatis personae and analytical outlines at the beginning of each work are most helpful.

In his introduction, Schofield does an admirable job of pointing out what is interesting in the three dialogues, but some of his more impressionistic characterisations are puzzling. For instance, he concludes his discussion of the much-debated question of the relative dating of the dialogues with the offhand remark that he finds “the Gorgias [to be] the work of an angry young man, the Protagoras the product of more detached middle age.” This gestalt impression of the tone of the dialogues is difficult to evaluate in the absence of more specific evidence. Likewise, he rather glibly dismisses the value of Gorgias’s On What is Not for teaching rhetoric. This, though, is too quick an assessment. For in that work, Gorgias challenges the counterintuitive views about existence espoused by the Eleatic school of Parmenides by arguing for equipotent but equally counterintuitive views. In so doing, he demonstrates the superiority of his rhetoric to their reason. He is portrayed in a similar light in the Gorgias, crowing over the inability of his brother, a skilled doctor, to persuade his patients to submit to painful treatment while he himself easily manages to do so. So, contrary to Schofield’s assertion, On What is Not can be, and is often, read as a rhetorical model for refutation.

As noted above, Schofield devotes little attention to justifying the coherence of the volume beyond pointing to the fact that the three dialogues display Plato’s concern with politics. Do the three hang together in any more robust way? Schofield himself plays up the difference between the Gorgias and the Protagoras, and rightly notes that the Gorgias is more akin in content to the Apology and the Crito than to the Menexenus, while the Protagoras has a closer affinity to the Symposium than to any other dialogue.

If our three have so little in common, then, perhaps we should treat the volume as a study in variation on a theme. If that theme, however, is as insubstantial as “politics”, one might easily have chosen a different set of dialogues. A better common thread might be the relation between knowledge and power, but among our dialogues, even this topic is central only to the Gorgias while being mainly absent in the Menexenus. Although the final argument of the Protagoras turns on the Socratic principle that knowledge reigns supreme in the soul, no connection is made to the political content so prominent in the first third of the dialogue. One must wait for the Republic to find a harmonisation between the proper power relations in the virtuous soul and those in the virtuous city.

We may never know whether Plato’s concerns with politics were shaped more by his own experiences abroad, as the Seventh Letter relates, or by the life and work of his teacher. Whatever their inspiration, the questions raised in the dialogues about the nature of power and the practice of politics are important ones, questions which are perhaps less subject to debate in our time than in Plato’s. For instance, we may argue that public policy should hew closely to the best science, but would we be willing to entertain the possibility that knowledge gives scientists power while politicians’ lack of knowledge makes them impotent? We all know, so we think, where the real power lies. Where, then, are the experts in the science of humankind, in ethics? By bringing these questions to the fore, this volume makes a strong case for an interest in Plato’s thoughts on politics for their own sake as well as for their historical value.

Dhananjay Jagannathan is reading for an MSt in Ancient Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.