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Cephalus’s House IS Our House

Two things happened to me today.  A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical.  Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump.  I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace.  The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world.  The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse.  Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.

It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.”  Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.  We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground.

Kazarian suggests that “Plato tends to load the dice” in favor of the work of logos, or reasoned speech.  As Kazarian puts it:

the group is forced to confront a troll, Thrasymachus, who insists that dominance is legitimating in its own right, that a ruler need not be responsive to logos—only to find himself defeated and silenced by logos.

As. If.

The Republic fantasizes the constitution of a metaphorical polis that admits only logos in order to conduct a theoretical exercise aimed at designing a polis that would be ruled by those who have mastered logos and the entire organization of which would enclose its members in a total, lifelong guardianship as prescribed by logos. Not only is this a polis implausibly governed by logos; it is a polis that has entirely eliminated agon—by means, of course, of a lie. (Philosophy, it seems, gets its way by lying a lot in Plato, at least if the texts considered above are any indication.)

Kazarian’s concern is that we are over optimistic in supposing that logos can bring down the troll, and in supposing that logos can so master the community that it eliminates all agon.  I grant Kazarian the point that political speech is not about producing knowledge, even though there might be ways to contest this view.  I want to challenge a different point, which is that philosophical speech is solely about producing knowledge and not about considering what we should do.  And I want to make this point through and out of Plato, who it turns out–surprise, surprise!–is remarkably practical.  My point will be that philosophical speech, because it is also political, is concerned with what we should do, but because it is political it is also a contest and not an able to dissolve political disputes by having the best recourse to reason and truth.

Jacob Howland reminds us in his essay on Lysias’ speech Against Eratosthenes that the Thirty Tyrants kill Polemarchus and take the new money of Cephalus that he earned through his rather democratic business of making weapons.  In his speech, Lysias argues that justice is taking revenge against Eratosthenes.  Lysias, Socrates tells us in the first book of the Republic is in the room at the house.  So when Socrates argues that justice is giving ones due but not in the way they would think as warriors, taking revenge, helping friends and harming enemies.  Justice instead is giving due to the parts of the soul and giving due to the parts of the community, which it turns out is not so easily divided in separate parts.  As Kazarian notes, Plato’s account depends on many lies–it is not clear that Plato endorses that approach.

Reading Plato against Lysias points to how what justice is as a philosophical question is a question about how we should live, not abstractly but for those very persons gathered in the concrete ethical dilemmas they will soon face and were known by Plato’s audience to have faced.  Note that Plato is the one who joins questions about what is to questions about how we should live in the concept of the good.  But it isn’t only that the philosophical is a matter of what we should do, but that reason and the power of reason is itself made a political question for Plato.

In Republic VII, in the analogy of the cave, Socrates presents the quandary of the philosopher, who on first read seems to have reached access to the good and true and returns to the cave in order to cajole his fellow citizens to the way of truth and goodness.  The philosopher fails because the people in the cave think the philosopher has lost any ability to perceive the state of the world between them because the philosopher cannot win the games of shadows.  But on a second and third, or a hundredth and hundred and first reading, we begun to wonder if the philosopher’s claim to knowledge through reason is just as much a political move.  This move–the my approach is most reasonable, most true, most expert, most knowledge– is the one that closes off any future dispute about what should be done.  But it’s a ruse because it only requires the claim; there is no evidence, no evidence that could be submitted in the political sphere–that it is the most reasonable, true or knowledgable claim.

Thrasymachus appears to be shut down by logos in the beginning of the book, while the philosopher claims to be able to shut down all political discussion in the cave.  The failure of the philosopher in Republic VII is often read as a defense of Socrates who was executed by the Athenians.  But what if the problem is not so much the polis, but the philosopher, who tries to rule the polis by claiming to be capable of being outside of it?  The Athenians would ostracize those who distinguished themselves too greatly, for being like gods they might dissolve the political community being themselves capable of being above it.

Demanding and expecting reasonableness to defeat those who think that power alone should dominate seems naive.  It would seem to be so naive that it leads to the destruction of that place in which people suppose that by reason they could consider and debate together what should be done.  But invoking reason to foreclose the political debate is also dominating through power alone in a way that destroys the political domain in which we “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse.”

Kazarian’s concern about the conversation at Cephalus’ house is that it falls short of presenting our political quandaries because it seems to consider political concerns from a position of having suspended the political terms.  I’m not sure I agree — Socrates responds to Polemarchus’ threat by proposing that Socrates will try to persuade Polemarchus to let them go.  Polemarchus says that they can try to persuade but they will refuse to listen.  Sensing a breakdown, Adiemantus appeals to Socrates with the promise of horse races, having intervened to replace the threat of force with persuasion.  But the possibility that Polemarchus will not listen is a present threat.  It’s the threat that force will be re-asserted.  Socrates and Adiemantus are able to preserve the place of persuasion, and Socrates convinces Polemarchus that justice is always good, not just good to friends.  But the threat that force will re-emerge in political life is not thereby dissolved.  The threat comes in one direction from those who want to baldly assert force, and from the other from those who assert the force of reason.   Resisting this threat does not mean that there is no place for claims to truth in political life, but that these claims that aim to foreclose all agon are ultimately political claims. That is, they function by accruing power to themselves by shutting down dispute, just like force does.

Kazarian’s point is about the dangers in being overly enthusiastic about reason.  I share his skepticism.  Viewing reason within political discourse as the best resistance against those who wish to foreclose reason is naive.  To support Kazarian’s final point, so is hoping that some knowledge that transcends political life can dissolve those disputes.  That move is also a political one.  Socrates himself makes judgments about who to engage, less the tyrants and more those who seem seduced by the power of reason.  He spends much more time with Glaucon and Adiemantus than he does with the tyrant Thrasymachus and the man of force Polemarchus.  Glaucon is dangerously invested in the power he can have as ruler by way of becoming a philosopher.  I’m pretty convinced Glaucon cares more about the king part than the philosopher part.

The image above is of the border stone in the Athenian agora.  It reads, “I am the border stone of the agora.”


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