Today we walked from our place in The Mets to Plato’s Academy, about five kilometers – it’s about 1.5 miles from the Agora. My colleague Lew Cassity is working on a book on Plato’s Laws and wanted to get a sense of how the walk from the Agora to the Academy would feel. We stopped off at the Kerameikos, where the Sacred Road that led to the Academy begins, and then we walked up Platonos all the way to the Academy.
When I was here in 2014, we took the bus out there and it seemed to take forever. I think it probably took as long as our walking it this time. In 2014, I remarked how unmemorial like the site is, less so even that Aristotle’s Lyceum. Like I said then, I guess, as Thucydides wrote, famous men have the whole world as their memorial; they don’t need statues. Read more
Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.
My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more
Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.
As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more
Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.
In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.
But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.
So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.
In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it. This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral. The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous. By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person. Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation. One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.
On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character. The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do. A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more
This past fall I taught the philosophy senior seminar on Plato and Baldwin. I had several reasons for putting these thinkers together. One, I wanted students to see the ways that knowing oneself, individually and collectively, remains of pressing importance for producing a just world. I wanted students to see the philosophical aporiae involved in distinguishing between a true account and an ideology–an account propogated for the sake of power. I wanted them to think about how difficult it is to distinguish the two and how dangerous it is to assume the distinction is clear. I wanted them to think about how philosophers make claims to power by assuming they can make this distinction easily. I wanted them to think about how our own investments in being right make it difficult for us to change our minds. And finally, I wanted them to consider what the implications of that difficulty are for the status of our own self-evaluation. I also wanted students to think about both the individual and the collective process of self-examination, as Plato has Socrates asks of Athenians and of Athens. Read more
Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
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. Read more
In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods. Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament). This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods. The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s). Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more