Thursday, April 19, 2012

Socrates and the Rejection of the Majority

   Plato portrays Socrates as alienating himself and his interlocutors from the majority of people by suggesting that you should not consider the opinions of the many. There is a lot of insight that can be gained from a more appreciative interpretation of Socrates treatment of the many, for while it is easy to see the rejection of the opinions of the many as elitism, it may make more sense to see this alienation as serving a number of other purposes. Three of these interpretive candidates are as follows: first, in rejecting the many, Socrates' means to show his interest in considering things in principle; second, this habit is a part of a broader tactic for bringing people together in discussion rather than opposition in debate; third, we should notice that the many are continually outstanding, that is, whoever Socrates speaks with is not counted as unworthy, and rather is put on an equal footing. I wish to explore some of my thoughts on these briefly here, but first I will spend a moment addressing what I think of some hints of elitism in Plato.
   It is certainly fair to consider a complaint of elitism regarding Plato, but many of the points where one finds such a concern may be avoided. For example, above the entrance to Plato's academy was inscribed, "Let None But Geometers Enter Here". This could certainly be seen as intellectual elitism, but I have my doubts since in the Meno Geometry is shown to be among the things that all people know regardless of their station in life. There is also accusations of elitism directed at Plato in what is considered his division of the perfect state in the Republic. This accusation also seems suspect, since the elite class in the Republic would be those who were best suited to sacrifice themselves for the state, not an elitism of intellectuals. The Philosopher King is not a creative intellectual free to do what he wishes, but rather someone who only serves the interests of the state which can be determined by its end, while the guardians must have the capacity to unfailingly follow orders that are in the interests of the state. For these sorts of reasons I would at least like to leave it an open question if we must see elitism as playing a clear role in Plato's thought. (Note: I don't wish to rule out any reading here, but only to raise the bar on what should be considered an informed reading if we are to accuse Plato of elitism.)
   Socrates' rejection of the many seems to have some roots in his youth, as it was part of a lesson given by Parmenides (in the dialogue of that name by Plato). In this lesson, Parmenides asks Socrates if he only considers the forms in relation to the virtues, and other ideas of that caliber, or if he also considers if there are forms of things like mud. Socrates answers that he is worried to consider the later without falling into absurdities, to which Parmenides replies that he will learn not to care what the many think of him, and that then he will be able to think about these other forms that are more mundane. (This advice from Parmenides looks forward all the way to Heidegger's Being and Time, which spends a great deal of effort in discussing the average and mundane. This will come up again later.) With this we can move to my first suggestion.
   The first of the options I suggested for interpreting Socrates' habit of holding the majority at a distance was his interest in considering things in principle (possibly inherited from Parmenides) in order to truly understand them. The dialogue Euthydemus shows two men, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus, giving eristic arguments. At the end of the dialogue Socrates has the following exchange with Crito to close off the dialogue:

SOCRATES: Dear Crito, do you not know that in every profession the inferior sort are numerous and good for nothing, and the good are few and beyond all price: for example, are not gymnastic and rhetoric and money-making and the art of the general, noble arts?

CRITO: Certainly they are, in my judgment.

SOCRATES: Well, and do you not see that in each of these arts the many are ridiculous performers?

CRITO: Yes, indeed, that is very true.

SOCRATES: And will you on this account shun all these pursuits yourself and refuse to allow them to your son?

CRITO: That would not be reasonable, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Do you then be reasonable, Crito, and do not mind whether the teachers of philosophy are good or bad, but think only of philosophy herself. Try and examine her well and truly, and if she be evil seek to turn away all men from her, and not your sons only; but if she be what I believe that she is, then follow her and serve her, you and your house, as the saying is, and be of good cheer.

   This exchange is not the first time that Socrates turns Crito away from the many in order to consider something itself. In the dialogue named after Crito, Socrates summons up the laws of Athens themselves and holds a conversation between the three of them (while he also speaks for the laws). (Crito particularly seems to get lost on the mores of the many and to be forgetful of these talks with Socrates. Near the end of the Phaedo, Crito asks what Socrates wishes be done with him when he has died, forgetting or ignoring the contents of the conversation that has just occurred. Socrates reply is, "Catch me if you can.")
   It seems that Plato's emphasis on considering things in principle regards how to govern oneself by principles, and that this has a great deal to do with being wise. Much more could be said about this, but I will instead continue to my second consideration of Socrates attitude of towards the many.
   Socrates seems to want to avoid conflict in his discussion and rather favors a common pursuit where everyone benefits. Socrates employs this tactic in variety situations and in a number of ways. In the later part of the Protagoras, Socrates attempts to work with Protagoras by giving an external complaint from the many who hold a common opinion about the nature of good and evil. Socrates is able to answer the many along with Protagoras as a comrade, which is in sharp contrast to the earlier part of the dialogue when Protagoras' combativeness almost brings the dialogue to an early end. The example from the Crito where Socrates summons up the laws as a third party to the conversation with Crito can also serve here. In many other places where Socrates is confronted with a difficulty from one of the interlocutors it is common for him to call on another (and often younger and more beautiful) party present at the discussion to help him through a dialectic. We find such a tactic used in the Phaedo when Socrates asks for help from Phaedo when he is confronted by the problems of both Simmias and Cebes. (Also, in this crucial moment he mentions the dangers of misology that can occur from encountering bad arguments, and rejecting reason giving from particulars. This is much like the end of the Euthydemus.)
   Socrates' technique is not always shown as working out successfully, however, and can upset interlocutors from time to time because Socrates ends up looking evasive, and not wanting to take a stand and debate (which may be the whole point). In the first book of the Republic, Thrasymachus has a reaction of incredible outrage to Socrates attempt to be evasive. There are a number of options available for interpreting what Plato means to say through encounters such as the one with Thrasymachus, but that can be held off on for another time as I proceed to discuss the third and last interpretive suggestion.
   This may be the most subtle of the suggestions, but potentially the most revealing and interesting for me as an interpreter of the history of Philosophy. The many that Socrates so often insists on ignoring are never actually present in the dialogues. No matter who Socrates meets he is always willing to speak to them as equals (and often as unequals, as Socrates will be interested in learning whatever wisdom he can from those who claim to have it). The reason why I find this to be such an interesting suggestion, is that in some sense it means that Socrates is considering the many in principle, or as a sort of idea that every human has, and that can be used as a contrast to really understand ourselves, and the world, in principle. Once again, this theme seems to suggest what Heidegger is doing in considering the average in his Being and Time, as well as the themes of the authentic and inauthentic. As a philologist, seeing how Plato and Heidegger can be mutually informative for each other on this matter is a delight to consider. What other ways of thinking about this problem of the average can Plato open up for us in seeing how the tradition follows after Plato's treatment of the many? There seems to be a great deal of potential here that will only come after much more work.
   While I clearly do not read Plato as an elitist, there is, in fact, a great risk of intellectual elitism which comes along with inheriting Socrates as an idol of sorts, and in using this idol as a way to instruct others. This risk is what I hope to help avoid and criticize. The typical example of it is to use questioning as a means of provoking an interlocutor to think for themselves while you keep the answer you are looking for to yourself. This sort of deceit is something that is often interpreted as the motive of Socrates. I see this as a mistake, since Socrates almost always speaks to the contrary of this, and is always upset by the idea of wisdom being withheld from him. Instead, if we must assign such a motive, we must assign it to Plato. I often refer to this as a sentimental approach to Socrates, and perhaps Plato was the first in a long line of sentimental, Socratic philosophers. However, part of Plato's genius seem to be in writing in dialogue form so he can produce the effect he wants (this sentimental motive) while having a character that is sincerely ignorant. Hopefully we can all aspire to loving wisdom, and not instead just loving holding wisdom over the heads of others - something that may result in Aesop's fable regarding sour grapes.


Stefan Heßbrüggen said...

Very interesting post. One additional thought: Callicles's less than flattering portrait of the philosopher in the Gorgias seems to correspond to the general attitude towards philosophy among Socrates's fellow citizens (think of Plato's advice that the philosopher in the imperfect state should live as if he was fallen among wild beasts). So maybe there is a natural misfit between the polis Socrates lives in and the Divine command to pursue a life of philosophy. If this is the case, the seeming disdain for the many expressed by Socrates is maybe just an attempt to get to the roots of a certain failure of communication.

Erik Christianson said...

Thanks for this helpful comment. I'll be considering this, as well as whatever other parts of Plato's work have suggestions for this line of interpretation (there seem to be many).