In Defence of Sophism

Reading Plato’s The Republic it’s difficult not to come to the same conclusions previously reached by Popper in The Open Society:

"Now it is interesting that for Plato, and for most Platonists, an altruistic individualism (as for instance that of Dickens) cannot exist. According to Plato, the only alternative to collectivism is egoism; he simply identifies all altruism with collectivism, and all individualism with egoism.
Plato’s identification of individualism with egoism furnishes him with a powerful weapon for his defence of collectivism as well as for his attack upon individualism. In defending collectivism, he can appeal to our humanitarian feeling of unselfishness; in his attack, he can brand all individualists as selfish, as incapable of devotion to anything but themselves.

Inherent in Plato’s programme there is a certain approach towards politics which, I believe, is most dangerous. Its analysis is of great practical importance from the point of view of rational social engineering. The Platonic approach I have in mind can be described as that of Utopian engineering, as opposed to another kind of social engineering which I consider as the only rational one, and which may be described by the name of piecemeal engineering… And there can be no tolerance between these different Utopian religions…Thus the Utopian must win over, or else crush, his Utopianist competitors. But he has to do more…For the way to the Utopian goal is long. Thus the rationality of his political action demands constancy of aim for a long time ahead; and this can only be achieved if he not merely crushes competing Utopian religions, but also as far as possible stamps out all memory of them.

Plato’s theory of justice indicates very clearly that Plato saw the fundamental problem of politics in the question: Who shall rule the state? It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy… While piecemeal reform lends itself to democracy, Utopian reform lends itself to dictatorship. The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship."

I tend to regard Plato in the same manner as I do Paul or Augustine; a dreadful mistake. Through christianity, Plato produced a philosophical tradition that disdained empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes (i.e. the forms), disdained the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshal sophistical violence in his own arguments. Plato distinguishes between misleading rhetoric and dialectic as a means of reaching truth, but the text is riddled with rhetorical devices, such as the metaphor of the cave or ship of state. It’s difficult not to sympathise with the empirical view that dialectic doesn’t say anything about reality, only about the relations between words. Although cast as a dialogue, once the initial discussions with Thrasymachus and Glaucon have been dismissed, the text essentially becomes a monologue. Voices of dissent are simply silenced in favour of a repeated murmur of affirmation. The Platonic dialogue is ostensibly concerned with gaining consensus between parties, in contrast to the agonistic methods used by the sophists, which were not concerned with truth as an object; nonetheless Plato himself is quite concerned with suppressing other voices ("you think my questions were deliberately framed to distort your argument?… you know perfectly well that it’s easier to ask questions than to answer them"). For example, the dismissal of myth is related to others citation of it to disprove his arguments on divine morality – Plato’s prime means of argument is declaration by fiat. By contrast, Thrsaymachus has little wish to coerce others into his point of view; "and how am I to persuade you? If you don’t believe what I have just said, what more can I do?" Equally, that single monologic voice in The Republic is far from consistent; war is honourable in Plato’s own republic, deplorable in a tyranny. Art is of use as an instrument of propaganda or education in one instance ("we must.. require their stories and morals to have the opposite moral"), a dangerous and misleading conceit to be suppressed elsewhere ("we banished poetry from our state").

Part of this relates to Plato’s insistence on what Popper calls methodological essentialism; the view that it is the task of pure knowledge or ‘science’ to discover and to describe the true nature of things, i.e. their hidden reality or essence. It was Plato’s peculiar belief that the essence of sensible things can be found in other and more real things — in their primogenitors or Forms. In this sense, Plato can perhaps be better described as a theologian than a philosopher or scientist, in that he can always dismiss the results of empirical investigation as not according with his idea of higher forms that can only be discerned through his own processes of ratiocination; "If anyone tries to learn anything about the world of sense, whether by gaping upwards or blinking downwards, I don’t reckon that he really learns – there is no knowledge to be had of such things." Not only is Plato left as Philosopher King, he is also effectively anointed as prophet. Knowledge becomes something that can only be accessed by the few; "those whom the public call sophists.. in fact nothing but the conventional views held and expressed by the majority of the people they meet; and this they call a science." Plato uses the observation of an animal as an example; through study one could gain knowledge of its habits and behaviour but one would not know whether it is good or bad; phenomena are immaterial, mystical access to the noumenal is all. As a result, the only form of politics that is possible is dictatorship; "philosophy is impossible amongst the common people."

Plato’s theology is equally self defining, relying principally on a reported account of what life is like in the underworld; a description that bears more resemblance to the Bible than to Homer. Similarly, Plato simply censors the corpus of myths available to him as inconvenient to his conception of god; "misrepresenting the nature of the gods and heroes, like a portrait painter whose paintings bear no resemblance to their originals." Equally, Plato’s political ideology can also be described as having more in common with the doctrine of original sin or the christian idea of temptation and fall than with the political theory of Locke or Hobbes; "like a foreign seed sown in alien soil under whose influence it commonly degenerates into the local growth… his passion tyrannises him… unable to control the animal part of us" The result is effectively a form of theocracy; "wipe the slate of human society and human habits clean." Although Plato admits that societies are formed of individuals, he sees individual character as being formed by society; in short, there is only the state.

While I am on the topic of my particular dislikes, we can move on from Plato and enter the modern world of American literature. The likes of Mailer and Bellow are clearly skilled artists but that does little to prevent me from finding them utterly unlikeable for casual sexism and homophobia. If Dickens and Eliot as the leading voices of the British Empire expressed a concern for poverty and morality after god, Mailer and Bellow as the leading voices of the American Empire expressed little other than a rather neurotic fear of the feminine in a post-traditional society. Herzog is in many ways a great novel, dealing with the fate of a representative of the Jewish tradition when cast into a modern bourgeois civilisation ("a proud lazy civilisation that worships its own boorishness"), at once an outside and a product of that society; nonetheless the objective correlative chosen to denote this seem inadequate and rather paltry. The resulting effect is rather novel but not especially edifying. One the one hand, Herzog writes of "how life could be lived by renewing universal connexions, overturning the last of the Romantic errors of the uniqueness of the self." At the same time as rejecting the Western tradition, Herzog castigates Nietzsche for having a christian worldview predicated on seeing civilisation as having reached a point of crisis; "are all the traditions used up, the beliefs done for.. is this the full crisis of dissolution?.. the more individuality seems lost.. individuals are destroyed.. this is a doomed time". But equally Herzog decries modern society as coercive and collectivist; "his recent misfortunes might be seen as a collective project.. down in the mire of post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the void." It seems clear that the contradictions are deliberate and intending to render Herzog as an exemplar; "modern character is inconstant, divided, vacillating, lacking the stone-like certitude of archaic man." Herzog is able to delude himself into thinking that his work is the solution to the emptiness of modern life and that his opponents are endangering a great endeavour; but even even if he is a symptom of this rather than a cure it does little to make us feel any empathy for a project Bellow does appear to share with his protagonist.

Der Rosenkavalier is an oddity; a satire of marriage a’la mode that seems more in keeping with the age of Congreve or Hogarth and, along with, Orlando one of the last examples of the sort of comedy of gender confusion exemplified by Shakespeare’s comedies. Hofmannsthal’s surreal or gothic flourishes (as with the fake masked devils used to torment Lerchenau) also seem odd placed alongside the bawdy humour.

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