Part III: Continuing my reading of pages 50-62 of Leo Strauss’s The City and Man. On page 54, first full paragraph.
At this point, Strauss makes another shift. Before, Strauss was comparing writing generally and the logographic writing which constitutes good writing.
“But ‘good writing’ is only the genus of which the Platonic dialogue is a species. The model for good writing is the good conversation. But there is this essential difference between any book and any conversation: in a book the author addresses many men wholly unknown to him, whereas in a conversation the speaker addresses one or more men whom he knows more or less well.”
The obvious difference is that a book is not a human being. It is a creation of a man, but is not the man. The book is a medium, and the medium is the message in Plato, so to speak. It is not fallacious to make the point that philosophy is not an idea shining in a pristine noetic heaven. Philosophy is a way of life, an activity of a man who does it well. Thus, in Plato, philosophy is never apart from the philosopher. The philosopher, moreover, is not an idea. There is, moreover, no idea of a man, especially of the philosopher. Hence, a book cannot be the philosopher. Yet, Plato, knowing this salient reality, attempted to do something to overcome this problem, a problem that Socrates did not meet or chose not to solve. The book creates a kind of environment whose content in the case of the Platonic dialogue must be philosophy, something that only exists in a particular man in a particular place and in a particular time. For a book to be a truly philosophical, it must reproduce the activity of philosophy in what we might say today is virtual. A true philosophical book is a kind of theatricality that portrays the activity of the philosopher where the very medium recreates the experience of philosophy in the one who understands it, while continuing the salutary work of the philosopher in his dealings with the public.
If the book does not do that, then the book is simply a drama with no philosophical content at all.
“If the good writing must imitate the good conversation, it must be addressed primarily to one or more men known to the author; the primary addressee would then act as a representative of that type of reader whom the author wishes to reach above all.”
In other words, the Platonic dialogue is to be written above all to another philosopher or, perhaps at the very least, a would-be philosopher, a man who is already engaged in the activity of the philosopher and presumably would not need the book at all. Does the philosopher Strauss need to read Plato? Does he need to engage in a conversation with Plato through the medium of Plato’s writing?
“It is not necessary that the type should consist of men possessing the best natures. The Platonic dialogue presents a conversation in which a man converses with one or more men more or less well known to him and in which he can therefore adapt what he says to the abilities, the characters, and even the mood of the interlocutors. But the Platonic dialogue is distinguished from the conversation which its presents by the fact that it makes accessible that conversation which is presents to a multitude wholly unknown to Plato and never addressed by Plato himself.”
Socrates frequently discussed things in mixed company. The Platonic dialogue is written for mixed company, where the discussion is itself mixed up. The only thing we never find in a Platonic dialogue is anything that is said by Plato. Thus, no one can make the claim that Plato says this or that directly. We see Plato once, but he never speaks.
“On the other hand the Platonic dialogue shows us much more clearly than the Epistle Dedicatory could, in what manner the teaching conveyed in the work is adapted by the main speaker to his particular audience and therewith how the teaching would have to be restated in order to be valid beyond the particular situation of the conversation in question. For in no Platonic dialogue do the men who converse with the main speaker possess the perfection of the best nature. This is one reason why Plato employs a variety of spokesmen:” by failing to present a conversation between Socrates and the Eleatic stranger or Timaeus, he indicates that there is no Platonic dialogue among men who are, or could be thought to be, equals.”
The important “thought to be” is crucial, because it is not clear at all that Timaeus, for example, is all that smart or possesses a good nature. In fact, one might even say that the reason for no conversation between Timaeus and Socrates is that Timaeus is really quite off the wall in his Pythagorean argument. But unlike Timaeus and the stranger who are present in the dialogues and speak, we never hear a conversation between Plato and Socrates, who might be thought to be equals, even if Plato is Socrates’ student. For if Plato recorded such an argument, we would actually hear how two philosophers speak to each other, unless Plato chose to show him in conversation with Socrates as an mature kid.
Now Xenophon records conversations he had with Socrates, but both conversations are completely farcical and part of elaborate jokes. We could assume the same would occur between Plato and Socrates, if this kind of conversation were held in public. But what is the most intriguing question is what kind of conversation would Plato and Socrates have in private. Plato has given us dialogues which were held in private. The fact that Plato never gives us a private conversation of Socrates with someone like himself preserves that privacy and indicates that the regular run of the world, the non-philosophers, is not entitled to hear that conversation. The basic truth is that it’s no else’s business. The gap between the philosophers and the community of non-philosophers means that the life of the philosophy is confidential and not subject to public scrutiny. The philosopher’s life is in one sense radically apolitical and in another sense radically subversive as it does not accept any other moral or political sanction from anyone.
“One could reject the preceding observations on the ground that they too are based chiefly and at best on what Platonic characters say and not on what Plato himself says. Let us then return once more to the surface.”
One of Strauss’s great sentences is about the surface of things. “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.”There has been a lot of argument over the meaning of what the surface is, and there is also a tendency to say that the most obvious is the surface. The surface of a conversation is simply the way two or more people communicate with each other. When it is written out in a Platonic dialogue, it is the action of the dialogue and what it means. It is not the argument by itself. It is the logographic necessity.
“Let us abandon every pretense to know. Let us admit that the Platonic dialogue is an enigma—something perplexing and to be wondered at. The Platonic dialogue is one big question mark. A question mark in the white chalk on a blackboard is wholly unrevealing. Two such question marks would tell us something; they would draw our attention to the number 2.”
One is not a number, while two is the first true number. One may be regarded as a unit, but at the same time it is a unity. All things are one means that the whole of all things is a determined unity. However, if we speak of the whole of something without saying it is one, we are looking at a whole that is totally indeterminate. In other words, the whole of things is a single question mark until it is made one and we see the dyadic structure of that reality. That one is both one and two. The Platonic formula for this problem is “each is one, but both are two.” That means that there is a community or unity which can be established where none of the members of the community have nothing in common except that they are heterogeneous members of a whole.
Normally, we establish a commonality by finding some common attribute of the members of the community. For example, all tea baggers are racists; all good people are white; all Muslims are fascists; all whores have a heart of gold. However, if we want to establish the complete whole of things, there has to be a whole that encompasses members that are totally heterogeneous. The way we know that such a whole is because we can only see the whole, so to speak, when we see as one. But the only way we can get that one is by recognizing that the one is also two at the same time. This dyadic structure provides a way of establishing all numbers for out of one and two, we can get three things and so on.
That also means that we have a whole that is contains both what is and what is not.
The number two is very important and the dyadic structure of things is at the heart of all of Strauss’s writing.
From the number 2, Strauss does a quick shift.
“The number of dialogues which has come down to us as Platonic is 35. Some of them are at present generally regarded as spurious; but the atheteses ultimately rest on the belief we know what Plato thought of what he could possibly have written or that we have exhausted his possibilities.”
We don’t have any idea of why Strauss decides to coin a word from the Greek here, a word in its adverbial form means lawlessly, but adjectively means useless or not placed and so on. Once again, Strauss takes the academic establishment to task.
“At any rate, we are confronted with many individuals of the same kind: we can compare; we can note similarities and dissimilarities; we can divide the genus ‘Platonic dialogues’ into species; we can reason.”
Strauss’s satire here is not mean-spirited, because it is so serious.
“Let us regard the 35 dialogues as individuals of one species of strange things, strange animals.”
That Strauss uses the animals is an obvious allusion to logographic necessity in the Phaedrus and Plato’s use of it.
“Let us proceed as zoologists. Let us start by classifying those individuals and see whether we do not hear Plato himself, as distinguished from his characters,
speak through the surface of his work. Even if we make the most unintelligent assumption which, as it happens, is the most cautious assumption, that for all we know the Platonic dialogues might be verbatim reports of conversations, the selection of the particular 35 conversations would still be the work of Plato; for Socrates must have had more conversations known to Plato than there are Platonic dialogues presenting Socratic conversations: Socrates must have had some conversations with Plato himself, and there is no dialogue in which Socrates converses with Plato.”
Strauss alludes to Plato’s Republic 505a2-3 in a footnote to the last sentence. This allusion is to a passage which indicates that Socrates had many conversations where he said the idea of the good is the greatest study along with just things and the rest that become useful and beneficial. It comes at a critical point here. In the overall context, it is part of the discussion between Socrates and Adeimantus the lie in the soul that most men hate, the seeming good. Socrates culminates this part of the argument: “It is what every soul pursues and does everything for, divining to be something, but it stays perplexed and cannot grasp adequately what it is, any moiré than it can enjoy about the good the sort of stable trust it has about everything else” (505d11-e3).
Strauss seems to suggest that the conversation between Plato and Socrates would be exactly about the good or the idea of the good. The good, or perhaps most accurately, the Good, is the whole of all. The possession of the good completes the human being and perfects him. In Plato, the good is beyond all being, meaning that all beings are radically defective and in a state of Heraclitean flux.
Because the good is beyond all being, it is a complete indeterminate, technically speaking it is completely ineffable, and yet contains all that is, was, will be, or not be, and never is. Because it is beyond being, we can only grasp the good when we create an idea for it, so to speak.
The number two is very important.
“While everything said in the Platonic dialogues said by Plato’s characters, Plato himself takes full responsibility for the titles of the dialogues. There are only four dialogues whose titles designate the subject matter: the Republic, the Laws, the Sophist, and the Statesman. There is no Platonic Nature or Truth. The subject matter is preponderantly political.”
There is particularly in modern philosophy a belief that the world can and should present itself as a formal system. No matter what we talk about, whether it be god or poetry, we must be under a great compulsion to a huge set of deductive arguments and long chains of proof. Perhaps the greatest representative of that view is Hegel. The Platonic dialogues are the refutation of that view. If there were dialogue Nature or Truth, the dialogue would take on that formal structure. It would not be from life, but from ideas and concepts.
As we previously noted, the root of the logographic necessity is the rift between the philosopher and the city. That the political is exceptionally important is because philosophy must use political means to inculcate itself into in the city.
“This suggestion is strengthened by the observation that according to Plato’s Socrates is the political multitude. There are 25 dialogues whose titles designate the name of a human being who in one way or another participates in the conversation recorded in the dialogue in question; that human being is invariably a male contemporary of Socrates; in these cases the titles are unrevealing or almost unrevealing as regards the subject matter of the titles in question as the title Anna Karenina or Madam Bovary. Only in three cases (Timaeus, Critias, Parmenides) does the title clearly designate the chief character of the dialogue concerned. In two cases (Hipparchus and Minos) the title consists of a name, not of a participant, but a man of the past who is only spoken about in the dialogue; these titles remind us of the titles of tragedies.”
Reminds us of the titles of tragedies? Why not of comedies? Why does Strauss throw in this seemingly out of place comment?
What are we to make of the fact that Socrates’ main interlocutors are male contemporaries, while the titles that Strauss puts are two titles where woman have tragic ends? In the Hipparchus, which is about profit and what is truly profitable, Plato relates a rather shocking sex scandal that leads to the assassination of the tyrant. In the Minos, there is a stranger innuendo that the chief law-maker of Crete, Minos, met with Zeus in a cave and not got the laws there, but perhaps indulged in sex with the god. We personally don’t believe that about Zeus, because he was the most heterosexual of the gods, and it was only when Roman homosexuals wanted to some divine sanction that they associated Zeus with Ganymede, for example.
In any event, we are still at a loss to understand this tragedy statement, especially as Plato’s dialogues are highly comic in character, not as farcical as Xenophon, but very comic, nevertheless. Perhaps there is within this satire a bit of irony.
Another thing we must note: In a tragedy, as Aristotle tells us, there has to be an imitation of an action. While there is fearsome debate about what that means, I will simply say that action is what the character wants. If we go along with that, then we must assume that in the Hipparchus, the nameless individual who is the interlocutor wants profit, while the nameless character in the Minos wants law. In Greek tragedies, the authors conceal themselves completely. In the two referenced dialogues, the interlocutor in each has not been identified with a name.
“The name of Socrates occurs only in the title Apology of Socrates. One may say that seven titles indicate the theme of the dialogues concerned: Republic, Laws, Sophist, Statesman, Hipparchus, Minos, and Apology of Socrates; the themes of the dialogues, insofar as it is revealed by the titles, is preponderantly political.”
The theme of Socrates and his relationship with the city shows up, of course, at this trial.
“The fact that the name of Socrates occurs in no title except that of the Apology of Socrates is hardly an accident. Xenophon devoted four writings to Socrates; he too mentions the name in no title except that of his Apology of Socrates; his most extensive writing devoted to Socrates is called Recollections and not, as one would expect from its content, Recollections of Socrates; Xenophon, just as Plato, deliberately refrained from mentioning Socrates in a title except when conjoined with ‘apology.’ Plato’s Apology of Socrates presents Socrates’ official and solemn account of his way of life, the account which he gave to the city of Athens when he was compelled to defend himself against the accusation of having committed a capital crime. Socrates calls this account a conversation. It is his only conversation with the city of Athens, and it is not more than an incipient conversation: it is rather one-sided. In this official account Socrates speaks at some length of the kind of people with whom he was in the habit of having conversations. It appears he conversed with many Athenian citizens in public, in the market at the tables of the money-changers.”
Strauss’s use of “money-changers” is a bit odd. In the agora, there were bankers, money lenders. Yes, it is true that money-changers can be used, but Strauss uses the highly charged term which is usually associated with Jesus. The money-changers in Jerusalem were the ones at the temple who changed Roman money into old Israel coins for a fee, because the cost of the sacrifices could not be done in the occupier’s profane coinage. The sight of these middle-men notably infuriated Jesus as they were profiting from the exchange. Evidently, Jesus was not a capitalist who thought that everything can be exchanged. That kind of trade was not done in Athens and the banker’s tables were primarily for lending money, as, after all, there as no other coinage used in Athens except Athenian coinage with its lovely owls.
Socrates’ characterizing his oration before Athens as a conversation in a great sense softens what he is doing. The problem facing Socrates in his situation is that he has to persuade the jury of about 600 to vote for acquittal. Yet, at the same time, Socrates refuses to use the usual flatteries or theatrics before his audience. He wants to speak truthfully. Actually, he speaks like a king to subjects, not a man on trial for capital crimes. Socrates is passing judgment before a group of people who really do not have the competence to judge him; hence, they cannot reach a just verdict.
There are many Straussians we have heard who assume, wrongly, that Socrates is guilty, well, of something, and that maybe the sentence was too harsh, but he was guilty, of something. In order for the jury and the listeners to Socrates’ oration today to judge him guilty requires, first, knowledge not only of the charges, but that Socrates actually violated the law. We won’t even go into the charges, but we will simply say that Socrates is not guilty of anything, except being a philosopher. Socrates was actually being tried for leading a different life, free of any ties to Athens and its Jerusalem codes. To say that Socrates was guilty really means that Socrates is guilty of philosophizing in public and in private. The Jerusalem codes of Athens will always find that a capital crime, just as the Jerusalem of the Middle East would. The judgment that Socrates is guilty by people today actually is rooted in the Jerusalem of their souls, and no Jerusalem, however sacred, has the competence to judge the philosopher. It is the problem of the city and man.
“His peculiar ‘business’ which made him suspect to his fellow citizens consisted in his examining them with regard to their claim to be wise. He examined all who were supposed to possess some knowledge. But he mentions in his defense only three kinds of such men: the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen. It is true that in a brief repetition he adds the orators to the three classes mentioned before and shortly before the repetition he says that he examined whichever Athenian or stranger he believed to be wise. But it cannot be denied that according to the suggestions of the Apology of Socrates one would expect to find more Platonic dialogues presenting Socratic conversations with common men and in particular with Athenian politicians, craftsmen, and poets than Platonic dialogues presenting Socratic conversations with foreign sophists, rhetoricians, and the like. The Platonic Socrates is famous or ridiculed for speaking about shoemakers and the like, but we never see or hear him speak to shoemakers or the like.”
In Plato, Socrates generally speaks with members of the political or intellectual elite of the day. One might say that the reason Plato doesn’t present Socrates speaking with shoemakers is that the shoemaker may only say that he is wise in making shoes. That would seem ridiculous to many. But, then, let’s look at the problem. Who is ridiculing Socrates for talking to the craftsmen of the city? Well, of course, the political and intellectual elite, whether from Athens or elsewhere. So, they have greater pretense to knowledge and wisdom, and hence it is most interesting to see how superior they are. Considering how badly they do with Socrates and considering how loathsome many of them are, Plato manages to show the elite to be rather laughable generally.
“He converses in deed (as distinguished from his self-presentation in his sole public speech) only with people who are not the common people—who belong to the elite, although never, or almost never, to the elite in the highest sense.”
Plato is at the trial, Socrates’ dialogue with the city. But Plato doesn’t speak. As noted before, Xenophon, a member of the elite in the highest sense, does speak with Socrates, but the conversations are farce.
“Xenophon devotes a whole chapter of the Memorabilia, although one chapter, to showing how useful Socrates was to craftsman when he happened to converse with such people. In the chapter following, Xenophon records a conversation between Socrates and a beautiful woman of easy manners who was visiting Athens.”
Strauss makes an interesting rhetorical shift here: We go from Socrates ridiculed for speaking with craftsmen and artisans, to Socrates actually speaking with the lower elite, to Xenophon providing only one chapter to Socrates being useful to artisans (a painter, a sculptor, and an armorer) to a chapter where Socrates speaks to Theodote, a woman who livers very well, but has no visible means of support. She is a heteara, a high form of courtesan. Because Athens had various categories for peddling flesh, Theodote is not a prostitute, which is a lower legal level.
Theodote eventually becomes the mistress of Alcibiades, and she follows him into exile and apparently was the person who buried Alcibiades after his assassination. The subject of the Socratic conversation is how really good a procurer Socrates is. He is able to get men to follow him even though he is a rather ugly old man.
The conversation is a farce where Theodote and Socrates play along with each other, while making fools of the young men who surround Socrates, but are very attracted to the hetaera. Theodote has the strong touch of irony, which apparently her way of life has taught her. There is no talk of payments, prices, or of sex, only the talk about friendship and favors or gifts. Theodote is an incredibly grateful person. Oh, how friends whether they be Theodote or Socrates, benefit friends, and Socrates benefits Theodote and she him. There is no sex exchanged, however.
The gifts extended to Theodote are so freely given; they come out of the hearts of her admirers.
Now, Strauss ends the transition by going back to Plato and to women.
“In the Platonic dialogues we find two Socratic reports about conversations he had with famous women (Diotima and Aspasia) but on the stage we see and hear only woman, and her only once: his wife Xanthippe.”
Diotima, apparently a witch or priestess, teaches Socrates erotics, while Aspasia, Pericles’ mistress, also a hetaera, is shown to be the source of Pericles’ great speech as presented by Thucydides. We only find Socrates speaking to women who are not part of the traditional Athenian oppression of women. Athenian women were hidden away, almost in the way that very severe Islamic states do with woman today. It is well known that Socrates numbered Aspasia among his intimate friends. What we have is the amazing situation that the most intelligent people Socrates converses with in Plato are two women, while in Xenophon a woman proves to be smarter than the men, with the exception of Xenophon himself.
But it is clear that Socrates is not friends with his wife. Xanthippe goes down into history as the paradigm of the shrew. In Xenophon we find Socrates conversing with his dull-witted sons, who also complain bitterly about how their mother treats them. There Socrates also speaks of gratitude, but of another kind.
Xanthippe shows up in the Phaedo when Socrates’ mostly Pythagorean friends enter into Socrates’ cell. He has been speaking to Xanthippe and they are sitting together, and she is holding her baby. Phaedo says, rather insensitively, “When she saw us, she cried out and said this sort of thing that women usually say: ‘Socrates, this is the last time your friends will talk to you and you to them.’ Socrates looked at Crito. ‘Crito,’ he said, ‘let someone take her home.’ And some of Crito’s people led her away lamenting and beating her breast.”
Socrates’ friends are on the verge of tears as it is, and having Xanthippe weeping is not going to help the conversation. Naturally, what Xanthippe says is absolutely true, and the underlying “I am not your friend” is also true. It is also true that Socrates is not a good husband or father. He also is a deadbeat. Moreover, he is about to be executed for not being a good citizen. Socrates’ alienation from the city and from its social mores of the city is complete.
I have heard the argument that Xanthippe is an image of the city, from which Socrates is in tension. I find this symbolization a bit strained. I think what is more important is what Strauss points out next.
“Above all, Plato presents no Socratic conversation between Socrates and the demos, and in particular craftsmen; he presents only one conversation with poets and very few who were actual or retired politicians at the time of the conversation, as distinguished from young men of promise. It is above all through this selection of conversations, apart from the titles, that we hear Plato himself as distinguished from his characters.”
The literary devices and structures that Plato uses are his alone. When we look at those devices and for what purpose they are used, then we hear Plato directly. To give an analogy: One can read James Joyce’s Ulysses and enjoy it well. But to know what Joyce was doing, it is necessary to know that the name of the novel alludes to Odysseus, a particular literary character. Then, it makes even more sense when we realize that the novel is an imitation of Homer’s Odyssey, and that each chapter of the novel corresponds to the traditional division of the Greek epic. But, then, is the novel an epic? Well…
What we can say is that when we examine the literary devices and structures that Plato uses, we see Plato in action and that action carries its own argument.