Part IV: This anti-blog is the fourth part of my reading of pages 50-62 of Leo Strauss’s The City and Man. I am starting at the top of page 58. My previous readings are available on this site below.
Strauss continues: “The division of the Platonic dialogues which comes next in obviousness is that between performed dialogues of which there are 26 and narrated dialogues of which there are 9. The narrated dialogues are narrated either by Socrates (6) or by someone else mentioned by name (3) and they are narrated either to a named man (2) or to a nameless companion (2) or to an indeterminate audience (5).”
The dialogue, insofar as it is a conversation, is, in effect, a drama or a play or a mime. Remarkably, all of Plato’s dialogues are scripts in the same way that Shakespeare creates scripts for the performance of a play. An actually performed dialogue, 26 out of 35, is the play, a play without physical actors performing it. While a Shakespeare play is meant to be played by actors, as well as to be read, Plato’s dialogues do not require actors. However, what is required of us, the reader, is the imagination and intellect to construct the play within our minds. If the dialogue is performed, we are the audience to an entire play that we imagine for ourselves. We do the same with Shakespeare when we simply read the play, rather than watching a performance. However, the Platonic dialogue clearly is designed not to be performed by actors. Having said that, I should note that in Plato’s day,, people read everything they read out loud. There is the remarkable Julius Caesar who drew wonder from everyone around him, because he was able to read to himself. My guess, then, is that Plato was very careful to write his dialogues so that they would sound a certain way when read out loud. However, as I am not an expert in Greek or linguistic history, I really can’t make this case as anything more than a guess.
A narrated dialogue means that a single person creates the dialogue. The narration is as good as the person who narrates it. If the person has a bad memory or is not very bright, then the level of trust we have in the narrator can diminish considerably. As for the narrator, he is speaking either to a group that includes us, or only to us. In any event, we are a participant in any dialogue we read, and our level of participation is decided by how much of the dialogue we understand of its logographic necessity.
“Plato is mentioned as present in the Apology of Socrates which is a narrated dialogue. One cannot infer from this that Plato must be thought to have been present at all performed dialogues and absent from narrated dialogues. One must rather say that Plato speaks to us directly, without the intermediacy of his characters, also by the fact that he presented most of his dialogues as performed, and the others are narrated.”
The absence of Plato at a dialogue means that Plato either had someone else relate the dialogue to him and he acted as a stenographer of it or that Plato actually made up the entire conversation. Oh my, that might mean that Plato invented the time, place, the characters, and so on in the same way that any fiction writer might do. That would mean that Plato would be responsible for the title, the structure of the dialogue, the characters, what they say, and how they say it. He would be responsible for any action in the dialogue. That really is too much freedom from the real thing if Plato does that.
At the heart of the dialogues is the question of unity and multiplicity. There is the question of whether individuality or multiplicity is illusory with regard to the unity, the one. The non-corporeality of the dialogues is like the dream state of Plato. The dialogues imitate a world which proceeds in entirely out of Plato, whose cast and characters, their communications, and so on are the products of Plato’s inner life and imaged entirely by Plato, who is the whole of the dialogues, as well as playing all the parts. The dialogues in a certain sense are a mode or realization of Plato’s possibilities that cannot be realized in corporeal form. Plato in truth is at the center of this world he creates, but it is not the corporeal Plato, but his subtle state, so to speak.
Of course, when that happens, one cannot say that Plato’s view is identical with any particular character’s words or deeds. For after all, the interplay between the characters is dictated by the subject matter and the imitation of the way human beings interact. Generally speaking, unless you are a university of very wise intellectuals, you will not get conversations that are complete, logical expositions of intellectual positions among normal people. Human conversations follow their own rules and chaos. It would make Plato, although invisible, creating the illusion of truth. But, then, he does that for every dialogue
“Each of the two forms has its peculiar advantages. The performed dialogue is not encumbered by the innumerable repetitions of ‘he said’ and ‘I said.’ In the narrated dialogue on the other hand a participant in the conversation gives an account directly or indirectly to nonparticipants and hence also to us, while in the performed dialogue there is no bridge between the characters of the dialogue and the reader; in a narrated dialogue Socrates may tell us things which he could not tell with propriety to his interlocutors, for instance, why he made a certain move in the conversation or what he thought of his interlocutors; he thus can reveal to us some of his secrets.”
Six dialogues are narrated by Socrates including the Republic. His narration in part allows us to understand how Socrates thinks from the inside. However, it would most rash to assume that what Socrates says is completely straightforward, even when he is narrating what has happened. We have to apply the same rules we use with understanding Plato with Socrates. Moreover, when we have Socrates narrating, we must also remember that it is Plato who is recreating Socrates, and that it is Plato who is imitating the workings of Socrates’ mind. It may be that the discussion we never get, the one between Plato and Socrates, is actually done in the dialogue that Plato writes where Socrates narrates. Of course, that assumes that Plato knows what and how Socrates thinks. Of course, because we only know Socrates from there direct sources, Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon, but not from anything Socrates wrote, we are forced to attempt to understand Socrates and his life from the illusions created by the great three. As for Aristophanes’ version of Socrates, it is not necessarily in accord with Plato or Xenophon. And some moderns actually believe that Xenophon’s image of Socrates is inferior to Plato’s. Apparently, the 19th and 20th century scholars know more than the hundreds of years of admiration that was given to Xenophon by careful readers.
“Plato himself does not tell us what he means by his division of his dialogues into performed and narrated ones and why any particular dialogue is narrated or performed. But he permits us a glimpse into his workshop by making us witnesses of the transformation of a narrated dialogue into a performed one. Socrates had narrated his conversation with Theaetetus to the Megarian Euclides; Euclides, who apparently did not have as good a memory, as some other Platonic characters, had written down what he had heard from Socrates, not indeed verbatim as Socrates had narrated it, but ‘omitting…the narratives between the speeches’ like Socrates saying ‘I said’ and ‘Theaetetus agreed’; Euclides had transformed a narrated dialogue into a performed dialogue. The expressions used by Euclides are used by Socrates in the Republic. As he makes clear there at great length, if a writer speaks only as if he were one or the other of his characters, i.e., if he ‘omits’ ‘what is between the speeches’ of the characters (the ‘a said”s and ‘b replied”s), the writer conceals himself completely, and his writings are dramas.”
The concealment of the writer provides the illusion that there is an event that is occurring, rather than a narration of something happening. The theatricality of life is enhanced when we are not aware of the author. Socrates makes this rather clear to Adeimantus (Republic 392c1-394c6) as Strauss footnotes and will later clarify.
“It is clear that the writer conceals himself completely also when he does not ‘omit what is between the speeches’ but entrusts the narrative to one of his characters. According to Plato’s Socrates, we would then have to say that Plato conceals himself completely in his dialogues. That does not mean that Plato conceals his name; it was always known that Plato was the author of the Platonic dialogues. It means that Plato conceals his opinions.”
It also allows Plato to impute his opinions to anyone. For example, Plato may hold an opinion that is rather dangerous to the city or even to himself. Yet, he can express it by giving that opinion to someone who is not at all sympathetic, even evil, and thus making it appear that Plato did not believe it. But the concealment also makes the dialogues seem to be entirely independent of anything. They exist like a Metopia where the characters live in different times and places, but nowhere as they are not in any time or place.
“We may draw the further conclusion that the Platonic dialogues are dramas, if dramas in prose.”
Strauss makes a point about the ancient world. When there was something exceptional or public to be written, it was done in poetry. Poetry was the highest expression of public speech. Today, poetry has abandoned its publicity and has instead been given over to express the most trivial of human emotions and banal events of the individual poet.
In ancient times, prose was for personal and private communications. That the dialogues are in prose is necessitated by the imitation of how dialogue was done by Socrates and others in Plato’s day. We return to the sound and fury.
“We cannot ascribe to Plato any utterance of any of any of his characters without having taken great precautions. To illustrate this by our example, in order to know what Shakespeare, in contradistinction to his Macbeth, thinks about life, one must consider Macbeth’s utterance in the light of the play as a whole; we might thus find that according to the play as a whole, life is not senseless simply, but becomes senseless for him who violates the sacred law of life, or the sacred order restores itself, or the violation of life is self-destructive; but since that self-destruction is exhibited in the case of Macbeth, a human being of a particular kind, one would have to wonder whether the apparent lesson of the play is true of all men or universally; one would have to consider whether what appears to be a natural law is in fact a natural law, given the fact that Macbeth’s violation of the law of life is at least partly originated by preternatural beings.”
Strauss combines his Macbeth possibilities with a bunch of semicolons. Obviously, there is a question of whether life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing is what Shakespeare thought life was about. But how do we know Shakespeare really didn’t believe that?
I have always marveled at Macbeth and how he makes the leap from the Weird Sisters’ prophecy that he will become king and his conclusion helped on by his wife that he must kill the king to get the throne. The basic truth is that if the prophecy were true, he could do nothing and the throne would come to him. But Macbeth is an ambitious man and he doesn’t trust the prophecy to work without his hastening the event. Strauss’s point that is absolutely necessary to look at the kind of man Macbeth is to understand the statement means that we have to see Macbeth not only as ambitious, but a man whose soul is stained by the desire for tyranny, not kingship. Macbeth’s life is that of a man fearful that he will lose power. What Macbeth never realizes ahead of time is that his life is already senseless, because his desires are senseless and thus he is not able to act properly to become a king, because he lapses into a bloody tyranny immediately because his kingship is not meaningful to him if he has enemies who might take it away from him. Macbeth violates the sacred order or the sacred order of life, not because of the preternatural beings, but because his soul is already corrupt and wants to violate that sacred law. In other words, the true preternatural being in this play is Macbeth himself.
What we see is that there is an argument about the prophecy, but there is the action that gives us an entirely different view of the prophecy. The action is itself gives us an entirely different argument than the verbal one in the play.
“In the same way we must understand the ‘speeches’ of all Platonic characters in light of the ‘deeds.’ The ‘deeds’ are in the first place the setting and the action of the individual dialogue: on what kind of men does Socrates act with his speeches? what is the age, the character, the abilities, the position in society, and the appearance of each? when and where does the action take place? does Socrates achieve what he intends? is his action voluntary or imposed on him? Perhaps Socrates does not primarily intend to teach a doctrine but rather human beings—to make them better, more just or gentle, more aware of their limitations. For before men can genuinely listen to a teaching, they must be willing to do so; they must have become aware of their need to listen; they must be liberated from the charms which make them obtuse; this liberation is achieved less by speech than by silence and deed—by the silent action of Socrates which is not identical.”
Aristotle in his Poetics tells us that a tragedy, a play, even a Platonic dialogue, is an imitation of an action. This praxis is generally misunderstood, as far as I can see. Most people think that action is the gun fire or the fighting on stage or on the screen or the leaping of dancers or the clash of the light sabers by Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker. No, that’s not action. You can have an entire movie or a huge spectacle on stage or screen and not have any action at all. The action is what Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker want and that makes them have to clash eventually.
Action is what a character wants, and every character in the Platonic dialogues, not just Socrates, wants something. Many times, what they want is contrary to what Socrates wants, while at the same time Socrates frequently prevents others from getting what they want. That is known as conflict. The reason why someone wants something is the motivation. A great deal of the time, the characters hide what they want and hide the reasons for why they are doing what they are doing and saying what they are saying. That subtext is critical because it is silent. Actions come necessarily with many levels, and all levels must be attended to. The wants of the characters tells us how important and how high the stakes are for the character.
What Strauss does here is something rather interesting. He talks about the setting and the characters. Well, that’s Plato’s work. It is the playwright who sets the scene and chooses the characters. That is part of Plato’s action. The abilities of the characters and so on are also created by Plato, and that is part of his action. While Plato may hide his opinions, we begin to understand what he desires through the dialogues he writes. In other words, all of the literary tricks, the drama, the structure, and so on are all the acts of Plato. We get to know Plato not simply from the words of his alleged spokesmen, but from Plato’s very construction of the dialogue.
However, at the same time, his characters and their environment and time are driven by what they want. The more they want, presumably, the more they will do to get it. The action is frequently not in keeping with the words said, both intentionally and unintentionally. When we look at the action of the dialogue, suddenly we see an entirely different play. The action has its own argument and its own demands.
It is frequently said of Strauss that he focuses on the argument and the action, but the action part is severely misunderstood by most of his readers. They think it is Alcibiades crowning Socrates’ head with laurel leaves. No, the action is what the drunken Alcibiades wants from Socrates that drives Alcibiades to praise and to crown Socrates on a night when Alcibiades probably has been sacrilegiously and hubristically hacking off the penises from Hermae around Athens just before he is about to lead the Athenian invasion of Sicily, the greatest military expedition Athens has ever attempted.
“But the ‘deeds’ also include the relevant ‘facts’ which are not mentioned in the ‘speeches’ and yet were known to Socrates or to Plato, a given Socratic speech which persuades his audience entirely may not be in accordance with the ‘facts’ known to Socrates. We are guided to those ‘facts’ partly by unthematic details and partly by seemingly causal remarks. It is relatively easy to understand the speeches of the characters: everyone who listens or reads perceives them. But to perceive what in a sense is not said, to perceive how what is said is said, is more difficult. The speeches deal with something general or universal (e.g., justice), but they are made in a particular or individual setting: these and those human beings converse there and then about a universal subject; to understand the speeches in the light of the deeds means to see how the philosophic treatment of the philosophic theme is modified by the particular or individual or transformed into a rhetorical or poetic treatment or to recover the implicit philosophic treatment from the explicit rhetorical or poetic treatment. Differently states, by understanding the speeches in the light of the deeds, one transforms the two-dimensional into something three-dimensional or rather one restores the original three-dimensionality.”
Hegel says at the beginning of his Phenomenology that the ancients begin with things, while the moderns begin with concepts. That means that Plato will never write about any philosophical problem unless it is absolutely grounded in something human here and now (which is amusing as his dialogues are timeless and placeless in reality). He will not discuss justice apart from the specifically human particular. The human particular cannot be a universal or even a general. What makes Plato platonic is that effort of seeing the universal or general only in how is it is skewed in the individual and the individual group. The number three is not an abstraction. It is always three objects, things. It cannot be separated form things, any more than a discussion of what justice is and how justice works can be separated from individual human beings, flesh and blood, with particular emotions and intellects. The actions of particular individual human beings are what the individuals want, and their motivations for that desire. Socrates goes to the Piraeus because he is asked by friends (including Plato) to attempt to cure the very embarrassing, huge ambition that Glaucon has for public office and political life generally. Glaucon potentially has the tyrant in him, and that potential if realized will destroy him as a human being. The stakes are high, and we know that Socrates has a very hard task, and we know he didn’t succeed with everyone. Consider Alcibiades.
We begin to see what the actions of the dialogue are at very small moments most of the time. For example, in the Philebus, Socrates is talking to some lads in the gym about pleasure. Philebus, the hedonist, is there, but it is Socrates who mentions that Philebus calls the young men there “boys.” From that very little remark, we see that Philebus is cruising the gym to seduce a young boy, the boy without facial hair who is a part of the erotic fantasy life of so many Athenian men. It was a part of growing up in Athens that men went to the gym to find a boy to be the bottom for a big oral and anal intercourse, even if the boy is protected by a tutor or a servant of the boy’s father. Socrates is literally standing in the way of Philebus having his way with any of the boys in the gym. Socrates is protecting the boys from Philebus, all while there is an incredibly complex discussion about what pleasure is. Yet, this discussion is never abstract, but it is always entwined with particular individuals and their acts. Plato does not write treatises and theoretical works.
“In a word, one cannot take seriously enough the law of logographic necessity. Nothing is accidental in a Platonic dialogue; everything is necessary at the place it occurs. Everything which would be accidental outside of the dialogue becomes meaningful within the dialogue. In all actual conversations chance plays a considerable role: all Platonic dialogues are radically fictitious. The Platonic dialogue is based on a fundamental falsehood, a beautiful or beautifying falsehood, viz., in the denial of chance.”
That chance is excluded from the dialogues only emphasizes what a powerful force luck plays in our lives. The randomness of human life, its frequent meaninglessness, makes dramatic art necessary. If the dialogues were full of chance events or resolved through a chance event, then the drama would not be satisfying. Again, let us remember how Aristotle simply thought the deus ex machina a ridiculous convention at the theatre. Chance events do not grow out of the action and conflict, but come externally. The falsehood of the Platonic dialogue arises from the fact that everything in the dialogues arise from the action and conflict between his characters. In a great sense, that organic structure, that logographic necessity, mirrors the relationship of philosophy to the world as a whole. The philosophic treatment of the world, especially of the city, provides an ideal image that appeals to an audience so that they can learn from it and adjust their behavior and understanding. The Platonic dialogue is non-corporeal, which is one reason that is defies luck, and one reason for the effectiveness the dialogue has on our own minds and imagination. We recreate the drama in our minds, and the pleasure of that comes about through the artfulness of Plato, whose work is strictly only an image of philosophy and the work of philosophy. The truly great writers all write to eliminate chance from their work. Consider James Joyce’s Ulyssess, where everything is plotted and placed where it is supposed to be. The paradoxical thing about such writing is that the more and more artificial the writing is, as it in Joyce or Plato, the more and more like real or everyday life it seems to be. When we look at the Platonic dialogue objectivity, the dialogue is absolutely and utterly fantastic. Yet, when Socrates dies, we weep. When Aristophanes tells his delightful erotic story, we laugh. But it is all a fantasy. It seems so real even though it has no being, because the technique that Plato uses is to create highly individual characters with very powerful or complex wants who interact with others through conflict where the stakes or hopes are frequently very high and where everything that comes out of the dialogue arises from that complex interplay.
So, Plato is a man who lies in a way that the lies suspend themselves and become truth. A Hegelian would say that nothing negates itself into something. But, then, it is Plato who is writing, while it is not clear to me that Hegel’s Concept is thinking anything when it starts the dialectic.