By the Dog

M.F. Burnyeat

  • The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues by Ruby Blondell
    Cambridge, 452 pp, £55.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 521 79300 9

Thrasymachus, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, has listened with growing impatience to the discussion of justice in the first Book of Plato’s Republic. ‘What balderdash you two have been talking,’ he says to Socrates and Polemarchus. He cannot wait to astound the company, and win their acclaim, by unmasking justice as nothing but the advantage of the stronger, dominant group in society. Consider the facts. In each city the ruling class – which could be many individuals in a democracy, a few oligarchs, or a single tyrant – has fixed the laws to serve its own interests. The rest of us, if we obey these laws as justice requires, are simply profiting the rulers. And profiting them means harming ourselves. Thrasymachus sees all human life – not only interactions between rulers and ruled, but also dealings between one individual and another – as a zero-sum game. Every gain is someone else’s loss.

Socrates wonders whether rulers ever make mistakes about what is in their interest: obedience to an erroneous law would be to the rulers’ disadvantage, yet Thrasymachus insists that obeying the law is just. In such a case, surely, justice and the rulers’ interests come apart?

Cleitophon intervenes to defend his teacher: Thrasymachus meant that justice consists in obeying laws which prescribe what the rulers suppose to be advantageous to themselves. But no, says Thrasymachus, that is not what he meant at all, and Socrates is guilty of defamatory misrepresentation of his words. Certainly, in everyday speech we allow that on occasion a doctor, for example, may make a mistake. But what qualifies a doctor as a doctor is his medical knowledge. Qua doctor, therefore, no doctor makes mistakes. So it is with rulers:

The most precise way to formulate my position is to say that the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, makes no mistakes, but unerringly legislates what is best for himself, and this his subject must do. Thus my claim, and it is what I meant all along, is that it is just to do what is to the advantage of the stronger.

This is an exceedingly complicated way to present a philosophical controversy. Clearly, much more is going on than arguments for and against Thrasymachus’ unsettling diagnosis of what gives rise to the hallowed notion of justice. That ‘more’, as exhibited in the Republic and four other Platonic dialogues (Hippias Minor, Theaetetus, Sophist and Statesman), is the subject of Ruby Blondell’s important, stimulating, yet uneven new book.

The need has long been felt for ways of reading Plato that adequately reflect the unique combination in his writing of supreme literary art and extraordinary philosophical daring. Much Platonic scholarship focuses exclusively on the arguments without reference to the people arguing, and abstracts the theories stated from the dramatic context in which they are put forward. In reaction to this, whole books are written to insist that Plato composed dialogues, not treatises – but their authors are usually incompetent at philosophy. A curious alliance exists in this second camp between conservative followers of Leo Strauss and radical Postmodernists. Both are forever claiming that Plato subverts the conclusions reached by his characters, since a certain type of literary criticism shares with Straussian political thought a longing to trump philosophy and dethrone it from its traditional position as the most general form of reflection on human life and the world around us.

Now if that is what philosophy is, it is because Plato made it so. It was he who took the Greek verb φιλoφεîν, which stood for intellectual and cultural pursuits of any kind, and turned it into the accepted word for the sort of abstract inquiry we find in so many of his dialogues. By the time the Latin philosophia (ancestor of our ‘philosophy’) appears in our sources, there is no longer any ambiguity about what it refers to. Only in a work of what we now call philosophy would it be necessary and appropriate to speak of a doctor qua doctor. The subtly varied means that Plato deployed to wrest the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ from rival and more traditional sources of wisdom, such as poetry and rhetoric, are well analysed in one of the very few books to date that do justice to both the literary and the philosophical sides of Plato: Andrea Nightingale’s Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995).

Blondell draws on Nightingale, but her central theme is character, not genre. Consequently, she has much to say about Thrasymachus’ rudeness and how it tallies with the no-nonsense view of justice he proclaims. She sees that he treats discussion with Socrates not as a co-operative search for truth, but as a struggle for domination – yet another zero-sum game. He advances the provocative thesis that it is injustice (if you can get away with it), not justice, which is virtue and wisdom, only to find himself unable to defend his position against Socrates’ cunningly crafted questions, which drag him sweating and blushing to the most humiliating defeat in all Plato. Blondell comments: ‘Thrasymachus’ involuntary physical manifestations of shame show that he is unable to adapt to the search for “objective” Socratic truth without destroying his sense of his own identity.’ True enough, so far as it goes, but to leave it there is to substitute psychological analysis for moral and political philosophy.

Suppose Plato thinks that Thrasymachus is largely right about the facts. In existing regimes the dominant group exploits the rest for its own class interests. The world as we know it is ruled by injustice (that much Thrasymachus got right), which Socrates then proves to be ignorance and vice. If so, we should recoil from the reality of our political life, not from the person who unmasks it for what it is. Then we will be eager to read on in subsequent Books of the Republic, which investigate how political life could and should be made better by founding the ideal city.

Plato did think that Thrasymachus was largely right about the empirical facts. He will soon have Socrates explain why civic concord in the ideal city he is designing will make it pretty well invincible in war. The reason is that ordinary cities are in reality at least two cities at enmity with one another, the city of the rich and that of the poor, each of them split by further factional divisions. If the ideal city offers the property, powers and persons of the ruling class to the other parties, it will soon have allies enough to bring about the promised regime change.

Plato isn’t alone in these views. Aristotle quite often describes existing politics in Thrasymachean terms, as when he writes: ‘The devices by which oligarchies deceive the people are five in number,’ and proceeds to give details, before turning to the counter-devices found in democracies. He even quotes an oath sworn by the oligarchs in some oligarchical cities: ‘I will be an enemy to the people, and will devise all the harm against them I can.’ Admittedly, Aristotle thinks this practice ill-advised: the oligarchs would do better for themselves if they swore not to wrong the people. But he has no doubt that such an oath would be hypocritical.

Another, more engagé advocate of a class-based analysis of politics, known nowadays as ‘the Old Oligarch’, is the author of a Constitution of the Athenians wrongly attributed to Xenophon. He goes on about how cleverly the Athenian people have set things up to exploit the rich, and dreams of managing the same thing in reverse when his side gains power. Evidently, Greeks were less squeamish than we are about the relation between constitutional form and the realities of political power.

All this goes to show that the person of Thrasymachus is less important to Plato than his views. It is the views that explain the man, not the other way round. Blondell is much exercised by Socrates’ failure to get Thrasymachus to change his mind: rather than admit that his views are wrong, he goes into a sulk and declares that he will accept, insincerely, whatever proposition Socrates puts to him. But why treat this as a criticism of Socratic pedagogy? Perhaps it signals the obstinacy of the world that Thrasymachus’ views reflect. Or the fact that, unlike others who endorse his description of contemporary realities, he lives the ideas he teaches in a way that few besides Socrates achieve. If Thrasymachus really views dialectical discussion as a zero-sum contest, defeat is just that, a reason to submit, not a reason to change his mind. Socrates should not be expected to do any more than subdue him. In a later Book of the Republic he expressly allows that the discussion may not benefit Thrasymachus until he encounters similar talk in some future life. Altogether, there is too much A.C. Bradley in Blondell’s book, not enough of his philosopher brother F.H.

Blondell is also fiercely judgmental. In the space of just seven pages Thrasymachus is reproached for offensive personal abuse, Socrates for his ‘logic-chopping’ – which fails to address its victims’ deeper convictions – and Plato for his prejudicial representation of Thrasymachus. The third of these criticisms undermines the first, while the second is allegedly shared by Plato, the author who wrote all the parts. It would seem to follow that Plato’s representation of Socrates is as prejudicial as that of Thrasymachus. This is at least one adverse judgment too many, for Plato has written into his text a perfectly good philosophical explanation of why Socrates’ argument with Thrasymachus has to proceed in such abstract terms that it can look like logic-chopping.

In the text, Socrates remarks that Thrasymachus is unlike other people who suppose that successful injustice brings advantage to the agent. They usually class injustice as a vice, or admit, as does Polus in the Gorgias, that it is a disgraceful way to behave. Thrasymachus admits no such thing, but reserves all the favourable value terms for injustice, which he equates with good sense, intelligence and virtue. Consequently, as Socrates points out, there is no chance of arguing against him from any commonly shared value premise: Thrasymachus rejects the lot. Socrates’ opening question – ‘Do you think that a just man wants to do better than another just man?’ – is indeed abstract, and it is only as the refutation develops that we see what it amounts to. But when Thrasymachus answers, ‘Not at all, for otherwise he wouldn’t be the innocent fool he is,’ he concedes there is at least one human relationship which is not a zero-sum game. And it is this admission that will eventually bring him down. Logically, the refutation is well tailored to Thrasymachus’ radical stance.

The Republic is so rich, its cast of characters so varied, that it is easy to get absorbed by the drama and pay less than due attention to the philosophical content of what the speakers say. Interestingly, Blondell is much better with the least dramatic and colourful of the dialogues she treats, the Sophist and Statesman. The main speaker in these two late works, which present a continuous two-part discussion, is a visitor from Elea whose appearance is never described, whose name is never mentioned, and who is hardly characterised at all. Socrates is present, but speaks only in the introductory conversations. When the philosophy starts, he falls silent. We are not likely to forget about him, however, because the visitor’s interlocutor in the Sophist is the young Theaetetus, with whom Socrates talked the day before in the dialogue named Theaetetus, while in the Statesman it is Theaetetus’ friend Socrates the Younger. Readers have to remember that an address such as ‘What do you think, Socrates?’ is directed to this young man, not to the 70-year-old they know from the Theaetetus and other dialogues. Blondell speaks, with reason, of ‘the silencing of Socrates’, and she has a most interesting account of what Plato is up to.

The Socrates of the Republic and other dialogues is one of the most vividly characterised figures in world literature. We know lots about him: his famously ugly appearance (bulging eyes, snub nose, bare feet even when walking on ice), his habit of standing motionless for hours deep in thought, his courage as a soldier, his constant questioning of beautiful young men or older persons who make claims to wisdom and expertise, his resistance to Alcibiades’ attempt at seduction, his habit of swearing ‘By the Dog’ and other speech mannerisms, his ability to drink all and sundry under the table, his never leaving the city except on campaign, his ‘divine sign’ (an inner voice that sometimes warns him not to do what he was about to do), his endless irony and inexhaustible passion for knowledge. These things mark him out as a unique individual.

But when this unique individual speaks of philosophy and the philosopher, he directs our attention away from individuals towards a realm of abstract generalities. The philosopher, he says in the Theaetetus, is not concerned to know who did wrong to whom, but focuses on the absolutely general question: ‘What is justice? What is injustice? How do they differ from everything else and from each other?’ It is really only his body that lives and sleeps in the city. His mind is elsewhere; so much so that he does not know the way to the marketplace. He does not even know that he doesn’t know this, such is his lack of interest in the world directly around him. Since this is said by Socrates, whom everyone thinks of as a habitué of the marketplace and who shows himself acutely aware of his own ignorance, we should be puzzled. The Theaetetus portrait of a philosopher is so very unlike Socrates. That, according to Blondell, is the point. Plato wants to prepare his audience for philosophy without Socrates. Let him take second place to a completely generic character like the Eleatic visitor, as happens in the Sophist and Statesman, which together form a sequel to the Theaetetus. Or let him disappear altogether, as in another late work, Plato’s Laws.

This makes good sense, it seems to me, if we can agree that one aim of the Socratic dialogues is to ensure that Socrates does not disappear after his trial and execution. Here he is, still asking those awkward questions, which readers can see are educating, not corrupting the youths he talks with. But once the magnetism of Socrates has established the legitimacy of philosophy (under that name), Plato has reason to make philosophy independent of his idiosyncratic central figure. For one thing, Plato will himself not live for ever to sustain the inimitable character he has created. For another, Plato’s readers have experienced enough philosophy to understand a quite general account of who the philosopher is, as given in the Theaetetus. All that is needed then is to bring a nameless, generic philosopher on stage alongside Socrates to discuss the paradoxes of not-being in the Sophist and political expertise in the Statesman. The visitor’s lack of character becomes full of meaning. He, too, and therefore any of us who are sufficiently skilled, can do philosophy.