UNHOAXING THE HOAX
D. R. Khashaba
Last week I posted to my blog a paper titled “Plato’s Greatest Hoax”. I have come to realize that I had badly botched it. My best philosopher friends completely missed what I had meant to convey. That was perhaps partly because I had digressed over such a wide range that the special object of the paper was eclipsed by the profusion of marginally related matter. But basically the misunderstanding is more deeply rooted; for understanding, at all levels, is never a passive reception but a creative interpretation. What I say has its specific meaning in the complexity of my intellectual setup; in the reader’s mind it receives new meaning in the context of the complexity of the reader’s intellectual setup. This second, more deeply-seated ‘allonoia’ (if I may venture to coin a neologism) is irremediable. The simpler misunderstanding due to the writer’s fault I thought I might partly remedy by offering the following revised and much reduced version. I will be indebted to whomever may care to look at this corrected version.
After the execution of Socrates, Plato left Athens and spent several years moving around. The duration of his voluntary exile is differently assessed by different scholars; but that it was years rather than months is undisputed. He must have been mulling what to do with his life. He had been profoundly influenced by the character, life, thought, and ideals of Socrates and he felt it his duty and his mission to preserve all that.
Plato knew that to the last Socrates maintained that he had no philosophical system capable of being taught and learned. When at his trial he declared that it was his mission to teach philosophy and virtue, he made it clear that he did that by questioning people, seeking to make them examine themselves and correct their evaluations and their priorities. Behind that was the conviction voiced by Socrates when he said that daily to converse about virtue is the best life for a human being.
That life-philosophy, the philosophy of the philosophical life, could not be encapsulated in a formula of word or thought; neither was it capable of proof or logical demonstration. Neither Callicles in the Gorgias nor Thrasymachus in Republic (Bk.I) could be convinced by Socrates of the superiority of the life of virtue and philosophy. Philosophical insight is not something to be conveyed in set words but is a fire kindled through the converse of minds.
Plato was a born poet and had attempted drama in his early youth. He now started writing dramatic pieces to keep alive the memory of Socrates and do homage to “the best, and wisest, and most righteous man”. No more than Aeschylus or Sophocles would Plato use drama to propagate positive doctrine. In his dramatic pieces the arguments themselves are among the dramatis personae; they have their role in the drama. The end of a Platonic dialogue is not a conclusion established argumentatively but a total impression created artistically.
Naturally every piece would aim at specific effects and not one piece of Plato’s works serves a single purpose solely. For instance, the two Hippias pieces make fun of the bombastic sophist. In the Hippias Minor, whose paradox puzzles erudite scholars, the paradox is the crux of the drama. It comes with a hidden proviso: intentionally (hekôn) doing what is bad – if that were possible – would be better than doing what is bad unintentionally (akôn). But that is not possible. Thus in the Crito, when Crito says that the polloi can inflict the greatest harm, Socrates says, “Would that the polloi could inflict the greatest harm, for they would then be capable of doing the greatest good” (44d). For Socrates-Plato virtue and wisdom are as inseparable as they are for Spinoza for whom only one with adequate ideas acts; with inadequate ideas one is simply driven hither and thither.
The dramatic genius of Plato needs no showing. In the opening part of the Crito you can touch the quivering vocal chords of the good old man, choked with anxiety and grief. The Protagoras is a masterpiece of character portraiture, not only of Protagoras but of all the participants. The Apology and the Crito stand apart as perhaps the only dialogues that are to be taken at face value (which is not the same as taking them for factual accounts: dramatic truth is deeper than fact).
The Phaedo is clearly a multi-purpose dialogue. In the Phaedo Plato sings the praise of the philosophical life, offers a paean for the divinity of the soul, and in a passage queerly neglected by scholars (95e-102a), defines the nature and scope of philosophical thinking. Along with all that we have a chain of arguments for the immortality of the soul in the sense of personal survival.
Throughout the dialogue Plato indicates unmistakably (through the words and moods of the persona of the drama) that none of the arguments for immortality is conclusive. That has no bearing on the factual question whether Socrates or Plato – either of them or both of them – personally believed or did not believe in personal survival. The point is simply that Plato knew that such a position cannot be established purely by reasoning. The whole tissue of argument had its place in the drama portraying the heroic martyrdom of Socrates. Plato could not have meant that the arguments, as such, be taken for proofs, any more than Shakespeare meant Hamlet’s words – “in that sleep of death what dreams may come” – to be taken for a credo.
We go astray when we find in Plato’s works doctrine or theory. Plato gives us insights to share and problems to ponder. In the drama of Lessing or Ibsen you don’t seek edification but provocation. Let me be provocative. In over twenty-five centuries perhaps only three kin souls understood Plato: Plotinus, Giordano Bruno, and Shelley.
At the risk of once again defeating my own purpose by confusing the central issue of my paper, let me take up one of the points examined in the earlier paper.
At 97b Plato makes Socrates say:
“Nor do I yet admit to myself that I know the cause of the becoming of one, nor, in short, do I know of anything else through what it becomes or perishes or is, according to (the physical) method of inquiry, but I concoct for myself my own method, for that other I will in no way approach” (97b).
Further on we read:
“ I will try to show you the kind of cause I fashioned for myself, going back to what I have so often been dinning and taking my start from that, laying down there is a beautiful in itself and a good and a large and all other such, which if you grant me and agree such things be, I hope from these causes to show and discover that the soul is deathless.” (100b)
Underneath these words lurks the ambiguity in the terms aitia (cause) and gignesthai (become). In the authentic Socratic sense, the idea is the ‘cause’ of a thing ‘becoming what it is for us’, i.e., acquiring its meaning for us. The cause of a thing becoming what it is in itself is the physical cause that Socrates shuns. The ‘kind of cause’ Socrates concocted for himself is the principle of genuine philosophical thinking. This involves the renouncement of investigation into things”: such investigation into things gives us knowledge about how things appear to be but does not give us philosophical understanding. This latter only comes from the examination of pure ideas in the mind. (79c-d)
I cannot believe that the Plato who wrote that profoundly insightful ‘autobiographical’ passage (95e ff.) could have been unclear about this. Yet in what is called ‘the final argument’ he lets this dual ambiguity permit investigation into pure ideas to have objective jurisdiction. This runs counter to Socrates’ complete separation of investigation into things (en ergois) and investigation into ideas (en logoid). This is reminiscent of Kant’s permitting Practical Reason to reach conclusions that the Transcendental System places beyond the reach of Pure Reason.
What are we to make of this? I suggest this was an inner hoax within the wider hoax of passing the arguments for genuine arguments advanced in earnest. I further suggest that Plato wanted the reader to detect the hoax and gave direct and indirect clues to help in this. The direct clues are the repeated avowals of inconclusiveness, The indirect clues are the contradictions involved. This unhoaxes the hoax.
D. R. Khashaba
May 10, 2017
Posted to https://philosophia937.wordpress.com and http://khashaba.blogspot.com