Challenging Plato’s Platonism

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Disentangling Plato from the Eleatic Stranger

The two articles I am discussing today–James Rhodes’ “The Real Name of the Stranger: The Meaning of Plato’s Statesman” and Zdravko Planinc’s “Plato’s Critique of ‘Platonism’ in the Sophist and Statesman”–are mature works of scholarship by two seasoned interpreters of Plato who have attempted to surpass traditional cannons of interpretation in favour of a new type of reading of the Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman trilogy of dialogues.

Though they make their arguments in different ways, Rhodes and Planinc agree that the common scholarly claim that the Eleatic Stranger’s politics and diairetic method supersede Socrates’ dialectic and political philosophy is mistaken. Far from superseding Socrates and representing Plato’s mature philosophical outlook, for them the Statesman and Sophist are critiques of the Stranger’s “dialectical science”–a high-minded type of geometrical thinking not amenable to the erotic character of true Socratic philosophy but open to the influence of sophistry because of its apparently comparable precision and intellectual sophistication.1

This new interpretive strategy makes both articles fascinating reading. If they are right, they would amount to significant challenges to the idealized or Platonist Plato that has come down to us through the tradition and has been appropriated by figures such as Augustine to legitimate the direction of the Christian teaching without however achieving its end.

I say, “if they are right” not because I am not persuaded. I am. But I would be more persuaded if the textual evidence were provided in full. Both articles are clearly the fruit of close, comprehensive analyses of the dialogues that take seriously their dramatic character. But because both authors are in a hurry to get the basic argument down they leave unwritten a great deal that they either have written elsewhere or have worked out analytically. So, like some deprivations, this one is not too difficult to bear because there is lots of evidence that more is on its way.

But in the meantime, there are important things in the articles that we can talk about, and I turn to those now. I will dispense with any further summary of the arguments beyond the basic ambitions and agreements I have discussed thus far and proceed to what I think are the interesting differences between their interpretations. Two stand out for comment: (1) their respective assessments of the Stranger’s method and the implications of those assessments for their positive interpretations of reason in the dialogues and (2) their account of Plato’s relation to Homer. I will conclude my remarks by asking about the significance of both interpretations of Plato’s critique of geometrical thinking in the Sophist and Statesman for our own contemporary problem of technological thinking.

The Stranger’s Diairetic Method and the Problem of Aporia

Late in his article Rhodes sums up the inadequacy of the Stranger’s method in the following way: “I think that Sophist and Statesman proceed from the premise that there can be a science of the intelligibility of the whole that prescinds from the Good. It is his obtuseness to the Good that accounts for the sham character of the stranger’s philosophy and his inferiority to Socrates. Plato lets the stranger push his science of the intelligibility of the whole without a Good as far as it can possibly go. He makes the strongest case for it that reason can devise and that fairness requires, as summarized above” (Rhodes, 33).

For Rhodes, Plato’s critique of the Stranger’s “science” is apparent in the aporiai to which that science unwittingly leads the Stranger, aporiai “that preclude its acceptance as a victory of human reason” (Rhodes, 33). In these sentences Rhodes claims that the “sham” character of the Stranger’s method derives from his obtuseness to the Good. He also suggests that the Stranger’s “science of the intelligibility of the Good” is the “strongest case that reason can devise” for such a science and even goes so far as to equate it with “human reason” per se. In this reading, the Stranger’s analysis is an honest application of human reason that fails to achieve it ends only because it encounters the aporiai that inevitably attend such efforts given that the Good–the highest thing–cannot be apprehended through human reason. The Stranger fails not because he fails but because human reason fails.

Contrast this with Planinc’s account, in which the Stranger’s “Diairesis is a rhetoric of presentation disguised as analysis” (Planinc, 6). That is, diairesis is not reason properly understood or even a bona fide method. “At best, it assumes a prior ability to judge correctly the natural divisions of things. No number of demonstrations of diairesis will teach anyone anything; and as a method, it can neither be learned nor applied.” For Planinc, it is therefore “the antithesis of Socratic dialectic” or reason–merely a “gimmick of cutting things in two, passing that off as the key to acquiring the right sort of judgment” (Planinc, 6).

Now, the use of a gimmick does not lead to aporiai. Indeed, it does not lead anywhere, properly speaking, because it does not concern real things. For Planinc not even the Stranger’s geometrical thinking can do this because it is a different orientation of the soul from the one involved in the proper exercise of reason: “Geometric thinking and dialectic do not concern different things; they are two possible orientations of the soul (ψυχὴ, 510b, 511a; cf. 511d) to the same thing, usually hypotheses, and Socrates opposes them using directional terms: geometric thinking moves from hypotheses ‘to an end (ἐπὶ τελευτήν)’ whereas dialectic moves from them ‘to a beginning that is free from hypotheses (τὸ ἐπ᾽ ἀρχὴν ἀνυπόθετον, 510b)’” (Planinc, 12).

For Planinc, unlike for Rhodes, the Stranger fails to arrive at the Good not because his natural reason founders on its own limitation but because he does not want to arrive at the Good, preferring instead other things–for instance, “to project the form of [his geometrical] knowledge into all realms, and consequently to imagine that the dialectical ascent foundational to the pursuit of wisdom and prudence is an aspiration to the mastery of the highest axioms and demonstrative proofs, and furthermore to imagine that life itself can be lived as theory applied on the model of technique” (Planinc, 12-13).

A Debate about the Nature of the Good

It is difficult to determine the source of this difference between Rhodes and Planinc’s assessments of reason. Planinc would certainly agree with Rhodes that there is something beyond reason and its categories, the apprehension of which is one important foundation of human experience. But he might disagree with him about how to conceive that “beyond” or “where” (to use a spatial metaphor) it might be found. Consider how Rhodes distinguishes between the Stranger’s “sham” philosophy and Socrates’ true one.

He claims that the former requires an “ascent to the eternal Good of Republic” while the latter concerns merely “a logic of the similarities and differences of transient phenomena” (Rhodes, 34). In other words, what is at stake here is a choice between things (“transient phenomena”) and what lies beyond things (“the eternal Good”), between reason and faith, between this world and the other world. The Stranger refuses the eternal Good and therefore loses all meaning, ending up only with a catalogue of empirical differences and similarities between phenomena. Planinc also talks about the divine as an ordering experience, but when it comes to his critique of the Stranger, of the many things he finds repugnant about his method or “reason” the one that stands out most clearly is that it chops “[things] into bits”–transient things (Planinc, 15). In this account, the problem with the Stranger is not only or even primarily his refusal to see the transcendent Good but his inability to experience the sacred in things closest to hand and his corresponding tendency to misuse or harm them.

Homeric Religion

In his article, as in Plato Though Homer as well as several other articles, Planinc develops his analysis of Plato’s dialogues through an examination of the manner in which he used Homer’s Odyssey as a source text for his own presentation of Socrates’ philosophy and politics. In his article, Rhodes acknowledges that his own account of the “meditative-mythical spiritual voyage” he finds in the dialogues is based on Planinc’s work, though adapted to his own purpose. I will not go into the details of either analysis here, both of which are extremely compelling and thought provoking, but instead use the opportunity to explore briefly a difference between the two authors regarding their views of Plato’s relation to this Homeric text.

We know from other works that one of Planinc’s inspirations for exploring Plato’s use of source texts was Voegelin’s stunning insight regarding the equivalence of experience and symbolization in history and its importance as a corrective to modern developmental or progressivist historiographies. Voegelin’s great insight was that all philosophical, historical, and literary texts exhibit the permanent or unchanging structure of human and non-human nature to the extent of their competence. The modern tendency to see ancient or medieval texts as qualitatively inferior simply because they were chronologically earlier was for Voegelin mistaken. Overcoming that tendency would therefore have the effect of opening us up to the full historical range of human experience in a way that would bring our own civilization into critical conversation with the past. In Planinc’s case, it paved the way for a consideration of the equivalences of symbolization and experience in Plato and Homer and perhaps also for the manner in which Plato used Homer as a source text for his dialogues, though that latter claim is perhaps more open to debate.

Rhodes’ exploration of Plato’s use of Homer indicates that he agrees with both Planinc and Voegelin. Plato could use Homeric tropes and understandings because the world that concerned him was the same world that Homer had explored through his own mythopoesis. Indeed, Rhodes says explicitly that by having Socrates face charges of disbelieving in the gods in the Apology, Plato was not diagnosing “a principled dispute between poetry, religion, and faith on one side and philosophy on the other” (Rhodes, 25). He was not pitting Homer against Socrates, or Socrates against the gods. Socrates “believes in gods more than any of his accusers do” (Rhodes, 25). Yet Rhodes also says “Socrates must expect death from Homeric believers” (Rhodes, 25; my emphasis). What does he mean?

By the term “believers” Rhodes sometimes means a type of ancient religious dogmatism. Socrates’ philosophical openness to “divine reality” is opposed only to “corrupted religiosity, which is marked by dogmatic literalism (fundamentalism), power lust, and murderous paranoia” (Rhodes, 25). That is to say, Socrates is criticizing only illiterate fundamentalists who cannot read and who use great literary texts to justify their religious and political madness. Well and good. However, Rhodes also sometimes suggests that what Socrates rejects are “unseemly stories about wars of the gods” and “mythical blasphemies” that justify comparable human behaviour (R, 25; my emphasis). In other words, he suggests that Socrates is not rejecting just bad interpretations of the stories but the stories themselves.

The reason for this ambiguity in Rhodes’ analysis is unclear. It may have something to do with his acceptance of Voegelin’s compact/differentiated analysis in preference to his equivalence analysis. According to the former, Greek poetry is limited because it has not broken through to the highest insight of divine reality beyond the lesser cosmic divinities. The latter may be a divinized world, a “world full of gods,” as per the analysis of The New Science of Politics. But it is an incomplete world nonetheless because it has not broken through to the notion of a ground of Being beyond Being itself and the corresponding notion of a dedivinized world.

But according to Voegelin’s equivalence argument, all human stories reflect potentially the full amplitude of our experience of reality and therefore our preference for monotheistic accounts over “polytheistic” ones is little more than a prejudice that may also reflect an interpretive limitation. As Socrates attempts to teach Adeimantus in book 3 of the Republic, even “unseemly” stories like those in Homer can teach us something about our experience of reality, divine reality included, because we know by nature what unseemly is and because reality is not univocal. Divine reality is everywhere–always. That’s why an author like David James Duncan can write a fishing story in which the “Beyond” is present on almost every page, right along side the trout, walleye, and salmon and a host of greater and lesser human characters. In another idiom, the way up and the way down are the same.

This difference from Planinc seems to me apparent only when Rhodes is describing Socrates’ relation to “Homeric believers,” not when he is exploring Plato’s use of Homer textually. In the latter case, the difference vanishes in his remarkable account of how Plato used Homer and what this might teach us about the best life and regime.

Geometrical thinking and Modern Technical Society

I would like to raise one final question about the relationship between ancient geometrical thinking and modern technological thinking. Planinc argues that the Stranger is a prototypical intellectual, a type today often found employed in Departments of Political Science. The sophistic dodges he describes in the Statesman are certainly troubling in this regard, enough to make anyone of us uncomfortable.

But does not the more serious indictment concern our whole civilization’s adoption of the Stranger’s style of geometrical thinking as the sole measure of what is real? Has not this adoption led us to abandon the erotic mania of Socratic philosophy in a far more definitive way than even the Stranger imagined?

To technically minded people, eros simply has no currency. As a colleague of mine in the sciences remarked recently in response to my assertion of eros’ importance for a program we were developing, “It’s fluff.” The climate of opinion has changed so dramatically today that verbal dodges of the Stranger’s type no longer even seem necessary–at least not with colleagues. The situation is akin to the one Camus describes in The Fall: “You must have noticed that our old Europe at last philosophizes in the right way. We no longer say, as in simple times: ‘This is the way I think. What are your objections?’ We have become lucid. For the dialogue, we have substituted the communiqué: ‘This is the truth… You can discuss it as much as you want; we aren’t interested. But in a few years there’ll be a police force who will show you we are right” (Camus, The Fall, 45). For “police” merely substitute “Academic Review and Planning Committee” and you will have a fairly good image of the current university situation.

The Eleatic Stranger’s geometrical style of thinking is what guides our society in virtually all its pursuits. It has crowed out the humanities and indeed any activity that does not operate according to its principles. Rhodes’ and Planinc’s analyses of the Eleatic dialogues indicate clearly the serious consequences of this type of thinking for politics and philosophy. It would be interesting to read their assessments of the form this thinking has assumed in our current dispensation in light of their readings of Plato’s original critique. By following their return to Plato we might find the real source of our dilemma and perhaps a way beyond it.

 

Notes

 1. According to Rhodes, “What seems to be evident is that the stranger’s “statesmanship,” or politikē technē, not only differs greatly from Socrates’ alēthōs politikē technē but also makes it appear unscientific and useless at best and destructive of the safety of the city at worst. Socrates comes off as one of the ‘greatest sophists’.”

According to Planinc, “the Eleatic Stranger’s development of the diairetic method in the Sophist culminates in his claim to have superseded not only Socrates but even ‘father Parmenides’ (241d) in being the only philosopher to attain ‘dialectical science (διαλεκτικῆς … ἐπιστήμης, 253d)’ and his diairesis of the sciences in the Statesman, in which a practical science is said to be a cognitive science applied in a technical way, culminates in his equally hubristic claim to an absolute political authority in so far as he is the only philosopher to have acquired the true statesman’s science of politics.”

 

Also available is “The Real Name of the Stranger: The Meaning of Plato’s Statesman,” “Plato’s Critique of ‘Platonism’ in the Sophist and Statesman,” “Plato Reconsidered: Planinc-Rhodes Correspondence,” “The Uses of Plato in Voegelin’s Philosophy,” and “One View of Zdravko Planinc’s Critique of Voegelin.”

Ronald D. Srigley

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Ronald D. Srigley is a Board Member of VoegelinView and its former editor (2013-16). He is an Adjunct Professor of Human Studies at Laurentian University and Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Humber College in Canada. His books include Eric Voegelin’s Platonic Theology (Edwin Mellen, 1991) and a translation of Albert Camus' Christian Metaphysics and Neo-Platonism (Missouri, 2008) and Albert Camus’ Critique of Modernity (Missouri, 2011).