Classical and Contemporary Eros
In the Theages, Demodocus, a rural landowner and a committed democrat, approaches Socrates with his son Theages in tow. Demodocus is fearful because his son wants to become wise (121c-d), and he knows what Theages means by that term. Theages craves knowledge of how to rule human beings (123a). In fact, Theages openly confesses to wishing to be a tyrant (124e). Socrates succeeds in shaming the youth and his father, whereupon Theages retracts his statements, declaring that he desires to rule over only those who are willing to be governed by him. He does not propose to become a tyrant or a god (125e-126a).
Theages and Demodocus then implore Socrates to become the youth’s tutor. Socrates begs off, insisting that he knows nothing about making people good citizens. All he knows are the things of eros, about which he is so astonishingly clever (127d-128b). Theages objects that he is aware of fellows who have made progress by studying with Socrates, becoming superior to their cohorts. At this stage of the conversation, it is no longer clear what Theages understands progress or superiority to be. Socrates attempts to scare Theages off. He points out that young men who have studied with him when his daimon has warned against it have perished. Theages replies that the daimon’s opinion can be ascertained in due course, so Socrates agrees to take him on. (Theages actually dies a few years later.) As things stand, Theages will accept instruction in the only subject that Socrates knows, eros, as a means to becoming politically wise.
In the Republic, the recurring story that we are tracing begins in the prehistory of the dialogue, in the lives of the real people who are made into characters in the drama. According to Xenophon, Socrates took Glaucon under his wing for the sake of his brother Plato and his uncle Charmides. There was trouble afoot. Glaucon was intent upon becoming a demagogue and a leader in the city although he was not yet twenty. He was terribly ignorant and callow. If he acted, he was sure to be dragged off the dais and ridiculed. Only Socrates could restrain him. In a conversation that Xenophon reports, Socrates called Glaucon’s attention to several problems of political policy making about which he knew nothing and warned that he would suffer a fall if he insisted upon going into politics before being educated (Memorabilia 3.6.1-18). Presumably, Glaucon took this counsel to heart. This would explain why he appears in both the Symposium and the Republic, seeking what he takes to be political wisdom.
So far in the tale, there is nothing blameworthy in Glaucon’s behavior, except perhaps for bad judgment born of immaturity .21 Plato, though, provides more insight into Glaucon’s heart than Xenophon does. His dramatic character Glaucon is an extremely erotic young man in at least three senses. First, he totally lacks sexual control. 22 He is aroused by every boy he meets in the bloom of youth, being driven like a person suffering stings (Republic 474c-475a). It is a little-noticed fact that Glaucon’s pederasty is ultimately responsible for the entire conversation recorded in the Republic. It is Glaucon, not Socrates, who decides that the two will remain in the Piraeus that night. Glaucon makes this decision upon hearing that there will be numerous youths with whom he can speak at a torch race (328a-b).
Second, Glaucon is philonikos and philotimos, victory loving and honor loving to an extraordinary degree (545a, 548d-e). Third, it is Glaucon who tells the story of the magic ring that made the shepherd invisible. He spins this yarn because he wants Socrates to explain why he should not behave as the shepherd did if he were to lay hands on the ring (357a-362c). Like the shepherd, and like the 55 percent of my students, Glaucon regards the good things in life as sex, wealth, and power. He cannot see why he should refrain from injustice if wrongdoing will procure the goods that make him happy. Inasmuch as Glaucon is seriously willing to commit murder, rape, and other crimes to gratify his lusts, we may infer that he has an enormous eros for tyranny.
It is interesting that with his unrestrained eros for sex, his singular eros for victory and honor, and his mammoth eros for tyrannical power, he greatly resembles Alcibiades. Socrates tries to answer Glaucon. This is a more significant way in which Glaucon is responsible for the substantive theoretical content of the Republic. In his reply, Socrates administers therapy to Glaucon’s three loves, going to sometimes farcical lengths to moderate the lad’s sexual passion, render his dreams of glory through militaristic imperialism illegitimate (especially the fantasies that he might have about fighting Hellenes), and eliminate his desire for despotic power. In the process, he speaks about the relationships between eros and tyranny (bk. 9), and he portrays the tyrant’s life as totally unhappy. The Republic is another therapy for tyrannical eros that assumes that the alteration of this love is the prerequisite for political wisdom.
The Republic is linked to the Phaedrus by more inversions. In the Republic, Socrates is asked to stay and chat as he is leaving the Piraeus and heading back to the city. In the Phaedrus, Socrates asks an admirer of the absent Lysias to speak as he is leaving the city. In the Republic, Lysias, the best sophistical orator, is present but does not speak, whereas he speaks without being personally present in the Phaedrus. In the Republic, the highest point of a philosophic ascent is reached, and a new descent is begun presumably around midnight. In the Phaedrus, the nadir of a philosophic descent is reached, and a new ascent is begun at noon.
One could adduce more examples, but these are enough to make me think that the Republic is somehow completed by the Phaedrus. In the latter dialogue, the erotically ailing man who aspires to tyranny is Phaedrus himself. Phaedrus is not so young anymore, but he obsessively affects youth and loves to be called young. One can tell that Phaedrus craves despotic power because the first two speeches in the dialogue, in which he delights, are clearly metaphors on tyrannical rule by means of manipulative rhetoric. In the third speech, Socrates gives poetic therapy to Phaedrus’s eros, attempting to change its object. The concluding section on rhetoric aims to demonstrate that the sophistical-tyrannical use of this powerful tool is improper. So, Plato’s constant dramatic refrain is that the healing of a tyrannical eros is necessary to political wisdom. This implies that the study of eros is the study of politics, and vice versa. Thus, the Platonic dialogues that we perceive as erotic are also political, and the dialogues that we classify as political are also erotic. I believe that these connections will prove to be visible not only in the arguments but also in the dramatic actions and settings of the dialogues.
If U.S. experience confirms that an understanding of eros is critical to mankind’s happiness and the teacher’s work, does it also verify that a healthy eros is essential to political wisdom? To answer this question definitively, one would probably have to do a philosophic-political history of the United States. Such a digression would engulf my present enterprise. I must content myself with an appeal to incidents that establish plausibility rather than certain truth. One episode that appears theoretically useful is the crisis of William Jefferson Clinton. This president was impeached on December 19,1998, for committing perjury in his grand jury testimony about a sexual liaison and for obstructing justice in a sexual harassment suit against him.
I dislike speaking about this scandal because everything about it was so banal. However, I reluctantly choose it as an example, together with related troubles that Clinton experienced, because most Americans have reacted to these events by taking a position on one of the eternal questions. To inquire whether a healthy eros is necessary to political wisdom is to ask if good character is a prerequisite for good statesmanship. The opinion evidently held by the majority of Americans, and certainly held by the most influential analysts of the Clinton impeachment, is that good character in principle has nothing at all to do with good governance. The modern many have come to believe that a superb politician needs only to be technically competent at transacting public business. A variation on this theme is the notion that a politician’s private morality is wholly irrelevant to his or her public ethics.
The proponents of these doctrines try to carry their general point by appealing to the sexual case. They contend that known, or rumored, adulterers such as John F. Kennedy have been good presidents, whereas several faithful husbands have been bad ones.23 These results were reached, they say, either because the adulterous presidents were technically skillful administrators, and the monogamous ones were bunglers, or because the privately bad ones were publicly virtuous and the privately good ones were publicly immoral. This might be true of some or several cases.
Neither version of this argument is persuasive as principle, though. A fatal defect of the first formulation is that technical ability cannot be measured except in relation to an end, or telos, and the selection of an end is an ethical act. If the concept of good administration has any meaning at all, some goodness of character is required to ensure the choice of a good telos, such as liberty and justice for all as opposed to, say, personal gain. The second version is self-contradictory. While proclaiming virtue irrelevant, it concedes that a certain variety of good character, that is, “public virtue,” is needed for good governance. Also, both arguments breezily beg the question of how a good ruler should be defined. They blithely assume that a popular figure who presided over victorious wars or economically prosperous times was a good chief executive and that an unpopular man who presided over losing wars or economic slumps was bad. This might not be true. Further, if these objections could be met somehow, the Clinton incidents reveal that the arguments occasionally prove false in their central thesis. They show that the arguments grossly oversimplify the relations among eros, virtue, wisdom, and the public-private issue. The theoretical problems cannot be reduced to the question of whether adulterers have been competent administrators. Not only the sexual eros but also every other sort of eros must be considered, as follows.
First, it is clearly possible that an adulterous president could make good political decisions. We probably have several examples of this in our history. This can occur because it does not follow that those who commit adultery necessarily do other wrongs. It is a principle of every ethics that recognizes moral choice that no evil inevitably entails another evil. However, it is not true that the private sexual conduct of presidents has never affected the discharge of their public responsibilities.
President Clinton’s case itself disproves the claim. In this debacle, the sexual harassment suit was filed against Clinton in May 1994. It is known that Clinton always believed that the lawsuit was instituted at the behest of enemies who would stop at nothing to destroy him. Still, Clinton began a new sexual affair in November 1995, with a total stranger whose discretion had to be suspect and who proved to be extremely indiscreet. He did this in the knowledge that his enemies would use the liaison against him and that fully half of his society would find his behavior repugnant if it were discovered. Even Clinton’s apologists admit that this was incredibly reckless. The consequences were that a year of Clinton’s second term was consumed by the scandal and that his always imperiled ability to lead was annihilated, leaving him to do virtually nothing but mark time during his last two years in office.
I think it fair to infer that, here, an unrestrained sexual eros blinded a president to political wisdom and, thus, had an extremely negative impact on the performance of his public duties. Private consensual sex proved indistinguishable from a politically foolish act that made the attainment of various noble goals impossible, thus collapsing the much touted difference between private and public morality. It might be lucky that the results of Clinton’s folly were no worse than the political paroxysms and storms of hatred that it generated. Clinton could have made other harebrained decisions while his judgment was impaired by the sexual eros. To indulge a flight of fancy, we may recall that it was a sexual eros that destroyed Troy.
Second, in the sexual harassment suit against President Clinton, he was asked questions about his consensual sexual acts with third parties not involved in the case. His indubitably perjured answers led to the grand jury investigation of his conduct and the impeachment. The fishing expedition into his sexual activities was censured as an odious invasion of privacy not only by his supporters but also by most Americans, and rightly so.
People were generally unaware of the ironic background of the fishing expedition. It was Clinton who signed the Violence against Women Act into law, and it was this statute that obliged the judge in the harassment case to compel discovery of his consensual sexual encounters. Clinton and the legislators who agreed to the law did so perhaps because they believed in it and definitely because they were courting the feminist vote. Thus, when Clinton and his partisans protested the invasion of his privacy, they were furious about being hoist with their own petard. They never honestly admitted that they had passed a bad law that ceded too much power to prurient curiosity. It appears just to conclude that an excessive eros for victory and power, on the part of Clinton, the legislators, and those who demanded enactment of the offensive legislation, made them obtuse to political wisdom, steering the politicians to an incompetent exercise of their public stewardship.
Third, the independent counsel who referred the evidence of impeach-able acts by President Clinton to the House of Representatives was originally assigned to investigate crimes allegedly perpetrated by Clinton and his wife in a failed real estate venture while he was the governor of Arkansas. I have no idea whether the Clintons committed the crimes. Suppose just hypothetically that they did do that. (If they did not, it is clear that certain senators did so a few years previously.) Such felonies would be instances of an ignoble eros for wealth, that is, examples of a private vice, that infected politicians and grew into public immorality. Socrates would deny that this fleecing of the people was politically wise, as witness his debate with the sophist Thrasymachus. (The savings-and-loan scandal did grave harm to U.S. society.)
Fourth, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who sent articles of impeachment to the Senate briefly entertained the possibility of inquiring into President Clinton’s supposed violations of federal campaign finance laws. One accusation against the president was that in order to acquire funds needed to win the 1996 election, he accepted large campaign donations (that is, bribes) from the Chinese government. In return, he allegedly skewed U.S. foreign policy in ways favorable to China and detrimental to the United States. Again, I do not know whether these charges were true. Circumstantial evidence (some witnesses wanted for questioning fled to China) created an aura of authenticity around the accusations. Again, let us assume only hypothetically that Clinton was guilty. This would be another example of an extreme eros for victory and power that clouded political judgment, producing acts that bordered on treason.
Fifth, five days after the Judiciary Committee approved the articles of impeachment, President Clinton ordered U.S. forces to bomb Iraq for violating the Gulf War armistice rules. It was charged that Clinton did this to distract attention from his problems at home. Although I think this accusation false, many believed it. Suppose once again for the sake of argument that it was true. This would mean that Clinton murdered Iraqis and risked American lives to keep his power. Thus, we would have an example of a monumental tyrannical eros that was totally inconsistent with political wisdom and caused public evil. Indeed, the Clinton being painted here bears an eerie similarity to Alcibiades. Each man, the hypothetical American and the real Greek, was a demerastes who committed treason and tyrannical murder for the sake of power.
Finally, throughout President Clinton’s ordeal, he and his supporters maintained that he was being persecuted by unscrupulous enemies who wanted only to humiliate him and bring him down for reasons of political jealousy and hatred. This was essentially true. Of course, there were exceptions. The independent counsel, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and some other Republicans undoubtedly believed that they were doing God’s work. In their opinion, they were defending the sanctity of the laws and the president’s oath against the claim that a president should be allowed to commit perjury when ordinary mortals had to tell the truth in court. They had a point.
Nonetheless, the integrity of their position was compromised by the hatred that created and drove the original sexual harassment suit, by their sanctimony, by their incessant wallowing in the salacious details of Clinton’s sexual affairs, and by their insistence upon staying their course when it became obvious that their efforts were counterproductive. Their folly was greater than Clinton’s, for they were plainly succeeding only in discrediting religion and convincing the American public that private immorality is irrelevant to good governance, a conclusion that the people were drawing as a non sequitur from their foul play. It seems fair to gather that the Republicans were driven by a massive eros for victory that devastated their prudence, or political wisdom, too. The result was that they debased the public morality that they purported to represent and senselessly convulsed the federal government for more than a year.Their personal viciousness gravely affected their discharge of their public duties.
Although I am close in time to the incidents that I have described, they are fading from public memory rapidly. They were never worth remembering. Any set of facts that I selected to clarify the problems under discussion would have been subject to the same criticism. What matters is to rise to the eternal from the transient and the base. With respect to the enduring question of whether good character is indispensable to good government, I believe that I have made a prima facie case for the propositions that character matters and that the Socratic claim that an exceedingly diseased eros is incompatible with political wisdom deserves a hearing.
If eros bears upon individual happiness, the teacher’s work, and politics, we should certainly wish to learn what Socrates knows about it. However, this requires us to come to grips with the apparent contradiction that Socrates simultaneously professes his ignorance while claiming to have a wonderfully intelligent science of erotics. Does Socrates know erotics? Can we glean the things of eros from him?
At first glance, a reexamination of Socrates’ language in the Apology seems to offer an easy solution of this problem. Socrates’ comments about the artisans indicate a way in which his apparent contradiction could be reconciled. When Socrates says that he was conscious that he “knew nothing, so to speak” (22c9-dl), and then dismisses the artisans because they knew their trades but not “the greatest things” (22d7-el), he could be taken to mean that he, too, knows various things, but that none or too few of these things are the greatest things, so that knowing all the things that he knows is to know “nothing, so to speak,” because it is as good as knowing nothing.
Then, in the Symposium and the Theages, where Socrates declares that he knows “nothing but the things of eros” and “nothing, except a certain small subject of learning, the things of eros,” he could be understood as confirming that he does know the things of eros and that he is willing to call what he knows knowledge because eros somehow is both a thing within human ken and one of the greatest things. This, in turn, would be consistent with his denial in the Apology that he is wise, for wisdom would demand insight into all the greatest things, notably the divine things, which alone are noble and good, and not just eros, the only partially human thing that ranks among the greatest things.
This reconciliation of the apparent contradiction has much to recommend it, not least that it looks like it could be the truth. Granted, Socrates’ protests of his ignorance at his trial would not be the whole truth, for they do not refer to his knowledge of eros. However, these disavowals would contain as much of the whole truth as the jurors wanted to hear. The jurors were interested in Socrates’ alleged wisdom about the things under the earth and the heavenly things, his views on gods, and the effect of his rhetoric on the young. They would have been outraged if Socrates had begun to speak about eros-unaccountably, as it would have seemed to them. Socrates could honestly disclaim knowledge of the things that concerned them.
I shall assume, then, that there is no genuine contradiction in Socrates’ words and that Socrates does actually know one of the greatest things, eros, at least in its human dimensions. Regrettably, this makes our task hard rather than easy. It means that learning Socrates’ science of erotics is not simply a matter of reading the relevant pages of Plato’s dialogues. If eros is one of the greatest things, Socrates and Plato would not have expounded the erotic science, certainly not in writing and probably not orally, either. I deduce this from Plato’s extant correspondence.
In his Seventh Letter, Plato abjures the notion that Dionysius II of Syracuse and other dubious persons could have known that about which he is serious (peri on ego spoudaio). They could not have apprehended anything of the matter(peri tou pragmatos), “[f]or there is no writing of mine about these things(peri auton), nor will there ever be. For it is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons (raton gar oudamos estin of alla mathamata)” (341cl-6). A few sentences later, Plato declares that an attempt to write or speak about these things to the many would not be good for human beings, “except for some few who are able to learn by themselves with a little guidance.” As for the others, some would be filled “with a contempt that is not right and that is in no way harmonious, and others with lofty and empty hopes, as if they had learned some mysteries” (341e2-342al).
These disclaimers echo others in the Phaedrus, where Socrates says that a word, “once it is written, is tossed about, alike among those who understand and those who have no business with it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak” (275d9-e3). He goes on to proclaim the superiority of oral to written teaching (276a-b), insisting that a person who knows the just, the beautiful, and the good will not write seriously (276c).
We may be certain that if eros is one of the greatest things, Plato and Socrates would have been serious about it. Hence, they would not have written about it and probably would not have spoken about it, at least not seriously. I shall call their policy of refraining from writing or speaking about serious things “silence.” The phenomenon of Platonic silence raises a question: If Socrates does know the things of eros, can we learn his science if he will not write or speak about it? The only possible answers are that we cannot or that we still can, if knowledge of the serious things cannot be spoken but somehow is generated or communicated without being spoken. If the first answer were right, our inquiry would necessarily end here, with the conclusion that, in Plato’s view, human beings are doomed to permanent disorder. If the second reply held, we would have to wonder what kind of understanding of serious things is unspeakable but obtainable or transmissible without being spoken. Let us hope for the best and take the optimistic path.
One can conceive of two ways in which serious knowledge might be unspeakable but still engendered or transmitted without being spoken. The first possibility is based on Plato’s words in the Seventh Letter, to the effect that whatever is serious “is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons.” This might imply that there are realities that can be known, but not in the same way other things are known, that is, by means of verbal propositions. Owing to the natures of the realities, knowledge of them would be ineffable. If we learned what Socrates knows, we would not be able to incorporate it in creeds, lectures, or handbooks, we would not be able to demonstrate it with what positivists call “intersubjectively transmissible” evidence, and, hence, we could not enjoy the same kind of confident control of it that we have of the propositional sciences.
In a sense, Socrates and we would be wise and ignorant at once. As observed by Eric Voegelin, the outstanding theorist who explored this hypothesis, our condition would be one of “knowing questioning.”24 How the Socratic wisdom could be generated or communicated if it is nonpropositional is not immediately clear. One supposes that Platonic dialogues and Socratic teaching would somehow guide readers and auditors to conditions or vantage points that enabled them to gain or receive the knowledge without direct verbal instruction. We would have to discover how this process worked by experiencing it.
The other possibility is founded on descriptions of strategies attributed to sophists and “the original humans”(ton archaion) in some Platonic texts. In the work bearing his name, Protagoras states that his ancient predecessors knew that teaching politics to young men was dangerous. It could provoke jealousy, hostility, and conspiracies. Fearing these reactions, the old-time sophists disguised their reasoning as poetry (for example, Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides), as mystery cults (as in Orpheus and Musaeus), as gymnastics (for instance, Iccus of Tarentum and Herodicus of either Selymbria or Megara), and as music (such as Agathocles of Athens and Pythocleides of Ceos). Protagoras adds that he does not practice such trickery himself because the able men of every city always see through it, whereas the many grasp nothing (316c-317b).25 In the Theaetetus, Socrates says that the original people hid their theories from the many by camouflaging them as poetry (180c-d). In the Republic, Thrasymachus charges that Socrates himself resorts to “irony,” that is, he pretends not to know when he actually has a quite definite opinion (337a).
Over the centuries, some superb thinkers have accepted Thrasymachus’s attribution of deceptive tactics to Socrates and, by extension, to Plato. Thus, they argue that Plato and other genuine philosophers practiced “irony,” or what has also come to be classified as “esotericism.” They suppose that Socrates’ knowledge “is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons,” not in the sense that it is ineffable, but insofar as there are compelling reasons to keep it secret. It can be transmitted in verbal form to trustworthy recipients of secrets at will. Irony or esotericism is the technique of speaking and writing in ways that hide a dangerous secret from the many while revealing it to the few who are reliable. It will be instructive to provide some examples of perspectives on the classical philosophers’ understanding of this art, three dating from times close to the origin of the tradition of esoteric interpretation, and the fourth from our era.
First, in his Alexander, Plutarch says of Aristotle’s education of the young prince: “It seems that Alexander received not only the ethical and political argument, but also shared in those forbidden and deeper teachings which the men call by the private terms ‘acroamatic’ and ‘epoptic’ and which they do not impart to many.”26 Plutarch continues by informing us that the conqueror later rebuked Aristotle for publishing his acroamatic teachings. The master answered that his arguments were “both given out and not given out.” Plutarch embellishes Aristotle’s reply by maintaining that “truly his study of metaphysics is useless for those who would either teach or learn but is written as an example for those who have already been taught” (7.3.5). Of course, Plato is believed to be one of the men to whom Plutarch refers.
Second, preparing to present theological arguments that do not concern us here, the Christian Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, declares that he will write like Plato, meaning that he will attempt to say something unobtrusively or to reveal it without uncovering it or to prove it without saying anything.27
Third, in The City of God, Saint Augustine refuses to expound Plato’s teachings about the end of all action, the cause of all natural objects, and the light of all acts of reason. He excuses his decision by asserting of Plato: “Indeed, he makes a point of preserving the well-known manner of his master Socrates, whom he makes a disputant in his books, that of dissembling any knowledge or opinion of his own, and because he approved this, the result is that Plato’s own views on important subjects are not easy to perceive.”28
Finally, with respect to Plato, the great modern theorist and champion of irony, Leo Strauss, precisely says:
“Irony in the highest sense will then be the dissimulation of one’s wisdom, i.e., the dissimulation of one’s wise thoughts. This can take two forms: either expressing on a “wise” subject such thoughts (e.g., generally accepted thoughts) as are less wise than one’s own thoughts or refraining from expressing any thoughts regarding a “wise” subject on the ground that one does not have any knowledge regarding it and therefore only can raise questions but cannot give any answers.”29
It should be noted that Strauss’s second form is identical to the subterfuge that Thrasymachus attributes to Socrates. In another place, Strauss comments: “Every decent modern reader is bound to be shocked by the mere suggestion that a great man might have deliberately deceived the large majority of his readers.” Strauss does not rest after making the shocking suggestion, but consternates his readers further by indicating that “some great writers might have stated certain important truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable character.” 30
It is an astonishing fact that most modern commentators on Plato are oblivious of his silence. They behave as if Plato wrote prosaic and not altogether competent essays containing logical, analytic, and other kinds of reflections on the validity of p. Although it is true that Plato does such chores only occasionally, it appears to me that the works that interpret them as his essential activities miss his thrust. It follows that the bulk of the Plato scholarship that has adopted this line will be useless in an investigation of Socrates’ science of eros; we cannot treat Platonic dialogues as compendiums of publicly stated doctrines. To progress in this inquiry, we must start by recognizing that Platonic silence presents a serious hermeneutic issue. Then we must find appropriate grounds for choosing between the possible ways of comprehending it. Our understanding of the very nature of philosophy will turn on our verdict.
It would be wrong to prejudge this matter. However, I must confess at the outset that I am much inclined to favor the first account of Plato’s silence rather than the second, for the following reasons: the first explanation seems more faithful to the meanings of Plato’s and Socrates’ words than the second. It also appears more adequate to the realities that Plato and Socrates discuss than the second. Further, it is unseemly that practices that Socrates attributes to sophists and poets in the Platonic dialogues, that one sophist imputes to all his predecessors, and that another sophist facilely projects onto Socrates (perhaps revealing more about himself than his exasperating opponent) should be imputed to Plato and Socrates in the latter account.
This reading has a dangerous potential actually to turn Plato and Socrates into sophists. This appears to be the tendency of Strauss’s open description of Socrates’ public pronouncements as conventional bromides that are less wise than his real thoughts. It also appears to be the effect of Strauss’s equation of Plato’s truths with the assertions of his disreputable characters, such as Thrasymachus.31 Plato and Socrates are thought to be known to teach piety toward just, wise gods; obedience to such gods; and the virtues of moderation, courage, justice, and wisdom. If these views are conventional notions that are less wise than the philosophers’ real knowledge, which is contained in the statements of the unsavory characters, it would be easy to infer that the secret doctrine attributed to Plato and Socrates posits the absence of any ground of human order other than man’s will. Plato would become an advocate of Protagoras’s motto, “man is the measure,” which the Athenian Stranger (ostensibly?) rejects, arguing that god would be the measure in Magnesia (Laws 716c4-6).
We cannot settle the dispute between Protagoras and the Stranger by declaring dogmatically that Protagoras is wrong. Neither can we resolve it by alleging arbitrarily that Plato furtively sided with Protagoras. That claim would need strong proof. It may be inquired, therefore, if I think Leo Strauss a sophist. I answer that it would be incautious to judge him without understanding him better. Below, I shall explain the rival views of Plato’s silence more fully, adduce the reasons I believe that the first explanation of Plato’s silence is right and why Strauss’s account might be mistaken, and then let the chips fall where they may. Meanwhile, I can append another word about one of Strauss’s students, Allan Bloom.
A six-chapter section of an anthology of essays on The Closing of the American Mind is devoted to the suspicion that Bloom was a “nihilist.” 32 The idea is that although Bloom’s book purports to be a critique of U.S. culture from the standpoint of traditional ethics, it is really a critique of U.S. culture from the vantage point of an undisguised atheism and radical alienation from traditional morality, a critique that feigns opposition to the “nihilism” (that is, hedonism) to which Bloom himself allegedly adhered. Whether he was guilty as charged or not, the fact that these suspicions could be raised exemplifies both the sophistical potential of irony that I distrust and irony’s potential to backfire on its theorists, however unjustifiably. If the accusations proved to be well founded, then it would be an open question as to whether Strauss stood to Bloom as Socrates stood to Plato or as Socrates stood to Alcibiades. 33 Strauss and many of his students and admirers eloquently repudiate hedonism.
A Plan of Inquiry
The hermeneutic issue posed by Platonic silence needs a much fuller airing than I have given it. It requires a treatment that recounts the most important arguments on all sides of the debate and then opts for the best of them, or something even better, on the basis of Plato’s and Socrates’ own statements. Only a thorough consideration of the wisest opinions could make us sure that our tentative decisions about the matter were not taken in culpable ignorance of difficulties that better minds had already discerned.
It is too late to learn why the ancients thought Plato was silent. However, the three-cornered quarrel among those who ignore the phenomenon completely, those who perceive Socrates and Plato as spokesmen of wordless insights, and those who see the two philosophers as esotericists has stretched across the millennia. In the late modern era, beginning, let us say, with the nineteenth century, a few of the West’s leading thinkers have debated the issues. The most talented parties to the dispute have been Friedrich Schleiermacher, G.W.F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Paul Friedlander, and Stanley Rosen. Hegel may be counted as a leader of the camp that disregards silence. Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Voegelin, and, I think, Friedlander see it as a response to ineffable knowledge. Nietzsche, Strauss, and Rosen view it as esotericism. All of the thinkers on this list are either giants or men of caliber whose books tend to be required reading in many modern philosophy courses. Arguably, a study of these writers should yield a good grasp of the most perceptive modern opinions about Plato’s silence. The first substantive chapter of this book will survey these authors’ views of Platonic speaking and writing.
Plato’s own statements about his silence are contained in his Seventh Letter. There are scholars who believe that this epistle is a forgery. It will be necessary to deal with the issue of the letter’s provenance. Also, to attempt to reach valid conclusions about Platonic silence by quoting a few snippets from the document, the ones cited above, is a dubious procedure. The relevant passages must be understood in context. The second substantive chapter of this work will discuss the Seventh Letter’s provenance and then analyze its whole argument to see how it explains the practice of silence.
In the Symposium, Alcibiades portrays Socrates as a Silenus whose outside differs from his inside, that is, as a rhetorician whose ostensible doctrines cloak his real meanings. Alcibiades urges Socrates to refute him if he lies. Socrates apparently objects to nothing that Alcibiades says about him, so most commentators treat Alcibiades’ characterization of his former teacher as Socrates’ own interpretation of his silence. As recounted above, Socrates speaks for himself about this matter in the Phaedrus. Again, it would be improper to tear the pertinent passages out of their settings. This book will strive to understand the presentations of Socratic writing and speaking about serious things in the Symposium and Phaedrus while considering these works as wholes and, hence, in the contexts of their investigations of Socratic erotics.
At a minimum, a complete analysis of Socrates’ science of erotics would undertake an intensive study of the Symposium, the Republic, and the Phaedrus. If the Athenian Stranger is Socrates in disguise, the Laws would have to be included, too. Considering that Socrates has a lot to say about noble lies in the Republic, and that noble lies seem relevant to the problem of silence, it appears that Socrates’ discussions of this practice coincide with his most extensive reflections on the nature and management of eros. If the Athenian Stranger is Socrates, and if the Stranger’s law against irony (908d-e) is a significant indirect hint about the character of his silence, the Laws strengthen this correlation. When we remember that the Seventh Letter is a testimonial to Plato’s eros for Dion, we detect eros and silence associated in the same Platonic work again. It is also true that the Athenian Stranger’s interlocutors in the Laws seek political wisdom, I think more intelligently than the men in the Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus. Plato also urges political wisdom upon all or some of the recipients of the Seventh Letter. None of this can be accidental. Somehow, the subjects of eros, wisdom, and silence belong together in Platonic thought.
Now a methodological question arises. Is there an order in which Plato’s erotic works should be treated? Modern commentators tend to believe that we should read the dialogues in the order that they say represents the progressive development of Plato’s ideas—in other words, in the chronological order of their composition. This assumption is untenable. There is no evidence that there was a progressive development of Plato’s ideas, and we do not really know when the dialogues were written. The most recent efforts to date Plato’s dialogues, which generally use stylistic analysis (usually computerized), have been summarized by Leonard Brandwood.34 If I were to accept the premises of the scholars whom Brandwood surveys, which I do not, our ideas of the order of the composition of the dialogues would still be extremely rough, with Plato’s works dividing into the categories “early, middle, and late.”
I am not persuaded by these scholars’ premises for reasons offered in cogent arguments by Kenneth Dorter, Zdravko Planinc, and Jacob Rowland.35 Their grounds for rejecting stylometric dating are essentially that the stylometric analyses are extremely arbitrary in their assumptions about what represents youthful, middle, and elderly Platonic styles, and they attempt to prove their cases self-referentially. What these studies establish, at the most, is that some Platonic dialogues resemble each other stylistically more than they resemble others. This really tells us nothing about the dates of composition or a progressive development of Plato’s ideas. Hans-Georg Gadamer adds:
“It is more or less fatal for this theory . . . that the ancient tradition never reports such a change in views in either Plato or Aristotle—aside from a single observation in the Metaphysics, Mu 4,1078bl0 which makes the number theory appear to be a late form of the doctrine of ideas.”36
It might even be the case that each dialogue had several dates of composition, insofar as each may have been revised several times in order to be joined dramatically with all the other dialogues to which Plato wanted it to be connected. One could picture Plato’s study in the Academy as a gigantic workshop in which there were dozens of drawing boards, with all the older and newer dialogues always on them, always being modified as they were fitted into a single whole that Plato was constructing. This might explain how Plato could have built so many dramatic links into so many works that were produced over a lifetime.
Even if we could be sure of the dates of composition of the dialogues, I do not see why people believe that this would reveal anything important. It seems to me to be a much more fruitful approach to understanding Plato to attempt to read his works in the manner that he wanted them to be read. We have a plain indication of his wishes in this respect, namely, his dramatic dating of the dialogues.
Plato gives his works dramatic dates by having the speakers mention contemporaneous events that his Athenian audiences would have recognized. As seen above, he also links the dialogues by causing the same people to appear in them at different stages of their lives. The Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus are joined in these ways. Thus, by paying close attention to Plato’s dramatic clues, we can discern the fictitious chronological order in which he intends his stories to unfold. This, in turn, will inspire us to ask what Plato means by locking his plays together as he does. I shall assume that Plato intends his dialogues to be studied in their dramatic order and that there is no legitimate purpose to be served in speculating about the dates of their composition.
Some caveats are needed. The fact that Plato’s dramatic dates would have been evident to Athenian audiences does not mean that they are plain to us. For example, Plato causes the action of the Republic to take place in conjunction with the first Bendideia (354alO-ll). We are not sure when that occurred. Also, we must beware of deliberate anachronisms. Plato has Aspasia and Socrates (Menexenus 244dl-246a5) and Aristophanes (Symposium 193a2) mention wars that happened after their deaths. Eva Brann suggests that Plato edifies the Athenians by having Cephalus appear in the Republic as a ghost.37 Such anomalies could make it difficult to get dramatic sequences right. However, when the anachronisms are taken into account, it still seems possible to be confident about the order of the plays that Plato envisaged.
Three of our stories, those of the Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus, appear to end and begin in the Symposium. In this multilayered drama, the initial speaker, Apollodorus of Phalerum, complies with an unnamed comrade’s request to narrate to him and others several speeches that were given at a banquet that Socrates attended some time ago. The dialogue opens with Apollodorus telling the companion that he believes himself not ill-prepared to do what he has been asked, for just the other day he did it for Glaucon.
By making this Glaucon a young man in his twenties (173a5), Plato means us to understand that he is the same Glaucon who appears in the Republic, Plato’s brother. Because Apollodorus is known to have been a late disciple of Socrates, and because Glaucon thinks of Alcibiades as still living (172c2-3), we must follow Martha Nussbaum in dating this conversation dramatically to 404 b.c., shortly before the assassination of Alcibiades. 38 The three-drama history ends here; its beginning then is narrated retrospectively.
For the sake of a reference point, we may allow the scene to shift from here backward in time to the occasion of the Protagoras. The action of this play transpires when people are noticing that the youthful Alcibiades has become bearded (hence, around 432, shortly before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War). Socrates is a rising philosopher, perhaps thirty-eight years old. Alcibiades is a haughty youth of eighteen or nineteen. Agathon is fuzzy-cheeked, thus between fourteen and eighteen (see Symposium 181d), and Phaedrus is probably eighteen. Pausanias and Eryximachus must be in their early thirties. Both sets of lovers have begun the careers that will make them what they are in the Symposium. Phaedrus and Eryximachus are being taught by Hippias to affirm the ontological primacy of Earth. Agathon and Pausanias are being educated by Prodicus. This well-meaning but uninspiring sophist will not be able to offer Agathon enough sustenance to keep him from going over to Gorgias. As seen above, the Protagoras dramatically points ahead to the Symposium.
We now come forward in time, to the party described in the Symposium. The account of the feast that we shall hear is not original with Apollodorus, who is too young to have been there himself. Apollodorus will repeat the narrative of an older eyewitness, Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum. The banquet occurs shortly after Agathon’s first tragedy wins the prize at the Lenaea, thus in 416. Obviously, the participants have aged sixteen years since the Protagoras. Agathon, for example, is no longer a youth but a thriving playwright of thirty to thirty-four. Alcibiades is not the brash stripling of nineteen but a greatly popular politician of thirty-five. Socrates is not the promising junior philosopher of thirty-eight who could be patronized by a celebrity such as Protagoras but a recognized cranky genius of fifty-four. The firestorm that Protagoras kindled in 432 by proclaiming man the measure and teaching his new political art of acquiring power is now raging out of control. It must be resisted by a wholesome Socratic eros. Socrates provides the needed counterweight in his Symposium speech. Then he carries this work further in the Republic, to which the Symposium is linked by Glaucon, and in the Phaedrus, to which the Symposium is connected by Phaedrus.
We move next, I judge, to the Republic. The dramatic date of this dialogue has always been disputed, owing chiefly to careless reading. For example, A. E. Taylor states that the date must fall during the Peace of Nicias, circa 421, because the battle of Megara in which Glaucon and Adeimantus are reported to have fought could have been that of 424, because the soldiers are home, and because Cephalus is still alive.39 Taylor’s reasons are not weighty. If Glaucon was only a boy in 416, as the Symposium (173a5) tells us, he could not have fought at Megara in 424. It must be the battle of 409 that is meant. Given the character of ancient warfare, the soldiers could have been home often.
One ancient tradition has Cephalus dying in 439. Thus, his presence in the Republic does not favor 421 any more than the dates that most classicists choose, various years after 411, when Cephalus and his family, or at least the family, returned to Athens after having lived for a long time in Thurii. The authority who hitherto has been most influential in the selection of a post-411 date, August Boeckh, sets the dialogue in 406/405, contending that Cephalus must be assumed to have lived past 408, and that the first Bendideia must have also been later than that.40 Boeckh’s speculations are not decisive, but he can be proved to be close to the mark. In the Theages, Socrates states that Sannion is currently fighting with Thrasyllus against Ephesus and Ionia. This campaign took place in 409.41 At the end of the Theages, Socrates accepts Theages as a probationary student. Theages is healthy and aspires to a political career. In the Republic, Socrates mentions that Theages is a comrade whose sickness prevents him from abandoning philosophy for politics (496b6-c2). If we allow Theages enough time to survive his probation, and more time to become too debilitated to go into politics, we infer that the Republic must occur at least a year or two after 409.
Zdravko Planinc then narrows the date down much more precisely, to the week of the Plynteria in 407. He argues ingeniously and persuasively that, recent opinions to the contrary notwithstanding, the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Critias form a trilogy, that the conversations in the latter two dialogues follow the speeches of the Republic closely in dramatic time, that they all must be set during a brief period when Hermocrates, the tyrant of Syracuse, is likely to have visited Critias in Athens, and that the most plausible historical date of Hermocrates’ presence in the Timaeus and Critias is that of Alcibiades’ return to Athens, on the Plynteria in 407.42 As for Cephalus, we can suppose him near death (328e6) or already dead. He would be more fun as a ghost. We may also view the first Bendideia as a symptom of the corruption of the Athenian aristocracy. The Republic is connected to the Timaeus and Critias by the fact that the temple of Bendis became a headquarters of the thirty tyrants by 404.43
This brings us to the Phaedrus. Probably, one reason Phaedrus must be Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue that bears his name is that he is a crude, narcissistic, manipulative rhetorician and, thus, incarnates the lowest common denominator to which Lysias and other sophists have fallen in the last days of the Athenian empire, or one to which they appeal. The eros of Phaedrus, Lysias, the other sophists, and the Athenian democrats and oligarchs whom they represent must be redirected if Athens is to be saved. The time remaining for this rescue of the city is growing short. We know that the conversations of the Phaedrus must be dated after the week of the Plynteria in 407 because a still-living Polemarchus is said in the dialogue to have turned to philosophy (257b3-4), and he could not have done this prior to his education in the Republic.
We also know that the action of the Phaedrus must transpire before 403, the year of Polemarchus’s murder. Indeed, given that Socrates and Phaedrus walk outside the walls of Athens in the dialogue, we perceive that the play must be set in a time when there were still walls, and when it was still safe to stroll outside them-in other words, before the battle of Aegospotami in fall 405. Thus, the Phaedrus must take place in the summer of 407, 406, or 405, quite close to the final catastrophe that touched off the Alcibiades hysteria of 405 and 404.
So, the Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus form a trilogy that interlocks with other trilogies in the Platonic corpus. Their fictitious chronological order is Agathon’s banquet in the Symposium, the Republic, the Phaedrus, and the opening scene of the Symposium, which closes the circle of the three dialogues and takes us back to Agathon’s banquet. An adequate inquiry into Socrates’ science of erotics would study the three dialogues in the order indicated and then move to the Laws, which I tentatively suggest is set after Socrates’ death, so that the philosopher must appear as an unrecognizable shade, or, as Planinc indicates, as the Odysseus-Socrates of the concluding myth of the Republic, who returns to earth as an unknown private man.44
Unfortunately, this book cannot be the complete inquiry into Socrates’ erotic science that I envisage. A sound treatment of all the dialogues enumerated would run into thousands of unwieldy pages. The study must be broken into parts. For reasons that are partly logistical and partly theoretical, the most manageable analysis would produce a trilogy of my own, the first book concentrating on the hermeneutic debate, the Seventh Letter, the Symposium, and the Phaedrus; the second on the Republic; and the third on the Laws. Logistically, it happens to be just possible to encompass the Symposium and Phaedrus in a single investigation, these dialogues being smaller than the other two. Theoretically, it is sensible to divide the Symposium and Phaedrus from the Republic because, in the former, Socrates urges a good, positive eros on his interlocutors, describing it at length, whereas, in the latter, he chiefly attempts to cure Glaucon of an evil, tyrannical eros, mentioning the good, positive eros only briefly. This book will be the first of my projected trilogy.
Both the Symposium and the Phaedrus are too large to analyze in single chapters. My treatment of them must also be broken into smaller pieces. Where should the cuts be? I think that the Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus all have the same tripartite structure, this being another of the factors that links them as a trilogy. All three dialogues begin with movements that simultaneously ascend in the intelligence of their sophistical arguments while descending into the depths of evil. Then they turn to Socratic ascents to visions of the highest Beauty, or Good, or Being. Then they descend again into portraits and analyses of evil political phenomena. I shall follow Plato’s divisions of the material. I shall devote three chapters each to the Symposium and the Phaedrus. The three Symposium chapters will cover the dialogue’s two preludes through Agathon’s speech (a descent), Socrates’ oration (an ascent), and Alcibiades’ speech through the last scene (a descent), respectively. The three Phaedrus chapters will look at the prelude through the first two speeches (a descent), Socrates’ palinode (an ascent), and the discussion of rhetoric (a descent), respectively.
One last question must be addressed. The existence of the hermeneutic debate over the correct way to interpret Platonic silence means that we moderns do not really know how to read Plato. How can I read him without knowing how to read him? I answer, provisionally, that I must trust that Plato knew what he was doing when he wrote his dialogues and, hence, that he had solid grounds for everything that he did. Therefore, we must read Plato by paying attention to everything in his publications, including not only his reasoning, with its logically sound syllogisms, its contradictions, its digressions, its emphases, and its silences, but also his dramatic actions and settings and his uses of poetry. We should examine all these components of Plato’s writing without preconceptions of their relative cognitive value. Only thus will we avoid anachronistic impositions of our ideas of what philosophy ought to be on a thinker who has an arguable claim to be the greatest of the philosophers. Of course, it would literally be humanly impossible to scrutinize “everything,” down to the last word, in the texts selected for study. I, at least, lack the ability to do that. However, I have found a way to approximate the ideal discipline. I have discovered that if one meditates on the reasons for every major turn of a Platonic argument cum drama, one learns important things that escape notice entirely when one reads without pausing to inquire. So, I shall attempt to look into “everything” in Plato’s writings in that sense.
Paying attention to everything in a Platonic work might be frustrating because it will require a more sustained and more serious effort than many people are willing to give. It will also result in exegesis that, in the language of a useful cliché, will often seem to lose sight of a forest because it has veered into happy contemplation of beautiful individual trees. Another source of irritation might be that Plato’s silence will not let us indulge our usual lazy habit of swooping into a text, snatching a few dogmas that seem to capture the essence of the material, and congratulating ourselves on our new erudition. It will not even permit us to understand in advance what is supposed to happen to us when we read a Platonic dialogue. We must wait to find out, hoping that we will know it when we see it. So, the journey upon which we are about to embark will be long and arduous. My hope is that for lovers of Plato, the time and effort will fly by unnoticed, so that both writer and readers will be surprised that the study is finished so soon.
21. In Xenophon’s usage, the term “demagogue” does not have the same pejorative overtones that it has in English.
22. Here, the criticism of Glaucon is that his sexual appetites are incontinent, not that they are homosexual.
23. It is particularly disappointing that the otherwise sensible and admirable Jeffrey Toobin, in A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President, frequently repeats the assertion that character is irrelevant to the discharge of political duties.
24. Voegelin, Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik, 289; Anamnesis, trans. Gerhart Niemeyer, 148. Henceforth cited as Anamnesis twice, the first referring to the German edition, the second to the English translation of Niemeyer.
25. This is a major contradiction in Protagoras’s doctrines. It is hard to understand how the multitude could know and teach virtue while being so stupid. Inasmuch as I am not writing a book about the Protagoras, I cannot devote time and space to this problem here.
26. “Acroamatic” means “for oral communication only.” “Epoptic” means “for the initiated only.”
27. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Books I-III. For Clement’s entire discussion, see pp. 31-33.
28. Saint Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, 8.4. In Latin, Augustine says: “Cum enim magistri sui Socratis, quern facit in suis voluminibus disputantem, notis-simum morem dissimulandae scientiae vel opinionis suae servare adfectat, quia et illi ipse mos placuit, factum est ut etiam ipsius Platonis de rebus magnis sententiae non facile perspici possint.” This passage is not easy to translate into idiomatic English. My translation is guided by, but also differs substantially from, that of Henry Bettenson in the Penguin edition of Augustine, Concerning “The City of God against the Pagans.”
29. Strauss, The City and Man, 51.
30. Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, 35, 36.
31. Cf. ibid., 16.
32. Stone, Essays on “Closing Mind,” pt. 5.
33. Anastaplo suggests the Alcibiades comparison (“In re Allan Bloom,” in Essays on “Closing Mind,” ed. Stone, 272).
34. Brandwood, The Chronology of Plato’s Dialogues.
35. Dorter, Form and Good in Plato’s Eleatic Dialogues: The “Parmenides,” “Theaetetus,” “Sophist,” and “Statesman,” 5-6; Planinc, Plato’s Political Philosophy: Prudence in the “Republic” and the “Laws,” 13, 19; Howland, “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.”
36. Gadamer, The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, 8.
37. Brann, “The Music of the Republic,” 3.
38. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, 168-69.
39. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work, 263.
40. Boeckh, Gesammelte kleine Schriften, 448-49.
41. The date is common knowledge, being available in classical dictionaries.
42. Planinc, Plato through Homer: Poetry and Philosophy in the Cosmological Dialogues. Before reading Planinc, I was persuaded that Eva Brann’s denial of the connection between the Republic and the Timaeus (“Music of the Republic,” 20-21) was sound, but Planinc refutes her reasoning.
43. August Friedrich von Pauly and Georg Wissowa, Real-Encydopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Bendis.”
44. Cf. Planinc, Plato’s Political Philosophy (the chaps, on the Laws) and Plato through Homer.
This chapter is from Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (University of Missouri Press, 2003). This is the second of two parts with part one available here. Also see his “Modern Views of Plato’s Silence” in three parts: part one, part two, part three, and our review of the book.