Modern Views of Plato’s Silence (Part III)

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James Rhodes Eros Plato

Stanley Rosen

Stanley Rosen himself is a grateful student of Leo Strauss who never­theless announces: “I am in considerable disagreement with Strauss’s gen­eral program.” 115 His dissent from Strauss assimilates irony to postmod­ernism, pressing esotericism in rhetorical directions that Strauss does not wish to take. 

Rosen agrees with his teacher about much. Like Strauss, he proclaims “recognition of irony as the central problem in the interpretation of Plato.” Although he dislikes the “great theologian,” he also accepts Schleiermacher’s “canon of interpretation,” especially with regard to the nexus be­tween form and substance in Plato’s works, and the importance of context. He echoes Strauss, and reaffirms Schleiermacher, in asserting that “those who extract what they take to be Plato’s theoretical views or ‘arguments’ from their dialogical and poetic presentation are studying images of their own theoretical presuppositions, but not Plato.” Again like Strauss, he dis­avows Schleiermacher by saying: “In sum, it is entirely clear that Plato practices ‘esotericism.’ “ 116 How, then, does he differ from Strauss?

The answer is revealed in Rosen’s choice of a word, when he states that he repudiates Strauss’s “program.” Apparently, a “program” has two parts, one for each of the two queries that Rosen puts to Strauss: “whether his intentions were sound and his rhetoric suitable to the task.” 117 It is significant that a “program” is composed of “intentions and rhetoric,” and not of other elements that one might have imagined to be characteristic of philosophy, such as wonder and a plan of inquiry. We may expect that Rosen will disapprove of Strauss’s intentions and rhetoric. 

So, what were Strauss’s intentions? How could we know whether they were sound? These questions are illuminated by what appears to be Rosen’s idea of the intention of all genuine philosophers. Rosen makes several in­triguing statements on this subject: “The ancient philosophers rejected the warnings of the poets, as exemplified in Pindar’s admonition: ‘do not strive to be a god.'” “The man of religious faith regards it as madness to at­tempt to become a god. The pagan philosophers, especially those of the Socratic school, thought otherwise.” Socrates says in the Philebus, “[T]he wise all agree, thereby exalting themselves, that intellect [nous] is king for us of heaven and earth.” The “philosophical question of the Platonic di­alogues, and in particular of the Phaedrus,” is “how can a human being become a god?”

The political name of individuals “who aspire to be gods” is “philosopher-kings.” Alexandre Kojève is “exactly like Plato” in that he tries “to become a god.” Plato was a “seriously playful god.” Aristotle says in the Ethics that the theoretical life is higher than human life, adding: “Not qua human will one live it, but he will achieve it by virtue of something divine in him. … If then the intellect is divine in comparison with man, so is the life of the intellect divine in comparison with human life.” In announc­ing this fact, “Aristotle is even more explicit than Plato. . . . Aristotle’s rep­resentation of himself as divine is a radical simplification of Plato’s poetic evasiveness.” Generally, “As Socrates puts it, the classical philosopher wills that the intellect be god.” As for the moderns, “Kant acts not like a humble empirical scientist but like a world-maker or god.”

“On the Hegelian ac­count, one denies the separation of the eternal from the temporal, or identi­fies the two as the structure of the Concept, that is, the philosophical speech about the totality or the whole…. As a consequence,… he who is able to repeat the totality of this discourse becomes a god.” Nietzsche, “like all great philosophers, engages in the divine prerogative of willing a world into being and hence of creating a way of life.” Generally, “from Descartes forward, the intellect resolves that the will be god.” Rosen himself does not wish to risk “being excluded from the company of the gods.” Does Strauss share the grand obsession? Rosen asserts: “Strauss and Kojève, and Strauss as much as Kojève (once we put aside Strauss’s exoteric flirtation with He­braic tradition) are atheists who wish to be gods.” 118  

What does Rosen mean by “being a god”? In one place, Rosen replies that to be a god is to be causa sui. Is this, then, really Strauss’s highest, most secret wish? Strauss never says this in so many words. However, as a student of Strauss, Rosen might know more than an outsider. 

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Strauss’s intentions might be “sound.” Now Rosen sees a problem. The classical philosophers of the Socratic school “understand by praxis the construction of a cosmos in which there is an exoteric separation of theoria and poiesis.” Strauss follows them, but the moderns do not. Rosen observes further that the “quarrel between the ancients and the moderns . . . has its inner or esoteric meaning in the question quid sit deus?” 119 Evidently, one can fail to understand what it means to be a god and, thus, fail to become a god by taking the wrong stand on the issue of whether there should be an exoteric separation of theoria and poiesis. Why is that? 

The explanation of this mistake seems to depend on the difference be­tween the ancient and modern positions on the necessity of thoroughly consistent esotericism, or on the relative merits of “strong” and “weak” irony. In Persecution, Strauss says that the earlier philosophers saw the gulf between the wise and the vulgar as “a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education.” These clas­sical thinkers practiced strong esotericism by adhering to the rule that pub­lic communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was undesirable for all times.

Strauss follows them by inveighing against the “heterodox philosophers” who “believed that suppression of free inquiry, and of publi­cation of the results of free inquiry, was accidental, an outcome of the faulty construction of the body politic, and that the kingdom of general darkness could be replaced by the republic of universal light.” In keeping with this notion, the apostates practiced weak irony: “[T]hey concealed their views only far enough to protect themselves as well as possible from persecu­tion,” and otherwise revealed their truths openly in order to “enlighten an ever-increasing number of people who were not potential philosophers.”

On Rosen’s account, Kant was one of Strauss’s worst heretics. He planned to “counter the pre-Enlightenment rhetoric of caution with a rhetoric of daring, that is to say, of frankness.” In this, he meant “to produce a new kind of human being, one who is mature rather than immature.” Further, Rosen stresses that Kant’s transition from prudence to frankness is “pro­duced not simply by historical circumstances but by Kant’s will to change those circumstances, 120 One must ask whether a god is a being who acknowl­edges the necessity of strong esotericism or who opts for the weak variety. When the question is stated thus, it immediately becomes clear to Rosen that Strauss’s intentions, or at least his means of realizing them, are fatally defective. To admit the necessity of strong esotericism is to accept nature as a limitation on the divine will. It is to wish to be a god without affirming one’s own omnipotence. Hence, it is to abandon the project of being causa sui.

Similarly, to separate theoria (seeing) and poiesis (making) is to confess publicly that nature constrains the divine will. Strauss wants to be a god but does not believe in the possibility of his divinity. Rosen must repudiate him and does so by proclaiming himself a postmodernist, that is, one who openly unifies theoria and poiesis. (Rosen might be too hasty in rejecting Strauss for this reason; the possibility that Strauss only pretends to prac­tice the strong irony while actually engaging in the weak might complicate the analysis.) 

Well, then, what about Strauss’s rhetoric? Although Strauss has gotten the aim wrong, can his rhetoric accidentally realize the right intention? This depends chiefly on the nature of the task. What must a god’s rhetoric ac­complish? Rosen has already specified a portion of the job, “to produce a new kind of human being, one who is mature rather than immature.” This is only a part, though. One must recall the problem that moved Nietzsche’s Zarathustra to come down from the mountain: “But at last a change came over his heart, and one morning he rose with the dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: ‘You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine?'”

As Rosen knows well, deities must have “worshipers (disciples),” and “the masters require servants.” 121 So, the would-be god must establish his divinity by willing it, by prepar­ing many other individuals to will their divinity, too, and by convincing all these potential gods, who will want to act like supreme beings, and whose passions therefore might be quite strong, nevertheless to adore and obey him—a self-contradictory enterprise. 

On top of that, the self-made god must face the difficulty that gods need unlimited speculative freedom, but the many who are not yet divine re­main to be enlightened, a process that “is impossible without the extirpa­tion of ignorance and superstition.” The eradication of ignorance requires “a restrictive political rule, or the employment of enforced purification, with or without force of the vulgar sort, but always by means of rhetori­cal polemic.” It seems that Rosen has not dispensed with Rousseau’s in­sight that people must be “forced to be free.” It is not for nothing that he endorses Kojève’s denunciation of modern liberal democracies as “the result of the failure, not the success of the Enlightenment,” uses the ex­pression “we Maoists,” and ominously warns Richard Rorty that he “is making himself a candidate for the guillotine,” this perhaps being a joke that loses its humor when one contemplates the West’s long history of po­litical murder. 122 These parts of Rosen’s project seem self-contradictory, too. His gods must devise a rhetoric that smooths out all the difficulties by di­recting an efficacious blend of weak esotericism, frankness, ad hominem verbal attacks, and outright violence at the body politic—a hard job, if not impossible. Is Strauss’s public teaching adequate to the task? 

Rosen does not believe that Strauss keeps all these requirements of di­vine rhetoric in balance. Obviously, when Strauss denies the possibility of bridging the gulf between the wise and the vulgar, he renounces the aim of creating a new race of mature men and gives rhetoric absolutely improper purposes. Rosen says: “I take Strauss’s error to be this: from the correct ob­servation that there is always and of necessity a tension or indeed conflict between philosophy and the city, Strauss draws the false inference that it is always necessary for philosophers to accommodate to the city in the style of Plato, Cicero, Al Farabi, and Maimonides.” Strauss thus manifests an ap­parent disregard of Socrates’ advice to adjust his speech to the audience. 123  

This Nietzschean critique is imprecise. If Strauss’s observation of the “ne­cessity” of the sort of conflict that he envisages—a war between philoso­phers and hopeless troglodytes—is “correct,” his ideas about accommo­dation seem more strategically apt than Nietzsche’s defiance. Rosen must mean that there is always and necessarily a tension between philosophy and polities of malleable people, the variability of human nature being the relevant condition under which a demand for “adjusting to audiences” would be intelligible. The conflict that Rosen supposes is necessary must have to do with the gods’ need for worshipers, both before and after the cre­ation of the new world. If this is the matter about which Strauss has erred, then does it make sense to claim that his rhetoric is cowardly? Is it right to say accusingly that “were we to enact a ‘city’ rooted in Strauss’s version of the ‘noble reserve’ and the ‘calm grandeur’ of the classical thinkers, the results would be restrictive and demeaning to the human spirit, and hence base rather than noble”? 124  

Rosen reaches the same result with regard to Strauss’s procurement of worshipers. Strauss finds disciples who adore him, but he relegates them to the degraded status of “a special race of academic administrators, them­selves acting under the impression that they are wise men.” With respect to the task of bringing freedom into balance with enforced purification, Strauss’s rhetoric takes the form of “a generalized philosophical thesis ac­cording to which the gentleman, i.e., the rural aristocrat, is the practical imitation of, and points toward, the philosopher.” Rosen asserts that this “is philosophically mistaken, and it has bad political consequences for phi­losophy.” The flaw in the philosophic reasoning is Strauss’s suppression of “the Platonic teaching that philosophy is divine madness.” The political folly lies in the irrelevance of Strauss’s vision of gentlemanly rule to our time, which wants freedom. 125  

What do Rosen’s disagreements with Strauss have to do with Platonic si­lence? Exactly this: We have already seen that Rosen attributes divinity to Plato. Rosen informs us further that “Plato practices esotericism … in the sense that he seeks to persuade us that philosophy has won, or can win, its quarrel with poetry.” However, “the principles of Socrates’, and of Plato’s, conceptions of philosophy are indeed to be found within the dialogues.” At a “deeper level” of Platonic esotericism, which is nevertheless percepti­ble because it rises up to the surfaces of the dialogues, it is suggested that “there is no quarrel between philosophy and poetry.”

So, Plato’s exoteric separation of theoria and poiesis is merely provisional, weak irony. Further, in the context of the choice between cautious and bold rhetoric, it “should never be forgotten that the publication by Plato of his dialogues, given the political circumstances of his day, was a revolutionary act of extreme fearlessness.” Thus, to understand Plato’s esotericism better than Kant or Strauss do, one must realize that Plato “was in fact a Kantian.” That is, “Plato was a ‘modern,’ not an ‘ancient.’ “ 126  

In another place, Rosen offers a different account of Platonic irony, or at least another perspective on the same explanation. He surprises us by asserting that “Strauss never accuses Plato of duplicity”—a claim that is incredible in the face of the argument of Persecution and the Art of Writing. Relying on Nietzsche, Rosen now declares that there are two kinds of es­otericism, the first a deliberate concealment of one’s views “for reasons of prudence, playfulness, or aristocratic pride” and the second a reflection of “the intrinsic deceptiveness of becoming.” Both are “the inevitable conse­quence of our warranted suspicion of nature.” This is to say with Nietzsche that being, at root, is a randomly shifting chaos.

Thus, Rosen argues: “Hon­esty here stands for philosophy as an existential requirement of the higher human type: a frank perception of the fanciful or invented status of natural order is the basis of concealment. To exist is to conceal chaos.” The “higher man, who alone is capable of self-knowledge,” has a sense of social respon­sibility to the many who could not bear knowledge of the true facts, so he “conceals this concealment.” 127

If we wonder what this Hegelian and Nietzschean reasoning has to do with Plato, Rosen promptly replies by moving to unify the philosophies of Nietzsche and Plato. He appeals to a passage in Nietzsche’s Nachlass with­out quoting it fully. The passage reads as follows: “My philosophy reversed Platonism: the farther from the really being, ever more pure, more beautiful, better it is. Life in appearance as goal.” 128 Rosen treats Nietzsche’s under­standing of his philosophy as “reversed Platonism” as if it meant “Platon­ism.”

It seems to me that one might wish to take Nietzsche at his word, as if he meant “reversed” Platonism, that is, he is conscious of Plato’s affirma­tion of a being that really is being, and that he is also conscious of his own affirmation of a being that is merely a randomly changing chaos as a doc­trine directly opposed to Plato’s. However, Rosen does not see the matter this way. He proceeds to complete his unification of Nietzsche’s and Plato’s philosophies by assimilating early Greek poets, musicians, and sophists who are cited in Plato as practitioners of irony to Plato himself. He states, for example, that “Protagoras understands that Being is deceptive. Plato does not contest this.” Therefore, the dispute between Protagoras and Soc­rates is “the quarrel between noble and base sophistry.” 129 Plato, it seems, is an esoteric writer not only because he is a “Kantian” but also because he is a “noble sophist.” Nonetheless, this term might apply more to Rosen than Plato.

Eric Voegelin and Paul Friedländer

Eric Voegelin, whose claim to be the twentieth century’s greatest reader of Plato seems to me to excel that of Leo Strauss, pays no direct attention to the dispute about Platonic irony that I have been following throughout this chapter, except to assert that the Platonic dialogue is “an exoteric literary work, accessible individually to everybody who wants to read it.”130 How­ever, his statements about the proper interpretation of Plato show that he is well aware of the most important issues and that he has serious opinions about them. 

Like Strauss, Voegelin contends that one cannot understand a Platonic dialogue unless one knows what it is. He holds that “in the history of Hellenic symbolic forms,” the Platonic dialogue was “the successor to Aeschylean tragedy” in a time when Athenians had closed their hearts to Aeschylus’s “struggle for the order of Dike [Justice].” Socrates had become the new defender of right in Athens, with Plato succeeding him. With regard to the Platonic dialogue, Voegelin infers: “The drama of Socrates is a symbolic form created by Plato as the means for communicating, and expanding, the order of wisdom founded by its hero.”131 This means that if we wish to understand Voegelin’s Plato, we need to learn what a “symbolic form” is.

Also like Strauss, but in his own way, Voegelin is sensitive to the Platonic distinction between the few and the many. His declaration that the dialogue is accessible to everybody who wants to read it does not imply that it is accessible to everybody simply, for there may be many who refuse to read it, some because they are too crushed by the exigencies of making a living to have time for it, others because they are too poorly educated to conceive the need to read it well, and others because they are too lazy or otherwise vicious to be amenable to it. In fact, looking at the actual history of Athens, Voegelin argues that “the question will arise to whom the new symbolic form is addressed, if the decisive public, the people of Athens, does not want to listen.”132 Besides having to discover what a symbolic form is, then, we need to find out who are the few to whom Plato finally speaks. Let us begin with the latter question and work back to the former gradually. 

Appealing to “the Digression of the Theaetetus” (172c-177c), Voegelin holds that the Platonic dialogue is accessible in principle to everybody, even the most stubborn politician or sophist. Any such person who will not listen to a philosopher in public “is still man” and can be “stirred up in private.” This is to argue that when it has become impossible to address “the decisive public” collectively, it remains possible to address each of its members individually. Socrates in person can force his attentions on many people severally, requiring them to face the questions that they manage to evade when addressed jointly. Voegelin thinks that a Platonic dialogue could have the same effect on “the decisive public” taken singly.

True, a document does not have as much leverage on individuals as Socrates in the flesh has; it must wait to be picked up by a reader. A writing poten­tially can be addressed to the whole public, but it actually speaks only to the part of the public that is moved to examine it—which might turn out to be a larger proportion of the public than Socrates could reach in person. Voegelin believes that Plato intends to attempt such an approach to the public. Thus, he asserts, “The personal conversation between Socrates and the individual Athenian citizen is continued through the instrument of the dialogue.”133

It is clear from this reply that Voegelin holds no truck with Strauss’s irony. Voegelin’s Plato does not intend to reserve the truth for the wise few and feed salutary lies to the foolish many. He does not have two doctrines, one esoteric and one exoteric. Like Schleiermacher’s Plato, he makes his work equally accessible to everybody, at least in the sense that he keeps no secrets and would like to convert everybody to philosophy. 

In Voegelin’s opinion, the fact that Plato is not an esoteric writer does not signify that he incorporates his most profound wisdom in his dialogues. Voegelin is cognizant of Plato’s Seventh Letter and gives it an extensive analysis. He understands that Plato “himself has never written directly on the core of his philosophy, and never will, for it cannot be put into words like other knowledge.”134 Neither does Voegelin think that the indi­rect words that Plato uses will guide all people equally to the result Plato wants to achieve with them, or that everyone will understand these words in the same ways. The statements that the entire Athenian public taken sev­erally is Plato’s intended audience and that the Platonic dialogue is equally accessible to everybody who reads it are only one answer to the question about the identity of those to whom the work is addressed. The reply is correct as far as it goes, but it must be supplemented by another, an answer that takes into account what a “symbolic form” is. 

The phrase “symbolic form” itself is a theoretical concept that Voegelin has formulated in response to his own experience of being. Voegelin’s in­trospection does not reveal that man is “a self-contained spectator, in possession of and with knowledge of his faculties, at the center of a horizon of being.” Rather, it shows that man is “an actor, playing a part in the drama of being and, through the brute fact of his existence, committed to play it without knowing what it is.” Indeed, “at the center of his existence man is unknown to himself and must remain so, for the part of being that calls itself man could be known fully only if the community of being and its drama in time were known as a whole.” Socrates and Plato grasped this. Accordingly, Voegelin argues that the “Socratic irony of ignorance has be­come the paradigmatic instance of awareness” of the “blind spot at the cen­ter” of man’s self-knowledge.135 Like Kierkegaard, Voegelin sees Platonic irony as a function of man’s real inability to enjoy the highest wisdom. Un­like Strauss, he does not envisage it as a defense of a wisdom that naturally aristocratic men actually have while pretending to be unwise.

It is man’s effort to penetrate his crucial self-ignorance that produces “symbolic forms.” To say that we have a blind spot at the heart of our self-knowledge is not to say that we know nothing at all. Voegelin remarks: “Man can achieve considerable knowledge about the order of being, and not the least part of that knowledge is the distinction between the knowable and the unknowable.” Our understanding of the things distant from the “core” of philosophy, or from the “center” of man’s existence, consists in the kinds of information normally defined as knowledge, that is, empirical and logical propositions about these mundane things.

However, when we have those experiences upon which the “core” of philosophy touches, those at the “center” of our existence, namely, the experiences that we call “God,” “man,” “world,” and “society,” we encounter realities associated in a “com­munity of being” that “is not given in the manner of an object of the exter­nal world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.” In these cases, our knowledge consists in symbolic representations rather than in prepositional facts. As Voegelin declares, we are then engaged in “a process of symbolization” that must be depicted as “the attempt at mak­ing the essentially unknowable order of being intelligible as far as possible through the creation of symbols which interpret the unknown by analogy with the really, or supposedly, known.”136 “Symbolic forms” are the com­plex analogies thus generated. 

It becomes necessary to resort to symbolic forms when we desire to communicate our experiences of the order of the reality that we inhabit and, particularly, our experiences of the ground of that order. In the early his­tory of mankind, people generally symbolized “society and its order as an analogue of the cosmos and its order.” Later, Israelite prophets, disciples of Jesus, and philosophers such as Plato symbolized “social order by analogy with the order of a human existence that is well attuned to being.” In the transition from the first to the second type of symbolization, the experienced realities that are labeled with “God” words came to be represented as distinct from and superior to those classified as “man,” “world,” and “society” (or as “cosmos” when taken all together). Voegelin comments, at least in the works published around the middle of his career, that the prophets, followers of Christ, and philosophers had “experiences of tran­scendence.” These experiences arose in conjunction with “the discovery of a true order of the human psyche.” Thus, “Plato was engaged concretely in the exploration of the human soul, and the true order of the soul turned out to be dependent on philosophy in the strict sense of love of the divine sophon [wisdom].”137 

According to Voegelin, the experiences of transcendence that occurred when sensitive observers looked into their souls became the sources of political theory and the standards for judging it. Theory, Voegelin says, “is not just any opining about human existence in society.” Rather, it is “an attempt at formulating the meaning of existence by explicating the content of a definite class of experiences.” Its argument is “not arbitrary but derives its validity from the aggregate of experiences to which it must permanently refer for empirical control.” However, this means that although a Platonic dialogue is “an exoteric literary work, accessible to everybody individually who wants to read it,” not just anyone could produce or understand one.

On the problem of being or becoming an adequate theorist, Voegelin comments: “Theory cannot be developed under all conditions by everybody. The theorist need perhaps not be a paragon of virtue himself, but he must, at least, be capable of imaginative re-enactment of the experiences of which theory is an explication.” As for the problem of understanding, he says: “Theory as an explication of certain experiences is intelligible only to those in whom the explication will stir up parallel experiences as the empirical basis for testing the truth of theory.” This implies that a “theoretical debate can be conducted only among spoudaioi [serious, mature men] in the Aristotelian sense; theory has no argument against a man who feels, or pretends to feel, unable of re-enacting the experience.”138 This can be stated another way. Voegelin has come to the same conclusion as Schleiermacher: Although Plato had no secrets, his works can be understood only by the true auditors of the inner. 

Voegelin’s perceptions of the principles governing the reading of Plato would deserve a much more comprehensive summary if they were being studied for their own sake. However, enough has been related here to in­dicate Voegelin’s position vis-a-vis the debate about Platonic irony. It is necessary to add just a few words about later developments of Voegelin’s theories that will bear on our inquiry into Plato’s Symposium. In Anamne­sis, Voegelin declares: “The experience of concrete-human order … is not knowledge of an object but… a tension, insofar as man experiences him­self as ordered through the tension toward the divine ground of his exis­tence. Nor does any of the terms that emerge in the exegesis of this experi­ence relate to an object. Neither the tension is an object, nor are its poles.”139 The analogical symbols at the core of philosophy refer to “nonobjective re­alities.” This goes beyond Schleiermacher. 

Paul Friedlander deserves to be honored as one of the few mid-twentieth-century scholars who recognized the problem of Platonic irony. He con­tributes some interesting ideas to the conversation. He observes that Thrasymachus, in the Republic, was wrong to interpret Socratic irony as hypocrisy: his error lay in demanding a single answer about justice from a man “for whom there is, as an answer, only continuous search.” That is, Thrasymachus was wrong not to take Socrates’ professions of igno­rance seriously. Friedlander also argues that the irony of Socrates has to do with “the ineffability of the highest Platonic vision.” The answer to a Socratic question “is only complete in the vision of the eternal forms and in the dawning realization of something that is beyond being.” Thus, Socratic, Platonic irony both veils what the philosopher sees and reveals it.140 Voegelin could not have put it better.   

Plato and his Modern Readers

This survey of Plato’s modern readers has identified several questions that are crucial to the proper interpretation of his texts: Is Plato’s dramatic dialogue form an integral part of his philosophy or merely a charming artistic wrapping for his real substance? Does it have a necessary role in advancing our insight into reality, or is it a philosophically useless trifle that impedes communication and comprehension? Is Plato silent about his most profound truths, or does he put them into the mouths of Socrates, Timaeus, the Strangers, and, perhaps, others? Is every Platonic sentence un­derstood correctly only in its place, and in the connections and boundaries in which Plato has set it, or may Platonic propositions be transported into various contexts? What is Socratic or Platonic irony? A manner of speech, a “pleasant rallying” that prods students toward the good, hiding nothing except what the readers are too lazy to work out for themselves (as Hegel believed)?

Plato’s principled refusal to speak about ineffable matters that are evident only to auditors of the inner, or spoudaioi (as Schleiermacher and Voegelin agreed)? A shaking of the pillars of knowledge that reduces human learning to the nothingness of ignorance because no predicates can speak to the divine splendor (as Kierkegaard said)? A pathological man­ifestation of cowardice before the terror and horror of absurd existence that is one part psychological self-deception and one part swindle perpe­trated by inferior people who desire universal power and revenge upon their betters (as in Nietzsche’s belief)? A mendacious dissembling of wis­dom that conceals the truths of atheism, natural aristocracy, and Thrasymachean natural right from the demos; cleverly manipulates the many; and secretly reveals the most fundamental truths to those who can understand (as Strauss wrote)? A boldly honest dishonesty that deceives insofar as it maneuvers the multitude into the paradoxical position of free and mature gods who adore higher philosopher gods (as Rosen argued)?

This range of questions and opinions proves that we do not automatically compre­hend Platonic irony upon discovering its existence. Hegel and his follow­ers might be right about it. Or Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Voegelin might be right. Or Nietzsche, or Lessing and Strauss, or Rosen might be right. However, not all of these commentators can be right, for then we would have an absurdly self-contradictory Plato. So, which of the three major ways of considering a Platonic text, if any, is the correct one?

As stated in the previous chapter, it would be wrong to try to settle this issue a priori. We could not judge the matter without having read Plato himself, with a view toward seeing which of the three approaches appears to fit best. However, as I have indicated, I suspect that the interpretation developed by Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Voegelin, and Friedlander is the better one, both because it seems the most adequate to the realities un­der discussion and because it appears to be the most consistent with the thrust of the documents.

I can elaborate a little more on the grounds of my preliminary impressions here. Hegel, I think, must be rejected out of hand. We have already noticed that Hegel was not the most careful reader of Plato. There are two addi­tional reasons for challenging Hegel’s judgment. First, it clearly presumes that (1) Hegel could know Plato better than Plato knew himself, because his historical vantage point allowed him to see the relationship of all thought to ultimate knowledge, and (2) Plato was not intelligent or advanced enough to avoid the errors of a simpleminded conception of being and an unsys­tematic and, therefore, unscientific method of handling materials. If anyone still affirms Hegel’s historicist claims on behalf of his science, we, at least, cannot accept them without assessing his suspect reasoning.

Even less can we concede the proposition that poor Plato was too simple to know what he was doing. Plato deserves more intellectual respect than that. This re­quires us to operate provisionally on the basis of the hypothesis that in Plato’s view, philosophy had to be a fusion of dialogical form with intellectual substance, that he wanted the form to permeate the meaning of the substance, that he therefore gave the statements of his characters strong relationships to their dialogical contexts, and that he wished to reason or teach through his dramas conceived as wholes rather than through isolated philosopheme.

We may not assume that Plato wrapped his philosophic truths in darling theater pieces merely because he wanted to give expression to an artistic flair, or that he stupidly or carelessly failed to notice that an essen­tially meaningless dialogic form hindered science and pedagogy. Second, Hegel unwarrantedly and utterly ignores what Plato says in the Seventh Letter (341 c-d), that he never has written anything on that about which he is serious. We may not presuppose the nonexistence of Platonic silence. If we want to get rid of it, we are obliged to offer proof that Plato’s remarks in the Seventh Letter are inapposite. 

Our inability to follow Hegel forces us to maintain a critical distance from some other famous commentators who accept his hermeneutic assumptions. Here, I do not mean that we should be especially skeptical of people who adhere to the Hegelian dialectic as a philosophic method or to Hegel’s myths of the Weltgeist. Rather, I am still speaking of scholars who hold that Plato’s philosophy consists in philosopheme that are found in the mouths of Socrates and other Platonic spokesmen, that there are no barriers to transporting these philosopheme from one context to another, that Plato’s purposes and achievements can and should be judged by the standards of Hegel’s systematic science (or by those of some even more “advanced” science in which the object of an exercise is always to ascertain the logical or empirical validity of p), and that Plato was insufficiently intelligent to see clearly what he should do.

In our era, these presumptions have been taken in analytic and historicist directions. Gregory Vlastos exemplifies the former tendency and George Sabine the latter. The Platonic studies of Vlastos are shot through with the phrase “Plato says.” In my own work, I shall not imagine that I know that “Plato” asserts anything. To speak more precisely, I shall not claim to know that Plato asserts anything about the highest things. Again, Vlastos typically tries to expose fallacious Platonic logic and then confidently talks about what might have been “if Plato had understood his own theory better.”

On the contrary, I shall suppose that we lack proof that Plato even had a “theory” in Vlastos’s logical sense of the concept and that Plato deliberately could have had Socrates make a bad argument in a play. Vlastos also laments “Plato’s” teaching of a utilitarian doctrine of love in the Lysis and then inserts that teaching into the Republic. In opposition to this procedure, I wonder what it means that Plato dramat­ically causes Socrates to say what he says to characters such as Lysis and Glaucon in the contexts in which the statements are set.

The much less com­petent Sabine composes a “history of ideas” in which chronologically prior thoughts determine later ones. In doing so, he announces that “the main positions developed” by Plato “may be reduced to a few propositions,” all of them “dominated by a single point of view,” thus enabling us to speak facilely of “the fundamental idea of the Republic.” I, on the other hand, do not take the fact that Plato’s dialogues sometimes mention his predeces­sors as evidence that his “principles” evolved out of earlier ideas. Also, in view of the Seventh Letter, I doubt that these “principles” are within easy reach.141

 It will be objected that this rejection of Hegel, Vlastos, and Sabine is wholly unjustifiable because it flies in the face of interpretations by the absolutely most authoritative reader of Plato, Aristotle. In the Physics, Aris­totle states that it is “Plato” who says something “in the Timaeus” (209bll-12). A reasonable person would infer that Aristotle regards characters such as Timaeus, Socrates, and the Strangers as Plato’s spokesmen. Also, Aris­totle devotes several discussions to Platonic arguments that are theories in Vlastos’s sense of the term.

This entirely welcome objection compels me to repeat some of Voegelin’s remarks. By accepting the Schleiermacher-Kierkegaard-Voegelin-Friedlander opinion of Platonic silence, one approves of two statements that appear contradictory to a superficial observer, but are actually perfectly compati­ble.

Voegelin, it will be recalled, holds that the realities at the center of our existence are mysteries, propositions about them being analogical rather than factual. He adds that this does not mean that we know nothing at all. We have propositional science of what is not at the core of our being. This noncontradiction accurately reflects Socrates’ simultaneous declarations of ignorance and knowledge.

This is one reason that Schleiermacher declares that Platonic writings may not be emptied of their content. There are also ethical reasons that the comments of Socrates and other characters are pedagogically important. Socrates often accepts propositions provisionally be­cause they are partially correct and can be pruned of their errors as they are pushed in the direction of the ultimately unknowable realities. Thus, Plato and his characters both do and do not say things in the dialogues—depending on whether one intends to refer to propositions about realities at the core of human existence or realities away from the center.

Statements in Plato’s dialogues must always be honored as the indispensable stepping stones toward whatever Plato knows, even though they are not his serious insights. This would explain why Aristotle speaks as he does. All this as­sumes that Aristotle invariably reads his master rightly, a point on which there is some scholarly disagreement.

This leaves us to choose between the Lessing-Nietzsche-Strauss-Rosen understanding of Platonic silence and the Schleiermacher-Kierkegaard-Voegelin-Friedlander interpretation. I am inclined to eliminate all Nietzschean exegesis from this calculus, for it depends on the dogmatic premise that being is absurd. If it is not true that existence is meaningless, or if we cannot demonstrate this proposition even if it is true, Nietzschean readings become arbitrary.

It would be a happy event if we could settle the dispute between the Strauss and Schleiermacher et al. line by comparing their anal­yses with the Platonic texts quoted at the beginning of this chapter, with the exegesis most closely matching the plain meanings of the words being judged best. The trouble with this idea is that it is precisely the passages cited that have given rise to the conflicting accounts. I think that careful analysis of these texts will show that they proclaim ineffable truths. When I have finished my careful exegesis, others might still disagree, thus sub­stantiating the warning that Socrates gives about one of the drawbacks of writing: When we ask texts what they mean, they always repeat the same things, never explaining themselves (Phaedrus 275d4-9). If we resign our­selves to this outcome in advance, we still need not despair of a simple solution of our problem. At least we can inquire whether there are other Platonic statements that explicitly clear up the ambiguities.

We do need to recognize that “irony” is mentioned several times in Plato’s dialogues. The word is used by four different kinds of characters, as follows. 

 First, Socrates. In the Lovers, Socrates encounters two rivals for the favors of a boy. One fancies himself a philosopher. At one point, Socrates relates that this self-satisfied rival “very ironically spoke doubly” (133d8). He told Socrates his real opinion, even though it contained admissions favorable to his opponent, but he conceded nothing in direct conversation with his enemy, wishing only to embarrass and defeat him (see 134cl-6). In the Euthydemus (302b3), Socrates mentions that a pompous proponent of eristic paused rather ironically, as if pondering some great matter. In the Apology (38al), Socrates says that he fears to make a claim because he will be disbelieved “as one being ironic” (that is, as one dissembling). 

Second, Hermogenes. Diogenes Laertius reports that Hermogenes and Cratylus were two of Plato’s teachers.142 In the Cratylus (384al), Hermo­genes complains that Cratylus is being ironic, refusing to explain what he means, and claiming to have private knowledge that would compel agreement if it were divulged. 

Third, the Eleatic and Athenian Strangers. In the Sophist, the Eleatic Stranger attributes irony to sophists who pretend to know what they do not know (268a7, 268b3). This sense of irony is worked into the definition of the sophist with which the dialogue concludes (268c8). In the Laws (908e2), the Athenian Stranger decrees death penalties for the ironic crimes that atheistic sophists commit. 

Fourth, persons unhappy with, or hostile to, Socrates. In the Symposium (218d6), Alcibiades confesses that he offered sexual favors to Socrates, and that Socrates reacted by assuming his characteristic ironic manner, mock­ing Alcibiades and disclaiming the virtues that Alcibiades saw in him. In the Gorgias (489el), when Socrates makes an ostentatious show of hav­ing failed to understand Gorgias, Gorgias accuses Socrates of being ironic. Socrates replies that it is Gorgias who has been ironic, having failed to disclose his true meaning earlier. Finally, in the perhaps most often cited case, Thrasymachus exclaims in the Republic: “O Herakles! That is the usual irony of Socrates. I knew it, and I predicted to these people that you would be unwilling to answer, that you would be ironic and do anything other than answer if someone asked you something” (337a4-7). 

We also need to observe that Platonic characters explicitly discuss the deception of the many and the avoidance of persecution. There are two especially noteworthy examples, discussed below. 

In the Theaetetus, Socrates analyzes Protagoras’s dictum that “[m]an is the measure of all things, of the things that are, as they are, of the things that are not, as they are not.” He begins with this outburst: “By the Graces! I wonder if the all-wise Protagoras did not speak riddles to us, the vulgar many, and tell the truth secretly to his students” (152c8-10). Later, Socrates offers to help Theaetetus search out the concealed truth of the great sophist, and mockingly exhorts the lad to look around to make sure that none of the uninitiated, that is, those who think that nothing exists save what they can touch with their hands, are listening (155d-e). With respect to a Homeric verse about the origins of all things, Socrates also matter-of-factly informs the mathematician Theodorus that the ancients hid their meaning from the many inside their poetry. With obvious sarcasm, he argues that those who came later, being wiser, were candid even with shoemakers (180d). 

As reported previously, Protagoras declares in the dialogue that bears his name that the leading sophists of earlier times, such as Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Orpheus, Musaeus, and a number of athletic trainers and mu­sicians, disguised their art as poetry, mystic rites, and so on. He explains that they did this in order to avoid the odium and ill-will attendant upon teaching in great cities. However, he thinks that these poetic sophists failed in their purpose, for their real teachings did not escape the notice of the able men in any city. He also holds it unnecessary to take special measures to prevent the stupid multitude from seeing. Thus, he speaks openly (316c-317c). Later in the same dialogue, Socrates himself argues that the Cretans and Spartans have more ancient traditions of philosophy than the other Greeks and that they deliberately pretend to ignorance to conceal the fact that it is by virtue of their wisdom rather than their arms that they rule the rest of Hellas. He maintains further that Simonides attempted to make a name for himself by overthrowing this practice (341d-343c). 

If we were to concede what we do not immediately grant, that such ref­erences to irony and deception add up to “Plato’s” notion of esotericism, we could infer that “Plato’s” concept bears a closer likeness to Strauss’s pic­ture than to those of his other interpreters. Plato clearly knows all about the practices of refraining from revealing what one thinks, dissembling one’s opinions by pretending not to know or by endorsing creeds that are con­trary to one’s beliefs, concealing one’s commitments from the multitude and divulging them only to a chosen few, speaking differently to different kinds of people, using lies to control enemies, and disguising atheism as reverence for the gods of the city to escape persecution.

However, continu­ing on the premise that these allusions to irony and esotericism constitute “Plato’s” idea of them, we would also have to concede that “Plato” strongly condemns them. Speaking through Socrates and the Strangers, “Plato” in­dicates that he and Socrates do not want to be thought ironic. He attributes irony only to pompous asses, poets whose works are forbidden in the just city, and sophists who richly deserve capital punishment. “Plato” also de­clares through Protagoras that irony is politically useless. It is particularly significant that irony is imputed to Socrates only by his enemies. 

Responding to this last point, Strauss proclaims that “where there was so much smoke there must have been some fire or rather that avowed irony would be absurd.”143 This is quite a strange thing for Strauss, who repre­sents nothing if not avowed irony, to say. That aside, it certainly is possible that “Plato’s” denunciations of irony are exoteric propaganda designed to throw fools off the track of an esotericist. However, it is equally possible that Plato wanted irony to be understood as a vicious habit of poets and sophists who confused Socratic silence, which they could not understand on genuinely philosophic grounds, with their own mendacity. The snippets quoted above do not provide sufficient evidence to choose between these interpretations. 

Plato’s modern readers have served us well by alerting us to the possible explanations of his silence. However, it is now quite plain that to learn why Plato was silent about serious things, and what he really thought about the just, the beautiful, and the good, we must study his relevant writings as wholes. I shall read Plato’s Seventh Letter and dialogues as documents in which everything is important. Heeding Schleiermacher and Strauss, I shall look carefully not only at plain arguments and actions, but also at de­vices that draw veils over the reasoning, making it hard for the inattentive to see. Heeding Voegelin, I shall also be sensitive to the symbolic character of Plato’s images and their potential to represent ineffable experiences of the realities at the core of man’s being. Now it is time to turn to a rigorous analysis of the Seventh Letter, to see if we can tell what it really says about the reasons for Platonic silence.


115. Rosen, Plato’s “Symposium,” xiv. 

116. Ibid., xlii, Ivi; Rosen, The Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought, 11. 

117. Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 125.

118. Ibid., 16,54,44,65, 71,105,106,59,180,25,96,126,180,18,17. It might be signif­icant that Rosen omits the following comment by Kojève in Introduction to Hegel: “Now, if a being that becomes God in time can be called ‘God’ only provided that it uses this term as a metaphor (a correct metaphor, by the way), the being that has always been God is God in the proper and strict sense of the word” (120). He adds that to construe oneself as God in the proper and strict sense of the word is “absurd.”

119. Quid sit deus? means “What is god?” Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 16-17. Strauss himself calls quid sit deus? the “all-important question which is coeval with philosophy” (The City and Man, 241). 

120. Strauss, Persecution, 33-34; Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 30-31.

121. Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra, in NW,; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in The Portable Nietzsche, 121; Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 108,181. 122. Rosen, Hermeneutics as Politics, 33,139,187.

123. Ibid., 133.

124. Ibid., 133.

125. Ibid., 137, 136, 134-37.

126. Rosen, Quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry, 12, 26; Rosen, Hermeneutics as Pol­itics, 137, 122, 140.

127. Rosen, Metaphysics in Ordinary Language, 62, 2, 3.

128. Rosen quotes the recent paperback edition of the Nietzsche collection that I have been citing: Nietzsche, Kritische Studienausgabe, vol. 7, p. 199,1870/71, passage 156. 

129. Rosen, Metaphysics in Ordinary Language, 13.

130. Voegelin, Order and History, 3:12.

131. Ibid., 11, 10.

132. Ibid., 11-12.

133. Ibid., 12.

134. Ibid., 19-20. 

135. Ibid., 1:1-2.

136. Ibid., 1, 5, 6. 

137. Ibid., 5; Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, 62-63.

138. Voegelin, New Science, 64-65. 

139. Voegelin, Anamnesis, 287,147

140. Friedlander, Plato, 1:143-44, 147-48, 153.

141. Vlastos, Platonic Studies, 56, 8-11,13; Sabine, History of Political Theory, 40-41. 

142. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.8.

143. Strauss, The City and Man, 52.8. 

This chapter is from  Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues.  James M. Rhodes. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

James M. Rhodes

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James M. Rhodes was Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Marquette University. He was author of The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution (Hoover Institution Press, 1980) and Eros, Wisdom, and Silence: Plato’s Erotic Dialogues (Missouri Press, 2003). Both books were winners of the Alpha Sigma Nu Award.