Thursday, September 01, 2005

Week 02, Gorgias and Plato

Gorgias Notes

Sophism: you can have enough respect for a thing (truth) not to believe in it. Sophists are offering pragmatic wisdom – we can teach truth and virtue, etc. – but that need not be interpreted as flippant or disregard for the ultimate existence of truth. If everything is a matter of opinion, we are left considering pragmatics. How do we arrive at a way of knowing who wields opinion in a worthy manner? The Sophists think they can proceed, whereas this sort of viewpoint drives Plato bananas. A similar argument has been made recently – Derrida versus the structuralists, who apply social science and science to human phenomena. Their attitude is, well we can go forwards – we don’t need to know the essence of everything before we can act in the world; we can teach “structure” as a principle of intelligibility. But that is to fool yourself, D would say – structure becomes the unquestioned center, and so it’s no different from philosophical Truth, or God, or any other metaphysical enabling device taken as absolute reality. Barbara C’s presentation brings out something interesting about Gorgias – he says people have wielded a version of truth that has damaged a good woman’s reputation; Helen got run down (to borrow from Allen Ginsberg) by “the drunken taxicabs of absolute reality.” Call an ambulance!

Notes on Plato.

The Republic, Book 2.

49. “The most important stage of any enterprise is the beginning….” Education is vital because young minds must be molded properly—that sounds much like our concept that early learning is the most important kind. Plato says that children’s minds are quite impressionable—the stories we tell them make an impression, most likely a permanent one, too. We will choose apt future guardians or phulakes—agile-minded, teachable children in whose souls we can leave a good imprint that will generate predictable results and a stable society. Everyone will lead an orderly life, do one appropriate job well, and love the Good and Reason as far as possible given his or her capacities as nurtured by sound education. Here we find Plato’s pragmatic emphasis—art can shape morals and maintain social control.

The Greeks generally considered poetry and music the primary instruments of paideia, or education. (See Werner Jaeger’s multivolume Paideia.) Plato doesn’t try to do away with poetry as a means of education since everyone in Greece treated Homer and other poets the way modern Christians treat the Bible—something to be relied on for an apt line or a moral precept, appreciated for its beauties, and so forth. This was the tradition. Still, Plato insists upon reforming poetry as a vehicle of education so that its effects may be controlled more effectively. After all, the State will be in charge of education; it won’t be simply a matter of children imbibing stories about Chronos trying to eat his children or Zeus dallying with nymphs. What we want is to shape minds for a lean, if not mean, Utopian State (one like Sparta)—not the corrupt and luxurious polity that Plato dislikes so much.

50. “Even if these stories are true, they ought not to be told so casually to young people and people who lack discrimination; it’s better to keep silent….” Only philosophers may suppress the truth or even lie because they do it for the people’s good. Philosophers-as-state-planners must restrict scurrilous tales about the gods to the ears of the very few who can avoid being corrupted by them. This is censorship, of course—but Plato’s goal is not freedom for modern bourgeois individuals; it is a sound moral collectivity.

51-55. On page 53, Socrates says “any spoken words or composed works will have to conform to the principle that God is not responsible for everything, but only for good.” The divine realm must be purged of obscene portraits of the gods and made to serve as the source of moral and intellectual integrity. This would be necessary even if the gods actually were just as Homer describes them. I would say that the old religion helped the Greeks to endure in a world that sometimes seemed unjust, but Plato rationalizes religion and expects it to adhere to his notions of ultimate truth. For Plato’s purposes, the Divine Realm must be purged of its rascally particularities—there’s just one Divine (though there may be many gods), and from it flows only good. This Divine Realm or “God” will serve as a principle of moral intelligibility and, at the highest level of Plato’s philosophy, will be closely associated with Reason and the Good. If we were to need a fictional affirmation of this realm’s existence, so be it—the wise must draw the future guardians and auxiliaries onwards to appreciate the Good.

Of course, the issue of making art triumph over the Real and Reason and common human sentiment could be raised at this point: “isn’t that what the Nazis did?” would go the argument. They turned politics into aesthetics—the state was considered a work of art (to borrow a phrase from Jacob Burckhardt), so a fiery defeat in battle might be glossed as The Twilight of the Gods straight out of Wagner, the murder of innocent millions translated into the “purification” of a mythic Herrnrace, and so forth.

An aside—while the old mythology of the Greeks helped people endure a harsh cosmos (as Homer’s Apollo says near the beginning of The Iliad 24, “an enduring heart have the fates given unto men”; τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν), Plato would have it serve as a principle of moral and ontological clarity: a way of claiming that there is an eternal realm of Beauty and Goodness beyond this mess we find ourselves in. The ancient myths dealt with what Christian theology calls the “problem of evil” by not trying to deal with it: the gods did what they wanted to, and were beyond our standards of justice or fairness. But if you claim your god has the status of Jehovah in the Hebrew scriptures, you must directly confront the problem of who is responsible for evil. Plato shares that problem with Christianity and several other religions.

Well, this all leads to a general point for the course: a major use of art has long been identified as the shaping of an audience’s morals, the molding of individuals from their youth up into a unified collectivity that has come to agree about matters of right and wrong. Art can, in this view, partly generate and strongly reinforce moral consensus.

Alternately, some moderns would claim that art should reinforce ethical norms already in existence: we might refer to arguments about, say, Robert Mapplethorpe’s bizarre visual art being shown in galleries receiving money from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Some middle-class people object to tax-funded radicalism. They probably do not see art as a vehicle for challenging values upon which they see little or no need to reflect, and it offends them if you say that art should “afflict the comfortable” or that it should “disturb and disintegrate” (Wilde’s phrase) views and practices they hold dear. Even though I am not exactly a political animal in the classroom, I have sometimes seen this attitude in college students in direct response to assigned material: “I don’t like Dostoyevsky or Freud or Marx; they say things I don’t understand and that sound disagreeable.” My question to them would be, “is education for finding out about new things and ideas, or for getting our prior belief systems validated by people with fancy degrees?” Of course, this “Culture Wars” struggle has been blunted of late, at least with regard to the arts—I recently saw Dana Gioia, a poet and the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, talking about how the most alarming matter for America’s cultural health is that around half of the public doesn’t read literature at all. One might as well add in Wildean fashion that large numbers of the rest of them read it rather badly….The point is, this is baseline stuff—there’s no point talking about art being dangerous if nobody is capable of engaging with it. The Culture Wars focus has shifted to the struggle over the War on Terror, the long-continued Iraq venture, and so forth.

Later “bourgeois” versions of this usefulness-claim would have us all formed into one big consensus-happy public sphere, where right moral sentiment and the normative ways of doing everything prevail. Plato is didactic in the way he handles the value of art as education: it should form us into what we ought to be as members of a collective society, and help us find our proper place to serve others in the community. For him, art isn’t a vehicle for self-development, expression, or free individuality in the modern sense.

The Republic, Book 3.

56-57. “We will implore Homer and the rest of the poets not to get cross if we strike these and all similar lines from their works.” Emotionally effective poetry is especially harmful and contagious. The guardians might think tears and fears are fine, while what we require from them is firm adherence to reason, just as we need from the auxiliaries or soldiers blood, sweat, and obedience. After all, John Wayne isn’t supposed to play Macbeth, is he? (The old Greeks of Homer’s day would find restraining tears downright un-Greek. Homer’s heroes are often wailing about something or other.) Plato might agree with Sir Philip Sidney that art should give us “speaking pictures” of virtuous men and women, so that we will want to think and act like them. Plato insists on what has been called the “contagion theory of art”: when we see something, we will want to do it, too. Look at the way he describes the soul as tripartite in Phaedrus 245ff: the soul’s pilot is reason, and it must control the two horses or steeds that pull it towards an object. Modesty and temperance must prevail if there is to be no wreck. This metaphor construes human beings as powerfully moved by desires of various sorts—and if the lower or sensual desires prevail, we shall be led to immodesty and ruin. Things we see and hear have a strong effect upon us, for better or for worse.

58-59. “Clearly lying should be entrusted to doctors, and laymen should have nothing to do with it.” Lies are dangerous when uttered by the wrong people, by subordinates. Only those whose “craft” is philosophy—who know the good end and the proper way to achieve it while working with the given material—can be allowed to lie. At this point—one shouldn’t take this too far—truth begins to sound like a ruse of statecraft. Order is the first necessity, not truth. Plato isn’t so “un-Greek” as to be less than frank on this point. But ultimately, when he comes around to ontological arguments in Book 10, he returns to the issue of poetry’s truth status, and finds it lacking.

59. Socrates asks, “and aren’t the most important aspects of self-discipline, at least for the general rank and file, obedience to those in authority and establishing one’s authority over the pleasures of drink, sex, and food?” Reason and temperance outrank sensual pleasure and fiction-making. Food, sex, poetry: all are dangerous if handled badly.

61-62: This section resembles The Symposium in its advocacy of education as a leading-out of youth from the senses towards the adult’s fuller appreciation of the beauty of reason and goodness. For political purposes, Plato recognizes that humans are passionate creatures, that they have appetites and bodies as well as the capacity to reason their way to an apprehension of truth. That practical concern leads him not to dismiss poetry from consideration as he builds his word-State, but rather to reform its role in traditional paideia. He says that we must smooth the way from childhood to rational adulthood and citizenship, keeping away from children anything that might impede their progress towards love of the good and right. So we need to attune young minds to harmony in language, music, dance, everything. True craftsmen must surround children with a virtual Sesame Street environment of beautiful objects and harmonious sounds and actions, putting them in a region of health and beauty so complete that when they become adults, they will greet the beauty of reason as an old friend, without, perhaps, even realizing how it came to be so familiar. We move almost imperceptibly from Big Bird to Big Brother: the Good. Plato is a spiritual reformer in education, as Werner Jaeger might say. So the goal in educating children is to smooth their progress from the material to the nonmaterial kind of good, from belief towards knowledge, from the unexamined life towards the examined life.

Cultural education is vital to Plato. As Marcus Aurelius will say in his Meditations, we should come not even to “think in inmost thought” what would offend our fellows. The goal here is temperance and self-restraint in all things. It’s interesting, however, that for all his reputation as a stern banisher of poetry on ontological grounds, Plato seems rather passionate about Reason. Or at least he sees that in practical or pedagogical terms, our early passionate, unreasoning attachment to beauty and harmony is vital to our subsequent development into mature citizens. Ion isn’t a proper craftsmen, but someone working under a philosopher-king could generate quite an effect in the Republic’s children. The teacher must accept our initial dependence on the senses, on ordinary pleasures, and use it as an instrument for our moral and philosophical advancement. It seems we must transcend the senses by first being educated with their aid. Pleasure in material objects will be replaced by pleasure in non-material goodness. Education is vital, and must be reformed: Plato sees “human nature” in a realistic way, but isn’t satisfied with us au naturel. He’s no individualist, but he shows the humanist’s dissatisfaction with what is founded merely upon nature or even “human nature” as is. We seem to be perfectible. Plato’s doctrine, at least in Book 3, is an early version of what Schiller will later call “the Aesthetic Education of Man.” Education includes art, and so art is vital to the task of civilization. But of course Plato will not add “individualism” or “freedom of the individual” or “freedom and variety of situations” to his list of necessaries, as von Humboldt or Schiller and his fellow romantic philosophers would. Still, art is a formative and shaping power, and is integral to being “civilized.” Even in Homer, there is a negotiation between the wild and the civilized.

The Republic, Book 7.

This book is partly about the teacher’s command of truth, of the Forms as opposed to the world of sham and appearance. Education involves an acclimation to “beholding” the Intelligible realm. The Allegory of the Cave’s simple point is that this world of sensible things is a prison. The uneducated adults are in chains, looking only straight ahead. These adults, the ordinary citizens of a democratic commonwealth like Athens (in whom Plato puts little trust), become hostile and threaten to murder the returned Promethean bringer of light. The parallel to Socrates is obvious—he had been executed in 399 BCE, a quarter-century before Plato wrote The Republic.

So Plato offers us an allegory about the power of philosophy and the risks that truth runs when it makes itself available to the profoundly ignorant. He suggests that the world runs on illusions and that it’s no easy matter to disabuse people of their illusions, built as they are upon sensory experience and a deep need for certainty. Plato’s problem with art is that it doesn’t even try to disabuse people of their illusions; only philosophy and “cultural education” crafted by philosophers can disabuse us without bringing the house down on our heads.

One could say that Plato’s sentiment here is genuinely Greek—we must be able to bear the weight of vision, of knowledge. Homer says, after all, that the fates have given us enduring hearts. Still, if you strip away people’s illusions too quickly and you blind them with truth, they will hate you. Our prisoners have built a whole system of reward and punishment, an integral society, out of their own perceptual and intellectual errors. See Nietzsche’s “Truth and Falsity” essay on this power of abstraction-making to stabilize the world and make it seem livable. See page 67: if our truth-seer is so uninterested in coming back to the Cave, doesn’t his reluctance undermine Plato’s attempt to build an ideal Republic? In other words, doesn’t The Republic end on a note of alienation between philosophy and life—one that art has taken on as a mantle, as in Symbolism and romanticism at its most “satanic”?

The Republic, Book 10.

In Book 10, Plato looks at poetry more sternly from an ontological standpoint, so he sounds more dismissive of it here—it turns out that poetry isn’t true craft like the craftsmanship in the lean, healthy state; instead, it merely copies copies, generating something like the effects of the Allegory of the Cave’s “shadows on the wall.” It only convinces people that their illusions are truth and have the gods’ sanction.

67. Now all imitative poetry must go; this is a shock since it was formerly alright to present carefully crafted images of virtue.

68-70. Plato is in full onto-throttle here: there is the Idea of “Bed” (its form or pattern, design), the material object made by the joiner, and the bed represented by the painter, who merely imitates the joiner’s bed. So the painter makes a copy of a copy.

74-76. The painter or imitative poet satisfies the ignorant multitude, who want nothing but copies in any case. He’s a democratizer in the realm of pleasure. He confirms and even multiplies ordinary people’s confusions and contradictions in the sensory realm, where they are content to remain.

76-77. Poetry counteracts reason and public necessity. Notice the panopticon tendency in Plato: the self, as far as he is concerned, should remain a public construct. This public construct is rather like Freud’s “superego,” the power of parental authority and collective wisdom, or what passes for it.

77-78. Poetry appeals to the lowest element of our nature, Plato says. It appeals to the petulant side that gives reason so much trouble, and not to the “intelligent and calm” side. It stirs up the multitude, creating amongst them a bond in their lowest passions. Note that at 78 top, Plato directly links imitative poetry and demagogic ruffians’ control of politics.

78. Worst of all, poetry not only miseducates the young, it corrupts even the good.

79-80. Plato’s Socrates will admit only “hymns to the gods” and “eulogies of virtuous men”—supposedly non-representational poetry that is not made solely for the pleasure of hearers but that instead reinforces a productive moral.

Notes on Plato’s Phaedrus

Is writing a remedy or a poison? The Greek word pharmakos means both remedy and poison. Also, supplementarity comes into play—either this term indicates the supplying of a lack, or an addition to something already whole. Well, as Derrida says, it means both in philosophical writing, and any attempt to reduce this complexity generates all sorts of mischief, most particularly bogus certainty.

Socrates says that Thamus sees writing as sanctioning forgetting. That’s vital since for Plato learning is anamnesis, an unforgetting of what the timeless soul always knew, or has long known.

Speech, here, is closer to truth, to our own consciousness, which has the capacity to apprehend truth. Speech maintains its relationship to inner consciousness and intentionality, and can always refer back to these realms for validation. Speech is contrasted with the dangerous disseminative power of the written word, which is much more obviously a public code, a set of signs that function in the absence of the writer’s consciousness. A concrete example would be to write a word like “dog” or “umbrella” on the blackboard—how could the word be interpreted unless you don’t have to depend on direct access to the mind of the author? In the case of writing, it’s painfully obvious that meaning multiplies promiscuously with no firm standard of reduction to stability.

Plato says elsewhere that politicians always want to write. He connects writing with democracy: the promiscuous dissemination of power amongst the unworthy. Plato, we should remember, is considerably younger than Socrates, so he has really taken the lesson of Athens’ fall in the wake of the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars (431-04 BCE) with Sparta. A democratic-spirited people became too full of themselves, we might say, and their leaders (Pericles foremost) marched them off a cliff. Plato was an aristocrat by birth, it seems, and he simply didn’t trust the common folk to make intelligent decisions. In this sense, his view of human nature is probably much darker than that of Socrates.

On the issue of writing and speech, Derrida’s view is that the privileging of speech, with its supposed link to absolute truth, has been the trick of philosophy for millennia. In the service of unitary meaning and theology-grade stability, philosophical discourse effaces itself as writing, trying to come at us as pure speech conveying systemic truth. But the same thing is true of speech as is true of writing: it can only mean something if we do not rely on direct access to the speaker’s supposed intentions. Speech is a public code, too, subject to the same indeterminacy and unfinality as is writing. The opposition between speech and writing is false; they are both similarly diffuse, sliding, drifting, and cannot give us final meaning or ultimate truth. Rather, they work by potentially endless deferral and difference. That we believe we manipulate speech as a code does not do away with its similarity to writing. I can’t explain my intentions for every sentence I utter—that would in effect privatize my speech in a deferred manner; neither can my gestures take me outside this process of signification since gestures are themselves signs that must be interpreted.

Our view of speech posits a unitary “consciousness” that then links back to and validates speech as true (cf. Derrida on Husserl’s phenomenology). We speak, referring our words back to consciousness for validation or authentication. But consciousness itself is perhaps an effect of speech. Intentionality is an ex post facto construction. If this Nietzsche-like point is valid, perhaps we can test it simply by listening to our own internal dialogue: I don’t believe in intentionality, at least not in the most direct sense: ask “where do my words come from?” and you will be able to perceive that in your own inner dialogue, they don’t seem to come from anywhere or to be commanded in some a priori manner by consciousness. Again, consciousness may well be an effect, not a cause. (This may be an overstatement since research on certain kinds of brain damage, I believe, has sometimes called into question the primacy of speech in the formation of consciousness—I once saw a television segment on a fellow who had sustained an injury and had come to “think” in images rather than words, for example.)

The point is not to condemn “meaning” and “consciousness” as useless illusions, but rather to suggest that illusions are not without consequence even if they are necessary. It’s possible to build systems in philosophy or politics. And it’s dangerous either to leave them in place or to tear them down, especially since you must work with the components of what is in the process of being torn down.

So what has all this talk to do with literature and literary criticism? It offers us insight into certain kinds of literature and methods of interpretation. For instance, take romantic poetry, which tends to efface its status as written word in favor of lyric utterance. With the romantics, this isn’t just a polite convention as perhaps it is for, say, Philip Sidney or Thomas Wyatt. The romantic symbol or poetic word is supposed to work its magic upon our spirits, carrying alive into the heart the poet’s passions and expressive truths. The therapeutic power of poetry depends in part on their model of consciousness and speech. Words, as in Christian theology, are the bearers of spirit and culture, or at least they point us in that direction. They reinforce or even partly create our humanity in its deepest sense, and have a vital bond with the natural world. Imagination and symbol are beyond ordinary language.

A further point: anybody who claims privilege for a certain kind of consciousness—unified, a sanctuary for truth whether its ultimate source is inside the mind or external to it—must efface the operations of writing, or the link and the spell will be broken. Any act of criticism would separate itself into a unified consciousness or perspective, maintaining a certain distance from the object it creates in the process of positing itself. So it must reduce the operations of textuality, must disclaim participation in or contact with the process of signification that is the text. But surely the relationship is less straightforward than that. (An easy way of putting this, for initial reference, is that “criticism constitutes its preferred object.”) Criticism that ignores the effects of writing ends up repeating or otherwise affirming the ideology and illusions—the project—of the texts it studies. If you go to the text trying to reconstruct the project of the movement, the poem, the author, etc., you must know that you are part of that project, that you are involved in positing a “there” where there’s no fully prior “there.” Carry this insight about effects of the code farther back, and you see that the author, text, movement, did not have a lock on its own “intentions,” no matter what explicit declarations it makes. Intention is a unity-making post hoc construction.

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.