Monday, June 20, 2016

Russell on Plato

After the 10th entry on my blog devoted to Socrates in Aristophanes, Plato, and Xenophon I needed a break. What better break for a not native English speaker insisting on writing on Ancient Philosophy in English than reading Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy? I was in the middle of my work on ‘Plato’s involvement with Dionysius’ when I needed a break. On that occasion I read what Russell had to say on Socrates; it resulted in weeks devoted to my exploration of Socrates in Aristophanes, Plato and Socrates; I still have not managed to return to my essay. And so I took to my ‘day off’ with Russell with a bit of trepidation. And rightly so.

Russell opens his Chapter 14 on ‘Plato’s Utopia’ as follows: ‘Plato’s most important dialogue, the Republic, consists, broadly, of three parts. The first (to near the end of Book V) consists in the construction of an ideal commonwealth: it is the earliest of Utopias. One of the conclusions arrived at is that rulers must be philosophers. Books VI and VII are concerned to define the word “philosopher”. This discussion constitutes the second section. The third section consists mainly of a discussion of various kinds of actual constitutions and of their merits and defects. The nominal purpose of the Republic is to define ‘justice’. But at an early stage it is decided that, since everything is easier to see in the large than in the small, it will be better to inquire what makes a just State than what makes a just individual. And since justice must be among the attributes of the best imaginable State, such a State is first delineated, and then it is decided which of its perfections is to be called “justice”.’

Reading these lines, I wondered whether Russell looked at the Republic before he decided to present his students with ‘Plato’s Utopia’. For in the 1st Book we are presented with Socrates’ endeavour to define justice that ‘makes a just individual’, which ends with his relapse into ignorance: ‘And the result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.’ (354b9-c3, tr. B. Jowett) It is only after Plato’s two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, take Socrates into their hands in the 2nd Book, and compel him to transcend his ignorance, that Socrates comes up with the idea that ‘it will be better to inquire what makes a just State than what makes a just individual’, and begins to construct ‘the best imaginable State’. Similarly, the 10th Book does not fit Russell’s ‘three sections’ division of the Republic; it has nothing to do with ‘various kinds of actual constitutions and of their merits and defects’.

I let it pass, thinking of Socrates in the Phaedrus. As they were walking outside the city walls, Phaedrus asked: ‘Tell me, Socrates, isn’t it somewhere about here that they say Boreas seized Oireithua from the river? … but pray tell me, do you believe that story to be true?’ – Socrates: ‘I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do: I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmaceia, was blown by a gust of Boreas [a personification of the north wind, J. T.] … If our sceptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them [of such myths] to the standard of probability, he’ll need a lot of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business: and I’ll tell you why, my friend: I can’t as yet “know myself”, as the inscription at Delphi enjoins; and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters.’ (229b4-230a1, tr. R. Hackforth)

But further on in Russel’s Ch. 14 I read a passage which I could not let pass without comment: ‘On question of fact, we can appeal to science and scientific methods of observation; but on ultimate questions of ethics there seems to be nothing analogous. Yet, if this is really the case, ethical disputes resolve themselves into contests for power – including propaganda power. This point of view, in a crude form is put forth in the first book of the Republic by Thrasymachus … After Socrates has, for some time, been amiably discussing justice with an old man named Cephalus, and with Plato’s elder brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, Thrasymachus, who has been listening with growing impatience, breaks in with a vehement protest against such childish nonsense. He proclaims emphatically that ‘justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger’. This point of view is refuted by Socrates with quibbles; it is never fairly faced.’ (p. 118)

Russsel’s ‘After Socrates has … been amiably discussing justice with an old man named Cephalus, and with Plato’s elder brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, Thrasymachus … breaks in with a vehement protest’ is wrong on several accounts. It is after Socrates has discussed justice with Cephalus and his son Polemarchus that Thrasymachus breaks in. Furthermore, the discussion between Cephalus, Socrates and Polemarchus was not as amiable as it might seem. For Socrates asked Cephalus: ‘What do you consider to be the greatest blessing (ti megiston oiei agathon) which you have reaped from your wealth (apolelaukenai tou pollȇn ousian kektȇsthai)?’ Cephalus replies: ‘When a man begins to think that his last hour is near … he begins to reflect and consider (analogizetai ȇdȇ kai skopei) any wrongs which he may have done to others (ei tina ti ȇdikȇsen) … But to him who has no injustice on his conscience (tȏi de mȇden heautȏi adikon suneidoti), sweet hope, as Pindar charmingly says, is the kind nurse of him who lives in justice and holiness (hos an dikaiȏs kai hosiȏs ton bion diagagȇi) … The great blessing of riches, I do not say to every man, but to a good and upright man, is, that he has had no occasion to deceive or to defraud others, even without intention (to mȇde akonta tina exapatȇsai ȇ pseusasthai [‘to lie’]); and that when he departs to the world below he is not in any apprehension about offerings due to the gods or debts which he owes to men (opheilonta anthrȏpȏi chrȇmata).’ (330d2-331b3, tr. Jowett)

No occasion to deceive or to defraud others; is this the blessing riches bestow on a rich man if he is good and upright? Instead of challenging Cepahlus’ answer as such, Socrates viewed it as an implicit definition of justice, which he made explicit and subjected to questioning: ‘Well said indeed, Cephalus; but as concerning justice (touto d’ auto, tȇn dikaiosunȇn), what is it? To speak the truth and to pay our debts – no more than this (potera tȇn alȇtheian auto phȇsomen eiani haplȏs houtȏs kai to apodidonai an tis ti para tou labȇi)? May not these very actions be sometimes justly (dikaiȏs) and sometimes unjustly (adikȏs) performed? Suppose that a friend when in his right mind has deposited arms with me and he asks for them when he is not in right mind, ought I to give them back to him? No one would say that I ought or that I should be right in doing so, any more than they would say that I ought always to speak the truth to one who is in this condition.’ – Cephalus: ‘You are quite right.’ – Socrates: ‘But then, speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice (Ouk ara houtos horos estin dikaiosunȇs, alȇthȇ te legein kai ha an labȇi tis apodidonai).’ – Polemarchus interposed: ‘Quite correct, Socrates, if Simonides is to be believed.’ – Cephalus: ‘I fear that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to the company.’ – Polemarchus: ‘Am I not your heir (Oukoun egȏ tȏn ge sȏn klȇronomos, 331d8)?’ – Cephalus: ‘To be sure (Panu ge).’ – Socrates: ‘Tell me then (Lege dȇ), O thou heir of the argument (su ho tou logou klȇronomos), what did Simonides say, and according to you truly say, about justice (ti phȇis ton Simȏnidȇn legonta orthȏs legein peri dikaiosunȇs)? – Polemarchus: ‘He said that the repayment of a debt (Hoti to ta opheilomena hekastȏi apodidonai) is just (diakion esti), and in saying so (touto legȏn) he appears to me to be right (dokei emoige kalȏs legein).’ (331c1-331e4, translation is Jowett’s, with one exception. Jowett wrongly translates 331d8 ‘Polemarchus, then, is your heir? I said,’ giving the direct speech to Socrates. The Republic is narrated by Socrates, and sometimes his reporting of direct speech in short sentences is rather convoluted, as in this case: Oukoun, ephȇ, egȏ, ho Polemarchos, tȏn ge sȏn klȇronomos.)

Every contemporary of Plato knew that the riches Polemarchus inherited from his father caused his undoing. Let me quote from the speech that his brother Lysias wrote against Eratosthenes, one of the Thirty: ‘Polemarchus received from the Thirty their accustomed order to drink hemlock … They had seven hundred shields of ours, they had all that silver and gold, with copper, jewellery, furniture and women’s apparel beyond what they had ever expected to get; also a hundred and twenty slaves, of whom they took the ablest, delivering the rest to the Treasury.’ (XII. 17-19, tr. W. R. M. Lamb)

When Polemarchus took the argument over from his father, he did so as his heir, and Socrates reemphasized this. Obviously, the contemporary reader would have expected that Socrates would prove Polemarchus to be wrong, and that in doing so Plato would recant his presentation of the latter in the Phaedrus as an exemplary philosopher whose days on earth were bound to be blessed with happiness. (See Phaedrus 256a7-b1 and 257b2-6)

Russell cannot be blamed for not knowing this; no interpreter of Plato could see this ever since the Platonic scholarship dismissed the ancient tradition according to which the Phaedrus was Plato’s first dialogue, written during Socrates’ life-time. But I cannot absolve him from dereliction of duty to his students and his readers. Let me repeat what he says about the 1st Book of the Republic: ‘After Socrates has, for some time, been amiably discussing justice with an old man named Cephalus, and with Plato’s elder brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus, Thrasymachus, who has been listening with growing impatience, breaks in with a vehement protest against such childish nonsense. He proclaims emphatically that ‘justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger’. This point of view is refuted by Socrates with quibbles; it is never fairly faced.’

Let me end by taking on Russell’s claim that Thrasymachus’ definition of justice ‘is refuted by Socrates with quibbles’.

Socrates asks Thrasymachus to clarify his definition of justice. Thrasymachus: ‘Have you never heard that forms of government differ; there are tyrannies, and there are democracies, and there are aristocracies?’ – Socrates: ‘Yes, I know.’ – Thrasymachus: ‘And the government is the ruling power in each state?’ – Socrates: ‘Certainly’. – Thrasymachus: ‘And the different forms of government make laws democratical, aristocratical, tyrannical, with a view to their several interests; and thereby proclaim that what is advantageous to themselves is justice for those ruled; and him who transgresses this principle they punish as a breaker of the law, and unjust. And that is what I mean, sir, when I say that in all states there is the same principle of justice, which is the interest of the established government; and as the government must be supposed to have power, the only reasonable conclusion is that everywhere there is one principle of justice, which is the interest of the stronger.’ – Socrates: ‘Do you not admit that it is just for the subjects to obey their rulers? – ‘I do’ – ‘But are the rulers of the various states infallible, or are they sometimes liable to err?’ – ‘To be sure, they are liable to err.’ – ‘Then in making their laws they may sometimes make them rightly, and sometimes not?’ – ‘I think so.’ – ‘When they make them rightly, they make them agreeably to their interest; when they are mistaken, contrary to their interest; you admit that?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘And whatever laws they make must be obeyed by their subjects, and that is what you call justice?’ – ‘Doubtless.’ – ‘Then justice, according to your argument, is not only observance of the interest of the stronger but the reverse?’ (338d7-339d3, tr. Jowett)

This argument of Socrates points to the very foundation of his philosophy, grounded as it is in the Delphic ‘Know Thyself’, as becomes clear from his discussion of this principle in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, where he tells Euthydemus: ‘Is it not true that through self-knowledge men come to much good, and through self-deception to much harm? For those who know themselves, know what things are expedient for themselves and discern their own powers and limitations. And by doing what they understand, they get what they want and prosper: by refraining from attempting what they do not understand, they make no mistake and avoid failure. And consequently through their power of testing other men too, and through their intercourse with others, they get what is good and shun what is bad … and the same is true of communities. You find that whatever state (Horais de kai tȏn poleȏn), in ignorance of its power, goes to war with a stronger people, it is exterminated or loses its liberty.’ (IV. ii. 26-29, tr. E. C. Marchant) – Socrates extended the Delphic adage to the whole states, and thus to their governments.

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