On “little kingdoms”

Book 9 of the Republic ends with the question of how the true philosopher, the one fitted by nature and education to rule in the city, would comport himself in a (mostly corrupt) actual city, one quite unlikely to recognize his/her authority to rule:

[592a] He will gladly take part in and enjoy those which he thinks will make him a better man, but in public and private life he will shun those that may overthrow the established habitof his soul.” “Then, if that is his chief concern,” he said, “he will not willingly take part in politics.” “Yes, by the dog,” said I, “in his own city he certainly will, yet perhaps not in the city of his birth, except in some providential conjuncture.” “I understand,” he said; “you mean the city whose establishment we have described, the city whose home is in the ideal; [592b] for I think that it can be found nowhere on earth.” “Well,” said I, “perhaps there is a pattern of it laid up in heaven for him who wishes to contemplate it and so beholding to constitute himself its citizen. But it makes no difference whether it exists now or ever will come into being. The politics of this city only will be his and of none other.” “That seems probable,” he said. — Perseus Project translation of Plato’s Republic, 592a-b

The Republic toggles its concern between the just constitution of the city and the just constitution of the individual soul. One is left with the unsettling notion that only the latter can actually be, that the just are cursed in some way to be homeless, strangers in the land of the unjust. The Republic is perhaps an atopia, rather than eutopia. But there is another possibility…

In Chapter 37 of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, there is a conversation between Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Casaubon. Dorothea is trapped in a mostly loveless marriage to a failed scholar, Edward Casaubon, a family relation of Ladislaw. In a (partially) adventitious meeting, Ladislaw expresses toward Mr. Casaubon some resentful disparagement, against which Dorothea chides Will, defending her failed husband through an appeal to Ladislaw’s sympathy for him. That results in the following exchange:

“You teach me better,” said Will. “I will never grumble on that subject again.” There was a gentleness in his tone which came from the unutterable contentment of perceiving—what Dorothea was hardly conscious of—that she was travelling into the remoteness of pure pity and loyalty towards her husband. Will was ready to adore her pity and loyalty, if she would associate himself with her in manifesting them. “I have really sometimes been a perverse fellow,” he went on, “but I will never again, if I can help it, do or say what you would disapprove.”

“That is very good of you,” said Dorothea, with another open smile. “I shall have a little kingdom then, where I shall give laws. But you will soon go away, out of my rule, I imagine…”

The phrase “little kingdom” struck me as pointing to the effect that virtue can have in the small social setting. In such circumstances, the virtuous can rule, if only for a time. Athens does not beg Socrates to rule them, but it is clear that he is allowed to “rule” in the small gathering in the house of Cephalus. In the Middlemarch passage, it is not even clear who is being the most philosophical, Dorothea with her loyalty-love or Will with his recognition of the superior claim placed upon him. Each brings the “little kingdom” into existence jointly. Is this not true politics? Is there a sense in which the large scale enterprise that conventionally goes by the name of “politics” can be a distraction from this smaller but truer version? Perhaps we should practice “politics” at the highest level that truth will allow, among our neighbors in our neighborhood, and let the scoundrels fight each other for the remainder…

Two…no three…great Plato essays

Posting on Eva Brann’s remarks on nescience reminded me of her great and seminal essay on Plato called “The Music of the Republic,” which is also the title essay of one of her books. I can’t recommend it too highly, even if I diverge from some of her interpretations at times. One of the glories of the internet age is that so many great things are available for free online. Not only Brann’s essay but also the second best essay I know on the Republic (“Imitation” by John White) are available for free in an a scanned version of a special issue of the St. John’s Review from 1989-90.

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

p.s. Robert Williamson also contributes an excellent essay on the nature of Plato’s Good to this edition. Williamson was among the most brilliant men I ever met. I was lucky to have studied Homer’s Iliad (in Greek of course) under his tutelage.


On nescience

From my beloved former tutor Eva Brann:

Advice to myself concerning nescience:
1. Simply admit ignorance of what others do not know (facts, theories). 2. Don’t be boastfully modest about not knowing what no one else knows either. 3. Either resign yourself to never knowing what you ought to know or make a project of learning it, but don’t fuss. 4. Don’t claim that something important is unknowable; it’s pure presumption. 5. Try to exult in newly discovered perplexities. 6. Don’t display dithering nescience; it’s just annoying. 7. Remember that unknowableness is the least persuasive antidote to dogmatism. 8. Make no boastful protestations of your large ignorance of expert’s expertise. 9. Don’t say “I don’t understand” when you mean “I don’t approve.” — Open Secrets, Inward Prospects, p. 366

In praise of failure

In my last post, I distinguished between two forms of ignorance, a (bad) static version and a (good) dynamic one. A similar distinction can be made regarding failure:

“The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.”
Sarah Lewis on the gift of failure

My one quibble with this quote is the word “imperfect” could have been read defectively as meaning “participating in a perfection not yet achieved.” Otherwise, it is a lovely quote.

Ignorance as absence and presence

Ignorance is an absence. But to call it merely an absence is to leave the matter incomplete. An absence is always an absence of, just as hunger is the absence of nourishing food and darkness is the absence of light. Absence is a marker of intentionality and without an intended presence, there is no absence. So ignorance is an absence of something — let’s call it wisdom.

Ignorance, like any absence, is in some sort of dynamic relation to that of which it is deprived, i.e. wisdom. (The idea of a nothingness without this relation to some quality of positive being is not even thinkable. This was the chief insight of Hegel’s Logic, that being and nothing both presuppose becoming.) Absence is not featureless — it has a phenomenal character defined by what is dynamically felt as missing. It is an intermediate, a metaxy, between emptiness and fullness. Ignorance is one mode of an encompassing desire to know.

Yesterday, I posed two platonic questions:

1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?

2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?

Let’s try to answer them in some way. The questions in the Euthydemus dialogue are posed by a sophist, one who is ready to pounce on anyone who takes a side of the either/or dilemma. But however ignobly intended, the questions pose a serious question for the lover of wisdom. A true answer will have to avoid the either/or and must hazard the potential confusion of a both/and. I say hazard, because we can easily get trapped in an equivocation of terms if we are not careful. In one sense, we must distinguish between the ignorant and the wise and prefer the latter state to the former. Let’s call the one who is wise in this good Socratic sense, WISE (with a capital W), and similarly the one who is ignorant in the bad sense, IGNORANT. The two mental states will remain uncapitalized.

I have just made the case (I think) that there is no ignorance without dynamic relation to wisdom. Is the opposite also true? Is there a (human) wisdom that does not contain within it at least a kernel of ignorance? I think that the answer is negative: all human wisdom is also in dynamic relation to an enfolded ignorance. The character of this relation of ignorance-to-wisdom and wisdom-to-ignorance must be encountered differently by the WISE and the IGNORANT. Let’s try to spell this out:

The WISE recognize, even if tacitly, that ignorance is in relation to the wisdom of which it is the deprivation. Wisdom is already anticipated in the experience of ignorance. This anticipation guides the search for the wisdom that would overcome the ignorance. It is now a commonplace of mathematical heuristics that naming the unknown is a powerful first step to solving problems. Naming the unknown makes it focal, rescues it from a state of nonrelational absence and places it into relationship with the known features of the problem. The WISE are those who take ignorance as a positive marker of the to-be-known. Self-knowingly claiming the ignorance, setting them in dynamic relation is WISDOM and WISDOM is always learning.

The IGNORANT on the other hand have lost the dynamic connection between ignorance and wisdom. To them, ignorance and wisdom are contradictories, not just contraries. Wisdom-without-igorance and ignorance-without-wisdom are binary, static, lifeless possibilities. Accepting the either/or presupposition of the question is already to be stuck in ignorance. Learning is not possible in either state.

Teaching that is based on the either/or understanding of wisdom/ignorance is a lifeless thing. Real teaching must keep the student aware of his/her ignorance not only before the learning event, but also during and after.

Two questions on learning

Here are two questions (both from Plato’s Euthydemus dialogue) that can provoke much thought:

1. Which sort of human beings are those who learn, the wise or the ignorant?

2. Do learners learn what they know or what they don’t know?

I will leave you to ponder those for a day before commenting myself. Try to think about what those questions open up concerning the nature of learning.

Philosophy and conversion

One of the chief teachings of Plato is that the aim of philosophical pedagogy is periogage, i.e. conversion. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon:

“Education is not the sort of thing certain people who claim to be professors claim that it is. Surely they claim they put knowledge into a soul it wasn’t present in, as though they were putting sight in blind eyes…

But the current discussion indicates…that this power is present in the soul of each person, and the instrument by which each ones learns, as if were an eye that’s not able to turn away from darkness toward the light in any other way than along with the whole body, needs to be turned around along with the whole soul, away from what’s fleeting, until it becomes able to endure gazing at what is and at the brightest of what is, and this, we’re claiming, is the good…

Then there would be an art to this very thing…this turning around, having to do with the way the soul would be most easily and effectively redirected, not an art of implanting sight into it, but of how to contrive that from someone who who has sight, but doesn’t have it turned the right way or looking at what it needs to.   — Republic, translated by Joe Sachs, 518b – d.

One of the frustrations of teaching philosophy in a university setting is the narrowly circumscribed (more…)

On political opining

How much do you know about Ukraine? Or better, how much did you know before the recent political turmoil there? For my own part, I must confess I knew pitifully little. I have of course never been there. I knew bits of trivia, like the fact that its capital is Kiev. I knew about the Crimean War (vaguely) and that Florence Nightingale made her reputation there. I have read just two books that are located (at least partially) in Ukraine: one is Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, the other is Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, which has a horrific description of the Stalinist manufactured famine of 1932-3. I remember somewhat Ukraine breaking away from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s. And I knew that it was a fertile agricultural land, the “bread-basket” of the USSR. That’s pretty much it.

Since the recent crisis, my treasury of facts has increased quite a bit. I have a nice little wikipedia education on aspects of Ukrainian history. I have read a couple of decent essays on Ukrainian/Russian relations. I went from knowing next-to-nothing to knowing next-to-next-to-nothing. Good for me.

Yet, I know more than enough to offer a strong opinion on the Ukraine. I can sound really learned in an argument with other poorly-informed opinionated persons. (I am pretty good at sounding smart about something I know little of.) We opiners can really go at it, getting angrier in turns, at each other if we disagree or someone else (Putin or Obama or the opposition party perhaps) if we agree. Of course, we will think the person who disagrees with us is ignorant or poorly informed without noticing that we are as well. And in a representative democracy, this rhetoric has an effect as our representatives fall all over themselves to ally themselves to the majority opinion, to voice strongly the pundit-manufactured opinions of the poorly informed, and they are armed with confident-sounding phrases decorated with a few decontextualized facts. The result can be utterly tragic. Let’s hope it is not in this case.

Do we understand what we are doing when we do this? One of the aims of the Platonic dialogues is to make the strong case about the dangers of assertive, immoderate doxa/opinion. When talk is cheap we forget that it is also consequential. Countering doxa with a louder, contradicting version of the same type of doxa leads to an ever increasing scandal. We must be critical of punditry as such, not just the pundits with whom we disagree. (Nate Silver recently tweeted: “Never would have guessed how many political pundits also happen to be experts on Crimea.”) Let’s remember that pundits get paid to be opiners, not knowers.  Making clear to ourselves and others the ignorance inherent in opinion is the only antidote that I know for the chief political disease.  But that requires a kind of self-critical thinking that is much less fun in a world that celebrates rhetorically effective opinion. In all the hubbub about this crisis or that, what has really escaped notice is that philosophy is always the proper response.

Here are a few of my former posts on the nature of opinion: here, here, and here.

The city is the soul writ large (Slow reading of Book II continued)

Picking up again in Book II from where we left off in our slow reading of Book II, Socrates proposes a certain way of getting at the notion of justice in the soul. Here is the text:

Glaucon, then, and the rest besought me by all means to come to the rescue and not to drop the argument but to pursue to the end the investigation as to the nature of each and the truth about their respective advantages. I said then as I thought: “The inquiry we are undertaking is no easy one but [368d] calls for keen vision, as it seems to me. So, since we are not clever persons, I think we should employ the method of search that we should use if we, with not very keen vision, were bidden to read small letters from a distance, and then someone had observed that these same letters exist elsewhere larger and on a larger surface. We should have accounted it a godsend, I fancy, to be allowed to read those letters first, and examine the smaller, if they are the same.” “Quite so,” said Adeimantus; [368e] “but what analogy to do you detect in the inquiry about justice?” “I will tell you,” I said: “there is a justice of one man, we say, and, I suppose, also of an entire city.” “Assuredly,” said he. “Is not the city larger than the man?” “It is larger,” he said. “Then, perhaps, there would be more justice in the larger object and more easy to apprehend. If it please you, then, [369a] let us first look for its quality in states, and then only examine it also in the individual, looking for the likeness of the greater in the form of the less.” “I think that is a good suggestion,” he said. “If, then,” said I, “our argument should observe the origin1 of a state, we should see also the origin of justice and injustice in it.” “It may be,” said he. “And if this is done, we may expect to find more easily what we are seeking?” [369b] “Much more.” “Shall we try it, then, and go through with it? I fancy it is no slight task. Reflect, then.” “We have reflected,” said Adeimantus; “proceed and don’t refuse.” — Perseus Project translation

That’s the text I would like to discuss. Here is some commentary to get us started: (more…)

Thinking within the metaxy

One of my basic hypotheses is that Plato’s writings are defective because all of our thinking about the whole of things is necessarily incomplete. We are finite parts of an encompassing being. We must be defective readers if we are ever to reach the level of Platonic thought. The highest approach to the irreducible mystery of things is through thinking and thinking is incomplete by nature; thinking is always oriented towards knowing in full sellf-awareness that it doesn’t yet know. The term Plato gives for this defective position is “metaxy,” i.e . “intermediate.” All of this is merely preparatory to a quote from Eric Voegelin with which I will end:

“All philosophizing about consciousness is an event in the consciousness of philosophizing and presupposes this consciousness itself with its structures. Inasmuch as the consciousness of philosophizing is no ‘pure’ consciousness but rather the consciousness of a human being, all philosophizing is an event in the philosopher’s life history—further an event in the history of the community with its symbolic language; further in the history of mankind, and further in the history of the cosmos. No ‘human’ in his reflection on consciousness and its nature can make consciousness an ‘object’ over against him; the reflection rather is an orientation within the space of consciousness by which he can push to the limit of consciousness but never cross those limits….The philosopher always lives in the context of his own history, the history of a human existence in the community and in the world.” — Eric Voegelin, “On the Theory of Consciousness,” Anamnesis, p.33