Opinion and Intellectual Eros

Another post on the path through opinion toward knowledge.

At the core of all opining (doxa) is eros. Opinion answers an implicit question, a question which expresses a desire to understand and to know. But intellectual eros is fully satisfied by noetic truth alone. Any answer assumed by opinion, its seeming-true, is always partial. All opinion confronts a residual remainder of unsatisfied eros, which opinion confronts in various ways. By nature, the residual eros is a nagging opposition to the seeming-true of opinion. This remnant of unsatisfied eros is polymorphous: doubts, anxieties, qualms. In the Republic, there are four chief dispositions of intellectual eros, each of which may be either personal or communal:

(1) In ignorance/aporia, eros constitutes the entire content of cognition, i.e., felt absence that expresses specific ignorance (eikasia). All frustration is born of desire. In the state of aporia, one is blinded not by darkness but by light, i.e., eros that finds no imaginative expression. This creates the anxiety and paralysis associated with aporetic ignorance.

(2) Belief (pistis) offers relief from the frustrations of aporia. But eros is only partially satisfied by belief and its remainder confronts the opinion as an alien threat, the aftershock of the ignorance that belief thinks it has overcome. The bifurcation between opinion and its erotic residue creates the illusion of an inside opposing an outside. Vigilant defense of the seeming-true requires countering the threat of relapse into the discomforts of ignorance. All offense against another is an encounter with one’s own alienated eros. One is not offended by what doesn’t sting, and the sting comes from tacit recognition of the justice of the other’s criticism.  Opinion then becomes a lust to assert one’s rightness and pursues victory over the critic as a sufficient proof of its truth, to silence (even if not answering) the critics both within and without. This stage is dominated by sentiment and myth when considering its own belief and polemical bluster when countering the alienated eros.

(3) In thinking (dianoia), the residue is a positive provocation, allying with the seeming-true of opinion in a drive toward noetic wholeness. Thinking is always dual and dialogical. There is still a bifurcation, as there was in belief, but the seeming-true of opinion and the residual eros now assist each other in pursuing the truth. Doubt takes the form of a thematic question. In thinking, opinion elicits aid from the doubt, and the doubt from the opinion. Eros is blind without opinion and opinion is provincial and partisan without the leaven of a disturbing eros. Let’s call this comportment, paraklesis, a summons to aid.

(4) Noetic wholeness (noesis) is the transcendent goal of all thinking, the satisfaction of eros in true knowledge. Noesis is the full integration of doubt and belief. All relevant questions are answered and satisfied, without remainder.

Aporia, alienation, paraklesis, integration: corresponding to the four segments of the Divided Line.

NOTE: In a previous post, I related the stages of opinion to the parts of the tripartite soul. As threatening shadows reflect off the walls of our political caves, it may be worth pondering which mode of thinking dominates the public discourse where we are. Shall we resist or assist?

Ignorance vs. stupidity

Socrates
But if you are bewildered, is it not clear from what has gone before [118b] that you are not only ignorant (ἀγνοεῖς) of the greatest things, but while not knowing them you think that you do?

Alcibiades
I am afraid so.

Socrates
Alack then, Alcibiades, for the plight you are in! I shrink indeed from giving it a name, but still, as we are alone, let me speak out. You are wedded to stupidity (ἀμαθίᾳ) my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs, [118c] except just a few, and perhaps your guardian, Pericles.

— Alcibiades Major, 118a-c, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 8 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1955. Public domain edition available on the Perseus Project website.

In this passage, Alcibiades confesses to lacking the kind of wisdom that he has already admitted is necessary to achieve his political ambitions. Like most who rule, Alcibiades has concerned himself not at all about the proper aims of politics, but has obsessively focused on the means of gaining and maintaining political power. Socrates claims he is “wedded to stupidity” and in what follows, I would like to articulate the difference between ignorance (agnoia) and stupidity (amathia).

Ignorance (agnoia) is simply the state of not knowing something that is knowable. We are born ignorant, and although we are all successful in replacing ignorance with insight in many arenas of life, all of us are still well acquainted with it. There is nothing shameful in this as such — it just points to our limitations as finite human beings. Where ignorance does become shameful is when (1) we are presented with evidence of our ignorance, (2) the matter about which we are ignorant is of great importance,  (3) we make no effort either to cure or mitigate the consequences of our ignorance, and, (4) we continue acting as if we were not ignorant. This more shameful kind is of the type of which Socrates is accusing Alcibiades — the disease of amathia, which our translation rightly renders as “stupidity.”

A-gnoia means literally “not-knowing”; a-mathia means literally “not-learning.” Amathia can mean just the coarse state of being uneducated. However this type of amathia doesn’t really fit Alcibiades, a wealthy aristocrat who has been given access to the finest educators in Greece (including Socrates himself). In addition to the type of amathia that is an inability to learn, there is another form that is an unwillingness to learn. This later state can disguise itself with all the trappings of cultivated speech and manners, and yet still maintain itself in ignorance.  The former type is brutish; the latter, since its owners are otherwise capable and ambitious, can be brutal.

Robert Musil in an essay called “On Stupidity, distinguished between two forms of stupidity, one he called “an honorable kind” due to a lack of natural ability and another, much more sinister kind, that he called “intelligent stupidity”: 

In life one usually means by a stupid person one who is “a little weak in the head.” But beyond this there are the most varied kinds of intellectual and spiritual deviations, which can so hinder and frustrate and lead astray even an undamaged innate intelligence that it leads, by and large, to something for which the only word language has at its disposal is [still] stupidity. Thus this word embraces two fundamentally quite different types: an honorable and straightforward stupidity, and a second that, somewhat paradoxically, is even a sign of intelligence. The first is based rather on a weakness of understanding, the second more on an understanding that is weak only with regard to some particular, and this latter kind is by far the more dangerous.

–Quoted in “Voegelin’s Use of Musil’s Concept of Intelligent Stupidity in Hitler and the Germans” by Glenn Hughes, The Eric Voegelin Institute, 2007. I commend to you all three: the Hughes essay, the Musil essay and the Voegelin book cited within.

It is clear that Musil is talking about the two forms of amathia that I just articulated. He makes a strong moral case against the second, intelligent kind:

The higher, pretentious form of stupidity stands only too often in crass opposition to [its] honorable form. It is not so much lack of intelligence as failure of intelligence, for the reason that it presumes to accomplishments to which it has no right; . . . . This higher stupidity is the real disease of culture . . . and to describe it is an almost infinite task. It reaches into the highest intellectual sphere . . . . Years ago I wrote about this form of stupidity that “there is absolutely no significant idea that stupidity would not know how to apply; stupidity is active in every direction, and can dress up in all the clothes of truth. . . . The stupidity this addresses is no mental illness, yet it is most lethal; a dangerous disease of the mind that endangers life itself.  (Ibid)

It is stunning that a problem like amathia can remain mostly invisible in a culture, given its serious consequences. (Note to the wise: it is still very much with us!) To call it out often requires real courage. Musil wrote his essay in 1937 in Austria. Obviously he had the Nazis very much in mind. On Musil’s reading, the disease of Naziism was due not a lack of intelligence. There were plenty of intelligent and accomplished Nazis. He accused them instead of the sin of stupidity, a moral deafness to the learning they had already received. This points to a real problem in dealing with amathia: since it is not due a lack of intelligence, amathia cannot be cured with “more education” but requires something akin to an existential conversion. Hughes writes in his essay:

[S]ince the “higher stupidity” consists not in an inability to understand but in a refusal to understand, any healing or reversal of it will not occur through rational argumentation, through a greater accumulation of data and knowledge, or through experiencing new and different feelings. Considering Voegelin’s analysis, we may say that the reversal of a spiritual sickness must entail a spiritual cure. It will involve a conversion: from a posture of closure toward the full scope of reason and the reality of spirit, to an existential openness toward the divine ground. And this cannot occur without an anxious and humble renunciation of the pride, the presumptuous hybris, that motivates and sustains existential closure toward the divine ground of being. (Ibid)

Our society is generally allergic to thinking that our ethical problems may be resistant to an increased educational effort and that the cure may require something as religious-sounding as “conversion”.  But Plato, having close access to the prototypical amathic type, i.e. the Sophists, knew better. More teaching of the usual sort just translates into greater forms of cunning and rationalization. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment.”  (Assuming bewilderment means the humility that follows upon “aporia”)

The uses of aporia: the torpedo-fish analogy in Plato’s Meno

 

MENO: Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never did anything else than exist in a state of perplexity (aporia) yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish (narkē) of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb (narkan). For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you. And yet thousands of times I have made a great many speeches about virtue, and before many people, and done very well, in my own opinion anyway; yet now I’m altogether unable to say what it is. And it seems to me that you are well-advised not to sail away or emigrate from here: for, if you, a foreigner in a different city, were to do this sort of thing, you would probably be arrested as a sorcerer. (Plato’s Meno 79e-80b This and future citations will be from the translation of Berns and Anastaplo, Focus Philosophical Library, 2004)

In this passage, Meno likens Socrates to a torpedo fish, a likeness with respect both to appearance (i.e. Socrates’ famous snub nose) and to his numbing effect on those who come into contact with him. Socrates accepts the aptness of the analogy with the proviso that the numbing shock of his questioning be understood as applying to himself as well. Given that Socrates has sanctioned the comparison (albeit in an amended form), how is one to understand it? Is it simply Socratic doubt that is at issue or is the analogy revelatory of other aspects of what Plato is up to in this dialogue?

The fish in question is the crampfish, or electric ray, which administers a paralyzing shock upon would-be predators as a means of effecting its escape. It is this latter aspect of its shock, the purpose of evasion, that Socrates perhaps finds objectionable in the the original analogy. On the contrary, Socrates admits to being as perplexed as his “victim.” Rather, it is Meno himself who, soon after drawing the analogy, attempts a “paralysis-and-escape” gambit of his own with his “contentious argument” (eristikon logon, 80d6-10). Socrates accuses Meno’s argument — that one cannot inquire into that which one does not already know — of creating the same kind of torpor attributed to the torpedo fish, an argument against which he contrasts his own theory of recollection:

So then one must not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. (81d-e)

Socratic questioning, unlike the shock of the torpedo fish, is not a means of evasion. On the contrary, Socrates’ shock has other uses — uses that get to the very essence of learning itself.

The Greek name for the torpedo fish is narkē, so called because of its power to benumb (narkan). This latter Greek word is the source of our English word, “narcotic.” A narcotic induces numbness and paralysis if applied is sufficient measure and Meno complains of just such symptoms:

For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you.  (80 a-b)

Indeed, his mouth has been paralyzed; he is at a loss to give the kind of speech about virtue he given before to some acclaim. He incorrectly infers however that his soul also has been numbed by Socrates’ questioning. Meno has assumed too close a linkage between voice and soul. He is quite correct to feel his soul numb, but it is the feeling and not the numbing that is the result of the Socratic shock. We may speculate that it is only when he is prevented from talking that he notices the paralysis of his own soul. Meno’s name means in Greek, “I remain.” Meno is the one who stays put, who fails to move, the one who is, in a deep sense and at the level of the soul, paralyzed — paralyzed by its own self-concealed ignorance. The encounter with Socrates makes such ignorance manifest; it forces Meno to “feel” his soul’s paralysis, perhaps for the first time.

Another English word descended from the same root is “narcissism.” Lest this connection appear spurious, notice how Socrates immediately responds to Meno’s torpedo-fish analogy:

SOCRATES: I’m aware of why you portrayed me in a likeness.
MENO: Why, indeed, do you suppose?
SOCRATES: So that I would make a likeness of you in return. And I know this about all beautiful people, that they delight in having images made of them; it pays for them. But I will not make an image in return.  (80c)

This is not the first time in the dialogue that Socrates has remarked on the physical beauty of Meno — he repeatedly invokes a stereotype of the Beautiful One, pampered and indulged by others. Meno the narcissist approaches the Socratic pool with a view to acquiring a reflected glimpse of himself through the reaction of a potential admirer. Indeed, Socartes reflects back quite a lot. We have already seen how Socrates reveals Meno’s torpedo-fish comparison to be a perverse reflection of Meno himself, a Meno who paralyzes inquiry through eristic arguments in an attempt to evade being refuted. But Meno also sees reflected back a person finally ignorant about the deepest concerns of humanity, a reflection painful and yet potentially redemptive. Indeed, Socrates proves to be a crueler mirror than Meno had hoped by so exposing the real man, and not the superficially handsome aspect he had expected.

One of the chief aspects of the dialogue is to warn against what may be called a “narcissism of learning.” The narcissist is one who tries to love without entering into a relationship with someone or something other. His comportment toward other beings is one of possession rather than relation. This carries over even in his approach to wisdom. Wisdom is an object of possession, something that he appropriates with the purpose of making him shine before others. Meno’s admiration of the sophist Gorgias and his adoration of his own speeches has little to do with the substance of what is said, but rather with its cosmetic value and the effect it has on an enraptured audience. The sophist is one who claims to possess wisdom, whereas the philosopher is the one who claims to love it, relate to it, and to submit to its claims. The style of speech that characterizes the sophist is the monologue, an essentially non-relational form in which the speaker is always in command of what is said. The philosopher, on the other hand, engages in dialogue, a relational give-and-take in which no one participant may claim to be in charge, in which each must adopt a posture of submission to the other and to truth when it appears. The slave-boy proves to be a better learner than Meno precisely because he knows what it means to submit; his learning is in no way bound up with narcissism.

A third English derivative from narkē, besides “narcotic” and “narcissism,” is “narcosis,” a word associated with sleep and drowsiness. After Socrates completes his dialogue with the slave boy, he discusses with Meno the advantage of the narcotic shock to the process of recollection:

SOCRATES: And now those very opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream. But if someone were to ask him these same questions many times and in different ways, you know that he will finally understand them no less precisely than anyone else. (85c)

Socrates says that the advantage of the shock is that it agitates the opinion, that it induces a dreamlike state in its patient. Indeed, the myth of recollection, with its cyclical notions of life and death, suggests that one’s life may be a sleep from which one must awake. The difference between opinion, even true opinion, and knowledge corresponds to the difference between dreaming and wakefulness:

SOCRATES: If then both during the time in which he is and the time in which he is not a human being, true opinions will exist in him, which after being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (86a)

However if the ascent to knowledge is likened to the process of waking up, what is the value of the shock of the narkē, the shock that stirs up opinions as in dreaming? Aren’t dreaming and waking contraries?

There are two ways at least advantages of the sleep-inducing narcotic that Socrates peddles. First, dreams can be a fertile repository of notions that the conscious mind has either failed to see or actively repressed. Consciousness, guarded by an army of opinions, filters experience into a manageable shape. This filtering works perhaps to eliminate those aspects of experience that give rise to the anxiety of not knowing what to do or how to act. A consciously-held opinion is that which allows the agent to act without the paralyzing arising from a complete consideration of those things abstracted from. Consciousness so conceived is designed not to cure doubt but to eliminate it, to bar its disruptive entry into the polis, even, metaphorically, to bar Socrates. When Meno complains of the Socratic shock that paralyzes his soul, perhaps what has been paralyzed is the filter of consciousness. As long as consciousness is given free reign, no new idea is allowed to interrupt the self-satisfied, self-loving torpor of the narcissistic soul. The narcosis introduced by Socratic questioning is an enticement to reverie, which serves as a womb for the birth of rival hypotheses. It is a tiptoed entry into the soul’s garrison past the sleeping guards of consciousness.

Another way of thinking about the kinship between Socrates and narcosis is that the shock is not one that induces sleep but rather makes it evident — the victim of the shock is already asleep, but becomes aware of it after the sting — just as we described the encounter with paralysis. This idea harmonizes with the previous contrast between opinion/sleep and knowledge/wakefulness. The shock does not wake the victim, but facilitates an awakening and it therefore places him in an intermediate position between knowledge and naive opinion — a state of having an opinion that recognizes itself as mere opinion. Thus, the narcosis that Socrates induces serves not only to inspire new potencies for knowing, but also to put one beliefs into question, to ascend from a tenuous belief (pistis) to a self-interrogating hypothesis (dianoia). The shock doesn’t force the abandonment of one’s opinions (since it is clear that one can on act on their basis), but calls them into question, and invites in rival opinions.

There are then, within this one comparison, three different paths of what the aporetic shock of the narkē may make known:

i) numbness, which is (ironically) a sensitivity towards the paralysis of one’s own soul;

ii) narcissism, which has its cure by means of a (again ironic) mirroring effect that Socrates reflects back to his interlocutor; and

iii) narcosis, which is the dream-state (ironically also an awakening) that allows one to detach from the fictions that rule one’s behavior in preparation for new habits of cognitive engagement.

The shock of the torpedo-fish is not an end, but a beginning, which overcomes a complacent fixity of belief that has no occasion for beginning and therefore can strive toward no end. True opinion can only arise if one loosens one’s grip on the false. But in the ascent to true knowledge, once must even release one’s grip on true opinion. The “tying down” of knowledge is an effect finally not of possession, but of relationship.

 

 

 

The limits of skepticism

Skepticism is an important component of Socratic/Platonic reasoning, perhaps even its distinguishing part. (A later iteration of the Academy founded by Plato, an iteration which began with a shift of emphasis by its then director Arcesilaus around the middle of the 3rd Century BCE, was called in fact “The Skeptical Academy”.) It must be noted however that the root verb skeptsesthai means something more like “to conduct an investigation” than “to deny all positive assertions.” To be skeptical in the Platonic sense does mean to tease out the negative features, the defects, that haunt all honest attempts to assert what is true. But such skepticism, on discovering the dubious and defective, does not necessitate an unqualified denial. Thinking through opinion, a mode of cognition that Plato called dianoia, requires that we continue to hold the limited positive senses of assertions while remaining open to the anterior norms that make awareness of the negation possible. Opinion is an intermediate, a metaxy, between ignorance and knowledge. Participating in both, opinion always both reveals and conceals, indicates and detracts from knowledge. From the Divided Line, it is clear that as image stands to object, so in dianoia does opinion stand to truth. Both the positive anticipation and the nagging doubts are signs that witness to the true and “we have no power of thinking without signs” (C.S. Peirce).

A failure to understand a medium as a medium, a mistaking a means for an end, does enormous epistemological mischief. This failure is particularly acute when coupled with strong enforcement of the “Law of the Excluded Middle” — the “law” that claims that a proposition is either true or false simply with no third option. Descartes’ chief error is in restricting the realm of truth to those things that could be known with certainty, rejecting as false all statements that are in any way dubious. It is an error to reject as wholly false that which is in some sense true. But the realm of the excluded middle, the realm of what could be true but may not be, is a rejection of doxa as such, a rejection of the the only medium through which knowledge of the existentially vital may be approached. Although the abstract can be known with certainty, even this certainty breaks down when we attempt to apply it to the concrete world. Dianoia is a moderate position between rival errors: to reject as wholly false what is in some sense true, and to accept as uncritically true what is still open to doubt or error. Either of these stances is arbitrary and blind.

Thinking has a from-to character of the type that Michael Polanyi describes: “The subsidiaries of from-to knowing bear on a focal target, and whatever a thing bears on may be called it’s meaning. Thus the focal target on which they bear is the meaning of the subsidiaries.” (Personal Knowledge, p. 35)  To look *at* the opinion without looking *through* it (the “dia-” of dianoia) is a failure to understand what it is. (Plato’s hypothesis of the Forms is often a victim of this type of misreading.) In a Platonic examination — the skepsis of an honest opinion — the misgiving/doubt that inevitably results is not a bug but a feature.

 

Some Meno quotes bearing on the difference between opinion and knowledge

I am at work on a precis of my entire argument and hope to a have a rough draft of it in a few weeks. (This is why my posts have been few and far between of late.) Currently I am at work on the section dealing with the nature of doxa, i.e. opinion. To state my nutshell opinion on opinion: while it certainly differs from knowledge, as the quotes listed below make clear, it is not a matter of knowledge instead of opinion as much as knowledge through opinion. Opinion is the proper medium of knowledge and the trick that Plato would have us learn is to employ it as a means and not the end of thought. Opinion is not enough to satisfy a healthy intellectual eros — it is defective — and the thought that encompasses both opinion as satisfying belief and dissatisfying doubt is a lens toward the noetic light that illumines knowledge.

Anyway, here are some quotes from Plato’s Meno that bear partially on my thesis. (The translation I am citing is that by Anastaplo and Berns, published by Focus Philosophical Library, 2004.) Feel free to comment on any of these.

1. True opinion, therefore is no worse a guide to right action than prudence. (Meno 97b)
2. He who has knowledge would always hit the mark, whereas he who has right opinion would sometimes hit it sometimes not. (Meno 97c)
3. True opinions, for as long a time as they should stay put, are a fine thing and accomplish all kinds of good things. Yet much of the time they are not willing to stay put, but run away out of the human soul; so that they are not worth much until someone should bind them with causes by reasoning. And this, my comrade Meno, is recollection, as we agreed before. And whenever they have become bound, first they become knowledge and then steadfast. And this is why knowledge is worth more than right opinion, and by its binding, knowledge differs from and excels right opinion. (Meno 97e-98a)
4. I too speak, not as one who knows, but as one who makes images and conjectures. But I certainly do not think I am making images or guessing this, that right opinion and knowledge are different things. But if there is anything I could affirm that I know, and there are few that I could affirm — one of those at any rate which I set down that I know is this. (Meno 98a-b)
5. If…true opinions will exist within him [i.e. the slave boy], after which being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (Meno 86a)
6. And in what way will you seek, Socrates, for that which you know nothing at all about what is? What sort of things which you do not know are you proposing to seek for yourself? Or, even if, at best, you should happen upon it, how will you know it is that which you do not know? (Meno 80d)
7. I would not assert myself altogether confidently on behalf of my argument; but that in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek — on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed. (Meno 86b-c)
8. Inasmuch as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone who recollects (which people call learning) one thing only from discovering all other things, so long as he is brave and does not grow tired of seeking. For seeking and learning therefore consist wholly in recollection. So that one should not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. Trusting in this one to be true, I am willing with you to seek for whatever virtue is. (Meno 81d-e)

More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:

 

1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must (more…)

In defense of Protagoras

The opening words of the opening dialogue* of the entire Platonic corpus are “From where, O Socrates, do you appear?” Perhaps we can grant these words some independence from the words that immediately follow and think about the way they inaugurate the whole Socratic trajectory. The words appear at the beginning of the dialogue Protagoras, and I want to submit that this question and this name are closely allied.

Protagoras is of course the sophist par excellence, a professional teacher of dubious “wisdom” and champion of radical relativism. He and his kind are the black-hatted villains opposed to the virtue-loving Socrates — or so we may be tempted to read. Conflict excites and agreement is boring, which makes us overemphasize the former at the expense of the latter. The tradition, starting with Plato, has naturally tended to emphasize the oppositions and antagonisms between sophist and philosopher. But this emphasis discounts the priority and importance of the sophist movement in Ancient Greece; it fails to understand the degree to which the sophists were predecessors to the philosophers, and were the first to frame the kinds of human questions that were to become its dominant obsession. It seems to me that Socrates is spiritually much closer to Protagoras than to Empedocles, say. A shared question, even when one disagrees vehemently over the answer, is evidence of a more basic deep agreement.

We begin with a question (“From where, O Socrates, do you appear?”) and are presented a dialogue called Protagoras in answer. Every statement has meaning only as an answer to a prior question. Oftentimes we get the answer first and must reconstruct the question. (The real heritage of the “first philosopher” Thales is not his claim that the source of all things is water, but the line of questioning he opens up to others, the quest for the arche or source/principle.) The sophistic profession of Protagoras is an answer to a nexus of unstated questions that look eerily Socratic: What is a properly human excellence? What is the best way to live? Can virtue be taught and, if so, how? What is the source of human value? How much are knowledge and wisdom worth? (Etc.) Socrates becomes an opponent of sophistry only after his mimesis of Protagoras’ questions leads him to different answers.

Thinking never begins with a clean slate. It never emerges from blissful ignorance or dark chaos. It begins when some positive attempt to order experience breaks down or is shown wanting. Thinking is inherently critical and necessarily comes in the train of a positive articulation of what seems to be the case. Thinking lives in the fluid of questions; questions are desires; desires are mimetic. The failure of the answers of Protagoras to satisfy Socrates leads Socrates to give voice to otherwise tacit questions concerning human aspiration that Protagoras’ teaching excite. Socrates makes explicit what is implicit in Protagoras — not the answers, but the questions. These questions are the true progeny of Protagoras. The humanistic turn in philosophy begins with Protagoras. Our debt to him is still earning interest.

(CONTINUED HERE)

 

* By “opening dialogue” I mean first in terms of the Reading Order of the dialogues as reconstructed by William Altman. I won’t defend that reconstruction here, other than to claim that I find Altman’s order more useful and more cogently argued than other forms of order, especially developmentalist or dramatic. The root idea is that the dialogues formed a pedagogical canon in the early canon and that Plato often used earlier dialogues to prepare the mind for later ones, and later dialogues to test the student’s mastery of the lessons the student was supposed to have learned in the earlier. Altman’s order has the Republic as the central dialogue, both chronologically and in importance. See his book Plato the Teacher for more.