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.



* 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.

Self-critique on homonoia and positive mimesis

This post is based on the paper I recently submitted to the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany last week. I want to criticize what I wrote there and at least admit to certain defects that I can find there. Here is an incomplete list (even my list of defects is defective!):

1. The mimetic fantasy problem — In my paper, I defined positive mimesis as “the mimesis of desire for a sharable good that can only be enjoyed through the mediation of another.” The positive element is that fact that mutual aspiration for a sharable good would unify and not be in itself conflictual. But this does not mean that the mimetic object is good or even real. Consider the following quote, a first-hand account of a Yanomami shaman on how he learned of the spirit world:

“As children, we gradually start to think straight. We realize that the xapiri [spirits] really exist and that the elders’ words are true. Little by little, we understand that the shamans do not behave as ghosts without a reason. Our thought fixes itself on the spirits’ words, and then we really want to see them. We take hold of the idea that later we will be able to ask the elders to blow the yakoana into our nostrils and give us the xapiri’s songs. This is how it happened for me a long time ago. The spirits often came to visit me in dreams. This is how they started to know me well.” — (from The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman by Davi Kopenawa)

I am not taking a position on shamanism, but it is clear that the Western experiences the world through a different mimetic lens. The xapiri surely are “realities” in Yanomami social life at least. The quote makes clear how they are mimetically mediated in the very manner that I describe in my paper — although a scapegoat may be lurking behind the scenes. But they also could be mimetic projections/fantasies that yet preserve no small measure of cultural unity.

2. The paradigm fixation problem — What I mean by this is that my hypothesis of positive mimesis is based on models, either designated or tacit, that provide concrete flesh to my imagination. As Aristotle noted, we can only think through images. It is easy in one’s mind to dismiss a counter-example by retuning to the paradigm case, arguing from that standpoint, and remaining rooted there. My paradigm is that understanding can be shared with others in intellectual pursuits, and shared without diminishment. But perhaps a lot of other, more messy examples would require a lot of twisting to fit into the procrustean bed of my hypothesis.

3. The disguised partiality problem — One’s positive vision of unity, however lovely, must overcome a lot of partial interests to be actualized in fact. The champions of the whole can unwittingly become just another special interest battling against other special interests in an attempt to dominate the shared space. (Thrasymachus’ notion in the Republic that justice is “the advantage of the stronger” recognizes that a ruler of the whole is in a position to assert himself as a special interest in his own right. One of the burdens of the City in Speech is to think about how this problem can be overcome.) I mentioned Political Correctness in my paper, a phenomenon in which an appeal to tolerance devolves into an intolerance against perceived intolerance. (It should be noted that homonoia does not preclude the special, the diverse or the partial. On the contrary, we must be parts to participate in a whole — it is not uniformity but common participation in the sharable.  There can no unum without a pluribus.)

4. The necessity of dissociation problem — Let me quote Jacques Derrida:

“Once you grant some privilege to gathering and not to dissociating, then you leave no room for the other, for the radical otherness of the other, for the radical singularity of the other. I think, from that point of view, separation, dissociation is not an obstacle to society, to community, but the condition…Dissociation, separation, is the condition of my relation to the other. I can address the Other only to the extent that there is a separation, a dissociation, so that I cannot replace the other and vice-versa.” (Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, p. 14) **SEE NOTE BELOW

So in the self-reinforcing process of a philia for a sharable good that I describe there must be moments when a limit is reached, when the most sensible thing to do is to part ways. If our responsibility for the other is infinite then that precludes me from exercise my responsibilities to others. That can’t be right, can it? Perhaps the issue of “distance” for which I criticized Girard should be reexamined.


So these are a few of the problems I see with my hypothesis, each big enough to drive a truck through. And yet…I still think there is some merit in my hypothesis that must be preserved against these criticisms. So I will keep working…


**NOTE: Sometime in a private conversation during my time in Freising, I had the poor sense of pronouncing on a subject that I don’t know well enough to criticize, namely deconstruction. I have read (poorly) a few of the seminal texts on the subject, but certainly cannot speak as an authority. Nobody called me out on it — there was no socially embarrassing comeuppance, but I know that I shouldn’t pronounce on that which I am barely in a position to understand. So my self-imposed penance is to study enough so that I can see to what extent my assertion was wrong. I had the book Deconstruction in a Nutshell, which I must admit, I am enjoying tremendously — to my surprise. I failed to grasp how much I am doing with Plato is akin to deconstruction of a type. I do think that Derrida and I will diverge at some point in my investigation, but I am willing to entertain the notion that he is right and I am wrong and vice-versa. By the way, I actually think highly of Derrida’s reading of Plato’s Phaedrus called “Plato’s Pharmacy” and an essay he wrote on the Timaeus called “Khora.” So why am I put off by Derrida? I’m not sure.

“Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire”

That is the title of the paper I delivered on July 22nd in Freising, Germany at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Here is a link to the paper.

Per its website, “The COLLOQUIUM ON VIOLENCE AND RELIGION (COV&R) is an international association of scholars founded in 1990. It is dedicated to the exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture.” If you are at all interested in Girard and Mimetic Theory, I *strongly* recommend joining COV&R. One of the great benefits is a subscription to receive every new volume in the Michigan State University Press series Studies in Violence, Mimesis and Culture as well as the Colloquium’s journal Contagion.

Those who have been reading this blog will notice that I often swerve from Plato into topics related to the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard, a theory that I summarized in three blog posts herehere and here. My paper was directed to primarily a Girardian audience, and I ended up leaving almost every reference to Plato on the editing room floor. But the paper deals with themes that I plan to develop in my Plato book and in this blog. My ambition is to use Girardian Mimetic Theory as a tool to interpret the dialogues. Girardian readers have tended to offer suspicious, deconstructive readings of Plato. I, on the other hand, intend to use the theory of Girard as a tool for a constructive and receptive reading of the dialogues.

My paper was written as a part of an ongoing dialogue on so-called “positive mimesis” with Jeremiah Alberg, author of the highly recommended book Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts. Jeremiah presented the other talk in our session on “positive mimesis.” He was a careful reader and gentle critic of my approach to the subject. No writer could ask for better.

I wrote earlier about my theory of Defective Reading “that defects can only be experienced as defects if there is at work an anterior/immanent norm of completion or wholeness. The defect is “seen” by the “light” provided by the sense of wholeness/completion animating the beholder. The light is not seen, but seen by. Once one become aware of a defect, in an argument for instance, an inner norm becomes energetic and operative. Defects excite such norms, whereas self-satisfied opinions depress them. Moments of such defective awareness thus present the best chance to catch a glimpse of these norms in action, norms which cannot be fully expressed but can be fully inhabited.” Having now attempted to articulate a positive expression of homonoia, philia and positive mimesis, my task is to examine the defects, gaps, hesitancies, and qualms that such an attempt produces. Believe me, such defects are all too obvious to me now! I will devote the next few blogs to unpacking a few.

Upcoming Plans

It has obviously been a while since I have posted. Travel and preparing for an upcoming conference in Germany haven’t given me much time to devote to my Plato blog.

I will be presenting a paper at the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Freising, Germany next Tuesday. Here is a link to the conference schedule. My paper is to be entitled “Homonoia, Positive Mimesis and the Sharability of Desire” and it is undergoing a total redraft as we speak. Much of my preparation was in studying various classical authors (particularly Plato and Aristotle) on the theme of homonoia, which translates roughly as “likemindedness” or “unanimity.”  However, due to time constraints and the anticipated audience, I had to leave much of that discussion out. The paper will be more straightforwardly Girardian. I will post the paper eventually when I get it in a presentable state.

After the conference, my plan is begin reading through the entire Platonic corpus with a couple of friends, using William Altman’s reconstructed “Reading Order” of the dialogues from his book Plato The Teacher. Following his plan, we will read Protagoras, Alcibiades Major and Minor, Erastai (Lovers) and Hippias Major and Minor, then see how it goes from there.

I am also have a nice time some favorite reading short stories with my reading group. The group of about twenty gathers in my living room every 2 or 3 weeks. This summer we have already discussed “The Moons of Jupiter” by Alice Munro and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor. On July 28th, we will discuss Anton Chekhov’s “The Black Monk”. Then we will read “Bluebeard’s Egg” by Margaret Atwood, “The Judgment” by Franz Kafka and “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov. In the fall our plan is to begin discussing Thomas Mann’s mammoth Joseph and His Brothers — that one could take a while…

So I should be back posting again in a few weeks. Until then, auf wiedersehen!

Stasis and homonoia in Plato

A virtue is a power of achieving and maintaining a state of excellence in the carrying out of a function. In the Republic, Plato makes large claims for the virtue of justice (dikaiosyne), calling it “a soul’s virtue” in carrying out its function of living well (See Rep. 353d-e). A soul (psyche) is that which animates disparate parts into a organic whole. Since this concern for properly functioning wholes is always in the backdrop of Plato’s notion of justice, it helps to know the end states that Plato has in mind for justice to accomplish and to overcome:

Stasis is a state of discord between parts that disrupt the healthy functioning of the whole. In Greek medicine it is almost a synonym for nosos, or disease. The contemporary medical term metastasis, which means the transfer of disease from one place in the body to another, has this original sense of stasis as its root. In its political meaning, stasis is a civil war, in which allegiance to party (and opposition to other parties) overcomes a common allegiance to a larger whole. Stasis is thus a broad term that implies internal divisions of all kinds of the parts within an encompassing whole.

Homonoia is the healthy condition from which stasis is the deprivation. Homonoia is defined by Liddell and Scott variously as “oneness of mind, unanimity, concord.” In the passage I will quote below, Grube and Reeve translate it as “a sense of common purpose.” It is derived from Greek prefix homo-, which means “alike” or “same” and nous which mean “mind” or “understanding” or “insight.” So homonoia is something like a common understanding or shared insight into the nature of a matter. Between the two poles of stasis and homonoia there exists an entire of spectrum of intermediate possibilities.

So the work of justice will be to purify its patient from notions of the good that are inherently factional and replace those with notions that are consistent with a larger homonoia. Consider the following conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus from Book I of the Republic as an example:

Injustice, Thrasymachus, causes civil war [stasis], hatred and fighting among themselves, while justice brings friendship and a sense of common purpose [homonoia]. Isn’t that so?
Let it be so, in order not to disagree with you.
You’re still doing well on that front. So tell me this: If the effect of injustice is to produce hatred wherever it occurs, then, whenever it arises, whether among free men or slaves, won’t it cause them to hate one another engage in civil war [stasis], and prevent them from achieving a sense of common purpose [homonoia]?
What if it arises between two people? Won’t they be at odds, hate each other, and be enemies to one another and to just people?
They will.
Does injustice lose its power to cause dissension when it arises within a single individual, or will it preserve it intact?
Let it preserve it intact.
Apparently, then, injustice has the power, first, to make whatever it arises in — whether in a city, a family, an army, or anything else — incapable of achieving anything as a unit, because of the civil wars [stasiazonta] and differences it creates, and, second, it makes that unit an enemy to itself and to what is in every way its opposite, namely, justice. Isn’t that so?
And even in a single individual, it has by its nature the very same effect. First, it makes him incapable of achieving anything, because he is in a state of civil war [stasis] and not of one mind [homonoia]; second, it makes him his own enemy, as well as the enemy of just people. Hasn’t it that effect?

— Republic 351d-352a (Grube/Reeve translation)

Platonic justice (1) induces a respect for differences of function among the members of a whole, and (2) must presume a common allegiance toward that whole among these diverse parts. This common allegiance rests on the condition known as homonoia. In fact if we examine the Book 4 definitions of the four virtues, we can see how each has its place within a larger aim of achieving wholeness of a kind:

1. Justice — “Minding one’s own business and not being a busybody.” (433a)  Comment — This is a call not to turn into factional antagonists against other functions within the city.

2. Courage — “Power and preservation, through everything, of the right and lawful opinion about what is terrible and what is not.” (430b) Comment — What is most terrible will turn out to be stasis: “Is there any greater evil we can mention for a city than that which tears it apart and makes it many instead of one?” (462a)

3. Moderation — “Unanimity (homonoia)…an accord of worse and better, according to nature, as to which must rule in the city and in each one.” (432a)

4. Wisdom — “A kind of knowledge belonging to some of the citizens that counsels not about the affairs connected with some particular thing in the city, but about how the city as a whole would best deal with itself and the other cities.” (428c-d)


So the concepts of stasis and homonoia are at the very heart of Plato’s Republic.


On deep agreement

Here is Rene Girard in an interview with David Cayley describing his first discovery of the phenomenon of mimetic desire:

I went to Indiana University with a student visa. And I was doing a PhD in history because I was more of a historian than I was a — I was not at all a literary man — and I was teaching the French language at Indiana University and very quickly they gave me some literature to teach — novels: Balzac…Stendhal…Proust, you know — and much of the time I was just a few pages ahead of my students [laughs]. You know, I hadn’t read the books and I didn’t know what to say. And I decided that I should look — very deliberately — that I should look for what made these books alike rather than for what makes them different from each other, which is what literary criticism, even in those days, was after. You know, a book was a masterpiece only if it was absolutely one-of-a-kind, if you could find nothing in it that would be in another book, which is complete nonsense of course! So I became interested in human relations in the novel, you know — how the vanity in Stendhal, how close it is to the snobbery in Proust…

— From the CBC IDEAS radio show. Here’s a link to the whole series produced by David Cayley called “The Scapegoat.”

What I find interesting is Girard’s decision to look for similarities in novels, rather than differences, as a way of getting at something that would be lost if one fixated on differences. There is a common tendency, one to which Girard alludes, to treat the essence of a thing as that which makes it different from other things. In the history of ideas, we think we understand a thought best when we set it against another — Plato vs. Aristotle or Catholic vs. Protestant — when in fact, the similarities probably greatly outweigh the differences in such pairings.

(Aside: I stumbled across a book at the book store a few weeks ago called The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. It is pretty much as bad as it sounds. I maintain that while there are many differences between Plato and Aristotle, in both style and emphasis, they are in basic agreement concerning what most matters to each. To take Mr. Herman’s approach is to mostly miss what can be discovered in exploring their deep kinship and thus to fail to understand either.)

Let’s entertain the hypothesis for a moment that when it comes to the truth of an idea, deep agreement with other ideas is more vital than open disagreement. Perhaps kinship and commonality are where the real power lurk within ideas. If so, there are two important things to be said:

  1. Such agreement makes communication possible. Diverse minds can only understand one another when they have access to a common reality. As Heraclitus writes “To be thoughtful is common to all.  (Fragment 113: Xynon esti pasi phronein.)  To take a hard perspectival (Protagorean) view and deny that we share a common mental reality is to deny communication at all — a self-contradictory sharing. And since the vehicle of communication is the medium of thought, i.e. the logos, we are attempting to meaningfully deny meaning, another performative contraction. Again we turn to Heraclitus and his concept of to xynon (“the common”): “The logos is common, most live as though they have a private wisdom.”
  2. But where there is agreement, no communication is really necessary. Therefore, what is deeply common usually doesn’t get expressed at all. Common understanding is tacitly assumed and therefore never becomes an object of open reflection or communication. What do get voiced are points of disagreement, which assume the common noetic reality, without ever really expressing it. We notice the points at which we disagree and fail to notice the more fundamental places where we are in unshakable agreement, just our vision is alert to things that move but become inured to what never does. Alfred Whitehead once remarked that “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” What is tacitly assumed, but not spoken of because too obvious, is perhaps more definitive of a society that whatever verbal formulations it may entertain concerning itself. The Platonic/Socratic challenge to adequately define virtue, in concert with all the failed attempts to do so, points toward tacit possession of what cannot be voiced.

All of this relates to my project of defective reading. If the common is usually not summoned in to speech, it underlies all our speaking such that we can recognize that something is wrong/missing in a verbal account without being able to give adequate voice to it.

The pragmatic aim of Socratic/Platonic philosophy


The end of Socratic/Platonic philosophy is practical and not theoretical. Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia said,

“I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends. And that I may say, is my constant thought.”

There is a feedback loop in Platonic philosophy between theory and practice — each is judged against the other. The dialogue form, with its interplay between dramatic form and (partially) theoretical matter, exemplifies what I take to be Plato’s intention. Certainly one finds plenty of speculative metaphysics in the dialogues, but its primary purpose is to orient practice. Any criticism of Plato’s metaphysics, to the extent that one can be accurately discerned, must be contextualized always within its experiential, practical and concrete setting. To interpret Plato rightly, it is important therefore to reconstruct the engendering experience of metaphysical concern.

Take for instance anamnesis — the idea that learning happens through recollection of forms:

“Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing—an act which men call learning—discover everything else, if we have courage and faint not in the search; since, it would seem, research and learning are wholly recollection (anamnesis).”  — Meno, 81c-d, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, Perseus Project edition

Taken by itself, it is an incredible doctrine: that we can supposedly understand learning in the concrete by appealing to an prenatal visit by our immortal soul to all the realms of heavenly knowledge. It even contains a contradiction — for if we explain learning by recollection, how is that we “learned” in our pre-bodily state? Why take a simple, mundane question and answer it though the circuit of a two-worlds metaphysics? It seems that we transformed a simple question into a kaleidoscope of complicated ones. Why then does Socrates invoke it?

Pay attention to what Socrates says next:

“So we must not hearken to that captious (eristic) argument: it would make us idle, and is pleasing only to the indolent ear, whereas the other makes us energetic and inquiring. Putting my trust in its truth, I am ready to inquire with you into the nature of virtue.” — Ibid., 81d-e

Socrates here points to the pragmatic consequences of “trusting” the doctrine. His only real claim for it is that it makes searching possible, whereas the assumptions about learning undergirding “Meno’s paradox” (that one can’t search for what what one doesn’t already know, since one must know what one is searching for in order to search for it at all) makes it impossible. Unless one is predisposed to deny the everyday experience of coming-to-know, then one must accept that not-knowing already somehow anticipates what-is-to-be-known. How it anticipates is an interesting question, and an interesting question makes us courageous and vigorous in searching for what we don’t know. Since metaphysical answers are always transcendent to the the questions that give rise to them, to hold such an “answer” is really to hold on to a perpetual question, restless and dynamic.

Notice also Socrates assertion in the first of these quotes, almost an aside, that “all nature is akin” so that everything can be discovered if any one thing is known. This gets to the heart of the phenomenology of anamnesis and points to what I call “defective reading.” To know anything in part is to anticipate the whole of which it is a part. That everything that can be known is subsumed under a larger whole must be what Socrates means by claiming that “all nature is akin.” The Greek work for kinship is suggenes (which we know in Latin as “cognate”) means literally “born together”.  A part is “born” with other parts, sprung from its common parent, i.e. the whole. If I know anything about what it is to be cold, I also know tacitly at least what cold is. If I know hot and cold together, I know something about opposition and difference, being and becoming, appearance and reality…the list goes on. Human knowing, to the extent it is *partial,*  is always haunted, whether in anxiety or desire, by the whole that gives it meaning and thus by the other parts. (Test the “doctrine” — Take a moment to consider any burning question in your life. Has it not been generated by your prior answers to other burning questions?)

I claim that before one can make metaphysical sense of a metaphysical doctrine, one must make experiential sense of it. Whatever is generically true of the experience of inquiry is by that measure metaphysically true in the only meaningful sense. My guess is that whatever metaphysical doctrine does not purchase increasing goodness and better friendship is of no interest to either Socrates or Plato. Metaphysics’ proper fruit is an eros toward truth; it has no other end.

Let me conclude with a profound passage in the anonymous 14th Century contemplation manual, The Cloud of Knowing that speaks to a similar understanding of things:

“Rational creatures such as men and angels possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power. No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

Excerpted from The Cloud of Unknowing by Edited by William Johnston Copyright © 2005 by William Johnston


The method behind thinking

What follows is what I have distilled to be the root steps in Socratic/Platonic method. I make no claims to originality; I have followed Socrates, Plato, Bernard Lonergan and others who blazed the trail before me. The four steps that follow are almost childishly obvious, and yet I have found that the greatest existential discoveries I have made in my own life are the result of following this method, even before I was able to articulate it. Such a testimonial is poor evidence. Better evidence will come when you reflect on you own activity and thought, examine the consequences of following or avoiding such a method. I would love to hear of any of your experiences with anything similar.

Here are the steps: (more…)

The missing Platonic dialogues

At least twice the Platonic corpus, there are sequences of three dialogues with visible connections to one another and which indicate the existence of a fourth dialogue that is either lost of left out.

1. The sequence RepublicTimaeusCritias – (Hermocrates)

2. The sequence TheaetetusSophistStatesman – (Philosophos)

(I have indicated the “missing” dialogues in parentheses.)

What shall we make of this? There are two obvious explanations for the the missing dialogues: either they were lost or they were never written. Either answer is possible, but the defective reader in me wants to favor the latter explanation as the more fruitful. Perhaps a missing dialogue asks us to look closer at the other three in order to find the missing fourth intended and indicated by the previous three. Perhaps we are asked to read these sequences defectively, to pay attention to the felt absence of a satisfying whole/end that is presupposed by their defectiveness.

Now, I can’t in a blog post give any more than hints, but here are a few clues toward reading at least the first of the existing trilogies defectively:


The sequence RepublicTimaeusCritias – (Hermocrates)

a) The Republic gives no forward pointer to future engagements, but early in the Timaeus there is a recapitulation of a city-in-speech unmistakably that of the Republic.

b) The Timaeus begins with the words, “One, two, three,—but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth of our guests of yesterday, our hosts of today?” (Perseus Project translation, 17a)  In an earlier discussion of the Divided Line image, I claimed that it is a “protreptic analogy” — three related terms in search of a missing fourth.

c) The Timaeus’ recapitulation of the city-in-speech is a version that takes no notice of the philosopher rulers or the Idea of the Good. It is a truncated version, a version that is based almost completely on what I have called the “Second Draft” version.

d) In the Timaeus, Socrates indicates a defect in the (truncated) city-in-speech:

“And now, in the next place, listen to what my feeling is with regard to the polity we have described. I may compare my feeling to something of this kind: suppose, for instance, that on seeing beautiful creatures, whether works of art or actually alive but in repose, a man should be moved with desire to behold them in motion and vigorously engaged in some such exercise as seemed suitable to their physique; well, that is the very feeling I have regarding the State we have described.” (Perseus Project translation, 19b-c)

d) The Critias appears to be fragmented. Again, I want to hypothesize that this is intentional. It ends with the character Critias describing the corruption of the civilization of Atlantis and Zeus about to announce his solution to the assembled gods:

Such was the magnitude and character of the power which existed in those regions at that time; and this power the God set in array and brought against these regions of ours on some such pretext as the following, according to the story. For many generations, [120e] so long as the inherited nature of the God remained strong in them, they were submissive to the laws and kindly disposed to their divine kindred. For the intents of their hearts were true and in all ways noble, and they showed gentleness joined with wisdom in dealing with the changes and chances of life and in their dealings one with another. Consequently they thought scorn of everything save virtue and lightly esteemed their rich possessions, bearing with ease [121a] the burden, as it were, of the vast volume of their gold and other goods; and thus their wealth did not make them drunk with pride so that they lost control of themselves and went to ruin; rather, in their soberness of mind they clearly saw that all these good things are increased by general amity combined with virtue, whereas the eager pursuit and worship of these goods not only causes the goods themselves to diminish but makes virtue also to perish with them. As a result, then, of such reasoning and of the continuance of their divine nature all their wealth had grown to such a greatness as we previously described. But when the portion of divinity within them was now becoming faint and weak through being ofttimes blended with a large measure of mortality, [121b] whereas the human temper was becoming dominant, then at length they lost their comeliness, through being unable to bear the burden of their possessions, and became ugly to look upon, in the eyes of him who has the gift of sight; for they had lost the fairest of their goods from the most precious of their parts; but in the eyes of those who have no gift of perceiving what is the truly happy life, it was then above all that they appeared to be superlatively fair and blessed, filled as they were with lawless ambition and power. And Zeus, the God of gods, who reigns by Law, inasmuch as he has the gift of perceiving such things, marked how this righteous race was in evil plight, and desired to inflict punishment upon them, to the end that when chastised they might strike a truer note. [121c] Wherefore he assembled together all the gods into that abode which they honor most, standing as it does at the center of all the Universe, and beholding all things that partake of generation and when he had assembled them, he spake thus: …  [Text breaks off here.] (Perseus Project translation, 120d-121c)

e) So the dialogue ends with the silence of the God, but an anticipation of his decree. On the defective reading, the natural response is “Hmmm!”

f) The next scheduled speaker would be Hermocrates, hence his name is ascribed to the missing dialogue. The name means “Hermes’ power” — in other words, the power to deliver a god’s words to man. And Critias breaks off with Zeus about to speak. Is the direct speech of the god such that it can only be inscribed on the soul of the philosopher? Perhaps…


I personally do not favor the imposition of “writing periods” on Plato’s corpus: the suggestion, almost a dogma in some circles, that there was a early, middle and late period. The fact that Plato expands into defective trilogies dialogues such as Republic and Theaetetus suggests that they never were far from his mind. There is even an ancient report of Dionysius of Halicarnassus that says,

“Plato kept on combing and curling and in every way braiding his dialogues even when he had turned eighty.”

I think it is more likely that the dialogues differ in character because the characters themselves differ. I am however sympathetic with William Altman that there was an intended “reading order” of the dialogues, an order motivated by pedagogical effectiveness. See his book Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic.

Democracy and the ‘Wisdom’ of Crowds

In an earlier post, “On political agnosticism”, I shared my struggle with participating in electoral politics in a way consistent with Platonic notions of justice. (Please understand that I am not advocating that anyone else adopt my practice of not-voting — perhaps it is my understanding of Platonic justice that is in error.) In this post, I want to think against myself a little bit.

Perhaps democratic elections are a phenomenon of the type described by James Surowiecki’s (excellent) book “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  There Surowiecki provides some vivid examples of crowds converging on truth through the aggregation of their untutored guessing. A few of the more impressive of his illustrations:

1. In 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton attended a livestock fair, which had as one of its diversions a contest to guess the weight of fat ox on display. The closest guess would win a prize. Each of the 800 contestants paid 6 pence each to enter the contest. The participants were a diverse lot. The crowd of guessers included some who might be presumed to have some particular expertise in reckoning weight such as butchers and cattle farmers, but a fair number of non-experts competed. The correct weight was 1197; the average guess of the crowd was 1198 — a nearly perfect guess!

2. In 1968, the U.S. submarine Scorpion disappeared in the North Atlantic and the Navy had only a vague idea of where it may have gone down. Although the search are was a seemingly manageable twenty miles in diameter, it may have well have been the entire ocean given the great depths involved (many thousands of feet). Something closer to pinpoint accuracy would be required to find a submarine on the bottom of the ocean. The Navy consulted a variety of experts with diverse forms of knowledge relevant to the task, not only submariners but oceanographers, meteorologists, mathematicians and salvage men. Again the results were aggregated (although this time not averaged but employing Bayesean updating of the original guess based on the various inputs.) When the submarine was originally found five months later, it was a mere 220 yards from the aggregated result.

Surely these two examples are impressive pieces of evidence for the value of the aggregation of guesses. Perhaps something similar happens in a democracy. You may be biased one way and I in another, so that, when we vote, our biases cancel and our best notions converge toward something like a good result. Perhaps good governance can be the emergent effect of a lot of good and bad surmises — the bad guesses tend to cancel and the good guesses tend to converge. (Since two opinions may or may not be in agreement; two knowers always are.) That is the hope that lies behind our faith in democracies, yes?

There is a problem though. The “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon is only effective if the guesses are uncorrelated with each other. For a democratic process to converge on wisdom, the voters must be diverse and independent of one another. But in a media saturated age, they rarely are. The voices of the loudest demagogues and media sources cause the aggregation of bias, and not distributed wisdom. The scandalized response of each side to the bias of the other side then tends to enforces each bias rather than cancelling it. So if we imagine independent opinion scattered in a bell-curve pattern around a virtuous mean position (which is a presupposition of the wisdom of crowds phenomenon) then the correlating of bias leads to the extremes to be favored over the virtuous mean. We get a choice between biases and not a choice that contributes to the dampening of bias. This is the absurd position toward which elections in the media-age lead us. Pick your poison.

You can see this problem of a contaminating correlations in committees. The wisdom of crowds only function if there is sufficient diversity of opinion in the group. Assuming that diversity exists (i.e. rarely), a vote should be taken right away, before anyone sways the opinion of anyone else. This is not what happens. Instead, the committee will discuss the issue; and the less confident will become swayed by the more confident, decreasing the diversity and increasing the correlation with the bias of the more confident. When the vote is taken, the dominant bias is confirmed, the very bias that we hope to eliminate by aggregating diverse opinions. Committees often produce results that are dumber than the sum of its parts. Perhaps you have noticed.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it…good and hard.” — H. L. Mencken

Where diversity of opinion is lost, the demos becomes an ochlos, an undifferentiated crowd. The “motives” of a crowd are by their very definition purposeless and random. A crowd usually moves toward whatever attracts its basest impulses. Since cultural/personal advance must often move against the gravity of the pull of mere sentiment and appetite, the target of those playing to the crowd must often be the civilizing forces that urge moderating checks on appetitive behavior, along with hatreds, resentments and fears. The result is usually not pretty.

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” — Soren Kierkegaard

Now, I am certainly a believer in the distributed wisdom of the many in a society. I agree with the proponents of democracy that everyone has something vital to contribute to defining the concrete ends of politics. I do not want to hand the reigns of society over to “experts” who disregard the people’s true interests. (FYI — I don’t think Plato did either.) I simply disagree that the mechanism of voting for electoral candidates is a productive means for teasing out the collective wisdom that is the aim of a virtuous politics. I think the virtuous political path can never be to turn my ignorance into power at the ballot box.

It opens the question as to what Socrates meant when he said in the Gorgias that he was the only practitioner of the “true political art:

“I am one of the few Athenians perhaps indeed the only one who studies the true political art, and that I alone of my contemporaries put it into practice, because what I say on any occasion is not designed to please, and because I aim not at what is most agreeable but at what is best.” (Gorgias, 512d)

Is the “true political art” really just the Socratic form of pedagogy? And can it serve as a model for virtuous practice for anyone else? Why isn’t Plato’s Gorgias at the forefront of political education?