Saturday, February 24, 2007

Socrates' trial and the Eleatic Stranger

The Sophist and the Statesman seem to present themselves as a kind of philosophical trial of Socrates (see Cropsey 1995; Friedländer 1964, chapters III.26 and 27; Howland 1998; Miller Jr. 1980; Voegelin 1987/1956, chapter III.4). Plato placed both dialogues in continuity with the Theaetetus, which ends (210d2-4) when Socrates must go to the King-Archon in order to answer Meletus' indictment, and, though they do not overtly remind us of this fact, they do explicitly refer to the agreement to meet again with which Socrates concluded the conversation, and allude to the issues of the trial (cf. Statesman 299b2ff). We thus seem to be justified in suspecting that the dialogues represent a certain evaluation, if not necessarily an indictment, of Socrates' philosophic practice, though the verdict, if any, is not quite evident.

This point has been denied, even by people who take seriously the dramatic character of the dialogues. Blondell (2002, pp. 386-389), for example, argues that Plato doesn’t sufficiently indicate dramatically the connection to the trial to make it the central issue, an argument all the more curious given that her general views -she claims that the introduction of the Eleatic Stranger is Plato’s way of “silencing” Socrates- actually lend themselves to a trial-focused interpretation. Lane (1998, p. 154 note 37) instead suggests that the allusion to Socrates’ trial at Statesman 299b2-e10 is flawed, though she does not suggest that it is not an allusion to Socrates. Regardless of the merits of these arguments, the allusion to Socrates' trial invites the reader to think of the Eleatic Stranger as Socrates' potential judge, a rival in the practice of philosophy in comparison with whom Socrates may (or may not) be found wanting.

There are at least two ways in which the allusions to the trial of Socrates could matter, however. We could consider the Stranger to be fundamentally friendly to Socrates, a judge who will exonerate him where the Athenian people did not; or we could consider him a rival to Socrates, someone who will (wholly or in part) convict him for being a bad citizen, a bad philosopher, or both, and thus someone whom we – the readers – will need to correct if we believe the Socratic project to be fundamentally correct (cf. Howland 1998; Scodel 1987; Zuckert 2000).

Our view of the “philosophic” trial – and thus of who is properly a philosopher in the Platonic universe – will be significantly altered depending on whether we locate the main tension of the dialogue between Socrates and the Stranger or between philosophers (like Socrates and the Stranger) and non-philosophic others, including the mathematicians Theodorus and Theatetus.

I take it that Plato presents a substantive (though not personal) tension between Socrates and Theodorus and Theaetetus, who represent certain mathematical forms of thought (cf. Miller 1980, pp. 3-10). Despite their warm treatment of Socrates, they do not seem clearly convinced that he is not a vulgar sophist. For example, Theaetetus seems to agree that Socrates (or somebody who is much like Socrates) is a sophist at Sophist 231a4-5, even though he seems unaware of the consequences of his agreement; and Theodorus at various points seems to suggest that Socrates is not measured enough to be a philosopher (Theaetetus 169a6-b4, Sophist 216b7-c1). Theodorus in particular, like the Athenian demos, does not seem to understand the Socratic project of refutation as philosophical.

If the main tension in these dialogues is between the Eleatic and Socrates on the one hand and Theodorus and the mathematicians on the other, then the Eleatic dialogues can be read in part as meditations on the limits of mathematical knowledge, as we shall see.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Stranger's Shame and the dialogic character of the Sophist

The typical view of the dramatic character of the "late" dialogues of Plato (like the Sophist) is that they don't have any. The dialogue is a cumbersome apparatus for presenting dogmatic material. The Eleatic Stranger is supposed to be merely reciting a Platonic doctrine, and Plato's presentation of it in the form of a dialogue is merely a matter of inertia.

Yet consider the small exchange at 217d8-e3. The Stranger, on hearing Socrates’ veiled request that he proceed by means of short exchanges in his investigation, he says that he would be ashamed (αἰδώς τίς μ᾽ ἔχει) to put on an exhibition (ἐπίδειξιν ποιούμενον; like a sophist, cf. Protagoras 320c3), either by himself or with another. He understands that, if he wants Socrates’ approval, he must distinguish himself from the sophists through his pedagogical success and his concern for truth; he must treat the exchange as a real exchange, not simply an opportunity to “show off;” in short, he must prove himself a philosopher.

We are clearly warned in this exchange that however docile young Theaetetus and Socrates may at times appear to be in the conversation that follows, the dialogue is never merely “for show,” and their responses will contain important clues about the effectiveness of the Stranger’s practice of philosophy, contrary to the superficial impression of dramatic inertness which still retains its hold in scholarly interpretations of the Eleatic dialogues (cf. Frede 1996).

To be sure, one may still argued that the drama of the dialogue, in spite of this warning, still remains a cumbersome facade. After all, the Stranger, in his earlier conversation with Theodorus and the boys (Sophist 217b5-9; this happens “off camera,” so to speak, before the meeting with Socrates) is reported by Theodorus to “remember well” what he heard about sophist, statesman, and philosopher from the Eleatics, and to be willing to repeat it. But this need not imply that he is about to merely recite it mechanically, pace Zuckert (2000 p. 70); this would be, after all, an ἐπίδειξιν, an exhibition. Remembrance, at any rate, will play an important role later on in the Statesman; it designates the human relation to the divine in the myth. The Stranger’s good remembrance has to be proven in his treatment of Theaetetus and young Socrates - in his ability to help them remember what is already in them.

Missing dialogues

It is an interesting factoid that Plato appears to have written two "incomplete" trilogies: the Timaeus, Critias, and "Hermocrates" trilogy and the Sophist, Statesman and "Philosopher" trilogies. In both cases the trilogy is announced in the first dialogue of the series - the Timaeus appears to promise a Hermocrates, and the Sophist a Philosopher (a promise reiterated in the Statesman). In both cases a "third" dialogue also appears as a sort of prequel to the incomplete trilogy - the Republic in the Timaeus-Critias-Hermocrates sequence and the Theaetetus in the Sophist, Statesman, Philosopher sequence. In both cases, the prequel does not belong to the "announced" trilogy, though it frames it or motivates it in important ways. (See the post below). What are we to make of this? What are the odds of Plato starting two sequences of dialogues with this structure, and leaving both incomplete?

The question has generated a fair amount of idle speculation. Older mainstream scholars mostly waved it away, often simply asserting that Plato must have planned to write them but for whatever reason did not. Typical in this respect is Campbell (1867, p. iv; cool link to the entire text of Campbell's book, which is out of copyright!), who thought that Plato abandoned the project after he realized that it was not possible “in the infancy of science.” Similarly Owen (1953, p. 81 - JSTOR link), who, in the course of his argument for dating the Timaeus earlier than the so-called “critical” dialogues, argued that “the Timaeus and its sequel or sequels were designed as the crowning work not of the latest dialogues but of the Republic group. The project was abandoned from dissatisfaction with certain basic theories, and in the first works of the critical group Plato dropped the confident didacticism of the Timaeus to make a fresh start on problems still unsolved.” (Owen does not – and on his own terms, cannot – account for the missing Philosopher in the same way). This is sort of the "null hypothesis" in thinking about the missing dialogues: it attributes the reasons for the incompleteness of the trilogies to external factors, such as Plato's loss of interest in them.

Later, more drama-aware (or should we say “dramatically aware”?) scholarship has often moved away from these purely “external” explanations and has sometimes sought to find both dialogues (but in particular the Philosopher) somehow “within” their respective series, or, as Voegelin (1987/1956, p. III.142), puts it, “as part of the internal meaning of the dialogues;” already Heidegger (1997/1924-25, p. 169 [246 in vol. 19 of the Gesamtausgabe]), ridiculed those scholars who persisted in thinking that Plato really intended to write a dialogue called the Philosopher, as if he were “a grade-school teacher ... bent on composing a trilogy” Heidegger thought the Philosopher was to be found in the Sophist; more typically commentators have suggested that the Philosopher is to be found in both the Sophist and the Statesman.

The Timaeus-Critias-Hermocrates sequence is a harder case than the Sophist, Statesman, Philosopher sequence, since the Critias really does look unfinished, stopping in the middle of a sentence. Ausland (2000 pp. 194-198 - JSTOR link), and Voegelin (1987/1956, pp. III.183-184 and chapter III.5 more generally) both argue for the thesis that it was Plato's intention not to complete the dialogue: what Zeus was about to say at the end of the Critias has in a way already been said. More recently Nesselrath (2006) has apparently argued the contrary position (I have not read the work).

The arguments for the "internal" completeness of the sequences depend, by contrast with the "null hypothesis" on internal reasons - about the coherence of the texts. But might one not add a probabilistic reason? What are the odds, really, of Plato embarking on two unsuccessful bouts of trilogy-construction, in both cases with a fairly similar structure? It's not as if there is external evidence for the view that Plato abandoned both projects. I suppose that in both cases one could argue that the Philosopher and the Hermocrates simply were too hard - but their hardness could not have escaped Plato. Perhaps one should rather take the incompleteness of the sequences as evidence of the unsayability of philosophy or of the best regime in motion? But why couldn't it be evidence of a Platonic purpose to create "exercises for the reader"?

If we accept the incompleteness of the sequences as challenges for the reader rather than as evidence of Plato's lack of interest or inability to complete them, lots of things become clearer. For example, it is clear that the philosopher is to be sought in the difference between sophist and statesman: philosophical practice being in-between these two.

The Theaetetus and the Eleatic Dialogues

Are the Theaetetus and the Eleatic dialogues of Plato (the Sophist and the Statesman) dramatically connected?

The usual answer is yes - they are clearly connected. After all, the conversation depicted in the Sophist takes place the day after the conversation depicted in the Theaetetus (Soph. 216a), with the same characters (except for the addition of the Eleatic Stranger). Yet at the end of the Theaetetus Socrates simply says “let us meet tomorrow here again” (210d4). The book from which Eukleides’ slave has read the dialogue (143c8) apparently does not record Theodorus’ answer. In other words, we only learn that Theodorus has accepted Socrates’ invitation once we “step out” of the framing dialogue; the conversation we are about to hear was not vouchsafed to Eukleides by Socrates (142c5-143a5), for unknown reasons.

This seems to suggest that the Sophist was not intended by Plato to be too closely tied to the Theaetetus. On these grounds Lane (1998, p. 7), argues for a looser connection between the Theaetetus and the other dialogues of the “trilogy;” and Klein (1977, p. 75), is led by this difficulty, in my view wrongly, to rely on dubious ancient reports of a different prologue to the dialogue and so discards the prologue that has come down to us for the sake of preserving the tight connection between the dialogues.

But it seems to me that Friedländer (1964, p. III.224), has it right when he argues that regardless of when exactly Plato wrote the Theaetetus and the Sophist, and whether he thought he would write a sequel to the Theaetetus when he wrote it, he chose to place it in obvious connection with the problematic of the Theaetetus, and thus with the problematic of knowledge discussed there. The three dialogues are indeed tightly connected, despite their methodological differences (pace Annas and Waterfield 1995, p. 1, note 1). Without assuming a tight connection between the Theaetetus and the two “Eleatic” dialogues the presence of a silent young Socrates in the Theaetetus (cf. toutoi 147d1-2 implying actual presence) makes little sense, since the character could have been absent from the Theaetetus without prejudice to the argument and introduced, along with the Stranger, in the Sophist.

If we assume that the Theaetetus and the Sophist are indeed tightly connected, then we must look at the latter (and at the Statesman) as in part centrally concerned with the question of knowledge.