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M.F. Burnyeat reviews ‘The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues’ by Ruby Blondell · LRB 7 August …
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By the Dog
The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues by Ruby Blondell Cambridge, 452 pp, £55.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 521 79300 9
Thrasymachus, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, has listened with growing impatience to the discussion of justice in the first Book of Plato’s Republic. ‘What balderdash you two have been talking,’ he says to Socrates and Polemarchus. He cannot wait to astound the company, and win their acclaim, by unmasking justice as nothing but the advantage of the stronger, dominant group in society. Consider the facts. In each city the ruling class – which could be many individuals in a democracy, a few oligarchs, or a single tyrant – has fixed the laws to serve its own interests. The rest of us, if we obey these laws as justice requires, are simply profiting the rulers. And profiting them means harming ourselves. Thrasymachus sees all human life – not only interactions between rulers and ruled, but also dealings between one individual and another – as a zero-sum game. Every gain is someone else’s loss. Socrates wonders whether rulers ever make mistakes about what is in their interest: obedience to an erroneous law would be to the rulers’ disadvantage, yet Thrasymachus insists that obeying the law is just. In such a case, surely, justice and the rulers’ interests come apart? Cleitophon intervenes to defend his teacher: Thrasymachus meant that justice consists in obeying laws which prescribe what the rulers suppose to be advantageous to themselves. But no, says Thrasymachus, that is not what he meant at all, and Socrates is guilty of defamatory misrepresentation of his words. Certainly, in everyday speech we allow that on occasion a doctor, for example, may make a mistake. But what qualifies a doctor as a doctor is his medical knowledge. Qua doctor, therefore, no doctor makes mistakes. So it is with rulers: The most precise way to formulate my position is to say that the ruler, insofar as he is a ruler, makes no mistakes, but unerringly legislates what is best for himself, and this his subject must do. Thus my claim, and it is what I meant all along, is that it is just to do what is to the advantage of the stronger. This is an exceedingly complicated way to present a philosophical controversy. Clearly, much more is going on than arguments for and against Thrasymachus’ unsettling diagnosis of
we should recoil from the reality of our political life. The subtly varied means that Plato deployed to wrest the words ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ from rival and more traditional sources of wisdom.04. but to leave it there is to substitute psychological analysis for moral and political philosophy.’ True enough. which Socrates then proves to be ignorance and vice. which stood for intellectual and cultural pursuits of any kind. there is no longer any ambiguity about what it refers to. A curious alliance exists in this second camp between conservative followers of Leo Strauss and radical Postmodernists. stimulating. not genre.12 M. It was he who took the Greek verb φιλoφεîν. and abstracts the theories stated from the dramatic context in which they are put forward. as exhibited in the Republic and four other Platonic dialogues (Hippias Minor. Suppose Plato thinks that Thrasymachus is largely right about the facts. Consequently.uk/v25/n15/mf-burnyeat/by-the-dog/print 2/5 . Theaetetus. only to find himself unable to defend his position against Socrates’ cunningly crafted questions. and turned it into the accepted word for the sort of abstract inquiry we find in so many of his dialogues. since a certain type of literary criticism shares with Straussian political thought a longing to trump philosophy and dethrone it from its traditional position as the most general form of reflection on human life and the world around us. yet uneven new book. such as poetry and rhetoric. not treatises – but their authors are usually incompetent at philosophy. The world as we know it is ruled by injustice (that much Thrasymachus got right). but her central theme is character. In reaction to this. she has much to say about Thrasymachus’ rudeness and how it tallies with the no-nonsense view of justice he proclaims. not justice.21. not from the www. is the subject of Ruby Blondell’s important. Only in a work of what we now call philosophy would it be necessary and appropriate to speak of a doctor qua doctor. The need has long been felt for ways of reading Plato that adequately reflect the unique combination in his writing of supreme literary art and extraordinary philosophical daring. whole books are written to insist that Plato composed dialogues. Both are forever claiming that Plato subverts the conclusions reached by his characters. Blondell draws on Nightingale. In existing regimes the dominant group exploits the rest for its own class interests.lrb.co. Burnyeat reviews ‘The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues’ by Ruby Blondell · LRB 7 August … what gives rise to the hallowed notion of justice. are well analysed in one of the very few books to date that do justice to both the literary and the philosophical sides of Plato: Andrea Nightingale’s Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995). Sophist and Statesman). which drag him sweating and blushing to the most humiliating defeat in all Plato. but as a struggle for domination – yet another zero-sum game. By the time the Latin philosophia (ancestor of our ‘philosophy’) appears in our sources. it is because Plato made it so. He advances the provocative thesis that it is injustice (if you can get away with it).F. Now if that is what philosophy is. She sees that he treats discussion with Socrates not as a cooperative search for truth. That ‘more’. which is virtue and wisdom. Much Platonic scholarship focuses exclusively on the arguments without reference to the people arguing. Blondell comments: ‘Thrasymachus’ involuntary physical manifestations of shame show that he is unable to adapt to the search for “objective” Socratic truth without destroying his sense of his own identity. so far as it goes. If so.
If the ideal city offers the property. defeat is just that. and will devise all the harm against them I can. each of them split by further factional divisions. Greeks were less squeamish than we are about the relation between constitutional form and the realities of political power. All this goes to show that the person of Thrasymachus is less important to Plato than his views. and dreams of managing the same thing in reverse when his side gains power. not the other way round. before turning to the counter-devices found in democracies.’ and proceeds to give details. there is too much A.’ Admittedly. Or the fact that. He goes on about how cleverly the Athenian people have set things up to exploit the rich. If Thrasymachus really views dialectical discussion as a zero-sum contest. In a later Book of the Republic he expressly allows that the discussion may not benefit Thrasymachus until he encounters similar talk in some future life. The reason is that ordinary cities are in reality at least two cities at enmity with one another. not a reason to change his mind.uk/v25/n15/mf-burnyeat/by-the-dog/print 3/5 . he goes into a sulk and declares that he will accept. a reason to submit. Burnyeat reviews ‘The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues’ by Ruby Blondell · LRB 7 August … person who unmasks it for what it is. not enough of his philosopher brother F. Socrates for his ‘logic-chopping’ – which fails to www.lrb. which investigate how political life could and should be made better by founding the ideal city. the city of the rich and that of the poor. it will soon have allies enough to bring about the promised regime change. Plato did think that Thrasymachus was largely right about the empirical facts. Evidently.04.12 M. Aristotle quite often describes existing politics in Thrasymachean terms. He will soon have Socrates explain why civic concord in the ideal city he is designing will make it pretty well invincible in war. But why treat this as a criticism of Socratic pedagogy? Perhaps it signals the obstinacy of the world that Thrasymachus’ views reflect.co.C. powers and persons of the ruling class to the other parties.H. Bradley in Blondell’s book. known nowadays as ‘the Old Oligarch’. Aristotle thinks this practice ill-advised: the oligarchs would do better for themselves if they swore not to wrong the people. Blondell is much exercised by Socrates’ failure to get Thrasymachus to change his mind: rather than admit that his views are wrong. In the space of just seven pages Thrasymachus is reproached for offensive personal abuse.F.21. he lives the ideas he teaches in a way that few besides Socrates achieve. more engagé advocate of a class-based analysis of politics. Blondell is also fiercely judgmental. insincerely. Another. Then we will be eager to read on in subsequent Books of the Republic. Socrates should not be expected to do any more than subdue him. as when he writes: ‘The devices by which oligarchies deceive the people are five in number. Plato isn’t alone in these views. unlike others who endorse his description of contemporary realities. Altogether. whatever proposition Socrates puts to him. is the author of a Constitution of the Athenians wrongly attributed to Xenophon. He even quotes an oath sworn by the oligarchs in some oligarchical cities: ‘I will be an enemy to the people. It is the views that explain the man. But he has no doubt that such an oath would be hypocritical.
there is no chance of arguing against him from any commonly shared value premise: Thrasymachus rejects the lot. however. Socrates?’ is directed to this young man. the author who wrote all the parts. www. and she has a most interesting account of what Plato is up to. intelligence and virtue. is a visitor from Elea whose appearance is never described. his courage as a soldier. the Sophist and Statesman.co. his constant questioning of beautiful young men or older persons who make claims to wisdom and expertise.F. which present a continuous two-part discussion. We are not likely to forget about him. as Socrates points out. The Republic is so rich. with whom Socrates talked the day before in the dialogue named Theaetetus. of ‘the silencing of Socrates’. Consequently. In the text. When the philosophy starts. Socrates’ opening question – ‘Do you think that a just man wants to do better than another just man?’ – is indeed abstract. ‘Not at all. Socrates remarks that Thrasymachus is unlike other people who suppose that successful injustice brings advantage to the agent. with reason. The main speaker in these two late works. and who is hardly characterised at all. but speaks only in the introductory conversations. that it is easy to get absorbed by the drama and pay less than due attention to the philosophical content of what the speakers say. bare feet even when walking on ice). Interestingly. Burnyeat reviews ‘The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues’ by Ruby Blondell · LRB 7 August … address its victims’ deeper convictions – and Plato for his prejudicial representation of Thrasymachus. he falls silent. not to the 70-year-old they know from the Theaetetus and other dialogues. and it is only as the refutation develops that we see what it amounts to. his never leaving the city except on campaign. This is at least one adverse judgment too many. the refutation is well tailored to Thrasymachus’ radical stance. its cast of characters so varied. The Socrates of the Republic and other dialogues is one of the most vividly characterised figures in world literature. We know lots about him: his famously ugly appearance (bulging eyes. But when Thrasymachus answers. while the second is allegedly shared by Plato.21. his ability to drink all and sundry under the table. Blondell speaks. but reserves all the favourable value terms for injustice. because the visitor’s interlocutor in the Sophist is the young Theaetetus. Thrasymachus admits no such thing.uk/v25/n15/mf-burnyeat/by-the-dog/print 4/5 . And it is this admission that will eventually bring him down. for Plato has written into his text a perfectly good philosophical explanation of why Socrates’ argument with Thrasymachus has to proceed in such abstract terms that it can look like logic-chopping. Logically. as does Polus in the Gorgias. whose name is never mentioned. It would seem to follow that Plato’s representation of Socrates is as prejudicial as that of Thrasymachus. his habit of standing motionless for hours deep in thought. Readers have to remember that an address such as ‘What do you think. his habit of swearing ‘By the Dog’ and other speech mannerisms.’ he concedes there is at least one human relationship which is not a zero-sum game. They usually class injustice as a vice. The third of these criticisms undermines the first. snub nose. which he equates with good sense. for otherwise he wouldn’t be the innocent fool he is.12 M. Blondell is much better with the least dramatic and colourful of the dialogues she treats. Socrates is present. or admit. his resistance to Alcibiades’ attempt at seduction.lrb.04. while in the Statesman it is Theaetetus’ friend Socrates the Y ounger. that it is a disgraceful way to behave.
such is his lack of interest in the world directly around him. he says in the Theaetetus. Since this is said by Socrates. according to Blondell. still asking those awkward questions. Plato’s Laws. it seems to me. Plato has reason to make philosophy independent of his idiosyncratic central figure. Burnyeat » By the Dog (print version) pages 23-24 | 2643 words ISSN 0260-9592 Copy right © LRB Ltd. as in another late work.lrb. 25 No. 15 · 7 August 2003 » M. as happens in the Sophist and Statesman. 1997-2012 ^ Top www.F.04. The Theaetetus portrait of a philosopher is so very unlike Socrates. Plato’s readers have experienced enough philosophy to understand a quite general account of who the philosopher is.co. if we can agree that one aim of the Socratic dialogues is to ensure that Socrates does not disappear after his trial and execution. can do philosophy. we should be puzzled. he directs our attention away from individuals towards a realm of abstract generalities. Here he is. Let him take second place to a completely generic character like the Eleatic visitor. He does not even know that he doesn’t know this. Plato wants to prepare his audience for philosophy without Socrates. which readers can see are educating. That. For one thing. not corrupting the youths he talks with. Burnyeat reviews ‘The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues’ by Ruby Blondell · LRB 7 August … his ‘divine sign’ (an inner voice that sometimes warns him not to do what he was about to do). But when this unique individual speaks of philosophy and the philosopher. his endless irony and inexhaustible passion for knowledge.12 M. is not concerned to know who did wrong to whom. and therefore any of us who are sufficiently skilled.F. whom everyone thinks of as a habitué of the marketplace and who shows himself acutely aware of his own ignorance. Plato will himself not live for ever to sustain the inimitable character he has created.. His mind is elsewhere. For another. This makes good sense. so much so that he does not know the way to the marketplace. which together form a sequel to the Theaetetus. He. The philosopher. too. but focuses on the absolutely general question: ‘What is justice? What is injustice? How do they differ from everything else and from each other?’ It is really only his body that lives and sleeps in the city.uk/v25/n15/mf-burnyeat/by-the-dog/print 5/5 . These things mark him out as a unique individual. Or let him disappear altogether. The visitor’s lack of character becomes full of meaning. generic philosopher on stage alongside Socrates to discuss the paradoxes of not-being in the Sophist and political expertise in the Statesman. as given in the Theaetetus. All that is needed then is to bring a nameless. Vol. But once the magnetism of Socrates has established the legitimacy of philosophy (under that name).21. is the point.