Tuesday, May 08, 2007


D. R. Khashaba

The state of Plato scholarship is deplorable. It has become an industry. But in saying this I am wronging industry. Progressive industry has creative research behind it. Plato scholarship has become a mechanical skill off which anyone who is not a complete dunce can make a lucrative business.

I have just read a learned review and I am saddened: a review by Professor Dustin A. Gish of Professor Devin Stauffer’s The Unity of Plato’s Gorgias: Rhetoric, Justice, and the Philosophic Life: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2007/2007-05-09.html I give here a selection of the many angry notes I jotted down while reading the review.

We read that “Socrates counters Polus in a Machiavellian mode, adopting an extreme stance, commonly known as the ‘Socratic thesis,’ according to which doing injustice, far more than suffering injustice, is the greatest evil for human beings.” To say this, in my view is to reveal the sad fact that we have become incapable of understanding the ground principle of the Socrates-Platonic moral philosophy. What, in the hands of academic pundits has become a paradoxical Socratic thesis to be explained and confuted, is the insight by which Socrates lived and for which he died. To have a particle of doubt about this is to make of Socrates’ whole life and of his death a mascarade. In the Crito we read that we are never intentionally to do wrong … doing wrong is always evil and dishonourable … Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine, for we must injure no one at all … We may do no evil … Nor do evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many … [I am picking up phrases from Jowett’s translation, which may not be state-of-the art for our pundits, buth which is good enough for my purpose.] Can anyone say that this is a ‘stance’? Socrates may have been truly a fool, but Plato was under no illusion; he makes Socrates warn that “this opinion has never been held, and will never be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ.” (Jowett) (See my “The Rationality of Socrates Moral Philosophy” available under Essay in my website: http://www.back-to-socrates.com/essays/4-%20Rationality%20of%20Socrates'%20Moral%20Philosophy.htm This was subsequently included as Chapter Two in my Plato: An Interpretation (2005).)

So when we read of a “seemingly impassable divide between” Callicles and Socrates, I would say that the divide, far from being merely ‘seemingly impassable’, is the totally unbridgeable one between “those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point”

Professor Gish writes, “Stauffer’s thesis is that the unity of the Gorgias derives from Socrates’ concern throughout the dialogue with rhetoric. This means that the ascent implied by the tri-partite division of the dialogue … is deceptive, for the thrust of its arguments toward (a defense of) the philosophic life – its action – never transcends rhetoric at all.” I will not argue against this. I will simply say that, in my reading of Plato, all that he wrote had one lodestar, the philosophic life. To look for any overriding concern other than that in any work of Plato’s is to miss its central nexus and give it a false interpretation.

Evidently the book not only makes Socrates concerned with rhetoric; it also makes much of a “Socratic rhetoric” and of a “noble rhetoric” which Socrates is supposed to advocate. The insistence on transforming Socrates’ dialectic into a ‘noble rhetoric’ on the strength of a marginal remark by Socrates about a possible proper use of rhetoric, and the making of the ‘noble rhetoric’ into the central theme of the dialogue, is a distortion of the position of Plato and a corruption of Plato’s linguistic usage. What do we gain by calling Socrates’ dialectic rhetoric, obliterating the distinction that Plato was at pains to establish? It is one thing for us moderns (and for the ancients outside the Academy) to speak of rhetoric in a new sense, a proper rhetoric that may be part of serious literary studies; it is quite another thing, which makes for confusion, to make the term cover both the rhetoric of the Sophists and the dialectic of Socrates in discussing a work of Plato’s. (It is only in the Phaedrus that Plato showed tentative interest in rhetoric as an art of effective writing or effective speech.)

We read of the “mystery of Socrates’ interest in Gorgias” as a mystery “raised but not resolved in the dialgue’s prelude”. This is one of those pseudo-problems that academic philosophers fabricate to keep themselves in business. The Socrates of the dialogue is interested in Gorgias because the author of the Gorgias was throughout his life concerned with the opposition between rhetoric and the candid give and take of philosophical discussion.

However plausible Stauffer’s psychological analyses of the dramatic personae of the dialogue may be, I think it perverts Plato’s intention to think that his primary object was to expose the conflicts and contradictions inhering in the souls of Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles. In the Socratic elenctic discourses, Socrates unravels the contradictions and confusions in the minds of his interlocutors to make them look inward into their own minds. The Gorgias is not properly an elenctic discourse. Here Socrates is not in search of the meaning of a term (which is the common scheme of the elenctic discourses) but is actively advocating the one positive principle of his life: the whole worth of a human being is in the integrity of the soul which we must preserve at all costs, even at the cost of readily suffering injustice in preference to committing injustice.

So they make of the Gorgias, the manifesto of the philosophic life, an insincere tournament of wits in which the wily Socrates, with his Machiavellian rhetoric beats the more naïve rhetoric of the Sophists. They murder both Socrates and Plato — I wish they did it in anger! No, they do it coldly to find in the cadavers matter for their learned dissertations.


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