Wednesday, October 07, 2015



D. R. Khashaba

6. Why does Plato keep to the dialogue form in the Timaeus where there is no place for dialogue? It is not, in my opinion, that Plato has become addicted to the dialogue form, but for the reason that made him choose the dialogue form for his writings in the first place. He would not give the reader anything ready-made, any doctrine or any theory. His intention in portraying a dialogue was to engage his reader in the discussion and leave her or him to come up with their own thought. He wanted hus readers not to receive knowledge or learning but to philosophize. So in the Timaeus he offers his ‘likely tale’ as a provocation to independent thinking. Thus I have said more than once that in my writings on Plato I enter into dialogue with Plato to develop my own philosophical position.

7. The significance of the aporia (perplexity) to which the Socratic elenchus invariably leads has been curiously neglected or misunderstood. In the first place it should have been seen as clearly showing the falsity of the view that the elenchus aimed at reaching definitions. In the second place it should have been seen that the regular recurrence of the aporia, far from indicating a failure, constitutes evidence that Socrates deliberately leads to it. Why should he do that? In my interpretation, Socrates aimed at two related ends. The first was to show that no theoretical formulation can be finally and definitively valid and that we have to confess our ignorance of the what (the essence) of things, and the second is to show the meaning of an idea can only be understood in the immediacy of the self-evidence of the idea in the mind. This is the insight Socrates crystallized in his oracular dictum: All that is beautiful is beautiful by Beauty. This coheres with the Republic demand that dialectic should destroy all hypotheses and with the demonstration in the second part of the Parmenides.

8. Modern scholars are so afraid of being caught affirming anything or favouring any point of view – a sin only equalled by that of failing to cite the latest secondary literature – that they end up being utterly trivial. But the ban on affirmation only relates to what is substantial. When it comes to superficialities, the wildest fancies are committed. Even though I am determined to avoid any direct controversial comment on the contributions to this Companion to Plato, I will permit myself to give one example. Mary Margaret McCabe finds a connection between Socrates “going down” to the Piraeus at the beginning of the Republic and the “going down” of the illuminated philosopher “to the city” in the body of the work (“Form and the Platonic Dialogues”, p.46). This is just too clever; it reminds me of the exploits of our “scientific” interpreters of the Quran who find the latest astrophysical theories in the verses of the Holy Book..

9. As I read the papers in A Companion to Plato I keep recalling an insightful essay I read lately, “Poetry as Enchantment” by Dana Gioia - - which students of philosophy would do well to read attentively. I pick up the following random phrases from the latter part of the essay: “I suspect that one thing that hurt poetry was being too well taught.” “These writers developed brilliant methods of analyzing poetry as poetry …” “Every decade brought a new wave of critical schools and techniques, eventually culminating in mostly theoretical approaches to literature.”And I simply cannot resist quoting her closing words: “We need to augment methodology with magic. Blake asked, ‘What the hand, dare seize the fire?’ The answer is, of course, our hands — the skilled hands of teachers and writers. We’ve touched the fire of imagination, art, and language. We need to pass that fire on to the future. Why should we settle for a vision of literary education that does any less?” A like cry is what philosophy now badly needs.

10. At this point I must, exceptionally, break my resolve not to comment directly on the papers (in A Companion to Plato, edited by Hugh H. Benson, Blackwell, 2006). Charles M. Young, “The Socratic Elenchus”, proceeds as if it were the purpose of Socrates to establish logical laws. His argument under “Inconsistency” of the Charmides is quite beside the point. Socrates simply wants to help the boy to see that his ideas are hazy. At the close of the section Young tells us that

“Richard Kraut drew attention over twenty years ago to the fact that Socrates (in the Socratic dialogues, including the Protagoras, for the purposes of this point) thinks he has good reasons for accepting all three of these propositions:

A. Virtue is unteachable.

B. Virtue is knowledge.

C. If virtue is knowledge, then virtue is teachable,

even though he recognizes that (A), (B), and (C) are inconsistent (see Kraut 1984: 285–8). Again, Socrates knows that at least one of (A), (B), and (C) must be false, but he has no reason to give up any one of them in particular.”

I am afraid that both Kraut and Young understand neither the Protagoras nor the Socratic stance. In that dialogue Socrates counters Protagoras’ bold claim that he can teach virtue with scepticism, saying he nad thought virtue was unteachable. That was simply how the (then) young Socrates could, without offence, lead the eminent sophist to submit his claim to examination. Instead of engaging in controversy with Young’s (and Kraut’s) contentions, let me reproduce the closing paragraph of Chapter Four of my Plato: An Interpretation (2005):

“The Protagoras raises the question of the teachability of virtue and leaves it unresolved. That is as it should be. The problem has to remain an unresolved and unresolvable riddle if we are not to lose sight of the vital insight: virtue is sophia but it is not any particular epistêmê. Virtue is the sophia that knows its own ignorance and knows that the only safe course open to it is to hold fast to its internal integrity. In the Republic the highest wisdom is found in the mystic vision of the Form of the Good. In the Statesman the ideal ruler would not be bound by any law or constitution but follow his inner light. Jesus of Nazareth finds the sure guide to the good life not in the law but in love. Kant finds the highest moral principle in the autonomy of the good will. The insight (I shy away from the word 'truth' and the word 'intuition' has been spoilt by bad company) behind all this was translucently clear to Socrates, but we still find it difficult to grasp because it has been encrusted in layer upon layer of the errors of the learned.”

11. I will not be drawn into discussing what Young says under “Does Socrates Cheat?” To me it shows how erudition kills imagination. Our learned scholars are simply incapable of appreciating the dramatic context in a Platonic dialogue. In an earlerpaper, “Form and the Platonic Dialogues”, Mary Margaret McCabe speaks of Socrates’ “disconcerting deception of young Charmides into thinking that he has a magic leaf which will cure Charmides’ headache” (p.48) where no one reading the dialogue in good faith will see any ‘deception’ since the boy, as portrayed, was intelligent enough to realize that the fiction of the cure was merely intended to draw him into conversation.

12. I have expound ed my understanding of the Socratic elenchus repeatedly and extensively in my writings. Let me here reproduce the conclusion to Chapter Three of Plato: An Interpretation (2005):

“Socrates solemnly declares his life-mission to be to exhort all humans to care for the health of their souls above everything else. What part does the elenchus play in that mission? Since psuchê was for Socrates one with nous and its proper excellence was phronêsis, the removal of all that encumbers, befogs, or deceives the mind was a necessary step towards caring for one's soul. For people to care for their souls they had to be shown that their true good lay nowhere but in the goodness of their souls and that the goodness of the soul was nothing other than sound phronêsis . They had to be led to discover their true nature and their proper excellence. That could not be given to them in any ready-made formula; they had to find it within themselves. That is the function of the elenchus; that is why Socrates who cared for nothing but virtue spent his life engaging in seemingly fruitless theoretical refutations.”

Cairo, October 7, 2015.


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