Monday, August 21, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

[Note: I assume that the reader of this paper will have been well acquainted with the Symposium of Plato, else I would have had to make it much longer by giving much incidental and background material.]

Lately I upset some of my best friends by writing a paper titled “Plato’s Greatest Hoax”. I wonder how anyone who knew my writings could think I meant to denigrate Plato when I designate my philosophy as a version of Platonism. I am now venturing to stir another hornets’ nest. What for? Certainly not to censure Plato but to highlight what is most profound and most valuable in Plato, to separate the tinsel from the gold.

First, to avoid unnecessary confusion or misunderstanding let us be clear about what is meant by ‘argument’ here, for ‘argument’ is a flabby word that houses a wide range of connotations. In a wider loose sense any exposition of thought is commonly referred to as an argument. In a narrower strict sense an argument is meant to establish or demonstrate the truth of a certain conclusion. It is this narrower meaning with which we are concerned in this paper.

Since Plato tells us plainly that no serious thinker will leave his best thought in a written text (Phaedrus, 275c); since he tells us in the Republic (533c) that the grounds of all philosophical positions must be destroyed by dialectic; since he gives us in the Parmenides a practical demonstration of this dialectic demolition of foundations — what are we to make of all the arguments and proofs in the dialogues? Not to mention that our erudite scholars have not been slow to shred to tatters the best of Plato’s theoretical arguments.

Often in the dialogues an argument is simply a move in the dramatic action. Sometimes in the elenctic discourses the argument seems to lead to a definite conclusion when suddenly Socrates discovers that they were on a wrong track (Charmides, Lysis). In the Protagoras Socrates argues for the identity of courage and wisdom; Protagoras finds a flaw in the argument and Socrates simply drops it (350c). In short, the argument (in the narrower sense) in a Platonic dialogue is regularly a ploy in the drama and is never meant for itself.

I have said this before but it bears repetition: An original thinker never arrives at his profoundest insights by a process of logical reasoning. (See Plato’s Universe of Discourse, 2015.) A philosopher may find in logical reasoning a helpful tool for the exposition and elucidation of her or his thought but to begin with sheer reasoning with the intention of reaching a meaningful conclusion is to put the cart before the horse and has been the source of all the falsehoods and absurdities of theology and vacuous ‘metaphysical systems’ I have been saying this repeatedly: in this paper I will illustrate it by instances from the speech of Socrates in the Symposium (198-212) where we find the husk of logical argument and the grain of philosophical insight side by side, in close proximity but unmixed. .

Socrates begins by protesting that he cannot speak in the manner of the speakers who preceded him, who thought they had to heap praises on Eros regardless of the truth. Socrates said he would only speak the truth (198d). We will see what kind of truth that turns out to be, revealing to us the chasm separating philosophical truth from the truth of science and commonsense.

Socrates prepares the ground for his speech by a short discourse with Agathon in the elenctic manner (199c-201d). The bare skeleton of the core argument is something like this: Love is love of something – Love is love of the beautiful and the good – Love desires to have what it loves – one does not desire to have what one already has – put differently, one does not have what one desires to have – one desires to have what one lacks – (marginally, to say that one who is healthy desires to have health only makes sense if taken to mean that one desires to have health continually) – we said that Love is love of the beautiful and the good – it follows that love does not have beauty and goodness, in other words Love is not beautiful and not good.

We see that the argument is grounded on the identification of love with desire, a step facilitated by the fact that the love discussed is erotic love, though even so, we can object that in healthy erotic love the lover does not desire to possess the beloved. Anyhow, when we come to the philosophical vision in the higher flight of Diotima’s pronouncement, we will see how Diotima, though putatively starting from the same position delineated in Socrates’ conversation with Agathon, actually throws that whole argument out the window. The deeper insights in the speech of Socrates (Diotima) has no connection with the logical argument which is mere show required by the dramatic setting of the Symposium

Next Socrates relates how the wise woman Diotima taught him the secrets of love, beginning with the argument which he had just re-enacted with Agathon. I bypass the pretty story of the birth of Eros. Like the argument and equally with the argument it is part of the tinsel not the gold. I also bypass what she says about the nature, character and office if Eros.

Diotima begins the metamorphosis of the concept of love by making the word stand for all desire for good (294e-205e). Further, not only do humans love to have the good but they love to have the good for all time (206a). Let us note that Diotima has thus cut all ties to the body and to all that is worldly and let us note further that she has left behind all argumentation. Diotima no longer argues but teaches with oracular authority. Love has become a universal (metaphysical) principle.

Diotima proceeds: How does Love attain its end? In what activity does it engage? At this point Diotima (= Socrates, = Plato) fires the most pregnant phrase in all philosophy: the aim and the activity of love is procreation in beauty, tokos en kalôi (206b). Love as a metaphysical principle is simply creativity. We have left far behind the erôs that in the argumentative stage was equated with the desire to have, to possess, and have reached the notion of Love whose nature is to give, to overflow, to create.

Plato takes us to a new level when he makes Diotima say to Socrates: Thus far you could be initiated into the secrets of Love, but I don’t know if you can enter the higher mystery for the sake of which what went before was a preparation. She proceeds to describe, in an inspired and inspirational passage, the ascent of the lover, culminating in the mystic vision of absolute Beauty.

The pregnant notion of procreation in Beauty, the ascent to the vision of absolute Beauty — these are presented in oracular pronouncements, without any show of argument or proof. The preliminary argument equating love with the desire to have what one lacks is discarded on the way. I maintain that this is representative of all of Plato’s dialogues. As I put it elsewhere, where you find Plato arguing most astutely, be sure that he is least serious. The divinity of the soul, he philosophic life, tending the soul and tending virtue, the Form of the Good, reality as dunamis (activity, creativity), etc., etc., these are creative notions offered without proof or argument in the strict sense.

D. R. Khashaba

August 22, 2017

Posted to xnd


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