Education: The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 3(a). Wherein something unpresented is at work.

Lesson 3(a). In the dialogues: what is unknown in known knowledge and what ‘makes a hole in it’.

In truth, he knows nothing about which of these convictions is fine or shameful, good or bad, just or unjust, but he applies all these names in accordance with how the beast reacts—calling what it enjoys good and [c] what angers it bad. He has no other account to give of these terms. And he calls what he is compelled to do just and fine, for he hasn’t seen and cannot show anyone else how much compulsion and goodness really differ. Don’t you think, by god, that someone like that is a strange educator? (493)

As argued the dialogues present a clear disjunction between the figure of Socrates and that of sophistry: the question of this disjunction emerges. That is to say, if Socrates is not of education insofar as education is ‘by the state‘, then what is it in the Athens of the dialogues that this figure names?

What we have seen so far is that with regard to education he is not a part of the sophistic state and yet he is convicted as a singular threat to the very constitution of this state due to this very paradoxical (non)-relation that he maintains with the youth and with others or ‘anyone at all’, as he contends.

So what does Socrates name in the Athens of the dialogues?

The facts – the dialogue facts – are that this knowledge of what Socrates names will come to be known, but as yet we are constrained to conceive of this part without full knowledge of what it will have been.

What we do have is the certainty that what he does name is what the state is not: what to the state is nothing. It is too early to say that Socrates knows nothing but what we can see is that this nothing can be conceived precisely because there is nothing else, with regard to education, that Socrates can be seen to name. We can say that what he does name, which is nothing to sophistry, is that a new form of thought of education in Athens is possible. In other words a new or a re-collection of what there is in Athens unknown to it.

So, if nothing else, his is the name in the state for what is not a sophistic education. This is how we can account for ‘his’ existence and his nothingness.

Education therefore is the very thing that founds the disjunction between the Socratic figure and his sophistic double. For Plato, education, ultimately, can only be non-sophistic and this is the project of the dialogues.

What Socrates does, and the state obviously knows this, is address this lack and his starting point is the assumption that anyone at all can be so addressed. Which is to say that this lack is something which belongs to all. He says as much in the Republic – that reason is the singular capacity of everyone or anyone at all.

In my terms, it is that everyone has the capacity for a non-sophistic education. This is the Socratic axiom if you like – the basis of him speaking to anyone at all.

Education [qua site] marks a capacity common to all. This commonality is to not belong to the state. Plato’s contest of Socrates and Sophistry has to show that education is this common capacity but it is so insofar as it is not Sophistry.

Callicles is right to assert that if Socrates had his way the world would be turned upside down (Grg. 481c).

The real importance here is that what is foreclosed – that is, what sophistry must not know: that its knowledge is lacking – has to be worked out. As this Socratic form is not known, which is to say it does not fall under any statist, encyclopaedic, sophistic determination, but whose concept form can be thought, it can only be subject to a procedure or enquiry, which will or will not determine the shape and extent of its existence.

For Plato, this alone is the insistent problem. He is not quibbling over a name or even a meaning. Each dialogue addresses this real lack of a non-sophistic education. What we need to see is that education marks the non-relation between the sophistic practice and its Socratic rival.  All the sophists consider themselves educators; the state considers itself an educator. Socrates is determined not to be an educator – and he himself says he knows nothing and does not teach – if to do those things is what the sophists do!

As we see in the Apology, for the state what presents as education is what there is of education. The state recognises nothing non-sophistic and yet, in Socrates, whom the state does recognise, it discerns the threat of this lack. In the Republic Plato confirms the singularity of education. Whereas the sophistic state approaches this site from the perspective of knowing what must not be in regard to what it presents, Plato‘s approach is to begin at just this point. He insists, if you like, that this lack insists and that education is the site for the realisation of that which is for all. The two trajectories, sophistic and Platonic, diverge at this site: education.

In this context education should be understood as the foundational term for the undoing of the sophistic state (which for all intents and purposes is ‘education’).

As argued, Socrates is a singular figure of the Athenian scene, but as we have seen this singularity is an effect of structure and not of nature. So although the signifier Socrates is on trial and the life of the mortal body attached to it at stake, the real target of the trial is the need to protect the state from the exposure to its lack: the Socratic position, that of education as only by truths, must not be exposed as being a part of the state, for it threatens this prohibition.

As noted previously, Socrates notes very early in his defence that he is more afraid of the cumulative effect of the accusations consistently made against him over the years. These, he says, insinuating themselves at an impressionable age, have more likely infected the minds of the jury than those of the three accusers –‘formidable as they are’ (Ap. 18e).

Socrates himself points out that he has been at odds with the state of the situation for his whole life. As such, his ‘impiety’ consists in two things: what his enquiries concern and the ‘divine’ ability to turn the weak into the strong. He rejects these charges.

Nevertheless, as he says, no-one has heard me speak of these things in which I have no interest (Ap. 19d). What he ‘makes strong’, as he has already said in the opening remarks, is the true argument whose position is always the weakest. Set against the sophistic backdrop of the presence of knowledge, what is true therefore is always that which must come to be so as that which is for all.

But as we have seen demonstrated, truth is the least apparent of all arguments. It is within the world of sophistry, ‘indiscernible’.

For Socrates, in terms of what is real as opposed to what seems to be, truth is the strongest of all possible arguments and so the accusation is false. However, the world must be turned upside down before this realisation is truly possible. In a world where appearance is true, truth can only appear as weak, singular and ‘against the numbers’.

The trick of the Platonic vision is always that we are reading two sides at once. We must read Socrates from the perspective of the ‘world to come’, which in my terms is the Republic, where appearance is not the rule.

Conversely, we must read the Athenian state as the place where appearance is true and any challenge to this truth is impious as a thought and corrupt as a practice. This is the situation Socrates invokes when he says – ironically – that in giving his defence he hopes the result will be that he has rid their minds of ‘a false impression which is the work of many years’ (Ap. 19a).

As we have seen Socrates clearly notes the excessive rule of the sophistic position whose error in presumption ‘clearly outweighs their positive wisdom’ (Ap. 22d). Against all of these positions, which constitute the entirety of the city – apart from slaves and women – Socrates sets himself as the ‘spokesman for the oracle’ ‘being neither wise with their wisdom or stupid with their stupidity’ (Ap. 22de).

Moreover he carries out his enquiries without regard to the authority of the polis, the assembly, or the law courts: he induces hearers without the sanction, in a formal sense, of the state; and he speaks to any and all comers for free and ‘without qualification’. As a ‘citizen’ he refuses to attend the polis neither in the democracy nor the tyranny; and, as in this trial the two other times he is summoned before the state he is each time singled out: under the tyranny he refused orders to arrest Leon of Salamis, instead taking the advice recommended in the Republic to good men, he went home (R.496d), and after the disaster at Syracuse he refused to support the illegal group trial of the fleet admirals.1

Socrates’ comment in the Apology, often repeated in his conversation with the various sophistic figures that what he needs is enlightenment – as does any figure who perpetrates and perpetuates knowledge out of ignorance – points again to the significance of education as the site for this truth procedure.

Only this ‘Socratic’ (or perhaps Platocratic) procedure can make manifest (assemble, gather and deploy) those elements which properly belong to the education site. It is clear, as Socrates ‘discovers’ at the trial, that nowhere is this education manifest in an Athens that concerns itself above all else with ‘acquiring as much money,’ ‘reputation and honour’ as is possible (Ap. 29e).

The Socratic corruption, as he says, consists finally in this; in encouraging whomever he meets to put aside the concern for their bodies and attend to the welfare of their souls (Ap. 30a). To attend to the latter is to bring ‘wealth’ to the former – interest is thereby put under the rule of reason, the capacity of all – but for Plato this is not a reciprocal relation, what Socrates means by wealth is not ‘making money’. What we do know is that there is no ‘logic of exchange’ underpinning this. 

We should just note that in the last stages of the Apology Socrates continues to differentiate himself or rather, what he names. Explicitly, he continues to relate all that renders him suspect to the city, all that renders him ‘different from the normal run of humankind’.  What differentiates him ultimately is his decisive subjection to the prescription of the oracle, for to ‘know thyself’ is precisely to subtract oneself, enquiry by enquiry, courageously (Ap.28e), from the knowledge of the state.

Implicitly, he persists in maintaining fidelity to that which is non-sophistic both before conviction and after, and again before and after the decision on the death penalty. Indeed, his stance seems to become even more provocative in light of the circumstances. Socrates notes this, and claims it is not a matter of his stance but of the appearance by which it is conditioned.

He is simply being consistent – speaking the truth despite the circumstances. What makes this truth seem more provocative is simply a sophistically grounded assumption that to die is a bad thing.  He asserts that he is ignorant of what constitutes death and therefore to cry about it or fear it is to act as if one knows what one does not – to be, in short, sophistic.

He accuses them explicitly of condemning him for not speaking to them in their own language, in terms that would have given them most pleasure (Ap. 38e). Truth itself, he says, will convict his accusers (Ap. 39d). This again invokes what will become the theme of the Phaedo; that truth insists despite the existence of any man.

For now I want to look briefly at the Republic and at one section. Our only intention is to confirm that what Plato insists on is that education can only be non-sophistic and that as such, given the sophistic state of the situation, it must inexist for this state. So being there and not existing – this is why I am calling it a site.

The general context of our passage from the Republic is a discussion dealing with the possible corruption of the ‘philosophical nature’. The larger context is of course the quest to found a city built on the doctrine of fair shares, a doctrine only a non-sophistic education can support (Grg. 508a). Chastening Callicles in the Gorgias he says:

You’ve failed to notice that proportionate equality has great power among both gods and men, and you suppose that you ought to practice getting the greater share. That’s because you neglect geometry.2

The assumption here is that such a thing as the ‘philosophical’ nature exists but the conditions of its realisation are lacking. Such a nature, given the lack of its proper conditions, will in fact be brought down by the very qualities which pertain to it. Its temperance, courage, love of truth will be diverted by the rewards and temptations of the goods of the city. Plato says that unless some ‘miraculous interposition’ takes place, such will be the fate of the philosophical nature (R. 492e). Elsewhere he refers to this interposition as the  ‘sudden’.

There are two types who fasten onto philosophy: The type who pursue truth faithfully and those who profess too. It is the latter, Socrates suggests, who give philosophy its bad name. Now, what happens here is that the latter become those who set the conditions whereby the rarer figure of the (becoming) philosopher might come to grief. Once again, we have the force of numbers and their determinative ability, set against what is singular: the many headed hydra of appearance against the universal singularity of the true is the analogy or perhaps the metaphor insisted on.

It is the actual singularity of the pursuit of such indiscernible truths that constitutes the rarity (and uselessness) of the philosopher. Plato’s philosopher is simply a participant in this procedure, this way of life. For Plato, education consists in this pursuit, while for the state, such a pursuit being foreign and useless to what it demands of its ‘crew’ (the metaphor of the ship is the context), cannot be educational at all.

Again Plato makes it clear that what passes for education in such a state is that ‘life-style’ which such a state demands. The ‘education’ pursued by the non-sophist-philosopher being a ‘way of life’, cannot be presented there – the conditions of its existence are foreclosed by the encyclopaedic ship of state. In addition, this is ultimately the ‘fault’ Socrates claims, of those who profess to know.

Note here it is not the individual sophist per se who is at fault: Plato chides Adeimantus; you don’t hold the popular belief that certain young men are demoralised by the private instructions of some individual sophist (R.492a)? Clearly, he refers to his own position as much as that of the sophists.

The problem highlighted again here is very much the state of the situation itself. Does the influence of the individual sophist amount to much?’ he asks rhetorically’; ‘ Is not the public itself the greatest of all sophists, training up young and old, men and women alike, into the most accomplished specimens of the character it desires to produce’ (R. 492ab)? 

This training up, he says, happens wherever the public gathers. In the assembly, the law courts, the theatre or the camp (you can propose the contemporary equivalents: media, school, parliament, church, market…). The populace crowds together, ‘clamouring its approval or disapproval, both alike excessive, of whatever is said and done’ (R. 492b; emphasis added). To hold out against such teaching is near to impossible and no individual instruction will be enough to counter ‘the force of such a torrent’.

The young man will come to be just as they are. In other words, the state reproduces itself in and through the manner of its education.

It is worth noting that in a proto-Althusserian fashion Plato claims that if anyone doesn’t succumb to the ‘present state of society’ by means of this educational process then there are fines, punishments and even death for those who fail to achieve the correct qualifications.

At this point Plato reinstitutes his critical and consistent division between the sophistic educational practice and that which is not-sophistry. If the individual sophist cannot counter the clamorous teaching of the public, it is because the former serves the latter.

The sophists teach nothing other than the opinions current in the state (R. 493a). The sophist has the knack only of assuaging and cajoling the humours of the ‘great beast’, the public. This knack acquired by ‘long familiarity’ the sophist calls ‘wisdom’ which he ‘reduce[s] to a system’ in order to set up a school (R.493bc).

Recalling again the Protagorean ethic of relative measure, Socrates insists that what is taught in this way conforms to desires already manifest. That is to say, what is clamoured for is the pleasure received in having ones already existing knowledge confirmed. The contemporary name for this false universalist circle-jerk is knowledge economy!

The love of wisdom alone does not conform to this measure.

Plato concludes the substance of his argument by saying, the sophist, blinded by this frenzied activity of the world of goods cannot tell ‘how great the real difference is between what must be [conforming to the demands of the state] and what ought to be [the demands of truth]’. Such a person, constitutionally unable to decide for truth, ‘would offer only a queer sort of education’ (R.493c; emphasis added).

Plato splits the dialogues in two at the point at which sophistry fails to know what it professes to know. Sophistry, and what is not sophistry, is bound by nothing. The former knows nothing of its ignorance and the latter knows only the ignorance of the former. Education is the void or empty term for this point of immanent and minimal difference.

The Apology and the excerpt from the Republic – the true couple of the entire Corpus – both confirm that the sophistic state takes up the educational theme. In the Apology Socrates gives the history to his efforts to enlighten and educate the citizenry of Athens. At every turn, he sees his practice denied and disavowed. The elements that would make up this ‘Socratic’ education are not a part of the sophistic state. It is not that they are refused, as such, but that they cannot be recognised as educational because they do not lead to, and thus presume, the polis, the market, the school or the stage.

The only education is, for the state, no education at all. The emphatic coalition between the individual sophists and the society they serve constitute a torrent of positivism connecting their practice with a place already well marked in the city. Such a connection is affirmed in the Republic. For Socrates, the exiled citizen of the latter within the Athenian state, the place of the non-sophist is first to hide from the torrent, to recognise the necessity of division, and to invent from out of nowhere a new constitution of its place.3


In the Symposium Alcibiades recounts the following story from the battle at Potidea: ‘…You know that I was decorated for bravery during that campaign: well, during that very battle, Socrates single-handedly saved my life! He absolutely did! He just refused to leave me behind when I was wounded, and he rescued not only me but my armour as well.  For my part Socrates, I told them right then that the decoration really belonged to you, and you can blame me neither for doing so then nor for saying so now.  But the general, who seemed more concerned with my social position, insisted on giving the decoration to me, and, I  must say, you were more eager than the generals themselves for me to have it.’ The entire discourse of Alcibiades in the Symposium can profitably be read alongside the Apology. Many of the descriptions given of Socrates by Alcibiades in ‘praise’ of the man are, in the Apology, offered up as accusations which condemn him.


This is how the inscription over the portico of Plato’s Academy needs to be understood.


Speaking of the type ‘who press too far in philosophy’ Callicles says, he is like ‘an outlaw in his own city …a man like that …can be slapped on the face with complete impunity’ and ‘carted off to prison on the charge you’re doing something unjust’ Callicles goes on to ask ‘rhetorically’ of philosophy ‘how can this be a wise thing, the craft that took a well favoured man and made him worse?’ (Grg. 486a-d). In the Republic Plato will assess this same question from the other side. Socrates will recount for Glaucon and Adeimantus the results of a sophistic education on the most philosophical natures.