Education: The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 2(a). Wherein not all Socrates

Lesson 2(a). In the dialogues: representation or known knowledge.

The trajectory we are following leads to the Republic. This is the ideal city. But the whole effort of Plato in the retrial of Socrates is to show this city as ‘not impossible’ from out of the situation of Athens itself.

As I said yesterday and will explore further today what Plato makes clear to us is that in terms of its knowledge – the knowledge that passes as knowledge in the city, the stuff of its education is sophistic. So how can the ideal city be made manifest from out of such a place and out of such knowledge.

I noted yesterday Socrates unique position and again I’ll be exploring that more today but it is what he marks in this way that matters first. He shows a sort of gap or a hole if you like in this knowledge of sophistry – in short he shows its representative character.

In book X of Republic he makes the point that re-presentation is three removes from the truth – this is the discourse of the poets but it holds equally for sophistry as it has inherited the poetic tradition insofar as it educates.

Now representation is problematic because as the term itself suggests it re-presents what obviously is already in some way presented. In other words it works on what already exist and basically tells us how it is we are to know this thing that exists. The point for us today is that Athens, we can say, names whatever there is in Athens; while sophistry names how it must be known to us.

What Socrates does then as what is there in Athens but is not sophistry is both return to thought the possibility of a new form of these same Athenian elements. And to mark that this new form is and must be thinkable: which is what the corpus is.

So the ideal city must be built in thought out of and from the elements of the old. Socrates, as part of this Athens but having no part in Sophistry, demonstrates by being there or existing, if you like, that this is, again, ‘not impossible’.

Now, for short hand, sophistry is what we can call the state of the Athenian situation – the state being a re-presentative form, always. So today’s lesson is about Plato establishing sophistry as state education – that is, then, that known knowledge is all there is to know and that it is in the interests of everyone to know this knowledge as what there is to know.

In this way interest is the key unifying notion between the political/legal state and sophistry. The sophist will teach the youth what is in their interest insofar as this accords with the interests of the state. The better educated you become, the more you accord with the form of the state.

So we have to explore how this pretty much imperceptible relation between Athens and its sophistic state can be seen to exist such that its separation at a single point – Socrates – underpins what the corpus entire hopes to demonstrate as a true education. As happens in the dialogues we will have to traverse again some of what I said yesterday

As Charles Kahn notes, it’s best to understand the Apology as a ‘public dialogue’. This is to say that what happens in this dialogue would have to ring true to Plato’s fellow citizens, many of whom, like Plato, would have been at the trial or would have been well aware of the details.

Conceptually rather than historically, what the Apology presents is something like the foundation of the corpus insofar as what happens at the trial sets the conditions for what unfolds as a consequence. For example, recall that from the first lines of the dialogue we are told by Socrates (in the form of a reply) that his accusers are adept at persuasion and he is ‘worried’ about their affect and yet, he notes, ‘hardly anything they said was true’.

In contradistinction, he himself lacks the persuasive power they accuse him of possessing unless, he says, they mean ‘an accomplished speaker is one who tells the truth’. He says that if this is what these ‘accomplished orators’ mean (and it is clear that for Plato it is not) then ‘yes, he is an orator, though not after their pattern’. This is because ‘all they will hear from him is the truth’. He will not embroider or embellish, for he puts his trust ‘in the justice of his words’ (Ap. 17a–c).

From the first lines Plato establishes a clear division between the type of his accusers and the figure of Socrates. We should note two things: that the division is constituted at a particular point in the relation between these orator-sophists and this Socratic figure; and secondly, that at this point the division is minimal – he is an orator but not after their pattern.

Immediately, he goes on to draw out the terms of this division. In the simplest sense, it centres the type of knowledge and the form of its transmission.

In arguing his defence in the Apology, Socrates first notes that the charges against him are nothing new. Even though his accusers now, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, have formalised them in a charge, he has been accused of similar things his whole life, ever since Chaerephon brought back from Delphi the declaration of the oracle that there was no one wiser than Socrates (Ap. 21c).

Socrates answers the history of these charges first. What we should take note of here is that the history of the charges is precisely what constitutes the entirety of the corpus.

Each dialogue of the corpus, portraying as it does scenes from the pre-trial life of the Socratic figure, is another step toward Socrates’ execution, on the one hand, while on the other, each dialogue is also part of Plato’s re-trial of Socrates wherein what is exposed is that yes, Socrates is a corruptor, but what he corrupts is in reality a corrupt state of affairs.

This state of affairs – as we see – is one in which those who profess to know in fact do not know what it is they profess too. All enquiries attest to this. It is on the basis of these results, Socrates says, that a ‘great deal of hostility’ rose against him. The result has been ‘various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a professor of wisdom’ (Ap. 22a).

When Socrates does turn to the specific charges – Socrates is guilty of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things – against him the telling moment comes when he prompts Meletus to declare that it is Socrates, alone in all Athens, who does not educate (Ap. 25a).

S: All the Athenians, it seems, make the young into fine good men, except me, and I alone corrupt them. Is that what you mean?

M: That is most definitely what I mean.

This is most precise for it is directly in relation to education that Socrates is condemned to be singular and, as such, not of the state.

Quite simply, for the state, he is the only figure present to Athens who does not educate or ‘improve the youth’ of the state. He is nothing to education. The obverse of this is that every Athenian citizen apart from Socrates (whose citizen credentials are certainly at stake here) does educate: as every Athenian citizen is constitutive of the state, the claim amounts to the fact the state educates while Socrates alone does not.

Note then that in the Athenian sophistic state Socrates is nothing to education and, given that education is a central function of the Athenians state, all Athenians educate! Or in other words, what he does is express what for sophistry is inexpressible – he is an irrational figure to education in Athens. So something not educative and irrational is going about in Athens. He’s a terrorist!

As I said in the last lesson, in the Meno this idea of the state as educator is confirmed by Anytus who, again under questioning from Socrates, says that if Meno was seeking instruction, then ‘any decent Athenian gentleman whom he happens to meet, if he is willing to be persuaded, will make him a better man than the sophists would’ (Men. 93e).

That Anytus – one of the accusers in the Apology recall – distinguishes the Athenian gentleman, the man of the jury, from the sophist gives us pause: However, Plato, in this dialogue, has already shown that the logic Anytus deploys to distinguish the sophist from the Athenian gentleman was inherently sophistic.

That's to say, he shows there that Anytus claims against sophistry use sophistic methods, which really reduce down to the same arguments of Thrasymachus in Republic and Callicles in Gorgias: that justice or the good is a matter of strength. And this can be given in many ways – by majority, by force, by money, by persuasion or eristic – ways which have no necessary connection to truth.

Plato’s conception of sophistry, both as demagoguery and as teaching for pay – and this is our working definition or genus – can be reduced to this:

Sophistry in whatever kind (re)produces the ‘false conceit of wisdom’. As I’ll talk about in lesson 4, Socrates organises himself around three statements: I know nothing; I am not a teacher and What is X? Again, these are already animate in the Apology .

Education, Plato insists in the Sophist, consists in clearing the soul of this conceit (Sph. 231b).

The cleansing part of the expertise of discriminating things; and let it be marked off as the part of that which concerns souls; and within that it’s teaching; and within teaching it’s education. And let’s say that within education, according to the way the discussion has turned now, the refutation of the empty belief in one’s own wisdom is nothing other than our noble sophistry.

Again, as noted in the Apology, Socrates’ three accusers are described as being representative of all facets of the Athenian state: Meletus is aggrieved on behalf of the poets; Anytus the professional men and politicians; Lycon the orators (Ap.23e). Three conceits that never stop returning as the knowledge of and for all.

This conceit has a couple of senses: in art a conceit is a use of language such that ‘forms an extremely ingenious or fanciful parallel between apparently dissimilar or incongruous objects or situations’. But its also an addition, a sort of excess: to know you know, we could say.

Plato will call it a false conceit too: false as a conceit in the first sense as what you propose as the basis for your actions and determinations; for what you play out, to use the theatrical sense, and false in the other sense because as Socrates shows when he enquires into this conceit, that there is nothing there to be conceited about. So there is an excessive aspect to this claim to know. Something is added which clearly doesn’t belong to the knowledge supposedly held.

In his discussion with Callicles we get a sense of what this something is. If you like, we see how power or strength of some sort – numbers, military, business, oratory – supplements what is lacking in this false conceit. Thus it’s not truth at all that they are after and indeed, as ever, truth might be a check on what interests power.

These ‘sophists’, as Socrates has told us, do not tell the truth and as Callicles, ‘a man’, Socrates says, ‘of sound education’, shows in the Gorgias they actively seek to refrain from its pursuit the better to pursue the interests of the state (Grg. 487d). Obviously, and Callicles mentions this explicitly, it is of this rule that Plato’s Socrates falls foul and, as such, it is this rule Plato seeks to undermine by a deliberate and sustained analysis centred upon the ‘failure’ of the Socratic figure to be ‘sophistic’.

The conception Plato has of sophistry, then, extends way beyond the simplistic, decidedly liberal and common notion that they were, in Patricia O’Grady’s words, freelance, mostly non-Athenian independent teachers who travelled throughout Ancient Greece from city to city making their living out of the new demand for education.

As Plato says in the Sophist  ‘the sophist has appeared in lots of different ways’.

To reorganize this in an affirmative way, the Socratic encounter with the sophistic state of Athens reveals it to be constituted by a ‘lack of truth’. We can put this into a formula, which has the virtue of being both descriptive and prescriptive at once: what Socrates does not know is what sophistry knows as knowledge. It is within this ‘sophistic’, encyclopaedic state that the corpus will unfold.

The thing is, Socrates works the same terrain and with the same elements or inhabitants as exist sophistically but he has an other orientation to this situation which means, basically, that something in Athens must exceed Sophistic representation. And the funny thing is this excess is shown to us by sophistry itself as I noted. It cannot know what it professes and so it’s in excess and so it shows what is lacking there. As Callicles is aware, what must lack there is truth.

Moreover, as the dialogue the Sophist demonstrates – precisely by way of the ‘long detour’ it takes in refuting Parmenides’ claims regarding the being of that which is not – to not know or to be in error is the very essence of sophistic subjectivity.

I wont go into this but the great discussion in the Parmenides about being being one and thus of what to make of what is not being, is mirrored in the dialogue the Sophist where what is at issue is – at first blush – working out what is a sophist but in the end finds out what sophistry must be by finding what sophistry is not: the philosopher or as they say there the noble sophist.

To be a sophist is to be in error – with regard to truth that is. However, for Plato, error like truth is not a matter of being per se but a matter of one’s orientation concerning the latter. In short, if truth and error both have being and being is not becoming then truth and error (which is not knowledge) exist and can be distinguished not at the level of linguistic judgment but in terms of their form.

The sophist is the form error takes in the city; the philosopher is the form truth takes. Making philosophy appear in the city is the impossible task.

In the sophistic conception of things, as Protagoras signals in the great maxim beloved of relativists to this day, there is only knowledge – or judgment conceived in perception, but not truth. Repeatedly, Plato contends that the poets – Homer, Hesiod, Simonides et al. – the ‘pre-Socratics’ – Heraclitus, Empedocles, etc. – and the contemporary Protagoreans are aligned as ‘patrons of the flux’ (Tht. 160d–e and Crt. 402bcd). And as already heard, the politicians, businessmen, men of the law etc. show themselves to be similarly aligned. All change such that nothing actually changes. The similarities are remarkable.

It’s funny because Plato is so often perceived as the thinker of stasis but really what he thinks is real change – the change of the religion of change as such. And especially as this Heraclitian derivation of change – the kind we suffer from too – is precisely what makes real change impossible.

For Sophistry, to claim the truth (invariant) of a distinction was an error against the right of perception (variant) (Tht. 152e). The two categories of knowledge for Protagoras are ultimately ‘better’ and ‘worse’ and not Good and Bad. When Socrates asks Protagoras what the youth Hippocrates will receive from the master in exchange for his money the master answers,

young man, if you come to me, your gain will be this: the very day you join me, you will go home a better man and the same the next day. Each day you will make progress towards a better state (Prt. 318a).

A Protagorean education is in strict accord with its philo-sophistic position, a position which pointedly refuses to account for the being of things on the premise that such things, that they are, cannot be known and if they cannot be known then they are not. Protagoras’ assertion concerning the gods is exemplary:

I am unable to know whether they exist or do not exist or what they are like in form; for there are many hindrances to knowledge, the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life (Diog. Lae. 9.41, emphasis added).

The consistency between the thought and the practice, or rather, as Plato points out, between practice and language, is important because Plato’s criticism of sophistry turns on two related things; ignorance and conceit.

What the sophist is ignorant of is that his belief or opinion (they are the same thing) is not knowledge. In this sense the sophist imitates in ignorance of the fact that he imitates (Sph. 267d). The sophist is not a figure who knows but fails to correctly transmit his knowledge. In terms of affect, he is far from being a poor teacher. (Indeed if you think state education is corrupt you would hope for poor teachers.)

Rather, as an imitator, the sophist fails to know. The real conceit of sophistic knowledge then is its ignorance of its own lack. For the sophistic position true error, simply, cannot exist. One is simply a better or worse judge. The wisest will be the one whose judgment results in the proper classification of the objects present to him. Thus the sophist is the best teacher of the lack of truth. (Something contemporary debates on education fail to take into account.)

This ignorance, as Plato deems it, is both compounded and retroactively confirmed as a conceit by the sophist’s willingness to sell, transmit and thus reproduce this ignorance. What the sophist considers his true wisdom, that one cannot know what one cannot perceive and name is for Plato, the mark of his ignorance. Note, the sophist is not without knowledge in a general or ordinary sense (one thinks of the polymath Hippias as an extreme example, or Prodicus, ‘godlike in his universal knowledge’) (Prt. 316a).

He does possess a techne, or as Plato notes sarcastically a ‘knack’. This is what allows Plato to hint at a certain level of cynicism in the sophistic position. He is not an innocent and so ‘sincere imitator’ but is one who, conditioned by his practice of speeches and dispute, worries that he may not in fact know what he professes too (Sph. 268a).

On first pass, this looks like a contradiction. Plato establishes that the sophist does not know but believes he does and then he supposes that the sophist is knowledgeable enough to know that he might not know. In fact this too is imitation. If the sophist is ultimately the imitator of the wise man, as his name suggests, then he also imitates the practice of the wise man who is always concerned to know what he does not.

Thus the practice of imitating the wise man ‘discursively’ (demagogue) or engaging in ‘refutation’ (sophist) conditions him to imitate concern over the state of his knowledge. Again, this is not a knowing imitation but an ignorant one. In the dialogues, Plato presents the sophist as the paradigm figure of the knowledge of Athens. The sophist by his own admission has inherited this position from the poets (Prt. 316c–317c).