Education: The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 2(b). Wherein division is established as constitutive

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

As Eric Havelock says in his Preface to Plato, ‘the function of the poet was primarily to repeat and in part to enlarge the tradition’, the latter pertaining to what Havelock calls ‘the Greek ethos’ – ostensibly the set of public and private laws, techniques, history and so on, linguistically identified and stated, and transmissible as such (234).  

In Havelock’s analysis, the poet’s educational effect is verified in the form of a ‘psychological identification’. The youth is the nodal point of the coming together of the poetry – the form of transmission – and the ethos which provides its content. Havelock says two crucial things here:

The content of the poetic statement had to be formed in such a way as to allow this identification. This means it could deal with action and event only involving persons (234).

The Greek ethos, which is already a representational set of occurrences and interpretation of occurrences, is set to a form of transmission whose effect is measured by its ability to ‘charm’ the youth to an identification with the original representation. This form of transmission in the Homeric works and in the work of the tragedians turns around the moral character of representational figures, individuals whose reactions to events form the core of a universal moral education.

We see in these works the concentration of moral principle and lack of the same in individuals, gods, and men and women alike. It is thus, through the interest these figures are displayed as having in the events that surround them that we know of these events at all. The poet captures in verse, in rhyme, rhythm and meter this interest on two levels: the verse of the poet creates a narrative of events and they represent (what should be and thus what is to be) the emotive, psychological investment of these figures in these events and in reaction to them.

The poet gives an immediate character, a presence if you will, to the events he narrates. They are memorisable, so become memorable, and so retain an immediacy whose effect is to provoke the youth to identify with the interest of these figures. (One might compare Badiou’s Saint Paul here, 44).

Through this ‘memorable’ identification the youth is to be brought to ‘right action’ or ‘right feeling’ which these figures have been represented as displaying. In short, the poet/ sophist has the task of charming the youth. So charmed, the youth will publicly exhibit as affect the reproduction of the Greek ethos. A certain continuity, recognised through effect, itself the guarantee that a certain reproduction is in place, has seemed to take place, is assured and verified.

Ok I’m going to put all this in summary terms:

The sophist – as Proatagoras, the most famous of all admits – is the heir and ally to this tradition and as such takes on the role of transmitting the ‘knowledge of the state’ but his mode of operation is no longer poetical per se. The sophist ‘sublates’ poetic art – the ‘charm of a semblance of truth’ – to his teaching. In the teaching of rhetoric and oratory and so on, the sophist serves the state in the form of its repetition. The particularity of this repetition and its veracity lies in the fact that it has a quantifiable result.

In effect, it serves to multiply the number of identifications which can be made between the state and the youth. At the same time as these identifications are multiplied they remain nevertheless under the shadow of the overarching concept of the state. Why is it that the sophist, this ‘money-making’ and ‘many-sided animal’ producing multiple forms of identification between the youth and the state, can get away with making the claims it does in regard to teaching the youth all he needs to know in order to make his way in the state (Sph. 226a)?

After all, this claim would seem to have to take into account all the contingencies of life in the polis: from trade, commerce, politics, war, law and beyond. The claim of the sophist here registers its real effect precisely at the level of effect. This is to say that sophistic teaching, at the level of practical effects, at the level of the reproduction of the interests of the state, has at the same time an effect of foreclosure.

This effect of foreclosure mimics or rather is the reverse of the Platonic displacement of sophistry. The sophistic foreclosure amounts to the refusal to admit that non-sophistry even exists whereas the Platonic displacement assigns sophistry which certainly exists as excess to its ‘proper place’.

The claim of the sophist to equip the youth with all they need to make their way in the state is simply the claim to teach state knowledge. The sophist calls this virtue, wherein the man best fitted to the state will result in the best state for such a man.

The reciprocity here is derived from the very form of the sophistic teaching. The predicate which allows the equation of youth and state is interest. We said that for Plato sophistry turns on ignorance and conceit. It is ignorant not of what it knows nor really of what it doesn’t know but rather of the fact that it doesn’t know.

That is to say, for the sophist there is only what it knows and this includes what it doesn’t know which it registers as what cannot (must not) be knowledge. The sophistic type of knowledge incorporates the anxiety of maintaining itself in such a position – as master of what is known and of what is knowable. With imitating the wise comes the burden of sustaining the imitation.

In his re-presentation of wisdom he cannot help but include the very thing he cannot know – that truth or wisdom, if you like, exists as something other than sophistic representation. This is the constant anxiety that haunts the sophist, that what he professes to know will be found out to be nothing at all, the nothing perhaps that Socrates knows to exist. So, figuratively speaking, what constitutes excess for the sophistic state of the situation is the sophist’s lack of not knowing.

As such, the sophistic premise forestalling this lack must be one that is able to both collect up all possible appearances and do so in a way that does not ruin the consistency of presentation.

The sophist must establish the rule by which all that belongs to Athens can also be shown as included. To put this less abstractly, the sophist must educate the youth in the maintenance of the state. Doing so forecloses the indiscernible nothing of the Socratic position.

Essentially, the sophist (as the state) cannot admit the existence of what it does not know, and by implication that it does not know. For the state, there is an a priori limit to enquiry. The demagogic and sophist teachers agree on this.

Whereas figures such as Gorgias, Protagoras and Prodicus all seek to match the language of perception to the form of existence, the figures such as Thrasymachus, Callicles and Anytus, all affirm that what comes to be counted as just within the state is what is of interest to the stronger. The stronger the ‘perception’ (and strength is a matter both of force and numbers), the more exacting, far reaching and secure the existence. Every state, the demagogues note, has its own perceptions (R.339). This is the sophistic equivalent of virtue.

We can see that what Plato insists on is that what unifies the sophistic position, whether it be demagogue or professional teacher or the public itself, despite the diversity of opinion on show, is a commitment in some way to the Protagorean ethic in which a norm is posited such that whatever is perceived to contain a property conforming to that norm can thereby be named as such to belong as a part to the situation at hand. Whatever cannot be named cannot exist other than as, in Leibnizean terms, that which is a striving to exist for that situation – thus as potential part.

Obviously, Socrates does not conform to either conception. Rather, as mentioned, Socrates’ separation from the state is constituted by an entirely different make-up and Anytus is not the philosopher enough to see that the sameness he supposes – between Socrates and sophistry – is only re-presentable: that is, only possible via sophistic knowledge and that the real difference between sophist and non-sophist (the logic here is classical: recall, Socrates is the only non-sophist) is at the level of Form or genus. That is to say, it is not a matter of knowledge but of constitution.

One of the consistent definitions ascribed to the sophist is that of a teacher for money. Their wealth is constantly noted, the scale of their fees, who pays the most and where the money comes from. The demagogue, similarly, Plato claims, seeks office for personal gain. Both argue that their gain will benefit everyone – thus what is in their interests is in the interests of all.

The constant reminder of the proximity the sophist has to money is not just done to distinguish the Socratic from the sophistic positions.

(And if you have heard from anyone that I undertake to teach people and charge a fee for it, that is not true either (Apol.19e).)

It is an effect in itself. Plato seems to want to emphasise that the relation of exchange is predicated on the assumption of distinct gain – that interest can force the bond between the two. The general dialectic is that one’s knowledge will translate into better wealth and one’s wealth into better knowledge.

Education is seen as the proper pursuit of the individual subject’s interest in accord with the rule of the state. For the latter, interest is the object of reflection proper to any ‘educated’ subject. To know, in short, is to be properly instructed in an interest in interest.

In light of this we can twist the Protagorean maxim into the educational ethic of sophistry. It states: ‘The limits of my knowledge are the limits of my interest.’ The expectation is that this interest in interest will lead to an increase in value for both. Moreover, as the logic of Thrasymachus tells us, to be interested in interest is a property common to every state and what constitutes education in the sophistic state is simply the individual realisation of one’s own interest according to this general rule. Under the arguments I am making, this is what is called hegemony – a false universal – an imitation.

The negative proof that interest is the term that names education for the sophistic state is given, as usual, when considering the single, proscribed, non-sophist educator. Obviously, this figure marks a sort of limit point to the excessive power of the sophistic state. We can surmise that the sophistic rule must cease to function at this point.

So the question can be posed as: ‘What is it Socrates lacks in regard to the state?’ That is to say, why does the state fail to recognise this figure except as an exception whose existence cannot be tolerated?

What does Socrates fail to do in regard to the youth? What rule does he fail to satisfy? We know already that he fails to educate but what is the reason why? The simple answer is of course that Socrates has no interest in this state of things, no interest in this form of knowledge insofar as it is the state of the Athenian situation. For this singular figure, what is in the interest of all is the very basis of all thought and discourse and not the contingent fabrication of a particular knowledge founded on excessive conceit and an ignorant rule.

Socrates makes this plain when he tells Hippocrates: ‘If you pay [the sophist] sufficient to persuade him, he will make you wise too’(Prt. 310d).

We should not overlook the term persuasion here, for it is money which persuades the sophist to teach the youth the art of persuasion, the extent of the latter being the mark of wisdom for the ‘imitative’ class. However, what founds this foundation is not intrinsic to the couple ‘wisdom and money’ but is extrinsic.

What makes wisdom, the sophistic commodity, and money reciprocal is the form of the state itself, which is to say the set of relations that organise the world for which the sophist is educator and for which sophistry is education.

For Plato, there is no possible calculation, no measure, which could engender equivalence between truth and interest as it is manifest in the form of exchange existing within the sophistic state. While the state manages a situation in which such exchange is everyday carried out subject to the laws of tradition and the market, truth has no immediate relation to this state of affairs.

Exchange, determined as the modality of equivalence and administered by the state, is the name for and the mechanism of foreclosure. That is to say, what must be is that Socrates, a figure who bluntly refuses this logic of exchange, whose disinterest in interest is well remarked and emphasised as the negative constitution of virtue, must not be.

As such, truth is decidedly not that which can be put into circulation by the market (Socrates circulates within the marketplace, but not within the market itself) nor does truth support this circulation.

What the above reflects is the structural form of state knowledge as Plato conceives it. If there is nothing but the state, then interest is both the category of existence and at the same time the object of knowledge. The sophistic procedure, as the Sophist shows, is a self-reflexive, self-perpetuating procedure of production whose fatal flaw is the excessive conceit it has in its ability to know.

When Protagoras tells Hippocrates ‘after each day with him he will go home a better man, more ably adapted to the city, than the day before and so on ever after’ (Prt. 318a) this is merely indicative.

To finish the lesson let’s quickly look at what the Euthydemus indicates. In the Euthydemus two brothers stage a show of eristic ‘philosophy’. They profess themselves capable of refuting anyone on any topic. They have no concern for truth, only victory. However, while satirising these two and this show as a type of philosophy, Plato aims his most severe criticism not at the brothers but at a ‘man of the law courts’.

This man, a writer of fine speeches for others, has just come away from ‘watching’ this performance where Crito’s ‘friend’, Socrates, has ‘put himself in the hands of men who just grapple with every phrase and don’t care what they say’. In reply to Crito’s retort that ‘surely philosophy is a fine thing’, he says, ‘it is of no value whatever’, and yet, he says, alluding to the ‘sophistic’ interlocutors, these are ‘some of the most powerful men of the day’ (Euthd. 305a).

Using Prodicus’ terms Socrates counters that these men (of the law courts) are the ‘frontiersmen between philosophy and politics’; as such, they know just enough about either to be ‘moderately well up’ on both. This knowledge enables them to ‘keep clear of both danger and conflict’ while enjoying ‘the fruits of wisdom’.

In reply to Crito’s suggestion that the accounts such men give of philosophy seem plausible (this in relation to the performance just witnessed), Socrates says, recalling the similar comment from the Phaedo, ‘plausibility [or seeming] is just what it does have, Crito, rather than truth’ (Euthd. 305c–e).

Socrates proceeds to dissect the ‘man of the law courts’ in these terms. He is just enough divided from either philosophy or politics to be less than either. Alluding to his claims that philosophy is nothing and the system that allows it to take place is similarly worthless, Socrates says, ‘it is only if such a figure is between two evils that he seems better than both’.

What occurs here is a classic Platonic division: the man of the law courts is reduced to being less than the two goods, philosophy and politics, by virtue of his refusal to truly, which is to say subjectively, partake of either. What he does is approach both, but for Plato, this approach, characterised in terms of verisimilitude, remains a semblance of real engagement as it lacks all courage, a necessary virtue. This writer of fine speeches seeks the gain associated with being ‘like’ either but in the face of the dangerous consequences fidelity exposes one to, he retreats.

As neither, he is other to both. The dialogue ends with Crito expressing his confusion and asking Socrates how he should educate his sons. Socrates replies ‘pay no attention to the practitioners of philosophy, whether good or bad. Rather give serious consideration to the thing itself’ (Euthd. 307bc).

Finally, we are in a position to establish the essential features of the sophistic state. The rest of our enquiry will be devoted to tracing Plato’s Socrates in his efforts to separate out from this state a thinking of non-sophistry whose present indiscernibility is the very constitution of a new form of the state.

These essential features are:

(a) the sophist is concerned with the art of dialectic only insofar as it promises gain. This is dialectic, but in its eristic sense only, with concern being for the victory refutation brings

(b) the sophist is an intrinsic and extensive figure of the state, foreclosing the demands of truth for the logic of interests

(c) from this position they act as the conduit by which the right measure of the latter can result in the gain of the former, and as such, they can profess to teach ‘what is required’ for a young man to make his way in the state

(d) in ethical terms, this ‘immoderation’ in regard to their professions of knowledge amounts to a lack of courage. The sophist, concerning the truth, must be a man of perspective rather than conviction, of judgment rather than thought, of interest and not principle. The truth as a mark of rigorous division, rather than sophistic dissemination, by which opinions ‘true’ or ‘false’ lose their utility and their veracity, is anathema to the sophist for it puts at risk his stake in interest

(e) thus, avoidance of this risk (of the true) is the necessary condition for enjoying the ‘fruits of [this] wisdom’ (obviously Socrates ‘shows’ the result of the ‘risk’: no money, no property, etc.) or in other words the profit of this interest, and it is this which gives the sophist their modal power in the state

(f) finally, that the sophist is a figure of semblances, of opinion and never of that which is ‘by truths’.