Socrates’ Doubt

Apologies in advance if this doesn’t seem up to normal standards of eloquence; I had already typed out a beautifully written and immaculately reasoned response to this week’s readings, but my connection to teh interweb went bats and I lost that draft. So, for your reading displeasure, a hastily reconstructed version of the earlier piece. I now know how Coleridge felt, by the way.

To begin:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you teach the art of politics, and that you promise to make men good citizens?

That, Socrates, is exactly the profession which I make. [This is Protagoras speaking.]

Then, I said, you do indeed possess a noble art, if there is no mistake about this; for I will freely confess to you, Protagoras, that I have a doubt whether this art is capable of being taught, and yet I know not how to disbelieve your assertion.

Until our last meeting, I thought I might be unique in my fixation on the beef between Socrates and the sophists. As we learned last week (or as KL and I learned and JP instructed), attempts to deal with the sophists and with sophistry are hardly new; what might be the most recent revival of the sophistry is their recuperation as proto-champions of the postmodern in the work of Vitanza, Jarratt, and others. JP’s criticism of this move notwithstanding, I’d like to raise questions in response to both the beef and the recuperation, with an eye on trying to forecast some of the directions our reading this semester might take.

So: wherein lies the beef? I think the passage from the Protagoras cited above is an interesting place to start in addressing this question. Elsewhere, Socrates has been notably critical of rhetoric and of the sophists in particular. In the Gorgias, Socrates is suspicious of rhetoric’s presumably tenuous relationship with capital-T truth; the Phaedrus raises this concern again and adds to it a critique of sophistic pedagogy, aesthetic, and theology. It is in the Protagoras, though, that Socrates most explicitly critiques the promises of sophistic practice; namely, the twofold promise that sophists like Protagoras teach their students both the “art of politics” and how to be “good citizens,” that is, to be virtuous.

What Socrates’ doubt about Protagoras claims reveals is that, in essence, Socrates (and Platonists generally) and the sophists are essentially arguing at cross-purposes. Socrates’ question above betrays a (willful) misrepresentation of the sophistic promise; for his critique of the sophists to make sense, Socrates must ask the question as if politics and virtue are separate goals of the sophistic pedagogy. What is he asking Protagoras may be paraphrased as so:

Do I understand you, I said, and is your meaning that you (1) teach the art of politics, and that you (2) promise to make men good citizens?

But for the sophists and, as Jaeger argues, Greek culture generally, that distinction is not one that is readily made. As Jaeger explains,

… the Greeks in the classical era … thought that political morality and personal morality were practically identical: since the state was the sole source of all moral standards, and it was difficult to see what moral code could exist apart from the code of the state, the law of the community in which the individual lived and had his being. A purely private moral code, without reference to the state, was inconceivable to the Greeks. We must forget our idea that each individual’s acts are ruled by his conscience. (Paideia I 326)

Against the Platonist assertion that virtue was achieved through solitary pursuit of a transcendent Truth through the rigors of dialectic, the sophists taught that virtue was achieved through communal interaction using rhetoric–the divine gift necessary for the establishment and continued functioning of the polis. For Socrates and Platonism generally, rhetoric was thus, at best, a distraction from the quest for divine revelation; at worst, it mired its practitioners in the debased world of men and matter. The sophists, conversely, might have understood Platonic dialectic to be unproductive, an exercise in futility that produced no tangible results in the world of daily experience; rhetoric, on the other hand, was of immediate use, and could be deployed for the moral edification of both the individual and his community.

What this means about the sophists and sophistic rhetoric is that rhetoric is fundamentally a tool for getting along, for making one’s way through a world filled (gosh darn it!) with other people, who have plans, goals, and agendas that are not one’s own.  Rhetoric is what mandates appropriate function and action in such a world.  In short, every rhetoric is an ethics.

Now: what does this have to do with theory? I want to suggest, however tentatively, that what sophistry and theory have in common is just this interest in what makes the social work, what is necessary for a society to conduct the work of being social.  For the sophists, as we have seen, the answer is rhetoric; for Hegel, the dialectical movement of history; for Marx, the class struggle.  Of course, these examples also suggest ways that the system can be used, changed, manipulated–that is, like sophistic rhetoric, theory (or maybe Theory) outlines a way to make the social work for one’s own ends.  So, to the extent that we’re willing to accept my postulate here, we might say that theory and rhetoric are both equally about praxis as much as they are about critique.  And further, if I’m right about the connection between rhetoric and ethics, then we can also suggest some of the following implications and raise some of the following questions:

  • If rhetoric and theory are both about praxis, and if rhetoric is fundamentally an ethics, then an ethics is fundamentally a praxis as well.  I’m not sure where that gets us, but it sounds neat.  Perhaps what it suggests is that an ethical theory is sort of limited; an ethics is only valuable to the extent it can be utilized toward some productive end in the lived conditions of a given society.  Ethics, then, is kairotic.
  • Perhaps the difference between critical theory and philosophy, then, is that one asks about what makes the social work and the other asks what makes the subject work?  If (as our study this semester seeks to ask) the sophists are the forebears of critical theory, then we might rightfully expect to see a similar interest in how society works, so the connection btw the sophists and Hegel, Marx, and their heirs; what the Platonists seek to find, though, is the subject’s relationship to Truth rather than to the social–so the legacy of Plato rests with Kant and his heirs.
  • This might also explain something about why the sophists were reclaimed so quickly in the era of pomo’s golden age: to the extent that pomo and poststruct and decon and all that jazz argued for a subject built from the discursive tropes of the social, the sophists’ emphasis on the individual’s use of/by the social makes a certain amount of sense.  The question, though, is how to use the sophists without insisting that they were protopostmodern when they weren’t even pre-modern?  The sense of self or subject that comes out of reading Aristotle, the sophists, Isocrates, and Jaeger and Detienne is not necessarily the same as we understand it to be now–even if I’m not sure I could explain what it is.
  • Which raises a methodological and historiographic question: how do we recuperate the sophists or any other “lost” rhetoric or theory without necessarily, however implicitly, forcing it into our assumptions about the subject and the social?

Okay–enough for now.  McGinnis out.





One Response to “Socrates’ Doubt”

  1. Mike, I need to acquire the password for this website, if I am to post. I’m just curious as to how I am to proceed.

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