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The Quarrel between Philosophy and Philosophers

UC Berkeley, September 9, 2004, "The place of the Republic in Plato's political thought"

During a rushed tour of Plato's imaginary cities, grumbling at the pace, Christopher Rowe snapshot these antitheses:

  1. A city of philosophers needs no laws, but only philosophy determines just laws.
  2. In a flawed society, a philosopher is the only genuinely happy man, but a genuinely happy society has no need of philosophy.
  3. The split between early Plato and late Plato, with the Republic setting the border, doesn't represent a change in philosophy but a change in intended audience.

Rowe draws the line midway through Book II, after Socrates has described his ideal community: small, peaceful, and unambitious.

"For a dessert they shall have figs, chick-peas and beans. They will roast myrtle berries and acorns in the fire, all the while drinking in moderation. Living this way in peace and health, they all can probably expect to reach old age and pass on the same life to their children."

"But this is fare for a city of pigs, Socrates. Would you provide nothing else?"

"What do you suggest, Glaucon?"

"The usual things. If the people are not to be uncomfortable, they must be able to recline on couches and dine from tables. They ought to have sauces and sweetmeats the way we do."

"Now I understand what you mean. We are to consider the origins not simply of a city as such but of a luxurious city."

In Rowe's telling, Socrates (and Plato) remains perfectly satisfied with his earlier arguments, as he would have remained perfectly satisfied in his City of Pigs; he only changes his account (and his city) to deal with a different class of interlocutor. The myths of the Republic, like the laws of the Laws, are a second-best substitute for dialectic, since, unfathomably, not all citizens understand that happiness lies there rather than in their fevered appetites.

After Rowe's performance, another scholar heatedly submitted that, at the end of Book I, anyway, Socrates doesn't sound at all perfectly satisfied with his earlier arguments. The passages at issue seemed to me (no reader of Greek) too calculatingly ambiguous to ever settle the dispute, but both parties became vehement. As I listened to them, I thought about the treacherous allure of dialectic. What we desire is a collaborative effort at truth; what we slip into unawares is something more like civil litigation. From philosopher to vanity sophist in one frequent move and you know what they say about lawyers who represent themselves.

Writing exacerbates such slippage; we tend to treat our written word as our stake in the ground or our stake in the game. This troubles those of us who value discourse over intellectual property.

And yet when Plato attacks writing in Phaedrus, he leaves that aspect unmentioned. Instead, a writer himself, he attacks writing for not encouraging the illusion enough:

A writing cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers. And if it is ill-treated or unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its rescue; it is quite incapable of defending or helping itself.

Hey, what happened to the selfless play of dialectic? We no longer seem to be talking about conversation, something that multiple people have, but about something that one particular person makes. Something that needs to be defended, like a child.

And a stiflingly sheltered child at that. There's no recognition that our child might want to grow up, run with a fast crowd, listen to music we don't approve of, and maybe even settle down with an unsuitable partner and make some spiteful children of its own.

Well, just wait till dad kicks off.


Leigh Fullmer lays out a winning compaign platform:

in the ideal city, magnesia or not, i'm for lying, for "singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happen, of things that are not and that should be" (oscar wilde). it's a generous kind of magicking for each other, nein? such lying gets around the problem of audience by sheer surfeit.
i thought christopher rowe was a writer from kentucky

You thought right, my friend! That other guy should have been billed as "Christopher Rowe UK".

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The Quarrel between Philosophy and Philosophers

(Previously on, classicist Christopher Rowe UK claimed that Plato legislated specifically and solely against fevered appetites; an argument ensued.)

If, instead of a debate, Rowe and his interlocutor had held a conversation, they might have had time to notice the imagery by which Plato transitioned from Republic Book I to Republic Books II-X and the remainder of his career:

"Consider your entertainment complete, Socrates, on this feast day."

"You are the one who provided the feast, Thrasymachus, after you ceased to be angry with me and began to speak gently. Nevertheless and through no fault of yours —I have not dined well. It strikes me that I have been like a glutton, snatching at one dish after another and eating in such haste that I had no time to savor the food."

That is, Socrates suffers from his own fevered appetite. Perhaps that's why the ideal city has no more place for philosophers than for poets? There are "leaders", "guardians", and "architects", but there doesn't seem to be a Socrates.

Of course, Socrates admits to his appetites fairly often. He just believes their goal is a meat sweeter than Glaucon's.

Mysterious, though, this meat. Is it happiness, or good citizenship, or truth, or just stirring up trouble with cute boys? Plato makes plain enough his belief that a move to further abstraction will always reveal the underlying above-it-all true and everlovin' aims of humanity. But what if it merely reveals an unwholesome appetite for abstraction?

It is, after all, philosophy rather than sophia: a love of (or manaical lust for) wisdom rather than the presumably more placid stability of knowledge itself. Like culinary devices and sexual devices, the devices of philosophy aim less at satisfying than at stimulating an appetite.

And appetites differ. I don't quite understand why anyone would compare Aaron Haspel's writing to a physical assault, or why Haspel himself would characterize responses as picking on him. But then I'm a lover of discourse, and therefore have a taste for amusing provocations which offer argumentative openings on subjects dear to my heart.

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The Quarrel between Philosophy and Philosophers

Someone who reaches over the chessboard before their opponent can make a move, snatches the king, and dashes out the door with it doesn't understand the point of playing chess. Introduced to baseball, someone might remark on the sad padding of the whole affair: to determine a winning team, one inning would probably be enough. (Indeed, when TV summarizes a game, it's typically with the score and a single pitch.) Or a baseball fan might deprecate cricket's misuse of balls and bats.

These mistake the goal of a game for the point of the game.

In contemporary anglophone culture, poetry is that form which explicitly marks the workings of language over the work to be done with language. This nonutilitarian position has advantages and disadvantages, freedom among them. However, someone who's ascribed to a particular historical variant of the poetry games may measure other variants against its goal posts and touch lines and find them lacking.

Or someone may wonder why we'd fuss with philosophy. Verified truth is science's job, and the science du jour knows how to get it (with wide tolerance of exceptions, embarrassments, and half-assed explanations).

But the point of studying philosophy isn't verifiable truth any more than the point of eating is chestnut soup with foie gras custard. The discipline's founded on dialogue. What we gain from it is the pleasure of the exercise and (possibly) some ability to handle multiple systems of abstraction more coherently, flexibly, and sincerely sincerity being what distinguishes the philosophy game from sophism.

A well-lubricated shift between the gears of dogmatism and cynicism takes care of most social contigencies, and so "Develop heartfelt abstract multiformity" isn't on everybody's to-do list. As a natural born bible-thumper, though, I've found the effort to my benefit. Left to its own devices, a love for abstract reasoning can grow narrowminded, vicious, and eventually delusional.

So, no, I don't know if most philosophy departments are useful to most students in which uncertainty they're no different from any other academic department but one did supply the two or three classrooms in which I learned something.

There were other classrooms even within that department, of course.

There's no law of noncontradiction in the history of thought: Plato and Nietzsche, Descartes and Kant, Pierce and Popper all are valid. But such a law may well be enforced by a particular school or a particular teacher. Sadly for philosophy, the most common instigator of sincere discourse, even among philosophers, is self-promotion.


They told me poetry was naming things. And that all the basics were covered, so now the poets were naming really abstruse stuff, like the way it feels to go to work with a hangover under a totalitarian regime when you're in love with a waitress who wants to move to Milan.

Poets' children might disagree about their knack for names.

If chestnut soup with foie gras custard isn't the point of eating, what is?

Pecan-encrusted whitefish with braised greens and a Sancerres on the side, of course.

No, no, no, fried peanut butter and banana sandwhiches!


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.