Digital Dialogue 72: Reading Plato

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It is probably fair to say that Will Altman and I met one another in my book Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy. Perhaps it is strange to think of a book as a place in which two people can meet one another, but it was in Will’s reading of my book, his reaching out to me to share his generous review of the book, and then his willingness to enter into dialogue with me in the digital space the book opened and seeks to cultivate, that we came to know one another.

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Plato's Dialogues in Digital

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There is nothing more fun to teach than Plato’s dialogues. Whether they love him or hate him, the figure of Socrates Plato draws in his dialogues move students to think more deeply about their relationships with one another and the world they inhabit. If you plan to teach the Protagoras, Gorgias, Phaedo, Apology, or Phaedrus this semester, I invite you and your students to take a look at the relevant chapter of my enhanced digital book on Socratic and Platonic political philosophy and join the conversation online.

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Socrates, Plato and Digital Scholarship at #ECDS

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The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship asked me to give a version of the presentation at gave at #DH2013 last summer entitled eBook as Ecosystem of Digital Scholarship

Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy: Practicing the Politics of Reading (forthcoming Cambridge University Press) is an enhanced digital book that attempts to use digital media technology to cultivate the political practice of collaborative reading for which it argues.

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Forever (42 bicycles), Ai Weiwei

The Politics of Reading … in China

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NANJING, China – I must admit, I am a bit uneasy about delivering this talk on Plato and the Politics of Reading here at Nanjing University.

You see, I am simply not sure what it means to speak in China about the erotic nature of politics. But this uneasiness is not unfamiliar to the discipline of Philosophy; in fact, one might tell a long story about how the history of Western philosophy, at least, is the history of trying to do away with uncertainty, of repressing it by appealing to some ultimate Archimedean point on which we can ultimately depend.

But Philosophy goes astray the moment it denies its own uneasiness and seeks refuge in the delusions of certainty.

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Plato and the Politics of Reading

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – To give a lecture on the politics of collaborative reading without inviting one’s listeners to become active participants would be a performative contradiction.

So, in this lecture, Plato and the Politics of Reading, delivered at the University of San Francisco, I have sought ways to use digital technologies like twitter, Storify and, of course, this blog, to invite my listeners to participate in the lecture itself. (I wrote a post about live tweeting my own lecture to explain the rationale and logistics of this.)

As this post is designed to be a platform for further discussion, let me offer a brief synopsis of the position the lecture articulates.

Socratic politics may be characterized as the practice of using spoken words to turn those individuals one encounters toward the questions of what is just and beautiful and good. These ideas function as erotic ideals that entice those animated by Socratic questioning to live a life seeking justice, beauty and the good. Of course, one of the main things we learn from the figure of Socrates we meet in the Platonic dialogues is that those ideals, however alluring, remain always ultimately elusive to finite human beings. Even so, Socratic politics is designed to turn individuals toward those ideals and to enjoin us to weave a concern for them into our relationships with one another.

The main argument of the lecture is that what Socrates attempts to do with those with whom he speaks, Plato attempts to do with those to whom he writes.

Platonic writing is political not because it presents manifestos, but because it requires each of us who encounters his texts to become actively concerned with the ideals of justice, beauty and the good and to consider how the course of our lives and our relationships with one another can be enriched by an engagement with those ideals.

The lecture ultimately seeks to articulate three dimensions of Platonic writing that demonstrate its profound political power.

  1. By calling our own beliefs and opinions into question, Platonic writing opens us to what is beyond ourselves.
  2. By confronting us with Socrates’ public failures and pointing to his more private interpersonal successes, Platonic writing cultivates in us the ability to imagine new, more just political realities.
  3. By depicting a Socrates unwaveringly animated by a concern for the erotic ideals of justice, beauty and the good, Platonic writing invites us to consider how these ideals themselves are capable of transforming the nature of our relationships with one another.

But if this is what Platonic writing does with us, the politics of reading points to what we might do together as engaged readers of his texts, for the most transformative possibilities emerge from Plato’s writings only when we take them up and actively read them together.

Works Cited in the Lecture

Plato and the Politics of Reading is a group in Education, Philosophy on Mendeley.

In an attempt to perform something of this in public, I have sought below to curate some of the collaborative discussion that emerged from the lecture in the Storify story embedded below. I invite you participate in the Storify by way of twitter (@cplong and #bapca) or by commenting on this blog post.

Here is the Storify:

Attempting the Political Art

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Christopher P. Long, “Attempting the Political Art,” Proceedings of the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, 27 (2012): 153-74.

The main thesis of this essay is that the practice of Socratic political speaking and the practice of Platonic political writing are intimately interconnected but distinct.

The essay focuses on the famous passage from the Gorgias in which Socrates claims to be one of the few Athenians who attempt the political art truly and goes on to articulate the nature of his political practice as a way of speaking toward the best (521d6-e2). Read More

Platonic Writing and the Practice of Death

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FREIBURG, GERMANY – Today at the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, I presented a paper entitled The Politics of Finitude in Plato’s Phaedo at the 2011 Freiburger Hermeneutisches Kolloquium, whose theme was Hermeneutik (in) der Antike.

The paper, written specifically for this conference, will also be the middle chapter of my book on Socratic and Platonic politics.  This chapter traces the differences and continuities between what I have been calling the topology of Socratic politics and the topography of Platonic politics.

The Phaedo, I argue, is perhaps Plato’s most eloquent political dialogue. To quote from the paper:

Its eloquence, however, is not heard in the political theories it sets forth or in the dogma it allegedly establishes, but in the way the poignant things Socrates says to and with his friends on the last day of his life are woven together into a written recollection that requires those who enter into dialogue with it not merely to reflect upon, but also to act differently in the footsteps of the words encountered there.

You can, I hope, hear the influence of Gadamer here, who argued that genuine interpretation requires the willingness of the interpreter to risk entering into dialogue with the text in such a way that the interpreter’s own thoughts and possibilities are brought into play (Truth and Method, 388).

The paper traces the way Kebes and Simmias are themselves transformed by the power of the things Socrates says to them, moving then in the second half to trace the ways Platonic writing attempts to transform the course of the life of the interpreter of the text by showing Phaedo practicing what Socrates calls a “second sailing” with Echecrates.

If politics, for Socrates, is a way of caring for the soul, then Plato has given us a provocative vision of politics in the Phaedo.

"The Politics of Truth" at University of Kansas

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LAWRENCE, KS – The paper I presented here today, entitled The Politics of Truth, argued that Socratic politics is a matter of speaking truth with a concern for justice and the good. I suggested further that the practice of Platonic writing is also a kind of politics in which texts are crafted in ways that enjoin readers to consider the course of their lives and the degree to which their lives are animated by a concern for justice.

I pursue this largely by a reading of the Gorgias in which I contend that Socrates establishes a philosophical friendship with Gorgias that in fact transforms Gorgias’s own understanding of his art of rhetoric.

One of the central issues that was raised in the question and answer period concerned the meaning of the erotic in Plato generally and in my use of it specifically as an important dimension of the political. This is an issue I need to develop more fully as I continue to work on my book about the practices of Socratic and Platonic philosophy.

For Socrates and, I would argue, for Plato, cultivating a proper erotic relation to the good and the just is a political activity – I might even say, it is the political activity par excellence … although I offer that tentatively here. I say this because the practice of Socratic politics involves using words to turn those he encounters toward the question of the good and the just as ideals toward which we should strive even as he recognizes that, as erotic, these ideals remain forever elusive. No human can possess determinate knowledge of the good and the just in an absolute sense, but in orienting one’s life toward the attempt to bring the good and the just into being by and through the words we speak to and with one another, we can begin to cultivate healthier human relationships.

In my essay, The Politics of Music, I do develop the meaning of an erotic principle along these specific lines.

Precisely what a “proper erotic relation to the good and the just” would look like, remains in need of further articulation. We all are drawn to one degree or another by a sense of justice, but we also too easily fall into the delusion that we possess an adequate understanding of what is just. The proper erotic relationship toward the good and the just would need to involve allowing ourselves to be animated by a concern for justice without deluding ourselves that we possess it adequately.

BACAP Presentation: Attempting the Political Art

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BOSTON, MA – The main thesis of the paper I delivered today at the Boston Area Colloquium for Ancient Philosophy is that the practice of Socratic political speaking and the practice of Platonic political writing are intimately interconnected but distinct.

To develop this position, I focused on the famous passage from the Gorgias in which Socrates claims to be one of the few Athenians who attempt the political art truly and goes on to articulate the nature of his political practice as a way of speaking toward the best (521d6-e2).

I then trace the ways Socrates attempts to use words to turn Gorgias, Polus and Callicles toward the best in the course of the dialogue.  What emerges is a picture of a philosophical friendship between Gorgias and Socrates rooted in a common concern for justice.

Yet, Socrates’ success with Gorgias is overshadowed by his failure to convince Polus or Callicles to allow a concern for truth, justice and the good to animate the course of their lives. Even so, the political practice of Platonic writing is shown in the paper to be designed to awaken in us, the readers, precisely such a concern to live a life in which words are spoken in ways that uncover the truth and are directed toward the best.

Here is a slideshow of images from the visit:

There were a number of important points developed in the question and answer period to which I will point here, but they remain issues I am thinking about as I develop this larger book project on the practices of Socratic and Platonic politics.

Nalin Ranasinghe of Assumption College, who received his PhD from Penn State in the late 1980’s, delivered a very generous response to the paper in which he agreed in large part with the project in general and my reading of the Gorgias in particular, a text on which he has written a book himself: Socrates in the Underworld: On Plato’s Gorgias.

He did raise, however, a number of concerns that echo some of the things I heard in response to the seminar I gave on the Apology in Colombia last month.

Just as Catalina González Quintero had pressed me in Bogotá to delineate the negative side of Socratic politics in which Socrates provokes and punishes his interlocutor, Nalin was concerned that I did not do full justice to the agonistic dimension of the Gorgias, and particularly the fact that Socrates was punishing Callicles and Polus with public shame.  In the question and answer period, this issue was amplified with a number of questions about how rarely Socrates actually succeeds in cultivating in those he encounters a disposition to speak words “toward the best” and to respond to others with a shared concern for the truth.

To respond adequately to this issue requires detailed textual analysis of specific dialogues in which it can be argued that Socrates does succeed in cultivating the active desire to speak and seek the truth, as for example, I argue happens to some degree with Gorgias in the Gorgias, and in a different and less developed way with Hippocrates in the Protagoras; and Glaucon shows some signs of this in the Republic too.

Other questions that arose concerned the degree to which the Socratic activity of philosophizing can be called “political” in any meaningful sense.  To this, however, I would defend the central claim of the project which is that “politics” needs to be rethought in terms of the activities that most effectively open the possibility of cultivating healthy communities of relationship between people. Such an understanding of politics would imply that “politics” is at work each time two people enter into relation with one another.

Socrates, Plato and the Politics of Truth

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Next week I am giving a lecture on Plato’s Gorgias at Boston College for the Boston Area Colloquium for Ancient Philosophy. The title of the lecture is Attempting the Political Art.

Prior to the lecture, I will hold a seminar in which we will focus on those passages in the Gorgias in which truth is at stake as a political question. The seminar, entitled Socrates, Plato and the Politics of Truth, will begin with that strange passage from the Gorgias in which Socrates claims:

I think that with few Athenians, so as not to say the only one, I attempt the political art truly [ἐπιχειρεῖν τῇ ὡς ἀληθῶς πολιτικῇ τέχνῃ] and I alone of those now living do political things [πράττειν τὰ πολιτικὰ]; for it is not toward [πρὸς] gratification that I speak the speeches I speak on each occasion, but toward [πρὸς τὸ βέλτιστον] the best, not toward [πρὸς] the most pleasant … (Gorgias, 521d6-e2).

This passage invites us not only to ask about the nature of the “art” that Socrates claims to be one of the few to attempt, but also to consider the question of the political nature of Platonic writing.

The distinction between the ways of saying endemic to Socratic politics and the ways of writing endemic to Platonic politics will frame the discussion in the seminar.  In an essay on Plato’s Protagoras that has recently appeared in Epoché, I have thematized this distinction in terms of the “topology of Socratic politics” and the “topography of Platonic politics.” (For a more detailed discussion of the distinction, see Digital Dialogue 31: Shame and Justice, and more recently, see, Digital Dialogue 44: The Apology.)

For those students and faculty who will attend the seminar, we will focus our attention on the following passages in addition to the one cited above:

  • 453a8-b3: Where Socrates claims that he and Gorgias are each the sort of person who wants to know “the very thing for which the logos exists.”
  • 453c2-4: Where Socrates connects the proper way to proceed with a way of speaking that makes things as evident as possible.
  • 457c4-d5: Where Socrates distinguishes between a way of speaking animated by a desire to win and one committed to making the matter at hand evident.
  • 458a2-5: Where Socrates insists that he is as happy to be refuted as to refute.

These passages point to the nature of the relationship between Gorgias and Socrates, which, I argue, grows through the dialogue into a kind of friendship rooted in a shared desire for the truth.  This can be heard in these passages, which we will also consider:

  • 463a1-5: Where Socrates is empowered by Gorgias to continue his discussion with Polus so as to make what they have been discussing evident. This leads to the discussion of the difference between a techne and an empeiria, an art or a knack.
  • 464e2-465a6: Suggests the nature of a techne, as Socrates uses it in the dialogue.
  • 500c1-503a9: Where Socrates articulates the beautiful rhetoric associated with philosophy.
  • 506b2-3: The final words Gorgias speaks in the dialogue, in which he encourages Socrates to continue the logos even when Callicles refuses to respond any longer.

Crisis of Community

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Long, Christopher P. “Crisis of Community: The Topology of Socratic Politics in the Protagoras,” Epoché: a Journal for the History of Philosophy, 15, 2 (2011): 361-377.

In Plato’s Protagoras Alcibiades plays the role of Hermes, the ‘ambassador god’, who helps lead Socrates’ conversation with Protagoras through a crisis of dialogue that threatens to destroy the community of education established by the dialogue itself.

By tracing the moments when Alcibiades intervenes in the conversation, we are led to an understanding of Socratic politics as always concerned with the course of the life of an individual and the proper time in which it might be turned toward the question of justice and the good.

The full text of the article, Crisis of Community: The Topology of Socratic Politics in the Protagoras is available for download from my Humanities Commons page.

To hear an audio recording of a version of this paper with a response from Anne-Marie Bowery and questions from the audience at the 2010 Ancient Philosophy Society, listen above.

Seminar on the Apology in Bogotá

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Seminar on the Apology

Originally uploaded by cplong11

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – Today I gave a seminar on Plato’s Apology at the Universidad de los Andes to graduate and undergraduate students and faculty. The seminar was based on a paper I wrote entitled, Socratic Disturbances and Platonic Politics.

I argue in that paper that the Apology is a dialogue between Socrates and the “men of Athens.” In order to discern the dynamics of this dialogue, the paper follows those moment when the “men of Athens” create disturbances (thorubein) in response to the things Socrates says. These disturbances suggest the degree to which the practice of Socratic politics provokes those with whom he is engaged to think and act differently.

The paper also further develops the difference between the practice of Socratic politics as it is performed in the Platonic dialogues and the politics of Platonic writing as it presents itself to us in the written texts. The end of the paper attempts to lend some determination to the way Plato practices politics in his writing by thinking through the deep symbolism of the proposal Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates that his punishment should be to receive free meals for life in the Prytaneion. The Prytaneion was the center of Athenian life, the site of the hearth of Hestia, and the suggestion, which is quite likely a Platonic creation, emphasizes the importance of attempting to integrate the practices of philosophical politics into the very heart of the city.

The participants in the seminar were excellent. They had prepared by reading the Apology with great care and considering the details of my paper. I was encouraged to think more deeply about a few of the issues I raise in the paper, particularly about the differences between Platonic and Socratic politics.

One suggestion by Catalina González Quintero was particularly helpful insofar as it invited me to consider further if the Socratic practice of politics is essentially provocative and negative – as suggested by the gadfly metaphor – and Platonic politics is more educative and positive, concerned to cultivate habits of thinking and acting in the citizens of the city.  I am concerned about divorcing these two dimensions of politics, but there might be a sense in which Socratic politics leads with provocation and moves only hesitantly toward education, while Platonic politics is concerned primarily with education, even if it retains always a provocative dimension.

The discussion of these and other issues continued on Digital Dialogue episode 44 in which I was invited by Sergio Ariza, Nicolas Parra and Norman Mora to articulate the difference between Platonic and Socratic politics in more detail.
Here are some images from the seminar: