Attempting the Political Art

By | Articles, Publication: Journal, Socratic and Platonic Politics, Vita | No Comments

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

"The Politics of Truth" at University of Kansas

By | Presentation: Academic, Presentations, Socratic and Platonic Politics, Vita | 3 Comments

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

By | Presentation: Academic, Presentations, Socratic and Platonic Politics, Vita | No Comments

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

By | Presentation: Academic, Presentations, Seminar: Academic, Socratic and Platonic Politics, Vita | No Comments

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.

Digital Dialogue 21: Rhetoric and Philosophy

By | Digital Dialogue Podcast | No Comments

Axelle Karera, graduate student in Philosophy at Penn State, and Nicolas Parra, who is a visiting student at Penn State as he completes his M.A. degree from Universidad de los Andes in Bogata, Columbia, join me for episode 21 of the Digital Dialogue.

The impetus for this episode was a brief exchange between Axelle and Nicolas on the blog entitled: Gorgias and Socrates: The Feast of Friendship.  I thought it would be excellent to invite them to the Digital Dialogue to discuss the issues they raised there about the possibility of a noble kind of rhetoric, one that would not necessitate a polemical relationship between rhetoric and philosophy.

There were a number of passages to which Nicolas and Axelle appealed in the course of the discussion.  Nicolas referred to these:

  1. (455d7-456c5) where Gorgias uncovers to Socrates the power of rhetoric and tells his story with the sick person and his brother, the physician.
  2. (497b5-11) Gorgias’ first intervention in the conversation of Socrates with Callicles.
  3. (506a10-506b3) Gorgias’ second intervention in the conversation of Socrates with Callicles.
  4. (521d7-522a8) Socrates’ statement that he is the one who practices the true political art and where he compares himself with a doctor.
  5. (503b1-2) Socrates’ allusion to a rhetoric aiming towards the just that has not yet been seen. (504d6-504e2) Socrates ilustrates what would it mean to be a good rhetor.

Axelle reports the following:

I referred specifically to the analogies in the Protogoras. The relevant passages are: 329c-333c.

The crucial debate between Protagoras and Socrates about the unity of virtue (argued by using the analogies) is found from 349b-360d.

Finally, Socrates recognizes that he seems to have finished the conversation by endorsing Protagoras’ position (which was contrary to his at the beginning), and vice versa for Protagoras, is found on 361a-362a.

In the spirit of the last Digital Dialogue, I have tried to add a picture to give a sense of interlocutors and of the context of the discussion.