The Digital Book

Socratic and Platonic Philosophy

Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy: Practicing a Politics of Reading is an experiment in performative publication. A publication is performative when its mode of publication enacts the argument for which it advocates.

In this case, the argument of the book is that Platonic writing is political insofar is it is capable of cultivating communities of readers concerned with the questions of justice, the beautiful, and the good. The enhanced digital book is designed to encourage readers to actively respond to the ideas in the text and to share those ideas publicly. The success of this experiment will depend upon the willingness of readers to share their reflection and enter into public dialogue in a digital space here. So welcome to this ongoing digital dialogue about Socrates, Plato, and the practice of a politics of reading.


  • whfaltman says:

    Your statement here (p. 167) that “Callicles remains unmoved” is the culmination of your reading of the dialogue in ch. 3; another key moment is 61n72, where “Callicles shows himself capable of moving only so far.” As far as the written text of the dialogue goes, you are right, of course: “Callicles remains unmoved.” But this kind of literalism seems to be at odds with (1) what you call “hermeneutical imagination” (100, cf. 104) where the reader must imagine what Callicles after the dialogue was over, (2) a truly “transformative” reading of Gorgias, where Callicles is transformed and reoriented by Socratic politics, and (3) your own commendable refusal (49n30) to dismiss the touchstone moment as ironic. Note that unlike Phaedrus, whom your reading does its best to see transformed, there are no messy historical facts (cf. 165) about Callicles to cloud the reader’s judgment; as an imaginary character, he occupies the liminal space of our own imaginations. My experience as a teacher indicates that those who are least open to Plato are most insistent that Callicles cleaves to his proto-Nietzschean course. Moreover, following the hint in Dodds (p. 14): “Callicles stands for something which Plato had it in him to become (and would perhaps have become , but for Socrates),” I believe that “Callicles” is Plato’s self-portrait, or rather that he represents the pre-Socratic “Aristocles,” i.e. the pre-Platonic Plato. Were you to allow for this possibility, it would offer you a new way to include the reader in the web of the text, it would demand “collaborative reading,” generate dialogue by creating a focus question (i.e., could Callicles have changed his mind, and become Plato?), and sharpen your discussion of both Socratic topology and Platonic topography, since this would be the precise moment of their intersection. I look forward to dialogue with you on this question, and many others.

  • cplong says:

    Thanks, whfaltman, for this insightful suggestion about Callicles. You have pointed to a tension in my reading of Callicles that opens a hermeneutical possibility that would be very fruitful to pursue in conversation with you here. 

    Although I do say that Callicles remains unmoved (167), strictly speaking, as you suggest, that’s not true on my own reading, because I tried to show in chapter 3 that Callicles is moved by Socrates. Specifically, Socrates provokes him to enter into the discussion about justice in the <em>Gorgias</em> (483a2-3, p. 59). I would hold to my statement at 61n72, that he only moves so far. 

    Here, however, a hermeneutical opportunity emerges, for how far he moves, and what might have become of him are questions that could animate a collaborative reading here.

    That reading might proceed along two lines. First, could we identify textual signs internal to the <em>Gorgias</em> that are suggestive of how Callicles might have been moved by the conversation depicted in the dialogue? Second, could we imagine how someone with the sorts of characteristics Callicles is shown to have might reasonably have been changed by the experience with Socrates? To put the question that might animate our conversation more poignantly, how are we to read and understand manner in which Callicles is shown to be tamed by Socrates by the end of the <em>Gorgias</em> ? Here a reading of the myth might be significant.

  • whfaltman says:

    cplong whfaltman Thanks for your response, cplong; it is much appreciated. First of all, the parameters suggested by your reply seem too restricted to me: it is above all the extra-textual effect S’s discourse has ON US that seems crucial to me, since–if I am right about Aristocles being Callicles–it is Platonic topography that is at stake here, i.e., the dialogue between P and the reader, made possible by S’s conversion of C to P. If we find S’s arguments compelling, we have no good reason to be sure that C couldn’t, or that P doesn’t. So that extra-textual persuasion is primary to my case, especially because it is those readers who find C persuasive–e.g., Nietzsche–who will be least susceptible to S’s persuasion, and most insistent that C could not have become P. A distant second, however, does meet your criterion: what C says at 513c4-6. Consider five aspects of this short speech: (1) C doesn’t know how to explain the curious fact that (2) S seems to him to speak well (i.e., persuasively), (3) making it explicit (with πέπονθα) not only that he is being affected by S’s words but that (4) his response parallels that of οἱ πολλοί, i.e., those he might easily be imagined to abhor (indicating a change), and (5) by adding the adverbial πάνυ before the verb πείθεσθαι, P causes him to indicate that he is not being persuaded COMPLETELY, i.e., that he is being (he knows not how!) being partially persuaded. Finally (third), there is the most provocative moment in the dialogue, right before C is moved (as you correctly observe) to enter: the notion that the best use of rhetoric is self-incrimination, and that one should bring one’s own injustices to light, not conceal them (480c1-4). S never does this in the dialogues, but on my account, this is exactly what P is doing through C in Grg: he is bringing his pre-Socratic injustice to light, confessing it, and showing us how he submitted himself to Socratic punishment, i.e., to refutation leading to reform. Topologically, by bringing about this result, S proves that he possesses “the political art,” but only P proves, topographically, that he is capable of the best use of rhetoric. P awards the palm to S nevertheless, because my reading validates S’s claim–otherwise unfulfilled if not false–that C is his touchstone, and that what C approves in S’s discourse is ipso facto proved to be true (487e1-7). If (1) we regard the discourse as true (and to repeat, this is the primary thing P is challenging us to do), (2) that S possess “the political art,” and (3) that S is correct about C being his touchstone, we are obligated to realize that C changes his mind and becomes P.

  • cplong says:

    whfaltman cplong I think I better understand the direction in which you want to push this. Am I right in thinking that you are less concerned with the narrow historical question regarding the transformation of the person Plato, than with the nature of the possible transformation Callicles may have experienced and with what that causes us readers to experience about the power of Socrates’ words?

    I accept and appreciate the way you have pushed this question outside of the narrow parameters I articulated in my first response, and I wonder if we ought not ourselves try to schedule a Digital Dialogue podcast to move the discussion into the more dynamic sphere of Socratic speaking. That would allow us to further pursue the “extra-textual effect S’s discourse has ON US” you mention at the start of your last comment. Strangely enough, that sort of topological engagement might help deepen our understanding of the topography of Platonic politics.

    I will reach out to you via email to schedule if you have the time and inclination.

  • whfaltman says:

    cplong whfaltman cplong I will look forward to hearing from you, cplong. And certainly you are right: it’s not the historical question that is central–albeit in Charmides, Gorgias (on my reading), and Republic, P is at some pains to let the reader know about him and his family–but rather the conversion of the reader, prefigured in the extra-textual conversion of C to P, i.e., into the person who is now doing his dead-level best to convert you, as S converted him. This vision seems particularly relevant to your concerns, because in the terms of your splendid book, it marks the moment of interface between Socratic topology and Platonic topography.

  • McCoyMarina says:

    cplong whfaltman Is the suggestion that Callicles is, following Dodds, an imaginary, counterfactual Plato. Ie, not a Plato who underwent conversion when he met Socrates but rather a Plato who could have gone in the direction of Callicles (as in the Republic’s reflections that the philosophical nature can either be corrupted and become the worst sophist or the best ruler)? I find that intriguing although somewhat speculative about Plato in terms of biography–we know so little about Plato the person and can say more about Plato the author. However, I like the idea that the reader can imagine himself into that space of Callicles and what effect Socrates might have on him. 

    As I wrote in my book chapter on Plato’s Gorgias, following A. Nightingale, the allusion to Zethus and Amphion (to which Callicles directly compares himself and Socrates) can serve as both raising the question as to whether Socrates as too apolitical while affirming the different way in which he practices politics. Amphion’s music (on the lyre) raises the walls of the city, despite his initial appearance in being apolitical. In trad mythology, the story of these twins forms part of the debate about the value of the active vs political life. I think the audience is invited into that discussion through witnessing its re-enactment via Callicles and Socrates. Thus the snide comments Callicles makes about Soc being too much like a corpse and his (incorrect) claim that if Soc were ever brought to court, his mouth would hang open and he’d have nothing at all to say in his defense. For me, that tips the scale in favor or a Platonic affirmation of Socratic politics as practiced through conversation in contrast to Callicles’ more active approach.

    The reason that I take Callicles to be unpersuaded is that he tells Socrates to go ahead and answer his own questions and stops listening. His action is passive aggressive in refusing to continue dialogue with Socrates. Of course, Socrates’ comparisons of Callicles to a kinaidos are not passive aggressive but, for lack of a better phrase, aggressive aggressive. So, I don’t want to make Socrates too heroic either. But Callicles’ silence and his reason for the silence place him for me with other “unsuccessful” instances where Socrates fails to persuade others such as Meno–where we know that the persuasion was unsuccessful due to the historical Meno’s betrayal of his own troops, etc. But I’m open to being persuaded–what signs of conversion within the text do you see? And, especially, how do you read Callicles’ shutting down in conversation?

  • whfaltman says:

    McCoyMarina cplong whfaltman Thanks for joining in, MMcC; the Meno connection is perfectly apt. Were it not for X’s testimony, one might be inclined to think that this young man, clearly interested in virtue, and articulate in describing the archetypal S-inspired aporia, would be far more likely than C to respond positively to the transformative influence (as per CPL) of S. But thanks to X, we know he’s not. This explains why we know nothing about the “historical” C: there is no evidence that can rule out his transformation. Considered as a pair, then, Men. and Grg. deceive on the critical point: what do the two men do next? While you are right to say that C refuses to answer S’s questions, no possible evidence, except his physical departure (note that it is S who breaks off conversation in Men.), could justify your claim that he stops listening. And if you have kids, you must know that their total rejection of the parental position in debate is often followed, some weeks later, by its tacit embrace in practice. ERD(odds), I fear, wants to preserve P for assimilation to FWN (note that his only comment on 513c4-6 ends with the critical claim that C “remains unconvinced to the end”) ; this move is writ large in Strauss, i.e., that C is not refuted, and P is thus revealed by C. Mine is a Platonist alternative, and the most important signs, as indicated in the string, are extra-textual, written in the reader’s soul (Phdr. 278a2-b45), i.e., found in OUR response to S, not C’s, whose ULTIMATE response we arrive too early to see (cf. the dialogue’s opening). But the touchstone passage is the one to ponder: it is unique in the dialogues, and by imagining that C could be brought round to agree with him, it is S who first broaches the hypothesis I am suggesting. Finally, consider our present dialogue in the abstract: one young academician arguing for, the other against the proposition that C changes his mind because S is right. Especially since you wrote, most beautifully, that you’e “open to being persuaded,” is it not obvious that even if you only admit that the question I have raised is ultimately P’s question, to be mooted by his students, that he he is forcing the upholder of the affirmative position to be persuasive, i.e., to use rhetoric for a good end? More than that, it seems to be a perfect vehicle for using rhetoric well, and that the one who upholds the affirmative position–i.e., that C, by becoming P, really was S’s touchstone–herself becomes P’s latest touchstone, the most recent beneficiary of S’s “political art,” especially since the living proof that S has that art is his capacity to create another like himself (Men. 100a2).

  • McCoyMarina says:

    whfaltman McCoyMarina cplong That’s a really interesting reading. Something else that would speak in favor of your view would be that we do not know how Callicles responds to the myth at the end, in which Socrates shows the unjust man to be naked, ie vulnerable, and judged apart from the goods that disappear with death, ie clothing/ status. I suppose that i like the indeterminacy of the outcome that I think would be compatible with your view. At least there is indeterminacy for the reader who has to choose between the Socratic and Calliclean way of life. At the end of the Protagoras, it says “we left” but the “we” is indeterminate. Perhaps there is a similar indeterminacy at the end here. Thanks! This has been thought provoking.

  • whfaltman says:

    McCoyMarina whfaltman cplong Thanks so much for that response: as you see, it is the indeterminacy that is important because it demands what CPL calls “hermeneutic imagination” for a pedagogical and potentially transformative purpose. In raising the question, my hope is less to identify the right answer as to insist that the question is Plato’s question, so that even if we don’t answer it as I believe we should, that Plato himself becomes, in any case, more visible to us. Although I cannot in good conscience recommend that you endure 68 minutes of looking at my face, you should know that Chris and I participated in one of his “Digital Dialogues”; we come round to Gorgias at the end.

  • I’m posting on Chapter Five on the Apology. Kevin Miles (Earlham College) visited my class when we were talking about Socrates’ admission that he doesn’t engage in political life last week. Miles pointed to Pericles’ claim in the Funeral Oration as context for Socrates’ claim that he does not engage in public life.  Pericles says that the Athenians think the problem with those who do not engage in public life is not that they are unambitious, but that they are useless.  That seems to add a different perspective to what the jury would hear when Socrates admits that he has not engaged in “public matters.”  Yet it doesn’t quite seem like he hasn’t engaged in political life.  His public duty, which he describes in response to the first set of charges and which he says he should be treated like an Olympic victor for, has not been political in the Athenian understanding of it, but it has been political insofar as it was serving the city.  Do you take Socrates to be recasting the meaning of political here to be that which can be consistent with a concern, not just for power, but for the good life?  I was thinking that Socrates was defending philosophy (we should have to give accounts and to take that project seriously not just for the sake of being freed from charges), but this leads me to wonder if he is also, importantly, defending politics, which has in Socrates’ hands, become something much more serious even then death.

  • For the end of Chapter Five: I like this chapter a lot.  I especially like the way that both philosophy and politics are recast or refined by Plato’s depiction of Socrates both for the reader and for the Athenian jury, challenging our assumptions as well as theirs.  But I wonder by the end whether the notion that Platonic writing is a politics that gives life to the “palpable question of what makes a life worth living” is a political activity on these terms.  I want it to be, but it seems like it becomes private in our understanding of reading.  I don’t see Socrates’ project as private even in his one-on-one engagements with others because he sees those engagements as always having implications for the larger community.  Are you saying that our engagement with Plato as readers has implications for our way of being in the larger community?  Does this reading reduce the political import to our development as ethical selves who better contribute to political life?  Or might there be something in reading and thinking together about the good life, as we are doing here, that is political?  What sense of political has this left us with then?

  • cplong says:

    Thanks, adrieltrott, for this question and your willingness to bring your teaching and your class to the book and thus to this public forum. 

    Yes, I do take Socrates to be recasting the meaning of the political here. One of Socrates’ favorite tricks is to use a term that carries a traditional meaning in a new way in order to challenge conventional values. When he says he is one of the only people in Athens to practice politics truly (Gorgias, 521d7ff), he does not mean what most Athenians would have understood by politics. In the Apology, however, when he says that he has not engaged in “public matters,” he is using that term in a more traditional way. He does not practice the sort of politics most Athenians would recognize as politics. Even today, it is difficult for us to understand Socratic dialogue as political in a strict sense. The legacy of the traditional Greek conception of politics as the attempt to seek institutional authority and directly influence public policy is long. Socratic politics is different insofar as it seeks to enrich the life of the city by turning individual citizens toward the just, the good, and the beautiful. I address the difference between the traditional conception of Athenian politics and Socratic politics in more detail on pages 9-18.

    Ultimately, part of why I want to insist on calling the practice of Socratic philosophy a kind of politics is that I want to undermine our traditional ways of thinking about politics as oriented by what is expedient as opposed to what is just.

  • TLock says:

    A few students and I are in a group in Dr. Trott’s Ancient Philosophy course this semester. We read over chapter 5 of your book, as we are currently discussing Plato’s Apology in class, and were asked to develop a question about something we read. In the section Disquieting
    Questions you state that it was a result of his “unwillingness to
    himself to be made into a pariah” that lead to Socrates’ eventual death
    sentencing, and that he was at risk of becoming one by practicing his
    Whereas my group and I agree that it was his refusal to be exiled/stop
    practicing philosophy that resulted in the penalty of death being
    decided upon,
    we are questioning how one can refuse to be an “idiotic pariah” when
    person is already considered as such. You state later in that same
    that “To take up the practice of philosophy … is to refuse in a certain
    way to
    be integrated into the life of the community.” Is Socrates not
    philosophy, and wouldn’t one who is not integrated into a community
    easily be
    considered a pariah? Instead might it make sense to consider him to
    already be a
    pariah (at least enough of one to be put on trial and sentenced to
    death), and
    it is rather his refusal to be anything other than a pariah that results
    in his
    death and “greatest political failure.” However this would imply that
    Socratic philosophy to be accepted and practiced in a community that
    people would have to become pariahs in a way until they were enough in
    that one could no longer consider them pariahs. Does someone have to be a
    pariah to introduce new ideas or thoughts into a community,and if so
    should less of a negative connotation be attached to being a pariah in
    this way?

  • akashflo says:

    Aside from Plato, is Socrates alone in his thinking? If it is understood that Socrates’ ways of pursuing his question puts him at odds with the Athenian people, that is to say the polity at large, is there space in the polity of Athens for Socratic philosophy? If there is space, does the reaction of the masses (that we primarily understand this reaction through Socrates’/Plato’s words complicates things) signify a participation in the dialogue that Socrates’ is trying cultivate? Perhaps the participation of the multitude, meaning the public, signifies a peculiar success for Socrates as it may be that the seed of Socratic philosophy could have been planted in the collective mind of the Athenian public.

  • tplivolsi says:

    In the reading, you provide the interesting assertion that “in
    telling the story of Socrates’ inability to move the men of Athens in
    the Apology,
    Plato gives voice to the topology of Socratic politics as conditioned
    by a fundamental limitation – it has shown itself incapable of
    persuading a multitude.” Also, “by condemning Socrates to death,
    the citizens show themselves incapable of the philosophical politics
    Socrates practices.”
    two selections from the reading lead us to our question: Is Socrates’
    philosophy truly incapable of being taught to a multitude of people,
    or was Socrates ineffective because of the time at which he was
    The reason we ask this question is because it is fact Socrates
    challenges the political and philosophical status quo of Athens with
    a perspective on politics that focuses on discerning what is just and
    true. However, when individuals embrace this political philosophy
    along with the desire to better the city, they can ultimately change
    “the very nature of the city and of the politics practiced there.”
    It seems that the Athenians were simply doing what they could to
    maintain order in the city. We do not find it unreasonable for the
    Athenians to believe that Socrates can significantly upset the
    stability of a war-torn city by teaching ideas that conflict with
    fundamental political and philosophical ideologies of the city.

  • A.Crosley says:

    Socrate’s goal is to spread the practice of philosophy through his private encounters with citizens and anyone who will listen really. Plato’s goal is to make an account of the trial as well as promote philosophical thinking or “reawaken in each new generation of readers the palpable question of what makes a life worth living.” Both share similar goals and it seems that you are making the assertion that Socrates fails and Plato succeeds, generally speaking that is. But I’m not so sure we can say Socrates fails. Our question, If we are to use are hermeneutic imagination to envision what the “men of Athens” have to say in their interruptions could we then imagine the conversations that could have taken place after the death of Socrates? Socrates was only 30 votes shy of being found not guilty by the jury. This leaves an interesting situation unto which several people who presumably saw the truth in Socrates argument and may now follow in his footsteps would want to examine and ask questions to those who had voted against him. A secondary question, If both Socrates and Plato share similar goals is it really possible for one to succeed and not the other? How could Socrates have failed while Plato, who simply recounts the trial succeeded? I think it’s fair to say Socrates planted a sufficient seed in the minds of his peers that philosophy could be spread and eventually be an integral part of politics.

  • cplong says:

    TLock This question opens a number of interesting lines of investigation. It really challenges us to ask how accepting we are of those people in the community who challenge our beliefs and values. Your suggestion that we might need to reconsider the negative connotations associated with being a pariah is important. At the end of the chapter, I argue that Socrates’ proposal that he be given free meals in the Prytaneion (120-7) is really a way for Plato to dramatically suggest that the practice of philosophy, which always has a critical and alienating dimension to it, should be integrated into the very center of the life of the city.

  • cplong says:

    akashflo I think the space for philosophy in the city was made more by Plato than by Socrates in the sense that it is through Platonic writing and teaching more even than Socratic speaking, that philosophy took up residence in the city. That took the shape of Plato’s school, the Academy. Even today, the university is where the seeds of Socratic and Platonic philosophy have grown and flourished in the city.

  • cplong says:

    Thanks, tplivolsi. One of the issues your post raises is the question as to whether Socratic philosophy can be taught. This, it seems to me, is much like the question as to whether virtue can be taught. That is, of course, a question Socrates himself never tired of asking. In one sense, Socratic philosophy is a practice more than something that can be learned intellectually. So, one question is if a city can cultivate the critical habits of Socratic philosophical practice. I think it can, but not without significant difficultly and the ongoing commitment of citizens to hold the city accountable to its highest ideals.

    Another aspect of your post that is interesting is the question about how reasonable the Athenians were to put Socrates to death. One remarkable aspect of the story of the Apology is that so many of the citizens voted in favor of Socrates given the manner in which he systematically provoked and insulted them throughout. Your point about Athens being “war torn” is also important, as the historical context had to play a role in the decision. The larger point to which your comment gestures is that our tolerance for critique is lower when we feel threatened by external forces. Often, of course, this is also when critique is most important. In this regard, think about how the events after 9/11 unfolded.

  • cplong says:

    A.Crosley I think you are right to push me in regard to the dichotomy between Socratic failure and Platonic success. In the end, whatever success Plato may have had can be traced in part at least to the teaching of Socrates. So, insofar as Socrates succeeded with Plato (even if he failed with Euthyphro, Alcibiades, and perhaps others), then he has been successful. Of course, the relationship is reciprocal if we measure success through historical time, since Socrates is only able to continue to speak to us and influence us because Plato (and others) wrote about him.

    To put it more provocatively, it is largely through the technology of writing, a technology Socrates himself eschewed, that Socrates continues to successfully influence generations of young people.

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