PLATO TELLS THIS story.[i] Set in 433 BCE, it has as its backdrop an Athenian city-state at the peak of its renown and yet facing a precipice; a war of disastrous proportions is brewing across the Peloponnese and, unknown to the citizens of Athens, a plague will soon devour the city and its inhabitants. Plato’s story recounts a quarrel between an elderly sophist by the name of Protagoras, after whom this dialogue is named, and another man we know as Socrates, still a relative unknown at the age of thirty-six.
As it unfolds, the nature of their dispute becomes clear. Protagoras and Socrates are discussing how, if at all, we can attain control over our lives. What, they ponder, would it take for human agency to outfox human vulnerability? Why are some moral laws, for instance, universally capable of guiding life both now and in future while others not? And how might we safeguard the public affairs of the city from the irascibility of private emotions?
In other words, they’re quarrelling over how human beings can actually limit the role that fate plays in our lives and whether we can ever know reality definitively, quantitatively, scientifically?
Protagoras thinks not and, by way of debate, he puts to Socrates a proposition. For him, what’s crucial is techné (a term we can crudely translate as the conscious harnessing of the human intellect to make sense of mystery). Techné produces practical knowledge, something indispensable for evading natural and social phenomena which, in times past, had seemed so inexplicable and awe-inspiring. Techné has given us shelter and clothing and the mechanisms we depend upon to grow, harvest and store the foods we eat. It’s what made possible the shared language with which we pose our questions of religion, governance, education, science, and art.
That said, techné is really just practical reasoning in Protagoras’ estimation, something which at best is less science than art. Being art, Protagoras thinks that techné cannot therefore guarantee humans the power to attain absolute control or unlimited foresight. Instead, the knowledge and understanding generated through techné is limited. Luck, fate and mortality will continue to deny universal laws their authority. We will remain vulnerable despite our many scientific advances. And disagreements will persist. The best that our techné can do is to actively acknowledge our human limits in a world that keeps the secrets of its mysteries well hid.
Whereas for Protagoras techné is a matter of practical reasoning, something of an organic blend of creativity, inquisition and luck, Socrates elevates it to the realm of the intellect. Techné, strictly speaking, isn’t enough. For Socrates, it must be complemented with épistémè as it’s this that enables us ‘to know’. The determining role played by luck, fate and mortality in Protagoras’ world would, in Socrates, be lessened. This is because épistémè, unlike techné, is science not art. Certainly, any algorithm used to guide the lives we lead must have a scientific rationalism to it. Myths, for Socrates, are merely understandings of a phenomenon before it has been rationally understood. And poetry – the medium whose vocabulary is laden with lived experience, emotion and passion – can only be depended upon by those statesmen who have no aversion to the reign of chaos in their city.
No, Socrates is adamant. It is the mind’s eye that is the repository of order and only by its sight, he argues, will we see the route that leads away from the vulnerabilities and mysteries of existence. Sustained reasoning and systematic observation can unshackle humankind from such earthly dirges as war and plague.
Follow Protagoras, or so Socrates seems to warn, and the eventual fate of Athens in 443 BCE will be yours.
SOCRATES WINS THE quarrel and, with few exceptions, manages to convince subsequent generations of his logic. Particularly from the time of the eighteenth century on, when Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began to revalue the say of scientific endeavours in human affairs, the blueprint laid by Socrates stuck; apt to remain in the minds of anyone who would favour order, fact and knowledge over chaos, fiction and imagination. After all, this Enlightenment was, as the cultural historian Richard Tarnas says, ‘the inheritor of the basic Platonic belief in the rational intelligibility of the world order, and in the essential nobility of the human quest to discover that order.’[ii]
In our own generation, what Socrates said now almost goes without saying, even though we may no longer know who exactly Socrates is. We are, as Isaiah Berlin’s quote goes to show, no less concerned with efforts to ‘tidy up the world, to create some kind of rational order, in which tragedy, vice and stupidity, which have caused so much destruction in the past, can at last be avoided by the use of…universally intelligible reason.’[iii]
We might think ourselves lucky that Socrates won out in the end. After all, who would want a return to that messy world where, instead of ‘some kind of rational order’, what we have is ‘tragedy, vice and stupidity’, where ‘rational order’ and ‘universally intelligible reason’ seem quixotic against the steady creep of uncertainty and destruction?
But the question, to me at least, seems deceptive in its simplicity. And so too are the yes/no answers we might give in response.
What’s been Socrates’ real legacy over the way we think? Has ‘universally intelligible reason’ really been a panacea for our limits? Or is it merely what blinds us from seeing just how limited we actually are?
UNIVERSALLY INTELLIGIBLE REASON is a panacea for our limits. It’s hard to refute this statement in our own age. Had reason not won out over ignorance we would not be able to live the lives we do. Instead, overmastered by the elements and our own benighted innocence, we’d have continued to wander in the darkness of our own folly. For this, we owe a great deal of thanks to the ancient Greek philosophers who transformed the very landscape of western thinking.
Fed up with the fragility, the sense of powerlessness and the utterly unpredictable nature of flux men and women laboured under, irate at the heterogeneous political reality where nothing seemed stable or actually known for fact, proto-philosophers like Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes put forward an alternative. That alternative proposed a departure from the mythic world populated by gods and predetermined by fate. In their place, these philosophers made the case that if their fellow beings would only learn to observe physical phenomena systematically, they would be able to quantify and possibly even understand the true underlying characteristics of both the human and natural worlds. New ways of thinking, they held, would bring about new ways of seeing and being.
What they really desired, writes the philosopher Wendy Hamblet, was rationalism, which ‘leads thought to a certainty beyond the disturbing flux of fleshly and death-ridden existence and the whimsical omnipotence of the gods. Through rational and logical discourse, reason seeks the knowable in fixed forms and structures and attempts an escape from the despair of the tragic.’[iv] The desire for fixed forms and logical systems of knowledge that supposedly only rationalism could procure is instructive here of what was undesired: the disturbing flux and despair of the tragic.
But it was Socrates and then Plato who would become the most ardent exponents of this cause. And it was Plato, who first recounted the quarrel between Protagoras and Socrates, that would return to these themes in Book Ten of the Republic. There, as before, he is consumed with a quarrel.
Known as the quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry, the squabble has nothing to do with ‘philosophy’ and ‘poetry’ not at least in the way we typically understand these terms today. The ancient quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry has nothing to do with philosophy and poetry per se, but with a panoply of other dichotomies which pepper our thinking in modern times, dichotomies which distinguish fact from fiction, quantity from quality, politics from the political, and scientific rationalism from the humanities.
In the quarrel between Philosophy and Poetry, it’s competing ways of life and opposing theories of knowledge that has Plato concerned. Whereas Philosophy is representative of the life of rationalism, order and truth, Poetry as a way of being dallies too much in myth, chaos and confusion.
His worry is that poetry has too much influence over human affairs. Led not by reason but by ‘[k]nowledge based on the senses’, Plato thinks it unwise that ‘subjective judgement’ should be given so much weight given that it is nothing more than ‘ever-shifting opinion without any absolute foundation.’[v] If whimsy desires, virtue can be transformed into something wicked since causation and logic have been deactivated or yet to be activated. Little wonder that order is ever fluctuating and fleeting in this world.
It was Plato’s hope that the quarrel would extol Philosophy and position it to steer the running of the city. The youth of his day, he urged, must learn that real knowledge – of the world, oneself and others – takes place at the level of the mind’s eye and not at the level of everyday lived experience.[vi] At that level, beyond all conjecture, illusion and uncertainty, the universe’s core order appears – universals which had only previously been imperfectly speculated at. The place of the Poetic must be guarded, segregated from the serious and moral business of politics. Politics, in short, needs Philosophical guidance, not Poetic distractions. It is, in other words, épistémè and not techné that must dictate human affairs. It is Socrates, not Protagoras, who we must follow after.
UNIVERSALLY INTELLIGIBLE REASON merely blinds us from seeing just how limited we actually are. This proposition seems nonsensical, even absurd, because we are inheritors of Plato’s logic. The thinking, our thinking, Plato’s thinking, is that in Philosophy we are given what Poetry could never give: rational understanding and a world of order. Which is true. Without our scientific knowledge, the progress, equality and freedom we enjoy could not have been possible. Economies of knowledge, production and reproduction would, without doubt, exist in a much more primitive form. And life expectancy, to speak nothing of human rights, may not be so much an expectation as much as a luxury.
As true as this may be, though, it’s also true so say that universally intelligible reason has perhaps really only afforded us so much rational understanding. It has given us a world where order only barely has a fighting chance against the chaos that surrounds us still. It’s worth conceding the fact that, even now, having followed after Socrates and not Protagoras, we’re still enchained by the very dilemmas and uncertainties that, in Socrates’ and Plato’s estimation, yoked Protagoras and all those who opted for his techné. After two World Wars, the gulag, a seemingly endless Cold War, the natural disasters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which now seem so destructive simply because we no longer appreciate how truly vulnerable we are, after September 11, the ‘War on Terror’, and now taunted by financial instability and environmental change, we should realise that we are rational, sovereign agents often left with little to no choice; swept up by diverse, overwhelming socio-economic forces, which in previous times were epitomised by the gods and by fate. If we’re lucky, we might survive.
True, épistémè has given us higher knowledge and deeper understanding. But it’s also had an adverse effect. Our fixation with our own capacities to decode personal, social and existential enigmas has blinded us to our own limits. Today, there are aspects of our world which still remain mysterious and unknown. Épistémè has not managed to rid the universe of all its secrets. All it may have done is to make us less willing to acknowledge this and certainly less comfortable with the limits of our own knowledge. Whereas Protagoras and the Greeks before him approached what they did not know with a degree of humility, we do so with audacity and a certain haughtiness. Whereas the very infrastructure of their practical reasoning was erected upon the cornerstone of human limits, we have seemingly forgotten that we may be no closer to ridding human existence of its intrinsic foibles.
Given this, we may yet find that we have something important to learn from these pre-Socratic Greeks. Though they too tried to domesticate what was not known with their knowledge and understanding, they were not blind to their own incapacity. It was a characteristic feature of their foundational myths to valorise life’s frailty. Subjectivity, never being a given, could come undone at any moment and they realised that. The structure of existence revolved around the reminder that if any one thing was at fault it was the universality accorded to notions like reason, justice and truth.[vii] This was the wisdom at the heart of the knowledge that Socrates and Plato sought so vehemently to destroy: that nothing was universal just as no single form is eternal. Everything, as Albert Camus once wrote, is right and necessary within limits.[viii] Beyond that, there is much we do not know.
In our own day and through our own efforts to further quantify, grasp and order human existence, the quarrel between Socrates and Protagoras still echoes. It acts as a reminder to give thanks for what we’ve come to understand and know. But it is also a warning to us to be mindful that, even today, aspects of our world remain mysterious and out of reach. Having taken the side of Socrates and Plato, we’re just less willing to acknowledge that. We’re less able to openly face what we don’t know. Instead, our best defence, as it has been for longer than we can remember, is our retreat to the shores of rationalism.
When that falls short, though, we should not be too proud to admit our wrongs and revaluate what we considered right. After all, it’s in our ‘[a]dmission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty’ that, Camus once claimed, makes us the allies of those Greeks who refused rule out stories, voices and possibilities at odds with the best of our reasoning.[ix] Today’s politicians, policymakers and citizens would do well to remember this when faced with the hurdles that lie in wait.
[i] For a readable introduction to this Platonic dialogue see Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
[ii] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), p. 292.
[iii] Isaiah Berlin (ed. Henry Hardy), The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 3.
[iv] Wendy C. Hamblet, ‘The Tragedy of Platonic Ethics and the Fall of Socrates,’ ethics (Vol.2, No.2, 2003), p. 142.
[v] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 8; Hans-Georg Gadamer (trans. and intro. P. Christopher Smith), Dialogue and Dialectic: Eight Hermeneutical Studies on Plato (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 61-62.
[vi] Plato (trans. and intro. Francis Macdonald Cornford), The Republic of Plato (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), Ch xxiv, p. 221.
[vii] George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 8.
[viii] Albert Camus, ‘Lecture Given in Athens on the Future of Tragedy’ in Albert Camus (ed. and trans. Philip Thody), Selected Essays and Notebooks (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 196; Albert Camus, ‘Helen’s Exile’ in Albert Camus (trans. Justin O’Brien), The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), pp. 187-88.
[ix] Camus, ‘Helen’s Exile,’ p. 192.
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