Friday, April 15, 2016

Plato's Gorgias, Entry 3

I noticed in part of the argument that Socrates mentions that goodness of something is due to the 'presence' of goodness, badness due to the 'presence' of badness. He uses this to defeat Callicles. Now, this is all in translation, so I don't know how close 'presence' is to the actual Greek word. But you can't hear this and not think about Derrida. Callicles admits Socrates is right about all of this presence business. Is the fact that I found this line of argument questionable that I'm some sort of crypto-postmodern? I agree that the point where Callicles could stop losing the argument is by refusing to admit the 'presence' stuff.

But if you don't buy the presence stuff, you disagree with both Callicles and Socrates. Callicles is a moralist in the same way that Nietzsche is. I'm sure that using the word 'moralist' here may seem strange, but if you think about it, there is a kind of ubermench-ish morality in play here. The problem is the presence of the ubermensch, or the possible presence of the ubermensch. If the ubermensch is notable by its absence, not its presence, the whole thing falls down. The ubermensch is itself a kind of logocentrism(yeah, FU, Nietzschians, if you don't like it!) -- running around like Diogenes wondering where the ubermensch is, what a load.

Socrates is right when he points out to Callicles that the many, who Callicles derides as weak, get together, they are stronger than the ubermensch, and Callicles realizes it. Nietzsche just didn't like the fact that Socrates won this part of the argument. I know that Nietzsche admired Plato for inverting everything, preferring the snub-nosed philosopher for Achilles, but I'm sure he felt that the heroes of the Iliad and the tragedies were more moving.

I get that. Achilles and Agamemnon are so mighty. Compare them to, say, Humbert Humbert, a pathetic villain. Think this is a bad comparison? Think again. Think of the plot of the Iliad, what precipitates it -- and you should watch any movie with the great James Mason. How our society has changed, our values, the gulf that separates a novel like Lolita from the Iliad; trace this over time and realize Socrates played a role -- who knows how big? -- in this. How much is Humbert Humbert the shadow of Socrates?

There is also an obvious phallocentrism, or phallogocentrism, in this whole thing that I could go off on for some time. Nietzsche himself was horrible in this regard. People like to credit Plato with allowing for women philosopher-kings, but it was pointed out to me by a professor that Plato did not think this was likely, and pointed to the treatment of Xanthippe as more emblematic here.

I'm glad the gulf is there, between us and Agamemnon and Achilles, and that it is growing ever wider, I hope. Relativism, while it seems to be akin to Callicles and Nietzsche, is not. Relativism does not heroize Achilles, or, say, Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter, anymore than it sees universality in the Golden Rule. We relativists have our values, and feel them deeply, but we know they are not the inevitable products of dialectic.





Monday, April 11, 2016

Plato's Gorgias, Entry 2

After discussing rhetoric with Gorgias, Socrates takes on Polus and talks him around to agreeing that the one who suffers injustice is better off than the one who inflicts it. They discuss dictators who seize power unjustly and do not suffer punishment. I'm not going to rehearse the arguments, rather, I'm going to talk about the suffering of Macbeth.

The power of Macbeth for me is Macbeth's powerful imagination and the depiction of guilt and insecurity of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare dramatizes the damage the murders do to the psyche of the Macbeths. Macbeth says he heard voices saying "Macbeth has murdered sleep", and he goes on, indicating apparent remorse. And Lady Macbeth is driven to insanity and suicide. Macbeth himself degenerates to concluding "life's but a walking shadow". Is Macbeth's famous speech merely a representation of the effects of treason, or has Macbeth, in his degenerated state, seen a deeper truth? Or is the 'deeper' truth itself relative?  I was reminded of this when Socrates talks about the good done to the soul by punishment and the idea that it rectifies a damaged soul. Perhaps, just as Macbeth realizes that Burnam Wood has come to Dunsinane and Macduff was not of 'woman born', Macbeth has his first psychological relief. Maybe his last moment, when he knew he was beaten, he got himself back. If so, than Shakespeare is gesturing at ideas like those of Plato. But it's difficult to pin Shakespeare down, that's why he's so much better than everybody else.

Unfortunately for this argument, it seems to me that there are plenty of examples of terrible people, people who have no conscience, and can do awful things with impunity and get away with it. Socrates may claim that in an 'objective' sense their souls are worse off, but my experience is subjective, not objective, and I reject the notion that there is an objective condition of the soul at all. What appears to the mind is all there is to the soul, nothing else. And if what appears to the soul is not suffering, argument over. Now most people feel guilty when they do things contrary to the society in which they are raised, very much including the Macbeths. But there are some people who don't, or not much to speak of, and often not nearly so much as to cause them to regret doing something bad if they gain a sufficient amount from it.

I should say here that I'm NOT encouraging people to be selfish dictators, selfish dictators suck. I'm only saying that we should face the reality of our condition, which is that all the attempts to prove that those who profit from injustice somehow are worse off, have failed and are doomed to fail. I wish I could agree with Socrates' arguments, I really do, but I can't -- it's too bad, really.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Plato's Gorgias, Entry 1

So I started listening to Plato's Gorgias on my MP3. I bring it up because it goes back to an issue I have wrestled with over the years:  are there real answers to adversaries like Callicles? But before Callicles there is a VERY timely discussion of rhetoric. So I will concentrate on that here.

Gorgias admits that the rhetorician does not know medicine but knows how to persuade patients to submit to the knife. In fact, the specialty of the rhetorician is to persuade. Thus the students of Gorgias, and the other accomplished sophists, can be very powerful, more powerful than those who actually know the arts themselves. Now, convincing sick people to go to the doctor seems like a great thing. But, as Gorgias admits, specialists at persuasion can also persuade others to do bad things.

Gorgias says the teacher can't be held responsible for students using their training for evil. But rhetoric is a particular kind of skill, a skill at persuading, completely neutral, that bends others to the will of the speaker, so the potential for abuse is readily apparent.

I could go on at length about the many examples I've seen of rhetoric over the course of the presidential campaign, but I want to focus on an exchange one of the candidates had with the head of the Sierra Club before the campaign. You can find the video of this on YouTube if you want to see it. He demolishes this man, who was, admittedly, unprepared for the exchange. I still can't tell whether this candidate believes what he says, but he is certainly capable of defeating others in debate. I was so struck by this that I went back and examined the data for climate change, and of course it was overwhelming. The so-called 'pause' the candidate mentions is the result of an extremely warm year, 1998, apparently brought about by a powerful El Nino.  The candidate went on at length about how it showed that there hasn't been global warming in 18 years. His poor opponent was not prepared for this exchange and looked bad.

I'm sure this exchange has also been used to try to defeat the experts who know about such things. So, you can see that this is directly to Socrates' point. Rhetoric can be used to convince those ignorant on a subject to believe things that are untrue. I'm sure you've also seen lawmakers evade the question of climate change by saying they are not scientists, just like Gorgias says rhetoricians are not doctors. But the scientists ARE scientists, and if those who don't know will go online and exert even the modest effort I made to understand the data, they will be convinced as I have been.