By Gordon Hull
In an earlier post, I took some initial steps toward reading Foucault’s last two lecture courses, The Government of Self and Others (GS) and The Courage of Truth (CT), in which he studies the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia. As I noted last time, one of the things Foucault finds is a concern on the part of the Greeks that philosophy achieve effects in the world, and not remain at the level of “mere logos.”
Here, I want to say more (warning: lots more. Long post coming!) about that framework and discussion, in Foucault’s discussion of Plato in GS. In particular, I want to look at his reading of Plato’s Seventh Letter. I have to confess that I hadn’t read the Letter until this week, despite having read quite a bit of ancient Greek philosophy. I suspect that I’m not alone. This is in part because the authorship has been contested, but also no doubt because the text is completely at odds with most of the rest of Plato’s corpus. On the surface of things, the Letter is a sort of apologia: Plato is explaining his own conduct in relation to Dion and Dionysius of Syracuse, where he consents to offer advice – parrhesia – and becomes embroiled in the feuding between Dion and Dionysius by trying to mediate on Dion’s behalf. Why did he respond to the call? Because:
“I was guided … chiefly by a concern for my own self-respect. I feared to see myself at last altogether nothing but words, so to speak – a man who would never willingly lay hand to any concrete task, for I should practically have been guilty of disloyalty – in the first place to the ties of hospitality and friendship that bound me to Dion. He really was exposed to considerable danger” (328c-d).
At one level, then, Plato is exemplifying the concern that philosophy not be “mere logos,” and in so doing, detailing what can only be described as a very intricate set of involvements and court intrigues, at least based on his account. One can see that something like the character of philosophy and of the one who practices it is at stake here, as Foucault notes. The problem is that if this engagement is what Plato, as a philosopher, thinks he should be doing, then there’s a case to be made that he should not be authoring books of philosophy. Even more strangely, he says so in the letter:
“One statement at any rate I can make in regard to all who have written or who may write with a claim to knowledge of the subjects to which I devote myself – no matter how they pretend to have acquired it, from my instruction or from others by their own discovery. Such writers can in my opinion have no real acquaintance with the subject. I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in [the] future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining” (341b-d)
Elsewhere, he proclaims that “no serious man will ever think of writing about serious realities for the general public so as to make them a prey to envy and perplexity” (344c). He even outlines an epistemology that supports this position: for “everything that exists, there are three classes of objects through which knowledge about it must come; the knowledge itself is a fourth, and we must put as a fifth entity the actual object of knowledge which is the true reality. We have then, first, a name, second, a description, third, an image, and fourth, a knowledge of the object” (342a-b).
Plato does backpedal in a couple of ways, suggesting that if such could be written, “I could do it best” (341d), and that it’s bad to tell people in general of this sort of thing (except “in the case of some few who are capable of discovering the truth for themselves with a little guidance” (341e)), which suggests that some sort of Straussian interpretation is in order. But it remains that the argument in the Letter seems to place Plato’s other texts – particularly the Republic – into question.
Plato’s Republic as Myth
Foucault says of this material:
“I put to you a pure and simple hypothesis: just as Plato says that muthos (myth) should not be taken literally and, in a way, is not serious, or that one should put all one’s seriousness into interpreting it seriously, could we not say the same thing about all those well known texts of the Laws and the Republic which are often interpreted as the ideal form Plato gives to the city that he would like to be real? Should not the activity of the lawgiver in Plato’s thought, the legislative and constitutional schema put forward by the Republic and the Laws, basically be handled cautiously as a myth? May it not be that what is serious in philosophy is found elsewhere” (GS 253)?
I think there’s a lot to the idea that the Republic should be taken as muthos rather than logos (Claudia Baracchi’s book is the must read for this thesis). For one, it makes sense of the narrative. For example, we often hear about how Plato spends a good part of the Republic “banishing the poets.” But if you read the text with any attention, it’s fairly clear that it’s not poets in general, but the Homeric poets specifically, that Socrates doesn’t like, for the same reason that cultural conservatives today don’t like movies like Rambo: they are said to inspire politically destructive imitators (the Letter seems inclined to this view, too: if you tell masses about philosophy, you “would excite in some an unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion, in others certain lofty and vain hopes, as if they had acquired some awesome lore” (341e-342a)). And then there’s the matter of the Myth of Er at the end. Its very existence is a problem if you read the text as logos, but if you’re looking at the mythological structures in it, then it seems like a good example of what Plato thinks should replace the Homeric poetry, precisely because folks will get the allegory and imitate it.
There is also historic precedent for this sort of reading; in Averroës’ commentary on the text, he notes (I am selecting an example somewhat randomly, and it’s probably not irrelevant to the following that he dismisses the myth of Er out of hand) that it is possible that someone of a greater virtue will be born into a lower class (or vice versa). Since people should not do what they are not suited to do, Plato allows limited class mobility. But what about the masses accepting this radical doctrine? “Plato cleverly provided that a story be adopted in the city by which the guardians and the rest of the multitude may be persuaded to transfer their offspring from class to class;” this story would be transmitted to youth by way of music (p. 36, Lerner ed.). More generally, Averroës endorses the Platonic “noble lie,” on the grounds that “untrue stories are necessary for the teaching of the citizens. No bringer of a nomos is to be found who does not make use of invented stories, for this is something necessary for the multitude to reach their happiness” (24).
But notice here that a myth is not a lie – a myth doesn’t claim to have a propositional truth status. Indeed, if one follows Averroës, the usage of myth is necessary for philosophy to engage the world, because most people can’t handle logos on its own. This isn’t really their fault, either, and you can’t really complain about the situation, because they weren’t cut out to do it (Averroës has a further argument that Plato does not: because God made them this way, to criticize them as defective is to criticize one of God’s creations). Elsewhere, he suggests that the person who says that “God is in heaven” is reasoning the best that she (it’s a “she” in the text) can, and is unable to reason without use of her imagination (Decisive Treatise sec. 30). If we don’t insist on the myth as a falsehood, but rather as a way of engaging an audience that cannot understand logos (and who would be actively damaged by it), then the production of texts like Plato’s Republic becomes more sensible, on Plato’s terms.
Philosophy as Ergon
It also offers a way back to the original question of philosophy being active in the world. There’s at least two points to be made.
First, the relation between logos and muthos is complicated, and the urge to keep them fully separate should be resisted. This is not just because, if the Republic is a myth, Plato can excuse himself for writing it. It is also because if we understand the construction and transmission of myth as fundamental to social organizations, and if we understand the Republic as presenting a mythological structure that others might internalize and imitate, then Republic itself can be considered a form of ergon, insofar as it has effects in the world (btw, I don’t know that Foucault would follow the argument this way, though it isn’t that far from his descriptions of his own work as offering a “toolbox” of concepts). At the same time, in order to keep it consistent with the Letter, one would have to admit that it was a lesser or lower form of action: if the object of knowledge is something like “correct government of the city,” then the mythical construction of the Republic is something on the order of a description or perhaps an image. But it’s not nothing, and it presents a way for Plato to resist the reduction of his own thinking to mere logos.
Second, the only reason philosophy might make itself active in this way is that other ways are closed to it. This seems to be a substantial part of the point of the Letter: to show that conditions simply made it impossible for Plato to “do philosophy” in the right way, so long as Dionysius was in charge. He repeatedly tries to offer advice, or engage Dionysius in the longer and more difficult philosophical practices that would allow him to govern well, and is repeatedly rebuffed. He dwells more than once on whether or not one should expose one’s life to danger in its exercise, given the likelihood of intervention being futile. Indeed, he claims to have realized early on that “in regard to all states now existing,  without exception their system of government is bad. Their constitutions are almost beyond redemption except through some miraculous plan accompanied by good luck” (326a).
Plato, in other words, is writing in a time of what he takes to be complete political collapse, and (in the case of Dionysius) is presented with someone completely incapable of philosophical study, who in one, highly disclosive moment, gives Plato a “tyrannical look” (349b) while denying that he made an agreement that he made. So insofar as philosophy is to become more than mere logos, there is a real problem of how that is to happen when the polis and its leadership are fundamentally corrupt. That is, if “for Plato, philosophy demonstrates its reality as soon as it enters the political field in forms which may be quite diverse: lawgiving, advising a Prince, persuading a crowd, etcetera” (GS 229), and this is what distinguishes it from rhetoric (ibid.), then one still requires an opportune time (GS 223) and a set of conditions where someone might receive philosophical instruction profitably.
Plato’s trip can only be regarded as a failure, and most of it is spent performing the simulacrum of justice, using the arithmetic of shopkeepers (in Rancière’s eloquent phrasing), and not the proportions through which justice can be defined and rendered: Plato finds himself in interminable negotiations dealing with not just whether or not Dion is to be exiled, but exactly how his finances are to be distributed.
In other words, and to return to Foucault, for Plato and his contemporaries, “the reality of philosophy will not be its practice as discourse, or even as dialogue. It will be the practice of philosophy as ‘practices’, in the plural; the practice of philosophy in its practices, its exercises” (GS 242). Or, “what is it to put one’s hand to ergon? It is to be the real counselor of a real politician in the field of political decisions he really has to take” (GS 219), and “logos is complete only if it can lead to ergon and organize it according to the necessary principles of rationality” (GS 219). But the case of Dionysius presents a real problem for this move to ergon: what if there is nobody ready or able to listen to the advice? What if the constitution is so thoroughly corrupt that any good advice would be lost in a the sea of bad advice by self-interest courtiers? And so Plato ends up aporetically doing something that he knows isn’t the best, or at least, wouldn’t be the best if his context were better.
Coda: Ethics and Politics
On Foucault’s account, this presents a decisive moment in the genealogy of parrhesia, because it is in Plato and Socrates that parrhesia abandons its political calling for an ethical one. Hence, in Courage of Truth, we read comments like the one associating Socratic parrhesia with the “crisis of political parrhesia, or at least the crisis of political institutions as a possible site for parrhesia” (CT 73). The crisis is provoked by a question: “what makes true discourse powerless in a democracy” (CT 40)? This post is already too long, so I don’t want (here) to discuss the argument in detail, but the gist of it is that it is impossible to distinguish the true parrhesiast from the sophist, and so no standpoint from which the parrhesiast could be recognized. This is not quite the analysis in GS, but it seems to be to get at what might, for Foucault, present an over-determined result: after Plato, parrhesia becomes the province of the ethical interventions of cynics like Diogenes, and loses its direct political meaning.