08 March 2010

"A City in Speech"

My attempts at interpreting T.S. Eliot have been temporarily derailed, so I thought I might return to Republic and make some more comments about the meaning of Socrates' statement that he will "watch a city coming into being in speech."

The great danger of reading Plato (a danger that Socrates is keenly aware of) is that we assume that we already know what he is talking about. What makes Socratic philosophy so glorious is that this danger is itself the very subject-matter of all the dialogues. Thus the question "what is justice," which is ostensibly motivating the entire dialogue, both presumes that we already have some idea what we are looking for (that is, we have some correct opinion about the nature of justice) and that we nonetheless do not know what we are looking for (since we cannot look for what we already have). Thus Socrates dismantles the fine arguments of Cephalus and Polemarchus, arguments that are not incorrect (after all, we do generally say that it is just to "speak the truth and give back what we take"). Yet their definitions are incomplete, and they must be dismantled if they are to be properly reassembled into the appropriate dialectical whole.

The above sounds rather Hegelian, so we should point out the manner in which Socrates is engaging in something completely opposite from Hegel. One way of seeing the difference is to observe Socrates' deep reverence for the divine. We find in Phaedrus, for instance, Socrates expressing a fear of inadvertently offending the gods by speaking unjustly of the nature of love. Hegel interprets the daemon that speaks to Socrates as the voice of reason; we should not make this mistake as Hegel is purposely (but necessarily) misreading the dialogues. The practice of dialectic will lead to the knowledge of justice, not the creation of justice.


Amos Johannes Hunt said...

Sebastian, I would very much like to know how you have come to your conviction that Socrates' pious protestations are earnest, considering that conventionally these are treated as examples of his habitual irony.

Also, is it not simply Hegel's manner of revering the divine to expose it as rational?

Sebastian said...


I see no evidence in Phaedrus to suggest that his piety is ironic, but we would have to decide what we mean by "irony" before we settle that point. It certainly is not ironic in our current sense of the word; and the question of the nature of "Socratic irony" is one we should probably address soon. At any rate, I would suggest that he means his piety seriously, and would ask if you have any textual evidence to the contrary.

As to your second point: I would conditionally agree with you so long as we understand that the exposition of the divinity as rational is precisely the exposition of the divinity as a product of rational subjectivity. God is reason in the form of immediacy. And this means that (to the extent that man is subject and therefore spirit), man is the creator of God, or more simply, man is God.