Plato, “Gorgias” & ‘epistemic closure’

Rufus F.

Rufus is a likeable curmudgeon. He has a PhD in History, sang for a decade in a punk band, and recently moved to NYC after nearly two decades in Canada. He wrote the book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (2021).

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38 Responses

  1. BCChase says:

    I love this article. Great job connecting the classics to relevant debates today.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Rufus, second only to Callicles, you are my hero.

    Onto the essay, I think that Callicles made a rapier-like point where he said: “For the truth is, Socrates, that you, who pretend to be engaged in the pursuit of truth, are appealing now to the popular and vulgar notions of right, which are not natural, but only conventional. Convention and nature are generally at variance with one another: and hence, if a person is too modest to say what he thinks, he is compelled to contradict himself; and you, in your ingenuity perceiving the advantage to be thereby gained, slyly ask of him who is arguing conventionally a question which is to be determined by the rule of nature; and if he is talking of the rule of nature, you slip away to custom: as, for instance, you did in this very discussion about doing and suffering injustice.”

    Look at that again:

    and you, in your ingenuity perceiving the advantage to be thereby gained, slyly ask of him who is arguing conventionally a question which is to be determined by the rule of nature; and if he is talking of the rule of nature, you slip away to custom


    In the case of Socrates, he got called out on how he always took the opposite of the position of the opponent no matter what and to rely upon his own strength as a rhetorician rather than to have an anchor… which is an excellent description of politics in 20XX (so far). You first ask “what position does the other guy have?” and then you take the other and rely upon your own strenth as rhetorician to carry you through the rough spots. *THIS* is nihilism. There is no short-term future, there is no long-term future, there is only right now and what you, my enemy, or the enemy of my enemy of my enemy, is arguing.

    Maybe it’s the wine talking but I can’t help but wonder what Socrates might have amounted to had he believed in something other than in proving points…Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, That’s right! One of the frustrating things about this dialogue for me is that I can sense Plato letting the other characters get in a good crack at Socrates and then inexplicably agreeing to some statement that allows him to neatly trip them up. It seems way too convenient, for instance, that Gorgias agrees right off that an Orator needn’t have any other knowledge but speaking.

      Socrates does tend to argue with everything. But I feel like, at least, Socrates had a motive for tying everyone else up in these logical knots. I’m sure there’s some academic term for this confusion that I don’t know, but it seems like he tries to get them completely confused and disoriented in order to then say, Okay, now that you’re not sure you know anything, let me tell you about the Form of the Good…

      Another sort of implicit criticism of Socrates in the Gorgias is that he specifically says that a bad teacher will suffer because his students will turn against him. And you think, okay, is that what happened to Socrates with the Athenians? And, if so, does that mean he was a bad teacher?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., Heh, I can’t even say. I’ll just say what I was taught and hope that you don’t follow up.

        Socrates was a thorn in the side of the powerful. His rhetoric skills were unmatched. He could make someone who argued that 2+2=4 and that bacon and eggs were good didn’t know what he was talking about and shouldn’t be taken seriously. He, of course, spent most of his time poking not only good and decent folk like Callicles but people with, let me capitalize this, POLITICAL POWER.

        The people with political power *HATED* Socrates. While Socrates just loved to play the game, the folks with power had something to lose. They finally got into a staring match with Socrates and Socrates *REFUSED* to lose. Indeed, he refused to let his opponents pretend to win. They accused him of corrupting the youth and he said “that’s a capital offense, is it not?” and they said “yep” and he said “meet me on such and such a date where you, yourself, can give me the hemlock”.

        They tried for exile, they tried for commuted sentence, they tried for probation.

        Socrates drank it and gave a rooster to Asclepius.

        And, to this day, we love Socrates and *HATE* those who dared challenge him… those with political power.

        All that to say: his students didn’t turn against Socrates. It wasn’t the students at all… and he was a magnificent teacher.

        And if he were here, he’d spend all of his time arguing against me, beating me, and explaining to me how stupid I am after the fact.

        Would that more were like him.Report

  3. Will says:

    Great post, Rufus.Report

  4. I quite enjoyed this.Report

  5. John says:

    For the time being, let me suggest that you keep writing on Plato before turning to the other books on your wall. These are good posts. A post on the Apology would be good, but I’d be interested in your thoughts on piety and belief and the nature of the gods in the Euthyphro (which of course is connected to the trial dialogues). Or the Crito or Phaedo.

    Regarding Beck and epistemic closure and the role of rhetoric, I don’t know if you’ve run across this curiosity indicative–at the least–of having too much time on one’s hands.

    • Rufus F. in reply to John says:

      @John, That’s great! I had not seen that, thanks.

      I’ll definitely do some more Plato. I guess that’s what’s making me think of the Chinese stuff- I’m curious about the Confucian gentleman and whether he’s comparable to the Socratic Guardian. It’s also interesting to me that Confucius and Plato are both writing about the ideal social order during times of serious upheaval. So, it’s all related.

      But, yeah, I’ve been yearning to re-read Crito and Euthyphro too.Report

      • John in reply to Rufus F. says:

        @Rufus F., The connection between the Confucian gentleman and Socratic Guardian would be good for me, as I know very little regarding Chinese thought.

        Socrates recounting of “the laws” speeches in Crito would make for an interesting comparison to his guardians. Socrates–the man imprisoned–speaks for laws which can apparently speak for themselves but which were promulgated by men (or perhaps for Crito’s sake, by the gods).Report

        • Rufus in reply to John says:

          @John, Well, I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m asserting cultural cross-pollination. At least there’s none that I know of. They’re just writing about very similar topics.

          I might actually talk about that with the Euthyphro because I remember he was trying to get Socrates’ approval for ratting out his father, and there’s a similar story in the Analects in which a fellow tries to get Confucius’ approval for a kid in the village who turned in his Uncle for stealing a sheep. Interestingly, both of them disapproved in different ways.Report

  6. A.R.Yngve says:

    Every time I see Glenn Beck I get the impression he’s daring his audience: Let’s see how much smarm and sarcasm I can get away with.

    It’s highly likely that Beck despises his fans. The contempt is written all over that smug mug.Report

  7. Bob Cheeks says:

    Could it be that Beck is a Socratic figure? (JB, wonderful discourse!) Here’s a man who has taught the American people what a “progressive” is and by all accounts the Americans, those that tune in anyway, have come away with a certain knowledge.
    Can Dear Leader do that?
    The purpose of his rhetoric is to align, unify, define, and direct the parasite. And, it is to accuse the productive class of “social’ injustice.
    Is Glenn Beck the modern Socrates speaking to the power of His Magnificence?Report

    • Bob Cheeks in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

      @Bob Cheeks, e.g. Glenn Beck as the American parrhesiast!Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

        @Bob Cheeks, Well, Bob, you have officially blown my mind.Report

      • John in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

        @Bob Cheeks,
        Bob, Can you direct me to a Voegelinian text on parrhesias if there is one?

        All I could find on the term was this interesting account.

        • Bob Cheeks in reply to John says:

          @John, Your link seems to satisfy the definition of the word, though my tendency is to follow Stefan Rossbach (The Gnostic Wars, Edinburgh University Press, 1999)2-5.
          Rossbach, a brilliant scholar, writes that “Parrhesia is a mode of speaking in which language and being touch each other….What compels the parrhesiast to speak the truth in spite of the risks he face is his spirituality.”
          Consequently, parrhesia is the mode of Solzhenitsyn, Bonhoffer, Luther, and of course, the Christ. When we meet a parrhesiast we must be still and listen because we may hear the distant voice of a holy truth.
          I can’t find any Voegelinian reference to the word, and that’s a mystery to me.Report

          • John in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

            @Bob Cheeks, Bob thanks for the reference to the Rossbach book. I will look it up.

            But your reference to Solzhenitsyn has made me in a much better mood. For all of the terror and hardship he went through and that I have never experienced, his account of “the lie” has been life transforming for me. We can bless ourselves that there is no gulag at present, but Solzhentisyn’s account of the lie remains true. The best thing about the lie is that it shows the truth whether that truth be nature or revelation. Perhaps more fundamentally it deals with the distinction belief or unbelief.

            Solzhentisyn and Luther–and Christ as you say–all offer an opportunity for a real lived life in terms of the truth.
            I simply hoped for a Voegelinian text, as I’m doing an amateur study of Voegelin at present and wanted to see what he said about parrhesias other than the Foucauldians that I found online.

            Regardless, thanks for the time.Report

            • Bob Cheeks in reply to John says:

              @John, Good for you. Voegelin has the ability to open the door to the truth of things. He’s difficult to master, or at least to read with a certain degree of confidence. But, once you are able to read him he can move you to the truth of reality. Be sure you have a copy of Vol. 34 of the CW, Autobiographical Reflections. The essays are great but there’s a Voegelinian dictionary that will pay for itself.Report

              • Rufus in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

                @Bob Cheeks, I’ve got to get around to that too. I’ve got through the volume on political religions and gnosticism and two volumes of Order and History, but have a stack of Voegelin waiting for me. Also, my dissertation is dealing with French Romantic authors who were well-nigh obsessed with the idea that 19th c France should be led by a poetic prophet who could interpret the signs of nature, which sounds pretty much like political gnosticism to me.Report

              • Bull E in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

                @Bob Cheeks, Thanks for totally confusing the hell out of me Bob with your fancy vocabulary. I was actually keeping up with the comments until you popped in. I apparently have some reading to do!

                Thanks for keeping me on my toes.Report

            • Bob Cheeks in reply to John says:

              @John, The world is a mystical place. We are always on the cusp of the gulag, it is the nature of fallen man. and always remember Solzhenitsyn knew God and that love sustained him.Report

              • John in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

                @Bob Cheeks, Thanks for the recommendation for a “dictionary” found in vol. 34. I read Autobiographical Relections in an LSU version. So I must read vol. 34. I read a Sandoz edited book and have Eugene Webb’s book, but I need something in Voegelin’s own terms.Report

              • John in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

                @Bob Cheeks, After I read the entire Foucault lectures, I must say that I am impressed. And I am surprised at how clear it is. And good. Why am I surprised? Prejudice and what I had read from Foucault before. This lecture, however, was exceptionally good. Wow.Report

  8. Paul B says:

    I’ve been too busy at work to comment on your last few posts, but I must say this is really good!

    And to tie in another of the memes du jour, I think there’s something here that might refine Noah Millman’s political taxonomy. Something like, how willing are we to settle for Authority in the absence of true Elites?

    Which is to say you can learn a lot about someone’s politics by asking how they feel about, say, Alcibiades (although then I guess you’d have to ask whether they’re looking at Xenophon’s or Plato’s portait of him).Report

    • Rufus in reply to Paul B says:

      @Paul B, That’s interesting- I wonder if Socrates doesn’t accept Authority in the absence of true Elites in the end.

      It actually reminds me a W.C.Fields line that the Socratic expert might keep in mind that went something like, if you intend to tell the people the truth, you should try to make them laugh in the process, because, otherwise, they’re going to try to kill you!Report

  9. Bob Cheeks says:

    John, excellent, then you might want to get Vol. 12, Published Essays, 1966-85 and everyone of these essays is a noetic/pneumatic epiphany..guarentted!Report

  10. Bob Cheeks says:

    Rufus, I am ignorant of the FR. romantic authors, so God bless your work and I hope that when you’re done with the diss. you’ll link us to it. You might enjoy that Vol. 12 of Published Essays as well.Report