When might changing your viewpoint not necessarily mean losing the argument? When should you skip rhetorical set pieces, and pursue dialogic “think pieces”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Tushar Irani. This present conversation focuses on Irani’s Plato on the Value of Philosophy: The Art of Argument in the Gorgias and Phaedrus. Irani, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University, works on issues at the intersection of ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology in ancient philosophy (particularly in Plato). His current project focuses on Plato’s Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman, and he is co-editing a special issue for the journal Metaphilosophy on the theme of philosophy as a way of life.
ANDY FITCH: If it wouldn’t sound so similar to a best-selling publication by our current president, I’d perhaps suggest tweaking your subtitle, and renaming this book “The Art of the Argument,” since engaging, articulating, enacting that art seems so crucial both to the principal texts you track (Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus), and to your own project. Plato on the Value of Philosophy argues, in fact, that in order to arrive at a sufficiently Socratic conception of (rather than mere fortuitous knack for) this art, we might have to provide a comprehensive theory of human motivation (of a type more typically found in reflections on politics), and that to adequately grasp the most exhilarating relational possibilities within the domain of “argument,” we likewise might need to reconsider the seemingly quite distinct domain of “love.” Along the way, notorious ambiguities within the terms “logos” (as generalized linguistic expression, as incisive reasoned account) and “virtue” (for Callicles a zero-sum competitive dominance over one’s interlocutor, for Socrates a positive-sum collaborative pursuit of wisdom) may also need to pick up more precise delineation. So could we start from Socrates’s somewhat elliptical formulation, early in the Gorgias, of politics as caring for the souls of others, and could we arrive at Socrates’s more fully fleshed-out conception of love (with the Phaedrus’s palinode reaching its apex by describing an awe-filled response to the other — a recognition, within this other, of “values and commitments that inspire a sense of shared purpose”), and talk through how Socrates’s own art of argument might bring seemingly discrete and / or mutually exclusive aspects of art, politics, love, reason, and virtue into harmonious (even mutually enhancing) alignment?
TUSHAR IRANI: Thanks for this close reading of my book, Andy. I had in mind a different title at first, “Lovers of Argument,” which I thought captured the main topic pretty well. The publisher asked for Plato’s name to appear upfront, however, and we settled on the current title. It’s not as catchy but I’m also happy with it. In writing the book, I came to see that one of Plato’s chief goals in the Gorgias and Phaedrus is to justify the practice of philosophy as a way of life. It’s possible to say this of any Platonic dialogue, but the idea that the life of philosophy requires a proper engagement in argument and (as my book claims) a proper engagement with other people seems especially central to Plato’s project in these two dialogues. So explaining how the practice of argument might be conducted artfully means also, for Plato, explaining the value of philosophy as that art.
Now, Plato draws a connection in the Gorgias between Socrates’s practice of argument and the practice of politics. Famously, perhaps even scandalously in Plato’s own day, he has Socrates near the end of the dialogue proclaim himself the finest practitioner of politics among his contemporaries. It’s an extraordinary statement, but Socrates then defends it in the following sentence by drawing attention to his use of arguments / speeches (logoi). What distinguishes his approach to politics, Socrates says, is that his logoi aim at benefiting an audience, rather than simple gratification. I think this helps illuminate his formulation of the art of politics (from earlier in the Gorgias) as caring for the souls of others. You’re right to call that formulation elliptical, but as is often the case when reading Plato, we can fill in the ellipsis by referring to other things said in the dialogue. It turns out we have several questions to consider here. In what sense, according to Socrates, does the practice of politics concern itself with the human soul? What does caring for the soul involve exactly? How does Socrates’s use of argument demonstrate such care? And how does this make him a great practitioner of politics? Plato explores all of these questions in the Gorgias, I believe, and goes some way towards resolving them in the Phaedrus.
Socrates thinks of politics in the Gorgias as inherently concerned with the human soul, because arguments in the political sphere typically achieve their ends by affecting our beliefs and values. He establishes this point in his discussion with Gorgias early in the dialogue. Gorgias locates the great power of rhetoric in the political influence it provides its practitioners. Socrates then gets Gorgias to be more specific: insofar as the end of rhetoric is persuasion, it must aim at influencing human psychology. So the political art that Gorgias purports to offer his students is in fact an art of affecting souls (this comes very close to the view of rhetoric that the historical Gorgias seems to have held when we read his Encomium of Helen).
For Socrates, the problem with rhetoric, as generally practiced, is that it operates with a poor view of human psychology. To use his well-known analogy, conventional rhetoric functions like pastry-baking, the chief point of which is to gratify an audience. His objection is not (as many scholars have held) that rhetoric lacks a set of technical principles to explain its influence over an audience. The problem is that the rhetorician’s standard for an effective speech consists simply in providing maximal pleasure. That assumes a poor view of human psychology, because it treats us merely as pleasure-seekers.
In a sense, Plato’s whole defense of philosophy as a way of life rests on the idea that there’s more to human motivation than our desire for pleasure alone. To live well, we need to clarify which of our life pursuits are worth taking pleasure in and which are not. The conventional practice of rhetoric has no interest in such clarificatory work. It makes unreflectiveness a virtue. But I take it that the unexamined life is not worth living in just this sense: it deprives us of an understanding of what’s worth living for. Does the practice of philosophy supply us with that understanding? Not necessarily, yet Socrates seems to have believed we cannot do without philosophy once we’ve committed to the project of living well — and who isn’t committed to this? As he puts it in the Gorgias: “What would a human being of even little intelligence take more seriously than this?”
Socrates thus comes to express his care for others (and so, on the Gorgias’s terms, the true art of politics) precisely through his use of argument. As you might expect, many readers of Plato disagree. Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy memorably refers to Socrates as a “despotic logician,” and even Gregory Vlastos (one of the foremost ancient-philosophy scholars over the last century, and a great admirer of Socrates) charges Socrates with a “failure of love,” quoting Nietzsche approvingly in this context — though in a later essay, Vlastos walks back this charge. Plato acknowledges these criticisms of Socrates. Indeed, many characters in his dialogues make the same points. But Plato also believes they’re wrong and gives us reasons to think they’re wrong. It’s natural to regard Socrates’s use of argument as despotic once we buy into the Gorgianic view that all arguments aim at interpersonal domination. Much of the Gorgias explores the pervasiveness of this view. However, Plato clearly seeks to distinguish Socrates’s approach to argument from the Gorgianic approach. When we engage with others in the pursuit of understanding or wisdom, we cannot think of argument as a zero-sum practice of domination, because wisdom is a common good.
Consider here Socrates’s claim that he counts it a greater good to be refuted than to refute. That kind of attitude suggests someone whose love of argument is governed by the pursuit of wisdom rather than of domination. I was reminded of this recently in rereading the end of the Symposium, the moment right after Alcibiades has stumbled in drunk and joined the gathering. Alcibiades is aghast to find himself sitting beside Socrates, and he insists on making Socrates a victory wreath to match the one he’s given Agathon — because, he says, Socrates has never lost an argument in his life. From our perspective as readers, this sounds strange, since we’ve just heard Socrates describe how Diotima refuted him and schooled him in the art of love. We can’t expect Alcibiades to have been privy to Socrates’s discussion with Diotima. But why does Plato have Alcibiades say something so clearly contradicted by what we’ve read a few pages earlier? I think because there’s really no contradiction at all: if being refuted is a great good, then Alcibiades’s statement makes sense. Socrates is the sort of person who, even when “losing” an argument, still wins. That’s what being a philosopher requires for Plato.
What about Vlastos’s failure-of-love charge against Socrates? Let me note a piece of trivia here that seems to bear on this question: I learned in doing the research for my book that, of all the terms Socrates uses to address his interlocutors in Plato’s dialogues, among his favorite are vocative phrases containing philos or hetairos and their cognates. Both terms convey affection for an addressee and a sense of companionship, and both get used commonly in Greek literature as forms of address. But scholars have found that close to 95% of these friendship expressions in the Platonic corpus come from Socrates himself (and significantly, most of the remaining occurrences come from other philosophically inclined characters such as Diotima in the Symposium, the Eleatic Visitor in the Sophist and Statesman, and the Athenian Visitor in the Laws). Socrates also often swears by the “god of friendship” (one of the aspects under which the Greeks worshipped Zeus), and in the Euthyphro he refers to his love of humanity (philanthrôpia). Some readers doubt the sincerity of these words, but Plato clearly goes to great lengths to suggest that Socrates expressed genuine care for others — and it’s not only Plato: Xenophon’s Memorabilia also describes Socrates as philanthrôpos.
In answering Vlastos’s charge, then, we need to assess the view of friendship that Plato assumes when he characterizes Socrates as a friend to others. Luckily, the dialogues have a lot to say about the topic of love and friendship. The Gorgias touches on this topic in various places, but Plato does not resolve all the questions he raises in that text. On my reading, the Gorgias regards the conventional practice of rhetoric as no art, while leaving open the idea that an art of rhetoric may exist. Further, we learn in this dialogue that the conventional rhetorician shows no true care for the human soul, and Plato develops some powerful arguments to refute the idea of the good life as the life of pleasure. Along the way, Socrates draws connections between the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of wisdom. But what the Gorgias really lacks in order to defend Socrates’s practice of argument is a comprehensive view of the human good — and to explain that, Plato must put forward a more comprehensive view of human psychology. He provides both things in the Phaedrus.
The Phaedrus completes the project that Plato begins in the Gorgias by giving us a layered, intricate portrait of the human soul. As is well known, Socrates’s chariot allegory in the Phaedrus’s palinode depicts human psychology as complex and divided into three parts. Less well known is Socrates’s account (also in the palinode, and right before the allegory) of the soul’s essence, where he defines the soul generically as a principle of self-motion in living things. How does that definition of the soul fit with the allegory’s tripartite view of the soul? My book argues that, for Plato, the rational part of the human soul best represents this principle of self-motion — in the sense that it represents the leading or end-setting part of us, the part most responsible for independent thought and action. By no means does this suggest that Plato neglects other aspects of our nature. Again, his recognition of the complexity of human motivation remains one of his signal achievements as a philosopher. But if caring for another soul means caring for our human nature as self-movers, then Plato believes he has good grounds for portraying Socrates as a friend to others, since Socrates’s use of argument involves treating his interlocutors primarily as independent reasoners.
Then in terms of present-day applications, when your opening paragraph mentions wanting this book to be of “more than scholarly interest,” when your introduction raises the classical conception of “misology” as hatred of reasonable discourse, when Socrates describes “completely uneducated” disputants of his time incessantly seeking adversarial victory in the eyes of spectators, I can’t help sensing a quite damning assessment of present-day conversation, partisan politics, social-media snark. Of course, amid Plato on the Value of Philosophy’s cordial, inviting approach to its reader, you yourself never offer any such stark pronouncements. But what practical lessons might contemporary readers gain from considering the comparative models of, say, Gorgias undermining arguments in order to dominate interlocutors, alongside Socrates’s more therapeutic method (in its ideal form at least) of conjuring a compelling argument by following reason wherever it may lead a collaborative exchange, harnessing his interlocutor’s internal sense of compulsion rather than exerting external pressure — hopefully prompting less some sense of subdued subordination then an exhilarating sense of being led (again by reason) beyond oneself? What might we learn from Platonic dialogue about restraining the impulse to impose “clarification” upon one’s apparent rival? How might it most constructively shape our argumentative practice to recognize, as you say, that clarification only can occur when one’s interlocutors “arrive at their views for themselves,” as a “distinctive achievement in individual minds”? And if we can conceive of wisdom’s pursuit as a two-way street, how might we, when entering a conversation with somebody “different” from us, likewise learn to embrace feeling both disoriented and at one with ourselves, “held captive yet set free”? How, and why, ought we to direct our inclinations towards philosophical argument to the love of others for their own sake? And how might recurrent scenes of Socrates’s seemingly compelling argument failing to convince his interlocutor (or at least not dominating his conversation partner, not crowding out, or “correcting” in some definitive sense) in fact exemplify an art of productive argumentative practice?
I’ll start with your last question. Socrates’s argumentative practice engages with his interlocutor’s views from the inside. He usually ends up challenging (sometimes sharply) other people’s views, and as a consequence readers often think of him as combative by nature. Yet there are good epistemic reasons for addressing the beliefs of those with whom one disagrees. When I imagine Socrates in his “downtime,” I picture him running his characteristic method of questioning against himself (the Symposium offers nice descriptions of Socrates doing something like this). And I presume that whatever convictions he holds have survived his own self-scrutiny. But the fact remains (and Socrates seems troubled by this) that his beliefs lie far outside the mainstream. The practice of questioning others thus becomes essential to the integrity of Socrates’s beliefs: if an interlocutor’s views can withstand his scrutiny, then Socrates has reason to reconsider the strength of his convictions; if, on the other hand, an interlocutor’s views turn out to be ill-founded, inconsistent, or confused, then Socrates’s convictions endure another day.
Does this make Socrates’s use of argument self-serving? It does in a way, insofar as addressing other people’s beliefs helps him understand his own beliefs. But that’s not incompatible with Socrates’s method also benefitting others. In fact, my view is that once we rethink the standard of success for Socrates’s arguments, we can see how he provides a benefit even to his most recalcitrant interlocutors. In terms of the persuasive effect of his arguments, characters like Euthyphro, Meno, Polus, Callicles, Thrasymachus, and many others all come away from their interactions with Socrates basically unmoved. However, if I’m right, Socrates never aims to move his interlocutors externally in this way when he refutes them. Socrates expects his interlocutors to move themselves, and he engages with them on that basis. Yet whether they do move themselves isn’t ultimately up to him. Plato recognizes that attaining the Socratic ideal is hard, that to prefer being refuted to refuting someone else runs against some of our deepest instincts as social creatures. In all of the dialogues, I count only Theaetetus as the sort of character who regards being refuted as a cause of wonder rather than a trick or an annoyance or a disgrace. Still, in seeking to understand (and in refuting) his interlocutors’ beliefs, Socrates at least nudges them closer to understanding their own beliefs — and on my reading, it’s this desire to understand that he most aims to provoke in others.
Take even the hardest case of Callicles, whom Socrates finds distinctive in the Gorgias for his native intelligence. Callicles is appalled, but also genuinely perplexed, that Socrates can believe it better for a person to suffer an injustice than to commit an injustice. So when Callicles barges into the discussion, he comes equipped with a powerful, reasoned account of the difference between natural justice and conventional justice. He puts forward a genealogical critique of conventional morality, explaining why he believes egalitarian norms are false and how they have secured their grip in democratic societies. The cogency of this theory has influenced many moral and political philosophers since, and we can suppose within the Gorgias’s drama that Callicles has spent time developing it. No doubt, Callicles enters the dialogue so forcefully in large part because he believes Socrates has got things seriously wrong. However, he also enters with a desire to outdo Socrates in argument — which makes for a potent mix. He is motivated both by a commitment to a view he believes true and by a need for personal triumph.
Of course, Socrates knows where to apply pressure to Callicles’s theory. The theory relies on a distinction between those whom Callicles deems the superior or stronger in society, and those he deems the inferior or weaker. According to Callicles, natural justice demands that the superior dominate and get more than the inferior. Socrates asks him to clarify two issues. What exactly distinguishes those with superior natures? And what goods should such people get more of? It turns out that Callicles hasn’t given much thought to either issue. While he valorizes the superior man and the life of power, Callicles cannot explain what the goodness of such a life consists in. A key turning point in the Gorgias occurs soon afterwards, when Callicles finds himself endorsing the life of pleasure. He clearly doesn’t accept this hedonist position, yet feels he must affirm it. Why? He’s compelled by his desire to win the argument. And it’s at just this point, Socrates asserts, that Callicles abandons his initial interest in their argument.
None of this, it seems to me, shows that Socrates fails to properly engage Callicles in argument. Callicles enters the dialogue confident in his views and committed to their truth. If he remains committed after the dialogue, he will need to rethink carefully the relation between the human good and his ideal of the superior man. Socrates always benefits his interlocutors in this way, by getting them to explore the implications of their views and the blind spots in their thinking. Yet with Callicles the benefit goes deeper. For on Plato’s presentation, Callicles’s conflicting desires get exposed in his exchange with Socrates. Callicles begins the exchange by arguing for the truth of a theory that matters to him. But the moment he lets his love of victory prevail, he turns his back on that goal. Worse, he turns his back on his own understanding, on the prospect of determining what his views really are. So when Socrates ends up frustrating Callicles’s desire to win, and refutes him, that provides a common good. It exposes and overcomes an impediment to their argument, an argument that Callicles evidently cares about.
Might Socrates’s approach to argument provide a model for how we should conduct ourselves in argument today? Yes, I think so. We may not accept Callicles’s ideas, but his conflict remains very much our conflict. Like him, each of us feels a commitment to the truth of views that matter to us. And just as with him, the love of victory and acclaim presents us with powerful distractions. The modern world, in fact, offers countless opportunities for self-aggrandizement and posturing that can divert us from engaging genuinely with others in argument. You ask in particular about conversing with those who hold beliefs that differ from our own. We should start by recognizing that our task isn’t to impose our views on others. Certainly, it can feel disorienting when we encounter people not too unlike us who don’t share our core convictions. A standard response echoes Callicles’s response: contempt and hostility. A better response may be wonder, as when children begin to feel that the beliefs and values of their parents might not be their own. I imagine Socrates strolling through the Athenian marketplace with a similar attitude of childlike awe as he encounters people who don’t share his views, as though he’s thinking: How strange, that all these people, people like me, can believe such different things about the same matters, matters we all care about. That’s a healthy state of disorientation, a state that prompts Socrates to inquire into and assess the beliefs of others, and to clarify his own. Though I ought to be careful here in what I recommend. We need not (and perhaps should not) attempt to deploy Socrates’s technical ability to pick apart people’s views and ferret out contradictions — aside from other concerns, this is a tremendously hard thing to do. Still, we should do as much as we can to adopt the Socratic ethos, as Plato regards it, by addressing the beliefs of others with good will and an interest in mutual understanding.
Here could we pause on Socrates, even as he articulates this most prosocial perspective on dialogue, actually coming across as quite cranky? Here the question not just of Socrates’s seeming failure to persuade his rivals, but of Socrates’s broader difficulty in even finding a suitable partner (an equal in conversation and reasoning and argument) stands out. And here could you also discuss what role you see readers themselves playing in the enlivening of Socratic argument? Could we pivot, for example, to the Phaedrus’s palinode, with Socrates describing the (presumably elder) lover’s motivations and corresponding practice (with this lover ideally playing the part of fellow companion in philosophical pursuits — not of infallible authority figure, not of primary content-provider before a passive audience, not of self-serving manipulator to watch warily)? And how might readers find themselves, like the palinode’s (presumably novice) beloved, reflected back in this lover’s exemplary pursuit of wisdom? How ought readers respond to the palinode’s most crucial prompt towards what you describe as “ensouled engagement”? How might we embrace our initially asymmetrical relation to Socrates, yet still find room for growth on both sides? What might it mean for us ultimately to become active lovers of Socrates (and / or of his creator Plato)? What might it mean for us to devote ourselves to the good of Socrates or of Plato? In what ways might Socrates / Plato need us as interlocutor, for his own benefit?
We don’t appreciate as often as we should how the Platonic dialogues reveal so much more of Socrates’s interlocutors than just their professed beliefs. Whether these characters respond to his practice of argument with (for instance) displeasure, embarrassment, resentment, aggression, or indifference almost always discloses something significant about their motivations as inquirers and their attitudes towards others. For this reason, I think we can regard the Socratic method as a diagnostic test. Do Socrates’s interlocutors find, in the confusion to which he leads them, an occasion for further reflection and examination? If so, then this method has exposed an aspiration to get things right, which can serve as the basis for a more productive discussion. But of course most of the dialogues do not proceed this way. Instead, Plato calls our attention to the more complicated reactions — psychological (Meno’s evasiveness), physiological (Thrasymachus blushing), and even psychophysiological (Polus laughing) — that prevent Socrates from finding an ideal discussion partner. Plato does this not just because it makes for a livelier reading experience, but to represent the boundless variety of the human personality and the limits it places on reasoned discourse.
Compare Thrasymachus in the Republic with Glaucon and Adeimantus. Readers generally regard the latter as Socrates’s yes-men, and they do come across as more tractable than some of his interlocutors in other dialogues. Socrates himself often raises doubts about the brothers’ commitment to the argument being advanced in the dialogue, but he values them as discussion partners nonetheless. What makes the two brothers special to him? Unlike Thrasymachus in Book 1, Glaucon and Adeimantus demonstrate in Book 2 an aspiration to get things right. Socrates’s refutation of Thrasymachus hasn’t yet convinced them that the just life is more worth living than the unjust life, so they develop some forceful objections to Socrates’s view, to get him to defend it. They do so not out of ill will or from a desire for one-upmanship, but to pursue a line of inquiry they care about further: to see the value of the just life clarified.
Contrast this with Thrasymachus’s failure as an interlocutor. There’s a moment in Book 1 right after Thrasymachus introduces his idea of a true ruler, which he advances to save his account of justice, when he trolls Socrates. Thrasymachus goads Socrates at this point to refute the account and to practice his “harmdoing.” Socrates then asks, and here I paraphrase: “Is this what you think I’m doing? Trying to harm you in argument?” And Thrasymachus responds: “Yes but you can’t harm me now, you loser!” That’s not an exaggeration. We see here a wicked and delightful piece of trash talk in their exchange, but it indicates two other things as well. First, it shows us just how far apart Socrates and Thrasymachus start off in their attitudes towards argument, with Thrasymachus regarding Socrates’s practice as nothing more than a tool of assault. Second, it shows us a disposition to outdo others that is symptomatic of Thrasymachus’s way of life and is entirely in keeping with the pleonectic ethos that underwrites his view of interpersonal relations. By engaging Thrasymachus in argument, Socrates brings that way of life and approach to human relations to the surface. Thrasymachus fails the diagnostic test as a lover of wisdom.
My sense is that what Socrates does to an interlocutor with his method, Plato does to a reader with his Socrates. Whether we respond to Socrates with mistrust, annoyance, animosity, or even veneration may reveal more about us than about Socrates (and say what you like about Plato’s lifelong fixation with Socrates, but the attitude Plato exhibits throughout the dialogues remains one of arm’s-length admiration, never of uncritical worship). I read a Platonic dialogue properly for the first time as an undergraduate and was smitten, as many people are, with the beauty of Plato’s writing. It helped that the dialogue was the Phaedrus, with its captivating depiction of interpersonal love in Socrates’s palinode. I felt that the work expressed wonderfully something I was trying to put into words at the time (it also helped, I guess, that I encountered this text in my late teens). But I had no acquaintance with the rigors of philosophical argument, and little love for Socrates. I found the back and forth of his dialectical questioning dizzying, and formed the usual first-time reader’s conviction that this was all an elaborate game of deception — with Socrates leading the discussion as he willed, to a conclusion he already held.
However, Plato has a way of drawing us in again as readers to constantly consider and reconsider our first impressions. In encountering other dialogues, I saw Socrates’s own discussion partners voicing the same suspicions about him that I had. So it seemed Plato had anticipated my reaction, which led me to ask why. Either he was confirming and validating my problems with Socrates (some scholars do take this view, and it’s not an unreasonable one) or he was inviting me to explore whether Socrates had motivations other than those I assumed. And the more I followed that second line of inquiry, the more familiar I became with the practice of philosophy in general and with Socrates’s mode of questioning in particular, and the more I found value in this strange practice and this utterly strange character.
To take a stab at your question, then, I’d say that devoting ourselves to the good of Socrates or Plato requires that we see the good of wisdom as they did — as a good worth pursuing for its own sake and, further, as a common good. My initial mistake in reacting to Socrates reflected the same mistake made by Callicles and Thrasymachus and most of his interlocutors: not so much that I found Socrates the character maddening (he is maddening), but that I’d bought into a notion of argument as a tactic of manipulation, and could view Socrates’s engagement with others only in such terms. As I point out in the book, this attitude towards argument prevailed in Plato’s day, just as it prevails in ours. Yet part of Plato’s project in the dialogues involves showing how the adoption of such a view reflects a diminished sense of our relations with others, and of our full range of desires as human beings.
Incidentally, Phaedrus makes this same mistake in reacting to Socrates’s speeches on love. He treats Socrates’s two speeches as rhetorical displays, as part of a competition with Lysias. It took me some time to see that Socrates does something quite different. Read together, his speeches seem to argue for opposite things through verbal trickery, with the first speech rejecting love and the second speech praising love. Socrates confronts Phaedrus with the challenge to consider the content of the speeches more deeply. Plato confronts us with the same challenge as readers. Socrates’s first speech rejects a merely pleasure-seeking kind of love, the kind of love that Phaedrus himself displays in the dialogue as a lover of logoi. Socrates’s second speech, the palinode, praises a kind of love that shows a different aspiration — an aspiration for wisdom, which Socrates assigns to the philosopher. To take the apparent opposition between the two speeches and ask how, read together, they are meant to deepen rather than manipulate our understanding; to observe that the first speech in fact expresses an important truth about a certain kind of love; and to be led in this way to examine the nature of love; all of this displays the attitude of the philosophical lover in the palinode. I believe Plato seeks precisely this response from us as readers. We develop an ensouled engagement with his dialogues by treating them not as rhetorical set pieces, but as think pieces.
Again in terms of Plato’s textual scenes not only depicting, but seeking to elicit, constructive social / philosophical practices, I return to your book repeatedly emphasizing how Socrates’s interlocutors resist not simply his arguments, but his whole way of life. I wonder whether, according to your own reasoning, one ever can argue well without having cultivated an exemplary way of being. And while I do recognize the basic disharmony (or lack of integrity) in a competitive and domineering rhetorician like Callicles seeking to ingratiate himself with a crowd, I sense a potential parallel even for the contemporary lovers (not just the ancient rivals) of Socrates — when these lovers, seeking to maintain space and time to pursue philosophical wisdom, feel pressured to ensconce themselves within the professional academy, presumably by displaying a mastery (rather than an enraptured embrace) of Platonic texts. So how can today’s Socratic lovers keep that love alive and thriving? What hardest work does such active philosophical love demand of us individually, and in what ways do our own self-moving propensities require us to help others likewise become self-movers? Where do you see contemporary philosophical practice most harmoniously engaged in this ongoing cultivation of wisdom as a social good, pursued collaboratively? And / or how have you personally sought (particularly through so many deft literary touches) to speak to, in this book’s final phrase, that “bit of philosophy in all of us”?
Cripes, these are difficult questions. Let’s face it: political life has never really welcomed the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake — which explains, in part, the need for a place like the professional academy. Still, you emphasize the status of wisdom as a common good, and ask about its implications. Socrates perhaps approached human nature and its receptiveness to his argumentative practice a bit too idealistically. Or at least, I see Plato making that point in the dialogues. My book makes the core claim that our attitudes towards others shape our attitudes towards argument. Yet the reverse also seems likely: how we regard the practice of argument can influence how we regard others. I suspect this may have happened with Socrates. He starts out with the belief that the practice of argument should clarify how things are, and his treatment of others as preternaturally rational corresponds with that view. A further correspondence is that Socrates historically appears to have held an intellectualist account of human motivation, according to which we desire only what we deem good for us, whereas Plato moves away from that account in the Gorgias, I believe, and rejects it decisively in the Phaedrus.
Now, a number of caveats are in order here. When I say Socrates regarded others as too rational, I don’t meant to suggest that he ignored our affective nature as human beings. On the contrary: Socrates’s idealism consisted in his belief that all our desires fall under an ardent human need to understand, and he engaged others in argument on this basis. But be that as it may, Socrates did not expect his interlocutors to possess an exemplary way of being. His was never a closed circle. Rather, he came to think of everyone as being, like him, in a comparable state of confusion about matters of value, and he thought that by bringing this confusion to light he could induce in others a need to perfect their understanding, and thus effect in them a change for the better. We can interpret the Theaetetus’s portrait of Socrates as an intellectual midwife along these lines.
Plato evidently found this laudable and inspiring. While he disagrees with Socrates about the complexity of our desires, Plato retains on my reading a certain optimism about human nature: a belief that, despite our complexity, the reason-seeking part of us remains the essential and leading part — the human being within the human being, to use his lovely image from the Republic. The “bit of philosophy in all of us” is this desire that all of us have to get things right (which differs from the desire to be right), and Plato thought that, with suitable work, we can cultivate this impulse.
What kind of work? The practice of argument provides a principal site for such cultivation, in my view, though it need not be the only place where philosophy happens. Bernard Williams has noted that the significance of philosophy for a person’s life does not lie in its findings, according to Plato, but emerges instead from its activities. That should prompt us to ask whether, apart from the practice of argument, we might appropriately view other activities as philosophical. Plato himself counted at least the practice of music and the practice of mathematics as philosophical activities. Why so? Well, both involve attending to the beauty of abstractions — a melodious tune, say, or a challenging proof. But further, we engage in these practices chiefly for the sake of non-zero-sum goods, where our efforts to get things right (to sing in tune or to solve the proof ) come at no expense to other participants. Such activities, in fact, are best pursued collaboratively, and I think this is another reason Plato valued them. They offer additional places to cultivate the philosophical impulse.
Perhaps, then, there exist more occasions than we realize to pursue philosophy in a broad sense, both inside and outside the academy, and beyond one’s field of mastery. Within the academy, one can find opportunities to partner with researchers with different disciplinary methodologies on matters of shared concern: scientists, literary scholars, economists, historians, and others. Then of course there’s the practice of teaching and the possibilities it offers to engage with students and contribute to their understanding. Outside the academy, there are opportunities to put philosophy into practice through different media and in various public spaces. One of the most powerful experiences in my career recently has come from teaching philosophy in prison, following the example of some of my colleagues. Other programs support philosophy for children and philosophy in pubs, and the relevance of philosophical reasoning to fields like medicine, law, and business has long been acknowledged.
But let’s think even more creatively. If the basic philosophical impulse lies in the desire to get things right, then it seems we can hone this impulse in any domain that demands an attitude of care. Activities as diverse as raising a child, devoting oneself to a craft, volunteering for a cause, gardening, coaching a sports team, and promoting a social initiative all stand to benefit when governed by the practice of philosophy in this broad sense. It has become customary to regard the public value of philosophy in terms of the skills that philosophers can bring to bear in civic life. The application of such skills to matters of public consequence is admirable and worth encouraging, yet it would be a mistake to reduce the value of philosophy to these instrumental uses, and to expect such activism from all professional philosophers. Let’s not forget that a philosophical ethos can be adopted in the service of projects to which we’re already committed and in which we’re already involved. The hard work doesn’t lie in finding places to do philosophy, but in avoiding the self-puffery that can corrupt our relations with others and hinder our achievement of the things we care about. True self-motion, in this case, requires what Iris Murdoch calls habits of “unselfing.”
Plato seems to have perfected this art of unselfing in his dialogues. In the whole history of Western philosophy, I can’t think of another writer so simultaneously present and absent in their work. To most of the questions he raises in his dialogues, Plato does not supply ready answers, so much as an invitation to continue inquiring. And where he does offer answers, he expects us to struggle with them, rather than accept them. I suppose that’s what remains captivating for me about reading Plato, and it motivated me in writing my book. I began the book with the Phaedo’s scene of Socrates’s death and his warning in that dialogue against misology, and I ended it with “us,” because I came to conclude that the final import of this warning consists in the care that Socrates had for others. Plato expresses the same care for his readers, in my view, and I wanted to retain some of that spirit in the book, so it’s heartening to hear this came through. Thank you!