PLATO'S LABYRINTH: SOPHISTRIES, LIES AND CONSPIRACIES IN SOCRATIC DIALOGUES. By Aakash Singh Rathore.
Plato's Labyrinth by Aakash Singh Rathore makes a powerful case for reinterpretation of the Greek tradition. It revisits Plato's texts using a diverse range of methodology from Leo Strauss' hermeneutics, Derrida's deconstruction, Umberto Eco's and Dan Brown's reconstruction. Paying attention to the much neglected dramatic elements of the text, the introduction dramatically called the parados (the first song sung by the chorus at the beginning of Greek drama) claims to expose Plato's artistic works as layered with sophistry, lies, contradictions and controversies.The book is a unique contribution to existing literature on Plato as it explores the possibility of reading the text without using conventional philosophical method that typically pitches Plato as an advocate of reason, opposed to rhetoric, emotions, mythology and art. Contributions of British scholars (to name a few) like, Benjamin Jowett's Dialogues of Plato (1875) (1), W. T. Stace's A Critical History of Greek Philosophy (1920) (2), G.C. Field's The Philosophy of Plato (1956) (3), and Indian scholars like S. K. Ookerjee's Human Reason and its Enemies (2009) (4) are examples of the same. Human Reason and its Enemies explicitly attacks what it terms as post modernist attempts to question reasoning and advocate the indeterminacy of truth and meaning. It is critical of all positions that explain truth as that which is enmeshed in endless intertextuality, without any origin or source and that which destabilizes all claims for stable foundation. (6) In contrast, Plato's Labyrinth establishes the legitimacy of philosophical approaches that challenge singular readings of texts as it alone allows for a truly democratic engagement with texts towards constructing inclusive morality.
The book has six chapters, and in a dramatic style, has a parados (that explains the central claims of the book), exodus (that acts as a conclusion in a dramatic way of offering new perspectives and reflections) and two intermissions. The parados explains Strauss' re-reading of the classics, his historicism, his exploration of the tension between the city and philosopher and his hypothesis that certain classical texts are written with esoteric (private) and exoteric (public) teachings. The objective of the book becomes clear: to understand the classical literature (here Plato's dialogues) as exoteric literature that speaks of truths existing, which may not always be accepted as healthy and the consequence of the articulation of these truths may lead to public or private harm. The importance of such a project being to counter forces that homogenize world politics and legitimize freedom achieved through dominance of reason which claims total conquest over social political cultural and natural environment. (6) It does so by revisiting and reconstructing Plato's Parmenides, Republic, Symposium and Meno. It also revisits Xenophones' Hiero, Plato's conspiracy against the Sophists as intermissions to the discussions of the same and lastly, attempts to explain the conspiracy theory against Plato by reading Plato via Homer's Odyssey.
The first chapter titled "The Dramatic Labyrinth: On Plato's Parmenides" (p. 1) urges the reader to rethink Plato's dialogue Parmenides. The author suggests that Parmenides is not merely an investigation into the abstract question of what essentially exists, rather its central engagement is with existential questions of ethics and justice that seeks investigation in the public realm. (7) Conventional discourses have emphasized the content of the dialogue, if one concentrates on methodologies, fantastic particularities and details such as choice of characters (which are the same as Republic, a dialogue on justice), one is able to engage with the text differently and delineate an entirely new purpose and intent. Similarly, chapters investigating the dialogue Republic, namely "Love of Laughter: on Plato's Republic 1.0" and "Joy of Sex: on Plato's Republic 2.0" make a radical case that questions Plato's "spirit of seriousness" in proposing the Utopian state and revisiting the dialogue by examining the relation between eros and tyranny respectively. The author, with precision states the proportion of laughter, absurd and comic in the dialogue. He suggests an inquiry into the same and suggests that the humour that gives us sufficient reasons to believe that Plato could not have been serious about the teachings in the Republic. It seems a tyranny of lies and deception, eugenics, murder and even more significantly (for Plato's concern) "... one where a Socrates would be a priori impossible" (8). The intermission, the reading of the Hiero with the dialogue Republic (Chapter 3) explores the interrelation between tyranny and eros that provides an interesting entry point into the third chapter. By re-reading Republic from this perspective the author claims that moral eros is suggested one of the definitions of justice! (9). Chapter 4 "How to train your Demon: On Plato's Symposuim" makes a case of relation of eros with divinity. The two are identified as identical and the chapter makes a case of reading Symposium as a dialogue explaining erotic divinity of Socrates. The second intermission addresses Plato's conspiracy against the sophists. It deals with few obvious questions (as the author puts it), why did Plato and Aristotle set out to systematically destroy the reputation and legacy of the Sophists? In answering the same, the author not only questions Socrates and Plato's integrity (and claims of sacredness of knowledge) but also makes a bold proposal of sophists as social reformers (10). Most relevant is the book's attention to thinkers like Susan Jarratt and the readings of the marginalization of the sophists (in history of philosophy) being analogous to marginalization of women by mainstream, patriarchal philosophy. Jarratt suggested that the signifier sophist and the signifier woman shared much the same fate in philosophical discourse. They were considered as disruptive, anti-logical, relativist and so forth. More striking, Jarratt posits that we might see the Sophist Gorgias as a proto-feminist (11). Making references to Socrates being charged of sophistry and Plato's attempts to set them apart in the dialogues, the book dwells deeper into the social changes that the Sophists encouraged and the political changes that Periclean Athens witnessed. The author claims that Sophists had an important role to play within the emerging democratic power structure, and they were a critical voice against established aristocratic and traditional structures that served to strengthen democratic institutions in the process of deconstructing egalitarian social ones. Infact without such a challenge Plato could not have crafted his labyrinth! (12) The fifth chapter "The Morality of the Master: On Plato's Meno" explains the relevance and the urgency of such an exercise in times when moral philosophy is equivalent to negative sophistry. The author analyses how virtue has come to play a counter productive role, by explaining the etymological meanings of the terms war, man and virtue, he explains how all are somehow fundamentally related in the so-called Western tradition. The author also explains its transnational nature as a similar understanding is observed in Hindu philosophy prescribed in Bhagwat Gita! (13) Explaining the abiding significance of the dialogue Meno, the book explains ethics as a contentious issue, its origination closely related to politics. The sixth chapter "Reading Plato through Homer's Odyssey: A Conspiracy Theory" revisits the debate between the philosopher and the tyrant, the virtuous and the eros. Using examples of Rodin's Thinker and Myron's Discuss Thrower and characters from Homer's Odyssey, the author explains the final conspiracy. Plato's notion of philosopher ruler and a polis based on mastery of physical and intellectual pursuits is the ideal ground of thriving democracy! (contrary to conventional readings that explain Plato's dislike for democracy). Lastly, the exodus, not only hints towards new beginnings, it also aims at getting all readers, students and teachers of Greek philosophy infected by the passion, frenzy, sophistication and excitement of the Greek times to re-examine both classical as well as contemporary times. (14)
Such propositions would be scandalous for people who adhere to the conventional British literature on Plato and advocates of Human Reason and its Enemies. Plato's Labyrinth would face charges of being, a "... straight massacre or torture and mutilation..." (15) of truth. Further, it would face charges of being a conceited stance that unnecessarily banishes existing body of knowledge without giving sufficient reasons for the same (16). They would argue that just because one doesn't fully understand the text, it does not permit the reader to believe that the thesis is contrary to existing explanations. The presence of two narratives also does not mean that there can be two ways of explaining a truth, it merely requires an investigation into the inadequate one. They would further argue that Plato's Labyrinth clearly advocates a dangerous sort of relativism, fraud that treacherously promotes an anti-reason culture. (17) Yet, the point in Plato's Labyrinth seems to be exactly the opposite. It strives to legitimize all attempts that aim to establish what might seem a mystery or an impossibility from the standpoint of established norms of reason but might have a causal explanation that could reveal another type of causality. It is simply making a case of non coherence of thesis presented to us traditionally! Its "relativist" position makes the reading not only interesting but also emancipatory as it provides a more intelligible understanding of morality than the conventional Platonic epistemological theory of forms and particulars. Advocating Parmenides as a text concerned with ethical considerations, imagining the utopian ideal of republic as a casual hypothesis (as Plato himself said he was day dreaming) (18), proposing erotic divinity and ideal of philosopher ruler as the potential basis of democracy, questioning the legitimacy of Socrates and Plato's claim to truth and dismissing sophists from the history of knowledge (to name few conspiracies highlighted by the author), does not destroy the text. Instead these interpretations bring in perceptions that once again open the book for critical examination. Supporters of Human Reason and its Enemies would strongly dismiss such claims as baseless, systematic distortions and demand reinstituting the authority of reason (over emotions). Undoubtedly, the aim of Plato's Labyrinth is to show the limits of reason and explain the alternate claims that can legitimately claim truth and universality. By doing so, book exposes the dangerous one sided ideologies that have brought a closure to its reading.
Yet, Plato's Labyrinth and Human Reason and its Enemies constitute a binary, the latter privileges reason while the former privileges passions. It keeps intact discourses that construct notions of self (and abilities) by creating notions of non self (and disabilities). Thus, though there is sufficient mention of disabilities and treatment of people with disabilities in the dialogue Republic, it finds no mention in the book. In the discussion on education (in Republic) of the children of the state Plato puts emphasis on rigorous physical and mental education of potential guardians that excludes people from disabilities. (19) He sanctions secret disposal of defective offsprings, (20) there are several references of knowledge being compared to the power of sight, (21) also blindness and other disabilities is used to explain inferior people and state. Conventional readings of the text charge Plato of sanctioning murder and infanticide (22) and justify his state as oppressive and cruel. Yet, in the spirit of Plato's Labyrinth it would be interesting to discuss passages 488b-e (from the Republic), the famous captain ship analogy that describes the prejudice against philosophy and corruption of philosophical nature in contemporary society. The captain of the ship (analogous to the philosopher) is described as "... a bit deaf and short sighted, and similarly limited in seamanship." (23) This could surely be pitched as a "conspiracy" and an alternate reading of the Republic could be attempted that does justice to the post-structuralist engagement with opening up the in-betweeness of binaries. They might, disclose spaces for resistance that create a new discourse that signifies the text and its engagement with disability in radically different ways. Though Plato's Labyrinth contains this potential it falls short of radically altering the discourse as it keeps intact the stability of interior states such as intelligence, attitude, personality, disposition, attribution, social perception, cognition, emotion, ability and competence to explain notions of self and the other. Thus, it fails to address the philosopher ruler as potentially someone who breaks the conventional norms of abled/disabled bodies. In suggesting the ruler either as embodiment of reason or as personification of erotic morality/divinity it suffers from "... disablist epidermal schema...". (24)
Yet, Plato's Labyrinth is important as it provides the opportunity to explore Plato's philosophy in a way that does not endorse a complete closed system. This resistance to closure, opens the possibility of re articulations where the unresolvable nature of contradictions do not affirm anything, nor does it cancel anything, it re-evaluates and reinscribes the position as a problem or a question. In exposing the limits of meaningful structures, by tracing the absences and discontinuities within the systems it gets re invented each time. Such as exercise is urgent for democracy and resisting forces of homogenization that deter all critical thinking. In times of violence inflicted by positivism, such as inquiry is not only relevant but also urgent.
References and Notes
(1) Jowett, Benjamin. (1875) Dialogues of Plato. Oxford: Clarendon. 4 Volumes.
(2) Stace, W.T. (1920) A Critical History of Greek Philosophy. London: MacMillan and Co.
(3) Field, G.C. (1956) The Philosophy of Plato. 1949. London: Oxford University Press.
(4) Ookerjee, S.K. (2009). Human Reason and its Enemies. New Delhi: Promilla and Co.
(5) p. 16
(6) Rathore, A.(2018) Plato's Labyrinth (South Asia Edition). New York: Routledge p. 7
(7) pp. 32-33
(8) p. 46
(9) The author cites several instances to justify the same; taming of Thrasymachus from an abusive opponent to one who starts blushing 66-67), sex education of the guardians to build a harmonious soul that is trained in sexual moderation (73-74), mention of sexual pleasure as rewards of war and a mechanism to control sexual expressions in form of marriage fairs and family (74-75); all make a claim of sexual moderation as justice. True philosophical pursuit is described by comparing with true lovers (75) and tyranny is described as a frenzied erotic soul (78), thus the author suggest that these arguments systematically construct a case to read Republic as text specifying erotic justice (80)
(10) pp. 101-109
(11) pp. 109-110
(12) p. 114
(13) pp. 118-119
(14) p. 149
(15) Ookerjee. S.K. Human Reason and its Enemies. p 56
(16) p. 68
(17) pp. 335
(18) Plato. (2007). Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Classics. para 450d
(19) para 404b
(20) para 460e
(21) para 507b
(22) Popper, Karl. (1966) The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1: The Spell of Plato. (Fifth Edition) London: Routledge and Kegan Paul) p. 51
(23) Plato. (2007). Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Classics. para 488b
(24) Goodley, Dan. "In Discourse: Poststructuralist Disability Studies" in Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: Sage Publications 2011. p. 101. The author has adapted the term from Fanon, F. Black Skins, White Masks(3rd edition). London: Pluto Press. 1993. p.112 to explain how the interior horizon of the self and others in environment affects the "disabled" person's sense of self.
BIRAJ MEHTA RATHI
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|Author:||Rathi, Biraj Mehta|
|Publication:||Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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