John Sallis: On Beauty and Measure

On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman Book Cover On Beauty and Measure: Plato's Symposium and Statesman
The Collected Writings of John Sallis
John Sallis. Edited by S. Montgomery Ewegen
Indiana University Press
2021
Paperback $25.00
160 Pages, 22 graphs

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, UAE University)

Translating Plato Back into Greek: A Review of Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman

I. Sallis’s Method of Reading Plato

John Sallis’s On Beauty and Measure: Plato’s Symposium and Statesman, expertly edited by Shane Montgomery Ewegen, offers an illuminating and nuanced interpretation of Plato’s texts.[1] This volume contains Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman. Sallis’s reading of Plato gives direction, unwavering focus, and elicits insights into the most meaningful truths. If one reads Sallis carefully and without prejudice – if one really reads him – one stands a very good chance to find heretofore untreaded paths in Plato’s dialogues.

From the start, Sallis calls our attention to the manner in which we should engage with Plato. It is only when we set aside any “ready-made preconceptions” (3) that we may have the meaning of Plato’s writing, and that we “begin to learn how to read” (3) the Symposium, the Statesman, or any of the dialogues. It should go without saying, but Sallis’s text should be read just as Plato’s: with great care, slowly, and with Plato’s original side by side. If we adopt this kind of measured approach, then we can experience in Plato’s and in Sallis’s writing the “wonder—which, for the Greeks, was the beginning of philosophy” (3). Part of Sallis’s methodology to which he calls our attention time and again is his focus on the difference and the distance between Plato and the dialogical characters. This is an absolutely essential insight that Sallis articulates for us when he writes that “Plato is an unusual kind of author. … [I]n all of the dialogues attributed to Plato—Plato never speaks in his own name. … Plato never says a word. … Of course, many people are prone to using the phrase ‘Plato says …’; however, as soon as one says this, one has become careless and has failed to attend to the character of the Platonic dialogues” (73). This distance between Plato, the author, and any of his dialogical characters serves to alert the readers and interpreters of Plato to the fact that nothing of what any given character says can simply be equated with what Plato himself thinks. Whatever doctrines, theories, models, or beliefs may enter into the discussion taking place between the dialogical characters – and Socrates is no exception – we have to keep in mind that Plato as the author need not uphold any of these. However, Plato’s writing presents for our consideration a dialogical and (this is Sallis’s point) a dramatic interplay of the various opinions and ideas. And yet, to take any of them on faith as Plato’s own is to foreclose one’s understanding of Plato’s dialogical philosophizing.

For example, and although none of the characters in any of Plato’s dialogues ever claim to have a “Theory of Ideas” or to be adherents of a “Theory of Forms,” such theories are so often attributed to Plato as to be virtually identified with the main subject of his philosophy. However, and as Sallis warns, it is a mistake to hold this preconceived view according to which “Plato is supposed to have held something like a theory of forms or ideas. More nonsense has been written about this than about almost any other topic in Greek philosophy. [However,] [s]eldom has it even been considered that the very concept of theory (and of concept) relies upon, and indeed presupposes, what was said about the εἰδη in the Platonic dialogues” (54, fn. 25).[2] Sallis also explains why, given the common Greek use of the words εἶδος and ἰδέα it is precipitous to always translate textual instances of these as either a mental “form” or an “idea” instead of a “look” or a visible form. This is just one concrete example of the way in which Sallis’s exceptional sensitivity to Plato’s text – its language, as well as its historical and its cultural situatedness – constitutes nothing short of an opening of a new field of Plato studies. It is a field of thought attuned to the sensible and sense-bound dimension of Plato’s texts. It is an interpretive method, which finally allows us to see that Platonism cannot be attributed to Plato; that the two-world doctrine is something that has been imposed upon Plato’s texts; and that there is a way to read the dialogues so as to allow the equal primacy of the sensible and the intelligible to shine forth (instead of denigrating the world of sense and experience, making them inferior in respect of some otherworldly noetic reality). This is what happens when instead of bringing sedimented, preconceived views to the dialogues (be these the views of the establishment or our own), we actually read Plato – with the gratitude and care that is due to the texts of a world-shaping thinker.

Another methodological insight that Sallis offers for our interpretation of Plato is the fact that we are well-advised to “give up thinking that Plato’s texts consist primarily of so-called logical arguments, and to abandon the belief that whatever does not belong to these arguments can safely be ignored, or at least be passed quickly by as if it were a mere ornament” (3). If, as Sallis indicates, “in the Platonic dialogues there are virtually no insignificant details” (3), then to speed-read through Plato’s text to get to the so-called “arguments” (“the latter of which is a post-Platonic invention,” 74) is to do utter violence to the dialogues and a great disservice to one’s understanding thereof.

Another set of methodological reflections has to do with mythical speeches, playfulness, and the relationship between the form and content of the dialogues (74-75). The fact that the “textuality” of Plato’s dialogues “includes the stories of the sort that one would readily call mythical” of course does not mean that Plato meant to have these mythical elements as something that would appeal to the non-learned reader, reserving the so-called arguments for the scholarly type. Instead, the mythical elements often situate the other dialogical speeches in such a way as to play up the radical incompleteness of the seemingly most coherent ideas that human beings have about the world – be they discussed by Plato’s characters or applied to our own lives. This does not exhaust the function of the mythical accounts in Plato, but it rather serves to underscore “another feature that is often found in Platonic dialogues: namely, their playfulness, as well as their character as plays, as dramas” (75).[3] This claim about the dramatic nature of Plato’s texts, leads Sallis to observe the importance of paying heed to the relationship between the dialogues’ dramatic form and their content. This means that the form has to be part and parcel of our understanding of the content; both are philosophically pertinent, and we ought to see them as belonging together. In Sallis’s own words “this entails that one must take into account not only what is said in the dialogues, but also how it is said (i.e., in what kind of speech), as well as by whom and at what place and time. In a dialogue, all of these various moments have an appropriateness to one another and to the whole of the dialogue” (75). Sallis’s own engagement with the dialogues, which always remains faithful to these recommendations, is extraordinarily fruitful as it unearths for us Plato’s dialogical philosophizing, retrieving it from underneath the layers of sedimented views and rescuing it from the deadening effects of dogmatic approaches.

There are then these methodological elements which, following Sallis, we should observe: 1) we should read slowly and with utmost attention to even the minutest details of Plato’s text. 2) We should practice interpreting the dialogues on the basis of a realization that Plato is not any of his dialogical characters and that Plato never says anything in the dialogues attributed to him. 3) It is critically important to realize that Plato does not, strictly speaking, offer for us any such systems of philosophy that are readily recognizable, for example, as in 19th Century German thought. Therefore, we cannot simply look for Plato’s systematic “arguments,” avoiding any serious engagement with the other, e.g., mythical speeches in his texts. 4) The “multitextured character” (74) of Plato’s dialogues should alert us to “their playfulness” and to the fact that Plato’s play is also dramatic. 5) The “dramatic form of the dialogues” (75) cannot be separated from their content. In other words, to philosophize along with Plato, we must take into consideration the way in which the drama of the dialogues informs their meaning.

II. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Symposium

Sallis observes that the “Symposium is the only dialogue devoted to speeches in praise of a god” – Eros (10). Sallis’s discussion of the opening scene of the dialogue serves as an example of his method of interpreting Plato’s dialogues, whereby we have to make sense of the coincidence between the dialogical drama and content. For example, one of the insights that comes to light on the basis of Sallis’s nuanced examination of the dialogical frame of the Symposium, is that Glaucon (the only named person who is said to be listening to Apollodorus’ narration of the events and speeches that constitute the Symposium) had no frame of reference according to which he could situate his hearsay acquaintance with the speeches exchanged in praise of ἔρως (10-12).[4] More specifically, prior to speaking with Apollodorus, Glaucon could not have known what occasion prompted the gathering where the speeches about ἔρως were exchanged; who the speakers were (besides Socrates); or where they were congregating. Thus, Glaucon was only aware of the intellectual content of the speeches (badly retold to him, at that), but not of the concrete situatedness of those speeches. To extend this realization a bit further, we can say that the content of the Symposium hovers in a vacuum unless we attempt to work out the concrete details surrounding its characters, history, religion, and even politics. This is precisely what Sallis’s analysis of the opening frames of the dialogue accomplishes. It is only through this concretization of the intellectual narrative that we gain a perspective necessary to engage with the dialogue (but also with any of the dialogues of Plato) in a philosophically fruitful manner.

More generally, Sallis’s focus on the opening frames of the Symposium stresses the manifold removal of us – the readers – from the content of the speeches that constitute this dialogue (12). The Symposium’s setting highlights the importance of being mindful of the perspectival distance that memory, transmission and reception of ideas, and human finitude play in philosophizing. The distance that separates the reader and the text also qualifies the sorts of philosophical views we adopt and conclusions we arrive at when interpreting this dialogue. It is likewise important to keep in mind that an individual reader, whoever she may be, brings to the text a certain set of presuppositions, opinions, cultural and personal views that inform her encounter with the dialogue. Therefore, one is well advised to follow an injunction that appeared at the entrance of the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. Apollo is one of the divinities (the other one being Dionysus) who according to Sallis preside over the unfolding of the Symposium. Apollo’s injunction says: “Γνῶθι Σεαυτόν” or “Know Yourself” and it is this divine imperative that in the Phaedrus, Socrates tells Phaedrus he (Socrates) is as of yet unable to fulfill (229e-230a).[5] In the Symposium, and right before Phaedrus (who, as Sallis underscores, is the “father of the λόγος,” Symp., 177d, 20) speaks in praise of ἔρως, Socrates limns this question of self-knowledge.

Sallis underscores the proximity between Socrates’ statement: “I claim to know about nothing but erotics (Symp. 177e)” and the question which comes up in the Apology, i.e., the question of the relationship between ignorance and wisdom. Sallis asks about Socrates’ knowledge of erotics, “How is this claim of Socrates’s to be squared with his attestation in the Apology that his wisdom (of which the Delphic Apollo had spoken) consists in knowing only that he does not know (Ap. 23b)? Is it the case that knowing about ἔρως amounts somehow to knowing the limits of one’s wisdom?” (20). Taking up Sallis’s question, we can say that in relation to oneself, questioning about one’s ἔρως would amount to thinking about or even analyzing that which characterizes one’s strongest longings, excitations, and pangs of desire, as well as one’s vulnerabilities and insecurities that have to do with ἔρως. We are well advised to hear a wide breadth of meanings in the use of this term, which might include one’s social or political and not only strictly personal ἔρως. Therefore, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics in the first instance has to do with the question of self-knowledge – with the problem of the forces that shape one’s life but, which nonetheless, are not entirely within one’s own power to control. Second, Socrates’ knowledge of erotics is also a capacity to interrogate and look into ἔρως as it manifests in others. Socrates’ practice of erotics is a questioning of ἔρως as it shapes and forms, but also warps, the lives of other human beings and even cities. In this double aspect, Socrates’ study and knowledge of ἔρως, in Sallis’s language, “amounts somehow to knowing the limits” (20) as well as continuously interrogating the limits of one’s rationality and of one’s power to rationally shape the course of one’s life. Moreover, in Socrates’ philosophical person (who questions others and himself in response to the Delphic injunction), pursuit of self-knowledge, knowledge of ἔρως, and philosophizing coincide.

As Sallis works through each of the speeches in the Symposium, he shows how each consequent interlocutor is appropriating certain key moments of the preceding speech. This culminates in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech about ἔρως that to some extent includes refractions of all of the preceding accounts. Such refractions happen also prior to Diotima, when Pausanias picks up on a motif from Phaedrus’ opening praise of ἔρως.

In Phaedrus’ speech, the lovers are praised for the sacrifices they suffer for the sake of their beloveds. The longing that the lovers have for their beloveds – at least to some extent – is being idealized or elevated in Phaedrus’ speech. Pausanias goes as far as to separate out the lowly “Pandemian Eros” from the “Uranian Eros” of the select few. As Sallis writes, “the worthless people (ὁι φαῦλοι) … being only concerned with the sexual act, are no less in love with women than with boys, are in love with their bodies rather than with their souls, and are in love with the stupidest sort of people. But Uranian Eros, like Uranian Aphrodite,” Sallis continues, “partakes only of male, and not of female: in other words, it is the love of boys (pederasty)” (24). Therefore, the motif of idealization of ἔρως that Phaedrus introduced is further accentuated in Pausanias’ speech, and brought to a point where a separation is made between the better and the worse sort of erotic longing.

Another thing that would be interesting to trace out is the treatment of women, which is rather dismissive in Pausanias’ view of ἔρως. Arguably, the preferential treatment of men and male love is also inscribed into Phaedrus’ presentation of the relationships between Alcestis and Admetus or Eurydice’s and Orpheus, which Phaedrus opposes to that of Patroclus and Achilles. As Sallis makes clear, Plato oftentimes uses motifs and ideas that are worked out not only in speech, but also in the action of both the characters and the dialogue itself. For example, in the Symposium, Eryximachus’ avowed attempts at subduing, managing, and regulating the body and its erotic expressions are undermined in the very actions of the next speakers, i.e., in the comedic unruliness of Aristophanes’ bodily expressions (20).[6]

Aristophanes is a comic playwright, and in the Symposium, not only the involuntary expressions of his body, but also his “speech [are] … comical” (32). “And yet, Aristophanes’ speech is not merely a comedy of a usual sort” (32). Sallis develops the idea that “[w]hereas comedy of the usual sort is directed against individuals or particular groups or types, Aristophanes’s speech is about all human beings, about human beings as such: in this respect, it is more akin to tragedy than to comedy” (32). We can take this insight to heart and, moving from all to one, bring Sallis’s observation about the tragi-comic character of Aristophanes’ speech to bear on the question of philosophical self-knowledge. In this case, we can say that tragedy transpires or ensues if comedy is not also applied to oneself. In other words, if we are blind to the comic, lowly, fallible aspects of ourselves, then we tend to idealize and value ourselves above others. This attitude to life is likely to lead to tragic outcomes.

More specifically, in terms of the content of Aristophanes’ speech, Sallis argues that Aristophanes presents the tragicomedy of human beings in terms of our erotic ignorance. The latter has to do with the fact that in longing for an erotic relationship with another, we really seek ourselves – or even and in stronger terms – we desire to love ourselves. Thus, we can reposition the relationship between comedy, tragedy, and self-knowledge (the opposite of self-knowledge, of course, is ignorance) in one more way. We can say that tragedy comes onto the scene if we remain blind to the (comic) reality that it is our self-love that inspires our ἔρως for the other. Such comically grotesque egoism is bound to end up in tragic ὕβρις, unless we work to lay bare the self-infatuation at the core of our erotic lives. However, if we do work to expose this self-love, then we become aware of the tragicomic core of our ἔρως. In this case we stop idealizing our erotic personas and attachments. Instead, we become open to a more joking and lighthearted attitude to ourselves. We invite ridicule, and thereby – by becoming a subject of a joke – we reckon with our downfalls, weaknesses, and flaws, thereby entering on a path of self-examination.

After Aristophanes’ account of ἔρως, Agathon – the man in whose honor the entire proceedings of the Symposium are held – delivers his praise of ἔρως. Just as with the previous speeches, certain elements of the speech that preceded Agathon’s, i.e., certain elements of Aristophanes’ speech, are preserved in Agathon’s own account. Although it is not entirely on the surface of Agathon’s praise of ἔρως (and Sallis’s analysis is absolutely indispensable if we wish to move past the surface of Agathon’s speech), what his speech amounts to is a kind of performative explication of one of the core ideas that Aristophanes’ account relates. Agathon’s praise of ἔρως embodies the haughty, self-centered attitude that Aristophanes’ speech both disclosed and – in some sense – seeks to dispel. As Sallis puts its (after offering a very nuanced and very helpful break down of the key compositional elements of Agathon’s eulogy of ἔρως), in his praise of ἔρως “Agathon is elevating himself” (41). Agathon’s adoration of ἔρως “is a veiled self-evaluation, a eulogy in praise of his own youth, beauty and virtue that blurs the distinction between himself and the god so that,” Sallis continues, “at this event that is his [Agathon’s] celebration, he can praise himself without incurring reproach that outright self-praise would bring” (41). In this brilliant interpretive turn, Sallis gathers together the historical occasion of the dialogical event (Agathon’s victory at the 416 BCE Lenaia, 13); the historical backdrop of the recitation of the speeches that took place on the day of Agathon’s victory (the mutilation of the Herms, the profanation of Eleusinian mysteries, and Athens disastrous Sicilian engagement, 13-16); as well as the questions of ἔρως, ὕβρις, tragic lack of self-knowledge, comedy, and the importance of self-examination. All of these elements align in Agathon’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, which is not dissimilar in spirit from the impulse that possessed those warmongering Athenians who favored the Delian imperial aggression and rallied with Alcibiades for the ill-fated Sicilian campaign.

Before Alcibiades appears on the scene, as if an ivy-crowned Dionysus, Socrates speaks about ἔρως. In the Apology, Socrates tells us about his determination to test the oracle of Apollo (Ap.; 20d-21e, 5). He sees this as his service to the god. However, despite this, Socrates is charged, among other things, with impiety and ὕβρις (5-6). Whereas, in Alcibiades’ drunken, but maybe therefore more honest, outburst we find a portrayal of Socrates, in Socrates’ recitation of Diotima’s speech, we find a gathering and a rearticulation of the key moments of all of the speeches that have been presented prior to Socrates’ account.

Sallis’s elucidations of Socrates’ (42-58) and Alcibiades’ (59-67) speeches are groundbreaking and must be attended to with utmost care on one’s own. For example, such elements of Sallis’s interpretation as Socrates’ snubbing of Pausanias’ disregard for women (44); or the insidiousness of the ascent toward the Beautiful (57-58); or the Five Images of Socrates that Alcibiades produces in his speech, reposition the many extant scholarly accounts of the Symposium in critical ways. Another crucial insight that emerges when one reads Sallis’s text is the fact that in Socrates’ speech about ἔρως, Socratic philosophizing re-enters the scene. What I mean is that despite the fact that Socrates, following the form that others keep to, offers a soliloquy, his speech explodes this monological form from within. This is the case because since Socrates is retelling a conversation he allegedly once had with Diotima, he is able to insert the question-and-answer structure into his narrative. In this, Plato’s dialogical method becomes conspicuous again – the method whereby dramatic presentation often undermines or at least alters (and presents in the new light) the meaning of that which is being said.

III. Sallis’s Engagement with Plato’s Statesman

It is in his analysis of the Statesman that Sallis makes one of his most poignant remarks regrading Plato when he speaks about the need to “translate Plato back into Greek” (90). This remark appears in the context of Sallis’s disambiguation of the much used (and abused) language of ἰδέα and εἶδος. These terms have undergone so much interpretive sedimentation that it is all but impossible for someone working in ancient Greek philosophy or even in classics to hear the originary meaning of these words. All the same, ἰδέα and εἶδος have less to do with mental states, let alone extra- or supra-mental realities, and more to do with the immediacy of the sensible look or shape of something. It is through this kind of a sensitive engagement with Plato’s texts that Sallis opens for us untreaded pathways of interpretation.

For example, at the start of his Statesman chapter, Sallis observes that the interlocutors (whose historical background Sallis presents to start, 78-83) initiate a movement of abstraction.[7] In the dialogue that deals with readily practical matters such as the governance of a state, the interlocutors who do the lion’s share of speaking (young Socrates and the Eleatic Stranger), present their task of finding the best statesman in the guise of cognitive science (γνωστική ἐπιστήμη). Moreover, they proceed according to the method of dialectic and “theoretical arithmetic” (87). The latter is problematic as far as the search for the statesman is concerned, because it installs an artificial equality among all those who may be considered as candidates for the role. Thus, when we deal with theoretical arithmetic and “number becomes a number of pure units” (87), these units or “pure ones to which the number would refer are identical” (87). Therefore, abstracting from the singular character of things presages the failure of the initial attempts at situating the best ruler in the Statesman. Instead of a single best ruler, numerous contestants (such as “for example, merchants, farmers, food makers, trainers, and physicians,” 109) show up demanding to be considered for the role of the statesman.

The inadequacy of the arithmetic and the divisionary procedure in the search for the statesman is announced most clearly by what Sallis sees as comedy. “There are five ways,” Sallis writes, “in which the λόγος underway within the Statesman plays out as comedy” (107). These five ways include 1) a “digression … away from anything having to do with knowledge” (107); 2) “a comic disregard of differences between the human and the merely animal” (107). 3) The third comedic element has to do with a mismatch and a mixing of professions – a confusion that has to do with the initial abstraction of the differences between humans and non-human animals. This mismatch eventuates in “the statesman … running along with his herd of pigs” (107; and Sallis’s graphs on 97, 102, 108-109). 4) The fourth comedic moment arises when the supposedly rigid difference between the “tame” and the “wild” animals is introduced into the diaresis (107-108). 5) Lastly, the fifth comedic element is the Stranger’s explicit announcement of the “comedic character of their undertaking … (Stat. 266b)” (109).

Although the initial diaretic searches end up in comedy, and the interlocutors agree to proceed differently, some elements of the opening discussion are preserved and carried over into the subsequent attempts at identifying the best ruler. For example, the Stranger’s and young Socrates’ attempts to secure the statesman through a mythic account include the comedic confusion that arises when differences between human and non-human animals are removed. At the height of the Stranger’s mythic narration – during the halcyon time of Cronos – humans and animals are mixed up to such a degree that none of them can be meaningfully differentiated from one another. In fact, the confusion is so thoroughgoing that humans (who no longer partake of sexual reproduction) and animals (none of which prey on one another) are said to philosophize together (272c). However, this fantastical time comes to an end, and the age of Zeus ushers in violence, destitution, but also politics.

As Sallis observes, the mythical reversal of the two ages (i.e., the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus) does not abide by a one-directional causal principle, but rather exhibits an oscillating movement (117). This mutually affective backward and forward directionality is a principle according to which later in the dialogue, the Stranger will describe the manner in which we should measure the appropriateness of something. Concretely, and in Sallis’s words, “the appropriate length of a λόγος is determined by what the λόγος is aimed at making manifest—more precisely it is determined by the manifestation that it aims to bring about” (125). This is but one example of Sallis’s expansive reading strategies. This example leads us to realize, among other things, how reversible the causal nexus is. The antecedent-consequent relationship is such that the λόγος ceases to dominate that which is supposed to be brought into the light by it, and instead the subject matter determines the strictures of the manifestation. However, the λόγος is not insignificant either, and it still determines the lines along which the manifestation takes place. This mutually implicative arrangement is even more pronounced in Sallis’s reading of the Stranger’s myth.

As Sallis notes, the reversal or rather the ever alternating back and forth between the age of Cronos and the age of Zeus is presaged in the Stranger’s remarks about the original myth on which the Stranger draws in order to offer his own mythical narration. The Stranger himself denies that he means to draw the young Socrates’ attention to the reversal in the course of the sun or to the cosmological dimension of the original, older myth (Stat., 268e-269a). However, it is precisely, the alteration in the course of the cosmos that plays the key role in the Stranger’s own myth. The latter speaks about the suffering and violence that enter into the picture once “the heaven (or cosmos) … ‘turns back in the opposite direction’ (Stat. 269c-d)” (113). Critically, the motif of violence – unthinkable, gruesome violence – is first indicated in the older myth that the Stranger says he will borrow from in order to introduce his own mythic story.

Sallis discusses the gory violence of the older myth that the Stranger has in mind (112). This discussion calls to our attention the explicitly violent elements that surface at the end of the Stranger’s own mythical narration when he describes the time of Zeus. However, and perhaps even more importantly, Sallis’s presentation of the awful brutality in the myth of Atreus and Thyestes (the myth on which the Stranger claims to base his story), sheds some light on the sinister underbelly of the carefree time that the Stranger says reigns in the age of Cronos. For the students and scholars of the Statesman, Sallis’s analysis puts his work in conversation with such authors as Seth Benardete (1984), Melissa Lane (1998), and Mitchell Miller (1980), all of whom take note of address the various instances of violence in the Statesman. Based on Sallis’s discussion of violence in the original myth as well as of the work that comedy does in the Statesman, we can say that the comedic element. The comedy in the myth echoes the earlier diaretic comedy that abstracted from the differences between human and non-human animals. The erasure of distinctions leads to the possibility of the homogeneous and halcyon life in the age of Cronos where both animals and humans are all overseen or herded together by the divinities. However, this peaceful time falls away according to the strictures of preordained fate (Stat., 272e). It is superseded by the aggression that marks the onset of the age of Zeus.

The question of violence never quite leaves the dialogue, and perhaps in its persistence, we ought to see something having to do with the nature of ruling and being ruled. It is the kind of enterprise that, in virtue of what it is, includes harmful abstraction (from the particulars of life, from the uniqueness of the elements that make up the state, and so on). Sallis takes note of this, the inherent violence of ruling, when in his analysis of the division of the “πολιτική or βασιλική” from the various arts and occupations that constitute the polis, he highlights the Stranger’s recommendation that we should “divide them, as if it were a sacrificial victim, limb by limb … (Stat. 287c).”

The very art of the statesman is supposed to be identified according to the paradigmatic method (the method that Sallis addresses in his discussion of the paradigm, 120-122). In identifying this art, Sallis states, the “Stranger … strikes—and he says that he is striking—a dissonant note, one that sounds against the assumption regarding the delimitation of the right regime. In a sense,” Sallis continues, “he reaches all the way back to the beginning of the Statesman, back to that from which the initial series of divisions proceeded—a beginning that, despite all of the modifications and displacements, has remained at play. That beginning was knowledge” (132). Thus, the true statesman will leave other considerations aside (even the ones that have to do with the strictures and prescriptions of the law) and govern only relying on the knowledge of statesmanship.

Regarding the role of law in politics the dialogue makes a point, as Sallis observes, that the law is “poorly fitted to human affairs” (133). Sallis states that “[t]here are three points to consider regarding the Stranger’s discussion concerning law” (133). The first point has to do with the arithmetic character of the law, which abstracts from uniqueness and particularity, and therefore addresses all as if they were interchangeable units or ones (133-134). The second point is the “difficulty—if not impossibility—of prescribing for each one,” that is each particular individual, the proper course of political action (134). The third issue has to do with the alteration that the, so to speak, “living” spirit of the law undergoes once the law has been securely laid down in writing (134).

Hence, the dialogical discussion arrives at the conclusion that the best regime would be that in which the king ruled not necessarily in accordance with the written law, but through the knowledge of the king. However, this is a paradoxical conclusion. As Sallis observes, “the true statesman” can only be “found … in a regime that is removed … as a god is separated from human beings” (138). There is an unbridgeable distance between any human, law-governed regimes, and the allegedly best regime. “One could say, then, that the true statesman withdraws. … [W]e might venture to say that one can pursue these traces [of withdrawal], and so imitate the withdrawing statesman, only by engaging in that very withdrawal—that is, only by letting oneself be drawn along in the withdrawal. As to what such engagement requires—this remains an open question” (139). An answer to this question is ventured in such works as Shane Montgomery Ewegen’s, The Way of Platonic Socrates.[8]


[1] Ewegen’s editorial work, which includes many helpful notes on Sallis’s text, as well as excellent indexes in the English and Greek, is superb. Sallis’s own notes are indispensable to a thoroughgoing engagement both with Sallis’s lectures on the Symposium and the Statesman as well as with Plato’s own texts.

[2] On the issue of the “Theory of the Forms” or the “Theory of Ideas,” see also Drew Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (New York, NY: SUNY Press, 1995), 165-96.

[3] On Plato’s play, see further, John Sallis, Being and Logos: Reading the Platonic Dialogues (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996); Bernard Freydberg, The Play of the Platonic Dialogues: Literature and the Sciences of Man (New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.

[4] See also Sallis’s discussion of the Symposium’s dialogical frames in “Frames,” Comparative and Continental Philosophy Journal, 12(3) (2020): 245-53.

[5] See also Sallis, On Beauty and Measure, 30, 33. On the ridiculousness or the comedic nature of “lack of self-knowledge,” see the same, 32.

[6] See also Sallis’s observation about the way in which themes from Eryximachus’ account reappear in Agathon’s speech, 40.

[7] Sallis also helpfully situates the dramatic dating of the Statesman and includes a discussion of the dramatic progression from the Theaetetus to the Phaedo, 77.

[8] The notion of withdrawal can be traced back to Martin Heidegger’s thought, e.g., in What is Called Thinking (1954), Fred D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray trans. (New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishing, 1968).

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