03 May 2005

Subtleties and Doubts

Stephen Halliwell has a beautifully crafted review in NDPR (read it here) of Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets, Cambridge University Press, 2004, which relates inscriptions on the gold funerary 'leaves' or 'tablets' (lamellae) found in some ancient Greek graves to Aristophanes' Frogs and the myth in the Phaedo. As to the latter, Halliwell confesses (in a manner which will appeal to some readers of Dissoi Blogoi):

My one disappointment, however, is that while adopting such a sophisticated approach to the intricacies of Platonic mythopoeia, and after acknowledging the 'many levels' on which the dialogues can be read (161-2), Edmonds tends to lapse into a rather narrowly conventional view of what constitutes the Phaedo's 'communication between the absent author . . . and his audience' (161), talking repeatedly of arguments, reasons, and convictions espoused by Socrates in the work as though they could be straightforwardly identified as Plato's own (he can even speak of 'Plato's theories [sic] of punishment', 217 n. 177) and as though its philosophical conclusions were never in doubt. But this seems to underestimate the dramatic complexity and subtlety of the Phaedo, in which, for all his eloquence and fervour, Socrates never decisively convinces his companions to share his attitude to death.
But surely we can allow that the dialogue has 'dramatic complexity and subtlety' without also having to say, as is commonly said, but which seems false, that 'Socrates never convinces his companions'.

The strong and clever reasoner, Cebes, says at 107a2 "[F]or my part I've no further objection, nor can I doubt the arguments at any point" (Waterfield,
ou)/koun e)/gwge... e)/xw para\ tau=ta a)/llo ti le/gein ou)de/ ph| a)pistei=n toi=j lo/goij), to which weak-minded Simmias agrees, "nor have I any further ground for doubt myself, as far as the arguments go" (ou)d' au)to\j e)/xw e)/ti o(/ph| a)pistw= e)/k ge tw=n legome/nwn, although admittedly Socrates at b5-10 recognizes that he might need some shoring up).

I'm not able to doubt your arguments in any respect. I have no grounds for doubting your arguments. --It's a little too much subtlety, I'd say, to convert a dialogue which ends with as firm an expression of conviction as one could wish, into one in which no one gets 'decisively convinced.'


David said...

Simmias expresses doubts about the conclusions based upon the greatness of the subject matter (tou megethous peri hon) and the weakness of man.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that what Halliwell is alluding when he speaks of lack of complete persuasion is not so much the core doctrine of the soul's immortality as the details of what we will experience in the afterlife?
Plato will of course return to this "plausible story" at the end of the Gorgias and Rep X, and I dont think he's ever comfortable epistemologically with what seems to be an article of faith for him.

Anonymous said...

But Halliwell says specifically 'share his attitude toward death'.

Socrates never maintains that one needs to accept the details of his story in order not to resent death. What he does  express as his 'attitude' is quite minimal: that he'll be better off after he dies and that he'll be joining the company of gods and good men. 

Posted by Michael Pakaluk

Anonymous said...

At the risk of sounding insulting, I might suggest that MP simply has a poor eye for the dramatic subtleties of the Platonic dialogues. But he'll demand some justification for that. While I won't try to offer a full-length interpretation of the Phaedo, I'll suggest that so far here the discussion has been far too superficial to even resemble a rebuff to Halliwell. What he has in mind, I think, is that any interpretation of the Phaedo that attempts to reduce it to Plato's theory of the immortality of the soul is in big trouble, and not solely because of the (quickly becoming standard) arguments against reading Plato in that way at all. Halliwell would hold that, of course, but he (I surmise) would argue that Cebes' inability to refute an argument tells us nothing in itself (what other arguments had Cebes been unable to refute before he had this conversation with Socrates?) What should we suppose on the basis of his response? Can we even take Cebes' statement as a reliable indicator that he has been persuaded? Isn't there a 'digression' in the middle of the dialogue about 'misologia' and the refusal to take argument seriously? Finally, why does MP insist on limiting our conclusions about Socrates' attitude solely to what he expresses? Remember for just a second that, however obviously fictional this dialogue was, it is a mimesis of a guy who is about to drink hemlock talking with some friends of us about what happens when we die. There is as much of Socrates' attitude in what he does not say and do as there is in what he does; simply contrast his character with the others (none of whom are about to face certain bodily death, remember). If we really believe that Socrates' attitude is expressed only in what he explicitly says, can we really have read this dialogue?

I would invite two things from an interpreter who wants to claim that the Phaedo unequivocally presents Socrates' arguments as doctrine:

1) Are his interlocutors really convinced about what he's saying? That is, are they not only compelled by logos to agree, or do they also give their assent to that logos?

2) What is the relevance of their response, in any event? What effect does it have on the validity of the arguments? Why, since it has no effect whatsoever on the logical validity of those arguments, has Plato bothered to give us the dramatic picture at all?

I suppose that if one could convincingly argue that the characters are persuaded by Socrates and adopt his attitude to/arguments about the soul, then we might say that the mimetic elements of the dialogue goes towards making the arguments more persuasive. I think we'll find that, even if those characters ultimately are persuaded, that doesn't mean that their being persuaded is calculated to invite ours (Cf. the Republic, for example, where the reader is, in a sense, virtually being tested against Glaucon and Adeimantus; see especially Socrates' comments about why people need to have good memories, and look around at how often someone forgets what's been said -- I forget exactly where that is.)

Anonymous said...

"As far as the arguments go." Does it really count as 'oversubtle' to see that Cebes is saying that he doesn't trust the arguments?

Anonymous said...

I made no claims as to whether Socrates' conclusion and its grounds are entirely endorsed by Plato, or whether Plato expects a reasonable reader to be 'decisively convinced.'

I simply pointed out that Socrates' interlocutors are portrayed as 'decisively convinced', by the usual meaning of that phrase.

Note that Halliwell (btw, a formidable scholar, as I'd be the first to say) correctly uses the active voice, "Socrates never decisively convinces", because indeed from 63b or so Socrates had accepted Simmias' and Cebes' challenge and agreed to try to convince them of his view, as if they were jurors in a court of law. The dialogue portrays Socrates as succeeding at that. It was his task, agreed upon at the beginning, to persuade or convince them, and they say at the end that he's accomplished this.

By 'Socrates' attitude to death' I took Halliwell to mean his not resenting it (aganaktein , used almost formulaically in the dialogue). That's the natural referent of such an expression.

Of course, from 'Cebes and Simmias are convinced that death, for a true philosopher, means joining the company of gods and better men' it does not follow that they'd be ready to leap up and drink hemlock themselves, if necessary.

Nonetheless, Plato does include three details, after the expression of conviction at 107a, which, it seems, are meant to suggest that Socrates' companions (and not simply Simmias and Cebes) have in some sense changed as regards their emotions and 'attitudes', and not simply intellectually, as a result of the day's conversation: at 115c2 Crito affirms that everyone is eager (prothumesometha) to put into practice Socrates' recommendations of asceticism; at 117c9 Phaedo is quick to add that when he began crying, after Socrates took his draught of hemlock, this was "not for him, but for my misfortune in being deprived of such a man" (that's a correction that implies a guiding of emotions by a belief); and a 117e3 Socrates' weeping companions feel ashamed and stop weeping, even for themselves, immediately when Socrates reproves them for this (which suggest, again, a guiding of emotion and action by conviction).

These are all 'emotional' changes, or changes in attitude, consistent with everyone's having been convinced. And I would ask Anonymous to find in the closing pages of the dialogue something inconsistent with this.


Posted by Michael Pakaluk