10 November 2005

P.S. on the Refutation of Polus

As I've mentioned before, when a comment is added to a post that is no longer displayed on the current page of the blog, it will not be picked up by the "Recent Comments" hack that I've installed. But any comment on the blog is mailed to me nonetheless, and occasionally I'll bring to the front a worthwhile comment that might otherwise get overlooked. And so I wish to do with this recent comment by D. Levy:

The fallacy which Vlastos notes is important but seems much too obvious for it to have escaped Socrates' attention; it is Socrates after all who goes out of his way to emphasize the relation to the observer (474d). I believe we cannot rule out the possibility that Socrates is here raising a question, a problem even, regarding our common understanding of noble (beautiful) and shameful (ugly). We call most things noble (beautiful) because of how they appear to us, the observers -- they are either pleasant or useful. A beautiful body or melody, for instance. When it comes to deeds, however, we abruptly assume that the noble or the shameful deed has an effect not only upon us the observers, but also upon the doer. When we call an action "wretched" or "ugly", we mean not only that it repels us, the observors, but also that the doer has somehow degraded and harmed himself by doing it. But how do we reasonably make this leap? How do we know we are not blaming the action merely because it is painful for us to behold or harmful to our self-interest or to that of the community? (Enter Callicles.) The apparent fallacy of Socrates' argument only underlines the fact that the entire conversation with Polus is manifestly provisional: for Socrates here vigorously defends the goodness of justice without ever saying what justice is -- a mode of proceeding which he himself previously blamed as rhetorical rather than dialectical (448d-e, see also 463c). This is not to say Socrates is not serious in his noble and idealistic assertions: only that he is probably well aware that that these assertions need a much fuller and deeper grounding than, for whatever reason, he chooses to give in the conversation with Polus.
You may see the full discussion here.