Plato’s Thought in the Making
In recent years there has been a call to re-examine the classical world by employing the tools of analysis made available by sociology and social psychology. We classicists and classical historians are asked to mend our ways, with no little justice, but it ought not go unnoticed that sociologists can do with some re-thinking, too, for they seem to have fallen into the habit of narrowing their field of vision to today and yesterday afternoon, ignoring the whole of history. Enter Plato, subtitled “Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory,” can therefore count on a considerable fund of goodwill at the outset. Professor Gouldner, a well-known and enterprising sociologist, proposed to “consolidate the sociologically relevant aspect of Plato’s work and to formulate a coherent outline of his contribution to social theory.” This is a pioneering effort, as he himself proclaims in the language of a manifesto.
With very few exceptions, which would be invidious to specify, the history of social theory has failed miserably. With scarcely any exception it is intellectually undistinguished. It is hardly of use or interest to anyone….
That is a large claim and an unnecessary one, as is the demonstrably false assertion that “for a long time many classicists regarded Plato’s work as unmarred by an interest in the problems and politics of his era.” One need only call attention to the pages Mr. Raven devotes to Plato’s Gorgias, a relatively early dialogue which, as Raven says, has “a tone of vehemence, almost of bitterness, which is to be heard in very few other passages of Plato’s writings,” to be explained by the coming to an end of a long inner struggle in making a choice between politics and philosophy. Politics, Plato finally concluded, was beyond rescue in existing terms. Not even the greatest Athenian statesmen of the past, Miltiades, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, were better than pastrycooks, stuffing the people with material goods to gratify their basest desires. Only philosophy offered any hope.
EVERY CLASSICIST has read the Gorgias and the other ancient texts which provide Professor Gouldner with his raw material. He should not try, or claim to be trying, to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. His function and his qualifications lie in another direction, in adding something new, as sociological analyst and critic, to an old discussion.
It is not possible to write a viable history of social theory today without creating a new intellectual genre—a genre which will be one part history, one part sociology, one part criticism, the whole encased in a membraneous boundary permitting the mutual access of facts to values and of technical analysis to cultural interests.
If the final clause means what I think it means, Gouldner’s grievance against his predecessors is that they were satisfied with the overt statements (“facts”) of a social theorist such as Plato, producing a two-dimensional image lacking both validity and significance because the value-system (often subconscious) underneath the explicit ideas and proposals was played down or misjudged. Social theory can neither be properly understood nor criticized nor given relevance in our own world without this depth analysis. And because every man’s value-system is linked with that of the society he is criticizing—every social theorist who matters begins by being critical of his own society—the student of social theory must also be a historian. Hence Enter Plato is “historically anchored,” the first of a series of “case studies” as “a form of self-education,” with the ultimate aim of “coming to an understanding of contemporary social theory and theorists.”
As “self-education” the book is presumably very successful, though only the author himself can judge that properly. Through Plato and the Greeks, Professor Gouldner has been able to formulate and elaborate on a considerable number of interesting and enlightening ideas and social-psychological models, on the “contest system” (as in the Olympic Games), for example, on the role of war, on the slave pedagogue, on the social implications of a pervasive consciousness of human mortality, on the dialectic, on how choices are made between alternative kinds of social action, and so forth. Where I find him less than persuasive, however, is on the historical side. I doubt if many of his models and explanations are formulated precisely enough to be appropriate to the Greeks or, when they are, if they are peculiar to the Greeks. Right at the beginning he expressed his debt to “Nietzsche’s intuitions and ideas about things Hellenic.” Even when “I reject the intellectual kernel,” he says, Nietzsche “often provides the yeast for the intellectual substance I gathered elsewhere.” That is perhaps more revealing than Professor Gouldner realizes. Nietzsche has been a bugbear among traditional classicists ever since Wilamowitz made a first enormous assault on him. Wilamowitz would have been justified in his criticisms were they directed against an existing target. But Nietzsche had no interest in the historical Greeks except as a quarry for intuitions which helped him develop his own philosophy. If Nietzsche’s “Dionysian man” is to be attacked, therefore, that must be done on philosophical grounds, not on questions of fact about the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche had the perfect model, it is worth adding: Plato treated his philosophical predecessors and opponents in the same way, to the dismay of fact-bound scholars ever since.
IN THE END, it appears to me that, though Enter Plato is anchored in the past, it is not really “historically anchored.” This is not a marriage between history and sociology but a takeover bid. Professor Gouldner’s thinking is fundamentally ahistorical. Consider his choice of subject. Why Plato? Because, Gouldner says, Plato was “the first great social theorist in the Western tradition.” That is a fair enough answer, and I cannot resist a longer quotation:
…no service is done to contemporary social science…by pretending that these Greeks were just another people, essentially no different from, say, the Comanche or Ifaluk. Only a juvenile romanticism parading as scientific objectivity could imagine that, since all societies are unique and worthy of study, ancient Greece had no special meaning or significance for Western man.
However, if one were to go on to ask. as Professor Gouldner does not, why it was the Greeks rather than the Babylonians, Egyptians, or Hebrews who produced the first great social theorist. the reasoning in this book would set one on a false trail. There is a casual acceptance early on of a fashionable thesis which places the responsibility for the very profound dichotomy between the Greeks and their Near Eastern predecessors on the irrigation economy of the latter, with its requirements of large-scale waterworks, a peculiarly knowledgeable elite (the priesthood), and a centralized, bureaucratic, authoritarian administration. It is unnecessary to argue about this idea, for, whatever its validity with respect to Egypt and Mesopotamia, it cannot have any for the Hittites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Minoan Cretans, or Mycenaeans, all of whom had the same dry-farming ecology as the Greeks (and later the Romans). Nor is there much advance to a solution in Professor Gouldner’s stress on the emergence of a not well-defined “individualism,” behind which lay
the greatest social revolution that Europe has experienced: the breakdown of tribalism and the emergence of the urban community organized on the basis of territorial propinquity.
The same “social revolution” occurred in the Near East long before there were any Greeks in the Balkans, but little “individualism” and no Plato.
THIS IS NOT TO DENY the significance of either “individualism” or “detribalization.” My point rather is that Professor Gouldner is too quick to accept an insufficient explanation, apparently because his historical knowledge is neither wide-ranging enough nor, for Greek history, accurate enough. In the course of one of his discussions of pederasty, which are on the whole good and important (though it is curious that a sociologist who knows and says that the Greek institution was, “strictly speaking, bisexuality” should confuse his analysis by regularly speaking of “homosexuality”), he suggests that “homosexuality often exerts a disruptive effect upon the public life of the polis.” Unfortunately, the only concrete example he offers is the assassination in 514 B.C. of the younger brother of the Athenian tyrant Hippias, thereby ignoring the fundamental point that “public life” in a tyranny was institutionally and psychologically very different from public life in a democracy. (Gouldner ignores tyranny altogether, despite its importance in Plato’s political writings. The word doesn’t even appear in the index, which is, to be sure, desperately inadequate.) Society and politics under the Athenian (or any other Greek) tyrants were in some respects more akin to life under an eighteenth-century monarchy than to Athens under a democracy half-a-century after Hippias. Chronic fear of assassination is an outstanding example, and it is difficult to believe that Professor Gouldner is being serious, when, after linking homosexuality with the “endemic crisis of intimacy” growing out of the contest system, he writes: “Indeed, so deep is mutual distrust that there is for a period an almost pathological fear of being poisoned.” “For a period” indeed—throughout the history of tyrannies and absolutisms of all kinds, so long as medical science had not been able to diagnose cancer of the stomach. No more complicated explanation of poisoning, as distinct from other methods of assassination, is required.
There is this predilection for psychological explanations throughout (“the mutual access of facts to values and of technical analysis to cultural interests”). Even political controversy is often discussed as if two parties and factions were antagonistic only because of differences in psychology, as if the policies and proposals over which they quarreled were more or less irrelevant. There is altogether too much of “the Greeks had a tenacious hold on reality,” “the Greeks delighted in the juices of life,” “the Greeks wanted a good that would last” (three quotations from one section of less than two pages). Professor Gouldner does not have to be told that there were class differences and conflicts among the Greeks, which changed in the course of the centuries. But he seems not to mind brushing aside the questions, which Greeks? when? as the involves himself in complicated generalizations about “the Greeks.”
GOULDNER REPEATEDLY exemplifies some general statement by quotations which ignore chronology, and occasionally even defy it. Immediately following the pages from which I have just quoted there is a summary account of seven “themes in Greek culture,” in the course of which the following Greek authors are quoted. I give them in exact sequence and add the date of death or the floruit of each: Heraclitus (fl. 500), Solon (fl. 500), Pericles (d. 419) as quoted by Thucydides, Isocrates (d. 338), Aeschylus (d.456/5), Callinus (fl. 650), Epicharmus (fl. 500), the Odyssey (700?), Aeschylus again, the Iliad (750?), and Sophocles (d. 406/5). The range is about 400 years, the sequence random, the effect a washing away of all development or change. Even more surprising, Professor Gouldner is not much more careful to keep a watch on the development side of Plato himself, or of his teacher Socrates. Again there is the occasional acknowledgment of differences between earlier and later dialogues. And again the method is to choose suitable quotations regardless of the date of the particular dialogue or even of its subject matter, a procedure which serves the purposes of this book badly when the Republic and the Laws are tied together much too closely. In both, Gouldner writes, “the drafting of the script-plan for new communities [is] a central part of the action.” This will astonish readers of the Republic, who will have noticed that the central part of that dialogue is a treatise on education. Furthermore, as Mr. Raven rightly says,
Unfortunately for his subsequent regulation among students of political theory, Plato deals first, in summary fashion, with the artisans, the shopkeepers and the merchants. He is not in fact concerned with them at all; they are included only because he realizes that no state can exist without them. His real concern is with the Guardians, to whom he accordingly passes as soon as he decently can.
So much for the Republic as a “scriptplan for a new community.”
Although Mr. Raven’s emphasis is on the development of Plato’s metaphysics rather than on the social theories, his book has larger implications as he reconstructs, chiefly from internal evidence, a plausible and lucid account of the growth of Plato’s ideas from youth to maturity. An important part of the argument is the demonstration, by now almost universally accepted in principle, that the central metaphysical concept, the Ideas or Forms, was not formulated by Plato until the middle dialogues, when he had gone far beyond the teaching of Socrates. Very probably Pythagorean influence was important here, as Aristotle hints (reduced to buffoonery by Professor Gouldner when he calls the Socrates of the Phaedo “part Pythagoras with a dash of Santa Claus”). From a sentence in the same dialogue Gouldner wrongly assumes that “Socrates retreats from a teleological functionalism to the ‘second-best’ theory of absolute Ideas or Forms” (my italics). Surely it is essential that he be accurate and clear on the question, Was this Socrates’ doctrine or Plato’s? Plato’s metaphysics is inextricable from his social theories, the emergence and development of which constitute the theme of this book.
THE WHOLE METHOD of employing quotations is suspect. Professor Gouldner properly establishes explanatory models whenever he can, and many of them are interesting and novel. But we want to know whether they are useful for an understanding of Plato and his world, of what they were and also of how they differed from other theorists and other societies. The test is whether the models explain, or explain better, the available data; and merely to offer an example or two, whether of an action or a statement, does not constitute proof. Yet this is Gouldner’s normal practice, further vitiated by his failure to examine the credentials of his informants. Baldly to quote Isocrates, an oligarchically oriented political propagandist of the fourth century B.C., who called democratic Athens a “turbid flood,” is not enough support for Gouldner’s “impression of an all too fluid social organization and culture.” It is even more remarkable in a writer who, on another occasion, suggests rather casually that some of the “intellectual differences between Socrates and Plato…derived from their very different social origins, Socrates’ being plebeian and Plato’s being highly aristocratic on both sides of his family.”
Behind the normal unconcern to locate his informants there is a an indifference to social classes and class conflicts which I find most surprising in a sociologist. The “division of labor,” he writes—and I dislike this euphemism for social stratification—“serves also to reduce social conflict by increasing the number of prizewinners and reducing the arena of communal competition.” Yet the whole history of Greece from very early times to the Roman conquest is a continual story of “social conflict” and “communal competition,” not to mention the history of other stratified societies, ancient, medieval, or modern. Similarly, there is the suggestion that “the Olympian religion also contains a strain towards egalitarianism. The difference between men and gods is seen to be so radical that the differences among men pale into insignificance.” Was the difference between men and gods less radical in Pharaonic Egypt, the Caliphate or present-day Venezuela? Or, as a final example, the much too brief section on Plato’s proposals regarding community of property and women among the Guardians containing the following:
…Plato’s proposed family and property changes are probably not so outrageous in terms of Athenian values as they are with respect to our own. Athenians were long disposed to restrict family size and tend to have only one child; moreover, their males are not so emotionally invested in females and in their wives as ours are. Plato’s attitudes towards economic involvements are also more congenial to Greek values and, especially to the aristocracy, who often regard economic pursuits as vulgar.
QUITE APART from the misleading injection of the aristocracy—Plato’s Guardians were an elite, but of a wholly different character from an aristocracy in the usual sense—the confusion of thought is apparent. Attitudes to economic involvements and “pursuits” are one thing, attitudes to property and wealth something else again. A rentier psychology was widespread among rich Greeks, hence the importance of slaves, about which Professor Gouldner has some very powerful things to say. But there could be no greater step than to shift from the desire for wealth without labor to a willingness to accept the propertyless austerity of Plato’s Guardians.
The data, in sum, have here been tailored to suit the explanation, as happens often. The historical anchorage is too sandy and shifting for the superstructure it is asked to carry. To consider the latter in detail would require too lengthy an investigation into the accuracy and bias of the materials in each section. A professional student of the Greeks who is prepared to take that much trouble will find his understanding corrected and enriched at many points, as he will find himself groaning with dismay at many others. Anyone else who studies the book will also find much of interest, but I doubt whether he will be able to judge how far, in whole or in part, the models and the explanations are right for Plato or his society.
Name Calling September 22, 1966