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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Name Calling September 22, 1966