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From Athens to the New School: An Exchange

In response to:

A Special Supplement: The Old School at The New School from the June 18, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Socratic engagement is not Platonic remove, an internal emigré is not an exilarch, tribes or communities are not collective structures composed of specialized parts: with these three levers Diamond and Nell [NYR, June 18] raised their superstructure. And distinguished themselves from thinkers who live in the tradition of distinguo.

It was, after all, Plato who journeyed twice to Syracuse to instruct the tyrant Dionysius and Socrates who was tried for antipolitical conduct; it was Plato who sought to construct actuality by means of the Ideas, and Socrates who treated the Ideas as limits from which he turned back into himself; it was Plato who attempted to bring the knowledge of the philosophers to the use of politicians—which “engagement” would have been repugnant to his mentor. The dichotomy framed in the article is erroneous.

The “strange polarity” at The New School of internal emigrés and exilarchs is framed from the viewpoint of the emigrés; it depends on their assumption that the exilarchs’ distinction between education and politics is erroneous. It is possible to educate for citizenship, but politicization is not a substitute for education, regardless of the political situation. “Basically, we are always educating for a world ‘out of joint.’ ”

The accoutrements of the youth culture were substituted for political action at The New School Graduate Faculty precisely because of the strikers’ lack of any profound concept of politics. The apparent orphans did not even have a kinship structure; and a generation of students is simply not a tribe.

The European ambience cannot be blamed for the failure of The New School strike; rather, the lack of any true political consciousness among the strike steering committee and their mentors made the failure inevitable. The strike leaders threw away their responsibility to preserve at all costs the space for antiwar activities. They sacrificed political goals to Their Own Thing.

Elisabeth Bruehl
Robert Bruehl
Robert Bland

Graduate Students

Departments of Philosophy and Sociology

Stanley Diamond and Edward Nell replies:

If the signers of this note, which raises but fails to explain issues, were our own students, we would refer them to a good library so that they might deepen their understanding of Plato. Jaspers, for example, in a work edited by our colleague Hannah Arendt, defined precisely what we meant by “Socratic engagement” in our article:

[Socrates’] mission was only to search in the company of men, himself a man among men and to question unrelentingly to expose every hiding place…. He conversed with artisans, statesmen, artists, Sophists, harlots. Like many Athenians, he experienced life in the street, the market place, the gymnasia, or the banquets.1

(Would Socrates have been put off by the carnival atmosphere in the New School lobby?)

Jaspers continues:

[Socratic] thinking…does not permit a man to close himself. It will not put up with the evasions of those who refuse to bare their innermost thought…. This kind of thinking opens men’s minds and invites the risks of openness…. In the clarity of human possibility, Socrates meets the Other as an equal. He wants no disciples.2

We must note parenthetically that so far as their participation in the strike was concerned, many students no longer wanted to play the role of prefabricated disciple. Many faculty members, however, found this unsettling, as they functioned most comfortably in conventionally defined bureaucratic relationships with students.

Jaspers distinguishes further between Plato and Socrates:

They are utterly different…. In the fulfillment of the task appointed him by the Godhead, Socrates, at the end, did not shrink from provoking hatred; he became a martyr. Plato was not prepared to die in this way. Socrates was always in the streets of Athens; Plato, by design lived in retirement and turned his back on a present that he regarded as evil. He says as much in The Republic: in bad times hide, take shelter until the storm and the rain have passed.

One could rephrase this: always ensure that one’s politics are “realistic,” i.e., remain within the “acceptable” framework. Wise political strategy, seeing how bad things are, will not risk provoking a repression. Socrates, unwise but seeking truth, was the target of repression. He was not tried for “antipolitical conduct” (whatever that means), but for subverting the authority of the State, specifically for “violating the laws, for he does not believe in the gods of our country, [for] observing a faith in a new kind of demon, and [for] leading the youth astray.”

Jaspers concludes:

Socrates was bound to Athens; Plato remained an Athenian but was on the way to becoming a cosmopolitan; he was capable of living and working outside of his native city. Socrates philosophized in the immediate present, Plato indirectly, through his works and the school he founded. Socrates remained in the market place, Plato withdrew to the academy with a chosen few. Socrates did not write a line, Plato left a monumental written work.3

The strikers repeatedly sought to engage themselves locally, immediately. To the students, the war is not an accident, a miscalculation, or an aberration; the war is an expression of the distortions in American society, and therefore the students focused, to the discomfort of many faculty, on domestic issues also. The war, they reasoned, is not only there, it is here. And it is now, not when Congress next convenes.

Alvin Gouldner examines in his book Enter Plato the contrast between the active and the academic:

[Plato’s] involvement in philosophy grows out of the failure of his political experience; his immigration to philosophy is an emigration from politics. Systematic Western theory emerges, then, in Plato’s dissatisfaction with politics and his search for a rational substitute for it…. Socrates, certainly, is the least academic of philosophers. Not yet separated from the city by university walls, he is the theorist of the market place who goes among men to seek and to give guidance in the daily round of life.4

Karl Popper, with whose facile condemnation of Plato we do not agree, none the less asserts accurately that “Socrates’ intellectualism was fundamentally equalitarian and individualistic,” a contrast with Plato’s “unmitigated authoritarianism.”5

So far as Plato and practical politics are concerned, A. E. Taylor makes the familiar point: “In particular the seventh letter (which, even if apocryphal, expresses the spirit of the man) professes to contain the philosopher’s own vindication of his lifelong abstention from taking part in the public life of his country.” 6

John Wild puts the same issue this way: “As he [Plato] states in the seventh epistle, after watching the giddy course of events until his head was in a whirl, he finally decided to abandon his proposed political career and to devote his life to the study and teaching of philosophy.”7

This, of course, is not to claim that Plato had no conceptual interest in politics. On the contrary, it is precisely the contrast between a conceptual interest and an active engagement that concerns us. One of us (Diamond) has written elsewhere:

He [Plato] avoided the rough and tumble of politics and shrank from any actual political role for which his birth and training qualified him. Yet he seems to have been obsessed with the idea of politics; the political problem for Plato seems to have consisted in how to abolish politics…. His historic fault, that speaks to us across millennia, is not merely in his anthropology, it is certainly not in his intoxication with God, abstract though that was, but rather that he, who so fastidiously shunned politics [in the particular], should have insisted upon the politicization of his faith. Even Cornford, an eloquent defender of Plato, sees him finally as president of the Nocturnal Council (see the Laws), an inquisitor. His prisoner, of course, is Socrates.8

But in that imagined instance, Cornford contends, Socrates would not have accepted his fate.9

Nor do we claim in our article that the implications of Plato’s position are apolitical. We suggest precisely the opposite. The denial of politics in a political context is itself an act of politics: its (sometimes) unintended consequence is the defense of the status quo. But this is then a defense given without accepting the responsibilities of engagement.

The naïve, short-lived, and abortive efforts which Plato undertook, after his sixtieth year, formally to instruct the tyrant of Syracuse so as to transform him into a philsopher king (drilling him in mathematics, according to Taylor, apparently to distraction), are an evasion of active politics. This characteristic of Plato was clearly understood by Jaspers: “Plato did not enter into practical politics in response to actual situations.” Being a cloistered tutor on fruitless missions to alien tyrants is the converse of Socratic engagement.

We should also note, parenthetically, that along with Werner Jaeger, we feel that the theory of Ideas should not be attributed to Socrates; and Jaeger’s view today represents the near-unanimous opinion of the classicists. The Socrates of the middle and later dialogues is clearly an invention of Plato: he is, in Jaspers’s meaning, a “transfiguration.” Reference to a different approach to the Ideas by Socrates on the one hand and Plato on the other is, therefore, anachronistic; it is an attempt to obfuscate the actual distinction between the two philosophers, which most classicists, whether defenders or detractors of Plato, understand along the lines we have indicated.

The exilarchs may insist that their educational undertaking has no political implications, but, as Plato recognized to his everlasting credit, immaculate conceptions are not possible in a political society, that is to say, in any known historical State. To believe otherwise is to accept the bureaucratic and collective definition of the person, namely “a structure composed of specialized parts.”

The politically perilous task of the authentic educator is to question all received dogma, to do so as selflessly as possible, and to act against oppression in order to defend the integrity of the creative mind. In so doing the educator assists others to examine themselves; in short, he attempts to act in a Socratic manner. And, of course, the more critical the cultural situation, the more intense his intellectual responsibilities. Since the rise of civilization, we have all been, willy-nilly, political creatures, and our duty is to understand, not to evade, and, if necessary, to suffer the consequences of our understanding. As R. H. S. Crossman wrote: “Socrates’ [life and death in the city] was a constant reminder to Plato that a great teacher must also be a simple human being who loves and understands his fellow men.”

It is both arrogant and mistaken to claim that the strikers lacked any serious concept of politics: on the contrary they lacked the Platonic and strove for the Socratic concept. Engagement and commitment, of course, do not preclude self-importance and what the students themselves call “ego-tripping,” i.e., doing your own thing at the expense of others. No doubt some were guilty of this—on all sides, as we reported. But individual eccentricities must not obscure profound differences of vision. We refer our critics and their mentors to three recent articles in The New York Review on the politics of youth written respectively by Stuart Hampshire, Kenneth Keniston, and Hans Morgenthau; and we despair at the heavy-footed, literal-minded reaction to our use of the term “tribe” as a metaphor for the spontaneous communal striving of their peers.

Finally, we must ask our critics to re-examine their efforts at observation and reporting. We did not claim that the “European ambience” led to the “failure” of the New School strike. In the first place, the strike did not fail. Even among those who opposed it, it has led to self-examination and perhaps a new political sensitivity. In the second place, the division between the internal emigrés and the exilarchs was, as we wrote, revealed during the strike but caused neither the strike nor its denouement. The “regressive” territorial confrontation, as we named it, between students and administration, was mainly a result of competition for uniquely limited facilities at the New School. We also noted the contributing force of a breakdown in communication: the fact, that is, that two different languages were being spoken.

When the students were finally convinced that the administration had no intention of turning over sufficient space for them to continue antiwar activities for any length of time, on any significant scale, they occupied the Registration Office. They did this on their own initiative, not as disciples of any member of the faculty, and after examining the social usefulness of the options that they felt were open to them. In so doing they consciously invited a bust; nor did they physically protest their arrest. That was their act of witness; and not without Socratic implication. No faculty member served as “mentor” to the strikers; to suggest this is to betray a hopeless misunderstanding of the consciousness of radical youth, as well as to insult their integrity.

  1. 1

    Karl Jaspers, The Great Philosophers, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Ralph Mannheim, p. 16.

  2. 2

    Ibid., p. 31. Italics added here and in the quotations below.

  3. 3

    Ibid., p. 121.

  4. 4

    Alvin Gouldner, Enter Plato, Basic Books, 1965, p. 174-5.

  5. 5

    Karl Popper, “Plato As the Enemy of Open Society” in Plato: Totalitarian or Democrat?, essays selected and introduced by T. L. Thorson, Prentice-Hall, 1963, p. 77.

  6. 6

    A. E. Taylor, The Mind of Plato, Ann Arbor, 1960, p. 14.

  7. 7

    John Wild, in Thorson, op. cit., p. 107.

  8. 8

    Plato and the Definition of the Primitive” in Culture and History, ed. Stanley Diamond, Columbia, 1960.

  9. 9

    M. Cornford, The Unwritten Philosophy and Other Essays, Cambridge, 1950, p. 67.

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