Plato’s hijacking of Socratic aporia and media-friendly radicalism

In Plato’s early dialogues Socrates leads his interlocutors to aporia, a state in which they are unconvinced by their own beliefs and arguments, and do not know what to believe any more. Most of the early dialogues end with Socrates’ interlocutor in a perplexed state of aporia. In those dialogues, while Socrates was dissecting them with merciless questioning (the elenchos, or cross-examination), other people did the answering.

Those dialogues ended effectively without answers. If anything, by the end of the dialogue there were even more (and more difficult) questions left. Plus the shattered egos (and reputations, if other people happened to be around) of Socrates’ interlocutors.

The uncomfortable point where the dialogues were cut short and aporia took hold is the point where questions about power and tolerance arise: If two people disagree on the subject at hand and no argument can convert either side, what will be done? Whose ideas will be applied in practice? Can the ideas and the people who hold them coexist despite those differences in opinion? These are the questions that Plato left unanswered. The most prominent example of someone who did not shy away from the questions that the reader is left with after reading the early Socratic dialogues was Machiavelli. But then, most people do not consider Machiavelli a ‘philosopher’.

On further consideration though, neither did Plato shy away from those questions. Well, almost. Because he played a very insidious trick on his audience. Plato played ‘the long game’. Seen in retrospect, the trajectory from the early dialogues to the Republic is one of building up his authority through Socrates’ persona. By demolishing whatever he deemed untrue and not good in other people’s opinions, while not expressing an opinion himself, Plato (through Socrates) established a precedent of being a very rigorous and fair thinker.

Superficially, Plato’s Republic has the same form as the earlier dialogues — there are certainly questions and answers. But, crucially, for the first time, it is Socrates who answers the questions that others ask. It is not quite a cross-examination though. Socrates’ interlocutors are members of his entourage, not some aggressive sophist with an axe to grind and a reputation to protect, as it was the case in the dialogues Gorgias and Protagoras. Socrates’ ‘interlocutors’ ask him questions and he simply responds. They never really disagree; at best, they ask for clarification. Why did Plato then write the Republic as a pseudo-dialogue?

The first reason is that it is more dramatic. But, importantly, it is also more convincing, because it has the appearance of cross-examination, the Socratic elenchos. As Plato’s audience already knows, conclusions drawn through elenchos are more rigorous. And they are indisputable, since the person previously holding the refuted opinions has denounced them himself. Although proving the falsehood of the opinions of others does not imply the truthfulness of one’s own opinions, it does give an aura of authority to the person who established the falsehood of the refuted opinions.

And here is where Plato’s long game comes into play. The reader approaches the Republic with the preconception that Socrates knows better. Together with the pseudo-dialogue structure, Socrates seems to be practising what he preaches, as he willingly subjects himself to what looks like the elenchos of others. Before even seeing the content of Socrates’ opinions, the reader is already half-convinced.

The transcendental Forms that Plato introduces in the Republic are a sophisticated-sounding expression of arbitrary power — which is why I said earlier that Plato did not really shy away from the question of power. The Philosopher King — another core idea introduced in the Republic — is a God-appointed ruler who knows everything about the true Forms behind worldly things and is thus immensely powerful over ignorant people.

But how is the first Philosopher King inaugurated? By a logical jump: the one who has proven that others do not know, himself knows. And from that point onward any prior rules do not apply to him — because he now makes the rules.

Before presenting himself as a future Philosopher King, the Platonic Socrates used free speech to question and cause aporia to others. After he becomes a Philosopher King he will even regulate which musical scales other people would be allowed to sing in. Freedom of speech disappears. According to Plato, this happens for good reasons. Because, after all, in Plato’s utopia, there are no moral uncertainties, hence no place for aporia. The Philosopher Kings steer society towards the True and the Good. No one needs to argue, or think and act independently any more. This is Plato’s answer to the question of tolerance.

In the Republic, Plato concludes that justice is that everyone does what they are obliged to do to serve his ideal state. The Philosopher Kings know what everyone is destined to do for that state. As Karl Popper identified in The Open Society and Its Enemies (the enemies being Plato and Marx), this is a perverse form of ‘justice’; he called it ‘totalitarian justice’. Socrates was practising justice through his elenchos — just not the type of justice that Plato advocated; not in the sense of defining what is true, but by having logical argument with others. Stuart Hampshire in his book Justice is Conflict defines justice as making sure that every side is heard by having institutions that promote and mediate civilised conflict (what he calls ‘justice in procedure’). This is what Socrates was doing through the institution of structured conflict he established: elenchos.

In the Republic, what Plato attempts and, judging by its far-reaching consequences today, succeeds in is to hijack aporia. In my opinion, the most important implication of aporia is that nobody really has unassailable answers to controversial moral problems (what Hampshire calls ‘justice in substantial matters’). This, in turn, implies that we should be more intellectually humble and tolerant towards others.

Of course, underlying Socratic elenchos exists the belief that Truth (capitalised) can eventually be arrived at; and, supposedly, elenchos is the method to achieve this. This would at least demand that Socrates (or Plato) be subjected to elenchos himself. But for Plato elenchos was the method to show the falsehood of other people’s opinions. And once this is established the wise ones (i.e. Plato and his friends) can by divine revelation rule over the other people. For Plato, aporia through elenchos was not really a method to achieve (or force unto others) intellectual humility, but, rather, to intellectually humiliate other people for future use. Plato skillfully used a system of civilised conflict to try to impose a supposedly superior system of non-conflict, in which he was a priori right.

Judging by many people’s idea of justice today (especially young university students in Western countries and so-called Social Justice Warriors) it seems that the Republic has a lot more intellectual influence today than the dialogues. The dialogues are seen as a prelude to the Republic — to Truth — as I think Plato intended them to be. Plato intended for his supposed BS-busting of the early dialogues to bestow him with authority, so that he could write the Republic as a morality expert.

Radical Islam is not only about the people who blow themselves up in children’s concerts. It is also about the media-friendly arm of radical Islam, those who spend their time in various ‘charities’, participating in TV panels, and marching in the streets for various ‘causes’ (or infiltrating those movements). Those media-friendly radicals want Islamic Sharia law tomorrow, for everyone. Under that law, the free speech laws under which they express themselves freely would disappear. It is the intolerant using tolerance to spread intolerance — what Popper called ‘the paradox of tolerance’ in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

This is the hardest radicalism to fight. Not because it is foreign, but because it is well-rooted in the Western thought tradition. Radical Islam is quintessentially Western, with its closest ideological affinities being with the Bolsheviks and the Jacobins, as John Gray has showed in his book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. True to their Western ideological roots media-friendly radicals are now hijacking a system of justice-through-conflict (free speech) with the plan to eliminate it. As we saw, this hijacking is not peculiar to Islamic radicals. Some two and a half millennia ago, Plato attempted to hijack the system of justice of his own homeland, which, incidentally, was Athens, the mother of democracy.

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