The Platonism of Hannah Arendt

“[Socrates’] distinction from his fellow citizens is not that he possesses any special truth from which the multitude is excluded, but that he remains always ready to endure the pathos of wonder and thereby avoid the dogmatism of mere opinion holders. In order to be able to compete with this dogmatism of doxazein, Plato proposed to prolong indefinitely the speechless wonder which is at the beginning and end of philosophy.”
- Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics”

I begin by situating our quote of the week within a narrow but illuminating interpretive context. The context is the modern study of Plato’s dialogues, and it should cast light on the significance of Arendt’s reading of Platonic wonder in her 1954 lecture “Philosophy and Politics.”

“Philosophy and Politics” appeared in the Spring 1990 issue of Social Research: An International Quarterly

Two paradigms govern modern interpretations of Plato. A doctrinal paradigm assumes that the aim of the dialogues is to establish Plato’s own doctrines. This paradigm dates back to the early first century BCE, when Antiochus of Ascalon accused the Hellenistic Academy, his former school, of deviating from the perfection of Plato’s doctrinal system. Plotinus soon after systematized Plato’s philosophy with a brilliant but selective reading of the dialogues. Modern interpreters sympathetic with a doctrinal reading have since traveled well beyond Antiochus and the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. We now have esotericists and doctrinal developmentalists. The esoteric strategy locates Plato’s doctrinal system not in the dialogues themselves, but in the testimony of secondary sources where Plato’s “unwritten beliefs” are supposedly documented. Doctrinal developmentalists imagine that Plato’s doctrinal system evolved or developed over the course of his writing career, from an early Socratic period that preserves the form and content of Socrates’ oral teachings, to a gradually more independent Plato as he becomes the authoritative executor of doctrinal Platonism, changing his principal mouthpiece from Socrates to Parmenides (Parmenides), a Eleatic Stranger (Sophist, Statesman), Timaeus (Timaeus), and finally an Athenian Stranger (Laws). The premise of doctrinal development seems to be an effective way to overcome the selectivity of Neoplatonism, while explaining the logical contradictions that appear in different dialogues. This way one might salvage the authority and coherence of Plato’s philosophy.

The flaws of this modern development are not difficult to expose, as the burden of proof still falls on those who think that Plato’s system can be redeemed according to the presumption of doctrinal development. Just like Antiochus and Plotinus, developmentalists are unable to reconcile the undeniable literary form of the dialogues (e.g., the dramatic settings, the historical allusions, the dispositions of the interlocutors) with the aim of the dialogues presupposed by the doctrinal paradigm, i.e., the establishment of the author’s philosophical beliefs. Proponents of this kind of reading typically scoff at two uncontentious facts: (1) Plato refused to write treatises; (2) Plato refused to insert himself as a character into his dialogues and openly articulate his beliefs, as Cicero and Hume would later do in their appropriation of the dialogue form. (Let’s not forget that even if Plato did insert his voice into the dialogues, readers would surely still ask whether such an insertion served a literary aim other than conveying authorial conviction). By ignoring these facts, developmentalists inevitably transmogrify the dialogues into disguised treatises. So the truth remains: there is no existing evidence — or criterion independent of the dialogues, including Plato’s controversial letters or Aristotle’s testimony — that would confirm the premise that Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece in a given dialogue, or his spokesperson generally. Development is unprovable, and direct inference from the words of one character to the mind of Plato at the time of writing will never be reliable, or conclusive. We simply don’t know whether Socrates speaks for Plato, or if Plato wrote for Socrates. But here is what we do know: the dialogues, the literary form and the philosophical content, speak for Plato.

The second paradigm deploys a reactionary anti-doctrinal strategy. Existentialist, Straussian, deconstructionist, and hermeneutic readings promote interesting variations of this paradigm. Anti-doctrinal readers contend that Plato refused to establish philosophical doctrines of his own, thus discarding any developmental premise from their reading. On this view, the dialogues uniformly reflect Plato’s argumentative and literary skills at refuting the conceit of dogmatism and promoting open-ended inquiry. The dialogues expose problems, refutations, and questions, not philosophical conclusions. Plato hides behind his dramatic characters, and relativizes philosophical argument by nesting it in the beliefs and dispositions of a cast of interacting characters framed by a specific context. Unlike the doctrinal paradigm, this second strategy makes effective use of Plato’s choice of the dialogue form. But there is a flaw in this strategy as well. It generally fails to account for the positive illustrations of virtue and knowledge in the dialogues. Plato’s dialogues are able to employ a literary means to exhibit a certain practical knowledge in the activity of dialogue. Anti-doctrinal readers dismiss too readily this instantiation of non-doctrinal knowledge in the dialogues, and the irreducibility of this knowledge to speech, whether it be definitions, propositions, demonstrations, or even myths. Hannah Arendt’s 1954 lecture “Philosophy and Politics” — specifically her stimulating account of the philosopher’s ability to endure the speechless pathos of wonder — is a valuable aid in clarifying the activity of this knowing as it appears in the dialogues, pointing us in a direction that escapes the shortcomings of the two paradigm scheme.

But first we must remove the doctrinal premises that so often haunt Arendt’s reading of Plato.

Ancient road to the Academy (By Tomisti — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Regrettably Arendt’s reading of Plato was beholden to the doctrinal paradigm, and its mouthpiece premise. In her 1954 lecture, Arendt spoke as if the dialogues directly transmit not only what Plato positively believed, but also his feeling of “despair” and his “furious denunciation of doxa.” Arendt’s entries on Plato in her Gedenktagebuch make use of the presumption that the statements of the Eleatic Stranger in the Statesman directly convey “Plato’s conviction.” In the Human Condition, Arendt claims that Plato believed that he had proved the utter “slavishness of slaves,” and that in the Republic Plato espoused in the dialogues a “doctrine of eternal ideas.” In the chapter on action, Arendt draws the faulty inference that “Plato thought that human affairs should not be treated with great seriousness.” What makes this last inference particularly unsound is that it refers not to any particular passage or dialogue, but to Plato’s dialogues generally. Note that here Arendt characterizes writings which indisputably depict human beings in rather intricate discussions about what it might mean to take life seriously. Unbiased readers are aware, however, that one cannot, at least not without argument or reason, attribute to Plato a “theory” or “doctrine of eternal ideas” simply because a handful of dialogues refer to “ideas” in the language of poetic imagery and imaginative allegory.

The thought may have occurred to Arendt that long before Dante created an ideal-type in the Divine Comedy from the historical figure Thomas Aquinas, Plato created sundry ideal-types, i.e., dramatis personae that are not bound by the historical reality that inspired their literary use. In her 1971 lecture “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Arendt rightly set out to circumvent the problem of how to distinguish a historical Socrates from Plato’s Socrates. For this Arendt looked to Dante’s use of an ideal-type, “to transform a historical figure into a model and assign it a definitive representative function.” But because of her developmentalist assumption, which holds that Plato’s so-called “early” dialogues depict the beliefs and arguments of what she thought represented an “authentically Socratic” Socrates in the Life of the Mind, Arendt stepped straight into the problem she sought to circumvent. But again there is no criterion available to distinguish an authentic Socrates from Plato’s “entirely un-Socratic use” of Socrates. Unlike Dante’s use of Thomas, Arendt’s chosen figure had already been transformed and he already had a representative function, several in fact. Thomas Aquinas left behind his own voluminous writings to scour, and much of his theological and philosophical life in the university has been the subject of biographical study. This is not the case with Socrates, nor does the ancient genre of Socratic logoi function like the treatise, or historical monograph. What Arendt transforms is much less a historical figure than a literary representation. This does not mean that her ideal-type is not an ideal-type. Surely it is. It means rather that her use of the model of Socrates creates a false dichotomy between her model and a putative doctrinal Platonism that makes use of an inauthentic Socrates. In the end, Arendt’s Platonism is the reason she thought Plato severed a relation between philosophy and politics in the so-called “un-Socratic” dialogues, a relation that she rightly thought had been intact in Socrates’ interrogation of fellow citizens.

But what happens if we remove the presumption of Platonism from Arendt’s reading and re-insert Socrates, along with the pathos of wonder, back into the dialogue form?

As Arendt observed, what distinguishes Socrates from his fellow citizens is that he knows that he does not know, a knowledge that mere opinion-holders disavow in refusing the speechless shock of wonder. But it does not follow from this distinction that Socrates has no clearly defined doxai with which to compete with the dogmatism of the many. It follows rather that the philosopher has the courage and temperance to risk action and speech in the face of his ignorance, and thus confront his ignorance without being frightened off into the silence of wonder, disappearing into a life of wonder far away from the plurality of the human condition. Plato’s Socrates (whether like a gadfly, midwife, or torpedo fish) manifests the virtue and knowledge of temperance in his refusal to claim that his speech or doxa is expert knowledge, as well as courage by not despairing over this lack of propositional knowledge. Instead, Plato’s Socrates shows his fellow citizens how to endure with knowing courage and temperance the pathos of wonder. Temperance and courage is poised between the absolute disavow of speechless shock, on the one hand, and the prolonged indefiniteness of wonder, on the other.

To summarize, Plato’s Socrates neither proclaims the conceited dogmatism of expert knowledge nor retreats cowardly into a silent state of wonder. And there are no grounds for saying that Plato believed he had to compete with the dogmatism of doxazein by extending indefinitely the speechlessness of wonder. Quite the contrary, Plato wrote dialogues — which is to say that he wrote in a style that continually provokes readers to confront the plurality of opinion, while giving them an illustration of how to endure their own wonder in the process. The form of the dialogue gave Plato the literary means to embolden his readers to refuse the cowardly retreat from the shock of wonder, as well as the immodest claim of expert knowledge. Arendt observed that speechless wonder is at the beginning and the end of philosophy for Plato, but it is more than this. Wonder for Plato is philosophy’s recurring heartbeat. In between the extremes of its complete contraction or perilous expansion, the enduring rhythm of wonder can be steadied and restrained for the sake of speech and action.

Charles Snyder, Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College