Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

The letter kills but the spirit gives life (1): The Paradox of the Seventh Letter and the Platonic Method

with 8 comments

Biological life and death are superficial aspects of real life and death. That’s my understanding of the New Testament and many spiritual traditions. When Paul of Tarsus says that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life” his point is that the moral law brings real death to any who violate it but that the Spirit of God can bring real life to that person.

            In these two posts I want to think with you about another aspect of real life and death: the ways in which literature and philosophy can bring life and death. First (of course), philosophy.

            We all know about the Socratic Method. When Plato praises spoken dialogue over the written word, I am suggesting here, he means to lead us by example to a different method for doing philosophy, which we may label the Platonic Method.

            Plato asks the question of spirit versus letter in the Seventh Letter and the Phaedrus. I’ll begin by reminding you of his thoughts on the matter, thoughts which seem to lead to a paradox. First, from the Seventh Letter.

“There neither is nor ever will be a treatise of mine on the subject [of the good and the just and the honorable]. For it does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge; but after much converse about the matter itself and a life lived together, suddenly a light, as it were, is kindled in one soul by a flame that leaps to it from another, and thereafter sustains itself. … I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic.”

“No man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language, especially not in language that is unchangeable, which is true of that which is set down in written characters.”

            Now from Phaedrus. Socrates tells how a famous old god named Thoth brought many arts to the people and explained their virtues to Thamus, the god who was king ofEgypt.

“When they came to letters, this, said Thoth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Thoth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Socrates agrees with Thamus.

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.

            The silence of letters, the unresponsiveness of letters to enquiry, is at the heart of Plato’s criticism in both texts. As Mevlana says, silence is the most certain indicator of death: there is death in letters, and that explains their silence in the face of the most earnest enquiry. They do not display intelligence. They do not display even artificial intelligence: the greatest book is stupider than the simplest robot.

            Plato’s attack is not on the word. It is on the written word.  The word, the Logos, is the expression of the Spirit, as much for Plato as for Paul of Tarsus.  The written word, the letter, is the dry and lifeless residue the Word has left behind. Thus Phaedrus will praise “the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly no more than an image.” Socrates concludes that “he who knows the just and good and honourable … will not seriously incline to “write” his thoughts “in water” with pen and ink, sowing words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.”

            The denigration of the written word on the grounds of its unresponsiveness to the reader is what generates the Paradox of the Seventh Letter. Plato writes a disquisition in which he says “I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition.” He writes against writing, and he writes many hundreds of pages. We ought to learn something by unraveling the paradox, for Plato couldn’t possibly have missed the irony as he wrote.

            Part of the answer is that the Seventh Letter is not the sort of thing he preferred to write. He wrote dialogues (like the Phaedrus) rather than disquisitions. – True, but how do the dialogues escape Plato’s criticisms of disquisitions? A dialogue can’t answer if you respond to one of the characters, any more than a disquisition can.

            One attractive idea is that a dialogue invites the reader to participate. This is what we advise our students of Plato to do. – True, but we also advise readers of Aristotle’s and Russell’s disquisitions to do the same.

            Another attractive idea is that Plato’s dialogues call on us to imitate Socrates and to interrogate our own preconceptions as he interrogated Meno and Euthyphro. – True again, but any philosophical disquisitionist calls on us to imitate him as well in his ruthless self-examination, for example Descartes in his Meditations or Chisholm in his chisholming. And in fact we see a lot more self-criticism in Descartes and Chisholm than we see in Socrates. As Nietzsche says, Socrates gave the agon-loving Greeks one more agon – one more contest or competition – constantly looking for a prot-agonist so he could be an ant-agonist, perhaps seeking the ultimate agon in which Soul confronts Death. Not much of a model for one seeking life.

            Perhaps a sounder suggestion is that Plato invites us to imitate not Socrates but Plato himself. Socrates only participated in dialogues; Plato created them. Socrates took one side; Plato gave expression to both sides, in imagination creating each of them. So when he gave us not only Diotima but Aristophanes in the Symposium he created two myths about love that will never die, and one was a myth he did not even accept.

            Alfred North Whitehead reveres Plato, but he does so for the wrong reason. He writes in Process and Reality

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writing an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.

            Footnotes, though, are only words. Written words. If Plato’s heritage were only words, the words wouldn’t be worth reading. Yes, the words of philosophers contain “a wealth of general ideas” which are a mine for anyone looking for ideas. But philosophy is the search for wisdom, not the search for ideas.

            My conclusion: there is life in Plato’s dialogues because they encourage dialogue within the mind of the reader. If you are capable of holding a conversation with yourself the ideas will follow. If you have only ideas they are dead, as dead as letters.

Written by shvoss

March 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Stephen, thanks for this post .Why Plato favors the dialogical form and what it provides that a disquisition cannot is a question that I’ve always been curious about.

    I agree with you that “if you are capable of holding a conversation with yourself the ideas will follow” – yet a dialogue with the other has priority (logical, ontological?) over having conversation with yourself. A dialogue is primarily social – cannot be a “private” language so to speak. So to be engaged in a dialogue for the search of truth is an undertaking that we can commit ourselves always in the company of others. The dialogue form seems to be a better way of unfolding this than the disquisition.

    The dialogue form also allows us to see that every character is committed to the dialogue in different ways. Some shy away, some see it as a way of “winning the argument”, some get angry etc… I tend to think that the dialogues are demonstrations of the “spirit” of the interlocutors and in a sense performative. Can we think of someone who has no sense of what it means to act justly – even during the dialogue itself- yet intends to undertake the task of inquiring what justice is? Even though a “pure knower” in this sense is logically possible, Plato’s choice of the dialogical form makes me think that he would not answer this question positively.

    Maybe another reason for the choice of dialogue is the import of mythos – as an aspect of logos – for the quest for truth. Myths as the embodiment of ideals and as the storement of exemplars that have been handed down through generations is strictly a verbal form. Maybe the function of myth in the dialogues might help us to shed light upon the significance of this dialogical form. I hope to write more about these preliminary considerations later on…
    Thanks again!
    Demet Evrenosoglu

    demet evrenosoglu

    March 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    • Hi Demit, thanks for your good thoughts.

      I want to suggest that one reason to prioritize Platonic internal dialogue over external Socratic dialogue is that in the first case I am required to play two opposing roles — now Aristophanes, now Diotima, and so on.

      Nothing very Socratic about two drivers arguing about who caused the accident, but I imagine that lawyers using the “Socratic method” typically do about the same.

      Both are better than just writing a disquisition of course. At least the driver has to take not of what the other person said and that will modify the rant.

      And when you write a disquisition you assume the reader has nothing to contribute, and only needs to bow and repeat “evet, hocam.”

      How can a dialogue between 2 philosophers transcend the practice of the lawyers and drivers?


      March 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm

  2. Thanks for the post and for the comment, both of which highlight requirements for any satisfactory interpretation of Plato’s dialogues, in my view at least.

    @Stephen: I wonder whether your interpretation would also need an account of or sensitivity to recursive structures at work almost everywhere in Plato’s corpus: his writing without ever “speaking”, his constant framing and over-framing of his dialogues, his “writing” about his distrust for writing, quotes within quotes, tales within tales, dreams within dreams, the role of the “Golden Ratio”, of irrational numbers and of the noble lie, etc. What is most interesting to me is Plato’s implicit insistence on the necessity of personal engagement in philosophical thinking – the kind of engagement that is requisite to even attend to, say, the Cogito argument.

    @Demet: I wholeheartedly agree with your emphasis on the interpersonal and mythical dimension of Platonic dialogues. Cf. Stephen’s quote from the seventh letter: “a life lived together…” I would go even further to emphasize the importance of embodiment in the dialogues: the characters’ sickness (Phaedo), their treatment (Charmides), their “giving birth” (Theaetetus), their dying (Phaedo), their clothing and nudity (Phaedrus), their drunkenness and seizing (Symposium), even their blushing and sweating (Republic I). All Platonic dialogues are interpersonal (even the Apology, the Menexenus, and the Clitophon), and as such they are all more or less embodied. Indeed, this seems directly at odds with many “Platonic” views about the body.

    For a good account of how to do justice to this kind of “Platonic method” as performative as well as argumentative, let me recommend Francisco Gonzalez’ introduction to “The Third Way” (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), and Greg Recco’s introduction to his “Athens Victorious” (Lexington Books, 2008).

    ömer orhan aygün

    March 7, 2012 at 1:38 am

    • Ömer- thanks a lot for your recommendations and for the thought-provoking comment.

      ” What is most interesting to me is Plato’s implicit insistence on the necessity of personal engagement in philosophical thinking – the kind of engagement that is requisite to even attend to, say, the Cogito argument.” I find your remark very iIlluminating, I similarly think that even though Plato’s demand is implicit, the nature of this “necessity” seems to prevail the spirit of the dialogues. .

      I wonder what Plato’s insistence for personal engagement implies about the mythical dimension? Part of what I have in mind is this: when there is an interlocutor who overtly lacks this sort of engagement, we frequently see that a myth enters into the dialogue. how to explain this gesture in view of this question?

      So this is it for now… Thanks again.



      March 8, 2012 at 1:11 am

      • Hi Demet,

        I guess we agree that myths are not to be dismissed in Plato’s dialogues. But your question about the role of myth in Plato is hard precisely because of the first point: because at least some of Plato’s dialogues are so imbued with myth, its role can neither be simply rhetorical nor mythological. My guess is that the issue should discussed on a case-by-case basis: Who is telling the myth to whom (slave, foreigner, woman, Athenian, etc.)? When and why? (Cf. Apology, 20e: “the ‘mythos’ ia not mine”; also Pradeau, Brisson, Reinhardt, Sallis, etc.)

        Even worse, Plato’s dialogues have many recursive moments – this relates to my reply to Stephen: I am currently working on Republic VII where Socrates interprets the “image” (eikôn) of the cave story which itself is all about interpreting, precisely, images. I don’t know how to categorize a myth about myth.

        Yet your comment seems to suggest that this discussion might shed light on something not only about Plato, but also about myth as such. I agree and think Cephalus might be an interesting figure to look at, given his reference to childhood, fear, nightmares, etc. (Cf. Lear) When is a story necessary? When and why couldn’t a story be replaced by an account?


        Ömer Orhan Aygün

        May 18, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    • Thanks Ömer. I would very much like to see more on recursive structure in Plato and more on personal engagement in philosophical thinking. Is there an interesting relation between them?


      March 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm

  3. Dear Stephen,

    Thank you very much for the post. I admired the way you put things together and I want to make a very brief comment.

    As I understand it, your conclusion is not meant to be only about Plato but it also reflects a general view about philosophy itself: search for wisdom requires more than what you can do with written words, namely, a vivid conversation with yourself. No one, I believe, would challenge this conclusion. Yet, I am not sure if one has to go as far as “denigrating the written word” in order to reach this conclusion – as Plato seems to do according to your account. Just remember Epicurus’ Letters, Maximes and Sentences. One fundamental character of these texts is their dogmatic status. More than that: they are meant to be dogmatically received by their addressee, that is, the pupil. One can find no discussion, no questioning, no examination of hypotheses, etc. in these texts because the truth is established beforehand, prior to its presentation, by the master. These texts do not search for truth, they simply know it; yet they are still meant to be guides to wisdom. Besides, these texts are also built as epitomes of “opinions” (correct ones, of course). These features seem to me entirely anti-Platonic.

    I believe Epicurus would not deny your general conclusion about philosophy, but he would not agree the platonic way you arrived there.

    Thanks again!

    Refik Guremen

    March 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    • Dear Refik,

      I believe we’re still looking for the right way to seek wisdom. I recommend Platonic dialogue over Socratic dialogue. But tentatively. There’s a right way but we still don’t know what it is. At rare moments, we realize we’re doing it right — as an average tennis player will accidentally hit the ball just right every now and then.

      There are other worthwhile things than philosophy. One is proclaiming truth within a school. Pierre Hadot has described this practice beautifully.

      Such a school is often called “philosophical.” That’s because it encourages both Platonic dialogue in the search for wisdom and the proclamation of truth after it’s been found. That seems admirable to me.


      March 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm

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