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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, June 25, 2005

indignatio continued

The tumblers were falling into place in 420 B.C. At least, according to Laurence Lampert’s excellent analysis of the dialogue known as Hippias Minor in the Spring 2002 Review of Politics. The Review definitely has a Straussian tinge, but sometimes LI likes the odd faith that close reading of ancient texts will give us political redemption.

In the Lesser Hippias, Socrates’ antagonist is Hippias, an Elian sophist and politician. He has come to Athens to participate in the ninetieth Olympiad, in which the Elians were managers of the game. Lampert emphasizes a Thucydidian aspect of Hippias’ presence in Athens:

“More important, however, than the coming Olympics for the Lesser Hippias is the diplomatic conference for which Elis presumably sent Hippias to Athens. That conference had been arranged by the rising new force in Athenian politics, Alcibiades, the young Athenian to whom Socrates had devoted such close attention more than a decade earlier.(n7) Alcibiades had arranged the congress of 420 to implement his bold new strategy; altering the Periclean strategy Athens had followed since the beginning of the war eleven years earlier. Alcibiades' policy required that maritime Athens win Peloponnesian allies for a decisive hoplite battle against Sparta. Thucydides chose this critical moment as the fitting occasion to introduce to his narrative the flamboyant and fateful figure who would come to dominate it as he came to dominate Athenian politics.(n8) Alcibiades appears for the first time in Thucydides as a young strategist and diplomat of great ambition and talent who achieves a striking victory in the first endeavor Thucydides chose to report about him: Alcibiades won the diplomatic battle in 420 by perpetrating an outrageous trick on the Spartan ambassadors, persuading them to lie to the Athenian assembly about their power to finalize a treaty. Unscrupulous Alcibiades then immediately denounced them to the assembly as unscrupulous liars, inciting the assembly into a frenzy of outrage against the Spartans and turning it toward his own policy of alliance with the Argives, Mantineans, and Elians. An earthquake occurred at that inopportune moment and the assembly lost its chance to approve Alcibiades' policy immediately. They approved it some weeks later, however, after Nicias's attempt to negotiate a treaty with the Spartans failed. Alcibiades's diplomatic success further required that he persuade the ambassadors from Argos, Mantinea, and Elis to sign a treaty of alliance with the Athenians. The diplomacy was successful but the hoplite battle two years later would be lost, partly due to Athenian failure to implement Alcibiades' plan and send a full complement of Athenians in a timely manner to the decisive battle near Mantinea in 418.”

For those who like their nudge nudging to be more explicit – we think there is a striking parallel between Alcibiades trick and some recent deception that has been going down. Maybe our faithful readers can guess?..

As we know from the Symposium, Socrates has been close to Alcibiades. The contest staged in the Lesser Hippias between Hippias and Socrates turns on the question of who is better, Achilles or Odysseus? And in what respect? The later question is, abstractly, about the nature of virtue, and, practically, about Homer’s presentation of the two heros. Hippias takes the position that Achilles is the greater man, and the Iliad is the greater poem. His position is pretty straightforward, turning on the scene in the Iliad in which Odysseus pleads with Achilles to return to the Achaian force. The Andrew Lang translation on Gutenberg gives us this unfortunate Victorian translation of Achilles’ reply:

“And Achilles fleet of foot answered and said unto him: "Heaven-sprungson of Laertes, Odysseus of many wiles, in openness must I now declareunto you my saying, even as I am minded and as the fulfilment thereofshall be, that ye may not sit before me and coax this way and that. Forhateful to me even as the gates of hell is he that hideth one thing inhis heart and uttereth another: but I will speak what meseemeth best.”

The word for wiles, in Greek, is polytropoi. Lampert sees this as a key word. Hippias’ view is that Achilles is rebuking guile from the morally more unassailable position of straightforwardness. Lampert gives a quite adequate summary of the “plot” of the dialogue (which, I should add, is one of Plato’s smaller dialogues):

“Achilles' words initiate the first argument of the dialogue, an argument about lying, for Hippias interprets Achilles' words as a denunciation of lying and an attack on lying Odysseus. This first argument (365c-371e) begins with a view on the liar that Socrates suggests Homer held: "that the truthful man was one sort and the liar another, and that they are not the same" (365c). Hippias's conviction--"It would be terrible (deinon) if it were not so"--governs his reactions to Socrates' reasoning and leads ultimately to the conclusion of Odysseus's superiority (371e). At the end of the first argument, when Hippias hears this conclusion and the conclusion on which it is based (that the voluntary liar is better than the involuntary liar), he expresses his moral outrage and expands the topic dramatically: "And how, Socrates, can those who are voluntarily unjust, who have voluntarily plotted and done evil, be better than those who do so involuntarily?" (372a, emphasis added) This outburst initiates the second argument (372a-375d), an argument about justice and wrong-doing that in its way repeats the reasoning of the first argument. Hippias expresses the same conviction at the end of the second argument: "It would, however, be terrible, Socrates, if those doing injustice voluntarily are to be better than those doing so involuntarily" (375d). This response initiates the third and final argument (375d-376b) at the end of which "terrible" appears one final time, but this time it states Socrates' judgment on what would be terrible (376c), a judgment that ends the dialogue.”

Socrates’ position in this dialogue is rather startling, especially if you come to it presupposing a certain conventional image of Socrates. That conventional image, taken from the Apology, is of a man who will not lie, a man who seeks definitions, a man who believes, as he says in the Gorgias, that the virtuous man is so far from merely the powerful man that the virtuous man would allow himself to be put to death in defense of virtue. These are all, indeed, sides of Socrates. But there is also the friend of Alcibiades, the ironist who initiates the philosophical quest as one that searches for definition only to upend it by making clear the perpetual inadequacy of that quest (or, if you will, the strange space in which that quest is pursued, in which the end of the movement lands one at the beginning again), the man whose daimon is a sort of spirit of negativity. This Socrates contends for a viewpoint that seems paradoxical: the man who does voluntary injustice is better than the man who does involuntary injustice. The reason? Behind the windings of the dialogue, Socrates reason is strangely similar to Gorgias’ viewpoint: the man who does injustice voluntarily has a greater capacity, both for justice and injustice, than the man who does injustice involuntarily. In other words, being polytropic, wily, guileful, is not a mark of weakness – it is the feint of a higher capacity.

“Under Socrates' questioning Hippias seems eager to state that the liar is capable, prudent, knowing, and wise (365d-366a): his eagerness suggests that he is as outraged at the polytropic man as Achilles was at Odysseus. Outrage makes Hippias far less willing to agree with Socrates' argument that it is the true expert in an art who is both the liar and the truth-teller and that the same man is a liar and truthful about the things of that art (367c-d). Socrates selects arts in which Hippias claims special expertise (calculating, geometry; astronomy) and when he generalizes from these arts to all arts and sciences, he again uses Hippias as his example, the Hippias whom Socrates heard boasting in the market place beside the money tables that he is the wisest of all human beings in the greatest number of arts (368b). Socrates' argument shows that the same man is liar and truth-teller but Hippias's response shows that capable Hippias is not that man; something in addition to the capacity of a Hippias seems necessary for the polytropic man.”

This post is the successor of my last post. My complaint in that one is that politics in America is stuck in the rhetorical mode of indignatio – shame-making. Myself, I think opposition to the current regime (and I am not, here, talking simply about the left – I include even conservative opposition to the war and the lack of stewardship) would be better served by the polytropic. The weakness of, say, Kerry as a politician was not that he was all things to all people, but that he was not convincingly anything to anybody.

But is Socrates right? Does the capacity to lie or to tell the truth – does an elevation above shame – make for the better leader?


Deleted said...

The capacity to lie or tell the truth, after rising above shame, makes someone able to be annointed leader. It's no guarantee of competence. I wonder if it mightn't be wise to embrace kakistocracy.

roger said...

Harry, you are right -- as are my email correspondents -- to point out that the question about 'leaders' is stupid. Too bad. I was chugging along in this post. I meant to allude to political tactics, not to some ridiculous Fuehrer prinzip, as taught in biz school.

I leave my stupidity there, however, instead of editing it. One of the personal reasons I write this blog is to be able to look back and say, oh, I was pretty dumb on June 10th, wasn't I? Or -- hey, I was brilliant on July 5th!

So, let's say I hadn't written that stupid last sentence, and get back to the contrast between guile and indignation. Please!

Paul craddick said...


Good post.

To answer your question, one needs to take a stand on the nature and exigencies of leadership; and perhaps both will vary with respect to different regimes (using the latter term in the Platonic sense - connoting timocracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, etc.).

My sense is that demotic man is a bit like the proverbial wallflower who is glad to hear all the "right lies" from a honey-tongued rascal. But when this confidence, so to speak, is broken, watch out. To borrow an expression from Alasdair MacIntyre, the "self image of the age" cavils at a clumsy lie, or a lie exposed as such (a lie one can't go on believing); 'cause "we're all adults," and deserve and can handle hard truths, right?! At the least, I'd insist that this will to be deceived obtains with respect to state "stewardship" over the economy: everyone wants everything and wants everyone else to pay for it.

A couple of counter-questions: perhaps all lies are wiles, but are all wiles lies? E.g., the intentional cultivation of ambiguity is in a way dishonest (deceitful) - but is it a "lie"? Also, why must all lies entail being "above shame"? Intuitively it seems that there can be meliorative lies. In other words, one might be willing to tell only certain kinds of lies, for certain purposes (though, admittedly, lies tend to breed further lies, and hence elude the limits one might wish to impose on them).

Deleted said...

Count on Paul to get the best out it and avoid the easily made comment.

Cultivation of ambiguity and not getting so caught up in wiles for their own sake -- as, for example, Clinton did -- would not be a bad thing. People do like cleverness. Many of our heros are tricksters, who are quite shameless; except when a display of shame serves their purposes.

roger said...

Harry, you know, I was thinking of Clinton when I was thinking about the man who is polytopic.

Paul, hmm. Your remark about the demotic man I will have to think about.

About guile. No, I don't think the meaning in Homer, as both Socrates and Hippias interpret him, is the straightforward lie. In fact, Socrates uses the implication in Achilles statement that Odysseus is a liar as evidence of Achilles own misleading tendencies, since Achilles is saying, essentially, he is going home, but he makes no attempt to go home. To say the thing that is not, as the Houynhnhms put it, doesn't necessarily imply guile -- it can imply desperation, cowardice, pathology, a host of things. But the power to tell the truth or to shade it, that capacity -- that sense that the the thing about the truth is its function, its service to the achievement of some partial or global goal -- that is where the polytopic comes in.
I didn't go on into the next part of Lampert's essay -- which, by the way, I will send you if you want. Socrates surprising defense of Odysseus is taken, by Lampert (with that Straussian, well, guile) to be referencing, obscurely, Alcibiades politics, which did lead the demos into war with Sparta. Myself, I am raising the issue because I think the politics of indignation has become the coffin of politics in the U.S. -- or I suppose the Iron Maiden, in which politics is stifled. Perhaps I should have more bluntly posited the contrariness of indignation and guile, with shame as the middle term -- what it means for a politics to be captured by shamemaking tactics, and one way of diminishing the importance of that -- of disenchanting us from the continual search for offense.

kmort said...

As usual your rhetoric moves mozartian but why or to what purpose rehashing the greeks, Sire? Of the many faces of Rog, the post-mod-analytical with an occasional marxist mot juste seems preferable to the aesthete-classicist. I doubt you are much fond of the Russellian sort of positivist or his imitators, but there is some truth in Russell's claim that it's better to spend a day with Newton than a year with Plato. Do the Greeks have much to tell us about the energy crisis, about modern warfare, biological disasters, hyperreality or any other modern malaise ?

roger said...

Kmort, your criticism would be very justified if I was going back to the Greeks to write about biological disaster. I am definitely not one of those people who believes that the Greeks have an answer for everything. But power and rhetoric, there, you must admit, is a rich trove. You might say, well, the Greeks didn't have anything like our media. However, it was a small place -- in this case, connectivity -- to use the semi-bogus phrase of the biz people - was, I'd say, comparable to what it is in the U.S.
If you think there is a difference that I'm overlooking, I'm all ears. But my goal is still the saem: to model the self-defeating rhetorical mode of indignation against a better model. The sad thing is, looking at the Sunday papers, even the Washington Post has an article about the odd politics of apologize -- so I am not such a wise guy after all. Although, in my own defense, I have to say that nobody I've read lately has talked about how shame making operates in American political discourse.

kmort said...

After a quick re-skim I guess I would amend a bit: it's been some time since Cliffnotes to the Dialogues but I think you are arguing that Hippias is the plain spoken type of "mouthbreather" (as William Gibson terms his conservative fans) as opposed to the more sophisticated and ironic Socrates, who is capable of "polytrope": glibness in short. So this could be read as related to the framing issue which you have been touching on in few posts, or at least to semantics however construed. I don't know. Kerry seems to earn a higher rank on the glib scale than Bush; ok he's not Socrates or Hamlet but Kerry at least in Oratory 101 trounced the foo, did he not? Watching the House of Commons stuff on CSPAN I am sort of impressed and a bit moved by the Brits oratory which makes the typical US House speeches seem like some dixie boys swapping tales at the hardware store. You are for more wit, more irony, more ability to lie in favor of truth if need be, and less of the de riguer liberal righteous indignation. I am not sure. There is something to be said for a CHomsky's plain spokeness even if I dont agree with all he yawps: the more florid style of a Hitchens may be pleasing from a literary standpoint but also a tad deceptive--as Swifts own writing is a tad deceptive.

kmort said...

That was a bit unfocused and most likely irritating to the snootier of your cronies, so I'll rephrase: the righteous indignation sans irony should be there as a motivating factor, but the authentic scribe--either in journalism or fiction--should be capable of some fairly complex tropes and florishes, regardless if he chooses to put forth his indignation in sparse Hemingway or noir-like sentences. It's a context thing: the Nancy Pelosi or Molly Ivins type of bitch whine --how can the bastards do that?-- is not much better than a Barbara Streisand song. Yet hyper rhetoric and circumvention ala Derrida or Pynchon also can be just as irritating, more rilly. I prefer Miles Davis to Coltrane usually. A minimalistic positivism might seem to be a compromise: Quine on some decent chronic buzz.

roger said...

Kmort, one of the joys of going back to the Greeks is the elevation of the snootiness factor -- it seems so much smarter if you can find a Greek word for it.

I think your Kerry example is exactly what I am talking about. Here's a man who spent valuable time in his campaign manufacturing indignation about people who dared to question his heroism in Vietnam. Talk about a deadly mixture of vanity and trivializing indignation. It was pretty much nuts (and, in fact, I wasn't unsympathetic to tripping him up on the hero thing -- that Kerry suppressed the part of his history that did point to his political virtues -- his antiwar work -- showed how very unheroic the hero had grown).

There's a limit to the politics of shamemaking. It is called reality.

kmort said...

I thought it was amusing that the rightwing questioned Kerrys 'Nam record (and objected to his antiwar stuff in the 70s, Hanoi Jane, etc) yet few, even on left, actually discuss the war, vietnamese casualties, LBJ-Nixon -Kissinger etc.. To do so might risk being branded as red or hippie burn-out or irrelevant. And the brutality of 'Nam is not reduceable to some character issue regarding the politicians or generals.

I think HS Thompson often did this (sort of indignation on methamphetimine): he would spend column after column attacking Nixon's flaws and weaknesses but rarely did Dr. Gonzo mention Operation Phoenix, the tet offensive, the NV bombing raids etc. Perhaps its some sort of liberal defense mechanism--instead of counting the iraqi civilian dead (or NV from 35 years ago), the liberal press makes cracks about Chimpy Bush and Rumsfeld and so forth. The actual horrors--the beefsteak tartar so to speak--is left to starving artists of North Beach, or other coffeehouse artistes. I sometimes wondered if Dylan and the 60s types worked for the GOP; Americans didn't read say Sartre or Bertrand Russell's condemnation of US Military acts in 'Nam, instead relying on bay area minstrels or Hanoi Jane to prove to themselves that the protests were vain and futile.

Deleted said...

It's a dilemma of surviving in the mainstream. The first to denounce stands to have their ability to make a living ruined. If they do manage to decry abuses, and not have it cost them their livelihood, the people who follow after get accused of jumping on the bandwagon. If they're wrong in a detail, the whole of what they say is dismissed. Then there are the people who see an easy method of career advancement in climbing over them. Applies all across the political spectrum. The easiest way out is to stick to safe criticism and triangulate against the "radical by comparison". Even with all that, on the fringes of the mainstream you can still find people willing to attempt to expose the heart of corruption, genocide and cronyism.

kmort said...

Initially I supported the move to go into Iraq and my sympathies were with the likes of Hitchens, Kerry and Lieberman (though not with Bush or GOP). Moderates were led to believe it would be a few hundred casualties and a few months and then over with. But I don't think any moderate or lib who supported the war thought the costs to the iraqi civilians and the destruction of the cities would be ignored if not suppressed by the media and newspapers. This is perhaps all obvious, but it's strange what effect--e.g. none--that mentioning the iraqi deaths has on the typical yokel. Doesn't phase them: it's like some cheap alt-rock song we don't want to hear. And I think it was like that among the volk during "Nam. America didn't really care about the costs to "Charlie' but was bent out of shape seeing American GIs turned to hamburger, not withstanding the fact that at least 20 of them died for 1 of ours.

IM not trying to be the proverbial "catatonic expressionist" here (tho maybe some of that would be good) but
this process of collective amnesia on the part of the US could perhaps be explored or developed or drank to....

Deleted said...

I have a theory about the collective amnesia process. K through 12 is designed to drive people nearly mad. They learn to accept the justice of collective punishment there. College is where some of them get a chance to cultivate the ability to justify what's going to be done to them -- and their fellows -- and get credentials for a job where the K through 12 experience is repeated. A few lucky people find ways of coping with that and become more or less successful at working society for their benefit. Some of them are devoid of conscience (gratuitously bad page design) altogether. Most of the rest develop fast acting forgetting mechanisms so they don't get overwhelmed with horror. Carefully doled out pay to play anodynes -- television, pills, audience culture entertainment -- keep them moving from one unremarkable sensation to the next in a rapid sequence. Out on the fringes, you find people who can keep one foot in whatever there is left of their humanity and the other in the mainstream. They yell at the people heading for a moral abyss. They yell at each other for yelling about the wrong things. Most of them become very "cranky" and can only hang out with each other. Becoming nearly catatonic is an easy way to keep what shreds of sanity are left.

kmort said...

Thank you for the Illich link--rational educators more than any one should be alarmed at the present state of government and politics. But the school boards even here in so-called progressive California are ruled by protestant nutcases--though not in downtown LA or SF perhaps where the maoist gangstas and dykes have more of a hold. I'm not sure which is worse.

I reached the isle of catatonia with Bush-Gore and Florida 2000. The CA recall exacerbated it, as did the war and the 2004 election. What sort of society are we living in when millions choose to hand over the reins of California to Conan the Barbarian? I'm tending towards the Wilhelm Reichs and RD Laings or at least Freudian thanatos as explanatory behavior models rather than the analytical types I once tried to emulate. Masscult, group psychopathology, territoriality: these are a few of my favorite things. I enjoyed Master Roger's stuff regarding the rational man standard ( and lack thereof) a few weeks ago and feel that intellectuals and even struggling writers and artists ought to do more with this notion of group psychosis.