Vegetarianism in First century Rome with Sotion and Seneca

My current holiday reading is Emily Wilson’s recent biography of Seneca, the first century AD Roman philosopher, writer and statesman and – in his later years – tutor to the young emperor Nero. Wilson reconstructs a fascinating picture, in particular, of the pressures and family relationships which shaped the young Seneca, as he was growing to maturity. In doing so, she manages to get a lot of interesting traction out of the somewhat patchy surviving source materials.

One area she dwells on at length is the nature of the personal tuition that was provided for Seneca during his teenage years by a succession of tutors. Eminent Roman citizens like Seneca the Elder, Seneca’s father, would rely on these individuals to prepare their sons for public careers at Rome, where the capacity to speak convincingly and hold your own in front of an audience was highly prized.

PPRubens_Seneca_en_Nero_Privecollectie
Seneca and Nero, by Rubens

A training in rhetoric, which in practice took the form of building competence in declamatory argument, was – in the estimation of Seneca the Elder – of particular value. But the younger Seneca gravitated more toward the study of philosophy, something he says his father ‘hated’, and his interest in this discipline seems to have been captured particularly by a tutor for whom he had high respect: Sotion.

Sotion was an exponent of the Sextian school of philosophy, a school about which – by comparison with some of the major schools of ancient philosophy whose adherents were active in Rome in the first century – not much is known. In Seneca’s own view, Sotion was a kind of Stoic, but Wilson makes clear that this is not really accurate: unlike the Stoics, the Sextians favoured withdrawal from political life; unlike the Stoics, they did not place any weight on logic or abstract thinking; and they rejected the Stoic view that a perfect wise man can never exist.*

It is of course not uncommon for young people to be influenced in important ways by their teachers and Seneca was no exception in this regard. The clearest evidence of Sotion’s impact on his most famous pupil is Seneca’s youthful experiment with vegetarianism, the diet preferred by Sotion himself as part of his commitment to Sextian philosophy.

Perhaps the best known group to embrace vegetarianism in classical antiquity were the followers of Pythagoras, the Pythagoreans, and there were many such followers present in Rome (and elsewhere) at this very time, several centuries after Pythagoras’ own heyday. Some scholars describe Sotion himself as a neo-Pythagorean. But for the Pythagoreans, the justification for vegetarianism hinged on one very simple notion that was not widely shared, either among philosophers or by the population at large: the doctrine of the transmigration of souls between animals and humans.

Sotion did not reject this line of reasoning, but he combined it with additional arguments to make the case for vegetarianism. Eating meat, he taught the young Seneca, encourages a habit of cruelty, since it trains a person to consider unimportant the suffering and death of other living beings. Avoiding meat therefore allows individuals to cultivate personal purity. Furthermore, eating meat is expensive: the wise man should be frugal and avoid it. The conclusion of Sotion’s argument is that meat is eaten by other (less sophisticated) creatures, vultures and lions: seeing that this is the case, is it really much of a loss to give it up?

These arguments impressed Seneca. Their impact on him can be seen, as Wilson notes, not just over the course of his year-long adolescent experiment with vegetarianism. They mattered also in the context of his adult career as a philosopher, where it was central to his ethics to argue that avoiding cruelty is of fundamental importance for human psychological health.

One of the things I like about Sotion’s arguments, as presented by Seneca, is that they retain some cogency today. Admittedly, for a modern person considering the case for vegetarianism, the ancient Sextian arguments in favour of it might not seem as forceful as some of the arguments that can now be made for it. There is no ancient argument for vegetarianism based on observations about the state of the environment or the harm that is done to it by mass-breeding of cattle, for example; nor are the Sextians able to excoriate specific cruel features of modern-day factory farming, though I’m sure they would have done so.

factory farming.jpg
A modern factory farm

Despite this, the principle that it is important to avoid causing pain or suffering to other living beings remains a central point of principle for many philosophers in the field of animal ethics (as well as in other areas of philosophy). And the economic argument against meat consumption that was voiced by Sotion still holds for much of the meat that is on the shelves of modern supermarkets.

The ancient arguments of Sotion, in other words, continue to resonate – and this is just one example of where ancient ethical thinkers reached positions that still demand our respect and careful consideration.

*E. Wilson, Seneca: A Life, p.55

Martha Nussbaum’s Socrates

Every so often, I come across a writer whose work compels me to read more of what they have to say – and quickly. Typically, this involves a sense of wishing to read more than just the particular book that’s gripped me: I tend to want to go beyond this with the aim of gaining access to the writer’s whole oeuvre, or at least to the interesting-looking parts of it. What will the insightful, intelligent and subtle approach I have chanced upon in one book reveal when it addresses other subject matter elsewhere? And what kind of life experience lies behind its arresting authorial voice? These are the questions that motivate me to find out more.

I’ve found that the experience of being gripped by an author can happen across a range of different types of writing: novels, historical and philosophical writing, literary criticism and theology – and, recently (and, for me, rather exceptionally), popular science. Obviously it’s exciting to find a writer who can capture the imagination: when this happens, it can leave a permanent impact.

By this I do not mean that the niceties of an author’s detailed arguments stay permanently fixed in my mind. That would hardly be realistic. It’s rather that something of their worldview becomes discernible in its broad outlines so that this in turn provides a set of reference points – both about the author’s personality and the subjects with which they deal – to which I can return in future. 

I first came across the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work a number of years ago when I bought a copy of her book The Fragility of Goodness while I was a graduate student. This was a carefully written, precisely argued text, but it felt somehow too careful and too slow-moving at the time, and I didn’t get very far into it before feeling that it didn’t contain enough punchy passages to keep me fully engaged. That, I guess, could have been that: the end of my experiment in reading Nussbaum.

Not so. Late last year, when browsing some shelves, I came across a collection of Nussbaum’s reviews, Philosophical Interventions. Here was the same measured style that I remembered from her previous work. But the cool, level-headed approach to argument and the accompanying willingness to pick carefully through complicated (and controversial) territory somehow felt much more arresting than it had done previously.

160725_r28418.jpg
Martha Nussbaum

Perhaps my reading tastes had simply changed (matured?). Or perhaps I had found evidence of how Nussbaum’s talents were just more clearly and emphatically on display when she addressed herself to the task of evaluating others’ writing in her reviews. Perhaps a little of both.

The fact is that Nussbaum’s collection of reviews also keeps things interesting by addressing a vast array of different topics and personalities: ideals of women’s education, various works on feminism and philosophy including a cutting perspective on the work of Judith Butler, Allan Bloom’s notorious 1980s text The Closing of the American Mind, the philosophy of Charles Taylor (the Canadian professor, not the Liberian dictator), and a biography of the master expositor of 19th century utilitarianism, Henry Sidgwick.

On the strength of my enjoyment of these reviews, I bought another Nussbaum book: Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education, first published in 1997. In this book Nussbaum argues that the desire to pursue reform in the world of contemporary education is a desire that can be seen to have authentic roots in the ideas of ancient Greece – and, in particular, the ideas of Socrates.

In her opening chapter, Nussbaum suggests that three of the core values of modern-day liberal education – critical self-examination, the ideal of the world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination – were all promoted by Socrates in fifth century Athens. If these core values are increasingly characteristic features of contemporary education in the humanities, she argues, then this should be seen not as a betrayal of ancient learning (as some, she alleges, are apt to assume) but as a development entirely in keeping with the spirit of both Socrates and a number of other distinguished ancient thinkers.

The opponents of this position whom Nussbaum has in mind are the likes of Allan Bloom, for whom ancient thought is something like a repository of timeless knowledge and wisdom, which gets skewed out of perspective and intellectually marginalised if it is filtered through or (at worst) replaced by the dominant cultural and political trends of the present moment.

Nussbaum is very much concerned to argue against this sort of position. She is anxious to demonstrate that Socrates and his ilk would not be on the side of any kind of staid traditionalism (such as that represented by Bloom) when it comes to critical self-examination. Critical examination doesn’t simply mean finding a way to become a reactionary, with a little help from Plato. That, she thinks, is how Bloom would have it. On the contrary, she suggests, Socrates would be in favour of vibrancy and development: being genuinely Socratic, she suggests, is about being able to combine philosophical questioning and self-awareness with working to effect good outcomes within your sphere of influence in respect of the big issues of the day.

For Nussbaum, this is not however a matter of left versus right: ‘tradition is one foe of Socratic reason. But Socrates has other enemies as well’. Risking the charge of anachronism, she continues by maintaining that ‘his values are assailed by the [contemporary] left as well as by the right’.

Nussbaum then confronts directly those who adopt the ‘fashionable position in progressive intellectual circles’ that ‘rational argument is a male Western device, in its very nature subversive of the equality of women and minorities and non-Western people’. Here, she writes, ‘Socratic argument is suspected of being arrogant and elitist’. The disinterested pursuit of truth, goes the argument, can function as a handy screen for prejudice.

Nussbaum counters that Socratic reason and argument, far from being the enemy of democracy, as many who adopt this dim view of it seem to assume, is essential to it, and essential too to the claims of excluded people. ‘In order to foster a democracy that is reflective and deliberative, rather than simply a marketplace of competing interest groups, a democracy that genuinely takes thought for the common good’, she writes, ‘we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs’. The failure to do this, she maintains, leads people to talk at one another without ever having a genuine dialogue. In such an atmosphere, moreover, bad arguments pass for good arguments, and prejudice can all too easily masquerade as reason. ‘To unmask prejudice and secure justice’, she argues, ‘we need argument – an essential tool of civic freedom’. And argument relies on dialogue.

Nussbaum’s Socrates could thus be described as a kind of free-thinking liberal provocateur, one unprepared to embrace dysfunctional tribal politics and one determined to question and critique unthinking arguments, especially those that set little to no store by dialogue, whether they are advanced by voices on the right or left.

I have only just finished the opening chapter of the book and am now looking forward to seeing how convincingly Nussbaum manages to elaborate this thesis in greater depth. It has so far been interesting to see her understanding of the historical Socrates foregrounded in a dramatic way in her writing – not as a person accessible only in the context of past debates and events, but as a model of intellectual and civic life for the present.

This is far from being an unfamiliar approach, but Nussbaum’s version of it has so far felt particularly powerful. Equally, I know that for many contemporary Classicists (and educators more generally?) Socrates is by no means always regarded as the paradigmatic educator Nussbaum takes him to be. So I am looking forward to seeing how she addresses in detail the challenges that are sometimes voiced against him.

*The featured image is ‘Socrates Reproaching Alcibiades’, by Anton Petter.

Against Sophistry: Philosophers and Politics in Plato’s Republic

In Plato’s Republic, the ideal politician is also the ideal kind of philosopher. This politician-philosopher is an honest individual who is never willing to accept anything but the truth (Rep. 6.485f). He – and for Plato in fourth century Athens, it will always be a he – is a lover of wisdom and learning. He is self-disciplined, someone who avoids reckless spending, and isn’t greedy. He isn’t narrow-minded or petty, forgetful, cowardly or boastful. And he won’t ever drive hard bargains or act unjustly.

Since childhood, he will have been notable not only for his sense of fairness and his kind disposition, but also for his excellent memory and the speed with which he acquires knowledge. He will be refined, with a developed understanding of ‘order’ and ‘grace’ – and he will be courageous, someone prepared to make a full contribution to the world around him. He will, in short, be an impressive figure indeed, an all-round good human being. And in Plato’s view, his virtues will make him ideally suited – together with a small group of equally impressive colleagues – to running the state.

In this way, Plato openly doubts the capacity of most individuals to play a part in government. Sound political decision-making, he thinks, plainly rests on special capacities of judgment and wisdom, capacities which most people simply don’t possess. Best, therefore, to leave this decision-making to those with the right skill-set (which he feels he can identify).

This vision of oligarchy, in which a highly educated and morally virtuous elite rule over their peers, offers nothing short of an affront to our contemporary sensibilities. It is a profoundly anti-democratic vision, as Plato himself knew all too well: a major part of his goal in offering it was to propose an alternative to the democracy of which he himself was a member in ancient Athens.

51Rd9B87yTL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

This alternative was not put into practice, then or subsequently. Despite this, Plato’s political programme has continued to remain a topic of discussion and debate ever since it was first formulated. In a previous post, I explored how one recent strand of interpretation even identified in Plato’s political ideas an important intellectual influence on the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

In this post, I want to offer some brief thoughts about what a charitable interpretation of Plato’s vision of politics – featuring rule by philosopher-kings – might look like today. For centuries, Plato’s negative view of democracy at Athens was accepted and endorsed by his readers: this began to change in the 19th century, and since then, Plato’s criticisms have been viewed in an altogether different – and usually much more critical – light.*

So what might a charitable reading of Plato’s politics look like in the light of this dramatic shift? In sketching out a few thoughts on this, I am interested in trying to make sense of Plato’s ideas in a way that assumes they are not the simple product of a malign or bigoted point of view – but rather of a sophisticated mind trying to confront serious problems with a view to finding solutions that would be to everyone’s benefit.

It is no doubt easy to sympathise with Plato’s preference for politicians who are honest, courageous, kind and wise. And who could complain about the sort of politician who doesn’t spend recklessly and isn’t greedy? On the face of it, Plato’s ideal politicians sound plausible and attractive enough: indeed their qualities wouldn’t go amiss among some of the politicians of today.

75567-004-6585DB51.jpg
Nelson Mandela, who many hold up as a model of good statesmanship in the modern world.

Having said this, I recoil from Plato’s suggestion that only a small group of highly educated individuals should enjoy political power – though even here I would still argue that the motivation underlying his point of view deserves some sympathy. Put simply, Plato wants to find a way to ensure that the best sort of politician really will get to exercise power – and to ensure that people lacking in the qualities required of good leaders (as he sees them) don’t.

Oligarchy, he assumes, is the best way to achieve this – accompanied by a ruthless selection procedure that enables only the very best leaders to be put in charge. We may disagree with some of Plato’s ideas about the qualities required in leaders – and indeed about his sense that such qualities are present only in a few people. But his sense that the best leaders should lead, and that there should be a rigorous process for determining who they are, is uncontroversial enough. Plato’s high standards might even hold lessons for the ways in which we set the bar (not high enough?) for political leadership today.

Importantly, and perhaps despite appearances, it is not (or at least not solely) a snobbish elitism that motivates Plato, but a desire to find a way to ensure that ordinary citizens enjoy the best kind of governance. Plato thinks that his form of oligarchy will produce the best potential for happiness for all citizens: it is a way of ensuring the common good. On this basis, some interpreters of Plato have seen him as a kind of utilitarian.

Plato’s scepticism about the capacity of democracy, as he saw it practised in Athens, to deliver the best outcomes for the city’s citizens is grounded in a number of reservations he had about how he saw the Athenian democracy working in practice.

One big problem, as he saw it, was that ordinary Athenians were too much in thrall to an influential group of individuals he regarded as charlatans: the sophists. These sophists were in some respects similar to philosophers like Plato himself. They were involved in offering education to the city’s young, but they seem to have had a special interest in providing a particular kind of training: teaching people to speak persuasively in Athens’ democratic assembly.

They did this in a way that Plato himself found alarming. In Plato’s estimation, all that the sophists really impart to their pupils is a capacity to argue convincingly in favour of any given proposition. They do not try to instil in their pupils a sense of what is really true, what is really good and what is really just. The sophists are highly skilled and convincing arguers, but – for Plato – they lack any real moral compass, and they produce pupils (and political opinion-formers) with this same deficiency.

For Plato, the false views that could be detected among many of his fellow Athenian citizens, far from being attacked and exposed by the sophists, were in fact often (indirectly) attributable to them. He even compares the citizens of Athens to a large, irascible but dim-witted animal and the sophists to an animal trainer who has mastered the art of pandering to the animal’s preferences, without really seeking to improve its behaviour (Rep. 6.493).

seaworld026.jpg
Plato likens the citizens of Athens to a large and powerful animal, and he describes the sophists as their trainer

A clear issue here, for Plato, is that the sophists are not trying to get their fellow citizens to think accurately with a view to arriving at good decisions, and they are not looking after their genuine best interests. Rather, they are part of a culture in which superficial cleverness and rhetorical sleights of hand are having a corrosive impact, leading citizens to disregard – or to misapprehend altogether – what is best for themselves and for their fellow citizens.

The fairness of Plato’s attack on the sophists, and the extent to which he accurately represents their views, have both been subjects of extended scholarly dispute. If, however, Plato has a point when he says that the Athenian democracy was in the grip of a school of thought that placed no discernible emphasis on what is true, good, or right, then we may find some sympathy with his attempt to confront this state of affairs, even if we stop short of accepting his conclusion that democracy as a whole would need to be sacrificed to ensure that its malign influence could be prevented.

*This process is neatly charted in Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought, by Jennifer Tolbert Roberts

The State is Like a Ship: on Plato’s Critique of the Athenian Democracy

In Book 6 of Plato’s Republic, in the context of a damning appraisal of the way the democracy at Athens works, Socrates compares the Athenian state to a ship. The owner of the ship, he says, is big and strong – but he is hard of hearing, shortsighted and not much of a navigator. The ship’s crew are in persistent disarray. They recklessly gorge themselves on the ship’s resources, while disagreeing with one another about who should be in charge on board, with each sailor believing he should be the captain (despite having neither experience nor training). Being the captain, the sailors maintain, requires no special skill (Gk. techne).

In this analogy, the citizen population of Athens are the owners of the ship. In Plato’s candid assessment, they are politically powerful but lacking in governmental acumen and intellectual ability. With them in charge, the Athenian ship is not going to cut a clear, sensible or efficient path.

The crew of the ship, meanwhile, are the disputatious demagogues and politicians who hold sway in Athens’ political assembly, each vying for influence and power over their fellow citizens.

Plato wants his fellow Athenians to undertake a thoroughgoing revaluation of the way things on board work. Rather than looking to the ship’s owner, or to themselves, he thinks the sailors on board the Athenian ship should look instead to a marginal, currently powerless figure whose quiet presence on board is regrettably overlooked: this figure he calls the ‘true navigator’. This true navigator is a person of great learning, wisdom and moral fibre: a philosopher.

plato
A bust of Plato

My doctoral supervisor once told me of how she had been campaigning to try to get philosophers onto many of the various university decision-taking panels and boards she had contact with. Decisions rely on philosophical judgments: even if philosophers present on decision-making panels weren’t themselves making such judgments, might they nonetheless be able to advise those who were about philosophical issues and questions which arose in the course of a given set of deliberations?

I don’t know if this argument ever gained any traction but it is a good example of how – in our society too – philosophers’ voices are usually pretty marginal to the way things in the arena of practical affairs proceed.* Indeed, we even use the word ‘philosophical’ in everyday speech to describe people who have a calm attitude in the face of disappointment: in common parlance and the popular imagination, then, being ‘philosophical’ is certainly not something you openly do when successfully pulling the levers of worldly power.

Plato’s fellow Athenians would also have been surprised by his suggestion that philosophers, of all people (and whether they could lay claim to being true philosophers or not), are the best placed group of people to run a city-state. Philosophers at Athens, by Plato’s own admission, were not the most popular of individuals. In the estimation of the majority of Athens’ ordinary citizen population, he himself suggests, philosophers served no self-evidently useful purpose.

On one level, this is easy enough to understand: philosophers in ancient Athens tended to earn their livings by presiding over the higher education of a select group: the wealthy young men of the city. An education in philosophy was thus an education in a form of high culture. If most people found themselves able to make do without it, just how valuable to them could it be?**

1_Zey30peZtQulTcxbAnj1-Q.jpeg
Raphael’s famous depiction of philosophy in action at Athens. Depicted in the centre are Plato and Aristotle. Not all Athenians had Plato’s high view of the capacity of philosophy to have a positive influence on public life.

Plato doesn’t offer anything like the sort of sociological explanation for most ordinary Athenians’ remoteness from philosophy that I have just presented. Instead, he offers a moralistic explanation. In the Republic, philosophers are marginal figures in Athens simply because most people don’t approach them in the right spirit.

Philosophers are like doctors of the soul, Plato says (Rep. 489b), using a further analogy. The ‘sick’ man should have the wherewithal to go to the door of these doctors: it’s certainly not incumbent on the doctors to go around canvassing for their patients! What ordinary Athenians ought to do, Plato thinks, is to recognise their own dire need of good politicians – they are sick, after all – and to respond accordingly (by knocking on the doors of the philosophers in their midst).

I can almost find in this passage a humorous patrician hauteur (the hauteur is clearly there; the humour just possibly). The idea is that the less well-educated ought simply to recognise their need for intellectual instruction from the neighbours they perceive as effete and unworldly and then take steps to address it. This is an idea that is certainly of a piece with the picture sketched in the analogy to the ship: there the sailors need to acknowledge their own reckless and grasping behaviour if they are ever to stand a chance of benefiting from the wisdom of the navigator on board.

The analogy of the ship thus forms part of Plato’s broader argument, but it encapsulates many of his key points on politics in general – on the state of Athenian society, on the inadequacy of democracy as a form of government, and on the nature of the alterations to it that he would like to see. To what extent might these assessments, particularly in the form in which they are outlined in the analogy of the ship, have been convincing to his fellow Athenians?

A very brief answer here might be that, if they had cared to reflect on it, Plato’s analogy would likely have seemed a rather loaded one. Ancient ships would indeed have had just one captain – but democracy in ancient Athens plainly didn’t have just one officially recognised leadership figure, even if a figure like Pericles might emerge periodically as a particularly important political influencer. The fact that modern representative democracies do have officially recognised overall leadership figures – whether e.g. presidents or prime ministers – represents just one clear point of contrast with democracy at Athens.

The analogy of the ship arguably allows Plato to make his argument that only very few people should be able to control the state just a bit more effectively. He manages to insinuate that Athenian ships – a large number of which would have been involved in their navy, a much celebrated force which provided the city with its political and military strength – function so effectively precisely by using a non-democratic (and very hierarchical) model. Leading figures in the Athenian army and navy were not selected by lot for their posts (and yet they – mostly – performed their roles to the satisfaction of their fellow citizens, while presiding over a flourishing institution). This was exceptional in Athens: most public positions involved selection by lot.

trireme
A replica Athenian trireme, the key ship in the Athenian navy

Many Athenians would not, we can guess, have shared Plato’s damning assessment of the limited capacities of the owner of the ship, or the sailors on board, in his analogy. And as I have suggested, by Plato’s own admission they would have baulked at the idea that highly-skilled philosophers were the right people to have in charge of their political affairs.

This is not to dismiss tout court the potential of Plato’s analogy to appeal to his readers. Equally, it seems unlikely to me that in offering his criticisms of the workings of Athens’ democracy, Plato was mounting a serious attempt to convert all of his fellow citizens to his point of view.***

*At least, that is, on a surface level. The ideas and/or influence of philosophers, in one form or another, often lie hidden and unacknowledged within the moral reasoning people employ.

**One group of teachers – the sophists – had a short and effective answer to this question: it will enable those who learn it to argue well and make convincing points in public meetings of the democratic assembly. Plato himself regarded this as charlatanism: doing philosophy, for him, was emphatically not about learning how to make popular arguments.

***This post was written to accompany an earlier post on Plato’s political philosophy: Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat: from Plato to Popper via Arginusae.

Democracy and the Totalitarian Threat, from Plato to Popper via Arginusae

Some heavy charges were laid against Plato’s political philosophy in the twentieth century. In the influential view of Karl Popper,* Plato’s conception of the ideal city-state in the Republic represents a totalitarian vision, an intellectual antecedent to the abhorrent totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

A major element of the totalitarianism Popper identifies in Plato is that he thinks political power should be concentrated in the hands of an elite, chosen few (whose task, among other things, is to ensure the wellbeing of everyone else). The general population is offered no alternative to this specially groomed group of rulers, who are chosen not by popular vote but by selection on the basis of their natural characteristics, intellectual abilities and personal virtues.

Popper criticises Plato also for the unity his rulers aim to instil in the city-state. The rulers are required to ensure that all members of the city can enjoy a good life. To do this, they must use propaganda: this is necessary, Plato thinks, if citizens are going to accept that what is good for them as individuals is the same thing as what is good for the city as a whole. In a functional city-state, Plato maintains, everyone will be motivated to live and work as individuals toward the good and unity of their city. By doing so – and only by doing so, will they be able to realise their own personal happiness. The job of the city-state’s rulers (who are concerned with the happiness of everyone) is to maintain the conditions in which these aims can be met.

For Popper, Plato’s is a nightmarish vision. Its principal defect, he suggests, is that Plato just doesn’t take seriously enough people’s individual interests and concerns: he seems to be uninterested in personal autonomy as a requisite feature of the good city. Instead, he is happy for his citizens to be propagandised for purportedly benign purposes, and he wants them to align their individual interests with those of a given political unit and its rulers. If the disastrous totalitarian experiments of twentieth century history teach us anything, Popper proposes, it is that this is a kind of political philosophy that leads in a very dangerous direction and cannot be endorsed.

popper
Karl Popper, who argued against the totalitarian elements he identified in Plato’s political philosophy

Popper wants to distinguish, however, between the philosophy of Plato and that of Socrates – his teacher and the star character in Plato’s dialogues. This is difficult, as we only really have access to Plato’s views insofar as they are voiced by Socrates himself in the dialogues. But, for Popper (and indeed for many scholarly experts on Plato), we meet different Socrateses in different places in Plato’s dialogues: amongst these texts, we sometimes gain good access to what the historical Socrates himself thought and said; sometimes we gain access instead only to what Plato himself thinks.

In short, Popper blames what he identifies as the totalitarian elements in Plato’s dialogues on Plato himself, seeing those parts of the Republic in which Plato articulates them (using the voice of Socrates to do so) as a betrayal of the true thought of the historical Socrates. On this view, it is Plato – not Socrates – who is the totalitarian enemy of individual autonomy and freedom and critic of democracy, and (in Popper’s phrase) of ‘the open society’.

I do not share Popper’s confidence that the historical Socrates can be so straightforwardly excluded from the picture here. It doesn’t take an excess of imagination to see a clear fit between the political ideas which the figure of Socrates articulates in Plato’s Republic and some of the more significant moments we know about from the life of the historical Socrates. I want to point to just one, by way of example – not only for what it reveals about Socrates himself, but for what it reveals about a central problem that has often confronted democracy as a political form, from its earliest appearance in ancient Athens right up to its (quite different) instantiations in the present day.

1258
A bust of Socrates

In the aftermath of the naval conflict between Athens and its rival city-state Sparta at the Battle of Arginusae in the year 406 BC, controversy had ensued.** Although the Athenians had successfully defended themselves in the conflict, some of their generals had elected to press ahead to try to destroy some more Spartan ships, rather than to rescue some floundering fellow Athenians whose ships had been sunk. The water-bound Athenians unfortunately died as a consequence of this decision. When news of this reached Athens, many citizens were outraged. They wanted the death penalty for the generals and one of them – Callixenus – proposed a well-supported motion to this effect.

Socrates, who happened to be acting as an administrative official, chosen by lot to serve the Athenian council (one of the prytaneis), at the time this motion was tabled, attempted to block it, refusing to allow it to be put to vote in the assembly. Xenophon, who records this story, writes that Socrates stated that he wasn’t prepared to allow the motion on the basis that it was illegal: it didn’t matter that a majority of citizens seemed intent on voting for it.

An alternative form of the motion was then tabled and voted through: rather than being tried as a group, the generals would each be tried as individuals. This in turn was overturned: Callixenus’ original motion, with Socrates no longer serving as one of the prytaneis and thus unable to block it, was passed.

Lived experience of this episode likely provided the historical Socrates with troubling proof of an obviously imperfect feature of the Athenian democracy: without much difficulty, a majority had managed to exert itself over and against the rule of law. Democracy itself, arguably, had turned authoritarian. Not only this, but in subsequent years, a good number of the Athenians who had supported Callixenus’ motion came to regret doing so: sometimes, as a democrat, you may find yourself regretting what you voted for.

Plato’s political philosophy in the Republic offers a critique of the whole idea of democracy.*** What Socrates’ experience of the Arginusae debacle offers, in my view, is a good indication as to why the historical Socrates himself may have shared (or come to share) the sort of criticism of democracy that Plato places on his lips in the text. Popper’s scepticism about this should, I think, be doubted.

Plato_6
A depiction of Plato and his Academy, from a Roman mosaic

Plato’s vision of a good society in the Republic can be criticised in numerous ways and from many angles, especially for the totalitarian ideas it commends. Of course it is important that this vision took shape against the background of lived experience in a democratic society. To its tremendous credit, this was a society that was free-thinking and tolerant enough of free speech to allow dissenting views such as Plato’s, which questioned its very political foundations, to be aired.

Equally, however, the Athens of Socrates and Plato must be seen as a society always under threat. This threat was not just external in nature – from enemies like the Persians, or from the Athenians’ not always very willing allies. The threat to Athens’ democracy could also be internal: it might come from would-be tyrants who lurked in the wings, or from its own intellectual critics – like Plato.

But also, at times, as the Arginusae episode demonstrates, the threat to democracy (insofar as democratic governance must be distinguished from mob-rule, and insofar as the integrity of democratic institutions and the rule of law must form part of a cardinal set of values in any democratic setting) could come also from the authoritarian behaviour of large swathes of its own citizen population.

While it may be tempting to label Plato a straight-down-the-line totalitarian on account of some of the political ideas that are expressed in the Republic, it is worth remembering that it was Plato’s hero Socrates who stood against the authoritarian abuse of Athens’ democratic powers by its own citizens in the aftermath of Arginusae.

*As outlined in The Open Society and its Enemies, volume 1.

**A neat overview of this episode is presented here.

***In a subsequent post, I am going to take a look at one significant passage that forms part of this critique: the famous analogy of the ship.

Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.

416VqVZWpBL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

 

I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.