Monday, September 19, 2011

Book #12: Gorgias

This post should really be about two books, Les Miserables and Gorgias, but as much as I enjoyed reading Les Miserables, I have to admit that I don't really have much to say about it. I would probably end up gushing with praise for Victor Hugo's writing style, which appeals to me due to its focus on history and architecture, as I already did in this post.

Instead, let me talk about the Gorgias, which is a Platonic dialogue. This was an assigned reading in my second-year course on ancient Greek philosophy way back in 2005. My textbook included maybe a third of this dialogue, and as interesting as I thought it was, I didn't even get around to finishing that third.

In recent weeks, however, in the spirit of getting around to doing things, I started and finished this dialogue. This is probably the first time I have read any philosophy since the spring of 2008, which is disappointing in itself and also relevant to the lessons of the dialogue.

At first, I hated philosophy. The one course in philosophy I took in high school was an annoying mishmash of general knowledge with no real focus but lots of cliquish references to movies I had never seen and never would. I took a class in philosophy to round out my schedule in my first year of university and expected to hate it, but it was provocative and plain-spoken enough to instantly become preferable to political science, where I was learning gobbledygook terms like "operationalizing democracy".

To be fair, of course, over four years philosophy would teach me terms and ideas like pros hen equivocity, Tarski's truth quorum, the science of being qua being, the two meanings of the word 'is', how many stones make up a pile of stones and so on. Nevertheless, in retrospect, much of the appeal of philosophy for myself, as for others, lay in its counter-cultural appeal, in an obsession with meaning as our better-earning peers learned how to come up with weasel words.

Then I graduated and decided I was either going to become a teacher or a journalist. Either career path, it seemed, would make good use of philosophy: you surely can't write the truth without knowing what it was for something to be true and, similarly, you can't help someone learn without knowing what it was to know something.

Reality, of course, is very different. I didn't even realize how much my major differed from my ordinary, daily life until someone, with that "oh, wouldn't it be nice to learn some philosophy?" mindset, asked me to summarize the study of ethics in about fifteen minutes. As I laid it out, about a year and a half ago, I thought to myself that, as they say, you really don't need to know any of this after you graduate.

That thought went nowhere until a few months ago when I sat next to a man on the subway who was reading Plato's Cratylus. I went out to buy the Cratylus but ended up settling for the Gorgias.

At any rate, the Gorgias is very entertaining if you're an English teacher in Korea, no matter where you're from. Much of the early portion of the text discusses the role and the importance of rhetoricians, highly-paid instructors who taught others how to speak well. Socrates questions the value of rhetoricians as well as the knowledge they supposedly impart.

Classical Athens, then, is not all that different from modern Seoul in this respect. There might not be rhetoricians in the Athenian sense here, but there's a lot of money to be made by teachers and students in learning the sort of useless skills that Socrates dismissed as knacks. A knack, he says, is to knowledge what a pastry chef is to medicine: pleasing and flattering, sure, but ultimately useless.

Consider how this statement from almost three millennia ago reflect the present-day hagwon business in Seoul:

"Well, in my opinion, Gorgias, it doesn't involve expertise; all you need is a mind which is good at guessing, some courage and a natural talent for interacting with people. The general term I use to refer to it is 'flattery'..."

What makes the Gorgias so interesting to me is Socrates' claim that a tyrant is invariably powerless and unhappy. After he had said that rhetoric was a useless knack, Polus pointed to the immense political power enjoyed by those who excel at rhetoric. Socrates responds by saying that "orators and tyrants have the very least power of any in our cities".

His reasoning here might appear convuluted, but it is simple:

1) Everyone wants what's good
2) A tyrant might kill someone or confiscate their property, but this is not the good
3) Therefore, a tyrant can't get what he want and is both powerless and unhappy

This is another example of the ancient Greek view of happiness differing from our view of happiness. We view happiness as an emotional state, often in the short-term, but happiness to Plato was long-term well-being, perhaps better expressed by living well than by enjoying immediate emotional satisfaction. A person could be said by the Greeks to be happy while sleeping or performing some mundane task in a way that we wouldn't.

Reading this and subsequent discussions on whether it is better to be wronged than to wrong someone, I questioned, as Plato often did, the usefulness of philosophy in everyday life. Plato turned philosophy into almost a religious conviction, turning his nose at the possibility of rhetoric to one day save his life, declaring:

"No, my friend, you'd better consider the possiblity that excellence and goodness do not consists merely in the preservation of life. Perhaps the mark of a real man is that he isn't worried about how long he lives and isn't attached to life."

In the years since I graduated from university, I can say that while I use the skills I learned from philosophy, I seldom think about the material, and I suspect that I'm not alone. If there is one conclusion that I've reached in the last three years, it's that hectoring unsuspecting people in the agora in the way of Socrates is unproductive to modern life.

It's commonly said, as a cliche, that "you can't legislate morality". This, of course, is a very modern view of morality that, as my favourite professor joked, assumes ethics is about money and morality is about sex. We can and do legislate morality, such as when we punish murder and theft.

At the same time, many political controversies could be avoided if people recognized the difference between morality and the law. While, say, it would be ideal if everyone studied philosophy or excercised, it would be foolhardy to mandate this by law.

As for morality, the word itself has taken on a bad name and largely seems to come up when one group of people would like to restrict the lives of another group of people. Taken as a Latin equivalent of the Greek ethics, which today unfortunately applies in the negative to someone who embezzles money, it has a broader sense of how to live.

This sort of true ethics or morality is useful, indispensable really, even as job markets get tougher for those who do something in university besides outright vocational training. It seems foolish to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars on learning how to get a job, but not even thinking about how to live, unless you value your job more than you value your life.


josephjsteinberg said...

I applaud your effort to apply Plato to modern-day Korea. I'm not sure Plato would applaud it, though. But, more importantly, you gloss over historical context. Rhetoric was the supreme educational subject where public speaking was the necessary means for legislators to debate public policy. Writing did not have any of the popularity or even utility that speaking had. Rhetoric was both art and science, but there really was no other alternative. Plato's dialogues are a recognition of this - people talking to one another - and what he was criticizing was the relativizing of argument. Deacades later, one of Plato's successors, Carneades, went to Rome and on successive days made directly opposing arguments in the Senate. Cato wanted Carneades executed, because he thought such skill dangerous to public order. I think Plato is doing something similar to what Cato was demanding, without the hyperbole.

Adeel said...

Thanks for the comment, Joseph. I don't think I mentioned writing at all, though. I was making an analogy between rhetoric then and the instruction of spoken English today, though I recognize that the bulk of the hagwon industry is probably preparing its students for a multiple choice test of some kind.

josephjsteinberg said...

I guess I'm not teaching ESL here correctly - and by all accounts students think I'm too difficult - but English is only a tool. It also seems possible, that someone could use Gorgias' fancy rhetoric and reach a point where, like Carneades, arguing from every side with all the bangs and whistles, leads one to a skeptical attitude, like Carneades'. BTW, Carneades was a successor to Plato at the Academy, but still argued that Plato was an influence on him. I would caution against reading Platonic forms too explicitly into Gorgias, or interpreting Plato like his successor Plotinus did after Carneades' leadership passed.