Gilbert Ryle’s Plato

Plato’s Progress is not just for philosophers. It is a detective story, and a very entertaining one. Mid-century arch-analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle skillfully constructed it as such, and it’s a shame this book is so little-known these days. It certainly doesn’t bear much relation to Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, a solid if rather dogmatic book attacking Cartesians and psychologists for, well, making stuff up. But Ryle was more eclectic in his interests than his bulldog personality would lead you to believe; his flirtation with Husserl and Heidegger being just one of the curious detours he made.

While Plato’s Progress is about philosophy, it really isn’t a philosophical work. Rather, it’s Ryle’s attempt to explain the many cryptic, bizarre, and inconsistent aspects of Plato’s writings in as coherent a way as possible. People have been doing this for over two millennia, but Ryle, with focus and creativity that borders on genius, adopts a very simple heuristic and sticks with it to the end.

Though Ryle never states it, his heuristic is as follows:

Plato never tried to be obscure. Any baffling aspects of Plato’s dialogues are unintentional and have an explanation, generally outside of the text.

This may seem reasonable, but try telling it to anyone who has been working on the Parmenides or the Sophist and they will probably laugh at you. Ryle, however, is utterly unsympathetic to the idea that Plato wrote with a level of elusiveness that would put Heidegger to shame. He assumes that a common-sense interpretation of Plato’s writing is generally accurate and that Plato wasn’t hiding some “unwritten doctrines” or performing some implicit dialectical maneuvers without telling us.

The most important consequence of this heuristic is that Ryle remains resolutely focused on Plato’s audience, which is what makes this a work of literary criticism more than philosophy. Of each dialogue, he asks: who was it written for? What was Plato trying to achieve with it?

Ryle cavalierly discards the notion of Plato as some oracular genius whose works were received as if sent from on high, and places him back in 4th-century Athens (and, significantly, Syracuse). If the style changes, often it’s because he’s writing for a different audience. If Plato contradicts himself from one dialogue to the next, he really did change his mind. To quote Ryle:

For philosophers the transformation of Plato from something superhuman to something human is compensated by the transformation of Plato from the sage who was born at his destination to the philosopher who had to search for his destination. We lose a Nestor, but we gain an Ulysses.

Since we don’t know much about Plato’s life, and not that much about 4th-century Athens, Ryle has to make quite a few suppositions, to the point of amassing something of a conspiracy theory for why Plato wrote what he did. But it’s a very clever theory, and Ryle is a remarkably elegant and lucid writer.

Let’s hit the main points:

  1. Why did Plato write dialogues rather than poetry or prose? Because they were meant to be performed and were performed. In fact, philosophical debate was a sporting contest in Athens, which is how Plato got his start.
  2. Why is Socrates absent from the later dialogues? Because only Plato could play Socrates and he fell ill for the latter part of his life.
  3. Why, after the early dialogues, do the dialogues stop being dialogues and turn into Socrates lecturing and everyone else agreeing with him? Because Plato was banned from participating in debates after an (unreported) Socrates-esque trial of his own.
  4. Why are the Republic and the Laws so long and disjointed? Because they were fix-up compilations of normal-length dialogues intended for private publication and consumption by rich hyper-conservative Athenians. They have no internal unity.
  5. Did Plato really reject the Forms and idealism? Yes. He was virtually an Aristotelian scientist by the end of his life, possibly influenced by Aristotle.
  6. What’s up with the tedious Magnesian legal code in the Laws? It was an intended legal code for Syracuse that never got put into practice due to political upheaval, used to pad out one of those books mentioned in answer #4.
  7. What about the 7th Epistle that’s ostensibly Plato talking about his disastrous attempt to bring up a philosopher-king in Syracuse? A forgery! Filled with implausibilities but also valuable true details, it was written by a supporter of Syracusan noble Dion in order to discredit his nephew, Syracusan ruler Dionysius, whom Plato tutored in philosophy.

If all of these things were true, they would make a lot of Plato scholarship look very silly indeed. Anglo and European scholars have twisted themselves into knots in various ways trying to find some intra-textual explanation for a lot of these matters, and Ryle sweeps all their efforts away with pedestrian explanations. He integrates them into a coherent and extremely vivid historical framework that left me envying his mental powers.

Fortunately for more dedicated Platonists, no proof exists for Ryle’s theories, though Ockham’s Razor still makes some of them pretty tempting. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen any explanation for the bizarre disappearance of Socrates in the later dialogues except for Ryle’s, and the idea of Plato performing as Socrates in Athens and later in the Academy is certainly compelling. And the idea of the Republic as a compilation geared toward hyper-authoritarian Athenians explains its bizarre construction, as well as making Plato potentially a bit less totalitarian than Kallipolis implies.

The trial of Plato and his banishment from philosophical contest is at the center of Ryle’s theory. Ryle is not certain of the charges, but comes up with a number of hypotheses that all revolve around Plato defaming or otherwise offending some rich and powerful Athenians. While such a wholly undocumented event may sound implausible, Ryle marshals a compellingly methodical (if hopelessly speculative) argument for it. It’s the best chapter in Plato’s Progress because of Ryle’s incredible Columbo-like ability to draw out little circumstantial details from Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, Isocrates, and others that support his case. It’s an amazing performance.

Ryle attributes the intense drama of Socrates’ trial and death in Apology, Phaedo, and Crito not to Plato deciding to memorialize Socrates long after his death, but to Plato using Socrates to justify his own position while on trial in Athens. There is not sufficient reason otherwise, Ryle says, for the shift in Socrates’ personality from the early to the middle dialogues:

The impression that the early dialogues give us of Socrates’ personality is that of the gay, avuncular, combative, shrewd and predominantly scrupulous champion of eristic ring-craft; a mixture of Dr Johnson, D’Artagnan and Marshall Hall. The last twenty pages of the Gorgias, the Apology, the Crito and the Phaedo introduce us to a very different man. Socrates is now a prophet, a reformer, a saint and a martyr. The hemlock reminds us of the crucifix. Plato is writing here with a passion which was not there before. Some quarter of a century has elapsed since Socrates’ execution, and during this period Athens has repented of her crime. Socrates’ name no longer needs to be retrieved from disgrace. Plato himself has written, surely to the great satisfaction of his Athenian audiences, a number of cheerful, down-to-earth stories of the champion’s victories and, in the Euthydemus, of his technical defeat in the disputation-ring.

Whence come the new tones of Plato’s voice? No mere twenty-five-year-old piety could explain the new moral passion or the new political venom of Socrates’ monologue in the Gorgias; his relish in themyth.in the Gorgias for the eternal tortures in Tartarus that await the men of power; his apostolic vindication of his mission in the Apology; the deep and almost merry seriousness of his Farewell to This Life in the Phaedo. The earlier eristic dialogues are the products of Plato’s talents, but these immediately succeeding dialogues come out of his heart as well. What has happened to Plato’s heart?

There must have been a crisis in Plato’s life in the later 370′s, which is reflected at once by the disappearance of the elenchus from his dialogues; by the foundation of the Academy with its dialectic-barred curriculum for the young men; by the passion with which Plato writes in the Gorgias monologue and in the Apology, Crito and Phaedo; and even, perhaps, by Socrates’ very uncharacteristic lament at the divine veto on suicide in the opening conversation of the Phaedo.

Moreover, unlike Socrates, Plato bungled the defense quite badly, and he was not only defending himself, but other practitioners of philosophical debate:

In his long monologue at the end of the Gorgias 508c, 5o9d), Socrates surprises us by twice saying prophetically that he will flounder incompetently in his defence of himself, his associates and his relations, oikeion. But in 399 Socrates was the sole defendant; he had no co-defendants for whom he had to try to state the defence. The prosecution prophesied in the Gorgias was not that of a solitary defendant for irreligion; it was the prosecution of a plurality of defendants for defamation. Apparently at least one of these defendants was a relative of ‘Socrates’. Who?

Why is Socrates made to prophesy that he will flounder hopelessly in court? Xenophon reports no floundering; and Plato’s Apology will live for ever as a powerful speech. A very creditable minority of the judges voted for the acquittal of Socrates. There are other places where Plato makes Socrates declare that the true philosopher is bound to flounder in court against the ready-witted, mean-minded prosecutor, though their roles will be happily reversed when they come to discuss more cosmic matters. One place is the long and philosophically quite pointless digression in the Theaetetus from 172c. Here Socrates says nothing about himself in particular. In the Republic 517a we get a similar but briefer statement of the forensic incompetence of the true philosopher, who again is not identified with Socrates. In the Gorgias 526b-527,a the politician Callicles is warned that he, but not the philosopher, will gape and feel dizzy before Rhadamanthus and Minos, as Socrates is going to do before his Athenian judges. We may conjecture that Plato had had to speak on behalf of his fellow-defendants and himself in their trial for defamation and that his performance had been embarrassingly inadequate. His pitiful showing left an abiding sore place in his memory. His dream in the Gorgias and Theaetetus of an eventual turning of the tables upon the ‘lawyers’ was a compensation-dream. It is noteworthy that in the Theaetetus the philosopher is described as an unworldly innocent who does not even know his way to the agora or the courts. In the Apology Socrates had not been so represented. He was a frequenter of the agora. In the Theaetetus Plato was thinking about someone else than Socrates as his unworldly, forensically ineffective philosopher.

Plato was thinking of himself! Plato was not executed–Athens would not repeat the mistake of scapegoating a philosopher–but he was banned from participating in dialogue tournaments. Yet, Ryle hypothesizes, that freed up Plato’s imagination to begin real philosophizing. The early dialogues were little more than records of tournament debates (“Moot”s). Ryle dramatically tells the tale:

The reason why the suppression of Plato’s practice of the Socratic Method involved the abandonment of the eristic dialogue was that Plato now had no more Moot-records or memories to dramatize. His home source of elenctic arguments dried up when his personal participation in dialectical debates stopped.

What forced Plato to find out the secret of solitary debating was the suppression of his practice of conducting eristic Moots with the young men. It was his exile from this duelling that drove Plato, though only after years of frustration, into solitary pro and contra reasoning. Plato did not write the eristic dialogues because he was a philosopher; he became a philosopher because he could no longer participate in questioner-answerer Moots, or any longer be their dramatic chronicler. His judges broke Plato’s heart, but they made him in the end a self-moving philosopher. No longer had the Other Voice to be the voice of another person. No longer was the objective the driving of another person into an impasse; it was now the extraction of oneself from an impasse.

He comes up with similar explanations for the strange topics in the dialogue by positing extra-philosophical motivations for them. The early dialogues often mention one topic and then veer away from it because they were written to order for competition, which prescribed a certain theme. The Phaedrus turns away from metaphysics and politics to boy-love eroticism because it’s an advertisement for the Academy!

The Boy-Love motif is very strong in the [early] eristic dialogues. We find it in the Lysis, Charmides, Protagoras, [Alcibiades], Euthydemus, Gorgias and Meno. We hear hardly a whisper of it in the later dialogues with the two important exceptions of the Symposium and the Phaedrus. In Diotima’s speech in the Symposium the darling of Eros is sublimated into an Otherworldly Beloved, in what sounds like a valedictory tone of voice. It is the sixty-year-old Plato’s ‘Farewell for Ever’ to his darling twenty-year-olders. He must now think without them. He must now think alone. The much later Phaedrus is a new call to the twenty-year-olders, but this time not to dialectic-hungry young men, but to the rhetoric-hungry young men for whom at last the Academy is going to provide rhetoric- teaching of a philosophically fortified kind.

As Socrates’ own eloquence in the Phaedrus is both profounder in content and better organized in form than the speech of Lysias, so the Academy’s scheme of instruction in rhetoric will make its students both wiser and more winning than those of Isocrates. In his Phaedrus Plato is showing to would-be rhetoric students that the philosopher can defeat the rhetorician in rhetoric. Being addressed specially to such Phaedruses, the dialogue is devoid of philosophical argumentation, though it contains some philosophical rhetoric.

Having founded the Academy and free to philosophize once more, Plato’s approach changes again. The impenetrable later dialogues like Parmenides and Sophist are rather different, intended for internal consumption at the Academy, where Plato has far more latitude to write than he previously did. Ryle works through the dialogues one by one, ordering them, explaining their provenance, and sometimes carving them up: for example, the Parmenides is stitched together from two very different pieces with no connection between the two). And his forensic skills are impressive. Here’s a representative example:

Many of Plato’s middle-sized dialogues seem to adhere to a regulation length, namely 52-54. Stephanus pages. As the Phaedo is five or six pages in excess of this regulation length, it is worth while to see if it has been enlarged beyond its original length. There is a stretch of just the required length between 108c and 113c which does bear several marks of being a subsequent interpolation. This stretch, which tells us that the earth is spherical and cavernous, is totally irrelevant to the subject-matter of the dialogue as a whole and is only factitiously relevant to the subject-matter of the passages immediately preceding and succeeding it. Moreover there is a glaring incongruity between Socrates’ exposition of someone else’s geophysical theory in this stretch and his renunciation of physical theories ten pages earlier. The theme interrupted in the middle of 108c seems to be smoothly resumed at the beginning of 113d.

One more mystery dispatched!

The result is gripping, at least if you have a basic familiarity with Plato and appreciate detective work of this sort, performed with uncommon astuteness. Ryle also has a very enjoyable dry wit (he was a huge fan of Austen and Wodehouse), as here:

In his Panathenaicus 26, Isocrates refers to the curriculum of the Academy as having been set up ‘in our own day’,  This part of the oration was probably written in about 342 when Isocrates was some ninety-three years of age. Unfortunately his longevity makes his phrase ‘in our own day’ quite uninformative.

English philosopher I.M. Crombie, who wrote two immense and analytical volumes on Plato, also managed to get in a few good ones in his review of Plato’s Progress, which he reviewed appreciatively but with some skepticism. This is my favorite, when Crombie is discussing Ryle’s idea of philosophical debate as recreational and competitive pastime in Athens:

For this intrinsically unplausible proposition, Ryle does indeed produce some evidence, certainly enough to show that something here needs to be thought about, but not enough to persuade me that, “Come on, let’s see if I can defend ‘Virtue is teachable’ for half an hour” was a common alternative to “Come on, let’s play draughts.”

I gather the same sensibility underlies G.A. Cohen’s tribute to his former adviser Ryle:

5 thoughts on “Gilbert Ryle’s Plato

  1. Gaddis may have have thought it was at least somewhat plausible that “defend ‘virtue is teachable’ for half an hour” might have been a form of entertainment: “Where is it, this swamp of ambiguity, paradox, anarchy they’re calling aporia his book right there somewhere probably at the bottom of the pile it was a game they played, the Greeks, a game you couldn’t win, nobody could win, a parlour game proposing questions there was no clear answer to so winning wasn’t the point of it no, no that’s ours isn’t it, right on the money because that’s what the game is, the only game in town because that’s what America’s wait, little card there falling on the, there! You see?” (Agapē Agape, 6). You see? Though perhaps he’s saying that the game is “ours isn’t it”.

  2. I read this book because of your post, and it was really fascinating. It has the ethos of an erudite amateur (in classical scholarship), from whom come some of the most original ideas on deadlocked questions. Ryle is fresh air after some of the more obfuscatory scholarship I’ve been reading on Plato by epigones of Heidegger.

    • I know exactly how you feel. There’s definitely something pathological in the treatment of Plato (and many others) as some kind of superhuman oracle, Leo Strauss being the ne plus ultra of such. Though the Tubingen “Unwritten Doctrines FTW” School gives him a serious run for his money!

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