David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: May 2012

Advertisement for Myself (and Others)

In connection with my Anonymity as Culture articles on Triple Canopy, I will be speaking with Gabriella Coleman and James Grimmelmann this Wednesday the 23rd at 7pm in Brooklyn about internet culture, anonymity, politics, law, and probably a few other things. Gabriella and James are both astute observers of technology and society, well worth hearing. Please say hello if you happen to make it there.

Details and further information here. Thanks to New York Council for the Humanities and others for supporting to the event. Gabriella’s and my essays are now available as a Kindle Single for 3 bucks (cheap).

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:

“Obscene abuse of a randy old hag”: Horace’s Epode 8 in Translation

Coarsely abusive sexual language is an early iambic tradition.

Daniel Garrison

Besides being Augustus’s favored poet and composing immaculate and subtle Odes, Horace wrote some rougher-hewn pieces in his series of Epodes (30 BC). The most notorious are the eighth and the twelfth, which are both obscene, misogynistic brushoffs to an older female lover. (In the twelfth, she at least gets in a bit of a riposte at the end.) David Mankin summarizes the eighth as “obscene abuse of a randy old hag” and the twelfth as “further abuse of the old hag.”

Here’s Epode 8 in Niall Rudd’s Loeb translation from 2004, which I take to be a reasonably close paraphrase:


To think that you, who have rotted away with the long passage of time, should ask what unstrings my virility, when your teeth are black, and extreme decrepitude ploughs furrows on your forehead, and your disgusting anus gapes between your shrivelled buttocks like that of a cow with diarrhea! I suppose I am excited by your bosom with its withered breasts like the udders of a mare, your flabby belly, and your scrawny thighs perched on top of your swollen ankles! Be as rich as you like. May the masks of triumphal ancestors escort your cortege! Let no wife be weighed down with fatter pearls as she walks proudly by! What of the fact that slim Stoic volumes nestle on your cushions of Chinese silk? Does that make my organ (which can’t read) any stiffer, or my phallic charm less limp? To call it forth from my proud crotch you must go to work with your mouth.

Horace seems to be trying to outdo Catullus, but some of it reads like it comes out of a Shakespeare Dark Lady sonnet. The progenitor of this abusive tradition is the mysterious 6th century BC Greek poet Archilochus, who was promoted by Guy Davenport’s translation in 1964 (also see his introduction to Archilochus from 7 Greeks).

Because of Horace’s high profile, these epodes have necessitated being brushed under the rug up until a recent renaissance. In the 1960s, Eduard Fraenkel called them “repulsive,” while Steele Commager just ignored them altogether. The Latin students edition of 1896 omits them rather conspicuously (they’re numbered, after all), which presumably sent more than a few students to the library to locate the missing poems.

Translators, too, historically excluded the problem poems (8 and 12, but also the far less obscene but explicitly gay 11). After Henry Rider omitted them in his 1638 translation of the complete works, the first person to tackle them was Christopher Smart in 1756. (Also available on the web here.) Smart smooths out the obscenity rather cleverly, but still gets the vitriol:

UPON A WANTON OLD WOMAN. (Christopher Smart)

Can you, grown rank with lengthened age, ask what unnerves my vigor? When your teeth are black, and old age withers your brow with wrinkles: and your back sinks between your staring hip-bones, like that of an unhealthy cow. But, forsooth! your breast and your fallen chest, full well resembling a broken-backed horse, provoke me; and a body flabby, and feeble knees supported by swollen legs. May you be happy: and may triumphal statues adorn your funeral procession; and may no matron appear in public abounding with richer pearls. What follows, because the Stoic treatises sometimes love to be on silken pillows? Are unlearned constitutions the less robust? Or are their limbs less stout? But for you to raise an appetite, in a stomach that is nice, it is necessary that you exert every art of language.

(Fascinatingly, in Epode 11, Smart obscures the gender of the speaker’s male lover Lyciscus, while still leaving in the confession of attraction to both sexes.)

Philip Francis (1746) and Bulwer Lytton (1870) also omit the problem poems from their translations.

In his 1901 Latin edition, C.E. Bennett includes them but does not summarize or give any commentary, beyond the statement “The brutal coarseness of this epode leads to omission of an outline of its contents,” though by this point the gay content of 11 poses no problem. He did not translate 8 or 12 for his 1914 Loeb Library edition either, which relegates the Latin versions to an appendix after the other epodes.

In fact, I can’t find a single English translation other than Smart’s prior to 1960, when two appeared, by Joseph P. Clancy and W.G. Shepherd. Neither seems to pull any punches, though Shepherd goes more over the top with flowery language and a Beat-esque poser:

ROGARE LONGO (W.G. Shepherd)

That you, rotten, should ask what it is
that emasculates me, when you’ve
just one black tooth and decrepit age
ploughs up your forehead with wrinkles,
when a diarrhoeic cow’s hole gapes
between your dehydrated buttocks!
What rouses me is your putrid bosom,
your breasts like the teats of a mare,
the flaccid belly and skinny thighs
that top your grossly swollen shanks.
Be bless’d, and may triumphant lovers’
likenesses attend your corpse.
May no wife perlustrate laden
with fatter, rounder pearls than yours.
What though Stoic pamphlets like
to lie between silken pillows?
Illiterate sinews stiffen,
and hamptons droop, no less for that.
(Though if you hope to rouse up mine,
your mouth is faced with no mean task.)

Comparing to Smart’s translation reveals that Smart was quite ingenious with his adjustments. Shepherd also uses a wince-inducing racial epithet in Epode 12, which I will leave to others to comment on. (The American Clancy, in contrast to the British Shepherd, avoids any mention of race at all.) Notably, both are only coy when it comes to the male member (“sinew,” “rod,” Cockney rhyming slang “hampton”), though this is not the case with either translator in Epode 12.

More recent translations follow the same line but make the language a bit plainer. David West’s version (1997) is quite forthright, less self-conscious about the shocking content.


You dare to ask me, you decrepit, stinking slut,
   what makes me impotent?
And you with blackened teeth, and so advanced
   in age that wrinkles plough your forehead,
your raw and filthy arsehole gaping like a cow’s
   between your wizened buttocks.
It’s your slack breasts that rouse me (I have seen
   much better udders on a mare)
your flabby paunch and scrawny thighs
   stuck on your swollen ankles.

May you be blessed with wealth! May effigies
   of triumphators march you to the grave,
and may no other wife go on parade
   weighed down with fatter pearls!

But why do Stoic tracts so love to lie
   on your silk cushions?
They won’t cause big erections or delay the droop–
   you know that penises can’t read.
If that is what you want from my fastidious groin,
   your mouth has got some work to do.

Finally, there is classicist John Henderson’s translation. Henderson is noted for a punning deconstructionist critical style (for which he has been taken to task), and he has written a couple essays on Epode 8, though he is clearly wrong to say (a) that all pre-1980 translations were Bowdlerized and (b) that prior to that the two poems were excluded from virtually all Latin editions with commentary.


Ironically, by adopting a declasse anti-authoritarian patois closer to Shepherd than West, Henderson seems to be trying to recapture the original’s shock value by appealing to shocking standards of a past American era: the artful and self-conscious provocations of Shepherd, reveling in obscenity-as-rebellion rather than obscenity-as-ridicule. It’s a strange and anachronistic brew. I suspect that the blase, imperious ridicule of Rudd and West is closer to the original.

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑