Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: plato

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

To review: in the first two chapters, Simmel established money’s capacities to (a) make incommensurable systems of values commensurable, and (b) dissolve meaning through a process of universalizing abstraction. He reviews the Kantian analysis of the second chapter:

What one might term the tragedy of human concept formation lies in the fact that the higher concept, which through its breadth embraces a growing number of details, must count upon increasing loss of content. Money is the perfect practical counterpart of such a higher category, namely a form of being whose qualities are generality and lack of content; a form of being that endows these qualities with real power and whose relation to all the contrary qualities of the objects transacted and to their psychological constellations can be equally interpreted as service and as domination.

“Money in the Sequence of Purposes” concludes the first half and first part of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, the “analytic part.”  Simmel now turns to the teleological paradox of money. This paradox, in short, is this: by privileging a universal quantity over individual qualities, money becomes its own end. This is a paradox because money’s meaning lies sheerly in its lack of any particular end: it’s not good for anything in itself. Yet because the sum of money’s potential ends are always far greater than what may be gained from any one of them, it takes on a universal potentiality greater than any actual good, and becomes more valued in itself. It is a universal tool.

Love, which according to Plato is an intermediate stage between possessing and not-possessing, is in the inner subjective life what means are in the objective external world. For man, who is always striving, never satisfied, always becoming, love is the true human condition. Means, on the other hand, and their enhanced form, the tool, symbolize the human genus. The tool illustrates or incorporates the grandeur of the human will, and at the same time its limitations. The practical necessity to introduce a series of intermediate steps between ourselves and our ends has perhaps given rise to the concept of the past, and so has endowed man with his specific sense of life, of its extent and its limits, as a watershed between past and future. Money is the purest reification of means, a concrete instrument which is absolutely identical with its abstract concept; it is a pure instrument. The tremendous importance of money for understanding the basic motives of life lies in the fact that money embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence; one might say, paradoxically, that man is an indirect being.

For those of you who’ve been waiting to see Uncle Scrooge show up, you can see a bit of this paradox in Carl Barks’ inconsistent treatment of how Scrooge feels about his money: sometimes he loves it for the pleasure its physical presence brings him, other times he loves it for the history behind the acquisition of the particular coins, while other times it is a mark of his superiority of having been “tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties”; regardless, however, Scrooge never really talks about what he can do with it (nor does he ever actually do that much about it besides swim in it and worry about it).

tougher-than-the-toughies

Simmel suggests that the rich attract our interest and worship as much for their vast potential of actions (“What would do with that money?”) as for their particular lavish lifestyles:

This usurious interest upon wealth, these advantages that its possessor gains without being obliged to give anything in return, are bound up with the money form of value. For those phenomena obviously express or reflect that unlimited freedom of use which distinguishes money from all other values. This it is that creates the state of affairs in which a rich man has an influence not only by what he does but also by what he could do; a great fortune is encircled by innumerable possibilities of use, as though by an astral body, which extend far beyond the employment of the income from it on the benefits which the income brings to other people. The German language indicates this by the use of the word Vermögen, which means ‘to be able to do something’, for a great fortune.

Now, finally, Simmel brings Marx into the equation. The alienation of the worker from labor, Simmel argues, precisely parallels the divorce of money from concrete meaning and particular ends. This is not a consequence of capitalist exploitation per se, but a consequence of modern urban society itself. The result is tragic:

With increasing competition and increasing division of labour, the purposes of life become harder to attain; that is, they require an ever-increasing infrastructure of means. A larger proportion of civilized man remains forever enslaved, in every sense of the word, in the interest in technics. The conditions on which the realization of the ultimate object depends claim their attention, and they concentrate their strength on them, so that every real purpose completely disappears from consciousness. Indeed, they are often denied.

By removing Hegel from Marx, Simmel turns Marx’s vision of capitalist economy bleaker. There is no dialectical process at work here, just a dynamic, organic growth that increasingly distances individuals from a grasp of meaning, replacing particular linkages with the generic, abstract links of money. Consequently, an individual sees instead of concrete  relations, a confusing mass of inadequate potential. In one of his most poetic moments, Simmel describes the sheer strain this puts on the individual consciousness and our efforts to live simultaneously in the moment and for the future:

We are supposed to treat life as if each of its moments were a final purpose; every moment is supposed to be taken to be so important as if life existed for its sake. At the same time, we are supposed to live as if none of its moments were final, as if our sense of value did not stop with any moment and each should be a transitional point and a means to higher and higher stages. This apparently contradictory double demand upon every moment of life, to be at the same time both final and yet not final, evolves from our innermost being in which the soul determines our relation to life—and finds, oddly enough, an almost ironical fulfilment in money, the entity most external to it, since it stands above all qualities and intensities of existing forms of the mind.

The result is at once to feel inextricably a part of a unified dynamo, yet without the perspective or the agency to grasp one’s particular place in it or establish it. For contrast, the Greeks’ (i.e., Athenians) sense of finite placement and the strict division of rights based on land-ownership gave them the bearing to reify a substance-centric philosophy.

Landed property, the relatively safe possession protected by law, was the only possession that could guarantee for the Greeks the continuity and unity of their awareness for life. In this respect, the Greeks were still Orientals, in that they conceived the continuity of life only if the fleetingness of time was supplemented by a solid and constant content. It is thus the adherence to the concept of substance that characterizes the whole of Greek philosophy. This does not at all characterize the reality of Greek life, but rather its failures, its longing and its salvation. It reflects the tremendous scope of the Greek mind in that it not only sought its ideals in the extension and completion of the given, as happened with lesser-spirited people, but further reflected this scope in their attempt to complete their passionately endangered reality—always disrupted by party strife—in another realm, in the secure bounds and quiet forms of their thoughts and creations. The modern view, in total contrast, views the unity and coherence of life in the interplay of forces and the law-like sequence of moments that vary their content to the utmost. The whole diversity and motion of our life does not dispose of the feeling of unity—at least not usually, and then only in cases where we ourselves perceive deviations or deficiencies; on the contrary, life is sustained by it and brought to fullest consciousness by it. This dynamic unity was foreign to the Greeks. The same basic trait that allowed their aesthetic ideals to culminate in their forms of architecture and plastic arts and that led their view of life to be one of a limited and finite cosmos and the rejection of infinity—this trait allowed them to recognize the continuity of existence only as something substantial, as resting upon, and realized in, landed property, whereas the modern view of life rests upon money whose nature is fluctuating and which presents the identity of essence in the greatest and most changing variety of equivalents.

Well, maybe–this probably says more about Simmel than the Greeks. The point is clear, though: we are comparatively unmoored even as we are more integrated. And as we work for money rather than particular goods, our goals become more unmoored because we conceive of our goals in aggregate, in terms of a particular income or particular buying power, before we conceive of ends in particular forms, because the achievement of those forms is presented in terms of monetary cost. When we do settle on a particular end, money reminds us that that end is hardly final, because we have selected it among all the other uses to which our money could have been put. Money reveals to us that the chain of “ends” never ends.

That the means become ends is justified by the fact that, in the last analysis, ends are only means. Out of the endless series of possible volitions, self-developing actions and satisfactions, we almost arbitrarily designate one moment as the ultimate end, for which everything preceding it is only a means; whereas an objective observer or later even we ourselves have to posit for the future the genuinely effective and valid purposes without their being secured against a similar fate. At this point of extreme tension between the relativity of our endeavours and the absoluteness of the idea of a final purpose, money again becomes significant and a previous suggestion is developed further. As the expression and equivalent of the value of things, and at the same time as a pure means and an indifferent transitional stage, money symbolizes the established fact that the values for which we strive and which we experience are ultimately revealed to be means and temporary entities.

Once again: money is pure teleological form without content. By being the ultimate in mere means it embodies the most general (and most empty) of ends. What this confusing relationship entails is, more or less, the collapse of the means/ends distinction by reducing everything to means.

Money is not content with being just another final purpose of life alongside wisdom and art, personal significance and strength, beauty and love; but in so far as money does adopt this position it gains the power to reduce the other purposes to the level of means.

The abstract character of money, its remoteness from any specific enjoyment in and for itself, supports an objective delight in money, in the awareness of a value that extends far beyond all individual and personal enjoyment of its benefits. If money is no longer a purpose, in the sense in which any other tool has a purpose in terms of its useful application, but is rather a final purpose to those greedy for money, then it is furthermore not even a final purpose in the sense of an enjoyment. Instead, for the miser, money is kept outside of this personal sphere which is taboo to him. To him, money is an object of timid respect. The miser loves money as one loves a highly admired person who makes us happy simply by his existence and by our knowing him and being with him, without our relation to him as an individual taking the form of concrete enjoyment. In so far as, from the outset, the miser consciously forgoes the use of money as a means towards any specific enjoyment, he places money at an unbridgeable distance from his subjectivity, a distance that he nevertheless constantly attempts to overcome through the awareness of his ownership.

All objects that we want to possess are expected to achieve something for us once we own them. The often tragic, often humorous incommensurability between wish and fulfilment is due to the inadequate anticipation of this achievement of which I have just spoken. But money is not expected to achieve anything for the greedy person over and above its mere ownership. We know more about money than about any other object because there is nothing to be known about money and so it cannot hide anything from us.It is a thing absolutely lacking in qualities and therefore cannot, as can even the most pitiful object, conceal within itself any surprises or disappointments. Whoever really and definitely only wants money is absolutely safe from such experiences. The general human weakness to rate what is longed for differently compared with what is attained reaches its apogee in greed for money because such greed only fulfils consciousness of purpose in an illusory and untenable fashion; on the other hand, this weakness is completely removed as soon as the will is really completely satisfied by the ownership of money. If we desire to arrange human destiny according to the scheme of relationship between the wish and its object, then we must concede that, in terms of the final point in the sequence of purposes, money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.

This passage is a fairly blatant echo of Hegel’s very famous lordship/bondage dialectic, except the bondsman is absent. Again, Simmel abandons Hegel for Kant. The problem is not one of intersubjectivity, but that of an individual consciousness, the miser, accumulating an object that is devoid of content, being satisfied with the thought that money cannot disappoint the miser’s expectations because money has no expectations to disappoint. All you can do is own it.

Revising Hegel further, Simmel then replaces the skeptic and the stoic with his own two opposed attitudes: the cynical and the blase. (Unlike Hegel, these are available to the miser as well as the missing bondsman.) The cynic devalues everything save for money in itself, while the blase individual simply becomes indifferent, paralleling the skeptic and the stoic respectively.

The nurseries of cynicism are therefore those places with huge turnovers, exemplified in stock exchange dealings, where money is available in huge quantities and changes owners easily. The more money becomes the sole centre of interest, the more one discovers that honour and conviction, talent and virtue, beauty and salvation of the soul, are exchanged against money and so the more a mocking and frivolous attitude will develop in relation to these higher values that are for sale for the same kind of value as groceries, and that also command a ‘market price’. The concept of a market price for values which, according to their nature, reject any evaluation except in terms of their own categories and ideals is the perfect objectification of what cynicism presents in the form of a subjective reflex.

Whereas the cynic is still moved to a reaction by the sphere of value, even if in the perverse sense that he considers the downward movement of values part of the attraction of life, the blasé person—although the concept of such a person is rarely fully realized—has completely lost the feeling for value differences. He experiences all things as being of an equally dull and grey hue, as not worth getting excited about, particularly where the will is concerned. The decisive moment here— and one that is denied to the blasé—is not the devaluation of things as such, but indifference to their specific qualities from which the whole liveliness of feeling and volition originates. Whoever has become possessed by the fact that the same amount of money can procure all the possibilities that life has to offer must also become blasé.

Simmel now turns to the subject of money’s quantification. The very notion of quantity implies that there can be more than one of something, and so money is treated not by individual units (which would be meaningless) but in the aggregate, and its power is purely determined through the comparison of aggregates rather than any outside measure. This sort of quantified object is totally without form:

As a purely arithmetical addition of value units, money can be characterized as absolutely formless. Formlessness and a purely quantitative character are one and the same. To the extent that things are considered only in terms of their quantity, their form is disregarded. This is most evident if they are weighed. Therefore, money as such is the most terrible destroyer of form.

If the object makes room for value elements other than form, then the number of times the object is created becomes important. This is also the basis of the deepest connection between Nietzsche’s ethical value theory and his aesthetic frame of mind. According to Nietzsche, the quality of a society is determined by the height of the values achieved in it no matter how isolated they may be; the quality of a society does not depend on the extent to which laudable qualities have spread. In the same way, the quality of an artistic period is not the result of the height and quantity of good average achievements but only of the height of the very best achievement. Thus the utilitarian, who is interested solely in the tangible results of action, is inclined towards socialism with its emphasis on the masses and on spreading desirable living conditions, whereas the idealistic moralist, to whom the more or less aesthetically expressible form of action is crucial, is usually an individualist, or at least, like Kant, someone who emphasizes the autonomy of the individual above all else. The same is true in the realm of subjective happiness. We often feel that the highest culmination of joie de vivre, which signifies for the individual his perfect self-realization in the material of existence, need not be repeated. To have experienced this once gives a value to life that would not, as a rule, be enhanced by its repetition. Such moments in which life has been brought to a point of unique self-fulfilment, and has completely subjected the resistance of matter—in the broadest sense—to our feelings and our will, spread an atmosphere that one might call a counterpart to timelessness, to species aeternitatis—a transcendence of number and of time.

Now, Simmel already made the case earlier for money’s formlessness based on its ability to assimilate and reconcile disparate value systems. Here he seems to be saying that commensurability and quantification are two sides of the same coin. The reconciliation of those value systems requires that some regularity of exchange be possible between them, and the only system for setting such rates is one that lacks any particular form–that is, numerical quantity. Contrariwise, the quantification of goods across multiple people, as a utilitarian would have it, obviously requires commensurability, which has often proven to be the utilitarian’s albatross. Simmel’s implication is that whether or not the utilitarian admits it, utilitarian philosophy effectively monetizes the good. There is no way to calculate maximum good or determine its distribution without emptying it of content.

This is all seeming very grim, but Simmel admits to some positive effects. The individual gains greater freedom to select which value systems to inhabit and exchange into. If you can determine a meaningful purpose for yourself, however arbitrarily, modernity gives you greater flexibility in pursuing it. Hence the paradox of the increase of individualism even as the individual is bound more tightly into a larger social system.

The contents of life—as they become more and more expressible in money which is absolutely continuous, rhythmical and indifferent to any distinctive form—are, at it were, split up into so many small parts; their rounded totalities are so shattered that any arbitrary synthesis and formation of them is possible. It is this process that provides the material for modern individualism and the abundance of its products. The personality clearly creates new unities of life with this basically unformed material and obviously operates with greater independence and variability compared with what was formerly done in close solidarity with material unities.

While the utilitarian or the socialist may empty things of aesthetic and moral content, such quantification nonetheless allows for more equality, since equality can now be calculated. Equality is not a notion that shows up all too often in the global history of thought, and when it does it’s usually restricted to conveniently ineffable things like souls. Money is what makes equality possible, by allowing for any particular imbalance to be compensated for. Likewise, we see the potential leveling of social inequality and elitism, since no one set of values necessarily has a lock on ultimate meaning, but all are subject to the empty arbiter of monetary value. Particular values are taken apart and reconstituted in the most general and distributed way possible, which in turn supports a democratic sentiment.

The same viewpoint can be observed in the historical sciences: language, the arts, institutions and cultural products of any kind are interpreted as the result of innumerable minimal contributions; the miracle of their origin is traced not to the quality of heroic individual personalities but to the quantity of the converging and condensed activities of a whole historical group. The small daily events of the intellectual, cultural and political life, whose sum total determines the overall picture of the historical scene, rather than the specific individual acts of the leaders, have now become the object of historical research. Where any prominence and qualitative incomparability of an individual still prevails, this is interpreted as an unusually lucky inheritance, that is as an event that includes and expresses a large quantity of accumulated energies and achievements of the human species. Indeed, even within a wholly individualistic ethic this democratic tendency is powerful and is elevated to a world view, while at the same time the inner nature of the soul is deprecated. This corresponds to the belief that the highest values are embedded in everyday existence and in each of its moments, but not in a heroic attitude or in catastrophes or outstanding deeds and experiences, which always have something arbitrary and superficial about them. We may all experience great passions and unheard-of flights of fancy, yet their final value depends on what they mean for those quiet, nameless and equable hours when alone the real and total self lives. Finally, despite all appearances to the contrary and all justified criticism, modern times as a whole are characterized throughout by a trend towards empiricism and hence display their innermost relationship to modern democracy in terms of form and sentiment. Empiricism replaces the single visionary or rational idea with the highest possible number of observations; it substitutes their qualitative character by the quantity of assembled individual cases. Psychological sensualism, which considers the most sublime and abstract forms and faculties of our reasons to be the mere accumulation and intensification of the most ordinary sensual elements, corresponds to this methodological intention.

Again: this is not just capitalism, this is modernity. The socialist or communist who promises a return to integrated meaning once exploitation and/or money is abolished is simply wrong unless they are also preaching a Luddite return to primitive society. The very thing that fuels modern society is the same thing that strips it of all particularized teleological meaning, and sets us toward seeing the world in an increasingly instrumental, quantified fashion.

Only metaphysics can construct entities completely lacking in quality, which perform the play of the world according to purely arithmetical relations. In the empirical world, however, only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity. Since we are unable to grasp pure being as pure energy in order to trace the particularity of the phenomena from the quantitative modifications of being or energy, and since we always have some kind of relationship—even though not always exactly the same one—with all specific things, their elements and origins, money is completely cut off from the corresponding relationships that concern it. Pure economic value has been embodied in a substance whose quantitative conditions bring about all kinds of peculiar formations without being able to bring into being anything other than its quantity. Thus, one of the major tendencies of life— the reduction of quality to quantity—achieves its highest and uniquely perfect representation in money.

"Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours."

“Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.”

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Having laid the philosophical groundwork for the conception of money, Simmel’s second chapter provides, loosely speaking, a genealogy of money, showing that as money is introduced into a barter economy, it gradually loses any specific character as it swells to encompass and merge distinct notions of value. Money becomes a totalizing, unifying substance, reifying the unity of a polity. Simmel develops a couple concurrent analogies in this chapter, particularly between money and love and money and politics. Working them out is tricky, particularly because Simmel seems to be invoking Kant’s first and third critique simultaneously, and I’m going to leave some gaps here in order to keep this entry at a manageable length. What I’ll present are the core schemata that Simmel sets up for conceptualizing money in terms of these other things.

The fundamental contrast is between the specific and the general. In this passage, Simmel analogizes money’s role to that of Kantian cognition (i.e., providing categorical, abstract form for concrete, sensible content), and specifically the transcendental unity of apperception. As money becomes more generic, it becomes less tangible and more conceptual:

The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values—and this occurs not simply through the increase in its quantity, but through an extension of its function to more and more objects and the consolidation of even more diverse values in this form—the less it will need to be tied to a material substance; for the mechanical sameness and rigidity of a substance will become increasingly inadequate compared with the abundance, mutability and variety of values which are projected upon and consolidated in, the concept of money.

This process might be called the growing spiritualization of money, since it is the essence of mental activity to bring unity out of diversity. In the sensible world, things exist side by side; only in the sphere of the mind are they integrated. The elements of a concept form a unity, as do subject and predicate in a proposition; there is no equivalent in the world of directly perceived phenomena. The organism, as the bridge between matter and mind, is the first step towards such an equivalent; interaction merges its elements and it strives constantly for an unattainable perfect unity. Only in the mind, however, does interaction become real integration. The interaction of exchange brings about a mental unity of values. The spatially extended substance is only a symbol of money, because the disconnectedness of what exists as substance contradicts the nature of money as an abstract representation of interaction. Only to the extent that the material element recedes does money become real money, that is a real integration and a point of unification of interacting elements of value, which only the mind can accomplish.

Simmel stresses, however, just how alien this universality is to our own most intuitive systems of values. Just as he ended the previous chapter on money’s role in the singular calculus of human suffering, he begins by describing two incommensurable value systems, those of pleasure and pain:

The basic assertion of pessimism is that there is in life a considerable excess of suffering over happiness, that living beings, considered as a whole or on the average, experience much more pain than pleasure. It is quite impossible to make such an assertion, which presupposes that pleasure and pain can be directly balanced and set off against each other as two qualitatively equal magnitudes with opposite signs. In reality this is impossible because there is no common measure. When we suffer we cannot experience what amount of pleasure would be necessary to compensate for the suffering. How then can we explain that such comparisons are always being made; that in everyday affairs, in a coherent destiny, in the sum of an individual life, we judge that the quantity of enjoyment has fallen below or has exceeded the amount of pain? It is possible only because the experience of life has taught us, more or less strictly, how fortune and misfortune are actually distributed, how much suffering has to be accepted in order to attain a certain amount of pleasure, and how much of each is man’s usual portion. Only when we have formed some notion of this kind, no matter how unconscious and vague, is it possible to say that in a particular case a pleasure has been paid for too dearly—i.e. with too large an amount of suffering—or that in one individual life the pain exceeded the happiness. The average itself cannot be ‘disproportionate’ because it is the standard by which we determine whether the relation between feelings in an individual case is fair or not. In the same way, it is impossible to say that people on the average are tall or small, since the average provides the standard by which the individual is measured; and it is misleading to say that ‘time’ passes quickly or slowly, since the passage of time—i.e. the average experienced pace of events—is the measuring rod by which the quickness or slowness of the passage of single events is measured, while the average itself is neither quick nor slow. Thus, the pessimistic assertion that the average human life contains more suffering than enjoyment is methodologically just as impossible as the optimistic assertion of the contrary. The sensation of the total quantities of pleasure and pain (or, differently expressed, the average of them for an individual or for a period of time) is the original phenomenon, whose components cannot be compared with each other because this would require a measure independent of both and yet comprehending both equally.

…In so far as, in individual cases, the elements repeat the proportions that occur in the total quantities, then the elements have a’correct’, i.e. normal, average or typical relation, and deviations appear as a ‘preponderance’ or ‘disproportion’ of one element. In themselves, the elements in individual cases have no more a right or wrong, an equal or unequal, relation than have the totalities; they acquire such a relation only through the total quantities being established as an absolute, in terms of which the singular, the relative, is calculated. The absolute is not subject to the rules of comparison that it makes possible for the relative.

In other words, it is through a process of cognition, abstraction, and holistic conceptualization that we arrive at a way to reconcile two independent systems of value (in this case, pleasure and pain). It’s only because we have some common, societal conception of what are expected amounts of pleasure and pain that we can say that a person has a deficit of one in favor of the other. But that is really only calculated as a deviation from the two averages, not a reconciliation of the two value systems. This is a crucial point, for it is the same way that money operates–not by literally reconciling value systems, but by providing a universal, numerical unit of measure by which values of differing systems can be exchanged. Yet the establishment of these measures is purely an “objective” societal construct which floats free of any single system of values. If Platonism were true, then money could be said to embody the Form of value. But since Simmel is a nominalist, money is merely value-agnostic, and its abstraction is purely a human construct:

The value of things— ethical as well as eudaemonistic, religious as well as aesthetic—hovers, like the Platonic ideas, above the world; a realm that is governed by its own alien and intangible inner norms, but that lends relief and colour to reality. Economic value originates by derivation from these primary, directly experienced values, by weighing the objects in which values are incorporated against each other, so far as they are exchangeable. Within this area, however, economic value, no matter how it has constituted itself, has the same peculiar relation to the individual objects as has value in general. It is a world apart, in which the objects are classified and arranged according to particular norms which are not inherent in the objects. Objects that are ordered and related by their economic value form a cosmos that is entirely different from that formed by their natural and immediate reality. If money were really nothing but the expression of the values of things external to money, it would be related to things just as the idea, which Plato conceived also as a substantial, metaphysical entity, is related to empirical reality.

Thus, as value-neutral symbols (money) replace “real” goods, there is simultaneously a homogenization, a loss of specific significance, and a gain in commensurability:

One of the greatest advances made by mankind—the discovery of a new world out of the material of the old—is to establish a proportion between two quantities, not by direct comparison, but in terms of the fact that each of them relates to a third quantity and that these two relations are either equal or unequal. Two performances of entirely different quality are given; they become comparable if they display the same strength of will and self- sacrifice in relation to the required effort. Two destinies reveal very different degrees of happiness; yet they acquire a measurable relation if each is interpreted according to the extent to which its bearer deserved his fate. Two movements with quite different velocities can be related and equated if we observe that the acceleration from the initial stage is identical in each case. A kind of homogeneity emerges—and not only for our feelings —between two elements which, differing in their substance, have an equal relation to a third or fourth element. The one thereby becomes a factor for the calculability of the other. Furthermore, no matter how incomparable two people may be in their ostensible qualities, the relation of each to another person establishes an equality between them; as soon as one of them shows the same degree of love or hatred, domination or subjection, towards a third person as the other does towards a fourth person, these relations have established the separateness of personal identity. As a final example: the perfection of works of art of different kinds could not be compared and their values could not be arranged on a scale, unless each of them first had a definite relation to the particular ideal of its own kind. From the problem, the material and the style of each work of art, there evolves a norm which the actual work approaches more or less closely; and it is this relation that makes it possible to compare even the most diverse works of art. The possible conformity of such relations to a norm produces an aesthetic cosmos, a precise order, an ideal homogeneity in relation to value, from the individual works which are initially quite heterogeneous. This is not only true for the world of art. Out of the material of our isolated valuations there develops a pattern of graded significance. Disharmony is experienced only as a result of the desire for a consistent order and an inner relation of values. We owe this essential feature of our world view to our ability to balance against each other not only two things, but also the relations of these two to two others, and so unite them by judging them equal or similar. Money, as a product of this fundamental power or form of our mind, is not only its most extreme example, but is, as it were, its pure embodiment. For money can express the value relation between things realized in exchange only by equating the relation between a specific sum and some general denominator, with the relation between a corresponding commodity and the totality of commodities available for exchange. Money is not, by its nature, a valuable object whose parts happen to have the same proportion to each other or to the whole that other values have to each other. The significance of money is only to express the value relations between other objects. It succeeds in this with the aid of man’s developed intelligence, which is able to equate the relations between things even though the things themselves are not identical or similar. This ability only gradually evolves from the more primitive capacity to judge and express the identity or similarity of two objects directly, which is the source of the phenomena mentioned earlier that reflect the attempt to establish a direct relationship between money and its exchange values.

But the commensurability is grounded in nothing but the sensus communis. In keeping with Simmel’s dynamism, he paints the process of human experience as a back and forth journey between the sensible and the abstract–between form and content. This is exactly in keeping with Kant’s famous line “Thoughts [form] without content are emptyintuitions [content] without concepts are blind,” except that cognition has been naturalized into a dynamic system of life and experience. We do not synthesize them so much as oscillate between them to varying degrees. We lose substance as we move toward the universal, which is always inadequate to capture reality; we lose coherence as we move toward the specific, which can never be grasped in its immediacy. While moving away from wholly particular content is necessary for society to grow, a total embrace of a particular static symbolic form would result in a meaningless, boring existence. Consequently, any single symbolic form is inevitably taken apart, revised, and reconstructed.

On the one hand, the symbolic representation of reality increases, but at the same time, as a counter-movement, symbols are constantly analysed and reduced to their original foundation.

Only through the fact that the value of things has become detached from the objects and has acquired an independent existence in a specific substance is it possible for money to develop interests, movements and norms that, on occasion, act contrary to those of the symbolized objects. The activities of private enterprise, which are connected with money, promote the social interest of the production and consumption of goods so long as they remain merely endeavours, whereas the final attainment of their ends might undermine the aims of society. This type of situation is most frequently and decisively produced in those cases where emotional impulses strive for a final objective without being aware that all the hoped-for satisfaction is the consequence of relative advances, and may perhaps turn into its opposite when the goal is reached. I would call your attention to love, which receives its content and colouring from the desire for the closest and most permanent union, and frequently loses both when its object is attained; or to political ideals, which provide the strength and spiritual fervour in the life of whole generations but which, once they are realized, do not bring about an ideal condition, but practical materialism, torpidity and philistinism; or to the longing for a peaceful and undisturbed way of life, which is the goal of all effort and labour, yet which once accomplished often ends in idleness and inner dissatisfaction. It has indeed become a platitude to say that even happiness, though it is the object of all our endeavours, would be mere boredom if it were ever achieved as an eternal state.

So the point of money, just as with political ideals or love itself, is not to provide an ultimate goal. Rather, they make certain processes possible (commerce, politics, love) that would be beyond our conception without universalist abstraction. The telos of any of these things, however, is a mirage provided by the sheer generic emptiness of the symbol. “Love” gains meaning in the context of a particular relationship; “politics” gains meaning through a particular implementation.

In a passage that anticipates Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, Simmel paints the back and forth political movement between individualism and socialism as a similar process of journeying toward a symbolic ideal, only to find that as progress is made, the original ideal loses its connection to the concrete circumstances which produced it:

The proportion in which an element and its opposite are combined and co-operate are naturally variable, sometimes in the sense that one element steadily increases while the other declines, so that the trend of the development appears to be one in which one element will finally supplant the other. But as soon as this happened and every trace of the second element disappeared, the sense and effectiveness of the first element would also be paralysed. This happens, for instance, with the opposition between individualism and socialism. There are periods in which the latter determines historical development, not only in reality, but also as an inference from ideal convictions and an expression of a developing conception of society which strives toward perfection. But if, in the party politics of such an age, it is then concluded that, since all progress depends upon the growth of the socialist elements, their triumph will produce the most advanced and ideal state of things, this overlooks the fact that the whole success of socialist measures depends upon the circumstance under which they are introduced into an individualistic economic system. The progress resulting from the relative increase of socialist measures does not justify the conclusion that their complete implementation would represent further progress. It is the same with periods of increasing individualism. The significance of individualistic measures depends upon the fact that centralized socialist institutions continue to exist; these can be progressively reduced, but their complete disappearance would lead to unanticipated results differing widely from those that individualism had previously brought about. In the field of art, the contrary tendencies towards naturalism and towards mannerism show a similar pattern.

By discussing the symbolic and the concrete in the context of politics and art, Simmel lays the ground for the case of money. Money is special. It is more difficult to grasp than “love” or “socialism” or “naturalism” because it has no conceptual ideal. It is, at best, a meta-ideal, a container for particular ideals–which, without content, are themselves empty. For you programmers, money is the base class, java.lang.Object. Money is only pure exchangability, the ability to move between any value systems. It is “the mere expression of the reciprocally measured value of things.”

The relationship between the intrinsic value of money and its purely functional and symbolic nature may develop in analogous fashion; the latter increasingly replaces the former, but a certain measure of the former has to be retained because the functional and symbolic character of money would lose its basis and significance if this trend were brought to its final conclusion. It is not only a formal analogy that is in question here, but the unity of the deeper meaning of life, which is expressed in this external similarity. In practice, we can only cope with the variety of elements and tendencies that make up life by allowing our behaviour, in every context and at every period of time, to be governed by a uniform and one-sided principle. But in this way the diversity of reality catches up with us again and again, and weaves our subjective striving, along with all those factors that oppose it, into an empirical existence which allows the ideal to enter reality. This does not imply a denial of the ideal; life is adapted to such absolute strivings as its elements, in the same way as the physical world is adapted to motions that, if left unimpeded, would have inconceivable consequences, but that, as a result of their meeting with counterforces, produce the orderly world of natural events. If the practical world is formed in such a way that our will is focused upon eternity and only attains the world of reality by being deflected and rebuffed, then here too the structure of practical life has predetermined the theoretical structure. On innumerable occasions, our concepts of things are made so unalloyed and absolute that they do not reflect experience, and only their qualification and modification by opposing concepts can give them an empirical form. However, these concepts are not for that reason thoroughly bad; it is precisely through this unique procedure of exaggeration followed by retraction in the formation of concepts and maxims, that a view of the world which is in conformity with our understanding emerges. The formula through which our mind establishes a relation with the oneness of things, which is not directly accessible, by supplementing and reproducing it, is in practice as well as in theory a primary too-much, too-high, too-pure. It gains the consistency and scope of reality and truth only by means of restraining contrasts. Thus, the pure concept of money as the mere expression of the reciprocally measured value of things, which has no intrinsic value of its own, remains completely justified, although in historical reality this concept is consistently disparaged and limited by the contrary concept of money as possessing intrinsic value. Our intellect can grasp reality only as a modification of pure concepts, which, no matter how much they diverge from reality, are legitimized by the service they render in the interpretation of reality.

Money is the transport between the sensible and the formal, and is itself something by which we make that journey. (This dual nature is confusing, which is why Simmel started with love and politics and art.) We go back and forth between thinking of money as an abstract (and meaningless) measure of absolute value, then assessing a particular object or service in (concrete) monetary terms. Money constrains reality into a monodimensional conception of value, making it graspable for us, the returns us to reality when we are brought to another particular monetary exchange for a good or service.

Playing this powerful role, money orders and regulates our sentiments, as all value systems tend to accrue and be sublimated to it, such that all the potential value wrapped up in money can have monumental and catastrophic effects on the tenor of society:

Alongside the influence of local conditions, it is the stability and reliability of social interaction or, as it were, the consistency of the economic domain that prepares the dissolution of money as a substance. This is illustrated by the fact that money brings about a continually increasing number of effects while it remains itself immobile. The notion that the economic significance of money results simply from its value and the frequency of its circulation at any given time overlooks the powerful effects that money produces through the hope and fear, the desire and anxiety that are associated with it. It radiates these economically important sentiments, as heaven and hell also radiate them, but as pure ideas. The idea of the availability or shortage of money at a given time produces effort or paralysis; and the gold reserves that lie in the bank vaults as cover for their notes demonstrate clearly that the merely psychological representation of money is fully effective. In this instance, money can truly be described as the ‘unmoved mover’.

And, rather presciently, he describes the function of material money, either coin or paper, as basically an archaic residue, not something actually needed for money to function as a symbol. The physical instantiation of money is deceptive, belying its wholly abstract, wholly generic, and wildly diverse function.

Thus, to return to the analogies used previously, while the deepest and most sublime love may be that between two souls, which excludes all carnal desire, so long as such love is unattainable, the sentiment of love will develop most fully where a spiritual relation is complemented and mediated by a close sensual bond. Paradise may fulfil the promise of eternal bliss under conditions in which the consciousness of bliss no longer requires the contrast of opposite emotions, but, as long as we remain human, positive happiness depends upon the contrast with our other experiences of pain, indifference and depression. Thus, although money with no intrinsic value would be the best means of exchange in an ideal social order, until that point is reached the most satisfactory form of money may be that which is bound to a material substance. This condition does not imply a deviation from the persistent trend towards the transformation of money into a purely symbolic representative of its essential function.

The greater the role of money becomes in concentrating values—and this occurs not simply through the increase in its quantity, but through an extension of its function to more and more objects and the consolidation of even more diverse values in this form—the less it will need to be tied to a material substance; for the mechanical sameness and rigidity of a substance will become increasingly inadequate compared with the abundance, mutability and variety of values which are projected upon and consolidated in, the concept of money.

This process might be called the growing spiritualization of money, since it is the essence of mental activity to bring unity out of diversity. In the sensible world, things exist side by side; only in the sphere of the mind are they integrated. The elements of a concept form a unity, as do subject and predicate in a proposition; there is no equivalent in the world of directly perceived phenomena. The organism, as the bridge between matter and mind, is the first step towards such an equivalent; interaction merges its elements and it strives constantly for an unattainable perfect unity. Only in the mind, however, does interaction become real integration. The interaction of exchange brings about a mental unity of values. The spatially extended substance is only a symbol of money, because the disconnectedness of what exists as substance contradicts the nature of money as an abstract representation of interaction. Only to the extent that the material element recedes does money become real money, that is a real integration and a point of unification of interacting elements of value, which only the mind can accomplish.

Instead, money becomes an empty symbolic container for value (any value), pure form.

In the development that I have outlined, money tends towards a point at which, as a pure symbol, it is completely absorbed by its exchange and measuring functions. There are many parallels in the history of thought. Our original, untutored interest in phenomena usually comprehends them as undifferentiated wholes. They confront us as a unity of form and content, and our valuations are bound to the form because it is the form of this specific content, to the content because it is the content of this specific form. In higher stages of development these elements are separated and the function as pure form is appreciated in specific ways. The diverse contents of these forms are often treated as irrelevant. Thus, for instance, we appreciate the religious mood while being indifferent to the dogmatic content. We consider it valuable that this elevation, striving and appeasement of the soul, which is the universal element in the many different historical creeds, should exist. Similarly, an exhibition of strength often elicits a respect which is denied to its consequences.

So while the movement from the particular to the formal grants structure, organization, and “meaning,” it also draws us away from particular individuating features of the particular, so that it threatens eventually to disconnect us from worldly matters (and worldly meaning) altogether. We end up with form and no content, and an attitude of total disinterest. Since money is, more or less, a conduit for exactly this movement, the implications of this disconnection from content will weigh very heavily on Simmel’s further analysis.

Robespierre the Incorruptible, Robespierre the Daemonic

Robespierre in better times (1791)

Robespierre in better times (1791)

I remember many years ago being very surprised to find out that there were people who esteemed Robespierre. Not only esteemed him but idealized him. I’d been raised on the standard account by which Robespierre was a bad guy, not on the order of Stalin or Mao, but indisputably an unsympathetic villain. Seeing him defended was about as surprising as if I’d found out there were fans of Louis XVI or Richard Nixon (little did I know…).

I think Alexander Cockburn’s memoirs were the first place I encountered a positive mention of Robespierre. Eric Hobsbawm’s histories are sympathetic but far more tentative on the matter. But Cockburn had busts of Robespierre and Robespierre’s younger-and-badder lieutenant Saint-Just in his house, and proudly identified with the man who, at least in his mind, was an absolute patriot of the French Revolution and its ideals, executions and all.

I was later surprised again when I discovered that Robespierre-fandom had once been mainstream in the fairly Marxist French historical school in the first half of the 20th century, particularly the giants Albert Mathiez and George Lefebvre. Mathiez especially saluted Robespierre as an unalloyed hero.

The wheel has turned quite a bit since that time, since a lot more people today have read Simon Schama arguing that the whole revolution was rotten from the start (in his bestselling Citizens) than have even heard of Mathiez. Schama will never convince me, since I see very little to his argument that the Old Regime was coming around and would have treated the 99% better had they just been a little bit more patient, but the horrible bloody Revolution was doomed to violence from the start. Schama is tendentious and, more or less, wrong. And if you’re going to be biased, shouldn’t you at least be biased on the side of those who had it rotten, rather than those who lived in luxury while 99.9% of the country worked under them?

Georges Danton

Georges Danton on a good day.

But on the other hand, I remain pretty unsympathetic to Robespierre, even though I find him fascinating as a human being. People tend to oppose the gregarious Danton and the hyperserious Robespierre, but I never much cared for Danton either, who comes off as a charismatic, though well-meaning, buffoon. I suspect I would have found Danton more annoying (and more corruptible) than Robespierre, but Robespierre was far more dangerous. I agree that “Robespierre the Incorruptible” was indeed incorruptible…but I also think that incorruptible people can be pretty scary. Robespierre had some glaring but not appalling personality flaws, like a puritanical obsession with purgative morality and a total lack of humor and self-awareness. These personality flaws were only going to become a problem if circumstances brought out the worst in him. Boy, did circumstances bring out the worst in him.

R. R. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled is an extremely well-written chronicle of the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793-94, as they tried to keep post-Revolutionary France from disintegrating through increasingly draconian methods, eventually resulting in the Terror. Eventually the twelve of the committee succumbed to infighting and. In Palmer’s account, Robespierre and his two closest allies Saint-Just and Couthon were squeezed on both sides when the more moderate technocrats (Carnot, Lindet, Prieur) and the revolutionary ultra-radicals (Billaud, Collot, and Bertrand Barere) abandoned them, which is how Robespierre and Saint-Just got the guillotine while the bloodthirsty Billaud and Collot survived. Unlike the high-minded Robespierre, Billaud and Collot come off as brutally proto-Leninist, while Barere’s mixture of idealism and opportunism defies easy explanation.

Cockburn endorsed Palmer’s book, which is somewhat surprising as Robespierre comes off rather badly. While Robespierre never appears as a murderous maniac, it’s actually more disturbing that a fundamentally nonviolent person would end up consenting to an regime of oppression, censorship, persecution, and executions. The source of Robespierre’s problems wasn’t paranoia either. Paranoia was in the air at the time, with very good reason. I don’t know that Robespierre was any more paranoid than anyone else in his circle, but the collective fear that everything was going to hell exacerbated Robespierre’s pre-existing tendencies to go overboard in his Manicheistic assessments of others. The originating flaw, as Palmer puts it:

Robespierre had the fault of a self-righteous and introverted man. Disagreement with himself he regarded simply as error, and in the face of it he would either withdraw into his own thoughts, or cast doubt on the motives behind the other man’s opinion. He was quick to charge others with the selfish interests of which he felt himself to be free. A concerted action in which he did not share seemed to him to be an intrigue. He had the virtues and the faults of an inquisitor. A lover of mankind, he could not enter with sympathy into the minds of his own neighbors.

Drawing on the equally unyielding Rousseau, who has since served as the founding text for much anti-liberal thought on both left and right, Robespierre smashed the public and private spheres together with a firm equation of Law = Morality = Justice = Goodness, seeing himself as the best arbiter of what fell inside their lines and what most certainly didn’t. The homogeneous totality of Rousseau’s General Will combined very badly the paranoia of the times, since opposing factions could not be loyal but had to be virulent and disagreement quickly turned into treason. Conciliation was therefore defeat. Again, Rousseau’s absolutist philosophy, unlike the far more practical, non-absolutist mainstream of the French Enlightenment, is distinctly unhelpful in such a situation:

Nor were the ideas to be gleaned from Rousseau more suited to encourage conciliation. In the philosophy of the Social Contract the “people” or “nation” is a moral abstraction. It is by nature good; its will is law. It is a solid indivisible thing. That the people might differ among themselves was a thought that Rousseau passed over rather hurriedly. Believers in the Social Contract thus viewed political circumstances in a highly simplified way. All struggles were between the people and something not the people, between the nation and something anti-national and alien. On the one hand was the public interest, self-evident, beyond questioning by an upright man; on the other hand were private interests, selfish, sinister and illegitimate. The followers of Rousseau were in no doubt which side they were on. It is not surprising that they would not only not compromise with conservative interests, but would not even tolerate free discussion among themselves, or have any confidence, when they disagreed, in each others’ motives. Robespierre in the first weeks of the Revolution was already, in his own words, “unmasking the enemies of the country.”

Robespierre stoked such fanaticism in others, which created a nasty feedback loop of encouraging further paranoia and purity, in a story that’s repeated itself many times before and since. (Look at how the Tea Party treats anyone with anything good to say about the Affordable Care Act or Obama, for example.) Character counted more for results, particularly when the judge was Robespierre’s de facto protege Saint-Just:

Saint-Just was a political puritan. He could not willingly work with men of whom he morally disapproved. He judged men more by their motives than by the contributions they might make to a common achievement. He feared that the good cause would be tarnished if dubious characters were allowed to promote it. This was not practical politics.

Saint-Just’s ideas were Robespierre’s ideas sharpened, simplified, exaggerated, schematized and turned into aphorisms. Robespierre had in him a broad streak of average human befuddlement, even mediocrity; Saint-Just was a specialized machine of revolutionary precision. Robespierre denied that Sparta was his model; Saint-Just harped continually on the ancients. Robespierre was self-righteous, Saint-Just more so: “God, protector of innocence and virtue, since you have led me among evil men it is surely to unmask them!” To Robespierre the straight and narrow way was plain enough; to Saint-Just it was terrifyingly obvious: “I think I may say that most political errors come from regarding legislation as a difficult science.” Or more laconically: “Long laws are public calamities.”

Demonizing opposing factions is one thing, but demonizing the People is a real problem, since Robespierre depended on the identity of his will with that of the People. This leaves open the question of what to do when The People do not agree with what you have decided. Robespierre was a great student of the idea of false consciousness before the term had even been coined. Ordinary people, alas, were suckers:

It is reassuring to be told that public opinion was the sole judge of what was in conformity with the law, but Robespierre claimed in the case of Avignon that, since all peoples aspired to be free, any Avignonnais who had not voted for incorporation into France ‘must be deemed oppressed’. Avignon was a local example of a more general problem. The goodness, patience and generosity of the mass of ordinary people meant that they were an easy prey to self-serving hypocrites. It was therefore the duty of the Assembly to ‘raise our fellow citizens’ souls . . . to the level of ideas and feelings required by this great and superb revolution’, Robespierre maintained in an undelivered speech of September 1789.

Robespierre’s problems were the product of what he believed to be his unique grasp of the political situation. The mass of the population meant well but, ‘aussi leger que genereux’, it was continually misled by ‘cowardly libellers’. On 3 March, he suggested sending the latter before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but that was merely striking at the symptoms. ‘Public feeling has lagged behind the Revolution . . . the people still lacks political sense.’ ‘Our enemies have public opinion in their hands.’ There had been sound political reasons for not submitting the fate of the king to a referendum, which would have made the division within the country explosively obvious, but that was not why Robespierre had opposed it. He asserted that ‘simple folk’ would be misled by ‘intriguers’ and that working people would not spare the time to attend the meetings of the primary assemblies. This was an argument, of course, that applied to all forms of democratic election. When, on 13 April, Gensonne’ proposed referring the Girondin-Montagnard quarrel to the electorate, Robespierre denounced such proposals as ‘blasphemies against liberty’.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

So Robespierre, unsurprisingly, had much less sympathy for trade unionism and civil protest once he had assumed dictatorial powers. While Hampson sees this as an outgrowth of his purism, Palmer sees it as an inevitable consequence of being in power:

The Committee, in short, was on the side of production, as most effective governments of whatever social philosophy apparently are. The labor policies of the revolutionary Republic and of the early industrial capitalists had much in common. The Committee punished strikes severely, and regarded agitators among the workmen as criminals at common law.

Nonetheless, Robespierre did want to bring the people along with him, and his rhetoric–and the rhetoric of the revolutionary government which he controlled–became focused on communal unity.

Privation can be met either by acceptance, which leads to Spartanism, or by discontent, which, when exploited for political aims, may lead to revolt. The Committee of Public Safety became increasingly Spartan, lauding the virtues of discipline and sacrifice. The reason was not simply that it was the government in office. “Virtue” was a favorite idea among the more honest Revolutionists; it meant a patriotism blended with a good deal of the old-fashioned morality of unselfishness. Of this quality Robespierre was the almost official spokesman; it was he who had put Virtue in the Revolutionary Calendar.

In the absence of 20th century mechanisms of control, central planning simply came off as inept. Again, much of the failings originated from Robespierre projecting on to The People an idealized vision out of touch with reality.

Saint-Just, like most other middle-class leaders of the Revolution, had almost no real knowledge of the problems of working-class people. He saw an undifferentiated mass of indigent patriots to whom it would be both humane and expedient to give land. He failed to distinguish between those who could use land and those who could not, between able-bodied landless agricultural laborers and the rest of the needy, the small artisans and city wage-earners, the not-quite-landless peasants, the old, the widowed, the orphaned, the crippled.

Increasingly frustrated and impatient, Robespierre charted out a plan to bring the entire populace into the realm of the True and the Good. This is his speech of February 5, 1794, which Palmer calls a milestone. It is pretty damn scary reading, from a man who was evidently unfamiliar with the maxim of “Underpromise and overdeliver.”

Too long, Robespierre began, have we acted in difficult circumstances only from a general concern for public good. We need “an exact theory and precise rules of conduct.”

“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution.

“We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one’s country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an adornment to the liberty that ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.

“We wish to substitute in our country morality for egotism, probity for a mere sense of honor, principle for habit, duty for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of custom, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for good company, merit for intrigue, talent for conceit, truth for show, the charm of happiness for the tedium of pleasure, the grandeur of man for the triviality of grand society, a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched—that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and puerilities of the monarchy.

“We wish in a word to fulfil the course of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy, to absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime. May France, illustrious formerly among peoples of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model to the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe; and in sealing our work with our blood may we ourselves see at least the dawn of universal felicity gleam before us! That is our ambition. That is our aim.”

Maximilien could hardly have made it more clear. Nor could he have shown himself better as a child of the Enlightenment. He wanted a state founded upon morality, and by morality he meant not a sentimental goodheartedness, but the sum total of the qualities which he listed. His program was doubtless utopian; he expected a sudden regeneration of mankind, a complete transformation, seeing in the past no index, except negatively, to the future.”

Robespierre was eagerly coercive in bringing about this change. Again, his Incorruptibility went hand in hand with his self-determined Infallibility. These traits culminated in a very ham-fisted attempt at a deistic public religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, described best by Norman Hampson:

Without consulting his colleagues on the  Committee,  Robespierre now persuaded the docile Assembly to adopt the cult of the Supreme Being, which marked a new stage in his identification of republicanism with morality. Since ‘the sole foundation of civil society is morality’, the prime objective of the enemy was ‘to corrupt public morals’. Crime was now equated with sin and vice versa, which meant that the scope for repression was virtually unlimited. Robespierre’s attempt to implement the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract was accompanied by a tribute to Rousseau whose ‘profound loathing of vice’ had earned him ‘hatred and persecution by his rivals and his false friends’. The parallel was too obvious to need elaborating.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

And with Robespierre being clearly out of touch at this point, trapped more between his ideals and reality than between the people and the government, it’s not surprising that he was unable to defend himself when the Committee broke ranks and turned against him. His defense of himself was a disaster, as Palmer recounts, ensuring that he would be scapegoated for all the Revolution’s excesses in the years immediately following and for many years beyond:

This address, the last Robespierre ever made, was eloquent, profoundly sincere, predominantly truthful. It painted a picture of dissension and intrigue that honeycombed the state. It described the means by which its author was made to seem individually responsible for the worst features of the Terror. It predicted that if the Revolutionary Government should fail a military dictatorship would follow, and France be plunged into a century of political unrest. But the speech was tactically a gigantic blunder. If it expressed Maximilien’s best qualities it unloosed all his worst; and it confirmed the most deadly fears of those who heard it.

Robespierre made his appeal supremely personal. Individualizing himself, he sounded like what the eighteenth century conceived a dictator to be. He gave the impression that no one was his friend, that no one could be trusted; that virtue, the people, the fatherland and the Convention, considered abstractly, were on his side, but that he obtained only calumny, persecution and martyrdom from the actual persons with whom he worked. He threatened right and left, indulgents and exaggerated terrorists, as in the past; but when asked point blank to name the men he accused, he evaded the question.

The immense irony was that Robespierre’s purism made it trivially easy to associate him with any ideological excesses. The ultra-revolutionary radicals who’d teamed up with the moderates to depose Robespierre soon realized that the word of the day was now pragmatism and compromise–and soon enough, weakness, paving the way for Napoleon. In death, Robespierre was now a pariah and dumping ground for all dissatisfactions, the convenient scapegoat for whatever had been going wrong that anyone didn’t like.

But in fact, to the consternation of extremists, 9 Thermidor fundamentally altered the Revolution. The extremists overthrew Robespierre by combining with moderates. They discredited Robespierre by blaming him for the violence of the Terror…To preach terrorism after Thermidor was to expose oneself to suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which above all others had to be avoided. Terrorists of the Year Two identified the Terror with one man, that they might themselves, by appearing peaceable and humane, win the confidence of the moderates. Barère revealed what was going on, writing in self-defense when he was himself accused: “Is his grave not wide enough for us to empty into it all our hatreds?” This was precisely what happened. The living sought a new harmony by agreeing to denounce the dead. And Maximilien Robespierre, who in life could not have stopped the Terror, contributed to its end in his death, by becoming a memory to be execrated and vilified, his grave a dumping ground for others’ hatreds.

Robespierre’s insistence on the incommensurability of virtue, the necessity of the Good in politics, his inability to compromise, his collapse of the personal and the political, his embrace of false consciousness as the condition of most of the public: these all extend the accusation of banausia as I described in Leftism and the Banausic Thinker. Not as ruthless or as cynical as Lenin, Robespierre depicts the revolutionary mindset in a purer form–one that some neo-Jacobins find very attractive. But I do think that like Robespierre and Saint-Just, you have to be drawn to integrity and idealism for its own sake, because it’s not clear from the facts themselves that Robespierre’s particular vision worked out any better than that of more practical politicians, particularly those of the early years of the Assembly, and they certainly resulted in more authorized bloodshed.

On the other hand, I notice a distinct retreat from Robespierre’s rhetoric in his supposed successors, less of a willingness to put forth the sheer gleaming vision that came to Robespierre so naturally. I can understand this retreat as the result of two factors:

  1. Historical lessons that have shown the gleaming vision to be further off than Robespierre believed.
  2. Reluctance to make sweeping accusations of false consciousness toward the populace, as Robespierre did.

Those positive visions can be a little scary. But The Gleaming Vision and False Consciousness are two of the most crucial tools in the Revolutionary’s toolbox. I think that the tepid nature of much current Leftist writing (when it isn’t just disappearing entirely into theory) owes to the lack of a forceful (coercively so) positive future vision, and the complementary near-myopic focus on critique. Radical critique has no fangs in the absence of a vividly better alternative. When Obama was putting forth fairly empty rhetoric of solidarity in 2008, most of what I heard as a concrete alternative, even from Leftist sources, was pretty straightforwardly Liberal/Progressive or Social Democratic. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but that is a problem for the radical left.

Without a Gleaming Vision, and the accusations of False Consciousness to level at those who reject the Gleaming Vision, critique only serves the purpose of establishing internal purity tests, one-upping dialogic opponents, and getting tenure or magazine posts. Allusions to Gleaming Visions remain steadfastly vague, whether you are reading Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein, Silvia Federici, or Antonio Negri. While they are hectoring in their criticism of capitalism’s blatant faults, they are fuzzy on the details of its successor–and thus the need for revolution rather than reform is not clear. Thomas Piketty’s surprisingly modest solutions in Capital in the 21st Centurya global wealth tax, but that’s about it–drastically separate him from the radical crowd. In The Nation, Timothy Shenk half-heartedly carps about Piketty’s incrementalism while making only the fuzziest motions at “a much richer set of possibilities” and “a more promising alternative” for the future. He doesn’t bother to say what they might be. That won’t cut it.

Besides, Shenk, I mention Negri in particular because the books he wrote with Michael Hardt (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) seem to have faded so quickly, the last one published to pretty much no notice. I believe this is precisely because of the limp, vague visions put forward in those books. Wide-ranging in their criticisms but terminally hazy in their jargon-laden biopolitical solutions, Hardt and Negri simply didn’t offer anything for movement members or the public to latch on to. If you are going to lay a claim to daemonic (non-banausic) thought, you have to do better than that. You need to offer a glimpse at Truth. Plato knew that, at least.

Leftism and the Banausic Thinker: From Plato to Verso

This is an essay about defining one’s self as better than the world, as purer than the world. The urge to take your marbles and go home is a very old one, yet its role in art and politics is paradoxical, since taking your marbles and going home would seem to suggest that you will be ineffectual and unremembered. In fact, I think that is what happens most of the time. But the purist’s ability to survive latently in society owes to a peculiar form of elitism. Sometimes the elitism is obvious; other times it hides under a mask of ideology.

Plato and Banausia

In her excellent study Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995), Andrea Wilson Nightingale delves into the various strategies Plato uses to distinguish his fresh new domain, philosophy, from whatever it is that everyone else is doing, which is most certainly not philosophy. Plato is not just talking about poets and sophists here, though they’re definitely on the list of pretenders to the throne, but also others who might claim to be doing philosophy, like Isocrates. Isocrates, either had a very fortunate or unfortunate name, was one of the best-paid philosophers of his time, and the dialogues seem to direct a fair number of barbs his way. Plato makes him the target of a seeming bit of nasty dramatic irony at the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates predicts great, great things for the young Isocrates.

In particular, Plato uses a particular word when Socrates attacks these non-philosophers. They are banausic.

Plato exploits and redirects the rhetoric of banausia–rhetoric which was traditionally used by aristocrats to express their contempt for manual and/or servile labor. Take, for example, the claim found at Symposium 203a, where Socrates says:

“God does not mix with man, but it is through this [daemon] that all intercourse and conversation takes place between the gods and men, whether they are awake or sleeping. And the person who is wise in this regard is a daemonic man, but the person who is wise in any other regard, whether in the realm of arts and sciences or manual labor, is banausic.

The dichotomy drawn here between the “daemonic man” (who is, of course, the philosopher) and the “banausic” individual recurs at Theaetetus 176b-d, where Socrates says:

“God is in no way unjust, but is as just as it is possible to be, and there is nothing more similar to god than the man who becomes as just as possible. It is concerning this activity that a man is revealed as truly clever or else worthless and cowardly. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and virtue in the true sense, and the ignorance of it is manifest folly and viciousness. All other things that appear to be cleverness and wisdom–whether their sphere is politics or the other arts–are vulgar or banausic.

It’s generally held that Greek culture disparaged merchants and laborers in favor of the aristocratic warrior class (see M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, for example). The humiliation, feebleness, and ugliness of cuckolded craftsgod Hephaestus is another indication, in contrast to Athena, who may patronize the crafts but is just as much the patron of warriors. Nightingale claims Plato to have taken that distinction even further: now even true knowledge is no longer the province of the banausic, but only accessible to a very specific elite.

Nightingale summarizes the history of the usage of the term banausic, finding it to be “highly derogatory” in usage by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. But what exactly is it to be banausic? The most common translation is “mechanical” (Levett’s Theaetetus, Allen’s and Nehamas/Woodruff’s Symposium, McDowell’s Theaeteus), though there is also “materialistic” (Howatson’s Symposium). That captures the English sense of the word “banausic” (it is an English word, meaning mundane, rote, or mechanical), but the usages of it in Greek philosophy are specific enough to mean far more than just that. (And arguably, “mechanical” is anachronistic relative to what it suggests to us.)

The associations suggest a few possibilities, in ascending order of extremity:

  1. Banausic thought has to do with automated, rote “know-how” type thought processes, distinct from the refined thought of a philosopher.
  2. Banausic thought is that which is commodified, exchanged, bought and sold, and no better than any other good for sale.
  3. Banausic thought is any thought directed toward a particular practical outcome, any thought that isn’t wholly disinterested and detached from the mortal world, period.

Nightingale quotes Aristotle to the effect that even the crafts aren’t inherently banausic, only if they are done for the sake of trade, and suggests that Plato agreed. Thus her position is that Plato means something more extreme than (1): somewhere between (2) and (3):

Plato, in sum, suggests that the philosopher occupies a disinterested position, since his wisdom is by definition incommensurable with all other “goods”… The philosopher, as it seems, is a mercenary who is no mercenary: an outsider who serves the city free of charge.

Some (like F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Ryle) imply that Plato’s position is almost completely that of (3): that in the face of practical political failure (first in Athens, then in Syracuse), an embittered Plato concluded that any civic engagement by a philosopher, no matter how disinterested, is partly corrupt and banausic. Plato doesn’t explicitly require the philosopher to be a recluse, but the demand not to engage in commerce certainly seems to extend to not working, laboring, or otherwise participating in an economy:

Plato denies that there is any human virtue in work and that certain aspects of it even appear to him to be the antithesis of what is essential in man.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought in the Ancient Greeks

Nice work if you can get it, then.

The restriction on the commodification of philosophy would seem to restrict philosophy to those who can do without money, either by being rich aristocrats like Plato and Aristotle, or living in poverty like Diogenes and the Cynics. The ten years of mathematics Plato wants for the rulers of his ideal city are perfect training in this light, since mathematics was of little occupational value in classical Greece, having never been linked to practical applications. For Plato, mathematics has an appealing character, being full of (seemingly) indisputable truths with (apparently) no practical or commercial value, rendering it immune to the charge of being banausic. Presumably, after you’ve spent ten years doing something of no commercial value, you are sufficiently insulated from commerce to enter into the more marketable realm of philosophy.

Yes, philosophy was more profitable than mathematics in ancient Greece. The sophists were charging huge amounts for their services in how to persuade people, and Isocrates made quite a mint as well. But to clear the bar against banausia, wisdom doesn’t just have to be non-commercial, but also incommensurable, incapable of being perverted or corrupted through political or civic ambitions. (Presumably acceptable goals would be deployment of such wisdom to serve the Good and the True, though exactly what would qualify is hard to specify. By the Laws, at least, Plato was willing to get quite mundane in his prescriptions.) According to Nightingale, Plato’s philosopher must embrace an “outsider” position; he must break free of any contingent social fabric, similar to how Nietzsche sees his ideal man emancipating himself from his surrounding stupidity. It’s not that the philosopher rejects creating all practical results, but that most participation of the world is so toxic as to make philosophical thought impossible.

In Plato’s domain, being an outsider was not a position sought by much of anyone. The polis was so tightly-knit and bereft of privacy that most modern people would find it suffocating. But sometime late in the 18th century,  it became quite popular indeed to declare oneself an outsider, and especially in the United States, this became a tradition and a marker of authenticity. So this produced a new problem, which is how to tell the daemonic outsiders from the banausic outsiders.

Daemonic Art

Plato’s classification prefigures that of the Romantic position of the artist in touch with fundamental Ideas of Beauty and Truth. Thus, Plato wants the artists out because they and their “complicated mimesis” are too much in competition for the title of “Non-Banausic Thinkers,” as one common interpretation goes.

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author, insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality…The history of literature, of each literature, is the history of these unmistakable voices which through the centuries speak to each other and captivate us with the magic of their singularity.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Well, it’s one thing to think these things about yourself, and quite another to be right about them. And the problem of self-classification has never really gone away. I can tell you who I’d put in that skein of real creators, but there is quite literally no way for me to convince you I’m right (except through rhetorical force and force of personality, but I’m talking about actual proof here). This problem of being unable to establish a final authority for what art is truly daemonic and which is merely banausic, apart from mere estimations based on the durability of various works, is a practical marker for separating art from politics and science. Science and politics depend on at least the possibility of final agreement, the sense that there’s some negotiation that will win at least grudging acceptance from almost everybody.

In other words, science and politics are banausic because they depend on the commensuration of different schemata, and the results revise past, supposed solutions into ones that are generally accepted (often grudgingly) to be a bit better. Such negotiation over aesthetic value opens the trap door that causes art to drop into the realm of the banausic. If I permit your criticism to change my opinion of some novel, I’m doing so on my own terms, not for the sake of some practical nicety or some new superior synthesis. If I hold on to the value of one book which the aesthetic synthesis rejects as worthless, that is an acceptable and sensible position in art, rather than a dead-end or a reactionary position as a similar position would be in politics or science (not that it couldn’t be right, potentially–just that the terms of the debate are different). When the zeitgeist dredges up Stefan Zweig and declares that we should all be reading his books, and Michael Hofmann goes on the attack against him and says no, he’s still worthless, it’s a very firm either/or distinction: either Zweig is daemonic or he is banausic, and there’s nothing in between.

Now, it’s exactly such commensuration that makes relative assessment possible. Plato doesn’t think that argument between philosophers and non-philosophers is of much value. The only people who are fit to argue are those who have already secluded themselves from society. So Plato does seem to be making a generalized ad hominem: unless you have taken yourself out of society, you are a banausic thinker, regardless of what you say.

Banausic Politics, False Consciousness

Plato effectively makes a sweeping accusation of false consciousness across all of society. Far more comprehensive than anything Marx put across, Plato says that merely engaging in craft, trade, rhetoric, or politics is sufficient to cut one off from access to truth and justice. He does not say that he is the only person qualified to make such an accusation, but the standards he sets are quite high: you must have no stake in society, you must not trade in society, you must not negotiate with society’s members.

More recent accusations of false consciousness lower the bar a fair bit, but less than it seems. The bogeyman of anti-liberal leftist thought is that which is defined as “neoliberalism”; the term has been so sweepingly used across different political and economic systems that I think it’s pointless to try to define it. Like “(late) capitalism” itself, “neoliberalism” has become, in Hans Blumenberg’s memorable words, “a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world.” As “socialism” has served for the right, “neoliberalism” is now simply the term applied to all that is bad in the world, whether it is laissez-faire libertarianism, corporate welfare, gentrification, or drone warfare. “Neoliberalism” becomes a single, overarching system uniting and enveloping any and all power structures. This goes alongside calls to exempt one’s self from the system altogether, with declarations that democracy offers a false choice, the illusion of freedom, the right to be a slave, and so on and so forth. (Zizek is probably the most famous promulgator of these homilies, but they are quite common.)

With this comes the statement that work in a neoliberal society is demeaning, draining, and corrupting. Indeed it often is, but the Leftist critique is totalizing: the terms of work are such that one cannot escape such degradation even in a relatively comfortable job–that is, unless one ascends to the somewhat amorphous realm of the upper classes, at which point you become a tacit oppressor. Either way, your existence is inauthentic. Neoliberal existence is inauthentic, something from which you must be emancipated. Alternately, if you work a day job and suffer from what used to be called liberal guilt, it is something which mandates self-flagellation.

Those who are making the critique are thus placing themselves in a position similar to Plato’s. Their thought is not up for grabs (except by Verso and Zero, I guess), and they declare themselves immune to charges of collaboration with the ubiquitous neoliberal regime. Ergo, academic positions are very important, for they are some of the very few sanctioned jobs that don’t open one’s self up to charges of banausic thinking, labor organizing being another, more time-consuming one. (Plato would never accept this, of course, as the pursuit of an academic career and salary would already be sufficiently corrupting to make philosophical thought impossible.) The purgative power of “critiques” becomes a self-protecting scheme to ensure that the power of the truth is not diluted. Those who disagree with the critiques are seen to have a vested interest in the system–that is, they are banausic.

Leftism becomes, in this case, one of Mancur Olson’s “latent groups,” which exist only in opposition to a dominant group and do not seek to grow, lest they lose their sense of definition. In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas elaborated on Olson’s latent groups by functionally describing how such a latent, idealist group survives based on three defining factors, which should all sound very familiar to those who’ve traveled in leftist circles:

  1. Weak leadership, owing to the tendency of members to leave or schism over even a minimal ideological or practical disagreement
  2. A strong boundary between members and non-members, maintained through group policing of purity, commitment, and in-group equality
  3. A tacit, shared belief in an evil conspiracy (e.g., neoliberalism) outside the group

The strong boundary is another way of declaring the incommensurability of the group’s values with the values of those outside the group. The group is pure; everyone else is a willing or unwilling victim of the conspiracy. Such a purist community endures (tenuously) via the persistent, though unconscious, reification of the wider conspiracy:

1. C, the belief in conspiracy, is an effect of weak leadership, and strong boundary.
2. C is beneficial in keeping the community, Z, in being.
3. C is unintended by Z so no insulting charge of duplicity stands against the believers.
4. Because of weak leadership, no consensus can be mustered for formulating or applying laws or for punishing deviants. The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled by the strong boundary, which automatically insures that exit will be costly. So only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, C, in outside conspiracy, but C maintains X. These causal links are not perceived.
5. C maintains weak leadership and strong boundary by actually splitting the community or expelling when treachery is suspected, producing a history to make every would-be leader nervous.

Banausia, then, is the conspiracy of society. The more maximally general it is, the better. “Neoliberalism” is one form of such a conspiracy; there is no shortage of others.

But for a self-proclaimed leftist, this latent group attitude is self-defeating: it is the elitism that dare not speak its name. If you are Plato and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, it is at least consistent to reserve the fruits of wisdom for a very select few while secluding yourself from society. If you are Lenin and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, you think you know better than everyone and have no trouble enforcing that belief by violence and dictatorship. If, however, your stated goal is enlightened liberation and growing awareness, the division of thought into one tiny wedge of Truth (accessible to you and your mates) and one gigantic wedge of Banausia (left for everyone else) makes you incapable of interfacing with the world on any terms outside your own narrow, pure argot. And indeed, many Leftist groups are wary of any growth that would threaten their strong boundaries.

The radical activist Saul Alinsky, who certainly got results, was notable for his sheer lack of purity, his indifference to ideological principles beyond some very rough anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethics. That is politics. If, on the other hand, your believe your thought to be incommensurable, and believe the thought of all others to be banausic, then you will view engagement with the toxic heap of neoliberalism as an unalloyed evil–even as you engage with it–and you will sink into the dustbin of history on a mountain of critiques, tweets, tumblrs, and Verso Books.

When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

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:

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