Saturday, 7 January 2017

Socrates at the Piraeus: Voegelin on Plato

One of the keys to a full and proper understanding of the Platonic dialogues is the setting and the time signatures – the time and the place - given to the work by Plato. In particular, festivals, with their presiding deities, are especially revealing since, in many cases, if not all, the content of the dialogue will be appropriate to the festival and to the god in question. Particular festivals have particular themes, are dedicated to particular deities and are usually centred in particular locations. All of this is carefully crafted by Plato. The dialogues are crafted works of art in which nothing is accidental. If a dialogue takes place at a particular time in a particular place and a particular god or goddess is invoked, mentioned or alluded to, then it is all to a definite purpose, and we then find that the philosophical content of the dialogue is illuminated by the given context. 

There is a tendency among classical scholars and philosophers to ignore the framing of the content and to consider the arguments of a dialogue out of the context in which Plato has placed it. This is always a mistake. A dialogue is a complete package. Nothing is extraneous. Plato provides clues and signals to his meaning, and to how the work ought to be approached, and he does so in many forms, some of them extremely subtle or even cryptic. This is even more the case for modern readers since we are likely to miss signals that ancient readers would have found plain and obvious. For a start, we almost always treat the dialogues of Plato as secular works and see them through a secular lens, when in fact they were, in their time, embedded in the sanctity of Athenian institutions and the Athenian religion, along with other more esoteric institutions such as the Mysteries and the Pythagorean brotherhood. 

This was the subject of the present writers doctoral dissertation where he argued that the Platonic cosmology, especially as found in the dialogue called Timaeus, needs to be read through the lens of the cultus of Athene and that the fact that that dialogue is set on the Panathenaea, the principle festival of the goddess, is of primary significance. We are very likely to misread the dialogue if – as many classical scholars have done and still do – we skip the first five pages and overlook its setting. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, the present author proposes that each of the dialogues of Plato is dedicated to a certain deity and that the first task in reading the dialogue aright is to determine which deity and why.

Such an approach to the dialogues, however, leaves us confronted with a conundrum when it comes to the greatest of all Plato’s works, the Republic. There are clear signals regarding time and place, festival and deity, but it is hard to say how such signals relate to the subject matter of the work itself. It begins with Socrates leaving the city proper and walking the several miles down to the docks at the Piraeus in order to witness a new festival sacred to the goddess Bendis. It is rare for Socrates to venture that far, and the circumstances of him doing so are very carefully constructed and described in some detail by Plato. There is to be a torch race and Socrates is persuaded to stay and it is in this context that he becomes engaged in a discussion regarding justice. It is unclear, though, how this setting – and the Bendidia festival and the goddess Bendis – are related to the subject matter of the work. Bendis is not even an indigenous Athenian deity. She is a Thracian goddess whose cult has been recently incorporated into the city’s religion to appease the immigrant workers resident in the port. The question is: why is the Republic set on the Bendidia and how is the topic of justice related to the goddess Bendis?

Some have supposed that the setting of the dialogue may have been motivated by Plato’s patriotic xenophobia. In that case, he has Socrates go down to the Piraeus and describe the Ideal State – an idealized Athens – in the face of and counter to the influx of foreigners. The festival, then, is ironic: Socrates delivers his account of an Athenian utopia not on an Athenian festival but on a festival sacred to an alien deity as a way of underlining the declining integrity of the Athenian state. This is the explanation offered by those who, like Karl Popper and his followers, regard Plato as a type of proto-Nazi. Such a setting turns the entire dialogue into one long racial slur. This is an unsatisfying explanation on a number of grounds, not least of which is that it would be a clumsy and artless prologue to what is otherwise a masterpiece of subtlety and finesse. Are we really to suppose that Plato had Socrates go down to the Piraeus as a way of taking a cheap shot at the Thracian “wogs” who worked there? Surely there is some more noble design we are overlooking?

The problem lies with the goddess Bendis. We know relatively little about her and her cultus, except the fact that she was assimilated to the Greek goddess Artemis. There are archaeological depictions extant that show her in the attire of the goddess of the hunt, so we know with some certainty that the Greeks (Athenians) regarded her as the Thracian version of Artemis much as they understood the Egyptian goddess Neith as a version of Athene. The assimilation of alien (barbarian) cultures was accomplished in this way, by matching pantheon to pantheon. But how is the Republic and its treatment of justice related to the goddess Artemis? And if it is, why then this (alien) version of Artemis? It is a conundrum that has occupied many readers of the Republic, and for many years it confounded the present writer, convinced as it was that the setting of the work on the Bendidia, with its nocturnal torch race at the Piraeus must be a key to understanding the Republic as a whole. No amount of creative interpretations of Artemis/Bendis helps. It is difficult to find any sense in which the Republic is appropriate to a festival of Artemis/Bendis and how its discussion of justice should be framed by the setting of the Bendidia.

We can only make headway on this problem, then, if we accept that we are missing something important or that our assumptions are incorrect. Reading through the introductory passages of the dialogue once more, we must ask what clues are outstanding? What peculiar and unusual features stand out? The answer to this is the torch race that Socrates says he wants to see. This is why he has uncharacteristically ventured from the city down to the docks. It is an unusual event, a strange spectacle, a torch race on horseback at night. The question becomes, why is this the central rite of the festival and what does this tell us about the new goddess? Once again, the standard comparisons of Bendis with Artemis draw a blank. There is no conceivable way that such a torch race conforms to the classical cultus of Artemis. So this, in that case, must be our problem. Plato’s text gives otherwise unaccountable emphasis to the nocturnal torch race; the Republic begins with it and, on any sensitive reading, we are to keep it in mind while moving through the dialogue. As Socrates discourses on justice we are given the image of the torch race, sacred to the goddess Bendis. This is surely a key.

The difficulty is resolved when we abandon the parallel of Bendis with Artemis and understand, instead, that by other assimilations this Thracian goddess was considered by the Athenians to be a version of Hecate, the underworld goddess, as well. We know this from other archaeological evidence and specifically a temple at the Piraeus. Bendis may well have been understood as the Thracian Diana in some contexts, but the Bendis of the Piraeus seems to have been equated to Hecate. The polytheistic pantheons are complex like that. Local variations are all-important. It seems that the goddess of the Thracian workers of the Piraeus was specifically a goddess of the dark moon and so a parallel not to Artemis but to Hecate. This is why she was honoured by a torch race at night. The torches point to Hecate. Plato’s emphasis on the torch race underlines this. Socrates is curious about the torch race. That is why he has made to journey down to the docks. There is a new festival being instituted, and it is characterized by the spectacle of the torch race which, as Socrates says, is an unusual thing. Plato has given emphasis to the torch race for a reason. Again: no details are superfluous in a Platonic dialogue. Some suppose that this detail is simply to provide a dramatic date for the work, since Athenians would have known what year it was the Bendidia was inaugurated. True enough, this device lends the dialogue historical verisimilitude. It is located at a specific point in time. Plato is always careful to walk the line between history and fiction. But there is surely more at play in this motif. The question becomes: why is the dialogue prefaced by a torch race sacred to Bendis/Hecate? 

Bendis shown in the attire of Artemis, votive stele, Piraeus circa 400BC. Artemis is a moon goddess, but it is more specifically in the aspect of Hecate (sub-lunar) that Bendis is relevant to the Republic of Plato.

* * *

The most intelligent and insightful answer to this question, and along with it the most perspicuous reading of the Republic as a whole, is offered by Eric Voegelin in volume III of Order & History. There can be little doubt that his reading of this issue is correct. It is sensitive to all the right matters, including the mythic framing that is typical of Platonic dialogues. Too many readers of Plato suppose that the mythological motifs are superfluous or – as per Leo Strauss’ often bizarre misreadings – insincere gestures to popular religion. In the case of the Republic, many readers dispense with the prologue and the setting, making nothing of it, and at the same time excise the conclusion, namely the so-called ‘Myth of Er’ with which the dialogue ends. Voegelin, on the other hand, understands perfectly well why the discussion on justice has these particular book-ends at start and finish. Socrates’ journey down to the Piraeus is, as Dr Voegelin has it, a journey into Hades, and so it is framed by the procession sacred to Hecate at the start and the eschatological visions of Er the Armenian at the end. Only a reading of the Republic that gives a full and contextual reason for the whole of the dialogue and all its features, from start to finish, is of any worth. We cannot lop off the start and finish in order to demythologize it and so make it conform to our horizontal and secular assumptions and our impoverished notion of what constitutes philosophy.

As Dr Voegelin says, the key to the Republic is announced in its first word: kateben = I went down. This, as Plato’s contemporary readers would have known very well, is the word Odysseus uses to describe his descent into Hades. Voegelin’s instincts as a reader, sensitive to the mythological keys, are exactly right. He writes:

The first chapter of the Republic sets the dialogue into motion. Its opening passage… assembles symbols that recur in its course. And the first word, kateben (I went down), sounds the great theme that runs through it to its end.

Voegelin gives a lesson in how to read Plato correctly. Far from being incidental and irrelevant to the serious business of political philosophy that constitutes the core of the dialogue, the prologue – like the conclusion – is replete with symbols that are keys to a proper understanding of the dialogue. Socrates’ sojourn down to the Piraeus to see the new rites of Bendis/Hecate is a symbolic journey into the underworld and the discourse on justice that follows must be understood in that context. Herr Voegelin’s account of it is worth reproducing here in full, as follows: 

Socrates walked down the five miles from the town to the harbor. Down went the way from Athens to the sea in space; and down went her way from Marathon to the disaster of the sea power in time. Socrates was a man of his people and participated in its fate. With the people, streaming down on the festive occasion, he went to the Piraeus with its mixed population of citizens and foreigners. For, with the unfolding of Athenian sea power under Pericles, the Piraeus had grown through the influx of foreign traders and workers. The Thracian businessmen, seamen, and harbor workers had brought with them their cult of Bendis. It had been recognized by Athens as a public cult, at least since 429/8, and found adherents among the citi- zens. Cult fraternities of Thracians and citizens had formed and now they had organized a great public festival in honor of Bendis with rival processions.4 Socrates went along to watch the spectacle; and while he found the effort of his co-citizens excellent, the foreigners proved their equals in putting up a dignified public appearance. Athens and Thrace had found their common level in the Piraeus. As a citizen, with due respect for recognized cults, he offered his prayers to the foreign goddess who had come to the polis over the sea—but then he wanted to go back to Athens. At that point, however, he was detained. He had gone down, and now the depth held him as one of them, friendly, to be sure, but with a playful threat of force by superior numbers, and a refusal to listen to his persuasion to let him go (327c). In the depth that held him he embarked on his inquiry; and he used his persuasive powers on his friends, not to let him free to go back to Athens, but to make them follow him to the polis of the Idea. From the depth of the Piraeus the way went, not back to the Athens of Marathon, but forward and upward to the polis built by Socrates with his friends in their souls.

The kateben opens the vista into the symbolism of depth and descent. It recalls the Heraclitian depth of the soul that cannot be measured by any wandering, as well as the Aeschylean dramatic descent that brings up the decision for Dike. But above all it recalls the Homer who lets his Odysseus tell Penelope of the day when “I went down [kateben] to Hades to inquire about the return of myself and my friends” (Od. 23.252–3), and there learned of the measureless toil that still was in store for him and had to be fulfilled to the end (23.249–50).

All of the associations have their function in the Republic, as we shall see, but the Homeric kateben is the one more immediately intended in the construction of the Prologue. For the Piraeus, to which Socrates descends, is a symbol of Hades. The goddess whom he approaches with prayer is the Artemis-Bendis, understood by the Athenians as the chthonian Hecate who attends to the souls on their way to the underworld.5 And the immediately following scene confirms and clarifies the meaning of the symbol insofar as the old Cephalus is moved to his reflections on justice by his impending descent to Hades. For “there,” as the tales (mythoi) go, men must pay what is right in compensation for the wrong they have done “here” (330d–e). To be sure, the interest of Cephalus in justice, while sincere, is not less shallow than his motivation by tales about punishment in Hades; and the old man, when the debate becomes more strenuous, retires to sacrifice and sleep. Nevertheless the little scene illuminates the profounder concern of Socrates, as well as the function of the Piraeus as the Hades that motivates his inquiry into the nature of justice and right order.

The descent of Socrates to Hades-Piraeus in the opening scene of the Prologue balances the descent of Er, the son of Armenius the Pamphylian, to the underworld in the closing scene of the Epilogue. Moreover, Plato underlines the parallel between the underworlds of Socrates and Er by a play with symbols. For the festival of the Piraeus in honor of Bendis is characterized by the equality of the participants. Socrates can find no difference in the quality of the processions; a common level of humanity has been reached by the society of which Socrates is a member. In Hades, in death, again all men are equal before their judge, and Er, the teller of the tale, is a Pamphylian, a man “of all tribes,” an Everyman. In the organization of the dialogue the symbolic byplay on the pamphylism of both the Piraeus and Hades, thus, confirms and strengthens the parallel. At the same time, however, it leads back to the great issue that sets the dialogue moving. For it is the pamphylism of the Piraeus that makes it Hades. The equality of the harbor is the death of Athens; and at least an attempt must be made to find the way up to life.

The Descent formulates a problem and the judgment provides a resolution. In the Descent the human condition appears as existence in Hades, and the question arises: Must man remain in the under- world, or has he the power to ascend from death to life? In the Judgment Plato expresses his conviction of the reality of the power and describes its modus operandi. The Pamphylian myth tells of the dead souls who in afterlife receive reward or punishment according to their conduct in life. The bad souls will go to their suffering below the earth, the good souls to their blessed existence in heaven. After a thousand years they come up, or down, from their abode to the seat of Lachesis at the center of the cosmos, there to draw their lot and to choose their fate for the next period of life. When they are assembled, the Herald of Lachesis steps up to a platform and announces to them the rules governing the proceedings (617d–e):

Ananke’s daughter, the maiden Lachesis, her word: Souls of a day! Beginning of a new cycle, for the mortal race, to end in death!
The daemon will not be allotted to you; but you shall select the daemon. The first by the lot, shall the first select the life to which he will be bound by necessity [Ananke]. Arete has no master; and as a man honors or dishonors her, he will have her increased or diminished. The guilt [aitia] is the chooser’s; God is guiltless [anaitios].

The cosmic law is terse, but its meaning is clear. Plato restates the problem of freedom and guilt, with slight variations of Homeric and Heraclitian symbols. With Homer he shares the aetiological concern. More radically than the poet he declares God, the one God, to be guiltless (anaitios). Divine substance has found its symbol, in the Republic, in the idea of the Agathon. And the Good can cause only good, not evil. The position is an impoverishment of the problem of theodicy, compared with Homer and Aeschylus, who both recog- nized evil that was caused neither by the gods of right order nor by man. And, let us hasten to say, it is not Plato’s last word in the matter either, as we shall see in the analysis of the Statesman and the Laws. Still, in the Republic he insists uncompromisingly that the souls lead the lives they have chosen for themselves. Recalling the Heraclitian B 119, “Character—to man—daemon,” Plato declares the daemon, to whom man is bound in life by necessity, the result of his free choice. For the Arete of the soul has no master; and when man bewails the consequences of his contempt for Arete, he has nobody to blame but himself.

The choice is free. And man has to bear the responsibility for the daemonic necessity of his life. But the choice cannot be wiser or better than the character that makes it. The aetiological speculation on the sources of good and evil has radically eliminated the gods, but the dialectics of freedom and necessity falls now with its full weight on man and his character. Man’s choice of his daemon in the other world is guided by the character he has acquired during his preceding life in this world. And the souls in Hades make odd choices. Those who formerly have led a dubious life, and as a consequence not only have suffered punishment themselves but also have seen the suffering of others, generally are cautious. Those who previously have lived a good life in a well-ordered polis, and participated in Arete from habit rather than from love of wisdom (philosophia), are apt to make foolish choices. They will jump, for instance, at a glittering tyranny and discover too late the evil of the soul in it (619b–620d). This is the great danger in the terrible hour of choice. And in order to reduce, if not to avert, the danger, man in this life should concentrate all his effort on one thing: to find the man who will enable him to distinguish between a worthy and an unworthy life, so that he can make a reasonable choice, with his eyes fixed on the nature of the soul, not diverted by the circumstances and events, pleasant or unpleasant, of a life. He will be able to make the right choice when he can recognize as bad, a manner of life that pulls the soul down and makes it more unjust, and as good, a manner of life that leads the soul upward toward a higher state of justice. When a man goes down to Hades, he must carry with him an adamantine conviction (doxa) that the quality of a life must be judged by its suitability to develop the Arete of justice in the soul (618b–619a).

The souls of the dead choose a life, and with the life the daemon that of necessity goes with it. Into their choice they can put no more wisdom than they have acquired. And on that occasion is revealed, as we have seen, the value of certain types of life. Those who have suffered punishment for the evil they have done, and have gained wisdom through suffering (in the Aeschylean sense), are likely to make a better choice than others who have led a righteous life and were rewarded with heavenly bliss. The relation between Arete and the course of a life is complicated. In the dialogue Socrates must face certain blameless characters who will arouse sympathy. There is old Cephalus, who furnishes an instance of the man who leads a reasonably righteous life and is willing to compensate for the minor offenses he committed by means of his wealth. He represents the “older generation” in a time of crisis, the men who still impress by their character and conduct that has been formed in a better age. The force of tradition and habit keeps them on the narrow path, but they are not righteous by “love of wisdom,” and in a crisis they have nothing to offer to the younger generation, which is already exposed to more corruptive influences. The venerable elder who arouses our sympathy will not lose it on closer inspection, but the sympathy will be tempered by a touch of condescension, if not contempt, for his weakness. For the men of his type are the cause of the sudden vacuum that appears in a critical period with the break of generations. All of a sudden it appears that the older generation has neglected to build the substance of order in the younger men, and an amiable lukewarmness and confusion shifts within a few years into the horrors of social catastrophe. In the next generation, with Polemarchus, the understanding of justice is already reduced to a businessman’s honesty. And it comes almost as a relief when in the sophist Thrasymachus there appears a real man who pleads the cause of injustice with luciferic passion. He at least is articulate, he argues and one can argue with him, and Socrates can come to grips with a problem that remains evasive when represented by respectability and venerable tradition without substance. A pattern, a paradigm of life, thus, is not easy to choose, for the conventional standards of desirability do not apply to the divine substance of order in the soul, to the daemon. Hence, Plato does not offer recipes for moral conduct; and with regard to a right paradigm of life he does not go beyond a hint that in such matters the mean (to meson) is preferable (619a). The point must receive some emphasis because it will recur in the interpretation of Plato’s construction of a right order for the polis, which all too frequently is misunderstood as a recipe for a good constitution...

* * *

Few have written so well on the Republic. The point of this post, finally, is to draw attention to the work of Eric Voegelin and most especially Voegelin as a reader of Plato. Mention was made earlier of Karl Popper: Voegelin is akin to Popper in having devoted his intellectual life to explaining and understanding the roots of XXth century totalitarianism. But whereas Popper offered only a superficial misreading of Plato in order to identify him as the 'father of fascism' in the western Tradition - a slur that has marred Plato's reputation throughout the second half of the XXth century - Voegelin offers a deep and insightful reading that does justice to Plato's foremost position among Western philosophers. In short, Voegelin is a much deeper thinker than Popper. It is a travesty that he is little known while Popper's influence upon post-War intellectuals has, regretably, been extensive. The work of Herr Voegelin is championed by the Eric Voegelin Society, a link to which follows:

* * *


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment