Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Plato's Protagorus & the Drama of the Academy

Plato’s Protagoras is one of the most dramatically rich of the dialogues.  It begins with and encounter between Socrates and “a friend.”  Who is this friend?  Could it be Plato?  The friend opens with a question: “where have you been, Oh Socrates?”  After a little banter concerning Socrates’ love life (Alcibiades.  Was Plato jealous?), Socrates tells the tale. 
He was awoken in the middle of the night by a young man, Hippocrates.  The young man has learned that the famous sophist Protagoras is in town.  As becomes apparent, Hippocrates wants to gain entry to the house of Callias, where Protagoras and a great many other intellectuals are gathered.  He expects (correctly) that Socrates can get him past the door. 
When the two do get inside, we are greeted with a marvelous spectacle.  Protagoras is walking in a circle around a garden, giving a lecture as he walks.  He is followed by a considerable entourage of disciples and fellow travelers, with those in the rear (presumably lower on the totem pole) trying hard to hear what he is saying.  From time to time he reverses course and the entourage parts, allows him to pass, and reforms behind him.  All on its own, that is a marvelous meditation on academic culture.  That is only part of the spectacle. 
In one corner Hippias of Ellis sits “on a high chair” surrounded by his own flock, discussing astronomy.  In a side room Prodicus of Ceos, still in bed, has pulled a third group into his intellectual orbit. 
This spectacle, taken as a whole, reminds me forcefully of Raphael’s School of Athens.  Perhaps Raphael was trying to remind me of the Protagoras.  Philosophers and scientist sort themselves into tribes and parties just as political men do.  There is no avoiding this.  Genuine philosophy, however, always begins by challenging some party line, even if the challenge in turn creates another party line. 
Listening to one of my favorite podcasts recently (Buddhist Geeks), I heard this quote (if I remember it right): philosophers do not seek the truth, they seek peace.  I think that this is right, in the long term.  The philosopher seeks the peace of wisdom, which is settled in knowledge of all the important things.  In the short term, however, (and the short term is still going on) the philosopher makes not peace but war.  He challenges what is settled, agreed upon, what everyone knows or what we, the enlightened, know. 
Socrates’ entry into the conversation breaks up all the order.  Protagoras stops circumambulating.  Hippias gets off his highchair and Prodicus gets out of bed.  That is what philosophy looks like. 

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