Thursday, July 23, 2015

Plato did not have "doctrines"


"First, in his Seventh Letter, Plato denies that the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II, and his pseudointellectual courtiers could have known that about which he is serious (περὶ ὧν ἐγὼ σπουδάζω). They could not have understood it, “For there is no writing of mine about these things, nor will there ever be. For it is in no way a spoken thing like other lessons (ῥητὸν γὰρ οὐδαμῶς ἐστιν ὡς ἄλλα μαθήματα) . . . ” (341c1-6). This means not that Plato’s serious insights are secrets that, perhaps, could be divulged esoterically but, rather, that they are ineffable, impossible to encapsulate in either oral or written speech. Accordingly, we must not expect to find propositional truths about ultimate realities in any Platonic text."

Strauss got this wrong in thinking that the fact Plato noted that he could not express his deepest insights in his dialogues meant that he had some "esoteric" teaching that was too dangerous to reveal. No:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire
One observes its wonders
Constantly filled with desire
One observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders

Or, as another great mystical philosopher wrote: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


  1. Gene, would you say that Plato was a language skeptic? Also, this is the first time that I have heard Wittgenstein be referred to as a mystical philosopher! I have always heard that he was a reductive materialist.

    1. Absolutely not! From Wikipedia:

      "Wittgenstein's faith would undergo developmental transformations over time, much like his philosophical ideas; his relationship with Christianity and religion, in general, for which he professed a sincere and devoted reverence, would eventually flourish. Undoubtedly, amongst other Christian thinkers, Wittgenstein was influenced by St. Augustine, with whom he would occasionally converse in his Philosophical Investigations. Philosophically, Wittgenstein's thought shows fundamental alignment with religious discourse. For example, Wittgenstein would become one of the century's fiercest critics of Scientism.

      With age, his deepening Christianity led to many religious elucidations and clarifications, as he untangled language problems in religion, attacking, for example, the temptation to think of God's existence as a matter of scientific evidence. In 1947, finding it more difficult to work, he wrote, "I have had a letter from an old friend in Austria, a priest. In it he says that he hopes my work will go well, if it should be God's will. Now that is all I want: if it should be God's will."

    2. Wow. I confess to being wholly ignorant of Wittgenstein... I should read more.

  2. Gene, you may well be right on this particular point -- Strauss got this passage in Plato wrong and missed the import of his meaning here. But don't be too hasty in dismissing the broader Straussian thesis about the practice of esoteric writing in general, which you seem to be doing given the scare quotes around "esoteric" and the title of this post. Although Strauss may have made errors about the specific content or interpretation of philosophers' esoteric doctrines, the practice of such writing (and doctrines) absolutely existed. I used to think otherwise, until a recent book called "philosophy between the lines" by Arthur Melzer completely changed my mind. It's one of the most important works of intellectual history to come out in quite some time, IMHO, and a real game changer. I beg you to read it sometime and judge the rather jaw-dropping evidence Melzer marshals for yourself. (and oh what I wouldn't give to see you review it someday! But I won't ask for too much). The reasons for esoteric writing were actually manifold -- some of which I think you would especially appreciate -- and not simply about suppressing "dangerous" ideas.


    1. "But don't be too hasty in dismissing the broader Straussian thesis about the practice of esoteric writing in general..."

      But... I didn't say anything about that broader thesis at all! I am certainly not familiar enough with the area to have any opinion. I would like to read that book, however: thanks for the heads up.

    2. Checked out Melzer: eeh, it looks like he attacks the usual Straussian straw man of "historicism." I don't know, Mike... I'll see if I can find a review outlet.

    3. I will be reviewing the book for the British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

    4. Excellent! I very much look forward to reading it. Will it be behind a paywall? If so, I can probably get to it through one of the subscriptions I have if you'd be so kind as to provide the cite once it's published.


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