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Thursday, May 1, 2014


Charles Pigden teaches philosophy at Otago and is, judging from the picture posted on his site, uncommonly cheerful for a self-professed nihilist.  In response to my report that I was off to teach the Gorgias he posted this comment: 

"I teach the Gorgias too in one of my courses and there is [a] continuing historical puzzle. What did the guy whose profession is often translated as 'beautician' actually DO for his clients? Plato suggests that he made them look buffed, toned and even ripped when in fact they were not, but exactly how did he do this?"

Ever ready to delve into the deeper aspects of Plato's philosophy, herewith my reply [keep in mind that I do not read Greek and know next to nothing about Plato.]  The beautician [or cosmetician, in my translation] is supposed to be making the body appear healthy rather than actually be healthy, corresponding to the sophistical politician who makes the body politic feel good rather than be good.  The Greeks were, of course, very big on working out, and an authentic physical trainer makes one healthy by prescribing rigorous diet and exercise ["no pain no gain."]  Plato's beautician, I have always supposed, fools unhealthy clients into believing that they are healthy, even though they eat fatty foods loaded with salt and do no exercise, by rouging their cheeks to give them a healthy glow or applying tanning creams to make them seem browned when in fact they are sickly pale.

Since even an artfully rouged and tanned slob is still a slob with fat where he should have muscles, this may seem like an unsuccessful analogy, but remember that at least a part of Plato's point is that faux political leaders like Pericles fooled Athens into thinking it was in great spiritual shape when in fact it was being set up for the disaster of the Peloponnesian War.  And my unscientific observation of the follies of the well-to-do suggests that "personal trainers" and "diet consultants" are in fact quite good at fooling their clients into thinking they are actually looking good when they do not.

I first taught the Gorgias not long after the 1960 presidential campaign, in which Kennedy and Nixon staged the first ever televised presidential debate.  Those who heard the debate on radio thought Nixon had won, but those who saw it on television thought Kennedy did better.  The reason was so perfect an illustration of Plato's story in the Gorgias that for years afterward I used it as an example, until students started showing up in class who had never heard of either Kennedy or Nixon.

The point was this:  Kennedy was a very sick man.  He suffered from Addison's Disease, one of the side effects of which is to give the sufferer a deep tan, so he looked great.  Nixon was in perfect health, but he was very thin skinned.  I don't mean he was touchy [he was that too], I mean he had a very thin epidermis, and under the harsh bright lights of early television, he looked as though he had a five o'clock shadow even though he was cleanly shaved.  In addition, Nixon banged his elbow getting out of the car at the station and was in pain.  So Kennedy looked healthy but was not, and Nixon looked unhealthy but was not.

For a young Philosophy Instructor searching for a contemporary illustration of the eternal verities, it does not get any better than that.


Matt said...

remember that at least a part of Plato's point is that faux political leaders like Pericles fooled Athens into thinking it was in great spiritual shape when in fact it was being set up for the disaster of the Peloponnesian War.

Oh, this is very unfair to Pericles, who actually gave very good advice to Athens in the Peloponnesian war- even Thucydides, who was no natural ally of Pericles, came to believe that if the Athenians had stuck with his advice, he would have won. The band that Plato hung out with, of course, the would-be and actual tyrants, lead Athens into disaster at the end of the war. I really don't think there's a better example of how you can't trust a philosopher for actual good advice on politics than Plato.

(As for ancient beauty advice, there is some real, and frankly terrifying, advice in Ovid's writings, often collected with his love poems. It is a few hundred years later, but might still reflect similar practices.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Oh boy, I REALLY am not going to choose sides in this argument! I will be content if I manage to get right what Plato was claiming. I am absolutely not any kind of expert on ancient Athenian affairs. Your general point about philosophers is of course spot on. Since I present Plato in my class as deeply conservative, and a foe of democracy, I am quite happy to allow that he was dead wrong on the facts.

But he sure could write pretty!

Charles Pigden said...

Fake tans I get, make-up I get, but it is hard to see how either of these could make a slob look like an athlete, especially if the slob in question was as lightly clad as the Greeks tended to be, especially in summer.

It may be, of course, that Plato is exaggerating the effectiveness of the beautician's ministrations for rhetorical effect. The contrast he is trying to make is between those with a genuine techne who can do you some real good and those with a 'knack' who only seem to do so. He wants the trainer as an example from the first class so he needs somebody to contrast him with and picks on the beautician even though actual beauticians might not have been much cop at making non-athletes look like athletes.

But I can't help wondering whether there was a specific set of techniques which could somehow make somebody look buffed even if they were not. What could they have been?

If there are any classicists among the readers perhaps they could enlighten us? My colleagues at Otago have nothing to offer but the fake tans.

On a related topic raised by Matt. I haven't been able to find much scholarly stuff on the Thirty and Thrasybullus's counter-coup. Is this because there isn't much evidence to go on apart from what Xenophon and Aristotle have to say about the episode?

I presume Professor Wolff has read I.F Stone's 'The Trial of Socrates'. If not he has a treat in store.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I rather suspect the ancient Athenians did not have any secret techniques for making the unbuffed look buffed. He was just riffing in a brilliant way as a send-up of Gorgias and the rhetoricians. Sorry about that.

I hvae a dim memory of having read the I F Stone many many years ago, but I do not recall a word of it, so maybe I should look at it again.