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Sunday, February 15, 2015


It was sixteen degrees when I began my morning walk at 6 a.m. today, but a brisk wind produced a wind chill that Google said was minus one.  I have never been so cold for so long in my life.  I shall stay abed in the morning from now on until the weather moderates.  There are limits to the personal heroism of an eighty-one year old man!  To keep my mind off the cold, I devoted my time on the walk to reflecting on what I have been talking about in my Marx course, and what I will be talking about next Wednesday.  I have been working very hard to get the students to think  carefully about the language that Marx employs in the opening chapters of Capital, and that, I realized as a shivered and walked, is only one example of a larger topic that has interested me for some time, namely, the relationship between what a philosopher says and how he or she says it. 

Most philosophers use a simple, serviceable prose, some more gracefully than others.  I have several times remarked on the extraordinary elegance and transparency of the Treatise of Human Nature and the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.  I feel about Hume's language the way Salieri felt when he heard Mozart's music.  Descartes writes a spare, powerful prose, although I did notice that even I, when translated into French, sound like Descartes, which led me to wonder whether perhaps all philosophers sound like Descartes in French [even Hegel? -- the thought boggles the mind.]

In my experience, only a very small handful of philosophers use language deliberately to convey some aspect of their theories in ways not plainly manifest on the surface.  Let me begin this meditation with a brief example from Thomas Hobbes, one of the great stylists writing in English.  These lines are among the best known and most often quoted in all of political philosophy:

"Therefore, whatever results from a time of war, when every man is enemy to every man, also results from a time when men live with no other security but what their own strength and ingenuity provides them with. In such conditions there is no place for hard work, because there is no assurance that it will yield results; and consequently no cultivation of the earth, no navigation or use of materials that can be imported by sea, no construction of large buildings, no machines for moving things that require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no practical skills, no literature or scholarship, no society; and—worst of all—continual

fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

What Hobbes is asserting is that in the absence of a well-ordered society with a stable government, there is a breakdown of the ordinary mutual expectations and reliances that support our customary economic and social intercourse.  Larger social structures, like central or regional government, cease to function effectively to preserve public order.  Economic activity, which depends crucially on predictable and reliable behavior [the fulfilling of contracts, the paying of bills, the delivering of materials, and so forth], suffers and eventually ceases.  The fabric of society frays and then disintegrates into what Hobbes memorably calls the war of all against all.

Now look at the syntax of the paragraph.  It begins with a complex sentence employing subordinate clauses ["when every man is enemy to every man"] and other syntactic devices that communicate by their formal structure a social situation of mutual relations and subordinations.  In the second sentence, the syntax retreats to a semi-colon, which has the effect of somewhat destroying the interrelations of the different parts of the sentence.  Even this degree of syntactic coordination is then replaced by a series of parallel phrases set off by commas:  "no cultivation ..., no navigation ..., no construction ..., etc."  As the sentence continues, even these phrases grow shorter:  " no practical skills, no literature or scholarship", ending with the ominous phrase, "no society."  Finally, at the end of the paragraph, Hobbes is reduced to nothing more than a series of bare adjectives, lacking even the syntactic complexity of phrases:  " and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

The syntax is a perfect metaphor for the terrible social reality Hobbes is describing.  I venture to say there has never been a more perfect paragraph written by any philosopher with whose works I am familiar.

Let me move on to another example, this one drawn from the writings of a man who has the double distinction of being arguably the greatest philosopher who has ever lived and unarguably the greatest writer among all the philosophers, great or not:  Plato.  As many of you will guess, my example is the Middle Dialogue, the Gorgias.  I have written an extended tutorial on the Gorgias and shan't reprise it here.  Interested readers can find it in my archived essays by following the link to  Suffice it to say that the Dialogue is a series of three exchanges between Socrates and first Gorgias, then his disciple Polus, and then an excitable young man Callicles.

Most philosophical dialogues are no more than counterpoised arguments with names attached -- Philo, Demea, and  Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion or Hylas and Philonus in Berkeley's Three Dialogues.  But Plato accomplishes something truly astonishing.  The personalities of the three interlocutors in the Gorgias are just exactly what we would expect of people setting forth their doctrines -- Gorgias is pompous, self-assured, but basically a decent man who does not fully appreciate the harm his teaching does to unformed minds like that of Polus.  Polus in turn is eager to defend his master but not possessed either of great intellect or of Gorgias' fundamental good sense.  Callicles is excitable, brash, eager for praise, brilliant but too quick to assert paradoxical doctrines ["laws of nature," which to an Athenian of the time would sound like a flat-out contradiction.]  Furthermore, the language Plato puts in their mouths is completely distinctive and just the language that someone of that character expounding that viewpoint would use.  In this way, Plato leads us to reflect on the relation between character and doctrine, something that in another philosopher's prose comes across as flat-footed and lifeless.

I cannot let Plato go without mentioning what I consider the most poignant and beautiful line in all of Philosophy.  It is, of course, from the Gorgias.  Callicles has triumphantly announced his brilliant new doctrine -- justice is the interest of the stronger -- and he impatiently awaits the praise of those listening.  Socrates quietly undertakes to explore this novel teaching, using everyday examples of cobblers and ship builders and herdsmen.  Callicles is deflated by this banausic colloquy, and finally says, in exasperation, "Socrates, you keep saying the same thing."  And Socrates replies, "Yes, Callicles, and in the same way, too."  This is so beautiful that it makes me weep every time I read it.  Callicles is in thrall to what Kierkegaard, twenty-two hundred years later, would call the Aesthetic, a mode of existence that strives above all for novelty.  But Socrates is committed to the search for moral truth, which is eternal and never changes.  So he is content to say the same thing, over and over, and in the same way.

Can I lead my students to begin to read philosophy with greater insight into the relation between what we say and how we say it?  I hope so.



Jerry Fresia said...

Just love it. Brilliant. The aesthetic rules! And do not disturb my circles.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Bravo, Jerry. nolite perturbare circulos meos.

James Camien McGuiggan said...

On Plato's literary style, I wonder if you've read Nehamas' The Art of Living. Briefly, Nehamas spends the first three chapter arguing that Plato uses irony in various ways; one particularly awesomely brilliant way is that he has Socrates use irony to run rings around his interlocutors, but in so doing is himself running rings around his commentators. That is to say, while Socrates is using irony to cruelly mock his interlocutors, Plato is using the same irony to cruelly mock us - even as we laugh 'with' Plato and 'at' those interlocutors whose naivety Plato is through Socrates mocking!

Nehamas claims - and given his erudition I believe him - that the critical tradition has, in two and a half thousand years, singularly failed to notice that they are been mocked as if they were dunderheaded Athenian statesmen. Now if that doesn't make you feel small...

wallyverr said...

Have you seen or heard of the recent book by Arthur Melzer, "Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing”, reviewed for example at

Melzer attempts to substantiate the frequency of esoteric writing in philosophy before the 19th century via detailed examples, and also gives a “beginner’s guide” for reading philosophy. He classifies motives for esoteric writing into defensive, pedagogical, political and protective.

I don’t think one needs to buy the whole Strauss package in order to wonder about this issue. At the other extreme of drinking the undiluted Koolaid, though, there must be the risk of letting any assertion about a text be defended against counterexamples by merely claiming that esoteric writing is present.

This may even apply to Marx; I’ve heard seminar comments that the absence in the 1859 Preface of an explicit focus on “class conflict” (as distinct from the vaguer conflict between forces and relations of production) had a similar motivation.

formerly a wage slave said...

To my ears your words 'moral truth' sounds terribly un-Socratic, suggesting a Kantian distinction between moral and other truths. It is helpful to recall the famous tendency S. had to bring up ordinary crafts, as if whatever applied there applied elsewhere. (And, there, as well, his interlocutors complained.)

formerly a wage slave said...

To be fair, you may only have in mind the difference between Soc. and Plato--that it was only the latter who thought about metaphysics and epistemology. Yet, while acknowledging the legitimacy of that distinction, I still feel a nervousness when anyone speaks of moral truth in the context of discussing Socrates or Plato. It is too easy to import expectations about the nature of moral motivation and, ultimately, to downgrade and distort the claim that all desire is for The Good. I feel that way about otherwise diligent commentators. There is no easy line between interpretation as elaboration and interpretation as imposition. Yet, I do feel that it is easy to bring to Plato notions which are ours, not his.....whether or not you have just done that...........

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, if you do not feel comfortable with the phrase "moral truth," what do you suppose Socrates is saying in that passage? Even without knowing Gr eek, which is of course a serious impediment, I feel confident that Plato had in mind something reasonably significant in that passage.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

WallyVer, I dom not know the Melzaer boomk, I am afraid. The business about the 1859 Preface is, I think, wildly implausible. It would be really hard to argue that Marx was trying to conceal the theme of class struggle or class conflict in his writings! That strikes me as being what the English used to call "silly clever."

mikhail said...

Professor, the translation of the Gorgias I have transposes "things" and "way" in the exchange between Callicles and Socrates. What gives?