The Sophist as Capital

What is a Sophist According to Plato?

I asked you all last week to read Plato’s Sophist, a later dialogue in Plato’s writings concerning the definition of a role in Athenian society – the sophist. I have found a better and easier e-copy than what I provided in the syllabus through the Perseus collection at Tufts University. I will refer to the “section numbers,” I am told that they are called “Stephanus pagination,” as this will help you track the discussion with more ease than me just referring to the dialogue generally. If you click the link above, it’ll take you to Perseus and start you with the first section of this dialogue. Look on the left-hand side and you’ll find the section numbers in a menu. 

Sophist comes as the second in a three-part conversation beginning with the Theaetetus. One could and some do spend their lifetime on Plato and his works, but I won’t trouble you with reading Theaetetus as it is primarily concerned with knowledge though it does lead into discussions of “the good life,” that are continued in Sophist and Statesman (your reading for this week and the third in the series). Sophist, I feel, is a relatively straightforward text once one gets the hang of reading Plato. As a reminder, much of the dialogue is written in a style that includes summaries of the finer points made and rejoinders that should help you track the conversation. As you’ll notice, Socrates does very little talking in both Sophist and Statesman but gets the ball rolling between the primary interlocutors in the dialogue: the Eleatic Stranger (referred to as “the Stranger,” in this post) and Theaetetus, an interlocutor of Socrates’ at the time. Again, it’s difficult to track when this was written and if it really corresponded to the life of Socrates at the time. Plato was Socrates’ student, so it’s kinda odd to think he’d be a fly on the wall for these conversations – dutifully scribbling down the things his master has uttered. 

The Stranger, we gather, is kind of like a visiting scholar, or guest speaker from the town of Elea and is trained in the most current philosophies of his day. He is clearly of the Eleatic School, and is well versed in Parmenides’ method of deduction as well as the Parmenidean arguments concerning the universe, its oneness, its unchanging character and its unity as all things. We see through the dialogue that he employs an argument or two from Parmenides to arrive at a few thoughts concerning the character and role of the sophist in Athens, and much of Parmenides and the paradoxes he introduced recur in Platonic philosophy, and, I believe, the contemporary philosophy of our day through sticky problems in language that don’t take seriously enough process philosophy. I’ll point out a few places of interest before diving into a more sustained analysis of the dialogue but these points shouldn’t be left to the side as they have bearing on much of how ‘we’ interpret and understand ourselves and problems like certainty embedded within political decision-making and discourse. 

Joel and Ethan Cohen aren’t philosophical slouches. Sam Elliot offers some wise words to the Dude (Jeff Bridges) as an unnamed Stranger in The Big Lebowski.

 The Parmenidean argument for a static, unchanging unified field of being that we call the universe is not only logically compelling, but also, and to a degree half-right scientifically. The argument (which you can find above in the links provided) posits the existence of being and the non-existence of non-being through an argument that treats linear, deductive logic as the only path to Truth and eschews perception as only able to generate mere opinion. Parmenides is quite serious about this claim and his philosophical orientation is one of trying to understand the nature of things or Nature itself. In so doing, he rejects inductive reasoning as a method for arriving at truth and this begins a fight between at least three major philosophical schools at the time: the Eleatic School, the followers of Heraclitus – the Heraclitians, and the Atomists – a school of ancient philosophy buried by power (probably Plato’s power) that had already posited the make up of all matter as composed of atoms and their movements. Unfortunately, it seems that Plato (or the Stranger) did not take the Atomists seriously and brushed their natural philosophy aside in favor of engaging the juxtaposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Had he taken the Atomists seriously, we may have publicly understood atoms earlier than we did, but I must leave this matter aside.

Louis C.K., possibly a sophist, arrives at the Parmenedian argument for being at the end of this clip. It is often said that children are the best philosophers and I think he demonstrates why.

Heraclitus takes an opposite route to arriving at Truth, and is famously memmed as asking why one can never step in the same river twice. Why can’t one ever step into the same river? Because it’s always moving. This means that the felt or wished permanence of an object is simply an illusion as all reality is flux. In other words, the Truth about the Real is that it is always changing and this is in stark contrast to Parmenides and his followers. Little has been recovered from Heraclitus or Parmenides and we have their students and writing fragments as well as Platonic dialogues to thank for our civilizational memory of these early disagreements. Socrates, we’ll see, tried to reconcile Parmenides and Heraclitus and we’ll judge whether he was successful when we come to The Republic in a week or two. If you notice, we’re still kinda stuck with the paradoxes they introduce as we grapple with larger problems in the expansion and being of the universe, theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang theory, other questions and issues in particle physics. To say that either Parmenides or Heraclitus, or the Atomists, were ahead of their time is to miss their impact on civilization. In some sense, we might not have “their time,” without them and indeed our notion of “time,” might be different.

Disney Corp.’s Pocahontas distills the disagreement between Parmenides and Heraclitus nicely in song.

I think that the endurance of the problems presented by the disagreements between the three schools above shows the importance of studying and understanding philosophy in the context of politics because it shows politics within the dialogues themselves as well as in inquiry generally. Much of the baulking and squawking concerning the atomists seems to be motivated by the politics of the time as neither naked perception nor logical deduction (the primary philosophical methods at the time) would reveal something like atomism or atomist thinking. The intuitive appeal of Parmenides and Heraclitus, it would seem, is the deciding factor in Plato’s engagement in both Sophist and elsewhere. One of the more interesting things to notice is that the dialogues flip between “God” and “gods” in their discussions. This could be a slip in translation, but it would appear that those taking Eleatic philosophy seriously tend to use “god,” and not “gods.” This could be a form of monotheism based on Parmenides’ arguments for oneness and universality already sweeping over polytheism that might separate the world into different parts ruled by different gods. At any rate, that Eleatic philosophy existed and had been taken seriously by anyone properly educated in the Greek world could give weight to the proliferation of Christianity through Greece and Rome regardless of the official religions at the time because it, following the Abrahamic tradition dating back to the ancient Jews at least, posits a monotheism that recognizes the unity of existence through Yahweh.

It is important to recognize that Parmenides, Heraclitus, and the Atomists were all concerned with Nature, or the field of existence – being – in which humans come to know themselves and others. One can find the discussions of pre-Socratics through the writings of Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras (very cool and probably needs more study in the light of Biosphere/Noosphere debates), Anaxamander, Pythagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Xenophanes as still having something to say about the nature of reality and this is more acute during Socrates’ time. However, and importantly, the discussions being had were concerned with Nature, and we see that most of our thinkers listed above were trying to come up with ways of understanding and interpreting the universe. In this way, they’re considered “Natural philosophers,” as their primary objects of inquiry regarded the movements of the heavens and of “natural” bodies. Much of pre-Socratic philosophy was about getting the metaphysics right and then handing down ways to live based on those postulates. The Pythagoreans, for example, had an ethos based on his mathematical teachings as well as thoughts about the organization of society and politics. Socrates and Plato, however, flip the problem of inquiry on its head and while much of their writings on ethics and politics are subordinate to their discussions of metaphysics and epistemology, they spend considerable ink on more “practical” concerns such as justice, and goodness, how society ought to be organized and what sort of life is worth living. In other words, their inquiries seem to be conditioned by an omnipresent ought floating in the back of their minds as they try to respond to those who came before them while trying to present philosophical advice and edicts to their successors. 

Sophist and to a lesser extent Theateatus arrive at the crux of the discursive shift taking place during the life of Socrates. It concerns how one ought to live in order to be happy and becomes an ever present thought in the mind of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and its conduit is through the state itself as state and subject are brought into alignment through the practice of ethics and the formation of the just constitution. I’ll give you a preview in that the state, as we saw in Crito, is to become a sort of tutor or an instrument that cultivates the main question of ethics at the time – how to lead a good life. Again, in our readings from last week, we saw that this concern and commitment is central for Socrates who, in the end, dies by the pain of his own logic through state ordered suicide by hemlock. How to lead a good life is the primary concern for ethics during antiquity and this is to be accomplished through philosophical inquiry – if one is a philosopher. 

Sophist opens with Socrates posing a question to the Stranger. He asks whether the Eleatics make a distinction between three terms: sophist, philosopher, and statesman. This is a good question in the light of the details above not only because the Stranger is simply from another town that may have different customs, but because the Stranger is also a follower of Parmenides. Presumably, oneness and a static, unchanging unity of being might have trouble parsing out the finer details of living, or categorizing people as having or fulfilling different roles. This concern, however, should be left to the side and the Stranger indulges Socrates who then demands he argue with Theateatus. Much of the argument proceeds by the Stranger leading Theateatus through lines of questioning (as if he hadn’t enough from the day before) that help parse out a bit of reality at a time and he makes a few big cuts into the role and function of the Sophist who is their main target of inquiry. 

Apart from the disagreements between philosophical schools at the time, it seems that there are further disagreements between vocations and disciplines in Athens. Principally, we see a disagreement over “the good life,” and how to live it between the philosophers and their rivals (sometimes, kinda, maybe) the Sophists. The Sophists were a kind of intellectual class tasked with producing arguments and instructing wealthy young Greek males in the art of persuasion – rhetoric. We see their influence today in communications studies, English and language arts, law, politics and business, to say the least. Many people still claim this role as a sort of public persuader and present themselves as experts on many subjects including philosophy, gender religion, art, economics and politics. People like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Al Franken, and Bill Mahr fill a role that could be classified as sophistical and concern themselves with public opinion and, most importantly for any sophist, how to make money from the public opinion. In it’s thinnest distillation, one might consider a sophist as a sort of paid teacher who instructs the young. In this case, I might be a sophist, and we see in Apology that one of Socrates’ best defenses against the accusations of the Sophists is that he accepts very little money and mostly food and good company for his teachings. In this case, and based on my tax bracket and pay-stubs, I am probably not a sophist and could be making more money slinging bullshit and creating controversy rather than pursuing science and philosophy. I can only imagine that Ben Shapiro either does very well for himself, having a law degree from Harvard, or is just a shit lawyer and couldn’t make enough in that field; but he is intellectually descended from Sophists so maybe the practice of sophistry was an inevitable conclusion for him. 

 The Stranger makes a few interesting cuts through the process of division in answering Socrates’ question. You can trace this process as he makes some broad statements that seem to fit with both language and practice. For example, he splits “the arts” into two classifications that he defines functionally – that is, what they do and how they do it: that of productive arts and that of acquisitive arts (Sophist, 219a-221d). Productive arts are practices that produce something from the earth or are otherwise related to creative energies that bring something into being. Depending on your lens (especially if you’re Thomas Kuhn or Michel Foucault or Don Ihde) science could be considered a productive art as worlds of atoms and neutrinos come into being through their instruments and frameworks. For the Stranger, he uses agriculture or metallurgy – casting and milling instruments like eating utensils – as his primary examples of productive arts. He does not think that the Sophist belongs to this camp and seeks a negative definition to distance the sophist from the productive artisan.

The other branch of his division of the arts is that of acquisitive art. To this belongs hunting and angling and other arts that are not concerned with the production of things (the angler, presumably, does not create the fish they “hunt,” although I might problematize that with some readings in ecology later). The sophist, the Stranger believes, is engaged in a sort of acquisitive art having failed to land in the camp of the productive arts. How does he arrive at this definition? He simply observes the behavior of those who might call themselves sophists and makes logical cuts into his perceptions through methods of classification reliant on division. The sophist is a sort of artist, so presumably he fits somewhere. We have but two kinds of arts generally: productive and acquisitive arts. He doesn’t fit into the former, so he must fit into the latter, but what does he “hunt” if he does? 

The Stranger answers: 

“[221d] Stranger

Good gracious! Have we failed to notice that the man is akin to the other man?


Who is akin to whom?


The angler to the sophist.


How so?


They both seem clearly to me to be a sort of hunters…

[222a] Stranger

Now up to that point the sophist and the angler proceed together from the starting-point of acquisitive art.


I think they do.


But they separate at the point of animal-hunting, where the one turns to the sea and rivers and lakes to hunt the animals in those.


To be sure.


But the other turns toward the land and to rivers of a different kind—rivers of wealth and youth, bounteous meadows, as it were—and he intends to coerce the creatures in them…”

Notice that the Stranger articulates hunting, or acquisition generally, as based in coercion. Hunting, for the Stranger, is a coercive act and for the Greeks, and to some today, lying, or misrepresentation of one’s knowledge is an attempt at coercion. The philosopher – according to the Stranger – persuades through a special type of coercion that is the force of reason alone. The use of fallacious arguments is out of bounds for the philosopher but tools of the trade for the Sophist. The Sophist, through the use of fallacious arguments (bad ones that contain logical errors but can slip under the radar in persuasive speech), in other words, engages in the mass coercion of people – particularly wealthy and naive people, for money knowing full well that what they say is merely a representation and not necessarily a truthful one (Sophist. 234b-234e).

What would it look like if Justice was only concerned with the image? Mike Judge might have an answer for us in Idiocracy. But can idiots perceive truth, or are they unable to by definition?

We already have a disagreement over the good life in this dialogue: one between a class of people who believe that their job is to persuade regardless of “the Truth,” and another whose quest is “the Truth,” and who see their jobs as those who spread and nurture it (Sophist. 223b-224d, 233c, 235a). Perhaps the philosophers are deluded and maybe “the Truth,” doesn’t exist, but they believe it does, that they can pursue it, and that it is worth pursuing and once presented they believe it persuasive through the force of reason alone (Sophist 230d-230e, 253e). At some point, the conversation becomes confused and there’s a philosophical breakdown and then a rejoinder through Parmenedian metaphysics. I won’t bore you with much of the details, but the Stranger carries a sustained and interesting conversation concerning the ontological status of falsehood and whether the false could exist in the universe of oneness argued for by Parmenides. It’s an interesting question, but the Stranger eventually creates a special class of things through some tricky logic that can be considered false but his definition seems to be reliant on some sort of correspondence between a presented image and what it’s supposed to represent (Sophist. 253c-261b). There are sticky debates as to the nature of Truth, so I want to be careful in pointing out the above to you, but the above seems reliable. 

After a tour of Eleatic philosophy, the reader is treated to a more concrete rejoinder concerning the nature of the Sophist. The Sophist, says the Stranger, is a sort of image maker, someone who presents a self-brand as an expert in something, and may be, but doesn’t care about whether they present a “true” representation (Sophist. 264e-267a). We see that the Sophist does this because he hunts the young, naive and wealthy as his quarry but ensnares his victims through the deployment of false representations and chiefly, a representation of himself as an expert (Sophist. 267a-267c). The content of expertise is left to the side in their conversation and it’s not clear how one “becomes” an expert in the Stranger’s eyes, but it seems, quite conveniently, to pursue inquiry through philosophical reflection and conversation. That is, through an excision of one’s malignant beliefs about something – reality, and all its components – to realize one’s ignorance.

Kill the sophist and the image is what survives.

The Sophist is never ignorant of anything, so says the Stranger. He is constantly staging his knowledge for the capture of money and the imagination. In this way, his art concerns that of the fantastic (fantastic in this sense as producing or emanating from fantasy or a sort of entertainment) (Sophist. 267a-267c). Sophistry imitates knowledge, and is considered a mimetic art by the Stranger and this complicates his definition further because it would appear as if making appearances, or mimetic images is a sort of production. If that’s the case, then how does the Sophist belong to the acquisitive arts and not the productive arts? It is because he makes falsehoods through his images. Nothing of any real meaning stands behind his representations as he feigns knowledge and expertise through his extractive enterprise. In this light, the Sophist is a sort of bewitching parasite – an incubus or succubus (today, at least) of sorts – that latches onto money or power and draws as much as it can from its host (Sophist. 268b-268d). The Stranger says: 


Then shall we call one the simple imitator and the other the dissembling imitator?…



I am considering, and I think I can see two classes. I see one who can dissemble in long speeches in public before a multitude, and the other who does it in private in short speeches and forces the person who converses with him to contradict himself.


You are quite right.


And what name shall we give to him who makes the longer speeches? Statesman or popular orator?


Popular orator.


And what shall we call the other? Philosopher or sophist?


We cannot very well call him philosopher, since by our hypothesis [268c] he is ignorant; but since he is all imitator of the philosopher, he will evidently have a name derived from his, and I think I am sure at last that we must truly call him the absolutely real and actual sophist. [268d] of the image-making art, and is not divine, but human, and has been defined in arguments as the juggling part of productive activity—he who says that the true sophist is of this descent and blood will, in my opinion, speak the exact truth.”

There you have it. The Sophist is a professional bullshit artist and I know you can find many of those today. But what distinguishes the Sophist from the Statesman? And what of the Statesman from the Philosopher? The philosopher is that seeker of truth, a practitioner in the sweet science of self-pugilism and a knower, or discoverer of ignorance. The Sophist, in the word of the Stranger “runs away into the darkness of not-being, feeling his way in it by practice, and is hard to discern on account of the darkness of the place.” (Sophist. 254a)  

We also need a rejoinder at this point in our course. You’ll see above that the Sophist is an image-maker in the sense of a false-representer of knowledge. He does this to draw in capital and both lives on and builds his life in the image of capital. As you may recall from your reading in Marx, capital can go through transmutation and can materialize in different forms. One of those is that of an instrument (Marx, GI, p.3) an impersonal instrument of production. The Stranger makes an interesting remark regarding the production of “fantastic” art [you’ll remember from above that “fantastic” here does not mean good, but more of an untruthful spectacle or entertainment]: 


One kind is that produced by instruments, the other that in which the producer of the appearance offers himself as the instrument.


What do you mean?


When anyone, by employing his own person as his instrument, makes his own figure or voice seem similar to yours, that kind of fantastic art is called mimetic. (Sophist. 267a)
Recall also that Thucydides named the establishment, plunder and frustration of capital as one of the principal reasons for the Peloponnesian War. Further, recall that Marx says the formation of capital is related to and springs forth from settled society (Marx, GI, p.5) and further, that capital can be considered an agent and takes specific (read particular) embodiments (Marx, GI, p.11). Taking together the Stranger, Thucydides and Marx, we may assert that the Sophist is a sort of embodiment of capital that draws in, ensnares, and produces more capital through persuasion and is not at all concerned with “the Truth,” but the production of discourse within society for personal gain (Marx, GI, p.3, 5, 11; Sophist, 245a, 267a, 268b-268d; Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1). To that end, those who project and protect a self-brand where they pretend to be experts on anything and everything are instantiations of capital that have been with us since antiquity – the Sophists. The best way to stop them (they’ll kill philosophers when given the chance as they did with Socrates!) might be to tune them out, and to that you’ll see that I’ve not included their videos above.

The song playing is called “Dead Flowers” and is sung by Townes Van Zandt.

The Good and the Philosopher’s Life

Euthyphro, Apology and Crito (8/31/20 – 9/4/20)

This week marked our course recalibration to the study of ancient philosophy, politics and society. We will do a series of dives into some of the classic texts from the ancient Greeks and Romans. We’ll examine conceptions of the good life and how this was woven into the political thought of the time through that prism. Specifically, we begin with differing conceptions of the good life emblematic of a tripartite disagreement still with Western Civilization. We begin with a fight between a professional class of orators, rhetoricians, speakers and persuaders – the sophists – and the lovers of wisdom, seekers of truth, and noted ascetics, the philosophers. Their subject of disagreement is of fundamental importance to both Athenian society and our own. It concerns large questions such as “what is the good,” and “how ought we live our lives?” These questions are vital to understanding political organization at the time as conceptions of justice are grounded in disagreements over the construction of a moral-political ethos – a way of living – debated between the philosophers and sophists. At bottom is a disagreement over the use of force and social violence through the powers of language and representation of knowledge. Should people and society listen to the voice of reason alone and can people and their institutions be trusted to abide by reason? Should the most persuasive argument carry the day, even if it resorts to fallacious reasoning and trickery? These are the questions considered in your reading this week, whether consciously stated or not.

Plato is one of the most important figures in Western intellectual history and has enjoyed an enduring presence over our thoughts, actions and organization with writings dating back to 380 BCE. We’ll see that his philosophy is far from cut and dry and that it is concerned with, among other things, the just state and the good life.

We open our discussion with Socrates. He is considered widely as the father of Western philosophy despite the long history of enquiry that preceded him. He is a master of the Reductio ad Absurdum argument form and routinely pesters people of high standing in Athens for definitions of terms in their fields of study. Socrates is not a good looking man – already a problem for Athenians – he’s not wealthy but has a lot of wealthy friends, and he spends his time, we gather, in the agora discussing philosophical matters such as the nature of truth, nature herself, morality, justice, social organization, reality, knowledge, mathematics, beauty, memory, and logic. He has already built a reputation for himself within Athens, and is somewhere around 70 years old when we find him in Euthyphro

Scholars know about Socrates and his life through the works of his student, Plato. Plato is a wealthy disciple of Socrates’ and comes from Athenian high society. Socrates was not fond of writing anything down and it is Plato who gives us the dialogues we read. There is disagreement over the reality presented in Plato’s dialogues and this has led to interpretive battles within the academic community over whether some of the people – Socrates notably – actually existed. Regardless, we can read Plato through Socrates most of the time, and it may be that Plato is simply using his characters as mouthpieces. It is fun to wonder about these details lost to history, but I will leave them aside here. We’re going to read a few dialogues that flesh out and address the disagreements between philosophers and sophists and the dialogic style is something with which the contemporary philosophy student might be unfamiliar.

There’s an old philosophy joke (most of them are ancient) that goes something like this: How many people does it take to do philosophy? Two. One to do it and the other to say “Yes, Socrates. Of course Socrates.” Silly as it is, this highlights a point or two worth mentioning when approaching Plato’s dialogues. 

Socrates is Plato’s hero in much of his writings. He’s the archetypical philosopher wandering around and upsetting powerful Athenians by exposing their ignorance in the subjects where they are publicly expert. Socrates is also a war veteran having fought in the Peloponnesian War for Athens, and a trained sculptor and mason. He has, we gather, a family though little mention is made of them in our reading this week aside from Apology and Crito. We gather from this week’s readings that Socrates is attempting to fulfill a quest in his life given to him by the Oracle at Delphi – a soothsayer and an important player in Athenian society. The Oracle has made the claim that Socrates is the wisest man in Athens. In typical fashion, Socrates disagrees and claims that he is not wise – that he is ignorant – and he sets himself to the task of proving the Oracle wrong. He does this by questioning powerful Athenians – sophists, poets and statesmen alike – on broad topics such as “What is the good life,” and “How ought society be organized to produce a just one?” These questions span many sectors of Athenian life at the time, and most of the dialogues we have from almost 400 years before the emergence of Christianity are conversations Socrates supposedly had with supposed experts on their subjects. 

The style of a dialogue can be confusing for fixing philosophical and theoretical interpretation. Taking a wider view and trying to see what the conversation is about can be difficult, but is often the best way to approach reading these things. Additionally, grabbing information about the dialogue under consideration can be helpful and one can usually get away with a good encyclopedia entry for a fuller understanding of the topics under consideration. Another way (and one that should be combined with almost any other method) is to look for bigger blocks of text within the dialogues themselves and carefully unpack them as they are usually full of philosophical exegesis. Apology has very little dialogue in it, so finding the important bits can be harder than usual, but it is forgivingly short and a good portion of it is less the philosophical discussion and more about Athenian society and Socrates’ life. Crito is also relatively straightforward and brief but you’ll notice Socrates’ argumentative style there as well as in Euthyphro. As above, Socrates is a master of a style of argument called Reductio ad Absurdum – to reduce to absurdity – and this style is not only powerful, philosophically speaking, but also frustratingly funny to read.

Sometimes it will appear as if Socrates is leading his interlocutors in a circle. Most of the time, this is not the case as he tries to get them to generate a contradiction within their own reasoning. The example above is a clip from Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. The film depicts a reality closer to home than is comfortable, however, it is instructive in fallcious reasoning. Above, displays a circular argument regarding a fictional Gatorade-type beverage, Brawndo, the idiots have been using to water their crops. Luke Wilson, who plays the smartest man in the world, presses the other characters for a definition only to find circular reasoning. The logic displayed by the idiots shows a fallacy in reasoning called “Begging the question,” and shows both how question-begging is animated and that we as a society are drifting closer to idiocracy – the rule of idiots – because the people on the TV, (and in academia!) misapply “begging the question,” or “begs the question,” almost every time they employ the description.

You’ll find that Socrates routinely frustrates and pesters his interlocutors with questions. Most of his discussants are recognized experts in Athenian society and Euthyphro – the subject and title of the dialogue – is a poet of high standing in Athens. Poets are who you went to to understand questions pertaining to the gods. A polythesistic society at the time, Athens had many gods – their patron being Athena, goddess of war and naval expertise – and relied on interpretations of poetry that contained the gods and their exploits. One only need consider The Odyssey by Homer to see how the gods were woven into the fabric of Athenian reality. Socrates is on his way to court – open court composed of judges and jurors within an amphitheatre populated by Athenian citizens. “Citizen,” here, is reserved for landowning males who are the Head of the Household. The Household is more than it is today, and refers to what we might recognize as a working farm or some other type of homestead directly linked to an agrarian economy. We see in Apology that they are the jurors at Socrates’ trial and vote on his fate. 

Socrates strikes up a conversation with Euthyphro who is also visiting court that day to accuse his father of murder. Agast, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain his decision and both come to the understanding that Euthyphro is committed to his father’s condemnation and possible execution as an act of piety – a religiously faithful and devoted act related to the will of the gods themselves. Piety, here is in the orbit of justice and one can see how the two overlap and intersect in Athenian society. Notably, Euthyphro believes that in bringing the attention of the court to his father’s manslaughter of a serf he is doing a justice to both Athens and to the gods themselves. It seems almost as if Euthyphro – so convinced of his pious action – is performing a duty as a divine command. In a subtle twist of Platonic irony, Socrates, himself in trouble for following the wishes of the Oracle (a divine commander), meets Euthyphro outside of court and begins pestering him for a definition of the pious, or piety more generally. 

Euthyphro attempts to define piety three times throughout the dialogue and the dialogue itself ends in aporia – philosophical frustration and confusion typified by throwing ones hands up in the air and shouting “agree to disagree,” or “it is what it is,” and then walking off or changing the subject. You can see this in the text rather clearly and it exemplifies the Reductio argument employed by Socrates. Reductios go something like this: Assume your interlocutor is right and get them to define the thing under discussion (you’ll see Socrates do this almost every time you read him). Then probe your opponent for further elaboration by trying to draw out inferences from their definition (if piety is X, then we can infer Y), and get them to agree to your inferences or elaborations. Go through this process until you get them to generate a contradiction or an otherwise unpalatable conclusion. Then show them that they have contradicted themselves, accuse them of putting forward an invalid definition of the thing you’ve asked them to define, and pester them for another definition. 

Philosopher, Dan Dennett speaks to the Reductio as part of the philosopher’s toolbox that has wide application in the sciences.

Socrates leads Euthyphro through at least three reductios throughout the course of the dialogue. If you notice, Euthyphro becomes increasingly unsettled and frustrated with Socrates throughout the dialogue. Reductios are sometimes called “indirect arguments” and one can readily see why in Euthyphro. Socrates never puts forward his own definition of piety though you may be able to detect that he disagrees with Euthyphro. He is indirectly unsettling Euthyphro’s expertise on piety, the thing he’s supposed to understand better than most in Athens and this is shaking Euthyphro to his core because he’s at court to condemn his father for an impious act! In this way, Socrates has quietly accused Euthyphro of impiety, or, at the very least, acting without properly understanding what grounds his action. Socrates, in many ways, is concerned with what we’d call epistemology – the study of knowledge or knowing – and his approach to epistemology involves publicly embarrassing people of high standing by unseating their “solid” understandings of things through reductios

Knowing one’s limits through understanding one’s ignorance is the core of Socrates’ quest and he considers his role within Athenian society as a gadfly – an annoying insect that impels larger creatures to action. He makes this clear in Apology as he is addressing the court and dealing with his accusers. Again, in a funny twist, apology here, means “defense,” and Socrates is supposed to be defending himself from the accusations that he is a corruptor of the youth and makes the weaker arguments appear the stronger (read: he uses reductios to make important people look like ignorant assholes), and that he worships false gods, or is just generally impious. Stringing together Euthyphro and Apology paints a picture that shows his accusers are close enough to the reality of his behavior to warrant concern from the court. Socrates is unapologetic for his behavior and flings his own accusations against his accusers whom he believes are under the employ of three powerful sectors of Athenian society associated with sophists and the practice of sophistry. 

Sophists, as we’ll see, are professional orators or debaters – akin to today’s lawyers – who could be bought (at no small expense) to defend someone publicly, or instruct the youth in rhetoric. They are not concerned with a search for truth, as Socrates is, but about “winning” the argument – that is, garnering the public will. Socrates is and has been fighting the Sophists over their picture of reality and we’ll see how they conceive the good life and public service throughout the course. Here, however, in open court and in front of the masses Socrates loses.

His accusers carry the day in Apology and Socrates is asked what he believes his punishment should be for his crimes. He claims that he has done and is nothing more than a public servant to Athens. He loves his city and has fought for her in battle and has tried to do nothing more than develop her philosophically. For these services he insists that his punishment should be living in the Prytaneum – the Hall of Heroes in Athens – where he would be cared for in his old age. The court rejects this proposal and orders a hefty fine, exile or death. 

Despite Plato’s presence at the trial and his wealth, he is unable to raise the fine necessary to free his teacher. The citizens of Athenian democracy have spoken, and Socrates must choose either to live in exile – never to return to his home and the city he loves – or to drink hemlock and end his life by state ordered suicide. He chooses hemlock and is locked away to await death. It would seem that the Sophists have won the final argument, but Socrates is not finished discussing goodness or how one ought to live and Crito elaborates some of these notions.

Rick Roderick lectures on the philosophical pursuit of knowledge and the life and death of Socrates. Please keep “knowledge” and “fact” separate in your minds. The quest for knowledge and truth may be different from fact and science.

The unexamined life is not a life worth living. Socrates is convinced of that maxim and cannot do anything but search for truth. He does not, so he says, enter into debate merely to win the argument and show his cleverness. His project is to examine every facet of life and the living and subject it to rigorous critique. He is interested in producing liveable knowledge about things generally construed such that one can understand one’s place in the universe. His life is not simply a series of motions repeated for the sake of living in the humdrum of the day but a personal quest for wisdom. The Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers we examine in this course do not, generally, make a separation between the study of ethics and the study of politics. To them, a personal ethic, or ethos is a way of living to produce a happy and good person and this person fits into the patchwork of society thus influencing the whole. Perhaps ironically, Socrates has been on a quest for goodness, and has tried to live his life in accordance with his mission handed down from the Oracle. This transformed him from a former soldier and sculptor (he claims he is descended from Daedalus) into a philosopher-as-public-servant, as he went about Athens agitating the powerful who would lead people astray with their false knowledge and sophistry for the sake of power and wealth. Apology shows that Athens was convinced by sophistry to condemn a man to death who claimed to have loved them dearly. Crito, I think, shows the depth of Socrates’ love for Athens and his commitment to living in accordance with reason itself in the quest for a good life. 

Crito opens in the prison chamber where Socrates’ is inturned. Crito, a friend and student of Socrates’ (many Platonic dialogues are named after Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue) has bribed the jailor for Socrates’ freedom and has planned an escape for him into exile. Depending on who you read, the conversation between Socrates and Crito is either just the two of them, or in front of a larger group of friends who are supposed to aid Socrates in his escape to Thessaly –  another region and city in ancient Greece. Crtio implores Socrates to leave and save his own skin as the court was clearly in error in their condemnation but Socrates refuses on the grounds that his exile would not be a good and just action.

Socrates reasons that Athens has given him everything in his life. He thinks of the State – the governing apparatus for our purposes here – as his alma mater (his generous mother) and owes his existence to Athens. His children and wife have benefitted from living in Athens and for him, there is no other city. He is loyal to her citizens, he has fought as a soldier and served as a senator for his district in her interests and the interest of its citizens. He cannot imagine living anywhere else in disgrace and refuses to live outside of the wishes of the city that made him. It wishes him destroyed and he accepts his fate on the grounds that to live and die by her hand concludes his debt to her and is preferable than defying the wishes of his generous mother. This may, again, produce another irony for us, in that we will see that Socrates (Plato most probably) was distrusting of democracy and had problems understanding whether it would produce justice and goodness in its organization. However, in Crito, Socrates is resolute. He will not bring his life into contradiction with his philosophy and believes, as a matter of living a good life, he must not show himself to be an opportunistic sophist and must obey the wishes of the Athenians. He drinks hemlock (again depending on the translation) in the fulfillment of a just and good life.

There are a few troubling things about the series of dialogues we read for this post. One, it shows that the philosopher may never be accepted into society as their role of critic. Two, that reason does not always carry the day and sophistry is a powerful tool for directing the will of the masses; and three, that the philosopher – the lover of wisdom – must endure the burdens above if they pursue philosophy as a matter of praxis, or as an ethos. Socrates puts forward a quiet social contract theory in Crito, mostly basing his argument for why he should obey the State within the notion of tacit agreement and participation. We could have pressed Socrates, if we had been there for an explanation of why he should listen to the dictates of an unjust state – one that allows false witness to murder the innocent – but the message from Socrates is clear. To live any other way would be to live his life in a self-contradictory limbo and to live outside of the good life and thus to live unjustly. 
We will see the disagreements over the just state and the good life in the coming weeks. Philosophers, sophists and statesmen alike are all interested in the intersection of these questions and they make a deep connection between personal morality and a moral social organization. The disagreements had in ancient Greece are with us today as we try to interpret our changing worlds and how we fit in them, and these perennial matters cannot be ignored by the student of politics. Despite so-called realist attempts to distance the functions of state from morality (Waltz or Morgenthau for example), this division may not hold firm under the weight of philosophical discussion and the search for Truth. Truth, as we will see, is deeply connected to the concept of state and the good life in the mind of the philosopher and their disagreements with the sophists will be repeated to our time. 

Thucydides and Marx: Capital in Conquest

I am using the Prometheus Books edition of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides translated by Richard Crawley. I will refer to The German Ideology which includes the “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” and “Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Striner” as (Marx, GI) throughout this post. I will refer to Thucydides as such throughout. My edition of Marx in Chicago citation format is: Marx, Karl. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.  

The aim of this introductory essay is to connect two thinkers in time. They are consumed by the problems of their individual times but share a concern for the problems of civilization. Both come to understand themselves seated within the great material fabric of human behavior through their technologically textured lifeworlds, and both are concerned with the growth and function of Capital. Karl Marx, the author I asked you all to read this week, is a figurehead, if not the figurehead, of the scientific study of Capital and its effects writ large. Thucydides – a famed historian, trailblazer and general – I argue, is a voice in the history Capital within his seminal The History of the Peloponnesian War

We attempt to ground definitions with empirical facts in our class. This is a common practice within political theory as we try and work our way through the broader world of political phenomena and the human experience. Political theorists are not a lone voice in social science and are joined by a menagerie of other fields and disciplines. The empirical sciences, depending on one’s framework, can be mobilized to support an argument – or, in some cases, serve as a model for theorizing, but they are not the sole authority on the human experience or humans-in-the-world. The humanities, as they are known, include disciplines such as English literature, cinema, language studies, and, for our purposes in this essay, history. 

When discussing the social sciences we can separate domains of inquiry not only by discipline, such as political science vs. economics, but also speciate disciplines into fields. The field with which we concern ourselves is the nebulous field of political theory. Political theory, we shall see, often has difficulty staying put and policing its own borders. The fun of political theory, and of political science generally speaking, is its widespread theoretical and methodological applicability to the study of humans-in-the-world per se; or, more generally, what one might call “social phenomena.” I have difficulty with pigeonholing political science as concerned solely with “social” or “political” phenomena because the study of politics has widened in recent decades with the further formalization of subfields to include the study of how phenomena manifest in human lifeworlds that are distinctly nonhuman, and would more properly belong to the conceptual constellations concerned with the study of “nature.” I won’t be at length discussing the finer points of these conceptual divisions, but part of the political theorist’s job, as a person of scientific mind, is to investigate the emergence of phenomena and offer explanations for their emergence. This is not their sole duty, of course, but one can imagine that the emergence of phenomena – say COVID-19 – and its political effects might complicate neat conceptual divisions that position separations between something called “Nature” and something called “Society” or “Politics.” The political theorist can sit at the interstices of Nature and Society and recognize that an economic slowdown, or recession, may have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations who do not regularly benefit from the fruits of economic progress. These considerations can take the theorist from the realm of “Nature,” such as the emergence of a non-human actor, read COVID-19, to the “Social,” by studying how politics, or the acts of politicking are connected to the emergence of a novel virus that has disrupted global economies characterized by the flow of capital. In this way, the political theorist seeks a correct description of the phenomenon under consideration through a correct description of its conditions of emergence. 

Standards of correctness are often measured against the strength of one’s theoretical and methodological frameworks. The difference between the two, for our purposes, is that the former postulates the existence of specific entities deemed as having evaluative significance for the study of some phenomenon; and the latter is about preserving the logical and scientific validity of investigations concerning that phenomenon. In other words, both theory and methodology play important roles in the construction of facts, and, depending on your framework, one phenomenon may look one way to you and another to your partner. Methodologies are quietly considered in this course, but we are less concerned with how someone arrived at a theoretical postulate – as we will read many authors through a materialist lens – and more so at why they believe their theoretical postulate is a correct description of something-in-the-world. 

 Say you and your friend are looking at an object – a vase maybe with flowers in it. You are wearing blue colored glasses, and your friend is wearing rose colored glasses. I ask you both for detailed descriptions of the object in front of you. Both of you tell me about the vase, the flowers, ect.,. I ask you how both of you arrived at your description of the object and you both tell me that you simply looked at it (neither of you bothered to smell, taste, touch, or listen to the object in front of you, you simply carried on like occulocentric technoscientists). Methodologically speaking, then, you both executed similar investigations to the point that they should be comparable and we should be able to arrive at a consensus that the thing in front of you both is a vase with flowers in it. However, the key differences between your descriptions are the color of the flowers and of the vase and whatever else might be associated with it. In this circumstance, with no one to arbitrate and tell us “how things really are,” we find ourselves in an antimony – a case in which we have equally good and compelling descriptions of things that may be the case but share incompatible frameworks; one sees the world through rose colored glasses, the other through blue. 

At this point we might appeal to a theory or theoretical language to help us out of this disagreement. Your friend may have a theoretical framework in which all objects have a rose tint to them and so, they have surmised, all that exists that they know of, is rose colored. You, on the other hand, clever scientifically minded person that you are, know of the color spectrum and understand that what you perceive may be clouded by local conditions and that color as you perceive it, and color as you know it, are two separate things. You, upon hearing your friend’s report that all things have a rosy tint, judge that your local conditions and your friend’s local conditions are different and that what you’re observing, and what your friend is observing  share common features except for their tint. The differences lead you to believe that there are local effects obscuring your view of things but your simple friend has not arrived at that conclusion because their theoretical framework about that which exists cannot appropriately deal with disagreement over the tint of things. 

In the above, theory helps the scientist put their findings in perspective. It gives more context and bite where method fails and can provide breathing room in fundamental disagreements over reporting “the facts.” You may not be able to remove the glasses that give the world a blue tint, but you are aware that a tint exists and that it is not something necessarily “out there” all the time, but that you and your perceptions are colored in a way that may not always faithfully report “the facts.” Unfortunately, I must leave aside discussions concerning internal validity for another day and I cannot concern myself with the construction of “facts” and what “a fact” is as opposed to “truths” or “the Truth.” However, I want you keeping those words conceptually distinct and while philosophy might concern itself with a search for “the Truth,” we are instead concerned with the production of “facts,” within scientific endeavor. We should be careful in equating “Science,” with the search for “the Truth,” or even “truths,” as the scientific project, seen in historical context, has been about producing a seemingly less stable category of “fact” that get their power from our belief in “the scientific project” generally, and the internal validity of the particular sciences that include their theoretical frameworks and postulates (such as gravity and gravitation) and their methods for investigating it (scientific commitments to experimental repeatability, theoretical parsimony, standardized instruments, measurements and data collection methods and ethical frameworks). 

The above is a standard account of a small piece of scientific endeavor. We, scientists – “social” or otherwise, approach phenomena within our lifeworlds with theoretical lenses that include conceptual frameworks for understanding and interpreting them. Our interpretations must, on pain of being intellectually dishonest, stand the test against other interpretations and other frameworks that may be incommensurate with our own, and we must understand and interpret data against the slings and arrows of the phenomena we investigate. We will through this course see how this familiar story started in the Euro-American intellectual cannon, and by adopting the perspective of our theorists in this way – the way of approaching them as if they were theories to which we might subscribe but must satisfactorily explain “social,” or “political” phenomena – will elucidate their main objects of inquiry embedded in their description of things writ large

Karl Marx believes in something termed Capital. He believes that this thing plays a hand in human affairs and he is witnessing its transformation and growth in Victorian England and an industrial revolution taking the world stage. Capital and its social effects, among many things, are keeping Marx awake at night frequently as he theorizes its functions within social milieux (you may read “milieux,” or “milieu,” as “the environment” but I have chosen “milieux” to display the multidimensional character to human experience as if specific cuts could be made between different lifeworlds and lifeforms). Marx is not concerned with class warfare as prominently in The German Ideology as he is in his infamous Manifesto, but these concerns are never too far away as he theorizes capital. He is principally concerned with some philosophical turf-kicking against some of the Godheads of his day and their school of philosophical idealism. He’s interested in grounding idealism with remarks on how he thinks theorizing ought to be done and this is grounded in a sort of materialism that focuses on the (re)production of society and the actual lived and material contexts in which humans find themselves generally. 

It seems a simple trick, but all objects that can be properly said to be “society” or “societies” must have some means of persisting such that we can identify them over time. Marx, for our purposes, does not do theorizing from on high by handing down categories or moral pronouncements without checking them against his social conditions. He understands that societies change and decay, and is a student of history as well as one of philosophy, and he has studied the course of that thing we might call “Western Civilization” up to his day through an examination of the ancients, Pax Romana, the dark ages, the various stages of medieval social development, mercantilism and the liberal revolutions that shook the old order and we carry with us, to a degree, in our age. Marx is, and is examining, a field of study that emerged prior to what we may recognize as “scientific economics,” whatever that may be, called political economics that was an outgrowth of moral, or practical philosophy. 

As a student of the economics of his day, Marx is concerned with the circulation of things through his environment and the environments taking shape through industrialization. This is, in a rough and ready way, his principle concern as he critiques the economies emerging from the new organization of people, machines and politics. His opponents, we gather through his accusations and arguments, do not see the actual organization of things as their methodological starting point (Marx, GI, p.1), but favor the realm of ideals, the methods of a priori analysis inherited from Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s idealism, as their principal domain of theorizing. This method of theorizing purportedly starts from unshakable logical truths arrived at through pure reason, thought experiments, intuition pumps or analytic definitions and their theories seem full of weightless abstractions to Marx, and rely on mythologies that posit high concepts such as a “human nature,” or begin their economic theorizing and thus moral and political philosophizing from positions that can’t be tested except for conceptually. This means that they may be building theories wearing rose colored glasses that they’re not aware of, and Marx harries the new Hegelians, Feuerbach in particular, for believing they’re on unshakable ground as they theorize how humans, and how humans ought find themselves in the world.

This won’t do for Marx. You can’t have philosophers wandering around handing down pronouncements from on high! How can anyone expect them to have a sufficient view of things such that they can make meaningful and practical contributions to the questions of the day? It seems absurd to expect any sort of helpful advice, or sound moral pronouncement, or plan of action to come from someone who has closed off the realm of human experience – mediated through the fields of the humanities, arts and sciences, from their philosophical, political and economic thinking. Marx, instead, takes production or, as is en vogue, (re)production as his focal point (Marx, GI, 2) and subjects the abstract categories of political economics to how things seem to occur. In this sense, there is no isolated individual adrift in some lonely sea that can enter into mutual cooperation with other agents in similar predicaments. Individuals are already born into conditions of social interdependence so starting from some mythical story or “logical” place from on high is to miss the seemingly unshakable fact that humans persist in collectives. These collectives of humans must have some way of reproducing and for Marx, this is a matter of economy – a matter that concerns social reproduction through the circulation of things in space. 

People have real material needs. They have real material organization enabled throughout the ages by different technological regimes. The ability to hold any semblance of a class remotely in which I, teacher, sitting in Blacksburg, VA can reach a student sitting not only in another room, but possibly another state or country, is an ability granted through mass scale technological organization. Likewise, the material bases through which “Society,” this big thing with which politics concerns itself, is reproduced alludes to different ways, different potentials of human organization. Marx’s interests are partially in explaining social change, different phases of material development throughout civilizations, and how that change occurs, to whose benefit those changes may be, and if there is some prime mover of civilization. He has many avenues and concepts to explore and mobilize, but for us and our purposes, we can think of one of those theoretical postulates that helps explain social and political change over time as Capital

Capital is “among other things…an instrument of production, also past impersonal labor. Hense capital is a universal, eternal natural phenomenon; which is true if we disregard the specific properties which turn an ‘instrument of production’ and ‘stored-up labor’ into capital. (Marx, GI, 3).” This statement should give you pause. There are a few things to unpack from the above: (1) capital = instrument of production; (2) capital = past impersonal labor; (3) capital is an eternal and natural phenomenon; and the third is conditioned by the remark that there are things not counted as natural that make and remake capital into instruments of production and stored up labor. What allows Marx to make these pronouncements? This is capital; this is the subject of at least three books from Marx bearing the title Capital! I think this is best handled working backwards beginning with capital as natural and eternal. 

If capital is a natural and eternal phenomenon, then this implies that it persists regardless of human activity. That is, it is something which would exist whether there are humans around to observe it. When the Sun explodes and erases the evidence of human activity from this planet, capital will still exist. This is theoretically interesting because this means that a central theoretical postulate for Marx is something that, in principle, persists apart from humanity. This means that capital, as something “natural,” is, in principle, scientifically investigable as “the sciences” are concerned with correct descriptions of the state of things. In other words, the passage above solidifies Marx’s commitment to capital as something within production that is capable of being analyzed scientifically and has enough gravity (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase), or weight such that it should be considered an evaluatively significant force in social organization. 

I can’t get into the specifics of how Marx may or may not be caught in a false dichotomy between the “natural,” and the “social,” nor can I go into the metaphysics of why that dichotomy might not matter within Marx’s framework, but methodologically he is committed to humans as occurring within communities and not as emanating from an abstract “state of nature.” He is committed, so far, only to the view that humans cannot help but be born into some social organization or another predicated upon and exhibited through their material conditions of existence with patterns of social (re)production. He goes further, however, and sees capital as both an agent of production and a source of income – that is, that thing that enables individuals to persist in monetarist societies (i.e. those who partially mediate social relations through symbolic economies of exchange-value based on weightless signs – more on that later) (Marx, GI, p.11). In this sense, capital is that thing allowing the reproduction of both societies and individuals within them mediated through economy. How capital is channeled, how it is treated, what it does, how it does it, and for whom creates a picture of the distributional patterns of a given economy (Marx, GI, p.11). 

The above gives a little more color to his remark concerning capital as a collection of impersonal past labor. Production connects humanity with the rest of “nature” for Marx, and pulls “the natural,” into “the historical” (Marx, GI, 13). Production is accomplished through the organization of labor and that organization not only displays social relationships to “the natural” but relationships of capital to living labor as it is incorporated in the reproduction of economies (Marx, GI, p.37). If capital allows individuals to live from it, and to incorporate the “natural,” into the “social,” then capital is more than merely money and money is a specific instantiation of capital. Think of it this way: if we bomb our dumb asses into oblivion such that all economic channels fail and lead to a social collapse (as in the Fallout videogame series) then paper money may become completely valueless and its only use might be for cleaning up after iguana-taco Tuesday. A working firearm, on the other hand, might be more desirable than any amount of worthless paper money and may help organize a collection of people, and machines into a functioning assemblage that helps you extract a critical resource – say water – and thus help you persist over time. That firearm, which you did not build for the purposes of this scenario, contains within its material being the accumulation of knowledge, skill, labor and technology necessary for it to persist over time. This labor, however, is impersonal in that what you hold in your hands is a commodity produced for a market and anyone who might find that firearm appealing, necessary or otherwise worth the exchange value for it. The commodity – another instantiation of capital – is not constructed with any personal view or reason in mind. It is simply there, impersonally appealing to some set of sensibilities. 

Impersonal should not be taken as impartial, nor objective. Each commodity is constructed to appeal to a set of settled uses and tates that are dependent on the material contexts and constraints of social organization at the time. However, commodities are a form of capital in that they can and do organize labor, display attitudes toward “nature,” and “society” and show distributional patterns through their production and circulation while showing the intercourse of definite and concrete individuals through the production and development of property (Marx, GI, p.41). As property is transferable among agents and adhere within their conditions of emergence, property is a kind of capital as well that shows structural features of the world in which individuals find themselves independent of their own making (Marx, GI, p.41). An example is the growth of land-as-private-property within a capitalist republic, such as our own, versus the growth of the commons under English monarchy. Each show a relationship to land-as-capital but have differing conditions of use, productivity and accessibility. 

Labor becomes speciated in its ability to reproduce through the ambit of capital due to the division of labor. Capital is dependent on labor for its growth as an agency that is a collection of impersonal past labor mixed with “natural” components derivative of production generally and specific material patterns of social reproduction. Marx sees the emergence of the State, as connected to capital’s development (Marx, GI, p. 52). The state, for Marx, is a site of contestation in which and through which the battles over social reproduction are fought between the competing class interests arising from the division of labor (Marx, GI, p. 52). He takes this a natural apotheosis in human social development, but it may only represent a backslide into one group harnessing capital at the expense of others. In some instances capital is the working body only, as he claims in the form of the slave and it is not difficult to find examples of the state solidifying the productive power of slavery for the interests of a slave-holding class Marx, GI, p. 14). However, his remarks concerning the state, for us, can be reduced to the state as claiming to work “in the common interest,” but in reality often fails to capture anything but the desires of those who hold and benefit from capital (Marx, GI, p. 52). This is because the “common interest” can never capture the particular interests of concrete individuals, and that each state is an expression of a class – that is, a collection of individuals bearing a similar relationship to the means of production and thus to capital – and thus can only hope to capture the general interests of that class (Marx, GI, p.52). The “common interest” therefore, is used as a regulative ideal in the organization of society and thus the intercourse, growth and exchange of capital (Marx, GI, p.53) and becomes a governing instrument for social activity. 

Thucydides, as I discuss later, provides evidence for some of the more counterintuitive notions within Marx. His material dialectic of accumulation and defense even mentions the growth of capital as implying a need for security: “With respect to their towns, later on, at an era of increased facilities of navigation and a greater supply of capital, we find the shores becoming the site of walled towns, and the isthmuses being occupied for the purposes of commerce and defence against a neighbour (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Capital, if it is to be an object properly considered “scientific” should be investigable in principle. Here we have Thucydides, a historian and general of ancient Greece writing in 431 B.C.E. concerned with the growth and protection of capital within Hellas. 

Further, we find that capital is used for the domination of other Greeks and Barbarians (anyone who isn’t Greek at this time) and is even obeying a grow-or-die imperative as Marx characterizes it when he wrote in 1845. As Thucydides wrote “For the love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger, and the possession of capital enabled the more powerful to reduce the smaller towns to subjection (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Perhaps it’s a trick in translation, maybe it’s the best word Richard Crawley could find, but Thucydides seems to make more mention of capital and its role in a war that shook his ancient world. The growth of naval powers – fleets of Galley ships and heavy infantry – captured his mind as he came to consider entangled alliances embodied within wealth and military might: “But as the power of Hellas grew, and the acquisition of wealth became more an object, the revenues of the states increasing, tyrannies were by their means established almost everywhere- the old form of government being hereditary monarchy with definite prerogatives- and Hellas began to fit out fleets and apply herself more closely to the sea.” It appears, simply on this examination, that capital is a properly scientific object in that concerns of it and on its behalf partially created the conditions for war and conquest in the ancient world. Capital can be an instrument of production (Marx, GI, p.71). It can organize navies to fight for its growth and capture. It is both an impetus for war, a condition for war’s emergence, the spoils of war, and when considered in its ability to organize labor, a foundational element in any war machine whether made of AWAKS, Abrams II, and aircraft carriers, or gallies and hoplites. It is instrumental power on a mass scale when organizing armies, a collection of machines and their attendant humans when organizing industrial society, and a seemingly “natural” element of social organization greasing the gearworks of society writ large. Perhaps this is the hardest part about Marx’s framework and his thoughts concerning capital – it is transformative and transforms depending on the broader context (Marx, GI, p. 74). We can watch it build and develop, organize and attract, destroy and rebuild all through human organization, and following Marx, this will occur with variations in geographic development (Marx, GI, p. 75). Or, perhaps, it as a concept needs theoretical refinement. In any case, we scientifically minded political theorists need to see the thoughts of our authors as we find them in history and to do our best to see their definitions, terms and philosophies as clearly as possible through the fog of the past.

Course Orientation

Some sounds are timeless.

This class attempts three things: 

  1. To situate ancient concerns throughout political intellectual history such that those concerns are brought to light in contemporary discourse. 
  2. To introduce students to dialectics as a method of analysis, political reflection, philosophical discussion and view of that which stands and gives shape to life in “civilization.”
  3. To equip students with a constellation of three interrelated terms: Capital, Democracy, and Populism; through historical deep dives favoring functional definitions of concepts rather than abstract notions constructed a priori.

These attempts, it will be shown, are simply that. No class can hope to connect the great thoughts of great thinkers throughout history, across languages, times and places sufficiently such that students become masters of those greats. However, the idea of our course is an attempt at gaining a vantage point on the progress of political theory itself – not in its answers but through its questions. To that end, the readings selected for the course may, at times, fall outside the confines of a “period” class, but the concerns raised by selected authors should be taken as perennial.

Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave is one of the most succinct problematiques for learning politics and philosophy. If I can assign one thing that summarizes how utterly difficult it is to have a politics, to present it clearly, have it understood, and then, somehow have it willingly adopted, it is the Allegory of the Cave.

I shall refer often to thinkers and their political theories who have not been assigned to the reading list. These thinkers will be referred to through links, video, and other outlets that display their philosophies or otherwise offer cuts into their thoughts. I am not at liberty to read Attic Greek, nor Latin and I do not want to misrepresent myself or our tasks as one of truth preservation throughout history or of faithful translation of meaning throughout time. Many of the theorists referred to and mobilized will be referred to tangentially and the links provided are recognized sources within political theory and philosophy…or at least do a reasonably faithful job in philosophical exegesis.

Instead, we will link the thoughts of the ancients to our present time through historical arcs constructed around key vocabulary. We shall see that capital and conquest went hand-in-hand for the Hellenistic Greeks, that Plato distrusted democracy to deliver a just society, and that populism contains the germ of the polis which concerned Aristotle. In these ways, the course displays the progression of political thought through perennial problems, and ones that must be addressed if one is to be a student of politics.

If there’s one thing that this class should show you, it’s that there are perennial problems with lots and lots of different answers situated throughout history. Billy Joe seems to be fighting a perennial problem…the idiot in “democracy.” We’ll see why we need to pay attention to idiots and the conditions in which they’re found and why, and how they’re connected to politics.

We will not concern ourselves too deeply with definitions handed down from on high. Our theorists will give us the start and our job is to batter the bulwarks of definition with empirical reality in an attempt to make our definitions lived and felt. Political discourse must be seen as more than mere squabbling and be taken for its material effects. Our thinkers will display a method of thinking and inquiry that can be called “dialectics,” or “dialectical.” In a short hand, but rough and ready way, we may think of dialectics as the interplay of seeming opposites in the construction of reality. Our world has been made by the struggles of history that have given shape to our intellectual history, the inheritance of our political and philosophical language, and the contours of the environments in which we find ourselves. One should see the history of a term as undergoing change and challenge throughout time, and our job is to carefully examine them as they change and as they stand currently. We will do this by interrogating our texts through careful reading; looking for the terms and the contexts in which they are used to seat a definition – and we will carefully and respectfully argue for our positions. If, as Marx wrote in his famous Manifesto “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” then class struggle must be found – empirically – in evidence of every society that stands or stood and this can be found in the clash of opposites.

The United States is and was a grand experiment in political thought. It emerged from the stings of battle, to be sure, but also from grand philosophical schemata, changes in the mode of production, and the history of argument within the crumbling English monarchy. Our capitalist republic persists but the meaning of those terms “capitalist,” and “republic” are and have been contested through philosophical and theoretical fisticuffs as well as the bodies of those who threw themselves into the fray for their ideals. Our task is to see how terms are mobilized, how they get their meaning and from where they come in understanding the firmament of our lives. 

They’re in the water. Trump’s populist charge against established political ideals shows another side of republican and Republican politics. The rejection of Bernie Sanders by the Democratic establishment displays relationships to capital and history on both sides. At stake in both currents is the shape of democracy, and with it, the contours of our civilization. The terms and the thinkers we examine are alive and continue to live with us. They are legion but we can only consider a few as we jump through history and come to connect our milieu with theirs and, in so doing, make the past live again.

Featuring a local philosopher, Francois Debrix.