BMCR 2022.02.12

La science des hommes libres: la digression du “Théétète” de Platon

, La science des hommes libres: la digression du "Théétète" de Platon. Tradition de la pensée classique. Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 2020. Pp. 300. ISBN 9782711629497. €29,00.

This volume aims to exhaustively analyze the famous digression of the Theaetetus (Tht. 172a-177c). Six chapters investigate the nature and function of the digression, accompanied by a translation of it by the author (but no Greek text), a conclusion on its modern and contemporary reception, a bibliography, and a useful index locorum.

In the first chapter, the author advances some general observations. First of all, he considers the possible models of the digression. Greek rhetoricians deliberately avoided digressions (retrospectively defined as parekbaseis by Quintilian) in their orations in order to focus exclusively on the main issues discussed in their speeches. On the other hand, Aristophanes in his comedies frequently included parabaseis, that is, interludes that interrupt the dramatic actions and allow the fictional characters to attack Aristophanes’ rivals. Plato then incorporated a digression in his Theaetetus to show that philosophers—unlike rhetoricians—are totally free when they compose their writings; in this way, Plato also disparages his main rivals, namely rhetoricians and politicians (as he explicitly states). The digression, however, serves several purposes: it is not only polemical, but it also serves to define philosophy and the characteristics of philosophers. As such, the author considers secondly its ‘reflexive’ nature: the digression aims to establish the specific conditions of philosophical dialogues and the qualities required for those who desire to partake in such activities. For this reason, the author argues that the digression actually begins in Tht. 172c3 (and not in Tht. 172b8). Thirdly, in relation to this issue, the author considers why Socrates is the character who describes the nature of the true philosopher. Socrates’ figure possesses most of the qualities of the philosophers of the digression, albeit he is not totally identical to them; nonetheless, he is the most suitable character to portray the true philosopher and to defend the central thesis of the digression, that is, the importance of the universal and global perspective that philosophers contemplate in contrast to the multiple and often unworthy opinions of the many. For this reason, the author finally suggests that the digression does not attack solely the rhetoricians, but also Protagoras’ relativism, and perhaps implicitly some Socratics and —according to Plato’s point of view— ‘pseudo-philosophers’ such as Isocrates.

The second chapter then investigates the relationships between the digression and Plato’s rivals. The first polemical targets are manifestly the orators (rhētores) and those citizens who devote their lives to political activities: they are opposed to philosophers regarding above all their relationship with time and the object of their speeches; the civic dimension of rhetoricians and politicians’ activities are also condemned. This is a clear attack on the political life of a democracy, namely Athens. The second polemical targets are the Sophists and their relativism: the digression praises universal values such as justice and piety, inspired by an absolutely just god, thus rejecting Protagoras’ relativism along with its epistemological, ethical, and political corollaries. A third polemical target is Aristophanes. In the digression, Plato inverts the ridicule that the philosophers are subjected to in Aristophanes’ comedies on account of their political inadequacy and their interests in astronomy and the study of universal entities: rhetoricians alone are ridiculous, since they are not able to properly partake in the philosophers’ contemplative activities. Attic Comedy then falls into the same relativism and the same negativity as those who adopt the point of view of the unjust cities of Plato’s time. The fourth target might be Isocrates: being a logographer, he can be equated to the rhetoricians, therefore to those who have established a close collaboration with the unjust political life of Plato’s time. In his Antidosis, where he defends his definition of philosophy, Isocrates rejects the value of some disciplines, including those pursued by the philosophers of the digression, especially astronomy and geometry: from Plato’s point of view, this then makes Isocrates a ‘pseudo-philosopher’. Finally, another polemical target might be Antisthenes. The laughter of the Thracian servant (Antisthenes’ mother was Thracian), as well as the majority of people, in response to philosophers’ interest in studying the heaven and their unwillingness to look at what is in front of them could echo Antisthenes’ famous sentence “I see a horse, but not horseness” (Simplicius, In Arist. Cat. 208.28). Above all, Antisthenes’ claim that some of the characteristics of his philosophy, namely to be free from riches and in possession of scholē, were inspired by Socrates collides with the notion of freedom and scholē of the digression. The polemical approach of the digression is similar to that of books V-VII of the Republic, where Plato describes the true philosopher as a lover of truth, fully free, and committed to activities such as astronomy and geometry that lead to the contemplation of universal realities: the true philosopher is opposed to those who study only sensible beings, corrupt rhetoricians and politicians, and false philosophers.

In the third chapter, the author offers an analysis of the history of the concepts of “freedom” (eleutheria) and “free time”, “leisure” (scholē), which assume a pivotal role in the digression. The appropriation of the concept of freedom by oligarchic circles is significant: as an anti-democratic reaction, the aristocrats of the fourth century BC held that the truly free individuals were those who possessed sufficient income and wealth to dedicate themselves solely to their own education; in this way, they could take part in politics and benefit from their superior education, and thus political and rhetorical expertise. In the digression, orators are compared to “servants” (oiketai): the term, unlike the word “slaves” (douloi), which indicates a legal status, suggests that rhetoricians are compelled to devote their lives exclusively to their own political occupations; as such, they are unable to develop any forms of true education and knowledge. In contrast, the few philosophers are free from any commitments and thus capable of developing the best form of wisdom. Rhetoricians’ lives are then qualitatively inferior to those of the philosophers. In the fourth century BC, the concept of free time and leisure was equated to the concept of “tranquil life” (hēsychia), which allows individuals to refine their knowledge. The concepts of leisure and tranquil life frequently appear in Plato’s dialogues (e.g. Apology, Republic, and Phaedo). In the digression of the Theaetetus, the philosophers’ scholē and the rhetoricians’ ascholia refer to the nature of the time at their disposal. In contrast to the case of the philosophers, the rhetoricians and politicians experience a form of time that is restrained, controlled, granted by others, and conflictual: it allows no scholē, and therefore no self-refinement. This does not mean that philosophers are extraneous to politics and committed solely to a contemplative way of life: rather, the true philosophers simply refuse to take part in the politics of the unjust cities of Plato’s time.

In the fourth chapter, the author considers the famous notion of assimilation to the god. Plato himself suggests that this is the most important section of the digression: the discussion of the assimilation to the god occupies the central part of the Theaetetus (as if it were the ‘heart’ of the discussion) and, above all, counters Protagoras’ relativism. Rhetoricians are still the main polemical targets, since they are described in the digression as morally and politically unjust; however, Plato’s criticism is now general, because everyone—except the few true philosophers—is unjust and hypocritical towards virtue. In response to people’s wrong behavior and tenets, Plato presents a form of wisdom that allows individuals to adopt a perfect ethical and political way of life thanks to knowledge of objective and universally valid principles such as justice and piety, of which the god is the model. Those who do not imitate the divinity must be considered evil, while those who adhere to this divine paradigm must be considered perfect: as such, the paragraph concerning assimilation to the god possesses a theological/metaphysical, ethical, and political approach that shows the unequivocally best conduct and the worst one. The god is not a personal superhuman entity, but is generically the divine and perfect world, a paradigm of goodness, therefore akin to the idea of the Good discussed in the Republic. The key element to complete this assimilation is “wisdom” (phronēsis). Plato conceives of wisdom as deeply connected to freedom, which is now connoted also as cognitive, ethical, and political freedom, especially from the countless morally and politically negative models of the unjust city. Therefore, the anti-relativist function of the digression merges perfectly with its polemical and reflexive value.

In the fifth and six chapters, the author considers the nature of philosophers and philosophy in light of the conclusions drawn in the previous chapters. The digression clearly shows that philosophy is a synonym of freedom and leisure, an intellectual activity that allows philosophers to debate everything, both in any way and as long as they wish. Above all, the philosophers’ object of investigation is “that which is”. Therefore, through the digression the readers of the Theaetetussomehow return to the starting point of the dialogue, that is the need to establish the nature of epistēmē and its content. Indeed, the digression sometimes reappraises, deviates from, and anticipates certain issues discussed over the whole dialogue (for example, the origin of errors or the nature of true and false opinions): in this way, Plato highlights the typical freedom of philosophical discussions, which have neither limits nor compulsory topics. Once again, it is evident that scholē and freedom are the prerequisites of philosophy: however, it is not merely the quantity of time but above all its quality that determines whether the individuals who devote their time to discuss and argue are ‘free’ philosophers or ‘enslaved’ rhetoricians. Philosophy is also an activity that criticizes what is held in high esteem in the unjust city (for example, wealth, noble ancestry, and political power). Philosophers turn to a broader, higher, and global dimension: “that which is”, entities in their universality, and the specific nature of each single thing. This ‘global’ form of knowledge depends on freedom and leisure because both eleutheria and scholē shape the disposition of philosophers’ souls: they allow philosophers to devote their time to education and self-refinement and make them develop a precise sensibility and certain interests, namely in the universal dimension. More precisely, the philosophers’ freedom coincides with the freedom of their “thought” (dianoia). In the digression and in the Theaetetus, we do not find a precise and ultimate definition of epistēmē because Plato aims not so much to determine the exact content of the knowledge possessed by philosophers, as to highlight the condition that allows the very existence of their discipline: freedom, scholē, hēsychia. The book then concludes with a brief review of the ways in which the digression was read and assimilated by modern and contemporary philosophers.

This volume thus offers an exhaustive examination of the digression of the Theaetetus and asserts its importance in the dialogue against the claims of some scholars. The secondary literature cited in the volume is rich and deeply discussed. I raise only one small question that might be answered in future works by the author: given the ‘reflexive’ nature of the digression, it might be useful to consider (or exclude) the existence of a protreptic intent, for example in relation to Plato’s Philosopher, which he announced in the Sophist, but never wrote. Could the main theses of the digression of the Theaetetus constitute one of the topics of the promised dialogue, which—according to Plato’s intention—was meant to describe the nature of philosophers and their discipline? The only issue that deserves further consideration is the famous anecdote concerning Thales and the Thracian servant: the anecdote is mentioned several times throughout the volume, but there is no chapter dedicated it, nor any substantial discussion that exhaustively and unequivocally shows the author’s position towards this widely commented and problematic part of the digression — unlike the other sections, which are extensively considered. However, this is a minor issue in a well-written, clear, and convincing monograph.