Joe's Reviews > A Commentary on Plato's Meno

A Commentary on Plato's Meno by Jacob Klein
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March 2007

A note on 'pre-political' Esoteric Practices

Jacob Klein is often describes as a 'Straussian' - but of course this is perfectly untrue. Leo Strauss and Klein (and perhaps even Alexandre Kojeve too) either stumbled upon the practice of pre-modern philosophic esotericism on their own and/or while in contact with each other. Well, this last is an exaggeration too, it is more likely that Kojeve picked it up from the other two rather than his arriving at it entirely on his own as an original insight. Now, all three of these thinkers had been exposed to the greatest song-and-dance man (i.e., Martin Heidegger) of twentieth century philosophy in their formative periods and thus his maneuvering was a great influence on them all. Besides this, Strauss was deeply influenced by several non-Christian Medieval Philosophers (e.g., Alfarabi, Averroes, Maimonides) while both Klein and Kojeve seem to have been almost entirely innocent of the influence of these Falasifa.

In the letters exchanged between Strauss and Kojeve ('On Tyranny', Revised and Expanded Edition, U. Chi. Pr., 2000) we see the regard and respect these two thinkers had for Klein. For instance, in the letter of 8/22/48 Strauss says of his interpretation of Xenophan that "I know of no one besides yourself [i.e., Kojeve] and Klein who will understand what I am after...' (p. 236). This respect for Klein was shared by Kojeve: in a letter of 3/29/62 Kojeve says, "Except for yourself [i.e., Strauss] and Klein I have not yet found anybody from whom I could learn something." (p. 307). There are, by the way, several amusing asides about Kleins almost legendary indolence. I share one example that might be apropos here: "Klein claims to have finished his book on the Meno -only three more months for checking on the footnotes- but since he has said more or less the same three years ago I believe I shall have to wait another lustrum for its appearance." (Letter of 5/29/1962, Strauss to Kojeve, p. 309).

Well, Klein was, in fact, as Strauss divined only 'about' finished (the published date, 1965, is three years after the amusing remarks of Strauss above) but the result, this book, was well worth waiting for. Now, why has this book been in print for 40 odd years? -Because the 'Meno' dialogue is so popular? To be honest, I rather doubt it! It is because the 'Introductory Remarks' at the beginning of this book contain one of the best brief discussions of how to read Plato -that is, how to take into account Plato's esotericism- that I am aware of. In fact, if a novice were to ask me where to first learn of Plato's art of 'cautious writing' - this is the first book I would send him to.

Why? Because Klein gives an extremely acute explanation (and demonstration) of the ancient way of employing esotericism as a method (and a necessity!) of 'soulcraft'. Klein begins the Introductory Remarks by acclimating the student to the notion that the Platonic dialogues are dramatic encounters and not some sort of failed Aristotelian treatise. (It is shameful how many academics still think that it is a great pity that Plato did not write Treatises!) It is in the intercourse between the actions and speeches of the participants in these dialogues that Plato's meaning and intentions emerge. Klein correctly tells us that the dialogues "intent is to imitate oral instruction." In order to do this Plato writes mini-dramas that subtly indicate more than they say.

A means of doing this is irony. But Socratic Irony was not the same as the older types of irony. "The old Irony of the tragic or comic reversal of fortune they perfectly appreciated. But this new kind, which had a trick of making you uncomfortable if you took it as a joke and of getting you laughed at if you took it seriously? People did not like it, did not know what to make of it. But they were quite sure it was Irony." Socratic Irony, unlike the irony of the theatre, intends to force you to reveal yourself. Uncomfortable? - You should be! Plato is neither simply telling a story nor, less simply, lecturing us on philosophical issues; - Plato is trying to get us, dear readers, to reveal our very souls!

Thus Klein says that for any statement to be ironical in the Socratic sense "there must be someone capable of understanding that it is ironical." Socrates "is not ironical to satisfy himself." We are all called upon to be 'silent participants', not 'indifferent spectators' of these dialogues. Klein correctly adds that, "a (Platonic) dialogue has not taken place if we, the listeners or readers, did not actively participate in it..." The Socratic Dialogue is a form of writing that must be completed by our active, but dialogically silent, participation. But why should we participate?

Klein quotes a scholar, "The dialogues are dramas in which the destiny of the human soul is at stake." But to the scholar Klein here quotes the give and take in the dialogues is only a sport of curious aesthetic appeal. Klein will have none of it: "We have to play our role in them too. We have to be serious about the contention that a Platonic dialogue, being indeed an 'imitation of Socrates,' actually continues Socrates' work." The dialogues are notorious for their many difficulties (aporias) and it often seems Plato had no solution at all. But "we are compelled to admit to ourselves our ignorance, that it is up to us to get out of the impasse and to reach a conclusion, if it is reachable at all. We are one of the elements of the dialogue and perhaps the most important one."

Now, this must not be taken to mean that "the dialogues are void of all 'doctrinal' assertions." But a Platonic doctrine is not a philosophical system in the modern sense. "The dialogues not only embody the famous 'oracular' and 'paradoxical' statements emanating from Socrates ('virtue is knowledge,' 'nobody does evil knowingly,' 'it is better to suffer than commit injustice') and are, to a large extent, protreptic plays based on these, but they also discuss and state, more or less explicitly, the ultimate foundations on which those statements rest and the far-reaching consequences which flow from them. But never is this done with complete clarity." It is we who supply the additional clarity by engaging in philosophy. Thus Klein warns us away from fitting Plato's dialogues into some scholarly developmental scheme or reducing it to some technical vocabulary. These are but shadows that the history of Platonism has thrown. But, as Klein correctly says, "it is the familiar that Plato is bent on exploiting."

But he is exploiting the familiar through written words. And written words are, according to Plato, inherently playful; that is, imitative. (See the Phaedrus, and also Sophist 234b, on this theme.) Written texts "cannot defend themselves against misunderstanding and abuse." They resemble living thought but, like statues, they are dead and do not respond to changing circumstances but always maintain the same stance. This is why Plato wrote dialogues in which it is necessary for us to participate; he hoped that by doing so he could make his dialogues resemble living thought. "In brief: a written text is necessarily incomplete and cannot teach properly." In the Phaedrus we learn, according to Klein, that the best texts, "in addition to being playful, can serve as 'reminders' [...], that is, can remind those 'who know' of what the written words are really about."

"Now, Phaedrus and Socrates agree that spoken words can be clear, complete, and worthy of serious consideration provided they come from one who 'knows' - who knows about things just, noble and good - and who also knows, as Socrates insists, how to 'write' or 'plant' these words in the souls of the learners, that is, possesses the 'dialectical art' as well as the 'art of healing souls' which enables him to deal discriminatingly with those souls and even to remain silent whenever necessary." Now, this last is also why Plato writes in a dialogical manner; not only to engage in the great soul-shaping work of philosophy, but also in order to remain silent when necessary. But how can a dialogue do both? It can't "if the written text is to be taken in its dead rigidity." But it can if "the written text gives rise to 'live' discourse under conditions valid for good speaking." Again, the Platonic dialogues demand our active participation in order to be successful.

As if to underscore the lived, changing nature of well-written philosophical texts Klein reminds us that after the myth of the origin of the cicadas in the Phaedrus "we hear Socrates interpreting freely the speeches he himself made, assuming the role of their 'father', that is, supporting and defending the truth in them, adding to them, omitting the doubtful and changing their wording..." How Socrates treats his earlier speeches is how we are to treat Socratic dialogues, we are to continually interpret and, when necessary, reinterpret them. We are to treat the dialogues as conversations in which we must participate in order to get anything out of them. We are, when properly engaged in a Socratic dialogue, attempting to understand Socrates, Plato, philosophy and ourselves.

This soulcraft that Klein is here, at the beginning of the 'Introductory Remarks' to his 'Meno' book, speaking of has utterly nothing to do with the parroting of some doctrine. "Words can be repeated or imitated; the thoughts conveyed by the words cannot: an 'imitated' thought is not a thought." Indeed, in reading and interpreting a Platonic dialogue we reveal who we are. Treat the dialogues, and yourself, with the thoughtful seriousness they deserve.

So we see that Klein, here in the 'Introductory Remarks', has given us a masterful explication of an ancient esotericism too often today forgotten; an esotericism focused on individual soulcraft and not merely or exclusively on political philosophy. It is important to realize that these two esoteric strategies are not entirely in harmony. But what of Klein and Strauss? Are they in harmony? I think the major difference between the two is the medieval philosophers, especially Farabi. He was the first (see especially his 'Attainment of Happiness' e.g.) to use esotericism almost exclusively to manufacture 'politically useful' philosophical artifacts without (seemingly) even the slightest concern for soulcraft. Strauss follows Farabi in this; also, like Farabi (see the 'Philosophy of Plato', e.g.) Strauss gives an entirely political reading of Plato.

Whenever we see Leo Strauss speak of 'Platonic Political Philosophy' we need to immediately add that this Platonic political philosophy has been filtered through Alfarabi. So then, do Klein and Strauss simply disagree about the Platonic Art of Cautious Writing? No, of course not, that would be an exaggeration. Of this notion of readers of Platonic Dialogues as 'silent participants' in the dialogues Klein says that "it certainly obtains whenever Socrates himself is the narrator of the dialogue." But what of the dialogues (e.g., Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Laws) in which Socrates is not the principle speaker? Are the principle speakers (Eleatic Stranger, Timaeus, Athenian Stranger) in these dialogues primarily engaged in the art of soulcraft like Socrates? Or, are they, like Farabi and the medieval falasifa, primarily engaged in what might be called social damage control and 'philosophical' artifact making? Insofar as they are doing the latter one can perhaps be forgiven for saying that the split between Socrates' esoteric Platonic soulcraft and Farabi's esoteric political Platonism was already known to, and anticipated by, Plato himself.

Now, Klein isn't oblivious to the difference between esotericism as politics and esotericism as soulcraft. Indeed, even in the latter part of the 'Introductory Remarks' that we have here only begun to consider, he goes on to broach the subject of political esotericism. For those interested in Klein's take on the latter I can recommend his detailed study 'Plato's Trilogy' which includes a discussion of the Eleatic Stranger in 'The Sophist' and 'The Statesman'. I give 'Plato's Meno' five stars for the discussion, defense and demonstration of the ancient esoteric practice of soulcraft, which today, is too often forgotten.
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