Sunday, August 30, 2009

Zuckert's Plato: Teleology and Eternity

The Straussian proponents of Platonic political philosophy reject Darwinian natural right for two reasons.

First, they think it promotes a reductionism that denies the cosmic teleology of natural ends. Second, they think it promotes a historicism that denies the cosmic eternity of natural kinds.

When modern natural science sets aside any teleological conception of the universe, they say, it deprives human purposefulness of any cosmic support and thus leads to a reductionistic nihilism. When modern natural science sets aside any conception of the eternity of species or kinds, it deprives human morality and politics of any eternal standard of human nature and thus leads to historicist relativism.

That's why the Straussians are deeply suspicious of modern science and why they look to Plato's argument that the human good must be judged by a cosmic model of eternal, teleological order.

But as I have indicated in my posts over the last two months, I am not convinced that Plato (or Plato's Socrates) supports this position. As I have suggested previously, I see Catherine Zuckert's new book--Plato's Philosophers--as a helpful guide to these questions as they arise in the Platonic dialogues. By taking up each of the dialogues in their dramatic order--rather than in the order in which Plato wrote them--and by comparing what Socrates says in comparison with what is said by four other philosophers in the dialogues--the Athenian Stranger, Parmenides, Timaeus, and the Eleatic Stranger--Zuckert shows that Plato's teaching about cosmic teleology and the eternity of the ideas is much more complex than is often recognized.

Moreover, she shows that these two topics really are the fundamental issues running throughout the dialogues. The question of cosmic teleology is raised at the end of the Laws. "If no connection can be found between the most pressing concerns of human existence and the order of the whole, we humans would appear to be set adrift in a fundamentally indifferent, if not hostile environment" (145-46). The Athenian Stranger offers a teleological cosmology based on the intelligent design of a divine mind. But, Zuckert observes, his arguments are not very plausible; and Socrates is not present in the dialogue to question him. So we are left wondering "whether we can discover an all-encompassing, intelligible order, and second, if such an order can be found, whether it supports or fosters human happiness."

The question of the eternal ideas is raised in the Parmenides. A young Socrates cannot defend his doctrine of the ideas against the criticisms of Parmenides. In particular, Socrates cannot explain exactly how the unchanging, purely intelligible ideas are related to the changing, sensible experience of mortal human beings. In fact, as Zuckert sees it, Socrates never solves this problem anywhere in the dialogues.

As I have noted in some of my previous posts on Zuckert's book, she generally emphasizes that Socrates never clearly develops a cosmic teleology. "In contrast to Timaeus, Socrates never gives a specific account of the order of the movements of the heavenly bodies or the geometric construction of the four elements" (421).

Instead of finding moral guidance in the cosmos, Socrates looks to human wants and desires. "In contrast to Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger, Socrates never suggests that human beings can discover what is good for them by contemplating the intelligible order of the movements of the heavens. Not moved by the same wants and desires, the heavens cannot tell us what to do" (419).

If this is the correct interpretation of Socrates' position, then Socrates would be close to my position--that human morality and politics depends not on a cosmic teleology but on an immanent teleology of human natural desires. If human beings are by their natural desires directed to certain ends or purposes, then we can see those ends or purposes as intrinsic to their nature, regardless of whether these ends have any cosmic reference. Darwinian biology supports such an immanent teleology because it recognizes the goal-directed behavior characteristic of various animal species, including the human species.

This suggests that Plato's Socrates could embrace a conception of the cosmos as morally neutral, while seeing the species-specific desires of human beings as sufficient grounds for moral teleology. This seems to be the stance of the Eleatic Stranger in the Sophist. The Eleatic concludes that although the gods might have cared for human beings in the past, the gods no longer rule us directly. And so, as Zuckert states it, human beings now live "in a godforsaken universe in which they have to rule and provide for themselves" (714-17). Joseph Cropsey--in his Plato's World--interprets this denial of cosmic teleology as Plato's understanding.

Although Zuckert generally agrees with Cropsey, she occasionally suggests disagreement. In contrast to the "godforsaken universe" of the Eleatic Stranger, Zuckert asserts, Socrates' universe looks like that of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger. "All three of these philosophers suggest that studying the intelligible motions of the heavenly bodies will help human beings learn not merely how the cosmos is ordered but, even more important, how to order their own souls" (718). But this contradicts what Zuckert says elsewhere in her book about how Socrates never clearly embraces the cosmological arguments of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger.

Zuckert's confusion here reflects a confusion in Socrates' position. On the one hand, Socrates never develops any precise cosmology comparable to that of Timaeus and the Athenian Stranger, and he never clearly endorses what they say, although he does say that Timaeus represents "the peak of all philosophy." On the other hand, Socrates does show a yearning for some cosmic explanation of everything as guided by "mind" (nous) so that everything is ordered for the best. It seems, as Zuckert suggests, that Socrates wants this to be the "best of possible worlds" (in Leibniz's famous phrase), because if it is not, then this world is in some essential sense accidental, and that would frustrate Socrates' yearning for a cosmic order that is ordered for the best.

But what then about the other big issue--the question of the eternity of species? If Darwin's evolutionary science is correct, then all the species of life come into being and pass away. Species are not eternal or everlasting. This would seem to contradict the Platonic/Socratic teaching that being--what is really real and fully intelligible--is to be identified as eternal and unchanging, as distinguished from the temporal and ever-changing flux of the sensible world.

This identification of the real as what is eternally fixed is Parmenides' teaching. Socrates adopts this Parmenidean position, although he departs from Parmenides claim that being must be one and undifferentiated, because Socrates insists that being must be differentiated into multiple forms or ideas. As Zuckert says, Socrates is a "pluralistic Parmenidean" (684, 688).

But as long as he adheres to this Parmenidean assumption that being is eternally unchanging, Socrates cannot bridge the gap between the unchanging ideas and changing sense experience. The Eleatic Stranger points out that any absolute separation of unchanging intelligibles and changing sensibles cannot explain human knowledge, because human cognition is in motion. "The intelligibility of being seems to require that it somehow be both in motion and at rest" (700). The Eleatic proposes that we understand the world by sorting things into classes according to the ways they are like or unlike one another.

I am on the side of the Eleatic Stranger. Karl Popper--in his The World of Parminides--captures the main thought here: we need to go beyond the Parmenidean search for invariants and see that reality is a mixture of fixity and flux. We need to see, as Popper suggests, that the history of the cosmos shows an evolutionary emergence of variance and novelty. As the Eleatic Stranger argues, we can sort things out according to their enduring patterns of similarity and difference. But these enduring patterns are not eternal.

This is certainly true for our study of human nature. The human species is not absolutely invariant or eternal. Human beings did not exist before the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens, and we can expect that some day the human species will go extinct. But for as long as our species exists, there will be natural propensities that characterize us.

And yet the present reality of the human species is not invariant, because each human being is unique in being a product of a unique natural history. Biological history depends upon the variation that comes from sexual mating in which the random assortment of genes results in the procreation of unique individuals. So while we can identify the human species as a range of traits, we know that within that range, there is immense variation expressed in individual diversity. Human nature as we know it is neither absolutely fixed nor absolutely chaotic.

Without realizing it, Zuckert implicitly endorses this Darwinian understanding of the human species in her criticisms of Timaeus's cosmological explanation of the human species. As she indicates, Timaeus cannot account for the unpredictable variation in human beings that comes from human mating and reproduction, because he has to assume that the divine craftsman created human nature as absolutely unchanging. Consequently, Timaeus has to assume that all human beings are born absolutely the same in their natural abilities and traits, which denies the reality of natural individual differences (842). Thus, as Zuckert indicates, Timaeus' cosmology--in its search for eternal invariance--must deny the obvious facts of sexual reproduction and individual identity.

My conclusion from all this is that the Platonic dialogues give us reasons to believe that conceptions of cosmic teleology and the eternity of species are implausible because they contradict what we know by experience. More plausible, I suggest, would be the Darwinian conceptions of immanent teleology and the evolution of species.


Lewis said...

I have been reading your your recent posts on Plato (and those on Nietzsche) with great interest.

You have consistently argued that Plato and Socrates do not ultimately accept the arguments that they make to the effect that morality must be based upon a "cosmic model of eternal, teleological order". If I understand you correctly, you then want to argue that Plato and Socrates actually affirm a position closer to your own, that morality only requires a "natural" foundation.

My question is this: does it necessarily follow that Plato and Socrates believe in a morality with natural support just because they do not really believe in the existence of a morality with cosmic support?

Isn't there another possibility? Isn't it possible that Plato and Socrates do not actually believe in morality as such? In other words, perhaps the reason that Plato goes through so much effort to elaborate a cosmologically based morality while constantly pointing out the problems that attend to such an undertaking is because he thinks that moral reasoning does in fact assume such a basis but that such an assumption is unsustainable. The philosophic life, as opposed to the moral or political life, might then be said to consist largely in an attempt to give a critique of morality, rather than simply an account of morality.

If Plato or Socrates thought that a morality based on nature alone was possible, without any recourse whatsoever to cosmological or metaphysical foundations, wouldn't they just have elucidated such a doctrine? They needn't have bothered, in that case, with all the cosmological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo (and, boy, is there a lot of that stuff in Plato).

Perhaps I am mistaken, but I would have thought that you depart from Plato's thinking precisely on the point of the very possibility of morality. Both you and Plato could be said to agree (and please do correct me if I am mistaken here) that there can be no cosmological basis for morality. Plato, however, might think that morality requires such a basis and that, in its absence, morality itself is radically problematic, or that it is religious rather than reasonable. You seem to deny that morality requires such a basis and therefore find yourself able to argue that there is indeed a true morality which is discernible by human reason in the natural world. One very important implication of your argument, it seems to me, is that the philosopher is a moral man, perhaps even the moral man par excellence, and that, contrary to the view of Plato, there is not necessarily a conflict between the philosopher and the city.

Have I understood you correctly? And will you in your present work be exploring your agreements and/or disagreements with the kind of interpretation of classical political philosophy that I have indicated here? How, for example, does Darwinian Conservatism understand the tension between philosophy and politics, which seems to inform all of Plato's writing, or does it understand itself to have resolved that tension, which Plato appears to have regarded as permanent?

Best regards,
Lewis Slawsky

Larry Arnhart said...

If morality depends on the question of the good human life, and if the Socratic philosopher believes that the philosophic life is the best human life, then there is a sense in which "the philosopher is a moral man."

The fundamental question that interests me is whether the human good depends on some cosmic good, or whether the human good can stand on its own as rooted in the human nature of desire, regardless of whether this good has any cosmic support.

Timaeus agrees with Socrates that philosophy is the highest life. For Timaeus, philosophy is the highest life because it participates in the eternal, noetic order of the cosmos. Sometimes, Socrates (Plato) seems to agree with this. But other times, Socrates seems to believe that the goodness of the philosophic life can be grounded in the human nature of desire without the Timaean cosmology.

Zuckert and others rightly stress the erotic character of Socratic philosophy as perpetual search for the truth that is never satisfied, so that the Socratic philosopher might accept that complete knowledge is unattainable--perhaps because the whole is not itself fully intelligible--while still finding the pursuit of truth satisfying.

But even here I wonder whether the erotic Socratic philosopher can do without cosmology. How does the Socratic philosopher know for sure that his life is the best? One answer would be suggested by the PHILEBUS that such a life is the most pleasurable, the most desirable, life for those who can live it. This wouldn't require any kind of cosmology.

But then often times it seems that the erotic Socratic philosopher believes that he is climbing a "ladder of love" up to the contemplation of the beautiful in itself, which is unchanging. This seems to assume a noetic cosmology in which Mind rules over everything.

In the PHILEBUS (28c), Socrates suggests that the idea of Mind ruling over everything is just an expression of the vanity of philosophers (as Nietzsche said later).

But then much of what Socrates says and does in the dialogues indicates that his devotion to the philosophic life of the mind depends on the assumption that Mind really does rule over the whole cosmos.

If Plato or Socrates deny that there is any cosmological support for morality, do they also deny that there is any cosmological support for philosophy?

Kenneth Lloyd Anderson said...

I just posted this comment regarding your latest entry on my blog and I thought my approach might interest you.

The immanent and transcendent teleology of human natural desires

In his blog “Darwinian Conservatism” Larry Arnhart says ...“If human beings are by their natural desires directed to certain ends or purposes, then we can see those ends or purposes as intrinsic to their nature, regardless of whether these ends have any cosmic reference. Darwinian biology supports such an immanent teleology because it recognizes the goal-directed behavior characteristic of various animal species, including the human species.”

But we say that human morality depends on an immanent teleology of human natural desires, leading to a “transcendent” teleology, in the sense that nature evolves to Godhood, that is, human beings will evolve to the next and the next and next species, all the way to Godhood. We are directed to this end as the Kosmos is directed to this end.

This is the goal of the Evolutionary Outward Path first glimpsed in the Traditional Involutionary Inward Path, which sees (at least mystics see) the Soul or Spirit Within yet needs to further see the teleological direction of the Spirit Within evolving to Godhood in the Kosmos.

Posted by Kenneth Lloyd Anderson

Larry Arnhart said...

Another point in response to Lewis's thoughtful comments--

If Plato's intention in writing the TIMAEUS was to expose the falsehood of Timaeus's cosmology, then wouldn't we have to conclude that Plato failed miserably?

For almost 2,000 years, the TIMAEUS shaped the cosmology of the Western world, as most readers assumed that Plato intended Timaeus's cosmology to be taken seriously. Did Plato anticipate this mistake?

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is that the Timaeus was the only Platonic dialogue in Christendom for centuries, as I am sure you know. Anyone can see how that would lead to a distorted picture of Plato's cosmology.

Your endorsement of the Eleatic Stranger's value-neutral inquiry has, in retrospect, made Richard Hassing's critique of your book much more tenable.

Word verification? Nousness.

Larry Arnhart said...


What are you talking about?

"Value-neutral inquiry"? No, my argument is that human nature is not value-neutral at all. But I don't see how there can be any cosmic basis for morality.