Lecture Eight: Dialectic 8.4

8.4 Consequences

Did classical ancient Greek thought come close to anything comparable to anaesthetic trance? In terms of beliefs or ideas, the historical Parmenides is an interesting case, since the tenets of his philosophy do come close to what we also encountered in Indian thought. However, Parmenides himself says very little about any actual method or technique of trance. What he does say is that a goddess, Justice (Dike), revealed that truth to him in a direct vision. Perhaps this might have been enough for contemporaries who were not prejudiced against trance and were in fact very much familiar with both visionary and possession trance.

But in the previous lecture we also noticed an oddity in the classical Greek view. In Aeschylus’s Orestes at Athens, a new notion of justice is introduced. This stands in clear contrast with the sort of retaliation that is ascribed to mythical times and connected with family kinship. Scapin’s The Flowering of Suffering (2020) argues that this new notion of justice is inspired by Parmenides (among others), since here justice becomes a cosmological principle. This is true, but the way justice works in Aeschylus is different from how it works in Parmenides. Parmenides sees Justice as the power that sharply separates being from non-being and keeps the former aloof from the latter. In fact, Parmenides sees this absolute opposition between Being and non-being not even as the opposition between two realities, but rather part of a single reality: Being, and nothing else. From this perspective, all differences are just appearances (at best), devoid of any truth. This sort of justice might be cosmological, but does not work well in court, since it would entail that the very difference between (e.g.) an act’s being a matricide or just a homicide is ultimately a sheer appearance. Not a great line of defence for Orestes, and surely not the line of defence used by Apollo in the trial.

What Apollo does in defending Orestes is to use a sort of dialectic to prove that Oreste did kill a woman, but that woman could not be considered his ‘mother,’ since life comes primarily only from the father, and the mother’s womb is just a space that receives semen and allows the foetus to develop. Hence, Orestes killed, but did not commit matricide—surely not the best argument, at least from today’s point of view. And yet, from a logical point of view, this sort of argument relies on a dialectical distinction between those conditions that actively contribute to generation and those that do not, hence showing that if something does not actively contribute to generation is less important and might not even be regarded as a parent (a good instance of the subordinating strategy). As noticed, not everybody was convinced, the jury was split. But what is interesting here is that Apollo’s line of defence aims at dissolving the problem of Orestes’s matricide by dissociating (differentiating) the act of killing from the property of being the son of one’s mother. The contradiction is solved by breaking it apart in a way that no longer appears to be a contradiction. A claim about a certain form of subordination (of the two parents in the process of generation), leads to a claim about distinction and separation, hence distancing the two elements that engendered contradiction (being a homicide and being the son of the woman that one has killed).

Plato’s relational dialectic in the Sophist looks quite similar to Apollo’s strategy. Like Apollo, the visitor of Elea is keen on drawing distinctions and placing his subject of investigation into increasingly more sharply defined camps, somehow hunting it until it is put to the corner of an absolutely precise definition. In this method, the relation of ‘being-different-from’ something else is not presented as a contradiction, but on the contrary as the absence of any contradiction. Difference and distinction are possible once the visitor has overcome Parmenides’s too rigid account of non-being, and allowed non-being to be conceived of relationally as something that mix up with other kinds.

In the Parmenides, Plato attributes to his eponymous character a dialectical method that is strikingly different from the relational method used by the visitor and even by Aeschylus’s Apollo. This Parmenidean dialectic is based on absolute segregation and its result might be akin to a sort of anaesthetic trance, in which language is transcended and some intuition of an intransitive reality is achieved. The contradiction is solved by stepping outside of language altogether and jumping into the ineffable. In the Sophist, as in the ending of the Oresteia, this is not what happens. On the contrary, the contradiction is solved by breaking it apart through the use of language and dialectic. In this sense, it is tempting to see in Aeschylus an anticipation of Plato’s relational dialectic, or perhaps better, to see Plato’s relational dialectic as a development and philosophical refinement of a way of arguing that might have been common in Athenian’s courts and among lawyers. If one takes the Sophist seriously, this latter relational (forensic) dialectic defines the quintessence of the philosopher’s art, which is at odds with the special training that Parmenides recommended to the young Socrates in the Parmenides. In short, between the Parmenides and the Sophist we can find traces of a change of method in how philosophy is practiced and understood, at least by Plato. Remarkably, this change also concerns the dismissal of any potential avenue for anaesthetic trance, and the reduction of the sort of liberation that it aimed at achieving as ultimately contradictory and unworkable.

The need to move from a segregational to a relational dialectic is not accidental. Plato’s dialogues show that it was based on a fine sensitivity to the problems attached to segregational dialectic. In a nutshell, segregation is based on taking difference at face value (because being something is essentially linked with non-being-something-else, be different from something else), while it also makes it impossible to grant any reality to difference as such (because difference is absolute non-being and hence does not exist). In this way, segregational dialectic is not only paradoxical, but also self-defeating, especially when one moves from the sort of psychological experience that it can support (a blacking out of thought and a jump into the ineffable), to a set of beliefs and views derived from that experience (some form of Parmenidean monistic philosophy). Hence, Plato’s move is not just motivated by wanting to try something different, but rather by an insight into the inherent problem that plagues the anaesthetic approach. In the Indian sources discussed in Lecture Six, this sort of problem is hardly acknowledged, and we are going to see that other Indian sources (the discourses of the Buddha in particular) do see the problem but attack it from another angle, more connected with meditative practice itself. In this respect, Plato’s contribution is rather unique, since it presents a sustained refutation of the interpretation of anaesthetic trance, and especially of the validity of any belief or view based on the sort of non-transitive experience that it achieves.

Plato’s relational dialectic has its price. By the end of the Sophist, we learn that philosophy has nothing do to with trance, that thought is just inner speech, and that solving contradictions can be done only by carefully using the idea of difference to separate things and their qualities from one another. It is tempting to regard this project as one of the major reasons why so many Western philosophers, working in the wake of Plato, ended up conceiving of the activity of philosophy as a purely rational and linguistic affair. There are of course exceptions, notably Plotinus and Neo-Platonists, who revived the Parmenidean anaesthetic method (often building on Plato’s Parmenides), and surely some later Christian authors (who would be classified among the ‘mystics’ discussed in Lecture Four) were also open to this line of investigation. But they are easily dismissed as eccentric with respect to the golden standard of philosophical relational dialectic set up in the Sophist. Aristotle, to mention just another hugely influential figure in the history of Western thought, would agree here with Plato’s general orientation and with the attempt at moving away from anaesthetic trance. Consider, for example, his discussion of the principle of non-contradiction in book four of the Metaphysics and how he rejects the very possibility of admitting any meaning for what is not fully determined (i.e., for what is ineffable). Ironically, in the merging of Greek thought and Christian experience, this might also be a reason why Christians themselves were at some point increasingly weary of anaesthetic trance (variously called ‘mysticism,’ ‘quietism,’ and ‘enthusiasm’) and progressively marginalized it and, at times, openly persecuted it.

Where does this discussion leave us in terms of our investigation into the paradox of mastery? We saw in the previous lecture how ancient Greek culture could move towards the transcendent pole of the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self in order to alleviate this paradox. Weakening embodiment and consociation, the tension between the two is diminished. In the most extreme case, this would reach the point of complete disembodiment and lack of any consociation. Perhaps the historical Parmenides instantiates this more extreme solution. Plato, however, demonstrates why this move is not viable and forces the discussion to remain closer to the middle-range of the spectrum. But in the middle-range of the spectrum the paradox emerges with greater evidence. It is not surprising, thus, to see how much effort Plato himself devoted to reflecting on the ideal conditions for establishing the best form of consociation and society (as he tries to do in the Republic, the Stateman, and the Laws). In all these cases, he resorts to some version of the strategy of subordination, in which the ideal model of consociation is based on the possibility of establishing the right sort of hierarchy, in which the elements that most explicitly and strongly embody the power of reason (hence the power of knowing ideas and mastering dialectic) are seen as the dominating ones. Parallels and similarities with the solution offered by Kriṣṇa in the end of the Bhagavad-Gītā (Lecture Six) are not hard to spot. But we already observed in the previous lecture that subordinating by itself is way of handling the paradox, rather than a way of resolving it. For Plato, the way to absolute transcendence is dismissed, while the way to strong embodiment is rejected as incompatible with any knowledge at all (as argued in the Theaetetus). Following him, we must stick to the middle of the spectrum, but this forces us to confront an enduring paradox that cannot be entirely solved, only managed.

If the self is a construction aimed at mastering uncertainty, ancient Greek culture reveals a number of ways that uncertainty was dealt with, ranging from traditional ritual practices to philosophical dialectic. But none of these practices can in fact eliminate uncertainty completely, and even the knowledge of Plato’s ideas remains to some extent provisional and shaky, both because Plato’s theory remains open for debate (a good sign that it lacks absolute certainty, despite, ironically, being a theory about how to acquire knowledge of something absolutely certain), and because a relational conception of ideas (which seems to be the most plausible one) would make it impossible to fully disentangle ideas from one another, and from the empirical world in which they are somehow interwoven. But what remains relational, conditional, dependent on something else, must also remain equally uncertain, since its being and knowledge cannot be fully grasped in its own right.

It goes without saying that an ancient Greek person living in Athens in the fourth-century BCE would conceive of themselves differently from their counterpart living in the same period in India, or from another counterpart living in today’s Western society. The point of these lectures is not to assert that there is a universal and invariable structure of selfhood that is equally shared by all cultures and across all times. And yet, it would be equally doubtful to deny some sense and conception of selfhood to human beings who lived or are living outside of the narrow historical window that embraces Western modernity and contemporaneity. If selfhood is a project, rather than a well-defined object, this project can surely be executed in different ways.

However, what we are now witnessing is that there are some structural problems with the essential goal of this project, namely, the mastery of uncertainty. There is a flow in the blueprint. Surely, we might further our investigation by drawing a more fine-grained taxonomy of different ways this problem has been addressed. But in the rest of this series, we shall instead take another approach and investigate what happens when, confronted with the difficulties of mastery, one eventually decides to give up the whole project as it has been conceived and discussed so far.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.