Lecture Eight: Dialectic 8.1

8.1 Introduction

The self emerges as an attempt at mastering uncertainty. Over the last lectures we mapped different ways that this attempt is confronted with difficulties—or even, at times, what seems like an inescapable paradox. In trying to master uncertainty, one has to deal with elements (mainly embodiment and consociation) which do not eliminate uncertainty, but rather create new forms of it. We explored how ancient Indian and Greek cultures faced this paradox. In the Indian context, one prevalent strategy is that of distancing the conflicting elements so that they might cease to engender tension. In the Greek context, on the other hand, the prevalent strategy seems that of subordinating one element to the other in order to ensure that one will retain control over the other. This distinction should not be overstated and surely there are good examples of both strategies in each culture, as well as cases of hybridization. But for present purposes, retaining this somewhat more schematic view helps us to bring into relief the main options that are available. If the self is constructed along a spectrum of possible ways of mastering uncertainty, it also true that the paradox entailed by this construction can receive different solutions, which can be compared and related to one another in a relatively systematic way.

So far, we also noted that both in ancient India and ancient Greece, when the paradox of mastery emerges more explicitly, its solution is sought in the direction of a weakening of embodiment and even of consociation. Ascetic practices that emerge in the old Upaniṣads move markedly in the direction of Transcendence and challenge the established social structures based on household life. In Greece, such a radical move is less common, or at least less apparent in the extant sources about the archaic and classical period. And yet, both mystery cults and new forms of political organization challenge the more traditional forms of consociation. If pushed even further, as might be the case with Parmenides, this approach leads towards a leap in the Transcendent, which in turn entails a radical re-interpretation of the phenomenal world of difference and becoming as sheer appearance, which is not genuine reality or Being. By ascending towards Being, the paradox of mastery is handled insofar as both embodiment and consociation are emptied, and thus their tension fades.

As an alternative, we could expect a move in the opposite direction, towards a stronger form of embodiment that equates an agent with one individual living body. This naturalist view is most prominent perhaps in today’s Western culture, as we discussed in Lectures One and Two, but there are also examples of this sort of approach (often glossed as ‘materialism’) both in ancient Greece and in ancient India.[1] Even so, we already discussed some of the problems connected with it. The trajectory we are now following explores why the reasons for moving towards Transcendence can be equally problematic (by shedding further light on some of the justifications for today’s resistance against moving towards this end of the spectrum). As we shall see, neither strong embodiment nor strong disembodiment provide entirely satisfying and viable solutions to the paradox of mastery. The paradox somehow forces us to stay in the middle of our spectrum, and yet to find a different way of staying there.

Across the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self, we observed that the deliberate and methodical cultivation of trance-like states plays a pivotal role. Different forms of trance are used to alter and even reengineer ordinary experience by transforming the way in which selfhood is constructed and interpreted. Poietic practices (which includes forms of visionary trance) use the power of imagination to withdraw the individual from their engagement with the ordinary environment and allow their identity to become spread over various avatars and domains. Possession trance pushes imagination one step further, by inducing the individual to fully identify with a different entity or personality (usually associated with a superior spiritual being), thus abandoning more or less entirely (and for a shorter or longer period) the ordinary sense of self. Anesthetic trance goes even further, building on the intuition that the sense of self is not necessarily bound to any set of perceptions with which it ordinarily identifies. Anesthetic trance seeks to progressively overcome any basis for identification, until experience becomes intransitive; that is, until there is no more experience of anything. Most often, this is achieved by progressively shutting down sensory stimulations, imagination, and perception, until the adept enters a state comparable to dreamless sleep. These three forms of trance differ widely in their manifestations and in the techniques used to establish them. Moreover, the ways of socializing visionary and possession trance (commonly through various forms of social rituals) are often different from those of anesthetic trance, which is usually pursued in seclusion. Despite these differences, though, the three forms of trance constitute a relatively continuous spectrum, which maps onto the spectrum of possible forms of experience discussed in Lecture Two.

In contrast to ancient India, we find less elaborate reflections on the meaning of these various forms of trance in ancient Greek culture. And yet, we do encounter trance-like practices playing an analogously key role in shaping social, historical, and intellectual phenomena. In the previous lecture we also observed how a form of expression peculiar to ancient Greek culture, the tragedy, seems to build on some forms of trance. In some tragedies (like the Oresteia trilogy) we encounter individual characters that illustrate visionary and possession trance (Cassandra, and the Pythia), but the overall genre can also be connected with Dionysian possession more broadly. As for anesthetic trance, we noted how Parmenides might well provide a hermeneutic framework for interpreting the sort of experience expected from anesthetic trance.[2]

On one reading of his poem, Parmenides can be interpreted as asserting an absolute opposition between positive and negative, between Being and nothing. This opposition is absolute in the sense that whatever is not pure Being has to be considered sheer nothing. The only difference that matters is this opposition. Specific differences between things are thus unreal. Insofar as a certain thing is not pure Being, it is just nothing, and insofar as that specific thing is something, it is not a specific thing, but just Being. On these grounds, Parmenides can be seen as reducing the world of multiplicity and difference to a sheer illusion, asserting instead that only pure Being is real, and all the rest is nothing at all. Since Being is conceived in absolute terms, it cannot be differentiated in any way and it must be conceived as completely intransitive: it cannot be the being of something, it can only be. From this point of view, Parmenides does offer an instance of the sort of conclusions that in ancient Indian culture are explicitly derived from the use of anesthetic trance. However, can we say that Parmenides made use of anesthetic trance himself? A standard historiographical view would be skeptical on this front. Parmenides should rather be seen as one of the first Western philosophers who built his cosmology of Being entirely based on rational argumentation. The same historiographical view would then easily grant that how Parmenides’s arguments are supposed to work is far from clear, but this would not detract (the view goes) from the fact that Parmenides’s method has little to do with trance, and it is based on pure reason alone.

In this Lecture, we turn to one of the leading voices of classic Greek philosophy, and perhaps one of the most influential philosophers ever, Plato. It is possible to show that, among Plato’s dialogues, there is some trace of the use of a method that is akin to anesthetic trance in its objectives. This method is best presented in Plato’s Parmenides. Scholars are rightly cautious in attributing to the historical Parmenides the views that Plato attributes to him in his dialogue. We shall confine our discussion to simply showing that in the Parmenides we have Plato presenting a method akin to one form of anesthetic trance, which he ascribes (rightly or wrongly) to the historical Parmenides. Given our focus in these lectures, we shall not follow up the historical issue of whether this attribution is correct. Rather, we shall then turn to another method that Plato introduces in a dialogue that is considered to be composed shortly after and in connection with the Parmenides, namely, the Sophist. Here, the leading character is another ‘visitor from Elea’ (Parmenides’s birthplace). However, the visitor is now ready to go beyond Parmenides and devises an alternative method that will be able to vindicate the full reality of phenomenal difference, precisely what Parmenides reduced to sheer illusion. This new method is called ‘dialectic’ and works in a different way from the method illustrated in the Parmenides.

As we shall see, the dialectical method outlined in the Sophist makes it possible to reach a well-defined definition of any given thing, capable of separating it (and hence acknowledging the reality of the thing’s defining difference) from all other things. For present purposes, the importance of the contrast between these two methods is that Plato offers arguments for rejecting the validity of anesthetic trance as a viable means to understanding and interpreting reality. However, Plato is no friend of materialism or strong embodiment, but rather seeks to preserve a path towards some sort of transcendent and eternal reality. Dialectic is the new method that is supposed to provide just this. As we shall see, the dialectical method is akin to the forensic approach we encountered in the ending trial of the Oresteia. Plato’s dialectic could have been inspired by major intellectual, juridical and political reshaping taking place in Athens during the fourth century and witnessed in tragedy. Be that as it may, in the Sophist Plato defines the philosopher as a new character (whether tragic or comic is up for debate), who is both keen to transcend the world of becoming, and certain that this cannot be accomplished by anesthetic trance, nor by reaching towards an alleged absolute and ineffable reality. The sort of absolute transcendence advocated by Parmenides is dismissed as an ill-conceived interpretation of experience.

  1. In the Indian context, this approach is fully developed by the Cārvāka or Lokāyata school, which seems to have developed since the sixth century BCE. For a fuller treatment of it, see Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, Studies on the Cārvāka/Lokāyata (2011). For a comparison between Greek and Indian developments on this front, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 13.
  2. Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 6, provides a more elaborate discussion of existing parallels between ascetic practices in India (akin to those discussed in Lecture Six) and their acceptance among Greek circles, especially by Plato in his mature dialogues. McEvilley’s discussion is helpful in displacing the cliché of conceiving of Greek philosophy as primarily devoted to theoretical contemplation, versus Indian philosophy as primarily devoted to spiritual practice (a cliché partially challenged by Hadot as well, as discussed in Lecture Zero). The presence of ascetic themes in Plato’s mature dialogues (especially the Phaedo and the Symposium) raised the issue of whether Plato remained committed to their pursuit throughout his career. McEvilley supports this option. Here, however, we shall take at face value the way in which Plato’s later dialogues, the Parmenides and the Sophist in particular, challenge his earlier views, and also the sort of practices that can be most helpful in reaching the philosophical ideal. This does not mean that the late Plato reverted to a more hedonistic position, but rather that he saw some inherent problems in the way the experiences produced by ascesis were interpreted.


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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.