Enrico Müller

Agonistic Orientation and Cultural Dynamics in Ancient Greece

Translated by Reinhard G. Mueller

This essay centers on the cultural experience that the Greeks had to face again and again in ever-new circumstances: agonistic orientation. Ancient Greek culture was highly competitive. There was hardly an area of life that wasn’t shaped by competitive thinking. On the one hand, the ethos of competition united all of Greece and separated it from other cultures. On the other hand, this ethos also divided them as individuals from each other within their own culture, being under the persistent pressure to distinguish themselves. The Greek word “agon” covers all the dimensions of competition: it refers to the warlike conflict of life and death as well as political rivalries. It also denotes the competition between professions and ways of life as well as the competition between athletes and artists.

In the following, we explore the fundamentally agonistic orientation of the ancient Greeks and consider it a key to understanding their culture as a whole. It could also be a key to grasping what continues to culturally shape large parts of today’s world. The essay proceeds from competition as we know it from the famous Greek epics via competition in politics to the performance of competition in philosophy, first considering sophism and Isocrates and then Plato, who in a famous allegory presented the processes in the soul, or rather, an individual’s orientation as inner competition.

A: The Culture of Agonism

I. The Primordial Forms of Agon: Homer’s Aristeia and Hesiod’s Concept of Strife

The works of Homer and Hesiod are, as the first surviving texts in the Western tradition, not only essential sources to explore the archaic period of ancient Greece. They are above all canonical texts for the Panhellenic agonistic self-image that reached far beyond the archaic era. This fact is remarkable in several respects. On the one hand, the life form of the city-state (the ‘polis’), which is constitutive for Greek culture, hardly appears in either Homer or Hesiod. On the other hand, both poets describe life from such different perspectives that it almost seems as though they belonged to different cultures. While Homer affirms and celebrates, with no moral boundaries, the aesthetic values and social practices of an adventurous and warlike elite, Hesiod, the poetic autodidact, reveals a moralizing view of the livelihoods of peasants in the early archaic period. Hesiod describes this world “from below” – something that Homer purposefully skips for the most part.

The agonistic ethos, which divides the ancient Greeks as individuals but unites them as community, monumentally and strikingly manifests itself in the heroic world of Homer’s epics. Representing both sides of the Trojan War, Glaucus and Achilles express an ethos with the aim to “always be the best and stand out above others” (Iliad VI, 208 and XI, 784). In a certain sense, these words capture, in a nutshell, the ancient Greek’s agonism. They address the ideal of aristeia, of ‘asserting oneself through excellence,’ which was, for Homer, a radically asymmetrical conflict. Especially the Iliad shows how war, being omnipresent, was for the aristocratic elites the only field where they could prove their value. The telling starting point of Iliad is the excessive anger of Achilles, the prototypical hero, and its agonistic ideal is the heroic duel for life and death. This corresponds to an ethos that is entirely oriented to accumulating prestige (time) in war and to increasing and distributing the spoils of war (kleos). Homer’s disconcerting attention to detail in the countless killing scenes of his epics serves to glorify feelings of power not just by means of achieving victory but also in the celebration of excess in destroying the other. The Iliad and the Odyssey frankly depict situations in which the heroic protagonists prove their excellence (aristeia) through an apparent lack of any humane measure in killing – think of Achilles’ desecration of Hector’s corpse or Odysseus’ killing of the suitors and maidservants at the end of the Odyssey. Homer celebrates and immortalizes agonistic transgressions that represent this ensemble of aristocratic ideologies which he, as poet, didn’t want or wasn’t able to question.

Ironically, it was the always-dissatisfied, nagging smallholder and poetic autodidact Hesiod who limited the Homeric elites’ unbounded ideology of competition and who, in doing so, was able to channel the agon into cultivated forms. His notion of the two basic forms of conflict (eris) and their respective potencies provides a remarkably precise description of the agon’s potential of oscillating between destruction and cultivation. Formulated as a moralizing instruction to his brother Perses, Hesiod distinguishes at the beginning of his Works and Days between two goddesses of strife who, on the one hand, destroy or, on the other, regulate the ways that humans live together (Hesiod, Opera et dies, 11-26). The goddess who’s out for “terrible war and strife” is called the “cruel, terrible one,” “whom no mortal loves” – the contrast to Homer is obvious. Zeus, who in Homer’s epics enjoys watching the war of the opposing parties, appears in Hesiod only as the giver of the other – the good – Eris. His status as the greatest Olympian and, for mankind, the most important deity arises in Hesiod’s interpretation from this culture-founding deed. Of the two goddesses of strife, the one who’s “much better” shifts the conflict from the level of war to that of culture: she initiates the ethos of competition among people. The distinction between a destructive and a constructive agon is at the same time a first manifestation of agonism as a foundational structure of the ancient Greek world. In contrast to the concept of fame of largely asocial elites that Homer remains committed to, Hesiod, given his own precarious existence, wants to establish a concept of justice as a corrective measure against the hubris of the rampant striving for dominance (aristeuein). This perspective enables Hesiod to fundamentally reorient the phenomenon of agonism: shifting from being an ideology of a social group to the idea of an agonistically structured society as such. For the principle of competition, as limited by the good Eris, not only binds the warlike aristocracy; it also explicitly binds one’s neighbor, the potter, the carpenter, the singer, and even the beggar. Everyone, whatever he or she does, wants to be better than the others – but now within a shared context of reference. Hesiod defuses the asymmetries of an orientation toward competition by emphasizing the contest’s productivity instead of the victory of the best. To understand the “Greek miracle” that began in archaic times Hesiod is a better witness than Homer.

II. Becoming Oneself by means of Orienting Oneself to Others: Learning through Agonism

The term “Greek miracle” is used to describe the fact that a small Mediterranean civilization, surrounded by ancient empires, produced in three centuries political forms, literary, scientific and philosophical innovations and, not the least, plastic and architectural works of art, which for two and a half millennia were regarded as the timeless normative standard for ‘humanness’ and which still today at least evoke admiration. The humanist and classicist traditions have long reconstructed the Greeks as an ingenious, singularly gifted people, who created their pure and, in this respect, “classical” forms, as it were, out of nothing through their unparalleled abilities. Today, however, it has become clear that the achievements of this culture are the products of a process of acculturation that had its roots in the archaic period. This period has rightly been called an age of experimentation. For Greek identity wasn’t formed by means of an isolation from the outside world, but rather through its openness and eagerness to learn what’s foreign. Through this achievement of orientation, by exposing itself to what’s foreign as well as incorporating it according to its own needs, the Greeks indeed set new standards as a culture.

The process of colonization is a constitutive moment in the founding of Hellenic culture. In the seventh century B.C., the Greeks populated an area ranging from the “Pillars of Hercules” (Gibraltar) via the North African coast all the way to Phasis, the easternmost point of the Black Sea, and tripled the number of their cities. Plato famously portrayed this kind of colonization: the Greeks settle, at the same time individually and communally, around the sea like mice and frogs sitting around the pond (Phaidon 109a-b). This image above all foregrounds the clear difference to all subsequent colonizations in world history: The Greeks explored and settled in new territory in a decentralized and spotty manner; they didn’t focus on conquering and expanding their empire. Instead, they populated and occupied polycentric points by the sea and developed a space of communication where ‘Greekness’ gradually developed as a way of life, not as nationhood. Moreover, this way of life established itself via colonization not by annihilating or excluding the foreign, but rather through a permanent interplay of exporting to and incorporating the foreign. With the ‘polis,’ a new form of government was exported whose establishment was oftentimes not yet secured in the mother city. Rather, it was the cultural transfer that helped stabilize that which was still fragile: in fact each wave of colonization had to ask itself what the genuine Greekness was that was being exported to new geographical territories. Only this critical self-questioning triggered a rational explanation of what seemed to be self-evident – self- and other-orientation merged and gradually stabilized the identity of the ‘self.’

The developmental advances, springing from such a double achievement of orientation, are extraordinary. Moreover, venturing into foreign territory involved a process of existential learning and interpretation with unknown outcome. In this process, the settlers (oikists) were condemned, with no alternative, to find their ways creatively and successfully because returning to the mother city was not an option. They either established themselves under the new conditions – or perished: this was the simple logic of survival the settlers faced. The success rate was relatively high. It wasn’t uncommon – as in the cases of numerous South Italian and Sicilian settlements such as Syracuse, Agrigento or Panormos (Palermo) – that cities specifically created as a colonies (apoika) would, within a few generations, culturally catch up with and surpass their mother city (metropolis) that had developed naturally.

What signified the Greek colonial practices is also crucial for the timeless achievements of Greek culture as such. Their successively emerging “classical” forms are likewise not inventions ex nihilo, but products of an experimental learning process. The formation of genuine Greekness is by no means self-development, but the result of partly experimental, partly agonistic ways of dealing with already existing achievements of advanced civilizations, their cultural practices and scientific knowledge, be they of Babylonian, Lydian, Persian or Egyptian origin. In the process of the reception and transformation of these elements, a specific concept of cultural learning manifests itself. The “plastic power,” which for instance Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche emphasized concerning the Greeks, includes not only the rigid will to shape and transform but also being able to play with one’s own plasticity. He or she who learns, changes.

But he or she changes in the sense of a real transformation only if he or she is capable of undermining the rigid structures of his or her identity and permitting change. This aspect of transformative learning strongly contrasts with an orthodox concept of knowledge transfer, which one-sidedly aims at the reception and adoption in the sense of mere reproduction of what has been learned. It is this fascinating interplay of adopting and surpassing, of selecting from existing foreignness and of transforming into something completely new in one’s own terms that may eventually explain the ‘Greek miracle.’ The adoption of the Phoenician alphabet and its adaptation to one’s own phonetics; the embracing of the Lydian invention of the metal-based money system and its immediate professionalization; the ‘Egyptian phase’ regarding Greek monumental sculptures and temple architecture; the transformation of oriental wisdom and concepts of the soul, of Babylonian astronomy and mathematics into self-referential philosophical speculations; the development of the concept of self-governing Phoenician cities to that of politically self-responsible city-states (poleis); the perfection of the Hoplite phalanx that had already existed in Israel – all these are only a few examples of the “plastic power” of acculturation, the specifically Greek art of agonistic learning.

III. Finding the Right Balance: Politics as Competition

The development of Greek politics was likewise characterized by an intrinsic dialectic of promoting and controlling agonism. Taking on a collective responsibility for how to live together as community in fact only created the new standards for what we still call politics today. The small Hellenic city-states took the decisive step in the phase of their greatest threat, the so-called crisis of the archaic period.

At this time, the still under-regulated communities are repeatedly brought to the brink of civil war (stasis) by aristocratic rivalries on the one hand and extreme inequality on the other. Confronted with this initial threat, the political genius of the Greeks came to the fore when they developed corrective measures against these societal dysfunctionalities (dysnomia). The process of politicizing the city-state and eventually the individual began with the codification of the law, the establishment of something quasi-neutral and common for all. The law effectively limited the hybrid tendencies of agonism, especially family blood feuds and the petty wars resulting from them. Only the law, for instance the Athenian laws of Draco and Solon, made possible the formation and stabilization of state competences and thus the establishment of political institutions as such.

The “Draconian” harshness of the first codified law reflects, on the one hand, the threatened state of the early city-states and, on the other, the efforts necessary for the city’s inhabitants to see themselves as part of the same community. The new experience that all individuals were relatively equal before a universal law facilitated that the city’s inhabitants increasingly understood themselves as citizens, as political subjects: In the interaction of the people’s assembly (ekklesia), the council (boule), the courts under the leadership of changing, elected officials (archontes), the polis gradually became the project of the citizens (polites). On the one hand, the process of establishing institutions led to an integration of the elites into these institutions and, on the other, to the creation of equal opportunities for participation. The aristocracy no longer waged private wars to increase their prestige, but they fought against each other within the institutions of the polis for the highest offices. Even in the age of radical democracy, the most prestigious positions in politics were still largely occupied by aristocrats. The new, good order (eunomia) thus by no means erased social differences, but instead created a fundamentally new political reality: the awareness that all citizens of the polis share the same rights (isonomia) and the same opportunities to participate.

To organize political agons (i.e. political competitions for public offices), it was inevitable to establish a basic community consensus. Both the political language and its practice remained highly competitive even in the classical polis. By contrast to the consensus orientation of other societies, in the people’s assembly one motion “wins” over another and eventually a simple majority decides about political winners and losers. If such a fierce competition for votes in the state was to work, it was necessary that decision-making processes were accepted as binding. Only by means of this act of accepting does the agon become the catalyst for almost all social developments. By integrating it into the political order, competition promoted an ethos that had a direct impact on the education (paideia), even on the creation of the citizen in the sense of a political subject.

IV. Between the Production of Difference and Orientation to Equality: The Agonistic Individual

The cultural value we attribute today to athletic victories, including national and international championships and artistic creativity as well as the associated prizes, is directly due to the ancient Greeks. Their way of life makes it clear that agonism is a cultural schema that almost systematically establishes differences between people: in a certain sense, competition is what creates an individual in the first place.

It is precisely in sport as a cultural practice that the paradox of agonistic behavior becomes evident: the production of inequality is based on comparability; the differences can only be measured under the same conditions; determining differences in the sense of better or worse performances requires collective agreement on standards prior to the competition, either by defining norms or by including referees. The Olympic Games (documented since 776 B.C.) and, established in quick succession after them, the Pythian Games of Delphi (since 582 B.C.), the Isthmian Games of Corinth (since 581 B.C.) and the Nemean Games (since 573 B.C.) are Panhellenic, i.e. international, competitions, for which a “holy peace” was guaranteed all over Greece. They were feasts for the common gods. As such, it is the athletic agons that, at least temporarily, bring all wars to a standstill.

The significant factor was no longer merely winning against others, but the public victory in front of an audience, i.e. a third party not involved in the competition. Introducing the public in the form of an observer located outside the competition is critical in this context. Through the overtly purpose-free nature of sports, together with the immense amount of training required, a culture repeatedly confirms itself in its agonistic orientation. The prizes for the winners are modest – olive wreaths, tripods or prize amphorae. But the real currency of success was the Panhellenic prestige of the winner, which poets like Pindar sang of in their victory hymns or which were immortalized on marble steles of public squares in the cities.

Compared to the regulated world of sporting agons, the field of cultural competition is defined less by the orientation toward victory but rather the sensitivity for distinctions and differences. For here every surpassing implies first of all the precise knowledge and recognition of the aesthetic performance and technical mastery of the other. While other cultures insist on perfecting and repeating their canon of forms, the agonistic pressure of the Greeks creates the notorious tendency toward originality beyond technical perfection. Especially the arts of craftmanship (pottery, sculpture, painting), music (choral lyrics of comedy or tragedy) and architecture (temple construction) manifest the culture-founding dimension that led the Greeks, different from athletic agons, to their unique aesthetic language of forms: the production of an unquantifiable but qualitatively higher value in the sense of creating new stylistic possibilities of expression. One of the highlights was the construction of the Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis.

Psychologically speaking, the agonistic tension of the entire society must necessarily have consequences for the individual’s soul. The release of individuality through relentless comparing was accompanied not only by the winner’s glory and pride, but undoubtedly also by an individual’s suffering under the conditions of competition: they alienated one individual from the other and at the same time deepened an individual’s self-consciousness. Every competition only ever has one winner – but multiple losers. Even in the classical period, Greek culture, focused on the ideal of excellence was largely fixated on the winners (quite similar to today’s American culture) – even second and third places rarely found recognition. Not having won under such conditions almost inevitably meant being one of the losers.

To this day, the urge for individuality is characterized by this indissoluble tension: wanting to be different from the others means, on the one hand, conquering a leeway of one’s own, which, on the other hand, must be recognized and accepted as such by others. The struggle for being an incomparably unique self remains to a large extent the struggle for the recognition by the other.

B. Agonistic Philosophy

V. Athens’ Struggle for Orientation: Sophism, Rhetoric, and Philosophy

Under these circumstances, philosophy arose. Let’s begin with the well-known foreground: Philosophy, in its today still dominant form, began in the classical age of Athens – it is inherently connected with the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. And Socrates has been regarded, as it were, as the very incarnation of philosophy: perpetually looking for conversations, he coerced, in Athens’ public places, the politicians, artists, and fellow citizens of his time, through questions and answers, to give reasons for and justify their actions (logon didonai). This cultivation of reason (logos), through conversations with others, is at the same time designed as ‘taking care of one’s soul’ (epimeleia psyches). With Plato, the follower and literary witness of Socrates, philosophy was put into universal concepts, transformed into a publicly practiced form of life and became an institution: the academy Plato founded can be considered the primordial form of today’s university. Aristotle eventually completed this development by systematically differentiating philosophy into disciplines and logically reformulating Plato’s dialogically organized thinking.

The background of this retrospective success story is that different orientations were offered that competed for the intellectual dominance in Athens. Philosophy wasn’t only a participant in the contest with sophistry and rhetoric, but it was also what it likes to conceal when telling its own history – above all a product of this contest. The introductory scenes of Plato’s dialogues again and again highlight the initially agonistic setting. They show sophists and rhetors with their adepts, on the one hand, and Socrates and his followers, on the other: all this in constantly changing constellations. But the dialogues are consistently reasoning for a certain point of view; they deliberately show a biased philosophical perspective. They present us with a victorious Socrates, winning over contradictory and morally questionable opponents, who ultimately always lose. The actual lines of the debates are thereby blurred and distorted. For if we place the Athenian battle between rhetoric, sophistry and philosophy in a temporal context, it’s clear that philosophy was the last to appear on the battlefield. At first it was speakers, admired in all of Greece, like Gorgias and free spirits like Protagoras who satisfied the need for orientation in a radically and rapidly changing time. For this reason, philosophy was, from the outset, under the pressure to justify itself and stood in a reactive and polemical relationship to the pre-established opponents.

Within three generations, ancient Athens had developed from being one polis among others to the political powerhouse in the Mediterranean region. While its democracy grew domestically, it acted more and more aggressively and imperially, eventually even suppressing its allies. At the same time, it became the dominant cultural leader, the self-proclaimed “school of Hellas,” which manifested itself not only in the construction of the Acropolis but also in the productions of the Attic comedies and tragedies. In order to keep pace with the times and its new requirements, Athens’ citizens also needed a fundamentally new mental infrastructure: earlier forms of intellectual coping, such as archaic proverbs or poetic moral maxims, were no longer sufficient in the new complex conditions. Athens’ citizens demanded alternative forms of reflection, new rules of organization and self-organization.

It is this will to new forms of orientation that explains the outstanding effect and success of the sophists, especially in Athens. Numerous of Plato’s dialogues, for instance the beginning of Protagoras, give a clear – but by no means neutral – impression of the general excitement that filled the young citizens whenever a sophist entered the polis. And this sophist, the dialogues document rather involuntarily, did usually not resort to any polemics to debate with Socrates and his followers. As itinerant teachers travelling through Greece, the sophists offered not only encyclopaedic knowledge but above all a specific expertise: the ability to draw comparisons. Based on their knowledge of different cultures, political forms of organization, and political practices, they provided experience-based knowledge that guide actions in concrete situations. They called the services they offered euboulia (being well-advised or -oriented): the ability to make decisions in public and private matters under the pressure to act. What sophists offer is what we may refer to as paradigmatic orientation knowledge: they deliberately avoid formulating universal norms for the sake of a knowledge of action that provides, in concrete situations, alternatives in the decision-making process.

It’s no coincidence that this is the very point where, up until today, the Socratic polemics have caught fire. Even today, ‘sophistry’ is still tainted with the stains of ethical indifference and epistemological relativism. What is often overlooked is the fact that philosophy itself was only able to formulate its concept of absolute and universal knowledge by distinguishing itself from the “mere opinions” of the sophists. The sophist’s practical orientation of thinking in specific contexts and situations is confronted with the philosopher’s theoretical and objective knowledge that abstracts from real contexts in order to gain a timeless truth in the phenomena. Even in Plato’s dialogues it’s often clear that Protagoras, Prodikos, and Kallikles don’t even understand Socrates’ objections and their background logic. Socrates is indeed the victor in the martial arts of logic through his strategies of refutation, but in so doing he fails to grasp the sophistic concept of orientation. Nevertheless, Socrates needs the public competition with sophists – for it is philosophy, as the other of sophism, which must initially develop a concept of itself: the concept of a universal knowledge based on reasons and general norms.

The second opponent philosophy had to face in the struggle for intellectual dominance in Athens was rhetoric. The political practice of democracy in Athens feeds on the omnipresence and omnipotence of the spoken word. Political equality (isonomia) was in essence the equal right to speak before the people’s assembly (isegoria); freedom was above all determined by being able to say everything (parrhesia). To be successful in the polis required, especially in a face-to-face democracy, having to represent and assert one’s interests by speaking in the institutions and the public. Providing the necessary competences for this was the job of rhetoric. But Plato’s early dialogues provide, in multiple variations, a fundamental critique of the rhetorical concept of language.

The criticism is twofold, and it is most clearly articulated in the debate with Gorgias in the dialogue with that name. On the one hand, Socrates argues that rhetorical figures and metaphorical speech have no epistemological function; he reduces them to purely external, decorative elements. He makes the rigid distinction between sensually impregnated metaphors and pure concepts absolute with the aim to define only the logically structured argumentation as truthful. He furthermore buttresses his logical criticism of rhetoric with a moral argument. The speaker, Socrates argues, uses the affective dimension of language with manipulative intent, desiring to seduce the interlocutor’s soul (psychagogia). That means: without the certainty of knowledge of what is good, one cannot practically decide on what’s better or worse. In the courts, the people’s assembly and other public forums, rhetoric, the argument goes, only creates opinions (doxai) and proves to be a mere art of persuasion (peithein). Only philosophy, it is claimed, proves to be a science (episteme) in the sense of true knowledge.

Of course, this is not a sufficient description of the relations of rhetoric and philosophy, but by drawing these distinctions philosophy was able to gain an initial concept of itself. While sophists and rhetoricians confidently assumed that it is the artistic use of language that, at all, expresses the world as world, philosophy created an alternative universe where the purest possible terms refer to objects as universal as possible. The “truth” as a genuine object of philosophy was constituted by means of a double exclusion: the exclusion of sensual perception for the sake of pure concepts and the exclusion of all change in favor of an eternal being as such.

It’s only more recently that the aesthetic and philosophical potentials of ancient rhetoric have been rediscovered and comprehensively rehabilitated. And in fact even Plato, as a participant in ancient Greek life, was well aware of the one-sidedness of his criticism. He indicated this by choosing the dialogue as his form of writing. But Socrates isn’t depicted as a mere placeholder for arguments. Plato portrays him as a fascinating, often contradictory individual. As a symposiast and eroticist, as a maieutic and ironist, as an ascetic and satyr-like figure, he is often identified with the word atopos meaning “alien, placeless, unlocatable.” Socrates forms concepts but we’re unable to pin him and his concepts down in Plato’s work. As a placeless philosopher, Plato has him wander through the different aesthetic and political contexts of the dialogues, convincing not only by means of the logos, but often – in the crucial passages – with myths, images, and metaphors. In addition, his logical efforts at definitions and forms of refutation are always in an interindividual context – so they have an existential and situational dimension, too. “Actually,” Plato has his Socrates say, “I want to examine a statement, but it happens that I, the questioner, and the responder are both examined” (Protagoras 333c). Plato doesn’t offer us any last words either.

VI. The Politics of Education: Plato versus Isocrates

There is a profound, but largely unknown debate in the background of Plato’s dialogues. This debate resumes the traditional lines of conflict between rhetoric and philosophy and even intensifies them in the circumstances of the fourth century B.C. There are agonistic orientations as well. For with Isocrates, the most important follower of Gorgias, a thinker came onto the Athenian stage who was in fact the genuine and lifelong rival of Plato’s.

Both Plato and Isocrates worked on fundamentally transforming the Greek idea of education (paideia): both visualized a long-term influence on the youth and wanted educational reforms that focus on teachable knowledge. Both were facing the crucial question of the institutionalization of knowledge – and answered this question by establishing schools. Isocrates was the first to do this, and it was him, too, who started the polemics against Socrates’ followers. His ideas were fundamentally humanistic and remind us of Socrates’ original impulse: the cultivation of language also cultivates the speaker’s soul; a good speaker would act appropriately in accordance with his or her speeches: he or she would necessarily become a better person. As an outstanding rhetorician of his time, Isocrates developed and systematized this point of view into practical teachings close to real life; he wanted to educate them to be good citizens and politicians. He designed an efficient, almost modern course system based on modules that step-by-step prepare the students for future action. Therefore, the reference point of his teachings was not the truth of objects, but the most plausible description of the social and human realities. Isocrates’ approach is deliberately pragmatic: he explicitly operates in the medium of probability, based on which people must communicate with each other; he considers pure truth as unattainable and the theoretical fixation on it as unworldly.

What then dramatically aggravated Plato was the fact that Isocrates called his program “philosophy”! And even worse: His famous speech “Against the Sophists” is, of all people, addressed to the followers of Socrates, whose dialectical exercises Isocrates reduced to a theory-laden, mere quibble of words (eristike). To this day, historians of philosophy have had enormous difficulties to acknowledge the extent to which Plato’s work must be understood as a reaction to this challenge and its traumatic insult. One cannot emphasize it strongly enough: up until the late period of Plato’s academy, it is still completely open what in the future would carry the name of “philosophy”: Plato’s project and the Socratics – or rather that of Isocrates!

If we closely follow the stages of this debate, it becomes clear that both thinkers, in the process of establishing their schools, made concessions to the opponent and, in doing so, refined their ideas. Isocrates defused his earlier polemic against the Socratics’ dialectical art of argumentation and acknowledged the methodological disciplining of thinking in the sense of logical training. Plato, on his part, modified his unsparing criticism of rhetoric in Gorgias by drafting his own concept of philosophical rhetoric in Phaedrus. The philosopher, he then admitted, must also communicate in a way that’s appropriate for the addressee. To do so, the philosopher needs psychological knowledge of the interlocutor’s soul as well as the wisdom to know the right time to place arguments to best fit the situation. The former anti-rhetorical criticism is now systematically reoriented and modified in light of a Socrates who combines both competences: He’s now the sovereign dialectician who makes use of his arguments in different situations with regard to different individuals in the best fitting way for each situation.

The institutionalization of knowledge took place at a time which is known today in media theory as the transition from the oral to the written stage of Greek culture. The transformation from the context-bound face-to-face communication of orality to widely available written texts and all its consequences were passionately discussed especially in Athens’ intellectual circles. As with every media revolution in history, this one likewise witnessed an equal number of proclaimers of doomsday scenarios, on one hand, and optimists of progress, on the other. Both Isocrates and Plato shifted the issue from being a media problem to the question of the nature of knowledge and the follow-up question of whether and how such knowledge can be taught without losses. With regard to both questions, Isocrates was much more optimistic than Plato.

Isocrates was a positivist of knowledge and believed in the possibility of a direct written transfer of knowledge. His texts, which he composed as model speeches, were not written to be read in one go, but rather for focused and repeated studying. They appeal to the sensible reader who, according to Isocrates, only needs to read them in a sufficiently careful and skilled way to actualize the author’s real intentions. In Phaedrus, however, Plato shows in an exemplary manner, using the speech of the rhetorician Lysias, how easily writings whose author is absent can be instrumentalized and interpreted against the original intentions. In Phaedrus, the tensions between literacy and orality are initially shown in an exemplary way on the level of the dialogues’ actions and then discussed in its philosophical dimension. Plato stages the writer’s (Lysias’) present absence as a model case that permits developing two contrasting forms of teaching. On the one hand, writing is the more flexible medium with greater reach; however, it is unable to help comprehension when objections or questions appear. On the other hand, philosophical conversations permit discussing philosophical topics in person and in concrete situational contexts and developing these topics further. Under the new conditions of textuality, i.e. given a largely completed transformation of media technology in the 4th century B.C., the textual form of the dialogue is the genre in which the relations of oral and written communication can be shown. They too are based on agonistics: the dialogue as a textual form is, as Plato has Phaedrus say, set up as a self-reflexive “game.”

VII. Love, Pain, Self-Constitution – Agonistic Orientation within One’s Soul: Plato’s Phaedrus

In contrast to Isocrates, Plato understood that the battle for one’s soul can only be won if one conceives of the individual soul as a battlefield of diverse drives. While Isocrates wants to win his students over with a general program of education and public model speeches, Plato’s dialogues are designed for inner conflict. In his own altercation with Isocrates, the dialogue Phaedrus is Plato’s final word. It is no coincidence that Plato’s lifelong rival in the battle for Athens’ youth is mentioned here by name for the first and last time. Set in Socrates’ lifetime, the dialogue attests the talent of the then young Isocrates and predicts he will have a great future – if he follows his philosophical dispositions. For the contemporary readers of the dialogue, the verdict is clear: the future Isocrates once hoped for failed at reaching those hopes. Though Isocrates calls his educational program ‘philosophy,’ this is, for Plato, in error, as Isocrates missed, as a thinker and teacher, the very nature of philosophy.

Nevertheless, in Phaedrus, Plato partially revised his concept of philosophy. The conflict with Isocrates forced him to go back to the passionate origin of Socratic thinking, which could furthermore be threatened by the establishment of a school for philosophical knowledge. To this end, Plato has the heroes of his dialogues, Socrates and the beautiful Phaedrus, walk outside the city walls of Athens – this too is a singular event in his work – and have a spectacular experience outside these walls. Both are set back into a mythical, i.e. pre-political space: into the chora, a natural space populated by demigods, nymphs and satyrs, that is everywhere filled with sensual, violent and erotic meanings. In this atmosphere and in the face of the beautiful Phaedrus, Socrates becomes more and more enraptured. Plato systematically designs a scene in which the topological transgression of boundaries from the polis to the chora goes hand in hand with the protagonist’s psychological transgression of boundaries. While Phaedrus initially already describes him as being placeless or holdless (atopos), Socrates shortly afterward begins attesting himself a divine pathos (theion pathos, 238c), which soon ramps up to enthusiasm (enthousiasmus, 241e) and eventually to divine madness (theia mania). The usual sign of his daemon (daimonion), Socrates now explains with excitement, pointed out to him the shamelessness of his previous speeches about love. However: there is a true love that has not yet been spoken of, a love beyond the merely economic relationship, as Lysias describes it in his written speech that Phaedrus brought hidden in his cloak and now reads aloud. One must, Socrates exclaims, now finally do justice to this true love. The initial situation of the dialogue thus completely changes. Socrates previously spoke in a “veiled” way (237a): i.e. as a strategist who draws on Lysias’ speech, according to which love is a disease, in order to surpass it so that he, Socrates, could win over the beautiful Phaedrus for himself. Now, however, Phaedrus is won and Socrates in a state of enthusiasm – only by abandoning strategic communication does the possibility arise to uncover the existential dimension of love. Now Socrates speaks of love as a disoriented lover in the face of the beloved.

What then follows is the myth of the nature of the soul. It is a sequence of images that partly build on and partly blend into each other. In this myth, love is placed into the context of beauty and truth. Socratic existence itself is displayed as a constitutive connection between philosophy and love. Socrates has become holdless through the power of the chora, the beautiful Phaedrus, and the experience of his own desire. It is this holdlessness or disorientation which makes it possible that he regains his hold in a new orientation.

Already when first articulated the myth seems to counteract the whole enterprise of Plato’s philosophy. The rehabilitation of love takes place based on an apology of madness: the “greatest goods” would be granted to the Greeks “through madness” (dia manias), which is bestowed on humans as a divine gift (244a). The mantic, cathartic, poetic, and not least erotic kinds of madness are what Socrates considers as evidence of the cultural productivity of an extraordinary state of consciousness. Madness is thus purposefully introduced as that which transcends all boundaries of meaning-making. Only when departing and going beyond reason does reason become visible in its specificity and thus in its limits. The power of love is now no longer a disease of reason, as in Lysias’ speech, but rather questions the abstract dichotomy of rationality and irrationality. With this, the actual myth begins: For even Eros, when freed from all logical determinations, still requires a certain form so that it can, at all, be seen. It can then only be shown in the image of the enthusiastic poet: i.e. Socrates the mythopoet.

The starting image of the myth of the soul is one of the most famous allegories in Plato’s work. In it, the soul is described as “the combined power of a winged team of horses and their charioteer” (246a). This image is highly complex and undermines those conventional interpretations which seek to distinguish here, of all places, the individual parts of the soul’s apparatus. On the contrary, based on the holistic and perpetual movement of the soul, as described previously (245c-246a), one may rather state: Since the soul is that which is always in motion, even the charioteer can never force his horses to stop or take full control of them.

In the allegory, the soul’s inner life is successively unfolded as a structural problem of coordination. The charioteer has the task of coordinating the horses’ antagonistic drives to make the chariot go into one direction. The characters and features Socrates attributes to the horses imply clear assessments. One of the two horses is characterized as being beautiful and noble and embodies the self-description of the Athenians: kalokagathia, i.e. “being beautiful and noble.” The other horse, on the contrary, is described as pug-nosed, black, uneducated, and driven by instincts. It is familiar with “hubris and shamelessness,” “deaf, barely obeying the whip or spikes.” Thus, the disparate nature of the soul’s drives leads to a fundamental problem of orientation, which makes the steering of the chariot “necessarily difficult and unpleasant.”

The myth specifies the problem of the individual orientation. It describes the drama of the soul as being torn between ascending to the divine and falling back down into the realms of the mortals. Only the potential touch of the divine now provides the point of reference for the soul’s life as such. While only the perfect soul, according to Socrates, is feathered and rushes unimpededly through the cosmos, the imperfect soul at some point “somehow” lost its wings and attached itself in the fall to something physical, something that turned, only through this connection, into a living being. To be the link between the divine and the physical – precisely this is, according to Plato’s Socrates, the fate of the human soul. He puts the coordination problem of human existence into a cosmological context. The outermost point of reference in the metaphorical spatialization of the soul is now the “superheavenly place” (hyperouranios topos); the highest point of the Socratic vision is conceived of as both a pivotal and a turning point. Whereas some charioteers of human souls are able to take a glimpse into the outside of the ‘superheaven,’ only divine charioteers can fully break through to the outside and position themselves on the “back of heaven,” looking into the realm of ideas of the “colorless and formless, untouchable, truly existing being” (247c). More cannot be said of it – for it is, according to Plato’s Socrates, the starting point for everything that can be said. But recognizing this point of origin of all possible orientations makes the human being what it is: A soul “that has never seen the truth will never enter this [human] form” (249b).

Yet, this knowledge is, at the same time, only a very short and heavily disturbing one. Disturbed by the horses, the charioteer can look at the true being only with great difficulty. He is unable to keep the horses at the right altitude – the soul continues to go up and down and takes note of the world of ideas only selectively and fragmentarily. The little it has seen, however, is that which permits mortals to think at all. Socrates thus identifies the activity of thinking as essentially anamnetic, as a recollection of the reference to the ideas that was thought to be lost in everyday life.

Socrates describes the anamnetic drama of the soul as a selection process of souls in which “only a few remain” (250a). That true philosophers belong to them is no question. True philosophers (not, for instance, Protagoras and Isocrates) have struggled most strongly for the vision of the superheavenly place and are accordingly most capable of actualizing on earth what they saw. But the lover of beauty and the eroticist, too, are, as Socrates now claims, on par with the such a philosopher. For the sensual experience of beauty is a holistic impression. As the only impression given in time, it points beyond itself to the eternal. Even the preferred objects of intellectual endeavor, such as justice, prudence, etc., are, measured against beauty, only subordinate images (homoiomata). In spite of all intellectual efforts, they refer to their respective archetypes merely in an indirect way. In addition, only beauty’s effect on people is immediate. Its presence is characterized as painful. For Socrates, it is a godlike countenance (theoeides prosopon) or the shape of a beautiful body (somatos idea) that cause shock and force us to revere the object in question. The sight of beauty is not an aesthetic pleasure but an existential impact that tears one out of the sphere of everyday perception and that prepares one, if one wants to or not, for the truth – just like it happened to Socrates himself. The sexually stimulating effect of the beautiful Phaedrus evokes in the affected Socrates the notion of love as an act of self-constitution.

Being seized by love disturbs Socrates so much that he dedicates by far the most elaborate part of the entire myth to it. For the boundlessness of desire and the attempt to limit it and control oneself now form a permanent psychological conflict. Plato conceives of the loving human soul as a battlefield, which is designed in such a way that the lover gets to know his own nature, the structure of his drives, his own character and thus his individual being only in the experience of love which is fighting against itself – Socrates longs for Phaedrus but doesn’t allow himself to touch him. In the constant struggle against the natural violence of the drives – Socrates paints it with a series of bloody metaphors of domestication (254c-e) – a self only emerges to the extent that a counter-violence can establish itself: the insight into the realm of ideas. It seems that the myth of the soul is old Plato’s attempt to return to the existential origins of Socratic philosophizing. As the academy’s founder he had to transform these origins into the livable and teachable form of a philosophizing-with-each-other (symphilosophein).

Thus, the practice of the lover and the art of the philosopher must converge: Through gradual disciplining and cultivation of the desires, the soul of the eroticist transforms into a self that learns to enter into a game of limitation, delimitation, and new demarcations. Common to both the lover and the philosopher is the attempt to transform the soul that was torn apart through the struggle of opposing drives into an individual self. The acquired competence of self-constitution, of gaining a new orientation by going through complete disorientation, allows the lover as well as the philosopher, as it were, to enter a new life. Becoming oneself by means of orienting oneself to others: the process of constituting the agonistic Greek culture is repeated in the process of constituting a noble Greek individual.

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