Enrico Mueller

Kairos and Agon: A Critical Response to Carlin Romano

Translated by Reinhard G. Mueller

The relationship between orientation and competition is appealing in the sense that it can be approached in two ways. One can scrutinize the participants of an agon regarding their differences, thereby outlining a sharp contrast, in order to eventually take a position for one of the two sides. By taking a position, one ensures the clarity of orientation in the competition. Both the democratic discourse of party-democracies and the scientific one of arguments can in this sense be understood as an agon of competing and at the same time justified opinions.

However, it is also possible to focus on the conditions of the competition itself and shift the question to that of what connects the agon’s rivals despite any opposition. An orientation understood in this way thus keeps in view both what separates and what is shared when participating in the agon. In my first essay, “Agonistic Orientation and Cultural Dynamics in Ancient Greece,” I attempted to adopt such a perspective with regard to Greek culture, the emergence of the philosophy of the logos, and especially the competition between Plato and Isocrates in the democratic Athens of the fourth century BC.

Carlin Romano, in his straightforward reaction to my contribution, primarily made use of the first option, and in this respect he largely took a position against me. This form of debate is certainly in the spirit of our Agonistic Orientations genre, but it also results in frequent reductions of my statements to one-sided theses as well as in simple misunderstandings of my intentions. In my response, I would therefore like to first clarify a few misunderstandings (I) and then propose an understanding of Plato that clearly differs from that suggested by Romano (II). Finally, I take up Carlin Romano’s insightful comments on kairos in order to scrutinize the philosophical agon between Plato and Isocrates – which has become the focus of our agon – in the sense of the first of the two options addressing the productive commonality of the two different and competing thinkers (III). As a motto for my endeavor, I would like to preface my essay with an aphorism by the philosophical physician Hippocrates. Its beginning is well known and often presented as an isolated aphorism ­– but it’s only in its entirety that the author’s ethos and life experience become clear: “Life (bios) is short, art (techne) is long, kairos sharp and fleeting (oxys), experimental experience (peira) dangerous, judgment (krisis) difficult.”

I. Some Clarifications Concerning Competition and Cooperation

How great the temptation is to reduce the complexity of life was emphasized by Carlin Romano at the beginning of his response to my contribution. It seems to me that, through the style and manner of his reaction, he himself illustrates this very claim. His strategy is exemplary for an antagonistic discourse that aims to produce opposition. This may seem appropriate in the context of our essay genre that deals with agonistic orientations, but is less so if one, as Carlin Romano does, explicitly aims for the idea of cooperation. In doing so, he repeatedly ascribes to me theses and judgments that have little to do with the motivation for my contribution and sometimes even counteract it. I will try to clear up some misunderstandings in order to elucidate the motivation for my contribution.

Romano reduces the concept of “agonal orientation” in Greek culture, as I proposed it, from the very beginning to a mere ideology of struggle – and this in several ways:

1.) On the one hand he accuses me of a reductive anthropology (“The ancient Greek world, then, is to Mueller one big contest. Life was a contest. Life was endless competition.”) and therefore assumes a Darwinian doctrine in the background (“presumably in a Darwinian sort of way”). However, this reading corresponds neither to my intentions nor – as I believe – to my approach. The Greek agon is not a struggle for life, but a cultural practice in which individuals and societies strive to distinguish themselves before each other.

2.) In his interpretation of my contribution, Romano attributes to me a monocausal cultural theory according to which what is valid for the Greeks cannot be valid for other cultures. In this context he rarely, if at all, recognizes subsets or intermediate stages: Either ­­– or, tertium non datur. The – apparently rhetorical – question: “Is he asserting that the Egyptians or Phoenicians or Israelites did not compete in a variety of ways, just like the Greeks?” can thus clearly be answered against the backdrop of structural analysis in cultural studies and historical anthropology: Of course, every culture knew and knows forms of competition (and cooperation). But no ancient high culture institutionalized these forms of interaction to such a comprehensive and differentiated degree and celebrated or ritualized these agonistic practices in public as excessively as the Greeks did. There can hardly be any doubt that the polycentric world of Greek city-states was, politically speaking, more conflictual and – logically – more unstable than, say, the Roman Empire. My contribution’s concern was to highlight and address such culture-specific differences.

3.) In his response, Romano largely proceeds from the rather unproductive and artificial contrast he creates between competition and cooperation. Every form of human coexistence and thus every culture of course depend on cooperation. But this is no objection to agonistic orientations. Rather, from the archaic times of the Greeks onward, it was precisely a matter of integrating agonistic behavior into cooperation. Hesiod did this in a practical sense with regard to Homer’s warlike elites; Solon in a political sense concerning the aristocratic clans, and the so-called seven sages (rather 13) did so with their wisdom in a sense that addresses the ‘human condition’ in general. It was always a matter of developing a counterweight against a one-sided and aggressive agonism with figures of harmony, symmetry, synergy, isonomy, or the law. And this cultural context of limiting agonism in politics, law, sports, and aesthetics was the subject of my contribution. Romano indeed takes note of this in a few places. But as the chapter headings of my essay highlight, this position clearly forms the very basis of my entire argumentation.

In the philosophical part of his essay, Romano likewise operates with contrasts that don’t permit any mediation. Here is Plato, the absolutist and authoritarian thinker – there is Isocrates, the democrat and true philosopher. The fact that I myself point out the superficiality of such opposites in the classical history of philosophy, in order to then make the other side of the coin the subject of discussion, is something that Romano takes note of a few times, only to again accuse me of the very judgments I deliberately don’t make.

Here, too, I want to clarify the direction of my arguments: it’s not a matter of playing off two thinker against each other in order to devalue one at the benefit of the other. Rather, my approach proceeds from the shared culture in which both thinkers lived. From this viewpoint, it becomes evident that Plato and Isocrates form a common constellation, which can, for instance in education, expectations for the medium of writing, psychology etc., be considered as agonistic. Both perceive the changes in culture and from the orality to textuality in a similar way and make them their subject – but they react differently to these changes, in both their educational programs and their forms of writing. At no point am I “throwing Isocrates under the bus” (which, by the way, Plato doesn’t do either: in Phaidros, with factual proximity to Isocrates, he ultimately keeps an ironic distance), but I rather explicitly appreciate Isocrates. However, I don’t connect this appraisal with a final judgement, but rather emphasize the challenge Isocrates posed for Plato. This challenge – and both thinkers make this sufficiently clear – is a mutual one. Consequently, there is again no good or bad, no either/or, but I describe their situation of competition. And when I do so, the only thing that matters is highlighting the points where Isocrates and Plato react to the same phenomena and even make similar evaluations, only to eventually draw different conclusions. Precisely this is what a cooperative agon consists of.

I will clarify these points again in the third part of this essay and connect them to Romano’s remarks concerning the problem of kairos.

II. Thinking within Contexts – Plato’s Dialogic Art of Orientation

For the philosophy of orientation, Plato is a thinker of outstanding importance and, in the textual form of his philosophizing, perhaps the most significant point of reference besides Nietzsche. Plato’s special role for the philosophy of orientation is due to the dialogic artistry of his work and its philosophical consequences. In the following, I therefore outline the main aspects of an orientation-philosophical reading of Plato.

1.) Plato’s thinking is not available to us in the form of monographic treatises, but in that of dialogues. The literary form of the dialogue (dialogos), the life-world practice of talking-to-each-other (dialegesthai) and the dialectical methods (dialektikai technai) in philosophy are inherently linked in Plato’s thinking. Unlike Aristotle, he didn’t develop his dialectic in the sense of a universally-valid organon of logic providing tools of thought or in that of topoi of universally valid arguments independent of the situation and the person (see Werner Stegmaier, Courageous Beginnings, chap. 5). Instead, Plato has specific individuals under specific circumstances talk to each other about specific things. The philosophical aspect of dialogues always proceeds from interindividual communication. This applies also and especially to those basic concepts, guiding distinctions and philosophical themes that are still associated with the name of Plato today. The famous theory of Forms or Ideas, for example, is presented in different ways depending on the personal and situational contexts: in Meno as an arithmetical exercise, in the Republic selectively as an existential experience (the allegory of the cave) or a geometric structure (the analogy of the divided line), in Phaedrus as a vision in rhetorical ecstasy. And, in fact, when, in Parmenides, the young Socrates eventually puts the theory of Ideas into a logical form, the old Parmenides essentially destroys it. Finally, when, in the Sophist, the silent Socrates and his proximity to the Sophists is brought before a philosophical court, the stranger from Elea reduces the entire theory of Ideas to the heuristic principle of “friendship with Ideas.” In Plato’s oeuvre, his most famous ideas cannot be found in a pure and unconditional shape. For the dialogue, as a deliberately chosen form of philosophical writing, highlights a focus on communication that doesn’t allow for absolutes in Plato’s philosophizing – neither in an ontological nor in an epistemological sense.

2.) As a dramaturge of dialogues, the thinker Plato clearly distances himself from the thoughts he expresses: he does not write in his own name. Only twice in his entire oeuvre does he mention his name – and even this rather casually. Instead, as a writer he articulates considerable doubts about the medium of writing and emphasizes – especially in Phaedrus – the dangers of de-contextualization, instrumentalization, and systematization of written philosophical messages. His own dialogic literature served him as a “game” to attain a high dialectical standard – a game that trains the ability to form concepts and at the same time emphasizes the communicative, aesthetic and existential contexts of any conceptual order. By composing dialogue figurations and dialogue situations, Plato operates as an artist with the difference between telling and showing – a difference that only Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would bring back to the fore. Especially with Socrates, the protagonist of the dialogues, it becomes clear that his form of speaking always corresponds to his way of life. The construction of philosophical distinctions is thus represented as a decision-making process by and among individuals: The drawing of distinctions is staged as dialogical decision-making. In his texts, Plato doesn’t proceed from any given philosophical objects, but he approaches them via the dialogic discourse. In this way, he can introduce concepts in the sense of a construction and at the same time show that they always only have meaning in specific dialogical contexts ­– they are never absolute. In Jacques Derrida’s terms, Plato’s thinking forms the unity of the distinction between conceptual construction and deconstructive dissolution of an established order of concepts. It is, above all, for this reason that all the main fields of Western philosophizing appear to be, as Whitehead once put it, footnotes to Plato.

3.) In the center of Plato’s works is the figure of Socrates. The protagonist of the dialogues is neither a mimetic representation of the historical Socrates nor a simple mouthpiece for Plato. Instead, he is an artistically stylized fictional character, which at the same time embodies the type of the philosopher. In Plato’s texts, the hero Socrates is doubly characterized – and this marks a clear difference to how Plato’s contemporaries conceived of Socrates: On the one hand, we encounter a paradigmatic philosopher who gives an objective account of the ways of thinking and living and who demands such from his opponents. The ideal of “agreeing-with-oneself,” emphasized here, highlights philosophical practice itself as a concern for the soul, one’s own and that of others. On the other hand, Plato dramatizes, mythologizes and pathologizes his protagonist and thereby creates an eccentric individual who is different from all his contemporaries and is perceived by them again and again as alien and placeless (atopos). As an eroticist, subtle ironist, visionary mythmaker, confessing ignoramus, and an individual exposed to his daimonium in certain decision-making situations, Socrates irritates not only his contemporaries but even today’s readers of the dialogues. The coexistence of apparently contradictory character traits in Socrates on the one hand and of direct and indirect forms of communication in his speeches on the other create an openness of the dialogue that calls on me as a reader to propose my own interpretation.

I emphasize this dialogue-hermeneutical and communication-theoretical dimension of Plato’s work because this understanding is crucially important, beyond the metaphysical school book Platonism, for the philosophical-historical development of the philosophy of orientation. In numerous interpretations of Plato’s dialogues, Werner Stegmaier has worked out precisely these moments, drawing attention to the paradox that perhaps the most influential teacher of Western philosophy conceived of his thinking as that of avoiding any teachings. Stegmaier’s interpretation centers on the charismatic figure of Socrates, which was for his contemporaries notoriously difficult to pin down, who makes in different situations different use of different forms of knowledge – and presents himself as a sovereign dialectician in this context-sensitive ‘knowing-how.’ Such knowledge undermines the distinction between theory and practice through dialogical practice. It pluralizes and temporalizes the dogmatic conception of any timeless, normative knowledge of principles. And it becomes crucial in the situational contexts of the problems for which it offers descriptions, alternative ways of thinking, and solutions under the conditions of each situation. It is thus by its very nature a paradigmatic form of orientation.

Carlin Romano stands in diametrical opposition to these points. His approach is based on a threefold reduction of Plato and follows, in this respect, in the tradition of the post-Platonic ancient academy, which reduced the thinking of its scholarch to a metaphysical compendium of explicit teachings. What Plato artfully anonymized is here again attributed to him as an author, what he perspectivized in dialogues is again monologized, what he developed in dialectical argumentation is again dogmatized – Romano makes Plato’s philosophical practice into an orthodox Platonism of an epistemic-ontological two-world doctrine and thus turns Plato’s intentions upside down.

If Plato’s thinking can be understood as a dramatization of Socrates’ existence and dialogical practice, this applies all the more to the political dimension of his work. Here, too, Carlin Romano’s verdict, following Karl Popper, pays little attention to the context and is accordingly scathing: “the very nature of Plato’s thought” is “absolutist, unempirical (the theory of forms), pro-censorship and anti-democratic.” In view of such schematic simplifications, it’s astonishing that Carlin Romano accuses my differentiated interpretation of a conventional and simplifying history of Greek thought. A first glance at Plato’s oeuvre shows that in at least five works, Gorgias, Charmides, the Republic (Politeia), the Statesman (Politikos), and the Laws (Nomoi), the problem of politics is addressed in fundamentally different ways. Charmides, for example, is chronologically set at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. In the course of this war and in the defeat of Athens, the participants in the discussion, who are initially friends, become mortal enemies: on the one hand, Chaerephon, a radical democrat who is later threatened with death and exiled, and probably the most passionate supporter of Socrates; on the other Critias, who would later belong to the oligarchic terror regime of the Thirty Tyrants. Socrates, who is fighting in the dialogue for the soul of the promising young man Charmides, who is caught in between the fronts, is at the end of the war pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by the demos and executed. Charmides, however, the – still young – name giver of the dialogue, would later side with Critias as a tyrant in the civil war. It is this explosive historical setting, laid out in detail, where Plato places the conversation about prudence, of all topics – and every contemporary reader was fully aware of the political dimension of the dialogue, including its lethal consequences for everyone involved.

In the dark dialogue Gorgias, Plato has Gorgias’ art of rhetoric, then still politically neutral, turn into a teachable instrument for political practice (Polus) and eventually escalate in Callicles’ heightened positivism of power. In contrast to them, Socrates stands as the “only among today’s politicians who does politics.” In the combination of straightforwardness (parrhesia), face-to-face communication (dialegein), and the search for reasons of action (logon didonai), democracy is, as a public political practice, presented as a countermeasure against the private aristocratic circles and their cultivation of long speeches – and Socrates as an exemplary democratic individual.

In the Republic, Socrates is forced by his interlocutors to conceive of a philosophical ideal state, which, given the analogy of soul and state, is from the outset obviously counterfactual. The supposed truth of his Ideas as the final point of reference cannot be absolute, already because it is presented via metaphors, myths, and parables, whose interpretation remains controversial today. This also makes the alleged notion of censorship in this text more than questionable. After all, Socrates, the myth-maker, and Plato, the dialogue-artist, would be among the poets to be expelled from the ideal state. In such self-references, it becomes paradigmatically evident how Plato as a dramatist opens up the scope for reflection that undermines an orthodox and normative understanding of the texts in the sense of a mere instruction of action.

Plato’s Laws can then be seen as a late antidote to his Republic. Here, an anonymous Cretan no longer proceeds from an ideal state, but from the concrete institutions of a polis in order to base them on laws. And in the Statesman, it is the stranger from Elea who, using the dialectical method of Dihairesis, inquires relentlessly about the specific virtue of politicians. In this personal polyphony, in this multitude of different perspectives on the state in different situations – where exactly could Plato’s true concept of politics be located? It is the distillates and reductions of contextless reconstructions that make Plato metaphysical, dogmatic, and ideological. The dialogues as a form of writing are the most democratic medium in the history of philosophy – and we must finally do justice to this fact.

III. Kairos in Plato and Isocrates

I am immensely grateful to Carlin Romano for the determination with which, at the end of his essay, he introduced the topic of kairos into the discussion. The question he raised is of great hermeneutical value in several respects. It refers to a fundamental problem of the philosophy of orientation: that of situational decision-making in a permanently changing environment. If there were, as for instance rational choice theory has it, external reasons that could be weighed against each other, we can hardly still call it a decision: one then merely and correctly follows the given reasons. It is only under the pressure to act in contexts that cannot be surveyed, with a wide range of possible decisions, that the paradox of decision-making, as described by Kierkegaard and Derrida, come to the fore. One must make decisions in existential situations without final reasons, although or rather precisely because there are always reasons and counter-reasons, diverging interests, and different horizons of experience, but not a universal and external criterion beyond these reasons, interests, and experiences. In such a situation the question of kairos, of the precise understanding of the situation on the one hand and the subsequent intervention appropriate to the situation on the other, becomes significant.

The Greek word kairos has an important double meaning: in a temporal sense, it places itself outside the cyclical or linear concept of time and points to the fleeting ‘now’ of the moment. And in practical contexts, it refers to the favorable, perhaps singular opportunity to be seized. “Know the kairos” (gnothi kairon) is one of the earliest maxims of Western culture. The ancient Greeks have preserved such situational knowledge from the beginning – albeit rather inconspicuously – until late antiquity. In Homer and Hesiod, it appears in everyday contexts, in Pindar’s poetry as a powerful transcendent moment beyond mere duration, and in Attic tragedies as a moment of recognition (anagnorisis) or insight – usually too late – into one’s own culpable entanglement.

Consequently, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, kairos plays a crucial role in rhetoric, sophism, and philosophy, which are difficult to separate. Kairos is in a sense the touchstone against which every claim to action-oriented knowledge has to prove itself. Romano agrees that Isocrates took the idea of kairos from the Greek tradition and – like no thinker before or after him – made it the key to his philosophy and pedagogical intentions. He suggested to his students a practical kind of intelligence (phronesis) aimed at social action, which, beyond theoretical principles, is shown above all in seeing and seizing the right moment in the sense of an opportunity for action. This ability combines aesthetic creativity with moral self-control and the practical-political insight into the situational reality of social conditions. In an especially masterful speech addressed to Nicocles, Isocrates emphasizes the fact that it is most powerful to seize the “flowering of the right moments” (tes akmes toon kairioon, To Nicocles 33) – the trained thinker is no longer exposed to the suddenness of kairos, he can see it grow and emerge and then intervene when appropriate.

The crux of Romano’s clever and constructive depiction of kairos is once again that he sees it as proof of the fundamental divide between the approaches of Isocrates and Plato, and at the same time wants to assert Isocrates’ philosophical superiority over the latter. As such, his accurate depictions are here again skewed by an unnecessary and false contrast. It is no coincidence that in my first essay I have placed Phaedrus at the center of the discussion between the two thinkers, for in no other dialogue is the tension-filled proximity of the two conceptions so obvious. I already pointed out that in this text Plato radically revises his understanding of rhetoric and withdraws his own prior criticism regarding its polemical one-sidedness (especially in Gorgias). Above all, the speaker’s psychagogic abilities are completely rehabilitated and are finally included in the dialectician’s repertoire. According to the new tenor, every good speaker must know the different forms of the soul in order to be able to speak appropriately to the audience. At the same time he is supposed to reveal his own mental constitution in order to appropriately harmonize sender, addressee, and message – in other words: rhetorical psychagogia is now being developed as psychological competence.

However, these make up only the preconditions for the final task – a task that brings Plato’s new concept of philosophical rhetoric into close proximity with Isocrates. Let’s follow Socrates’ line of argument: “If he then, in possession of all these abilities, still knows the situations (kairous) in which he must speak and in which he must remain silent, and if he finally also knows how to distinguish the appropriate and the inappropriate time (eukairian te kai akairian) for short speech, for pitiful speech, or for intensity, and for all the other ways of speaking that he has learned: then, and not before, has he fully developed the art within himself (Phaedrus, 272a). What is described here and qualified as precisely as nowhere else in Plato’s oeuvre is nothing other than the dialogical-dialectical-psychological sovereignty of the very protagonist of the dialogues: Socrates. And this in words that more than just hint at the educational idea of Socrates.

The Platonic kairology formulated here is one of the points of contact in the permanent philosophical agon with Isocrates, which I have been concerned with from the beginning – and I don’t want to exclude the possibility that Plato’s new interpretation was inspired by his opponent. What remains to be said and what I can only hint at in a conclusive thought is that in Plato’s late work the status of the kairos is once again conceived of in an even more basic sense. In Philebos (66a-d) measure (metron), moderation (metrion), and the opportune (kairion) form the apex of a universal hierarchy of values to which all supposedly central themes of Plato’s philosophy are clearly subordinated. Symmetry, beauty (kalon) and perfection (teleon), for example, form the second level of this hierarchy, pure reason (nous) and practical reason (phronesis) its third, science (episteme), art (techne) and right opinion (doxa) only its fourth. It speaks for the greatness of Plato’s philosophy to dare, even in his final works, a thought experiment that makes all forms of aesthetic, scientific, theoretical, and practical knowledge dependent on the powers of situational appropriateness. It seems that the old Plato – matured also by his confrontation with Isocrates – was able to take all these forms of knowledge back to the early insight of the seven sages: gnothi kairon.

Click here to read Carlin Romano’s response to this essay