Gray sky thinking: Plato and political decay

Since destruction (φθορά) awaits everything that has come to be, even a foundation of this kind will not survive for the whole of time. It will fall apart, and this will be the manner of its falling.” – Plato’s Republic, 546a

Examples of gray sky thinking are rife throughout historical periods of tumult and uncertainty. In fact, there seems to be a critical link between troubles so severe that they pose an existential risk and the variations on gray sky thinking that originate some classic formulations of political philosophy. It is worth revisiting these formulations in some detail. They are paradigm cases of gray sky thinking at work, and it is precisely the speculative defections they implement that invite excavation. It is easy enough to forget, or else to pass over in ignorance or silence, what is generative and wild in the history of ideas (much less that which may, in fact, be useful or true).

Plato is a useful first example, because how Plato responds to the reality of political decay is especially instructive. It is instructive because he founds the project of political philosophy as a response to the existential crises of Greek antiquity. Gray sky thinking aims to generate speculative engagements with new assumptions, and that is precisely what Plato does. Despite his prominence in the history of Western philosophy, Plato is often misconstrued or overlooked. Many find him elitist or unduly tricky, and, although interpretations of Plato vary widely, it seems many readers still do not know what to make of him. Rather than getting tangled up in the details of Plato’s reception, however, we can learn a great deal by returning to Plato in order to salvage and rename two formulations drawn from his corpus: speculative reason and subterranean modes of association.

To go straight to the heart of the matter that so often concerns Plato’s critics, it is certainly true that Plato is skeptical about the resilience of democratic regimes. And who wouldn’t be? Living through political decay profoundly affects the imagination – sometimes deranging it, sometimes stimulating it, sometimes both. When the polity loses itself to rapaciousness and robbery, one whole sort of world is lost, and the loss of a world always provokes a reply. The ship of state meets the reef of the real; the shipwreck becomes a habitat – incubatory wreckage – for strange new forms of life.

Consider the context in which Plato writes. The Peloponnesian War (431 BCE-404 BCE) was a catastrophe for Athens, and the deception, delusion, and demagoguery that propelled the war forward contributed to the capitulation of Athens and to the collapse of political trust in Athenian ideals and institutions. These were fraught and tragic times. The statesman Pericles, whose Funeral Oration provides a shining example of how democratic Athens perceived itself, promptly died in the Great Plague of Athens, right after the war began. His nephew, Alcibiades, epitomized Greek martial and masculine virtue. Alcibiades embodied the very future of Athens (as the Athenians understood it). Nevertheless, impelled by his hawkishness, the imprudent execution of the Sicilian Expedition led to unmitigated military disaster. Later, Alcibiades even joined Spartan forces and made war on his own countrymen. Following its surrender, Athens suffered a pro-Spartan interim government, led by a brutal group of Athenian oligarchs called the Thirty Tyrants. Even after the Thirty Tyrants were deposed, and nominal democracy restored to Athens, it was a scarred and troubled democracy that remained.

In this context (the context of systemic political decay), Plato’s skepticism about the resilience of democratic regimes seems worth taking seriously. The events of the war certainly call into question the idealized vision of Athenian democracy and democratic virtue proposed by Pericles in the Funeral Oration. If, as Pericles states there, the city of Athens and its destiny is “an education for Greece,” then it is a rather cruel and trying education. On the other hand, it is useful to contrast this education, afforded by such a painful and spectacular display of democratic imperial self-destruction, with the educative role played by Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the protagonist of most of Plato’s dialogues.

After all, the many interlocutors of Socrates are the embodiments of, and spokesmen for, the prevailing opinions about the good life, the uses of knowledge and power, and the nature of virtue. In contrast, Plato’s dialogues conduct a forensic analysis of political authority and social self-regard, which is to say, the doxa (δόξα), a term that refers to the body of conventional beliefs and popular opinions conditioning Athenian intellectual culture and political society. Call Socrates’s many interlocutors the defenders and representatives of the standard assumption in Athens. Political philosophy thereby first appears in conflict, or in tension with, the standard assumption as such. From Plato’s perspective, to philosophize is always already to defect, to defect from the extant regime insofar as that regime fails or refuses to justify itself, and this defection poses both a danger and an opportunity.

It is an opportunity because rejecting the standard assumption opens the way to replacing or revising the assumptions guiding collective and individual action. Even more, it introduces the idea that our assumptions and attachments are revisable, which is to say, defeasible, which is to say, not prima facie true. This is dangerous, then, because destroying or undermining conventional beliefs or popular opinions in a serious way threatens to dissolve the very element in which society seems to consist. (Hence the dual nature of the charge levied against Socrates at his trial. He corrupts the youth, yes, but he does this because he does not believe in the gods of the city. Instead, he believes “in other daimonia [δαιμόνια] that are novel.” See Apology 24b, 26c-28b). It bears repeating: If you’re not careful, this philosophy stuff will get you killed.

We should note the degree to which the appearance of Platonic political philosophy in this regard constitutes a speculative defection of the highest order. Plato’s skeptical posture is not merely a manifestation of the Greek conservative or tragic sensibility. His contribution cannot be reduced to the insight that hubris escalates to nemesis, that overreach leads to downfall, that positive feedback when unchecked produces phase transition. This insight, common throughout Greek thought (e.g., in Homer and Theognis), is captured perhaps most strikingly in the fragment of Anaximander (B1): “Whence things originate, thereby, according to necessity, they return to destruction. For they must pay recompense for their injustice, in accordance with the ordinance of time.” (See also Plato, Laws, 894a and Plato, Timaeus, 82a-b.) Indeed, this insight undergirds the whole range of formulations of the standard assumption broadly called “wisdom” by the Athenian conventionalists.

Throughout the dialogues, Plato’s Socrates lays siege to the two redoubts of the standard assumption in Athens: tradition and sophistry. The traditionalists (any of a host of figures, from the generals Laches and Nicias to the religious dogmatist, Euthyphro) defend and promote what is believed to be true among the Greeks (and especially among patriotic Athenians, who are, of course, inarguably the very best of all the Greeks). As a prime example, consider the old patriarch Cephalus and his affluent heir, Polemarchus, whose definitions of justice in the Republic (328b-331d, 331e-336a) exemplify this wisdom, albeit in its most simplistic and unreflective form. (Effectively, they define justice as giving people what they deserve, which ultimately means nothing other than helping your friends and harming your enemies). Orthogonally, the sophists (like Gorgias, Callicles, and Thrasymachus) pose as advocates and apologists of mere (or sheer) power and presence. (I leave aside the matter of the sophists for now.) Instead of restricting his contribution to mere critique of the standard assumption in Athens, however, Plato uses his political philosophy to develop alternative assumptions. This is where gray sky thinking slips the shining wire of mere critique, which always sutures the critic to the object of her critique.

In what, then, does Plato’s gray sky thinking consist? If Plato’s Socrates abandons or undoes the standard assumption in Athens, then what are the new assumptions (the novel demons, you could say) that Plato uses Socrates to summon and expound? Time to open up and let the daimonia in.

First: Plato’s Socrates undertakes the task of philosophy in such a way as to exemplify the interminability of rational inquiry, in contraposition to the supposedly authoritative and final formulations of the doxa. That rational inquiry cannot complete itself is a feature, not a bug. There is an extremely radical insight here, which functions as the molten core of reason itself: the interminability of rational inquiry implies that all priors must admit of revision. In other words, no assumption is safe where reason intrudes. It is an error to mischaracterize reason as domination. If anything, reason is a corrosive agent; it deviates, it subverts, it undermines. For reason is no doctrine at all, but an interminable, rule-based process of revision by means of which possible epistemic updates are proposed, evaluated, and then either discarded or else integrated into directed graphs of contingent truths. In this sense, rational inquiry functions like a speculative engine that cannot stop generating affects, concepts, hypotheses, programs, projects, questions, and regimes of description and redescription, all the better to condition and update all conceivable priors. This is nothing less than the discovery or invention of speculative reason, which is to say, reason tout court. Gray sky thinking identifies, or perhaps even induces, aporias (ᾰ̓πορῐ́ᾱς), and it proceeds to exploit them, so as to leverage better new conceptual resources and trajectories for those who will tarry with aporias. Plato uses Socrates to do this consistently. (He even subjects the figure of Socrates to the same trials. For example, see the many internal difficulties Socrates faces in dialogues like Theaetetus, Sophist, and Statesman). Hence all the strangeways that cut through the argument and the action of the dialogues.

Second: Plato introduces the conceptual possibility that encrypting or partitioning the political order can provide for subterranean modes of association that undercut and exceed the circumstances of systemic political decay that first necessitate such modes. This idea is evidenced in the so-called conflict or tension in the Platonic corpus between the demands of philosophical reason and the material requirements of political life. On the classical view, politics is a public affair, and it necessarily involves action. But action is easily paralyzed by uncertainty, which the philosopher both embodies and operationalizes. Likewise, insofar as the public sphere requires the doxa (due to the necessity of providing fora for the diversity of human capacities, experiences, and interests), philosophy easily can be perceived as an attack on the very nature of the public sphere. Accordingly, there is at least some sense in which the school of political philosophy Plato founds has a conspiratorial or subterranean dimension. The dialogues carry their meaning through the winding tunnels of time, dissolving the ties that bind their readers to the standard assumption in all its local variations. The strong resonance with the rites of the Orphic mystery cults is doubtlessly intentional, although, for Plato, the philosopher’s passage through the underworld is, at heart, a political journey (Republic, 514a–520a).

Conceive of Plato as a philosophical engineer who builds a patchwork vehicle out of broken and spare parts (i.e., the wreckage of Greek antiquity) and sends it out to wander through the dark, like Howl’s Moving Castle. The prospects of speculative reason are not yet exhausted. Plato’s creation is a conceptual machine, lumbering through the underground ruins of dead and dying civilizations, seeking an exit to the surface, an egress to the outside. Platonic political philosophy may be like such a walking building, with many rooms, but it is also animated by unusually motile and strange daimonia. It crawls out of the cave; it carries fragments of the Sun in its belly. Consider a final irony of the Platonic corpus, then: that a philosopher whose most familiar figure is the Sun should be so adept at gray sky thinking.


Michael Uhall is a political theorist. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He can be found @noirmaterialism, or e-mailed directly at uhall2@illinois.edu.

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