Friday, November 23, 2012

The Character of Cephalus

Sorry, this one's a little long. It won't be interesting to you unless you are interested in reading Book I of the Republic (which I hope you are)!

Most commentators who discuss the character of Cephalus in the Republic take a dim view of his character. The disparagement seems to issue from two respects in which he is supposed to be significantly at odds with Socrates's views and interests:

  1. He represents "piety" and "tradition," as opposed to the open, critical freedom of reason.
  2. He values justice for its possible connection to eternity (and the more unambiguous connection to sleeping well), rather than for its intrinsic worth.
Each of these points has some basis in the tradition of interpretation of Plato, but it should be obvious that this grounding is not very secure, and so these judgments of Cephalus should be regarded as probable interpretative hypotheses, contingent on the correctness of the traditional interpretation of Plato. If you read the Republic as a replacement of a traditional external action-centered view of justice with a philosophical internal agent-centered view, you need Cephalus to be a narrow-minded traditionalist whose inflexibility obstructs Socrates's educational project, and who must therefore be gotten out of the way. Otherwise the literary structure of the Republic becomes incoherent.

Thus, a reinterpretation of Cephalus (especially with regard to his departure) would warrant a reconsideration of the whole of the Republic. With this consequence in mind, we should not allow presuppositions about Plato's philosophical purpose to take the place of actual literary evidence. (I'm thinking of Devin Stauffer here, who decides illegitimatly that Cephalus is probably laughing nervously, and Julia Annas, who calls his excuse a "polite fiction.")

Because Cephalus's family was involved in a high-profile murder case around the turn of the century (a few years before Socrates's trial), we can assume a few facts about him as background. (This historical significace of the family also makes speculations about the significance of the names implausible, BTW.) Cephalus is a Syracusan arms manufacturer who, in the middle of his life's way, came to Attica with his family at the behest of Pericles. He settled in the Piraeus (the port city outside the main city of Athens) as a metic (a resident alien), and after some decades retired, passing the shield-making business on to his sons, Polemarchus, Lysias, and Euthydemus. (No not that Euthydemus!)

So we know that he once made a fateful decision, which at the time of the dialog seems to have proven prudent. We gather that he made this decision with a view to the future flourishing of his sons, remembering that his own father was not so mindful. The evident dramatic irony is that under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, some years after Cephalus's death, his sons' property would be seized and Polemarchus executed. The futural benefit of property is contingent on the stability and equity of the rule of law which governs and guarantees it. so Cephalus may make mistakes about what will benefit his sons, if he cannot discern an unstable constitution from stable ones. But certain it is that he wants to do them good and thinks he has done so.

What good does he think he has done them? He has provided them with two things which he regards as the conditions for a happy, peaceful old age:
  1. money
  2. moderation
Of course, he cannot hand moderation over to them in the same way as he has handed over his tangible property, but perhaps he has lived in such a way that his sons will have an example to follow. If his youth was governed by "many mad masters" of passionate desire, still he was able to keep himself in line for the sake of his sons, unlike his profligate father and rapacious grandfather.

As death approaches, he grows fearful of the stories of punishment in the afterlife, and he treasures the freedom from occasions of injustice which his well-kept estate has afforded him. But that was never his motivation for living he has. Throughout his life he has though first of his sons' futures, and this thought has been the source of his moderation.

So it would be inconsistent for him to subject his sons to any danger which he himself knows how to avoid. is departure, then, cannot mean that he is afraid of Socrates's refutations. As I said before, if he thought that talking to Socrates could damage the benefit of his money by taking away the guarantee of his peace of mind, he would not casually laugh at the prospect of Polemarchus's suffering the same fate. Yes, people laugh when they are nervous, but they also laugh when they are at ease and someone has just made a joke (as Polemarchus has here).

No, Cephalus is pleased that his son should enjoy the remainder of the argument. At the same time, he does not think the conversation is anything serious. Conversation is a seemly pleasure, and Polemarchus's eagerness to engage in it is a heartening sign of moderation in him. Cephalus's failing is not inflexible traditionalism but easygoing refinement. His attitude towards conversation as a harmless pastime prevents him from enjoying its richest usefulness.

Next time, I'll try to compare this interpretation to Allan Bloom's (as requested by Pseudonoma) and some others, before going on to analyze the refutations of Polemarchus.


Correction: the original post attributed the "laughing nervously" interpretation of Cephalus's departure to Stanley Rosen.