Friday, January 11, 2013

The Character of Cephalus, continued

My principal objection to Allan Bloom's interpretation of the character of Cephalus in Plato's Republic is that it presents dialectic as a calculated rhetorical strategy of exclusion, whereas the literary evidence suggests to the contrary that Socrates is really interested in hearing Cephalus speak about justice. (See my previous post for a more detailed explanation of this objection.) It may even be that conversation with Socrates would be morally superfluous for someone like Cephalus, but the point for us is not that Cephalus has or has not missed out on something, but that Socrates sees something to learn from him and has lost the opportunity.

Leo Strauss is of course at the source of this badly mistaken attitude towards Socratic dialectic. Whether he is guilty of it himself is another question (although according his own interpretive framework I suppose he should be held completely responsible for his legacy as well as his actual writings). A question easily answered by reference to The City and Man. He claims that Cephalus "stands for what seems to be the most natural authority. He posses the dignity peculiar to old age and thus presents the order which is based on reverence for the old, the old order as opposed to the present decay" (65).

Perhaps this kind of character analysis passed for careful reading in Strauss's day because it was so novel to pay so much attention to the characters at all. But surely Strauss's reasoning amounts to saying that if a character is old he stands for an old order, whereas Cephalus himself is characterized more by his differences from his ancestors than from any continuity. Strauss himself acknowledges that "assuredly, the metic Cephalus is not the proper representative of the old order, of the old Athenian order," without managing to draw the conclusion that Plato did not intend him to be such a representative at all.

This kind of allegorical reading (which would, one hopes, be unacceptable in the interpretation of, say, a modern novel) not only distorts Plato's attitude toward tradition and piety, it also obscures the real dramatic function of an elderly character, which is rather existential than representative: we, with Socrates, are interested in what it is like to be very old, not some presumption of what an old person supposedly thinks.

Julia Annas takes a position much closer to my own. Like me, she describes Cephalus as having a certain kind of "complacency." However, she too easily identifies morals as the dimension in which he demonstrates this defect. "Basically," she writes, "he does not care very much about morality" (Annas, 20). This judgment is no more warranted than Bloom's. Like his, it contradicts the obvious facts: Cephalus admires moderation and justice and thinks both of them more important than money (since money is actually subordinate to virtue); he thinks the most valuable thing his sons could gain from him would be refined moral judgment, together with the means to execute it. How does Annas come to the conclusion that such a man does not even care much about the very thing his life has been spent securing for his sons?

She soon makes it clear: "He has no intellectual interest in the matter at all. He enjoys a chat about it with Socrates, but as soon as the latter asks questions which force him to think, he loses interest and goes away with the polite fiction that he has to attend to the sacrifice (which is in fact over)." Leaving aside her contrived claim that Cephalus is lying about the sacrifices (as though he would, if he were so concerned with the external form of morality as Annas thinks he is!), she assumes that care and interest entail intellectual curiosity and fortitude. Cephalus should be a counterexample to this prejudice rather than just being summarily subsumed under it.

Next time, a few notes on Seth Benardete's unique interpretation.