The Compass Rose: Explorations in Thought

Category: 2019 Issue

St. Thomas in Birmingham Jail: Aquinas’ Natural Law and the Ethics of M.L.K.

By Tyler Lynch

The actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign against segregation had as their wellspring a Judeo-Christian tradition of nonviolence and justice that stretches from the Old Testament through to Christian philosophers of the medieval period. In particular, the natural law philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas that provides a major framework for King’s ethical thought, and his justification of the Civil Rights Movement. This essay examines the thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, in comparison to and contrast with the thought of Thomas Aquinas, with focus on his Treatise on Law. Tracing this lineage is crucially important to understanding King’s views on human rights and justice. Indeed, without considering King’s spiritual heritage it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand the moral framework of the Civil Rights Movement at all.

            Perhaps the most accessible introduction to the ethical convictions of King lie in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, drafted in 1963 while King was confined in the eponymous Alabama jail. Written as a response to a letter published by eight white clergymen      who denounced King’s work as “unwise and untimely,” King delivered, under trying circumstances, a work of exceptional lucidity and moral force (King). The letter is a justification not only of the foundations and principles of the American Civil Rights Movement, but a timeless articulation of the struggle of all oppressed people and a vindication of the “yearning for freedom” (King).

In response to the charge that he and his cohorts showed a “willingness to break laws,” King marshalled the philosophy of classic Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas in rebuttal (King). King concedes that it is an apparent paradox and a “legitimate concern” that the civil rights movement advocates adhering to some laws and breaking others. However, he responds that “there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” With this quotation, King has already formulated his argument in the terms of Thomas Aquinas before Aquinas is even mentioned in the next sentence. Aquinas agrees as to the the inherent just or unjust nature of “laws framed by man” in the Treatise on Law, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.. King proceeds to make another fundamentally Thomistic argument: that it is morally and legally right to obey just laws, while “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Aquinas is again in concordance, arguing that unjust laws are “not binding in conscience” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.). King has extended this logically from the realm of conscience into the practical sphere.

The pressing question, for both Aquinas and King, is how to differentiate between a just law and an unjust one. King proceeds to answer this question “in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,” although he was already using Thomistic language. Thus it is to a closer examination of those terms that we should turn to next.

            Aquinas distinguishes between four types of law in his Treatise on Law, written in the 13th Century as part of his magnum opusof theology and philosophy, the Summa Theologica. The four types are eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law. Eternal law is the rational ordering principle of the natural universe, ultimately emanating from God. It is the “Supreme reason” that “implies order” into created things through rational principles (ST I-II, Q.1, Art.1; a.d.3).  The eternal law “must be called eternal” because its source, God, “is not subject to time”, and it is a law because it predictably governs all of existence (ST I-II, Q.1, Art.1, c.o.). Indeed, Aquinas would argue that the universe itself is only rational because it is superintended by the rational principles of the eternal law, which draws all things to their “proper act and end” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, c.o.).

            Natural law is an extension of the eternal law, encompassing those elements of it that govern the actions of free, rational beings. For Aquinas, “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, a.d.1). The rational participation is important because, as Aquinas says,  participation in the eternal law is essentially to law in itself insofar as that participation is rational and intellectual in character (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, a.d.3). Aquinas quotes the New Testament to define natural law as something inherently knowable by all, which all human beings have consciousness of. It is the universal, objective standard by which we know “what is good and what is evil” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.2, c.o.).

            Human law is rooted in natural law, but extends it to the temporal and the specific. Natural law may be interwoven with the fabric of our being, inclining us to what is good, but it does not specifically dictate proper action in every frame of human action. Thus, human law is necessary to establish the “general rules and measures of all things relating to human conduct” (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.3, a.d.2). It concerns the “particular determination of certain matters” and as such, does not have the universal quality of eternal or natural law (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.3, c.o.). Aquinas fully accepts that human law would result in “different and contrary laws” across time and culture to facilitate different modes of being in the world (ST I-II, Q.91, Art.4, c.o.). It is human law that is referred to when Aquinas and King state that laws can be just or unjust.

            Divine law is not directly referenced in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but should not be ignored in a discussion of Thomistic natural law philosophy. Divine law is that which concerns the human soul beyond its rational elements, and is not solely discernible by natural reason. “Man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness,” says Aquinas, “which is inproportionate to his natural faculty” (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.). It is divine law that concerns this end. Where reason falls short, where the “uncertainty of human judgement” confuses, where “man is not competent to judge,” the transcendent Divine law steps in, pulling man to his predestined end of eternal happiness and working to “forbid all evil deeds” and ensure that objective good is rewarded (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.). While there is a clear continuum from eternal law, which orders the universe, to natural law, which governs good and evil out of the eternal law, to human law, which extends natural into specific situations, divine law is in a class of its own. It is not entirely rationally explicable, as it “is given by God […] in a yet higher way” (ST I-II, Q.93, Art.4, c.o.; a.d.2). Its purpose is also not the simple avoidance of evil and the pursuit of good, but salvation and eternal union with God. With this framework in place, it is possible to understand the argument made by Aquinas and King as to what constitutes an unjust law.

            King defines an unjust law using Aquinas’s formulation as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law,” but this is rather vague. It is rather simple for a law to be rooted in natural law, as long as it fits with the central precept of that law: “that good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (ST I-II, Q.94, Art.2, c.o.). This first precept is very broad, and does not detail which things are good and which are evil. Martin Luther King then makes four arguments in an attempt to show that segregation laws do not bring about good or avoid evil, and are thus not based in natural law, making them unjust on Thomistic terms.

King’s first argument is not especially Thomistic. King’s argument is that “any law that degrades human personality is unjust” (King). This claim is never made by Aquinas in the Treatise on Law, and is more ideologically concordant with the theology of Martin Buber and Paul Tillich, quoted by King to show that segregation “distorts the soul and damages the personality” (King). However, this argument is not wholly alien to the language of the Treatise. Aquinas speaks of “the last end of human life” as “bliss or happiness,” and writes that the natural law aids in “preserving human life, and of warding off its obstacles” (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.2, c.o.; Q.94, Art.2, c.o.). Segregation law clearly inhibits the pursuit of happiness and has no effect in preserving life or alleviating its difficulties. It is not hard to see on Thomistic terms that through degrading the human condition, segregation law degrades the personality as well, which is Divinely-directed towards happiness. While this argument is not explicitly Thomistic, it is roughly compatible with his philosophy.

King is in more Thomistic territory when he writes that “an unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself” (King). This is deeply unjust for Aquinas, who rallies a host of quotes in opposition to the attitude. “Whatever law a man makes for another, he should keep himself,” he writes (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.5, a.d.3). Aquinas quotes Jesus in condemnation of those that “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but with a finger of their own they will not move them,” a phrase all the more pertinent when seen in context of the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery and segregation (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.5, a.d.3). Here King and Aquinas are in direct agreement.

King next argues against illegitimately-made laws, taking his argument from Aquinas. King writes that “a law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law” (King). Aquinas rejects any law not made by and for the people, saying that “the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.3, c.o.). There is no room for infliction of laws on minorities at all. “Coercive power is vested in the whole people or in some public personage,” Aquinas repeats (ST I-II, Q.90, Art.3, a.d.3).

Finally, King argues that a law can be “just on its face and unjust in its application” (King). King references his charge of “parading without a permit” as an example of a reasonable law being used oppressively. Aquinas is sensitive to the same problem, and is utterly opposed to the interpretation of law contrary to the common good. “If a case arise wherein the observance of that law would be harmful to the common good,” he writes, “it should not be observed” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.6, c.o.). Aquinas cites the example of a city whose gates are barred by law, and the injustice of maintaining that law if it would mean the deaths of citizens outside the walls (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.6, c.o.). Aquinas and King are in essential agreement as to what constitutes an unjust law under natural law philosophy.

            However, the two thinkers differ significantly on the value of civil disobedience, with Aquinas being far less eager to advocate social disturbance. He values order and forbearance to a degree that King would, most likely, find deeply disappointing. While Aquinas concedes that unjust laws must not be followed, he qualifies this by giving possible exception “in order to avoid scandal or disturbance” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, c.o.). A man is not bound to obey a law that “inflict unjust hurt on its subjects,” but only provided “he avoid giving scandal or inflicting a more grievous hurt.” Absent in the Treatise on Law is any sense of the need to “arouse the conscience of the community,” something King states is borne from “highest respect for the law” (King).

           King was emphatically opposed to acting out of fear of scandal, something Aquinas takes quite seriously. Aquinas sounds a good deal like the “white moderate” whom King rebuked as the “great stumbling block in [the Negro’s] stride toward freedom.” The white moderate, says King, “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; [and] prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Whereas it is imprudent to place Aquinas squarely on the side of order rather than justice, social stability is far more dear to Aquinas’s heart than King’s. King would never be resigned to tolerance of an unjust status quo by any means— he believed the erasure of unjust laws “must be demanded by the oppressed” and would occur no other way (King). He saw no other choice for African-Americans but to “openly, lovingly” disobey the segregation laws that oppress them and willingly accept the consequences (King). Aquinas’s concern for social order is not to be found in the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

           This difference comes down, in large part, to Aquinas’s conviction of the inherent divine sanction of power and order—a conviction Martin Luther King seems to lack. Aquinas believed there was something unsettling and potentially anarchical in disobeying laws—even unjust ones  —laid down by authority, because authority is Divinely sanctioned. Aquinas quotes the Letter to the Romans to justify this, stating that “all human power is from God,” and anyone that “resisteth the power. . . resisteth the ordinance of God” (ST I-II, Q.96, Art.4, a.d.1, quoting Rm 13:1.2). King, however, is adamant in his Letter that “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” One wonders whether, for Aquinas, law and order are something closer to goods in themselves.

For all this, the positions of Thomas Aquinas and M.L.K. are not so very disparate. Despite his concern with order and avoidance of scandal, Aquinas never denies that unjust laws are not laws binding in conscience, and in this regard stands fundamentally with King. King himself shows a certain respect for civil order too, stating that he is not an anarchist and does not “advocate evading or defying the law” (King). “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” he wrote. King’s willingness to accept the penalties of breaking unjust laws (in his case, imprisonment for protesting without a permit) elevates him about the mere disturbers of the peace that Aquinas is so fearful of.

The looming presence of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Letter from Birmingham Jail would not have been lost on the eight churchmen to whom King wrote. For the controversial Baptist preacher to utilize the philosophy of the perhaps most eminent theologian and philosopher in Western Christianity to buttress his campaign of civil disobedience was an effective rhetorical technique, and bolsters King’s credibility by basing his arguments in terms the clergymen would understand. Martin Luther King is highly effective in giving credence to his arguments through highly pertinent appeals to authority, from the Biblical in St. Paul, the modern in Paul Tillich, to the secular in Thomas Jefferson. The influence of Thomas Aquinas on M.L.K. is no mere rhetorical device. Indeed, it is difficult to fathom King’s justification of direct action and civil disobedience having the same weight and philosophical rigour, were it not for his deep and abiding understanding of the natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas. We find the Treatise on Law has gained an unexpected legacy. Despite being no progressivist himself, Aquinas lay down in the Treatise on Law an enduring and robust defense of justice that would become one of the moral cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. “Treatise on Law.” Sophia Project. Accessed 17 Nov, 2018

King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” University of Pennsylvania. Accessed 17 Nov, 2018

“Statement and Response: King in Birmingham.” Trinity International University. Accessed 16 Nov, 2018

A Conversation Between Hannah Gadsby and Aristotle: On Art and Judgment in “Nanette” and “Poetics”

By Abbie LeBlanc

With a run-time of one hour and ten-minutes, Netflix bills Nanette as one of its original comedy series. Commentators have dubbed it anything but “comedy;” instead, their classifications range from “anti-comedy” to “stand-up tragedy.”[1] In addition to being a provocative and innovative piece of media, Hannah Gadsby’s performance addresses many of the fundamental questions about art that Aristotle discusses in his Poetics. Like Aristotle, Gadsby is deeply concerned with the power art possesses to bring coherence to our lives. However, for Aristotle, the coherence provided by narrative art serves as the basis for philosophical inquiry, as contradictions and misrepresentations within a piece become an invitation for reflection. Gadsby, on the other hand, perceives a serious danger in allowing certain narratives to shape our perspectives, as omission and fabrications in art can become tools to exclude and marginalise others. The development of judgement is crucial to both Aristotle and Gadsby’s account of art; however, for Aristotle, this is a judgement tied to philosophy, while Gadsby calls for a judgment rooted in empathy to mediate our stories.

While Nanette takes a form that would have been unfamiliar to Aristotle, Gadsby adheres to Aristotle’s fundamental precept that art should be a coherent representation of life. Nanette is about a single and complete action, as Aristotle claims all comic, epic, and tragic poetry must be (1450b33). The necessity of coherence in narrative art appears to be a self-evident assertion. If one were to encounter a series of statements that were in a random, illogical order, one would be hard pressed to call it a story. By nature, most stand-up comedy would not meet this requirement of having a beginning, middle, and end, as they are collections of wandering anecdotes, maybe connected by a humorous segue.[2] Gadsby’s performance differs because all of her stories center upon reframing events to give greater agency to the storyteller. The action of the show is “a broken woman who has rebuilt herself” taking control of her story.[3] This broad definition of a single action is permissible, as both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined detail the events of a single action (1462b9–11). Just like Homer’s epics, removing any single anecdote from Nanette would “disturb and dislocate” the unity of the single and complete action that is the whole, as each of Gadsby’s stories has its own call-back built into the script (1451a34). Aristotle notes that life, on its own, does not possess this kind of unity (1451a19). Humans take pleasure in representations because representations allow us to “understand and work out what each item is” (1448b16). Moreover, by representing life through coherent narratives, one can use particular situations as a means to grapple with universal truths (1451b6).[4] These narratives, thus, provide the basis for all understanding and all philosophical inquiry, according to Aristotle.

Gadsby, on the other hand, is not concerned with truth: she is concerned with the political consequences of narratives. Take, for example, her rapid-fire opening where she describes jokes from earlier in her career: “lots of cool jokes about homophobia—really solved that problem.”[5] One such joke, based on a real-life experience, was about Gadsby being misgendered. A man, supposing Gadsby to be flirting with his girlfriend, threatens to assault her. However, when it is revealed that Gadsby is in fact a woman, the man apologises, claiming he mistook her for “a fucking faggot.”[6] The audience laughs as Gadsby mocks the man’s ignorance. However, around seventeen minutes in, Gadsby stops these jokes, explaining that her early comedy was built on self-deprecation. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins?” she asks. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore.”[7] Gadsby then proceeds, with a seamless segue, into a series of jokes about gender-norms, artfully shifting the audience’s focus from jokes about her identity to jokes about the societal binaries that dictate her identity to be “gender not-normal” in the first place.[8] Gadsby recognizes, as Aristotle does, that the stories we tell become the narratives we use to make sense of the world, of life, and of our own identities.

Fifty minutes later, Gadsby returns to her anecdote about being misgendered. She informs the audience that while it was, “a very funny story,” this was only because she edited the real-life event; she created a false representation of it. Upon revealing this omission, Gadsby now tells the actual ending of the story. The young man comes back, realizing his mistake, and assaults Gadsby because she is “a lady faggot.”[9] The audience does not laugh—Gadsby does not let them. “That is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate,” Gadsby says.[10] This act of violence is a direct result of the stories told to these children, and how they learned to make sense of the world through them. Gadsby condemns our modern storytelling for allowing harmful and destructive narratives to proliferate.

Aristotle is aware of this dangerous power possessed by poetry; however, he does not seek to regulate it. Almost to the contrary, he directs poets to look to Homer in order to learn “the right way to tell falsehoods” (1460a19). The way poets should tell falsehoods, he writes, is through the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Poets want to make it clear that B follows from A; thus, when they insert B the reader will assume A is present—but this is false. This deception is necessary because a storyteller cannot simply lie and compromise their authority; they must trick readers and spectators into misapplying their own reason.[11] Aristotle then turns to the “bath scene,” in Book XIX of the Odyssey, as an example of a falsehood well-told.[12] In this scene, Penelope calls for an old servant to bathe an unfamiliar newcomer. This servant—Odysseus’ nurse from his childhood—recognizes the stranger to be Odysseus. Attempting to preserve his ruse, Odysseus tells the nurse that he merely looks like the missing king. However, when the nurse sees a distinctive scar, she realizes the truth. The fallacy of affirming the consequent in this case would seem to be the nurse’s assumption that B—the presence of the scar—means A is true—that the stranger who looks like Odysseus really is Odysseus. Yet, what would normally be a fallacy reveals the truth. Notably, when the nurse sees the scar, the narrative is briefly interrupted with a recollection of how Odysseus got the wound. The memory goes all the way back to Odysseus’ maternal grandfather giving the newborn Odysseus his name, which means “son of Pain.” [13] It then details the much later visit Odysseus paid to his grandfather where he was injured during a boar hunt. The anecdote reveals more about Odysseus’s character—the man of lies, disguises, and pain—than it does about how to tell falsehoods.[14] Instead, Aristotle has directed his readers’ attention to a passage in which a story reveals the truth in the face of a falsehood.

This peculiar tangent can be reconciled with the rest of Poetics when one considers the importance of judgement in relation to poetry for Aristotle. Specifically, he advocates for scrutinizing contradictions in poetical works, “in the same way as arguments rebutting a philosophical position” (1461b16–17). Furthermore, to determine if something is good or bad in poetry, one must look “not only at the actual deed or words, but also the identity of the person saying or doing the thing, the person to whom [they] said or did it, plus the occasion, the means and the motive” (1461a6–8). In directing his reader’s attention to this puzzling section of the Odyssey, Aristotle is calling for both his writing and Homer’s to be understood in light of their context and their contradictions. Essentially, he is providing a guide for how to approach all textual art, from Homer to the Socratic dialogues, and possibly even the Poetics itself. By following this guidance, readers will develop their capacity for judgement. Aristotle seems to imply that by developing this capacity for philosophical judgement in relation to poetry readers will be able to approach the truth, despite—and perhaps necessarily through—the falsehoods told by poets.

It is on this subject of judgement that Nanette challenges Poetics. Gadsby sees quite clearly the falsehoods mimetic artists have told—artists of the likes Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Pablo Picasso. However, in casting her judgement on these artists, Gadsby is not as optimistic as Aristotle. The falsehoods told by these individuals and those like them ultimately serve to exclude people like herself from having a place in the world. Gadsby says, “art history taught me there’s only ever been two types of women: a virgin or a whore.”[15] Within this binary, Gadsby finds no place for herself and her “masculine, off-centre, lesbian situation.”[16] Likewise, Gadsby is critical of the mythology built around figures like Picasso. Particularly, within Picasso’s image as a “passionate, virile, tormented genius, man, ball sack,” there is no room for his misogyny and its consequences.[17] This representation of Picasso allows for people to eschew the fact he slept with an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and allow for Picasso’s claim she was in her prime, just as he was in his, to go unquestioned. As Gadsby later shouts, “a 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime. Ever!”[18] Gadsby renders judgement on these falsehoods, on these stories, on these representations of life, and her conclusion is political: we cannot allow for these representations to dominate. This appears to be why she claims Nanette will be her last comedy set, as she will not contribute to this exclusionary and abusive institution of storytellers.

However, Gadsby’s words need to be reconciled with the occasion of her speech: she is articulating her judgement of comedy through comedy—or something like it. As she tells the audience, particularly any men who may feel persecuted by her performance, “this is theatre, fellas.”[19] This is a representation of the real and debilitating damage that has been done to Gadsby in her life. Yet, despite the fact that this damage has been in part caused by the stories we tell, Gadsby actions reinforce the importance of storytelling in the process of healing from trauma. Gadsby uses art to highlight the limits of art; yet, when scrutinizing this contradiction, the importance of art to Gadsby’s understanding of human nature is evident. Indeed, Gadsby claims that stories are something we share, that connect us, that cure us. For this reason, she sought to tell her story properly to “people with minds of their own”—people who are capable of making their own judgements.[20] Her last words on stage are not a joke—instead, they are a retelling of Vincent Van Gogh’s story. Early in the show, she explains that, contrary to what some amateur art aficionados might think, Van Gogh’s mental illness did not spur him to make beautiful art. Van Gogh actually took medication to deal with his mental illness, paid for by an older brother, which had the side effect of causing him to experience the colour yellow very intensely. When Gadsby first tells this story, she suggests that “perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated!”[21] Now, as she ends her show, she reframes this story again, asking the audience, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a connection to the world.”[22] Gadsby suggests that through the particular stories we tell, we can begin to empathize universally. Both Gadsby and Aristotle understand stories to be the fundamental building blocks upon which we build our understandings of reality. Through these stories human beings create coherence, and through judging these stories human beings can learn. However, it is on this question of judging our stories that Gadsby and Aristotle begin to differ. Aristotle suggests that, through their falsehoods, stories may be able to teach individuals the proper, philosophical judgement. From particular lies, universal truths can be articulated. By contrast, Gadsby suggests that we need to develop a kind of political judgement to mediate our stories. Her performance is hopeful in suggesting that this judgement can still be cultivated through storytelling; however, it requires a shift. Rather than using our stories and judgements to seek truth, we need to seek empathy. The understanding of art embodied by Aristotle and Gadsby is not the same; they are potentially diametrically opposed. However, despite this conflict, Gadsby and Aristotle are participating in the same conversation about the nature of art, and what it means in relation to human life.

[1]. Cassie da Costa, “The Funny, Furious Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby,” New Yorker, 02 May 2018,; Andrew Kahn, “Stand-Up Tragedy,” Slate, 11 July 2018,

[2]. See John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (Netflix, 2018); Tig Notaro, Happy To Be Here, (Netflix, 2018).

[3]. Gadsby, Nanette, 01:05:08–14.

[4]. John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 1960), 290. This universal quality in narrative art leads Aristotle to claim “poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history” (1451b5). Randall argues that, “Herodotus in verse would still be merely ‘history,’ not poetry; it would remain an account of particular facts, while poetry is of the nature rather of universals, of what such a man would probably or necessarily say or do. Poetry is just the kind of thing Thucydides puts into the speeches of his characters: Thucydides is clearly from Aristotle’s point of view a true poet.”

[5]. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:09:45–51.

[6]. Gadsby, 00:010:10–11:22.

[7]. Gadsby, 00:17:40–18:17.

[8]. Gadsby, 00:19:11–18.

[9]. Gadsby, 00:58:55–59:58

[10]. Gadsby, 00:59:59–01:00:10.

[11]. Dorothy Sayers, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” English 1, no. 1 (1936): 31.

[12]. See Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996), XIX.384–544

[13]. Homer, Odyssey, XIX.464.

[14]. Silvia Carli, “The Love Affair Between Philosophy and Poetry: Aristotle’s Poetics and Narrative Identity,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2015):153 n.4. This revelation is in line with Carli’s suggestion that the Poetics is unique in Aristotelean thought as it allows for the narrative construction of identities, offering an avenue to answer the question, “who is it?” Working from other texts in Aristotle’s corpus it is possible to answer questions about what a person is, such as if they are morally virtuous as per Nicomachean Ethics; however, Poetics is unique in this exposition of who a person is.

[15]. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:46:31–47:05.

[16]. Gadsby, 00:47:36–48:00.

[17]. Gadsby, 00:51:32–42.

[18]. Gadsby, 01:04:40–47.

[19]. Gadsby, 01:05:41–57.

[20]. Gadsby, 01:07:14­–18.

[21]. Gadsby, 00:33:20–35:08.

[22]. Gadsby, 01:07:40–57.

“Golden Rule” versus “Gilded Rule”: The Hobbesian Distortion in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

By Ashley Riley

At a first glance, Thomas Hobbes’ use of the inverted “Golden Rule” provides a compelling argument for the operation of society, primarily in the sense that it encourages everyone to be a considerate citizen. Treating others the way that they want to be treated, or avoiding the opposite, indeed feels like a fundamental principle, as Hobbes describes it to be in Chapter XIV of his Leviathan. In theory, the demand for policing and government intervention should be unnecessary if everyone simply did right by each other. Regardless whether humans are as innately politically inclined as Aristotle famously describes, or selfishly animalistic as Hobbes argues, this would seem to be a satisfactory rule of thumb to abide.

However, this claim may not speak to our humanity beyond a superficial level. If human beings are truly the despondent creatures that Hobbes claims we are, meaning that we are unable to live happily and peacefully without the intervention of a Leviathan, then this simple framework would prove to be insufficient. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment demonstrates this to be the case. Although Crime and Punishment illustrates the consequences for when this law is broken from a Hobbesian perspective, it simultaneously makes the case that abiding by this law ultimately leads to the downfall of society as a whole.

Before studying in greater detail the effect of this law in the novel, it is necessary to first dissect this rule in its original biblical context, and how it is used within Hobbes’ Leviathan more vividly. What we understand today as the “Golden Rule” first appears in Matthew 7:12, when Jesus states, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This encapsulates the idea that one must use the self as a guide to living ethically among one’s peers, and within a society as a whole. Notably, Hobbes includes the total inverse of this law within his Leviathan. At first glance, this appears to be the very same rule; however, there is a striking difference in its effect. Although both versions are general rules, they require reflection upon one’s particular self, which ultimately will provide a guide for how one will treat another. In order to understand this rule, one has to think about oneself, and one’s particularity in relation to others. This is where the two philosophies diverge: whereas the original rule is positive, in the sense that human action tends to matter more than inaction, Hobbes’ distortion is far less morally demanding. What matters most in the original perspective are the things that you do, whereas Hobbes suggests that the Leviathan instead should be responsible for action, and therefore that there is peace in passivity (e.g. as in do not kill, do not steal, etc). This is the crux of Hobbes’ pessimistic attitude towards mankind.

Although Hobbes’ first fundamental law of nature is “to seek peace and follow it” (99), this is not the same as Jesus’ intent in his sermon on the mount. Hobbes follows this law with another proclamation, claiming “[we must do] by all means what we can do to defend ourselves” (99). This seems contradictory, even within Hobbes’ own reasoning; if humans truly are as animalistic as he describes us to be, then peace can easily be sacrificed for the sake of self preservation (98). Even he seems to realize this contradiction, arguing:

From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law:

that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself… This is the law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, What you do not want done to you, do not do to another. (99)

By distorting this biblical law and defining it as a rule of nature, it appears as though Hobbes himself is trying to be Christlike. His Leviathan is not only what he believes to be an “honest” analysis of man, but he also provides us with a way to react to these flaws. Instead of trying to fight our true nature, we can embrace it; thus, Hobbes’ Leviathan acts as a “new Bible,” beginning with a distorted “Golden Rule,” or a first rule of living. If he is correct, then it seems as though mankind has a more stable path to follow; but if he is wrong, which Crime and Punishment  proves to be the case, then there are severe consequences to following his advice. Both texts illustrate the dystopia that would result in humanity’s acceptance of this philosophy, placing the tragic consequences at the forefront for us to observe.

As already stated, Crime and Punishment argues against Hobbes’ “Golden Rule” to an inverted degree. While Crime and Punishment  also offers a story of a main character attempting to challenge an unjust society, Raskolnikov simultaneously encompasses and defies Hobbes’ philosophies. Similar to Hobbes’ account of man, Raskolnikov validates the philosopher’s beliefs by arguing that “living souls demand life . . . are suspicious . . . [and] are reactionary!” (306-7). However, Raskolnikov additionally claims, “you can’t leap over nature by logic alone,” and this directly fights against Hobbes’ argument (307). While the philosopher claims that it is “reason” and the desire for “peace” that reconcile our dark nature (9; 97), Raskolnikov unravels this with his complex nature. He also defies Hobbes’ fundamental law of nature by committing his gruesome crimes. He unjustly does on to others what he would not want done upon himself, so he is deserving of the punishment bestowed upon him when the authorities intervene. Raskolnikov also defies Hobbes’ caricature of man with his constant acts of kindness and charity (282-91), and therefore in this sense, occasionally exhibits the tendencies of the original “Golden Rule.” All at once, Raskolnikov is the embodiment, and rejection of Hobbes’ principles.

By becoming a self-proclaimed deliverer of “justice,” Raskolnikov takes on arguably the most Hobbesian role within the text. Believing that his actions were not only “preordained” (82), but more provocatively, his “duty (310), Raskolnikov imposes the role of the Leviathan upon himself for the sake of maintaining justice within his own society. In Part Three of the novel, he defends this moral reasoning to his friend, Razumikhin; in greater detail, he claims:

Everyone is divided into two categories, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary.’ Ordinary people should live a life of obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law, because, you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary people have the right to carry out all manner of crimes and to break the law as they please, all because they are extraordinary. (310; emphasis added)

Regarding himself as a member of this extraordinary fraction of society, Raskolnikov reveals his Napoleonic complex, delivering what he believes is “true justice” within his own community (81). He implicitly argues that “I didn’t murder a person . . . I murdered a principle!” (329), which highlights a poignant flaw within Hobbes’ Leviathan and his distorted rule: although Raskolnikov looks inwards at his own particularity and compares it to Alyona Ivanovna’s, he is mistaken in deciding that they are not equals. Eventually, he understands this miscalculation, and that in actuality, he is equally as sinister because of his actions. In reflection towards the end of the novel, the narrator claims:

He had managed to go through with the murder thanks to his frivolous and craven character, which, moreover, had been irritated by hardship and failure. In reply to the question of what exactly had prompted him to turn himself in, he answered frankly: heartfelt remorse. There was something almost rude about it all. (641; emphasis added)

Although he eliminates those he considers unworthy within the society, he realizes by the end of the novel that he is just as terrible as those he condemns, especially in light of his unjust murder of Alyona’s innocent sister, Lizaveta (98).

Even though the novel presents a dark argument against the innately good nature of humanity, Crime and Punishment  is redeemed by having two other Christlike figures: Sonya and Dunya. Both strong women in struggling circumstances, they drive the ethical standards of the novel upward in two ways: the first being their devotion to morality, and the second being their self-sacrifice for those who they care most about. Sonya particularly plays a critical role, due both to her impact and due to the moral philosophies within the novel. Her significance is even highlighted by Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulkheria Alexandrovna, who says of her, “I have this premonition, Dunya. You won’t believe me, but the moment she came in it occurred to me that this is the crux of it all” (288). Therefore, her power within this novel cannot be denied. Sonya’s devotion to goodness and nobility provide Raskolnikov with a lens to observe how he was flawed in his reasoning, and even offers him potential redemption. When Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya about the details of his crime, denouncing Alyona Ivanovna as nothing more than a “louse . . . a useless, foul, noxious louse,” Sonya retorts by saying “[she was] a human being! Not a louse!” (500 emphasis added). It is Sonya who prompts Raskolnikov to consider whether he indeed had the “right to murder” (504), and this is when Raskolnikov’s transformation, or “conversion,” begins to develop. Her significance peaks when she argues, “accept suffering and through suffering redeem yourself—this is what you must do” (505). This is the very crux of the novel’s moral message. The Christian argument that suffering is more noble than causing harm to others, and is also redemptive to those who have done wrong, reconciles the tragic circumstances that this Hobbesian society enforces upon its characters. Sonya reveals to Raskolnikov that being extraordinary does not equate to being free from accountability, and that every person should take moral responsibility for themselves, and for each other. Therefore, this is the purest application of Jesus’ original Golden Rule; instead of living in a world where there is a “war of every man against every man” (Hobbes 95), people must overcome this dark part of human nature, and question if it really exists in the capacity which Hobbes describes.

While Hobbes nobly condones the idea that people should treat each other with mutual respect for the very sake of peace, his greater argument offers a distorted version of man. The subject of his entire text argues that human beings are not capable of living in peace among each other without sacrificing their own freedom, but this does not prove to be successful in Crime and Punishment . If we are to study these laws with the same suspicion of mankind’s capacity as Hobbes possesses, then this appears to be a fragile system, indefensible against those who decide to challenge it. Although the Leviathan exists to carry out punishment to those who violate these laws, it only takes one person to disobey for the whole system to be at risk, as Raskolnikov illustrates in Crime and Punishment . Regardless of the use of Hobbes’ principle however, both texts arrive at the same conclusion: that human beings are far more complex than Hobbes’ theory and “solution” to society’s problem implies. While Hobbes’ own Leviathan suggests that superficial selfishness is enough to satisfy the needs and desires of mankind, it produces in Crime and Punishment  the Raskolnikov/Napoleon effect, which is dangerous because it encourages extremist efforts, which are justified by a distorted guise that it is for the benefit of society. Where Hobbes’ distorted law of nature prompts inaction, the original “Golden Rule” demands moral action, encouraging each person to think about their particulars in relation with their fellow man. What matters are the things that you do, not simply that you did not kill, or did not steal. This is the unifying key that the societies of both texts ultimately lack. Only in the Christlike figures do we see this reconciliation, and so this is the tragedy that the Leviathan and Crime and Punishment  both ultimately share. Although the characters of Dostoevsky’s novel operate within terribly flawed societies, they are still successful in abiding by noble moral philosophies. They provide an argument for the innate goodness of mankind that Hobbes blatantly disregards from being true, and this is where the philosopher is most deeply flawed in his analysis of human nature and politics. 

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. Translated and edited by Oliver Ready, Penguin Classics, 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Parts I and II. 1651. Edited by A.P Martinich, and Brian Battiste, Broadview, 2005.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”: An Analysis of Lear’s Journey Toward Self-Knowledge in William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

By Alexandra Cunningham

            The questions of William Shakespeare’s King Lear may, at times, be greater than the answers. In King Lear the question of identity lies at the heart of the play. The titular character’s journey toward self-knowledge forms the text’s overarching goal. Through Lear’s character, Shakespeare examines the extent to which self-knowledge is possible. Lear’s loss of dignity and consequent descent into temporary madness arises from his confused and conflicted idea of the self. Shakespeare emphasizes the notion that suffering and vulnerability are the enabling forces behind an understanding of the self. Through Lear’s quest, Shakespeare raises a seemingly simple but absolutely necessary question: who are we as humans? Through an exploration of this question, Shakespeare conveys the universality of Lear’s journey to self-knowledge.

            Shakespeare does not introduce Lear as a man undergoing a loss of identity, but rather as a man confused with his notion of self. Regan’s commentary on her father in the first scene suggests this idea: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (Shakespeare 1.1.284-285). Lear has two notable statuses that he believes define his identity: his role as a king and as a father. His existential confusion is initially portrayed by Shakespeare as stemming from a misunderstanding of his responsibilities. Lear’s desire to abandon his role as king is evidenced in his first lines:

We have divided

In three our kingdom, and ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on younger strengths while we

Unburdened crawl toward death.

(Shakespeare 1.1.32-36)

He plans to bestow his kingdom to his daughters, and to lose the responsibility demanded by his kingship in his old age. However, Lear does not think this through fully. Although he does not want the responsibilities of a king, he still thinks he will be regarded as kingly and maintain his status. Yet if Lear is not king, then he is necessarily a subject.

Lear not only grants his daughters his responsibilities as a ruler, but also as a parent. He longs to be nurtured by them, and live out his remaining years in “rest,” dependent on his daughters’ “kind nursery” (Shakespeare 1.1.117-118). Lear thus inverts his role as parent to become child and his role as king to become subject. However, Lear is also hesitant to give up his kingship and fatherhood completely; he wishes to maintain the sense of authority these roles provide. Lear therefore attempts to occupy various conflicting roles, and begins the play not with a loss of identity, but rather with a conflicting and contradictory view of the self.

The first step in Shakespeare’s process of self-knowledge is Lear’s reassessment of what it is that defines him. The love-contest Lear holds at the beginning of the play represents, perhaps on an unconscious level, his need for “some reassurance of identity”.[1]  Lear wants to be told he is loved, “the deepest and most certain evidence that [he is] wanted and needed” (Jorgensen 95). So, even in the beginning, Lear is unknowingly asking those around him who they think he is.

            The confusion Lear experiences leads to his suffering. His lack of self-recognition is what enables his initial downfall. After bestowing his kingdom on his daughters Regan and Goneril, Lear finds himself suffering the same rejection he presented to Cordelia. His daughters refuse to meet any of his needs. The needs Lear is conveying are not those of a basic sort, but rather those which enable him to have some concept of selfhood. Shakespeare emphasizes a difference between human needs and basic animal needs through Lear’s speech to his daughters:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady;

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need—

You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.

You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,

As full of grief as age, wretched in both.

(Shakespeare 2.4.258-266)

In begging his daughters not to see his needs through reason, Lear is appealing to the idea that this human sense of need is beyond practical understanding. Regan and Goneril are not able to see his true needs as necessary constituents of his sense of identity. This could signify that identity is something strictly personal, and that understanding what makes us who we are is something only accessible to ourselves. If, perhaps, Regan and Goneril are not able to recognize that, then they may be “the most vicious characters Shakespeare ever drew. At the heart of their evil beats a will to strip others of dignity” (Driscoll 140).

When need is understood only to be that which is necessary to a human’s survival on a basic level, man can be reduced to beast. In treating someone as requiring only the most rudimentary needs of survival, we are perhaps not recognizing them as fully human. The implication here is that humanity requires more than mere survival. Lear comments on Regan’s gorgeous clothes, which do not serve to keep her warm, but rather provide some sort of social elegance and dignity. Lear is able to “learn about unaccommodated man—his unwarranted pride and his frailty—through inquiring into man’s necessities” (Jorgensen 118). Lear’s “true need” is something different from basic necessity. He requires dignity, love, and respect; his struggle is that of a man who wants “to retain the self, the stature, and the dignities he has achieved” (Bennett 154). The dignity Lear longs for is necessary to his understanding of selfhood: “it is the consequence and evidence of the essential social nature and unique consciousness of the human animal” (Driscoll 140). Thus, it is this denial of human dignity that leads Lear on his quest for self-discovery.

           Lear now sees himself and the world without the reassuring notions of power, respect, and dignity he had previously possessed. Without these comforts, Lear can begin to understand his selfhood. After his initial anger at his daughters’ rejection subsides, Lear is faced with the realization that he is the cause of his own suffering: “O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show! . . . Beat at this gate, that let thy folly in, / And thy dear judgment out!” (Shakespeare 1.4.221-227). Lear is only able to see that his actions were wrong when he begins his pursuit of self-discovery. The suffering caused by this realization may be even more agonizing than the rejection Lear faced from his daughters. Although Lear had initially displayed an un-examined view of his responsibility, he is now forced to grasp the full extent of his situation. He must confront the harsh reality that he is the one at fault, that it is he who brought his situation about. It is thus this realization that leads Lear into his bout of madness: “O fool, I shall go mad” (Shakespeare 2.4.279). Shakespeare presents Lear’s madness as a necessary component of his pursuit of self-knowledge.

            Suffering is portrayed as having a crucial role in achieving self-discovery, serving as both the cause of self-knowledge and the price of self-knowledge. Lear’s suffering is essential to his own redemption: “there is nothing more noble and beautiful in literature than Shakespeare’s exposition on the effect of suffering in reviving the greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear’s nature” (Bradley 24). It seems as though Lear’s upset was essential to his pursuit of self-knowledge. Although Lear could have been content relying on Cordelia’s “kind nursery,” the suggestion by Shakespeare is that he would not have attained self-knowledge. Living in comfort and in normalcy are not sufficient for us to understand who we are. Shakespeare is proposing that only through hardship are we able to come to self-knowledge. Lear is able to achieve some degree of enlightenment through his suffering, and he recovers what is most important to him: Cordelia. He is able to recognize that love is one of his true needs. Although it is clear from the love-contest that Lear has always been concerned with familial love, he is only able to understand, on a deeper level, the true nature of love when he is put through so much suffering. Dignity, as has already been established, is a uniquely human conception. The lack of dignity is vulnerability. It is only in these moments of human vulnerability that we can start to find answers to a seemingly basic but imperative question: who am I?

            Lear’s important question occurs early on in the play: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Shakespeare 1.4.189). While this question is personal for Lear, it is also pertinent to our understanding of the human condition. A question so necessary to human life cannot be understood on the minute scale of one character. It appears as though Lear’s question pertains to humanity more broadly. Josephine Waters Bennett conveys the grandiosity behind Lear’s insight:

The storm within Lear’s mind goes beyond good and evil, beyond the narrow world of preceptoral morality, to the imponderable realities of cause and effect, of man’s ignorance, his weakness, his blindness, and his blundering and suffering through life to      his release from ‘the rack of this tough world.’ (153)

As humans, we are all inherently searching for the answer—potentially non-existent—to this question of identity. Lear’s struggle is thus universal to all of us, and, if we take his question to be essential to our nature, his quest is on behalf of all of humanity. Lear is not only asking who Lear is, but is asking who we are, as humans—what is our nature?

            By the end of the play and his life, Lear has become partially enlightened but has not been able to fully answer his question. This may be because there is no easy answer to the question of identity within the confines of one play. To simplify and complete his transformation would force the play to lose some of its complexity. The question of identity is one that is “powerfully raised and examined,” and the play would lose some of its meaning if “Lear had finally left the stage as a fully rational and enlightened man” (Jorgensen 115). Although Lear achieves some sort of self-transformation by the end of the play, he is not able to reach wholeness.

Lear does, however, learn to identify what is most important to him. In the beginning, Lear grappled with what exactly it is that he needs, perhaps unknowingly asking what exactly it is that makes him Lear. He now discovers that love is what is necessary for him, particularly the love of Cordelia. Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that love is something essential to us as humans; the form this love takes on for Lear is embodied in his daughter. The change from King Lear’s opening scene to the titular character’s final lines is remarkable, too. Initially, Lear had demanded attention from all, and the public love-contest spoke to his ego. Now, his dying words call attention to Cordelia, someone other than himself: “Look on her! Look, her lips. / Look there, look there” (Shakespeare 5.3.283-284). He recognizes Cordelia as something more valuable than himself, and her love and existence as something necessary. Lear has thus expanded remarkably on the depth of his self-knowledge. Through his suffering, Lear is able to learn about his notion of self and of love.

            Shakespeare’s King Lear concerns, above all, Lear’s journey to self-discovery. Shakespeare emphasizes the frail nature of identity, and develops the possibility for self-knowledge through Lear’s progression in the play. Lear’s confused identity enables his rejection and loss of dignity by his daughters. This loss of what it is he believes makes him Lear drives him to madness. Shakespeare suggests, however, that through suffering and vulnerability, self-knowledge may be attainable. Although Lear does not undergo a complete transformation, his partial enlightenment occurs because of his suffering. His understanding of such notions of love and selfhood are enhanced through an acceptance of vulnerability and responsibility. King Lear allows Shakespeare to explore a necessary and universal question on the small-scale of one man: who are we? Shakespeare seems to suggest that the extent to which we can understand this crucial question may be limited.

Works Cited

Bradley, A C. “King Lear.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of King Lear: A Collection of                       Critical Essays, edited by Janet Adelman, Prentice-Hall, 1978, pp. 22–33.

Driscoll, James P. Identity in Shakespearean Drama. Bucknell UP, 1983.

Jorgensen, Paul A. Lear’s Self-Discovery. University of California Press, 1967.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Jay L. Halio, Cambridge UP, 1992.

Waters Bennett, Josephine. “The Storm Within: the Madness of Lear.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1962, pp. 137–155. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/2866783.

Rhetoric and Reading: Plato’s Socrates on the Viability of Written Instruction

By Jon Taylor

In the Egyptian myth of Theuth and Thamos recounted by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, writing is said to be capable only of conveying opinion and not truth.[1] Those who learn from written letters rather than being instructed “become hearers of much without teaching [and] will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they’ve become wise in their own opinion instead of wise.”[2] The difference between the cultivation of opinion and knowledge therefore appears to be in the method of instruction. The irony of such an argument’s appearance in a written dialogue is obvious, as the contemporary wisdom of Great Books programs as expressed by Leo Strauss declares that the great texts are in fact the best instructors available to students.[3] The Phaedrus argues that though writing’s ability to properly instruct and educate is limited, the literary form of the dialogue is not only immune to these criticisms, but is a method of instruction able to ameliorate one’s ability to come to know what is through dialogue and engagement with the other.

Socrates never wrote and is only known to the contemporary student through Plato’s written dialogues such as the Phaedrus, Aristophanes’ Clouds, and the works of Xenophon.[4]The contemporary student is quite accustomed to learning from texts, and thus Socrates’ criticism appears quite foreign. Nevertheless, the phenomenon identified in the Egyptian myth is one very familiar to the undergraduate student. Socrates condemns writing because the “offspring of that art [written works] stand there as living beings, but if you ask them about something … keep a solemn silence.”[5] No matter how forcefully one might address the text, it will not respond to the specific inquiry of the reader. Unlike a professor who can be asked to slow down, address a particularly challenging concept or section, or simply provide an explanation in more accessible language, written instruction will not waver from its lesson plan. The written text cannot fully anticipate where its instruction will be insufficient for its reader; it is an object rather than an instructor.

Nonetheless, the student of written letters is not fundamentally ignorant of the truth. The student will possess a certain familiarity with the truth expressed through the written word despite their lack of genuine understanding. The myth of Theuth—if it can be understood as expressing the same definitions of knowledge and opinion as articulated by Socrates in other Platonic dialogues—provides a distinction between correct opinion and knowledge which understands opinion as a state between that which is and is not. These students who “recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves” are not expressly ignorant of the truth,[6] but they are unable to give an account of what is beyond the opinion delivered to them through written speech. Such a state is perhaps more dangerous than outright ignorance, as a recognition of one’s familiarity with the truth may often be conflated with a knowledge of truth.

Opinion has the curious character of in-betweenness, being related to both wisdom and ignorance. While knowledge and opinion are similar, and can both lay claim to what is, “opinion is dependent on one thing and knowledge on another, each according to its own power.”[7] As Glaucon and Socrates determine in the Republic, “[k]nowledge is presumably dependent on what is, to know of what is that it is and how it is.”[8] Accordingly, opinion lacks that understanding of the how and why which is present in knowledge. Opinion is not, however, the opposite of knowledge, as to “that which is not, we were compelled to assign ignorance.”[9] Rather, as Diotima puts it in the Symposium, “to opine correctly without being able to give an account is neither to know expertly (for how could expert knowledge be an unaccounted for matter?) nor lack understanding (for how could lack of understanding be that which has hit upon what is?).”[10] Hence a correct opinion is directed toward and reflects the truth, but is not an understanding of truth as such. Any correlation of correct opinion with the truth is—in the Platonic Socrates’ view—little better than coincidence.

Correct opinion, however, is merely a part of—and not the whole of—opinion. According to its nature, opinion does not always reflect the truth: being between knowledge and ignorance, it has a whole spectrum of quasi-falsehoods and near-truths to claim as its own. Diotima’s formulation above presented by Socrates in the Symposium engages only with “correct opinion…somewhere between intelligence and lack of understanding,”[11] and fails to engage with the risks of false opinion which Socrates addresses in greater detail in the Phaedrus. For example, Lysias’ non-lover speech engenders opinion in the reader, but certainly not correct opinion. Socrates’ fears about writing are therefore twofold: writing both engenders dependency upon opinion rather than expertise regarding what is and encourages the proliferation of false opinions. Opinion therefore admits of being an inversion of the Socratic maxim: It does not know, but it also does not know that it does not know.

There is no guarantee, therefore, of a written speech conveying correct opinion to the reader. While the person skilled in rhetoric who ignores good and bad in order to persuade the multitudes to do bad things instead of good ones intentionally misuses the rhetorical art,[12] writing’s potential to have the same effect is not bound by the intentions of its creator. The rhetorical art does not compel anyone who ignores the truth to speak,[13] but a written speech can be compelled to speak by anyone who encounters it regardless of context and regardless of its ability to be properly comprehended. Though a speech may, if understood correctly, say one thing only, once it’s been written, it rolls around everywhere to be read both by those who will understand and by those for whom it is in no way fitting.[14] Unlike one who knows, a written speech “does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.”[15] Without its father’s assistance,[16] a written speech may unwittingly be misinterpreted and taken to endorse the greatest injustice.  

The shortcomings of writing are therefore ultimately derived from an inability to properly practice the rhetorical art. Socrates denies that a text could ever truly be a teacher in the manner which Strauss describes because the teacher must use the rhetorical to match the form of their speeches to the form of the soul of the pupil, and this struggle is absent from the instruction of written letters.[17] Without the true art of rhetoric, she who knows the truth will not be able to persuade by art,[18] and so without the active engagement of the instructor with the pupil, the art of rhetoric cannot be performed correctly.

As stated above, a written text may always be made to speak, but it can never be made to listen or engage. A written text “indicates one thing only, and always the same.”[19] The form of the reader’s soul cannot be determined by a written piece, and as a consequence neither can the form of speech that would be most appropriate to the student. The instruction of the written speech is therefore limited to one form of speech and will at best be unable to persuade the reader, and at worst inadvertently persuade the reader of the opposite of its true intention. Because of this inability to lead the soul,[20] one cannot consider writing to be able to argue with a view to what is correct,[21] as it is fundamentally ill-prepared to engage in the proper art of rhetoric. Socrates suggestion is that even if a student may appear persuaded by instruction derived from written letters, because the true art of rhetoric cannot be practiced as part of the instruction, the student can never be persuaded of the truth. The best the student can hope to achieve is the affirmation of an opinion.

However, Socrates’ criticism of writing appears in a written work. Plato was not only aware of Socrates’ apparent distaste for writing, but reproduced it in his own work, indicating that while Plato’s Socrates may pose the problem, Plato himself may present the solution. Plato’s decision to write dialogues suggests that dialogues are written works that counteract the problems of writing and reconcile the soul of the reader with the kind of speech appropriate to it. The dialogue itself is the form of speech “brother of this one [a discussion between friends embodied in the world] … that is written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought.”[22] The dialogue is able to accomplish such a feat through its use of dramatic setting and characters, the obscurity of Plato within the form of the dialogue, and the representation of varying forms of souls the reader is challenged to interpret, judge, and inhabit.

A dialogue does not simply raise questions and give answers in the form of correct opinion. Often the reader is given no definitive answer at all, as in aporetic dialogues like the Euthyphro or the Theaetetus.Plato intentionally obscures himself in the dialogues so as not to provide one with an easily accessible opinion to attribute to him. Opinions are presented not simply in the words, but also the deeds of the interlocutors, and are meant to be examined and judged as such. One can come to know the truth through engagement with Socrates in the form of a dialogue, but must do so through a sort of imagined argumentation. No one point can be taken as absolute truth without personal examination, and even then, Plato’s Socrates often leaves just enough unsaid that the reader must come to the conclusions herself rather than have it transmitted directly through the written word. The dialogues force the reader to treat the text as if it were alive and capable of being interrogated.

More specifically, the Phaedrus provides a model for engagement with written texts which may address Socrates’ concerns. Throughout the dialogue, the speech of Lysias is examined and re-examined. In the Theaetetus, Socrates appears to resurrect Protagoras for a time in order to more fully defend his position on knowledge.[23] Like the speech of Lysias, the views of Protagoras lack the assistance and defense of their father. In order to help “his [Protagoras’] offspring,”[24] Socrates comes to embody the renowned sophist so that his ideas can be properly interrogated. The same occurs in the Phaedrus, as Socrates attempts to recreate the speech of Lysias for the purpose of further investigation. As Socrates and Phaedrus engage with the text, they reanimate it to the point that it becomes a third partner in their dialogue. Despite Socrates’ critique of writing, he appears to offer a model of engagement with the written word which transforms text into speech. Though the text cannot get its father’s assistance, it becomes the duty of the reader to attempt to offer that help to the text in place of the father.

With the speech of Lysias, then, Socrates inverts the role of the rhetorician, and attempts to understand the form of the speech based on an engagement with the soul of the speaker. Such a process still appears to be a part of the art of rhetoric, but in reverse, as an understanding of the soul of Lysias is necessary for Socrates to then make a speech as Lysias. The same process seems to occur in the activity of properly reading a Platonic dialogue. Jacob Howland says that

the dialogues mimic the complex form and vitality characteristic of actual conversations. To understand the dialogue, then, one must understand the conversation as a whole. This means that one must in some sense enter into the souls of its participants, in order to see how each speech fits the nature of the speaker and responds (or fails to respond) to the speeches, deeds, and dispositions of the other participants.[25]

In inhabiting the souls of the participants, one is better able to understand the deeds, and not simply the words, of the dialogue. In order to do this, however, one must engage in the art of rhetoric, as in order to enter into the souls of the participants as Howland prescribes, one must know the souls of the learner as the rhetorician does. To interpret is to think rhetorically. In attempting to determine why Plato has portrayed these characters in such manners as they are and what that information is supposed to transmit to the reader, the reader has placed themselves in the position of Plato just as Socrates places himself in the position of Lysias or Protagoras.

Obviously, such a practice is not possible with every form of writing. Plato’s Socrates is correct to identify an inability to communicate the truth in many forms of written text. In order to withstand Socrates’ criticisms, Plato’s dialogues must be complex. As is evident by the apparent contradiction of Plato’s Socrates defaming writing in one of Plato’s written dialogues, Plato understands the problem of written instruction and knows how to rectify it. The reader of dialogues can occupy the space of both reader and rhetorician because Plato provides the reader with all the dramatic information necessary to identify the kinds of souls of the participants. Plato’s arguments are always obscured, but the dramatic character of the dialogues invites the reader to consider things both as a fellow interlocutor, but also as a writer. The dialogue of Plato’s work is therefore not only horizontal but vertical. The reader is made privy to the horizontal discussion between the characters, but is also participating in a vertical dialogue with Plato by simultaneously occupying the roles of reader and fellow rhetorician.[26]

The literary form of the dialogue therefore appears to be Plato’s response to Socrates’ criticism of writing. Through the use of dramatic setting and characters, the dialogue is able to better replicate those kinds of discussions in which Socrates would engage in Athens. By appealing to the reader in this way, the written dialogue comes alive, representing and responding to various forms of souls with various forms of speeches. The dialogues do not say the same thing to whoever read them because they are active conversations in which the reader is both a participant and composer. Furthermore, the dialogues do not provide the ends to conversation, but the means to continue them with others. Dialogues do not supply those wise in opinion with correct opinion, nor ingrain false opinion. Rather, they train the reader to discern for themselves and engage with Socrates in their own dialogues. The Phaedrus serves not only to justify the practice of reading the Great Books to its readers, but in a certain sense justifies their study to Socrates himself.


Burger, Ronna. Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Howland, Jacob. “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology.” Pheonix 45, no. 3. (1991): 189-214.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by James H. Nichols Jr. London: Cornell University Press, 1998.

——. Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 2016.

——. Symposium, Translated by Seth Bernadete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

——, Theaetetus. Translated by M. J. Levett. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990.

Smith, Thomas W. “The Protreptic Character of the ‘Nicomachean Ethics.’” Polity 27, no. 2 (1994): 307–30.

Strauss, Leo. “What is Liberal Education?” Address delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959.

————–. Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980.

[1] Plato, Phaedrus, trans. James H. Nichols Jr. (London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 275a.

[2] Plato, 275a-c.

[3] Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?” (address, Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, Chicago, June 6, 1959); “For all practical purposes, pupils, of whatever degree of proficiency, have access to the teachers who are not in turn pupils, to the greatest minds, only through the great books. Liberal education will then consist in studying with the proper care the great books which the greatest minds have left behind — a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced pupils, including the beginners.”

[4] Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966; 1980), 3.

[5] Plato, Phaedrus, 275d.

[6] Plato, 275a.

[7] Plato, Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 477b.

[8] Plato, 478a.

[9] Plato, 478c.

[10] Plato, Symposium, trans. Seth Bernadete (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 202a.

[11] Plato, 202a.

[12] Plato, Phaedrus, 260c.

[13] Plato, 260d.

[14] Plato, 275e.

[15] Plato, 275e.

[16] Plato, 275e.

[17] Leo Strauss, “What is Liberal Education?”

[18] Plato, Phaedrus, 260d.

[19] Plato, 275d.

[20] Plato, 261a.

[21] Plato, 261b.

[22] Plato, 276a.

[23] Plato, Theaetetus, trans. M. J. Levett (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1990), 165e-168c.

[24] Plato, 165e.

[25] Jacob Howland, “Re-Reading Plato: The Problem of Platonic Chronology,” Phoenix 45, no.3 (1991), 193.

[26] Aristotle is a good example of a thinker works are “written with knowledge in the soul of him who understands, with power to defend itself, and knowing to speak and to keep silence toward those it ought” without being dialogues (276a). See Ronna Burger, Aristotle’s Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Thomas W. Smith, “The Protreptic Character of the Nicomachean Ethics,” Polity 27, no. 2 (1992): 307–30.

 [BZ1]the writer

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