My oldest friendship is with Nicholas Thorne, whom I met in the 1970s. That’s not a typo, even though he and I are in our mid-40s; the friendship began, so our parents say, when he crawled up to my house’s doorstep, before we were old enough to walk. He is probably the one who most sparked my interest in philosophy, when he studied in James Doull’s Hegelian department at Dalhousie University and was delighted by what he found. It was through him that I found my lifelong interest in Hegel. Eventually, both of us got our PhDs in philosophical fields but, as is so typical for our generation and those after, neither of us found long-term full-time faculty work.
Nevertheless, we both kept up our passion for philosophy and kept writing. I’m delighted that Thorne has now published a book, Liberation and Authority, and I’m pleased to review it here.
Liberation and Authority is a detailed and precise monograph on three classical Greek texts, not intended for the casual reader. It is well worth a read for anyone with a deep interest in Thucydides, Plato, or (especially) both. But I think more casual readers might still be interested in the book’s basic thesis, which, while it is about these classical texts, has more general ramifications.
In my reading, the name most notable by its absence from the book is Hegel’s – but I think this absence is a clever one. In the acknowledgements, Thorne notes his debt to Doull and his students; and I think the book’s argument is an extremely Hegelian one, which is exactly what one would expect from a student of Doull’s. But Hegel’s own name never appears. I suspect the reason is that Thorne does not want to be accused of illegitimately reading Hegel into the classics. He makes his claims entirely on the evidence of the texts themselves – and I think this strategy works well. It allows us to see how Hegel himself might have drawn a great deal of his own approach from his avid readership of the classics.
Thorne’s most striking section titles are “How Callicles Is Good” and “How Thrasymachus Is Good”. To readers familiar with Plato, these titles are counterintuitive at the least. Callicles and Thrasymachus are normally viewed as the bad guys of the Gorgias and Republic respectively, who articulate a nihilist, tyrannical view opposite to of the one Plato attributes to his hero Socrates. Thorne doesn’t dispute that Socrates and Plato see something deeply wrong with Callicles’s and Thrasymachus’s positions. Yet at the same time, these two antagonists have discovered something of crucial importance, something necessary for reaching the truth that is the dialogues’ goal. They thus represent what Hegel would call a negative moment (and what later Hegel scholarship would call an antithesis).
Callicles and Thrasymachus are both worse human beings, less polite, less kind, than are Gorgias and Cephalus, the friendly interlocutors with whom the respective dialogues begin. Yet Callicles and Thrasymachus are in crucial respects smarter. They have thought through their positions more deeply than their predecessors, in ways that bring them closer than their predecessors to the truth. And they are more interested in goodness, in figuring out what it is to be good, than Gorgias and Cephalus are. Cephalus is a very familiar sort of person, one who seeks agreement rather than truth: “The instant Socrates poses a genuinely critical question, Cephalus withdraws.” (233) And indeed, for the Greeks and for us, one purpose of conversation is to maintain social bonds and fellow-feeling; Cephalus’s approach is better suited to such a purpose than Thrasymachus’s is, and even than Socrates’s is. But that approach doesn’t get us any closer to understanding, and may even pull us away from it. We need the new perspectives of Callicles and Thrasymachus if we’re ever going to figure things out.
Where Plato’s texts connect to Thucydides is on the larger political and historical context: they are all addressing the breakdown of a previously unquestioned social-political order, the order of Pericles’s time. Cephalus and Gorgias represent that order; their arguments appeal to established authority, as Thrasymachus’s do not. But this order, it turns out, has failed; it has no intellectual underpinning, it doesn’t make sense anymore.
So, in each of the Gorgias and Republic, Socrates also has a second dialogue partner – Polus and Polemarchus respectively – who represents a middle position between the first and the last. Thorne argues that these middle characters are there to show a development from the first, least intellectually satisfactory, position to the third, more troubling but more reflective, position: a gradual process that allows reflection to emerge. Polus and Polemarchus feel the pull of the older authority but are more unnerved by its inability to “give an adequate account of itself”. And then:
Once such an ambiguous position has been reached, all that is required to produce a Thrasymachus is the combination of unscrupulousness and an intellect active enough to grasp the full consequences of the failure of tradition. For a failure there is: one only avoids all that Thrasymachus represents to the extent that one turns away from thought, accepting the traditional ethical order as given. The whole movement thus tends of its nature toward Thrasymachus: given critical thought, he seems to be the logical endpoint of what precedes him. (235-6, emphasis in original)
All of this, I think, brings us to the world of the late 2010s and early 2020s – a world changing faster than any other time I have known, one in which, in Marx’s words, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away; all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.” I think the thesis of Liberation and Authority offers us powerful tools to understand this new world. We are coming out of an old order that was unquestioned, whose presuppositions had ceased to make sense: the kind of order that the Republic represents with the unquestioning Cephalus. A negative moment was needed, one that dispenses with those unquestioned certainties – but one which is far less civil or friendly than the earlier. (Thus we see both Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach on the right and unapologetic defences of looting on the left.)
On such a view one question is left teasingly unanswered: when was the old order? To me, the clearest old order now knocked down would seem to be the world of the 1990s that George Bush the Elder had called the New World Order, an order continued by Clinton, Bush the Younger and Obama: a stable world under liberal capitalism, professing the values of democracy and individual freedom, where the equality of sexes and races was almost universally accepted in principle, and it was assumed to be good that people and money would move freely across national boundaries… but it accepted and continuing the relentless slashing of the welfare state begun under Reagan and Thatcher, since if you were poor and left behind by global capitalism, you clearly had yourself to blame. I didn’t shed too many tears for that world when Trump began sounding its death knell – though I’ve had plenty of occasion since then to miss it.
But Thorne wouldn’t necessarily agree. In one previous conversation, he had told me he thought the closer analogue with Cephalus might be the 1950s, in an order that believed itself universal while denying its benefits to women and nonwhite people – thus leaving itself open to legitimate challenges, which then got taken to extremes in 21st-century identity politics. And I think Doull himself might see the old unquestioned order as something even earlier: for Doull, Hegel’s own time represented a comfortable order that soon fractured into divisions based on ethnic identity and individual self-interest, a process that Doull saw continuing till the time of his death. In his view, our current tensions might be one more moment in a now-centuries-long conflict between ethnic collectivism and individual expression.
I think Hegel himself might endorse the view that there is something to all of these periodizations: new orders of unity attempt to reestablish themselves after negative moments, which then in turn get torn down by new negative moments. (Hegel himself sometimes seemed to think the order he lived in was the end of history – but he surely would have had to rethink that point, in something like the way Doull did, if he had lived to see its dissolution!) And I think that this a pretty profound view: there is always something inadequate and unthought in every comfortable order, one that requires new questionings and upheavals to move to something more adequate. It seems to me that such a view may be a source of comfort in a time of upheaval.
It is only in the last paragraph that Thorne mentions our contemporary context, and the last sentence might be one of the book’s less Hegelian moments: “The realization that these works are so deeply relevant to our contemporary situation cannot be a cause for optimism.” (268) Indeed we do seem to live in a world where shared understandings have fallen apart, leaving us increasingly surrounded by tyrants for whom might makes right. Yet while pessimism was Thucydides’s outlook – the movement from Pericles’s Athens was a loss – it is not so clear that it was also Plato’s. As Thorne rightly notes, Callicles and Thrasymachus bring us closer to an understanding of the truth. Without the clearing away of the old order in Republic I, a clearing away that ends in Thrasymachus, Plato could not lay out his mature understanding in the rest of the Republic. Hegel, certainly, would see negative moments in history as a preparation for a more mature order to come. It is nonetheless the case that those moments still come with their share of bloodshed.