ethos – envisioning the engagement

of Meaning/

of ‚History‘

a seminar

Winter 1999

Jackson, Jr.


Ethos: Envisioning the Engagement

The first two weeks of the seminar were taken up with four Platonic
texts: the Meno, the Ion, the Cratylus, and Epistle VII. My rationale for
selecting these texts operated on several levels. Our focus on questions
of „meaning“ provides guidelines to one of those levels in which my text
selection functioned:

  • Meno.

    The Meno is
    traditionally considered one of the exemplary dialogues generated from
    the quintessential form of the Socratic question: ti esti … “ What is

    In the Meno the question is „What is areté [virtue]?“ As in the
    Euthrypho is it „What is hodion [piety]?“; in the Laches,
    „What is courage?“

    The Meno also is a good example of Socratic method – profession of ignorance,
    and the elenchus or cross-examination of the addressee.

  • Ion.

    The first dialogue
    in which Plato addresses the relation (or rather the distinct division)
    between poetry and interpretation.

  • Cratylus.

    early inquiry into the relation between words and their referents.

  • Seventh Letter

    A text that addresses issues similar to those raised in the dialogues listed
    above. My inclusion of this text entails other strategies too, however, which is why this aspect of the course is here under „envisioning the engagement.“ But explaining it is half the fun.

Multi-tasking Epistle VII

Folklore has it that when President Andrew Jackson was considering persons
for posts in his administration, he would invite them to dinner. While
maintaining a normally cordiality, Jackson was secretly watching the prospective
candidates very carefully as the first course arrived. If the candidate
salted the food before eating it, that individual was no longer a candidate.
Those who tasted their food before deciding to salt or not to salt remained
in the running.

As I describe on a previous page,
at least twenty-four hours prior to our first discussion of a Platonic
dialogue, students in the seminar are required to submit a synopsis of
the main arguments. Although not a dialogue, Epistle VII was considered
part of this assignment. With Andrew Jackson in mind, I deliberately gave
the students a copy of the letter without any notes or commentary whatsoever.

I envisioned types of response:

  • [1] A student might synopsize the philosophical „moment“ of the letter
    [342aff] the letter while ignoring the unglossed historical context, and
    the situations whose descriptions comprise over three quarters of the text
  • [2] A student might call attention to the fact that no information was
    provided regarding the addresses or the situations of which Plato writes.
    Lodging this complaint, the student may either then turn to the „philosophical“
    section [342aff] and treat only that, or might decline to attempt the synopsis
    at all without more information.
  • [3] Finding that understanding the letter required knowledge of the political
    situation of Sicily under Dionysius II, the student might research this
    history, looking in particular for „Dion,“ to discover his relation to
    Dionysius, his relation with Plato, the cause of the animosity between
    Dionysius and Dion, and the party or parties responsible for Dion’s death.
    The student then might collate this information, read the letter with this
    context, and then proceed to interpret it. The synopsis of the letter then
    could be a synthesis of historical background and elucidation of the section
    on the five-part structure of the epistemological relation to the real.
    A reading could even attempt to explain the relevance of Plato’s exposition
    of that doctrine within the historical narrative and the gesture of condolence
    that informs the letter as a whole.

No Relation

I’m no relation to Andrew Jackson, by the way. Nor am I drawing more
than an oblique analogy between his salt shaker and my unglossed Epistle.
I do not do this to „rank,“ permanently categorize, or chastise students.
The response types I imagined above allow us to construct levels of response,
levels of engagement possible in inquiries such as this one. And after
going through with the unglossed Seventh Letter experiment, my evocation
of Jackson’s employment criteria is only a segue into identifying these
potential levels of engagment and beginning to think concretely (and in
terms of practice) which of those levels to actualize and how.

Transferring the question of levels of engagment from the synopsis to
more general academic writing, we can still use response type three above
as a level at which to aim. Information was recognized to be missing and
important to a better understanding of the text. This recognition prompted
independented and focused research. The results of that research were then
synthesized with the critical appreciation of the „intellectual“ message
of the text, thereby addressing the text’s significance both in terms of
historical contexts and philosophical content.

There is a passage in the Seventh Letter that might have triggered alarm,
shock, questions, and email expressing all that. In this passage and its
potential affectivity, the Seventh Letter appeals to a faculty beyond the
third level of response, namely to the
of the student.( More on this later.) The passage reads:

But thus much I can certainly declare: [7.341c]
concerning all these writers, or prospective writers, who claim to know
the subjects which I seriously study, whether as hearers of mine or of
other teachers, or from their own discoveries; it is impossible, in my
judgement at least, that these men should understand anything about this
subject. There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise
of mine dealing therewith
. For it does not at all admit of verbal expression
like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject
itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a
sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.

of thus much I am certain, that the best statement of these doctrines in
writing or in speech would be my own statement; and further, that if they
should be badly stated in writing, it is I who would be the person most
deeply pained. And if I had thought that these subjects ought to be fully
stated in writing or in speech to the public, what nobler action could I have performed in my life than that of writing what is of great benefit to mankind and bringing forth to the light for all men the nature of reality? But were I to undertake this
task it would not, as I think, prove a good thing for men, save for some
few who are able to discover the truth themselves with but little instruction;
for as to the rest, some it would most unseasonably fill with a mistaken
contempt, and others with an overweening and empty aspiration, as though
they had learnt some sublime mysteries.

Perseus Project.

Navigation Detours

The Syllabus

The Prehistory

A Cybermental Education

Envisioning the Seminar

Envisioning the Engagement

Metapaidia A meta-index to the resource

Critical Conditions on the Conversation

An arabesque that includes readings of the first Platonic texts

Glass Town The most brilliant group emerging

1998-1999 Copyright 

Earl Jackson, Jr.


Lets Deviant!