Mar 2 2016

Plato and Dante: Scattered Thoughts on Spinning Tops

bookbread pencil shavings

This is a scattered post I’ve been working on for the past three weeks…. Is it pastiche, goulash, a patchwork quilt perhaps? ….

Some old books, such as Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Commedia, act on the reader like spinning tops,[1] where each page can be read both centrifugally and centripetally. The centrifugal reading seeks the essence, the thesis, of Plato and Dante—it asks how those authors relate to themselves within their works. On the other hand, centripetal reading seeks to connect the Commedia and Republic to any and every other kind of knowledge—it asks how their works relate to everyone else’s works and knowledge.

I’m thinking about things centrifugal and centripetal because after Texas’ Super Tuesday 2016 my head keeps spinning. So weary of hearing a conservative political-follower say America has lost its faith in a god––so weary of hearing a liberal political-follower say America has lost its faith in a government.[2] Have we lost faith in political leadership and believe only in our own political followership?

I do not expect our poets to be politicians, nor do I expect our politicians to be poets. Yes, in the days of Plato and Dante a poet and politician could be one in the same, but why now does that dual-role sound like a contradiction? What is the clash ringing in our ears? ….

Both Plato and Dante were politician-poets. But Plato gave up politics, while politics gave up Dante. The Florence comune exiled Dante with threat of death while the Athenian jury sentenced Socrates to self-execution….

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth. Plato was a corrupted youth who forswore politics. Dante was accused of being an incorruptible politician. Socrates is offered exile, but death, for him and unlike Dante, is a better choice….

In the Commedia, Dante is the representative of the living. In the eyes of the dead he is poet-politician-leader. Neither Plato nor Socrates speaks to the dead. But Plato does bring Socrates back to life, for by the grace of Plato’s pen, Socrates is resurrected into the everlasting life of dialogue….

When Plato has Socrates speak of contradictions, he writes things like:

[Someone] might say of a spinning top that the whole thing stands still and turns at the same time, when it fixes the peg in one spot and goes round and round upon it, and so also anything else does this that goes round in a circle in the same place, but we should not accept that. We should say that such things are not resting and revolving in the same parts of themselves, but they have a straight part (the axis) and a circling part (the periphery); in the straight part it moves round; and when it leans the perpendicular to right or left or front or back while it revolves, then it does not stand still anymore…. So such a saying will not dismay us, and it will never convince us that the same thing in the same place towards the same thing could sometimes be or do or suffer two opposites.[3]

So contradictions for Plato are like spinning tops where two things––a centripetal-axis from which the top spins and a centrifugal tangent of the outermost edge of the top’s surface––almost appear as one. (Yet here it might be apt to recall a dictum from Gregory Bateson: “it takes two to know one.”)[4] We know that the two things really aren’t one but aren’t quite sure where to mark the divide between them.

Wittgenstein says that when you encounter a contradiction, instead of worrying about whether it exists or not, you must repent from the way of thinking that originally led you to the contradiction––

to get a clear view of the state of affairs before the contradiction is resolved.  (And this does not mean that one is sidestepping a difficulty).[5]

For Wittgenstein, comprehending a contradiction is all about backpedaling, retrenching, repenting of present sins (mistakes in one’s thinking) and returning to prior piety. In other words, one must turn around and retread over the previous course, just as YHVH repents to Moses…. [6]

Now when Dante speaks of contradictions, he writes things like:

dal quale in qua stato li sono a’ crini;
ch’assolver non si può chi non si pente,
né pentere e volere insieme puossi

 [one can’t absolve a man who’s not repented,
and no one can repent and will at once;
the law of contradiction won’t allow it.][7]

The Italian humanist Poggio Braccidini, who lived a generation after Dante, provides a perplexing twist to Dante’s take on contradictions:

A certain man, either seriously or to play a trick on the priest, went to him saying that he wished to confess his sins. Invited to say what he remembered of his wickedness, he related that he had stolen something from another, but added that this other had stolen more from him.

Said the confessor: “One thing cancels out another, so you are quits now.”

Then the man added that he had beaten a certain fellow with a stick, but that he had received several blows in return from this person.

And the priest said that here, too, one thing cancelled out another, and that all was well.

At last the penitent said that there remained a sin for which he was much ashamed, and blushed before the priest to have to tell it.

The confessor exhorted him to forget his shame and reveal the sin. Yielding at last to the persistence of the friar, the man said: “I once had your sister.”

“And I”, replied the priest, “on several occasions had your mother, and here, as in the other cases, one thing cancels out another.”

And for this equality in sin, he absolved him.[8]

Does Poggio’s facetiae, his bawdy, brief tale, lead to contradictions, or does it absolve contradictions?

I leave as I came: with my head spinning.




[1] See Northrop Frye’s remarks in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton UP (1957):

Whenever we read anything, we find our attention moving in two directions at once. One direction is outward or centrifugal, in which we keep going outside our reading, from the individual words to the things they mean, or, in practice, to our memory of the conventional association between them. The other direction is inward or centripetal, in which we try to develop from the words a sense of the larger verbal pattern they make. (p. 73)

Compare, George Steiner in The Death of Tragedy, NY: Knopf (1961), for whom Dante is more centrifugal than Shakespeare, while the latter is vice versa:

Whereas Dante’s vision bends all light rays toward a controlling centre, Shakespeare’s sense of the world appears to move outward. (p. 21)

[2] For examples, see: Johnson, Byron. “The good news about evangelicalism.” February 2011. First Things. (; “Trust in Government” Gallup. (; “Confidence in U.S. Branches of Government Remains Low” Gallup. (

[3] Plato, Republic, IV 436A–436D. In Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1969.

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113.

[5] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. 1953. I, § 125.

[6] Exodus 32:9–14; Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” In Martin Buber’s Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. NY: Scribner. 1970. pp. 34–37.

[7] Alighieri, Dante. Inferno XXVII, 117–19. In Divine Comedy. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[8] Braccidini, Poggio. In The Facetiae of Poggio: and other Medieval StoryTellers. London, UK: Dutton. 1927. LXXX 106–07.