I’m sitting back, listening to a friend go through Plato’s Republic Book 1 again (I’ve sat in on this class so many times I can’t count them). There’s that point where he reads the rare straight-up Socratic narration:
“Now, Thracymachus did not agree to all of this so easily as I tell it now, but he dragged his feet and resisted, and he produced a wonderful quantity of sweat, for it was summer. And then I saw what I had not yet seen before–Thracymachus blushing.” (1.350.d)
This point in the dialogue has the same resonance for me as that point in Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 1, when Falstaff says to Prince Henry:
“No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”
And in Henry IV, part 2, where, right before becoming King, Prince Henry banishes Falstaff:
“I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester. I have long dreamt of such a kind of man, So surveit-swelled, so old, and so profane; But being awaked, I do despise my dream.”
The reason these parts from Henry IV are so significant is that they very brutally indicate the reality of the relationship between Falstaff and Henry. The reality is the use Henry has made of his “friend.” The reality is an absence of the relationship.
But with that moment in the Republic where Thracymachus blushes we have another similar type of eruption of reality. It is that moment when Thracymachus understands that he has undone himself, that he has allowed himself to be bested by the “sniveling infant” Socrates, Socrates who supposedly needs a “wet nurse.” He has been bested by Socrates because his whole life has been spent avoiding really defending his positions.
The blush indicates the absence of wholeness, because in that moment, Thracymachus is not embarrassed that he’s a bad man. He is embarrassed that he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. That makes him not so much a bad man as a stupid man, as Socrates insists. And hence Socrates’ most radical thought–no one is bad; everyone is stupid.
Thracymachus blushing is the moment of self-awareness. It’s the possible presence of a stunted conscience, confirming that even monsters are also human beings. It is the embarrassing momentary glimpse into our profound nakedness. It’s the shame that still exists, no matter how faintly and on life-support, among the “privileged” (who named themselves) who have made their living killing, stealing, raping and enslaving. It’s the eternal defeat of the powerful and the burst of the Kingdom from the crack in the dense cloud-cover of our consciousness. The blush matters more than all the arguments that set the stage for it.
Thracymachus blushing is the momentary understanding that we are reactive and ridiculous children, so puffed up with pride that we think we are IN CONTROL. Or maybe he himself would not quite make it to that level of understanding, but we the readers can–Thracymachus blushing is our momentary understanding of our own reactive and ridiculous selves.
For one brief liminal side-ways glance, we understand that we are high-tech dumb-shits still enthralled by toys, by yogurts with natural active cultures, iPhone 20’s, the latest Boris Johnson memes, or (more sophisticatedly), political parties. Constantly playing. Thracymachus, for one brief moment, sees himself shitting in this little boy sandbox, making castles that crumble, making lakes that last for seconds, sticking grit in his eye and up his ass, and into the next kid’s mouth when he punches him. Thracymachus undone, blushing.
And who facilitates his undoing? The man who knows nothing. The old, worn out, tiresome, almost-Falstaff Socrates, the one not begging to sit at the table in the grand hall…the one who takes the Prince through embarrassing, seemingly pointless childhood games to where he can see the necessity for manhood.
Manhood as adulthood, as in getting your large ass out of the sandbox so that you can clean it up for the kids.