Philosophy is a Literary Art: A Note on Harold Bloom’s Literary Reading of Plato


Although I have always enjoyed discussing Plato’s dialogues in classes I’ve taught over the years, what I loved most about them was their dramaturgy.  Socrates is, to be sure, a character in Plato’s dialogues.   Plato portrayed Homer respectfully yet, at the same time, as an opponent.  The irony of his dramatic dialogues, according to Harold Bloom, is that they demonstrate, through the “character” of Socrates, the opposite of what Plato says.  Bloom calls Plato a “strong poet,” not a philosopher.   Socrates, Plato’s literary creation, belongs to the history of literature:

Plato, never a warrior, took Socrates as his heroic father, and gave Socrates immortality as a literary character, yet the Homeric irony in this is that Plato achieved a poetic immortality as a dialogical dramatist and mythmaker.  (Where Shall Wisdom to be Found?, 58)

Homer and not Socrates was Plato’s real teacher!   This ironic reading is an inversion of the stated meaning in Plato’s Republic about Homer.   The secret of the text is that it lies.  And it is the reader who is duped.   Philosophy is not greater, for Plato, than poetry.  Bloom illustrates this further by describing, detail for detail, the likeness between Socrates, Odysseus, and Achilles:

When Odysseus disguised himself as a beggar, he influenced the actual Socrates, the Eros who Daytime, wise woman of the Symposium, called poor, filthy, barefoot.  Socrates is not exactly a Platonic Form, visually speaking, though Plato found in him the Form-of-Forms.  Both a mortal and a daemon, Socrates is half a good, like Achilles, and a resourceful deceiver, as cunning as Odysseus. (59).

Socrates, the literary character, “half a god” is the literary creation of a “strong poet” since “Plato’s shrewdness is that of strong poets throughout the ages: creatively misinterpret the dominant poetic forerunner, to clear imaginative space for yourself” (59).  Bloom argues that Plato’s writings on Socrates “set the pattern,” which Bloom translates into the fact that “philosophy is a literary art” (59).  Philosophy as literature, Bloom goes on to say, is “conversation sharpened and refined.”

No other philosopher, argues Bloom, has “been so major a literary artist” as Plato.   Socrates, as an exemplary literary figure (in Bloom’s terms),” incarnates the art of Eros.”  Bloom suggests that standard of the philosopher as fiction writer would be attained through a Socrates-like character that is an incarnation of Eros, a hero.

On this note, one wonders what Bloom would say of philosophical literary characters who aren’t heroes so much as anti-hero’s or schlemiels.  Think, for instance, of Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, one of his most celebrated and exemplary characters.   In Herzog, Moses Herzog is portrayed as a cuckold.  He can’t stand up and be a “man” against a character who steals his wife behind his back; his best friend Valentine Gershbach.  Moses Herzog isn’t Odysseus.  He isn’t cunning in the least.  He is a dreamer.  He’s an academic and a lover of ideas.   And like Gimpel the Fool, most likely his schlemiel prototype, Moses Herzog trusts people.  He has a good heart; as we see in his name “Hertz” (“heart”) Zug (“speech” or as another theorist translates it “song”).

In a 1991 interview with The Paris Review, Harold Bloom is asked about Saul Bellow.  Bloom lashes out at Bellow and puts Philip Roth up as the better of the two Jewish American writers. But, as anyone who closely reads Bloom knows, the act of artistic jealousy is an aspect of the “strong poet.”  There are strong readers and strong writers.  Both, as Bloom conveys with his admiring and yet jealous wink, are revisionary and bold.

I’ll leave the reader with Bloom’s words because, as one can see for oneself, Bellow and his character might even be his precursor – and that would mean that the schlemiel may be the precursor for the Jewish poet/philosopher. And if that were the case what would it mean for Jewish philosophy, through the schlemiel, to be a “literary act” ?  Saul Bellow would have created that figure in the comings and goings of his exemplary schlemiel, Moses Herzog.  Bloom doesn’t like that (perhaps because Bellow’s schlemiel character, Moses Herzog, hits too close to Bloom’s Jewish-Aemrican home).

I’ll end with Bloom’s jealousy and the fact that Bellow may actually inform his own ideas and writing!  And if that is the case, perhaps Bloom is also the creator of a schlemiel character in his attempt to act as if he’s a philosopher in a Homeric sense; maybe the sense that goes along with Bloom sounds more like Kafka while it acts like Odysseus:

He’s (Saul Bellow’s) an enormous pleasure but he does not make things difficult enough for himself or for us. Like many others, I would commend him for the almost Dickensian exuberance of his minor male characters who have carried every one of his books. The central protagonist, always being some version of himself, even in Henderson, is invariably an absurd failure, and the women, as we all know, are absurdities; they are third-rate pipe dreams. The narrative line is of no interest. His secular opinions are worthy of Allan Bloom, who seems to derive from them. And I’m not an admirer of the “other Bloom,” as is well known. In general, Bellow seems to me an immensely wasted talent though he certainly would not appreciate my saying so. I would oppose to him a most extraordinary talent—Philip Roth. It does seem to me that Philip Roth goes from strength to strength and is at the moment startlingly unappreciated. 


7 thoughts on “Philosophy is a Literary Art: A Note on Harold Bloom’s Literary Reading of Plato

  1. I had the same impression of Bloom’s work and I also think very highly of Philip Roth. Very glad to find a distinguished literary analyst who concurs.
    A propos, “zog” is a verb that means “to say,” as in “Zog mich epes” – tell me something. A song is “lid,” as in “zing mich a lidele” – sing me a little song. Herzog, then, means “a heart says,” rather than “sings.” It also implies another meaning: in Slavic languages, “herzog” means “duke” or “prince” (it varies between different countries). For instance, Archduke Ferdinand’s Serbian title was Arch Herzog (I don’t think it mattered much for the poor prince who got assassinated anyway).
    The latter linguistic tidbit might add to your schlemiel theory, though.

    • Yes. Good point. Its interesting because Ruth Wisse translates that as “sings” and as “speaks.” Good point. And I didn’t know that Herzog means “prince” in Slavic language. That makes Bellow’s schlemiel even more nuanced. The schlemiel prince has a nice ring to it. Yes. It does add. Thank you! I”m glad you like my piece. I find Bloom’s revisionary hypothesis is very interesting – to much to talk about.

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