Badiou and Plato: An Education by Truths, A.J. Bartlett, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011 (ISBN: 9780748643752) vii+248 pp.

Every so often a book comes along that, in its utter relentlessness, forces its reader out of the complacency of his or her habits of thought. A.J. Bartlett’s latest offering, Badiou and Plato: An Education by Truths, stages just such an encounter. Written in a dense, elliptical style, Bartlett draws on categories from Alain Badiou’s Being and Event to present a vigorous and systematic reading of Plato’s body of work. With philosophical flair Bartlett shows that the question of education is at the heart of philosophy.

Readers of Badiou will immediately recognize the six categories Bartlett utilizes in his reading of Plato: state, site, event/intervention, fidelity, subject, and the generic or indiscernible. Those unfamiliar with Badiou’s mathematically charged lexicon will find it harder going. Badiou is committed to a philosophical language that spans the registers of mathematical formality and poetic diction, and this decision is taken up by Bartlett and reflected in his style. That being said the fact that Bartlett’s is an interventionist reading – directed at a particular textual corpus, namely, the writings of Plato – provides narrative depth and helps contextualize Badiou’s philosophical project. 

Bartlett’s thesis revolves around Badiou’s claim that “the only education is an education by truths.” (Badiou and Plato, 2) Bartlett argues that precisely such an education is staged across the breadth of the Platonic corpus and he discerns its form and trajectory using the aforementioned categories as a framework.  Each of the categories marks a link in what Badiou calls a “truth process.”(4) Unapologetically interventionist, in that they deploy categories created outside the Platonic texts, this reading does allow a dialectical trajectory to unfold from the texts themselves.  Badiou describes his own philosophy as a “contemporary Platonism” particularly in regard to a commitment to truth. For Bartlett this identification allows for a productive dialogic encounter with the two philosophers:

To reinsert Badiou’s concepts and categories back into Plato is, in a certain sense, to return them anew to whence they came: a return, moreover, whose form is dialogical rather than repetitious, productive rather than comparative, whereby, in speaking to the Platonic corpus, it once again speaks back. In this way the Platonic corpus avoids the fate Plato describes for what is written down – the inability to answer back – and instead resumes again as dialogue, as subject. (3, italics in the original)

The hope, Bartlett says, in deploying Badiou’s platonic categories back into the Platonic corpus is to draw a logical and implicative link between the axiomatic statement that “the only education is an education by truths” and a subsequent axiomatic that “thought is nothing other than the desire to finish with the exorbitant excess of the state.” (3)

Education names a site of contestation.  Badiou tells us that truths are what “force holes in knowledge.” (1)  Knowledge here refers to the circulating rule of opinion that is the order, rule and currency of the ‘state.’ For Badiou the “state of the situation” is defined as “that by means of which the structure of a situation is in turn counted as one… The state secures and completes the plenitude of the situation” (Being and Event, 522).  The role of the state towards knowledge is a managerial one; it is tasked with keeping out the dangerous and disruptive elements. In the final analysis this amounts to a security against the threat of the void. Truth is subtracted; it cannot be merely added to rule of opinion and so to The excessive character of the state.  For the sophists of Athens knowledge is predicated on interest and education revolves around exchange and investment. Education, in the sense described here, becomes an instrument of privilege and a tool of exclusion. It is this kind of education that Plato’s Socrates denounces as unworthy of the name.

Plato is nonetheless committed to education and the “lifelong task” of setting aright an education devoid of wisdom or truth. Bartlett describes the lack of truth Plato identifies in “state education” as constitutive of its form, and not an incidental effect of particular teachings. Yet, although the state dominates and misuses the name of education, education is still the site wherein its truth can come to be known. The struggle between Socrates and sophistic Athens arises precisely around Socrates’ refusal to submit to the dominion of state knowledge and his delineation of an education by truths.  In Plato’s texts Socrates is to be understood as the name of the event which ruptures the encyclopedia of Athenian knowledge.

 Bartlett suggests that Socrates’ oft-repeated claim to “know nothing” should not be dismissed as ironic posturing. Read alongside the charges against Socrates – that he corrupts the youth – it should be read both as openness to truth and a bitter indictment of Athens.  Bartlett reads the entire Platonic corpus as a re-staging of Socrates trial. This retrial finds that Socrates is indeed a corrupter, though what he corrupts is a corrupt state of affairs.  If this were to end simply with Socrates death it would be a despondent case indeed, however, “(f)or Plato, this retrial does not end in the execution of Socrates but in the Republic – a place where this corrupt state cannot be” (31).  Socratic education cannot be recognized by Athens because it does not lead directly to the polis, market, school, or stage. This is so because Socrates begins from a position of admitted ignorance, but with the avowed hope of coming to know what he did not know before. The Republic, says Bartlett, is the generic extension of what Socrates names in Athens:

That the Republic exists is the very idea of the subjective procedure; that it insists is the result of forcing the truth of this idea into the situation as the condition of its thought. The knowledge of this truth must be forced into existence by the subject. All that the subject has to hang on, so to speak, is the belief that it can be forced, such is why this Socratic procedure is fragile, limited, and under attack…The only education is that which addresses the generic ‘capacity for reason’ whose disavowal is the constitutive condition of the sophistic state. Surely the formalisation of this address is Plato’s singular and decisive in(ter)vention. What this Socratic taking place makes manifest is simply that the sophist cannot educate, that what one receives in exchange for one’s ‘callous cash payment’ is not an education but a calculated return one’s investment and a stake in the regime predicated on the conceited yet powerful knowledge of what – at all costs – must not be. In the Republic – the decided place of philosophy, constituted by a thoughtful, subjective transformation – a place where sophistry cannot be for all, it cannot be simply because it never was an ‘education by truths.’ (226)

The quotation above encapsulates precisely the book’s trajectory. What I have left out here is a detailed discussion of the fidelity to the event/intervention by which a subject is produced. Bartlett deals with this in considerable depth, reflecting on the Plato/Socrates relationship and Plato’s own interventionism. Following Badiou intervention “forms the kernel of any theory of time.” Intervention is time itself as the gap between two events. To intervene is therefore to take on the task of fidelity to an event and undertake the labour that, in the Republic at least, “is the collective production of justice of that which is for all and, as such, is the work of love.

In Badiou and Plato: An Education by Truths Bartlett has created a powerful text. There is here a reinvigoration of Plato studies, casting them not in a narrow academic sense but in a way that touches questions important to all; the questions of education and truth. At the very least they should give us pause at the varied ways in which our current forms of education serve the interests of power and pleasure. Read carefully they may spur a revolution in which education is wrested from the service of privilege and begins the work of love.