“Suppose a layman enters” – these are the first words of Badiou’s seminar Theory of Evil, Theory of Love (1990-1991). The opening “hypothesis” is that of a generic layperson or an unbeliever who enters an assembly of the “university of doxography”. Very quickly Badiou “radicalises” the hypothesis by supposing that “we” (i.e. himself, his audience, his readers) are this layperson.
Badiou asks what would this layman who enters the university of doxography say about the relation between philosophy and the problem of Evil in response to the religious and moral propositions on this subject. What would he understand about the question of the essence of philosophy and its relation to evil?
This fiction of the layman’s response to the doxographic academy is a way of introducing the necessity of a non-philosophical or pre-philosophical comprehension of philosophy.
Surely, Badiou tells us, the layman will see the essential duplicity of philosophy, that form of conceptual creation that both grasps truths in their compossibility and reduces them to a thought-paralysing doctrine. This reduction of concepts to philosophemes by way of the suture of philosophy to one of its conditions is the cause of disaster in the real.
“Doxography” for Badiou is the malady of contemporary philosophy. It includes both the historiography of philosophy and its deconstruction. Both are ways of subordinating the creative grasping of truths in their compossibility (the act of philosophy) to the doctrinal circulating of philosophemes in their suture.
The case of Plato is an archetypal example of this duplicity. Badiou is far from idealising Plato despite his own will to “revoke” the anti-Platonism of the 20th Century and to make a “Platonic gesture”, to create a “Platonism of the multiple”. For Badiou philosophy is the site of an “originary duplicity”, from the innocence of truth to the disaster of its suture.
For Badiou, Plato dramatically exemplifies this constitutive duplicity of philosophy in his evolution from the defence of Socrates’ innocence in the early dialogues to his support of repressive laws against impiety and the corruption of the youth in Book X of THE LAWS.
Badiou tells us that the change is not due to the discovery of new truths, it is a reversal of “subjective position” or a transformation of Plato’s “pre-philosophical” comprehension:
“It is a pre-philosophical question, which situates the subject, which is of the order of subjective mobilisation” (28).
It is as if Plato were no longer the Socratic “layman” or the “unbeliever” but had become the expert or the believer in his own doctrine.
I think this is Badiou’s best defence of his return to Plato. Badiou does not idealise Plato, he is willing to concede that Plato propounded “criminal laws” in contradiction with his earlier ideas. He sees this type of disaster in thought, which can provide the premise for a disaster in the real, as inherent to the philosophical act. Plato’s totalitarian tendencies do not invalidate the whole of his work, but they evoke philosophy’s ever-present task to “de-suture” thought.