Saturday, June 17, 2006

One of the outrageous luxuries

of being an academic, at least in the very fortunate version of academia in which I find myself, is that I can spend the day reading Plato's Republic and count it work rather than play.

I hadn't read it properly through since I was a teenager; I was always annoyed when I was a Young Person by the way grownups would tell you very seriously that you couldn't understand Dickens or Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or whoever until you were older & while that then as now seemed to me absolutely ridiculous (there is nothing to stop a sensible fourteen-year-old from reading any of those) I do always feel that the philosophical writings I read while young open themselves up to me far more readily and enjoyably when I come to them again a bit later on in life. (Plus this translation by Tom Griffith is wonderfully good, seems both colloquial and accurate, makes me wish I could read Greek though.)

I am on the whole too frivolous to read a lot of philosophy for fun and yet if you're secretly (as I am) deadly in earnest about reading and thinking and the good life, of course Plato is quite irresistible. Here's a taste, in case you don't have the demented luxurious pleasure of picking up and reading the whole volume yourself:

I imagine someone with a healthy and self-disciplined disposition will awaken the rational part of himself before going to sleep, feast it on fine arguments and enquiries, and so bring himself into a state of harmony with himself. As for his desiring part, he will expose it neither to want nor to excess. He wants it to go to sleep, and not disturb what is best in the soul with its pleasure or pain, but allow it all by itself, solitary and pure, to follow its enquiries and reach out for a vision of something--be it past, present or future--that it does not know. The same goes for the spirited part of the soul. He will calm it down, and avoid getting into a rage with anyone and going to sleep with his spirit in a state of turmoil. Before retiring to rest he needs to pacify two elements in the soul and awaken the third, which is the birthplace of reason. Under these conditions, as you know, he can most easily grasp truth, and the visions which appear in his dreams are least lawless. . . . What we need to know is that there is in everyone a terrible, untamed and lawless class of desires--even in those of us who appear to be completely normal.

(Also and more frivolously I find that the whole bit about forms makes me distractingly think of those Wayne Thiebaud cake paintings; I like them, and yet if I were him I would have just made actual cakes; I read an article a few years ago about an artist who--and Thiebaud was not happy about this, either--baked the cakes from his paintings, it seemed to me slightly pointless and I was also horrified to learn that she didn't make them edible, I could at least see the point if you made them and then put them in a case and had people eat them. Of course this is all quite irrelevant, from the point of view of Socrates the baked cake is an imitation as well as the painting. I also find that when I read twentieth-century philosophers I have the problem of taking their thought-experiments too literally and spinning them off into science-fiction scenarios and rather missing the point....)

There is a passage from the Symposium that is always at the back of my head as an ideal for living (now this is a very personal confession--don't laugh, or at least don't laugh too much), not the exact words so much as the idea: unfortunately the copy I use when I teach it is at the office, and the wording of that Benjamin Jowett translation that's available for free online is not quite so much to the point but I will perhaps give it anyway, it's the charismatic latecomer Alcibiades talking about the wholly unglamorous Socrates and I think that secretly any teacher must want to be something like this:

And now, my boys, I shall praise Socrates in a figure which will appear to him to be a caricature, and yet I speak, not to make fun of him, but only for the truth's sake. I say, that he is exactly like the busts of Silenus, which are set up in the statuaries, shops, holding pipes and flutes in their mouths; and they are made to open in the middle, and have images of gods inside them. I say also that it is like Marsyas the satyr. You yourself will not deny, Socrates, that your face is like that of a satyr. Aye, and there is a resemblance in other points too. For example, you are a bully, as I can prove by witnesses, if you will not confess. And are you not a flute-player? That you are, and a performer far more wonderful than Marsyas. He indeed with instruments used to charm the souls of men by the powers of his breath, and the players of his music do so still: for the melodies of Olympus are derived from Marsyas who taught them, and these, whether they are played by a great master or by a miserable flute-girl, have a power which no others have; they alone possess the soul and reveal the wants of those who have need of gods and mysteries, because they are divine. But you produce the same effect with your words only, and do not require the flute; that is the difference between you and him. When we hear any other speaker, even very good one, he produces absolutely no effect upon us, or not much, whereas the mere fragments of you and your words, even at second-hand, and however imperfectly repeated, amaze and possess the souls of every man, woman, and child who comes within hearing of them. And if I were not afraid that you would think me hopelessly drunk, I would have sworn as well as spoken to the influence which they have always had and still have over me. For my heart leaps within me more than that of any Corybantian reveller, and my eyes rain tears when I hear them. And I observe that many others are affected in the same manner. I have heard Pericles and other great orators, and I thought that they spoke well, but I never had any similar feeling; my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state. But this Marsyas has often brought me to such pass, that I have felt as if I could hardly endure the life which I am leading (this, Socrates, you will admit); and I am conscious that if I did not shut my ears against him, and fly as from the voice of the siren, my fate would be like that of others,--he would transfix me, and I should grow old sitting at his feet. For he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians; therefore I hold my ears and tear myself away from him. And he is the only person who ever made me ashamed, which you might think not to be in my nature, and there is no one else who does the same. For I know that I cannot answer him or say that I ought not to do as he bids, but when I leave his presence the love of popularity gets the better of me. And therefore I run away and fly from him, and when I see him I am ashamed of what I have confessed to him. Many a time have I wished that he were dead, and yet I know that I should be much more sorry than glad, if he were to die: so that am at my wit's end.

And this is what I and many others have suffered, from the flute-playing of this satyr. Yet hear me once more while I show you how exact the image is, and how marvellous his power. For let me tell you; none of you know him; but I will reveal him to you; having begun, I must go on. See you how fond he is of the fair? He is always with them and is always being smitten by them, and then again he knows nothing and is ignorant of all thing such is the appearance which he puts on. Is he not like a Silenus in this? To be sure he is: his outer mask is the carved head of the Silenus; but, O my companions in drink, when he is opened, what temperance there is residing within! Know you that beauty and wealth and honour, at which the many wonder, are of no account with him, and are utterly despised by him: he regards not at all the persons who are gifted with them; mankind are nothing to him; all his life is spent in mocking and flouting at them. But when I opened him, and looked within at his serious purpose, I saw in him divine and golden images of such fascinating beauty that I was ready to do in a moment whatever Socrates commanded: they may have escaped the observation of others, but I saw them.

I think I must go and read all of Plato's dialogues straight through, I never did it that way (and on a more self-indulgent note, perhaps it's also time for the every-few-years ritual reread of my favorite novels by Mary Renault, in particular The Last of the Wine which I must have read at least ten times when I was a child & which is no doubt partly responsible for my passion for Thucydides).


  1. I fully agree that 14-year-olds can read complex, "grown-up" stuff, although perhaps not with full understanding. But I also think that those flawed, incomplete readings we do as 14-year-olds prepare us for the richer readings we do as adults. How else do we learn to read deeply?

  2. I was reading the Symposium today--it's a Plato sort of day, apparently.

    If I may recommend something while you're in a mood for the classics, Malcom Heath has a wonderful translation of Poetics, the introduction featuring an anecdote about cat strangling to demonstrate correct plot construction (morbid but hysterically funny).

    (Sara introduced me to your blog--I'm enjoying it immensely!)


  3. It SO was a Plato sort of day!

    I will check out Malcolm Heath, thanks....

    And yes, early readings supplement later--but my 14-yr-old self holds out for (obnoxiously) "our readings are not THAT flawed or incomplete"! Depends what it is I suppose: I personally think novels highly accessible to adolescents, poetry also though slightly less, but prose sometimes a bit harder to grasp.

  4. I was reading Tolstoy and Dostoevskiy when I was 14-16. Not sure I understood everything, however, it was a first "fresh" step towards that. Although I admit I re-read both authors when I became "adult" and the impression was quite different. Same happened, actually, to some other authors (like Jane Austen whom I did not like at all when I was 15) and it caused by life experience, or... God knows what.