Thursday, December 23, 2010

The divine, the charioteer and writing in Phaedrus, part 2

The story of the birth of eros – arising from the conjunction of Poros (resource) and Penia (penury) in the Symposium defies the conventions of Athens and is brought to Socrates – against Athenian patriarchy – by the prophetess Diotima. One should, in this context, take note of the metaphor of Socrates as himself, through questioning, a midwife of ideas. What is the living significance of the words about Diotima, and of Diotima’s story compared to the conventional image of Eros, son of Aphrodite? Reading the Phaedrus and the Symposium together makes a reader suspicious of Socrates’ adherence, in the Phaedrus, through the warning of his daimon (inner or guiding spirit), to eros as a god. Socrates has done something sort of "impious" to eros, but does not, in the Phaedrus, entirely tell the truth about him. In contrast, Diotima’s story itself is but more of the truth, a grander image or metaphor, still not the idea but a more interesting psychological gesture at it...In addition, the image of Diotima, the prophetess who postponed the plague for 10 years so it could arrive, as Thucydides reports, just after Pericles' Funeral Oration, and mark a sharp decline in Athens politics and power, is also a warning about the limits of the story. Further, Socrates in the Phaedrus, speaking as Stesichorus – he who resists tyrants (see the end of part 1 here) - also ascends to some of the truth. For Socrates is then guided by his daimon to the grand image of the soul as charioteer, the comparison of an able farmer to a teacher as distinct from a writer, and the transformation of the dialogue from cattiness about lovers into something deep.

The Phaedrus tells a story of the immortality of the soul, of its capacity to rise to divine contemplation (to see the shining ideas of the beautiful, the wise, the just and perhaps the good – the sun of the noetic universe in the wild image of the Republic), and to the two horses, one, something like spiritedness in the Republic but more linked with the charioteer to seeking these ideas, the other, the black horse, displaying appetites, lust. In the grand image, the charioteer, who is purest, soars highest, can sometimes see these images, though pulled down, after glimpses, by the black horse of desire. Perhaps this is a metaphor for Socrates: I do not know, but I am, by fashioning arguments day after day, following a path…His eros or coquettishness with students, notably Meno but, to some extent, Glaucon, for example, is perhaps a manifestation of the black horse. But souls can achieve a divine state, what makes the god divine (thus, Plato was referred to as a divine man…) after long effort and contemplation. Here is the image of recollection or unforgetting from the Meno, given in a new and dazzling way. When one questions and ascends through argument, one fights the rule of the black horse…

Socrates indicates that there are 9 types of fallenness, the highest, the philosopher, who never has to go down in a cycle and can get off the wheel of reincarnation in three eras of life/death, the lowest the tyrant. The philosopher, here (and as implied in the story of Odysseus in the Myth of Er in the Republic) is different, freed from the bonds of desire, no longer on the cycle. In contrast, for the others, the hold of psychology, of desire (what moderns might speak of, somewhat aptly, as the unconscious) and previous experience, is very powerful. Each worshipper follows – displays eros toward - a god in his own image (consider the guiding spirits in the Myth of Er; each psyche chooses according to his previous experience). As Socrates puts it in the Phaedrus:

“Now he who is a follower of Zeus, when seized by eros can bear a heavier version of the winged god; but those who are servants of Ares and followed in his train, when they have been seized by eros and think they have been wronged in any way by the beloved, become murderous and are ready to sacrifice themselves and the beloved. And so it is with the follower of each of the other gods; he lives, so far as he is able, honoring and initiating that god, so long as he is uncorrupted, and is living his first life on earth, and in that way he behaves and conducts himself toward his beloved and toward all the others. Now each one chooses his love from the ranks of the beautiful according to his character, and he fashions him and adorns him like a statue, as though he were his god, to honor and worship him.” (252c-d)

Note again, that the orator Lysias is Phaedrus’s god at the outset of the dialogue – he loves Lysias – and Socrates, a contrary spirit, poses for Phaedrus the choice between rhetoric and philosophy as ways of life.

The number 9, of types of souls, is also a hint at the central role of mathematics in Plato’s spoken teaching (something that Jay Kennedy at Nottingham has been uncovering features of). In the Republic, Socrates obscurely says that the happiness of a just man is 729 times that of a tyrant. That number is 9 to the power of 3 (or 3 – the parts of the soul in the image of the charioteer with his horses in the Phaedrus or reason, spiritedness and appetite in the Republic - to the power of 4). 9 types of soul, 9 to the power of 3 in the separation between the happiness of the philosopher Socrates who is murdered, and the unhappiness of the tyrant who seemingly has whatever he wants (on the tyrant's misery, see Xenophon’s Hiero as well as the Republic, however).

So some of the secrets of Plato are apparently mathematical. One studies Greek mathematics, in particular the partly visible, mainly hidden Pythagorean mysteries, a few of which are left to us, as in the famous theorem - as part of long investigations to become a philosopher in order to perhaps see these meanings, to have the visible world (partly) revealed in (mathematical) ideas. The Pythagorean theorem, for instance, concerns the geometric and algebraic properties of right triangles (again, the number 3). The square of the hypoteneuse is equal to the squares of the other two sides. A right triangle is, of course, also one with a 90 degree angle. In Euclid, the proof is similar to - of the same method as - the proof which Socrates elicits from the slave by questioning in the Meno. Proclus, writing nearly a thousand years later, attributes an algebraic and geometric proof of Pythagorean triples to Plato (a Pythagorean triple consists of three positive integers, a, b and c, such that a squared + b squared=c squared; a right triangle whose sides form a Pythagorean triple is called a Pythagorean triangle). Versions of the Pythagorean theorem extend back into India, where Pythagoras travelled, among other places.** In some ways, Plato’s or Pythagoras’s mathematical mysticism promises or touches upon modern physics and chemistry…

In the Phaedrus, the black horse lusts after beauty, wants to throw himself on it. Here again in the charioteer’s halting of him is the image of Platonic love (love that is not consummated in the body – a little like Taoist or Tantric love perhaps – but strengthens the soul). But it just doesn’t seem true or simply true of Socrates, for whom the case of Alcibiades is enormously complex, one in which they are not on a common path, but rather, for Alcibiades, on an horrific one (becoming a traitor, a leader of the Spartans…). Socrates is Alcibiades’s friend, gives him arguments which make Alcibiades dream of growing old sitting by Socrates, saves Alcibiades’ life in battle, announces that Alcibiades was his jealous lover, but, according to Alcibiades, has never made love with him. See here. The image of Platonic love is reinforced by the white horse in the Phaedrus. (253-254e)

“If now the better elements of the mind, which lead to a well ordered life and to philosophy, prevail, they live a life of happiness and harmony here on earth, self controlled and orderly, holding in subjection that which causes evil in the soul and giving freedom to that which makes for virtue, and when this life is ended they are light and winged, for they have conquered in one of the three truly Olympic contests. [256b - I don’t now the other two]

But here, too, one does not quite know where the continuing dialogue between Aristophanes and Socrates into the night, he who would, long after, tell the story to another, Aristodemus, by his own report, drifting in and out of sleep, leads…

Interestingly, there is also an image in the Phaedrus of eros encouraging the sprouting of wings. This is of course today a common image of eros; it probably foreshadows the image of angels (I haven’t looked into this in Greek orthodox Christianity, but it is amusing that so many beautiful Italian images – say Fra Angelico’s Annunciation – probably stem from neoPlatonism*:

“And as he looks over him [a god-like form, a beautiful boy…], a reaction from his shuddering comes over him, with sweat and unaccustomed heat; for as the effluence of beauty enters him through the eyes, he is warmed; the effluence moistens the beginning point of feathers, and as he grows warm, the parts from which the feathers grow, which were before hard and choked, and prevented the feathers from sprouting become soft, and as the nourishment streams upon him, the quills of the feathers swell and begin to grow from the roots over all the form of the soul, for it was once all feathered.” (251a-b)

The even more startling image, however, is the one that the playfulness of the Phaedrus has led up to. The written word, says Socrates, is like a statue. If you ask it a question, misunderstand or revile it, it has no father to defend it. Here he defends the spoken word in the moment – the only words delivered by Socrates who himself did not write.*** He asks Phaedrus who comes up with a just response – the written word is but the occluded image of the word written in the soul, the spoken word of someone who knows something true. The written word, the material of rhetoricians and lawyers whom Socrates mocks, can easily be perverted from the truth. The truth, one that unfolds or plants seeds in the soul of she who knows how to read a complex literary work, a dialogue, spreads gradually among those few, blossoms into eternity.

Socrates dresses up the rhetoricians “like statues” and makes their harmfulness clear. Thrasymaschus from book 1 of the Republic appears again initially and briefly. But one remembers. In the Republic, Thrasymachus is fierce. He might – as a beast or wolf - drag Socrates down if Socrates had not, as in a legend, looked at him first. For Thrasymachus, “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.” Here again, Plato adumbrates the trial of Socrates. In the Phaedrus, Socrates escapes through speeches and argument, but not ultimately as a mortal seeking the truth in this life. Socrates gave his life for philosophy – and perhaps for a near democracy – a switch of 30 votes out of 500 - which would not murder or exile those who speak the truth to its bloody political leaders.

The main role is assumed by Tisias who recommends rhetoric for a court case. A big man who is a coward is beaten up by a little man who is brave. Tisias says that the big man through shame will say that there were two who assaulted him. The little man can then, even though he committed the crime, point out contradictions in what he says. Then the little man, having established that it was only him and the big man, can say: "Look, I’m little. It’s ridiculous to think I could beat him up."

The idea of rhetoric, Socrates suggests, is to know what’s true and change things near enough so that one keeps the appearance of truth. Phaedrus agrees about the inanity of this. In fact, as Socrates observes, however, a rhetorician turns evil into good, good into evil. For this is the same rhetoric which convicts Socrates (of which Thraysmachus in the Republic and Callicles in the Gorgias are belligerent practitioners). It is a variant of the rhetoric offered in written form by Lysias in the speech which Phaedrus reads to Socrates at the outset.

Socrates employs the metaphor of a farmer/gardener who has beautiful seeds. Would he plant them in the garden of Adonis, Socrates asks, where they would sprout beautiful flowers in eight days…? 8, it seems for Socrates and Plato, was not so resonant a number as 9 or 3. Adonis was the lover of Aphrodite. He died. She mourned him, and he was restored to life for 6 months (the other 6 with Persephone). During the Adonia, the ancient Athenian festival celebrated from below by women as a form of resistance, women would plant gardens of Adonis - wheat, barley, lettuce, fennel, and other quickly germinating plants - in baskets and shallow pots on roofs. The plants blossomed but then died because of shallow root systems. The women discarded them at the end of eight days, often with other images of the god. Note the intense sense of impermanence or mortality in the ritual, like Tibetan and Navajo sand paintings, which have a beautiful but short life, are taken up, poured (by Tibetans) into a river, something that perhaps Plato was less comfortable with.

The occasion was one of communal mourning for the women in Athens - lamentation being a role to which women, in subordination after the defeat of the matriarchal civilizations of the Greek islands, were largely confined.***** See here, here, here and here. Even lamentation had been curtailed in fifth-century funeral rites that stressed eulogy - for instance, Pericles' Funeral Oration. Thus, the Adonia was actually a form of struggle from below, by women, to restore even this place in patriarchal Athens. In a somewhat sexist vein (at least “not noticing” the real significance of the ritual), Plato’s Socrates says:

“Now tell me this. Would a sensible gardener, who has seeds which he cares for and which he wishes to bear fruit, plant them with serious purpose in the heat of summer in some garden of Adonis and delight in seeing them appear in beauty in eight days, or would he do that sort of thing, when he did it at all, only in play and for amusement? Would he not, when he was in earnest, follow the rules of husbandry, plant his seeds in fitting ground and be pleased when those which he had sowed reached their perfection in the eighth month?”

“Phaedrus: Yes, Socrates, he would, as you say, act in that way when in earnest and in the other way only for amusement.”

“Socrates: And shall we suppose that he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful has less sense about his seeds than the husbandman?” (276b-c)

If one wants to see the truth about these ideas for Plato – what he, as a gardener/farmer, nurtures - one has to learn the Delphic meanings of the dialogues, take in what one can of the force of the spoken word, “the word written upon the soul,” not just the written word. One cannot read a dialogue, even persistently, and wrestle with surface arguments as if they alone were the issue (they are often contradictory or incomplete). Instead, one must follow out the whole meaning, including the setting, and the elliptical comments. One must try to understand the person who, resembing eros, is divinely inspired to seek and speak the truth and who will thus be hated by the powerful as well as those who sit at the doors of the rich (comparably, in the Old Testament, one might think of the prophet Amos versus the king’s man, Amaziah, see here). *****

The context of Plato's dialogues is also important. For the most part, smart but well-to-do aristocrats haunted Socrates’ footsteps or studied with Plato. Many of these did not like the democracy and were tempted by tyranny, even after long study (for Socrates, Critias and Alcibiades; Glaucon is the one he heads off). For Plato, Aristotle, who did not become Plato’s successor in the Academy, annexed himself to Alexander the Great. In contrast, Demosthenes, a very different student of Plato, spoke out in his Phillipics against Phillip of Macedon, Alexander’s father. Alexander had Demosthenes arrested in a temple on the island of Calauria. Pretending to write, Demosthenes sucked poison through a reed. Saying that Alexander had defiled even the sanctuary, he got up, walked a few steps, and fell by the altar. Both Aristotle and Demosthenes could not be, in their conduct, in their understanding of Plato, in their being or souls, right (and if Aristotle were right, that also divides Plato from Socrates). So Plato either tempted students on a false path – away from Socrates – the Heidegger and Strauss interpretations, see here, here, here, here, here and here, or he did not. The idea that Plato in the end betrayed Socrates (Xenophon’s or Strauss’s "Socrates" – those who make Socrates into the image of the philosopher-king or a counselor to tyrants, wishing he had ruled over a diminished and degraded Athens, mirroring those who have degraded America) is, very likely, false.

Plato taught aristocrats. He set them deep problems, a years-long course of study, to become philosophers (Aristotle was at the Academy 20 years). But Plato also depicts some complex democrats. For instance, Socrates became a philosopher even though he had been an artisan. And Socrates taught some democrats like Polemarchus (though his father Cepahalus, a metic, was rich) and Chaeropohon who asks the question of the Delphic oracle in the Apology which sets Socrates’s quest to prove that he cannot, knowing (almost) nothing, possessing only a human wisdom, be the wisest by questioning those who think themselves wise.

Plato’s loyalty was to Socrates who did not unite with tyrants. Plato sought to innoculate his students through deep study against the temptation to become tyrannical (Glaucon in the Republic is, again, a graphic example). But as we can see especially with Aristotle (though perhaps Heidegger as well, see here and here), philosophical brilliance and deep study can be connected to the worst and ugliest, most fallen, degraded, forms of tyranny (there is no worse than Hitler; enthusing over Nazi propaganda, Heidegger even became enamored with Hitler’s “beautiful hands” – see here). About the just, the good and the beautiful, one should cleave to the white horse…

*The Popes and the Medicis hunted and killed neo-Platonists; European neoPlatonism was long underground in the Middle Ages and later, among artists, architects, designers of gardens...

**I have sometimes mentioned the coincidence in time of Socrates and Buddha, separated by 800 miles. In a legend, Pythagoras travelled to India, was invited to fast and meditate to prepare for learning, objected but did it, and afterwards, saw knowledge, notably mathematical knowledge, in a different way. His school had 3 different levels of participants. Indian studies, methods and secrets - as well as those of Egypt - were part of the origins of Greek thinking. Some versions of the theorem appear in Indian sutras (one contemporary with Pythagoras, one later), reflecting overlapping oral traditions.

There are also proofs of (aspects of) the theorem in China (from which knowledge disseminated through the later Arab West (Spain), along with Greek manuscripts.

***Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Predicament, introduction, p. 20, maintains that Strauss's writings contain his central hidden messages. Though students often rely on what he told them, for instance Catherine Zuckert, Meier suggests, that is not what Strauss fully believed. Strauss wanted to a) hide, though, out of probity, hint at his past – as a Jewish pro-Nazi. See here. This is a very unlikely thing and so most of his followers, except his literary executor Joseph Cropsey and Meier, often fail to take it in, and b) found a clique of wouldbe policy-makers to remake the United States around authoritarian imperialism appealing to religion - Evangelicism - and despising “the last men,” those who prefer peace or nonmurderousness or not blowing the world up (point b reflects the consensus of reactionary political Straussians - Bill Galston and Francis Fukuyama are exceptions- who are the core of neoconservatism).

Plato stresses the living word of the teacher, conveyed or hinted at in dialogues read in a certain way, also to suggest something Delphic. But though he was not completely a democrat – just, decisively a democrat against tyranny – and perhaps had some thoughts about philosopher-rulers or at least was willing, as was Aristotle, to try to modify tyrants as his visit to the young Dionysius at Syracuse (the Seventh Letter) shows, he urged resisting tyranny. His inner political purpose was thus bound far more closely to his outer purpose; it was not that of a manipulative “philosopher” which Strauss projects on him, something needing more fundamental disguise. Also, his masks were often for aristocratic students, to move them, as critics of democracy (he was one also) toward fighting for democracy against tyranny. Plato’s was a subtle strategy, one which did not always work. In contrast, Strauss’s disguises were to hide from democrats (and often many of his often determinedly reactionary students) just how reactionary he was.

****The mysteries, under the guidance of Demeter and Persephone and in which women probably played a strong role, were, however, a survival, as one of these posts emphasizes, of the earlier egalitarianism of the islands and contributed to Athenian democracy.

*****Steve Wagner had emphasized to me the role of mania in elite stereotyping of radicals – thus, Martin Luther King or John Brown or Jesus or communists or Julian Assange...They are outside agitators who say things in a “strange” often foreign language, have mania, and somehow stir up otherwise happy people – “dupes” – to rebel. Why they get a following is, on this view a mystery. But there is, of course, an obvious answer – that they have told, in important respects, the truth.

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