Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Week 06, Plato, Classic of Poetry

Introduction to Plato

1. Socrates’ lineage as a philosopher allies him with his “pre-Socratic” predecessors who tried to provide explanations for natural phenomena without invoking the gods. To varying extents, Heraclitus and his fellows were trying to explain natural things in a natural way, not by enveloping them in mystery. Socrates sometimes speaks the language of fable and literature, but on the whole he’s a strong proponent of rational pursuit of truth.

His model of knowledge is similar to mathematics, which offers us irreproachable truths independent of empirical verification. Socrates himself, unlike Plato, doesn’t really advocate a systemic philosophy, though he seems certain that his method of questioning is the only way to arrive at the truth.

What kind of truth? Well, wisdom or understanding differs from the ordinary techne of craftsmen in that the latter don’t investigate first principles; they just start from the most convenient and practical place and go from there. They are pursuing practical ends, not trying to reason their way back to the essence of pottery or shoes. Which, of course, doesn’t keep them from asserting that they know all sorts of things they don’t—things far beyond the narrow limits of their craft. Socrates, however, is interested in finding out what virtue and the good are, not in what can be done with them in immediately practical terms.

The Platonic/Socratic way of philosophizing assumes a fundamental split between philosophical wisdom and the things and pursuits of this world. That willingness to split the world from philosophy is obviously problematical, but it results in an attractive emphasis on human potential and integrity: we admire the whimsical, yet lordly, figure of Socrates standing up to the vulgar mob that condemns him for exposing their stupidity. And isn’t exposing people’s ignorance a service, and therefore “practical” in the deepest sense? It is the beginning of education—we must be thrown back upon our own resources if we are ever to learn anything.

That’s what Socrates’ dialectic is meant to do: he rigorously tests individuals’ claims, and almost always finds those claims unsound. Such an experience should set people thinking on first principles and revive in them the knowledge they’ve forgotten, even if deeply rooted and traditional illusions keep them from getting to that point. People need illusions, we moderns have come with rue to admit—perhaps that’s what gets Socrates in trouble. Taking candy from babies may be easy, but it doesn’t make babies like you.

2. Socrates’ view of education can be summed up with a quip by Wilde: “nothing worth knowing can be taught.” In the dialogue Meno,Socrates shows how he has simply drawn geometrical knowledge from within a slave boy. Metempsychosis and anamnesis are the key terms here—we have always known what we know at present; it’s just that we need to recollect it and, if necessary, get rid of the illusions and other factors that may be getting in our way. The dialectic can stimulate us to make this recovery.

Contrast this view with the ordinary one that school is all about getting crammed chock full of facts so you can do well on tests. Our entire culture is geared towards that goal. Primary and secondary teachers are told to “teach to the tests” rather than emphasize the learning that Plato and Socrates advocate. The desire to make sure kids are learning is admirable, but I suspect that what we do at the primary and secondary level turns education into social control and makes it into little more than a bourgeois ticket to the good life—not an encounter with potentially life-transforming materials of any kind, whether in the sciences or humanities. Self-development of the modern post-romantic kind isn’t the agenda of Plato and Socrates, but they have something worthwhile to teach us about education—pardon the contradiction.

3. Chariot of the Soul: Refer to the Phaedrus as a segue from education to Socrates’ disdain for the multitude: the charioteer or soul must restrain the bad steed (base desire) and help the good steed (noble desire—something like emotion) set the right course in life. We are impelled towards our objects, but it makes all the difference which part of our passionate nature is doing the impelling. Plato figures the soul as tripartite, with one part being reason and the other two being more passionate: there’s mere appetite, and there’s the capacity to be moved by or towards something in a higher, more sustainable way.

4. Refer to the Analogy of the Cave to deal with the theory of the Forms and how it’s connected to the ignoble many versus the wise philosophical few. The mind needs to become acclimated to its surroundings—the cave-dwelling ignoramuses are blinded by the Truth, while the philosopher is blinded by the darkness upon reentering it to help others. At this point we can move to The Apology: here Socrates has been roped and dragged down into the Cave, and the natives are hostile. No wonder Socrates himself is defiant, though he doesn’t directly condemn his judges—that would be unkind and contradictory to his mission and his nature.

General Notes on The Apology of Socrates

Socrates may be a new kind of hero. Just as Plato participated in a shift from old ways of thinking to new ones—a scientific, rational method for apprehending truth—he does Socrates the honor of redefining the heroic ideal. Were it not for his sense of humor, Socrates would come across as almost Christ-like. Consider the famous words of Jesus, “my kingdom is not of this world.” Socrates is a man who lived his life ironically; indeed, Quintilian, in discussing figurative language, uses Socrates as an example of irony because he went around asking people questions and appearing to know nothing while at the same time carrying out his mission as the wisest of men. Socrates is a model citizen of Athens, a man who respects his city’s institutions though perhaps he doesn’t care much for the individuals in the assembly.

It will be necessary to explain Socratic dialectic (elenchus) because the method is not very evident in the dialog. It seems that the audience in the text is not worthy of the dialectic. On the one hand, the charges leveled against Socrates are true—they boil down to something like “Socrates tries to change our minds, and he makes us and our children uncertain of what we already know.” This is hardly a legal charge, although it has been falsely cast in legal terms. The accusers have made an extra-legal communal charge—there simply is no place for a man like Socrates in their version of Athens. Socrates must have known that Athenian law was not always pure or objective—consider, for example ostracism. It seems like a spiteful custom. Notice that Socrates assumes there is hostility against him and that such hostility is in fact a sign of his success. Well, Socrates was always a good citizen: he fought bravely in Athens’s wars, served on the Council during tough times, and yet he must have had no illusions about the impurity of Athenian democracy as a vehicle for truth or justice.

So Socrates limits his attempt to counter the charges against him to a few sallies that show their complete absurdity and contradictory nature. But showing how silly his opponents are isn’t really the point, and he doesn’t care about the outcome. After all, he is an old man and claims to have no great fear of death. The self-defense Socrates offers, therefore, does not seem much more serious in a legal sense then the accusations made against him. Socrates displays sublime calm in the face of peril.

Doesn’t Socrates invite his death? He demonstrates his role as a gadfly, stinging Meletus, Anytus, and all his accusers, humiliating them with a chuckle, answering his own rhetorical questions—none of these things would endear him to a jury of moralistic Athenians. In addressing his particular audience, Socrates deliberately annoys them, thus reminding them why they dislike him.

But there is a more serious side to Socrates in this dialogue. By his bearing, he reaffirms the rock-solid quality of the realm he supports—the realm of absolute ideals such as truth and justice. You can put truth and justice on trial, but you cannot win; they will redefine you and your society even if you despise them. Socrates demonstrates the faith all great revolutionaries have: faith in the power of a direct correspondence between their actions and their perception of truth. There is in such revolutionaries no wavering, no cheap rhetoric, no fear. Behind the bantering of Socrates, there is purifying fire, as evidenced by the occasional flashes of anger. Socrates is a man who suits his words to his audience, who knows their minds and treats them appropriately—but not in a way that compromises his ability to stay true to the mission given him by Apollo.

Socrates is a complex figure, not a simpleton. He remains a “stranger at the gates” of Athens, just as when Odysseus comes home to Ithaca, he is a stranger who must prove his worth anew. Socrates never tries to undermine the assembly or its decisions, so he remains a good citizen no matter what his accusers say. See the dialog Crito, where Socrates says he has no desire to escape and that he respects his city’s laws too much to do so. At the same time, as a philosopher he takes up a position outside all ordinary human justice because he knows that he is the man coming back down into the cave as in the parable, and so he cannot fully acclimate himself to the darkness of the assembly and the trial, nor can the judges in the assembly respond with anything but hostility to him. He will be judged on the basis of his entire career of peripatetic questioning. So now they have got him “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” to borrow from T. S. Eliot.

The point of the dialog, therefore, will be rather to respond with bemused dignity and with some measure of stoic indifference to his accusers. Plato casts Socrates as the quintessential Greek bearing up under pressure, responding actively to a fate imposed upon him by forces he cannot control. His only weapon is his mind, and he has been confronted with the brute power of an idiotic citizenry. In sum, Socrates falls victim to the tyranny of the majority—always a risk in a democratic system.

He upholds the principle of law as something transcendent, though here personified; that’s always a difficult case to make: we ourselves make such abstractions, a materialist might say, and so have difficulty maintaining them as truly independent of us—mention the idea that law is in fact part of the “superstructure,” a tissue of language that enforces codes pertaining to private property and citizens’ identity, conduct, and relations with other citizens.

Notes on The Classic of Poetry

“Fishhawk.” Who is the speaker? It seems that the speaker is collective, not individual. This poem isn’t a direct love lyric, but rather a communal lyric that asserts a harmony between the processes of nature and human emotions. The girl the speakers sing about is no doubt a maiden favored by the prince.

“Plums are Falling.” This is similar to the combined action/thought pattern in “he loves me, he loves me not” while plucking a flower. I find that it conveys a sense of how the mind turns even sharp observation of material acts and things to its own account. The woman in this poem is just picking fruit, but she’s thinking of something else. Marriages at this time would surely have been arranged, as they were in most ancient cultures, but the woman here suggests that she can assert at least an opinion, a kind of general desire for happiness and a “fine” husband. I’ve read that plum blossoms are symbols of courage and hope, heralds of the new year.

“Dead Roe Deer.” The situation here is in one way obvious, in another enigmatic. The maiden has been “led astray,” but how should we interpret her response to the situation? The dead deer perhaps symbolizes the girl’s loss of innocence. I’ve read that if one came across a dead deer, it was considered auspicious and proper to cover it as described in this poem, i.e. by wrapping it in white rushes.

“Boat of Cypress.” The poem is probably best understood as being about the speaker’s sense of betrayal at the hands of a lover. So how does the poem show the speaker dealing with her discontent? How is the leading image, the boat of cypress, related to the theme? Well, this image often (according to Arthur Waley) symbolizes the back-and-forth motion of a person’s intentions. The Odes, as Confucius will later say, help one compose oneself in such situations.

“Gentle Girl.” The poem is interesting in the sense that the girl is placed beyond all objects of the senses; she’s the very source of beauty. But at the same time the speaker, in the girl’s momentary (?) absence, concentrates on the material objects with which she is associated.

“Quince.” The exchanges aren’t equal materially—only the color of the gifts seems to make a rough match. But the love match is what matters. The man redefines objects for their symbolic value, and so a precious object can serve as proper “return” for an ordinary one, and vice versa. The Norton editors mention this poem to highlight the sense of egalitarianism that runs through these poems; as they put it, the gods don’t “play favorites,” and the Chou dynasty rulers seem to have respected the common people they ruled.

“Chung-Tzu, Please.” As the editors say, the poem is an offering of sorts to an overly excited lover. His behavior is a bit wild, and it’s a violation of decorum—the girl is becoming embarrassed about what her family and people in general might say about this manner of courtship. Reticence reigns even in revelation—the girl is enamored of Chung-Tzu, and the poem admits as much. She’s redefining his role as a lover, telling him how he must behave if he is to keep her affection and prosper in his suit. The material boundaries he crosses, the damage he does to the garden, violates her sense of belonging, her security. In ancient cultures generally, the individual’s sense of self is defined largely in relation to a communal order; a person’s “sense of self,” as we would say, is from the outset informed by the voices and opinions of respected others in the community. This way of understanding “personality” differs markedly from modern, post-romantic Western insistence on the uniqueness and radical autonomy of the individual. I would not care to overstate this argument since it’s foolish to suppose “people didn’t use to have a self way back when” (there’s truly “nothing new under the sun,” and the ancients could no doubt teach us a thing or two), but there’s a difference in emphasis to be reckoned on between ancient Chou culture and our own.

“I Went Along the Broad Road.” This short poem is apparently about a momentary meeting in the road between (in the first stanza) two old friends, and in the second, two former lovers. The speaker is concerned that no friendship or affair should ever be completely forgotten.

“Rooster Crows.” This poem is related to the traditional “dawn song,” as we would call it in western literature. Here, though, the point isn’t to curse the dawn for breaking the lovers’ idyllic time together; instead, the female speaker spurs the man on to go and do some work before he returns. I get the sense that these are courtly lovers, not peasants—the speaker has jewels to give, and they both will live the good life, replete with attendant harpers, fine wine and excellent food.

“Willows by the Eastern Gate.” Seems like an assignation had been set, but one partner didn’t keep it. The other’s mind remains fixed upon the place, wistfully or obsessively. The place knows nothing of the proposed meeting, but it is associated with the meeting in the speaker’s mind.

“She Bore the Folk.” Chiang or Jiang seems to have been one of those mortals who bears divine children to a god, in this case to the Jade Emperor, co-ruler of Heaven along with Jade Pure or Yuan-Shi-Tian-Zong. (See http://www.godchecker.com/ on Chinese Gods.) Lord Millet is her first-born of this god, and the boy grows up in a natural realm that both nourishes and abandons him. In turn, he establishes a close, productive relationship between ordinary mortals and the land that sustains them; Chou culture is agrarian, and this poem seems to be about the foundations of their society and political system. Lord Millet established the rites that the people still carry on with in the present time of the poem; their agricultural labor itself seems to be part of what is meant by “the rites.”


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