27 February 2017

Feeling like Alcibiades

In the midst of my (re-)explorations into Plato (and specifically the Phædrus and the Symposium) for the sake of writing this series on the realist approach to the pelvic issues, I realised that I had only a vague understanding of what Plato was getting at in the first place, and at that second-hand, largely through John Milbank’s treatment in Theology and Social Theory, as well as Vladimir Solovyov’s own Platonic dialogues. In addition, in attempting to read some of the early Church Fathers, I felt that they were indeed a bit too far out of my grasp, and that I needed to have some meagre grasp on Plato before I could approach, say, Saint Maximus, Saint Symeon or Saint Gregory Palamas with any hope of understanding them. As a result, I decided to try to make my way through the other Dialogues in some kind of rational order.

I’ve started reading the early Dialogues, starting with First Alcibiades and then moving forward through Lysis, Laches, Charmides. I’ve just finished Protagoras and both Hippias dialogues, and am starting the Gorgias. I confess I find myself a bit stunned at both Plato’s skill at drama, at his flair for posing and then working through some of the most basic questions about life and how we can live well, and at the confusion and lack of certainty they evoke in me when I read them. I have to say that I felt so much like Alcibiades, so shaken in my own understanding of basic things like ‘justice’, by the end of reading First Alcibiades, that it struck me that that was Plato’s design all along.

The Socrates of these early Dialogues can come off as a bit overbearing, with biting wit, thickly-layered irony and relentless, rapid-fire questioning. And we might cheer as he steers the preening Hippias into a well-deserved morass of ridiculous contradictions; or as he spars deftly with the intelligent-but-manipulative Critias over definitions of wisdom; or turns the grave, high-spoken Protagoras on his head during the course of his argument – only to find himself defending against Protagoras what Protagoras himself set out to prove in the first place. But he’s posing questions that serve to disconcert us, his readers, all the while (or should, if we’re being honest): about the nature of friendship and courage and wisdom – and how little and vaguely even amiable or brave or wise people even know about what these things are; about the entire aim of living in a society; about the distinctions and overlap between the good and the pleasurable; about what the skills of public speaking and writing are even for. Socrates understands perfectly well that his uncomfortable, intellectually-pugilistic manner of approach wins him few friends and even puts him in danger of his life; and indeed, in the Lysis he mentions this fact outright, though with a bit of an ironic and self-deprecating air. But at the same time it’s clear we have to follow him if we would find out for ourselves what he claims not to know.

One of the mesmerising things about Plato’s Socrates, I’m finding, is the total lack of regard he has for materialist notions of ‘success’. That includes not only wealth, high birth, political power, martial might, ‘meritocratic’ ability – but even the ability to persuade and sway the masses fails to impress him. He stops just shy of mocking openly Hippias’s boasts that he can make a great deal of money by opining about wisdom in many cities (the very model of a ‘public intellectual’!), and he douses even the more subtle Protagoras (whose ideas about virtue end up being proven at least partly right) in thick layers of irony throughout his entire exchange with him. He’s notably unimpressed by democracy and even less – and this is not a contradiction, by the way – by the ‘great men’ he meets. It is indeed somewhat ironic in the end that a man who is, if not the, then certainly one of the major cornerstones of the Western intellectual tradition, stands against, in his own Athenian setting, so much of what the Western tradition is seen abroad to represent. Plato (along with his version of Socrates, which we may assume to be at least partially accurate) shows himself willing to entertain, in dialectical suspension, arguments about how pleasure is the same as the good, or how might makes right, or how the many are worthy teachers of justice just as they would be worthy teachers of Greek, but if only with the satirical twist he feels they deserve before he reduces such propositions to gibberish through Socrates’ questioning.

Again, reading Plato directly, and not just his commentators and imitators, is something I feel I should have done a long time ago. Apologies to my gentle readers if this blog post comes off a bit too much like an eighth-grade book report; that is about how I feel with regard to Plato – every bit as stunned into uncertainty as Alcibiades was in First Alcibiades. I will say that (in addition to, rather than replacing, the Church Fathers), the Dialogues of Plato make for good Lenten reading: not only my sins but my ignorance stand convicted.

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