12 December 2017

A year of reading Plato

I’ve had sympathies with Platonic philosophy for a long time – in fact, since graduate school when I started reading John Milbank, George Grant, Simone Weil and Vladimir Solovyov. I knew and could perceive, to a limited extent, the light that was shining behind these towering intellectual figures, all of whom defied easy political or philosophical description, and all of whom had a certain degree of influence on me.

I admit, though, my own personal motivations for going ad fontes this year were somewhat petty and politically-motivated. I desired to understand, through reading Plato’s political theory, the ways in which democratic and oligarchic régimes decay and degenerate into tyranny. And, in numerous of the Dialogues, I found the political critiques both of democracy and of oligarchy that I had been looking toward. But to say that I found way, way more therein would be trite, it would be a cliché, and it would be an understatement.

Reading Plato’s Dialogues was like holding up a mirror to my own experiences and weaknesses, my own vices and insecurities, my own (like Glaucon’s) deep erotic yearnings and hidden love for tyranny and various compelling but ultimately empty visions of perfection. I had to let Plato’s Socrates interrogate me on all of that, and even though I didn’t necessarily like everything I found, I at least attempted to face it with some degree of honesty. Did I come off a wiser man for it? Ehh. Give me a few months and a few more selective re-reads, and check back in with me again. There’s a lot to process.

But there is a reason that I dwelt so heavily on Plato’s investigations into and dialectical treatments of erōs. And it isn’t just because I’m a horndog who, for Freudian reasons, reads something into Plato that isn’t there already. (Okay, maybe partly that. I started investigating Edo Japan and late Imperial Chinese opera this year, too; and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t a propos or driven to some extent by my own ‘Asiatic’ erotic drive, which has no doubt also shaped my politics, my higher æsthetic and moral ideals and even my religious tendencies.) But for Plato, the thirst, the desire for truth and for the really real, is in actuality that same erotic urge, a yearning after a spiritual and physical unity that has been lost and must be recovered.

For Plato, virtue as a whole – and in its constituent ‘pieces’, which Socrates takes pains to get people to rightly understand each – has to begin with knowledge (as opposed to opinion) of things that are, rather than things that only appear to be, true. And indeed, the closer one draws to truth, the more dangerous the seductions of the merely-similar seem to become. Plato had a much higher tolerance for the merely ignorant, than for one who could draw close to the truth but preferred to artfully disguise it with lies instead. As Socrates’ rhetorical bouts with Hippias demonstrated, the skilled liar who understands (at least part of) what is true, is capable of doing far more damage than an unskilled liar who does not understand what is true.

The challenge of ‘curing’ the skilled liar is what draws Socrates – physically and intellectually – to the ‘perilous youths’, the fair faces which conceal possibly monstrous and tyrannical hearts: Alcibiades, Charmides, Phædrus, Agathon, Meno, Glaucon, Plato himself. In one sense, the nihilistic ‘tyranny-loving’ tendency that shows itself in Glaucon and Charmides and Alcibiades puts them as far away as possible from the ideal kingship or aristocracy, and this is one of the points of Socrates’ discourse on the degeneration of régimes in the Republic. In another sense, though, it seems Plato’s Socrates felt the tyranny-lovers to be the ones closest to philosophy, the ones most biddable to it. The tyrannical violence of their erotic loves could be sublimated into a love for wisdom. But this could only be accomplished – in Glaucon’s case – with a Persian myth (if we are to believe Pausanias): the myth of Er to counter the myth of Gyges.

But there is nothing harder and more dangerous than this appeal to young lovers of tyranny, and Plato would have us acknowledge that in many of these cases (Alcibiades and Charmides, notably) his teacher actually failed. Alcibiades (like, we may assume, Menexenus in the Funeral Oration) chose to listen to the flatteries of Aspasia rather than the hard truths of Diotima. (Remember that Alcibiades entered the Symposium, drunk, after Socrates had recounted Diotima’s philosophical discourse on love!) Socrates wasn’t corrupting the youth with philosophy. Instead he was trying, with the bait of higher loves and the more demanding erotic pursuit of wisdom, to reach the ones most prone to the deadliest sorts of corruption. There is something significant also in that he only called young men to the pursuit and the love of wisdom in this way. Tyranny-lovers more advanced in years, like Critias and Callicles, are presented by Plato without this sort of sympathy, without this double pity. This dovetails nicely with Plato’s thoughts, both in the Laws and before, about the distinction between curable and incurable criminal tendencies.

Plato dug deep into the human psyche and held a mirror up to what he found, expressing it through myth and allegory as well as through the psychologically-dense discussions between Socrates and his friends, pupils and enemies. His insights there are unspeakably profound. I can now easily understand why the Greek Fathers, unlike the ill-fated Tertullian, were so unwilling to dispense with Plato completely. It would be fairly simple to draw those lines. Plato’s view of sin undoubtedly coincided somewhat with the early Christian view: as a malady rather than as a debt. He was therefore willing to speak of treatments and cures, of medicines and gymnastic regimens.

But the consolations of pure philosophy are, even if not entirely unsatisfying and unneeded, still quite cold. Even though Plato has some strong personalist tendencies himself, understanding the needed role of each part of the soul in the function and well-being of the whole – his form of the Good in the pure Platonic philosophy is something impersonal. Even though it is eternal and true and beautiful, it is still abstracted past the forms of the Platonic solids and geometric shapes. The Greek Fathers, on the other hand, had Our Lord: the true, the beautiful, the complete and absolute form of the Good embodied completely in human flesh. The presence and reality of an immediate, immanently personal Truth, immortal and yet fully human, allowed them to be even more personalistic than Plato or Aristotle without sacrificing the Socratic method, the Platonic dialectic or the Platonic treatments of the soul.

Forgive these meanderings, gentle readers. It’s been a lot to process, and I feel I may need a few more re-reads. This year of reading Plato has certainly had a profound impact on the way that I think, but it’s hard to gauge at present the full extent of that impact. Other than that, dear readers: tolle, lege! There is some truly deep commentary on the human condition here, and it is not an accident that Plato’s philosophy is considered a cornerstone of Western thought, however fall we may have fallen from his political-philosophical thinking.

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