Influences five: Plato

01 Sep

Plato was part of my formal education; I would imagine most high school and university arts students read at least the dialogues surrounding the death of Socrates and possibly more – for example the scene in the cave from The Republic. I liked those, but left the Greeks behind for a long time after university, returning to them – and the Latins – about thirty years ago when I decided I had not had enough of the “classics”. I still haven’t, but I’ve read a great number of them.Plato was something of a fascist, and Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies demolishes Plato the politician and political theorist, and fairly too. When I read Popper on Plato I found myself nodding in agreement as I thought of The Republic and other of his political writings. But I nodded too at the beginning of Popper’s demolition job when he said he admired other aspects of Plato.When I launched into my classics phase I read quite a number of the dialogues. Some are more or less forgettable, or deal with issues that were a big deal in Plato’s time but not so important to us now. But it was not till late in my reading of him that I reached the most impressive, and one of the shortest, of his dialogues: The Symposium.

To the Greeks a symposium was a dinner party, and like much of upper crust Greek life of that time, was formalised – one could even say formularised – just as I guess our own dinner parties would be. A classical Greek symposium involved a lot of drinking, and as it was otherwise a men-only affair, had dancing girls later on, who may or may not have just danced.

In this case, however, the host proposed something different – to dispense with the dancing girls and for all present to give a discourse on love; the dialogue sets out the various views of the participants.

Many – perhaps all – of those in the dialogue were real people: of them, Socrates, Aristophanes, and Alcibiades were significant figures in the Athens of their time, and Plato seems to have been settling a few scores in using them. It is not at all clear that the symposium ever took place, and the way Plato sets it out, even if it did, it is not at all clear that what was said was the way Plato wrote it up.

In other words, typically for him, Plato was being very cunning, and in his cunning both political and philosophical in a more general sense. The dialogue shows off “Socrates'” views on love while cleverly defending him against the charge of corrupting Athenian youth that at least implicitly cost him his life.

All these and more angles, often shown through the slyest of insinuations, rocked me: this was philosophy as literature, and vice versa. While I read other dialogues for the philosophical content,The Symposium was literature, and literature of a very high order. Nay more: of the kind that I aspire to write – an “easy read” that repays successive readings, with high purposes concealed in its apparently slight renderings. To my mind, it is easily Plato’s greatest work. He was almost always a good writer, even when espousing the most cynically false ideas, but in this slim volume he outdid all his other efforts.

This is in spite of what I consider Plato’s strange idealist philosophy, and the take on love that he puts into Socrates’ mouth. The great man’s love was for ideas, and thence for the ideal. Real people? Forget it: just imperfect manifestations of the perfect beings off somewhere else…Plato believed in “metempsychosis” or reincarnation, and it coloured his attitude toward life as we live it in the same way that a Hindu’s or Buddhist’s attitude toward life is coloured by a similar belief.

For those (including me) who find this, while possible, a bit hard to swallow, The Symposium remains a wonderful work of literature and philosophy, as well as psychology, and its depiction of Socrates as a kind of superior being is among the most beautiful in all literature. It is hard to recommend this dialogue highly enough.

It helps explain, too, why so many different schools of philosophy purported to trace their lineage back to Socrates, among them the peripatetics, Aristotle’s brand, the sceptics, the Stoics, and the neo-Platonists. Socrates really was an exceptional human being, and he comes across in this dialogue in a truly amazing way.

Plato’s influence, and via him, Socrates’ , was terrific in the classical world, and was only finally crushed by Christianity in the fourth century or so. Of course, he hasn’t gone away, but till the Renaissance Aristotle was the sole representative of the Greek tradition in western society. Plato’s form of religion if you like was dealt a heavy blow by the Christian transformation of European life, and along with it all the philosophical schools that had a pretense towards being “a way of life”: the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the peripatetics. In another post I’ll talk about some of these, in particular the amazing document that is the teachings of Epictetus, and of Epicurus…but this one has gone on quite long enough, and is so cosmic that it deserves at least ten stars, of any colour you like, of any size or even shape! If the sides of your monitor are covered with the wee darlings, stick them on the body of your PC – if there is one – or on a special piece of wood you have my permission to purchase and hang on the wall behind your monitor, where you can chart your progress as a follower of frivolity.


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Published on July 28, 2012 15:07 • 21 views • Tags: platosocrates,stoicsthe-symposium

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in random chatter


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