Junior Philosopher

cimg5128The past several lunchtimes, my kids and I have been listening to Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, with varying levels of attention. Today, my son and I had this conversation:

son: “Are both Socrates and Plato philosophers?”

me: “Yes. They are both lovers of wisdom.”

son: “I’m a lover of wisdom.”

me: “Then maybe you’re a philosopher.”

son: “But I don’t even know how to be a philosopher.”

me: “All you need to do to be a philosopher is to love wisdom and seek wisdom.”

son: “Okay.”

I might need brush up on my Socratic dialogue skills now that I have a seven-year-old philosopher in the house.

Symposium by Plato

What a fun little book!

I’m sure I’m not grasping all of the nuances—I suspect a vindication motivation in the speech Plato gives to Alcibiades about Socrates—but since I’m not a scholar of Ancient Greek art and culture and lack the context necessary for philosophical criticism, I gave myself permission to just enjoy this book as it is.

And while I don’t think I learned anything new about Love, there was really a lot I liked about this book. I really enjoyed reading Aristophanes’ story of the origin of love, which I first learned about from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (and I’ve had that song stuck in my head since I read that section), and Diotima’s speech that Socrates shares (or makes up?) is masterful. My favorite, though, is probably Alcibiades’ speech. When he arrived on the scene, drunken and supported by a flute girl, I poured myself a gluten-free beer and joined the party (if one gluten-free beer even counts in a crowd where people are drinking wine by the half-gallon).

I love the picture of Socrates that Alcibiades paints, as a man who exists in a plane just a tad removed from the physical plane of the rest of us. I can only hope that someone will say about me someday, “But this [wo]man here is so bizarre, [her] ways and [her] ideas are so unusual, that, search as you might, you’ll never find anyone else, alive or dead, who’s even remotely like [her].”

I don’t think I have much hope of that level of bizarre-ness, but it’s a pleasant goal.

Now if only my discussion groups were half as fun as this one.

Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the December selection for the Sisters Book Club. Visit our Goodreads group if you’d like to join us in January for The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

There are, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein explains, many Platos, and in Plato at the Googleplex, she offers her Plato.

“My Plato,” she writes, “is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist. He is, above all, a man keenly aware of the way that assumptions and biases slip into our viewpoints and go unnoticed, and he devised a field devoted to trying to expose these assumptions and biases and to do away with any that conflict with commitments we must make in order to render the world and our lives maximally coherent.”

I heard about Plato at the Googleplex on NPR and decided to read it the same month that I read Plato’s Republic (December 2014). I was going to read them concurrently, but I soon discovered that a bit of background knowledge would make Goldstein’s book more accessible to me. Once I finished Republic, I picked up Plato at the Googleplex again halfway through the second chapter and this time read it with zeal.

This isn’t to say that it’s an easy read. It required my full attention throughout, and I both appreciated this and found it tiring. Reading it required work, and not the repetitious work of doing the dishes or mowing the lawn, but the down-and-dirty work of looking at an idea from multiple angles and figuring out not only how it made sense in each angle but also what I thought about the sense it made (or didn’t make). It was as maddeningly addictive for me as a Rubik’s Cube, and I finished it both relieved and craving more (which is why I added three more books to my to-read list: Plato’s Symposium, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness).

Also, I sometimes felt a bit dense in the face of Goldstein’s dizzying vocabulary. Although I do, thanks to my perhaps odd for-fun study of Latin, know the meaning of “animadversion,” there were a lot of other words that left me reaching for my worn Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (and that doesn’t even include the Greek words).

The chapters alternate between nonfiction analysis and history of Plato’s work and fictional chapters placing Plato in modern settings—the Googleplex, the 92nd Street Y, assisting an advice columnist. I thought I would enjoy the fictional chapters best, and I was surprised to find that my favorite chapters included one of each. The final chapter, “Plato in the Magnet,” had Plato talking with a neurobiologist in an fMRI lab. After finishing the book, I handed this chapter over to my scientist spouse to read because I really want to talk with him about it (he’s not read it yet, and I’m trying not to stand over him until he does).

My other favorite chapter, “Socrates Must Die,” was about the dialogues Plato wrote about Socrates’ life in the months leading up to his trial and execution. I loved Goldstein’s take on Plato’s relationship with and to Socrates. It helped me understand why Plato wrote his dialogues as he did, with Socrates taking center stage so much of the time. It seemed that, in the dialogues, Socrates really was the embodiment of Plato’s philosopher, living outside of society because he’s seen truth, but going back into the cave to help others find truth for themselves. This section included a description of immortality that was new to me:

“We are immortal only to the extent that we lose ourselves in the knowledge of reality, letting its sublimeness overtake us. We are immortal only to the extent that we allow our own selves to be rationalized by the sublime ontological rationality, ordering our own process of thinking, desiring and acting in accordance with the perfect proportions realized in the cosmos. We are then, while in this life, living sub specie aeternitatus, as Spinoza was to put it, expanding our finitude to encapture as much of infinity as we are able.” (317)

This rings of mindfulness and flow and the idea that we can capture immortality in those moments in which we exist outside of time. That is, of course, if I’m understanding “allow[ing] our own selves to be rationalized by the sublime ontological reality” correctly.

The only chapter that left me actively annoyed was the one with Plato on the cable news show. I cannot stand cable news shows (rudeness and people talking over one another makes me feel physically ill), and even just reading the host’s comments and not having to hear his voice gave me a headache. When Goldstein asserted that Plato was an INTJ, I felt a little flutter because I’m an INTJ, but if talking to the likes of “Roy McCoy” is part of the job description for a philosopher, I’m even more glad than before that I’m a (so-called) stay-at-home parent. I just kept thinking, “Why would Plato waste his time with this character?” But of course Plato wouldn’t think of it as wasting his time, and if I’m being honest, time-wasting isn’t really the reason I’d not want to talk with McCoy myself. The real reason is that I would be incapable of moving beyond the rudeness and getting to the meat of what McCoy was saying. I still prefer to stay outside of the cave (assuming I’ve actually left the cave to start with, of which I’m not at all certain).

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The Republic by Plato

The Republic
The Republic by Plato
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first experience reading Plato, and it was an interesting one. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to have finished reading it, but I would also be lying if I said I didn’t like it because I do like it, sort of.

It’s an odd book to rate, written as it was more than two millennia ago (~375 BCE). The paradigms that governed Plato’s worldview are difficult to grasp. I kept reminding myself that back then people simply didn’t know some of the things I take for granted (like that germs cause disease and that slavery is neither necessary nor unavoidable), and even so I feel like I only have the barest edge of an understanding of where Plato was coming from.

In the Republic, a bunch of guys are hanging out talking while eating dinner and waiting to go to a torch race. It must be a very long dinner because they cover a lot of ground in their conversation and seem to have forgotten all about the torch race by the end.

They start out arguing about the nature of justice and just action, and that turns into an argument about whether the just man or unjust man is likelier to lead a happy life and gain material rewards. Having accepted that acting justly is better than acting unjustly, a couple of the guys say, “You know, the best way to do it is to act unjustly so you can get all of the wealth you can get through dirty dealings, but to have everyone think you’re a just man so you can have the good reputation along with the riches.”

And because there was no television back then, they end up creating a whole utopian society governed by philosopher kings (and queens, although Plato seems to keep forgetting that he included women in the mix of rulers) and in which marriage lasts only a week or two at most and there are no families and all children are raised by the community. Children consider their parents’ entire generation to be fathers and mothers, and their parents’ generation considers all children to be their sons and daughters. In order to maintain this utopian society, the rulers control the common folks in part by myths and deception and by only exposing them to stories and songs that promote the kinds of values they want in their society, and in part by rewarding bravery in battle with more chances to reproduce. It was all very Brave New World.

My notes are filled with comments like, “Is this a joke?”

And there are funny bits to it, like this exchange:

[Question] “Any story or poem narrates things past, present, or future, does it not?”

[Answer] “There is no alternative.” (86)

But I think Plato is pretty serious about all of this. He’s realistic in his expectation that a society like the one he’s imagined is unlikely to ever exist in reality, but he seems convinced that his utopia really is the ideal society.

The part I enjoyed the most was the Simile of the Cave. Plato uses this story to represent the way in which the life and understanding of the common man differs from that of the philosopher. In it, people are held prisoner within a cave, chained up so that they can see only right in front of them for their whole lives. Behind them is a fire and a road, but while they can see the shadows cast on the wall before them by those traveling the road, they can see neither the fire nor the road itself. Their entire existence is made up of shadows and reflections; they never get to see the true objects of the world. The prisoners believe this is all the world is until one day, one of them is set free and can look around.

“If he were made to look directly at the light of the fire, it would hurt his eyes and he would turn back and retreat to the things which he could see properly, which he would think really clearer than the things being shown him.” (242)

Even when he sees that what he’s thought was real is only a shadow, he continues to turn away from what’s real and back to the shadow because it’s what he knows and because the light of the fire is too bright for him to look at. You can imagine what happens when this fellow sees the world outside of the cave.

There’s a lot more to the simile than that, but I really found this idea of shadows and reflections intriguing. I think about the shadows to which we turn in our modern lives: television shows, movies, the Internet. These things aren’t real things but merely the shadows of real things. Plato argues that no good comes from these shadows (which in his day were lyric poetry and stage dramas rather than Breaking Bad and Duck Dynasty, but it’s the same basic concept), that they serve only to distract us with petty amusement. I wouldn’t go quite that far; I think that music, movies, books, and other amusements have the potential to lead us to deeper (or perhaps loftier) thinking and can help us to live better, more compassionate lives, but I agree with Plato that these things can also have the effect of causing us to see the world in such a way that we don’t act in the best—wisest, most compassionate, most just—way possible. For this reason, we have to be careful what we choose to consume, media-wise and not consume it passively, so that we can always be reaching for goodness and wisdom.

One of my favorite passages explains what happens when we don’t do this:

”Those, therefore, who have no experience of wisdom and goodness, and do nothing but have a good time, spend their life straying between the bottom and middle in our illustration, and never rise higher to see or reach the true top, nor achieve any real fulfillment or sure and unadulterated pleasure. They bend over their tables, like sheep with heads bent over their pasture and eyes on the ground, they stuff themselves and copulate, and in their greed for more they kick and butt each other because they are not satisfied, as they cannot be while they fill with unrealities a part of themselves which is itself unreal and insatiable.” (327)

To be our best selves and to have “real fulfillment,” we must always seek what’s real and true in this life and strive always towards wisdom goodness.

That is, if we want to be our best selves and achieve real fulfillment, which I suppose is also open for debate, but the guys in the Republic would have to order more dinner rolls and probably some wine, too.

This, to me, is the reason to read Plato. His Republic doesn’t contain ideas we can—or should—apply to our lives and our societies right out of the box, but we can turn around and contemplate the admittedly wacky ideas it presents. Plato’s ideal society is seriously impractical (and, to me at least, undesirable), but reading about it prompts me to consider what it is that I think is wrong with the idea. Why couldn’t it work? Why shouldn’t it work? And if not Plato’s utopia, what’s a better alternative?

And even more than this, I ask myself, am I basing my life on shadows and reflections rather than on things that are real and true? If I am, is this a bad thing or not? And if it’s a bad thing, what am I going to do about it?

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Page references are from the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.