Tag Archives: Plato

Apology – Plato

The writing of Paying Melpomene’s Price has taken me to the final showdown between tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy. They each have a different worldview. That’s why they’re different genres. Or at least that’s what I’m going to argue. The sections outlining the differences between tragedy, comedy, and history are in the process. I’ve been holding off on the philosophy section though. Philosophy intimidates me a little more than the other genres. Because it’s about thinking, it always involves more thinking. So, to get me into the swing of things, I’m rereading Plato.

Rouse’s Translation of Plato

On the bookcase is an edition of Plato’s Complete Works published by Hackett, Burnyeat’s Theaetetus (which will be next on the reading list: epistemology suddenly has become interesting), a Penguin edition of The Republic, an Adam and Bryn Mawr commentary on the same, a Skemp monograph on the state of Plato studies in 1976 (when I was two years old), a Stokes commentary on The Apology, and The Great Dialogues of Plato translated by W. H. D. Rouse. The Hackett edition is hardcover and bigger than my hardcover bible. The Rouse edition is paperback and small. The Rouse edition it is. There’s a certain pleasure in reading a paperback sitting in the comfortable rocking chair listening to music. The big hardcover wouldn’t be the same, although I am sure Hackett makes a fine edition.

Here’s the cover illustration. If you guessed it is from the 50s, you guessed right!

Great Dialogus of Plato Cover

Great Dialogus of Plato Cover

I love these 50s covers. But unfortunately, the gold bar after ‘Symposium’ on the cover looks like it covers something up: maybe there was one more dialogue that was in the original scheme of things but got deleted when it went to press?

Here’s the back blurb:

‘Plato is philosophy, and philosophy Plato.’ – Emerson

The Republic and other great dialogues by the immortal Greek philosopher Plato, masterpieces which form part of the most important single body of writing in the history of philosophy, are here translated in a modern version. Beauty, Love, Immortality, Knowledge and Justice are discussed in these dialogues which magnificently express the glowing spirit of Platonic philosophy.

This paperbound volume, containing more dialogues than any other inexpensive edition, was translated by W. H. D Rouse, one of the world’s most outstanding classical scholars and the translator of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad.

I wonder how Rouse (one of the greatest scholars in the world) felt when he read that Mentor Books chose to use his laborious translation in their budget and inexpensive series! Powerful quote from Emerson. If I recall, like Plato, he was an idealist as well…

Reading Plato

Well, reading Plato is just fun. I’ve read The Apology in translation as part of a first year philosophy class and I’ve also read it in Greek in a fourth year language class. Plato grows on you as well. Before, I thought that his hero Socrates was annoying as hell. But after reading Kant and Hegel, it’s very nice returning to Plato. Socrates is always walking around. He’s talking to people. It’s much more welcoming than something like The Critique of Pure Reason. Returning to Plato is like listening to Led Zeppelin. Growing up I never much appreciated Zeppelin. But now, Zeppelin has grown on me to the point where I can say I rather enjoy them.

Ageism in The Apology

In the recent survey of historiography, it came to my attention that one could write speculative history based on conflicting dichotomies. In 1 and 2 Kings, history is based on good and bad kings, kings who ‘do evil’ or ‘do right’ in the sight of the Lord. And in Marx, the class struggle between proletariat and bourgeois is what gives shape to history. What other conflicting dichotomies are there? How about between young and old? Someone could certainly make the argument that recent history (1960s) is shaped by the conflict between the young (change) and old (tradition).

This was on my mind as I was reading Plato, and, when I got to The Apology, it seemed like there may have been something of a prejudice against age going on in his trial. Here’s a summation of what happens in The Apology for those of you who haven’t read it in a long time (I would imagine that is most people!):

The trial of Socrates took place in 399 B.C. when he was seventy years old. Meletos, Anytos and Lycon (Anytos is one of the characters in the Meno) accused him of impiety and of corrupting the young men.

The court which tried Socrates was composed of 501 citizens, and was a subdivision of the larger court of six thousand citizens, chosen by lot, which dealt with such cases. There were no judge and jury in the modern sense; the decision of the court was that of the majority vote.

When the court had pronounced Socrates guilty, the law required him to propose his own penalty, as an alternative to the death penalty proposed by Meletos; no penalty was prescribed by law for his offence. The court then had to choose, by a second vote, between the proposals of the accuser and the accused.

From the mention on page 439 it appears that Plato himself was present at the trial.

With respect to age, Socrates emphasizes in the opening statement how old he is and how speaking in the court is an entirely new thing to an old dog. As well, the charge is that he corrupts the youth. So there is this old-young dichotomy at the get go.

Then there are the repeated jabs at the vanity of the punishment: at 70, he is about to die anyways. 70 must have been back then an exceedingly long time to have lived. In addition, there are the references to how he would have more supporters, if they were not already dead, such as Theodotus and Chairephon. It seems Socrates is a bit like Gandalf at the end of the Lord of the Rings: his age is past. The new ‘age of man’ dawns…

Socrates himself categorizes his listeners as young or old, though there is no real advantage to his defence in doing so: ‘if anyone desires to hear me speaking or doing my business, whether young or old, I have never grudged it to any’, he says.

Lastly, most telling is the age of his accusers. There were three. In his cross-examination, the age of one of them is made clear: ‘Oh, dear me, Meletos’, says Socrates, ‘I so old and you so you and yet you are so much wiser than I am!’.

So, it is my conjecture that there is a bit of ageism going on. Like class struggle, or the clash between good and evil, there is a bit of an ‘age struggle’ that works as an agent of history motivating things to happen. It could also be seen as the conflict between change and tradition, with the young representing change and the old as representing tradition. In some ages, tradition wins out. In others, change wins out.

I wonder if a historian has written a speculative theory of history with ageism as the motivating factor. Or would this just be a form of discrimination? What do you think?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work in my middle years between liberalism and conservatism.

The Symposium – Plato

Why I.m Reading Plato.s Symposium

It.s part of the research for the last chapter of the book I.m writing, Paying Melpomene’s Price. Have you ever noticed that the genres are like wolves–or other predatory animals–out in the wild? I mean, they.re very territorial, quite aware of where everyone is, and like to squabble if they get near one another. That was one of the things from Kingsolver.s Prodigal Summer that stuck with me. A very enjoyable read even if the characters I most associated with were constantly getting the better had of them by the characters I least associated with. But back to The Symposium by Plato. This should be a good read because it.s written by a philosopher and it stars not only a tragedian (Agathon), a comedian (Aristophanes), a philosopher (Socrates), and Alcibiades (a type of person that you find in histories). And of course, its all written by Plato, who bans citizens from performing comedy in the Laws (too degrading) and bans tragedy outright in The Republic (too easily overwhelms reason). So I.m reading Plato.s Symposium in the hopes of seeing something of a quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy (or between Socrates/Plato, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, and Agathon).

What is a Symposium?

It.s a drinking party. But this one is of course special. First, the guests are hung over from the day before (a holiday on which the host, Agathon, had one first prize for his tragedy at the City Dionysia). So less drinking. Boo. They also send away the flute-girl. Boo. But they decide that each of diners should compose a paean in honour of Love. Yay! They go around the couches left to right composing a speech to praise and define Love. We get to hear stories of how Socrates is schooled by Diotima. Yay! It.s refreshing to see Socrates schooled once in awhile, and by a woman philosopher! The comic poet Aristophanes comes up with a crazy creation myth explaining attraction. Yay! In the old day, humans had four arms, four legs, and two outward turned faces. There were three sexes: man-man, man-woman, and woman-woman. They were exceedingly powerful and their means of locomotion was by cartwheeling around on all eight of their limbs. Because Zeus was worried they would attack the gods, he cut them in half. Though cut in half, we are always seeking our other half. What a creative theory! If all philosophy were as colourful as this, I would certainly read more!

The Quarrel

There.s no smoking gun in The Symposium where philosophy ‘puts down’ the other genres. I mean, it.s not like Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy where tragedy is definitely getting the short end of the straw. Sure Aristophanes has the hiccups and Alcibiades is rather dissolute. But hey, it.s a drinking party. Socrates comes off better than the others, but it.s no slam dunk. So I.ll keep looking elsewhere for examples of the quarrel between philosophy, history, comedy, and tragedy. Assiduous readers with ideas are encouraged to help out!

But All is Not a Loss

Something came to mind while reading The Symposium that really should have occurred to me a long time ago. You know Plato.s criticism of art in Book X of The Republic, right? There he says there are three crafts for each thing that is used: the one that uses it, the one that makes it, and the one that imitates it. Take a flute. Somewhere out there is the perfect flute: the ‘blueprint’ of all flutes. But it.s like the perfect circle: you can.t attain it. But the flute player, being an expert in flutes, has an inkling of how the flute should work. He is closest to the perfect flute. He instructs the flute-maker, who, in turn, is an expert on flutes from his craft but not quite as expert as the flute player (since he doesn.t play). But if an artist were to paint an ‘imitation’ of a flute, it is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ideal flute. So that.s why Plato doesn.t like the arts: they.re mimetic and imperfect copies.

Now go back to The Symposium. According to the characters, how the events got recorded is this: Aristodemos was present at the symposium in March 416 BC. He tells the story to Apollodorus, who in turn tells it to an unnamed friend fifteen years after the party. So the story that we get in The Symposium is a copy of a copy of a copy, thrice removed from the ‘actual’ event! And then parts of the dialogue are also recollections of other dialogues. For example, Diotima isn.t actually present. Socrates is recollecting things that she said. So The Symposium is really a prime example of the things which Plato doesn.t like about the arts!

Is this Plato.s humour speaking out? If he.s so concerned about the fraudulence of dramatic or painted arts because they.re mimetic, then what about his own dialogues such as The Symposium, which is also purposefully mimetic, a he said that Bob said that Joe said that 15 years ago Diotima said… Why should I trust this ‘mimetic’ account if the author says elsewhere that copies are to be avoided at all costs?

I.m surprised that the question never occurred to me before. But this is a question for those doing Urania.s work (the Muse of philosophy). And, until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and while I like to consider Urania.s work, I am Doing Melpomene’s Work first and foremost.