?lastdaysofsocratescover.jpg I have just finished reading Phaedo, the last dialogue in the famous collection The Last Days of Socrates from Penguin Classics. In this dialogue we see Socrates in the period immediately prior to his death, and in the dying itself. I’ve been reading through this whole book gradually over a good period of time, and it’s been a strange experience, because it has me thinking harder than ever yet still wanting something else. There are a great deal of nerves involved in finding out how much my hero (Soc.) agrees with me, which isn’t particularly sensible because one is faced with the constant task of disentangling Plato Plato and Socrates Plato. In general though I have been surprised at how far the platonic Socrates is willing to push things that I claim to hold, but that, presumably due to the constant pressure from others, I maintain a lingering belief that I’ll grow out of at some point. For example Socrates’ utter disregard for the body which verges on not even bothering to take care of it at all — I’m not sure if he would quite say this but I am confident that he wouldn’t decry anyone who did disregard it even more than he.

The way in which Plato (that’s what I’ll use from now on I think) maintains philosophical analysis while weaving in what we would now probably just shelve as mysticism, presumably only of interest to classicists, says to me just how much we seem to have lost in our various drives towards the liberal scientific worldview. He paints a hugely dramatic picture of something akin to the Greek cosmology — though I don’t know enough of the latter to say how closely it compares — but is careful to note that he’s not speaking literally, and somehow still getting at something that is supposed to be literally true. While there is surely an element of Plato the masterful writer at play here that shapes my admiration of his argumentation, the intellectual honesty never goes away, either: Socrates’ arguments are all challenged (aside from the very last, for he is about to die, which I can forgive) and scrutinised and the dialectic never stops. Yet there is all this mysticism and analogy. This reminds me of a comment from a Kant lecturer last term who said that Plato’s infamous theory of the Forms was not a solution to a problem, merely a way of expressing the philosophical problem of universals itself and inviting debate. I am left feeling that there is a huge mass of powerful thought here that is inaccessible to me because I am constrained by the modern hegemony. If I am able to appreciate these texts I’m going to need to work even harder to break out of it, because I can feel the urge to ridicule holding me back from reaping from a powerful new viewpoint. Most arrogantly, I suggest that this has got something to do with why no-one around me chooses to study any ancient philosophy as part of their degrees; I now find myself feeling fortunate that I am not quite so firmly chained to the wall of the cave.

Another particular thing that caught my eye which I should like to investigate further is a brief discussion about not giving up on argument at 89d–90e. Socrates describes becoming ‘misologic’, in the way that we become misanthropic, when we hear the frustrating, eristic arguments of quasi-intellectuals, and urges us not to give up because the problem is with us, and our inability to argue properly and resist being convinced by things we shouldn’t be, not with the arguments themselves because there is a Truth out there and we can get at it. This is where I most feel my modernity flaring up, or something like it; in modern times we might be deeply arrogant about what humanity is capable of but we tend to try and resist saying things like ‘there is a an eternal and permanent Truth’. A tutor of mine thinks that it is something like this in Plato’s thought that has wrecked havoc upon the whole of western thought since, and that if Heraclitus had the place in history Plato does, we would have been off on a much better foot. He says that Plato has us looking for permanence but that it is only in the flux of Heraclitus that we will find what we seek.[1]

There’s a massive amount here for me to think about and so much more that I have no access to at the moment but that I would like access to. I think it’s moments like this that lead me to conclude that my interest in philosophy only continues to rise despite my difficulties with studying it continuing, because this desperation to do more of it comes to me more and more frequently, but with far more surety and conceit in what I will find, most days, than today. Indeed, after writing this post, my puzzlement about the greatness of these dialogues has mostly gone. Before, I was half-puzzled because I couldn’t point at what was making me feel for them so, but now I am assured. Now I too blend some kind of mysticism in and find myself wanting to see myself as merely riding on a literary wave that will subside. This is probably correct, but it is important not to forget just how much remains once this wave has subsided.

My present standard reply to the question of why I study this subject is because it is thrilling, but it’s also because of an all-consuming need to study it that takes the form of utter disbelief in how anyone can go through a life without continually enquiring philosophically; aha, the alternate translation ‘the unexamined life is not liveable for a human being’ might apply here? I’ll leave things there for now and hope to have something more concrete when I have unwrapped myself from modernity a little more to get into ancient philosophy to a point when I can legitimately start to apply the blade of analysis, to subject it all to intellectual scrutiny, for that’s what it’s all about and why we must not decry entirely the obsession with analytic skill in modern philosophy departments.

(source: Jacques-Louis David (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons)

[1] I am loathe, at this point, to use words like ‘truth’ for this thing we are searching for.