Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Plato and red wine

A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver
(from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BCE): a symposium scene

I came out of my lecture on the Greek Philosophers today at 4 pm, full of buzz and bounce, to find that night had fallen. At 4 pm? Ah well, the best thing to do is to sit down with a glass of cheap Rioja, some fresh bread and cheese (spreadable St Agur! Blue cheese fans will appreciate the significance) and tell you about Plato’s ‘Symposium’.  You can’t wait, huh?

Rioja goes well with philosophy
Last week was ‘Reading Week’ at Birkbeck, which meant no classes. This allowed time for the student body to attend the protest, and for me to go to Phoenix. Five weeks of First Term have past – half the term is over. We have five more lectures on Term One subjects, and a new set of lecturers. Today it took me a moment to get used to the fact that our new lecturer for the Greeks bears the given name of ‘Frisbee’ – Dr Frisbee Sheffield, Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, currently working on a book on Plato’s ‘Symposium’. Yes, I have Googled® it, and could find nothing about ‘Frisbee’ as a female name. Perhaps it’s a family name.
Anyway, once I got over that little sidetrack, we delved into ‘The Symposium’. Like good analytical philosophers, we attempted to find a coherent argument in Socrates’ speech, although I personally have my doubts about whether that’s what Plato is really all about.  More of that later.

I first read ‘The Symposium’ a few years ago when I discovered a slim volume (in the Penguin Books – Great Ideas series) on my bookshelves. I don’t know where it came from – possibly from Tea In The Library. The book situation at my house became a bit unwieldy once the shop closed down. Anyway, there I was tidying up or looking for something, when I came across this little book. Stopping to leaf through it (as one always does around bookshelves) I was mesmerized. I read the whole thing straight through, standing up by the bookshelf. Of course, for those of you that know the book, you’ll realise what the initial fascination was – prurient curiosity. The dialogue is set in a Greek drinking party, circa 500 BC, and – how shall I put this? – they lived differently back then.  Dr Frisbee made very good going with this aspect of the dialogue today, speaking blithely about pederasts, and old men with their young lovers, ‘eros’ (source of the word ‘erotic’), and the educational (!) aspects of this part of Greek life. “After all’, she pointed out, “there was no higher education back then.” Er, quite.

I am actually making light of a very interesting aspect of ‘The Symposium’. Why did Plato chose to set this very important dialogue in a drinking party? Why is it full of the imagery of pregnancy, gestation and creation and the main speech given by a woman, in this exclusively male party? (She – Diotima – isn’t present; Socrates repeats what she told him long ago). I become quite fascinated by the dramatic and literary techniques Plato uses. He never uses them without a reason. In this case, I asked Dr. Frisbee why she thought Plato had Socrates speak through Diotima. She had her own views, but said that many commentators say that Plato attributes views to an absent person when he hasn’t worked those views through properly. This reason seems to me to be a grave reflection on the reasoners - a flimsy excuse for those who clearly can’t work out why Plato uses the device.

But more of Diotima later. Let me sketch the action of ‘The Symposium’ super-briefly: a bunch of Athenians are gathered to drink, their young toy boys by their side. Symposiums were not all about drinking and sex, however. They were indeed occasions for discussing topics like justice and ethics and how to live well, and were forums for music and especially poetry. The famous Greek comic dramatist, Aristophanes was amongst the guests at Plato’s symposium. On this occasion they decided to discuss the subject of love, or eros in Greek – which refers to passionate love or desire. Each person present took a turn in giving a speech about the nature of love. One spoke of virtue; another said love brings out the best in a person; another said yes, but it is better for the soul than the body. Aristophanes’ speech is very famous – it is the origin of the idiom “other half” and – as Dr. Frisbee also pointed out, bless her – the Spice Girls’ song “2 Become 1” (the things you learn in philosophy class). Aristophanes tells an allegorical story about human beings who were androgynous with two of everything, who were split apart by the gods and now spend eternity looking for their ‘other half’. This, he said, explains the seeking of lovers for each other and why they don’t want to be parted once found. Dr. Frisbee also said that part of Aristophanes speech is popular at weddings! Clearly with people who haven’t read the whole thing or its context.

I’m wandering (it is a fascinating book). The climax of the dialogue is when Socrates’ turn comes and he tells his story about love. As I mentioned, he does this indirectly, saying that a priestess named Diotima had told him all this long ago, and he is just repeating it (why? why?).

At this stage things get a bit deep, with Diotima/Socrates arguing that we desire something if and only if we think it will contribute to our happiness (‘psychological eudaimonism’) and that when we go wrong it is not because there is something wrong with our desires, but because of some cognitive deficiency on our part: failure to identify correctly the nature of this good we desire (‘intellectualism’). There’s a lot more complicated stuff but this short extract sums up a lot of it:

Diotima: “So far I’ve been explaining the character and the parentage of Love. Now, according to you, he is love for beautiful things. But suppose someone asks us, ‘Socrates and Diotima, what is the point of loving beautiful things?’ It’s clearer this way: The lover of beautiful things has a desire; what does he desire?”

Socrates: “That they become his own”.

Diotima: “But that answer calls for still another question, that is, ‘What will this man have, when the beautiful things he wants have become his own?’”

Socrates: There was no way I could give a ready answer to that question.

Diotima: “Suppose someone changes the question, putting ‘good’ in place of ‘beautiful’, and asks you this: ‘Tell me, Socrates, a lover of good things has a desire; what does he desire?’”

Socrates: “That they become his own”.

Diotima: “And what will he have, when the good things he wants have become his own?”

Socrates: “This time it’s easier to come up with the answer,” I said. “He’ll have happiness.” [eudaimonia in Greek, for which there is no English word which catches the full meaning. It refers to general well-being and the good, flourishing life; more than the modern meaning of contentment or pleasure.]

Diotima: “That’s what makes happy people happy, isn’t it – possessing good things. There’s no need to ask further, ‘What’s the point of wanting happiness?’ The answer you gave seems to be final.”

Socrates - in Paris the other weekend

The dialogue between Diotima and Socrates continues, exploring how we seek a happy life, the role of Beauty and creativity, and eventually ends with a presentation of Plato’s central metaphysical idea – that of The Form: one single conception of Beauty which is reflected in all beautiful things. But the dialogue is not merely – or even predominantly – reasoned argument. Diotima’s speech reaches a great crescendo which is almost mystical in its poetic language. Here’s a snippet:

“So what should we imagine it would be like”, she said, “if someone could see beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colours and a great mass of mortal rubbish, but if he could catch sight of divine beauty itself, in its single form? Do you think”, she said, “that would be a poor life for a human being, looking in that direction and gazing at that object with the right part of himself and sharing its company? Don’t you realize,” she said. “that it’s only in that kind of life, when someone sees beauty with the part that can see it, that he’ll be able to give birth not just to images of virtue (since it’s not images he’s in touch with), but to true virtue (since it’s true beauty he’s in touch with). It’s someone who’s given birth to true virtue and brought it up who has the chance of becoming loved by the gods, and immortal – if any human being can be immortal.”

And so we read Plato to see if he can tell us the way to live a fulfilled life, a eudaimonious existence, the central question of philosophical ethics.

Plato, Plato everywhere....
At one point a student in the class today suggested that Plato was ‘caught’ by his metaphysics – that his ethics (how to live a good life) had to be explained through reference to ‘The Forms’ because Plato had committed himself to these strange things in his metaphysical explanation (how the world is). This led to a curious discussion about how Plato’s ethics might arguably stand alone, apart from his metaphysics. “But why do we want to separate his ethics from his metaphysics?”, I asked. “Surely it is admirable that the two are consistent? In fact, his ethics must be consistent with his metaphysics (i.e. with how the world is) if they are to be ‘right’?”  The answer of course is that Plato’s metaphysics, his famous “Forms”, are presently in disrepute – “hardly any philosophers hold to them these days”, was how Dr. Frisbee put it. *knowing nods from the die-hard empiricists in the class* She even went so far as to assure us that one could be a Platonist these days (by finding arguments to support in his ethics) without agreeing with his Forms. This seems to me a bit of a cop-out, but I think I’m in a small club. Although perhaps those crazy ‘Continental’ philosophers, with whom the English analytical philosophers rarely agree, might have other views.

Well, this post became rather long and involved, but I’ve barely given even a mere introduction to ‘The Symposium’. We might all need to buy Dr. Frisbee’s book when it comes out (OUP, I believe). Meanwhile, it’s becoming hard work to be a Platonist.

Plato, on a rainy afternoon in the Louvre.

Images from:

No comments:

Post a Comment