Monday, May 31, 2010

FLG Cannot Help Himself

Every time Rufus offers up one of his Plato posts, FLG, out of some sick, morbid curiosity, reads the fucking thing. This time it's Phaedo.

We know that Rufus is plenty off-base when he writes the following:
Stepping from the Crito to the Phaedo dialogue, Plato moves onto more solid ground by switching the discussion to the soul; here, we might not agree with Socrates’s ideas about existence beyond death, but it is much clearer why his beliefs have led him to welcome dying as the soul’s release from the body.

What makes this off-base is that Plato, or Socrates if you prefer but it's hard to know where one begins and the other ends ultimately, is first, foremost, and primarily concerned about the Good. Consequently, when he is discussing human beings he is concerned about the soul. Why the soul? Because, as is explained in this dialogue, it's eternal, which means akin to the Forms, which means closer to the Good.

Rufus sums up the dialogue thusly, which FLG has no problems with:
The dialogue records Phaedo’s reminiscences of Socrates in jail, cheerfully awaiting death as a release from the body, which he calls the true aim of philosophy.


Ah, but then Rufus concludes with the following two paragraphs:
At some points, Socrates sounds like Siddhartha Gautama, proposing that we overcome the delusions caused by our perceptions and desires. We heard the same among the pre-Socratics; maybe this is typical philosophical boilerplate. Nevertheless, the Buddha himself proposed a third way, a present-minded and embodied awareness that is neither voluptuousness nor asceticism. Socrates, on the other hand, goes from a somewhat Buddhist indifference to physical desires to outright rejection of being in the body. This stance seems unworkable- taken too far and we’re indifferent to anything on earth. Most traditions have mendicants who go to these extremes. I still remember the ‘wise man’ in Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta who had remained standing for seven years, heaven knows why.

Besides, plenty of wisdom comes to us through the senses. I have learned more on certain solitary walks than by reading any book of philosophy. Belief in the soul is one thing; but until death, existence means existence in the body, and life lived in rejection of the body would be spiritually enervating as well. As for what comes after death, we’ll find out soon enough (although, if I had a choice, I would be willing to take someone else’s word on it.)

FLG has several problems with this. First, let's not take the Platonism-Buddhism thing too far. Second, Rufus, who has been reading Plato but clearly doesn't understand him, muddles the body versus mind distinction. Again, Plato is concerned about the Good. The Good as represented by the Forms. The Soul is like the Form of the individual, if that makes sense. It bridges the two worlds of the material and the eternal. It's timeless, but particular. Plato, or Socrates, explains in The Republic that our reason ought to dominate our will and appetites. If you read the book as primarily a political treatise, as most people do and Rufus did, then you vastly underestimate the importance of this for Plato's philosophy.

Allow FLG to bring in a description of the Soul from Phaedrus:
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite-a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the winged horses and the charioteers of the gods are all of them noble and of noble descent, but those of other races are mixed; the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.

For Socrates, death is an opportunity to get rid of that ignoble horse, which is the offspring of our bodily appetites and passions.

Notice how Socrates describes the body in similar terms, "trouble" as the chariot above:
For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost. Moreover, if there is time and an inclination toward philosophy, yet the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves: then I suppose that we shall attain that which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, and that is wisdom, not while we live, but after death, as the argument shows; for if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things seems to follow-either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be in herself alone and without the body. In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth. For no impure thing is allowed to approach the pure. These are the sort of words, Simmias, which the true lovers of wisdom cannot help saying to one another, and thinking.

All that being said, FLG has arrived at two conclusions regarding Rufus' Plato blogging. Either, as FLG has hinted above, Rufus is incapable of comprehending Plato's philosophy, which seems so very, very clear and lucid to FLG. Or FLG is intellectually hubristic to the point of fucking insanity and sees absolute clarity where none exists. FLG sometimes wonders if Rufus is even reading the same thing FLG is reading. In any case, FLG wishes Rufus would stop blogging about Plato. FLG cannot take much more of this.

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