*Am quite aware that very important diacritics are missing. Trying to remedy that when I use Greek text. My apologies to the purists.

Monday, June 1, 2015

T Squared

One of Plato’s most challenging dialogs is the Phaedrus for many reasons. Mainly because it brings up the concept that there may be a confusion between “divine” inspiration and madness. And, the culprit? A single letter, the lower-case Theta. In Ancient Greek, the words manic and man(t)ic are separated by this unassuming letter. The difference between the two words, however, could not be less striking. Manic is the word that has come into our parlance for a level of mental illness that is characterized by so-called racing thoughts and a hyper awareness.

I have known a very good friend die of a very advanced stage of this by walking into a oncoming truck on a major highway, naked. But, I would be lying if I did not see the mantic in him as well. He had a direct line to something else. I have personal issues at times with manic and mantic as well, and I know I am not alone with thinking that this “t” is something pretty damn important. A Mantic, such as the Praying Mantis, is a mystic, someone who has a direct line with the divine. But, really, who is to say which is which? It is an Occam’s razor-thin line that people are often very quick to excise that troublesome theta from the equation. I am very curious about the concepts of normalcy and what are considered deviations from that. Plato was looking into this 2,500 years ago, and he is considered an old, dead white guy. But, how far have we actually come on this topic?

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Rose is A Rose is A Platypus

Among the Platonic Dialogues that are actually ascribed to Plato, the Cratylus is one that is often met with skepticism, or is written off as too whimsical to be placed on the level of “philosophy.” To be sure, it is a bit of an anomaly. In addition, because of the heavy emphasis on the Greek etymologies (both folk and “legitimate), it somewhat defies translation and further understanding without a rather decent grasp of Ancient Greek.

As such, it is often pushed aside for the more “serious” dialogues and sometimes pops up in Literary Criticism courses, but for the most part, remains largely untouched by those without a deeper interest in Plato and his usage of language.

The argument begins with a certain Hermogenes lamenting to Socrates that his friend, Cratylus, (claiming to have a sort of divine insight into words), has just told him that “Hermogenes” is not actually his “true” name, despite the fact that everyone calls him that.

This initiates the argument about whether there is “truth” in names, or, are they arbitrary and mutable?

At the bottom of this argument is Heraclitus’ teaching that all things are in flux and that there is no permanence, leading to the conclusion with words, that they too are merely temporal markers for things in the ever-changing world. Well, this is hardly insignificant if you consider then that if that is true, words are meaningless at their core, and by extension, communication cannot ever really take place.

In the late 1960’s literary critics and theorists began arguing over the impossibility of one person truly understanding another, gesticulating wildly in articles by the dozen, as if it were something new. Hardly. The oft-orphaned Cratylus had anticipated this argument well over two millennia before.

I was reminded of the Cratylus the other day when my young daughter, who is learning Dutch and English simultaneously, asked me why things are called the names that they are. She asked, “Why is a squirrel called a squirrel in English? Could it not be called something else and still be a “squirrel?” This is more or less the exact opening of the Cratylus in that Socrates posits the question of if we switch words in public versus private, such as “anthropon (man)” and “hippo (horse),” then does the thing change, or does it stay the same, despite changing the name?

Furthermore, as my daughter also asked, “Who decides what is called what?”

In the tradition of Zen and the Tao, for to name something is to not understand it, because as soon as we place a name on it, we limit it. Krishnamurti asks if we can appreciate a tree as just what it is without wondering what kind of tree it is, or what name we have given it.

Names, then, and words in general, seem to then be an inadequate necessity to achieve some level of communication, but begs the question of “are we missing something?”

As languages are something that I have invested a large portion of my life to, this could be quite a miasma to be stuck in. I am intrigued how different some words can be in cognate languages while other words can nearly be identical.

One of my daughter’s favorite cartoons is “Phineas and Ferb,” in which the boys have a pet named, “Perry (the Platypus),” who is in reality a Secret Agent, unbeknownst to them. As she watches it in Dutch here, he is “Perry de vogelbekdier.” Vogelbekdier literally means “bird-beaked animal.” Platypus, however, comes from the Greek meaning “flat-footed.” However, in Italian, a “Platypus” is known as an ornitorinico, coming from the taxonomical name of the Australian “duck-mole,” the Ornithorhynchus, which means, from the Greek again, “Bird-billed.”

Umberto Eco’s book Kant e L’Ornitorinico (Kant and the Platypus) discusses the problem of categorically defining the Platypus in that it defies all possible categories that we might bring to it to understand what the hell this creature is? Is it God’s joke? A mammal that lays eggs with the beak of a duck, the webbed feet and tail of a rodent beaver, and is native to an isolated continent and nowhere else?  In other words, logic and reason, and ultimately names, break down with the case of our strange creature.

As the Cratylus progresses, and such topics are taken up, Socrates goes into a whirlwind of possible etymologies (some which are apparently to be taken quite tongue-in-cheek) and that there are entities known as a nomothetes, or “placer of the law” who give “proper” names to things. At this point, many will raise a hue and cry about Socrates and/or Plato being an elitist by assigning a greater significance to certain people over others.

However, the take home message of reading Socrates via Plato, is that for the most part, what appears to be the logos, or argument, is ultimately reveled to be a mythos, and serves as a surrogate for a truth that eludes us within our mortal realm. Much as Kant will say 2,000 years later, we have limits to our Reason, and the best we can do as humans is to approximate our sensus communis, or “common/communal sense/consensus.” And this is often done via language…and thus words.

Socrates ultimately wraps up the Cratylus with the caveat:

“…no person having any sense/mind at all entrusts himself or his soul to names/words, having believed in them and their makers to affirm that he knows something…”

Hey, where’s Perry?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Metaphorically Speaking

First portion of Ship of State Metaphor, Book VI, the Republic

One of the projects I have picked up this Fall is to re-read Plato’s Republic in an en face manner as much as possible. Although I have worked through several other texts in the original, the Republic is one that I had done in a more cursory way, spot-checking specific passages as I went primarily through the English versions I have.

However, six weeks ago, I did pick up Paul Shorey’s Loeb edition and have been steadily working through it and have thus far made it to book six, which is where to many the “real” philosophy begins after the first five books being mere build-up for many philosophers.

A curious thing happens with Plato at such junctures. Inevitably, in every Socratic dialog, a familiar, and in my mind, counterproductive argument arises amongst philosophers, literature people, and Classics folk.

When I was in Graduate School, I participated in each of these fields, always as the half-breed, outsider Comparative Literature student. I was never fully accepted in any of the fields because I (gasp) looked beyond the borders of mere departmental lines drawn in the sand.

The first group would bemoan and chastise Plato’s literary flourishes and dramatic aesthetic and usually just skip to the “philosophical” argument, even if it meant skipping the entire first half of a work as voluminous as the Republic. No need to waste precious grey matter on mere literature…

The second group would focus almost exclusively on style or literary conceits in Plato’s texts, but all the while would shun from engaging in actual discussion about the content, specifically the philosophical sections because, well, Plato is just a dead, white guy, and at best he could serve as a straw man for literary criticism (unbeknownst to them that most of it came from Plato)…

The final group would usually sneer at the literature neophytes because they usually were reading a pale translation, as were the philosophers. And, even if the philosophers were reading it in the original Greek, they usually gave no heed to the nuances of particles such as between ∂η  and ∂ε , for example, or whether it was a perfect or an aorist. Both groups, they would assert (and rightly so), were taking it out of context. However, the Classics’ clan would seldom delve into the actual semantics, but would focus much more on the grammar and syntax. No time for clever word play and literary devices…

What’s wrong with this picture?

For me, it is a snapshot of a much larger phenomenon, both within academics and without, namely, we specialize so much that we cannot speak across borders, but cling so tightly to our rigid divisions so as to completely cut off communication. This was seen just recently in the infamous American Governmental Shutdown. Though the larger crisis was avoided at about 11:15 before midnight, the problem remains, we fail to communicate outside of our comfort zone of expertise, for fear of being wrong, or, god forbid, seeing things in a different light.

Plato is the first Western Philosopher, par excellence. Plato is a master of the Greek language and semantics as a literary genius, hands down. Plato commands the grammar and syntax of the Greek language to an extent that never truly was matched afterwards.

In other words, Plato did not respect the boundaries that we have since placed upon him, and a multitude of others who are either sifted into the pile of writers or philosophers, but seldom both.

What is most striking about re-reading the Republic for me this time is Plato’s patience with the metaphor, or, ε ι κ ο ν . In modern times, we don’t have time for extended metaphors. At best, we’ll throw in a simple “like or as” simile and rush on to the next Tweet or Status posting. However, Plato will extract literally pages from a single image in sometimes what amounts to a minutiae of detail to make his point via Socrates. As Derrida points out in the Post Card, writing was no easy task in Plato’s time. It required the dexterity of both hands and was a painstaking process.  And yet, Plato will draw it out, patiently and precisely, never repeating himself and often using a variety of synonyms and literary sleight of hand to make the metaphor not only “fun” to read, but nuanced on multiple levels.

At the beginning of Book Six, there is an extended metaphor relating the governance of the State to the captaining of a ship. As in fact, our word Governor is from the Greek,  κ υ β ε ρ ν η t η σ , or ship’s captain. Ultimately, the metaphor is the argument that the “true” helmsman is often seen as a daydreamer for staring at the skies and stars (namely, astral navigation), and deemed worthless, while the masses praise the man who grabs the rudder, though has no knowledge of navigation, thus driving the ship off course. It is an interesting conceit, that we seem to champion a person of immediate action, rather than one who takes time to reflect and who actually knows what he or she is doing. Times indeed have not changed.

What is also striking in this exercise I am undertaking this Fall is truly how long it must have taken to physically write this text, and this is merely one text of dozens attributed to Plato. It has been a good exercise in patience and I am stopping at times to copy out the extended metaphors, and though they are scarcely a scratch on the surface of the text at large, it is good to slow down and literally go letter by letter through the metaphor. A metaphor specifically means “to carry over” an idea or concept, from one form to another. For me, I see that it also can carry an idea across the illusive boundaries of Philosophy, Literature, and Language, something very few writers have done with the depth and breadth of Plato. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Watching the World Go By

Sitting in the “Indigo” café in Cambridge, there is a large plane-glass window through which I can watch people walk by. As this is on a side street from the world-famous and awe-inspiring King’s College, it is a high-traffic route. In the past couple of hours I have been here writing, I have seen thousands of people walk by from all parts of the world. Some in large groups with a leader carrying a flag or umbrella to signal the group’s leader, or just individuals, who may or may not be associated with the University. Some, like me, may be visitors or tourists, for whatever reason.

In addition, as this is a very quaint, nice café, it draws quite a continuous crowd, both of locals who know everyone working here, to small groups of one-timers, unfamiliar with the menu. As I am sitting right to the counter, and it is a very small café, I can hear all conversations, and if there is one thing that I am guilty of in life, it is eavesdropping ad nauseum in such situations. I have heard many conversations of bashing Oxford from the locals, or others comparing them from visitors and perhaps a couple dozen languages of people talking amongst themselves, deciding what to order.

Literally, the world has walked by me in the past hours.

It is something that I have tried to balance, watching the world go by, but also at times, I enjoy going to the world, which likewise brought me to a small café in England in the first place.

While walking through the streets, one of the many pamphlets I saw attached to the cast-iron gates of the colleges, announcing Mozart concerti and lectures, one was about the question of Socrates. The flyer itself had in large, bold letters, the name “PLATO” on it to catch the eye, which it did for me, so I read the smaller description. The lecture is on the question of why did Socrates choose to die, when he was offered a different alternative—Exile.

Though I will not be able to attend the lecture, I believe the answer is clearly in the two dialogs the Crito and The Apology, which show Socrates’ reason/s without a shadow of a doubt.  In the Crito, Crito, his friend, tells Socrates in his cell that he has the friends and means to spring Socrates from jail and lead him safely to exile. This being the night before he is condemned to die, having spent a month in jail, spending time saying good-bye to friends and family, Socrates is disgusted.

The resulting dialog is an echo of Socrates’ “failed” defense against the death penalty. Namely, if Socrates does go into exile, he then is admitting guilt, which he believed he was not. Moreover, why would he want to go anywhere but Athens? Except for a military campaign, a pilgrimage, and a trip to Sicily, so far as we know, Socrates never left Athens? Why? Because, the world came to him, so why did he need to go to the world? If he left his beloved Athens, the same one that killed him, he would die an exile, and now a criminal if he broke out of jail, disgraced in a foreign country, as a foreigner.

There are of course tow minds to this attitude. One, as I have seen with Sir Anthony van Dyck, the great Flemish artist who chose to leave his native Antwerp for London, where he died in honor, rather than shame as Socrates’ fear, and that of people who never leave their homeland. And, both can lead to kleos apthiton, or undying/unwithering fame, the ultimate goal for an Ancient Greek after death, which was the greatest fear of not getting, to be forgotten. Socrates would have been forgotten as a coward and a criminal in Thebes or wherever, but now is remembered as a “martyr” in Athens. When one thinks of Western Philosophy, it is impossible not to think of Socrates, and likewise, to consider 16th-century art and not mention van Dyck, it would be a travesty.

Sitting in a café then in a world center like Cambridge, I understand both viewpoints. If I were from here, the world would come to me, but being from here, you would also want to see the world. Likewise, someone from the Athens of Socrates, you would have access to see the world at your doorstep, but also the means and resources for going to the world. Socrates chose the former, unto death.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Playing with Sticks

The last book I read was “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes. The irony of this is that I used to work at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, which houses the Barnes archive, and at the time, I had not read him. Now, I feel foolish, but with 36 million mss. and papers to chose from, some have to fall by the wayside. So, most likely next time I am in Austin, I may be going to the HRC as a visitor to view the archive…funny how that works.

The book itself is nothing spectacular when it comes to narrative and the prose is very subdued, but for a reason. It deals with Memory, or the lack thereof as well as the question of what can we really know about the Past and how reliable is History, or more so, how reliable are the sources of History, especially when it comes to personal histories of people whom we have known. How reliable is the Human Brain when it comes to re-constructing a personal history when suddenly what we had thought was the “truth” all along, suddenly 50 years later is challenged to its core?

In other words, what can we know, and what function does Memory really have in all of this?

I was “re-minded” of Plato’s pithy dialog the “Meno” when I read this because that is one of the main Platonic dialogs that refers to the function of Memory with respect to Knowledge, or at least understanding. It also champions Mathematics as the one pure episteme (something that Taleb seems to have missed as well) because it can be coaxed from the most unlearned of minds, whereas other areas of so-called “knowledge” cannot, or at least according to Socrates.

The core of the argument is that Socrates shows by using sticks and sand that a completely uneducated slave boy can “re-member” geometry because it is part of the world of Ideals and thus part of the Soul, not the material world, despite its consequences within that world.

But, here’s the rub, did he jump or was he pushed?

In other words, did Socrates inadvertently teach him, or did he re-member? It is a serious dilemma within psychology (originally was really the study of the Soul, psyche) and in situations of persuasive manipulation of one’s memory. We were having this discussion this past Holiday when I was visiting my family, and my uncle a Neurologist, said this is a serious issue to contend with in Neurology. What really do we remember, or what do we THINK we remember?

That was the crux of Barnes’s novel as well, and it can be a devastating event to have found out something that we believed to be true, was what we THOUGHT was true, but did not remember it, because we never knew the Truth in the first place.

In Greek, Truth is often associated as a-lethia, or the un-forgetting of things. It is no surprise then, that often in life, when confronted with a Truth that we did not know, and had believed otherwise, many chose to go back to the riverbank of the Lethe and imbibe its waters.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Plato's Black Swan

Recently I read Taleb’s “The Black Swan,” which is a book about the monumental impact of unexpected events. Taleb belabors this point to death, and by halfway, he is not really saying much more, but the same thing over and over and over again. Things happen that we can’t predict and those things can have a huge impact. In fact, according to Taleb, we cannot predict anything, but should always be aware that a “Black Swan” is just around the corner. He makes many good points, but if I read the phrase “Black Swan” one more time in the book, I was going to lose it.

Though with a seemingly vast array of knowledge of various subjects, and a very ironic self-deprecation, which is thinly veiling an “I’m smarter than you” core, it smacks of very superficial on a few things he seems most adamant against, most notably the term he uses ad nauseum, “platonizing.” For Taleb, this horrific event is when people try to find order in the Chaos, to find the Ideal amongst the riff-raff, to rarify the mess, or to make theories or prescriptions for how things ought to be.

Well, yes, but I’m not sure he’s read any Plato at all. For, if he had, there would be the finest example of a Black Swan in all of Ancient Greece, namely Socrates. Socrates did not conform to any doctrine and shook up a community so much that they wanted him dead. His appearance changed Western Philosophy for good. And, about those Platonic Ideals, sorry Mr. Taleb, read a bit closer, you might be surprised.

Most Socratic dialogues end, much to the horror and chagrin and dismay of many, in an aporetic fashion, meaning, there is no solution. Why? Because, it is impossible to Platonize as Taleb would say, but who is writing this but Plato himself?? Taleb self ascribes his philosophy to be an empirical sceptic. Ummm, that would be a pretty  good description of a Socratic investigation. Socrates rejected every established doctrine of the time for the simple reason, “we can’t really know.”

That is Taleb’s point and he brandishes this banner of “why can’t anyone see this?” throughout the book, seemingly ignorant that that was Socrates’ motto, Kant’s doctrine, and Nietzsche’s delight, all three being “Black Swans” themselves. The fact that the book is a best-selling seems to me that it shows how anything that smacks of the new, the bold, the more people will forget that it usually has been done and said before, in some other fashion, some other time, and has likewise been lost to the sands of Time.

In the Republic, Socrates spins a very long-winded detailed myth about the “perfect city” of Man that mirrors the real perfect city of God. Many of the ideas are quite “modern” today, including equality of the sexes, education for the masses, and a professional army that never has to return to civilian life, but is cared for unto death. However, after ten books of discussion, Socrates is asked if this city could ever be real. His answer is simply “No, it is a myth.” The only way that it could ever work is via the Noble Lie that is told to generation after generation about the perfection of the city, and within three or so generations, the Lie becomes reality, because, the Ideal is fiction on earth, because, there are “Black Swans.” 

Yet, what is even lacking further in the criticism of so-called platonizing, is the fact that within itself, whether black or white, it’s still a swan.