APP Editors’ Prefatory Note:
In “Philosophy Unbound,” we resolved to publish original works of real philosophy freed from the constraints of professional academic philosophy, come hell or high water.
Our first project flowing from that philosophy unbound resolution is the five-part, four-book series, The Rational Human Condition, which, starting on 3 July 2017, is being published by us here and on Medium, section-by-section, in weekly installments appearing on successive Mondays. The first installment of that is here.
The second project flowing from that same resolution is Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, is hereby being published by us on APP and on Medium, in fourteen weekly installments appearing on successive Fridays.
Its author is Mark Anderson, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.
In both cases of The Rational Human Condition and Thinking Life, we’ve updated the 19th century mode of serializing novels and other literary works in hard copy, to works of real philosophy and the free-access internet.
Thinking Life will be of authentic, serious interest to all those who believe that real philosophy in general, and more specifically Plato and Nietzsche, are still worth thinking about, and simultaneously to all those who are either overtly or secretly APP.
After we’ve published all of Thinking Life, it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.
THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION
BY MARK ANDERSON
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions
2. We Scholars
3. Divine Madness
4. Hard Fate and Black Bile
5. The Wanderer and His Shadow
6. The Art of Philosophy
CHAPTER 5. THE WANDERER AND HIS SHADOW
My dear Charmides,
I received your letter, my friend, this very afternoon, and I thank you for it. Despite my love of—my need for—solitude, I value friendship dearly. In this regard at least I remain an Epicurean.
I still linger here around our favorite lakes and meadows, so your post arrived in my hands directly, no aberrating diversions required. The atmosphere is as brilliant as when you were present, the mountains and sky every bit as sublime—more, even, if this is possible, for elemental nature today reposes as if touched by the melancholy foreboding of autumn, which infuses every color, sound, and scent with an additional note of soulfulness. I will be leaving soon, seasoned old wanderer that I am, though I have not yet made precise arrangements. Therefore please do forward your reply to my associate in Basel, as we discussed before you left. He will know where to find me (likely even before I do, which is his way, or rather mine—Ha!), and he will make sure your letters reach me until I send you a new address.
How sorry I am to learn of your father’s passing. I know you had hoped to avoid the event while in your present state. And to have lost him on the very day of your first visit in years—really, how uncanny! I lost my own father when I was a child of five, so I knew him only as a child knows the world, which is to say but slightly, from one narrow angle, as it were. But also innocently, merrily. There are uses as well as disadvantages to this, as I’m sure you can imagine. I lacked a properly masculine upbringing, which made me too bookish a sort, and insufficiently active. For years I have feared that I too would die young, and even though I have now outlived the man, I expect it yet. At times I feel that my father inhabits me as a sort of sickness, a specter of death suffusing me which strains against my living self. It weakens me. Despite this physiological handicap, however, the early loss made me from my youth a thoughtful, serious soul, which I reckon on balance a good thing. Let us call it a spiritual benefit, and not a minor one at that.
You have lost your father as a mature adult bereaved of an old man, which under normal conditions would be most natural and appropriate. But as I understand the circumstances of your estrangement, the facts of your fractured relationship have likely exercised eccentric influences upon your person. And in this case too there doubtless are advantages and disadvantages. I will not presume to speculate as to their nature, but I urge you to identify and cultivate the virtues that have sprouted in you even from this tainted soil. And as for the so-called vices, turn these too to your advantage; prune them, tame them, nurture them in such a way as to bend them toward your benefit. For even very suffering may be good for the man possessed of the will and spiritual strength to metabolize and absorb the pain as fuel, energy, and power-potential.
But perhaps this is a matter best addressed in person. It is good when walking through the gloom to proceed arm in arm with a friend. Therefore I leave off until we meet again, which I do hope will be soon.
You have asked that I restate and elaborate the thoughts I shared with you concerning the value of truth during our peripatetic conversations in the days before you left. Of course I am happy to do so, though perhaps I shall refrain from treating every detail in a single letter. Permit me to propose instead that we pursue this theme through an epistolic exchange. In this way we shall simulate the dialectic of conversation, which I expect will contribute to concision and clarity, and thereby to comprehension. In this way, moreover, we shall prolong our interaction, and of course it is always good to savor the good.
To begin with, then, I should state that in the following remarks I intend by “truth” to refer to the way the world, or reality, or Being, really is, in and of and for itself, as they say, independent of the human contribution, uninfluenced and unaffected by our physical-psychic organization, or, if you prefer, the structure of our sensory-cognitive apparatus—in the Kantian or Schopenhauerian sense, you understand. Independent, in short, of biologically conditioned interpretations of the “text” of the world. The truth, then, is supposed to represent the text (i.e., the world) as it is, interpretation free, the reality behind the appearances, the noumenon behind the phenomena. (Supposed by some, that is—not by me.)
So, now, as to knowledge of the truth:
Maybe there is no truth.
Maybe there is truth, but it is unknowable. Wholly unknowable, or knowable only in scattered parts.
Maybe there is truth, and it is wholly knowable, but we can never know that we know it.
Maybe there is truth, and it is altogether wholly knowable, but to know it is bad, dangerous, harmful, or deadly.
Maybe there is truth, and it is knowable and good to know, but to know it is no better than not to know it.
Maybe there is truth, and it is knowable, and it is better to know than not to know it, but other things are better still: depth, creativity, beauty, vitality, foolishness, free-spiritedness.
Maybe there is truth, and it is knowable, and to know it is best of all, but not directly seeking it is the best way to find it, or seeking it directly is only one among several suitable methods.
Maybe there is truth, and it is knowable, and to know it is best of all, and to seek it is the best way to find it, but there is no urgency to know it now. Perhaps the truth withdraws from overzealous, hurried and harried suitors.
What do we know of truth in advance to settle these questions?
With these remarks I have not descended into the depths of the matter at hand, I know. I haven’t meant to. I intend only to relax your convictions, or to encourage you to relax yourself in relation to them. To disengage from your fixated will to truth, if only somewhat and if only temporarily, for the sake of intellectual experimentation and creative exploration. Later, if you like, you may return to your pursuit of knowledge of the truth. Nothing prevents you, after all, and you still have years to live.
I will, however, close with the following more intentionally provocative suggestions:
Even granting, arguendo, that truth exists, perhaps it is but the flowering of untruth. For the idea that a noumenal realm of things-in-themselves lurks behind the phenomenal appearances is itself an intellectual artifact of the phenomenal realm, and therefore likely to be itself merely apparently true, which is to say false. And here we return to the human contribution I mentioned above. Say that there is truth: then truth might well exist only because we ourselves have created it. Say that we may yet discover the truth: then truth might be a treasure that we ourselves have buried. For perhaps we encounter in the world only that which we ourselves have set down into it.
Supposing, then, that we want truth. Fine. But why not rather untruth?
I say that as philosophers we should aim to transcend our petty beliefs and unbeliefs, and even our so-called “knowledge.” For our aim is not knowledge of the truth. Our aim is wisdom.
Old Solon was wise, was he not? But what did he know of truth?
Perhaps I shall conclude with this. It will do for a preamble to our exchange, no? I await your reply, with all good will, I assure you. And I add only this one last thought: eu prattein, my friend, as our old Plato would say. Be well and do well.
Your Friend in the mountains
What a delight it was to receive and read your letter! I felt almost as if we were together again, this feeling enhanced by your evocation of the beauty of our mountain valley. How I hated to leave, but of course it couldn’t be helped. I certainly hope to return next summer, and to see and speak with you again there too.
I buried my father the day before I received your letter. I do appreciate your kind words. Thank you. How sad it is to witness the interment of a man with no one but oneself moved to mourn him. And what was the point of the life, then? He performed various actions, affected this person or that in minor ways. He begat me. But to what end? A man departs, dies, and the elements rush in to fill the void, like the sea overrunning a footprint in the sand: when the water streams out the beach is brushed smooth, as if no mark had ever been imprinted there. A vacuum to commemorate the absence, a small breach in the universe, as it were, would be bleak but at least a monument of sorts, a reminder of former presence. Instead, it’s as if one never existed.
Ah, time passes and all is forgotten. Everyone and everything. To no end, to no end.
But, as you say, perhaps it is best to discuss grim matters in company with another. To contemplate the heavens’ groan while sitting alone in the dark tends to magnify one’s sense of isolation…
So, then: to address your questions and observations regarding truth, knowledge, and wisdom. I must say I find it hard to engage the suggestion that there is no truth. For does not the proposition “There is no truth” amount to the claim that “It is true that there is no truth”? Is not a proposition an assertion, the assertion of the truth of the content of the proposition? And if this is so, as I believe it is, then the proposition “There is no truth” is self-contradictory. And as we know from Aristotle, it makes no sense whatever to violate or deny the Law of Non-Contradiction. For to deny it is to assert that it is false, false as opposed to true. But the distinction between the false and the true depends on this very law. One thereby affirms it in the very act of attempting to deny it, which is to say, quite literally, that it is impossible actually to deny the law. The critic’s apparent denial is but verbal legerdemain.
But it may be that I misunderstand you on this point. Despite my academic specialization, logical thickets do sometimes entangle and prick me. Therefore I pass on to other matters. And to appeal again to Aristotle, and specifically to the first book of his Metaphysics, I note that he presents therein an admirable case for identifying wisdom with a certain kind of knowledge.
The man who knows a skill or craft (a technê)—the carpenter or the general, for example—is thought to be more admirable than the man skilled merely from experience. Both men may engage successfully in the relevant activity, but the man who possesses knowledge of the causes involved appears to us wiser than the merely experienced man. The man who knows understands the why of his actions, the causes and principles that render them successful, and moreover he thereby possesses universal knowledge within the relevant domain. He can apply his craft in novel circumstances beyond those of which he has had direct experience. The merely experienced man as it were feels his way through, and he knows only that this particular act was successful on this particular occasion. He cannot with confidence universalize his knowledge to different but relevantly similar cases. Moreover, the man who knows, and especially the man who knows the causes to the highest degree, who possesses an account or theory (a logos) of the activity, is considered wise to a higher degree, in particular because he can teach the craft to others.
Men first began to philosophize from wonder, Aristotle says, and the earliest philosophers were motivated by the drive to dispel ignorance rather than the need to accomplish anything in particular. Moreover, all men regard wisdom as the science of the first causes and principles, and this science is theoretical rather than productive, which is to say it results in understanding rather than in practical activity.
Furthermore, the science of the first causes and principles is explanatory of the subordinate sciences, whose causes and principles operate in dependence on its own. It accounts for the ends of all activities, and thereby knows the good in each case. It is the most independent and self-sufficient of the sciences, for it is not subject to any superior or directorial end. And it is, as we have seen, the most teachable, for to teach is to explain the causes of things.
Finally, this science is also the most divine of all the sciences, for God is agreed by everyone to be among the first causes and principles, and in fact to be the highest of them all. According to this account, then, wisdom is knowledge of the divine. And since God is also Truth, wisdom must be knowledge of the truth.
This last point is confirmed by Aristotle’s discussion of wisdom in the Ethics. In the sixth book of that work we learn that the rational part of the soul may be divided into the so-called rationally-calculating inferior part, and the superior part, which Aristotle calls contemplative or scientific. The virtue of the rationally-calculating part of the soul is prudence or practical wisdom (phronêsis), which is knowledge of changeable things, contingent beings, and is therefore applicable to mundane practical actions and activities. The virtue of the contemplative or scientific part is theoretical wisdom or, simply, wisdom (sophia), which is knowledge of unchanging, everlasting, and necessary beings or principles. Wisdom in turn is composed of two constituent elements, certain or scientific knowledge (epistêmê), which is knowledge of the conclusion of an inductive or deductive demonstration, and intuitive understanding (nous), which is knowledge of the truth of the indemonstrable principles of a demonstration. Since this contemplative or scientific part of the soul is the altogether highest element of man, its virtue, wisdom, is the greatest good for man. And, as we have seen, wisdom is manifest in and through knowledge.
One last thing, this time touching on Plato. Does not Plato too equate wisdom with knowledge of the truth? In his Symposium for instance, when Diotima insists that the gods neither philosophize nor desire to become wise, she refers to her earlier remarks on knowledge and ignorance, in which place she speaks of knowledge and wisdom (epistêmê and sophia) interchangeably. Her argument, in brief, is that the gods do not philosophize because they are already wise by virtue of their knowledge.
I suppose this is a good place to stop for now. I do apologize for the pedantic tone, but, well, Aristotle you know! Dry as he may be, however, I am persuaded by his argument. And I did at least spice up my dish with a dash of Plato for dessert. You’ll thank me for that I trust.
A safe journey to you, my friend, if you relocate before I hear from you again. And, whenever you do depart, please give my best—with a wave or a nod of the head—to the meadows, mountains, and lakes. Oh, how I miss them!
I look forward to hearing from you as soon as you are settled and find it convenient to write. Until then, I wish you all the best.
Charmides (the Younger)
Charmides, my friend,
My Basel associate has successfully forwarded your letter to me here in my new residence. I received it just yesterday. I am presently in Genoa, where I have found a small but quiet and high-ceilinged room with a south-facing window which looks out on the sea. In many ways this is my ideal. I shall stay here through the winter. This is my intention, anyway, though my plans do tend to change with the weather (I mean this quite literally, by the way), so we shall see. In any case, you may reach me directly at the enclosed address until I indicate otherwise.
Now on to your “pedantic” letter. How I delighted in it! There is a certain charm to Aristotle, stuffy old professor that he was. I can’t help but imagine him smiling as he composed his lecture notes, full of himself, no doubt, a touch too prideful, but also with a harmless sort of good will. Yet with this modest expression of admiration my esteem for the man exhausts itself. Aristotle’s objectionable habit of regarding his own peculiar system as the telos of all prior philosophy, his insistent misreading of the Pre-Platonic philosophers as immature thinkers striving in vain to formulate ideas that he alone would adequately express—this is all too well known to belabor. Equally annoying is his tendency to reduce the colossus wisdom to the size of a bauble toted about in the book-bag of a smug schoolmarm, jostling against old bits of chalk and soiled tissues. Who but a pedagogue would dare equate wisdom with knowledge, and appeal to teachability as justification?!
The ancients tell us that Aristotle was a bookish man, his personal library rivalled only by Euripides’ collection. Plato apparently called him the Reader. But you are familiar with the reports, I’m sure. Now what must we make of the cogitations of so prosaic a soul, a man inclined above all else to sit alone for hours with his head buried in a book? Let him keep his head down, I say, and his mouth shut.
But to be serious. (Not that I haven’t been serious so far.) Aristotle claims that the man with knowledge of the craft is more admirable than the man with skill who lacks knowledge. But this is not necessarily so, is it? Consider the case in which the non-knower is the superior craftsman by instinct or muscle-memory (and here I think of what you have told me of your father’s craftsmanship). Then we might even mock the man who knows. Of course it is true that if the knower and the non-knower are equally accomplished in their craft, we prefer the man who knows. But this does not prove that we judge knowledge to be of supreme worth without qualification. Rather it indicates only that in some situations we count knowledge an additional item of value.
Now compare the skilled knowing craftsman to the unknowing but inspired artist. In this case too we are likely to rank the non-knower higher. Do we not judge the mad poet superior to the knowledgeable stonemason? And according to Plato in the Phaedrus the mad poet is superior even to the sane poet who possesses the relevant technê, which is to say the poet who knows. In the Ion he goes even further, insisting that the accomplished poet operates altogether without his intellect (his nous), and that no man is able to produce either poetry or prophecy while in his right mind. If this is so, then we will not count knowledge an additional item of value—quite the opposite. Knowledge may well inhibit the expression of the poet’s gifts, may utterly extinguish the flame of his inspired artistry. The artist, like the athlete, must act at times exclusively from instinct; even a moment’s deliberation would mar his performance.
Let us be honest now, and frank: Aristotle himself admired knowledge, as a teacher will, and therefore he selected and read his examples to confirm his biases. The Medievals called him The Philosopher. I call him Il Maestro, The Schoolmaster. Aristotle was the first professor of philosophy, and he valued knowledge in part because he valued teaching. Are not his voluminous lecture notes testimony to his intellectual orientation? I adjudge the man the pedant-rogue who diverted the eros of intellect away from original creative wisdom (as manifest for instance in Solon’s poetry and legislation) and set it on the arid path to wisdom-as-science, or, in contemporary terms, Wissenschaft.
In his Metaphysics Aristotle writes of sophia on the model of know-how, which as you know was one accepted sense of the word among the ancients, a sense which appears at times even in Plato’s dialogues. But this is the pedestrian meaning of the word, as employed by and about actual craftsmen, blacksmiths and medical doctors for example. Is this the sense of “wisdom” for which we are on the hunt? No, surely this is not the object of our love, we who are not pedestrian craftsmen but rather philosophers, we mad, mad lovers of wisdom!!
Now, on the matter of truth and contradiction, I shall be brief. To address the problem thoroughly—which is to say, to the satisfaction of your typical university philosophaster—would require a lengthy dissertation, and I am constitutionally predisposed against loquacity. Therefore the following shall have to suffice. Do the venerated axioms of logic adequately represent the nature of reality, of Being? Do they disclose the essence of truth? To know this, to know rather than presume, we should have to possess knowledge of reality and truth independent of the axioms. But this we do not have. Consequently we do not know. All that we can say with confidence is that these so-called “laws of thought” (ah, just think of the variety of assumptions smuggled into this use of the word law!) seem to mirror the patterns of our thinking. But to say that “We cannot affirm and deny one and the same thing” is to acknowledge an incapacity; it does not pick out a mark of reality or truth independent of the human constitution. Perhaps we learn here something about our biology or psychology, but we learn nothing about the truth. Alternatively, if we cannot declare with confidence that “One and the same thing cannot be both true and false,” and we are not content to take these “laws” of thought for bare indications of the limitations of our intellect, then we are left with the imperative, “Do not both affirm and deny one and the same thing.” But with this we are on moral ground, and we have abandoned any pretense to the objective pursuit of the truth of Being.
Finally, on this topic: When I am in a high-spirited mood, I am often inclined to think—or even, when walking enraptured alone among the wildflowers, to shout to the winds,
Nothing is true! Everything is permitted!
Is this self-contradictory? But we needn’t take this as an assertoric proposition, as they say, as a truth-claim. No. It is rather an expression of intellectual exuberance, a declaration of philosophical liberation. And in this sense I regard it even as weightier than any measured attempt to assert the truth.
But enough with old Aristotle. Let us leave him to his lectern. I have additional thoughts to share regarding Plato—another poet and legislator, by the way, in the tradition of his ancestor Solon—specifically regarding his conception of wisdom, to which you refer in connection with the Symposium. But perhaps it is best to defer this until later in our exchange, for now I would like to address, if only briefly, your remarks concerning death and existential meaning, or the lack thereof.
Your lament is as old as Solomon, as of course you understand. But despite the hoary age, the Preacher’s insight remains sound. The labors of a human life are indeed vexation of spirit and a chasing after wind. All is vanity, and in the end it comes to nothing, ourselves included. Will it ease your pain if I remark that the hard kernel of existence incites us nutcrackers of the spirit to the action we most delight in? Yet, sad to say, this redemptive insight has eluded us since that malicious old Athenian wizard first insisted that reason can correct being and heal the eternal wound of existence. But Socrates was naive, and his optimism was a symptom of a fundamentally nihilistic drive. He said No! to life at every turn, whereas we who strive to be Yes-sayers affirm even our suffering.
If life has no inherent meaning or purpose, then we must meet the challenge—or perhaps I should call it a gift of freedom—to provide it with a meaning ourselves by laying our will into it. Thus do we become creators, self-creators, the artists of our own destiny. And where would the value in this be if life were intrinsically saturated with happiness, pleasure, and plump bourgeois contentment? No, I say: Let hardship serve as a stimulant to the creative act, for creation redeems suffering. Is this not the lesson of Greek tragedy? And had not the Greeks attained their maximum in and through their tragic age, before the buffoons of reason mystified them with their silly obsessions with virtue and happiness? Let us learn then from the tragic Greeks, from Aeschylus for example, who spilled blood on the field at Marathon and sang the Oresteia.
But, well, now I have written more on this matter than I intended to. I’ve elaborated your personal pain to nearly universal dimensions. Do forgive me. Yet I hope that on reflection you will agree that my remarks on suffering and creativity are not irrelevant to my analysis of knowledge and wisdom. For he who overcomes his lust for knowledge of truth may through this self-surmounting realize that all is permitted to the philosopher who expresses his love of wisdom in the exuberance of inspired creation.
But I suppose that we should discuss this further on another occasion. Therefore I shall now leave off and await your reply. I lay down my pen to step outside for a stroll along the quay, for the warm salt air beckons to me through my window.
My best to you, dear Charmides, and, please, do let me know about your health.
Ah, friend Charmides,
Here I sit writing to you on the very evening of the day I posted my previous letter. I had promised to defer my remarks about Plato until a later date, but as I walked along the harbor in the afternoon, reflecting on the letter I had just sent off to you, the heaving sea spoke to me insistently of Plato, the most confounding enigma among the ancient philosophers, including even the riddling Heraclitus. Therefore I could not help myself. Therefore this second letter of the day.
Recall the volume of Plato I carried when we met. I was then rereading the Phaedo. I am studying it still, or rather exploring it, I should say, for it is a labyrinth. In my past as a pedagogue I used to read the Phaedo with my students of Greek—to teach them the language, of course, but my deeper motive was to infect them with philosophy! A labyrinth, I called the work, and a labyrinth it is. Its winding walls are composed of layers of Platonism, and Socrates as the mouthpiece of Platonic doctrine is the Minotaur at the center of the structure. He is killed in the end, as he must be, as he should be, and we readers are permitted to witness his death after passing through the maze. Thereby are we liberated, saved as were those “twice seven” youths whom Theseus led to Crete and saved from death, and “was saved himself.” Socrates thinks the liberation will be his, that finally he will be released from the cycle of rebirth to live forever as a pure soul eternally free from the bonds of the body. But of course he is mistaken, and his logos of the immortal soul is but the mask of a mythos. It is from this that we are liberated: There is no such soul, and consequently no release from life. But who is it saves us from this illusion, and in so doing is saved himself? Who else but Plato? Through the Phaedo Plato saves us from Socratic Platonism, and he saves himself as architect of the Minotaur’s labyrinth, as the creative force behind Platonic dogma, behind but independent of it, more capacious than Platonism, master of it, superior, supreme. I like to think that Plato executed Socrates to prevent us philosophers of the future from being devoured by this Minotaur of reason. Plato with his stylus in hand, Plato the thinker-artist, Plato the sage for whom the Platonic philosopher was but a monstrous and frightening mask.
When meditating on the mystery of Plato I make a point to distinguish his characters’ words as spoken in the dialogues from his own intentions as author of the works. We must not rashly identify what they say with what he does. Consider that the first word of the Phaedo, autos, stresses the question Echecrates puts to Phaedo whether he himself was present on the day that Socrates died. And with the first word of his reply, autos, Phaedo insists that, yes, I myself was there. From their initial exchange, then, the characters establish, to their own satisfaction, the reliability of Phaedo’s account. But then Phaedo reports that Plato was not present. And what does this establish? For the characters in the dialogue, this is merely one more fact among others, information of no particular consequence. But the thoughtful reader will recognize the dramatic irony. We know more than the characters know; our knowledge encompasses theirs and extends beyond it. In this particular instance, we know that Plato is the author of Phaedo’s words. Therefore we must also know that if Plato was not present for the events his character Phaedo recounts, we cannot trust Phaedo’s words. In short, then, Plato’s absence establishes for the thoughtful reader a doubt concerning the reliability of Phaedo’s account, which is to say of the Phaedo itself as composed by Plato as an ostensibly historical document.
Moreover and more specifically, when Echecrates inquires whether anyone was present to witness the things that Socrates said and did at the moment of auton ton thanaton, the death itself, Plato specifically calls into question his version of Socrates’ final moments, including of course the dying man’s famous last words. Could it be that Socrates never asked his friend to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios? Could the request be Plato’s creative invention? And if so, to what end did he conjure this? Did he intend his readers to question the fitness of Socrates’ spirit?
Forgive me: I go into these details to urge the following point. Though it may well be that the characters in Plato’s dialogues value and seek the truth, and identify wisdom with knowledge, nevertheless we cannot assume that Plato himself shares their perspective. We know very little of Plato as an individual, of course, but we do know this for certain: he conceived and composed the dialogues. And from this we may infer other remarkable specifics. Unlike Socrates, Plato was a writer. Socrates passed his time in public, often in the city center, talking with his fellow citizens. Plato resided in a grove outside the city walls, and he spent much of his time in solitude, writing, or thinking about his writing. Consider the Platonic corpus, its breadth and extent, and consequently the hours, days, months, years that Plato dedicated not only to writing but to formulating the dialogues, to plotting and planning, combing and curling, editing, revising, dreaming up new themes and settings, new metaphors, images, arguments, myths, and so on.
Now ask yourself what Plato did from day to day. I can’t help but picture the man alone, strolling through the grove of Hekadêmos, absorbing the colors, sounds, and scents of primal nature fecund and undisturbed, nourishing his creative intellect by walking and reflecting, pondering, fantasizing, thinking about the work he was then composing. My point, then, is this: Plato was more than an intellectual; he was also a poet. Therefore I have called him a “thinker-artist.”
Since Plato wrote the dialogues as a philosopher, his writing—the very fact as well as the style of his writing—must illuminate his conception of the proper activity of the lover of wisdom, and thereby also his conception of wisdom itself. Now, do the dialogues read to you like documents through which Plato means to state the truth directly and unambiguously? Are they ordered collections of justified claims to knowledge, as Aristotle’s works are evidently meant to be? Of course not. Not at all.
At this point certain fastidious scholars will appeal to Socrates’ critique of writing in the Phaedrus to object to my taking the dialogues seriously as expressions of philosophy. The dialogues are mere play, they will insist, not philosophy in themselves but reminders of philosophy for those who know. Philosophy manifests exclusively in speech, face to face, through rigorous dialectic. But here I must dissent, for on this particular, as on so many, I cannot take Socrates seriously. And why should I? Plato undermines the old man’s staid pronouncements from the opening scene of the Phaedrus, for the beauty of the tress beyond the city walls taught Plato more than Socrates learned from engaging in debate with urban sophisticates. No, I do not trust him. Really, can you imagine Plato expending such energy over fifty years toward the end of producing mere play? I cannot. The dialogues may well be play, but they are serious play, as is all deep art, as is all wisdom. For what is wisdom but an artistry of the depths, a playful seriousness, the profundity of the heights and a thoughtful foolishness?
I need not repeat the ancient stories of Plato’s composing tragedies in his youth. Nor of his erecting a shrine to the Muses on the grounds of the Academy, the Muses to whom in the Phaedrus we learn that the cicadas sing the praises of those who live a philosophical life, which is itself a way of honoring the Muses’ arts. You know all this well, I am sure. But perhaps you have not yet grasped the relevant implications. Plato was no proto-scholar or scientist, no wissenschaftlicher Mensch, as the Germans say. How strangely we forget that Plato was neither Socrates nor Aristotle! Plato was an altogether different type, eccentric and untimely—he was a philosopher-artist. The love of beauty suffused his love of wisdom because his wisdom was a mad creative overflowing; it resembled the act of an amoral artist-god who delights in creation and destruction, in discharging the pressure of the pregnant oppositions swelling and revolving in his soul—truth and falsity, fact and fiction, consistency and contradiction, gravity and gaiety, history and prophecy, scientific investigation and poetry. These oppositions intermingled and interfused are generative of art as offspring, art not only as dialogue but art as mind, as spirit, as life.
As I have said, Plato was a poet and a legislator: he imagined and decreed new thought-worlds and novel modes of inhabiting them. Thus did he express his love of wisdom.
But forgive me, friend Charmides, for burdening you with so long an addendum to my previous letter. As I say, I could not help myself. Plato and the sea provoked me to it. Please do take your time replying. I understand the strains of your other pressing concerns and responsibilities. I am not yet so detached from the workaday world as to imagine every man as idle as myself. Having said this, however, I do look forward to reviewing your reaction to my thoughts, which must seem at times the ravings of a madman. To other men, anyway. As for myself, I love my wicked thoughts as my own most beautiful offspring and companions!
And so finally now to conclude, which I do as I closed my previous letter: Please do let me know how you are, and, as always, my very best to you.
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