First meeting of the Spring Semester:
February 2, 2000, at 12:30pm, SLC Library
Topic: Plato's Therapy?
Speaker: Elf S. Raymond
1) Intro: O Pandora; The Irony of the Sophron; Young
2) "What Language Did" by Eavan Boland, an elegiac protest
against anaesthesizing Platonism (cf., Pierre Bourdieu "A Social Critique of
the Judgment of Taste"). This poem is a first in our literary tradition where
a woman rejects youth and beauty as ideals in favor of accepting the human condition
in accord with the precedent where Odysseus (OD 5:150, Fagles, tr.) refuses
Kalypso's offer to make him immortal and ageless.
3) "Reluctance" by Robert Frost; touching on an elenchic triple rhyme "treason, reason, season"; and an overdue challenge to stubborn Achilles, whoever he may be.
4) Clearings: 'Reading Plato as Homer's Heir and Twin
One of the common-places of classical times is the saying
"orator fit, poeta nascitur", the rhetorician is made, the poet born. Where
does this leave Plato? To philosophize is arguably a universal propensity of
the human mind, a kind of birthright, and some people without training do it
exceedingly well and others, because, or inspite of training, fail. There may
be something imponderable here, a vexing quality of mind and brain, which led
Plato to assert that philosophy, just like fire, is a gift of the gods. He was
well aware that a stance of deference toward the supernatural and its gifts
is called for and that it is as impolite as it is impolitic not to profess gratitude.
(Sincerity, incidentally, had not yet been invented.) He knew the story of Pandora's
mission to bring our race disease and pain while her very name, ironically,
means the All-giving. This brief parable makes it fairly clear, by parabolic
standards, that irony as the kaleidoscopic oscillation between incommensurables
is integral to the reality of things, words and, most of all, the things words
do. Plato, sophron and ironist, as well as brilliant defender of the
faith in universal intelligence, deals with Pandora's sad legacy and offers,
e.g., in the GORGIAS and the REPUBLIC antidotes to the tyranny of excess, insatiability
and a host of pathologies we today classify as ideational obsessions and behavioral
compulsions. It is an irony of intellectual history that Platonism and the Neo-Platonic
legacy's 'retro' take on Plato frequently exhibit symptoms of ideational possession
and contribute to the very state of cultural affairs his verbal therapy aimed
to prevent. Eavan Boland's poem "What Language Did" will allow us to look at
this more closely.
The Irony of the Sophron.
The personality type who is able, at the right time,
to use ironic deception toward good ends goes in ancient Greece under the name
of sophron. The sophron's timeless and ubiquitous embodiment
is brilliant Odysseus in the ILIAD and ODYSSEY. Richmond Lattimore, who rendered
both epics for an English speaking audience, says in his intro to the Iliad:
"Odysseus can be described as sophron. This is untranslatable. It means,
not necessarily, that you have superior brains, but you make maximum use of
whatever brains you have got. Odysseus is the antithesis to Achilles. Achilles
has a fine intelligence, but passion clouds it; Odysseus has strong passions,
but his intelligence keeps them under control." Now, this measure of self-control,
the virtue of sophrosyne, is not a triumph of the will but the reward
for accepting and adopting intelligence as life's well-spring and organizing
Young Plato's Search for Identity
His father's name was Aristos, which means 'best of the best' and Plato's name as oldest son of a good family was Aristocles, i.e., 'called to the best'. Though this was simply conventional, for the boy it must have been also a reminder of his father's claim to superiority. Legend later turns Plato into the son of Apollo, to the detriment of his mother's reputation; but this bit of gossip was not around when he grew up. What was around was Homer and that, as it turns out, was a very good thing. Homer was a household name, his cast of personages the shared inheritance of establishment and people, and the distinguishing attributes of his perfectly traditional gods and heros were familiar enough to everybody to be used, quite literally, as nick names. Plato, we learn from his biographer Diogenes Laertius, was the spitting image of Odysseus: strong of body and mind, broadly built and a head shorter than average. The head coach of the Athenian Gymnasium's wrestling team started calling him 'Plato' which is short for 'broad-shouldered, resourceful Odysseus, man of counsel'. This appellation, cruel and honorific in equal proportion, sealed the young man's identity. 'Identity' here stands for Plato's deliberate affiliation with Odysseus whose language skill compelled even his greatest enemies to say:
"Yes, you would call him a sullen man, and a fool likewise.
But when he let the great voice go from his chest, and the words came
drifiting down like winter snows, then no other mortal
man could stand up against Odysseus."
(Antenor to Priam and Helen. ILIAD III, 220ff, R. Lattimore, tr.)
Kindly let this passage stand for many of similar import and permit me to close the case of Plato's twinning link to Odysseus, the man of pain, with the words by which the prophet Tiresias, as we know now, foretells the kind of gentle death both will experience. (ODYSSEY XI:154ff)
"And at last, your own death will steal upon you...
a gentle, painless death, far from the sea it comes
to take you down, borne down with the years in ripe old age
with all your people there in blessed peace around you."
In transit to today's emergent possibilities, Eavan Boland, at the end of her poem "What Language Did" pleads for a newly quickening language to record and transmit, deepen and enlarge
our common as well as our unique experience. Here's her
protest disguised as elegy:
What Language Did
The evening was the same as any other.
I came out and stood on the step.
The suburb was closed in the weather
of an early spring and the shallow tips
of washed-out yellows of narcissi
resisted dusk. And crocuses and snowdrops.
I stood there and felt the melancholy
of growing older n such a season,
when all I could be certain of was simply
in this time of fragrance and refrain,
whatever else might flower before the fruit,
and be renewed, I would not. Not again.
A car splashed by in the twilight.
Peat smoke stayed in the windless
air overhead and I might have missed :
a presence. Suddenly. In the very place
where I would stand in other dusks, and look
to pick out my child from the distance,
was a shepherdess, her smile cracked,
her arm injured from the mantelpieces
and pastorals where she posed with her crook.
Then I turned and saw in the spaces
of the night sky constellations appear,
one by one, over roof-tops and houses,
and Cassiopeia trapped: stabbed where
her thigh met her groin and her hand
her glittering wrist, with the pin-point of a star.
And by the road where rain made standing
pools of water underneath cherry trees,
and blossoms swam on their images,
was a mermaid with invented tresses,
her breasts printed with the salt of it and all
the desolation of the North Sea in her face.
I went nearer. They were disappearing.
Dusk had turned to night but in the air -
did I imagine it? - a voice was saying:
This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where
we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.
We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.
Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
and looked at the world and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.
The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.
And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and tither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question 'Whither?"
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?