Monday, August 10, 2015

The Role of Aesop in Plato's Phaedo

I will begin at the beginning, and endeavour to repeat the entire conversation. On the previous days we had been in the habit of assembling early in the morning at the court in which the trial took place, and which is not far from the prison. There we used to wait talking with one another until the opening of the doors (for they were not opened very early); then we went in and generally passed the day with Socrates. On the last morning we assembled sooner than usual, having heard on the day before when we quitted the prison in the evening that the sacred ship had come from Delos, and so we arranged to meet very early at the accustomed place. On our arrival the jailer who answered the door, instead of admitting us, came out and told us to stay until he called us. 'For the Eleven,' he said, 'are now with Socrates; they are taking off his chains, and giving orders that he is to die to-day.' He soon returned and said that we might come in. On entering we found Socrates just released from chains, and Xanthippe, whom you know, sitting by him, and holding his child in her arms. When she saw us she uttered a cry and said, as women will: 'O Socrates, this is the last time that either you will converse with your friends, or they with you.' Socrates turned to Crito and said: 'Crito, let some one take her home.' Some of Crito's people accordingly led her away, crying out and beating herself. And when she was gone, Socrates, sitting up on the couch, bent and rubbed his leg, saying, as he was rubbing: How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head. And I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed.

Upon this Cebes said: I am glad, Socrates, that you have mentioned the name of Aesop. For it reminds me of a question which has been asked by many, and was asked of me only the day before yesterday by Evenus the poet—he will be sure to ask it again, and therefore if you would like me to have an answer ready for him, you may as well tell me what I should say to him:—he wanted to know why you, who never before wrote a line of poetry, now that you are in prison are turning Aesop's fables into verse, and also composing that hymn in honour of Apollo.

Tell him, Cebes, he replied, what is the truth—that I had no idea of rivalling him or his poems; to do so, as I knew, would be no easy task. But I wanted to see whether I could purge away a scruple which I felt about the meaning of certain dreams. In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams 'that I should compose music.' The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: 'Cultivate and make music,' said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed. And first I made a hymn in honour of the god of the festival, and then considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, should not only put together words, but should invent stories, and that I have no invention, I took some fables of Aesop, which I had ready at hand and which I knew—they were the first I came upon—and turned them into verse. Tell this to Evenus, Cebes, and bid him be of good cheer; say that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man, and not tarry; and that to-day I am likely to be going, for the Athenians say that I must.
Given Socrates disdain for the written word expressed in his "Phaedrus" (the myth of Thamus and Thueth, I am somewhat surprised at this "late" desire by Socrates to try his hand at poetry, especially as the author's ability to reminisce would be, in this case, extremely "limited".

But also, IMO, the mystery solves itself "if" you conclude that it was his intention to satisfy himself that he had indeed been right all along to disdain the written account.


nicrap said...

Well, even though the translator indeed uses the verb "write" where he says "he wanted to know why you, who never before wrote a line of poetry, etc."...i think what he meant was "composed" poetry and Socrates could very well have done it "orally". Frankly, i don't think the dichotomy of written/spoken word is a theme in Pheado at all, and Aesop is a "pretext" for turning the discussion towards death and deathlessness, which are the central themes of the dialogue.

FreeThinke said...

When I look at David's famous painting, I am always struck by his portrayal of Socrates as a bearded, gray haired old sage with a magnificently-toned, perfectly-proportioned "gym rat's body" any 25-year-old male would be pleased and proud to own.

Is there any historic or iconographical evidence to support David's artistic assertion, or is David applying some sort of symbolic concept to the quasi-realistic scene?

Thersites said...

@nicrap - You don't think that perhaps Socrates saw the written word as a "sham" immortality, much as rhetoric is to dialectic? Note that the addressee of the dialogue is again, Phaedrus.

from the Jowett summary of Plato's "Symposium"

But Love desires the beautiful; and then arises the question, What does he desire of the beautiful? He desires, of course, the possession of the beautiful;—but what is given by that? For the beautiful let us substitute the good, and we have no difficulty in seeing the possession of the good to be happiness, and Love to be the desire of happiness, although the meaning of the word has been too often confined to one kind of love. And Love desires not only the good, but the everlasting possession of the good. Why then is there all this flutter and excitement about love? Because all men and women at a certain age are desirous of bringing to the birth. And love is not of beauty only, but of birth in beauty; this is the principle of immortality in a mortal creature. When beauty approaches, then the conceiving power is benign and diffuse; when foulness, she is averted and morose.

But why again does this extend not only to men but also to animals? Because they too have an instinct of immortality. Even in the same individual there is a perpetual succession as well of the parts of the material body as of the thoughts and desires of the mind; nay, even knowledge comes and goes. There is no sameness of existence, but the new mortality is always taking the place of the old. This is the reason why parents love their children—for the sake of immortality; and this is why men love the immortality of fame. For the creative soul creates not children, but conceptions of wisdom and virtue, such as poets and other creators have invented. And the noblest creations of all are those of legislators, in honour of whom temples have been raised. Who would not sooner have these children of the mind than the ordinary human ones?

I will now initiate you, she said, into the greater mysteries; for he who would proceed in due course should love first one fair form, and then many, and learn the connexion of them; and from beautiful bodies he should proceed to beautiful minds, and the beauty of laws and institutions, until he perceives that all beauty is of one kindred; and from institutions he should go on to the sciences, until at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science of universal beauty, and then he will behold the everlasting nature which is the cause of all, and will be near the end. In the contemplation of that supreme being of love he will be purified of earthly leaven, and will behold beauty, not with the bodily eye, but with the eye of the mind, and will bring forth true creations of virtue and wisdom, and be the friend of God and heir of immortality.

Such, Phaedrus, is the tale which I heard from the stranger of Mantinea, and which you may call the encomium of love, or what you please.

Always playing Diogenes... ;)

One of the first nominalist critiques of Plato's realism was that of Diogenes of Sinope, who said "I've seen Plato's cups and table, but not his cupness and tableness."

nicrap said...

Yes, to which Plato replied: "That's readily accounted for," said Plato, "for you have the eyes to see the visible table and cup ; but not the understanding by which ideal tablehood and cuphood are discerned.

But it is this alleged encounter between the two that is my favorite:

...that Plato saw him washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, "Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn't now be washing lettuces," and that he with equal calmness made answer, "If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn't have paid court to Dionysius." (Diogenes Laeritus. The Lives of Eminent Philosophers.)

And this:

And one day when Plato had invited to his house friends coming from Dionysius, Diogenes trampled upon his carpets and said, "I trample upon the pride of Plato," who retorted, "Yes, Diogenes, with pride of another sort." (Ibid.)


nicrap said...

You don't think that perhaps Socrates saw the written word as a "sham" immortality, much as rhetoric is to dialectic?

That may very well be, fj. But i was speaking in the context of Phaedo. I find the "problem" in Phaedo to be very different.

Thersites said...

@ FT - I suspect that given what David did for "Napoleon's" image, much license was taken with the gadfly of Athens'.

Standards of beauty are different in different eras, and in Socrates' time beauty could easily be measured by the standard of the gods, stately, proportionate sculptures of whom had been adorning the Athenian acropolis since about the time Socrates reached the age of thirty. Good looks and proper bearing were important to a man's political prospects, for beauty and goodness were linked in the popular imagination. The extant sources agree that Socrates was profoundly ugly, resembling a satyr more than a man—and resembling not at all the statues that turned up later in ancient times and now grace Internet sites and the covers of books. He had wide-set, bulging eyes that darted sideways and enabled him, like a crab, to see not only what was straight ahead, but what was beside him as well; a flat, upturned nose with flaring nostrils; and large fleshy lips like an ass. He was impervious to the effects of alcohol and cold, but this made him an object of suspicion to his fellow soldiers on campaign. Socrates let his hair grow long, Spartan-style (even while Athens and Sparta were at war), and went about barefoot and unwashed, carrying a stick and looking arrogant. He didn't change his clothes but efficiently wore in the daytime what he covered himself with at night. Something was peculiar about his gait as well, sometimes described as a swagger so intimidating that enemy soldiers kept their distance. We can safely assume an average height (since no one mentions it at all), and a strong build, given the active life he appears to have led. Against the iconic tradition of a pot-belly, Socrates and his companions are described as going hungry (Aristophanes, Birds 1280-83). On his appearance, see Plato's Theaetetus 143e, and Symposium 215a-c, 216c-d, 221d-e; Xenophon's Symposium 4.19, 5.5-7; and Aristophanes' Clouds 362. Brancusi's oak sculpture, standing 51.25 inches including its base, captures Socrates' appearance and strangeness in the sense that it looks different from every angle, including a second “eye” that cannot be seen if the first is in view. (The Museum of Modern Art's page on Brancusi's Socrates offers additional views.)

Thersites said...

You could be right. I see it more as a continuation of his Theory of Forms as applied to the Theory of Universal, the extent to which the Soul participates in the Form of Immortality and Unchangeablemness.

from Wikipedia:

There are many philosophical positions regarding universals. Taking "beauty" as example, three positions are:

Idealism: beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.

Platonic realism: beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or description.

Aristotelean realism: beauty is a property that only exists when beautiful things exist.

Taking a broader view, the main positions are generally considered to be classifiable as: realism, nominalism, and idealism (sometimes simply called "anti-realism" with regard to universals).

Thersites said...


nicrap said...

In all three dialogues (some will say four) comprising "the Socratic death cycle," the dramatic situation or setting is way more important than any arguments forwarded in them. This is something that many people do not realize.

Let me quote for you a very interesting text. it's from the introduction to my own copy of Pheado (i finally bought the translation):

The PHAEDO'S recollection of Socrates is a perplexing blend of 'logos' and 'mythos', argument and story. As we hear early on, Socrates death had been delayed — by "a bit of chance," as Phaedo says. Every year, the Athenians, in accordance with their vow to Apollo, send an embassy to Delos. Before this embassy returns to Athens, the city must keep itself pure and not put anyone to death. The embassy commemorates Theseus' rescue of the fourteen young Athenians (the Twice Seven, as Phaedo calls them in keeping with the fact that the group was composed of both youths and maidens) from the Minotaur or Bull-man of Crete. The Phaedo is a playful recasting of this well-known myth. Socrates is the new, philosophic Theseus. He is the heroic savior of the friends gathered around Socrates as he is about to make his final journey — fourteen of whom are named. And their discussion of the soul and her fate, particularly in the final and most problematic stage of the argument, indeed resembles a logical labyrinth. Phaedo himself plays an important role as the fifteenth named member of the group around Socrates: He is the Ariadne whose narrative thread leads us into and through Plato's labyrinth of arguments.

But who or what plays the role of the Minotaur? From what, in other words, must Socrates' companions be saved? Is it their fear of death? Or is it the great evil known as misology or "hatred of argument," the evil, that near the center of the dialogue, threatens to drown the conversation in disillusionment and despair? Or perhaps these are meant to be taken together — as the dual "horns" of a dual natured monster. This much is clear: the dialogue becomes ever richer as we try to think through the many points of contact between it and the myth it mimics.

nicrap said...

And once you remember Socrates final words: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay the debt, don’t forget", things become even more interesting. As we know Asclepius was the god of medicine; and sacrificing a cock was the traditional way of thanking him for curing someone ... the great evil that threatened the company at the beginning of the dialogue has finally been averted, it seems, and a cure managed ... hence the need for the gift to Asclepius.

nicrap said...

Btw, as you may know, Socrates's last words constitute one of the oldest problems of philosophy...there have been several interpretations, including one by Nietzsche (The Gay Science. Page 272.)

p.s. There is a very good book on the subject, by Dumezil.

-FJ said...

I'm sure that you're right regarding the central theme. Writing vs. spoken Word is not central to the dialogue. I posted this thread in order to illustrate what I perceived as a deficiency in the "Mr Holmes" drama. In the film, Holmes does not stay true to his original Conan-Doyle "character". He regrets, and ultimately repudiates, his former (Conan-Doyle given) character. Whereas even in "the end", Plato's Socrates remains "true" to his.

In many ways, Holmes was much "like" Socrates. He did not chronicle his own stories, he left that to Dr. Watson. And throughout the film, Holmes expresses disdain for some of Watson's "liberties" (ie - the deerstalker hat, the pipe, the address 221B Baker St., etc.) and so decides to "write his own version" with nothing but the "truth" of what transpired.

Of course, Holmes real problem is the onset of senility, and the fact that he is daily loosing the ability to recall even the names of close associates around him. So writing the "truth" becomes an ever more insurmountable obstacle to completing the tale.

FreeThinke said...

The second image of Socrates provided n this link seems to fit the description you gave best, FJ.

Would you agree?

nicrap said...

He regrets, and ultimately repudiates, his former (Conan-Doyle given) character. Whereas even in "the end", Plato's Socrates remains "true" to his.

Well, in that case, your Holmes is more akin to Don quixote than Socrates, wouldn't you say, in that in 'the end' the Knight too grows wise of and simultaneously repudiates his folly? But does it mean he has rejoined reason and truth? Or, is this wisdom but '"a new madness that had just come into his head"? The equivocation is endlessly reversible, and cannot be resolved, ultimately, except by death itself. Madness dissipated can be only the same thing as the imminence of the end; "and even one of the signs by which they realized that the sick man was dying, was that he had returned so easily from madness to reason."' (Madness and Civilization. Foucault.)

nicrap said...

Herodotus tells of a story about Solon and Croesus. The Athenian wise man was asked: "How do we know that a man has lived well and happily?" He answered: "Look to the end." And as he makes abundantly clear, by "end" he means no more and no less than how a man has died.... The "cycle of Socrates' death" then bears witness not just to a man's last days and the manner of his death but also to his life — in its essential goodness. Socrates did not die disillusioned; nor did he try to escape his death — instead, he met it like a true philosopher; just like he lived.

-FJ said...

The second image of Socrates provided n this link seems to fit the description you gave best, FJ.

I would be inclined to agree.

-FJ said...

"Look to the end."

This was also the dilemma of Achilles...

The prophesy of Thetis:

"Two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy
My journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
My pride, my glory dies...
True, but the life that's left me will be long,
The stroke of death will not come on me quickly."

(Iliad, Book 9, lines 499-505)

This is Achilles' fundamental problem: to die young with glory or live a long, but simple, life.