Friday, December 11, 2015

Adventure classics – The unseen guest at the party

The Symposium, by Plato

With commentary from Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Goldstein
Considering that Socrates never wrote down a word about his life’s work as a philosopher, I have to wonder how he would have made of the virtual genre that writing about him would become after his death. Among other scribblers, two of his greatest students, Plato and the soldier-historian Xenophon, would each write an account of the famous party that is the subject of The Symposium. Although Xenophon, like Plato, would have been far too young to have attended such a stag drinking party in circa 422 BCE, Xenophon wrote himself into his version of the event. Plato did not. And yet, if not for Plato's re-creation of the event, readers might never have heard of it. He was the unseen, unguessed-at guest at the world’s most famous party.

So who was Plato? For a thinker and writer whose works laid the foundation for the discipline of philosophy, still being read nearly 2,400 after his death, strangely little is known about his life. He actually expressed reluctance even to write, worrying that writing things down would take the place of actual learning.

Even his name has been in doubt, with one biographer asserting that the philosopher had actually been named Aristocles and that Plato, meaning “broad” was a nickname bestowed either because of his muscular physique (he had apparently considered becoming a professional wrestler in his youth) or from other physical or intellectual qualities.

Still another biographer wrote that Plato originally hoped for a career as a playwright. (For this biographical information, I am indebted to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s very accessible discussion in Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.)

All biographers agree, however, that any thought of careers either in athletics or drama flew out the window once Plato, as a young man, fell under the influence of Socrates. The older man’s execution by Athenians in agony over their city’s defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars forever scarred Plato.

As Goldstein writes, “Socrates’ fate at the hands of the democracy – his death sentence, like the guilty verdict, was the result of popular vote – might have had as much to do with (Plato’s) dim view of humanity as it did with his turning to philosophy in the first place. . . Because there had been such a man as Socrates, Plato could convince himself that human life was worth caring about. But I suspect that for him it did take convincing.”

It was through the dramatic structure of Plato’s dialogues, in which Socrates or at least his understanding of Socrates, played a part, that he wrestled intellectually and emotionally with the conflict between the good and evil in human beings, and in all of creation.

And because Socrates had loved to converse with people in all walks of life, Plato’s dialogues are for the most part taken from scenes of daily life and often peopled with historical characters. Instead of writing plays about gods and ancient heroes, Plato would, effectively, write plays in dialogue between real people set in their everyday world.

To illustrate the effect Plato’s settings, mundane for their time, Goldstein alternates his discussion of Plato’s place in philosophy with Platonically-influenced dialogues set in our time, such as “Plato at the 92nd Street Y,” Plato as an advice columnist’s consultant, as a guest on a cable news network and, yes, on a book tour at Google Inc.’s corporate headquarters. It’s a visit that afterward still gives “media escort” Cheryl fits as she relates her experience with this very strange author Plato and with the questions his questions raised, to her friend over a few Long Island Iced Teas.

(And speaking of iced teas, last Friday’s discussion of The Symposium broke off as the guests at that long-ago party were discussing their alcoholic intake. Next Friday, Adventure classics will return to the party to hear the rest of the discussion, including an inspiredly goofy allegory of love by one of its guests.)

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