If one is not asleep when reading (or listening to) philosophical works, one notices that when Socrates appears, problems narrative and philosophical are never far behind.2 One is never quite certain how people and ideas are going to react. Reading Plato does not provide certainty, however; indeed, it creates more uncertainty – I tend to have less idea what he meant after reading than I had when I started.3 One is being forever wrong-footed (or out-witted, πάνυ γε, ὦ σοφὲ σύ), so I usually find myself edging towards the exit in the name of civic duty or domestic virtue4 – anything that allows a decorous departure from the game of large questions with unsatisfactory (impractical, inapplicable, contradictory) answers.5
This is partially because I don’t particularly care to have anyone tell me how or what to think – perhaps because I am very easily swayed into thinking absurdly or in absurdities, which means that logical footwork (as opposed to more modest verbal acrobatics) is not a skill I practice with much success. Admittedly, this Socrates of yours (or Plato’s) does not appear to care primarily about where the ideas are going, but rather about the process of getting there – a there which usually turns out to be someplace quite different from the place pictured when setting out.6
Not surprisingly, I tend to turn to the other Socrates(es), presented by other people; I mentioned Xenophon in a footnote, but there are more who have joined the gathering of shades – whether in company with Plato or wholly in the imaginary.7 Although nominally I am looking to these writers for orientation, I usually find that each thinker or reader or translator, like Plato’s Socrates, also points me in a different direction, which never quite seems to match the signposts from Plato. Nussbaum’s reading of the Symposium, for example, is one for which I always feel a certain affection, but it does not entirely alleviate the sensation of being jostled into a specific, determined approach towards thinking, as though one’s mind were crammed inside a too-full subway car travelling towards a station the name of which one cannot quite remember.
Some time ago I was reminded, quite strikingly, of a passage from the Phaedo; this dialogue, you will recall, occurs at a moment when the emotions of the speakers lie near to the surface, and it concerns the nature of the soul. There is a larger frame that one could think about, but the person telling me the story was focused on whether or not Socrates believes in the soul and whether he is afraid of being without a soul, whatever that might mean. It goes like this: What about, Cebês asks, when you are confronting the unknown, the unknowable, the uncontrollable? What, he asks Socrates, should you do then, when – well, ok, let’s not say you are afraid, let’s say some small part of yourself, the child within you, is afraid of the dark?8
ἀλλὰ χρή, ἔφη ὁ Σωκράτης, ἐπᾴδειν αὐτῷ ἑκάστης ἡμέρας ἕως ἂν ἐξεπᾴσητε.
πόθεν οὖν, ἔφη, ὦ Σώκρατες, τῶν τοιούτων ἀγαθὸν ἐπῳδὸν ληψόμεθα, ἐπειδὴ σύ, ἔφη, ἡμᾶς ἀπολείπεις;
Why then, said Socrates, croon lullabies to him every day until you’ve lulled the fear away.
But where, Socrates, are we going to be able to get hold of a good charm for those fears, now you… you’re leaving us?
Keep looking, Socrates says. Look everywhere. Spend all your money. Use all your time. Talk to everyone. Even look in yourself. Every search, no matter the object, is a search for this – for this charm, this lullaby – and the search never ends: until it does (77e–78a).
It is worth noting here that the instructions Socrates initially gives are for activities – to sing to someone, as for a lullaby (or murmur incantations, if you prefer that, with Jowett, as a translation for ἐπαείδω) until the fear is charmed away – but Cebês responds with a request for a noun (ἐπῳδός) – a charm or incantation, which can, at best, be construed as a substantive singer (a really good one, please) of such things – as though Socrates were a member of a company of wandering philosophical minstrels (or charming philosophers, if you prefer) who kept odes and epodes tucked into a scrip, as though truth were something external to be found and not the pursuit itself. Socrates takes him up on this usage, though, and follows in the direction Cebês leads: a dead end.9 And on the brink of this beautiful nihilism, Cebês cannot nerve himself over – he draws back awkwardly (Sure thing, Socrates, will do, but let’s circle back to an earlier point… / ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν δή, ἔφη, ὑπάρξει, ὁ Κέβης: ὅθεν δὲ ἀπελίπομεν ἐπανέλθωμεν…) and the conversation takes a turn.
This is not the end of the dialogue; indeed, it’s not even a third of the way through. But you know how it ends – you knew how it ended before it began: with the offering of a poor man and the only sure way to gain unchanging health. I do not know if what I have outlined here is Plato or if it is Socrates or if it is wholly the interpretation of my interlocutor – but it was, for the first time, a story I felt I would want to keep reading.
- I looked at quite a few images of votive offerings and was quite amused by all the different body parts available (imagine what one finds when searching for ‘greek asclepius votive cock’ – not impressive), but chose this, which is not a votive offering, because I liked it better. [↩]
- Partially because of a sort of shiftiness; in that essay, the locus of this unease is perhaps unfairly situated on Aristotle (by Callard and others), but I feel (I do not say I think or believe) that it is also true for Plato and his Socrates. Anyway, there’s a passage in Noémi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work (pp. 80f.) that kind of captures the feeling. [↩]
- This is less often the case with Xenophon and his Socrates, but it also is harder to pay any attention to him, perhaps because he is less distinctly tetchy as a character (I am thinking here of the Oikonomikos). I am pleased to be inconsistent with my transliterations. [↩]
- E.g., prepping the barbecue, washing the dishes, cleaning the toilet, counting the grains of salt in the salt cellar. [↩]
- Following the example of Kephalos in book one of the Republic (331d–e); Cela est bien dit […] mais il faut cultiver notre jardin, as another man put it. [↩]
- I have a similar difficulty with Heidegger, except – philosophically speaking – he always seems to have a clear destination in mind and is more interested in the reader, the thinker, the student putting his (usually his) foot just so upon the path. This characterization is unfair, of course, but that needn’t stop me. [↩]
- There are too many to name (more than I am familiar with), but range from Cornford to Valéry (and beyond). [↩]
- Cebês attempts, here, to liken the fear of death to the fear of μορμολύκεια, which is usually translated as ‘bogeyman’ – but one could probably weave an entire shroud around this particular nightmare. [↩]
- And still we are not thinking. [↩]