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Socrates and the Rise of Rational Self-consciousness in Ancient Greece

I told you I was worried last time about sticking my neck out but it was such a success, and I’m so grateful for all of your turning again tonight. I’d like to thank Nigel Sanders-Self for doing the PowerPoint display for me. And my granddaughter, Phoebe Zajac, who did the slides for me. And Wolfgang Rosenberg and Alene Smith for doing the promotion and Eric Thiermann for filming both evenings. We’ll make a DVD or a CD from them. So they’ll be available. And thanks to all the rest of you that have made these two evenings a success. I did the math, and I figured if I did this every night, I could make a quarter of a million dollars in a year. But I was worried about running out of things to say, but then I thought, No, I can repeat some of them.

This has been an interesting experiment, and I’ve got a few more up my sleeve, which I’m going to be happy to do and we’ll let you know when we schedule them. We’re passing around a sheet to have you sign up so that we can notify you when we do the next round for the One-night University. I’d like to invite all of you to attend the Penny University, of which this is a kind of off-shoot. It’s a discussion group that Page Smith and I started in 1973. And believe it or not, it still operates and meets every Monday night at 5:00 at Calvary Episcopal Church until 6:15 sharp. You’re all invited to attend. Some of you from the last time came to a session and we were glad to see you. We appreciate new blood in the group. Jim Bierman and I run it and it’s an interesting discussion every Monday; we think of it as the kind of talk you’d have at a dinner party with friends. It’s been an ongoing institution I’ve enjoyed a lot.

Tonight it’s Socrates. I put the grid up on the screen, first of all so that you have some idea of those who preceded Socrates. They’re called the Presocratics. I think it’s basically a kind of nominal term for those who preceded Socrates, but I take it seriously. Namely, Socrates was such a masterful, magnificent event, that everybody who came before him was considered to precede him. There are probably 15 to 20 Greek thinkers who build up the progression of what leads to rational self-consciousness that comes into its fullest expression in the person of Socrates. They’re fun to learn– if you ever get really sick or if you get hit by a car or something, you could fall back on reciting the names of the Presocratic philosophers. That’s what I’d do if I needed something on which to concentrate my mind.

The first Presocratic is Thales. The early ones prior to Socrates were interested in trying to find what the primary stuff was. They wanted to “get at it.” Well, what is “it?” They wanted some term that would function as the unifying understanding of what they were after in terms of reality. Thales said it was water. So the first word of Presocratic philosophy is “water.” He means a kind of metaphysical water. I think of the waters of baptism as what he meant—not just H2O, that’s for sure. He’s considered the first one, although you could ask, Who preceded the Presocratics? Well, there were a group of figures who precede the PreSocratic philosophers, and they were called the Seven Wise Men of Greece. And Thales is considered the last of the Seven Wise Men and the first of the Presocratics.

Now, the Seven Wise Men were those who gave expression to the deep, melancholy brooding that is characteristic of the Greeks, call it the Archaic Frown as juxtaposed to the Archaic Smile. Their most characteristic saying was, “It would be better never to have been born. But having been born, let us die as soon as possible”. That’s how pervasive the anxiety of fate and death was among the early Greeks. We talked at length last time about the prophesy that Achilles is to die at Troy, and what a burden it is for him to accept his mortality as it is fated for him at Troy. So this melancholy pervades the sayings of the Seven Wise Men; they’re reminiscent of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

You enter the ranks of the Presocratics with Thales, and his two successors were Anaxamander and Anaximines.

Aneximines said it’s all air. Well, you know, you’d expect a philosopher to finally come up with that one. Hot air. Anaxamander’s saying is the first full sentence that we have of Presocratic philosophy. I’ll give it to you, because it sums it all up. This is the first prose sentence of Greek philosophy: “From what source things arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed. For they suffer punishment and give satisfaction to one another for injustice according to the order of time.”

When I read that or think about it, I think of Suzuki Roshi doing the Zen circle, a circle he drew as an expression of Zen, an expression about the circle of birth and death, of genesis and decay. You know, the lines from Waiting for Godot: “We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant and then no more. Isn’t that enough for you?” It’s that same mood in Becket as it is with Kafka. The melancholy of despair. You get the impression with the Greeks that existence is the entrance to some monstrous tribunal, for which we are judged guilty, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with morality or anything we have done. It’s a cosmic fate; we’re guilty by virtue of existing. It is characteristic of a religious movement in Greece known as Orphism, where the soul is thought to have fallen from its starhood—we were once stars. And stars were pulverized, fragmented, and stardust fell to earth and so we have this stardust in us—star fragments that long to return to their heavenly origin. And they’re trapped in the body. It’s a pun in Greek: soma, sema. The Greek word for “body” is soma. And the body is understood as a prison—sema, that entraps us all. The prison of finitude.

It’s a strong thematic in Plato; he was influenced by Orphism. And it’s offset on the other hand—you always have to mention it that we all know how the Greeks adored the beauty of bodies and how much it’s expressed in Greek sculpting, and as well in the Platonic dialogues. So there’s this conflict in the Greek mind between somehow suffering this fate of being trapped in existence as a kind of tomb or prison that our souls want to be liberated from and yet the adoration of the body in Greek sculpting indicative of one of the greatest artistic achievements ever.

So from Anaxamander it goes to Anaximines after him, then Pythagoras— the great mathematician who had a kind of cult. He ran a religious confraternity and they had rituals and almost worshipped numbers. He was really the one that put mathematics on the map for the Greeks. It became an enormous resource and it’s really the heart of the Platonic dialogues. Plato took in Pythagoras, just as he did Orphism. It was a big eye-opener to realize how much Plato depends on and has reference to mathematics in the dialogues. After Anaximines comes Xenophanes. He’s one of my favorites because he’s the first theologian. He’s the one that says, Poets tell many a lie! He’s the one that mounts a huge criticism against Homer and Hesiod. He thinks what they say about the gods is unseemly. The Greek word is epiprepei. It’s a neat word; I like it. It’s epiprepei to say unseemly things about the gods. Xenophanes is a wonderful figure.

Parmenides is the greatest of the Presocratic philosophers, although Heraclitus vies with him for the title. Parmenides is the one who discovers being. He takes a chariot ride to the vision of being. It’s a fantastic poem that he composes to describe this ecstatic experience—it’s reason in ecstasy. And he makes this journey, he says, as far as his thumos could desire—taking him to the Gates of Night and Day, and there the goddess, Truth—Aletheia—greets him and throws off her veil and shows him the vision of being. And Parmenides says, “Is.” I mean, it’s not even correctly translated as “It is.” “Is.” And it cannot not be. It’s an unassailable affirmation of being that overcomes Parmenides at the climax of this chariot ride in this classic expression of self-transcendence.

It reminded me of the chariot ride that Telemachus takes to find out about his father. I think he goes to the court of—who was married to Helen? Menelaus? He goes to the court of Menelaus to see if there’s any information about his father and about the prospect of his return, and there’s some odd line, where Telemachus says who knows if he’s my father or not? That struck me in reading it—the doubt over one’s paternity is the beginning of philosophy. Namely, where did I come from? I don’t know if it ever struck you, but I can remember the moment when I’m walking upstairs in the house in Milwaukee where I grew up, and I looked down at my mother and father sitting in the front room and I thought: are they really my parents? You know? Maybe I’m an orphan. And I thought of it more of my father than my mother, which is probably the case. It’s a doubt over paternity. And it was really the beginning of what leads to what’s known as the shock of non-being. Why is there anything? Why not nothing? That’s considered to be the beginning of philosophy. It’s not really a question; it’s an outcry. It’s a shock. And it’s classical in the philosophical tradition. That moment on the stairs was the beginning of my career as a philosopher.

And so here’s Parmenides, who has the vision of being, and it becomes one of the major preoccupations of the Greeks, and from then on of philosophy altogether. It leads into the aspect of philosophy or the division of philosophy called metaphysics or ontology. I had to laugh thinking about this, when Clinton said, It depends on what you mean by the word “is.” The whole meditation on being of the Western tradition winds up in the oval office on its knees. That’s the kind of question you ask, when you’re thinking about the meaning of being. It is variations on the word, “is.” I remember taking a class in metaphysics at St. Olaf College, where I went to school. And I simply couldn’t make the move. I had a very intelligent friend, Osmond Overby, and he used to try to open me up for the meaning of the word “being,” which just didn’t ring. I mean, I didn’t know—I couldn’t make the move that was that abstract. I was incapable of that abstraction—it’s really the most abstract word there is, and yet at the same time, the most concrete. That’s what’s so peculiar about the word, “being.” Goethe said, Have you noticed how “being” everything is? I’ve always enjoyed that saying as a way of getting at being. The being of beings.

Here are the Presocratics. I wanted to give you the sense of who precedes Socrates before we hit the major event. And there is hardly any more that we need to attest to the fact that he is the event that he was, than the Platonic Dialogues. I compare them to the New Testament Gospels. The appearance of Jesus as the Christ was such an event that the Gospels were a response to the event. The appearance of Socrates was such an event that the Platonic Dialogues are the response. In both respects it’s as though the logos was made flesh. I have a hunch that the writer of John’s Gospel took his doctrine of the logos from Plato. “In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God and the logos was God. And the logos was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.”

We don’t get it if we translate it as “word,” because to us, words are arbitrary markers. We don’t have the almost magical, mystical understanding of the significance and power of words that was characteristic of the Greeks. So much so, that they thought anybody who didn’t speak Greek was a barbarian. That’s how much they prized their own language—by distinguishing themselves as Greek speakers from everyone else who didn’t speak Greek and had to be barbarians. Their language was imbued with the logos as no other. They were able to grasp reality because their language gave them the structure and the power of expression to do so. Reality was rationally structured thanks to the logos.

Here’s my charioteer of Delphi. It’s one of the greatest Greek sculptings there is. And just to give you an image of the chariot ride of Patroclus and the chariot ride of Parmenides.

[When I went to Greece a year after giving these talks, I saw the Charioteer of Delphi, on a visit to Delphi. It stands in a room by itself in the Museum at Delphi. I caught a glimpse of it over the heads of people in front of me as I approached the room and I said out loud: “here it comes!” I had a premonition that it was going to be the great moment of the trip and that I would be seized by the beauty of the sculpting, but I had no idea it would grasp me with the force that it did. As I stood and gazed upon it I burst into tears and had to bury my face in my hands until the seizure passed. It was the only time I wept looking at an art object. I was so moved I had to step up and give a brief talk about the chariot ride of Telemachus in search of his father and the chariot ride of Parmenides in his vision of being and the chariot ride of the soul past the mysteries in the myth told in Plato’s Phaedrus to the students on the tour and how this sculpting stood in relation to these three other signal moments in the history of Greek culture.

That’s Parmenides.

They say this is Heraclitus, and it might be. I had the impression if you looked at this face for half an hour, you’d become a philosopher. There’s something so awesome about what’s expressed in this bronze of a Greek thinker, either Heraclitus or whoever. Maybe Democritus. I think there’s another attribution that is Democritus, the father of Atomism. But it’s an awesome example—think of how we moved from the Archaic Smile to this. Now, this is the fullest arrival this side of Socrates of rational self-consciousness—no question about it. And the Archaic Smile has long been left behind.

There he is. So, I like comparing him to Jesus, although I don’t want to just indulge in hyperbole, but the comparison shows him off. Plato is like the Gospel writers in terms of what he received; something so revelatory took place in these respective figures, that they created a response that constitutes some of the greatest literature in the history of human culture. I don’t know of anything that can match the Platonic Dialogues—certainly nothing that I could think of in the history of philosophy.

Plato had been a tragedian. He had written tragedies until he encountered Socrates. And he left behind his career as a tragedian and dedicated himself to writing what he called the Truest Tragedy—namely the Socratic and Platonic dialogues. I would have been a little sheepish about the comparison of Socrates and Jesus if I hadn’t found out that Socrates was considered a savior by subsequent philosophical schools, because he overcame the anxiety of having to die. And for this reason they venerated Socrates. They didn’t really worship him, but they venerated him, almost to the point of worship. Socrates was no messiah. He was not the Christ, but he was a savior, because what he did had saving power. And he called philosophy therapy and how we ought to make ourselves as healthy as possible in both body and mind. So there was a therapeutic implication to what Socrates was after in speaking about the harmony that he thought could come from studying philosophy and becoming a philosopher, grasped by the Logos, the rational structure of reality.

I mentioned the logos. I’m sure that Plato thought that Socrates was the logos incarnate. And he has a number of clever ways for indicating that. One is comparing Socrates to the Silenes, who were these little figures that stood at crossroads, and the Marsyas. I’ll show you slides of those in a minute. The Marsyas were these little sculptings that if you broke them open they had something beautiful inside. So what is said about Socrates is that his ugly mask—his external physiognomy, which was considered to be ugly, so that he could be likened to the Silenus figure and the Marsyas figure, really was the mask for an inner beauty, and that if you could penetrate the mask of Socrates, you could see into his inner beauty—into his soul. Socrates is credited with discovering the soul—the spiritual center. We call it the centered self, in correlation with the structured world. That’s what the Greek understanding of logos comprehends. The Greek language was such that it could grasp reality, because it was in tune with reality, and you could give expression to reality because your centered self under the sway of rationality was correlated to a structured world. And this comes through loud and clear in the figure of Socrates.

Kairos is another nice term to use, in the fullness of time, as opposed to chronological time, it’s thought that in the fullness of time, Jesus as the Christ appeared, and Jesus was preceded by the prophets of Israel, just like Socrates was preceded by the Presocratic philosophers. And in the fullness of time they appeared. It was prepared for. And then the event is understood to be the event it is, because the fullness of time brought them forth.

He’s also called a midwife. His mother actually was a midwife, and it’s one of the great characteristics of Socrates that he did not convey content. He wasn’t interested in information. The Sophists were those who parlayed information; they were kind of encyclopedists of learning. You’d stick a dime in their mouth and they’d give you a talk on whatever. Socrates isn’t interested in generating or disseminating content; he wants to bring to birth in you the truth that’s yours. And for that reason he’s called a midwife. It’s probably the most famous metaphor for Socrates and gets at what he wanted to do in encountering anybody and talking to them. He is the occasion and not the cause for the birth that occurs.

He’s also called a stingray, because he wants to sting you—sting you into becoming awake. And this brings us to the line of thought that we set up last time that now comes to fruition, namely the conflict between philosophy and poetry. You have to read that as the conflict between the Socratic state of mind, the Platonic state of mind and the Homeric state of mind. They’re in radical conflict, thanks to Plato and Socrates. Why? Because under the sway of Homer, you will never learn how to think for yourself. If an issue comes up, you quote Homer. It’s ready to hand—it’s the tribal encyclopedia. And you can generate a quote for any kind of behavior or any kind of circumstance. Socrates says, No, no, no—when we bring up justice, let’s say—the most important of all themes—I don’t want you to give me an example from Homer, I want to know what you think about justice, and I want you to tell me what you think about justice in itself, per se.

So Socrates wants you to be able to conceptualize justice in order to arrive at a definition of justice in order to be rationally clear about it. And in all the early dialogues, there isn’t anybody that can figure out what he’s talking about, because they’re still burdened by the Homeric state of mind. Plato as much as denounces the Homeric state of mind as a pathology. It’s a pathological state of mind. I mean, that’s how nasty he is about it? Why? Because it generates a trance state. You listen to the Homeric poems and you go into a trance. How are you supposed to think for yourself in a trance? You can’t; you’re hypnotized. Now, come on, a stingray is to awaken you from that trance state. And that’s why the collision is so cruel.

So how did Plato encounter Socrates? I have answered this for myself in the following way. I’ve never been able to really check it out to see if it squares with the reality, and I don’t exactly know how to do that. But I put the following things together: the Peloponnesian War was such a huge experience for the Greeks—it undermined the consciousness of the Greeks. It broke them. At the early stage of the Peloponnesian war there was a plague and the plague affected people in Athens beyond your wildest imagination. Bodies piled up everywhere. And human beings became despicable and less than beasts. And so you have the problem of the plagued consciousness that Plato inherits. And a moment occurs when I think Plato’s relatives, who took over the government as tyrants, have Socrates in their power, because Socrates is a minor official, and so they—in order to implicate Socrates in their regime, order him to go and arrest an admiral for botching a sea campaign. And Socrates knows that it’s a setup, and that if he does it, he will have compromised his integrity, which is to say, in effect, undermined his soul. They’re asking him to give himself up, you know, be like Karl Rove.

And so, Socrates goes home. He doesn’t do what they ask him to do. Now, the implication is that he’s in effect willing to suffer arrest and execution for disobeying orders at that level, and I have the impression that this is what arrests Plato—that there’s one man in Athens whose moral integrity is still intact to the point where he would just as soon suffer death as go against his conscience. And Plato joins up. There is this one man, and it means everything to Plato that there is. I carry this moment all the way down to Emmanuel Kant— I have the impression that Kant is the one who formulated this moment in the biography of Socrates as the categorical imperative, namely: Never treat another human being as a means to your end, but always as an end in themselves. There’s something about the sanctity and dignity of a human being that you have to acknowledge. That’s the categorical imperative. It’s not hypothetical; it’s categorical! You don’t derive it from anything, namely, you’ll be punished if you don’t do that, or whatever. It’s categorical. It’s true in and of itself in the encounter of human being with human being. And Kant has a slight variation to it and says: So universalize your behavior in what you do, as if to say, What if everyone did that? Think of your behavior as universally applicable.

So this categorical imperative first shows up in the behavior of Socrates and the person of Socrates, and it’s what grasps Plato. It’s an absolute. We live in an age of relativism. There’s no question about that. Relativism has seeped into everything. I got tired of a dentist who came to the Penny University and whenever he felt like it, he’d say, Well, everything’s relative. And it took me a while to figure out what to say to him—namely, that it was a self-contradiction. I mean, everything can’t be relative. Not everything. That’s an absolute statement. If you tell him that, he can’t say, Okay, then, almost everything is relative. That gives up the point. You can’t exempt the statement from what it purports to mean.

So you can say that one problem we have if we’re so inclined is to search for absolutes. And the categorical imperative for me is one that’s unassailable. That’s an absolute. So it has its first expression in Socrates. And what’s amazing about Kant is that before he formulates the categorical imperative, he gives two examples. One is kind of a funny one: a guy is on his way to a whore house and you say, Hey, wait a minute, you’re going to violate the categorical imperative, and he, Yeah, uh-huh, uh-huh. And so he doesn’t’ care, because he’s under the compulsion of unassuageable lust. And so Kant says, Okay, then you tell him, All right, go ahead and satisfy yourself and violate the categorical imperative, but when you come out, we’re going to hang you. [deflating whistle] Okay, so much for his lust. Then Kant goes on to say, Now, even though this is difficult to entertain, and we can’t ever imagine this ever happening, think of someone who would rather die than compromise themselves in terms of their moral integrity. And I thought, Oh! Kant could have had Socrates in mind in the formulating of the categorical—because that’s exactly what he did and it is what arrests Plato and gets his attention.

So that was a great realization. Categorical imperative is really a kind of a sophisticated update of the Golden Rule. But that’s why it’s golden, you know? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and often it’s formulated negatively: Don’t do to others as you wouldn’t have them do unto you. So the categorical imperative is a refined formulation of the Golden Rule, and it finds its embodiment in Socrates.

Okay, let’s go to the Republic. Socrates’ greatest hour. It’s probably the most popular and important dialogue of Plato’s and it’s where he takes on Homer. And where it’s made clear that we have to do a whole new educational system, now that rational self-consciousness and literacy has occurred in Athens, and we have to kick out the poets, because they induce this trance state, which is pathological and you’re going to have to wake people up. What they’re after is human autonomy. Find your self. Come to your own self law. Autonomy. And so the first note struck on behalf of human autonomy is struck by Socrates and Plato. And one of the best formulators of that, again, is Kant. He wrote an essay called What is Enlightenment? And he says it’s autonomy. It’s becoming your own boss. Autos nomos, the law unto yourself, where you think for yourself. And this is the message of the Platonic/Socratic event.

Think of Delphi—okay, somebody goes to the Delphic Oracle and says, Who’s the wisest of men? And she says, Socrates. This is where it happened. So Socrates thinks, I’ll tell you what: I’ve gone around and talked to all kinds of people –shoemakers, leather makers, politicians, artists, sculptors—and, you know, they’re okay in terms of what they do, but nobody would think that they really were particularly wise. And so I guess what the Delphic Oracle must have meant is my confession of my self-delusion.

Now this, for me in my studies with this material is the most important thing that I’ve come to. The confession of self-delusion. Let’s go back to the Iliad and a theme which I neglected to bring up last time, but it’s important and germane for tonight. It’s the confession of Agamemnon. I always slip a little on the book—it’s the 19th book of the Iliad, when Agamemnon wants to make up to Achilles. And so he comes to—not exactly apologize—he says, Achilles, you know, it’s not my fault. Ate made me do it. Ate was the reason for our having our conflict. And he tells the Myth of Ate, which is one of the greatest things I know. Ate is the eldest daughter of Zeus. And he tells about the time when Ate deluded Zeus and led him astray. There’s a kind of slide form deception to delusion. Almost like neurosis and psychosis—delusion is deception carried to its extreme. It’s to be radically deceived. And deluding– a Latin word, luden, means to play. And delusion is faking yourself out, which can be a very nasty experience.

So Socrates is in tune with this problem of Ate, the eldest daughter of Zeus who led Zeus astray and as a result, Zeus threw her out of Olympus once he finds out. And now she walks lightly over the heads of all men and women and leads everyone astray. Ate is the cognate in the word “inf-atu-ation.” Ate goes to atu. Ate is the blinding that leads to rash acts that eventuates in self-destruction. Ate is the imp in imp-ulse. Tell that to a teenager. Most of us here, I hope, have managed to get through the period where Ate held sway over us, even though it can still be the case. We know where impulsive behavior gets us.

But the Greeks were so worried about impetuous acts because of some kind of blindness to the circumstances that would lead to their self-destruction. And so it’s of interest to me to take the Socratic confession of self-delusion as the transformation of Ate into his good daemon. Ate becomes the Socratic daemon which was unique to him. He always speaks about this daemon that is characteristic of him. It’s like his conscience, but it’s—it’s like a guardian angel, and it always tells him what not to do. So it’s a check on his impulses. And so his confession of self-delusion, in association with his guardian angel, is his way of overcoming the ordinary propensity for self-delusion. And you know what it did? It made Socrates transparent. The confession of self-delusion makes you transparent. And that’s why I like to associate it with repentance. If you repent, you become transparent— before God. And the confession of self-delusion is transparency in a comparable way. The Greek word is metanoia— to have a radical transformation of one’s mind.

Now, this is difficult to take in, because everywhere today you read about the Socratic confession of ignorance. And I don’t know of anybody, anywhere, in any of the literature today that refers to it as the confession of self-delusion, let alone associate it with the confession of Agamemnon in the Homeric Iliad and the figure of Ate as the background for this. I don’t know why this has happened. It may have happened because of the translation into Latin. I think “ignorance” is a Latinate. And so you lose the force of it altogether. It’s not that you didn’t know something and could just as well have been informed—heh? It’s that you were deluded. You thought you knew and you didn’t! That’s the force of the issue of delusion and what make Socrates unique and the wisest of men, because he confesses it—Now, how was he able to do that? I don’t know. Grace. He has the grace to confess his self-delusion. Now, that’s, to me, pinning the tail on the donkey. The Socratic confession of self-delusion and the myth of Ate—don’t forget it. It’s bingo time in the history of ideas.

Okay, the Republic again. It starts out with the words, “I went down.” [whistle] That’s one of the things about the Platonic Dialogue. They’re set up in a literary context where every word and every description of the situation has bearing on what’s being expressed. I went down to the Piraeus. Okay, “I went down?—the Greek word is kateben—big deal? Okay, the parable of the cave. You want to go down into the cave? And the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic, and the underworld experience of the fate of souls after death. So that’s what the word rings in the opening of the Republic. And I’ll just mention briefly the ring of Gyges which comes up early. The two—I think they’re brothers of Plato. They’re relatives for sure: Glaucon and Adeimantus are discussing with Socrates what justice is. And they start out by saying—you know, first of all in the first book, I think, Thrasymachus kind of balls into their midst. He’s like a general, he’s a militant, he’s like a prizefighter and he’s kind of laughing at all this bullshit and he says, You want to know what justice is? It’s the right of the mighty. And if you don’t believe it, I’ll kick the shit out of you! Now, does anyone have anything to say? And they all go, Aw, you know—and he finally leaves, but, you know, that sets the stage. That’s one definition of justice. The mighty rule. And they say what justice is.

So the two boys say to Socrates, Okay, what about the ring of Gyges? It’s this ring that a shepherd name Gyges finds in a cave and he puts it on and he becomes invisible. So what does he do? He goes and kills the king and fucks the queen! Now wouldn’t everybody do that? You know, if they could get away with it? I mean, doesn’t invisibility confer on you whatever you want to do? So what Plato’s getting at here is the issue of Socrates’ transparency. And that there’s a big difference between being invisible and being transparent. It isn’t an issue of whether you can get away with it. It’s the character of your soul.

Then you get the parable of the cave. And you can take that as Plato’s reading of the transition from Homeric consciousness to Socratic consciousness. You know, in the Homeric state of mind you’re chained in the cave and you’re looking at these shadows of images of reality. There’s a walkway up above—behind you—and in front of some lights like fires there are parading images of reality to cast their shadows on the wall of the cave—sounds like television. And everybody sits there thinking that that’s it. And then one of them breaks free of his chains and he goes up and he sees the light of day and he’s so amazed that he comes back down to tell everybody and they kill him. So it’s obviously a parable of the fate of Socrates, but it’s also a parable about the overcoming of Homeric consciousness, or the Homeric state of mind and coming into the light of day through rational self-consciousness and one’s own autonomy.

I’ll leave the Myth of Er for later. It’s my favorite thing in all of Plato. Want to go next?

This is a nice book: The Masks of Socrates and why he became the image of the intellectual or really the man of wisdom, which is a much better attribution in the entire late ancient period. Next.

There he is again. Next.

There he is again. Next.

That’s where he’s compared to a Silenes. Next.

Into Marsyas, I mean, where you break that guy open and you get a beautiful image inside. So those are wonderful comparisons. Next.

Well, I’ll get to him later. That’s Alcybiades. God! Well, maybe I’ll talk about him now. I mean, he’s the nephew of Pericles. The fortunes of Athens rest on his shoulders. He inherits it. And he is this rude, vital force that cannot be tempered. You can’t put any reins on him. I mean, he just is recklessly wild. He’s somebody who simply refuses to be transformed, even to the point of assuming the responsibilities that he has toward Athens as the successor to Pericles as his nephew. And he becomes a student of Socrates. What does he try to do? He tries to seduce Socrates. He’s attracted to him. Socrates is ugly, but hey, he didn’t care. And so they go to bed one night. And nothing happened. And they wake up in the morning and Alcybiades realizes that he’s been seduced, but in a way that he finds difficult to accept, namely, he somehow met the one who puts him before himself, and he refuses to face it. And so he betrays Socrates. And he does everything he can to avoid him. And it’s one of the tragic couplets in the history of culture that somehow Alcybiades couldn’t get it and couldn’t be another Plato. And couldn’t respond to what Socrates communicated. He even betrays Athens and goes over to the enemy and the night he does it, it’s rumored that he mutilated the figures and the Silene, the figures that were in the crossroads that they thought looked like Socrates. And when Socrates is arrested, one of the charges against him is that he led the youth of Athens astray and he doesn’t believe in the gods, and it’s the consequence of what Alcybiades did that leads to the execution of the teacher that he rejects. There’s a wonderful Life of Alcybiades by Plutarch. I urge you to get it. I mean, Plutarch does these fabulous vignettes. Got one of Socrates and Plato. But the one of Alcybiades is choice, because it really gives you a sense of the reckless figure that Alcybiades was and the tragedy that occurs because he refuses to be transformed by Socrates.

Okay, the Myth of Er. (Do the next one.) Well, that’s the prison where Socrates was incarcerated. Can you believe that? It’s there today. This is at the foot of the Acropolis. And you can probably enter the same cell where Socrates was in prison.

Okay, the Myth of Er. The end of Plato’s Republic. It’s one of the great achievements of Plato’s authorship. And it’s again juxtaposed against Homer. He has Socrates begin by saying, I’m going to tell you a myth that’s not the one that Odysseus told at the Court of Alkinous on the Island of Phaeacia which has to do eventually with his descent into the underworld—nuh-uh-uh, this is not going to be a Homeric myth. I’m going to tell you a philosophical myth about the fate of souls after death. It’s all about Er, a Pamphylian, which is a pun—it means every man—from every phylum or race. He’s left for dead on the battlefield. And while he’s in this death trance, his soul gets to journey to the place where souls gather before they’re reborn. And this is his story.

And it’s too complicated for me to reconstruct for you, but it’s haunted me every since I’ve i fallen in love with it. When I left Cambridge, after being there for ten years teaching at Harvard and MIT, I was going to enact the Myth of Er with a friend of mine who was a performance artist, Gerd Stern, and we were going to do it at the Carpenter Center, which is the only Le Corbusier building in the country, and the director of it was a friend of ours but proposed it too late. There wasn’t time to put it on. [laughs] I’ll tell you why I was going to do it.

Er watches how souls who have undergone a thousand-year period of reward or punishment come down from above or up from below and gather for a kind of week-long all-souls festival, where they tell one another what they’ve enjoyed or suffered. The issue is that on a hundred-year life you pay the penalty or get the reward times ten. That’s why it’s a thousand-year period. And at the end of that you come back to undergo the ritual I’ll describe as you’re about to be reborn into your next life.

So after stories are exchanged, the souls are led to the center of the universe, where the great goddess Ananke sits enthroned—Fate, also known as Necessity. And before her sit her three daughters, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who represent past, present and future. And the spindles of the universe turn on the lap of the maiden goddess necessity Ananke. And Sirens stand at various points on these spindles and emit one note, the music of the spheres. And the fates, her daughters, who sit before her, turn the spindles, one with one hand, one with the other hand, and the other with both hands.

And so to this center of the universe the souls are brought. And at a given hour an unnamed prophet—guess who?—steps out and addresses them with the word that I would say is the most penetrating word of the Greek psyche: ephemeroi. Creatures of a day. Now is another cycle of mortal generation, where birth is the beacon of death. Each shall choose their own destiny. God is blameless. And he throws out numbered lots, and according to your number, you get to step up to a whole panorama of psyches, of characters to choose from which will be your next one as you’re reborn. And you pass under the throne of Ananke and you cross a plane that is stifling hot that brings you to waters that you drink too much of. The plain is known as the “Plain of Forgetfulness”—Lethe. It’s often confused with the river, which is Amelas. That’s usually thought of as the River of Lethe. Even back in ancient times, but that’s not what Er’s account indicates. Anyhow, you cross this plane that’s stifling hot—the Plain of Forgetfulness, and you’re made to drink of the waters of oblivion, which is also translated as “carefree.” And then you’re wafted up to your new birth as a shooting star. And so Er revives to tell the tale, and Socrates says, And the tale was saved and it’ll save us as we believe it.

In trying to fathom the meaning of this myth—because I don’t believe in the after-life—I mean, not in the sense of some post-mortal continuation of this temporal time-span, and in spite of guys like that Edwards on T.V., who wants to know if my mother’s maiden name began with a P. You have to think of it as a myth. And the reason why it’s a myth is because Plato makes it clear that you can’t express this theme of the fate of the soul in any other way; you have to use mythical symbols. This is some kind of mythical time; not a post-mortal continuation of this time. It’s like a time that’s characterized in the perfect tense—past perfect, present perfect, future perfect. That’s the temporal tense of myth and mythical symbols, not to be confused with ordinary time. The time that transcends ordinary time; the time of self-transcendence. The purpose of the Myth of Er, and it’s indicated almost by the fact that in the middle of the telling of the myth, Socrates breaks it off, and he says, Now wait, lest we have generated a trance state like Homer in having this imaginative narrative told, come on, wake up to it. Do you get what’s expressed here? You’re going to have to be reborn according to how you’ve lived this life and you’re going to suffer punishment or reward, accordingly. And if you got the whole point of the myth it’s that things were exchanged pretty much. The people who suffered were very careful about what they chose the next time around. And the people who enjoyed a thousand years, they were a little reckless about what they chose, so everything was kind of exchanged.

And Socrates says, Now wait—you know, the meaning of this myth is now. The Myth of Er is happening now. You have to think of it not as a horizontal continuation, but as a vertical trans-section. It cuts through now and you have to understand that you’re listening to it with me. And it takes on an entirely different character, as a way of expressing the dynamics of what it meant to encounter Socrates. I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that, although Eric Voegelin manages to put it perfectly and here is what he says:

“The great demand on man’s spiritual strength is clarified in the symbolism of the Last Judgment as Plato develops it in his Gorgias. To his sophist opponents, who operate with the ethic of worldly success of the man of power, Plato counters with the argument that “success” in life consists in standing before the judges of the dead. Before these judges the soul stands stripped of the husk of the body and the cloak of earthly status, in complete transparency. And life should be led in anticipation of this final transparency, sub specie
mortis, rather than under the compulsions of the will to power and social status. What is being expressed symbolically in the Platonic myth, as in all myths of judgment, is the border experience of the examination of conscience. Over and above the normal testing of our actions against the standards of rational ethics, which is called conscience and which we men perform, the experience of examination can be elaborated meditatively and expanded to the experience of standing in Judgment. Man knows that even the most conscientious self-examination is limited by the bounds of his humanity: breakdowns in judgment; on principle, incomplete knowledge of all the factors of the situation and of all the ramifications of action; and, above all, inadequate knowledge of his own ultimate motives, which reach into the unconscious. Proceeding by way of meditative experiment from this knowledge of the limitations of self-appraisal, one can imagine the situation in which a man is to be judged, not at a particular moment in a particular situation of his life and before himself alone, but on the basis of his entire life (which is completed only in death) and before an omniscient judge, before whom there is no longer any pleading of special points and no argument or defense is possible because everything, even the least and most remote, is already known. In this meditation at the border, all pro and con fall silent, and nothing remains but the silence of the judgment that the human being has spoken upon himself with his life.

Plato carried out this meditation—otherwise he could not have composed his myth of the judgment. But if we put ourselves in the situation in which he has his Socrates relate the myth to his sophist opponents and if we ask about the possibility of its having affected these hardboiled Realpolitiker, standing firmly in “life,” then we must again doubt that many took to heart and let their existence be formed by it—even though while listening, they may have been profoundly touched for a moment. The meditation itself and, still more, existence in its tension would be unbearable for most men.“
Eric Voegelin: Science, Politics and Gnosticism, p.85-86.

I wish I could take the time to tell you what these two paragraphs mean to me as an expression of this existential moment when the stakes involved in the encounter with Socrates are made clear in their ultimate meaning so that we could face up to it, you and I together. I suppose to do so we would have to go on a retreat. And even though Voegelin is speaking about the myth of judgment in the Gorgias it applies directly, as well, to the myth of Er in the Republic.

 

I wanted to perform this myth at the Carpenter Center at Harvard and I was going to ask Erik Erikson, who was my doctoral thesis advisor, if he would play the part of the unnamed prophet. This would have been the coup of the century, because Erikson was the successor to Freud and the major theoretician of human identity. And he looked a little like Zeus. He had this huge head of white hair and he was immensely handsome and dignified. I was going to dress him up in a tuxedo and he was going to step out and say, Creatures of a day! Now you’re going to choose your new identity. We didn’t get to do it. I wanted to be wafted up to my new birth like a shooting star as I moved to Santa Cruz.

In the Republic, you have the elaboration of the Platonic structure of consciousness, which I’ve given to you on your sheet. You know, so here’s maybe the signal moment of the move from Homer to Plato. Homer, no structure, a play of forces in a kind of field, no centered self in correlation with a structured world—it’s incipient—okay, okay, it’s on the rise, you have Odysseus, he’s moving there as one of the leading figures of his culture, but they aren’t there yet. Not until Socrates appears on the scene and Plato receives what is revealed through him. And so Plato is able to formulate the structure of rational self-consciousness and show you what it is.

Now, psyche is the word for consciousness of Plato. Nous is the word for reason. And thumos, my favorite word of all, is this middle ground between reason and desire. You have this dynamic center that can go either way—toward the fulfillment of yourself, the actualization of yourself, participation in the true, the good and the beautiful, which is eros that carries you to it. Eros is the “unreflective striving toward what is noble.” It’s a fabulous word and a great definition for it. Eros is the upstroke of thymos and I put Ate as the downstroke. Ate is the impulse to self-destruction. That’s how fragile and dynamic this center is, and maybe that’s why it’s fallen out of models of knowledge. It was practically eliminated by Descartes and from then on. You don’t get—no more thumos. I thought with the rediscovery or the discovery at all of the thymus gland as the glandular basis for thumos, the master organ of the immune system, couldn’t we bring thymic consciousness back again? Would that we could.

One of the legacies of tonight and last time is for you to take thought of your thumos, this middle ground that is so significant and important for Plato but that we find rather hollow and empty. You could say that this is the region of our anxiety: what was fate and death for the ancients—is meaninglessness and emptiness for us. All the talk about self-empowerment and—what’s the other one?—self esteem, I mean, it always reminds me of force-feeding a goose. You might get a big liver, but you’re not going to do much for the thumos. If only this became the subject matter of self-esteem and self empowerment you’d get some where. Because this is the vital center. And it’s so pathetic. It’s so—you know, we’re hollow men and hollow women, in terms of what this represents to us. So think of this as something to meditate upon and to learn how to love. Learn how to love your thymus. After I got into all—there’s actually some kind of Australian guy that wrote a book about how to love your thymus gland. And I thought that somebody had done it—a joke, just to tease me. But aa, it just was one of those coincidences. And he propose the thymus thump. You know, Roman Catholics do this: mea culpa, mea culpa. And so he said, You know, love your thymus by letting it know you know it’s there. So thumos, that’s the great Platonic word that we need to recover.

Hey, we’re right there. I just got a couple things to say and we’re done. I asked Bernie Le Boeuf last time how he did and he said he went on ten minutes too long. Thumos…Okay next.

Okay, this is it. Let me do this one. So when I turned 50 I sat down at my IBM Selectric typewriter and I typed out the long lost last dialogues of Socrates. I had a kind of inspirational fit. And I knew the location of the original Platonic Academy in Athens through a philosopher at Yale named Robert Brumbaugh. So I had called my garage here the Platonic Academy when I turned it into my office after I left the university. I was a little sheepish about, you know—from Athens to Florence to Santa Cruz in my garage, but I was inspired to do it, because in California if you name it you got it—you know, going back to the Gold Rush—you stake your claim. And the sign on Highway 280—the Junipero Serra Freeway, the most beautiful freeway in the world. Okay. So I call my garage the Platonic Academy. So I had an inspiration in the Platonic Academy. So I started writing the long-lost last dialogues of Socrates as the consequence of a psychic archaeological dig that I had performed on the original site of the Platonic Academy in Athens. The story is that Socrates didn’t really die. The friends of Socrates had bribed one of the guards and he gave Socrates an herbal concoction—not the hemlock—that induced a deep trance state in Socrates and his vital signs went down to the point where the authorities thought he had died, and they surrendered his body to his friends, who were supposed to bury him, but they squirreled him away and he revived and this is what he said. And you know, because he survived a kind of out of body experience, and a death experience he was willing to revise a lot of things, so he started thinking, Well, you know, maybe we were too hard on Homer. You know, this quarrel between philosophy and poetry—we don’t want that to last 2000 years. Maybe we’ll think that through again, you know? And so I play it out.

Well, I had a student at Santa Cruz who went to Athens—studied philosophy here—his name was Rick Baker. Is he here tonight? He was here two weeks ago. He sent this card to me. It’s a post card—you know, it’s probably a hundred years old, showing the prison where Socrates was incarcerated and it was one of my most precious, you know, mementos. So I put it on the front of this manuscript. And he shows up two weeks ago—not having seen him for, I don’t know, 30 years, and there he was: Rick Baker. So, thanks Rick.

So there he is. Now, I’ll just give you one last point on this. It’s called the pharmakon. I got it from Derrida. You can get it from reading Derrida’s Disseminations. I gave you the reference in the bibliography. And the first chapter’s called “Plato’s Pharmacy.” This is a knock-out. Derrida seems to be the only guy that was able to bring this up. They had a festival in Athens on the 6th day of Thargelion in the Athenian calendar. And it was known as the Festival of the Scapegoat, the Greek word for which is pharmkcon. Pharmakon means remedy, charm, recipe, drug and scapegoat, as in the wounded healer. Poisons in proper doses are remedies. And on the 6th day of Thargelion the Athenians had saved a criminal for the purpose—they fatted him up a little bit on barley cakes and honey, and they led him out to the outermost precincts of the city, where they beat him on his genitals with leeks, murdered him and burned him, in order to rid the city of pollution. The Festival of the Pharmakon. The wounded healer. Socrates was born on the 6th day of Thargelion.

Thank you.

[applause]

Want to do the next one? That’s the noble head of Plato. This is the Platonoic Academy. Oh, I gotta tell you this—I’m so glad I remembered. Okay, the first Platonic Academy lasted a thousand years. It was closed by Justinian. The second Platonic Academy was the result of a guy by the name of George Gemistos who was a Byzantine scholar from Byzantium who comes to a council in Florence in the early part of the 15th century—let’s say 1440 or so. Now, he had taken the name Pletho, but he meant Plato. He just spelled it differently out of deference, but he liked being known as Pletho. I mean, it’s—so he meets Cosimo de Medici and he introduces himself: My name is Pletho. And I think you should restart the Platonic Academy—you’ve got an extra villa. And Cosimo de Medici says, Okay. And Pletho says, I’ll give you the texts that you don’t have in Greek. You gotta find somebody that can learn Greek to translate them into Latin, and that’ll begin the Italian Renaissance. It’ll be the centerpiece of the Italian Renaissance—the re-establishment of the Platonic Academy and the recovery of the ancient sources of wisdom. And Cosimo says, Okay. And so—I mean, this is a true story. We were going to buy the villa. I mean, it was for sale a couple years ago. I thought I could sell one of my houses—I got two houses in Santa Cruz. I could sell one and buy the original Florentine Platonic Academy and get out of my garage. So anyhow, he hires Cosimo—no, his name is Cosimo—he hires Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and what Marsilio Ficino writes as a consequence of translating Plato is The Platonic Theology. Now, it’s only here tonight—I think the only place in this country at this time where you would hear a discourse on the theological dimension of Socrates and Plato that actually goes back to the Italian Renaissance, and it’s being translated and published by Harvard University Press as we speak—the multi-volumes of Marsilio Ficino’s The Platonic Theology, which has been almost completely forgotten. And so this is one of my favorite stories in the sense of how the Platonic Academy came to Florence in the 15th century. And here we are again tonight, as though in an eternal return, meditating on these issues which I think will never die.

Thank you. [applause]

How about that? Whoo! So we can take just a few minutes for questions and I think we should let everybody go that wants to and if some of you want to stay and come up to the front, we can talk a little more. But, you know, five, ten minutes for questions is enough for us to undergo—yes.

Question: What movements or writers, thinkers-what groups of people do you see currently that kind of give you hope that they’re really carrying this on and fanning it, keeping the experiment going?

No, it’s gone. It’s not being continued. To me the symptomatic moment was when they gave up Classics at UCSC. And they folded it under history. I didn’t even know that until a couple years ago when I picked up my friendship with John Lynch, who was Provost of [...?...] College and a professor of Classics. And he said, No, there—I still have 30, 40, 50 students that study Greek and so on, but the Classics department is gone. I fault myself. I wanted to start an actual Platonic Academy in Santa Cruz and just get a house and have students live there and develop a library and have it a center for Platonic studies in order to pick the whole show up, but I never did it.

So most of what I said tonight is pretty much passé. I mean, you can’t get this line on Socrates for sure. And not in any way the theological dimension of Socrates. Plato coined the word “theology.” That’s where it starts, and it’s because of Socrates that he did it. He had to hit that dimension—the Socratic soul. If we see, perceive another soul in those rare moments in our life that are really magical, that’s what happened between Plato and Socrates. And so it was really Plato who assisted in the discovery of the soul at the hands of Socrates. So you can try. I mean, I don’t—I think academic philosophy is, you know, a lost cause. It’s just a—you know, at least the whole humanities is a lost cause. The chancellor before the previous one, Marcie Greenwood, consistently referred to it as a major research institution. She never referred to it as a university. And I thought, Okay. I mean, that’s being honest about it. And so you follow the money and where the resources are given and humanities is really, you know, left out. I mean, it’s still strong in itself. There are still students interested in it, but it’s pretty much hard to get a job. My father wanted to know, Why do you go into philosophy? What’s it good for? Next? Yes.

Question: I find it ironic that you have a post card of Socrates’ prison. And earlier you described Socrates description of the body as being prison or tomb.

Exactly. Good Point. Thank you so much. I hadn’t thought of that. You see how such associations lie latent in the material and seem inexhaustible.

Question (cont’d): Now, Socrates chose not to go into exile. He chose to give up his life for obedience to the laws of Athens. Will you please explain?

Right, well, Aesculapius was the Greek god of healing. And so there’s a wonderful way in which one can expand on that and I don’t know if I can find the words to do it now. But that’s why he said offer a cock to Aesclepius and as I go to my death I go in the notion that I’ll be healed. I’ll be saved. Salvation is an event of cosmic healing. Socrates had some sense of that. When you spoke about the fact that he didn’t escape—his friends tried to get him out so he would escape his execution. And it’s been a big problem ever since: why didn’t he take them up on it? Well, even though he was born on the 6th day of Thargelion and was, in a way, the scapegoat, he didn’t want to become one in that sense, namely a refugee from Athens. It was a bad space to be a fugitive a refugee, as a person who fled. It carried a curse. And he didn’t want that onus on himself. So in a way he was a conservative. He wanted to subject himself to the objective principles of his society, which included the laws, and even if they could be construed to be unjust in this or that point, as a formal issue, he was willing to submit himself. And this was part of his honest, objective research and action in which the results of this research was actualized in practice. His subjectivity is subordinated to objective norms regarding logic and ethics. And so, I think in order to bear witness to this subjection to objective norms, he decided to remain and take his punishment. It is one of the major reasons for his becoming the symbol of the wise man in the face of adversity for succeeding generations. He was venerated for it.

Question: Can you explain the last lines at the end of the Republic in terms of the idea that one has to pay the doctor for healing and my interpretation that Socrates was saying: Thank you for healing me.

Well, you said it yourself. You know, I can’t do any better than that. The only thing that comes to mind, now, is that the people around Socrates and Plato called themselves the Fellowship of the Swans, which I like a lot, because the Swan sings a song when it dies. And it’s known as the Swan song. And that’s why they called themselves the fellowship of the Swans. So this meditation on mortality—this exquisite sense of being ephemeral, and that we are bound for something more than what we can grasp or put our hands on—this quest for absolutes is what I like most of all about the Greeks. And so these dying words—these last words of Socrates are very precious. And how you interpret the offering the cock to Aesculapius, the god of healing, it just kind of speaks for itself.

Question: I was curious, in the reclamation of some sort of thymic consciousness, do you think that there’s any value in the kind of proto-existentialist position—I’m thinking particularly of Nietzsche in this case, who was very involved in trying to recapture or regenerate a Presocratic mindset—a kind of Dionysian Presocratic mindset, or is that too much of a funhouse mirror, do you think, of what was intended and what was thought by that early generation of Greeks?

You can carry that a long way, namely he was very ambivalent about Socrates and what rationality did to vitality or the will to power. And so he wanted to go back to the Homeric heroes, you know, where vitality was unalloyed. He didn’t even like the moment between impulse and act. He wanted to get it on. I mean, it’s the will to power, which is the will to vital self-affirmation. And he saw the Homeric hero the exemplar of that. And Socrates—you know, it’s like, To be or not to be—you know, it’s the Hamlet soliloquies and you never get around to letting the son of a bitch have it! So Nietzsche was ambivalent about it, even though Nietzsche’s one of the greatest exemplars of rational self-consciousness. He had this thing about Socrates. Okay, so I tried a little bit last time to talk about, you know, so-called primitive or native peoples worldwide, and am I going to fault them, because they’re not rationally self-conscious? I don’t think so. I’ve got these books on Eskimos or Inuit that show faces of 50 to 75 years ago, where the intelligence is so manifest that you just want to, pause before it. So, that’s the problem in terms of What did we get ourselves into as we set on this course that is nearly—and not even nearly—exclusively male, and that has been such a dominating power in world history that we’re not over it yet. So there’s a lot of kind of reassessment that needs to be done about rational self-consciousness predicated on literacy. I went to a seminar—or a conference—on literacy in Nebraska one time. And I took the position that I would rather have not learned how to read out of deference to native peoples. I would have liked the kind of consciousness that was pre-literate and pre-rational. And they thought I was nuts. Who is this guy? So that’s how tragic the issue is in these conflicts of cultures and one superseding another. Yes.

Question: The highest mysteries are those of Diotima. And those mysteries are metaphorical and poetic and I was wondering– most of Plato’s Dialogues do end up with a myth that expresses the inexpressible.

Right.

Question (cont’d): Would that be the feminine?

I guess. I mean, Diotima initiated Socrates into the vision of beauty and that’s good enough for me. Diotima was so powerful as a priestess in Athens that she held off the plague for X number of years. It’s a wonderful thing to say about her. She initiated Socrates. So she’s definitely a fabulous figure, and her speech in the Symposium is recounted is one of the great texts in the Platonic Dialogues. So we got that. And it’s nice to bring her up. One more.

Question: Id’ like you to elaborate on the discovery of the soul. Could you expand on that?

You see, as soon as you ask, our language is so unstable, you know, between spirit and soul, and we don’t know exactly how to go with it. Once I got the meaning of thumos as the biological soul, then I had it grounded. So then I can think of spirit as something that transcends the biological soul, even though we define thumos as spirited. So the instability of the language of soul and spirit, even in reference to the body is something we’ve got to live with. It’s been a huge relief to me to have a reference to the body of a biological soul—a biologically grounded soul in the concept of thumos, as this middle ground between reason and desire. It’s so dynamic it can go either way. And then the spiritual dimension opens up above that, as far as what is revealed in Socrates and this is expressed in experiences of transcendence and Socrates was known for his trance states, once on the battle field and upon entering the banquet in the Symposium. When Parmenides takes his chariot ride, he says it’s as far as his thumos could desire, it’s an experience of transcendence: reason in ecstasy. That’s definitely spiritual, so you know, once you get into the dynamics of self-transcendence, then you can talk, I think, about the spiritual dimension that opens up, as long as you keep this reference to the soul that is related to the body in thumos, in order to ground it. This is what we’ve lost. That’s why spirit and soul are so free-floating and don’t seem to have any meaningful referent for us. If we could restore this middle ground—the spirited part of ourselves in the thymic field, then we’d be better off. Take my word for it.

Thank you.

1 comment to Socrates and the Rise of Rational Self-consciousness in Ancient Greece

  • Carlo

    I enjoed your summary of the Greeks’ dialectic approach to life and death. My personal thought on the differences between Homer and Socrates, are based on two things: Homer saw the world from the outside ruled by the Gods, which ultimately made men feel inferior and powerless in their destiny and how they viewed and interacted in their world.
    Socrates on the other hand, dealt with the world inside of men, let them experience their personal feelings and reach their own conclusions on how to deal with everyday life, and thus accept death as part of life. Hence, he was a psychological midwife extricating the living thoughts within us all, which ultimately leads to maturity and intellectual indipendence. And that was the crime he was executed for.
    Paradoxically, for Socrates, the Greek state replaced the world (ie. the Gods) of Homer, in decreeing his death sentence. The big questions we have today are whether we are living in that same “state” that executed Socrates ? and have we evolved at all as individuals to the maturity level that Socrates aspired?

    Those answers are stii debated and probably will be for a long time to come.

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