It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said 'Bother!' and 'O blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat.
------------ Kenneth Grahame
Saturday, May 13, 2023
Thursday, May 04, 2023
Making My Heart Beat
Thunderstorm at dawn: deep dark with lightning,
and now a morning pretending nothing ever happened,
but a gore of draggled blossom spread across the walk.
Wednesday, April 19, 2023
A Living Thing
Note that every human being has two souls, a mortal one based in the trunk and an immortal one based in the head, with further subdivisions and hierarchy within the mortal one. And it is part of the lower soul, seated in the liver, that dreams and practices divination. (Which must then be interpreted by the rational upper soul to make it useful knowledge.)
Then there’s the daft, immensely entertaining description of how and why the Demiurge created the human body: it’s extraordinary that seasoned veterans of of edged-weapon warfare could be so ignorant of human anatomy (no, Tim, there is one abdominal aorta in the center, not a matched pair on either side of the spine!), but there it is. Also – but this is more understandable, in a rabid patriarchy – total ignorance of embryology. The fact that every known human being starts little and grows up has apparently made no impression on these men at all.
So yes, all the exasperation that Enlightenment science, not to mention feminism, finds in a text like this is well-earned. So much wasted intellectual effort! Start at step A and think up any old crude version of a falsifiable test, and you wouldn’t need to bother with any other steps. This is ridiculous.
And yet. And yet. Where it comes from: a deep conviction that the universe is intelligible, that satisfying explanations can be found, that everything in this living, intertwined universe has intention and desire; that our minds resonate with the world because we belong here, because everything we think shapes and is shaped by reality. Underneath my laughter and incredulity runs a current of regret: a conviction that under this heap of error there is one thing these men achieved that we cannot. They built a conceptual world that was worth living in. Can we say the same?
Monday, April 10, 2023
Well, Theaetetus is one that I certainly need to reread: extraordinarily rich. This is the one in which Socrates likens the task the god has given him to midwifery: delivering other people of their ideas. He's dead serious, both about the task and about the god. And this is the one that dallies with, (but does not accept) the idea that there are irreducible unknowns ("things of which we know only the names") that are the foundational elements of all the knowns.On to Timaeus, and then I’m done with my first rapid read of Plato’s greatest hits. Man. I had no idea how rewarding this was going to be. Nor how illuminating of the whole tradition that I’ve been nibbling at the edges of all my life: these texts are central. Ridiculous of me to have neglected them because they are philosophy, and philosophy is not something I do: how puerile an attitude is that, to be frightened away from my birthright by some cataloger’s decision to put these books on one shelf instead of another?
I am just marveling at Mr Plato these days. I can’t believe I never read him, in all these decades of reading. More and more resentful (irrationally, I know) of The Republic for giving me such a skewed and squinted view of him. Imagine if you were introduced to Dostoevsky by some lengthy antisemitic Russian triumphalist tract (didn’t he write such a thing?) and everyone went about saying it was his best work… so after slogging through it you just skipped Brothers K and Crime and Punishment. Like that. I’m reading Theaetetus right now. So good. (So totally unpronounceable as an English name. That’s probably really why people go around recommending The Republic: they know how to pronounce it.)
Thursday, March 30, 2023
(Zeno murmuring, "the force is strong in this one...")
Yikes. The brilliant, painstaking idiocy of the Parmenides. Can he really believe he’s still meaning anything when he gets that far in to the labyrinth? I can’t tell. That this is the Zeno of Zeno’s paradox is obvious enough, though. Fascinating that Parmenides' obedient interlocutor should be young Aristotle. (Holy crap, how did I not know any of this before? A lifetime at my books, and I’m still ignorant as hell.)
It’s fitting that the final sentence of Parmenides, in my translation at least, is not even a sentence: if there is a main clause there, I can’t detect it.
Thursday, March 23, 2023
274c & following, is Socrates’ denunciation of depending on the written word: reading encourages you to think you know things, when you don’t; relying on texts leads to a feeble memory; writing fails to fit the message to its audience; texts are frozen and can’t answer questions. Writing is an amusement and an aide-memoire – not serious philosophy.
And now, on to the Parmenides.
If it didn’t mean wishing away the parable of the cave, I might wish Plato had never written The Republic: such an ugly book, full of Socrates at his worst: it put me off Plato, and in fact philosophy, for decades. I’m glad that I have lived long enough to meet this Socrates who prays to Pan by the riverside: asking for his daily bread, and to be made beautiful inside. A different man entirely.
Monday, March 06, 2023
Bad Algebra (or, Why I'm Reading Plato)
When I went back to school to get my Computer Science degree, I took a Calculus course. It was sort of a spiritual awakening for me: but never mind that for the moment. Sometimes the instructor would put a problem we'd had trouble with up on the blackboard. He'd work through it, get through the parts we already understood, and then, right at the most confusing moment, he would stop.
"And the rest is just algebra," he'd say, toss the chalk back into the tray, and move on to another topic.
This happened a couple times. When the students began to ask him to work out the algebra, too, you could see a light going on for him. It was the algebra we were having trouble with?
"Look," he told us, very earnestly. "You've got to get your algebra nailed down. Your bad algebra is going to kill you."
He was right. There's nothing particularly difficult about calculus: its reputation for difficulty comes of the fact that you have to be comfortable with algebra in order to do it, and not many of us learned our algebra all that well.
Today, I think, "my bad philosophy is going to kill me."
When I was young and impressionable, growing up in hick town in a backwater state, I decided that philosophy was useless. I actually had pretty good reasons for deciding so. I wanted to know how to live: and the only philosophers I encountered assured me that they could not help me. Each individual created his own meaning, they said, and he committed himself to it: reason could help him neither to find meaning nor to clarify it. (I don't even know who these philosophers were: I got their ideas mostly second-hand, and I was a young innocent. People pontificated about Sartre and Camus a lot in those days: it probably had something to do with them.)
So. If philosophy and reason were useless in figuring out how to live, it seemed to be that the next best thing was case studies. Novels offered case studies: what sort of life do you have if you set your heart on this, or cultivate that? Philosophy had no answers, maybe, but fiction had lots of local, provisional ones. So I read fiction, and wandered into literature, and basically made a life of it. Not a bad choice. I don't regret it.
But I had made a large mistake. I had thought that I could just leave philosophy alone, and as it turns out, that's not the way it works. Ignoring philosophy doesn't mean that you don't have ideas about who you are, what the world is, and what you should do in it. It just means your ideas are bits and pieces absorbed from anywhere, unexamined and contradictory. You build your life on these notions: you can't help it. And you find yourself then at age 64 asking once again, "how should I live?" and realizing that this is a problem that you don't have even the minimal tools for addressing.
Your bad algebra is going to kill you.
So: start over. Learn the basics. "What good is Plato going to do you?" someone said to me. "He's wrong about everything important." Maybe so: but you have to start somewhere.