Saturday, May 13, 2023


Under it all there is a low not-sound; a subtonic grinding of plates; while above are the netted lines of swallows too shrill to be heard, too quick to be traced; letters that  dissolve in the sky before they can be read. The book is there. Here, rather. Anywhere that a fool might reach. Did you really think you were the only exception? God may be merciful; I wouldn't know; but that would be bizarre.

Among the fooleries I see again, "where are all the aliens?" The supposed Fermi paradox. I don't think we will meet them face-to-face, or face-to-whatever: the distances are too great, the time is too long, for us to happen to meet at 5:45 at the corner of 3rd and Main Street. But we are probably in sight of the books they have left. We just don't know they are books. The first contact will be an archeology, and a Linear B to be deciphered. You can know there's a message without knowing what it is.

I woke worried at 3:00 a.m., and worried an hour before I got cautiously out of bed. I took my dad to get his catheter changed, two days ago, and his moan at the most painful moment of it is still in my ears. We drove through what seemed like all the streets of Eugene and Springfield, going there and coming back. The urology clinic is a block or two away from my old elementary school; to get there we drove past the University of Oregon whose campus I walked through daily as a young man; and coming back we swung through the old downtown of Springfield which was my haunt as a teenager. Some of the buildings were different, after fifty years, and all had changed their skins, so the recognition was pervasive but unconvincing. At every turn I thought, "oh, I know where I am!" and next I thought, "no, I don't know where I am at all." My dad remembered to tell me where to turn just a bit too late for me to turn, so we retraced our steps a couple times. A piece of my mind is still groping its way through those streets: the part that would not sleep this morning, I guess.

First light can't be too far off, now: twenty minutes at most. I'll take a walk, and look for the sky to change. I'm tired of the dark.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

Making My Heart Beat

Sure. The whole project misconstrued or misconceived.
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.

A wire threaded through the ribcage
might grow warm with each flash, and every kettledrum roll
could start something speaking, it seems, it seems
for a little while, it seems but it stops with the rain.

That Danish cockatoo decided, better not: and reading
his poisonous note, about the weak despair of women,
I can hardly not agree with him: better not. 
Still the nails drive deep, and the hands flex 

of their own accord. Another breath, and another: 
almost steady now, almost I could imagine that my breath
has caught its rhythm and could go on by itself: I am tired, so tired,
of making myself breathe; of making my heart beat.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Living Thing

Timaeus. The only piece of Plato's writing directly known to the early medieval world.

Plato is quite clear that the universe is “a single living thing that contains within itself all living things, mortal or immortal.” A living thing. How lovely that is, and how different from the dead universe of scientific materialism. In Plato, everything is against a living background.

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 wrote to a friend:
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


The problem of the One and the Many has never troubled me -- undoubtedly because I have never risen to it -- so I'm finding the Parmenides rough going. Plato, however, is at his most artful: here is your chance to see young Socrates, at the moment he first got to run with the big dogs!

(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


Finishing the Phaedrus. Finally, I have a definition of dialectic, a word that has bedeviled me since college. (Probably because I first met it in Marx and Hegel, who both put it to strenuous and unaccustomed work.) For Plato, it’s the art of collection and division: “seeing together things that are scattered about everywhere and collecting them into one kind,” on the one hand, and being “able to cut up each kind according to its species along its natural joints, and try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do,” on the other. Note that this is not seen as imposing categories or distinctions, but as recognizing them. (Phaedrus 265d)

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.