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.