An excercise in the sophist's art? Answering a random and weird meme about my favorite historical figure
I have been tagged by Michael Barton, who writes the fine blog, The Dispersal of Darwin. In this particular meme, I’m supposed to share seven random/weird things about my favorite historical figure.
For those who know me, my favorite historical person is not likely to be anyone who has been written about in the history of my favorite place,
However, in the world of philosophy, which is my way of life, there are two figures who come to mind, namely Plato and G.W. Leibniz. Now, Leibniz, the late 16th and early 17th century eclectic rationalist philosopher would make an interesting historical subject, full of many curiosities. However, in terms of this meme, the only appropriate choice for me is Plato. The reason for that is that I have believed that Plato has been often mishandled greatly by historians of Western Civilization – turned into something I don’t believe he was, namely a Platonist, believing in some absurd netherworld of abstract Forms with no necessary connection to the world we inhabit. That nonsensical interpretation is as old as Aristotle, but it gets repeated uncritically by historians, as have any number of other things about Plato.
I double majored , now too many years ago as an undergraduate in history and philosophy before pursuing graduate studies in the latter, and I admit the vice of being keenly interested in setting the record straight about Plato. While here we consider the random and the weird, it’s perhaps most fitting that if we must consider Plato historically (a rather silly way to consider Plato), then we should consider him in the most silly way possible. Perhaps, that shall suffice as a fair warning shot at historians who construct the philosophy of individuals from their historical context rather than also taking time to understand the philosophy as a means of grasping the historical man. It is not that the Form is out there; it is that it already grounds the very earthy and vulgar discussions we are having now (if not about Plato, then about war and peace and all that falls between).
Plato (the random and the weird, historically speaking)
- Plato was not his given name. Rather, it was Aristocles, at least according to Diogenes Laertius (D.L. 3.4). Apparently, Plato (Platon) was given to him by his wrestling coach because of his broad figure. My long departed cat, Aristocles (Aris, for short), was named after Plato, and just by coincidence, he happened to be the smartest animal I have ever gotten to know.
- Although most scholars disagree with me, Plato may not have written the Seventh Letter, which talks about his apparent misadventure into Syracuse (on the island of Sicily) trying to train the tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius, to be a philosopher king. I (like the 19th century scholars before me) have serious doubts about the authenticity of the letter. Stylometrics aside, the metaphysics is all wrong and inconsistent with what one finds in the rest of Plato’s works (Look at Seventh Letter 342 and tell me that’s consistent at all with it’s knock off in Republic VI 509-511). In any event, it’s interesting to see the gross mistakes that historians have made in citing Plato’s Seventh Letter as consistent with Plato’s supposed call for philosopher kings. There has been a lot of circular reasoning there, and I remember writing a paper on this issue for a history class while I was an undergraduate.
- Plato’s Academy was originally on a site that contained a sacred grove of olive trees (see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/academy.htm).
- Plato is actually mentioned in a couple of the dialogues, namely Apology and Phaedo (dialogues that are set during the trial and death of Socrates). In Phaedo, he’s notably not present for the death of Socrates because he is ill (Phaedo 59b). The literal distancing of Plato from the main character in most of his dialogues suggests that truth is not something that hits you over the head but is opened and revealed by lovers of wisdom through the dialectical process. That is, we don’t get at Plato merely by reading seven facts about him.
- While Plato is virtually absent from the dialogues, his brothers make important appearances, most notably Glaucon and Adeimantus, who are featured in Republic. However, his brother Charmides has a dialogue named after him, and Critias has an important role in a couple dialogues.
- Plato’s sister Potone was the father of his nephew Speusippus, who became Plato’s successor at the Academy (D.L. 3.1). As generations succeeded, the Academy became something that surely Plato would have disapproved of, a school of skepticism. Though the school believed itself to be in the tradition of Plato and Socrates, claiming to know nothing is never anything Socrates actually said (or anything that Plato wrote). What Socrates says is that he never claims to know what he does not know (Apology 21d).
- A scholar of Plato, Joseph Uemura, has claimed that Plato’s Republic is one of the two most misunderstood works of all time – the other being the Bible. From the nonsensical interpretations of the Line, of the supposed call for philosopher kings, and the ridiculous notion that Plato actually believed in the holding of women and children in common (certainly a play on Aristophanes), I have to agree with Uemura. Students of mine dismissed their eyes and the arguments of my lectures to regurgitate the nonsense spewed by cliff notes and historians of Plato.
Now, obviously, don’t take my word for it or quote me. Read the texts for yourself; then discuss. I suspect we will find that we are currently engaged in a kind of sophistry, and so it is imperative that we move past that to something brighter and actually quite erotic.