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I'm a junior English/Philosophy major who's looking forward to my senior year and looking back on the path that led me here

Friday, July 28, 2006


So, in my reading and writing this semester on the Phaedrus and Symposium, I have constructed two essays, slowly, that help me think. Please read them, follow me through them, and let me know what you're thinking:

Essay One: The Phaedrus

So I'm feeling tlike I'm writing a sermon. A Rog Nelson sermon. I am scratching my head and slathering my hearers in alliteration and coming up behind a text to lay bare my assumptions, my incapacity to think, and my inability to believe fully. Check out my ponderings below:

"I am finding, as I read Plato's dialogues more and more, that pilgrimage is not explicity laid out in the texts that I'm reading; we certainly get stories and myths about the ascent of the soul, the relationship between the good and bad horse, the geography of Hades, and the just reward/return of the freed soul to a good life - it is within these aspects that we can find the principles and dynamics of a non-escapist transcendence, and give it arguemtn to flesh it out. As I try to flesh it out, I am struck by two things: the literary, technical workings of the dialogue, as they operate and find form both in Plato's construction of the dialogue and our reading of it, and the slow build-up of the "contraries" argument that, in my view, gives strength and foundation to a different (and more correct) reading of Plato's view of reality as "participatory," (a line from the Phaedo), with material reality and the "really real" having a more tangible AND transcendent relationship with each other. And, of course, I am highly interested in my slow re-read of the myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus - this is, for many scholars and traditions, the key part of the dialogue. While I am interested in the technicality and precision of the theoretical arguemtn for the soul's ascent, I am also interested in refining our hearing of it: the life of the gods does not seem that far removed from the life of the body (or at least, the activities of the gods), the life of the fleshly human being, and it makes me wonder whether Platonic transcendence is not just the end of transitory bodily existence, but a fulfillment, a reinstatement, of good bodily work - work that is done in the body but is more perfect with the gods and unable to be fulfilled without a relationship to, a glimpse of, the divine. The activity of the gods, and the circularity of the soul's existence, make me think that the myth of the charioteer offers us a kind of participation in the divine, as readers, something that does not simply and singly connect us, temporarily, to the One, but something that recalss our already-existing connection to it, to the One."

Sometimes I feel like this is a rehash of all my thinking and working this past year - I know that I'm still trying to get my footing back after the Vander Velde proposal, I know that I'm trying to keep my footing for a lot of reasons. Even in the midst of learning, and the joy that comes from that learning, I find that I don't really have anything new to say.

"So I turn to the literary twists and turns of the dialouge, hoping to find some flesh instead of just breathing on the bones and expecting them to jump up. I turn to the things themselves because that's all I can lay my hands on. At the same time, it is easy for me to pick up a discussion about the literary aspects of the dialogues and, unknowingly, assume that the devices themselves are just tools for some other hidden path, a secret road to transcendence. They offer something like that, I think, but not in such a sneak Cartesian way."

I'm still looking for the ascents in the text - do they provide an actual ascent and instruction on how to seek it? and how do we know whether or not we are ascending? Do we read like Phaedrus, trying to memorize each and every line, trying to find someone to recite it with us, to be excited and overjoyed at the grand adventure, to arrive with us? Do we begin like Socrates, joking about the style of Lysias' speech when, in all seriousness and ceremony, we are asking: what is truth? And why don't we catch glimpses of it in the speech about the non-lover, the person who lives in utilitarian friendship and seeks only his balanced, well-reasoned gratification? I ask about how we read because I want to know what it means to imitate the gods - I ask "how do we see reading in this dialogue" because I cannot shake the hunch that reading and imiation, writing and transcendence, go hand in hand for the Phaedrus, that the discipline required for a palinode, and the rush of the poet's madness, are connected to real transcendence, the kind that's planted in the ground and reaching beyond the ozone, beyond ourselves. And the glimpses of this kind of imitation, this really-real living, are driving me nuts.

"One of the things that strikes me about the narrative aspects of the dialogues is their suggestiveness; it is easy to see the proofs present in Plato's dialogues and assume that everything is didactically laid out and made plain (that this proves certainty, or is a "certain" way of receiving assurance or philosophical satisfaction in the Dialogues). But do the proofs suggest something else? What is the point of a proof? And how does this connect with imitation?"

I have to admit, the proofs leave a bad taste in my mouth - I don't know if it's my aversion to "Certainty," or if I just don't understand what they're doing, but I get hung up on them, I stumble over them. Socrates puts a proof of what a soul IS in his story of the charioteer -

how can you ascend without knowing who you are? Is self-knowledge a kind of ascent? (well, yes, in Bonaventure....hmmm. has there been an ascent from the world around us to the self and up in this dialogue? without me knowing it?)

The proof, instead of being the compulsory device to give us assurance and clout over the text, becomes a way of knowing the self, is in and of itself a path to self knowledge, but still linked to the text, to the ascent. It reminds me of Craig Mattson's question to me at OPUS: "how does one transcend self?" If we do not know what the soul is, and how it is moved/moves others, we cannot move ourselves or allow ourselves to be moved. SOcrates even uses a metaphor within the proof to show that the systematizing itself is not just bare bones, but has flesh of its own: "To describe what the soul actually is would require a very long account, altogether a task for a god in every way; but to say what it is like is humanly possible and takes less time...let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and the charioteer" (246A)

"If imitation of the gods is such an important aspect of transcendence in the Phaedrus, I'm wondering if and how we pick up imitation in our reading of the Phaedrus. I wonder if seeing hte literary aspects of the Phaedrus, as the "things themselves," could be helful in helping us find connections and support for a transcendence reality that is also concrete. I wonder what they have to do with contraries and similarities. And I wonder if the literary aspects of the narrative suggest some sort of "follow me" beckon, and how they do that - it might be through the various metaphors and similes that are employed (wolves and sheep, boys and old men, sleep and wakefulness, etc.) My hunch is that the "follow me" beckon is something that Socrates both offers and receives himself, and that it is through a combination of the literary elements that we receive this beckoning as well."

Does using metaphor bring us to an imitation of the gods? To say what something is like, to describe our imaginative glimpses of it - is that kind of recounting, that kind of storytelling, a way of imitation that we both find ourselves in as we read this dialogue and that we are called to take up? The path from Lysias' speech, through Socrates' first speech (a slight imitation of Lysias', only with the content changed) to this final palinode is a suggestive and inviting arc of ascent that keeps us grounded, in our desire, in order that we might peak above the clouds ourselves. Socrates claims that he "must attempt to speak the truth," (247D), that he has to be honest and hold to his already-existing claim to this story, this hope, about the ascent and transcendence of the soul. If pilgrimage is not explicity laid out in this text, it is because pilgrimage, non-escapist transcendence, is first and foremost an exercise, a process, something that is mapped but is better understood when it is taken up. Bonaventure and Plotinus understood that. Through our hearing of the Phaedrus, we become reacquainted with our fundamental desire to transcend, to "tell the truth," even if we are not in love. We become re-opened to our capacity to be touched by madness and prophecy, to know the mystery underneath the obvious sign, and we get a sense of the contraries that lie beneath the desire, the contraries whose relationship to each other provides a sense of unity and one-ness - the contraries are united by the One itself. This is how we receive the beckoning - this is how we get back on the road.

This is how I get my footing back.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my word, Allison...

This stuff is still so over my head... it's like you're on some kind of hyperplane or something...

You're smart.


11:51 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

roz, i'm in the middle of awful financial aid processing, and your comment made my day. word to you.


6:40 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Hi, Allison, I found your lovely 'space' by clicking on my interest in Simone Weil. It seems there are four of us in the blog universe! Your blog has been very interesting to read.

Your questions and thoughts on the Phaedrus are very interesting and are helping me to think about it as well. From my point of view, it is hard with Plato to understand how literal to take his metaphor of the charioteer and horses. Certainly, i don't agree with his conception of transmigration of the soul, which however i know is impossible to prove or disprove. I do take exception to his favouritism to the philosophers! They only have to go round for three thousand years, unlike everyone else, and they never stand judgement at all. This seems all too arbitrary to admit of divine justice.

I feel that he does mean literally, however, what he says about the physical, at least with respect to the body. 'That living tomb' is the prison of the soul and stops its flight. While he may garner his recollections of the divine Beauty from the particular instances around him in nature, these are never good as such on their own and his conception of the highest heaven is certainly nothing like sensation. The closest it comes to this is in being like a light that blinds. Simone Weil has this conception in her poem 'The Gate'.

His aversion to belief in the immortality of the embodied soul betokens a denigratory view of the body and nature in general; it is only worth 'anything' when it is like something 'else' higher. (for quotes read italics) I think Simone Weil, likewise, had this difficulty in conceiving of the embodied person as we know it being immortal, and I think this is why she had a problem with the resurrection, as for her the cross was enough.

Plato does make alot out of the inspired madness of the lover, much to the imagined chagrin of any would-be Stoics, but I think he undermines this slightly when he refers to the calmness which is an attribute of the higher nature. This seems more conducive to the Stoic's contentions. Anyway, I feel he is closer to the truth than the Stoics, but he has some stoicism in him, i think in equal measure with Simone Weil. For me, this means that the concreteness you discuss is only ever instrumental to this process of transcendence. With Plato it may seem that we love others for themselves, but I think that it is implicit that this is primarily due to them being centres of the divine mystery. To me this still seems less that unconditional. I think that love involves the object simply and purely, and does not conceive the theoretical implications in the moment of love. This is something to work up from, and I also do think that Plato has got something of this. But he also and more generally works down to love from his esoteric position, and I view this as mystic and not commonly accessible. At this level, we cannot debate it with him other than to say that we are not there, but are on the earth.

I hope I wasn't too unclear, and I hope you get something out of this as I did out of reading your thoughts.


8:29 AM  
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