Saturday, December 5, 2009

For the brilliant Plato scholar in question

I went to a talk yesterday by a brilliant Plato scholar. The discussion period was completely strange, though. The thing is, Plato wrote poetry in the form of dialogue. And he did it on purpose. So, for example, it's not like the Jefferson Bible, i.e., not such that in principle you could just underline all the things Socrates says, and then know, verbatim, what Plato thinks. Sometimes the character of Socrates says things that Plato probably thinks; sometimes he doesn't. Plato is good enough of a writer that the character of Socrates usually (though not always) sounds pretty much like the same, largely annoying guy. So you mostly have to be able to tell how to interpret what he says from having first read - and, eventually, having both read and considered - the whole, and weighing its meaning. Yes, I know, this is circular -- how will you first get a sense of the whole, if you don't know how to read the character of Socrates, especially? And there are entire schools of thought whose claim to fame, from my perspective, is that they got the meaning of the whole wrong. Part of the answer is that it is a work that you have to read a lot. The first time, you can expect to get only that there is something very good and very beautiful, which it is possible to long for, and also to use as a kind of frame of reference, a point of orientation. If the text works on you, then you do long for it, by the end. If this very minimal backdrop is correct, interpretively, then, when you read it again, certain interpretations become impossible. And so on.

But beyond this, when, in the text, it is plain, for example, that the characters are making things up (like, say, imaginary cities) and/or formulating stories that they themselves describe as not being literally true, it doesn't seem terribly taxing, as an interpretive matter, to expect people to realize that they are making things up and/or formulating stories that are not literally true! Really. Making things up. So as to capture something true. But not literally. For some reason, the kind of people who go into political theory and philosophy have a extremely difficult time with the idea that meaning can be communicated in this way. It's just so weird, though. I mean, the guy did not write treatises. He even says why. What would possess a person to nonetheless read his dialogues as though they were treatises?

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