8.25.2009

What Philosophy Was (Supplemental)

In and around ancient Greece, there was a cave in almost every city that was supposed to be a portal to the underworld. A recent History Channel program alluded to early 20th century Inns that used to claim "George Washington Slept Here" as a loose equivalent. To overcome the fear of death, brave souls would undertake a kind of shamanic ritual in these caves. Guided by the village Iatromantis (a shamanic/priest-like figure), the underworld tourist would lie in the cave for three days on his back without moving. Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Parmenides -- all of them participated in this ritualized "death" ceremony (Parmenides probably was an Iatromantis). Click here to watch the History Channel episode dealing with Hades -- in particular, watch the part from 9:30--12:00 minutes. Or read one of Peter Kingsley's books.

I'll grant that this isn't what "Philosophy" is in 2009, but it seems rather important to understand that that is what Philosophy was in the ancient world. If the idea of dying for three days and then being resurrected sounds familiar, well... yeah. But also, yeah. Please take the time to read that second link, the one referring to a poem by Hafiz.

Well, again: I'm happy to forfeit the terminology -- I understand that "capital in the institutional realm in which we live" revolves to a certain extent around a "safer" (i.e., more toothless, less mystical) definition of Philosophy.

But if you want to understand correctly what it was that the famous classical Philosophers were proposing as an alternative to Rhetoric--if you want to have a correct understanding of the historical context of the Platonic dialogues--you have to understand this more complicated definition. As the History Channel suggests, those who went to the caves were effectively part of a "cult," and would have held little resemblance to most contemporary professional Philosophy professors. The easiest distinction to make is to argue, as I have before, that it's hard to imagine a contemporary Philosophy professor dying for his convictions concerning Derrida. But Empedocles, Socrates, and others were willing to go that route for their convictions. If you imagine a person like Socrates as a silly old man who just liked to talk and bicker, I think you're badly misreading Plato.

The "Truth" that seems so out of vogue to most contemporary academics was nothing less than the experience that one underwent in those caves. It was not a silly and oversimple imaginary idea that was unconnected to the actually-existing world, but a vivid (and incommunicable) intellectual/spiritual actuality. It was very likely in these caves that Parmenides first perceived the "Oneness" that obsessed him, that Socrates first conceived of "the Good," and so on. To argue against those experiences from the perspective of one who has not "visited the underworld" may earn a person tenure, but it does not diminish the lasting influence of Wisdom or Truth in the actually-existing world.

But thanks for playing!

2 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I haven't read the Kingsley, but I will. My understanding, however, is that Plato and Aristotle rejected the mystical elements of Parmenides otherwise wholly rational philosophy. Kingsley's work is an attempt to correct this historic oversight.

As to the History Channel's claim, I'm going to want to see some of that historic evidence. Not that I don't believe that some historic personages would have been intrigued by such ceremonies. But if you've read even a little bit of Plato, then I think you gotta assume that he ain't getting in no cave. His entire career was an opposition to the mythic, interpellative power of the oral-poetic tradition. Not only did he reject the intoxicating slumber it cast over audiences (for it is the ancient, religious epics that holds members of the cave in place), but also the stupor it places on the writers as well. Take this passage from the Ion:

"In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains, culling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

What might seem like a compliment is actually, as is often the case with Plato, damning critique. He later argues that through the poem, "God takes away the minds of poets"-- a clear sign that Ion, the poet and critic Socrates' is addressing, is in line for some trouble (its essentially a rehashing of Republic X). Plato seeks to divorce proper epistemological habits from the mystical invention of the poet (and in Phaedrus, such intoxication is extended to the rhetor).

Given the fate of his teacher, Plato was careful to not directly attack the gods. Rather, his ire was directed toward the medium that propagated them--poetry. In the Poetics, Aristotle attempts to salvage poetry, but does so by placing it in opposition to history. Poetry is defended as being further divorced from the transient real and thus a higher intellectual pursuit (more capable of exploring the actualization of Plato's metaphysical forms). But Plato's opposition to poetry wasn't in relation to history, but rather to the overwhelming assimilative force of aesthetic interpellation.

Versus the "mystical" experiences of the cave, I'll work from the historiographic research of people such as Eric A Havelock, Edward Schiappa, Richard Enos, George Kennedy, Victor Vitanza, Walter J Ong,

Casey said...

That's interesting to me. I'll have to read the Ion. I was reading an introduction to a "Collected Dialogues" last night that was published in 1963, and it said or suggested much of what you just said: Plato is lots of things, but he's not a mystic.

And I mean, to me, this should be a really ripe and "controversial" debate. I suppose it's possible that Plato's just not a mystic, but it seems like the Introduction-writer doth protest too much, y'know?

It might not surprise you to know that I read Plato as a poet more than I read him as a "Philosopher" (G-d spare us from having to define that term). Looking at the three generations from Parmendies to Socrates to Plato, what I see is (this also won't surprise you) one overarching thought taking shape in three distinct forms.

Parmenides writes a poem. Socrates walks and talks. Plato writes the dialogues, fictionalizes history.

In fact, Kingsley actually agrees with you: makes Gorgias the rightful inheritor of the Parmenidean Path. Like you, Kingsley blames everything on Plato (but he's charging him with a different offense, I think).

So anyway, I love this topic. I love that when you say, "This might seem like a compliment, but it's really a damning critique," I think you're projecting, and that it was actually a compliment. But I'm not sure, especially not having read the Ion.

So give me a week or so.

That same guy from 1963 made a point to speak about how Plato's dialogues represent a rational system of knowledge (he's not a mystic, the guy insisted!).

But, look for the passage containing the phrase "hymn of dialectic" in book 7 of the Republic. It's something I've addressed before -- it just seems so irrational to me.

"And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic. This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible."

So, the fruit of all of this dialectic -- for Plato's Socrates -- comes, as far as I can tell, as a revelation.

But... maybe I'm the one who's projecting?