There be dragons!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Michael Davis on Plato Nietzsche and Death

Just read an excellent article by Michael Davis in his collection of essays "Wonderlust" published by St. Augustine's Press. The essay entitled "Plato and Nietszche on Death", like most of the essays in the collection, has several penetrating insights. Davis recalls Nietzsche's critique of Platonic thought saying "For Nietzsche the West is in some sense the Christian West, and 'Christianity is Platonism for the people.'" Indeed, the Christian Church burgeons with Platonic imagery so much so that most people (who do not know Plato) hardly notice the influence, taking for granted their own heritage and thinking that Christianity somehow sprang, fully formed from the brow of Judaism.

But, Nietzsche's critique of both Christianity and Platonism is pejorative.

About the sage Nietzsche's Zarathustra has this to say:

His wisdom is: to wake in order to sleep well. And verily if life had no sense, and I had to choose nonsense, then I too would choose this the most sensible form of nonsense.

The contest between Plato and Nietzsche is, according to Nietzsche, a contest between the view that really makes sense of life and "the most sensible form of nonsense," that is, between truth and the most seductive form of error.

Nietzsche held that any such form of mythic illusion was no more than a lie which we tell ourselves in order to not have to face the harsh reality that there is nothing beyond this world. Plato gives false hope to his interlocutors by suggesting that The Good is the Intelligible and the Intelligible is beyond this world. "Nietzsche seems to say that this identification of the good with the intelligible is an example of Platonic cowardice," Davis points out. As a colleague of mine suggested, perhaps it is Nietzsche who is the coward. There is no mathematical proof that the things of religion are true; there is no absolute assurance beyond doubt that when we die we don't just cease to be; crikey, there is no certainty that the person of Christ was really a person. But it seems to take more courage to operate in this world, putting one foot before the next, without that mathematical certainty. To progress in doing good in the midst of a brutal, cruel, merciless world, never knowing if one is really doing the good or if there will be reward or if one is affecting any change at all (or if there is any transcendent being observing our actions) seems to be a much more courageous course of action than saying there is no good beyond this world and consequently doing nothing. It certainly is more consistent than one who says there is good and doesn't do it, and more logical than one who says there is no good but does good anyway. So perhaps the real coward is Nietzsche, even if he is an ubercoward.

More striking in the article are Davis' observations on exactly what Plato was doing in his dialogues. Assuming that Nietzsche was right in his critique and that Plato "does not regard the separate existence and particular immortality of souls even as conditionally true"; assuming that he was crafting a "noble lie", what sort of "lie" is it? (or to make the question more piquant, "what sort of lie is Christianity, being based on Platonic thought?") One of the things that Davis notes is that Plato himself is not present at the death of Socrates; in the Phaedo he is home, sick. Sickness being a little death, Plato is fighting to stay alive. Socrates, by contrast, is eager to die. Davis points out that this detail has great significance for the author of the dialogue himself seems to be advocating life in contrast to death. Yet if we take the characters in the dialogues not at face value (always a good practice for dealing with Plato) but as metaphors for something greater, what then is being portrayed?

Davis suggests that, first, the death scene is an intentional parallel to the Minotaur story of antiquity. In the older story Theseus
...saved fourteen Athenian youths and maidens from the dreaded Minotaur. ...Phaedo gives an enumeration of those present at Socrates' death, and we discover that fourteen youths are present. Like Theseus, Socrates will save these youths from a dreaded monster.
The monster from which Socrates saves his Athenian youths is the dreaded fear of death; not just the cessation of life, but something more. The minotaur is that half man/half bull which breathes ice and devours flesh in the dark; something terrible and cold and inhuman in that maze of the afterlife which devours the mind with despair. As Davis points out, "human beings live better lives when they are not continually haunted by the knowledge of the necessity of their own deaths." Thus the story functions on the level of myth that gives hope to both interlocutors and future generations of readers.

But, Davis suggests, there is still more to the dialogues. Indeed, Socrates is philosophy in the dialogues. As such, the implication is that philosophy seeks death. How could this be? Socrates does himself say that philosopy is a "preparation for death", but a seeking of death? Davis notes that philosophy is the pursuit of the absolute universal; the Good; good, beautiful, true in their universal, pure form. One falls in love with the Good and wants to be one with it.

But to do this a strange thing has to happen; one must lose oneself. Mollusks do not know they are mollusks, but men know that they are men. They register pain & suffering, have doubts & fears, hopes, loves, artistic insights, shame & pride. In short, men have a sense of their individuality, their "selfness". But the individuality of the self gets in the way of philosophy and as such must be rendered inert; abnegated; killed. The self must be put aside if one is going to experience the ecstasy of joining with the One. How, indeed, can the many be united to the One? Wouldn't they have to become the One in some sense? Thus the self must die if it is to live in union with the Good. In this way, Davis says, philosophy is self-destructive.

Before we have some mass Cathar suicide ritual going on here, though, we have to recall that Plato himself is not present at the death; he is alive and trying to stay that way (to paraphrase Jack Gilford). So Plato is not suggesting that physical death ought to be pursued. Rather, the fear of death addresses "what Cebes calls 'the child in us who has such fears'". Davis notes that,
The mortal fear of death naturally gives rise to a longing for immortality as its cure. This longing is not a desire to be different from what we are; it is rather a desire to remain eternally what we already are. It is an attachment to ourselves.
Everyone, from the slacker to the schoolgirl, from the professor to the pundit, abhors change and wants to be in control of the situation they know. No one wants to endure the suffering which death, in a most radical way, imposes. Thus we delude ourselves, surround ourselves with goodies, abuse each other, lord power over one another, and generally act like spoiled children. Such attachment to ourselves the Greeks called hubris, to which could be attributed every rotten excess of human crime and folly. In the Christian sense, pride (hubris) is the root of all sin (separation from God). Hubris is, essentially, an ingratitude for the goodness which we do not deserve. Thus, we have to grow up. Davis suggests that

Only knowledge of our own immortality can destroy the fears of that child in us and, in a rather radical way, force it to grow up.
Those who refuse to grow up avoid facing their own immortality and seek to maximize pleasure. Yet such eternal pleasure is not really possible; "...the complete absence of pain would be possible only given the complete absence of pleasure," as Davis notes, "the natural desire to maximize pleasure, if pushed to its extreme, is a sort of death wish." Yet the same holds true for anyone who longs for an afterlife of eternal pleasure. Since pleasure and pain are yoked together in the individual self, to eradicate one or the other would also eradicate a self to register them. Davis suggests that

...common sense takes as its standard the soul, or life, as it is, and then attempts to imagine what would be the most satisfactory form of such a life. The result is an ideal life, which because it takes its bearings by the extreme... cannot be lived. The ideal verson of life is incompatible with life; it turns out to be a kind of death. This is the tragedy of common sense.
Human life is, at root, tragic because we all long for something which would spell the end of us; we long for our own annihilation; oblivion;
a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth

But as Keats noted, to long for such a thing spells our own forlorn doom. "While it is the case," Davis notes, "that the tragedy does not exist for a mollusk, it is also the case that a mollusk does not know that it is a mollusk. The human self seems to be constituted by the conflict between its desire to be what it is and its desire to be other than what it is." So at the very heart of philosophy, represented in Plato by Socrates, is an "awareness of the tragedy of common sense." If we indeed struggle under this crucifying tension of tragedy, why? from whence does it come? what is consciousness that it causes us to weep? and what is man that Thou dost care for him? mortal man that Thou dost love him?

For this reason it is of some importance that the whole question of immortality does not enter Socrates' argument as a means to overcome death. It enters as a means to overcome ignorance.
Man must know who he is; gnothi seauton, as the Greeks urged, if he is ever to grow up. Otherwise we stumble about striking, mocking, spitting at, and crucifying one another. But knowing who we are is hindered by the hubristic self-interest that every person bears with them. Self-concern "gets in the way of our pursuit of wisdom... to see the world as it is and not through the lens of our self-interest requires neutralizing self-interest." And to see with such clarity makes one a better person.

So religion (and the "noble lie" of religion) is not such a lie after all but a perspective shift. Davis concludes,

By asserting the existence of a better life after death (even without absolute mathematical assurance of such existence - my own interpolation here) this life is made better. That is, by providing a vantage point from which to judge the goodness of life, the character of this life can be known more fully.

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