There be dragons!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Plato and the chasm



Any attempt to explain the whole of the work (the Republic) is doomed to failure. It's a bit like trying to explain the whole meaning of Beethoven's 9th or the entire meaning of DaVinci's Last Supper. Similar magnificence to the work and similar daunting task of explaining every aspect therein. Here is AN insight that occurred while grading papers. The student wrote that the imagery of movement from dark into light is a dominant imagery in the ancient world.

They didn't develop that idea (unfortunately) but had they done so they might have said that it is a dominant theme in human culture, not just the ancient world. No culture has imagery of moving from light, openness, freedom into darkness, imprisonment, slavery as representative of a good thing. We are, by nature, heliotropic. Thus the movement of the seed out of the earth is the representative halcyon of the mind/soul movement into greater realms of understanding and life, the terminus of which is an eternal existence in bliss.

This imagery seems to exist in Plato, certainly; Socrates' katabein into Piraeus, Gyges' descent into the dark, the metal people emerging from the earth, the souls chained in the cave, the city disintegrating into tyranny & slavery, the vision of Er in the afterlife, the souls descending into the earth and ascending into heaven. It is an image or theme that recurs throughout the text.

Bernard Suzanne in his article on the Myth of Gyges points out that the dialogue is run backwards - events frequently occurring in the reverse of anticipated sequence.

Read this way, the story starts at dawn (eôthen, 621b) with birth, that is, with the embodiment of souls that come with a heavenly dimension in them (they look like shooting stars,asteras, 621b, that is, they have something godly in their look, and we know this to be their logos). The messenger that is supposed to give them hope goes by the name of Spring (14)and in fact, as seen by the name of his kin, Pamphylia, is any one of us (15). All our efforts in life should tend to "remember" the things from "above", with the help of the daimônassigned to us (617e, 620d), that divine "share" (moira) within our soul, in order to help us make the right choices in life, the right choice of life ; to "remember" the things from above or, in fact, as the allegory of the cave shows us, to move toward them, not to dig the earth for a truth about ourselves that we won't find there, as the story of Gyges shows. Destiny only decides when we live (the casting of the lots in front of Lachesis), not how we live. Then, as we grow older, we may come to realize that the laws of nature are not a "ring" that "frees" us from any responsibility in our acts, but a model of order and harmony that we should strive to imitate, and this is the first step in getting rid of the chains that bind us in the "cave". The man-made horse than surrounds a dead body in the story of Gyges gives way to the celestial spheres that surround our world and Gyges' ring gives way to the lot that sets the time each one has to face his responsibility in choosing his "model" of life. Eventually, when comes the time of death and judgment, we will raise or fall according to our own behavior in life.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Socrates ventures not out of the darkness, the normal route, but back into darkness, into the heart of the maelstrom of chaos. Why does he so? If the Myth of the Cave is any indicator it's b/c he can hardly help himself; he is compelled by pity, or in the literal sense by the force of the crowd around him. Initially he descends into the Piraeus to see the festival of Bendis, a parallel of Demeter/Ceres/Persephone and thus a goddess of light and renewal in the midst of darkness. Having viewed this wonder, this thaumata, he is arrested as he ascends back to the high city of the Acropolis.

I am reminded here of the myth of creation in Hesiod's Theogony:

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all (4) the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether (5) and Day, whom she conceived and bare from union in love with Erebus. And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.

Out of the chasm of darkness, CHAOS, emerge the gods; out of the dark night of the soul emerge the eidoi; in the beginning the earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep; in a dark time the eye begins to see, as Roethke says. The work, then, seems to indicate a creation, or recreation perhaps, that occurs when the soul begins to realize its own aloneness and deficiency and moves, spiral-like, dragon-like, seed-like, up out of its earthy tomb to emerge like a blinking Lazarus into the light of a new life.

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