Can you see what you are now looking for?

The title comes from The Sophist, 229.  It is a phrase that deserves consideration: we cannot find what we are looking for if the image is not fixed in some way.  Fully influenced by the ideas in The Sophist, I might add that if what one is looking for is not fixed, one is constantly looking for something new.
It is a very fascinating dialogue, not least because it also stresses the importance that one "take courage" in thinking (242).  This advice, here given by The Stranger, is often given in Plato's other dialogues by Socrates.  In this particular context, courage means reconsidering what I will describe as dogma.  I would like to point out that any school of thought has its dogma: the difference among such schools being which of them is willing to reevaluate their own beginnings, as is stated in Cratylus (436): "Everyone must therefore give great care and great attention to the beginning of any undertaking to see whether his foundation is right or not."
Also, the school of thought represented by Plato is respectful of all great thinker-predecessors, regardless of whether their thoughts are conceded to: in Sophist (243) The Stranger says it is harsh and improper to impute famous men of old to falsehood.  In this way, a new conclusion is reached that is somewhat of a compromise: not-being is admitted, except it is modified as not the opposite to being but just different from it (257); the attempt to separate everything from everything else is taken to show the thinker is uncultivated (259).  As stated in The Statesman, measurement is not only to be made through the relativity between greater and less but also in terms of the mean (284): in other words, and to sum up this paragraph, classification is all-inclusive while having standards.  And we are taught today that that is a contradiction! Cross-questioning is presented as "the greatest purification" (230): ideas are to be questionned.
Speaking of today, we may know of the "tremendous battle" between materialists and those who believe in the existence of ideas in the mind: between those who break truth into moving fragments calling them not existence, "violently dragging down everything into matter," and those who believe in ideas (quotes from Sophist, 246).  We see this conflict openly in the 19th century: this same battle is cited in J.C. Maxwell's poem entitled, "British Association, 1874" from which I will quote just these lines:
From nothing comes nothing, they told us, nought happens by chance, but by fate;  There is nothing but atoms and void, all else is mere whims out of date!  Then why should a man curry favour with beings who cannot exist, To compass some petty promotion in nebulous kingdoms of mist?  But not by the rays of the sun, nor the glittering shafts of the day,  Must the fear of the gods be dispelled, but by words, and their wonderful play.




Through word play, we are told in The Sophist, the sophist hides "himself in a place we cannot explore" (239). He is depicted as an imitator akin to a juggler and other such entertainers.  "Look sharp, then, it is now our business not to let the beast get away again, for we have almost got him into a kind of encircling net of the devices we employ in arguments about such subjects, so that he will not now escape to the next thing" (235). "If the sophist tries to take cover in any of the various sections of imitative art, we must follow him always" (235). At 240 we learn that the sophist feigns ignorance and only questions what is deduced by words.  Thence, the sophist - in word play taking on new lines of thought - becomes "many headed".  They are beasts because what if they imitate the figure of justice and virtue and have no knowledge of it but just a sort of opinion (267).  This talk may remind one of the minotaur in the labyrinth.
It is a battle, one is to have courage and to be willing to even question what one holds in veneration (I choose this word knowing that some dislike it, but considering that it exists even where it is claimed not to).
The sophist "runs away into the darkness of non-being, feeling his way in it by practice" i.e. through empiricism, "and it is hard to discern because of the nature of the dark place", as opposed to the philosopher who is devoted, through reason (not empiricism) "to the idea of being difficult to see because of the brilliant light of the place: the eyes of the soul of the multitude are not strong enough to endure the sight of the divine" (254).
I would like to illustrate this idea through the example of a "real" friend as opposed to the fair weather version.  Some people are very adept at disappearing when trouble is at hand.  The real friend will retain the image of the friend in trouble and remind the friend of their potential until they have mastered their circumstances.  Or, to put it another way, the real friend who is friend to themselves does not believe in the terrible appearance of a "bad" circumstance and speak poorly of it and magnify it until it becomes more terrible like in a soap opera ("for tales and falsehoods are most at home there, in the tragic life" i.e. in the life portrayed in tragedy, Cratylus 408), rather, this friend retains the image of goodness and does not:
complainingly point them out and inveigh against them, in order that their own neglect of them may not be denounced by their neighbors, who might otherwise reproach them for being so neglectful; and hence they multiply [346b] their complaints and add voluntary to unavoidable feuds. But good men ... conceal the trouble and constrain themselves to praise, and if they have any reason to be angered against their parents or country for some wrong done to them they pacify and conciliate their feelings, compelling themselves to love and praise their own people. Protagoras (346)
The eyes of the soul must be strong to perceive this.  It takes courage and I do not know that I have always seen what I was looking for.



Magazine: Marie Claire Maison.  Brush: lace by webgoddess at DeviantART.

Memorabilia and Exercise

Inspired by a series on Socrates over at Siris, I read Xenophon's Memorabilia this weekend. True to its title it is a written collection of memorable observations of Socrates' conduct in deed and word.  Below are summaries of what was most memorable to me after this initial reading.  Throughout the work is the message that one is to work on oneself unceasingly if one wants to leave a good and lasting impression: it takes exercise to be remembered well.
Freedom as self-denialSocrates notes that self-denying ordinances actually insure his liberty. For him to not deny himself and indulge in a more expensive lifestyle would require he charge fees of his interlocutors which would in turn dictate with whom he could and could not speak.  Also, as all jobs more or less involve censure, it may even be better to work as a high-up 'slave' and manage the land if this will provide a good pension plan (I rephrase liberally).
Service as a leap of faith"The greater the power that deigns to serve you, the more honour it demands of you."  It is noted that by serving men, one may discern which of those men is willing to serve one in return.  To take the leap of faith and serve the caring gods, the greatest good, one will see whether one will in return receive counsel in matters otherwise hidden to man.
Wealth is having fewer wantsThe leisure to supply needs is greater in one who lives simply, able to make do with anything.
Those with fewer wants are better friendsIf abstinence seems difficult, a motto is suggested as one begins to deny their wants: "I am growing in goodness and I am making better friends."  What is more, Socrates encourages his friends to avoid making friends with the man who loves and drives a hard bargain, or who works so hard as to have no time for leisure, or who makes enemies for their friends, always quarrelsome. Friends are to try to make themselves indispensable to, not betrayed by, one another.
The beauty and the good are the sameBecause one is to learn to see what is beautiful and good as also being useful.  Attending a lavish banquet may be pleasant but it will not fulfill one (liberty taken in rephrasing, again).
Know thyself"For those who know themselves, know what things are expedient for themselves and discern their own powers and limitations. And by doing what they understand. They get what they want and prosper: by refraining from attempting what they do not understand, they make no mistakes and avoid failure".  To be unaware of one's strengths and weaknesses, one may be defeated by the stronger and lose one's liberty.






Know what you are talking about and help others be clearSocrates says that a person must know what a thing is if they are to expound it to others.  At the same time, he is shown most tactfully to ask those who loudly maintain their opinion without furnishing proof what the function of the subject is, then asking what a better example of the subject could be, then what the subject does: an illustration that harkens back to him saying in Plato's Meno that he makes use of those points the questioned person knows.
Study but not superfluouslyOne is to seek practical knowledge only to the point of usefulness: no fancy physics theories here, but only enough of the stars for navigation.  "To seek that which the gods do not reveal runs the risk of losing sanity". 
Exercise, exercise!It is not enough to be gifted, one is to learn and practice that in which one wants to excel.  What is more, through knowledge and practice, even prudence and wisdom become the same because one knows and avoids what is base.  "Only a fool can think it possible to distinguish between things useful and things harmful without learning.  Only a fool can think that without distinguishing these he will get all he wants by means of his wealth and be able to do what is expedient."  Exercise also meant physical exercise: it is no excuse to avoid it by claiming one is no athlete.  Not exercising is connected with cowardice, poor health, enslavement by the physically stronger: to be strong is to be useful, to be a better friend.  Socrates says, "it is matter of common knowledge that grave mistakes may often be traced to bad health. And because the body is in a bad condition, loss of memory, depression, discontent, insanity often assail the mind so violently as to drive whatever knowledge it contains clean out of it ... it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit".
This latter point can be heard uttered by none other than workout legend and actress Jane Fonda.  She says, after relating how a fan who did her exercises noticed her first muscle one morning as she was brushing her teeth motivating her to stand up to her demeaning boss, that, "You don't know what you'll be able to do when you are strong." Plutarch wrote that the "blessings of the other world" are real, if reached through rather unnerving initiations through straying through darkness, and even though men on the terrestrial, weaker, side "trample one another down and in their fear of death cling to their ills".  It seems sometimes that a leap of faith is needed if one is to attempt to improve oneself, but it is no excuse to say one is not an athlete in life.




Magazine in background: Marie Claire Idees.  Brush: Ewansim Grunge at DeviantART.

Mid-Life Revision

Though many of my favourite books have been taken by the famished road of this life, I have managed to keep a set of letters written to me by my well-wishers: they are testament to the fact that if I was ever missing something in proximity, support was lent from afar. One letter, from an ex-Hollywood "motion pictures" director and producer, advised that I wait for the tide to come in. The letter quotes Browning's Ring and Book, a recent news story about how a grand ocean liner had to do just that, as well as the story of how bridge workers waited for the tide to come in to help them raise an otherwise impossible section. Another letter argued that if one would not get angry at a baby, one ought not feel frustration at oneself as one is learning. Plato's Meno argues similar: in it, Socrates suggests that virtue may be a divine giftthough one may become more open to it by realising one's lack thereof.
The Meno encourages one to push on in one's questioning of the 'right' waywhich some deny, in fact, if I understood correctly, this is addressed in 306 of Euthydemos which may have been referring to a thinker who, while against the eristic questionning that cares not for meaning "but merely fastens on any phrase that turns up, and these are the heads of their professions today" (! 305), is also against the idea that it is worthwhile to pursue virtue, or happiness (Isocrates, Against the Sophists, 13.2). But Plato's Socrates, while always returning to notions of justice, virtue, happiness, wisdom, and so on, by no means conveys a fixed formula for the achievement of such. Euthydemos, which pits him against two brothers versed in setting the rhetorical snares of word play (that "sorcerer's art" 289), shows how even in that contentious environment, he could bring the conversation round to do what he had asked the haughty brothers to do: to demonstrate to a youth how to dedicate himself to virtue (e.g. 278, 288). The brothers admit that their style "leaves no escape" for their interlocutors (276): their ostensible success is made possible because they care not about the meaning of what they say and in fact become annoyed when Socrates tries to pin down the meaning of their words: this is the strength of the verbal traps: words are twisted (the same word is used in "opposite conditions" 278) until prey is caught. It is noted, however, that the art of speech makers does not make one happy (289) and that if one learns such tricks, one will be none the wiser (278) though such speakers may appearto somethat they are victorious. In this context, the 'right' is presented, quietly, Socrates being attacked on all sides for taking the middle way.




The Meno demonstrates more particularly the methodology of this way. Socrates explains that he makes use of those points that the questionned person acknowledges he knows (75). (No one is to be expected to make quantum leaps... "wait for the tide.") Socrates demonstrates how to help someone "recollect" what their soul "might" (he admits he is unsure of what he says, 86b) already know: he helps a boy find the right answer through repeated questionning (81-85, esp. 84 and 85). The questions first reveal that the boy does not know what he thought he did, and from there, it is argued that through continued "joint" questionning (the questionner participating...this is the true meaning of dialogue, Gadamer writes in Truth and Method, to not know where the conversation will goit is made anew with each new moment and with each new interlocutor), the person questionned would be able to recover the answer themselves.
Socrates argues that "the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do know will make us better ... and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do now know nor any duty of inquiring after it" (86). This is a fine answer to the problem at 306 in Euthydemos.
Socrates encourages us by saying that we might discover everything the soul does not remember "if we have courage and faint not in the search" (Meno, 81). Also, we are reminded in Euthydemos that "the sport of the sciences" (278) will try to trip us up in our words. Socrates, like a Stoic in this respect, is not afraid to appear defeated.
There is much I "recollect" from Socrates, who argues in the Meno that we recollect more than learn, which is a statement that has much meaning if we consider that we are always laying the ground for what we learn, always being shocked by the "flat torpedo fish" (79, 84) of experience that shows us that we have been taking the 'wrong' approach to something. Were this "something" only intellectual, we could quickly master the word play of the brothers and be done with it. But this "something" is sometimes not even the primary matter at hand. Sometimes, for example, we have done the work but need to wait. Sometimes we might want to review how it is that we handle our interlocutors. What I "recollect" from Socrates (what I wish I had always mastered) is to demonstrate more than criticise.




Socrates is also willing to enter into the game with his interlocutors: he was ready to speak with the brothers, and be defeated, momentarily, by their absurd "sport of the sciences" which rings true even today with the sometimes phoniness of jargon or ridiculous ideas that one finds one must make apologies to. Whether he was ultimately wise in his own life is something I do not know that I have the capacity to discuss. I think that maybe sometimes our ends are just like the end in Euthydemos where Socrates looks like he is defeated, but what defeat is that, if we read his dialogues for edification even today in this jaded age. I have written before, if topically, of the Taosim in Socrates, but again I am reminded of this connection, to a passage by another Taoist book,   莊子, in 外物 (I wrote about before), 6:
Zhongni said, 'The spirit-like tortoise could show itself in a dream to the ruler Yuan, and yet it could not avoid the net of Yu Qie. Its wisdom could respond on seventy-two perforations without failing in a single divination, and yet it could not avoid the agony of having its bowels all scooped out. We see from this that wisdom is not without its perils, and spirit-like intelligence does not reach to everything. A man may have the greatest wisdom, but there are a myriad men scheming against him. Fishes do not fear the net, though they fear the pelican. Put away your small wisdom, and your great wisdom will be bright; discard your skilfulness, and you will become naturally skilful. A child when it is born needs no great master, and yet it becomes able to speak, living (as it does) among those who are able to speak.'
Just like Socrates says: we are to have courage and not faint in the search. We are not to fear the pettiness of the sport of the sciences and to do our best. We who are far less wise than Socrates or the tortoise need not fear such an end, but if difficulty is encountered, we might begin to understand that there is something natural about that, in terms of worldliness Zhongzi names "myriad".
...when the burdens come that we cannot possibly bear, then we wait for the tide. Sometimes there are necessary changes in things. Browning mentions this in The Ring and the Book. ... There are times when we are anxious to make some port of victory, to accomplish some task; but also there are times when we must "wait for the tide." But in the waiting, we are certain the tide will rise, and because of that certainty we have faith and hope.
This post is dedicated to Al Viola and Stone Woman. Also thanks to Brandon's series on Plato's dialogues.


Brush: Photography Grunge by BR7 at DeviantART.

A Likely Fable

Can we know nature through a poem or a book?  We have been left with examples of this, like in Plato's Timaeus-Critias, but also in the more basic idea of there being a "book of nature" that initially stems from Pythagoreanism, according to which it was assumed that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics.  We note that in the Timaeus-Critias, a knowledge of mathematics is inextricably linked to the knowledge that may help man to become a better person, i.e., one not diseased by an excessive drive towards pleasure (including gluttony and exaggerated carnal activities) but who studies in order to learn what is good and how to reach it.
Hadot, in The Veil of Isis (HUP, 2006) pp. 156, writes that the Timaeus is "presented as a poeisis, that is, as both discourse and a poem, or an artistic game that imitates the artistic game of the poet of the universe, the divinity". Timaeus is scientific, philosophical, and artistic but above all it is about a beautifully-ordered universe planned and constructed by a Craftsman whose Intellect mankind is encouraged to emulate.  Perhaps one does not agree that behind the universe is a Good Idea - but who can argue with this premise when presented as a likely fable? Timaeus says that should anyone refute his discussion, "we begrudge him not the prize" (54b).  Still, the man who does not see the singularity of vision behind the universe is to be allowed to "pass" (55d).  Such is "unversed" - a play on words implying also "unskilled".
In this way, if one prefers traditional orderly narrative, one is making a political statement: preferring order and symmetry to Other.  The Other in Timaeus represents the principle of plurality.  May it be noted that plurality has its place in this universe: such as at the connection of the joints, for its presence allows for movement (74a).
Everything has its place in this account, despite man only being able to arrive at what is reasonable or likely (29c): man can at best try to unveil the meaning of the universe by composing a poem of the poem of the universe by acting with it, through mimesis.
This poetic endeavour is addressed by Aristotle in Poetics, where he writes that it is the poet's object not to tell what actually happened but what could and would happen (1451a).  Hadot cites those who consider the Timaeus ahead of its times for having a "starting point in axioms that are indemonstrable in themselves but are capable of helping to construct a reasonable and likely representation of the universe; that is, ultimately, to 'invent' it" (159).  It may not represent the world as it is but as it would appear if it were made rationally (158).  If that is true, fair enough, but we are still left with the idea that the rational is good and requires discipline (of the pleasures, etc.) and education to reach.  The former is particularly relevant for Timaeus notes that "what is good merits description more than what is evil" (87c) but who among us consistently cultivates their attention to focus on the good?  Do we dislike a good fable?


Book: Amy Butler's Midwest Modern; Brush from Lauren Harrison.

Middlemarch and Science

A while back, I mentioned I would do a post on the science in George Eliot's Middlemarch. Sadly, I read the book online, as many of us have to do for whatever reasons, and I now find the pagination of my notes no longer corresponds to the versions of the book I have bookmarked - which is to say, some of the notes are missing. This incomplete post will be but a casual assembly of passages about observation, related scientific claims on knowledge and the shortcomings therein due to the fallibility of the human medium; some examples of science used as metaphor; what science is contrasted with and two little notes about morals and narrative.
The conflation of science with the less empirically clear human subject is most obviously illustrated in the figures of doctors, of whom there are quite a few in the novel: ranging from those with little knowledge but with the tact of what to say to their patients to the ambitious and educated newcomer, Lydgate. Science, particularly through him, is shown to be up against a society that checks scientific zeal by promoting the unqualified or stymieing the advance of an impartial practice with local personal histories (106). Society in this novel is often symbolised by furniture - such as the kind Lydgate feels compelled to purchase to show his birth and to satisfy his spoiled wife, but also in offhand comments, such as, owning the 'right' furniture allows one to cultivate extreme opinions (256).
At the same time, science penetrates the language of the novel, forming part of many a metaphor. Love has symptoms (85) and is the also name of "many wonderful mixtures in the world" (221); the "hidden soul" is to be "interpreted" (117); mistakes can work at a man "like a recognised chronic disease" (437).
The theme of "watching keenly" (68) is applied throughout the novel, a paean to observation. In this way, invention which is the "eye of research" is described most scientifically as the "minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish" (120). Men are observed as if they were animals in the wild or natural phenomena, and it is noted, for example, that to see a man for the first time in his home is to recognise his "changed aspect" (123), just as the way one sees a person is not the same during courtship as it is through close companionship (143). Like the biologist reaches understanding through his observation through a microscope lens, the struggle to gain resolve through vision gains communicating power (274). It is close observation that reveals to the narrator that "controlled self-consciousness of manner ... is the  expensive substitute for simplicity" (319).




At the same time, attentive watching is not always possible for the fallible human. I will cite in full my favourite passage illustrating this point (which I cited here before):
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all  ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the  squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the  other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well  wadded with stupidity.  However, Dorothea was crying, and if she had been required to  state the cause she could only have done so in some such general  words as I have already used: to have been driven to be more particular would have been like trying to give a history of the lights and shadows; angered by syllables from lips of near observer (143).
Other problems with humans include their quickness to imagine more than fact (147); ability to go to lengths in things without anything coming of it (203); seeking justification instead of knowledge (242); prejudices. "Prejudices,  like odorous bodies, have a double existence both solid and subtle —  solid as the pyramids, subtle as the twentieth echo of an echo, or as  the memory of hyacinths which once scented the darkness" (321). Equally as harmful is the ego:
It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your  candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent (194)
Sight is also blurred where characters do not account for the multiple dimensions of the human character and human life (it is not only about scientific experiment in laboratories). Human weakness and failure (such as checked ambition) is derogatorily relegated to Troubadour poetry (105). The complexities of science are given more serious attention than those of love, which Lydgate foolishly thinks he had already learned about through literature and male conversation (119).
 

By contrast, Eliot depicts knowledge as "filling the vast spaces planked out of ... sight by ... worldly ignorance" (104). Just like metaphors, this knowledge is to be far-reaching, pervasive, "like gas light; learning whole and parts" (107). Dorothea's consciousness is depicted as "reaching forward ... towards the fullest truth, the least partial good" (149 - vs. anger and despondency). Miscellaneousness is presented as making the mind "flexible with constant comparison" at least in one character, who was saved from, "seeing the world's ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connection" (156).
Thus it is still possible in this novel that is so much about science to nonetheless breach classical topics such as goodness, described as being "of a modest nature, easily discouraged, and when much elbowed in early life by unabashed vices, is apt to retire into extreme privacy" (237). On a side note: surely this is why Socrates was so interested in discoursing with youth: to attempt to help them protect this goodness that is harder to call upon later in life if allowed to lie dormant. Similarly, Eliot writes in defense of exploring "low" topics - which we also see in Dickens' novels given primacy (e.g. in the fuming, oily, noisy trains). Eliot's apology is one to do with narrative: a narrative which we have seen is further encompassing than the restraints of science, restrained by the narrowness of man:
PARABLES whatever has  been or is to be narrated by me about low people, may be ennobled  by being considered a parable ; so that if any bad habits and ugly  consequences are brought into view, the reader may have the relief of  regarding them as not more than figuratively ungenteel, and may feel  himself virtually in company with persons of some style (251).
Regarding what we said about the furniture of society at the beginning, and knowing that the scientific 'project' runs throughout the book if also revealing its shortcomings, the offhand remark that ugly furniture may be dignified by being lifted into the serene light of science (194) is worth meditating on in terms of the 'project' of some modern art and what it loses without the parable and by not addressing the high/low duality.


Magazine in background: Marie Claire Maison
Brush: Lace by webgoddess at DeviantART.
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