Birds and Words

Even Socrates resorts to transcendental rhetoric where he has no proof, logical or otherwise, handy. He sings his swan song (84e, 85a-b). It is a song that still reverberates to this day, I think, when that passage is read. Perhaps some disagree with him, but only the cold at heart would not be moved by his comparison to birds, who do not sing when they are hungry or ailing.
In the Phaedo, Socrates also talks about happiness in connection to living a life of temperance and justice, and a life of philosophy. He is very suspicious of identifying with that which is too bodily, all the while repeating that same disclaimer from his other dialogues: to each according to his ability. Similar philosophical advice can be found in Seneca's Epistle XCVIII, according to which it is the soul, not Fortune, that "can produce a happy life or a wretched one".
The "Temporary Goods" which "provoke the admiration of the crowds" are only good "if they depend on us, and not we on them". Such things are but the "raw material of the Goods and Ills" disposed by Fortune "- the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill." Thus the emphasis on soul over Fortune.
In this letter, Seneca provides his instruction as to how to remain a philosopher while faced with the bodily attachments of wife: not to be apprehensive of the future or of loss. One is to seek not the Good of mortals "towards which men rush in shoals" but the lasting Good of wisdom and virtue. One is to make the effort to scorn on some occasion "those objects which attract the crowd under the appearance of beauty and happiness". Great men have undergone great tribulations, including Socrates' death by poison referred to here, and have refused luxury in an exercise of virtue. "Let us ... carry out some courageous act of our own accord; let us be included among the ideal types of history."
To follow Nature, he continues, is not to be party to fear, cravings, chance. This calls to mind the word instinct, which has at its etymological root the prodding of the stick that naturally prompts the man to intuitive perception. But men cannot agree on nature! Some call it savage. Others call those who call it savage illiterate and having only mastered the outlines of the letters of this book of life.

Seneca ends as Socrates does on the note of death, but instead of swan song, and indeed, Seneca is not yet dying, he preaches a middle way of meeting it: not resigning to it in anticipation of it, nor attending it gladly out of exhaustion over living.
But my favourite passage of this letter both praises good behaviour and describes so well that troubling type of person from whom one would gladly retire but must meet with courage: "A bad man makes everything bad - even things which had come with the appearance of what is best; but the upright and honest man correct the wrongs of Fortune, and softens hardship and bitterness because he knows how to endure then; he likewise accepts prosperity with appreciation and moderation, and stands up against trouble with steadiness and courage."
To correct wrongs, soften hardship - is this not done through understanding words? I am reminded again of the Phaedrus, in which rhetoric is compared with the art of healing (270b). Arguing ultimately the speaker should be a philosopher who seeks to please the gods, already so inclined in the soul. Of the soul, for the soul - according to decorum, and understanding those other souls. Except that some of us might feel that our speech is a patchwork remedy, not the crisp, concise PX. I look at an old work supposedly to be prepared for printing and wonder at how sources are connected through a vague feeling of resonance more than a bird's eye view of all the material.
Maybe some of us are stuck in the mud like marsh birds, crafting tiny bridges out of that clay through metaphor. It is the best we can do, lacking proof, logical or otherwise. It might be the only way to stay alive without being sold to catering to the multitude (which is no art) until we grow. And also, even Socrates claims not to have a rhetorical act of his own (262d); he thanks the Muses for his speech. So who would one be to think that would ever happen, despite one's practice of division, classification, arrangement.
Socrates' other bird is the ibis belonging to Theuth who invented writing, dismissed by the king. Theuth, or Thoth, is also the god mediating between order and chaos, never letting one reign over the other. To put this man-bird in one's writing, might one show one's desire to be upright and yet signify the momentary lapses...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License