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.

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