Sunday, May 15, 2016
I still recall the terror I felt writing my first philosophy paper.
I had just gotten off a major road gig, where most of my time was spent staring out the window of a Prevost tour bus into the darkness, speeding towards the next concrete and steel stadium or arena, where the routine mirrored the twenty-five nights previous. The shadows of road signs and mile markers flashed by like green metallic ghosts mocking my apathy. Alcohol deadened the obvious: I was stuck in Plato’s traveling cave. An Aristotelian change was in the air.
The crisp January cold seeped through the windows in the James Union Building’s now defunct Room 304, where I sat in anticipation. That rear corner seat did little to conceal my senescence, where the numerous scars and scratches on my black leather Harley jacket proved older than most of my fellow students. Our professor, Dr. Magada-Ward, introduced herself and asked if anyone in the class had been through customs. I raised my hand and noticed about twenty other students, most of whom were freshmen, raised their hand. A well-traveled group of youngsters—these Philosophy students, I thought to myself. The girl next to me—she was probably pushing 19—looked at me and chuckled. “You went through customs?” she asked.
“Oh yeah...many times,” I said. I pulled the lapel of my leather jacket a little closer to my neck to block the chill radiating from the window. A large gray squirrel danced in the oak tree outside. I got out my notebook and wrote Republic: Book I at the top of the page.
“Book I is critical,” Dr. Magada-Ward said. I wrote that down and underlined it. I had no idea what that meant, although I would find out later that “customs” doesn’t necessarily involve a passport and a bag search in order to gain entry into a foreign country. I was making progress.
My plan for my first paper was simple: I would scour the text, find the answer to Socrates’ question “What is justice?” and write a well-crafted essay about it—quoting sections of the text as argumentative support. But that didn't seem to be the way the Republic was written.
What we get is a stroll through a city were, apparently, no one really knows the answer to the questions except—and this is a maybe—the philosopher-king. The real answers were beyond space and time. Boy, I’ll say. Fine! But how in the hell am I supposed to write a dang paper about justice? I’m four freaking weeks into an Intro class, I have no idea what’s going on, and somehow I’m expected to come up with five pages of philosophical enlightenment. Fortunately, after much wringing-of-hands and gnashing-of-teeth, everything worked out okay.
That was my “intro” to philosophy. Baptism by fire, if you will. Today, I would like to think I’m a bit more enlightened than that first day. I have my moments. What I found interesting is Herman’s Chapter 5 triggered all the emotions I felt during my first “stroll” through the Republic. In fact, Chapter 5 just laid out all of my concerns in just a few pages.
Here’s the thing: Socrates is purported to be the wisest man, right? As a first-year philosophy student reading the text, I would come across something and think to myself: this doesn’t seem like that good of an idea. For example, do we really want one guy (or woman—I’ll give Plato credit for that one) in charge of everything? Don’t we have modern examples where that idea didn’t turn out so well? But Socrates is the wisest man ever. I’m thinking all this as I’m reading the Republic. Should I disagree? On what grounds? Who am I to question Socrates? I just got off a bus with a hangover and a dangling participle.
That was years ago. What I would like to point out is a bit of philosophical irony. Plato may be laughing—many steps ahead of us after all.
So Socrates says in the Apology that “if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge of things in the underworld” (29b). That seems like a convenient statement since real knowledge is only accessible to philosophers—such as himself. But how do we know that Socrates is the wisest? It turns out that Socrates didn’t make this claim—the god at Delphi did. How do we know this? In the Apology at 21a, Socrates says that his friend of his at youth, Chaerephon, went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The priestess replied that “no one was wiser.” As Socrates tells this story, he mentions that his friend who witnessed this statement, Chaerephon, was dead. Luckily for Socrates, Chaerephon’s brother would be happy to testify if anyone doubts the story.
Well, I guess that settles it then. There’s nothing like the brother of a dead witness to buttress a story as we’re lectured on the obscure nature of reality. Unintelligible shadows, indeed.
Now I'm left wondering if they will attempt to kill me with their chains if I ever return to the bus. I guess that depends on whether I return with questions or answers—in the spirit of Socrates or Plato. I should probably bring alcohol, just in case.