In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories…
And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.
The old Parthenon must have been lovely, but I think ours was prettier yesterday.
Socrates, from Alopece, near Athens, asked a lot of questions. Did curiosity kill the philosopher? No, a narrow plurality of 500 jurors did. (His unrepentant attitude during sentencing didn't help, either.) They convicted him of "impiety" (atheism) and corrupting the youth of Athens. One more reason I'm lucky to live in the 21st century: I don't like hemlock. I'm like one of my favorite philosophers, Woody Allen, that way.
He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. "He was ugly," says podcastee Mary McCabe. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go. Said he had nothing to teach, but those around him (including young Plato) said they learned plenty from him, especially how
to discuss with others in this open-minded, open-ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think, without dictating, without dogma, without insistence, and without imperative... to be true to themselves: to be sincere about their beliefs and to be honest... and to have some respect for their companion.If that's not good teaching, what is?
"Plato, they say, could stick it away..." -they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.
He also had interesting thoughts about love and eros, as expressed through his constant dialogue character "Socrates" (who may or may not have spoken faithfully for his martyred namesake) in Symposium. Angie Hobbs says Plato rejected Aristophanes' mythic notion that we all have one unique other "half," formerly parts of our hermaphroditic spherical selves, that would complete us and make us happy. But he defended a view some of us find equally implausible, the idea that the true and highest love spurns particular persons and embraces the Form of Beauty.
The Form of Beauty "is always going to be there for you," but on the other hand "it's never going to love you back." Unrequited affection is hardly what most of us think of as Perfect Love. There's a myth for you. "Pain, fragility, and transience" don't sound like much, but try sustaining a relationship without them. That's the story and the glory of human love, no? Just ask Cecil the Butler about Sidney Poitier.