Plato would have made a fine novelist

In High School, I had to read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (or, excerpts from it, at least). I found the style of argumentation to be abstractly quite impressive. Aristotle had the most reasonable, understandable, and comprehensive arguments I’d ever seen. In many ways, he was alot easier to understand than the teacher who was ostensibly explaining him to us. Unfortunately, he was also deadly dull. His writing style is what would happen if the smartest and most logical man in the world sat down and tried to argue out what would be exactly the right thing to eat for breakfast.

I did not realize that he was dull. I thought that this was the way philosophy was: reasonable, comprehensive, and boring.  In my freshman year of college, I was supposed to read Plato’s Republic and a whole bunch of his dialogues. I did not do these readings.

And that is perhaps sad, because Plato is not dull. He’s an incandescent storyteller. (And, for once, the 19th century free translation of a writer’s work is actually the best translation. I’ve been reading the Benjamin Jowett translations of his dialogues from Project Gutenberg)

The entire thesis of this blog entry is just going to be a parroting of an opinion of Samuel Delany’s (which in turn he got from Walter Pater), so I will just quote the former:

“What Pater praises Plato for is, rather, that excess, that richness of life and experience in which the portraits of his debaters and the world around them are picked out — all the things that make one think that Plato would have made a fine novelist, if the novel had, indeed, existed when he wrote. It’s a richness PLato communicates through the texture and generosity of his own linguistic attentions, his various ironies conveyed by use of commonplace reality to make or highlight–even more often to undercut or qualify–a point.” (About Writing, pg. 322)

I’m so down with this opinion. For instance, I just read Protagoras, which contains all kinds of debates about the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught which are kind of interesting, but not really necessarily true (to steal an opinion from Wittgenstein, these arguments basically boil down to differences caused by imprecise language). But beyond that, it’s also a kick-ass showdown between two philosophers who start off scrapping and end up as friends (or at least, friendly!).

And then there’s The Apology and Crito. The first is an account of Socrates’ arguments at his trial, and the latter is an account of his arguments against his friend Crito, who is attempting to persuade him to flee his sentence of death. I found the latter, particularly, to be extremely stirring, as in Crito’s speech to Socrates:

“Nor can I think that you are at all justified, Socrates, in betraying your own life when you might be saved; in acting thus you are playing into the hands of your enemies, who are hurrying on your destruction. And further I should say that you are deserting your own children; for you might bring them up and educate them; instead of which you go away and leave them, and they will have to take their chance; and if they do not meet with the usual fate of orphans, there will be small thanks to you. No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education. But you appear to be choosing the easier part, not the better and manlier, which would have been more becoming in one who professes to care for virtue in all his actions, like yourself. And indeed, I am ashamed not only of you, but of us who are your friends, when I reflect that the whole business will be attributed entirely to our want of courage. The trial need never have come on, or might have been managed differently; and this last act, or crowning folly, will seem to have occurred through our negligence and cowardice, who might have saved you, if we had been good for anything; and you might have saved yourself, for there was no difficulty at all. See now, Socrates, how sad and discreditable are the consequences, both to us and you. Make up your mind then, or rather have your mind already made up, for the time of deliberation is over, and there is only one thing to be done, which must be done this very night, and, if we delay at all, will be no longer practicable or possible; I beseech you therefore, Socrates, be persuaded by me, and do as I say.”

(Holy crap, I was just searching for Crito on my computer in order to pull up a quote and I found a whole paper I wrote on it during my freshman year of college. I absolutely do not remember that at all.)

3 thoughts on “Plato would have made a fine novelist

  1. bridgesburning

    I have The Republic by Plato in my library. Had not gotten around to reading it but will start tonight. I also have some Aristotle but find it dry, or maybe I have not approached it with the right mind set.
    Thanks!
    Chris

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, the Republic is another one I was supposed to read in college…errr…I’ll get to it eventually. If you bounce off the Republic, try Crito and the Apology. They’re like short stories.

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