Ironies of Socrates and Plato

Speaking of Socrates and Plato, Joseph Heller captures the delightful irony in the philosophies of the two intellectual giants and the complexity of Plato’s relationship and portrayal of Socrates: 

“[Socrates] was a dedicated philosopher who had no philosophy, an educator without curriculum or system of education, a teacher without pupils; a professor who professed to know nothing; a sage with faith that a knowledge of virtue exists unborn inside each of us and might, perhaps, be brought to life through persevering search.

“He did not like books, which should have nettled Plato, who wrote so many.

“He had low regard for people who read them.

“He mistrusted books, he said in the Phaedrus, because they could neither ask nor answer questions and were apt to be swallowed whole.  He said that readers of books read much and learned nothing, that they appeared full of knowledge, but for the most part were without it, and had the show of wisdom without its reality.

“He said this in a book.

“The book, though, is by Plato, who denounced dramatic representations as spurious because the writer put into the mouths of characters imitating real people whatever the author wished them to say.

“Plato said this in a dramatic representation, in which he put into the mouth of Socrates and other real people exactly those things Plato wanted them to say”

(Joseph Heller, Picture This, 94).  This novel is fantastic!  That is, if you like history … It takes a painting by Rembrandt of Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer as its starting point, and then ranges over the vast fields of Greek, Dutch, and modern history, drawing an astonishing number of connections and parallels between the eras.  It’s rough going, if you don’t know much history, but it’s well worth it!


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