Plato’s Hidden Doctrine?

Esotericism seems to have been a common practice among ancient and even modern writers up until recently, when it has been disavowed. Plato, of course, is obviously esoteric. So also is Jesus. There is a public-facing story (the exoteric) and an inward-facing doctrine (the esoteric) for the initiates. Jesus himself declares that he is teaching in parables so that the many will not understand (a fact ignored by many modern church leaders).

But, back to Plato. He is certainly esoteric. He never appears in the dialogues, except in Phaedo, but only by his absence due to sickness. He never speaks in his own voice. “But Socrates speaks for Plato!” Does he? Socrates is himself esoteric, in that he doesn’t teach his own doctrine (see Thrasymachus’ complaint in Republic I) and Plato’s imitation of Socates’ speech in dialogues is therefore doubly esoteric. What doctrine are you to take from these works?

Take the Meno, which I have been studying. Can virtue be taught? Or does it come to be by nature? Socrates dismisses the view that it comes by nature, because then there would be people who could recognize virtuous natures. Thus, it must be taught! But where are the teachers? Which is it?

Many readers are confused and pissed off at this point. But perhaps you should understand that you aren’t supposed to get it. In the seventh letter, Plato argues that whatever philosophic activity is, it happens in the soul, individual by individual, and can’t really be taught. Philosophy is somewhat like virtue in the dialogue.

Return to the action: can virtue arise by nature? Perhaps, but we aren’t skilled in recognizing it when it does. Mabye we are like apprentice dog-breeders, who don’t yet know what it is to be of a virtuous nature. Can virtue be taught? Perhaps so, but the supposed teachers mentioned aren’t virtuous? But even if it could be taught, wouldn’t the teaching require students? If there aren’t students of the right nature, the teacing can’t proceed. It is possible that virtue arises both by nature and by teaching, right?

Or perhaps it is, as Meno says, “somewhat not like these other cases.” Perhaps virtue, being an act of humans who are rational and somehow akin to the forms, is a characteristic of freedom, not bound by nature or teaching, and therefore a quite different thing. The dog-breeder can have such success because dogs don’t have to choose to be dogs. Humans have to choose to be what they are! In such choosing, might we find virtue?

Which is the definitive meaning of Plato? I don’t know, but I think, as Socrates says, “we will be more manly and less lazy if we are confident that the truth can be found.” We’re supposed to dig into the texts and wrestle with them. Well, at least the philosophical initiates are supposed to.

(all quotes are from memory. Don’t check my work!)

Upon Returning to the Shire

New books bore me. It may be that I’ve ruined myself for casual light entertainment, or it might be that the books just aren’t that good. Either way, I’ve decided that I am going to re-read books that I know that I like. So I am back to The Lord of the Rings, this time with the Audible book read by Andy Serkis. It’s good so far.

But I can’t help thinking that this is the most ridiculous book I’ve ever read. It’s just garbage. “Concerning Hobbits.” No action, but a ponderous introduction about the habits of hobbits, whatever they are. Who are they and why should I care? The book leaves the second question unanswered. We learn about the hobbits’ gift-giving habits, the three divisions or races of hobbits, the meaning of the word mathom, the extents of the Shire, the discovery and smoking of “pipe weed”, the various classes of hobbits and the great families thereof. No elements of story yet!


Why does it work?

It works because the Shire and the hobbits in general are the protagonist of the story. It is for the Shire that Frodo takes the Ring to Mount Doom. It is so that they can continue their lovely little lives, talking of potatoes and cabbages at the Green Dragon. Incidentally, this is why “The Scouring of the Shire” is necessary at the end of the third book.

There’s also an element of tragedy in that Bilbo and Frodo are not really of the Shire. They are able to record its habits and write the history of its people, but they are not ordinary respectable hobbits. They can see the whole and judge that hobbit-folk are valuable and need to be protected from the slavery to Sauron, but because Bilbo and Frodo aren’t normal. Note that neither of them get married! How could they settle down and be ordinary? Especially after having seen the Elves.

“Concerning Hobbits” taken from the Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and augmented by Frodo, is a farewell to the home that they must eventually leave.

On evil

Everyone is talking about evil now. There are wars and rumors of wars. As is usual in wars, humans are being butchered. It’s a digital age, and video of some of the butchery makes its way to your feed. Can’t you see the evil that lies in the heart of these people?

No, actually, you can’t. What is evil? Classically it’s a privation of a good that ought to be there, but this is thin gruel in such a barbaric age as ours. Let me try a different approach. Evil is a sense that there is something wrong, that it shouldn’t have happened that way, whatever it is.

But this is magical thinking. If you, as all right-thinking people are today, are a secular and scientific person, evil is inaccessible to you. You might as well say that the lion that eats the antelope is evil, or that the mold grows on your bread is evil, or that an earthquake is evil. These are not evils, they are just the way things are. Similarly, hearing about beheaded babies isn’t evil, it’s just the way things are in a war. The human animal goes to war in the same way that the lion eats the antelope or forcibly mates with the lioness.

But, you say, there is evil! You just know it!

There is a way for evil to make sense as a concept. It’s if the world as it is really isn’t the way it should be. In other words, the world has fallen from a primordial good state. If this is the case, we can say that something is evil, in that it is far from the good state.

Evil is either a religious concept, or it is nothing at all.