Tuesday, November 25, 2014

BOOK: Marco Girolamo Vida, "Christiad"

Marco Girolamo Vida: Christiad. Translated by James Gardner. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 39. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034082. xxviii + 464 pp.

The story

This is an epic poem of about 6000 lines, about the life of Jesus with an emphasis on his final days. In fact the direct action in the poem only covers the last few days of Jesus's life: he comes to Jerusalem (re-animating Lazarus along the way), has the last supper there, gets arrested during the following night and then executed soon afterwards. However, the poet comes up with all sorts of excuses to include flashbacks that tell us about things that happened earlier.

For example, in book 1 Jesus visits the temple in Jerusalem and admires the sculptures there; they depict the creation of the world and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, so we get a long description of these events (1.591–673).

In book 2, people from all over Israel are coming to Jerusalem for some sort of religious festival, and the poet makes use of this opportunity to include a long catalogue of various towns and regions and their inhabitants (2.332—529). I suppose that the epic poets' union requires them to include at least one catalogue in each epic poem :P

And in book 3, after Jesus gets arrested, his father (or is that stepfather? :P) Joseph goes to see Pontius Pilate to try to explain his son's activities, and so nearly the whole of book 3 is a long flashback in which Joseph tells Pilate about his marriage to Mary and about Jesus' birth and childhood.

Book 4 consists mostly of a flashback by John (the apostle) about Jesus's last few years, how he encountered John the Baptist, assembled a group of disciples, performed various miracles, etc. John even includes the story of the creation of the world and subsequent events up to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise (4.59–110).

The last two books tell the story more straightforwardly; in book 5 we have Jesus's trial and execution (there's an odd scene where a legion of angels gets indignant at his suffering and are just about ready to swoop down and rescue him, so that god has to sternly recall them back in the last moment; 5.534–702, especially ll. 562–573, which is a pleasantly psychedelic description of the appearance of the angels: some have two pairs of wings, some have three “for their feet are winged as well”; some have “brilliant plumage and flaming feet and backs that grow like fire”, others “the color of grass, like emeralds” etc. etc.), and in book 6 we see some of his post-mortem activities: he travels to Hell to liberate various prophets and patriarchs that have been waiting for him in a not-too-uncomfortable sort of limbo; then he returns to Earth (with a spiffy new immortal body), spends a few weeks amongst his followers and then leaves them for good.

Miscellaneous odd things

One thing that I was surprised by was the active involvement of the devils in the early part of the poem. Satan holds a speech among them in hell and then they come up in large numbers to incite hatred of Jesus among the people of Jerusalem. This is the sort of thing that you expect to see in Milton's Paradise Lost, but I didn't expect it here; I wonder if there's any basis for this part of the tale in the bible itself. In any case, Milton apparently held Vida's epic in high regard and was definitely influenced by it (pp. vii, xxiv). In particular, his famous line “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire” closely parallels a passage in the Christiad: “Some transformed their obscene bodies into Gorgons, Sphinxes and Centaurs, others into Hydras and fire-breathing Chimaeras” (1.143–4).

A problem I have with epic poems as well as with religious tales (and after all the two genres have much in common) is that the characters featured there are often so different from normal people that I find it difficult to sympathize with them. They behave in ways that no normal person would, and thus end up seeming more like machines for the advancement of the plot. One of the few situations where I really felt I could sympathize with the characters here in the Christiad occurs in 3.227–53, where Joseph and Mary, neither of whom had the slightest wish to get married, find themselves on their wedding night, wondering what to do with each other and eventually deciding not to do anything. Just two poor fragile mortals, powerless while forces far beyond their control toy with them. That is something I could sympathize with.


I was also surprised by the character of Pilate. He's shown as a much more positive figure than I expected; he's convinced that Jesus is innocent and indeed of divine origin, he listens with great interest to what Joseph and John tell him of Jesus's life, and seems to be keen to acquit him. Nevertheless, since the people of Jerusalem call so strongly for Jesus to be executed, Pilate eventually gives in.

That's an aspect of the story that I never quite understood. He is presented here as some sort of governor, a representative of the Roman empire that was by then already in control of the area; why then does he allow a mob of locals to influence his decision like that? I would imagine that he'd try to enforce his decision out of sheer principle if for no other reason — doesn't it weaken Roman prestige if he caves in under local pressure like that? The closest Vida comes to explaining why Pilate yielded is in 5.326–47: Pilate is partly worried that the populace might rise into a revolt if he doesn't give in, and partly he was worried that Jesus's claims to be some sort of king might eventually turn into a challenge against the Roman rule of the area.

There are one or two other things that bother me about this whole crucifixion business. The poet rails in the strongest terms against people who were involved in getting Jesus arrested, condemned and executed; from Judas who betrayed him, to the people and elders of Jerusalem who called for his execution, to the soldiers etc. involved in carrying it out. And yet all these people were indirectly just carrying out god's plan, as the poet himself often admits. Basically, god decided that Jesus needs to be brutally executed in order to cleanse humankind of original sin, so as far as I'm concerned, everyone who was involved in executing him was really doing him a favor. If they hadn't been willing to execute him, the whole insane plan would have failed spectacularly.

Really, if the devil had really been half as clever as he is sometimes made out to be, he wouldn't have sent his legions of demons to incite the people of Jerusalem against Jesus (as he does in book 1 of this poem); he would have instead inspired them to regard Jesus and his teachings favorably, or perhaps to merely point and laugh at him, so that in the end Jesus would be reduced to standing all confused in a central square somewhere in Jerusalem and wondering ‘why the heck doesn't anybody want to execute me? now what? that wasn't part of the plan!’ :))

For the same reason I found it hard to understand why Jesus's disciples and relatives are so sad about his suffering and death. I mean, if they really and truly believed in the truth of his teachings, wouldn't the reasonable response have been ‘good, everything is going according to plan, plus he's immortal anyway so he'll be back up and running in a couple days' time’?

The other thing that bothers me about the poet's attitude towards crucifixion is that while he happily admits how horrible and painful it is, he doesn't seem to be ready to draw any general conclusions against it. He sympathizes with Jesus's suffering but then mentions the other two people crucified next to him and says that they were condemned justly, since they had actually been criminals. It didn't seem to occur to him that this sort of extremely painful punishment might be morally wrong even for someone that had actually commited some crimes.

Besides, if one truly believed (as I imagine the poet had) that Jesus and god the father are really one and the same person, well then effectively god was dying up there on the cross by his own choice, because he himself had decided that this is necessary, although he could have surely just as well declared the whole original sin business to be bullshit and forgot about it without having to go through all the trouble of getting himself incarnated and executed. So if he dislikes any part of this process, he has only himself to blame — but you can't say that for the two supposed criminals on the neighboring crosses, so I really feel much more sympathy for them than I do for Jesus.

But anyway, I suppose that lots of other people have been pondering such questions when thinking about the story of Jesus and his death, so I can't really add anything new or interesting on this topic.


As is inevitable when religion gets involved, there are a few impressively bizarre passages in this poem. In 4.439–475, John tells the grisly story of a man “born to parents joined in forbidden love [. . .] they went to bed at a time when sacred ritual forbade it [. . .] Amidst their joyous embraces, the adulterer gave up his sacrilegious soul, and that first night of love was also their last. When the mother was already advanced in labor, she was struck down by a heaven-sent fever.” The child survived but grew up into a demon-infested lunatic who lived more like a beast than a human. Jesus eventually cures him in a scene that you would sooner expect from a stone-age tribal shaman — by transferring the demons into some nearby pigs! (4.508–531)

Translator's note to 4.645 (p. 411): “Pliny says that the priests of Cybele use broken pieces of Samian pottery to perform their ritual castrations”. Eeeeeek!

On translations

Unlike most of the other volumes in the ITRL series, this one wasn't translated by an academic — the front flap of the dustjacket says that the translator is a “writer and art critic”. I think that turned out to be a good idea; the introduction talks more about the literary aspects of the poem and less about various academic debates about this or that detail of Renaissance literature and history. It also contains a short overview of Vida's life; it turns out that he had influential patrons: the Christiad was commissioned by pope Leo X, and when it was completed, Clement VII rewarded the poet by appointing him the bishop of Alba (p. ix).

There are some interesting remarks on the conservative nature of neo-Latin poetry and how it was all about imitating the ancient Roman poets as closely as possible: “Vida aspires to write as an Augustan poet, if not Vergil himself, would have written if he had been a Christian” (p. x); and see also pp. xxi–xxii: “Vergil was trying to write the best poetry that he could, whereas Vida was trying to be as Vergilian as he could. [. . .] The predictable result [. . .] is that he [. . .] achieves the greatest possible simulacrum” (p. xxii).

The translation is nice but, of course, like in most ITRL poetry volumes, it's in prose, so I occasionally wished that I had taken up some of the earlier translations: there's one by John Cranwell from 1768 and one by Edward Granan from 1771. Both are in rhyming couplets, which makes everything sound so cheerful, no matter how horrible it is. For example, here's a passage from the aforementioned horror story from book 4, now in Granan's translation: “If fame sings true, a lawless Hymen led/ His guilty parents to the genial bed./ [. . .] But they enjoy'd not long their foul delight;/ The crime commenc'd and ended in one night:/ For 'mid his joys the base adulterer dies,/ And into air his wicked spirit flies,/ When urg'd her throes, from ether shot a flame,/ And lambent round, consum'd the lab'ring Dame,” (4.481–90 in Granan's translation, pp. 148–9).

I was surprised to see that two separate translations were produced just three years apart; I wonder if there's an interesting story behind this. I skimmed through Granan's introduction to his 1771 translation, but he doesn't mention Cranwell's translation at all.

The ITRL edition of the Christiad also has an interesting bibliography of early editions and translations of the poem (pp. 443–5). There's even a Croatian translation, first printed in 1670, and an Armenian one from 1832.


This poem wasn't as boring as I feared it would be, but I can't say that I found it terribly interesting either. Perhaps it's mostly a matter of slightly mismatched expectations. This isn't exactly a heroic epic in the way that the Illiad or the Odyssey are; it's more like taking some bits and pieces of biblical stories and recasting them into hexameters. The pacing is a bit too leisurely for my taste and there isn't much action here; indeed the most exciting scenes are the ones which I suspect are entirely Vida's invention, when the devils rush to influence the people of Jerusalem in book 1, and when the angels almost swoop down to rescue Jesus from the cross in book 5.

There weren't many characters that one could sympathize with; they feel too much like cardboard cutouts that have their assigned roles in the story, roles which they must play, and which they *will* play, so that the poet doesn't feel much of a need to explain their motivation or see things from their perspective. For example, why did the people and the establishment of Jerusalem hate Jesus so fervently? Apart from the suggestion that they were influenced by the demons from book 1, the main explanation seems to be that they are upset by the fact that Jesus has openly announced that he intends to overturn their established ancestral laws, rituals, customs and the like.

And if you think about it, that sounds like a reasonable concern. Some weirdo self-appointed messiah shows up out of nowhere and starts making wild, outrageous proclamations, denigrating old traditions and the like — it's only natural that people react with skepticism and distrust. In fact, from what we know of the overall religious ferment in the Levant during the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, I imagine that self-proclaimed prophets were a dime a dozen back then. Surely he, being omnipotent, could have provided explanations and proofs that would convince these doubters, but clearly he refused to do so. I'd say that executing him was an overreaction, but I could hardly blame the people if they had e.g. tried to banish him from their country. And yet the poem never seems to acknowledge that his accusers and haters basically had a point.

In any case, the main problem with the whole story is the underlying premiss, which is completely unfixable: the whole thing is based on the idea of original sin and on the need for Jesus/god to be reincarnated and killed in a kind of expiation for it. That is one of the most absurd, abominable, despicable ideas that anybody has ever come up with, and yet it underlies the whole story; nothing in it makes sense without this. So you can't help constantly being reminded of it as you read, and this ruined the whole poem for me.

I imagine that a more tolerant reader who doesn't share my robust dislike of these underlying ideas from christian theology might be able to relax and enjoy reading this poem better than I did. As for me, reading it mostly just confirmed my pre-existing opinion that christian mythology is far more annoying as the Greek, as it is equally absurd but much less charming.

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

BOOK: Jacopo Sannazaro, "Latin Poetry"

Jacopo Sannazaro: Latin Poetry. Translated by Michael J. C. Putnam. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 38. Harvard University Press, 2009. 9780674034068. xxv + 562 pp.

Sannazaro was a poet from Naples who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. The translator's introduction includes a short overview of his career as a poet, which I found very interesting. His first work was in Italian, a pastoral book called Arcadia in a mixture of prose and verse; this was very influential and it's what he's best known for nowadays. But after that, all the rest of his work was in Latin; he seems to have regarded this transition as a form of progress, moving from Italian to Latin was a step forward in his development as a poet. It seems somewhat sad that even as late as 1500, after so much good literature had already been written in Italian, authors such as Sannazaro still seemed to regard it as somehow inferior and felt that only work written in Latin will really have enduring value. How mistaken they were in that — nowadays, we mostly remember Renaissance writers for the work they've done in living languages, not in Latin.

The Virgin Birth

This is an epic poem of almost 1500 lines, divided into three books. In book 1, god decides to make Mary pregnant and sends an angel to explain this to her. In book 2, Mary stays for a while at a relative's house and then travels with her husband Joseph to his birth-place, Bethlehem, as required by a census decreed by the emperor Augustus. However, as they can't find a place to stay in the town, she ends up giving birth in a nearby cave. In book 3, god sends various angels, shepherds etc. to celebrate the new-born baby Jesus, and the [tutelary deity of the] river Jordan expounds a long prophecy of his future achievements.

Considering the material, this wasn't as boring as I feared it would be. It was interesting to see this odd mixture of christian and pagan elements; Sannazaro switches very nonchalantly from the christian god and angels to pagan nymphs and back all the time; refers to the christian god as the “Thunderer” and addresses Mary as a “goddess”; there are a few mentions of the underworld, which seems to be a mixture of christian and pagan elements, etc.

It was also somewhat interesting to read this for the sake of the story itself, as I had never read any collections of biblical tales (or indeed the bible itself). On the other hand, Sannazaro probably assumed that his readers would be familiar with this stuff already, and as a result I occasionally found the story a little hard to follow.

Another downside was that, as often seems to be the case in shorter epics, there was less plot and action, but lots more speeches, than I'd ideally prefer. There is of course also the obligatory epic catalogue, namely in 2.125–234: after mentioning that Augustus had ordered a census, Sannazaro enters into a long and detailed list of Roman provinces, going pretty systematically in a counterclockwise direction. The list struck me as somewhat optimistic: apparently, even “the Cilician pirate” (2.134) will submit to the census, and “Anyone discovered in the empty desert is also enrolled” (2.207) :))

Like I suppose many other irreverent non-believers, I was of course greatly intrigued by the concept of a virgin birth, and was curious how Sannazaro would explain its mechanics. These are described in 2.369–76: “His nourishing mother had felt no stirring within her vitals or assaulting blows of a weight in descent. Her innards clung tight with bonds unmoved, much as when panels of glass receive the limpid sun. Indeed the light itself passes through [. . .] The panes remain unscathed, permeable by no blast of wind or storm, but vulnerable only to Phoebus's rays.”

Like many translations of poetry in the ITRL series, this one is also entirely in prose, but this time the prose felt reasonably poetic and wasn't unpleasant to read. I was also extremely impressed by the translator's notes, which point out countless instances where some line or phrase in Sannazaro is an echo of something from the work of some ancient Roman poet. This must have taken a huge effort to gather, and for the right sort of reader it will probably be extremely valuable.

I mostly found it interesting as an indication of the not-so-hidden costs of writing poetry in a dead language such as Latin: when asking themselves questions such as ‘can I start a line with such and such a phrase?’, ‘can I use such and such a metaphor?’ etc., the neo-Latin poets couldn't rely on a native ear for the language nor on an existing community of speakers, because the language was thoroughly dead; so the only way to be sure that you could do something was to check if some ancient Roman poet had already done it before you. They had little choice but to chew through the same limited corpus of authentic ancient Roman poetry again and again in search of elementary building blocks for their own works. I imagine that neither the poets nor their readers could long put up with this level of derivativeness, which I guess explains why writing poetry in Latin quickly fell out of favour after the Renaissance.

Piscatory Eclogues

This is a sequence of five poems, with a fragment of a sixth, that is an interesting variation on the theme of pastoral poetry: as the title suggests, they are set amongst fishermen instead of shepherds. But apart from that, it's fairly typical pastoral poetry and as the translator's notes show, for each of these poems you can find clear parallels in the work of ancient Greek and/or Roman poets.

Some poets liked to use pastoral poetry as a kind of code to comment on real people and events, with the characters in the poem being thinly-veiled versions of some real person etc., but here in Sannazaro's eclogues this mostly doesn't seem to be the case. That suited me just fine as I'm not particularly fond of literature a clef.

I liked the diversity of form in these poems: some are sung by a single narrator, in some there's two characters taking turns and trying to out-do each other, etc. My favorite among these eclogues was the fifth one, in which we see a witch cooking up a love-potion to charm a man who has hitherto been indifferent to her. I always liked scenes of sorcery; it's easy to make them seem exciting, and it makes for a pleasant change from the otherwise somewhat more leisurely tone of pastoral poetry.

A nice line from the fourth eclogue (line 91): “To be at peace in one's fatherland is welcome, but earth is everyone's grave.”

The Willows

This poem is based on one of those just-so stories with which Greek mythology was so fond of explaining the origin of various things, animals, plants and so on. In fact I don't know if Sannazaro actually based his poem on an existing Greek myth, or just invented a story of his own in the same style.

Anyway, a group of satyrs and other such horny goat-like guys invites a group of nymphs to a dance, going out of their way to reassure them that of course they won't try to molest them or anything of that sort. The nymphs' hesitant trust is soon betrayed as the satyrs start chasing them around. In desperation, they flee to a river bank, where apparently the best thing the gods can do to help them is to turn them into willows — which is why willows nowadays lean so towards the water, away from the direction where the satyrs would have been coming from. You might think that a few well-measured lightning bolts directed at the satyrs would have been a better solution, but then Greek gods are not really known for being reasonable and helpful. We can only hope that none of the satyrs was a dendrophiliac.

As is often the case with old myths and fairy-tales and the like, the more you think about it, the more horrible it is. At first it seems like a whimsical tale of the origin of willows, but on second thought it's the story of an attempted rape on a large scale; it continues with a dramatic chase scene; and ends with a grisly bit of supernatural body horror as we see a detailed description of how the nymphs' bodies turn into wood! Brrrrr.

Later he has a similar poem about the origin of the mulberry (Elegies 2.4), and another transformation into a tree occurs in Epigrams 1.48 (this time it's a boy named Cyparissus; the god Apollo sighs: “O woods, why are you expanding at the expense of my sorrow? You have Daphne, you have Cyparissus.”).

By the way, if you want more willow-themed horror, there's an excellent weird tale by Algernon Blackwood called The Willows.


These are shorter poems on miscellaneous subjects; there's plenty of poems in praise of various friends and patrons, some are on mythological subjects, some are occasional pieces, etc. On the whole, this was perhaps my least favorite part of this book, but a few of these elegies were enjoyable anyway:

1.1, on his contentment with being a minor love-poet rather than a great epic one; there are a few very nice romantic lines (55–64): “We wretched lovers are not tormented for gold or for jewels. He who can persuade his mistress will be rich. [. . .] What use a couch remarkable for its down or for its purple, unless a dear girl rests in my lap” etc.

1.3 is a touching poem on love and mortality: the poet hopes to pre-decease his mistress to spare himself the pain of living without her, and urges her not to waste time while they are still both young.

A lovely epitaph for the poet himself, 1.10.23–4: “Here, I, Actius, lie. My hope rests extinguished with me./ Only Love remains after our death.”

2.2, on the poet's birthday, in which he looks forward to his learned friends from the Academy coming to visit him; 2.4, a myth on the origins of the mulberry tree; 2.9, in which the ruins of the famous ancient city of Cumae near Naples lead him to reflect on how some day even Rome and his beloved Naples will fall into ruin; 2.10, which seems to have been written to accompany a gift of pomegranates sent to a friend: the apples sing in the first person and proclaim themselves as superior to gems, for fruit, unlike gems, does not turn the human mind towards greed and violence.

I was amused by the clever doing-it-while-pretending-not-to in 2.1, dedicated to Alfonso of Aragon: to paraphrase, the poem goes ‘if only I had more talent as a poet, how I would praise you — I would say’ and about 100 lines in praise of Alfonso follow at that point :P


This is a large number of even shorter poems, including many very enjoyable ones.

1.6, in which he's asking his mistress for “six hundred kisses” (l. 1), and very passionate ones too: “I yearn to grip your whole tongue, thrust between my wet little lips” (ll. 11–12) etc. There's another poem about kissing later (1.57, inspired by Catullus).

1.20: “When Poggio praises his country, when he excoriates its enemy, he is neither a bad citizen nor a good historian.” According to the Wikipedia, Poggio's history of Florence was a kind of continuation of Bruni's history.

From 1.31, after observing that ink is made from rust and vinegar: “Nile, this is to surpass your Pyramids! Unfortunate fate! So the juice of rust snatches our reputations from the hateful pyre?” (ll. 4–6)

From 1.35, praising Venice more highly than Rome: “If you prefer the Tiber to the sea, cast your eye on both cities. You will say that men built that one, the gods this.” (ll. 5–6)

1.40 is a funny satire of a type of person that is still common nowadays: someone who goes to extremes in scrimping and saving in his everyday life so that he can afford some extravagant bit of conspicuous consumption. In Sannazaro's poem, bonus hilarity comes from the fact that the conspicuous consumption in question is — an extra fancy grave! The project is described in great, sarcastic detail; Vetustino buys a big plot of land, hires architects, constantly changes his mind about the plans for his mausoleum, etc. :))

1.53 is a fine invective against Cesare Borgia: “Cesare, the apple of his father's eye, and his sister's, the charm, the serenity, the pleasure of his brothers, that dear little boy of the Vatican Mount, [. . .] that defiler and adulterer of his sister, the ruin, disease, and doom of his brothers, abominable beast of the Vatican Mount, who, not long ago, tainted with crime and with the evils of pillage, swallowed five hundred cities” (ll. 7–16) etc. etc.

1.56, on his birthday, ends on a bittersweet epicurean note: “Poor wretches, do we foresee what the morrow's light threatens? Let us live. No one can deceive death.” (ll. 11–12)

1.61 is about Angelo Poliziano (the name sounded familiar to me, and I eventually realized that I read an ITRL volume of his oddly pedagogical poems a few years ago; see my post from back then) and his researches into what Catullus's sparrow really stood for. (This seems to have been quite a popular topic; I already heard about it in the ITRL volume of the poems of Pontano, an older friend of Sannazaro's; see my post from back then.)

2.4 is poking fun at some guy who was hoping to win the poet's friendship by some gifts of vegetables, and thus get immortalized in verse: “O Matho, how fortunate you are to have discovered both friend and bard, how fortunate in your vegetable patch and its offerings, if, what so many valorous deeds have scarcely created for the offspring of the gods, lettuce and greens will produce for you.” (ll. 9–13)

2.10 and 2.12 are humorous quatrains featuring characters from classical mythology. On seeing Venus attempting to wield weapons, Priapus shouts “in his wanton voice, “Put them down. This is the equipment that more befits those hands of yours.’ ” :))) (2.12.3–4)

But some are much more sombre: 2.43, in which a mother mourns her only son: “Why, alas, did my parents falsely name me Laetitia [gladness] who ought to have called me Tristitia [sadness]? [. . .] compare me with Niobe whose lot has this better outcome: she was able to turn to stone.”

In 3.6, oracles tell Euno that he “will stand above kings and over dukes” — and sure enough, he did, by getting crucified.

3.8 is a short and sweet epigram against pope Leo X: “If by chance you ask why in his last hour Leo wasn't able to take the sacraments: he had sold them.”


All in all, this was quite an enjoyable book. The poems here have a great variety in terms of length, genre, form, theme etc., and many of them were pleasant to read. The translations, as usually in the ITRL series, are in prose, but by now I've got mostly used to this so it didn't bother me much. I hope I'll some day get to read Sannazaro's Italian pastoral tale, the Arcadia, as well.

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "Commentaries on Plato" (Vol. 2)

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part I. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 51. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064713. lxii + 286 pp.

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 2: Parmenides, Part II. Edited and translated by Maude Vanhaelen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 52. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674064720. v + 408 pp.

A wise man once said that happiness depends on the difference between your expectations and reality. After my recent experiences with reading Ficino's commentary on Plato's Phaedrus, I adjusted my expectations a bit before taking up his commentary on Plato's Parmenides. As a result, this was not nearly as unpleasant to read as I had feared at first.

My suspicions about the Neoplatonists being more like a weird religious cult (which regarded some of Plato's more incoherent ramblings as a sort of holy scripture in need of careful (and highly imaginative) ‘interpretation’) than a bona fide intellectual effort were confirmed by the very interesting translator's introduction in the first volume, which mentions that they “established a tight connection between philosophy, theology, faith, and revelation” (p. viii); “they saw Platonism as a theology, a series of ‘revelations’ made by the gods, rather than as a rational discourse describing the place and role of men in the world”(p. ix). Ficino himself is no different, he “is interested in the mystical nature of the Parmenides, in the path that will enable the soul to ascend toward God” (p. xvii); he was “simply more concerned with mysticism (i.e., achieving union with God) than metaphysics (i.e., establishing a rational system to describe reality)” (p. xx). See also 44.1 for a particularly nice example of this tendency towards mysticism: “the light of the Good (if only we can perceive it) compels us to leave aside the intelligence and its formulae, the intellect, the Ideas and all the intelligible realities [. . .] we receive, or rather worship the light of the Good by closing the eyes of our intelligence”.

As a result of this, I basically resigned myself to the fact that not much of what Ficino writes is likely to make any sense to me. These people, the Neoplatonists, are not interested in understanding and describing anything real, at least not in the way I would understand the word ‘real’. They are, instead, building up an elaborate, rarefied, intellectual edifice, a castle in the sky, something which they claim to be a description of various increasingly abstract ‘higher’ levels of reality, but which is pretty obviously nothing but a messy assemblage of quasi-religious fictions pulled straight out of their asses.

What can you do when faced with a book like that? I suppose that a more assiduous, or patient, or intellectually honest, reader might at this point dedicate a huge amount of time and effort to an earnest study of various areas of philosophy until he perhaps got to the point of actually understanding what Ficino is trying to say and no longer regarding his writings as largely nonsensical verbiage. That would be commendable, and I'm sure that such readers do exist, and they would then no doubt profit greatly from reading Ficino's book.

But I'm not one of those readers, so I took up the other, obvious, easy way out: I simply suspended my disbelief, much like I would do in reading a work of fiction. When you read a fantasy novel, you don't scream internally at the author that he's an idiot because dragons obviously don't exist, and if they did they couldn't fly because their wings are too small, and they couldn't breathe fire because of some law of thermodynamics or another, etc. etc. etc. You simply accept the fire-breathing flying dragon as a fact within the fictional world of that book and keep on reading.

Using the same approach here, Ficino's commentary on Plato becomes a not unpleasant, if somewhat anaemic and plotless, fictional tale exploring a very odd and abstract imaginary world. I almost felt a sort of relief; no longer did I feel the urge to scream, after every other sentence in the book, that this makes no sense, that this isn't real, that this is a lousy argument, that this is wishful thinking, that he's using terms which he hadn't bothered to define, etc., etc., etc. I could simply take note of what he was saying as if it made sense within his imaginary world, and move on with it, much like you can accept a fire-breathing dragon in a fantasy novel and keep reading.

I suppose you might say that there's little point in reading a work of philosophy that way, and I wouldn't dare to disagree; I think of it as a desperate, but not entirely unsuccessful, effort for me to get at least a little something out of the book. You might say that in this case it would have been better for me not to read it at all, and again I wouldn't disagree with that either, but it just so happens that I'm trying to read more or less everything in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, and so I had to find some sort of way to cope with Ficino's platonic commentaries as well. (Indeed the only ITRL books I've really skipped so far were also by Ficino, namely the six volumes of his Platonic Theology. Perhaps I'll take them up some day after all, using a similar approach that I used here for his Parmenides commentary.)


Anyhow, when read in this way, you have to admit that Ficino's Neoplatonic fictional world is not devoid of charm and imagination. It's basically the sort of thing that you can expect a philosopher to come up with if he's trying to design a religion. In a regular real-world religion that has grown more or less organically from hazy, semi-mythical beginnings, you invariably end up with a bizarre mixture of abstract, high-faluting ideas and very concrete (and invariably ridiculous) bronze-age superstitions and rules about things like shrimp consumption, circumcision, stoning of adulterers and the like — horrible rules, with horrible real-life consequences, that seem like a world away from the lofty and high-minded elements of a religion.

In Neoplatonism on the other hand, since it was designed by philosophers, the real-life part of it seems largely absent, at least from books like Ficino's (though the actual ancient Greek Neoplatonists did seem to have a set of real-life religious rituals to go along with their pseudo-philosophical beliefs; see Theurgy). A kind of mathematical sterility reigns here; you can while away a pleasant half-an-hour here and there by immersing yourself in their imaginary world, and all this without anybody trying to use it as an excuse to impose messy real-life religious constraints on you.

Now, I suppose that for those who really want this sort of thing, there are other providers that do an even better job of this than the Neoplatonists do, which is why nowadays in the real world you can see lots of new-age kooks of various descriptions, but no real-world Neoplatonists. Still, for someone like me, who am not really in the market for a new-age cult, reading this book was at least a pleasant glimpse into an imaginary conception of things which was utterly alien and different from anything else I might encounter in my real life.


Perhaps part of the appeal for someone like me is that I'm a sucker for hierarchies in fiction, even though I know how horrible and harmful they are in reality. And Neoplatonists are all about hierarchy; everything here is about how one thing precedes another, is higher or lower than another etc.; they split everything into levels and sublevels and so on. At the top level, they have a very curious ‘principle of unity’, usually called ‘the One’, which is basically like a god designed for people who find ordinary gods too messy to deal with :P

Ficino frequently mentions how ineffable the One is and how it's easier to make assertions about what it isn't like than about what it is like (negative theology, see introduction p. xii; and 33.3: “you should not understand negation as a defect, but rather as an excess”, i.e. when these people say that the One/god is not X, they mean that it's because it's so much more than X). The One “is ineffably super-eminent by virtue of its incomparable simplicity” (68.3)! Of course, that doesn't mean that he objects when Parmenides, in Plato's dialogue, proves all sorts of nonsensical and self-contradictory claims about the One; if anything, this just makes it more inscrutable and thus more impressive. Ficino seems to be quite happy to suggest that the One should mostly just be contemplated in silence (47.10), and says that “in the Letters, Plato forbids inquiry about anything regarding the first principle of all things” (61.3). You might imagine that a philosopher would be uncomfortable with a concept that is so poorly accessible to thought, but their enthusiasm for it just shows that these people were more about religion and mysticism than about anything having to do with rational thought :)

Ficino has some clever arguments about why the One precedes being and thus the true principle of everything is unity rather than being (2.3). Of course I couldn't help wondering why there should even be some sort of single underlying principle of everything — but there I go, breaking out of my suspension of disbelief again when I shouldn't.

There's an impressively incoherent paragraph (57.7) in which he tries to argue that the Neoplatonic principle of the One is not incompatible with the christian concept of the holy trinity. The same problem had of course already been encountered long before that by christian theologians who no doubt found the idea of trinity to be somewhat of an embarassment to their claims that christianity is monotheistic :P So Ficino resorts to theological wharrgarble: “According to the theologians Gregory of Naziance and Nicholas [of Methone], the divine Trinity is exempt from these conditions. [. . .] So the Trinity is the property of unity, without, however, partaking of unity or being united through partaking of it; it is naturally the innermost part of unity” (wahaha! so now unity has parts, all of a sudden?) etc. etc.

Whatever you might say about the One, at least it seems to have a strong presence in Plato's original dialogue. It is less obvious to me where the Neoplatonists got the lower levels of their hierarchy. Parmenides spends much of the latter part of the dialogue discussing the consequences of the existence or nonexistence of the One, both in relation to itself and to other things. Ficino says that these various hypotheses correspond to the various levels of the Neoplatonic hierarchy: intellect, soul, form and matter, though I suspect that the connection between these terms and the ordinary meanings of these words is rather vague and distant at best. Judging by the translator's notes at the end of the book, he picked most of this stuff up from the ancient Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Proclus; the impression I got was that these people may have started out with a few vague references in various works by Plato (not just the Parmenides) but then added a good deal of their own ideas (and managed to market them as commentaries on Plato).

One pleasantly bizarre idea that he borrowed from Proclus are “henads”, which are a mechanism whereby the One conveys unity to other things: “the absolute One generates the excellent and divine unities [or henads], which are also called gods, before creating the unions immanent in things, which are akin to these things and unify them” (52.2).

Occasionally even Ficino admits that the ancient Neoplatonists went a bit overboard in their mania to systematize everything: “If you find it tedious to read the way in which these orders are distinguished in Syrianus and Proclus, as it is certainly tedious for me to relate it [. . .]” (94.2); “I reject this distinction, which they pursue in a manner that is more laborious than useful” (94.3) :))


While reading this book, I couldn't help feeling that a lot of it illustrates the pitfalls of rushing with philosophical speculation into areas about which we have an inadequate knowledge and understanding (although I suppose I shouldn't complain, as that sort of thing is exactly what philosophy is for).

For example, consider the platonic Ideas. Apparently, Plato and his followers insisted that these aren't just convenient mental abstractions, but some sort of things that really existed in a kind of higher world of their own, and which generate the things in our ‘sensible’ world (i.e. the ordinary real world which we perceive with our senses) like some kind of templates (or “paradigms”, to use a word that occurs frequently in this translation of Ficino). Interestingly, Ficino insists that ideas only apply to natural objects, not man-made ones (ch. 9).

And so Ficino talks about the “Idea of man” (4.1) as the template for the entire “human species, which is eternal” (4.1); and you could likewise have the idea of a horse (4.5) and I imagine also of a dog and of any other animal species. But nowadays we know that species are hardly eternal. If you go back a few tens of millions of years, me and Fido the dog probably have a common ancestor somewhere around that time. You could line up this large number of individuals, starting with me and going up my family tree to that common ancestor, and then going down from him all the way to Fido. Each individual in this chain is a parent or child of the previous one, so they will be very similar. And yet the first few individuals in this list are me and my immediate ancestors, based on the idea of man, whereas the last few are Fido and his immediate ancestors, based on the idea of dog. So at some point in this sequence, you must suddenly have an individual who is based on the idea of man but the next individual, who is his child or his parent, isn't based on the idea of man but on something else (perhaps the idea of dog or of something intermediate).

This is the sort of absurdities that you get if you insist that ideas are something more than mere arbitrary mental abstractions. I wouldn't hold this too much against Plato and his followers, of course, since they didn't know about the theory of evolution yet in those days. But I admit that I'm surprised that they didn't think of similar objections that could be observed even without modern science. For example, they could compare domesticated animals and their wild relatives, with whom they could in many cases still interbreed. How would you justify having separate ideas of dogs and wolves, but not separate ideas for each breed of dogs? If you admit the latter, how can you justify not having a separate idea for each individual specimen (which is something that Ficino explicitly rejects, ch. 8)? On the other hand, if you say that dogs and wolves are based on the same idea, why not humans as well? Where do you draw the line, and isn't it obvious how arbitrary these things are?

Similarly, when reading about the various complications about time and motion, I couldn't help feeling that these people would benefit greatly from some of our ‘modern’ (i.e. 19th-century) mathematical ideas about the continuum, real numbers, functions and the like.

Ficino also makes an interesting distinction between reason and intellect: “the intellect at once contemplates through a sort of gaze what reason viewed in multifarious ways through ratiocination, just as sight at once perceives a spherical object as round, while touch does so by touching the object more than once” (32.3). But I think from what we now know about how human vision works, his analogy is on shaky grounds. Our eyes have many cells that react to light coming from various directions, and our brains can process the signals from those cells in parallel. It isn't really any different than if you had a hundred hands and could touch all points on the sphere at the same time.

But what bothers me even more than that is that I suspect that his distinction between reason and intellect comes mostly from wishful thinking. It's so unsatisfying to imagine that plodding old reason, which comes to conclusions slowly and by many small and arduous steps, is actually the best we've got! Or sometimes it doesn't even come to a conclusion at all, but simply gives up when some task turns out to be too complex for our reason to handle. This is a bit depressing. And wouldn't it be wonderful if some other facility existed that, if we're lucky, would just comprehend things suddenly in an instant, brilliant flash of insight! And so he goes and makes up such a facility, calling it ‘intellect’. I can completely sympathize with this point of view, but I'm afraid it's little more than a pleasing fantasy anyway.


Here's a curious passage from 5.5, which could be the basis for a science-fiction story: “under the Ideas of elements the immaterial elements in heaven occur before the material elements in the sublunar world: celestial lion, horse and tree, then elemental ones; under the Idea of man the celestial man comes first, then the aerial and terrestrial ones”. :))

There's an interesting passage on suicide in 46.4, as part of an argument why the Good is a higher principle than being: some people commit suicide “if they have absolutely no hope for good things [. . .] rejecting a life and an essence deprived of good — since they [only] liked them, assuredly, because of what was good in them”.

A refreshingly honest passage from 68.1, after remarking that Parmenides demonstrated that “the One is not other than the others, before showing that it is not the same as itself [139C]. Both propositions, however, cannot be grasped by ordinary people.” How very true :)))


One curious thing about the translation is how often it uses the word “yonder”. In part 2 it occurs on pages 41, 55, 195, 229, 235, 267, 277 and 281; I think it's a bit rarer in part 1, and I didn't bother keeping track of it there. Don't get me wrong, I have a soft spot for quaint, obsolescent words myself, but the frequent use of “yonder” really stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise perfectly normal present-day English of this translation. I wonder if this use of “yonder” is a widespread thing in philosophy or just some sort of odd personal quirk by the translator.

Another curious usage occurs in the translator's notes in part 1, p. 241, where she “collated the text by autopsy”. I had never before given the word ‘autopsy’ much thought and never saw it used for anything other than the cutting up of a corpse, but now seeing it used here I realized that it must come from auto + opsy, (examining with) one's own eyes (the second part being the same as in Cyclops, who had one big cirular eye). But anyway, I couldn't resist imagining someone cutting up a manuscript with a scalpel :P


In my post about Ficino's commentary on the Phaedrus I said that I didn't think it was terribly useful as a commentary because I didn't understand the dialogue any better after reading the commentary. Here in the case of the Parmenides, my impression was very different. A great deal of the Parmenides was more or less completely impenetrable to me; while here in Ficino's commentary on it, you can at least see some sort of structure in the whole thing. He makes it seem as if the various hypotheses discussed by Parmenides in the dialogue are parts of a larger system. From reading the Parmenides, I couldn't even see if it was saying anything, much less what exactly it was trying to say; whereas here in Ficino's commentary I can at least see what he's saying, even though much of it seems rather nonsensical to me. “Parmenides frequently makes contradictory statements [. . .] I myself try to the best of my ability to make almost each statement fit and to advance probable interpretations” (98.4), and I can't help thinking he did a pretty damn good job considering the utter incoherence of so much of Plato's Parmenides :)

I particularly liked his discussion of what does it mean to consider the consequences of supposing that something does not exist (36.1): “one does not actually suppose that the intellect or the soul are absolutely not [. . .] but one rather supposes that this thing called ‘intellect’ or ‘soul’ is not properly intellect or soul, but is, or is imagined to be, something else”, and the same is done when supposing that the One does not exist (see the end of the same paragraph).

I can't help wondering to what extent Plato would actually have recognized his own thoughts in these commentaries; the elaborate systems invented by the Neoplatonist ‘commentators’ seem to sometimes have only a very vague relationship to what Plato actually wrote. There's a funny remark in 52.3 where Ficino himself admits that he can't see the connection between a certain passage from Plato and Proclus's ‘interpretation’ of it: “Proclus also invites us to observe (something which, to tell the truth, I myself find extremely difficult to observe) the way in which these divine orders are introduced in the second hypothesis” etc. :)

One of the more tasteless passages in the Parmenides is where Parmenides ‘proves’ that the One both is and isn't becoming older and younger than itself (152e). I was amused by the contortions Ficino went through in order to claim that this stuff makes some sort of sense after all: if e.g. Socrates is older than Plato by some fixed number of years, then as they both grow older, “Socrates' superiority in age in relation to Plato will progressively appear smaller [. . .] one can say that Socrates becomes younger in relation to Plato, and that Plato becomes older in relation to Socrates” (93.1).


Anyway, I'm not sure what to say at the end of this post. I guess my experience demonstrates that with a bit of effort, even a stupid outsider like me can found at least something good in a book like this, even if it comes at the price of completely missing its point. In any case, all of this is thoroughly irrelevant since nearly all the other people that will pick up this book will be better equipped to understand it, and will read it to much better purpose and with much better profit than I have done.

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

KNJIGA: Platon, "Parmenid"

Platon: Parmenid. Prevedel Gorazd Kocijančič. V: Platon, Zbrana dela, študijska izdaja, II. knjiga, str. 393–429. Ljubljana: KUD Logos, 2009. 9789616519427.

Iz enakih razlogov kot pred nekaj tedni Fajdrosa sem se zdaj lotil še Parmenida. Izkaže se, da je ta dialog še precej manj privlačno napisan kot nekateri drugi; Platonova literarna žilica se kaže več ali manj le na začetku, večina dialoga pa je potem čista industrial-grade filozofska besedna solata. Že prevajalčev uvod vsebuje nekaj impresivnih fraz, za katere čisto nič ne dvomim, da kaj pametnega pomenijo, ampak ker meni pač manjka predznanja in/ali možganov, da bi jih razumel, sem se ob njih predvsem režal kot pečen maček: dialog nas „uvaja v središče srhljivo od-mišljene »protologije«, motrenja prvih Počel vseh stvari“ (str. 394; si predstavljate, da ljudem rečete, da se ukvarjate s protologijo, oni pa si mislijo tam en dodatni k in vas prosijo za usluge, ob katerih vam gredo lasje pokonci :))); „Proklos je v negativni henologiji, nauku o radikalno apofatičnem Absolutu prve hipoteze, videl »najbolj božansko navdihnjene nauke filozofije«“ (str. 395). Škoda, da se henologija ni izkazala za vedo o kokoših :P


Nesmisli se potem začnejo že kar na drugi strani dialoga: „če je bivajočih stvari mnogo, bi morale biti podobne in nepodobne — to pa je nemogoče, kajti nepodobne stvari ne morejo biti podobne niti podobne nepodobne” (127e). Tako povzame Sokrat neko Zenonovo misel, ki jo potem kritizira — toda Sokratove pripombe se sploh ne dotaknejo tega, kar je po mojem mnenju najbolj očitno narobe v tej trditvi: besedi „podobno” in „nepodobno” uporablja tako, kot da sta to nekakšni lastnosti neke stvari same po sebi, ko pa je menda vendar očitno, da sta podobnost in nepodobnost lahko le odnosa med dvema ali več stvarmi (enaka zabloda se pojavi kasneje v 129a). Ena stvar je lahko nekaterim podobna, drugim pa nepodobna. (Da ne govorimo o tistem prvem „če“ — zakaj naj bi iz predpostavke „če je bivajočih stvari mnogo“ sledilo „bi morale biti podobne in nepodobne“? To je le zatrdil brez kakršnega koli argumenta.)

Po tem nič kaj spodbudnem začetku je šlo le še na slabše. Nekaj časa sem se še malo trudil, da bi iskal luknje v argumentih, kmalu pa sem nad vsem skupaj obupal in se sprijaznil s tem, da pač ničesar ne razumem. Začetni del dialoga je sicer še kar zanimiv — lepo je enkrat za spremembo videti, kako nekdo uporabi sokratovsko metodo proti Sokratu: tukaj Parmenid s kopico zvitih vprašanj vrta luknje v nauk o oblikah (eidosih oz. idejah).

Ta nauk se zdi tudi meni problematičen, vendar najbrž iz drugačnih razlogov kot Parmenidu. Kar se mene tiče, je glavni vir težav v tem, da ti ljudje opletajo z abstrakcijami, kot so oblike in ideje, hkrati pa se obnašajo, kot da bi bilo o njih smiselno govoriti na enak način kot o otipljivih, resnično obstoječih stvareh iz vsakdanjega življenja. Tako na primer govorijo o tem, da oblika „biva“ (131a; nikoli mi sicer ni bilo čisto jasno, zakaj filozofi temu ne rečejo z bolj normalno besedo „obstaja“), da je od nečesa „ločena“ (131b) oz. se nečesa „dotika“ (138a) in podobno. Saj ni čudno, da človek na ta način pride v nesmisle. Izrečeš lahko marsikaj, pa to še ne pomeni, da ima tista izjava sploh kakšen smisel (oz. kot pravi tista znana fraza, nekatere stvari ne le niso pravilne, ampak niti napačne niso).

Parmenid lepo opiše primer, kako do oblike pridemo z nekakšno miselno abstrakcijo:* „ko se ti neko mnoštvo zdi veliko, se ti, ko to uzreš, morda zdi, da nad vsemi resničnostmi biva ena, ista uzrtost [= ideja], in zaradi tega meniš, da je Veliko nekaj en(ovit)ega” (132a). Toda če si potem misliš to idejo Velikega skupaj z vsemi konkretnimi velikimi stvarmi, si lahko predstavljaš, da za vsem tem skupaj zdaj stoji ena še večja ideja velikega in tako naprej (132a), tako da se ti takoj nakopiči neskončna vrsta vse večjih oblik — Parmenid to omenja kot slabost nauka o oblikah, čeprav se meni ni zdelo očitno, da je s tem kaj narobe. Podobne konstrukcije niso na primer v matematiki nič neobičajnega; Cantor je v teoriji neskončnih števil s takšnimi prijemi prišel do krasnih stvari. To je neugodno le, če imaš pač fiksacijo s tem, da hočeš imeti nek lepo majhen in pregleden nabor oblik.

[*V knjigi s prevajalčevimi opombami sem našel sicer naslednji zelo zanimivi odlomek: „Ne gre preprosto za abstrakcijo v našem smislu, ampak dejansko za paradoksno videnje nevidljivega. Naše težave z razumevanjem Platonove tematizacije eidosov izvirajo iz tega, da njegovi spisi predpostavljajo uzrtje nevidljivih, bivajočih resničnosti, medtem ko je za sodobni [. . .] common sense tisto skupno, kar veže mnogotero v enost, zgolj logična abstrakcija, posledica miselnega procesa odvzemanja in posploševanja“ (str. 1124).]

S podobnim razmislekom Parmenid zatrjuje, da „stvari niso udeležene v oblikah po podobnosti, ampak moramo iskati nekaj drugega, v čemer so udeležene“ (133a), kajti podobne stvari so gotovo udeležene v isti obliki, in če je oblika nekih stvari podobna tem stvarem, potem morajo biti tako ta oblika kot te stvari skupaj udeležene v neki novi obliki (prek katere so si podobne) in spet tako naprej v neskončnost (132d–133a). Toda tu se mi zdi, da je neupravičeno predpostavil, da podobnost med več konkretnimi stvarmi deluje po enakem mehanizmu kot podobnost med temi stvarmi in njihovo obliko; ampak samo zato, ker uporabljamo obakrat enako besedo, še ne pomeni, da gre za isti pojav. [P.S. Kasneje sem z zadovoljstvom opazil, da enak pomislek omenja tudi Ficino v svojem komentarju k Parmenidu, 27.2]

Potem ima še en zelo domiseln argument. Parmenid pravi, da so oblike v odnosih z drugimi oblikami, ne s konkretnimi stvarmi, in obratno; na primer, če je človek A suženj človeka B, je to odnos med konkretnima človekoma; in po drugi strani obstaja ideja sužnja, ki je povezana z idejo gospodarja; ni pa človek A suženj ideje gospodarja, niti ni človek B gospodar ideje sužnja (133d–134a). No, zdaj si pa v tem razmisleku namesto sužnja in gospodarja mislimo védenje in resnico, pa pridemo do zaključka, da imamo mi tule lahko le neko konkretno vedenje o konkretnih stvareh, ne pa o ideji resnice — s slednjo je lahko v odnosu le ideja védenja. Ideje so torej za nas nespoznatne (134b–c). Ta zaključek mi je všeč, se pa pri tem argumentu vseeno počutim nekako prinešenega okoli :) Z istim argumentom Parmenid celo zatrjuje, da bogovi (ki očitno tudi živijo v svetu idej) ne morejo ničesar vedeti o našem konkretnem svetu in imeti nobenega vpliva nanj (134d–135a).

Toda čeprav je Parmenid ves čas opozarjal na težave nauka o oblikah, to še ne pomeni, da se mu zdijo oblike problematične; nasprotno, zdijo se mu nujne: kdor „ne bo dopustil, da oblike bivajočih stvari bivajo, in za sleherno stvar ne bo opredelil nobene oblike, tudi ne bo mogel kamor koli obrniti (svojega) razuma [. . .] in tako bo povsem uničil zmožnost pogovora“ (135b–c). Ampak po mojem bi bilo treba najti neko srednjo pot med tem, da se abstraktnemu mišljenju popolnoma odpovemo, in tem, da o miselnih abstrakcijah (kot so oblike) govorimo na tak način, kot bi o resnično obstoječih konkretnih stvareh.


Kakorkoli že, to doslej je bil šele prvi, krajši del dialoga. Parmenid potem reče Sokratu, da bo te reči bolje razumel z nekaj več filozofskega treninga, pri katerem je treba razmišljati o vseh možnih posledicah, ki bi jih obstoj ali neobstoj ene stvari imel na vse druge stvari. Preostanek dialoga je potem primer take debate (oz. pravzaprav serije stavkov, po vsakem od njih pa „sogovornik“ Parmenidu le pritrdi), v kateri Parmenid razpravlja o posledicah tega, da Eno obstaja, ali pa tega, da Eno ne obstaja. Pri tem takorekoč na vsakem koraku popolnoma hladnokrvno in v isti sapi vleče zaključke, ki drug drugemu nasprotujejo, kot da bi bila to najbolj normalna stvar na svetu: „Eno ne bo niti drug(ačn)o niti isto s samim seboj niti z drug(ačn)im“ (139e); Eno je „podobno in nepodobno sebi in drugim resničnostim“ (147c); „nebivajoče Eno nastaja in propada, pa tudi ne nastaja in ne propada“ (163b); „najsi Eno biva ali ne biva, ono in druge resničnosti — v odnosu do sebe in med seboj — vsekakor bivajo in ne bivajo ter se kažejo in ne kažejo (kot) vse“ (166c).

Človek bi pričakoval, da se bo že pri prvem takem paradoksalnem zaključku ustavil in pomislil: hej, nekaj je očitno hudo narobe! Ampak on se za takšne malenkosti ne meni in gre veselo naprej. Več kot očitno je, da nisem dovolj pameten, da bi razumel te stvari, v tolažbo pa mi je lahko vsaj dejstvo, da po vsem videzu sodeč tudi mnogo pametnejšim ljudem od mene niso najbolj jasne: “A satisfactory characterisation of this part of the dialogue has eluded scholars since antiquity”, pravi Wikipedija. Vse skupaj se mi je zdelo kot takorekoč izvrsten primer mentalne masturbacije, ki ji je do popolnosti manjkal le še obilen bukkake na koncu.

Še en primer zelo sumljive argumentacije iz tega dela dialoga: Eno „ni celota niti nima delov“, kajti če bi imelo dele, potem ne bi bilo Eno, ampak mnoštvo; in če bi bilo celota, celota pa je „to, od česar ni odsoten noben del“, no, potemtakem bi Eno tudi tedaj imelo dele in ne bi bilo Eno (137c–d). To, da celota mora imeti dele, se mi zdi malo problematično; a za neko nedeljivo stvar pa ne bi mogli reči, da je celota? Pa tudi, samo zato, ker je o celotah in delih smiselno govoriti pri otipljivih rečeh iz vsakdanjega življenja, to še ne pomeni, da je smiselno o njih govoriti tudi pri tako abstraktnih pojmih, kot je Eno. Že res, da nam naš jezik omogoča, da pomen nekaterih besed malo metaforično raztegnemo z bolj konkretnih področij na bolj abstraktna, tako da lahko na primer o delu in celotah govorimo ne le pri človeku in drevesu, ampak tudi pri letu ali zgodbi ali čem podobno abstraktnem; ampak to pa še ne pomeni, da ne bodo te metafore sčasoma postale nesmiselne, če jih bomo nategovali v nedogled. Parmenid nam takoj čisto resno postreže s takim nesmislom: Eno „ni niti ravno niti krožno, saj niti nima delov“ (137e–138a). Kasneje podobno govori o tem, da se Eno premika (138c) ali da se nečesa dotika (148e).

Še ena ekstremna bizarnost: Eno „postaja vedno od samega sebe starejše, če napreduje v skladu s časom“ in ker „starejše postaja starejše, ko (tisto, kar je od njega) mlajše postaja mlajše“, lahko zaključimo, da Eno „postaja od sebe mlajše in starejše“ (152a–b). In njegov sogovornik seveda spet le prikimava kot zombi, namesto da bi skočil pokonci: to je spet očitna zloraba besed. Eno ob času t je res starejše kot Eno ob času t − 1; ampak ali je zato že smiselno reči, da je Eno starejše od samega sebe? Čim hočemo primerjati stvari po starosti, moramo upoštevati, v katerem trenutku jih gledamo, in potem „Eno ob času t“ in „Eno ob času t − 1“ že nista več ena in ista stvar; pravzaprav tudi nista več ista stvar kot Eno kar tako, neodvisno od časa. Ne dvomim v to, da bi se o teh rečeh dalo narediti zanimivo filozofsko debato, ampak Parmenid tu tega ne naredi, on le dirka naprej s svojim rokohitrstvom in upa, da ne bomo opazili, kakšne neumnosti naklada.


Skratka, če je bil prvi del dialoga nekako za silo še zanimiv, je pa tale drugi del, kar se mene tiče, čista polomija. Verjetno bi lahko kak pametnejši bralec z bolj primernim predznanjem od tega dialoga res kaj odnesel, meni pa ni ostalo drugega, kot da se držim za glavo.

Mimogrede, v enem detajlu je pa Platonova literarna žilica pri tem dialogu čisto odpovedala. V uvodu dialoga vidimo, da ga pripoveduje Kefal, ki ga je slišal od Antifonta, ta pa od Pitodora, ki je pogovoru med Parmenidom, Sokratom in ostalimi tudi dejansko prisostvoval. Skratka, Platon pričakuje, da bomo verjeli, da so si vsaj trije ljudje takorekoč na pamet zapomnili trideset strani izjemno kosmate filozofske argumentacije in da je to, kar zdaj poslušamo iz tretje ali četrte roke, zvesta podoba originalne debate. Saj razumem, da sme pisatelj od bralca pričakovati, naj malo zadrži svojo nejevero, ampak kar je preveč, je pa le preveč :)

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

BOOK: Marsilio Ficino, "Commentaries on Plato" (Vol. 1)

Marsilio Ficino: Commentaries on Plato. Vol. 1: Phaedrus and Ion. Edited and translated by Michael J. B. Allen. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 34. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031197. lix + 269 pp.

Marsilio Ficino was a 15th-century neoplatonist philosopher who is among other things noted for his translation of Plato's complete works into Latin and the numerous commentaries he wrote on the work of Plato and his followers. This book contains Ficino's commentaries on the Phaedrus, one of Plato's dialogues.

In a way, I found this book very interesting, though probably not quite in the way in which I should have :) The thing I found interesting about it was to see how very different the Phaedrus seemed to Ficino than it did to me.

I read Plato's Phaedrus a couple weeks ago, and wrote a suitably irritated post about it, complaining about the poor argumentation, excessive license taken in the meanings of words, the overextended use of metaphors, and the overall muddle-headedness, wishful thinking and the tendency of Socrates to pull things out of his ass.

Ficino's view (unsurprisingly) couldn't be more different. One of the most notable features of the Phaedrus is Socrates' metaphor of the soul as a chariot with a pair of winged horses — a metaphor, incidentally, which Socrates kept dragging on for much longer than he should have, exhibiting an interest in the anatomical details of the horses' wings that would be more fitting for a veterinarian than a philosopher. Anyway, what seemed to me merely a picturesque (and ultimately somewhat belabored) metaphor is here referred to as a “mythical hymn”, and is studied and explicated with the level of devout dedication that you'd normally only expect from a pious believer studying his religion's sacred books.

The book starts with Ficino's translation of the “mythical hymn” part of the Phaedrus, which I think is a useful idea, to refresh the reader's memory. I'm not of course in any way competent to comment on the quality of Ficino's translation, but it seemed reasonable enough, as far as I can compare it with the translation I'd read a couple weeks before. One interesting change done by Ficino is to tone down the various homoerotic passages from the original, see e.g. 249a (p. 17), 255e, 256a (p. 35).

Although the “mythical hymn’ covers only about a quarter of the dialogue, this seems to have been the part that Ficino was the most interested in. His “argument” of the Phaedrus starts with a summary of the entire dialogue, but then 8 out of 11 sections of the argument discuss just the mythical hymn. This is then followed by Ficino's chapter-by-chapter commentary on the Phaedrus, in which again the vast majority of attention is focused on the mythical hymn part. In a few instances, Ficino takes up a page or more to discuss just a few lines of the original; elsewhere, when dealing with other parts of the dialogue, he spends a few lines of commentary to deal with several pages of the original. Overall the commentary is about 60% of the length of the dialogue itself, and around two-thirds of it deals with the “mythical hymn”.

I often wondered how Ficino was able to pull such an extensive, complex and detailed system of interpretation out of some short passage of Plato (his ‘commentary’ occasionally discusses things of which I could not find the slightest trace in the passage supposedly being discussed — e.g. the mentions of Saturn in the commentary of ch. 28, p. 155; and the discussion of Mercury in ch. 49, p. 187), but then, judging by the translator's notes at the end of the book, Ficino was actually building on the work of ancient Greek Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus.

The impression I got from reading all this is that Neoplatonists such as Ficino treated Plato as almost a kind of religious prophet, every sentence and every word of whose work must be full of importance and meaning, and it's up to his devoted followers to figure out what exactly these things mean. Things which don't make any sense in Plato are taken to have an allegorical meaning, which is then discussed at great length. What had seemed to me as throwaway remarks by Socrates in his poetical description of the soul/chariot's ascent towards heaven are here studied in minute detail and believed to provide valuable hints as to the precise structure of various levels of increasingly abstract ‘worlds’ and the various orders of gods and daemons inhabiting them. (See esp. 247b–c where the souls “reach the summit [. . .] stand firm upon the heaven's back [. . .] gaze afar at the thing which are beyond heaven. The superheavenly place”, a few lines which Ficino then discusses for 3 pages.)

Frankly, I'm somewhat disappointed by all this; it isn't what I had expected. Neoplatonism comes across as more like a sort of religious mysticism than a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. Instead of trying to study the world that we actually live in, they escaped into a hypothetical ‘higher’ world, which they pretended to study but they weren't really doing anything other than making things up out of thin air. Their tendency to invent abstrusely detailed, systematic descriptions of such higher worlds reminded me a lot of theosophists and new-agers. Ficino's inclination to hang on every word of the Phaedrus and insist that it must be part of some larger, carefully thought-out system of higher worlds and beings also struck me as being of an essentially religious character.

Indeed I can't help wondering if Neoplatonism wasn't simply a sort of substitute religion for a certain type of intellectuals, much like in a later time others would use darwinism or objectivism for a similar purpose. For example, some passages in the Phaedrus and in Ficino's commentary (e.g. chs. 19, 28, 30, 35; as well as ¶8 of his Ion commentary; and his argument to Phaedrus, 10.6–7 on pp. 87–9) seem to be (rather strained) efforts to draw parallels between the traditional ancient Greek gods and the various concepts from Plato's home-grown theology. I can easily imagine this sort of thing flourishing during a certain period in ancient Greece, when the traditional religion was increasingly seen as too ridiculous to be taken seriously (at least by educated people), so they welcomed the efforts of Plato and his successors to come up with a more refined and intellectual belief system. I wonder if Ficino was similarly unimpressed by some of the messiness of traditional christianity and its theology, and consequently sought solace in trying to combine it with platonism.

For other typically religious elements in the Phaedrus and Ficino's commentary on it, see e.g. the ideas of how souls get reincarnated into men of a higher or lower station (philosophers being the highest, naturally) depending on how much of the Truth™ they have seen earlier during their ascent towards the platonic heavens (Ficino discusses the resulting nine classes of people at length in ch. 24 of his commentary), and how your soul must earn its place in heaven by several thousands of years of philosophical study (ch. 25). I have already complained about these things in my post about the Phaedrus, and there's no point in repeating myself. But it's interesting to note that the parts of Phaedrus that Ficino is the most interested in are exactly those that reek the most strongly of religion.

Incidentally, there's a very interesting appendix by the translator (pp. 209–12), in which he describes a bit more clearly the system of ‘higher’ worlds as envisioned by Ficino; he even goes so far as to admit: “The situation may seem complicated if not thoroughly confusing” (p. 211). In another appendix, the translator points out that “however arcane and difficult it might appear to us now, Ficino's response to the Phaedrus' mythical hymn was relatively straightforward compared to Proclus' interpretation” (p. 220).

Anyhow, this is the way in which I found this book interesting; it was fascinating to watch how these people were able to construct an elaborate system of quasi-theology out of a few vague passages in Plato. But as an actual commentary on Plato, I'm not sure how useful I found it. There are very few passages of Phaedrus that I understood any better after reading Ficino's commentary — although, of course, he wasn't aiming it at uneducated readers like me. I did think his commentary (ch. 15) made Socrates's argument about the immortality of the souls (245c–246a) a little clearer, although not any more convincing. Many of his interpretations seemed to me to be a bit stretched, such as when he explained Socrates's tale of the cicadas (259b–d) as daimons, who seem to be some kind of intermediaries between humans and gods (ch. 35 of Ficino's commentary, p. 171; in ch. 38, p. 177 he says the cicadas are an allegory for local gods); or when he insisted that, in Socrates's Egyptian tale of the invention of writing (274c–5b), the god Theuth is at best a mere daimon while king Thamus is not in fact a human but the god Ammon or Jupiter himself (thereby explaining why Theuth would bring his invention (i.e. writing) to Thamus for review and approval; ch. 49 of Ficino's commentary, pp. 187–9).

An interesting bit from the translator's introduction, regarding the influence of Ficino's studies of Plato: “throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries references to Plato are often to Ficino's argumenta rather than to the dialogues themselves” (p. xxiv).

On Ion

At the end of the book there's also a short letter by Ficino, in which he discusses another dialogue by Plato, the Ion. In this dialogue, Ion is a rhapsode — a reciter and interpreter of Homer's poems. Ion claims, very bizarrely, that he is only good at talking about Homer's poems and not about those of any other poet; in view of this, Socrates has an easy job arguing that Ion's ability comes from divine inspiration rather than from human skill. This struck me as yet another cheap manipulative trick by Plato; he invents such an unrealistic character as Ion just to facilitate his argument.

The second part of the dialogue is even more preposterous. Socrates gets Ion to admit that a poet like Homer talks about all sorts of topics, without actually being an expert on any of them, and yet gets much of this right: you can't explain this otherwise than by the fact that the poet is also divinely inspired (by the way, Ficino thoroughly agrees with this nonsense in ¶7). I could hardly believe my eyes, even when I first read the Ion many years ago. Could Plato really have believed that we wouldn't notice the obvious explanation: a poet must know well enough about these various subjects to mention them in a way which will seem plausible to his audience; that's all. It helps if he knows more about them than his audience does, although if he doesn't, he can probably (if he has any skill as a writer of fiction) still fake his way well enough that a non-expert reader won't notice anything. And he can also consult with the actual experts if he wants to make absolutely sure. In fact nowadays this is something quite normal — a writer is pretty much supposed to do a bit of research on a topic that he plans to mention prominently in his fiction; and writers are often criticized by experts when they did too sloppy a job of that. I wonder if this practice was really unknown to the ancient Greeks, or was Plato just pretending not to be aware of it? (Maybe Plato was just bad as a fiction writer and that's why he gave up fiction in favor of philosophy early in his career, and then proceeded to write bad fiction in the guise of philosophy? :P)

Anyway, Ficino's letter about Ion of course finds no fault with any part of it, and mostly focuses on the idea of poets being divinely inspired. He points out that this is an example of one of the four “divine frenzies” mentioned in the Phaedrus (244a–245a; the other three being prophecy, poetic inspiration and a priestly frenzy that leads to mystery cults and the like; cf. ¶4), and for him it's yet another proof of the existence of something divine (¶7).

Eh well. I'm afraid I don't have much use for arguments like these. Just because we can't explain the sources of poetic talent and inspiration in some better way, doesn't mean that we have the right to invent a whole bunch of supernatural entities and claim that it comes from them.

Much of Ficino's commentary discusses things that aren't even mentioned in the Ion; thus he tries to draw parallels between the four divine frenzies from Phaedrus and the soul's ascent through four higher worlds of Neoplatonism (¶3–4), and he somehow comes up with pairwise assignments of the nine Muses to the heavenly spheres and many other such allegorical parallels (¶8).

There's a fine passage from ¶8, showing Ficino's approach to interpreting Plato: “When Plato says God, he means Apollo, and when he says the Muses he means the souls of the world's spheres.” (P. 205.) Really, with that kind of freedom of interpretation, he could just as well say that by the Muses Plato actually means Snow White and the seven dwarfs...


In a way, the elaborate castles in the clouds that have been built up by these Platonists are a remarkable creation of the human mind, not entirely unlike poetry or religion or mathematics or art and other such things. But they don't tell us anything about the world, only a little about the human mind and its capacity to make things up. As such, I'm not particularly interested in studying them — if I want to read fiction, I'll just pick up a novel instead — but I can certainly imagine why some people find this stuff fascinating.

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

KNJIGA: Platon, "Fajdros"

Platon: Fajdros. Prevedel Gorazd Kocijančič. V: Platon, Zbrana dela, študijska izdaja, II. knjiga, str. 529–574. Ljubljana: KUD Logos, 2009. 9789616519427.

Filozofije nisem nikoli prav preveč cenil; nekaj malega sem je tu in tam prebral, pa nikoli nisem imel občutka, da sem zato kaj modrejši oz. da mi je sploh karkoli kaj bolj jasno kot prej. Pogosto se mi je zdelo kot v tistem verzu verzu Omarja Hajama: da izstopam pri istih vratih, pri katerih sem vstopil (“Myself when young did eagerly frequent/ Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument/ About it and about: but evermore/ Came out by the same door where in I went.”)

Tako sem se tudi branja tegale Platonovega dialoga lotil predvsem zato, ker sem drugače pri branju zbirke I Tatti Renaissance Library prišel do 34. zvezka, v katerem so Ficinovi komentarji Fajdrosa in Iona, pa se mi je zdelo, da bi bilo najbrž koristno pred tem prebrati še tadva dialoga sama; in potem sem pomislil, da če že bereš prevod (grško pa pač ne znam), je bolje brati prevod v svoj jezik kot v tuj jezik, zato sem si nabavil nedavno broširano izdajo Platonovih zbranih del v prevodu Gorazda Kocijančiča. To se mi je zdel še kar smiseln nakup; dobiš pet ne predebelih knjig za skupaj 100 evrov, zraven pa še CD s spremno besedo, komentarji in podobnimi stvarmi v formatu PDF. (Obstaja sicer tudi trdo vezana izdaja v dveh enormno debelih knjigah — vsaka po ~1500 strani — vendar tisto stane 312 evrov, kar bi bilo primerno le za ekstremne oblike buržujskega fetišizma.)

Pred leti sem že prebral peščico Platonovih dialogov (v prevodih, ki so bili pač takrat na voljo) in zdajle pri Fajdrosu sem imel precej podobne občutke kot takrat. Zdelo se mi je, da je v Platonovih dialogih vse polno nakladanja, slabih argumentov, nesmiselnega igračkanja z besedami, predvsem pa so me spravljali ob živce slaboumni Sokratovi sogovorniki v njih, od katerih večinoma ni druge koristi, kot da Sokratu lepo pohlevno prikimavajo. Če sem odkrit, še zdaj ne razumem zares, kaj so ljudje videli v teh dialogih, pa pravzaprav tudi v filozofiji nasploh.

Fajdros se mi je zdel še malo bolj ekscentričen od tistih dialogov, ki sem jih prebiral pred leti. Dialog govori o celem kupu različnih stvari, ki so druga z drugo bolj malo povezane. No, po svoje je to mogoče celo lepo realistično; zgodbica dialoga je, da Sokrat in Fajdros sedita v senci pod drevesom in pač malo čvekata o tem in onem, tako da nas najbrž ne sme presenetiti, da se ne držita ves čas ene same teme. (Mogoče si je Platon nalašč izbral dialog kot obliko pisanja svojih spisov, da bi imel tako malo več ustvarjalne svobode?) Po tej plati je pravzaprav dialog prav dobro napisan; to, da gre za dialog in ne za nekakšno običajno filozofsko razpravo, ga lepo poživi, nekateri odlomki so skorajda prav zabavni (kako zvabiš Sokrata zunaj mestnega obzidja? „Kakor namreč lačne živali vodijo s tem, da jim mahajo z zeleno vejo ali kakšnim sadom, ti očitno lahko predme moliš govore v knjigah in me boš vodil okrog po vsej Atiki“, 230d :)))).

O „zaljubljenosti“

Na začetku Fajdros bere spis nekega govornika Lizija o tem, kako da „je treba bolj izkazovati naklonjenost tistemu, ki ne ljubi, kot tistemu, ki ljubi“ (227c). To slednje je Fajdrosov povzetek, Lizijev govor se začne še veliko bolj megleno: „Poznaš moj položaj. In slišal si, da nama bo po mojem mnenju koristilo, če se to zgodi. Vendar pa sem prepričan, da ne bi bilo prav, če bi brez tega, za kar prosim, ostal iz tega razloga, ker slučajno nisem zaljubljen vate.“ (230e–231a) Po vsem videzu sodeč je treba te reči razumeti v kontekstu starogrških idej o homoseksualnih zvezah med mladeničem in starejšim moškim; in v tem Lizijevem govoru je govornik v bistvu tak starejši moški, ki hoče z mladeničem skleniti nekakšen platoničen odnos, v bistvu prijateljstvo (233c–d, 237c). Lizijev argument je potem nekako tak: postani moj prijatelj, ker nisem zaljubljen vate in ti zatorej ni treba skrbeti, da bi bil jaz do tebe posesiven, ljubosumen, da bi se zanimal zate le zaradi pohote in podobno. V tem je nekakšno zrnce smisla, ampak preseneča me, da se Liziju in ostalim ni zdelo zelo bizarno, da bi nekdo skušal navezati prijateljstvo na podlagi logičnih argumentov in retorike.

Sokrat ima nato še sam svoj govor, v katerem govori podobne reči, le da še v bolj ekstremni obliki. V človeku da se borita dve sili, poželenje po užitkih in hrepenenje po dobrem (237d); in ljubezen je ena od oblik poželenja (238c), tako da, čeprav mogoče ni naravnost rekel, da je ljubezen nekaj slabega oz. da je nezdružljiva z dobrim, se je vsekakor potrudil mimogrede zbuditi tak vtis. Naprej je še huje: „zaljubljenec ne bo prostovoljno prenašal niti boljšega niti sebi enakega fanta, v katerega je zaljubljen, ampak ga bo vedno delal slabšega in bolj podrejenega“ (239a); „pristal bi namreč na to, da bi bil (ljubljeni) oropan očeta, matere, sorodnikov in prijateljev, saj misli, da ga ti samo ovirajo in grajajo pri nadvse prijetnem druženju z njim“ (239e–240a) ipd.

Šele na koncu postane jasno, od kod vse te blodnje: „prijateljstvo zaljubljenca se ne uresničuje z dobrohotnostjo, ampak kot hrana, da bi se nasitil. Kot imajo volkovi radi jagnjeta, tako zaljubljenci ljubijo dečka“ (241c–3). Z drugimi besedami, Sokrat uporablja besedo „zaljubljenec“ v zelo bizarnem pomenu: zanj je to sinonim za obupno posesivnega, predatorskega starega pohotneža (pleša in velik vamp neobvezna, vendar priporočena), v primerjavi s katerim bi bil še Pedobear simpatičen in romantičen lik; in kakršen koli odnos med njim in mladim fantom bo seveda neizogibno res dokaj nezdrav.

In tu se zdaj že začnejo občutki, ki me vedno prevevajo ob branju Platona. Ima me, da bi kričal nanj in/ali na Sokrata. Za začetek, zakaj uporabljaš besedo, kot je „zaljubljenec“, v tako sprevrženem, ekstremnem, bizarnem pomenu? Drugič, če to že počneš, zakaj za vraga ne naznaniš tega na začetku namesto na koncu govora? Tretjič, koliko koristen se ti zdi tak govor, če se v njem omejiš le na najbolj ekstremne primere nezdravih razmerij, govoriš pa tako, kot da bi ti pomisleki veljali na splošno? In četrtič, a ne bi mogoče mladeničem raje svetoval, naj sklepajo prijateljstva in zveze s svojimi vrstniki, ker bo tako veliko lažje doseči, da bosta partnerja kolikor toliko enakopravna (no, saj na neki točki se Sokratu to po malem že skoraj posveti, glej 240c)?

Are we being trolled?

Ampak bizarnosti se tu šele dobro začnejo. Sokrat nenadoma obrne ploščo: pravi, da je bil njegovov govor neumen in brezbožen (242d) — ampak ne, ker bi se nenadoma zavedel npr. ugovorov iz mojega prejšnjega odstavka; ne, moti ga tole: „Če je Eros bog ali neko božanstvo, kakor gotovo je, ne more biti nič slabega. Dosedanja govora pa sta govorila o njem, kot da je nekaj slabega.“ (242e) Neverjetno! Argument iz teologije, kot bi ga pričakoval od vaškega župnika, ne pa od velikega filozofa.* Mogoče ga pa ni resno mislil? Pravzaprav se mi Sokrat tule počasi začenja dozdevati kot nezanesljivi pripovedovalec iz kakšnega modernističnega romana. Najprej je povedal govor, s katerim se že dve minuti kasneje ne strinja več, torej ga najverjetneje že na začetku ni resno jemal — ampak tega nam takrat na začetku ni povegal. Sokrat je tule že skoraj nekakšen trol, nekakšen trickster spirit ali nekaj podobnega — vem, da imajo nekateri radi take like, jaz pa, ki sem bolj počasne pameti, ne maram ljudi, ki me medejo s takšnimi nenadnimi preobrati in pri katerih ne vem, kdaj mislijo resno, kdaj se pa delajo norca iz vsega skupaj.

[*Ob tem sem se spomnil, kaj je o Platonovem Sokratu napisal Russell: “There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric.” (History of Western Philosophy, bk. I, ch. 16.)]

Kakorkoli že, Sokrat zdaj po tem svojem preobratu nadaljuje z govorom, ki naj bi imel ravno nasprotno vsebino od prejšnjega. Za začetek, zaljubljenost je sicer neka oblika blaznosti, ampak to še ne pomeni, da je z njo kaj narobe, saj so nekatere vrste blaznosti dobre in koristne — na primer vedeževalska jasnovidnost in pesniški navdih. (Tu se mi že spet zdi, da je pojem blaznosti raztegnil skoraj do neprepoznavnosti; in njegovo hladnokrvno priznavanje vedeževalstva me najbrž ne bi smelo presenetiti, pa sem nad njim vendarle razočaran; ampak če te reči odmislim, se lahko nekako strinjam vsaj s tem, da stvari, ki so nerazumne, še niso nujno tudi slabe — to velja za pesniški navdih, pa menda tudi za zaljubljenost.)

Duše in Sokrat kot nadebudni veterinar

Potem ima en impresiven odstavek z „dokazom“ o neumrljivosti duše (245c–246a). Impresiven je predvsem v svoji nekoherentnosti, ampak kolikor mi ga je uspelo razvozlati, se je večino časa vrtel v krogu in mahal z rokami, spotoma pa še predpostavil to, kar je hotel dokazati. „Samo tisto, kar giblje sámo sebe, se nikoli ne neha gibati, kar ne zapusti samega sebe, ampak je tudi za vse drugo, kar je gibano, vir in počelo gibanja. [. . .] Če bi namreč počelo iz česa nastalo, ne bi bilo počelo. Ker pa je nenastalo, mora biti tudi nepropadljivo. [. . .] vsako telo, ki od zunaj (prejme) to, da je gibano, je brez duše, tisto pa, ki to (prejme) sámo od sebe, je oduševljeno, saj je to narava duše.“ Skratka: duša je tisto, kar giblje sámo sebe; zato je to počelo gibanja; zato je nenastalo; zato je nepropadljivo; torej je duša nesmrtna. Človek ne ve, ali bi se smejal ali jokal ob takšnih blodnjah.

(No, verjetno je res, da bi bilo treba ta njegova razmišljanja obravnavati malo bolj prizanesljivo. Predstavljam si, da so te ideje o dušah nastale še nekje v pradavnini, ko so ljudje opazili, da telo živega človeka pet minut pred smrtjo ni dosti drugačno kot njegovo truplo pet minut po smrti; v čem je torej ta razlika, zaradi katere je bil prej živ, nato pa mrtev? Pa so si zamislili dušo kot neko nematerialno zadevo, zaradi katere je človek živ, dokler jo ima v telesu. Nam dandanes takšnih stvari ni treba, ker si lahko predstavljamo, da je „življenje“ le neka abstrakcija za kopico nekakšnih kemijskih reakcij in podobnih reči. V Sokratovem času, ko še ni bilo moderne znanosti, jim pa pač ni preostalo drugega, kot da malo špekulirajo. Bi pa jaz še vseeno raje videl, da bi pošteno rekli „ne vemo, nimamo pojma“ kot pa da so takole nakladali o dušah, počelih in gibanju.)

Potem pride ena slikovita metafora: duša, pravi Sokrat, je kot krilata kočija z voznikom in dvema konjema. Pri dušah bogov sta oba konja dobra, pri človeških pa je en konj dober, drugi pa slab, zato nas vleče včasih malo sem, malo tja (246a–b, podobno še kasneje v 253d–e). To zgodbico potem nadaljuje še dve, tri strani in tisto je v bistvu čista teologija. To je nekaj za k platonističnemu ekvivalentu verouka. Namesto nebes je tu „nedotakljiva, resnično bivajoča Bitnost, ki jo lahko zre le krmar duše, um“ (247c); v odvisnosti od tega, kako blizu tej resnici so duše prišle, se kasneje rodijo v telesa živali ali pa različnih ljudi (248d); kasneje pride posmrtna sodba in nato nekakšna reinkarnacija (249a). Posebne pravice pa ima duša „tistega, ki je filozofiral brez prevare [no, Sokrat je torej vsaj samega sebe izvzel, pošteno :P] ali pa je ljubezen do mladeničev združil z ljubeznijo do modrosti“ (OMG! pa saj to je skoraj isto kot katoliški duhovniki :))) platonizem in verske blodnje, two great tastes that taste great together).

Skratka, če ne bi bil Platon že itak iz bogate družine, bi bil po mojem lahko ustanovil svoj verski kult in bi se ga mogoče danes spomnili kot starogrškega L. Rona Hubbarda. Povsem očitno je, da je imel za to vse potrebne predispozicije.

Na tem mestu se človek mogoče vpraša, kakšno zvezo ima vse to z uradno temo Sokratovega govora, to je z zaljubljenostjo. No, Sokrat zdaj pravi, da je to v bistvu blaznost, ki nastane, ko duša vidi nekoga lepega tu na zemlji in se megleno spomni nekaj malega od tiste resnične Lepote, ki jo je za silo videla v platonističnih nebesih pred svojo zadnjo reinkarnacijo (249d–e). Zakaj bi to povzročilo ravno blaznost? Sokrat ima odgovor tudi na to — njegove ideje o anatomiji duše so impresivno podrobne in si jih je težko razložiti drugače kot tako, da je imel kakšno dušo na svoji operacijski mizi in jo je pazljivo seciral: „Ko se (od lepote) loči in se suši, se sušijo in pri tem zapirajo odprtine prehodov, skozi katere poganjajo krila, in tako ovirajo poganjek krila, ta pa je znotraj zaprt s hrepenenjem, skače kot žile utripalnice, zariva se v prehod — vsak v tistega, ki je zanj določen —, tako da je vsa duša zbadana krog in krog, besni in trpi bolečine; ko pa se spomnnja Lépega, se zelo veseli. Zaradi pomešanosti tega dvojega [. . .] nori — blazna je“ (251d). (Glej tudi 255d za še več o anatomiji kril pri dušah.)

Saj ne vem, kaj bi rekel. Mar je mogoče, da je to kdaj kdo prebral in si rekel „o fant, ja, to je tisto pravo, to je pot do modrosti, tole bi rad študiral celo življenje“? Kako zaboga lahko nekdo, ki veže take otrobe, postane oče zahodne filozofije, namesto da bi ga strpali v najbližjo norišnico?

„Ko pa ga vidi in pusti, da hrepenenje priteče vanjo, osvobodi to, kar je bilo prej zagrajeno, oddahne si in se znebi zbadanj ter bolečin in spet v sedanjosti pobira sad najslajšega užitka” (251e). Honi soit qui mal y pense :))

Beating a dead horse

Sokrat še kar nadaljuje s svojo metaforo duše kot kočije s parom konj in pri tem celo pove nekaj podrobnosti o videzu obeh konjev (253d–e). Večinoma pa poskuša zatrjevati, da ker zaljubljenost izvira od tega, da se duša spomni božanskega Lepega, zato potem tudi v zaljubljenosti tu na zemlji sčasoma prevladajo dobri elementi: „duša zaljubljenca naposled sledi ljubljenemu dečku s sramežljivostjo in strahom [. . .] zaljubljenec ljubljenega dečka na vse načine časti kot nekoga, ki je enak bogovom“ (254e). Skratka, zdaj prav tako nemarno pretirava v eno smer, kot je bil prej pretiraval v nasprotno smer. Malo kasneje tudi optimistično trdi, da se kot nekakšen odmev vname ljubezen tudi v ljubljenem dečku (255c–d) in obe duši potem živita happily ever after (256b) in gresta lahko nato lepo družno v platonistična nebesa (256d–e).

Še ena dobra iz 255b: „Usoda namreč nikoli ne odredi tako, da bi bil slab človek prijatelj s slabim človekom — ali da dober človek ne bi bil prijatelj z dobrim.“ Wahahaha! Kako lahko nekdo izjavi kaj tako trapastega? Na wikipediji bi rekli: citation fucking needed! Mogoče je imel spet v mislih kakšne za lase privlečene definicije pojmov, kot so „slab“, „dober“ in „prijatelj“. (To me počasi spominja na tisto šalo o radiu Erevan: ali je res, da je Ivan Ivanovič Ivanov iz Leningrada zadel avto na loteriji? — Načeloma da, vendar to ni bil Ivan Ivanovič Ivanov, ampak Aleksej Aleksejevič Aleksejev; ni bil iz Leningrada, ampak iz Moskve; ni bil avto, ampak bicikel; in ni ga zadel na loteriji, pač pa so mu ga ukradli!)


V 259b–d pove Sokrat posrečeno zgodbico o izvoru škržatov: da so bili to nekoč ljudje, ki so jih pesmi Muz tako prevzele, da so pozabili na hrano in pijačo in od tega umrli; potem pa so se spremenili v škržate, ki da tudi ne potrebujejo hrane in pijače, ampak celo življenje pojejo in naznanjajo Muzam, kateri ljudje častijo katero od njih. No, ta pogled na škržate mi je vsekakor bolj všeč kot tisti v Ezopovi basni :)


Zdaj ko je teh govorov konec, se začneta Sokrat in Fajdros pogovarjati o veščini pisanja govorov in o tem, kaj pomeni pisati dobre govore. Videti je, da je zanju govorništvo predvsem veščina prepričevanja, torej nekaj takega, kar počnejo odvetniki in politiki, vendar ne samo oni. Nekateri menijo, da govorniku sploh ni treba razumeti, „kaj je res pravično, ampak to, kaj se bo množici, ki bo sodila, (pravično) zdelo“ (260a); in podobno kot za pravično velja tudi za dobro, lepo ipd. Sokrat se trudi to ovreči in na koncu zatrdi, da „nama bo tisti, ki ne pozna resnice, ampak lovi mnenja, ponujal neko veščino govorov, ki je očitno smešna in nestrokovna“ (262c), vendar se mi njegov argument ni zdel prepričljiv. Začne s čisto razumnim opažanjem, da govornik že mora nekaj vedeti o tem, o čemer govori (260b–c), potem pa to pretirano posploši. Pravi, da bo spreten govornik „dosegel, da se bo ista stvar istim ljudem pokazala zdaj pravična, zdaj pa krivična — kadar pač on hoče“ (261c–d); torej bo moral občinstvo v majhnih korakih voditi od resnice proti laži; in če noče tej svoji laži tudi sam nasesti, „mora natanko poznati podobnost in nepodobnost bivajočih stvari“ (262a).

Ampak to so vse očitno trapasta pretiravanja. V praksi meje med tem, kaj je pravično in kaj krivično, ali pa kaj je laž in kaj resnica, niso vedno tako preproste in ostre. Tudi ni smiselno reči, da lahko govornik poljubno prepriča ljudi v to, da je neka stvar pravična ali krivična, kakor se mu zazdi. Z ljudmi lahko do neke mere manipuliraš, ampak takole neomejeno pa spet ne. In tudi ni nujno, da govornik ne nasede svojim lažem — mnogi govorniki dejansko jim nasedejo in tudi sami iskreno verjamejo v to, v kar skušajo prepričati tudi druge (pravzaprav tak govornik potem sploh ne laže — če verjameš temu, kar trdiš, se že po definiciji ne lažeš, lahko si le v zmoti).

Sokrat ima nato en zanimiv komentar o svojih prejšnjih dveh govorih o ljubezni; spomnimo se, da je bil eden proti njej, drugi pa jo je hvalil. Zdaj pravi, da je stvar v tem, da obstajata „dve obliki blaznosti: prva, ki nastane zaradi človeških bolezni, in druga, ki nastane zaradi božanskega predrugačenja običajnih navad“ (265c). Prvi govor je razmišljal o ljubezni, ki jo povzroča blaznost prvega tipa „ter jo je zelo po pravici kritiziral“ (266a), drugi govor pa o ljubezni, ki jo povzroča blaznost drugega tipa, tako da ima „sicer enako ime, a je božanska, in ko jo je postavil pred nas, jo je pohvalil kot vzrok za nas največjih dobrin“ (266a–b).

Po svoje je najbrž lepo, da prizna, da sta bila oba tista govora vsak v svojo smer pristranska, pretirana in manipulantska. Po drugi strani pa, saj to smo že sproti opazili in bili zaradi tega ves čas pošteno razkurjeni. In konec koncev, če hočem, da me trolajo, imam tu za to cel internet, od njega sem pa pričakoval kaj bolj pametnega.

Fajdros in Sokrat se nato malo pogovarjata o raznih govorniških tehnikah in prijemih, ki jim pridejo prav pri prepričevanju poskušalcev oz. manipuliranju z njimi (266d–267d). Videti je, da je to tisto, kar so tedanji sofisti poučevali kot govorniško veščino. Sokrat pa pravi, da te tehnikalije še niso tista prava govorniška veščina, ampak le nekakšna predpriprava nanjo: glavna stvar je, da veš, kdaj uporabiti kakšen prijem oz. kako te reči povezati v celoto; in sofisti da delajo napako, ko se pretvarjajo, da je to nekaj trivialnega, kar bo učenec lahko razvil sam, potem ko ga bodo enkrat oni naučili svojih tehnikalij (269b–c).

To je videti še kar smiselno, čeprav se mi po malem tudi dozdeva, da gre tu za običajno filozofsko nategovanje z besedami: stvar dogovora oz. definicije je pač, za kateri nabor znanj bomo uporabljali izraz „govorniška veščina“ in ali bomo sem notri šteli le tisto, kar poučujejo sofisti, ali tudi tisto, kar bi rad zraven štel še Sokrat.

Sokrat med drugim poudarja, da mora govornik poznati svoje občinstvo, da bo znal uporabiti njim primerne tehnike prepričevanja; tako da tisti, ki tega ne obvlada, res ne bi smel trditi, da obvlada govorniško veščino (271c–272b). S tem se čisto strinjam, bizaren pa se mi zdi način, kako bi se Sokrat tega lotil: on bi nekako klasificiral različne vrste duš (oz. on pravi „rodove“ duš) in različne vrste govorov in potem te stari nekako usklajeval med sabo (271b, glej tudi 273e) — pristop, ki bi bil bolj koristen za botanika ali entomologa kot pa za govornika. Ni si težko predstavljati, da so imeli sofisti za njegove marnje bolj malo potrpljenja.

Ta del dialoga se zaključi s Sokratovo ugotovitvijo, „da se to, kar je verjetno, v množici poraja zaradi svoje podobnosti z resničnostjo“ (to se nanaša na dejstvo, da boš množico poslušalcev lažje prepričal, če jim boš govoril nekaj, kar se jim zdi verjetno), podobnosti pa „zna najlepše najti tisti, ki pozna resnico“ (273d) [mimogrede opozorimo na to, da kar se mene tiče, doslej ni dokazal nobene od teh dveh stvari; tule zdaj pa ju je zgolj predrzno zatrdil] — po domače povedano, idealni govornik je v resnici filozof! Krasno. Možakar je rad pihal v svoj rog, to mu je vsekakor treba priznati.

Nenaklonjeni bralec, kot sem jaz, se težko upre misli, da se je nad govorniki in sofisti toliko zgražal zato, ker njemu samemu prepričevanje ni šlo kaj prida dobro od rok. Dragi Sokrat, resnice nihče kaj prida ne pozna, še najmanj pa ti; in to, kaj se tvoji publiki zdi verjetno, ni toliko odvisno od nekakšne visokoleteče „podobnosti z resničnostjo“, pač pa od njihovih predsodkov, dosedanjih informacij, ki so jih dobili, in od zblojenega načina, po katerem delujejo človekovi miselni procesi (treba je sicer priznati, da glede na to, da smo v bistvu le nekakšne hodeče vreče kemikalij, pravzaprav še kar presenetljivo dobro delujemo).


Dialog se konča z debato o „primernosti in neprimernosti pisanja“ (274b). Sokrat začne z zgodbico iz starega Egipta (najbrž si jo je Platon kar lepo sam izmislil, tako kot tisto o Atlantidi), v kateri bog Tevt iznajde pisavo, kralj Tamunt pa ga zaradi tega kritizira: ta iznajdba bo „zaradi zanemarjanja spomina povzročila pozabo, ker se bodo zaradi zaupanja v pisanje spominjali od zunaj, zaradi tujih znakov, ne pa od znotraj, sami od sebe“ (275a). Tudi Sokrat sam pravi, da zapisane besede le „na stvari, o katerih so zapisane, spominjajo tistega, ki že ve“ (275c–d, podobno tudi v 278a); „lahko se ti zdi, da govorijo, kot da bi kaj mislili, če pa jih vprašaš po čem od tega, kar je govorjeno, in hočeš to izvedeti, ki označujejo vedno eno in isto“ (275d).

Sokratu se ukvarjanje s pisano besedo zdi v najboljšem primeru nekakšno ne najbolj resno igračkanje, tista prava stvar pa je aktivno filozofiranje in poučevanje skozi pogovor (276e–277a); „jasnost, popolnost in to, kar je vredno zvestobe, [so] samo v tem, kar se uči in govori zavoljo razumevanja in kar se zares zapisuje v dušo o pravičnem, lepem in dobrem“ (278a). Skratka, pravi govor je neko razumevanje resnice™, ki ga ima človek v duši in ki ga mogoče z nekaj sreče lahko skozi pogovor prenese tudi na druge; pisana beseda pa je v najboljšem primeru neka bleda podoba tega, pripomoček za spomin nekoga, ki tisto stvar sicer v sebi že ve.

To se mi zdi spet en tak nekoristen ekstremizem in igračkanje z besedami. Če je neka stvar dobro napisana in jo človek prebere in o njej razmisli in jo ponotranji, jo ima potem prav tako v duši, kot če bi do nje prišel skozi pogovor z nekom ali pa o njej razmislil sam. Je pa seveda včasih lažje ali hitreje, če se za prenos znanja uporabi namesto pisane besede govorjena ali pa neka kombinacija obojega. Saj prav zato je še dandanes koristno, da imajo študentje predavanja in mentorje, namesto da bi jim le na začetku leta razposlali vsakemu skladovnico učbenikov in jih prepustili samim sebi.

Ko pomislim, kako je tale dialog čudno in nejasno napisan, kako preskakuje z ene teme na drugo in podobno, si ne morem kaj, da si ne bi mislil, da je bil Sokrat do pisane besede tako nezaupljiv zato, ker ni znal/hotel jasno pisati :) In seveda ima prav, da ima pogovor to prednost pred pisanjem, da lahko sogovornika pocukaš za rokav in ga vprašaš za kakšno pojasnilo (tudi jaz si pri branju tega in podobnih dialogov kar naprej zelo vroče želim, da bi lahko to naredil) — ampak po drugi strani se potem človek vpraša, zakaj Sokratovi sogovorniki v Platonovih dialogih to tako poredko počnejo; večinoma le pritrjujejo Sokratu kot kakšni zombiji.

Mogoče je še najbolj pametno jemati te Sokratove pomisleke kot nekakšen odraz časa, v katerem je pisanje postajalo vse pomembnejše v primerjavi z govorjeno besedo, ker je pač družba postajala večja, bolj kompleksna in je bilo neposredno pogovarjanje vseh z vsemi vse manj učinkovito in izvedljivo. In vsak tak prehod na novo tehnologijo navdaja ljudi z zaskrbljenostjo in nezaupanjem; dandanes, ko je razvoj tehnologije hitrejši, imamo s tovrstnimi pomisleki opravka takorekoč kar naprej.

Po drugi strani si tudi mislim, da je treba ta Sokratova jadikovanja jemati malo z rezervo; karkoli si je Sokrat že mislil kot zgodovinska oseba ali pa kot lik v Platonovih dialogih, očitno je, da Platon sam kakšnih hudih pomislekov glede pisanja že ni mogel imeti, saj drugače ne bi toliko napisal (in s tako očitnim užitkom v pisanju).

Meni se zdi pri teh debatah o pisanju še najbolj zanimivo vprašanje, v kolikšni meri taka tehnična novotarija, kot je pisanje, vpliva na človekovo razmišljanje in dojemanje sveta. Dandanes imamo skoraj več opravka s pisano kot z govorjeno besedo; še ko sam pri sebi razmišljam, se mi v mislih porajajo stavki, kot da bi jih zapisoval. Ali bi drugače razmišljal, če ne bi znal brati in pisati (ali pa vsaj, če bi bolj malo bral in pisal — recimo tako kot Sokrat, ki najbrž tudi ni bil ravno nepismen)? Predstavljam si, da so se s takšnimi vprašanji kdaj ukvarjali kakšni antropologi ali psihologi in bi bilo zanimivo prebrati, kar so ugotovili na to temo.


Kaj naj rečem za konec? Tale dialog je bil naporno branje. Pogosti občutki jeze zaradi nejasnega izražanja, neokusnega nategovanja besed, meglene argumentacije, prenagljenih sklepov, bizarnih preskokov iz ene teme v drugo in podobnih reči niso ravno najboljši za moje živce :) Ob branju teh stvari sem vse manj presenečen, da je Platon postal veliki zavetnik vseh mogočih mešalcev megle in da so platonizem v kasnejših časih tako lepo cepili na krščansko teologijo. Ne dvomim v to, da je Platon primerno branje za pravo ciljno občinstvo, ampak jaz vsekakor ne sodim mednje.

Po drugi strani moram priznati, da je v dialogu tudi nekaj zanimivih odlomkov in občasno kakšna razumna misel; da so tisti deli, ki so bolj pogovor kot monolog, lepo in živahno napisani; in da je, če je človek primerno razpoložen, ta dialog vreden branja že samo zaradi občasnih nedopovedljivih bizarnosti, kot so na primer tehnikalije glede anatomije krilatih konj v metafori o človekovi duši :)) O kakšnem sistematičnem branju preostalih Platonovih del do nadaljnjega vseeno ne bom razmišljal, saj nimam potrpljenja za to; bom pa verjetno prebral še kakšen njegov dialog, ko se bo pojavila potreba po tem.

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