My new nickname — because a new lobby CO referred to me thus — was reported to me laughingly last night, amusing especially the group’s long time members. And they’d likewise clearly enjoyed setting her straight on my role as (do you know that she is a) philosophy professor at Hamilton College — and the implied lofty status the reading group they’re a part of enjoys. And yet our focus last night on how to read Plato, on the structure of the arguments, made the nickname more apt than the CO could ever have guessed.
We’ve just started the Hackett collection Plato on Love, with the not very interesting dialogue Lysis. The men began the discussion with mostly strongly negative, frustrated responses to the text, and to the introduction to the whole collection too, for that matter. They pointed out, quite legitimately, that the title suggested that the book is not just aimed at an audience of professional philosophers or academics, rather at the more general reader eager to hear what one of the great western philosophers would have to say about the timeless topic of love, yet the introduction is full of (undefined) technical terms and distinctions and references and allusions to other other texts that made it pretty useless to them — including to many of the men who are not even complete novices at this point in our long association. I had to agree, and regretted not having given them a better introduction to the collection, and even one as simple as how to read Platonic (and Socratic) dialogues, which we ended up spending most of our time on last night. In my defense, I’d only gotten the text the same night they had two weeks ago, and we’d not met again until last night, before I’d had a chance to read the introduction.
So much for the unhelpful intro. What about the text? Overwhelming agreement (from the seven men present) that the character of Socrates was arguing disingenuously in much of the piece, that he equivocated to make cheap points, and overall — one man’s actual term — that he was a sophist they did not like, and more important, did not trust. They did not believe that he had a positive goal in the dialogue, that he was instead mainly out to get his obviously less nimble interlocutors (the main one of whom was only a boy). I asked them for particular evidence from text to support their charges, and several men were happy to provide it — from extensive notes in their notebooks, and in their texts. Great critical analysis especially of many of Socrates’s analogies in the discussion of friendship, which are indeed problematic, if not outright weak. Impressive work, reminding me how crucially important authenticity — being straightforward, keeping it real — is to these readers. They come to these texts wanting to advance their views about perennially difficult topics, to find out what some great minds have had to say about them, not to sharpen their rhetorical skills for fun or profit. Still, they were quite eager to talk about the use of dilemmas, and reductio ad absurdum arguments (pens flying furiously), and the value of discovering (or being forced to see) the weaknesses or strange and surprising implications of views that may have the surface look of obvious common sense. Still, they did not buy the view that learning what’s wrong with views is particularly useful unless it propels to them to better alternatives, and not just to a despairing skepticism, which several members of the group came to identify as their real problem with the dialogue – they felt as if they’d ended it pretty much empty handed on the subjects of love and friendship, or at least with no clearer or deeper views than the ones they’d started with.
And what of love, by the way, which turned out to be less of a focus in the dialogue than friendship? We’ll take up those threads next week when we start discussing the Symposium. As so often happens when I opened the book to prepare earlier this week I was struck by my own naiveté in assigning a book that begins with a happy discussion of love in the context of not just the archaic Greek “pederasty” but indeed pedophilia, treated as (love) business as usual. Oy!