Thursday, January 15, 2015

Imagining Plato

In my ongoing discussion of various gifts, I want to thank my friend Kim for her annual Christmas gift subscription to The Sun magazine. She knows how much I love it! Thank you, thank you!

In the January issue, newly arrived, I got wrapped up in the interview with David Hinton, on translating ancient Chinese poetry, and even wrote about it for the EIL Blog on Wednesday ("Thoughts on Translating Poetry"). The cover photo is by Harvey Stein, with more Coney Island pix inside. (That's not Plato.)

In the middle of the interview, I got stuck on Plato again. I love Plato, but I always run into people blaming Plato for all the faults of Western civilization, for kicking poets out of the Republic, and for the mind/body split, for example. I don't think Plato would kick out any poets; he was one. He was just, in a dialogue, having one guy give advice to another guy that boils down to this: Poets will encourage empathy and imagination in the citizen, which will allow fellow feeling and individual thinking, and if you don't want that in your ideal state, you'll have to get rid of the poets.

Anyhoo, in this interview, David Hinton says, "The ancient Greek philosopher Plato came up with the theory of Forms, which said the truest reality is one of abstract ideas. He thought that Being with a capital B was not part of this everchanging reality [mentioned earlier in and throughout the interview] but some nonmaterial Form that sits behind or above reality and doesn't change, because it's eternal. And because it is changeless, it is more real."

In a walnut shell, I think that is Hinton interpreting Plato, and I think I interpret Plato differently.

I think the key here is that Plato "came up with the theory"--that is, he imagined a way of thinking about reality that helps us organize our perceptions into essences but is not to be mistaken for reality itself; we can conceive of a table even if there isn't one right in front of us, but one is a conception and one, the table, is a table. It's not that hard (unless it's made of stone). I can't eat off an imaginary table, but I can eat off a real one. Reality, itself, as a larger concept (with a capital R), contains both the imagined table (Form) and the real table (Table). (Eating [and italics] are extremely important here.)

Back to David Hinton: "Most of the time we take it for granted that we are our mental processes, the analytical back-and-forth. Meditation reminds us that we're not. When you're meditating, watching your thoughts, you see them rise out of nothingness and recede into it. Next comes the question: If I'm watching this mental process, then I must be separate from it. So what am I?"

Um, might you be an essential Form?!

That's my awkward sense of humor. But what I am saying is, I feel connected to others and to life even while I am a separate (temporary) "I" who is a compassionate "I" who is not very lonely in the world because I already feel connected to other humans and to Nature with a capital N, and I still love Plato, a guy with imagination, who has been used and misunderstood, as well as understood, by others for a really long time.

1 comment:

Marcoantonio Arellano said...

yes, much to read in 'Plato's Rebublic'.