algorithmic lollygagging

“Endure, my heart, you have suffered more shameful things than this.”
Odysseus quoted in Plato’s Republic (line 390 d)


I hesitate. Hold the book face down on my lap. It feels a bit…too much. It’s too much, too stupid, too put on, too late, too weird, to be sitting on the sideline of my son’s soccer game reading Plato’s Republic. I’ve read it before, am reading it again to keep a friend company and who am I to comment on Plato anyway? Just don’t ask me to live in his whack republic.

I would certainly wish to convince you truly, I said, if I could.
Well, he said, you are certainly not attaining your wish. (357.b)

Simply put, it is an interesting, although exhausting, mental exercise to make up a utopian society.  I’m sure it goes without saying that I am mentally feeble by comparison to Socrates and his mouthpiece Plato, so perhaps I need a little assistance in understanding just how the perfect leader of the utopian society is going to be groomed by way of censorship and controlled ignorance. I have a difficult time imagining that that was ever thought of as a good idea.

Just as these variations produce licentiouness there, so here they bring disease. Simplicity in poetry and music makes for moderation in the soul, so in physical culture it makes for health. – Very true. ( 404 e)

Very boring too. Food: unseasoned, sex: un-“frenzied,” skills: limited to one per person, no discordant music, talk of capricious gods, or vigorous laughter, and furthermore it will be illegal to be mad when the truth is spoken… I’ve got to say, despite Adeimantus’ protestations, I think the “no private property” for the guardians is the least of the problems with this society.

Suffering on the sideline from a double whammy of feeling pretentious for reading the book in public and remedial for disagreeing with the thesis, perhaps now would not be a good time to mention that the Socratic method of inquiry is, to me, at times infuriating as well: with the tedium of an algorithm a harsh radiating pain cast its net in my mind. I recognize that pain, because I torture-I mean- engage myself in this theoretical problem-solving method of inquiry on a daily basis (like a multi-step chess move, 15 steps in and I see a fault, if A is true, than B can’t be true, but if B is true than what to think of A? Start again. Are A and B both  true? B makes A true, but step 17 prohibits A. Back to square one. Can I get a C?) until that inner voice finally screams inside me- Jessica! shut the fuck up! Well, I never!… I’m sure no one was quite that rude to Socrates.

Anyway. By some unknown variety of coincidence, I happen to watch a documentary about Vincent Scully the other night. Scully was a professor at Yale and was renowned for his brilliant lectures on architecture. I really love looking through the eyes of an exuberantly engaged teacher passionate about his subject. Scully has written several books, Shingle Style being one of them (he pretty much made the American shingle style an “official” style). The Earth, The Temple, And The Gods is another. In a scandalously brief nutshell here’s what it is about: the purposeful  relationship between the architecture of Ancient Greek temples and their landscape.

It is fascinating to read, particularly as it forms its own relationship in my mind with Plato’s Republic.  Whereas the Stonehedge or the Egyptian temples had singular regard for the sky, sun and heavens,  the Greek’s Temples had a reverence for landscape theretofore unexploited- a sought after connection that they applied to their sacred buildings, magnifying the purpose (not in an astrological the sun will rise and point a light on this spot way, but more organic- goddess fertile hills, a Zeus-like imposing mountain that therefore calls for a temple to Zeus – in that order, and so on) Seeing these Ancient environs through Scully’s eyes, (not actually that easy as all of the photos are in the back of the book- the constant thumbing back and forth was a wearying task) is an awakening. The horizon, hills, mountains, stones, lakes, et all are there calling out their meaning, telling their story, awaiting, with us, our shared future. To the Ancient Greeks, blotting them out or ignoring them was not an option. It would be pointless as well as wasteful.

Awe is a free gift from nature- both in the word’s positive as well as negative meaning. Socrates, as Plato reports, understood in a haughty way the duality, as his concept of Forms illustrates by way of superseding them. But “Forms” are for the guardians, we are relegated to being lovers of things without knowing them truly or lovers of opinion– guilty as charged. My point, if I’m allowed to have one in Plato’s Republic of Perfectness, is this: if I have to suffer through bad elevator music is it really asking too much for my leader to know my pain? Would it really be advisable that he or she didn’t?

All that being said, I’m aware that not only does no one really take an interest in what book I am holding, it’s unlikely they have even noticed me lollygagging about the sideline in the first place. It’s just me and my lonesome lovingly held opinions. But I can take comfort knowing that at least I too am part of the landscape- clinging to the hillside of our potential awe.

Expecting, most often, no immortal reward for proper action, he was moved to test the poignancy of human desires against the hard reality of nature’s demands, saw both in strong, clear shapes and took nothing from the force of either. Believing himself to be unique, but at his best neither arrogant nor despairing in the circle of the world, he was able not only to conceive of the fundamental oneness, but to face the apparent separateness, of things.                – Vincent Scully, The Earth, The Temple, And The Gods. (212)

12 responses to “algorithmic lollygagging

  1. petrujviljoen

    I’ve made it a journey to complain about elevator music: to the caretaker, the owner of the building, and the (im)perfect leader and whosoever else is available to listen to my complaints, whether they like to or not. The enlightened ones say to suffer in silence. So I moved. Haven’t encountered an elevator in three or more years, switch the radio on only intermittently (does the rest of the world still exist?), haven’t opened Plato’s Republic in as much time and am happy in my choices to what I encounter in my day. What I can’t control and don’t like I complain about loudly.

    This made me laugh. Found Plato practically impossible (to read).

  2. you are funny, and smart, and sensitive – and your writing has a terrific energy that tells the reader: i am interested in everything! and want to know more! plus i love that you take risks every time you write down your thoughts and opinions.

  3. Plus, Plato’s Republic was not that generous to the women (or slaves)…. And better you reading that at your son’s soccer game than 50 Shades of Gray, I say.
    Fun writing, thanks!

  4. Funny how everything I (bold or italicize the “I” here) read lately “forms its own relationship in my mind with Plato’s Republic.” Who would have guessed there would be a connection to Lady Chatterley’s Lover?!

  5. Thanks! Great article!
    The more I read Shaw the more I wonder, do all utopians depend upon the evolution of humanity to make their fantasies possible? Shaw was overt about the fact that utopia could not exist until people changed dramatically from what we are currently.
    Does Plato truly think that any of we truculent and boisterous citizens could be happy without spice and variety? We’d suffocate until we killed one-another.

  6. In the end I doubt Plato believed in some of the ideas he originally promoted as his perfect utopian state.

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