Friday, October 7, 2011

The Cave, unpacked: part 3

Then, in that post, came this bit:
2) Plato hated Homer—the sheer number of times Socrates tells us, especially in Republic, that Homer (whom he thought of as a single person, though at this blog we know better) was pretending to be something he was not, proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Again, this declaration is probably a bit too broad--the word “hate” is of course much too strong. If the statement is true, the negative emotions Plato felt towards the fictional Homer whom he believed to have been a real writer were probably much closer to anger, frustration, and envy than to hate.

If there’s an emotional basis to the famous passage from the last book of Republic where Plato has Socrates speak of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, that’s what it seems likely to me to be: Plato sees how powerful his own education, centering on homeric epic, has been in determining the way he looks at and acts in the world, and is mad at the figure who perpetrated it. He’s frustrated that it was so hard for Socrates, and is so hard for him to think past that education into the new philosophical world that he wants to create in memory of Socrates. He envies, perhaps most of all, Homer’s seemingly ineluctable control over the ruleset of the cave-culture game within which the Athenians have risen to power, fallen from it, and finally ended up in a cultural position that Plato must have regarded as going nowhere.

This is, I think, the way game-designers hate games like HALO and BioShock, even as they often play them to death, and enjoy “hating on” them in every conceivable corner of the internet. Maybe in that very modern, fanboyish sense of the word “hate,” I was on target in my post--Plato is a Socrates fanboy, and he’s jealous of Socrates’ indie cred. So perhaps a more accurate formulation would have been “Plato was jealous of philosophy’s cultural credibility”--the game that he was designing, a game perhaps on best display in the middle to late dialogues, above all Republic, Timaeus, and Critias, needed to establish itself, just as the books of Herodotus and Thucydides sought to establish themselves, in contradistinction to the hegemonic game of “Homer.”

Remember that “jealousy” and “envy,” when used properly, are different, though related, emotions: we’re envious of what we don’t have (that we may have it), but jealous of what we do (that we may keep it): Plato’s emotion, such as it was, was perhaps the feeling that the grand practomime of philosophy could not but be under siege from the apparently grand practomime of epic.