A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing.
I am feeling quite erudite right now. Why? Because I am finally studying philosophy.
Funny, isn’t it? Me, who has a strong philosophy on just about every topic on earth? But I never studied the subject in my life. So, being of sound mind and body (well, the body’s pretty sound—there are those who might question the balance of my mind—but they’re right wingers)—I paid my money and headed back to school.
The first day was so exciting!
Brought back those days of walking through fall leaves on the campus of Ohio University so many years ago. I was free. And at least 150 miles away from Mom and Dad. As I looked around at my fellow freshmen walking through those leaves, I saw that they were just as exhilarated as I.
The same feelings happened when I walked on the campus of UNCA this past September. The people were older. There was some grey hair, even a few folks in wheelchairs, but there was a look of anticipation on every face. Taking a deep breath, I headed into a large lecture hall and took my seat right up front. I didn’t want to miss a word. Removing my Nook from my book bag, I found the text and opened my notebook.
The class is called Plato for the Uninitiated, ergo my newfound ability to know something about everything. You may want to avoid me if you see me at a holiday cocktail party. I fear I may become quite offensive, spewing quandaries at everyone who speaks to me. And, of course, any answers given to my posed dilemmas will invariably be incorrect. That’s what Plato did. Actually, he was writing as Socrates in those Dialogues. Probably because he didn’t want the ancient Greeks to remember him as totally obnoxious, so he blamed it on poor old Socrates who was long dead and buried.
It’s pretty interesting, when I’m awake. Which is some of the time. I must admit some moments in the long lecture period, I am dozing or thinking about what I will cook that night for dinner. The teacher is wonderful. It’s just that nothing is ever resolved. For instance, the Dialogue we’re focusing on is about finding a definition for virtue.
Plato/Socrates is teaching a young man named Menon. Every time poor Menon comes up with his idea of what virtue is, Plato/Socrates answers, “No, that is a virtue—but that is not virtue.” True enough, I suppose, but I’m beginning to think that virtue, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. And Plato/Socrates has a very, very critical eye.
I’ve read this Dialogue twice. My professor assures us that after our third reading, (something I’m avoiding by writing this column) things will become more clear and we will find nuances we never noticed before. Really??
Did I mention the Dialogue in question is r-e-a-l-l-y long?
What strikes me most about this experience is the fact that nothing much has changed in the 2,400 years since Plato wrote The Great Dialogues. We are still trying to figure out what is the meaning of life—what is its purpose—what is my reason for being on earth? And if I have a purpose, how the hell do I find it?
Also, the politics sound suspiciously familiar to today. Except instead of being called Democrats and Republicans, they’re called Naturalists and Sophists. The Sophists fascinate me. They’re paid to teach how to be excellent, successful, and wealthy. I guess you’d call them the Dale Carnegies of the Golden Age of Greece. Or the upper 1%.
Plato/Socrates despised the Sophists. I like that about him. Because, far as I can tell, Sophists were a fairly smug bunch. Bet they had that perpetual smile on their faces just like Mitt does. Yes, there’s no doubt that Republicans would have been Sophists back then. It’s all about success.
But then again, what is success? Whatever you say, remember—I will counter with a contradiction. That’s part of being a philosopher.
One thing I will say for this class. It’s made me believe again in some kind of Grand Designer God. Whether you call him Jesus Christ, Siddhartha, or Mohammed, if, after all these years, the smartest minds in the universe have never figured out the meaning of life, there must be something hidden. Something only to be discovered when life here ends. Or begins, or… oh, Lord, I’ve given myself a headache. Like I said, avoid me for the foreseeable future. Otherwise, you’ll get a headache, too.
You have been warned!
Jeanne Charters, a transplant from New York, is a writer living in Asheville with her husband, Matt Restivo. Her collection of columns, “Funny, isn’t it?” is available at Malaprops, Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade, or at jeannecharters.com.
She has written three novels and has acquired an agent for her young adult novel, “Shanty Gold.” Jeanne is working on edits, per that agent, and hopes to have a publisher this year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Reader, I need a favor. Please take a look at the notice of a bone-marrow event to be held on November 9 in Asheville. It is on page 5 of this issue. The child pictured, Jordie, is my friend’s granddaughter. She is a bright, beautiful, spunky five-year-old and is in desperate need of a second bone-marrow transplant. You could be a match. Please help Jordie as well as others waiting for this life-saving treatment.