Sunday, 10 September 2017

Plato's goat

The following is another dialogue involving Aristageles, a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher. This time he is in conversation with Typhrion, about whom nothing is known.

Typhrion: Have you seen him?

Aristageles: Yes, I was at his bedside last night. There is a tremendous crowd of people around him now, but the mood was hushed and solemn, as you’d expect.

Typhrion: How was he?

Aristageles: Ashen-faced, falling in and out of consciousness, mumbling at times. His fire burns quite dimly now.

Typhrion: Did he recognise you?

Aristageles: When I entered the room and touched his hand, he opened his eyes and thought I was his brother, Glaucon. I said my name and his face changed to the most profound look of disbelief, then it relaxed slowly to a knowing smile and he closed his eyes.

Typhrion: Ah, Plato. Plato the great.

Aristageles: May his soul take flight with ease to its resting place.

Typhrion: May it be so. With Hermes’ guidance to Elysium, there to sup with the gods and all the heroes who have ever lived.

Aristageles: To Elysium, of course.

Typhrion: But I am curious, Aristageles. Do you not go back a long way with Plato?

Aristageles: Many years ago he was my mentor and teacher, and indeed I was a student in the early years of the Academy.

Typhrion: Tell me, what did you make of the man then? What was he like and how did he influence you?

Aristageles: He was passionate, firm, driven by a daemon that told him he was always right. The might of his intelligence was such that he didn’t seem to need other people but simply fed off his own thoughts, building a ladder higher and higher towards Olympus. I was afraid of him for a while – every time he looked at me I felt his dark eyes boring into my soul, uncovering everything that wasn’t quite pure.

Typhrion: Do you remember your first days in the Academy?

Aristageles: Not well. My father, as it happens, thought philosophy a waste of time – “mental pig’s muck” was what he called it – so it was my mother who introduced me to Plato. She saw that I had an inquiring mind and would be of little use in the family business, and she was distantly related to Plato’s family. He always thought highly of women and welcomed my mother and me graciously.

Typhrion: What did you think of his teachings?

Aristageles: At first I swallowed everything he said, because I was young and his presence was powerful. He taught me a great deal. His commitment to what was right and good was unerring; he could not be bought by anyone. And the elegance of his thought, particularly to impressionable youths like me, was at times breathtaking. We will fashion the world, he thundered, in the name of Truth, Justice and Beauty! The rarefied air of ideas, the notion that you could see through the world around you to what lay at its heart, its soul and essence laid bare, made many of us, his students, giddy. We felt we could almost speak with the gods. We were ready to follow Plato to the farthest shore, for what mixed thoughts we had of him soon gave way to much admiration and love. Then, gradually, my own thinking diverged from his as I found my maturity and embraced the lessons of life.

Typhrion: Do continue, Aristageles.

Aristageles: My father had property near Mount Pastra, around the valley of the Asopos – vineyards and olive groves. From the time that my legs were strong enough, I would climb Pastra every summer, walk for hours frolicking around its flanks, exploring its crags and crevices, talking to the goatherds who pastured their flocks there. It became my second home.

It’s impossible to describe the joy I felt drinking the clear water of the mountain streams, bathing under a waterfall, climbing to a great rock and staring down from vertiginous heights with no company but an occasional curious eagle gliding on the gusts above. And coming down at sunset the song of goatherds and tinkling of bells, as if Pan and his satyrs were stirring the whole mountain to chorus as it welcomed the oncoming night.

I grew so fond of the place that in the fourth year of my studies at the Academy I asked to take a break so that I could live up there.

Typhrion: And what did Plato say to that?

Aristageles: He was in absolute disbelief. My father, and to my despair my mother as well, considered it a disgrace. “Imagine my own son living like an animal, reeking of goats and dung!” she said. But I was old enough to make my own decisions, I wasn’t to be swayed. I bought a small flock and lived for the next three years on Pastra – each summer the goats grazing on the mountain and winter in the valley below. Home was a series of shacks; I ate what cheese I could make, bread I could buy and herbs I could pick; my only meat was an occasional snared rabbit; I drank only milk and water. It was, of course, a much harder life than I thought it would be, but I was content nonetheless.

Plato actually visited me there one time. And that’s when our differences first became evident.

Typhrion: How so?

Aristageles: As you know, he had an ambivalent relationship to all material things. Soul, to him, was what really mattered, and mind took precedence over body. He followed his own teacher Socrates in this. The ideas, the forms, were true reality, the world a mere passing parade of shadows. Only the eternal was substantial.

We had been walking all day and both of us were hungry when we returned to a hut I had been living in by one of the streams that feeds the Asopos. I spread out a cloth with cheese, thin bread and some olives. The way we both shovelled food into our mouths made me quip, “We may have underestimated the importance of the body after all, Plato.” He smirked, rather unimpressed, but it started an argument between us that lasted the remaining time of his stay.

Living on the mountain I had found it impossible to say body was inferior to mind. How could I? All around me was body – the fresh spring earth smelling of oleander and narcissus, the rocks, the sky, the clouds, the goats that fed me and demanded my attention. I had sensed my own body, my own life, becoming one with the body of the mountain. It nurtured me and I, in some small way, gave back to it. Mind and body seemed inseparable, served one another, ate at table with the gods through the daily rhythms of living.

Typhrion: But Plato thought the body’s needs were a distraction from the work of the mind, didn’t he?

Aristageles: He did. He held that the body, being the well of the instincts, of insatiable and uncontrollable urges, had to be subjugated or it would drag the mind down into mud. I challenged him, saying my mind was as enlivened and developed on Pastra as it had been in Athens, only it was functioning differently, working with the body instead of pretending to be independent from it. The virtuous soul was not partial but accepted all reality.

Emboldened, I urged him to reconsider the form of the good as a unity of mind and body, but he didn’t understand. His greatest achievements, he said, had been the result of the mind liberated in flight towards the light of God. He became furious with me and warned that I was in danger of regressing to the state of an animal, which made me angry in turn. You can imagine that we parted in less than convivial fashion.

Typhrion: What happened afterwards?

Aristageles: After my years living on the mountain, I returned to Athens to be with my family. Friends counselled me to go back to philosophy, for still being young I was unsure of my future and felt as a leaf in the wind – blown one way and then another. I sought out Plato and he generously welcomed me back into his circles. But things didn’t end well.

Typhrion: Oh?

Aristageles: It all went awry midway through the very first lecture of Plato’s I attended. As we were listening to him, there was a sharp crashing sound, then loud chaotic voices and a sandy-coloured billy goat, bleating, tore into the middle of the room. On one side of it, in bright red letters, was painted “My form is good”. After we had captured the animal I tried to tell Plato that I had nothing to do with the prank, but he would not have me study with him again. “You humiliate me,” was all he said.

Many years afterwards, by way of mutual friends, I learnt that he had been quietly pleased with my subsequent achievements.

Typhrion: Well, well, Aristageles. Perhaps now his soul, before it departs, will look upon the broken vessel of his body with empathy and honour for all it has given him over so many years.

Aristageles: We scorn it at our peril, Typhrion.