Plato’s Unwritten Lessons

I have read somewhere that there are lessons which Plato did not preserve in his writing. Had I not heard this, it would seem obvious enough. I think any student of anything would understand that there are things which you can learn from a teacher, and then there are things which are written down. In the case of Plato, his writing seems primarily a form of art, and to the receiver a kind of entertainment. Now, here I should say that I am only speculating, and that my knowledge of Plato is quite limited, and I have not read all of his works (though I wish one day I might know them all well). Perhaps, if some knowledgeable reader stumbles by they might enlighten me on the subject. What I am thinking, the thoughts I am now putting down in writing, are just that, thoughts.

Imagine you’re a philosopher in the 5th century B.C.; what sort of skills would you need? Particularly if you are of an aristocratic class, and probably don’t have too many pressing chores to do (that is, you may have chores, but sustaining your body is not a concern with regard to accomplishing those chores). Better yet, imagine you are a philosopher. Sure, now days some people get degrees in philosophy, and become professional philosophers, possibly in the form of a university professor; but, this is not representative of the common type, in my opinion (need that be said… in my opinion?). The philosopher generally is not paid for her or his work. He or she philosophizes on their own, of their own accord. How do they do this? Is this the same as going for a jog, or watching the television? Can one simply read some books and become a philosopher? Maybe this is the real question I’m asking. Is the philosopher one who has knowledge (by way of the love of knowledge), or is the philosopher one who practices knowledge? Quoting Plato (having knowledge of his works) might make me sound interesting, but it doesn’t make me any more a philosopher than being suave in a foreign country would make me a James Bond? So, what’s the practice? What does the philosopher do?

Two obvious points come to mine, which we can discern from Plato’s work. One, a philosopher needs time to think, and a philosopher needs a store of knowledge, or better yet, wisdom (feel free to discuss that one). Now, for most people, if we just sit down to think, the first thing that comes up might be something about a project at work, or cleaning the room, or what the next program is on television (who watches television anyway?), or who was that person who smiled at me on the bus, and so on. So, the philosopher needs a method by which to think, and to remain focused on the thought in order to develop it. Maybe we can call this dialectic, if we like. Have you ever tried dialectic on yourself?

As for that other thing, storage of knowledge – do you keep your school notes? Can you recall everything you wrote down? What do you think Plato used to take notes on in the 5th century B.C.? Maybe a made-in-China notebook, with ruled pages, and a little quote on the cover that said something like “stay far away from computer, be happy life.”

So, a philosopher needs to learn how to think, and how to remember. What else does the philosopher need? If my own memory serves me well, the idea of wisdom, as discussed by Socrates and his young pals, is something about knowledge of the good. And good has something to do with benefiting people. Of course, it’s not quite so simple, but I don’t intend to answer the question with any more certainty than Socrates at this point. I raise the topic so that we may recognize that wisdom may, in fact, be a practice, and not a storage. The philosopher builds wisdom through experience and learning, and applies it to build more.

I’d like to look at two other philosophers, around at a similar time, but in very different places. Let’s take Confucius. This guy, much like Socrates, is a pain to be around, unless you are interested in wisdom. He seems, according to what his students wrote, to be highly obsessed with political structures, and family relations. I have reason to believe he also knew much of the Tao, but left credit for that to his ol’ pal Laozi (should we call him Laocius?). Now, as with many religions, a lot of people see his teachings as teachings, or codes to live by. Perhaps he was only observing the world, and the way the Tao functioned in human social structures, and tried to apply this wisdom, to practice it. Is this any different then having knowledge of what is beneficial for people (wisdom) and applying that, as Plato talks about?

The other philosopher I intend to bring to the table, if he should decide to leave his tree for a moment, is Siddhartha Gautama. Here too, we have a philosopher who managed to learn a lot of things about human relations, and taught people these things. Now, it is quite well known that the core of his wisdom practice was, what we popularly call, meditation. This is a method of seeing clearly, past the façade presented to us by the sense organs, through the shadows on the wall (not even they are shadows).

The philosopher needs to be equipped with certain tools. Where the craftsman has his hammer and drill, and the warrior has his body and weapons, the philosopher has his time, his meditations, his memory, and his wisdom, which are all in constant use and practice, and not set aside when it’s time to go to work.

What does the philosopher need? What lessons must the philosopher learn? How does the philosopher go beyond reading and talking, and into practicing?

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