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Talks - Irene Noel-Baker in conversation with Harry Eyres: ‘How Plato makes us think’

6 March 2009. Aldeburgh Literary Festival

Harry Eyres, poet, essayist and Slow Lane columnist for the Financial Times, and Irene Noel-Baker discuss how Plato, in dialogues such as Politeia (The Republic) and the Phaedrus, is concerned not so much with indoctrination as with helping the reader to think--for himself or herself.

Preparing for this talk has meant going back to one of those texts that repay endless rereading; I always expect to be surprised by The Republic (despite, or because of, being the author of a small book on the subject), but this time I am amazed by its relevance to our particular dark and uncertain time, as if it had been written not in 380BC but the day before yesterday.

The bit that grabs me is the section on democracy in the entertaining description of a downward, vicious spiral of corrupt societies. I suppose everyone knows that Plato had a low opinion of democracy. But usually this is the cue for thoughtful consideration to be replaced by righteous indignation. How could anyone prefer the cruel, militaristic, apartheid and philistine regime of ancient Sparta to the rich democracy of Athens, celebrated in the noble words of Pericles’ funeral oration and adorned with works of art and architecture (the Parthenon, the statues, the black figure vases) that still draw the crowds?

But if you go back to the words themselves, written with a playfulness and grace that have eluded most readers and nearly all translators, you find much food for thought, or arguments that should not be dismissed out of hand.

First of all, Socrates, the main speaker in The Republic, does not deny the attractions of democracy. If constitutions were goods on sale in a shop, everyone would choose democracy – it is like a coat of many colours compared to a suit of sombre grey. “There is liberty, and lots of freedom of speech, and the individual is free to do as she or he likes.”

This sounds pretty good. But might excessive liberty end up enslaving us, both our minds and our societies, rather than setting us free?

To explain how this could happen, Socrates starts with finance. Democracy evolves from oligarchy, the system in which wealth is what counts. “The [oligarchic] Rulers, who are in power because they have amassed so much wealth, do not want to prohibit by law the extravagance of the young, and stop them from wasting their money and ruining themselves. Their intention is to make loans to such imprudent people or by buying up their property to hope to increase their own wealth and influence ... The moneymakers continue to inject the toxic sting of their loans wherever they can, and to ask for high rates of interest, with the result that the city becomes full of lazy drones and paupers.” Has any better diagnosis of the origins of the credit crunch been written recently?

Democracy fosters all sorts of unnecessary desires and appetites. We end up getting addicted to these desires and appetites, and so, as Plato says, “the likely outcome of excessive freedom is only slavery in the individual and in the society”.

Then, even more ominously: “Probably then tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy – from the very heights of liberty, I take it, to extreme and savage servitude.” Words that could have been inscribed on the grave of the Weimar Republic. Democracy is “a wonderfully pleasant way of carrying on in the short term”, as Socrates puts it. But chronic short-termism could be its fatal flaw. Politicians have to pander to electors; weak government is the result, in which tough decisions are endlessly put off. Plato would have been darkly amused by our attempts to deal with climate change, as short-term decisions to build runways trump long-term attempts to curb emissions, or carbon trading schemes turn into perverse incentives to pollute.

But it is not only as a stern critic of democracy that we want to celebrate Plato. Somehow, The Republic is always turned into a gloomy tract or something like a government white paper. One aspect that gets left out is love. No doubt Plato speaks about love with still greater freedom, playfulness and humour in The Symposium and in Phaedrus. But there is still a lot of love in The Republic.

Socrates famously concluded that there will only be justice in the city when philosophers rule, or “when those now called kings and potentates be imbued with a sufficient measure of philosophy”. But what does he mean by a philosopher? A philosopher is first of all a kind of lover, someone who loves wisdom, that is to say a joyful, insatiable polymath, not a dry and dusty specialist.

Love is what sets the whole thing going – the passionate and excited love of inquiry that prolongs a short walk down to Piraeus into one of the great thought-adventures in human history. I happen to disagree with Plato on democracy – not that his criticisms are without weight, but that they are outweighed by the criticisms to be levelled against the other systems he apparently preferred.

But returning to this most thought-provoking of all books written in the West is always a tonic and refreshment to the mind – like going back to the music of JS Bach. As Emerson said: “He points and quibbles; and by and by comes a sentence that moves the sea and land.”

Harry Eyres

I would like to start by quoting Virginia Woolf and thanking Harry. Virginia Woolf said that "it was easier to dance the polka with a poodle than to talk about Plato to a man". So thank you Harry.

Also Iris Murdoch, another novelist and a philosopher, who spoke about Plato beautifully - with men although it was a struggle at times.

I am reminded by her of three important things about Plato.

  1. The self is a divided thing
  2. Love is important
  3. Goodness lasts

And a fourth and related point, which is for anything to bring about real change, agreement has to be freely given, from within a person's soul.

Because Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch were both novelists, they understood, as Shelley did, that Plato was a poet. Virginia Woolf in the Common Reader, sees the point of reading Plato in Greek. The beauty and compactness of the words themselves, she says, with no heirs or antecedents, make it much easier than reading him in translation. And I agree. Nothing has yet been done to those words. They haven't been picked up and tossed about and changed by subsequent generations. They lie there perfect and jewel-like, and they, as Socrates so often pointed out, are utterly powerless in themselves without us. Pointless, replaceable, renewable, discardable. What counts is what those words leave behind in our own minds once we have read them. As Socrates says in the Phaedrus, the true descendants of a philosopher are not words written in books, but the thoughts that have been written down in the souls of those who listen to them. Thoughts that have to do with goodness, beauty and what is right. The trouble with writing, he says, is that the written words on the page make us lazy. So instead of dredging up what we have in our own souls, instead of trying to remember what we know, we rely on outward signs and markings to tell us what to think.

So yes, it does help to read Greek. My 13-year old godson is thinking of giving it up. He would like to study divinity. I would like to say to him please don't give up Greek. If you have the tools with which to approach Plato, if you can glance at the New Testament in Greek, you've done half the work for divinity. Divinity comes later. How can you read divinity without knowing Greek? It will take five times as long to write your essays, you will be relying on books which talk about other books which use Plato's words in translation and have lost sight of the original thought. You will be at three times remove from your subject. It's like trying to build a house without bricks. It will take all your ingenuity to do it and then the house will probably fall down. Learn the Greek alphabet. It is never too late. Spend hours looking at the word in Greek and see what it does to you. See what it makes you remember. Whenever you see the words love, poetry, word, feeling, beauty, thought, soul, learn the Greek word for it and see how excited you will be.

The passage I have just referred to in the Phaedrus emphasised the point that Plato makes about seeing, about memory and recognition. I have written about the use of the verb to see in Greek and all its variants which Shakespeare understood of course. Seeing, seeming, semblance, appearance, icon, idol, idea - those last three words are Greek and are much used by Plato - seeing falsely, dimly, seeing clearly - seeing face to face.

Love helps us to see and to recognise beauty, truth, goodness. Why? Why does it do that? Nobody really knows. Perhaps Harry and I will talk about it a bit later. Love is the most double-edged of weapons. Like words, it can lead us up the garden path. Eros, in the translations of Plato that I read, is sometimes translated as "love", the god love, or equally as Lust. Greek uses the same words for both. Socrates talks about the higher and the lower type of love. Because the soul is divided against itself and yet also is one unit, one entity, love can represent different aspects of the soul, as can poetry, literature, art.

Somebody in a bookshop once went up to the information desk in the Psychology and Philosophy department and asked "What would be the best book to buy about the Soul". I was standing behind him in the queue and couldn't resist saying, or wanting to say, " buy Plato". But what would he find?

He would find whatever he was looking for. He would find Freud, he would find a deep understanding of what makes life so difficult, about the different impulses and emotions that drive us and how we can get the best out of them and control them. He would find a devotion to dialogue, to talking and resolving doubt. He would find above all an acceptance of the notion that no kind of true understanding can be forced or coerced out of another human being. That persuasion and the art of rhetoric are deeply suspect, that things that look beautiful aren't the same as beauty itself. Things that look good and seem good are not the same as goodness itself. So he talks about the limits of human perception and the struggle to see more clearly. The disputes that arise within us and are reflected in the society around us. The ease of taking things as they appear to be, instead of searching beneath the surface or beyond what we see before us. The need to be guided and led.

We also find in Plato, love. And of course now what we might call, and thanks again to Freud, psychotherapy. What a word! The therapy of the soul, brought about by love. I am going to insist on this. As I said, there is much to be said about love, but my contribution now, for what it is worth, is that love, in the words of the Phaedrus, helps us to recognize the truth we already have in our own souls. Love is the hand that gently gives birth to thought, and eases the soul's plight. Love is the friendship that sees when the truth has been spoken, and recognizes itself in it. Love is union of thought and feeling, and love is a happy agreement in that knowledge.

I met a woman recently in the library who said that she had been told to read Plato as a child. She was told that Socrates was one of the World's Greatest Men. Delighted, she took up one of his dialogues which she had been given as a school prize. She read and read, but all that she could remember at the end of the book was that it had been hot, and that Socrates had stopped to wash his feet in a stream. And the only other thing that she could remember was, that Socrates had suddenly stopped in the middle of the street and said nothing at all. The greatest man in history, she said, and that was all I could remember, that he washed his feet in a stream and stood in the street struck dumb. Socrates of course would have been delighted...

Irene Noel-Baker

Aldeburgh Literary Festival
Phaedrus, On Love and Knowledge

© Irene Noel-Baker (2022)