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Friday, 21 March 2008

Phaedo

Windy, snowing, murky and lots of time to stay indoors reading with occasional forays accompanied by dogs. Yesterday we went east to Dulsie Bridge to see an old friend of my mother and stopped on the way home to view the churning waters of the Findhorn as they passed beneath the narrow and graceful bridge that takes the road from Drynachon to the coast at Nairn or towards Inverness. It's a defile of barely 15 metres following a broad shallow stone strewn stretch of rippling water. The river suddenely deepens, backs up and swivels peaty brown but clean through a zigzag of birch strewn granite cliffs. It roars and rumbles, to my delight - the safe spectator - peering into the miniature turbulence, while the terriers dash too and fro hoping for rabbits leaving hardly a yard unsniffed, before we clamber back in the car and head for the warmth of Brin Croft, crumpets, tea and a read of the distant news. * * * My eldest sister phoned my mother from New York and told of crises "It's dreadful here. Two friends have lost everything..." * * * Lin phoned the other evening to tell me of the delightful coincidence of having, as tenants among the several who’ve applied to one of her two flats in Birmingham, two Greeks, one from Corfu and another from Thessaly - the latter bearing the name, would I believe it, after our favourite song in Elytis' Axion Esti - of 'Swallow' -'Ena To Chelidoni' - "...after which I was named" he said. These seem like signs, certainly delightful happenstance. Others would say it was a sign of the times and the closer ties between Britain and Eastern Europe. * * * I have finished Phaedo, in which Plato imparts the story of Socrates’ death via an imagined conversation that occurs in Phlius, inland just west of Corinth in the Peloponnesus (109A-118, references from the 1578 edition of Plato by Henri Estienne) in which Phaedo of Elis, a witness, tells Echecrates, a fellow philosopher, what happened in the prison in Athens. Towards the end of day just before he chooses his time to take the hemlock, as voted by the democratic government of Athens, Socrates, describes the world in language different from the precise arguments of the earlier discussion with his companions in his cell. The spherical earth is in equilibrium in:
“a uniform medium … vast in size. We who dwell between the river Phasis (which flows from the eastern shore of the Black Sea near Poti where I’ve not been, though I’ve seen the Bosporus) and the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar through which I’ve often passed – though only once in my own boat in 1965) inhabit only a minute portion of it…like ants or frogs round a pond; and there are many other peoples inhabiting similar regions… the real earth is…variegated and marked out in different colours, of which the colours we know are only limited samples, like the paints artists use; but there the whole earth is made up of such colours, and others far brighter and purer still. One section is a marvellously beautiful purple. Another is golden. All that is white of it is whiter than chalk or snow and the rest is similarly made up of the other colours, still more and lovelier than those which we have seen. Even these very hollows in the earth, full of water and air, assume a kind of colour as they gleam amid the different hues around them, so that that there appears to be one continuous surface of varied colours.” ’
Socrates’ description goes on for minutes, describing the mingling diversity of this cosmos, its mighty flows of redemptive and retributive rivers, the multiplicity of its inhabitants in many stages of life, with the limited view of us ants and frogs in a prison cell – and Socrates doesn’t mean the cell they are all in at the time. Then he says it’s about time to have a bath to save the women ‘“the trouble of washing me when I am dead”’. He goes out and, Plato - avoiding the scene - writes of Socrates seeing his children – ‘two little sons and one big boy’ - and the women of his household, then returning to his friends.
The warder arrives:“I’m sure you’re not angry with me" he says, "but with them, because you know who are responsible. So now, goodbye, and try to bear what must be as easily as you can.’ As he spoke he burst into tears, and turning round, went away. “Goodbye to you too” said Socrates “What a charming person! All the time I’ve been here he’s visited me, and sometimes had discussions with me, and shown me the greatest kindness” Then Socrates has Crito send for the man with the poison, who comes in to his cell. He asks him what he should do. “Just drink it and then walk about until you feel a weight in your legs, and then lie down. Then it will act of its own accord.” Socrates takes the cup ‘without a tremor’ and says “I pray the gods that my removal from this world to the other may be prosperous.” With these words, quite calmly and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath. Up till this time most of us had been fairly successful in keeping back our tears, but when we saw that he was drinking, that he had actually drunk it, we could do so no longer. In spite of myself the tears came pouring out, so that I covered my face and wept broken-heartedly – not for him, but for my own calamity in losing such a friend. Crito had given up before me, and had gone out when he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodorus, who had never stopped crying even before, now broke out into such a storm of passionate weeping that he made everyone in the room break down, except Socrates himself, who said “Really, my friends, what a way to behave! Why that was my main reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of disturbance; because I am told that one should make one’s end in a tranquil frame of mind. Calm yourselves and try to be brave.” This made us feel ashamed and we controlled our tears…the man who had administered the poison felt Socrates legs and pinched them and asked if he could feel. Socrates said “No”. He felt him again and said that when the numbness reached his heart Socrates would be gone. The coldness was spreading about his waist when Socrates uncovered his face – for he had covered it up – and said “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius (the god of healing). See to it and don’t forget.” “No it shall be done. Are you sure there’s nothing else?” Socrates made no reply, but after a little while he stirred and when the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed. When Crito saw this he closed his mouth and eyes. Such was the end of our comrade, who was we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest, and also the wisest and most upright man.
There are many thoughts I have. I hear rumours of Socrates' volatile relationship with his wife, Xanthippe, about whom he has nothing but good words, but who has since been slandered. I wonder at the joyful certainty with which this man, about to die and devoted to acknowledging his own perplexity, describes the unseen cosmos to his friends. Surely this was a consolatory paean for them. How far has Plato, as would any historian, altered his ageless account of the end of his mentor? What can I make of the traditional view that Socrates and even more Plato were anti-democratic? I do, influenced by Maine, accept that democracy, in its many forms, is 'only a system of government' and depends as much as monarchy on the integrity of those it empowers, and the ingenuity of those who have designed and and maintained the checks and balances that best resist the corrupting effects of power - whether of the monarch or the people. * * * One of my Japanese students, Eriko Inagaki came up by train from Glasgow and stayed with us from noon to 5.00pm. After lunch we took her to Dores to gaze on Loch Ness. She e-mailed me later:
..Again thank you so much for your kindness. I am always impressed with British people's good taste. And that, in most cases there is one extra room for visitors. We do not have such custom but I want to take in your welcoming attitude for guests and especially foreigners. I was also moved to see Margie's impartial treat for me despite the fact that she is a carer for Barbara. Barbara astonished me by her beauty and dignity! I want to get older like she does. Your childhood was extremely charming. I will tell about it to C*** since we are planning to meet soon, after I go back. Your talk about British climate (not severe to put people in danger) reminded me of the Japanese essayist 'Tetsuro Watsuji'. He wrote an essay on climate from three perspectives - meadow (Western Europe), desert (Arab) and monsoon(Asia). Concerning meadow, he says by and large the climate in Western Europe is temperate and rational, which is evident if you look at trees having their regular shape, not disturbed. It is free from humid and killingly hot weather, and that, even in winter the temperature does not change through the course of the day so people are not affected by big change within a day. He concludes by saying that it is relatively easier to control nature in Western Europe. When I read this essay, i thought he had generalised too much and there must be exceptions. Especially due to climate change, there will be some cases where his categorisation do not apply to. What do you think of his viewpoints? 
Dear Eriko. I was delighted by your sweet words, as was Margi and my mum. We were all delighted you came but how I wish we could have shown you more of the Highlands. Charles II (who was in exile in France during our Commonwealth after the execution of his father, Charles I), said that he missed the English climate "for a gentleman may go out of doors at any time of the year in ordinary clothes and not suffer discomfort." It may be an exaggeration but I think it's substantially true - a product of our Gulf Stream climate, which doesn't benefit France. We are maritime like Japan, but we do not get regular typhoons or hurricanes and tsunamis happen only every 50 years or more when a coincidence of very high tides and winds blowing in the same direction builds up the height of the sea. The last time such a thing happened in my lifetime was 1953 in East Anglia. I think Watsuji is pretty accurate - though I'm not sure people would call our weather 'rational'. It's apparent unpredictability is why the British are so often talking about the weather. It may not kill or injure you, but it can be the reason why you have a good or a bad wedding, parade, cricket match, horse race or village fête! We have all these cards celebrating a 'white Christmas' but I never knew such a Christmas until I went to the USA. One thing the English weather does very well is a wet grey breezy chilly day that makes everything slightly damp - and this works best in the long streets of old industrial towns where the buildings and the people are something like the weather. The other side of that is fresh spring day, when it is nearly summer, in early May when there is a clear sky and a fresh dew on the ground and on the new flowers and blossom, and the birds are singing so that it seems like the first day of the beginning of the world. T.S.Eliot famously wrote that 'April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land...'. This is because April can seem, for several days, like May and the coming summer, and then you get a sudden frost that can kill many budding flowers. It's not rational! With climate change (whether long term or cyclic) many of the traditional signs, never entirely predictable, are less and less reliable. We are mowing grass in November. There are flowers budding in the winter and birds and insects tied to particular months appear nearly all year. Whether we will suffer more extreme conditions as a result of climate change is yet to be seen. The area where you visited when you came to Inverness was once covered by ice 12 miles deep. That was over 10,000 years ago. The results of that glaciation can be noted on the ground in Strath Nairn and other Scottish valleys. I had a friend, now dead, called James Gindin who, among other books, wrote one called The English Climate, at the same time as he was writing the biography of one of our very English novelists, John Galsworthy. I hope you get to visit Scotland again and I hope we may meet in Tokyo in June and that you will continue sending e-mails. I send my best wishes to C***. Thanks so much for the book on local government in Japan. I am reading it very carefully. Do you need it back? Bon voyage and kindest regards. Simon

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