Plato’s Phaedo: Ego drama is the spice of life (60e – 61c)

This article is the fifth installment of my translation of Plato’s Phaedo. Please read the previous installment before continuing. If you are just jumping in, please begin with my introduction.

This section shows us the descent from philosophical awareness into dramatic ego self-absorption. It begins right after Socrates describes his beautiful Aesopian-style poem. The poem he imagines is designed to express the nature of duality, as Socrates sees it. His understanding of duality is a core principle of the physical-mental reality we are in. It reflects the Pythagorean table of opposites, the Hegelian dialectic, and any other dualistic phenomenon that we encounter in this reality. It is important to remember that all of his students-except Plato-were said to be present here with him as he is telling us the core of his philosophy, the seed of wisdom, the mystery par-excellence. The question I want you to keep in mind is: Do any of his students grasp what Socrates has been teaching them at all? Do they live it? I will let you answer that.

Socrates’ beautiful reflection on the core tenant of his teaching goes completely ignored. As Phaedo told us in the Plato’s Phaedo: Freedom from Fear (58e – 59c), all those around Socrates were absorbed in emotional and intellectual turmoil, due to the death of Socrates. They were not in the mood for philosophical dialogue or topics. This is very important to understand. Philosophy, and spirituality, and various other virtues are conditional when we first begin to practice them. When we practice them in the “right environment”- perhaps with nice music, wind chimes, a soft voice to guide us, a quiet space, candles and incense burning- philosophy and spirituality is easy. However, when difficulty and challenge strike us, when we must face death; death either in the form of an ending of life, of hope, of a dream, or something that we cling to, we tend to fall into a panic, and are unable to practice our spiritual awareness any longer. This is why so many people today are practicing various methods of spirituality, and yet the world is in a constant state of war, violence, and suffering. What is happening is that we are falling into duality, where we are perceiving bad/good, evil/noble, both within ourselves and out in the world. At the point, the idea of unity or happiness seems to be impossible. Death becomes an argument and excuse for spiritual abandonment. At that point, we choose to reabsorb ourselves, to enter the stage of the dramatic, the tearful and the mournful – the so-called “3-D word” or the matrix – where everything is a lie, but feels good. We have entered what we call the ego-drama and what Plato calls “the story” or the “logos”. Phaedo already told us what Socrates said and did before his death. He said and did nothing. He was happy. No drama from Socrates. Not a very interesting story, is it? Well, human beings like stories because they like their own suffering. No matter how many times they complain about it, most human beings get a great deal of entertainment out of complaining, or rooting for their “side”, or playing arm-chair general in their living room. Execrates wants to witness Socrates’ death, but he wants to hear the logoi, the stories, the speeches. He is not interested in hearing about how peaceful Socrates was. That isn’t enough. So, he pushes Phaedo to tell him about these logoi. Phaedo obliges because he enjoys talking about Socrates. The truth will now have to be delivered in a more entertaining fashion.

There is something quite profound in our need for entertainment. It often gets in the way of our awakening, or sense of awareness. Many people on the spiritual path believe that pain or difficulty gets in the way of their awakening. That is a lie. it is their addiction to the entertainment that difficulty affords. There is nothing more fun than pretending to play a victim in life – there is so much righteousness, and beauty in it. Every good story starts off with a protagonist that has or will have big problems. Otherwise, life seems boring,

The truth is that, although many people seem to love spirituality and spiritual topics, it is, in its truest form, completely uninteresting.

What this means is that, in order to “teach” philosophy, one has to make it entertaining. Plato called this the “noble lie” – it is a lie that serves the truth, for the purposes of education. It is not a lie in order to deceive, but to enlighten. It is the necessary step we must take – people need to experience spiritual visions, beings, ghosts, crystals, and all sorts of other things in the world that seem to be magic, in order to guide them back to the pure light of awareness which — I assure you — isn’t boring, but seems to be from the perspective of victim-loving ego.

In Phaedo’s story, in the beginning of this particular education, Cebes is the first to speak up, the first to stir the pot, and it is Cebes who takes us away from the central teaching of Socrates, from his boring placidity and blissfulness, in order to direct our attention to the petty jealousy of Evenus, who apparently is worried that Socrates’ new-found interest in poetry may rival his own. Now we have some action!

Cebes is that person who, while listening to a profound philosophical statement, is instead provoked by a trigger word into thinking about something completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. This turn of the conversation, from deep philosophic observation, into distraction is a beautiful representation of the nature of interference, and how we can easily be in a state of philosophical awareness one minute, and the next minute, worried about that scratch on the floor. Cebes illustrates this descent perfectly, as he takes the conversation from a beautiful expression of the nature of unity and duality, into a conversation about the petty jealousy of a potential rival. Imagine Socrates speaking with your teenage son. This is what you will get.

Jacob dreaming of angels going up and down on the ladder. This is similar to the Platonic idea of ascension, of going in and out of the cave.

Socrates engages Phoebe and tells him that he is just writing because he is worried that he made a tremendous mistake in following a life of philosophy. He is worried that he didn’t hear the god correctly, and that, instead of being a philosopher who loves wisdom, he should have been a poet that creates popular poetry. This characterization of Socrates is nearly hilarious – this is on the level of “Jesus had second thoughts about being the son of God.” Are we concerned as to whether or not Phaedo’s story is the truth? We should be. However, not as much as we think. Socrates always “descends”. He always speaks in the language of his listeners. For example, in the Republic, Socrates tells us that he went “down to the Piraeus”. Socrates is going down in order to spend time with his students, or to engage in dialogue. They cannot come to where he is (in perfect bliss), so he must learn how to be with them first. In the Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: An Original Translation, the philosopher must return to the cave in order to help others to leave it behind. Awakening is a tremendous journey of going back and forth, up and down.

And this gets me to an important principle when reading Plato. Socrates speaks in the way his listeners speak. As you will see, when he talks with Cebes, he speaks with him on his terms, and inside his energy, where he is. Socrates will guide Cebes from where he is to another dimension of awareness, but he always does this in a way that serves Cebes abilities and capacities. That is how the dialogue works and, so avoids becoming forceful, didactic, or harmful. The Socratic method does not consist in strange questions that lead to no answer for no purpose. The Socratic method is a natural, organic dialogue that is philosophical only in that the cave dwelling consciousness is lifted up towards the light, through gentle conversation and self-questioning. The lack of answer at the end does not prove a futile and fruitless conversation. The lack of an answer is the holy silence of truth, the center of the mystery, where the answer cannot be said, because it arrives at presence, being, that which the ego-mind cannot comprehend.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Cebes is concerned about the Socratic poetic threat to his teacher, Evenus, whom he apparently adores. This is somewhat similar to the Athenians who felt that he was a threat as a philosopher, and so have declared him worthy of death. Here, Socrates, feeling Cebes’ fear, attempts to calm him by assuring him that he is no competition, but is simply trying to assuage the god Apollo because he is afraid as well, that perhaps he made the wrong career choice. There is something very beautiful occurring here. Socrates’ sees that Cebes is in a state of fear for someone he loves, and so he feigns to join him. There is a reason for this, and we will explore that as we continue the dialogue. I will just remind you that “love” in Plato is often expressed in attachment to another, as if they were one with themselves. Attachment is the reason for all fear in this dimension. Cebes is very attached to his teacher. Who were the Athenians attached to in that they felt a threat in Socrates?

Then Cebes responded. “By Zeus! Socrates”, he said, you have done well to remind me! About those poems you wrote by stringing Aesop’s logoi to verse, as well as the hymn to Apollo[1]…all the others, especially Evenus[2] just earlier, have been asking me about what your intention was in writing them since you’ve never written anything before[3] [until] you arrived here. If it is of any concern to you that I give answer to Evenus, whenever he asks me again – and know well, he will ask – do tell me what I must say to him.

Socrates said, “Tell him the truth, Cebes, that it was not by wanting to be an artistic rival[4] to his poems that I wrote mine; I know that wouldn’t be easy. I was attempting something that was said in some of my dreams, and to purify myself if it were the case that during all that time the dream had been ordering me to create music[5].  The dreams went something like this. Many times, the dream would occur repeatedly throughout my life, appearing in different ways and in different forms, but saying the exact same thing, “Socrates”, it said “create music and make it your work.” And during all that time, the very thing I had been doing is what I assumed it was encouraging and commanding me to do, just as those who cheer on runners [in a race][6].  I assumed that what I was doing was what it commanded, namely, to create music, becausephilosophy is the greatest type of music, and that is what I have been doing.  But now, after the trial happened and the festival of the god has kept me from dying, it seemed to be necessary, if all those times the dream had been ordering me to create popular music, not to be disobedient, but to create it. It’s safer to not leave[7] until I purify myself by creating poems and obeying the dream. So, with that in mind, first I made one poem to the god, to whom the current festival is dedicated: and after the god, knowing that he asked for a poet, if in fact it was destined for me to be a poet, to make stories (myths), not logoi. But because I have no ability to create stories, and I had Aesop’s on hand and knew them well, I just used the first ones I saw. So, Cebes, tell Evenus exactly this and also tell him farewell and, should he be prudent, to follow[8] me as quickly as he can. Because it seems that I am leavingtoday. The Athenians command it.

[1] Apollo’s name is associated with the verb “to destroy” (apollumi) which also means to die or perish. As with all ancient gods, their powers included both polarities. In Apollo’s case, he was thought to be the god of health and illness, as well as the god of light and darkness, music and cacophony, etc.

[2] Evenus of Paros. Apparently, a well-respected lyric poet and rhetorician. None of his works remain. He is mentioned in the Apology (20b), when Socrates mentions that Callias said that he would choose Evenus to make his sons noble and good. Unlike Socrates, Evenus knows what is good and noble. Socrates says that he knows none of these things.  His name is cognate to euēnos, which means “docile, yielding” as in horses who are obedient to the rein (ēnia)”.  He was not a philosopher. But it was a always a point of contention for Plato that the Athenians would confuse poets with philosophers.

[3] Socrates famously says he has nothing to write, and so he has written nothing.

[4] anti-techne. The prefix “anti-“ emphasizes the polarity that is established here. It literally means “a competitor in art/skill”.

[5] mousike, from which our English music is derived, is not limited to music, but also includes art, letters, poetry: anything over which the Muses presided. Socrates never wrote anything because he had nothing to teach.

[6] those who cheer on runners in a race (theousi diakeleumenoi). The word “runners” is cognate to theoi (gods) and -the-,  is also a root meaning to establish, set down (laws). In Homer, the word specifically is used to indicate those who run or move in a continuous circle, like the planets. Those who cheer on the runners are those who continuously encourage them. Socrates felt that the gods were encouraging him to do and be who we was, namely a philosopher.

[7] leave. This word is used to mean “die”. The first time Socrates refers to his own death, he uses a word that means going away. Death for him is a departure, an end of one thing, and the beginning of another.

[8] Remember about the opposites? When one leaves, the other follows in its place.  Socrates is pointing out that Evenus can take his place when he leaves, but he better come quick, since Socrates is leaving today.   This is Socrates trying to refer back to the duality he mentioned before. As we shall see, the joke doesn’t land well. It should also be mentioned that the word Socrates (diōkein) uses is very ambiguous. diōkein also means “to persecute” as in the persecution in a trial. The statement Socrates made could mean both chase and chase away! Isn’t it true, that we chase only things that are moving away from us or will move away? Why else would we chase?

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