I’m not exactly sure why I pulled Plato’s Republic off the shelf. Like always, there were the other choices – a good novel, the latest memoir, some theological tome. But no, Plato. Was it because the cover was old and red and more interesting than any other?
Or was it because I just happened to watch My Great Big Fat Greek Wedding for the umpteenth time. There is that scene when the patriarch of the family, lover of all things Greek, mutters under his breath, “My people were writing philosophy when your people were still swinging in the trees.” Ho Athens.
Of course, there is Plato’s famous back-and-forth, the unending sequence of questions and answers. How do you describe justice? Well, by describing injustice. And what if an unjust man is portrayed rather as just? Well, that’s not for you. And on and on.
I like the way he plays philosophical chess with his hemlocked mentor, Socrates. It’s fun talking with dead people because they can’t change their minds anymore. And they always make the very best straw people, asking anything you want them to. For that matter, Plato lines up a whole host of imaginary conversation partners just so he can query and answer them. They are his intellectual playmates and he enlists them in his cause. How could any philosopher have more fun on the way to truth?
But why pick up this Athenian who lived five centuries before Jesus? Maybe it was the lure of antiquity; I sometimes grow weary of the present day stream of prattle that masquerades as significant. This year’s new wine is alright, but give me something that’s aged in the cellar for 2500 years or so.
Oh, but he did surprise me. Whereas I may have read Plato before, this time I talked with him. Now why is that? Maybe it’s where I am in life.
2500 years is not very long, not really, not anymore. Talk to some of the new physics gurus and they’ll tell you that past-present-future are much more closely related than you think. And now that I’ve lived a little longer I have more a sense of what a century is, and by extension, a millennium. So time is collapsing, and Plato draws closer because of it.
And then there is location. His home is just a few hours flight from here, even closer with live video feed.
So Plato is not really that far away, either in time or space, not when you think about it. And my conversation with him reflected that. I could hear him talking this time. He had some interesting, familiar and strange thoughts. And I set the dead man up on the edge of the coffee table, just like he did with Socrates, and asked him my own questions. His answers were pretty much what I expected. But that’s not the point. I had to hold up my end of the conversation.