Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes delivers his speech in the form of a myth.

Once upon a time, there were three kinds of human beings: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and androgynous, with both male and female elements, descended from the moon. Each human being was completely round, with four arms and fours legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets.

As they were powerful and unruly and threatening to scale the heavens, Zeus devised to cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling,’ and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. Apollo then turned their heads to make them face towards their wound, pulled their skin around to cover up the wound, and tied it together at the navel like a purse. He made sure to leave a few wrinkles on what became known as the abdomen so that they might be reminded of their punishment.

After that, human beings longed for their other half so much that they searched for it all over. When they found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. As a result, they started dying from hunger and self-neglect. Zeus took pity on the poor creatures, and moved their genitals to the front so that those who were previously androgynous could procreate, and those who were previously male could obtain satisfaction and move on to higher things.

This is the origin of our desire for other human beings. Those of us who desire members of the opposite sex were previously androgynous, whereas men who desire men and women who desire women were previously male or female. When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple appetite for sex, but rather by a desire to be whole again, and restored to our original nature. Our greatest wish, if we could have it, would then be for Hephaestus to meld us into one another so that our souls could be at one, and share once more in a common fate.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

PLATOS_SHADOW_CVR2

odysseus

At the end of the Republic, Plato relates an eschatological myth (a myth of death), the so-called ‘myth or Er’.

Er was slain in battle but came back to life twelve days later to tell the living of what he had seen during the time that he was dead. During this time, his soul went on a journey to a meadow with four openings, two into the heavens above and two into the earth below. Judges sat in this meadow and ordered the good souls up through one of the openings into the heavens and the bad ones down through one of the openings into the earth. Meanwhile, clean and bright souls floated down to the meadow from the other opening into the heavens, and dusty and worn out souls rose up to the meadow from the other opening into the earth. Each soul had returned from a thousand year journey, but whereas the clean and bright souls spoke merrily of that which they enjoyed in the heavens, the dusty and worn out souls wept at that which they had endured in the underground. Souls that had committed heinous crimes, such as those of tyrants or murderers, were not permitted to rise up into the meadow, and were condemned to an eternity in the underground.

After seven days in the meadow, the souls travelled for five more days to the Spindle of Necessity, a shaft of intensely bright light that extends into the heavens and that holds together the universe. The souls were then asked to come forth one by one and to choose their next life from a scattered jigsaw of human and animal lives. Not having known the terrors of the underworld, the first soul hastily chose the life of a powerful dictator, only to discover that he was fated, among many other evils, to devour his own children. Although he had been virtuous in his previous life, his virtue had arisen out of habit rather than out of philosophy, and so his judgement was poor. In contrast, the souls that had known the terrors of the underworld often chose a better, more virtuous life, but this they did on no other account than harsh experience. Thus, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. The soul of the wily Odysseus, which was the last to come forth, sought out the life of a private man with no cares. This he found easily, lying about and neglected by everybody else.

After having chosen their next life, the souls travelled through the scorching Plain of Oblivion and encamped by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul was required to drink from the river’s water so as to forget all things, but the souls which had not been saved by wisdom drank more than was strictly necessary. In the night, as they slept, the souls shot up like stars to be reborn into their chosen lives. As they did so, Er opened his eyes to find himself lying on his funeral pyre.

Adapted from

The Art of Failure

Aristotle's Rhetoric

Whenever I come across someone who is better or more successful than I am, I can react either with envy or with emulation. According to Aristotle, envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them. This is a subtle but crucial difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.

In the modern world, it strikes me that whenever a person comes across another who has something that is highly valued, for example, power, wealth, good judgement, or tranquillity, the most common reaction is envy, disdain, belle indifference, in short, anything but admiration and emulation. By reacting in this way, the person prevents himself from learning from those who understand more than he does, and thereby condemns himself to a lifetime of stagnation. Far better for him would be to humble himself and ask to be taught some wisdom.

Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or aristocratic disposition. The opposite of emulation is not envy but contempt, and those who emulate or who are emulated are naturally disposed to be contemptuous of those who have bad things or who have good things through luck rather than through just desert.

There are three important inferences that I feel able to draw from all of this. The first is that the way that we see the world has changed radically since the time of Aristotle, and not necessarily for the better. The second is that, whereas emulation is the reaction of the few with high self-esteem, envy is the reaction of the many with low self-esteem. And thus that self-esteem is the key to self-improvement.