Listening to the Cicades

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  • 8/13/2019 Listening to the Cicades


  • 8/13/2019 Listening to the Cicades


    ORIENT TIONbrusque shift, that is, from celebration of love to cerebrationover rhetoric. I have already shown how the characters' deal-ings with their dramatic ambience are paradigmatic of alarger pattern in the exercise of human skills and arts, andhow Socrates' reactions in particular emblematise the distinc-tive quality of his philosophic art: that particular art whichinvestigates (among other things) the conditions of art in gen-eral, including its own. But thePhaedrusis itself a product ofthis self-conscious philosophic art. Small wonder, then, that,as I will now argue, Plato steps up the emblematic charge ofthe dramatic action so that it empowers an interpretation ofhow the dialogue itself is to be read.The chorus of cicadas takes centre-stage not immediatelyafter Socrates has given the peroration of his great speech onlove and the discussion veers, but when Socrates has reachedagreement with Phaedrus (after a brief transitional passage,257b7-258e5) that they need to investigate the criteria ofgood speaking and writing. Here he breaks off and alertsPhaedrus to the sound of the cicadas in the branches over-head. The cicadas are w atching us, he insists. We should takecare not to doze off in the noonday heat, but to keep our dis-cussion alive; and ifweput on a good show, they will grant usthe reward that is theirs to give. Phaedrus has never heard ofthis prerogative of theirs, and asks Socrates to explain.Socrates replies with a short myth. The cicadas were menonce, back in the time before the Muses were born; but theMuses came and brought song into the world and you wouldnot believe the pleasure of it. Some people forgot their foodand drink and sang themselves to death. The Muses turnedthem into the first cicadas so that they could sing all daywithout food or drink and at the end of their days appearbefore them with an account of who honoured which of themamong men on earth. So if we want a good report to reachCalliope and Urania, the philosophic Muses, we had betternot flag in the heat but push on with ourfinealk (this in sum-mary of 258e6-259d8).Clearly, Socrates' pause to temper his and Phaedrus' re-solve marks a new beginning. Moreover, the old beginning26

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    WHAT THE CICADAS SANGresonates with Socrates' remark here that they have at anyrate the 'leisure' {skhole, 258e6) to continue talking. Recallthe prominent contrast in the dialogue's opening pages be-tween the leisure of the professional and a layman's leisure.There Phaedrus asked Socrates ifhehad the time to come andhear Lysias' speech, and Socrates, the man 'sick for words'(228b6), assented with characteristic enthusiasm; but nowthat Socrates has captured the conversational initiative withthe rhetoricaltourde forceofhisspeeches on love, itishe whoasks Phaedrus whether they need to examine the criteria ofgood speaking and writing, and Phaedrus who eagerly con-curs:'You're asking if we need to do this? But why else wouldanyone bother even to live, you might say, if not for thissortof pleasure? Certainly not for that other sort, at any rate,where there must be a foregoing pain if there's to be anypleasure at all; something almost all bodily pleasures have.That is why they're rightly called slavish andrapododeisY(25 8 e 1-5). The unabashed delight in intellectual talk towhich Phaedrus here gives ventisa philosophic trait ; Socrateshimself freely confesses and exhibits it. Yet it is at most anecessary, not a sufficient qualification for the life of philos-ophy. Indeed, as Socrates' admission that he is 'sick forwords' suggests, such enthusiasm is double-edged; andPhaedrus is showing its dangerous side. We have seen how, ascultural 'impresar io', he has a tendency to prom ote clever talkfor its own sake, indiscriminately. I propose that through themyth of the cicadas Plato takes his stand against this tendencyin such a way as to admonish readers that they too, at thisdelicate point in the action, must beware of careless discrimi-nation among the breeds of intellectual discourse. (AsSocrates warns, introducing the myth, 'no one who loves theMuses should be ignorant of such things', 259b5~6.)31Just about all bodily pleasures are 'slavish', Phaedrussweepingly declares; or rather, reports the declaration as anestablished philosophic dogma, to which he enthusiasticallysubscribes.32 In response, Socrates indicates that even thepleasures of the mind promote their variety of slavishness;and furthermore, that this slavishness is of just the sort that


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    ORIENT TIONPhaedrus has displayed by citing authority in support of hispersonal predilections. If they allow themselves to bebewitched by the cicadas' drone, says Socrates, and doze offlike sheep at siesta around the spring, the cicadas will rightlymock them as 'slavish types' (andrapod atta,25 9a4 -5). Sla-vish with a bodily slavishness, we might think. Yet considermore closely the pleasures that the cicadas purvey. Accordingto Socrates' figurative description, theirs is just that verbalvirtuosity, in all its facets, which Phaedrus ranks most highly:they both 'sing and converse' aidonteskaialleloisdialegome-noi, 258e7-259al) in the foliage overhead; they are Sirens(259e7), whose seduction is in their voice; and it is the 'lazilyrelaxed mind' rather than body of the hearer (di*argian tesdianoias, 259a3-4) that is sensible to the seductive pleasureof language stripped down to a mantra's hum. Moreover,none show better than the cicadas themselves the dangers ofthis pleasure. In Socrates' story they indulge indiscriminatelyin the gifts of the M uses, overwhelmed by the pleasure of song(see 259b8), and receive their just deserts: they become mess-engers, mere vehicles for conveying to all the Muses howothers, but certainly not the cicadas themselves, discriminatebetween them in their devotion. The cicadas 'sing' and 'con-verse' at the same time (why make distinctions when glosso-lalia bites?), but Socrates has just switched, and abruptly so,from the 'singing ' register of his poetic declamations on love33to the dialectical conversation with Phaedrus that makes upthe second part of the dialogue. And whereas the cicadas runtheir errand for the entire band of Muses without distinction,Socrates does not hesitate to attribu te to Calliope and Urania,Muses of philosophy, the 'fairest voice' (259d7) among themall.Not for him the cicadas' fate.

    Phaedrus, on the other hand, is susceptible to their disease.Not only has he been temporarily overwhelmed by the beautyof Socrates' magnificent encomium of love (so that Socrateshas had to correct his pendulum swing of sudden contemptfor Lysias, 257b7-d7), but he is now all set to view the con-tinuation of their subtle talk exclusively (and with an equallysudden shift of immediate perspective) as a prospect of fur-28

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    WH T THE CIC D S S NGther pleasure - albeit pleasure of the noblest rank . Thatiswhythe myth of the cicadas crops up not in the immediate after-shock of the poetic speechmaking but only when the decisionhas been taken to analyse rhetorical effectiveness in general;because it warns Phaedrus (and, indirectly, the reader) hownotto take the transition between the overtly poetic and rhe-torical speeches and the sober analysis of the art they exem-plify.For Phaedrus, analysis is desirable because it is more of thesame, more highbrow talk; uppermost in his mind is not thetruth it might reach but the pleasure it will bring just in get-ting itself said (typically, the snippet of philosophy he cites inencouragement at 258e3-4 - the dogma that his mind hasretained - concerns not truth but pleasure). In this he ignoresthe implications of the very point they have just decided: thatwriting is no t shameful as such (nor is Lysias the speechwriterto be condemned simply because he writes), but both writingand speaking are good and bad only in so far as what is saidand written is properly or improperly said and written(258dl7). The principle behind this claim would be thataccidents of format are not a sound basis for judgments ofvalue. Phaedrus agrees submissively enough (258d6), but inhis subsequent outburst makes it clear that he considers allintellectual talk good for no more intrinsic reason than that itstimulates mental rather than visceral pleasure (a point notsubstantially affected by the fact that he recognises, as wesaw, that the pleasure must be felt for the appropriatereasons; for he does not ask himself why those reasons areappropriate). For Socrates, by contrast, intellectual talk ispleasant because it is good - if itisgood. He discriminates be-tween good and bad within each mode of intellectual talk,and between better and worse modes overall. However, herewe encounter a deep irony that makes of this scene not thesomewhat smug put-down of Phaedrus' dilettantism that itmight otherwise seem, but a revelation of Socratic modesty inPlato's teaching and a vademecum for the dialogue as awhole.

    After all, on what is Socrates' discrimination to be29

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    ORIENT TIONgrounded? In giving philosophy the palm he mentions otherMuses and their special provinces: Terpsichore and choralodes,Erato and love lyric (259c6d3). Here, then, would be aready basis for discrimination 'according to the form ofhonour paid each Muse' (259d23); for the choral dithyrambfits neither love lyric ... nor, one supposes, philosophy? Butthis will not do. To declare Calliope's voice the noblest forformal reasonswhether the form considered appropriate forphilosophy be dialectical prose or the verse of an Empedocles would be to fall back into Phaedrus' error of judging thegood by externals. But might there not, after all, be somesingle most appropriate format for philosophy, just as inPlato's culture only metrical language can be properly calledpoetry? There might; but Plato's presentation of this sceneindicates not only that philosophy is not to be accorded thehighest place among the arts (if it deserves that place) on thestrength ofitsformat, but also that the aims of philosophy areill-suited to the restrictions of a single format in any case, andcan be most strikingly captured by the peculiar multiplicity offormats exhibited in the dialogue as a whole. For look againat the particular cast of Muses mentioned by Socrates: choralTerpsichore, Erato the erotic, the philosophic Calliope andUrania. Earlier, Socrates compared his first speech in emula-tion of Lysias to a choral dithyramb (228d2-3); and both ofhis speeches were erotic in theme. Is this a way for Plato todeclare them unphilosophical, then? Yet of the supposedlyphilosophic Muses Urania's name recalls nothing so clearly asthe metaphysical 'heaven' [ouranos) that enthralls us in thepoetic myth of Socrates' second speech (see esp. 246e4; also247b 1 and 247c3), and Calliope, as de Vries points out (apud259d67), 'is the Muse of poetry par excellence .

    Where, then, is the 'philosophy' in this dialogue? I amsaying that it lies in both halves of the dialogue and, just ascrucially, in the articulation between them .34We have seen that through his characters' interest in thescenic background Plato offers an example and emblem of in-teraction between 'foreground' and 'background' of com-petence: between tha t aspect which is or can be made explicit,3

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    WH T THE CIC D S S NGand tha t which is either contextually or, it may be, essentiallytacit - which is shown rather than told. We can now see thatthe entire dialogue is jointed with such a dovetail of back-ground and foreground. In its second part Socrates andPhaedrus attempt to describe and analyse the rhetorical com-petence that has been (only) displayed in the first. This muchis made quite explicit; but the fact that the second part of thedialogue is heralded by the droning of the cicadas - for all thefleeting quality of this episode ('a relaxing intermezzo', saysde Vries apud 258e6-7) - stands as a marker of what is lessexplicit but equally crucial for an understanding of the dia-logue's structure. And here the casual manner in which thecicadas impinge upon the conversation is actually the clue totheir importance. The place for a drone, after all, is in thebackground. Socrates and Phaedrus can remain alert to thecicadas only briefly. Once the real talk begins the soundrecedes below the threshold of their (and our) attention, as itmust; for background noise is not there to be talked about, itis there to be talked against or over.35Yet just this momentarypassage into and out of earshot alerts the reader - at least, ifthe reader is the kind who worries at intermezzi - to the back-ground, the constant pedal-note of the dialogue's secondpart: to what the dialectic in that second part is showingrather than to w hat it is saying. Its propositional content is ananalysis of the rhetorical skills displayed in the earlier part ofthe dialogue; but what it in turn displays is, of course, thatprime philosophic activity, the analysis of conditions of possi-bility (in this case of the rhetorical art). Rhetoric is first dis-played then investigated; the investigation displaysphilosophic technique - thissequence should prompt in us thefollowing question: what would it be for philosophy to turnfrom analysing the conditions of possibility of other arts toanalysing its own conditions as an art? And we have only tolook to the first par t of the dialogue for one answer.36In thesecond part, rhetoric is examined and philosophy exhibited;in the first, conversely, rhetoric parades for the purpose ofexamining philosophy. For in Socrates' culminating speechPlato probes the conditions of possibility for the pursuit of


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    ORIENT TIONphilosophic love - the highest expression of philosophic art.The join between background and foreground in the twoparts of this dialogue is thus truly a dovetail. One part thrustsout its arms where the other has drawn back; one is back-ground to the other's foreground, foreground to the other'sbackground.37I am saying, then, that Plato chose to probe the conditionsof philosophic art and the philosophic life in the first part ofthis dialogue in w hat is a confessedly poetic fashion. But why,we might ask, would he not rather turn his gaze on philos-ophy in the dialectical manner of the analysis of rhetoric? Ihave two replies to this question. First, to insist that only adialectically styled account of philosophy can be properlyphilosophical would be to commit Phaedrus' and the cicadas'error of identifying a discipline with, and valuing it for, its(typical) bag of formal tricks. This would be an especially wrymistake in so far as the dialogue reveals in its investigation ofverbal arts the inadequacy of all and any verbal means -whether mythical or dialectical - to capture what it is tha t thecompetent practitioner of those (and other) arts knows.Second, and more importantly, not only is myth a peculiarlyappropriate recourse when philosophy probesitself but also,and even though formal myth is not the only possible recoursefor saying what needs to be said, these things cannot be anymore clearly or explicitly said, I think, in a prose free frommythical and poetic marks.

    To explain this second reply. philosophic analysis of phil-osophy as an art is inevitably coloured by the special circum-stance that philosophy is that art which examines all arts, allforms of knowledge, in order to discover what knowledge is,and what it is to be an art. Any such analysis must always tosome extent show what it is trying to tell: not, however, asone might write rhetorically about rhetoric or couch a metri-cal primer in verse (for in these cases we have the option ofcomposing in an unrhetorical style or in prose); rather, if phil-osophy is the art which analyses the general conditions of thediverse arts and forms of knowledge, and we wish to analysethe conditions of that art, we must ultimately attempt to3

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    WHAT THE CICADAS SANGanalyse what makes possible such analysis of conditions ofpossibility (because just that will be what makes philosophypossible). But a successful attempt must therefore exhibit inthe course of analysis the skill that it describes (there are nooptions in this case). In this sense, you already understandwhat you are discursively investigating - which is a commonenough situation for the manual craftsman attempting toconvey his competence in words. But for a philosopher thepredicament is more exquisite. All competence, philosophyreveals, has a tacit as well as an explicit component; but onlyphilosophy attempts to capture this phenomenon in explicitpropositions. By its own conclusions, then, philosophic com-petence displays a tacit background even as it presses on withits propositional chase. But no sooner is this phenomenondescribed than it too becomes a proper object of explicitphilosophic investigation. The philosopher longs for what hisown verbal enquiries tell him is unattainable through verbalmeans, and cannot rest content with pat summaries of hislonging of the type exemplified by the first limb of this sen-tence. To do so would be to settle after all for the Phaedranlife of mere words. There is no such settlement for theSocrates we find in this dialogue: the man 'out of p lace', whocannot leave the background where it belongs; the man wholistens to the cicadas.

    (And we are beginning to see, I trust, that we shall hardlyunderstand what Plato has to say about the philosophic life inthis dialogue unless we get to know Phaedrus and Socrates:recognise who they are, what they are. To this endIhave beenpeering at them in the mirror of their environment; for, afterall,scenery is not im portant initself but only for the humanreactions it bestirs. Or, to use Socrates' words at 230d4-5:'landscapes and trees, yousee,have nothing to teach me; onlypeople in the city'.)In the discussion of philosophic love in Socrates' greatspeech Plato expresses by means of a myth this sense in whichthe philosopher walks into a background that is always onestep ahead: a myth which 'explains' the philosopher's priorunderstanding of what he investigates as a recollection of the


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    ORIENT TIONForms (and which I will analyse - together with the need forthose scare quotes - in chapters five and six). Platonic myth,being a verbal genre that confesses outright its inadequacy toconvey truth (see 246a3-6), is a medium especially suited tothis message. Nonetheless, it is not the only possible medium;I have here, after all, been trying to say the same thing inunmythical prose. Yet I have been compelled to take mydistance from any pat formulation of the philosopher's pre-dicament. That we have the ability to produce such formu-lations is in fact part of the predicament. Saying this inunmythical prose is not saying it better; only differently. Andjust this, I believe, is Plato's point in 'doing philosophy' in thisdialogue through the two distinct and strikingly juxtaposedverbal paths of myth and dialectic. He allows neither path toreach a satisfactory goal; rather, one leads only to the other. Ifwe want Plato's view on the philosophy displayed but notanalysed in the dialogue's second part we must turn to thefirst; but there his view is presented only mythically; but if weturn back to the second part's philosophic account of the firstin the hope of something more explicit, we find an analysis ofits rhetorical style only, not of its substance . . . And so, begin-ning from a due appreciation of the difference between thefervour of the speeches and the sobriety of the subsequentconversation (not allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed, asPhaedrus is), we are led to see that this contour of differencedoes not straightforwardly divide the poetry of the dialoguefrom its philosophy; all the more so because the conversationdoes indeed seem philosophic and the speeches poetic.38It isjust the kinship in limitation of these otherwise very differentpaths of discourse, myth and argument - at least when thephilosopher confronts his own art - that is of such philo-sophic interest.

    pologia pro capitulo suoIn this chapter, then, I have argued that Plato's extraordinaryattention to topography in the Phaedrus is his means oforienting readers towards the dialogue's central philosophic34