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Plato & Herodotus 12

Plato & Herodotus 12

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01/26/2013

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DRAFT ONLY
Bryan Carr 
Science as Suggestion:
Cosmological & Mythic intertext as background in Herodotus and Plato
1
'You don't know what you're talking about!' cried Humpty Dumpty. 'How many days arethere in a year?''Three hundred and sixty-five,' said Alice.'And how many birthdays have you?''One.''And if you take one from three hundred and sixty-five, what remains?''Three hundred and sixty-four, of course.'Humpty Dumpty looked doubtful. 'I'd rather see that done on paper,' he said.Alice couldn't help smiling as she took out her memorandum-book, and worked the sumfor him:365- 3641Humpty Dumpty took the book, and looked at it carefully. 'That seems to be done right—'he began.'You're holding it upside down!' Alice interrupted.'To be sure I was!' Humpty Dumpty said gaily, as she turned it round for him. 'I thought itlooked a little queer. As I was saying, that
 seems
to be done right -- though I haven't timeto look it over thoroughly just now -- and that shows that there are three hundred andsixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents -- ''Certainly,' said Alice.'And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!''I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant,"there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"''But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.'When
 I 
use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what Ichoose it to mean -- neither more nor less.''The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many differentthings.''The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - - that's all.'
2
 
1
What follows here are the preliminary and still unorganized findings of an ongoing investigation into the assumptionsat work in texts of Herodotus and Plato, and their (sometimes distant) predecessors. I’ve undertaken this work because Ithink these archaic writers not merely interesting but important; but it may seem at first that I am involved with trivia. Ihope to show that the ancients had a very different notion of what was trivial, and that we cannot read them well if wedo not permit ourselves to attend to the details they thought worthwhile. But though I enjoy skulking in the dusty half-lit side-chapels of footnotes, I cannot pretend to real scholarship. My "method," if that's what it is, comes perilouslyclose to free-association, and although I do distinguish between connections that can be backed up with evidence andthose that cannot, I tend to assume that the ancients were more clever than I, or at least closer to their own motives, andthat any idea that occurs to me would have occurred to them. I do maintain there is a difference between seeingsomething and making it up-- though I acknowledge that I have problematized the distinction. I try to use the bait bestsuited for the occasion, for plausibility is a shy creature. Accordingly, my snare is sometimes Jungian, sometimesstructuralist, sometimes a causal argument with reference either to conscious intent and influence or to a broader tradition (what anthropologists call "diffusion.") But none of these do I use exclusively. I am indebted to DuaneChristensen, Jonathan Crimmins, David Crookes, Pete Dello, John Holthouse, and Ernest McClain for specificsuggestions which I have incorporated into this paper.
2
Lewis Carroll,
Through the Looking-Glass, & what Alice found there
. Ch. VI
1
 
DRAFT ONLY
Bryan Carr I take my cue from the most famous remark Socrates ever made: the unexamined life is not worthliving. This evaluation, as Nietzsche saw, profoundly modifies earlier Greek thinking, though notexactly as Nietzsche believed. There is a real question in Greek thought about whether human lifecan be good, expressed starkly in the famous remark of Solon: Call no man happy until he isdead. Sophocles quotes this at the end of 
Oedipus Rex
, that founding document of  psychoanalysis. This Freudian inheritance should dissuade us from shrugging off Solon’sapparent pessimism as irrelevant to ourselves. Indeed, the extent that we assume Solon is wrong,or can be wrong, may be due to our having come (via Freud’s adaptation of ‘examination’) toregard Socrates’ adage as self-evident—and perhaps too easily applied.The thesis this paper intends to illustrate, without however arguing for it explicitly, is that theworld of the fifth and fourth centuries BC was the culmination of a period of a shift in the world-view of Indo-European peoples. This worldview is accessible to us mainly via late literaryremains of mythology and religion, and any reconstructions of it are liable to be disputed, but myargument is that through the Bronze Age, human consciousness had a different mode, which can be characterized as one of participation. “Participation” is a term derived from Aristotle and Plato(whose words
µ ε τ α λ ε π σ ι ς
and
µ ε θ ε χ ι ς
are translated thus), pertaining tothe manner in which the particular relates to the universal. It thus enters the scholasticvocabulary; Barfield is at pains however in
Saving the Appearances
to underscore that it is not,strictly, a technical term. Still later it figures in Malebranche, whence Lévy-Bruhl took it todescribe what he considered the main principle of primitive mentality, a mode of thinking whichdid not include the principle of non-contradiction. Lévy-Bruhl began with a case from theanthropologist Karl Von den Steinen, according to whom the Borono, a Brazilian tribe, claimed to be a type of parrot called
arraras
. Since a human being simultaneously being non-human violatesnon-contradiction, Lévy-Bruhl invoked what he called the
law of participation
to describe thismanner of thinking.
3
 Lévy-Bruhl’s formulation and account of “how natives think” has been subject to manycriticisms, which I will not here consider. Whether the parallels (which I do not assume werestrict equivalences) were between human tribes and their totem animals or between the seasons of the year, the revolution of the heavens, and the tuning spiral of fifths—examples that will occupyus below—I take for granted that such correspondences were matters of 
experience
and not mereintellectual parlor games. The fundamental issue is not whether Lévy -Bruhl’s specificdescriptions all hold up under scrutiny, but rather whether there can be held to be a shift in themanner and mode of human consciousness between the late Bronze Age and our own day, andwhat was the nature of this shift. That is, it is not a question of mere revision of beliefs, but agenuine reshaping of the kind of experience human beings had. In particular, I am suggestingthat it was not lost upon the best minds of the ancients that, as the various inter-phenomenal parallels and equivalences considered—I shall present several examples—came under critique,this same critique was both symptom and cause of a shift in experience. This shift had occasioneda crisis in belief, manifest in the widespread arising of a form of deep pessimism whose possibility is always latent in the human condition. I argue that Herodotus depicts this fatalismand near-nihilism not just with historical vignettes but with knowing recourse to a number of cosmological tropes. I hold, too, that Plato just as knowingly appropriates these same preexistingmotifs in order to argue against pessimism, to assert that there are conditions in which human lifeis good. That this way entails a recapturing (under a new and wiser mode) of the same participation that was fading, is part of my thesis, but will not be rigorously argued for here.
3
See, e.g., Lévy-Bruhl,
 How Natives Think 
; Barfield,
Saving the Appearances
; Jonathan Z. Smith, “I am a parrot (red)”in
Map is Not Territory
.
2
 
DRAFT ONLY
Bryan Carr This paper will require (and doubtless test) patience, partly from the material (which is notdifficult in itself, but is quite disparate) and partly from my own limitations. Our familiarity withOedipus notwithstanding, from Sophocles to Freud is a long way; and indeed my net is cast verywide and has hauled in, willy-nilly, King Midas and King Arthur, ancient Greek tuning systems,an allegedly Neolithic calendar from Lascaux, Hebrew gematria and Norse myth, a horoscope for the beginning of the world, and the last supper of Jesus and his disciples. All of this is placedagainst a more or less continual dialectic between Plato’s dialogues and Herodotus’
 Histories
. I believe there is enough substantial thematic continuity to warrant the frequent refocusing I ask of the reader, shifting between different eras, different subjects, different disciplines. Eventually, Ihope, the suspicion will take root that not all of this continuity is the creature of my own
idée fixe
.Read this, then, in the spirit in which one would explore Herodotus himself, as he turns fromPersian engineering to Egyptian religion to the proclivities of fate, gods, and mortals.It is Herodotus who has preserved Solon’s remark for us, in a conversation between Solon andCroesus, the tyrant of Lydia. If one reads carefully, one perceives that, far from haphazardlyslapping his sources together, Herodotus
knows what he is doing 
.
4
Herodotus specificallyunderlines that his project is to trace the
cause
of the conflict between the Hellenes and thePersians, and after a brief mythic preamble, Croesus is the place he begins. He's like an oldstoryteller telling you to pull up a seat if you've a notion to hear the tale. "Well," he says, "
it all  started 
with Croesus, the tyrant of Lydia..."
5
Who is most fortunate?
Croesus, at one time among the most wealthy and successful of ancient rulers, entered into a war 
4
In this assertion, both an axiom and a conclusion, I am guided by, among other things, a number of findings made byErnest McClain, whose patient decoding of Plato and other ancients has revealed a very particular musical grammar,hinging on a careful correlation between the matter at hand (justice, the story of Atlantis, the myth of Er) and musicaltuning, with special attention to the gap where any tuning system founders. My general approach as regards McClain’swork is usually to stipulate his findings, not argue for them (though I do try to establish a
 prima facie
case for considering the approach). I am not able to make any original contributions to ancient musicology, and I cannot pretendto decode any of the ancients' texts on any deep level. What I am interested in, above all, is the question of 
why
. In this,I've followed the lead of Leo Strauss, and of Giorgio de Santillana. McClain has taught me to be on the lookout for jestsand tell-tale inconsistencies which point beyond the context of a work to a cosmology shaped by music, but alsoastronomy, metrics, and mathematics in general. Strauss (and Voegelin) taught me to be suspicious of the reduction of Plato to the chaser-after-ideas-in-the-sky to which he is stupidly reduced, and to read closely whenever something puzzles me. De Santillana taught me to be always aware of the mythic backdrop-- an intertext which not only Platoassumes. The question I always am asking is: given the resonances McClain or de Santillana and von Dechend pointout, what does it mean? Why did the ancients write like this? McClain once mentioned that Gilbert Ryle told him, Platowould never have planted "all that musicology for you to find." And surely Ryle was right, if by this he meant that Platowas not playing hide-and-seek games with his readers. But since the numbers are there on the surface of the text-- theTyrant and the "greater and lesser births" in the
 Republic
are only the most obvious examples-- we are not entitled todismiss them as games. By the same token, though, we ought not to disregard the fact that Plato is writing about justice,the city, understanding, realization. Music somehow fits into all of this, illustrates it, provides a partial grammar for it.My contention is that these authors made use of mathematics partly as a dependable code which could be relied upon tokeep its meaning; but they used it to stimulate realizations that went beyond mathematics, partly by making use of short-cuts, double-entendres, and lapses meant to stimulate independent reflection. This paper will investigate moreclosely a few examples and suggestions.
5
It is important to note that Herodotus specifically calls Croesus a Tyrant and not just a ruler. It would take us quite far afield to undertake a close investigation of the attitude in Herodotus towards tyrants, for instance the house of Pisistratus, once allied to Solon and later opposed by him. However, his general antipathy is well-established anduncontroversial. It is not too much to say that between Herodotus and Plato the shift of 'tyrant' as a term withoutopprobrium to one loaded with moral disapprobation becomes complete; and Plato will use the term in a specificmusico-mathematical way in the
 Republic
.
3

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