Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Author: ashok (page 1 of 182)

Miron Białoszewski, “Garwolin – a town for ever”

Happy Independence Day

Garwolin — a town for ever
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

garlic like a pearl… why? garlic is but garlic

tiny umptytown
its winter is peeling

over the town
the sky of garlic
thence for the town
days are like garlic braids
dont you feel by chance
in those peels
the presence of Roman legions?
and on the garlic flesh
a Spain skidding?
and in the bitterness of juice
a sophist?


Not only do heroes and empires make history, but so do tiny towns, even ones permeated thoroughly by garlic. The “tiny umptytown,” “a town for ever,” has a “sky of garlic” which peels as winter progresses. It is eternal, possessing “days like garlic braids.” Everydayness and endurance, manifest in those braids, don’t immediately alert us to a deeper meaning.

We therefore wonder about the garlic itself. Is it a pearl? “Dont you [Garwolin] feel by chance the pressure of Roman legions?” As time goes on, things repeat, and the past is found again. Do note that Garwolin lost 70% of the city in WWII, with at least 1000 occupants murdered by the Nazis and several thousand deported to camps.

Things repeat, but experience ends: “[dont you feel] on the garlic flesh a Spain skidding?” Winter will go, and it will feel like warmer times have fallen. Like a good has been achieved. “In the bitterness of juice[,] a sophist:” not the absurdity of experience, certainly not clever rhetoric or pseudoscience for power’s sake. I think Białoszewski is very precise here. The heart of the town’s experience is bitter. Strictly speaking, sophists deny justice as natural; it is something we make up. They leave the door open for those who might be more manipulative. A too honest Garwolin has a powerful rationale for embracing such a thesis.

Still, the town contains multitudes, but its garlicky everydayness, its persistence, stands all the more remarkable. Its dreary conventionality points to its belief.

Miron Białoszewski, “A ballad of going down to the store”

With thanks to K.

A ballad of going down to the store (from
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

First I went down to the store
by the stairs,
ah, imagine only,
by the stairs.

Then people known to people unknown
passed me by and I passed them by.
That you did not see
how people walk,

I entered a complete store:
lamps of glass were burning.
I saw somebody — he sat down —
and what I heard? what I heard?
rustling of bags and human talk.

And indeed,
I returned.


Initially, this reads like the rantings of a crazy person (I should know. I’ve read my own writing plenty). An intense, lonely, mystical relationship with objects and motion develops over three stanzas. First, a celebration of going to the store by the stairs: “ah, imagine only, by the stairs.” Then, he rebukes himself, exclaiming “you [yourself] did not see how people walk, regret!!” The speaker, talking to himself the whole time throughout the poem, reaches a strange height when he enters “a complete store: lamps of glass[…] burning.”

The speaker’s ecstasy is far from inhuman. He defines the store as “by the stairs,” whether or not the store is actually close to his residence being irrelevant. The journey starts as a descent, and an imagined proximity to the store indicates a feeling of self-sufficiency. This carries over into his want to preserve every bit of the familiar and not-as-familiar. Memory is a privilege. I know it’s the little details – the brightness of a smile, a funny, peculiar walk, a certain turn of the head – that I need most to remember those who matter most. Our speaker needs these details to build upon his self-sufficiency, to make it worth that much more.

Yet, it is worth quite a bit already. His narration sees the everyday as miraculous; he effuses gratefulness. The store is no less than “complete,” and “lamps of glass” burn, giving light and warmth, bright orbs on earth. The descent has become an ascent, ironically enough, with touches of a divine vision.

What seems to break the spell: “rustling of bags and human talk.” Possessiveness and neediness may be suggested in the image of shopping bags, but they are not half the problem of other people talking. To see the world as miraculous requires an intense focus. People are appreciated as they simply are, no other words necessary. The amazing things people have made – stairs, stores, lamps – these too require no additional speech. Our speaker returns to his home, having given no indication of speaking to anyone, only listening. The repetitions in this poem, the descent, the other humans seeming so alien all make me feel like the speaker has depicted himself as a bird. In which case, a puzzle, connected to an almost distant image. Birds were once thought to be souls. Why is the purity of the soul both most humane and anti-social at the same time?

Plans, 6/22/15

Oh, so many.

Need to rewrite everything on the blog. This probably will take the rest of my life, so I’m more than happy to make gradual improvements when I can. I’ll start with a few tags and categories and let you know as they’ve been cleaned up. Only tag/category I’m feeling comfortable with right now concerns Charles Simic. Those commentaries aren’t perfect, but they’re clear enough. They follow the narrative of the poems closely and the poems, it goes without saying, are terrific.

Need to blog three times a week, and not like this. Real blogging, where I bring a poem, work of visual art, piece of music, essay, graphic novel – you know, something different – for consideration. The more I waste time online the more I’m convinced that what goes on here is unique. There’s lots of fancy prose everywhere. Lots of thoughts that are too clean and too sharp: they describe our more conventional ideas or our ideological positions. They don’t really grapple with others’ opinions, much less with reality. It goes without saying that I don’t, either. But there seems to be a virtue in not being polished enough to fool oneself with the beauty of one’s own sentences.

Things that I have lying around that I would like to write about:

  • a book on Picasso and Degas. Apparently Picasso saw a bunch of paintings by Degas depicting the same area of Paris in which he lived. Picasso responded to those paintings with paintings of his own.
  • Nietzsche, “Daybreak” – every time I go to it, it’s too dense, but I end up thinking about it all day.
  • Herodotus – up to book 6 now, have even read a few secondary sources (very few, to be sure).
  • Wislawa Szymborska, Charles Simic, Seamus Heaney, Dickinson, Buson, Czeslaw Milosz – this is the poetry lying around the apartment.
  • A video game called “Endless Legend” which is a lot like Civilization IV. I’m messing up each time I play it, though.

Writing this little update feels so pretentious. I spent most of the day looking stuff up on Wikipedia and browsing news feeds looking for something to write. I also drank a lot of coffee for some odd reason. I wish I could say I lived in this realm of ideas where Dickinson talked to Yeats and witnessing that I learned something about the nature of the universe if it is conceived in 358 dimensions.

It’s more like this: I’m just looking for anything that is relatable. That’s a feeling, and putting it into words and describing it fully is chancy. I don’t envy anyone with the task of explaining why something has relevance.

P.S. I’m using twitter more – you can feel free to add me there – and if you want to help, I could use subscribers to this blog’s feed. I’m trying to update twice a week, at least.

State of Denial, 6/20/15

Jeb Bush made headlines earlier today for saying he didn’t know what was in the heart and mind of the Charleston shooter. To future generations of this and other civilizations: the shooter went into a black church and killed 9 people at Bible study because, in his words, he wanted to start a race war.

It gets better, and by better, I mean a lot worse. Rand Paul, who in many ways has been powerful, progressive, and substantial on matters of race and policing, seems to have avoided race when discussing the same topic later. Paul: “There’s a sickness in our country… it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.” The price of being too tactful, of not trying to alienate voters who think racism is just an excuse for people to get free stuff from the government (by “voters,” I mean racist assholes), is that idiots will speak more volubly on the matter. Rick Perry, of course, said the shooting was an accident. He meant “incident,” but the context doesn’t do him any favors, as the context was sniping at the President for even suggesting that maybe guns shouldn’t end up in the hands of insane people who want to commit mass murder. And Rudy Giuliani, race-baiter extraordinaire, hit a new moral low for the sake of pandering to racists who watch too much TV.

Amanda Terkel asked: “Why are people so unwilling just to admit that the shooter was racist, with racist motives? Not sure why it’s so hard.” I’ve outlined my answer above: an indirect pandering to paranoiacs and racists, who, whether or not they are a majority of GOP primary voters, are perceived by GOP politicians themselves to be too important to offend, means doing everything possible to foster doubt with the proposition that race is still a problem. If you can deny race is a problem in this country, or at least, say to anyone bringing up the topic that they don’t have solid evidence for bringing it up (or better yet, call them “the real racist”), you can allow people to focus on your other messages. For example, your fantasy flat tax proposal that virtually no one except ideologues can support. Or name-calling.  Unfortunately, what happens when you try to steer clear of race is, again, that the worst voices win out. We haven’t just borne witness to dehumanization, we’ve borne witness to people defending it (i.e. choking an unarmed nonviolent individual is fine if he’s technically resisting arrest). You can meet the most conservative youth in our country, as I have for years. If I begin to outline the racism and hatred I’ve witnessed from some (most certainly not all) firsthand, you’ll move to Canada. The stunning thing is how ingrained it is: there’s no need for any overt discrimination. You can make other people feel like second-class citizens a million different ways.

You might say I’m cheating in my argument, as I’m going to the anecdotal and personal precisely where I need the most concrete evidence. But I’d say just look around you: at some point, I can’t win this argument, I don’t want to win an argument. What I want to say is that I’ve had certain experiences that you’ve had, if you think about it. And the dots connect all too easily with leaders who can’t even say we have a problem with race, because to say that would be to admit that maybe electing the current President, for all his faults, for all the disagreements I have and you should have with him, was a significant moment in our nation’s history. That maybe the United States of America is better than partisanship. That maybe it stands for something greater, which we all work toward.

The more serious counterargument to me is this: maybe we don’t need to talk about race all the time. That is certainly true. We may need to talk about class. Unfortunately, to merely mention that term, one which the Founders and everyone who was serious about Constitutionalism throughout the ages could discuss at length, is to invite charges of being called a Marxist.

I do think there’s hope. That’s why I’m writing and being as blunt as I can about this. These aren’t just media “gaffes” you’ve witnessed the past couple of days. They’re stemming from something far darker and awful, and many in positions of leadership think it is prudent to avoid the topic altogether. What they forget is that prudence is ultimately the preservation of value. Anyone or anything can be useful; the question is whether you can stand for something when all is said and done. Because of their denial, the heroism of the victims stands so much greater. (I dare you to click that link and not cry.) Maybe they deserve better than to have a Confederate flag fly over their heads and walk streets named by Confederate generals. Maybe they deserve justice and equality, the very things we say we profess.

Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” (249)

Wild Nights — Wild Nights! (249)
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!


The previous reflection, on Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vermeer,” might be read as a jeremiad against lust. To produce one was certainly not my intent. I am far more interested in how a pattern of behavior an entire society is built to combat comes to rule that very society. “The Milkmaid,” I am guessing, slyly demonstrates that proposition while pointing to a solution. Without preaching an end to lust, positing some perfect superhuman realm, it quietly shows beauty in work, in everyday living.

In any case, let us move on to another everyday concern, that of physical attraction. We bear witness to Emily Dickinson shouting about “Wild Nights:”

Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Well, that wasn’t terribly subtle. The lowercase “thee” signifies an earthly beloved; three successive rhymes (thee / be / luxury) help create a song for him. So this poem’s done, right? Not quite, for he has not deigned to show himself (“were I with thee”):

Futile — the Winds —
To a Heart in port —
Done with the Compass —
Done with the Chart!

“Futile,” beginning the second stanza, stuns. All the passion, music, desire before may have gone nowhere. So she conflates her beloved’s absence with her certainty of feeling. Because he is not with her, her Heart is in port, the Winds are futile. No need for a compass, no need for a chart. She will not go anywhere. Her declaration of strength in terms of sailing imagery implies, though, that the beloved is going wherever he wishes.

One might think our speaker deludes herself. I’m not sure that is the case. She’s carefully working through what her siren song means. The promise of pleasure for both, “our luxury,” depends on her remaining superhumanly steadfast. She has to embrace futility in order to make a plea. This does mean she has resolved her heart, to a degree (“futile the winds”). However, there is a trade-off: a lack of direction and planning (“compass,” “chart”).

Her attempt at ecstatic music could turn to anguish. Instead, aware of the trade-off, she wants to make the plea as best she can, yet still remains conscious of more:

Rowing in Eden —
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor — Tonight —
In Thee!

Is she or the beloved “rowing in Eden?” Either way, her gaze is now toward the Sea. Because she’s detailed her love and its limits, she understands that being in one place may not be the best thing for her. “Wild Nights,” accordingly, turns to “Tonight:” not necessarily the sexual independence of the one-night stand, but definitely a demand that she be given her proper regard now. She can be steadfast, or she can move away. Under no circumstances will she be untrue to herself. Rowing in Eden is the same as traveling the Sea, for someone willing to risk love. The capitalized “Thee” I take in the sense of searching for Love, Love encompassing both sexuality and her own dignity.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Vermeer”

Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Barańczak)

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.


Johannes Vermeer, "The Milkmaid," composed 1657-1658.

Johannes Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” composed 1657-1658.

Not even our age, with a supposed concern for rights, a profession to end objectification, has grasped how dehumanizing lust can be. Certainly, it starts with putting people into crude categories, defining them by sexual desirability or availability. Then, it gets worse, sometimes a lot worse in more moralistic circles, which preach against the sins of the flesh. No matter what, anyone with the smallest fragment of conscience would have to question themselves and attempt justification. But when you already live rightly – say, in a severely religious society where women must cover up completely with no regard given for their work – there are no such questions. There is only the way you see things, and lust, which can collapse into the worst neediness for power and control, may be easily confused for love, if it does not replace love altogether. (The Duggars, if you’re keeping score, are only the tip of the iceberg. Ask yourself why that show was so popular, and you’ll find a very uncomfortable truth about the conception of family in America).

So: in Vermeer’s time, depictions of milkmaids or kitchen maids as “willing” abounded. Milk was sexually suggestive, as were jugs and onions and pretty much everything. The elements of such symbolism are in this painting: a wide-mouthed jug, milk, a foot warmer and Cupid on a tile (the last two are in the lower right). But if one declared this painting nothing but sexual innuendo, one would be crazy. Rather, it’s Vermeer’s time that’s oversexed.

The painting does not appeal to a pristine morality, uncorrupted by lewdness, to give its subject dignity. The foot warmer and tile with Cupid are off to the lower right, completely ignored by her. Her focus rests on pouring the milk, which she does very carefully. She matches the table with the blue she wears, and her stance, gaze, and the table itself form a powerful triangle. An intense light from the window brightens the kitchen.

Why does she pour the milk so carefully? One scholar argues that she’s making bread pudding, where broken, stale bread becomes more than useful if the proportions are right. Szymborska’s comment, on that note, makes perfect sense to me. The worst aspects of our desire, where we will put others down for nothing, can be transcended by a willingness to see what is, who we actually are. The everydayness of the scene, the utility of her ongoing work, are given a little extra adornment by the painting, sure. But that the painting itself could be read as turning an entire “tradition” of debauchery on its head – well, that’s the possibility which keeps the world going.

References and Notes

Credit to Wikipedia for most, if not all, of the history and insights in the above discussion:

The scholar who argues she makes bread pudding is one Harry Rand. Again, thanks to Wikipedia for this.

Charles Simic, “In the Street”

In the Street
Charles Simic

Beauty, dark goddess,

We met and parted
As though we parted not.

Like two stopped watches
In a dusty store window,

One golden morning of time.


Weird, this maturity thing. Adolescent desire and all the desperate, stupid thought accompanying should fall away, no? Yet it doesn’t seem to work like that. I don’t know that there’s any consistent, recognizable marker of a mature love, despite the fact such love obviously exists.

Instead, a peculiar sort of reflection attends some. A few of us especially cling to our inexperienced, pathetic, idealistic selves. Maybe we don’t, or can’t, know any better: the want to feel completely justified is all-too-powerful. Or maybe we want to know the spell we’re under, and how exactly it works. I already regret the last two sentences, which make it sound like there’s a good and bad way to feel. It’s more like there’s pain, and thus an inescapable self-questioning and curiosity.

With “Beauty, dark goddess,” an impersonal power is acknowledged as supreme and addressed. Our passerby may be too cynical for love; he may see the possessor of beauty as also too cynical. Either way, I take this to be a symptom of the sort of reflection introduced above. Our cool-customer narrator has probably learned to deal with pain to a degree. But what exactly has he learned? How significant is it?

“We met and parted / As though we parted not:” because beauty has been abstracted from an actual person, this is easy to observe and declare. Beauty must stay in the eye of the beholder, as it would cease to exist otherwise. The lover, the beholder, is the source of beauty. Which leads to a strange consequence: the inspiration stands distinct from the source. In fact, it moves away. Beauty removes itself, and in so doing, gives birth to beauty.

Where does this leave one? Just smitten in the street? There is not much more to do but smile. Maybe the big difference between a younger and older self is a sense of self-worth, one which doesn’t depend on a “dark goddess,” but recognizes moments for what they are:

Like two stopped watches
In a dusty store window,

One golden morning of time.

We came into being as dust and will return. We are in moments. Our narrator creates her beauty; his utility makes him distinct, parallel, separate. Still, it’s a game to be an admirer, to glance and move on. To be admired rises from some sense of standards or expectations. The only true reconciliation between the two is in the sunlight, bathing a most artificial scene with warmth.

Seamus Heaney, “North”

North (from Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.


Once, to write was to sing the whole of an age, constructing history, remembering. So if a poet wishes to avoid an act of hubris, she must find the Muse, the divine inspiration of those like Homer, Dante, Milton, who renders their task legitimate. Accordingly, our narrator attempts a return. At “the long strand, the hammered curve of a bay” reside intimations of godly workmanship. That does not suffice, however, as only “the secular powers of the Atlantic” reveal themselves.

Worse, “the unmagical invitations of Iceland” and “the pathetic colonies of Greenland” give no indication of anything that inspired or transpired. The edge of the world has been reached, and the feeling that pushed others to realms beyond seems lost.

Suddenly, a flash of thought. The narrator recalls those “fabulous raiders,” ancestors from generations far removed. Long ago they saw the same as the poet, but forged ahead, conquering sea and land, living and dying by the sword, hoping a few deeds, a few words would confer immortality. It is strange to think they would have anything wise to say, but they are present, even if buried inland. They warn the poet in their glorious crudity: only measured by the sword, their attempt at timelessness resides in a stone ship. “Hacked and glinting,” indeed. They have a marked dependence on poetry.

The ocean both recalls and nearly drowns out the raiders. They slowly emerge for the narrator. First, the raiders are pictured buried. Then, an accounting of mighty, forceful acts:

…Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

You could say they lived like everyone else. In grasping the new, they fell prey to disunity, hatred, and violence. Their revolution ultimately yielded “exhaustions nominated peace,” at best.

We could dismiss them as murderers and thugs. Our poet can’t quite do that. Once, they did explore, being open to geography and trade. As a longship, together they can profess something wiser, perhaps something for anyone hoping to discover and create:

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

The longship’s advice consists of six commands, detailing the poet’s journey. “Lie down in the word-hoard:” the poet should celebrate his command of language, trusting his voice, his experience, his understanding of things. “Burrow the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain:” this declares that the poet’s almost solipsistic musing is worth having and publishing, on its own merits. “Compose in darkness:” you should not want any light, any external justification, for your work. “Expect aurora borealis in the long foray but no cascade of light:” a light peculiar to the journey exists. “Keep your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle:” just as one mineral shines through icy hardness, visualize your end. Craft that perfect image critically, knowing full well mankind will always fall in love with images, regardless of whether there is a poet or not. Sometimes those images will be of godlike warriors, manic and brilliant artists, noble statesmen, struggling writers, wizardly scientists, fantastic athletes, unapproachable lovers. The poet, of all people, should respect but not fall for his own image: “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.”

Kay Ryan, “Why We Must Struggle”

Why We Must Struggle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble
how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?


Why must we struggle? Why put forth the effort, struggle “as hard as we can at our strongest?” Plenty of good reasons for quitting while ahead – heck, plenty for not even trying in the first place. On that note, I heartily recommend Sheila Heti’s “Why Go Out?”, which begins with this outstanding passage:

I wonder why I am up here on this stage when I’d rather be at home, when being at home would be so much more comforting. And I wonder why all of you are sitting there in the audience, when so many of you would also be happier at home.

At home, you can wear your pyjamas. No one is going to snub you or disappoint you. At Trampoline Hall, you could be snubbed, or disappointed. The scotch is not cheap. It is less depressing to think the same thoughts you thought yesterday, than to have the same conversation you had last week. Few of us will get laid. Why did we go out? My father never goes out. His emotional life is absolutely even keel. He is a deeply rational person. He doesn’t see the advantages.

I will not blame you for abandoning this post and reading Sheila’s whole lecture. Still, I gotta finish up here. Without struggle, we cannot “sense the shape of our losses,” “know what sustains us longest,” or “name what change costs us.” Sense (losses), know (stamina), name (cost): it looks like we struggle to become ourselves.

From losses sensed, one might move to knowing sustenance. But therein lies a trap. Life isn’t just a pile of good, an unstoppable progress for us. Life does want to kill us. To that end, we choose struggles, “name what change costs us.” One good is lost for another good; some suffering, some loss, is had for merely identifying what change we might prefer.

“Name what change costs us,” then, embraces struggle as an attempt to embrace what is good for us. Which presents a problem, as it feels like the title has merely been repeated. The inner necessity of struggle has not fully emerged yet.

The musing must continue:

how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble

Trouble brings forth previously unknown sectors of the self. “Sector of the self” is a bit misleading. Yes, a sector is a part of us, but each sector stems from the implication that there is an entirely different person inside us, one capable of saving us or remaking us entirely. This is well beyond sensing losses, knowing sustenance, or naming the cost of change. Unknown selves within us become actual and we realize, about our own self, what is possible.

That actual self which steps in, a “latent double,” arises from need and in a way is the true substance of need. It is not something directly good for us, but something that promises a good:

how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
upon need?

The promise of a good constitutes a sort of substance. Need and loss push the self to reproduce and fragment itself. The result is our becoming twins, each one of us, and perhaps one can even say we’re cannibals. Different iterations of the self come and go, stemming from loss. It’s like something has been created, and when struggle ceases, maybe something actually has.

Plato, “Lovers”

for Nathaniel Cochran & Christopher Kirk


Or Rivals, or On Philosophy. This short dialogue probably found disrepute because of its unabashed frankness about Socrates’ life. Two boys debate the theories of Anaxagoras and Oinopides while at school; their young adult lovers attend them. Socrates finds this scene attractive, to say the least, immediately sowing discord. He expresses awe to one of the lovers, a wrestling jock, ostensibly because of the seriousness of the discussion. The jock responds the way most defenders of Division I athletics, i.e. the city, would:

“What do you mean [they are speaking of things] ‘great and noble’! They are babbling about the heavenly things, and they are talking nonsense, philosophizing.” (132b)

His abuse prompts the other lover, a musician, to try to impress the boys. The musician says that such a response should be expected from the wrestler: he can only answer that philosophy is shameful.

So far, we readers have borne witness to mere ad hominem attacks. Is it possible for a serious discussion to emerge? Given Socrates’ own purposes, probably not. He does make it look like one can start, though. The musician is asked “whether it seems… noble or not to philosophize.” The nobility or ignobility of philosophy may be a philosophic query. It certainly appears serious enough. However, Socrates proves too cunning for our higher, theoretical, desires. He asks that question of the musician with such emphasis so as to get exactly what he wants, the attention of the boys:

[Socrates:] Now, just as we were saying these things, the two boys, who had overheard us, became silent, and they themselves ceased from their dispute and became our listeners. I don’t know what the lovers felt, but as for myself, I was stricken wild. For I’m always stricken wild by the young and beautiful. Anyway it seemed to me that the other as well was no less in agony than I. (133a)

Socrates gets the attention of the boys and, um, something else (“stricken wild,” “agony;” cf. Charmides, 155d). It is gross; our sensibilities are rightly offended; for Plato, it is comic. Socrates himself narrates the dialogue. He is exaggerating the account to a sympathizer, one comfortable with his enormous eros and the directions it leads. That sympathizer must be familiar with both Anaxagoras and Oinopides (Bruell 92, fn. 1). This story is told for his sake, but it does not serve as a straightforward defense of the sciences (aka natural philosophy), as we shall see.

The complicating factors have been set forth at the outset. They have less to do with Socrates’ eros and more to do with the boys. Asking whether it was noble or not to philosophize drew their attention. They don’t just want knowledge, they want to be loved, and thus they most certainly desire a high reputation. They want philosophy to be noble.

At the very opening of the dialogue, however, Socrates noted two things which provoke me to wonder. First, the boys were “those of the young who are reputed to be most remarkable for their looks” (132a). “Looks” is the same word Plato uses elsewhere for “forms” (Leake 80, fn. 2). Further, while debating, “they appeared to be describing circles and were imitating certain ecliptics with their hands” (133b). One might say the boys are simply debating the heavenly things, cautioning against over-reading. I believe that in some sense, Socrates sees the boys as the forms themselves.


Though in “agony,” the musician, according to Socrates, “answered in a manner that showed his great love of honor” (133a-b):

“Now Socrates,” he said, “if ever I should consider it shameful to philosophize, I would not even hold myself to be a human being, nor would I anyone else so disposed.” (133b)

Continuing his attack on the wrestler, his attempt to seduce the boys, the musician makes, however accidentally, a serious claim about philosophy. Without philosophy, one could not even consider oneself a human being. Socrates, the very person who claims that the unexamined life is not worth living, characterizes this position as honorable. In the Gorgias, Callicles vehemently dismisses philosophy’s significance: still, for him, some philosophy, some speculation, constitutes a grace in one’s younger days (Gorgias 484c-d). I wonder if Plato’s world more or less had two minds about philosophy. As a kind of New Agey self-reflection that could not threaten law and order, it had something to do with learning in general and could be accepted. As an attempt to clarify or replace heavenly objects, it was evil and dangerous.

Socrates pushes the musician to tell what philosophy is so it can be found noble or shameful. This results in the musician saying that philosophy is much learning, but having to take it back since learning without moderation may not be good (133-134e). Another attempt follows where he tries to define philosophy as noble, befitting a free man and conferring a reputation for wisdom. A philosopher knows the arts and can practice them, but remains more concerned with his reputation of being free. This fails because a philosopher who is like a pentathlete, a second-best expert at a number of things, is strictly speaking useless compared to other artisans and specialists. As he is useless, he is good for nothing (135a-136e).

In both attempts to define philosophy, the problem lies not with philosophy’s supposed nobility, but rather with how it can be useful. This is a strange critique of philosophy. Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds taught the unjust speech, which was most useful and highly ignoble. Here, the boys already are immersed in and eager to do philosophy; this does not constitute the majority of Athens, who are addicted to drama and spectacle. In fact, the setting is specifically the schoolhouse of Dionysus. A Dionysus was said to have been the teacher of Plato (Leake 80, fn. 1).

The way most people understand the virtuous or noble focuses on whether it is good for them or not. Moralistic fables where the virtuous are rewarded abound. It is possible to believe that self-sacrifice constitutes such an honor that one thinks it the only good worth having. The wrestler’s complaint about the debate, though, shows that a demonstration of utility with an implied reverence for the city and its gods will suffice for him.

Socrates agrees with the musician that philosophy is both noble and good (137a). I think this is to further a specific defense of philosophy. What remains would be to prove it useful, consistent with nobility. If one admits philosophy is simply much learning, or that a philosopher could easily be a busybody preoccupied with too many fields of inquiry, one concedes the nobility of philosophy, even if it shows itself to be the most necessary thing, the attempt to know what must be known first.


Somehow, the precise circumstances of the dialogue have receded. A dirty old man competes with two younger lovers for the attention of some boys. What happened to eros?

To be sure, love of wisdom, a desire for much learning, was dismissed as an adequate definition of philosophy (Gk. “love of wisdom”). Only the moderate amount would be good; the musician wants philosophy to be noble and good; eros has been verbally replaced by the noble and good.

Still, the competition for the boys continues. Socrates must show philosophy useful, allowing in some way nobility’s self-evidence to speak to his audience. He must counter the athlete’s denunciation of the boys’ debate.

So of course the dialogue veers into a cryptic, obscure final movement. Out of nowhere, Socrates asks about the punishment and betterment of animals. One art, apparently, correctly punishes, making animals better, distinguishing good from evil (137b-d).

If something about this sounds ludicrous, it is. Is a disobedient, wild horse really evil? Only in light of human purposes for the horse. The art of rule exists relative to our purposes, but the art appears to be one, eternal, part of a rationality which we strive to attain. “Good” and “evil” imply that there are well-ordered souls who could rule well in any given situation. That some such souls for practical purposes exist – typically, they know their limits – reinforces the myth.

The musician, who does not seem stupid, sees betterment, punishment, and distinguishing good and evil fitting together perfectly. His assumption is natural. Rulers can know better and make us better. Thus, justice in the cities, “the science that correctly punishes the unrestrained and lawbreakers,” seems to work the same way as breaking animals (137d). Socrates adduces to this end that an art applicable to one also applies to many (and vice versa); further, that one who knows good and evil or whether oneself is good and evil must be able to punish correctly. If one finds oneself tempted even for a moment to take this proof seriously, consider fully this part of the premises:

[Socrates:] “And if one were an ox and were ignorant of the wicked and good ones [oxen], would one also be ignorant of himself, of what sort one is?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And so too if one were a dog?”

He agreed.

“What then? When one who is a human being is ignorant of the good and evil human beings, isn’t he ignorant of himself, as to whether he is good or evil, since he is himself also a human being?”

He conceded this. (137c-138a)

Yes, Socrates says that an animal is bad because it lacks self-knowledge. Specifically, horses, oxen, and dogs may fail to understand what constitutes good and evil in their species. Thus, they fail to understand themselves and fail in ruling themselves, becoming bad. Oh, and the same applies for humans.


Again, we seem to be a far distance from philosophy or eros. In a little more than a few lines of dialogue, Socrates pulls the musician to contemplate politics. In a way, this makes sense: nobility only makes sense when considered with politics, and both Socrates and the musician have declared philosophy noble. However, the feeling one has when reading the dialogue is of being lost in the most ridiculous place.

In rapid-fire succession, Socrates establishes that self-knowledge (above, the art of rule) is moderation (138a), that moderation and justice are the same thing, that a well-managed city is where the unjust are punished and this is the political art (138b). This political art is held by tyrants, kings, household managers, those who own slaves. It is, um, justice and moderation (138c). A philosopher should be ashamed if he is is neither able to follow nor contribute to such an important art (138d).

In fact, the philosopher must be the most knowledgeable practitioner of the political art. He cannot be “second best,” as the musician claimed was noble for him relative to other artisans. He must be able to manage his own household, judging and punishing correctly himself (138e). (Apparently Socrates’ never being home, not ever, counts as management.) The philosopher should be prepared to be the best ruler if so compelled (139a, cf. Republic 346e-347d).

We’ve gone a very roundabout way to tell the musician he was wrong about philosophy, since it has to rule: “Therefore, you best one [the musician], to philosophize is far from being much learning and preoccupation with the arts” (139a). I confess I am at a loss to properly understand the picture of politics presented, the one which allows for this statement. On the one hand, it is ridiculous. Men cannot be governed as animals; justice and moderation may be the same, but both are probably not as contingent on self-knowledge as Socrates says (138a). Moreover, the “political art” of being a good slaveowner is nothing but a cruel joke (138c).

On the other hand: if there is a political science, a science of rule, it must hold across species. If rule depends on certain virtues (i.e. justice and moderation), then some branch of knowledge (i.e. self-knowledge) must enable these virtues. Finally, if there is a political science, all regimes must share in it. What Socrates has been doing is showing philosophy as noble, as the creator of an art of rule. Suffice to say that real philosophers can see the inhumanity of the project and rightly be cynical of ideas that attempt to establish an essence of rule.


After declaring finally that philosophy as noble “is far from much learning and preoccupation with the arts,” Socrates ends his narration and the dialogue:

“On my saying these things, the wise one, who was ashamed at what he said earlier, was silent, but the ignorant one said that it was so, and the others praised what had been said.” (139a)

I do not think Socrates, despite besting the musician, is sarcastic in calling him “wise.” Philosophers must be willing to be wrong, and to speak the truth of how contemptible political life can be is anyway dangerous. Socrates certainly means the wrestler, the one proclaiming that the philosopher must rule if he is not to be shamed, is an ignoramus.

Which leaves us with the boys: they praise what was said. Did they realize how problematic the nobility of politics was? That the musician, in being shamed, was shamed by a far higher standard than what is conventional? I don’t know. One can know and debate the most complicated cosmological issues and not have the slightest sensitivity to one’s own assumptions. I tend to think they were seduced by Socrates making the claim that the philosopher must rule. What differentiates them from the athlete is that they may, at some point, recall a problematic point in the conversation and change their judgement.

All the same, the boys were implicitly introduced to us by Socrates as the forms themselves, the foundation of reality. On that level, there’s nothing perverted about love for them: it is strictly Platonic. As wisdom itself, they are brought to earth by the possibility that love of wisdom can rule. In their debate, in their visible inconclusiveness, they are the future which can only be made noble in one way through the society in which they reside. Socrates’ defense of philosophy keeps them free. In one sense, the dirty old man never thought of imposing on or seducing the boys. He gave them the space to be.


Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Plato, “Lovers.” tr. James Leake. In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 80-90.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

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