The Soul Writ Large
Plato wrote a dialogue on political justice. In English it’s titled The Republic. Besides Socrates, the major speakers are Plato’s two brothers. They are trying to solve a problem that’s been set up by an intruder who barged into their discussion roaring his brutish claim that what goes on in personal and political life is just one thing: the brute struggle for power. The strong overcome the weak. The weak strive in turn to overcome the strong. And whoever wins gets to call the outcome “justice.”
Is this true? Was Thrasymachus (that was the intruder’s name) right? If so, neither Socrates nor we ourselves have much to talk about, do we? Well, let’s not quit before we know for sure. But how can we know for sure? We’re talking about relationships that don’t present themselves to the naked eye. What’s really going on inside ourselves? Where can we look to find out? What should we be looking at?
Socrates draws a suggestive analogy. Imagine that we’re trying to read a page of text but the letters are too small to decipher. If we are to read the letters, we’ll need to magnify them.
The thing we can look at that is closest in character to the psyche, but is an enlargement of its features, is the state. (In Plato’s time, the city-state.) If we can detect its salient features, we can get down to its individual members later.
The state is the soul writ large.
Although it’s beautifully laid out in Plato, in fact I’ve never taken that assertion seriously. When I hear someone sermonize, saying, “if you yearn for world peace, look first within yourself,” I want to yawn. If you’ve got nothing to say, I think privately, why are you boring me with such platitudes? I can find Mother Goose on my own.
Tonight, however, quite suddenly, I decided to try on the Socratic analogy for size. Has my personal life spanned issues that do also beset the body politic? I wanted to look back and try to find out.
Let’s start with my childhood, at least at its peak, the summer when I was ten. We were at Hilltop, the bungalow colony in New Jersey where my parents spent summers. My recollection is that I felt at one with the energies and excitements of nature: dogs, horses, games that were trials of strength and agility, with boys and girls on a par with each other. But aren’t there cultures in the world, or phases of cultures, whose members do try to strike a balance that feels natural and innate? I won’t try to name them or dissect their rationales. I’m not an anthropologist. But it seems that one of the phases, or sectors, of world culture was folded into my own psychic development at the age of ten.
What about adolescence and the years up to my twenties? I lived at home while acquiring my American education at the High School of Music and Art and Barnard College. At home, there was a density of fascinating influences: from my parents and their friends. It was European, Jewish, Biblical, rabbinic – impossible to summarize in a neat phrase. It was mysterious and a challenge. It folded into my psyche, with a lifelong quest to make it all more transparent than it had been in my childhood.
After that came my fellowship year in Paris — with its accompanying romance. The passion and its heartbreak mirrored its prototype, still erotically definitive in Paris: Tristan and Iseult. Their medieval romance had no future in this world. Indeed, the original may have been code for one of the gnostic heresies, where the world was regarded as unreal and fallen, and these romantic archetypes were esoteric pointers to a reality reachable only by antinomian methods.
From childhood, I had been aware of a quite different eros. The Biblical picture of man and woman, whatever its flaws, put couples face to face in real time and concrete contexts. In history, therefore. For me, that contrast raised the question: what notion of eros in the Parisian mind blocked the living-out of romantic love, faithfully, in real time and real-life circumstances? How should the life of desire be lived out in history? That question embedded itself in my life journey from then on.
During the interval of graduate study at Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy, I got a thorough schooling in the “modern” life attitude. It was then dominated by Freud and his alleged discoveries about the psyche. In that worldview, people would need civilizing and educating, of course. But the aim of that would be to suppress and sublimate the unconscious – deemed the repository of one’s actual, amoral desires. In female life, Freud claimed to discover an added unconscious longing: to possess male genitals.
How charming is that? It bestows on a woman two sources of self-doubt: (1) general-human, (2) female. The life of the woman becomes at once prosaic and insincere. What was “folded into” my psyche was the urgency of getting out of there – out of the “modern” realm — of cynicism, careerism and a life-killing dearth of passion.
Taking up graduate study at Penn State’s philosophy department, with its Straussian influence, revived my awareness of philosophy as an unbroken and dramatic conversation, stretching virtually unbroken across world history, setting themes in the life of successive cultures at the highest level: where the cultures searched for truth.
But these great teachers, smart and learned as they were, expressly denied that there could be a feminine presence within that search. So that too folded into my psyche as one more question to resolve. Its career inconvenience didn’t make it any less urgent to me.
This urgency came to a crisis point during my year of study in London. I was now in an aggressively masculine culture, where the entry of a woman into common space would be preceded by an invisible negation sign. All around me, in the student house where I then lived, were women in panic mode. They were getting too old to be desired by men. Nobody talked about it and nobody thought about anything else. The feminine – its power and authority – was being eradicated before my eyes. The remedy on offer was “sublimation.” I took that to mean Denial or some kind of Self-Amputation performed on one’s Inconvenient Femininity.
That’s when I met an African-American young woman who had adopted a gnostic belief-system. Her system regarded the empirical world as delusive and claimed to enable its adherents to ascend to an alternate reality composed of unalloyed spirit –but carrying real-world clout.
What could possibly induce a sophisticated, urbane, multiply-educated Jewish girl to adopt such a belief-system? Well, I’ll tell you.
She had street smarts.
I needed them in a hurry. And philosophy didn’t help. It knew nothing about it. Judaism couldn’t help. All its historical realism could do for me at that point was allow me to notice what was happening without prettying it up. I was too exhausted, morally and spiritually, to pray.
What did I learn from this layer of experience? Well, I won’t try to compress Confessions of a Young Philosopher by Abigail L. Rosenthal, forthcoming with illustrations. However, I did learn that real life, bad as it might be, is better than gnostic solutions that try to erase historical reality by stipulation — by manipulative words.
That said, I did keep some of the street smarts — together with an acquired resistance to unreal solutions for real-world problems. By the time these misadventures were lived through, I could return to life in real time, having found no credible escape from our historically-delivered, evolving, common culture — with all its wrongs and rights.
There is always more to the story but, as of now, what do I conclude? By golly, who would have believed it?
The state-of-the world IS
the soul writ large.