Thursday, November 13, 2014

Plutarch, On the Genius of Socrates (Part II: Secret Messages and Souls Like Stars)

To Part I

Theanor begins to recount his story to the gathered conspirators. Lysis was an important Pythagorean who escaped a purge. Nobody had known exactly where he had escaped to, however; although there was one clue in that Gorgias of Leontini, the famous orator, had claimed that he had talked to Lysis while in Thebes. Gorgias had told this to Arcesus, who wanted to go to Thebes to find Lysis alive, if possible, or to bring back his body if he was dead. However, "wars, usurpations, and seditions" interfered with his ability to do so, and he and his friends never actually made it. However, Lysis' daimonion had provided assistance, and others had told them that the family of Epaminondas had buried Lysis with honor. So Theanor, although a very young man, has come as a representative of his elders; he is carrying a lot of money, which he is willing to offer to Epaminondas and his family (which includes Charon, Caiphisias, and Polymnis) as a gift of thanks for their honoring of Lysis. Polymnis weeps at the memory of him. It turns out, however, that Epaminondas has been refusing to accept the money, and he gives an extended argument to his family that it is more noble to forego it: Lysis, through his teaching, has already given them more than enough to repay what they had to spend in burying them. Epaminondas and Theanor argue about this a while, with Epaminondas arguing that even if there is nothing wrong with taking the money, "abstinence from lawful pleasure is exercise against unlawful".

Simmias approves of Epaminondas' nobility, but points out that this is an argument they can have among themselves in private. What he wants to know is what Theanor's plans are -- does he intend to remove the body? Theanor says that Lysis is probably pleased with his burial in Thebes; the reason he's here is that once the Pythagoreans realized that Lysis had died, because they had dreams about him, they realized that he had not been buried with the proper Pythagorean death rites. So he went to the tomb of Lysis and, having performed his sacrifices, summoned the soul of Lysis. When he did so, he heard a voice, saying, "Move not those relics that ought not to be moved, for Lysis's body was duly and religiously interred; and his soul is sent to inform another body, and committed to the care of another Daemon." (Pythagoreans, of course, believed in reincarnation.) In the morning, when he met Epaminondas, he discovered that Lysis had initiated Epaminondas into the rites of the Pythagoreans, and that (apparently) the daimonion that looked after Lysis was also looking after Epaminondas.

At this point they are interrupted (this dialogue has almost as many interruptions as characters) by Simmias's doctor, who unbandages and prepares to dress the knee again. Phyllidas comes in with Hipposthenides, and he looks very concerned. He pulls Caiphisias, Charon, and Theocritus aside. Phyllidas accuses Hipposthenides of trying to sabotage the conspiracy because of his cowardice. Hipposthenides protests that Phyllidas should not confuse courage with rashness. Phyllidas merely reiterates that Hipposthenides has tried to ruin everything by sending a message to the exiles not to come today. Naturally this troubles the other plotters, whose plan depends on the exiles returning that day. Hipposthenides defends himself. The plotters may make Archias drunk, but they can hardly get his entire guard of fifteen hundred men drunk. What's more, it is clear that the Spartans suspect something, since they've had the guards on alert, and the fact that they are so adamant about putting Amphitheus to death is a sign that the conspiracy is discovered -- they may not know exactly who is in it, but they surely know something is going on. In addition, diviners sacrificing an ox to Ceres had read the omens, which indicated sedition and danger. And to top it all off, Hipposthenides was stopped yesterday by someone he knew who had had a dream in which Charon's house was in labor; Charon and his family were praying around the house to stop its groaning, but a fire broke out from it that burned most of the city to the ground, although the fortress was only singed. Hipposthenides says he thinks that the city is the Thebans and the fortress is their overlords.

Theocritus protests that all of his sacrifices had good omens for the conspirators. He gives a completely different interpretation of the dream, in which it shows that the plans of the conspirators are not uncovered, and accuses the priests of Ceres of being under the influence of the tyrannical government. Caiphisias, somewhat more practical, asks Hipposthenides who he sent with the message, and when, in order to find out whether the damage can be avoided. It turns out to be Clido, master of horses to Melon, and he is riding the best horse in Thebes, so Hipposthenides says that won't be able to catch up to him. Which is good reasoning, but stumbles on the fact that while they have been discussing these things, Clido himself has walked up to the gate. He wasn't able to take the message. When he went to get his horse and called for his bridle, nobody could find it. He wasted a lot of time looking for it before his wife admitted that someone else had borrowed it. He then shouted at her, and she cursed his journey. Then Clido started beating her; but then the neighbors and other women came in and started beating him, and he is now so bruised that he asks Hipposthenides to send someone else.

Instead of being relieved by this, the conspirators are now anxious about their plans -- having come so close to crashing, it no longer seems stable. But they begin to carry out:

Presently we parted. Phyllidas went home to prepare his entertainment, and to make Archias drunk as soon as conveniently he could; Charon went to his house to receive the exiles; and I and Theocritus went back to Simmias again, that having now a good opportunity, we might discourse with Epaminondas.

Theocritus and Caiphisias find Simmias in heated debate with Galaxidorus about the nature of Socrates' daimonion. They had missed Simmias's major reply, but they could get the gist of it. Simmias had once asked Socrates about it, but did not get a reply. However, Socrates did tend to regard as frauds people who claimed to have seen divine apparitions, while he showed an active interest in people who claimed to have heard divine voices, which suggests Socrates' daimonion was manifested as a sensible perception of voice, or, even more likely, an understanding of words without voice (as sometimes occurs in dreams):

But inasmuch as language, apprehended without any sensible voice, easily excites; so, in my opinion, the understanding of a superior nature and a more divine soul may excite an inferior soul, touching it from without, like as one speech may touch and rouse another, and as light causes its own reflection. We, it is true, as it were groping in the dark, find out one another's conceptions by the voice; but the conceptions of the Daemons carry a light with them, and shine to those that are able to perceive them, so that there is no need of words such as men use as signs to one another, seeing thereby only the images of the conceptions, and being unable to see the conceptions themselves unless they enjoy a peculiar and (as I said before) a divine light.

Thus Simmias regards the sneezing theory of Socrates' divine sign as obviously absurd. He offers to tell a story he heard from Timarchus on the subject, and Theocritus, in particular, is eager to hear it. Timarchus was a close friend of Socrates' son Lamprocles. He had been curious about Socrates' divine sign, and he had come up with a scheme, which was known only to himself, to Simmias, and to Cebes, in which he performed special rites in the cave of Trophonius.

The cave was very dark and Timarchus was unsure whether he was waking or dreaming, but he imagined that his soul escaped his skull and heard a subtle music. He looked up and saw islands of fire shining brightly in a beautiful blue sea. The sea was fed by rivers of white fire. When he looked down, however, he saw an abyss of rolling darkness filled with distant screams and groans. Then something spoke to him, asking what he wished to understand; to which Timarchus replied that he wished to understand everything. The voice replied that the things above were the domain of other gods, but he could visit Proserpina's quarter, if he'd like. Proserpina's quarter is one-fourth of the underworld, as divided by the River Styx, which is the way to Hades. Timarchus sees stars vanishing and reappearing, and the voice says that these are divine things:

These, said the voice, are Daemons; for thus it is. Every soul hath some portion of reason; a man cannot be a man without it; but as much of each soul as is mixed with flesh and appetite is changed, and through pain or pleasure becomes irrational. Every soul doth not mix herself after one sort; for some plunge themselves into the body, and so in this life their whole fame is corrupted by appetite and passion; others are mixed as to some part, but the purer part still remains without the body,—it is not drawn down into it, but it swims above, and touches the extremest part of the man's head; it is like a cord to hold up and direct the subsiding part of the soul, as long as it proves obedient and is not overcome by the appetites of the flesh. That part that is plunged into the body is called the soul, but the uncorrupted part is called the mind, and the vulgar think it is within them, as likewise they imagine the image reflected from a glass to be in that. But the more intelligent, who know it to be without, call it a Daemon.

The stars that vanish are souls plunging into bodies; those that reappear are those who have died; and those that rise to the highest levels are the daemons for sages and philosophers. Each of the stars has its own motion; some are erratic (these are the undisciplined) while others are very regular (the philosophically educated). The latter are those that are capable of responding to the light touches of the divine signs.

The voice tells Timarchus that he will know more in three months, and the young man felt a sharp pain in his head, as if his soul were being stuffed back into it and his skull forcibly pressed closed. Three months later Timarchus died; Simmias and Cebes told Socrates the story. Socrates was angry that they waited to tell him.

At this point, Simmias suggests that they ask Theanor to discourse on the subject. Theanor points out that Epaminondas is also an initiate; but it is replied back to him that Epaminondas likes keeping quiet about such things. So Theanor begins to reflect on the story of Timarchus.

(to be continued)

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