Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Plato's Republic - justice, fantasy and censorship - We'll ask Homer not to be angry

I had ambitions to write about Plato’s Republic with some thoroughness, but I guess I will just pursue one point.  Good enough.

I have been separating Socrates from Plato, an imaginative exercise based on circular criteria.  The more Socratic of the Socratic dialogues are shorter, feature proto-novelistic details about settings and characters, and end without resolving the question at issue.  The first book of Republic is one such proto-novel.  With the second book, though, the characters and details fall away, and Socrates, rather than interrogating the ideas of his listeners, directly presents his own ideas.  Perhaps the first book was written earlier, or perhaps Plato was signaling with self-parody that he was shifting to a new rhetorical mode.  The topic is classic: what is justice.  Here, he shows, is how I used to answer the question, and then here is the new way.

Socrates’s enemy in the first chapter asserts that justice is the pleasure of the strong and the suffering of the weak – what most of us would call injustice – with any other definitions simply the special pleading of the weak.  An ugly position, but a strong one, hard to refute without a number of arguable assumptions.

Plato – Socrates is speaking, but I now think of the speaker as ironic Plato – shifts the discussion to political justice and the ideal city-state, where specially trained philosopher-kings, selfless because they share property and even sexual partners, run a city based on a fictional racial caste system and eugenics.  It is not quite a version of “You know who should be in charge – we should be in charge!” but it is close, and the radical policies are of course, to anyone who remembers the twentieth century, appalling, the setup for mass murder and the destruction of human rights.

Socrates is, I find, an appealing if aggravating figure (and aggravation is part of his appeal), but in The Republic Plato becomes The Enemy, the intellectual ancestor of a lot of later ideological catastrophes.

His radical censorship, for example:

Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.  We’ll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren’t.  And we’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell their children the ones we have selected, since they will chape their children’s souls with stories much more than they shape their bodies by handling them.  Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out.  (Book 2, 377c, tr. G. M. A. Grube)

Socrates / Plato particularly dislikes stories where gods act like humans or where there is some kind of icky sexual aspect.  He is a bit of a Puritan.  He wants to bowdlerize Homer.  Presumably Sophocles, too – “we’ll be angry with him, we’ll refuse him a chorus” (2, 383c), and Euripides and Aristophanes will likely be wiped out.  I wonder how much of Homer will be left.

We’ll ask Homer and the other poets not to be angry if we delete these passages and all similar ones (Book 3, 387b).

This is a bit of the Odyssey  in which the souls of the killed suitors are compared to bats.  The objection of Socrates is that it is too scary for a future philosopher-king!  “[S]hudders” will make them “softer.”  Hilarious.

I am aware of Leo Strauss’s argument that The Republic is satirical, a travesty, meant to be outrageous.  I don’t know.  I don’t dismiss the idea, but I have trouble following it while reading the actual text.

An irony is that late in life, as I order his works, Plato becomes a great storyteller, an early master of fantasy fiction.  The rich, bizarre Parable of the Cave in The Republic is the ancestor of endless science fiction stories, most famously, I suppose, The Matrix movies.  Plato ends the book with an elaborate afterlife fantasy.  The late dialogue Timaeus vividly describes the creation of the universe.  The unfinished Critias describes Atlantis and suggests that the bulk of it, if Plato had lived to finish it, would detail the long war between Atlantis and the Athens of 9,000 years ago.  How is this anything but a fantasy novel?  Two recent blockbuster movies have featured wars with Atlantis, and I believe a third is coming this summer.  To think that these goofy superhero movies are direct descendants of Plato.

Our next philosopher is the down-to-earth Aristotle.  We won’t find so much fantasy in the commonsensical Nicomachean Ethics, which I hope to write up in early June.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Thou hast devourd thy sonnes - some notes on Seneca's horror plays

My Seneca reading in March:

Medea, tr. Frederick Ahl

The Trojan Women, tr. E. F. Watling

Thyestes, tr. Jasper Heywood

Hercules Furens, tr. Heywood

The Madness of Hercules, tr. Dana Gioia

The plays themselves are all from the mid-1st century, perhaps written when Seneca was in political exile and had time to kill.  The Heywood translations are form the 16th century, pre-dating Shakespeare and so on, and are landmarks in the history of English theater and poetic translation.  The other translations are more recent; the Gioia is brand new.

It is Gioia’s fault that I have delayed this post for so long.  His new translation includes a 57 page essay on Seneca that is the best thing I have ever read on the playwright, even better than the great T. S. Eliot essay that precedes the 1927 edition of Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies, the 1581 anthology that so strongly influenced English theater.  Gioia is clear, efficient, and worst of all thorough.  He even has insightful things to say about Eliot’s essay.  The translation is also good.  He kinda discouraged me from writing anything.  Just read him.  You’ll have to buy a copy of the book, since it is from a little publisher, Wiseblood Books, that most libraries won’t know.  They also just published Marly Youmans’s strange, beautiful new poetic fantasy Seren of the Wildwood.  Buy them together!

So what is my simple thumbnail Seneca like?  Let’s see.

He adapted Greek plays, themselves all adaptations.  Mostly Euripides.  Seneca minimizes the characters and moves the chorus into a new role, providing thematically-related songs that connect the five acts.  He has five acts; that is also new.  Sometimes, The Trojan Women being a good example, structure and function of the play is not so different than the Greek original, nor so different than modern ideas of dramatic structure.  But sometimes Seneca is more radical.

Thyestes is the appalling story of King Atreus feeding his two nephews to their father, his brother King Thyestes, a classical horror story, one of the many curses underlying The Oresteia.  In Seneca’s version, in the first act the fury Maegera incites Tantalus, himself a monster, to curse his nephews, Thyestes and Atreus.  Tantalus and Magera are never seen again.  Most of the rest of the play is essentially a series of monologues.  This is static rather than dramatic.  Anti-dramatic. The main characters barely meet until the end, when Atreus displays for his brother the heads of his devoured children.

ATREUS: Thou hast devourd thy sonnes and fykd thy selfe with wicked meat.

THYESTES: Oh this is it that sham’de the Gods and day from hence did dryve

Turn’d back to east, alas I wretche what waylinges may I geve?  (p. 90)

Then there’s some gruesome stuff about severed heads and hands and rolling bowels.  Note the rhyming fourteen syllable lines, an innovation of Heywood’s that did not catch on.

However cruel Euripides was, Seneca is crueler.  Medea murders her two children onstage.  If you have ever wondered why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, this is the answer: he was imitating and perhaps even trying to outdo Seneca.

The entire English revenge tragedy tradition is founded in this way on Seneca, although my understanding is that Italian theater absorbed Seneca first and some of the English gore is actually borrowed from Italian theater, so Senecan but at second-hand.

Meanwhile, French theater dropped the murdered children and kept the anti-drama, keeping the motionless full-act monologues.  Please see Mary Sidney’s outstanding 1592 translation of Robert Garnier’s Marc-Antoine (1578) or The Hebrew Women (1583), with the warning that as drama they are tedious.  Soon enough Jean Racine will figure out how to fill the static structure with emotional and poetic intensity.  Hard to believe that the pure Phèdre and the sloppy, mad Titus Andronicus both derive from the same source.

I mentioned that Seneca’s Medea kills her children onstage, but that is false because there was no stage.  Seneca’s plays were not performed in that sense.  Yet the act of reading, for Seneca and his peers, meant reading aloud – meant having a slave or servant read aloud to him – and thus any reading was a kind of performance.  It is easy to imagine groups of friends gathering to hear talented servants read the plays.  Still, there would be no masks or dragon chariots hanging from cranes or severed heads or murdered children.  All of that would be in the text and the imagination.  The Italians, and Shakespeare, putting that onstage, were distorting Seneca.

Elizabethan plays are crammed with paraphrased quotations of Seneca.  I won’t go into that.  There are books, as they say, entire books, some of which are just catalogues of the quotations.  Reading for the sententiae is probably lost to most of us today.

Nevertheless I enjoyed my return to Seneca, to the extent that his horrors are enjoyable, and hope to read them again someday.  Maybe I will try Emily Wilson’s recent translation.  I will certainly reread Dana Gioia.

This concludes my little Roman play project.  Thanks to anyone who read along or commented.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Books finished in April 2023

 I continue the practice of posting a list as a substitute for real writing.

Coming soon: a long overdue loot at Seneca's plays, a glance at Gide's Counterfeiters, and some messing around with Plato's Republic.

If I did not write in April, I at least read:


The Republic




Critias, 4th C. BCE, Plato

Classical Philosophy, 2014, Peter Adamson


The Storm and Other Poems, 1956, Eugenio Montale

Sicilian Uncles, 1958, Leonardo Sciascia

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1962, Giorgio Bassani

Midnight in Sicily, 1996, Peter Robb - many thanks to those who recommended this book. The big surprise was the literary criticism, outstanding chapters on The Leopard and the place of Sciascia in Sicilian politics and culture.


Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross, 1922, Sigrid Undset

Surfeit of Lampreys, 1940, Ngaio Marsh

A Streetcar Named Desire, 1947, Tennessee Williams



When I Sleep, Then I See Clearly: Selected Poems, 1917-85, J. V. Foix

As for Love: Poems and Translations, 1987, M. L. Rosenthal - contains some good Foix translations

Complete Poems, 1934-44, Keith Douglas - the curse of the war poet

Transport to Summer, 1947, Wallace Stevens

This Afterlife: Selected Poems, 2022, A. E. Stallings - a major work

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, 2023, Dana Gioia



La Légende des siècles (Première Série), 1859, Victor Hugo

A Nova Califórnia e Outros Contos, 1910-22, Lima Barreto - a second-rate Machado de Assis, which is not a bad thing to be. Perfect for the language learner.