Plato, Part 2
On this land, Plato began the work he had been born for.
In Brahminical tradition, there is a very old ritual called Upanayana. It is an initiatory rite and what the rite initiates is education - it is the rite by which the young boy is accepted by his teacher and thereby begins his education.
Like all initiatory rites, the Upanayana signifies both death and rebirth. The child is killed by the rite and the death of the child is the necessary condition for the birth of the disciple.
This is a profound truth about education: real education kills you. The true teacher is really an assassin.
This may sound shocking or ridiculous to our ears. But this is because we have forgotten what it is to be a teacher and what it is to be a student. Oh, of course, we have the pale, attenuated versions of this relationship, but they are all bloodless, these versions, they are the dull, bureaucratic versions of a relationship and an encounter that is in its essence both murderous and divine.
According to the Atharva Veda, what happens in the Upanayana is that the disciple enters the teacher and the teacher becomes pregnant with the disciple. The teacher bears the disciple in his belly and gives birth to him.
Believe me, there is absolutely nothing bloodless about birth.
There may also be nothing more divine.
Plato loved Socrates.
The love was not uncomplicated; it never is, between a parent and a child. As Plato learned, he began to find disagree, he began to find flaws. He grew, as he saw it, beyond Socrates, because he had an answer where Socrates only had his holy ignorance.
But all of that is consistent with love, and Plato loved Socrates.
When Plato was on his deathbed, Plutarch says, he looked back on his life and was grateful for three things above all:
Plato, when he was now at the point of death, lauded his guardian genius and Fortune because, to begin with, he had been born a man and not an irrational animal ; again, because he was a Greek and not a Barbarian; and still again, because his birth had fallen in the times of Socrates.
Socrates was Plato’s teacher, his initiator into the holy rites, the man who had lifted Plato out of the world and set him on the sacred path that had led to the divine.
We know what happened to Socrates. But we must try to imagine it as it happened to Plato.
Plato loved Socrates.
He watched as a group of puffed-up tyrants prosecuted Socrates on the most laughable of pretexts.
He saw Socrates in the dock, calm and arrogant, refusing to submit to the demands of “common sense”.
He saw Socrates smiling when the jury condemned him to death.
He saw Socrates mock the jury when he was asked to suggest an alternative punishment to death.
He saw Socrates reject the pleas of his friends and disciples to save himself.
And then he saw Socrates drink the hemlock and die.
The best of men … no, not the best of men. Socrates was something apart from men.
Socrates had been put to death by … by men. By men who were angry, who were drunk on power and inflamed with resentment, small men, scared men.
Plato had wanted a political career. He wanted to be involved in public life. He was enough of a man of his time and class to believe that this was both a man’s duty and his privilege: to participate in civic life, to actively bring about the common good.
He felt sick when he thought of it now. Politics? Public life? With men like these, men capable of putting Socrates to death? Serving a mob who cheered the murderers on?
A pox on all your houses, thought Plato. Better to be a common thief than be a part of all this.
Have you ever had your heart broken?
Of course you have. You’re a human being.
And so you know what it’s like when a person haunts a place. When every street, every door, every flower … when every damned thing reminds you of them. When the air is thick with them, when you can’t breathe because when you breathe you can feel them, inside your ribs, working away, grief first gnawing and then taking enormous chunks out of your flesh.
Yes. Of course you know.
Now Plato knew too.
It was too much. He left Athens.
He went to Megara to meet his friend, the philosopher Eucleides. He went to southern Italy to meet the disciples of Pythagoras. He went to Egypt and travelled throughout the Persian Empire.
Plato wandered the world, he suffered, endured, and learned. The Pythagoreans opened their mysteries to him. He was initiated into the ancient rites of the Egyptians. He was instructed in the words of Moses. He studied Zoarastrianism from the Persian Magi.
And all the while, he thought of the murder of Socrates. He would never forgive. But he was beginning to understand.
In 387 BC, twelve years after Socrates was murdered by the tyrants and the mob, Plato returned to Athens. He bought a piece of land just outside the city walls. The land was called the Academy because it was dedicated to the ancient hero Akademus.
And on this land, Plato began the work he had been born for. He talked and taught, held informal classes and discussions with whoever was interested. They would meet in the olive grove and talk long into the night, the air turning cool and the sky glittering with a hard light.
And 12 years after that, Plato wrote the Republic. This book, the culmination of the last 30 years, and arguably the crowning literary achievement of his philosophical life, had one fundamental question: What is justice?