Singing in the sun

Andrea Capra

Hi everybody, I have given my research talk and I have started discussing my work and other topics with a number of people: this is proving truly exciting and I thank them all. To my delight, some of them seem to be surprisingly keen on a few of my favourite things, such as grasshoppers, crazed-with-sun cicadas and other minutiae, and my idea that Plato’s philosophical discourse can be conceptualized as a kind of ‘magnetic’ song resonates well here at the Center, which is wonderful to me.

In the talk, my starting point was that rhapsodic discourse as presented in the Ion and that Socratic discourse as depicted in the Symposium and the Phaedrus are closely related phenomena: both can be envisaged as chains of passionate accounts, formed by human ‘rings’ taking over ‘magic’ words and and passing them on to other people. In both cases, this phenomenon is described as a form of possession, and the ‘symptoms’ – including tears, palpitations and so on – are just the same. Differences, however, are even more important. Socratic chains, as opposed to their rhapsodic models, are formed by ‘active’ and vigilant rings: the transmission of Socratic discourse is creative, lucid, and never-ending, in contrast with the weakening force of poetic rhapsodies (as viewed by Plato). Plato’s final goal seems to be that of abating the (increasing) distinction between performers and audience, so as to restore a kind of primal form of discourse. These and other details point to philosophy as a speech act that shares with poetry many features, including the emotional quality of the process, in a curious blend of archaic and innovative elements.

This impression is reinforced by a fresh interpretation of the cicada myth in the Phaedrus:  Socrates’ and Phaedrus’ midday encounter with these servants of the Muses is modelled after traditional scenes of initiation as found in the stories of Hesiod, Epimenides, Archilochus, and others. Again, the analogies are surprisingly numerous and specific, but at the same time differences are particularly telling. For example, the myth is unique in presenting the (potential) initiation of two friends rather than of a solitary poet:  this points to the birth of a new kind of poetic discourse, which stands out in so far as it is dialogical. Other passages of the Phaedrus, such as Socrates’ prayers to Eros and Pan, go in the same direction: with an arresting echo from the story of Thamyris’ poetic ‘termination’, Plato distances his hero from a well-known anti-paradigm. These and other features can ultimately result in a fairly accurate description of Plato’s philosophical discourse, which is possibly the main goal of my research here.

I am increasingly persuaded that the Phaedrus is the most self-referential of Plato’s dialogues, so I now think that the task of describing Plato’s philosophical discourse might eventually result in a monograph on this dialogue. Here is a provisional index of the hoped-for book:


Prelude: Plato’s self-disclosing strategies: survey and new insights

Chapter 1, ‘STESICHORE’: Stesichorus and the palinode

Chapter 2, ‘SAPPHO’: Gorgias, lyric poetry and philosophical rhetoric

Chapter 3, ‘OURANIA & CALLIOPE’: The cicadas and the initiation to dialectics

Chapter 4, ‘HELEN’: Plato’s tree, or a figural reading of the Phaedrus

Conclusions: What song for the Kallipolis?

So far, I have an advanced draft of the introduction and of chapters 1, 2, and 3 (which includes my research talk), as well as some material related to the Prelude: I will try my best to work it out by the end of January, so as to have a continuous draft of roughly two thirds of the final book. The Prelude includes a part on the Lysis, which I will present at the conference “History, Philosophy, Tragedy”, Tampa FL, February 24 (Performing Plato: voices of love and poetry in the Lysis). As for the rest, I have to warn my adorable fellow fellows: trouble is around the corner, because I will surely try to inflict my draft on them and profit from their wisdom. As this Italian would say, “uomo avvisato mezzo salvato” (forewarned is forearmed, I guess).

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