After visiting Socrates at the British Museum an idea took flight, perhaps it was a divine madness, I don’t know, but I pondered on his welfare wondering whether this ancient soul was happy, eudaimonic, located among his philosopher companions Antisthenes, Chrysippos and Epikouros , or grown tired of their company and would prefer to spend time elsewhere.
Given his preference for city life, being a lover of knowledge and having quipped that “landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me, only people do”, I contemplated whether he might have been better placed near the Parthenon Sculptures. At least he would be in the midst of onlookers and admirers, and could look forward to becoming mired in controversial discussion whether these famous marbles should be in London or Athens. He would I knew enjoy the rhetoric, the oratory aimed at different people and audiences.
On the other hand recalling Phaedrus, would he be tempted to leave the bounds of the museum to reside near Eros in the West End, or even visit Trafalgar Square with its famous column and economy of signs and significations.
While the plinth and thumb might serve as commentary on Brexit and a rejection of the world beyond, it occurred to me that in these columns Lacan had a point in his explication of The Meaning of the Phallus, “For it is to this signified that it is given to designate as a whole the effect of there being a signified, insamuch as it conditions any such effect by its presence as signifier.” Of course London has almost a surfeit of plinths, pillars and towers reaching upwards, celebrating fame and glory in the realm, creating a discourse which leads one to ask what is being elucidated here? Within the British Museum, an Egyptian antiquity depicts pharoanic authority and power through cartouches listing every dynasty that preceded a particular ruler, so are these relics, pillars, plinths, statues, columns and towers accoutrements signifying instead empire, the glory of monarchical rule, and through its enduring presence gives it legitimacy. Are we therefore cut off from the meaning in our own lives by the constant presence of regal significations across history and time, an imperium, which leave us to traffic memories of our own ordinariness in bondage.
Did I desire rather that the Antipodean tall poppy syndrome might be brought to bear? It is not that I am uncomfortable with fame, and the celebration of established artists, thinkers, scientists or warriors, and their contribution to civilisation, but there seems to be little acknowledgement in London of ordinary working men and women, of discontents and toilers who worked anonymously to make the city, and nation great. Although these heroes should be an inspiration, are these edifices just an indication that fame, elites and power serve to generate loyalty to the crown, and a government which is always in its service.
These musings might seem far from Socrates, yet I found it to be quite ironic that he was housed so close to the Rosetta Stone given his commentary on writing, and the discovery of letters which “will create forgetfulness in their learners’ souls because they will not use their memories; they will trust to external written characters and not remember of themselves. … As for wisdom, it is the reputation, not the reality, that you have to offer to those who learn from you; they will have heard many things and yet have received no teaching; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing, they will be tiresome company, having not acquired wisdom but the the show of wisdom.”
In fact he goes on to declare: “I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing has one grave fault in common with painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of books. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you require an explanation of something that has been said, they preserve one unvarying meaning.” And this seems to be the real problem, I can imagine for example, Bertrand Russell, who lived around the corner from the British Museum in Bloomsbury popping in to contemplate the problems of philosophy and deciding that since there was no explanation to be found in response from Plato, and because Socrates is silent, then perhaps their ideas and forms can instead determined to be universal. The idea has no defence. It is silent except for the unvarying meaning given in a book.
The spoken word however is graven on the soul of the learner who sits with the philosopher to learn and whose mind is thus given wings, whereas the “written word is properly no more than an image.” Can there any defence against the alleged omniscience of book derived knowledge, or the shows of wisdom that the celebration of fame in statuary represents, except other than to aspire to tread the path of acquiring the living word of knowledge, rather than being in the grip of ruminations or creating literary amusements as “memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age”!
I meditate on the bust of Socrates and know there can be no answers to my questions. He left no written works nor intended seemingly any to be left. Perhaps he might return 3,000 years after taking the hemlock on the chariot of reincarnation, only 500 years hence, but I will be long gone. Still, for the love of philosophy, a museum that claims to present human history to the world public in the context of global cultural identities, rather than just being a local museum in justification of retaining the Parthenon Sculptures, also has a responsibility to curate its artefacts according to universal ideas and philosophy, not just to classify exhibits according to regions or epochs along a timeline.
I look at the Parthenon Sculptures, the bust of Socrates, and think over this memoir to my own forgetfulness, and ask: What are we doing here?
All photos taken with an Olympus OM-2, using a Zuiko f/1.4 50mm lens, on Fuji Superia 400 and Kodak Colorplus 200. See also Phaedrus in the The Dialogues of Plato Volume 2 translated by Benjamin Jowett.