28 March 2005

Bees or Humans--What Does it Matter?

Bobonich consistently misdescribes Phaedo 82a-c when he refers to it in Plato's Utopia Recast. The interesting question is, Why?

As I explained in Stuck in the Mud!, this passage is crucial for Bobonich's interpretation of the Phaedo. Bobonich claims: non-philosophers have lives 'not worth living'; their lives are like that because they have no hope of joining the gods in future lives; and they have no such hope because the best they can do is become reincarnated as ants or bees.

So it's crucial to get this passage right. And yet Bobonich consistently misdescribes it.

Here are some references back to it in the book:

...Plato in the Phaedo clearly does distinguish between better and worse (or unsatisfactory and worse) lives that non-philosophers can live. He even explicitly picks out a group of non-philosophers who are the 'happiest' of non-philosophers--these are the ones reincarnated as ants or bees rather than as wolves or donkeys (492, n.62).

According to an early passage in the Phaedo, the uniform post-mortem fate of non-philosophers is to go to the underworld uninitiated and unpurified and, once there, to 'wallow in the mud' (Phd. 69B7-D3). This pessimistic verdict is confirmed by a second passage in which Plato considers the possibility that human souls undergo reincarnation. In this case, the very best of non-philosophers, i.e. those who have achieved the best character open to one who is not a philosopher, remain impure because they have not been purified by learning and thus cannot enter the company of the gods. The appropriate reward for them is reincarnation into a non-human life, e.g. into the cooperative and tame race of bees or ants (Phd. 82A11-82C1) (6-7).

The 'happiest' and best behaved of non-philosophers, however, go back again into the bodies of 'tame and political creatures' --ants, wasps, and bees (19-20).

The Phaedo's later account (Phd. 82A11-82C2) which we have just seen of the transmigration of non-philosophers' souls offers no less bleak a picture. Here again, joining the company of the gods requires having wisdom as an ultimate end. Non-philosophers will either lie in the mud in Hades or will be reincarnated as a non-human animal (in the best case, as an ant or a bee) (22).

And yet Plato does not say in Phaedo 82a-c that the 'happiest of these' are reincarnated only as ants, wasps, or bees. Rather, as we have seen (see The Best Non-Philosophers Can Do), he also says that they can be reincarnated as human beings. This is not a slight difference, because precisely what is at issue is whether these people ever have the hope of ultimate liberation from cycles of reincarnation. If they can become reincarnated as human beings, then perhaps they can live a philosophical life in some later reincarnation, and then go on to join the gods. Arguably someone's life is 'worth living' now if it leads to a future life that is 'worth living'.

Bobonich's own translation of 82c acknowledges this important qualification:
[They are the happiest] because it is likely that they will go back into a political and tame race, either, I image, that of bees or wasps or ants, or back again into the very same one, the human race, and that respectable men are born from them... (19)
So Bobonich consistently misrepresents the passage when he refers to it; and yet, as his translation indicates, he is aware of what the passage actually says.

This kind of misrepresentation is sloppy at best.

Nonetheless I think I understand why Bobonich, as it seems, takes so little care over it ... as I'll explain in a later post.