14 March 2006

A Second Voyage

Here's yet another passage to be filed under, "Strange Thing I Only Just Noticed". It's from the Phaedo, after Socrates has just finished presenting his "three initial arguments", and just before Simmias and Cebes give their objections. Simmias is the speaker; but he begins by signalling Socrates' likely agreement with what he says, and he speaks with so much more authority than he does elsewhere in the dialogue, that one can't help taking this to express Plato's view as well. I give first Gallop's translation, then the Greek:

I think, Socrates, as perhaps you do too, that in these matters certain knowledge is either impossible or very hard to come by in this life; but that even so, not to test what is said about them in every possible way, without leaving off till one has examined them exhaustively from every aspect, shows a very feeble spirit; on these questions one must achieve one of two things: either learn or find out how things are; or, if that's impossible, then adopt the best and least refutable of human doctrines, embarking on it as a kind of raft, and risking the dangers of the voyage through life, unless one could travel more safely and with less risk, on a sooner conveyance afforded by some divine doctrine (85c-d).

e)moi\ ga\r dokei=, w)= Sw/kratej, peri\ tw=n toiou/twn i)/swj w(/sper kai\ soi\ to\ me\n safe\j ei)de/nai e)n tw=| nu=n bi/w| h)\ a)du/naton ei)=nai h)\ pagxa/lepo/n ti, to\ me/ntoi au)= ta\ lego/mena peri\ au)tw=n mh\ ou)xi\ panti\ tro/pw| e)le/gxein kai\ mh\ proafi/stasqai pri\n a)\n pantaxh=| skopw=n a)pei/ph| tij, pa/nu malqakou= ei)=nai a)ndro/j: dei=n ga\r peri\ au)ta\ e(/n ge/ ti tou/twn diapra/casqai, h)\ maqei=n o(/ph| e)/xei h)\ eu(rei=n h)/, ei) tau=ta a)du/naton, to\n gou=n be/ltiston tw=n a)nqrwpi/nwn lo/gwn labo/nta kai\ dusecelegkto/taton, e)pi\ tou/tou o)xou/menon w(/sper e)pi\ sxedi/aj kinduneu/onta diapleu=sai to\n bi/on, ei) mh/ tij du/naito a)sfale/steron kai\ a)kinduno/teron e)pi\ bebaiote/rou o)xh/matoj, [h)\] lo/gou qei/ou tino/j, diaporeuqh=nai. kai\ dh\ kai\ nu=n e)/gwge ou)k e)paisxunqh/somai e)re/sqai, e)peidh\ kai\ su\ tau=ta le/geij, ou)d' e)mauto\n ai)tia/somai e)n u(ste/rw| xro/nw| o(/ti nu=n ou)k ei)=pon a(/ moi dokei=. e)moi\ ga/r, w)= Sw/kratej, e)peidh\ kai\ pro\j e)mauto\n kai\ pro\j to/nde skopw= ta\ ei)rhme/na, ou) pa/nu fai/netai i(kanw=j ei)rh=sqai.

Gallop's translation follows Fowler's (Loeb) in suggesting that there are only two alternatives among things 'one should strive to achieve'. But aren't there four?
  1. learn from another (how it is)
  2. discover for oneself (how it is)
  3. cling to the best and least refutable human account
  4. cling with greater security and safety to a more stable divine account.
1. and 2. are surely different: 'learning from another' is standardly contrasted with 'discovering for oneself' by Plato (e.g in Alc. I), and here Plato keeps them distinct by interposing o(/ph| e)/xei. But then, once we see that these are different, then 4. as well looks like an independent alternative.

And then I was struck by the similarity between 3. and Socrates' talk of a 'second voyage' later in the dialogue. In that later passage, startlingly, he begins by saying that he was unable to learn from another or discover by his own efforts the sort of cause he was looking for:
Now I should most gladly have become anyone's pupil, to learn the truth about a reason of that sort; but since I was deprived of that, proving unable either to find it for myself or to learn it from anyone else (ou)/t' au)to\j eu(rei=n ou)/te par' a)/llou maqei=n), would you like me, Cebes, to give you a display of how I've conducted my second voyage in quest of the reason? (99c)
After this, Socrates gives his 'safe explanation': presumably, then, he thinks of this as "the best and least refutable among human accounts" (corresponding to 3.).

But then, we may wonder, does Socrates give us something even better to cling to--a divine account (corresponding to 4.)? Perhaps he does, in the myth that comes last in the dialogue.