On Cooper’s “Plato” and Trimble’s “The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, And Belief”

“Monday Musings” for Monday July 29, 2013

Volume III, No. 28/131


Plato – From Raphael’s School of Athens (1509)

Plato, A Book Review

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


Edited by John M. Cooper
Associate Editor: D.S. Hutchinson
1809 pages written by
26 contributors
1742 pages of text
Four pages of epigrams (poems by Plato)
61 pages of index
Hatckett Publishing Company, Inc.

Plato’s prose is lyrical.  His reference to his “ostad”/guru/teacher/role model and Baba, Socrates, are odes to knowledge and reverence for love. Most people eponymously link Plato with the book Republic and Symposium. But Plato wrote more. He wrote essays on the law (see below), and social contract.

The book Plato is an almost 1800 page work simply makes an elegant presentation. I have read Plato’s books in many languages throughout my life. But never all of Plato’s in one sitting and not in one huge plate. What a feast! Reading the collected work in proper sequence has been a joy. It has taken me a couple of years to complete the volume, make notes and now offer a review. It has been like climbing a tall mountain one step at a time. Also, a brief review of Michael Trimble’s book related to our four part series “Brain and Behaviour”.

Anatomy of this massive work:

Following the introduction, editor’s notes and acknowledgements, there are about fifty books or chapters, 35 of which are Plato’s dialogues and the rest, some fifteen additional works, such as The Law, complete the volume.  Each of the 35 dialogues is written by a contributor, a luminary of Socratic and Platonic scholarship, among them G. M.A. Grube, Dorothea Frede, Alexander Nehama, Paul Woodruff and D. S. Hutchinson.

The chapter headings are Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades (some think that Plato did not write this book), Hipparchus, Rival Lovers, Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis, Eithydemus, protogoras, Gotgias, Meno, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias, Ion, Menexenus, Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias, Minos, Laws, epinomis, Letters, Definitions, On Justice, On Virtue, Demodocus, Sisyphus, Halcyon, Eryxias, Axiochus, topped by an epigram. The Republic, 254 pages long, is essentially a discourse on Justice.

The book starts by asserting that Socrates is the origin of western speculation. Socrates himself as a person is most enigmatic and “maddening.” After all, the fellow never wrote down anything. He never gave long speeches to be recorded. He taught through dialectics and not rhetoric. All his sayings and writings come through Plato, and possibly another contemporary, Xenophon. While Plato was a poet with transcendence and a soul, Xenophon’s writings and allusions to Socrates are technical and matter of fact.  Xenophon’s writings are considered to be pedestrian and pedantic, while Plato’s writings, fluid, poetic and beautiful. The work asserts that Socrates was a super-human. He had or was a Daemon to whom he spoke (very much like hallucination) and as a matter of temper he was always eudemonistic (good demon or good mood.) There is no question that Plato idealized Socrates. Plato portrayed Socrates as the intellectual life of Athens and the Athenians.

The work elucidates that Socrates liked precision, reproducibility and reliance on certainty, thus relying heavily on Pythagoras and Mathematic model of thinking and conceptual architecture of Pythagorean approach to teaching. In the days of Socrates, there were monastic math communities devoted to numerology, re-incarnation and Vedic philosophy. Socrates’ theory of “sense perception” is certainly a reflection of his reliance on Pythagoras and math. Also, he was influenced by Egyptian geometry and mathematics done in Alexandria. However, his concern was not like the pre-Socratic philosophers such as Anaximander, Anaximones, Thales and Pythagoras himself, to concentrate on materials, atoms, science and things. Socrates was concerned about political and moral issues. Socrates was probably the first person with a passion to bridge the gap between material science, morality, and what we now call the humanities and the arts.

While Plato was writing about his mentor, one must realize that he was very angry with Athens because Athens killed Socrates. Plato’s poetry and writing is rife with anger. Plato thinks that Athenians are corrupt and hopeless. He thought they lost the Peloponnesian wars because of their weak moral attitude. They allowed Sicilian invasion which was an absolute disaster to Athens. The dialogues consist of aporitic, often non-conclusive discourse leading to an impasse very much like the deceptive cadence often seen in musical phrases of Beethoven and Richard Wagner. These provoke the reader in further thinking and questioning, producing more dialoguesCredo, Apology and Ion are good examples of aporitic dialogue.

The dialogues reveal that Socrates directly attacked the sophists- the rhetoricians who made a living out of persuading people- regardless of whether their goals were right or wrong. Socrates was a chronic irritant to sophists. It was the sophists who in unison accused Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens, a charge that led to his condemnation and death. The Republic deals with the question of justice and virtue, emphasizing the virtues of morality and politics. The Republic also examines the issues of ethics, ontology, epistemology, logic and the theory of art. There are many other subjects discussed in Republic, among them drama, philosophy, sex, death, and money, all in a sublime, beautiful and poetic form. Searching for a comparison in languages of Indo-European origin, only the German wordsmith, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (August 28, 1745 to March 22, 1832)* may asymptotically approach Plato’s beauty and style. To realize that Republic was written some 2300 years ago is most astonishing.

There was a remarkable phenomenon in pre-Socratic era, a small Greek colony, Elia, in Italy, around 500 BC, produced a remarkable group of philosophers among them Zeno of Elia, Mellissus Of Samos and Xenophane (not to be mistaken for Xenophan who was a contemporary of Socrates and Plato) who, along with Pythagoras had profound influence on Socrates, his teaching, his method of inquiry and his devotion to daemon of knowledge and virtue. A good bit of this book is devoted to these pre-Socratic philosophers.

The book celebrates Plato’s dialogue.  Many more recent philosophers, like the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (November 24, 1632 to February 21, 1677) and Scottish philosopher, David Hume (April 26, 1711 to August 25, 1776) have written what appears to be an attempt to mimic Plato’s dialogue. They fail. Hume’s dialogue on the “Nature of Religion” does not make the mark. Plato’s poetry, literary style and philosophical view are apotheoses of virtue, sublimity and elegance, even though the last dialogue was written in the last 10-15 years of his life (he died at the age 80, 428-348 BC).

There is a gripping and autobiographical account, Plato saying that he wanted to be a tragic poet like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Homer. At the time they were the best sources of education in Greece. But soon he realized that those poets did not deal with “morality of the nation.”  He met his mentor Socrates, burned all his tragic poems and followed Socrates. There are many pearls in the dialogues. The one Phoebus which is devoted to the understanding of love is magisterial reading and Symposium in its entirety is another symphonic poem on love. In reading Plato, I have learned not to get so enchanted by the design of the appointments and furnishing inside of the house, but to take a helicopter ride and view the landscape of Platonic verbal beauty.

Throughout the years of reading and seriously studying Socrates, I have learned that he was not about gaining victory with his interlocutors. He was not after money, and never made a dime form his teaching pursuit. He abhorred the sophists and rhetoricians (the lawyers) for whom the truth was pleomorphic, fluid, mercurial and in a state of flux.  He claimed that the sophists and rhetoricians say what you want to hear and by doing so make money. Socrates told the truth and did not accept money. Sophists taught their students with skills to persuade not necessarily the truth but whatever their individual goals dictated what the truth ought to be. Socrates did not like laziness. It is clear from reading Meno that Socrates condemns laziness because Meno would slip away from dialogue with Socrates and engage in giving long speeches. Dialogue is hard work and is not for the lazy-minded folks like Meno.

Socrates emphasized the primacy of knowledge. He loved definitions. A simple example is if he asked ‘What is an even number?..,’ and the interlocutor would say 2, 4 or 18; Socrates would respond ‘These are examples of an even number. What is the definition of an even number?’ An even number is divisible by two with no remainder…

Socrates stated that human virtue is knowledge. Human vice is ignorance.  From Vedic/Indian/Sanskrit tradition, he learned reincarnation and immortality of the soul. He incorporated knowledge from river valley civilization (Nile/Egypt, Tigris and Euphrates/Mesopotamia) to add to his own vast knowledge of Doric tradition.

Having completed this book makes me feel that I have finished climbing Mount McKinley.  My next project is to read the book to my grand children who gave the book to me in the first place. I recommend same to all. Get a copy and read it to your grandchildren.

The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, And Belief

By Michael R. Trimble
304 pages
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
Baltimore, MD

To further pursue the rhetoric of mind/brain, a book from Johns Hopkins Press, written by Michael R. Trimble, titled ‘THE SOUL IN THE BRAIN: THE CEREBRAL BASIS OF LAGUAGE, ART AND BELIEF” is of interest. In this book the author argues that we should consider how human brain function and structure allow us to have religious beliefs, allow our eyes to flow with tears of joy and sorrow…

Trimble, a neurobiologist colleague, traces some common threads between disorders and talents or pathological traits. He persuasively argues that these unwelcome traits could be the result of injury to specific part of the brain of Homo sapiens, rather than social, economic, or culturally mediated downward drift. He backs the argument with data driven, Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan and fMRI studies. It further erases the artificial barriers of mind/brain dichotomy. The ultimate message of the book is: mental illness is really brain disease. We should avoid the stigma of the label of mental illness and focus on learning more about brain and its anatomical and physiological dysfunctions.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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