09 March 2011

Writers: Read Between the Lines

By Carrie Bailey
Plato wrote “The Republic” a few thousand years ago in Ancient Greece and ever since then people who feel they are intelligent have been making a big deal about it. I know, I studied Philosophy in college. Probably the best lesson I learned in my five years of pondering what the discipline fondly terms “mental masterbation” is that the great works-often credited with changing the world or being the pinnacle expression of a certain stream of profound thought is that a lot of those guys were either drinking too much or just peculiar social misfits.
In “The Republic” we’re introduced to Socrates, Plato’s instructor and a man often considered brilliant for his “Socratic Method.” Ignoring the fact that these Ancient Greeks are out tossing a few back in the streets during a festival and debating whether to attend horse races, generally bullying each other, and then retiring to a friend’s house to drink yet more… the first few pages of Plato’s classic reveal that the Socratic Method is somewhat simple:
A)   Ask a man what he thinks.
B)   Question him until he contradicts himself.
You could stop me here and say that genius is simple. I’ll agree with that, but I also want to point out that before Socrates and his friends leave this Ancient Greek festival to get trashed more privately, the Ancient Greek issuing the invitation insists Socrates be on his best behavior, which of course means he needs to refrain from seducing honey skinned boys-boys, not men, boys. Yes, that’s right. Socrates was not only a pedophile, but it was not some weird ancient culture thing. There were more than a few who disapproved.
So why does this book provide a cornerstone for Western thought? I see two reasons:
A)   Students assigned to read the book don’t read it.
B)   Instructors follow traditional and focus on the exerpts.

Not to mention that instructors were once students who didn’t read the book. Taken in context, this book is hardly profound and hardly something you want to teach innocent children in school. It may be tradition to teach Plato, but in truth its value is more historical than anything else and possibly so because of its position in academia. 
Many classic books follow this pattern. They have some merit. People talk about them without having read them. They’re skimmed. They’re quoted. They’re revered. They’re thoroughly misrepresented…
Download the classics to your Kindle. Search them out in secondhand stores. Read them. Study the space between the lines. Put the classics in context. Then, the next time you pick up a pen, consider your own context and watch your insecurities disappear, because you know that on that glorious day when your work is finally circulated to the extent it truly deserves…you’ll be misquoted and heartlessly shoved in a pimply-faced teenagers backpack anyway.
Or maybe you’ll just realize, as Stephen King is famously quoted as saying something about how someday you’ll pick up a classic or popular novel and realize that you could do better. At least, I think that’s what he said.
Carrie Bailey is the co-editor of Peevish Penman currently living and studying information in Wellington, New Zealand where she is cold and wet and glad to spend time indoors posting to Peevish Penman. She is currently undertaking a 28 day challenge to write posts each weekday. Today is day three.


  1. Carrie - yours is the second reference to Plato / Socrates that I've read this week. It is kind of funny how some "classics" have legs even when the insight gained from reading and analyzing these works can (sometimes) be tenuous. Contests on sticking with your challenge!

  2. thanks. I've been working on a translation of "The Republic" where I change the language into frat boy speak.

    I think it's more true to the original and more insightful, too.

  3. Socrates was put down by the man for talking smack 'bout the wrong crew.
    Gotta respect.
    Took one for the hood.