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Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

Five Public Cases

July 19, 2016 | by

What is poetry for? 


Page from The Consolation of Philosophy (detail), by Boethius, 1395.

Note: Earlier this year, Anthony Madrid began composing quasi-koans on the theme “What is poetry for?” a first collection of which was published in the summer issue of The Point. This post includes the first of two sets of additional gongan, or public cases, that will appear during his stint as a Daily correspondent. The second set will appear in September. (The original title of this piece, too long even for the infinite web, was: “Both Speech and Silence Are Involved in Transcendent Detachment and Subtle Wisdom. How Can We Pass Through Without Error?”) Read More »

What Kind of Name Is That?

February 8, 2016 | by

How to name your fictional characters.

Characters in need of names.

To me the most embarrassing part of writing fiction, aside from telling people about it, is naming your characters. Of course, even “real” names are made up, but in life our names are things we can alter only with a great deal of paperwork; in fiction, writers can line up names and identities as they please, dropping or trading them on a whim. Contriving a name for a contrived person seems terribly precious to me, akin to naming a doll. You want your characters to have names that aren’t too convenient but still memorable and meaningful, which isn’t easy. I spent about a year with a manuscript populated by memorable characters like [[ROOMMATE]] and ???????’s dad, swapping dozens of potential monikers in pursuit of the perfectly natural, unforced, graceful name. After rupturing a few blood vessels that way, I tried to figure out what other writers were doing.

The question of what names mean, what they’re for, has been around in the West since at least 500 B.C., when the Pythagoreans developed a few rules of onomancy to divine human traits from things like the number of vowels in one’s name. (Even numbers signaled an imperfection in the left side of the body.) One of the earliest discussions about naming comes from Plato’s dialogue “Cratylus,” in which Socrates oversees a debate about whether a name is “an instrument of teaching and distinguishing natures” or whether it’s just a matter of “convention and agreement.” More recently, psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Stekel and Carl Jung posited that the “compulsion of the name” not only reflects but determines one’s future: that we’re all engaged, from birth, in a nominative determinism. (Anyone quick to dismiss this as Freudian bunk should look at the abundance of Shaquilles now entering professional sports.) Read More »

Death, and Other News

March 6, 2014 | by

frederik ruysch

A depiction of one of Frederik Ruysch’s anatomical displays. Image via the Public Domain Review.

  • Sherwin B. Nuland, the author of How We Die, is dead.
  • In Los Angeles, a group of ghost hunters are chasing the dead.
  • The punk ethos of the Lower East Side is dead.
  • The Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch died in 1731, but his deathly sketches still haunt us today: “not only did he exalt the human anatomy as a wondrous product of creation, but he presented himself as a veritable artist of death.”
  • On the eastern seaboard, the hemlock is dying out. Though the tree bears only a superficial resemblance to the plant that killed Socrates, “it seems impossible to separate the hemlock tree from the hemlock plant’s poison, for a poet to keep the death of Socrates out of the picture—for death is in the forest, especially a hemlock forest, especially now.”



The Immortality Chronicles, Part 2

August 26, 2013 | by


What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next five weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

We all do and make to deal with oblivion. The conceit that art can ward off death is something we’ve been wrestling with since Greco-Roman times. The Theban lyric poet Pindar didn’t crave actual immortality, but still he wanted to reach out to the limits of the possible. Horace put it more bluntly in an ode: “I have finished a monument more lasting than bronze and loftier than the Pyramids’ royal pile, one that no wasting rain, no furious north wind can destroy … I shall not altogether die.” Ovid shared that aim, boasting of how his couplets would outlive his lifetime, “so that in every time and in every place I may be celebrated throughout the world.”

All creative efforts, what the ancient Greeks called poiesis, were done with immortality in mind, whether unconsciously or not. Socrates distinguished between three main forms of poiesis. The first is sexual reproduction, which provides immortality in the sense that a genetic lineage will survive the parent’s own bodily existence. The second category of poiesis is the attainment of fame through art or heroic accomplishment, which leaves a posthumous legacy. The third, and highest, expression of poiesis, according to Socrates, is philosophical, and it occurs when our pursuit of wisdom results in an experience of the soul’s indestructibility. Read More »