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60 Till Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown The Aporia-fish in the Meno Thomas Thorp We are at Stephanus page 80a, a third of the way into the dialogue, when Meno offers up what is certainly the most famous appearance by a fish in the history of philosophy. Except the fish does not actually appear. Plato wants us to hear in Socrates’s words—“Then answer me again from the beginning [πάλιν ἐξ ἀρχῆς]”—the insistence of an orchestra leader struggling to encourage his musicians to begin again, but to listen to themselves this time. Once more from the top: “what do both you and your associate [ἑταῖρός] say that virtue is?” (79e). This is followed by the manifest frustration of the young performer, who, despite having mastered the technique, and having been praised by others, has never really learned to listen to himself: “on countless occasions I have made abundant speeches on virtue to various people—and very good speeches they were, so I thought—but now . . .” (80b). Meno is unable to listen to himself because when he turns to where his own voice and ear should be he finds only the words of his “associate,” Gorgias, neatly packaged and ready to present. And so, now, having run through what he “knows” about virtue, which is what he can remember—namely, that virtue is, first, as Gorgias says, ruling others (73d), and then that it is, as a poet says, “to be able both to delight in and to have honorable things” (77b)—Meno is now empty and, unable to play, insists that Socrates is to blame for his perplexity: “Socrates, I used to hear, before I met you, that yours was a case of being in doubt yourself [ἀπορεῖς] and making others doubt also [ἄλλους ποιεῖς ἀπορεῖν]; and so now I find you are merely bewitching [κατεπᾴδεις] me with your spells and incantations , which have reduced me to utter perplexity [ἀπορίας]. And if I am indeed to have my jest, I consider that both in your appearance [εἴδος] and in other 4 Till Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown | 61 respects you are extremely like the flat narkē of the sea [τῇ πλατείᾳ νάρκῃ τῇ θαλαττίᾳ]” (79e–80a).1 a bit obtuse Despite this being the most famous fish in the history of philosophy, and having virtually no competition in this regard, the philosophers who study Plato have persistently mistaken our narkē for a fish it is not. It is not a stingray.2 Lamb in the Loeb edition gets it right, as does Jowett. But Guthrie, in Hamilton and Cairnes’s standard edition of Plato, has “the flat sting ray,” a confused or indifferent identification that is more or less standard.3 Stingray is the common name of a family of fish (Mylobatidae) equipped with a stinger in its tail through which it can deliver venom. Our fish is an electric ray (Torpediniae). Its Linnaean name is Torpedo torpedo. Both are flat with the characteristic shape of a ray, but their ability to induce torpor or narcosis differs dramatically in both manner and purpose. The stingray’s venom is delivered through direct contact and is entirely defensive, whereas our torpedo ray electrically infects a conductive medium, usually seawater, in order to stun and then thereby capture its prey. It will turn out that the power of our fish to inform the question of virtue is going to hinge upon this distinction between a venomous touch and action at a distance. Indeed, for centuries our fish was studied precisely in order to dispel the idea of actio in distans. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, European scientists had simply denied the facts about our fish, insisting that for a shock or effect to be communicated there would have to be direct contact, and so they invented various proximate and material causes to account for the torpedo ray’s power to stun at a distance: microscopic effluvia or corpuscles.4 It is, then, not surprising that in the modern period laboratory investigations of its mysterious powers did not merely overlap with the modern discovery of electricity but constituted one of its essential elements. Experiments by Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, and John Walsh that led to the “discovery” of electricity included a concerted effort to account for the torpedo ray’s power to stun prey without contact, a power that appeared to be a mysterious violation of the law of proximate and material causality.5 The ancients, on the other hand, knew full well that the fish they called narkē was capable...


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