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96 The Dog on the Fly H. Peter Steeves Plato had defined man as a biped and featherless animal, for which he was applauded. Diogenes plucked a chicken and brought it into the lecture hall, saying, “Behold Plato’s Man!” —Diogenes Laertius We read Plato because Plato’s texts are around to be read. This is, in the end, why anyone reads anything: because it’s there. Whether or not the work is worthy of keeping around so that it can be read is often beside the point. Bad things remain and good things disappear for accidental reasons. Had history taken another turn—papyrus misplaced, turned to dust, and forgotten—we philosophers, thinkers, Westerners would be an unrecognizable lot, horses of a different color, impossibly plucked chickens, real toads swamping around imaginary gardens in praise of poetry rather than finding it suspect. Say Plato’s work was lost, or another of Socrates’s students’ writings had gained more favor, or someone had studied with Diogenes long enough to want to write a series of books and dialogues about him after he died so that his thought could live on. Say we start with love of comedy over tragedy, with the superiority of the nonhuman animal, with a dogged commitment to perform our beliefs rather than talk about them. The subjunctive conditional does little logical work, but history is carried on the backs of counterfactual beasts; and it is thus that the contingencies of the past create the apparent necessities of the present. This much is true of both intellectual and evolutionary history (if there is such a distinction). Move the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs a fraction of a degree in its ancient trajectory through our solar system, and the little molelike creature hiding in the bushes that eventually survived and begat Socrates and Diogenes and you and me stays on its own humble course as nothing other than a mammal-snack for the lizard king. No species, no individual, no text had 6 The Dog on the Fly | 97 to be here, and this is the most important thing to remember when species and individuals and texts start speaking of necessity. This could all have been different. That difference, no matter how one tries to suppress it, is the point at which meaning begins. Even in the dialectic, even between two characters in a dialogue, between two historical friendly enemies conversing, there is the prior difference that makes the dialectic differ from itself and thus possible. We are featherless bipeds . . . with broad flat nails, replies Plato. And this is all already different. * * * The soul of the tyrant will be forever driven onward by the gadfly of desire. —Plato, Republic 577e The philosopher desires wisdom, has a literal love for it, but what is it that drives the philosophic soul in such pursuit? Something small that nevertheless makes itself that to which we must continuously attend? Something without a mouth capable of speech yet nevertheless makes itself heard? Something insignificant that nevertheless will not be quieted, will not let us rest? It is not, perhaps, that different souls have different gadflies spurring them to action—some good, some bad, each turning us in a different direction. Rather, the same gadfly of desire comes to reside on different souls. That toward which the city of Athens will be driven forever onward will be determined not by the nature of the local gadfly but by the soul of the city. Socrates is compared to a multitude of animals throughout Plato’s writings, but it is the moniker of the gadfly that remains the most famous and the most enigmatic. How often an Introduction to Philosophy course begins with this metaphor in an attempt to explain all of Western philosophy: Socrates is a fly that buzzes around the horse-like city of Athens, bothering and nipping at the civic body, but in the end doing good and stirring the people to action; so, too, must we philosophers ask the hard questions and make people think about important things even if they don’t want to at first. Socrates and all of philosophy are cast in the role of a pest, an annoyance, something at which one might understandably swat. But it is not just that Socrates is called a pest by others. To be sure, Plato has Socrates himself use the gadfly analogy in his Apology—proof that, at least in the mind of a man acting as his own lawyer, it...


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