Before there was Zeteo, the Liberal Studies program’s open access journal was called The Conversation. It is hope that one day this space will include many or all of the pieces that appeared there. The article offered here is just a start.
Philosophy and Death; Philosophy as Divertissement
Continuing to Learn from the Phaedo and Pascal
By William Eaton
Originally published in The Conversation, a journal of the City University of New York Liberal Studies program journal that evolved into Zeteo.
From the Introduction
This paper is structured as a series of riffs that keep coming back to a central text (Plato’s Phaedo), to Pascal’s observations regarding divertissements (diversions, or serious play, we might rather call it), and to a central question: “If we cannot attain the knowledge we seek and do not much want the knowledge we have, and if knowledge in any case cannot save us, what are we doing pursuing it?” This is for present purposes a question regarding philosophical endeavors (be they of professional philosophers or of many another thoughtful soul), while also being a question about how the human mind copes with the human predicament.
We may come to take Socrates’s final answer to be these words from near the end of the Phaedo (115D): “It seems I have said all this . . . in vain in an attempt to reassure you and myself too”. This is an iconoclastic essay.
This is also an interdisciplinary essay, for interdisciplinary people. It will not presume the level of familiarity with the Phaedo and other texts that an article for Plato scholars would presume, and the essay will mix the insights of philosophers with those of psychologists, sociologists and poets, while also dipping into the muddy waters of personal experience. Embracing Montaigne’s approach to the essai, I will not shy from juxtaposing disparate elements nor from quoting at length rich passages from other writers. And, in some Montaigbakhtinian spirit, the present essay will not present the conclusions of a thought process that has been wrapped up, but rather the unwrapping of thoughts in what is presumed to be a potentially infinite process which, at its best, could encourage others to do their own unwrapping. The end can only be exhaustion, but hopefully with some thought-provocation and diversion having been found in the exercise.