Reading Platonic (and other) Text-Maps

by Tom Tredway

Most maps are mini-pictures of the landscape they represent, but written texts can also be “cartographic.” Pietists have, of course, been guided by one such text-map above all others. We are told that in confused or uncertain moments some of our forebears would simply open the Scriptures at random, point to a verse on the page, and seek to divine from it what the Spirit was seeking to tell them. One presumes that they were trying to avoid inflicting their own ideas on Holy Writ. They wanted the Bible to guide them, not the other way around. But one wonders what they did when a verse seemed, at least at first, to have little or nothing to say to the matter in question. What, for example, could Isaiah 44:24-25, I am the Lord, who made all things, who also stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth, who frustrates the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners, mean to a Swede trying to decide whether to book passage on a steamer bound from Göteborg to New York in 1878? (I leave it to you, reader, to speculate on that.)

Here I am interested in the way that we read text-maps other than the Bible, first navigating our own way through them, and then trying to navigate through life itself by means of them. Many such texts come to mind, but the one I hope you will consider is from an ancient and “canonical” source in its own right: Plato. And the Platonic material I have in mind is that which deals with the death of Socrates. Among Renaissance humanists the dialogs of Plato which cover that episode in Athens’ history assumed nearly Scriptural status. “Sancte Socrate, ora pro nobis,” they prayed. The calm and rational manner in which Plato’s Socrates discussed and faced his death appealed to scholars in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was a death full of dignity. The French classicist painter, David, depicts the scene: Socrates’ followers are gathered round him, his robe is draped in flowing folds, and he, ever the teacher, declaims nobly, one supposes, about the better path he has chosen in accepting the decision of his fellow citizens that he must die. Socrates’ death stood in contrast with the horrific death of Jesus at Roman hands. It may even have appealed to these Renaissance lovers of harmony and balance as much as did the Gospels’ accounts of the death of their Savior.

In any case, many years ago two colleagues and I tried to use those dialogs of Plato with 22 freshman enrolled in courses that we together taught them. Roald Tweet of the English Department at Augustana College (a Minnesotan and a child of the Hauge Synod brand of Norwegian Lutheranism), and Peter Beckman of the Religion Department (a theologian and a card carrying Augustana Synod pastor), and I from the History Department (a recovering Mission Friend and student of Zenos Hawkinson, Karl Olsson, et al.) had the same twenty-two people in our classes: Tweet in “Freshman Comp,” Beckman in “Intro to Christian Beliefs,” and I in “Western Civ.” We taught our separate classes, but once a week met the students together in joint sessions, discussed commonly assigned readings, and even at times argued with one another in front of the students through the whole class session.

But as the three of us read and taught the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo, it became clear that each faculty was interested in a different aspect of those texts, among the most powerful and moving in the literature, thought, and history of our civilization. The Apology, you remember, presents Socrates’ defense, spoken during his trial, against the charge that he is “a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” The Crito takes place in prison at dawn after the death penalty has been pronounced. Crito visits his teacher and begs him to make his escape from the decision imposed by the Athenians; Socrates could live out his life in peace, in Thessaly. But, replies Socrates, the city and its laws have given him life; he made a covenant with them and has lived under them for seventy years, and now cannot simply leave because he does not like the decision they have made about him. The Phaedo depicts the actual death scene. After a long discussion concerning the nature of the soul and the possibility of immortality Socrates drinks the cup of hemlock, urges a friend to pay the debt of a rooster he owes to a fellow Athenian, and dies calmly as his friends weep: “Such was the end, Eschecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”

Each of us faculty members, a literature professor, a theologian, and I, a teacher of history, brought very different assumptions and expectations to these class sessions. Tweet (of English) wanted to consider the development of plot in the dialogs, the use of the characters as foils to Socrates’ persona and ideas, and the theatrical contrast between the hero’s self-possession and the frantic efforts of his followers to get him out of prison and the city. Beckman (Religion) was interested in the philosophical and theological ideas about life and death, the individual and society, explicit and implicit in Plato’s Socrates. And I wanted to talk about the defeat of Athens in its war with Sparta and the changes in government and civic mood which led the Athenians to execute this “wisest and justest and best” of their fellows. We usually ended up debating the whole business in what often became a near-free-for-all. The students would get into the fray, some arguing from deep Christian conviction, some joyful at finally having found a pagan hero wiser than Woody Allen to hook up with intellectually.

We Pietists have sometimes styled ourselves “People of the Book.” I hope we are “People of Many Books.” If we are, Plato surely wrote one or two of them. It may be easier for us to see the ways we approach him, or Chaucer, or Karl Barth than it is for us to be clear about how we read the Scriptures. The Germans speak of coming to a text with a vorverständnis, a pre-understanding; the Swedes say that critical examination begins with a frågeställning, the putting of a certain question or questions that reveal what we have hoped to get from our study. And what are our pre-understandings? Which questions do we ask, even before we begin our reading and research? When you teach undergraduates, your own training, both in terms of content and method, determine to a considerable extent what you teach and what you expect students to find in the stuff you assign. And surely the reasons you picked an academic field in the first place have to do with your own life history, academic and personal, as much as with purely rational choices. All these factors shape our pre-understanding as well as the questions that we ask in the first place.

That is true not only for academics; it applies to all of us, teachers or not. To suppose that any text will speak in such a way that the listener is free of these pre-conditions is naïve. And maybe it is futile to assume that certain writings are so powerful that all you have to do is to open to a page and point to find out what they mean for your life and current problems. It does no disrespect to even the most sacred literature to realize that the reader inevitably comes to it wearing spectacles, that nobody is without her or his agenda in approaching it, that all the life and experience of the reader is in the room as any book is opened. Far from disrespect, the reverse is the case: the ultimate abuse of any literature, even and perhaps especially the sacred, is to assume that the way you read it is identical with its truest and final meaning, even if you are positive that divine inspiration has revealed that meaning. We have of late been treated to that kind of certainty from persons of many persuasions and perspectives: left and right; Christian, Muslim, secularist. This way of reading violates not merely German or Swedish scholarly methods; it works real mischief in the real world. When we introduced college freshmen to Plato’s dialogs about the death of Socrates, I learned that people of good will approach, and even leave, texts with different ideas and needs and methods. It is a tribute to the richness of the writing itself that we do so. And we cannot avoid it in any case. The best text-maps show us many interesting things, about ourselves as well as about themselves. And they teach us to listen to and respect the ways others read and guide life by them, as well as the way that we do.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway