As the years roll by, I am becoming more and more of an ancient philosopher. When a colleague told me the Classics department were running a reading group on Plato’s Gorgias, I couldn’t resist. Last week we had our first meeting and I turned up not knowing what to expect. A few other philosophers were there and made to feel welcome though the group were mainly classicists, clutching their various scholarly editions and translations. I was a bit embarrassed by my 1980s Penguin paperback.
I guess I should’ve expected classicists to be thorough. Should we have read the text so we could delve straight into the analysis? No. Rather, someone led the group in the reading, a few sentences at a time, first in ancient Greek and then they improvised a translation. Discussion ensued over each line, sometimes over each word. It was a lively and thorough session but, above all, steady and measured. Progress was slow. Very slow. By the end of the meeting, we had covered a little over a page. Yet we were satisfied.
I’ve heard many people complain of being slow readers. I’d say that I’m one too. I have never been more aware than I was in that reading group, however, that this is a virtue, not a vice. I remain in awe of classicists. They have an ability not just to dissect a text but, above all, to savour it. Philosophers can do the same but not always. There is pressure to rush quickly through a book or article. Still, the best works are worth dwelling on, savouring, interrogating.
Good books are the ones we can use to assist our own thinking: those that stimulate you to pause and ponder as you go off on a flight of fancy. In that respect, philosophy is more like poetry than anything else. Two readers can see the same text and think very different interpretations or take ensuing thoughts in opposite directions. The reading group gave space for the participants to express the various associations they had garnered from the words. Plato is especially apt to be read poetically. Each line rewards your effort.
A couple of days later I was running a metaphysics discussion group and, I suspect, still intoxicated by the opening to the Gorgias. We had around five suggested discussion questions to get through. I was pleased that by the end we were still on the first one. Breadth of knowledge is fine but there’s no substitute for the feeling of depth. To get that, we have to overcome the pressures of the outside world and construct a safe cocoon in which it is allowed to go slow. With pressures on us all to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible, it feels like nothing could be more subversive.