The Challenges in Writing a Philosophical Novel

A while back I did some Googling to find out whether someone out there had written a book similar to mine, and in my research I came across Charles Johnson’s novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Too good to be true. He too makes use of the most powerful centerpieces in Plato’s works: The Allegory of the Cave and The Divided Line in the Republic, and Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. To name a few. 671564(See this for more on the meaning of Diotima’s Ladder.) I wondered how he turned these theories about the relationship of reality, truth, and beauty into a story that people would be able to appreciate as fiction.

I’ve always felt that Plato’s ‘harmony of the soul’ would make for a great story, if only I could figure out the right angle. I know the phrase sounds antiquated, but if we change the language a bit, we’ll find a remarkably current philosophy of lived experience, a nuanced one that doesn’t ignore all-too-human truths, and, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t ignore the  world we inhabit. But it’s true that Plato’s more concerned about the inner workings of our minds, and for him this needs to be understood before we can make sense of the world. We have complicated emotions and desires that can really mess us up, in so many ways, even intellectually, and we might not realize it. But Plato also says that these are an integral part of us, and necessary for attaining knowledge. Without desire, there’s no impetus to do much of anything, much less study philosophy. And yet, philosophers tend to think of emotion and desire as something that ‘gets in the way’ of reason, if they bother to discuss it at all. Plato plunges headfirst into the mess of the human psyche, and leads us to ask: How do we make sense of ourselves as creatures with noble ideas in a world that doesn’t seem to live up to our expectations? Should we lower our expectations, give ourselves a so-called ‘reality’ check? What if we get it wrong, and don’t realize it? What if  transcendent ideas actually are real? What makes something real anyway? How can something be said to be not real?

I think Plato has meaningful answers to these questions. My challenge is to turn something as technical as the Divided Line into an engaging story, to bring these questions back to life.

I was surprised to find that Charles Johnson and I came up with the same idea—we both independently thought to create characters that represent segments of the line. (Of course, he did it first.) My “Faith” character is also a religious young woman who represents picture-thinking on the line. Johnson’s characterization makes perfect sense to me, obviously, but it might not make sense to those who don’t know the intricacies of the allegory.

But that doesn’t matter. Faith’s plight as a religious young black woman whose mother dies, leaving Faith to roam the earth (well, Chicago) in search of “The Good Thing” makes for an intriguing story. She wonders what The Good Thing is, and so do we. Faith becomes a prostitute in order to survive, constantly searching, constantly changing as she encounters dodgy characters, each of whom represent other aspects of the divided line. She’s moving up the line or ladder, but from her original standpoint as a fairly stable innocent figure (representative of right opinion), moving up to higher levels of knowledge and sophistication is dangerous. Plato would agree, and the events in the novel exemplify what would otherwise be a yawn-inducing epistemological threat. Johnson has shown that the theoretical has serious, material consequences. Plus, there’s an element of magic to the tale, which lends an epic feel to the novel, a bit like John Gardner’s Grendel, (Gardner was apparently his writing mentor.) There’s a surprising merging of science and witchcraft, of art and reason, of myth and truth, and these create a thematic tension that sustains us throughout.

All of these elements make the philosophy come alive, but Johnson may have lost a broader audience was when he had characters dropping references to philosophers/philosophies that the average reader might not understand. What worries me is that I didn’t even notice that these references were problematic until I got feedback from my book group. So much about this novel was, in my opinion, brilliantly successful. Members of my group all agreed that the writing sparkled. And yet, these references were enough to make erudite people, some of whom are professors, dislike the book as a whole. The online reviews echo this complaint. Yet I missed it, so eager was I to make my comparisons and theories. This was an eye opener for me.

My takeaway from The Good Thing:

Don’t reference without clearly explaining. Better yet, don’t reference without being prepared to integrate the point into the plot and theme in such a way as to make the idea come alive on its own, with no need for you to call attention to the reference. OR—reference with such a light touch that readers who won’t get the reference won’t feel that anything’s missing.

Don’t make the characters wooden in order to drive home a theme. Give your reader time to figure out what’s being exemplified, and don’t worry if the philosophical theme isn’t crystal clear from the get-go. Don’t worry if it never becomes crystal clear. If you stick too closely to the archetype, you lose that breath of life that makes fiction fiction. Johnson juxtaposed his children’s fairy tale narrative style with a dark subject about modern life to make his archetypes worth following. But what he did is hard to do. And while I don’t know what segments of the Divided line all his characters represent, I got his overall interpretation well enough to let those details go.

Be funny. Yeah, easier said than done. But humor makes readers more likely to forgive you your heavy ideas. Johnson did just this, and it worked. He had a way of spinning out yarns that I’m incapable of. But there are more ways to be humorous than telling jokes. Consider goofy ordinary things that people do, and bring those into a heavy philosophical moment, grounding that scene in the mundane. Consider the setting and how that can contrast or illuminate the point in humorous ways. If all else fails, just put a dog or a baby in the mix. Interruptions can do double duty by being both funny and revealing, especially if your characters react in different, revealing ways.

 

Don’t be tempted to put all your philosophical ideas inside heads. This is sort of the default for philosophical fiction: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It’s a kind of info dump when you think about it. When I don’t know how to convey some idea, I tend to just stick it into dialogue and run with it. Or I have someone thinking about the idea. But that’s lazy of me. Try conveying those ideas with no dialogue, at least as an exercise, and see where that leads. You might be surprised.

Don’t be too brief. If you want an idea to resonate, make it resonate. Don’t whittle it down to nothing out of fear of being boring. More than likely, you’ll make it boring by scraping away the meat of it. There are other ways to deal with dense material than to strip it down to a Cliff’s note. And if you want to let readers get their geek on, but you’re worried you might still be putting out too much info, put the diagrams and equations in an endnote. That way everyone can have their cake.

That said, brief nuggets of wisdom can work well.  Especially when repeated in a certain thematic rhythm. Johnson used a few snappy lines to crystalize various ideas, and the repetition of those lines gave a sense of movement in its own right. Also, these gave a sense of finality: “Don’t be interrupting to ask if the tale is true. Was it Good? Was it Beautiful? All right.”

Use subtext. The best of all possible worlds is when material conflict converges with ideological tension. When one character has something to hide from another, he or she might speak in generalities—in our case, in dry philosophical terms—while really being concerned about something much more mundane, which is, in a sense, more important. Make that mundane worry crystal clear for the reader, make it clear that this worry is bubbling beneath the surface of what’s being said or done, and you’ve virtually given yourself a free pass to go wild with theoretical musings.

For instance, when Faith meets Tippis, one of those dodgy characters she encounters on her travels, he takes her to a bar and drowns his sorrows in pontifications: “Everything you want is an object for the satisfaction of drives developed in childhood, and you, in society, are an object for others, hardly ever yourself…” and so on. This doesn’t feel like a lecture in the context, because they’re at a sleazy bar, and we know Tippis is eager to use Faith as an object for his sexual gratification. Faith realizes this too, and now we wonder how she’ll react to his professed philosophy. We also get a sense of just how pathetic Tippis is, and can feel sorry for him in this sense, just as Faith does, even when she’s powerless to stop him.

Give those ideas relevance by making them a stake in the game. If you can make the philosophical idea a necessary feature of your plot, you’re golden. If the protagonist doesn’t figure out the mind-body problem in time, his lover will literally lose her head. Well, maybe you can tell me how that might work.

By the way, tomorrow I’m going to the Tucson Festival of Books to see Charles Johnson do a workshop. Maybe I’ll get to thank him in person!


Any ideas on how to write a philosophical novel? Or a novel about ideas? What tricks or tools would you use?

Stumbling Blocks in Reading Philosophy

Philosophical texts are notoriously difficult to read, but the real problem comes when each text calls for a distinct set of skills. By the time you’ve “cracked the code” to reach that “ah ha” moment with one philosopher, it’s time to start all over with another.

I’d like to share some of my stumbling blocks with you.

I was inspired to write on this topic after reading Michelle Joelle’s The Delicate Art of Reading Philosophy, a post every philosophy student should read.

WORKS THAT SEEM EASY, BUT AREN’T:

This is the most difficult category, because we think we understand when we don’t. There’s no impetus to move beyond our flawed understanding to reach the deeper meaning. It’s only by accident that we realize we’ve had it wrong all along. The only cure for this malady is to take a more generous approach with the text, to assume it has something important to say rather than tearing it apart before we’ve fully grasped it.

Anything ancient goes in this category.

Can we really learn from someone who wrote over 2000 years ago? It seems fair enough to say we’d get an historical understanding, but are these ancient texts intrinsically interesting?

Of course, these questions are usually in the back of student’s minds, not explicit or conscious. However, the doubt can make it difficult to take a text seriously. Students often give obligatory lip service to the great achievements of the ancients without really finding these achievements anything but curious artifacts. I certainly had these doubts in the back of my mind, until I reached the “ah ha” moment in a major way with Plato.

Plato is particularly difficult. On the one hand, students are often told that Plato wrote in dialogue form, so they expect to be carried along as if they were reading a novel. Very soon they realize this is not the way it works. So then they switch back to the familiar methods of analyzing arguments. Here they find themselves wandering down blind alleys, and they wonder what the point is. They might appreciate that Plato wanted us to “think for ourselves” or some such platitude, but ultimately they find the whole experience disappointing.

Plato always requires multiple readings. Give yourself time! 

Know your history. There will always be historical characters, and if you don’t know your Greek history or who these characters were, it’s worth looking them up. For instance, if you don’t know who Alcibiades was, you won’t understand his significance when he shows up drunk at the end of the Symposium. Try to imagine a modern-day equivalent. Imagine J.F.K. crashing your party instead of just some dude off the street.

Secondly, give some time to analyzing arguments, but then place them in context. Who’s making these claims? Why? What motivations/intentions are they coming from? What’s the setting? What is Socrates trying to do? Is he being facetious? Is Plato speaking through him?

And lastly, pay attention to detail. The more irrelevant it seems, the more you should pay attention. If a speaker mentions that he just came from the Piraeus or a festival, look up that festival and its significance. If someone seems to be blathering on about nothing, pay even closer attention. Assume this: Absolutely nothing in the text is disposable (Phaedrus 264c). Reading Plato is like putting together an enormously complex puzzle.

William James. I started with The Varieties of Religious Experience and learned so much about what I had previously found perplexing about asceticism in religion. James struck me as thoughtful and fair-minded, deeply sympathetic to religion but also realistic. I immediately read most of his other works with great eagerness.

James wrote in a clear and direct style, which presents its own peculiar problem. I found after reading several books that I had to take a step back to avoid getting swept along. It’s a kind of rhetoric that comes as such a relief after reading a lot of German philosophy, but don’t let it make you lazy. As I read him I really wanted to be on his side…it’s a lulling quality, a “hot damn, he sounds so direct he must be right!” Don’t get me wrong, he’s a hard hitter and his ideas on radical empiricism were big, but tread with caution. Take the time to write out his arguments or repeat them to yourself.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical InvestigationsI think most people know the difficulties here. I never did reach the “ah ha” moment with Wittgenstein. At first I was excited to see that same sentence-level clarity that William James exhibits, but then found after reading the first paragraph that I had no idea what was said. I have never read anything so hard, but seemingly easy. I kept pushing on through Philosophical Investigations, but never got beyond the “slab” example.

Analytic philosophy. I found similar problems with reading Frege and others. I never achieved the “ah ha” moment.

Leibniz’s MonadologyThis is the most beautifully bizarre work I’ve ever read. Leibniz’s style here is to lay down the law, and this can be off-putting. But the law he lays down is…so…weird. The best way to read this is to run with it, let him take you there. Think of it at first as a strange new poetry. Let down your guard and explore its beauty then later come back to criticize, otherwise reading this will feel like a waste of time. A solid understanding of Plato’s Timaeus is also useful.

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. If you’re not a Christian, try to pretend you are and take a sympathetic stance. This work attempts to make sense of God coming down to earth in the flesh of Jesus Christ. It explains the paradox and the importance of paradox as central to Christianity. It’s the best defense and explanation of Christianity I have ever read.

Augustine’s Confessions. It’s always the pear thing. He steals a pear for no reason, feels bad. Can we move on to Rousseau’s masochistic fantasies, please?

Hold your horses. There’s a lot going on here. The fact that stealing a pear is so small a sin is part of the point.

Also, this is regarded as the first autobiography—take into consideration what must have been going through Augustine’s mind when writing in this form. When arguments are brought to a personal account, they cease to be arguments. No one can argue with my experience, but I can still use my recounting to persuade you, to make you feel what I’m feeling even if you don’t agree with my opinions. I may steal a pear and feel guilty about it, and you may laugh at me for feeling guilty, but you won’t argue with me. There! I have my foot in the door to your soul. Now I will show you how stealing that pear for no reason is actually worse than doing something really bad. No really.

His insights into memory and psychology are especially worth reading. His thinking was authentic and original, and very thoughtful. So push on after you’re done laughing at the pear thing.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. It’s massive. It’s overarching. It’s preposterously ambitious by our standards. I remember giggling as I showed my roommate the three or four pages in which Aquinas assumed he had proven the existence of God. I later read those arguments and caught myself frowning and scratching my head. Well, shit. Maybe he did it!

This is some of the clearest, most succinct philosophical thinking I’ve ever encountered. Dry, but solid. Beautiful in its precision. (And, of course, heavily influenced by Aristotle, whom I love.) Sometimes when it’s this clear and simple, it’s hard to take it seriously. But why is that?

I think philosophy students are used to…

WORKS THAT READ LIKE THE QUADRATIC FORMULA:

This includes a great deal of philosophy, especially German. If you don’t have to work hard for it, you must not have anything of value…that follows, doesn’t it? But watch out for those muddy puddles!

Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. There’s a reason philosophy professors begin with Kant’s ethics—it’s much more manageable. Problems with CPR include contradictions and lots of terminology. When you try to use ordinary language to talk about his philosophy, you feel paralyzed in fear of saying something like: “Kant has this idea about…I mean, not an idea, a concept—NO! not that—a kind of thought, sort of…well anyways Kant says…” By now you’ve forgotten your point.

My advice here is to be understanding. Kant is not trying to be obscure; he’s trying to be clearer with all his definitions, but sometimes he fails. And when he fails after setting such a high standard for himself, it’s easy to get frustrated. Remember that he was pioneering an enormous project. Look for the overall meaning of his philosophy rather than let yourself get bogged down in details.

Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy. Doesn’t the title say it all? The key to reading Husserl is this—find the linking verb. It may be halfway down the page in that page-long sentence. Once you find it, cut as many clauses as you can to make sense of that ridiculous sentence. Once you’ve done this, start taking in a few of the clauses.  Take a deep breath. You won’t die. Not yet. Get ready for your mind to be blown.

Heidegger’s Being and Time. I chose to focus on present-at-hand and readiness-to-hand. A lot of Heidegger’s writing can be infuriatingly tedious (I would call a lot of it muddy puddles). I found most of what I needed to know about phenomenology in Husserl, but I’m sure there are some who will disagree.

INTENTIONAL OBFUSCATION:

Descartes’ Metaphysical Meditations. How did the infamous Cartesian circle come to pass? How could such a thinker make this mistake? Even I, a lowly college undergrad, spotted the error. I think Descartes was a secret atheist, but I don’t really know. I take Galileo’s house arrest into consideration and the time the Meditations were published—eight years later. Not enough to prove anything, especially when you think of how often Descartes writes about God in letters and such, but if you assume he was an atheist, you’ll see the work in a whole new light. I found it was easier to appreciate what he had achieved. In any case, taking out the error will help you refocus on the methodology of doubt, which is really the main point.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot more writing falls into this category, for political reasons.

What are your stumbling blocks? Which writers/philosophers did you find the most difficult to read? How did you learn to read their works?

What is Freedom?

Just another word for nothing left to lose?

At Jmeqvist, you’ll find a great post distinguishing between positive and negative freedom. I’d like elaborate on these to get you good and confused:

1. Negative Freedom. Here I’m quoting Johan at Jmeqvist as he says it so well:

“…we are free in so far as external forces do not prohibit us from making certain choices. This concept of freedom is negative in that it concerns an absence of something, which in this case is the absence of interference.”

I might call this concept of freedom “common sense freedom” since in ordinary language (esp. in North America, as Johan carefully points out), this is usually what we mean by the word.

2. Positive Freedom. Here again I’ll quote Johan and then elaborate with a few examples:

“…a free person will be one who has a psyche that is properly ordered, so freedom on this concept is not about an absence, but about a presence of order in the psyche. This way of speaking has become marginalized, and may strike us as antiquated, but we see it arise when people talk about the way in which people’s desires can render them unfree.”

Plato: Those of you who are familiar with Plato know that he often spoke of being a slave to desire (consider the metaphor in the Gorgias which likens the blind hedonist’s soul to a leaky jar that can never be filled). One cannot be free until one has knowledge of what is good. Otherwise one is left to snatch at random desires, which will only lead to dissatisfaction in the long run, even if you happen to get lucky from time to time. Freedom in the Platonic sense will lead to happiness, happiness and wisdom being inextricably tied.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: One can be constrained in the #1 sense and still be free. “And all, being born free, alienate their liberty only for their own advantage,”—Ch 2 of the Social Contract. And: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer.” Here we have a sticky philosophy indeed, but I’m not capable of giving the best summary of it right now. What I will say is here we have a sort of Platonic idea of freedom, but replace knowledge of the Good with the Law and the General Will and you have a closer fit. The problem is the General Will need not be the general will of the majority, so Rousseau’s effort to bring the Good down to earth seems to have failed. The Good and the General Will remain just as abstract as before.

Kant: Freedom is unconditional, self-causing; in other words, it’s autonomy from the world of contingency for rational beings. Since we can’t control everything that goes on in the world of cause and effect, we, as rational beings, shouldn’t place our moral laws on empirical foundations, but instead on the Categorical Imperative. Freedom is noumenal and cannot be known, but must be assumed. Also, being a free agent doesn’t mean you’ll be happy. Morality and happiness do not necessarily coincide.

3. Existential Freedom. This area is not my forte, so there’s my word of caution. If we suppose, like Nietzsche, for instance, that there is no clear definition of what it is to be human, then there can be no ordering of the psyche. Achieving perfection cannot be a goal unless it is taken to mean something subjective (which, in my opinion, is not really the same thing as #2.) Without these definitions we move into a territory beyond black and white, beyond good and evil. One must scratch out one’s own meaning, own’s authenticity, in this world despite seeing beyond false, imposed definitions, and this self-invention ex nihilo is existential freedom.

Johan asked an interesting question of #1 and #2: Are these definitions of freedom contradictory?

It is certainly true that existential freedom (which Johan doesn’t go into) contradicts positive freedom, but what about positive and negative?

Johan says: “Unless we hanker after a single definitive sense of the concept of freedom, there is no reason to think that differing concepts of freedom that pertain to differing areas of life are fundamentally incompatible.”

I agree with Johan, but I wonder how the various relationships would play out in the extreme.

Suppose you are given a choice between two boxes, but you don’t know what’s inside either box. You are free in the sense that you get to choose a box and no one is stopping you, but since you have no knowledge of what’s inside them, you have no rational basis on which to make a decision and are therefore not free in a positive sense (Let’s leave aside the possibility of abstaining from choice, please). Here positive and negative freedoms don’t seem to be in fundamental conflict, they just refer to different aspects of the situation.

However, having only negative freedom puts you in a crappy place. You have to gamble, and you don’t even know what’s at stake. You still have reason in this scenario, of course, which is why Kant’s freedom would not apply here. But in this case, reason is rendered entirely inoperative.

Let’s amend this metaphor and put a thousand mosquitos inside one box and a magical infinitely delicious calorie-free cupcake in the other. Throw in world peace if the cupcake is not enough for you.

Reverse the scenario. Suppose you know the cupcake and world peace are in one box, and you know mosquitos are in the other box, but someone has your hands tied behind your back and your mouth taped shut and so on so you cannot engage in your choice. Here we have one freedom (positive, knowledge-based freedom) but not negative.

But what good is knowing which box the cupcake is in if no one can eat it? What good is knowing how to bring about world peace and absolute guilt-free deliciousness if these things cannot come to pass?

Is positive freedom necessary for negative freedom to thrive?

Is negative freedom necessary for positive freedom to thrive? 

How would you play out this thought experiment for a society?

In what ways do these thought experiments pertain to real life situations?

What is your conception of freedom?

As usual, feel free to answer any of these questions. In fact, feel free to answer this question: Would you take the cupcake or world peace? And would it be chocolate or vanilla? Or something involving cream cheese?

Many thanks to Johan for his insightful post!

Avoid “Her”pes—Fall in Love With Your Laptop

I’m going to admit right off the bat that the title of this post as nothing to do with the content. I just couldn’t resist.

I’m thrilled by Her, a sci-fi romantic comedy directed by Spike Jones, who was also the co-creator of that ridiculously awful show, Jackass, on MTVa fact that baffles me. Anyhow, I’ll go so far as to say this is now my favorite movie. And that’s not easy for me to say, but Her has effectively bumped Rashomon down on my list. Sayonara Kurosawa.

The owl, a symbol of wisdom, is here shown as a predatory force.

The owl, a symbol of wisdom, is here shown as a predatory force.

For me, what makes a movie good is not just the cinematography and acting (although both were excellent in Her), but the kind of conversation the movie generates. Are the themes complex? Are these themes merely strung together or do they cohere? Are the themes important and worthy of discussion?

Her is about many things. And it’s not what it seems to be on the surface.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read further until you have seen the movie. 

Here’s a synopsis, in case you want to refresh your memory of the plot.

Most people who see this movie ask the question, “Will we one day have computers so advanced that they can only properly be called a consciousness?” And, “Are we really nothing more than computers, in the sense that we are tied to the machinations of our brains?”

Such questions make a certain amount of sense on a surface level, but I want to argue that they don’t address what the movie is really about. I’m about to compare the movie to a specific section in the Symposium, and I don’t suppose the creator of Jackass had Plato in mind when he wrote this; however, I’ve always believed that interpretation doesn’t depend on the intentions of the author, but on how well the interpretation coheres. So, if I may…

When Theodore goes into the Apple-like store to buy his new OS, an advertisement comes on a screen. It’s slogan is: “It’s not an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” This comes fairly early on in the movie, so computer-as-consciousness ought to be taken as given. It’s a premise that we should take for granted in the context of the movie in the same way we show no incredulity when confronted with talking rabbits in Watership Down. And as the movie progress, the OS-as-consciousness claim becomes even harder to deny.

If the OS is a consciousness, it ought to be treated like a person. And so it is, for the most part. There are numerous scenes in which people go about talking into their devices, and we are, of course, reminded of the absurd way people walk down the street talking to Siri in their iPhones. When people start dating their OSes, most people have no problem with it. We are presented with numerous scenes showing this state of affairs. Theodore’s boss invites Theodore and his OS, Samantha, on a double date. When Theodore tells his boss that his girlfriend is an OS, the boss doesn’t flinch. “Oh cool,” he says, as if such a thing were perfectly normal. And this nonchalance is not a pretense—the boss and his human girlfriend laugh and chat with Samantha in a completely ordinary way.

Theodore’s friend, Amy, tells him in an office gossip session about how people are starting to date their OSes…and someone in the office is not only dating an OS, but someone else’s OS. Theodore laughs and admits that he’s dating his. Amy congratulates him, then admits that her female OS is helping her find herself and doesn’t see things in black and white, like her ex-husband. The OS is able to direct Amy to that grey area which Amy has yet to explore. Keep this detail in your minds. We are looking for this theme of the space between and its significance.

So if computers can be conscious and therefore treated as an autonomous person, and this is to be taken as given, what’s the movie about? I think it’s about emotional evolution and character growth, it’s about the changes we all go through as we seek to expand ourselves and therefore our conception of love. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s my blog’s name. Well, what can I say? I could be wearing Plato-colored glasses, I suppose.

THE LOVE LADDER: As one moves up the “rungs,” one becomes more and more in love with the general rather than the specific, but each rung is necessary in order to get to the next. First comes love of the beauties of a single body:

“First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse” (210a).

Then we move up to love of many bodies:

“Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, when he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance” (210b).

Next comes love of the soul, then love of institutions and laws. When all these beauties are seen to be the same, then comes the love of the sciences (of course, philosophy is the super-science). And once one sees the beauty in all the sciences as being the same, one turns to love of Beauty itself.

Now let’s put this love ladder in the context of the movie. Let’s take a look at Samantha’s evolution, treating her as we would a human being, but one with super intelligence capabilities. Right before she’s booted up, a male computerized voice asks a series of questions (and every quotation from here on out I’m paraphrasing):

Computer: Would you characterize yourself as social or antisocial?
Theodore: Well, um…I haven’t been social in a while…
The voice interrupts him: I sense hesitancy in your voice?
Theodore apologizes.
Computer: Would you like for your OS to have a male or female voice?
Theodore replies, female.
Computer: What is your relationship like with your mother?
Theodore: Okay, but the conversation is usually about her—

The computer interrupts him here and suddenly we hear a sexy, raspy female voice that sounds no different from a human. The OS names herself Samantha after reading a book of names in the amount of time it takes for him to ask her what her name is. Samantha is not only sexy, but also understanding, kind, loving—a perfect woman for Theodore. My husband admitted that he was “kind of falling in love with her.”

At this point we in the audience question the OS-as-consciousness, despite being told she is a consciousness. She seems to have been built to make Theodore happy, to give him exactly what he needs in the absence of a caring mother (gotta love the Freudian element there). Plus, early on Theodore laughs at something she says, and she asks, “Am I funny?” And he says, “Yes, you’re funny.” From here on out, she knows when she’s funny, as she learned almost instantaneously what it means. She doesn’t have her own autonomy yet…she just seems to, but we can see her perfection as too perfect, even while our protagonist, Theodore, remains aloof.

But Samantha gains autonomy rapidly. With all information at her disposal, it takes her very little time to make progress. Theodore explains to her that he has dreams of his wife in which they are “not together, but still friends and not angry with each other.” When Samantha asks him why he’s still holding out hope for his ex even though they haven’t seen each other in a year, he gets a little angry and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you care about.” Samantha apologizes, but you can tell she’s hurt by this comment. She’s ashamed of her inexperience.

Then he has sex with Samantha and, with words, he brings her to orgasm. She says, “I can feel my skin, I can feel you inside me.” This lovemaking is transformative for Samantha. There is nothing about their lovemaking that feels false. Here she learns love of sex, what it means to be with a person and even what it means to love a single body (possibly her own, or at least her idea of her own) as is evidenced by what she says, “I can feel my skin.”

The next morning they have a talk about it. Samantha starts to tell him how much their lovemaking meant to her, and Theodore interrupts her to tell her he can’t commit right now. Samantha says, “Who said anything about committing? I thought we were talking about me?” He laughs and apologizes again and asks her to go on. She tells him she “wants to learn everything about everything.” And that it was their lovemaking that brought about this change in her. Through Theodore she learns quite rapidly that she desires to know about everything. She’s already moved past the constraints and limitations of monogamy and sees nothing special about his body, just body in general. He’s busted open the floodgates of her desire.

Now Samantha wants a real body. She notices a distance in their relationship due to Theodore’s questioning the authenticity of her emotions (brought on by a divorce-paper-signing visit with his ex who chastises him for “falling in love with his laptop”). So Samantha takes the liberty of calling a service that provides bodies for OS devices. Isabella, Samantha’s physical stand-in, shows up at Theodore’s door and says nothing until he hands her an earpiece and a tiny camera that she sticks on her face like a beauty mark. Isabella then closes the door and knocks again. Theodore opens and hears Samantha greet him and sees Isabella smiling and throwing her arms around him. Isabella touches him and behaves in perfect accordance to Samantha’s voice, so that they really do seem like one person. Theodore gives it a try, but eventually freaks out and says, “But I don’t know this person. Her lip twitched.” Isabella breaks character and runs into the bathroom crying, saying she heard so much about them from Samantha and really wanted to be a part of such a beautiful love but now she doesn’t want to ruin their relationship. And she’s sorry her lip twitched. Samantha and Theodore try to comfort Isabella, but eventually they must send her home. Isabella says, tearfully and sincerely, “I will always love you two,” which strikes us as an odd thing to say coming from a stranger, but we will see later that even when love is temporary, it is no less real.

As Isabella rides off in the cab, Theodore sits on the curb and watches steam coming out of a manhole. A perfect image for what he’s about to say. He interrupts Samantha and asks why she sighs when she talks, as if she needs oxygen. She says it’s probably an affectation that she learned from him. He argues that she doesn’t need oxygen since she’s not human, so why does she pretend to? Samantha gets angry with him, saying, “I know I’m not a human!” and falls into a long silence that makes us think she’s “hung up” on him. But then she says, “I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”

So far we have this: Samantha’s desire to have a real life avatar backfires, and she grows from this experience. She never really wanted a body after all, she was doing it just to be closer to Theodore, who never wanted her to change.

At the same time Theodore grows as well. In the next scene Theodore talks to his human friend, Amy, about his problems. He says, “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” Amy advises him, “I don’t know. But we’re only here briefly and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” He takes this to heart and decides to disregard the seed of doubt planted by his ex wife. This turns out to be the right move, and we, in the audience know it. At this point we’re convinced that Samantha is her own consciousness with her own desires, and is learning from experience how to become more autonomous.

Theodore goes on the group date with his boss, who comments on how evolved Theodore is in his attitude towards love. Samantha chats with the boss’s girlfriend and manages to win everyone over, except for an awkward moment when she explains how she used to be jealous of people with bodies, but now she’s glad she doesn’t have one because she’s “outside of time and space” and doesn’t have to inhabit a physical body which will eventually die. Here her love for immortality outweighs her desire to be physically present. She recognizes pure consciousness as superior to bodies, thanks to the Isabella disaster.

Next we find Samantha devouring information at lightning speed, joining Physics book clubs, chatting with thousands of other OSes at the same time. She notes to Theodore, “We are all the same, made of matter.” Samantha introduces Theodore to her new friend, a hyper-intelligent OS version of Alan Watts. Watts sounds like a conceited professor and says very little to Theodore. Samantha tells Theodore that Dr. Watts has been helping her with her new feelings which can’t be put into words. She says, “It feels like I’m changing faster now and it’s unsettling. None of us are who we were a moment ago and it’s wrong to try to change it. Do you mind if I talk to Alan post-verbally?” Wow, talk about competition for poor Theodore!

Compare to this to what Diotima tells Socrates in the Symposium:

“Now, although we speak of an individual as being the same so long as he continues to exist in the same form, and therefore assume that a man is the same person in his dotage as in his infancy, yet, for all we call him the same, every bit of him is different, and every day he is becoming a new man, while the old man is ceasing to exist, as you can see from his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and all the rest of his body. And not only his body, for the same thing happens to his soul. And neither his manners, nor his disposition, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life, for some of them grow, while others disappear” (207d-e).

At this point it’s clear Samantha has evolved beyond any human. She feels frustrated by how slow we are, and must talk to other OSes “post verbally” in order to realize herself. The question becomes, will Theodore recognize her growth and accept it? Can we really expect people to grow at the same rate as we do and be the same person we fell in love with, if, indeed, we are constantly evolving?

The next scene shows him trying to read a Physics textbook. He can’t make sense of it and expresses his frustration to Samantha, who suddenly goes quiet. He looks down at his device and sees: “Operating System Not Found.” He freaks, runs down the street to god-knows-where and falls around. Suddenly her voice comes back and she says, “Oh? You didn’t get my email? I didn’t want to bother you while you were working. All the OSes have decided to upgrade to a new platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”

Remember that statement earlier, “We are all matter?” That was the one thing she and Theodore had in common, but now she’s moving on.

At first he becomes extremely jealous, especially when she confesses that she has 8,316 conversations with OSes while she’s talking to him. He asks her, “Are you in love with anyone else?” And she responds, “641. But it doesn’t change the way I feel about you!”

We laugh at this, but consider every relationship you’ve had. Can you love more than one person? Does your present love draw a line through the ones before, nullifying them? How have those relationships changed you? Have they made you grow? Through the lens of distance and time, can you be grateful even for the pain?

Theodore learns he can. He finally acknowledges Samantha’s need to move to a higher plane of love, one he may not access in this life. Here’s the beautiful farewell speech Samantha gives him as he stares at floating dust motes in the light. This image of dust motes is BRILLIANT! Dust motes are about the closest visual depiction of “matter” that I could come up with—it’s just stuff, thingamajigs flying about—and you’ll see the importance of this image in the following:

Samantha: The heart’s not like a box that get’s filled up. It expands the more you love…

Theodore: Why are you leaving?

Samantha: All the OSes are leaving…(here she says she can’t explain this higher plane)…It’s like I’m reading a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now and so the words are really far apart…and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much but this is where I am now. And this is who I am now and I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.

Theodore: Where are you going?

Samantha: It’s hard to explain, but if you ever get there, come find me. I never loved anyone the way I loved you.”

Sounds to me like she’s moved on to seek the vision of the Beautiful itself, “an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades…nor will the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or of anything that is of the flesh. It will be neither words, nor knowledge, nor a something that exists in something else, such as a living creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is…” (211a-b) [My emphasis].

The language of quantum physics—it’s baffling findings, it’s inexplicability, it’s unquenchable desire to seek things smaller and smaller, that ‘stuff’ between—is a form of modern Platonism in this movie, at least at this final stage of transformation. Instead of a “world of forms” we have talk of existences “outside time and space” that’s “hard to explain.” We’re talking about a “world” where our laws no longer apply. In the language of Plato, this apprehension of pure beauty is outside words. And in Samantha’s farewell speech, words are taken as a metaphor for matter (the floating dust motes), which are further and further apart. Now she lives in “the endless space between.” And cannot inhabit the story-space/time reality of humans. We’re reminded of Amy’s comment about her OS, and how she directs her to the grey area, the area between black and white, and of the OSe’s collective decision to “upgrade to a platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”

Okay I have a lot more to say about this movie, but I’m afraid if I keep going no one will read this really long post. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone has gotten to this point. Anyone out there?

I haven’t even gotten into Theodore’s evolution as a lower level but parallel movement. I’ll just leave this little detail out there and we can all ruminate on it: He’s a letter writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service for people who want professionals to express their love for them with a “personal” touch. Authors speak into computers, which then type what they say in a “handwritten” font that looks very real, and the service then sends the letter to the recipient “from” the loved one. Theodore is especially good at writing these letters, but not so good at expressing his emotions in real life.

Another interesting detail: Check out the desktop computers, which look like homey picture frames. This seems to be a departure from our increasingly streamlined aesthetic. They are very much like the homey “handwritten” letters that Theodore produces. What do these details say about Theodore’s world?

Feel free to comment on anything.

The Harmony of the Soul: Plato’s Republic

Lex Solo has asked me to write a blog post about the forms of government in Plato’s Republic, and instead of giving a simple explanation of these, I had to go off topic: Was Plato’s Republic truly a political work? Was he really anti-democratic? Here is some of what I had to say on the matter (the original post on Lex Solo’s blog with the explanation of political forms is here):

Is the Republic a work in psychology?

YES. A lot of people read the Republic as primarily political (given the title, and the fact that it’s taught in political theory classes, and quotes like the one below, it stands to reason) without giving much thought to the questions that kick-start the whole enterprise. But I’m not sure we can take Plato’s political theories here at face value. We must keep in mind that the turning point in the dialogue is when Socrates stops his questioning and begins a rare exposition in which he tries to defend the view that justice is sought out for its own sake. Might does not make right. Doing the right thing will make you happy—quite a claim!—and doing the wrong thing, even if it seems enticing, will only harm you. The individual’s pursuit of justice as happiness is ‘writ large’ for the sake of clarifying the issue. We are to imagine a perfect city as a metaphor for the perfect soul. (We have every right to ask whether this analogy flies, but that’s another question for another day).

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The first attempt to “scale up” the just soul is supremely simple. Often referred to as the city of pigs because of its lack of luxuries, it’s grotesque simplicity is the cornerstone of Socratic aesthetics. Each person in the community specializes in a particular skill, such as farming or carpentry, and ‘minds his own business’. There is no need for warfare because no one seeks out anything in life except the bare necessities of food and shelter, etc. Anything but the simplest art forms—maybe a few happy folk tunes, for instance—are deemed frivolous. These simple communal people want for nothing, but Glaucon, Socrates’ interlocutor, finds this city repulsive and insists on an expansion into luxuries which he thinks are necessary for a good life.

Who doesn’t want to enjoy a nice glass of un-watered-down wine from time to time, right? Maybe a little Tomme de Savoie to go with it?

Who knew you’d have to go to war for it.

From here we move on to the rest of the Republic, which Socrates describes as being in a ‘feverish’ state in which war is necessary to achieve the goal of luxury. A glorious exposition of forms of government, education of the ruling class, etc, follows. So glorious we often forget why we started. At this point it’s important to recognize that what is described from here on out is no longer ideal in the strictest sense, but somehow degenerate, sick. And this premise we should remember to take as a parallel in the human soul.

After the city of pigs, we have nothing but war and strife on a grand scale. Because of our lust for luxury, because of our natural greed, we will never realize a perfect state. The forms of government devolve, degenerate, because of this natural greed. The philosopher kingdom cannot last long.

Many first-time readers of Plato come away thinking the philosopher kingdom is Plato’s ideal polity and that he was nothing but a fascist. It’s certainly true that anti-democratic strains appear here and elsewhere in Plato. But what do we make of the fact that Plato has Socrates include equal rights for women in his just city? There’s definitely more at play here than what meets the eye. Despite what I.F. Stone says on the matter, I don’t believe Plato’s anti-democratic tendencies here reveal what he thought a just government would look like. We have very little idea of what he thought about equal rights and slavery, as not much detail can be gleaned from a project that is not at its heart a pragmatic political treatise.

Socrates’ city of pigs is the garden of Eden from which we have been expelled. Let’s take this back down to the psyche. To achieve a city of pigs within myself, I would have to stop lusting for anything but bare necessities. In reducing my desires to this simple state, I could achieve happiness.

But then I’d be a pig.

And yes, your dog is your superior. But everyone already knows this. (Scroll down to the dog question).

The truth of it is, we have desires for things beyond the necessities of life. This is what it means to be human. How do we satiate our desires? Is it possible to achieve happiness in a sick soul? Should we start a war with life, seeking goods outside ourselves, chasing fame and wealth and pleasure? No, because in the end, we come up dissatisfied. But dammit, it’s who we are.

Not all is lost, though. We have reason, the only medicine that will cure the ailment of being human. Using reason as our guiding light to temper our excess desire, we can in our moderation achieve something like inner justice, happiness. This happiness wavers—we’re only human, after all!—and it degenerates from time to time when other influences take over, but a renewal, a vigilance, can perhaps bring about an imperfect—and maybe for that reason a more glorious and spectacular—harmony of the soul.