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Politeia

Volume 1, Issue 3, Summer 2019

Yi Wu
Pages 28-44
DOI: 10.5840/politeia20191318

Philosophy as Memory Theatre
Plato's Odyssey

Contrary to its self-proclamation, philosophy started not with wonder, but with time thrown out of joint. It started when the past has become a problem. Such was the historical situation facing Athens when Plato composed his Socratic dialogues. For the philosopher of fifth century BCE, both the immediate past and the past as the Homeric tradition handed down to the citizens had been turned into problematicity itself. In this essay, I will examine the use of philosophy as memory theatre in Plato's Republic. I shall do so by interpreting Book X of the Republic as Plato's “odyssey” and suggest that such Platonic odyssey amounts to an attempt to re-inherit the collapsed spatial and temporal order of the fallen Athenian maritime empire. In my reading, the Odysseus in the Myth of Er comes forth for Plato as the exemplary Soldier-Citizen-Philosopher who must steer between the Scylla of ossified political principles and the whirling nihilism of devalued historical values, personified by Charybdis. I shall further suggest that Plato’s memory theatre also constitutes a device of amnesia and forgetting. The post-Iliadic Odysseus must drink of forgetfulness from the river Lethe, so that the revenant soldier, Er, and those who inherited the broken historical present during and after the Peloponnesian War, would be enabled to remember in a particular way. Such remembrance, I shall conclude, may be what Plato means by philosophy, a memory theatre of psychic regulation and moral economy that sets itself decidedly apart from earlier tragic and comic catharsis.

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