The Philosopher's Plant
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The Philosopher's Plant

An Intellectual Herbarium

Michael Marder, Mathilde Roussel

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eBook - ePub

The Philosopher's Plant

An Intellectual Herbarium

Michael Marder, Mathilde Roussel

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About This Book

Despite their conceptual allergy to vegetal life, philosophers have used germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned plants in passing as the natural backdrops for dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegories out of flowers, trees, and even grass; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to select species of plants.

In this book, Michael Marder illuminates the vegetal centerpieces and hidden kernels that have powered theoretical discourse for centuries. Choosing twelve botanical specimens that correspond to twelve significant philosophers, he recasts the development of philosophy through the evolution of human and plant relations. A philosophical history for the postmetaphysical age, The Philosopher's Plant reclaims the organic heritage of human thought. With the help of vegetal images, examples, and metaphors, the book clears a path through philosophy's tangled roots and dense undergrowth, opening up the discipline to all readers.

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PART I
ANCIENT PLANT-SOULS
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1 PLATO’S PLANE TREE
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In the Shade of a Plane Tree
Plato was notoriously averse to the arts of rhetoric. In florid discourses and techniques of persuasion he saw the trademarks of his sworn enemies, the sophistic sleights of hand that dispensed with the real work of thinking at the heart of true philosophizing. No other negative attitude of his rivaled this aversion, except a glaring distaste for myths. Churning out dogmatic answers to humanity’s quest for origins, the received wisdom of mythological narratives interfered with the philosopher’s relentless questioning of reality and of himself. Myth beckoned with the exact opposite of the Socratic profession of not-knowing, which, if we are to believe the hallucinogen-induced prophesies of the Delphic oracle, made Socrates the wisest of all mortals. Myth’s promise of easy knowledge (and, to the sophists, easy money) inevitably shortchanged those naïve enough to put their trust in it.
Tempted though he was, Plato could not bring himself to forgo intricate rhetorical devices, metaphors, subtle similitudes, and clever allegories, with which he adorned his dialogues. Nor did he, counting on the credulity of the readers, really give up mythic storytelling, which was tightly woven into the fabric of his writings. An obsessive writer who worked with multiple drafts of his texts, he paid careful attention to the dramatic settings of the conversations he recorded. And, invariably, the initial setup of the dialogues contained clues to what was going to be discussed in them.
The Republic begins with Socrates relating to his listeners, “I went down to the Piraeus,” a port city in the vicinity of Athens (Plato Republic 327a). Although at first glance this line is hardly significant, Plato’s writings are calibrated all the way down to the last word, if not to the last sound, as J. B. Kennedy claims in his intriguing The Musical Structure of Platonic Dialogues.1 For those who keep the esoteric subtext in mind, the expression “I went down” bristles with deeper meaning, in that it alludes to the philosopher’s literal descent to the world of everyday appearances. In the celebrated Myth of the Cave, Socrates will echo these opening words with the story of the philosopher’s allegorical descent to the chaos of unexamined ways of thinking. Read in retrospect, the statement deposited at the threshold of The Republic will reveal that the whole masterpiece proceeds along the jagged narrative lines of Socrates’ meeting his interlocutors at the exact place where they are in their own cognition and in his making a herculean effort to elevate them above the darkness of this conceptual cave. “I went down” is a laconic summary of what is to follow, at least from the viewpoint of Socrates himself.
In Phaedrus, a dialogue overtly hostile to ars rhetorica and even more so to writing, the dramatic setting is equally telling. Socrates and his companion, who lends his name to the title of the exchange, find themselves in the countryside. Phaedrus singles out a particularly auspicious place for the rest of the conversation—a soft patch of grass shaded by a tall plane tree, platanos (229a–b). Does the idyllic natural setting stand for a counterweight to writing and rhetoric, those despised excesses of civilization? Not quite. A few pages into the dialogue, Socrates will confess: “You see, I am fond of learning. Now the country places and the trees won’t teach me anything, and the people in the city do” (230d). We cannot learn anything from trees, comfortable as it may be to converse in their shade on a scorching summer’s day. The city with its marketplace (the agora) is still the preferred place for philosophizing. What, then, is the point of dwelling on the plane tree, under which Socrates and Phaedrus will rest?
As is often the case in Plato, the explanation is as unexpected as it is laced with irony. A rhetorical trick has permitted Plato to insinuate himself into the dialogue without really taking part in it. To the Hellenic readers of the text it will have been obvious that the plane tree, platanos, is a semantic play on the author’s proper name, with both words derived from the Greek platys, meaning “broad.” (Plane trees have remarkably broad leaves, as do all other sycamores. No wonder, then, that a variety known as the London plane predominates in New York City, with over ninety thousand specimens scattered throughout the five boroughs.)2 So, the irony is that Plato has literally overshadowed Socrates and Phaedrus, who linger in the shade of a plane tree. The exaggerated modesty of a mere “reporter” of his teacher’s thoughts and great deeds is a rather thin veneer that hides the towering presence of the student over the Socratic legacy. More than that, Plato’s shadow has turned out to be broad enough to shelter the rest of Western philosophy, which, as Alfred North White-head once put it, is but a series of “footnotes to Plato.”
To complete the ironic overview I have presented, consider Phaedrus’s suggestion that the grass is there “to sit on, or, if we like, to lie down on” (229b). Where is the punch line? Well, Phaedrus was one of the main characters in Plato’s Symposium, the great dialogue on the subject of love. His playful offer to recline together under the tree makes part of a string of the all-but-evident seductions. As for Plato, he silently and, perhaps, voyeuristically observes the entire scene from the heights of his position as a scribe and of the plane tree he has dramatically metamorphosed into.
The overtones of sexual seductiveness that permeate this strange love triangle of Phaedrus-Socrates-Plato are inseparable from the allure of vegetal nature. Having arrived at the foot of the plane tree, Socrates lavishly praises the place as “charming,” not the least thanks to the “very spreading and lofty” tree and the grass “thick enough to be just right when you lay your head on it” (230b–c). Phaedrus has conducted the Athenian gadfly well outside the confines of the city, with its strict laws and opportunities for learning, to the place of sheer enchantment. The charming environment, rife with mythic insinuations, is populated with the nymphs Pharmaceia and Oreithyia, as well as the river god Achelous and the god of the northern wind, Boreas. In a word, trailing after Phaedrus, Socrates has arrived at the ur-place of myth framed on all sides by lush vegetation. All that remains is to lower one’s head on the grass, to recline, and to forget oneself in blissful slumber, which is the sleep of reason itself.
Not on Plato’s watch, though! (Remember the plane tree vigilantly towering over the scene.) The only thing that will enchant a true philosopher will be the seductive promise of knowledge, comparable to the charms of vegetation—leafy branches or fruit—that attract herbivorous animals. Listen to Socrates once again:
But you seem to have found the charm to bring me out. For as people lead hungry animals by shaking in front of them a branch of leaves or some fruit, just so, I think, you, by holding before me discourses in books, will lead me all over Attica and wherever else you please. So now that I have come here, I intend to lie down, and let you choose the position in which you think you can read most easily, and read.
(230d–e)
From here onward, Phaedrus’s moonlighting as a guide is over. Despite the Socratic pretense of acquiescence to the reading of a speech his companion has prepared, it will be Socrates alone who will lead the way out of the labyrinths of myth. He will spare nothing and no one as he ranks and judges, discerns and criticizes (for instance, good writing and bad) with the view to establishing a comprehensive tribunal of reason itself. The frantic activity of philosophizing will retrace the initial contrast between the plane tree and the grass, the high and the low, for the floral embodiments of mythic reality have already outlined a hierarchy of judgment in the most palpable terms conceivable. The human figures of Socrates and Phaedrus—but also of the dialogue’s readers: you and I—will thus be suspended between the two extremes, caught up in a vertical valuation and hierarchical organization of the world. Neither as low as the grass nor as tall as the majestic plane tree.
When the torch passes to Socrates, who has never really relinquished it, vegetal imagery does not disappear; on the contrary, it is cultivated, refined, and transplanted into what Kenneth M. Sayre felicitously named “Plato’s literary garden.”3 An elevated, serious discourse is one that “plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words” and that is fruitful, yielding as it does “the seeds, from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process forever” (276e–277a). If harvest is scarce, it is safe to say that the soul, where intelligent words were sown, was not a good fit for the semantic seeds or that the words themselves were not intelligent. At any rate, the Platonic soul is a kind of ethereal soil for the growth of logoi, that is to say, of speeches, discourses, and words, not to mention logic and reason. We will keep circling around this cross-fertilization of philosophy and agrobotanical discourse in Plato’s work.
The time has not yet come for us to leave the cool shade of the plane tree, into which the author of Phaedrus has fashioned himself. Would we be justified in viewing this ironic metamorphosis as anything other than a symptom for Plato’s unbridled poetic license, if not his down-right bad taste? It is not unheard of that humans, even those as excellent as the legendary heroes, tired of their human countenance and elected noble animal incarnations in Platonic dialogues. The striking and original Myth of Er at the close of The Republic, where Plato contemplates the idea of an afterlife, puts forth precisely this scenario, which sees Orpheus choosing the life of a swan, Agamemnon embracing that of an eagle, and so forth (620a–b). Why, then, wouldn’t a soul adopt the life of a plant (say, of a plane or an oak)? After all, in the same dialogue where Plato disguises himself as a tree, Socrates invokes a prophesying oak “in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona” (Phaedrus 275b). The Socratic point here is that it does not matter where the voice comes from—a tree or even a rock—insomuch as it speaks the truth. In other words, logos (or the voice of truth) is powerful enough to level down qualitative distinctions among different classes of beings. How so?
Suffice it to say that the modern systems of biological classification, formalized at the time of Carl Linnaeus, were foreign to the ancients. True: every being had a niche of its own and existed for a particular end, or telos. But the contours of these teleologies were not as we tend to picture them. A noble human (e.g., Odysseus), a noble animal (e.g., a lion), and a noble plant (e.g., bay laurel) had more in common with one another than two members of the same “kingdom,” such as a laurel tree and a stalk of corn. Nor were the boundaries between biological kingdoms set in stone. As we will learn in the next chapter, for Aristotle, a dumb human, incapable of abiding by the strict principles of logic, literally became no better than a vegetable. Contemporary transgenic research, too, violates these boundaries all the time. Plants with bacterial genes that presumably improve their growth, salmon with the genes of the eellike ocean pout, or mice expressing human growth hormone genes are no longer oddities in our world. So, what if the mélange of otherwise dissimilar classes of beings, passing into and out of one another in ancient modes of thinking, is not a fanciful invention but an astute description of our transgenic present and future?
Heavenly and Earthly Plants
The grand cosmological narrative preserved in Timaeus holds the kernel of Plato’s theory of plant life. It is futile, he implies, to treat plants as a unified and homogeneous category of beings. Along with other ancient thinkers, Plato recognizes that what botanists now define as the “higher” plants, including trees, are qualitatively different from the less individuated “lower” varieties, such as the grasses. Staggering as it may sound, the higher plants were assumed to share the physical substance of which humans were made. In the middle of an account focused on the divine creation of humanity, this nobler kind of plant emerges as a living creature consubstantial with us. The gods, Timaeus speculates, “engendered a substance akin to that of man, so as to form another living creature: such are the cultivated trees and plants and seeds which have been trained by husbandry and are now domesticated amongst us” (77a). Among Plato scholars, consensus is lacking as to whether we should take the speculation seriously. Timaeus is the least Socratic and the least dialogic of the Socratic dialogues. Essentially a monologue—or, as Socrates sarcastically puts it, as a euphemism for verbal diarrhea, “a feast of words” (20c)—delivered by the text’s eponymous character, it is a compilation of a dizzying array of ancient cosmological and cosmogonic beliefs. Having said that, certain hallmarks of Platonic thought are stamped onto Timaeus’s discourse, most notably when it comes to the subject of plant life.
In what is surely the most remarkable statement of the plant-human relation in the history of Western thought, the dialogue portrays humans in the shape of “heavenly plants”:
We declare that God has given to each of us, as his daemon, that kind of soul which is housed in the top of our body and which raises us—seeing that we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant—up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven. And herein we speak most truly; for it is by suspending our head and root from that region whence the substance of our soul first came that the divine power keeps upright our whole body.
(90a–b)
In and of itself, the classification of the human as a kind of plant underscores the affinities between the vegetal kingdom and us. The contrast between the earthly and the heavenly plants retraces the difference between the higher and the lower varieties of actual vegetation. Still, humans are so much spiritually higher than the highest of plants that the entire system of spatial coordinates (“above” and “below”) flips, revealing an entirely distinct reality. While our bodies may have a stake in the stuff of which other creatures are made, the substance of the rational soul derives from another region altogether: the eidetic sphere, or the realm of Ideas. It is this superior realm that nourishes our psyches, attached to the eidetic soil as though by invisible roots. In the earthly plant, the root is the lowest part immersed in the moist darkness of the earth. But in the heavenly plants that we are, the root is the highest point and the most lucid part of our bodily constitution—the head, which is also closest to Ideas. Just as vegetation clings to the earth for support, so the heavenly plant stands upright and grows in strength the more it is bound to its own ethereal ground. We are, so to speak, topsy-turvy plants rooted at the head in the eidetic soil above us. Compared to this firm anchorage, our locomotion is as haphazard as the movement of tree limbs and branches flapping in the wind.
The conceptual image of a heavenly plant teaches us an important lesson about the nature of Platonic Ideas. Now, these are not found in our heads, even though the rational soul housed there has sprouted from the substance of which Ideas are made. Beauty, Goodness, and Truth are not to be conflated with beautiful, good, and true things, themselves the hazy reflections of their corresponding Ideas. Even if, in a terrifying thought experiment, all sensible reality were to disappear, Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, not to mention the Idea of a tree, would remain untouched in their own autonomous sphere. This is because, eternal and immutable, Ideas exist independently of us, who pass like shadowy silhouettes over the face of the planet. They are the sole things that truly and fully are, neither coming into being nor passing away. More stable than the earth itself, which is prone to landslides and earthquakes, Ideas form the cornerstone of Plato’s philosophy. Only by rooting ourselves in them, only by embracing the view of the human as a heavenly plant, can we hope to partake of the stability they promise.
To recap: in Plato, the meaning of human life and the key to our salvation are totally unrelated to the physic...

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