As a cold winter lockdown bites, Tom Hodgkinson hopes it will free up some space for contemplation
As I write, it’s Guy Fawkes night and things are looking exceedingly gloomy – in England a new lockdown starts today, and it’s very cold in London town. While the last lockdown took place in glorious sunny weather, this time we’re going to have to get used to standing around braziers with our cans of beer and fingerless gloves. My friend Danny reckons salopettes are the answer. Certainly the manufacturers of gloves, hats, scarves and thick socks are going to be gearing up for a busy period.
Lockdown is miserable in many ways but at least it might give some of us a bit more time for contemplation of what life is about, for philosophical reflection, which is an enjoyable and potentially very useful pastime since it leads to happiness. I for one can be extremely happy sitting alone in our back yard, staring at the brick wall and thinking.
It was a strange Athenian priestess called Diotima of Mantinea who we can credit with the invention of philosophy. She’s a central character in Plato’s Symposium, an enthralling mini-play that dramatises a renowned dinner party at which each guest made a speech about love. Socrates, Aristophanes and the famously handsome Alcibiades all make an appearance. When it’s Socrates’ turn to speak, he says that what he learned about love, he learned when he was young from a priestess called Diotima at the temple. Diotima, Socrates says, delayed the plague’s arrival in Athens by 10 years (presumably through some sort of lockdown).
Diotima, Socrates goes on, taught him that “philosophy” means the love of wisdom, and that to love wisdom doesn’t mean you are wise, but that you are moving towards wisdom. This thought leads to Socrates’ well-known saying, “I know that I know nothing”. She tells Socrates that life should be spent in contemplating divine beauty: “This, my dear Socrates, is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute.” Or a brick wall, if divine beauty is not at hand.