Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gorgias 494a6: an ornithological note

At Gorgias 494a6 Socrates says that the life Callicles is attempting to promote as ideal for a human is instead the life of a Charadrios. The point is clear in general terms: not only is this not an ideal human life, it is in fact not a human life at all, which is a counter to Callicles’ claim that the life Socrates recommends is the life of a stone or corpse. (This is not the only instance of this tactic: compare Socrates’ claim in the Philebus that a life of pleasure without intelligence is the life of a mollusc.)

What bird is this? It is sometimes translated as ‘stone curlew’, for what that’s worth. LSJ s.v. say that it is probably the thick-knee or Norfolk plover, Charadrius oedicnemus. (Also known as Burhinus oedicemus, the Eurasian stone curlew.) They add that it was proverbially greedy, hence the reference in the Gorgias. (The bird also had yellow eyes and the sight of it was supposed to be a cure for jaundice – on which see also my post here.) That would be a sensible connection, I suppose, but it still seems a little thin. Dodds, who notes that evidence for the identification of the bird as a stone curlew can be found in D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek birds p.311, ad loc. simply notes that it is a ‘bird of messy habits and uncertain identity’. I love this comment, but the more I think about it the odder it seems: Dodds must be certain enough about the identity of the bird to be able to comment on its habits, mustn’t he? And what is the implied contrast with ‘messy’: Are their tidier birds? More sanitary birds? Birds that take more care over their appearance? Anyway, Dodds goes on to tells us more about stone curlews: the stone curlew is a ‘twilight feeder, and has large bright-yellow eyes and inconspicuous plumage... when disturbed it runs rather than flies away’. It also tends to hide by crouching among stones.

It would help that the bird is somewhat timid, of course, because Callicles wants his ideal life to be one which includes courage, albeit courage in the service of unrestrained appetites. All in all, this is not a very noble bird and quite contrary to Callicles’ general lofty vision of his ideal person. What about the ‘messy habits’? Dodds is perhaps extrapolating here from the needs of Socrates’ argument which has been tackling Callicles’ conception of a good life characterised by the pleasure gained from processes of satisfying desires. Socrates infers that in order to enjoy pleasure there must be an antecedent lack to be satisfied. And after the process of satisfaction is complete, as Callicles agrees, the pleasure is over. So the lack must be generated again. In terms of the ‘leaky jars’ analogy being pursued at this point of the text, in order to fill up the jar again whatever was previously there has to be expelled. Perhaps these are the ‘messy habits’: for every time the bird spies and eats a tasty worm it also expels something to make room for the new morsel. If, on the other hand, it is a bird that spends its time running about after every little grub it can find, perhaps Socrates might have in mind the idea that rather than a life of grand pleasures, Callicles’ ideal might turn into one of constant petty pleasures, since every time a lack arises the person concerned will be driven to try to satisfy it, like someone constantly topping up a leaky jar.

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