Monday, June 13, 2011

Socrates & Hippias In The Coffee Museum

In an old house along the lakeside in Zurich is or was the coffee museum. Not many people knew about it. You had to walk through the gates from the street, go around to the side entrance and step up into the covered porch and ring the bell. A minute or two later, the door lock would buzz open, and you could enter. There was free coffee, of course. Exhibits of an expected kind, and comfortable tables to sit down at. No one would be around. You could drink coffee, look out the windows towards the lake, read your book. And you were safe in Switzerland.

One afternoon at the museum I came across something interesting in Plato. Hippias the sophist, a man who makes money out of displays of his wisdom, tells Socrates that the world must be continuous and consistent, and Socrates the unpaid lover of wisdom, with his bag of tricks has no trouble creating doubt about this. When you are paid to make a show of wisdom, you need to know the world, what it will pay for. This is a technical question, capable of a clear answer, and Hippias claimed to be the best at it anywhere in the world. When you are an unpaid lover of wisdom, you are in an opposite relation to the world: you want how you see the world to be discontinuous. You want your life in the world to get better. The world changes, gets better or worse, depending on how wise you get.

The dialog leads to the conclusion that one kind of beauty is different from another, and to understand what beauty is in itself, what is common to all kinds of beauty, you need to step back out of the world of continuous consistent description. It is you and what you do with beauty in your life that allows the category to exist.

This was the first time I had read an explanation of how exactly and why seeking fame and fortune makes you unhappy. Maybe it was really better to hide away at the Coffee Museum at the Zurich lakeside.

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