The word “frustraneous” grabbed me by the back of the neck a while ago and hasn’t let go since. In case you don’t know (which I didn’t), it means “useless” or “unprofitable.” Derived from the Latin “frustra” (in vain).
I bring it up since I think it’s a description of something just the opposite of what I learned anew in an on-line class I recently completed on the importance of continuing to read and reread the classics, especially the Greeks from Homer to the tragedians Sophocles and Euripides to Plato.
Since turning seventy at the end of summer, I’ve been wondering what I should set my sights on for the next decade or so of my life. Although I’d like to be around as long as possible without feeling the sharp jabs from ailments that have pretty much spared me so far, I have to be realistic that time is running out and that the nasty “F” word — “finite” — is taking on a “Bolder” rather than an “Italic” typeface. What better way to focus myself each day than wander about with the likes of Homer, Socrates, Plato, the tragedians and finally Dante, who’s venture through The Divine Comedy reminds me of the saying that those who wander are not necessarily lost.
But before telling you of my venture so far, I want to share a recent amusing wine review in The New York Times that seems to sum up how so many of us rapidly aging debutantes see our lives. According to Eric Asimov, the paper’s wine expert,
Chief among wine’s mysteries is how and why it ages. By aging, I don’t mean simply enduring over years, youthful fruit and fragrances intact but relatively unchanged. I mean evolving, from a primary state of freshness and rough vitality to vigorous middle age, when grace, complexities and nuances tantalize and enthrall, through a long period of gentle decline and resolution, which offers its own subtleties and allure until, gradually and finally, the wine flickers into opacity.
I like that a lot. With any luck, I’ll be able to stave off the “opacity” for a while longer and just linger in a perpetual state of “grace, complexities and nuances” that “tantalize and enthrall” a few others in addition to myself. And when you stop to ingest that thought, I believe you really can’t ask for much more, especially when you blend it with an ongoing curiosity and desire to inquire further into this mystery we call life.
So in extending the metaphor of enjoying wine’s “complexities and nuances” to enjoying a life of continuous learning, I would like to tell you about that lengthy on-line course I mentioned earlier on Greek literature taught by Harvard’s Professor of Classics, Gregory Nagy. Nagy had us read The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as several plays by Sophocles and Euripides and passages from Plato about the end of Socrates’ life. At the end, Nagy left us with the challenge of rethinking about all we had read and seeing if we could pinpoint the importance of what the literature meant to us. In so doing, he posed the question of what did Socrates mean by his last words when he told his disciple Crito just before the fatal hemlock killed him: “Don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius.”
Again, if you don’t know (and I didn’t), Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine who got on the bad side of Zeus for bringing the dead back to life, a definite no-no. As the scholar Colin Wells discusses in a review (“The Mystery of Socrates’ Last Words”) of Emily Wilson’s book The Death of Socrates, “a blurry center mars the deceptively familiar tableau of bearded white males [I belong to this group], hemlock, tears, and serenity.” In her book, Ms. Wilson guides us through the many twists and turns of this cultural icon’s long life, not the least of which are the philosopher’s obscure last words.
As the hemlock’s effects worked their way up from his legs to his chest, the jailer told him that when the numbness reached his heart, he would die. Just before the poison took him, he reminded Crito not to forget about the rooster. All this is told in Plato’s Phaedo, a long and often highly technical conversation between Socrates and his followers about the nature of the soul, which Socrates argues is immortal. His belief in the soul’s immortality helps him face death with equanimity.
But what did this last request mean? There’s the rub. From the very beginning, there has been debate on what the instructions meant. Were they just a philosophical puzzle? Did they signify that life itself is a disease, and the sacrifice of the rooster to Asclepius nothing more than a way of thanking the god for “healing” Socrates with the hemlock. Others have challenged such an idea, since Socrates never gives any indication that he felt he was about to be healed of anything.
Nagy has chosen to believe that the sacrificial ritual speaks to Plato’s view of the nature and the task of human existence. Since we’re all here on our own short journeys through this life, soul or not, we are obligated to ourselves, if not to others, to make some sense of the journey itself, just as Socrates did when he said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Our masterpieces are our private lives.
Life as we know it is a mystery. If the symbolic rooster is sacrificed at night before we slip into the mystery of sleep and if we are to hear it as the first sound of our awakening the following morning, it becomes the symbol of the voice of life itself coming back. Perhaps Socrates made his request to insure in some symbolic way that his soul would “hear” the crowing in his new form as a symbol of his immortality.
And for the rest of us, according to Nagy, if we continue to stay aware of and curious about our journey through this life, we, too, can look forward to awakening to a new life every morning, by symbolically hearing the voice of the rooster that we have sacrificed the night before. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the same rooster, just as it doesn’t matter if the person we’ve been having a dialog with is Socrates, so long as we continue to have the dialog and stay attuned to the “grace, complexities and nuances” of life. It is all part of the undeniable good fortune of being alive.
What I walked away with–and it’s certainly not some “frustraneous” concept–is that by reading the classics, especially the Greeks, we are opening ourselves up to a deeper inner life and a more exalted way of considering the many mysteries of who we are and what our significance ultimately is. We must not hurry through our reading as we must likewise not hurry through our lives. Instead, we must slowly and deliberately continue our efforts to connect with our philosophical heritage and thus make closer contact with our humanity and our own humanism. If I might echo Nagy’s parting words, that is what the humanities are all about. And to go even further and return to our metaphor of wine and pouring out a libation to honor life in all its splendor and mystery, we can even come a little bit closer to understanding what the sacrifice of that rooster is all about.