I have a confession. Last week I went to Home Depot with my partner to get some practical thing like garbage bags, and I had a long moment (20 in fact) with the Christmas lights display. I had a number of boxes of them, different colours and shapes, some blinked, some flickered, others glimmered (and yes these are real and true distinctions with respect to Christmas lights). Deciding an intervention was required, B.reminded me that it was in fact only Oct. 2. Such a kill joy. I’m not really cool anyway, but when it comes to Christmas I am decidedly not cool. I can’t even pretend to be bored or cyclical or cranky about the commercialization. I love everything about. And I think the bigger the better. My house should look like an amusement park or Vegas. My family thinks it’s an insult when they refer to all of the lights and ornaments tastefully and tackily adorning all surfaces as Graceland–an insult that warms my little and normally dark heart. Presents should be wacky and wild and wrapped in ways that defy all imagination. And the tree should be big. Like really big. The tree in the picture was one we had last year. It was so big that to fit in the house we had to trim it not just at the bottom, but at the top. As a result it was rather squareish in shape. And that was great, because it meant that rather than just one little ol’ star at the normally skinny top, I could festoon its girth with three. Bigger in this instance is better.
And I know many of you are shaking your heads at my gauchness in this regard. What thoughtful person would lose themselves with such wild abandonment over something so fleeting and so costly in terms of money but also time. No doubt, I should learn some self-control.
But in my defence, I offer you Plato. (Which is why I wouldn’t make a very good lawyer. “Your Honour, my client acknowledges that she was out of control. But in her defence, I would like to read to you from Plato’s Phaedrus.”) Plato of course is famous for writing dialogues that star his teacher, the rather rambunctious and sometimes a little raunchy, Socrates. Socrates, who is described as ugly, wanders around Athens in his barefeet and bathes so infrequently that it is noticed by others when he does. And he insists on talking to people, and, strangely perhaps, people insist on talking to him. Part of the attraction of Socrates is the passion or desire for truth that animates him, a desire so intense that Socrates would rather die (and does die) than give up on his search. With respect to wisdom, Socrates was a little out of control.
Now my accusers might well respond, that being passionate about wisdom is a little different than my immoderation about all things Christmas. The analogy, they might say, does not hold.
“But Your Honour, in my defence, let me tell you about Plato’s Phaedrus.” The overarching question that begins the Phaedrus is-who is better, a lover or a non-lover? In the first two runs at the questions the non-lover takes a kind of precedence because the non-lover is governed by moderation and self-control. The non-lover is thus always guided by a reasoned judgement of what is best (237e) while the lover often loses herself recklessly in her desire for the beautiful (238c). According to this first gambit, the non-lover is a better guide at Christmas. Like Martha Stewart, perhaps, she only uses soft white lights, as is appropriate, and tastefully coloured displays (nothing garish, please) minimally adorn her home, which, of course, is already decorated in neutral tones.
But then Socrates, who has been compelled by his love for Phaedrus to make this speech, for it is a speech that Phaedrus has asked to hear, says that in speaking in this way he has offended the gods and must make some kind of reparation. So he gives another speech, and this speech is a myth so over the top and beautiful that you feel a little bit like you are covered in stardust or at least glitter by the time it is over. According to the myth, our souls are composed of two winged horses and a charioteer. One of our horses is good, but the other is not and so driving the chariot of the soul is a cumbersome task (246b). Prior to being instantiated in bodies, our horsey and winged souls, used to follow the gods as they made their way up to very rim of heaven. There, if we are able to sufficiently govern the beasts of our soul, we like the gods might balance on the rim, and, looking outward, glimpse the principles of all knowledge and beauty. These are the things, Socrates says, that properly nourish us. If we don’t govern our horses, our wings are not sufficiently nourished and they fall off, resulting in our falling from the heavens and to the earth. Just in case you aren’t really following and somehow imagine that you would have no problem with the delicate act of balancing your chariot on the bowl of all being–that you are reading this means that you and I were bad charioteers. We did not govern our horses and so were unable to feed them. As a result they lost their wings. Hence, here we are. Failed horsemen wandering around the earth.
All, however, is not lost. For, as Socrates says, we can be reminded of the beauty we once knew when we see it instantiated in the form of another. In other words, the reason, Socrates says, that we love one person rather than someone else, is because there is something specific about your beloved that reminds you of the nature of what is true and good. Of all the principles that we are able to see on earth, Beauty is the most obvious (250b). (And so, in my defence, maybe something about Christmas lights reminds me about the nature of what is true and good).
The story gets even better, because, remember, our souls are composed of horses and a charioteer. So inside all of that muscle and gunk, there are two horses and little person driving a chariot. Probably beside the spleen. When you see someone who reminds you of the god you had followed and the principles you once knew, your horses, ummm, get excited and the closer you get to the beloved, your wings, ummm, begin to sprout (251b). I mentioned he was a little colourful right? Eventually, if we nourish our wings by means of our beloved, we eventually fly back to the realm of pure being.
At this point in the dialogue, Socrates describes our horses in pretty physical terms. One of the horses is beautifully proportioned and regal looking. This horse, dulcet in tone, of course, is modest and has self-control. The other horse is dark and a jumble of limbs, indecent and immoderate (253e). Needless, to say when you first read the description of the horses, you are inclined to think the beautiful white horse is the good horse from Socrates’s previous description, for this horse listens to the charioteer and acts with moderation around his beloved.
But, and maybe it is just because I am more like the dark horse and my dog Tim is definitely like the dark horse, I think that the dark horse is the hero of the story. Remember-it’s the non-lover of the first speech, the speech that Socrates says is offensive, that is described as having self-control. The person who doesn’t really love wisdom, for instance, would have self-control with respect to it, and would never do anything so garish as to risk her life for the sake of knowledge. She would take a moderate amount of Christmas lights, err, knowledge, and be content in its off-white glow. The dark horse,alternatively, has no self-control in the face of the beloved. She insists on seeing the beloved as often as is possible, ensuring that even the self-controlled horse is given access to the person who reminds them of Beauty and thus allowing them to nourish their wings and fly, with their now lover, back to heaven. The dark horse is relentless in his quest for the beloved such that the charioteer and the white horse, “see[ing] no end to their trouble… are led forward reluctantly …and they are struck by the boy’s face as if by a bolt of lightening. When the charioteer sees that face his memory is carried back to the real nature of Beauty…”(254b). As Socrates indicates, it is the passion of the dark horse that allows even the charioteer to be reminded of the good that he once knew and which he would now desire.
So, back to Christmas lights. With respect to all things Christmas, I am like the dark horse. I love everything about it and I am reckless in pursuit of all that glitters and glows. And why do I do this? So that my beloveds can be reminded of what is beautiful and good. And let’s be honest, there is nothing about a beige Christmas that is going to do that.