Today while I was cleaning up the rest of the leaves in advance of a predicted snow squall, Tim decided that we were actually playing a game – a delightful game that involved him launching his 113 pounds at my face while pretending to bite me. Fun for who? Fun for Tim. (Until he was sent into exile, a word which Tim knows means, “Inside. Now.”)
All of which, of course, reminds us of Plato. In The Republic, Plato gives Socrates the task of convincing a group of young, privileged Athenians that they should prefer justice to seeking their own advantage at the expense of others. Doing the right thing, however, is a complicated affair. It requires knowing not only what is right in and of itself (an immense if not impossible task), but knowing what is right in these particular circumstances, at this particular time. This is not the work of any red shirt ensign, but the work of a philosopher-a philosopher king. Having set the lure, Socrates begins to reel in his prey.
In Book 2, Socrates, with his usual unusual irony, compares philosophers to dogs. Dogs, he says, are the most philosophic of animals, because they love those they know and hate those they don’t. Dogs, Socrates concludes, thus love knowledge. If you know my Tim, you know this is the height of irony. Tim loves potato chips, the chance to raid the garbage, cardboard, even brussel sprouts. But there is no way my Tim loves knowledge. (He has been known to eat his own poop after all). The philosopher isn’t someone who is content with what they know, they desire to know everything. Tim isn’t a philosopher. He is a dog who once ate a string of Christmas lights.
Socrates’s usual irony, though, is unusual in that does double duty and works on multiple levels. At first pass, Socrates says something and it is so ludicrous, you know he doesn’t mean what he says, but rather the opposite. Like when I say “Tim is a genius,” you know what I actually mean. But upon a second pass, once we understand what it was the Socartes intended by his ironic speech, we have to go back to what he said originally, and try to understand in what way it was actually true. Confusing, yes? So Tim is a genius. Ok. He isn’t a genius. Well, maybe not in the way that we usually think of geniuses, but perhaps in a different way. After all, Tim gets pretty much everything he wants, even though today he made a game of trying to knock me down and eat my face.
Dogs might not then be philosophers the way we might normally think of them. But maybe there is something about a dog that is like being a philospher, or someone who desires wisdom. In another Platonic dialogue, the Alcibiades, Socrates encounters the young Alcibiades, a man with such ambition that within a page or two Socrates has revealed that Alcibiades will not be content until the entire world has submitted to his will. And in the course of Alcibiades’s life he leads the Athenians in war against the Spartans and Persians. And when Athens no longer agree with him, sending him into exile, Alcibiades does not go quietly into that good night, he changes sides, and leads the Spartans. And then the Persians.
Terrifying perhaps, but for Socrates, Alcibiades’s eros represents an opportunity. After all wisdom is probably an impossible quest, and, thus, the would be philosopher, will have to be animated with a kind of passion that cannot be confined or limited. Timmy has this kind of passion. Nothing will stop him until he has taken all of the stuffing out of a stuffed toy; ntohing will stop him until you get out of that bed and make him his breakfast; nothing will stop him until the shoe you are trying to put on your foot has been so grossly disfigured that you might as well stay home. If wisdom smelled like cheese, Timmy would have that philosophy thing nailed.
Socrates then thinks philosophers have to have the kind of zany spiritedness of a dog wholly animated by the desire to pretend to eat your face. However, there is something more and perhaps more important about my Tim that is like a philosopher. In The Republic, Socrates describes dogs as like philosophers because they love their friends. Initially, this seems like an ironic statement because we know the philosopher loves wisdom and will be stopped by nothing to acquire it. But, if we think about Socrates, we know that he is rarely alone. Instead, his quest for wisdom seems to always or most always, anyways, involve at least one other person, and, more often than not, this person is someone who Socrates loves. Seeking wisdom is something that seems inevitably to require the perspective of someone else, and the nature of the quest is that this someone has to be a person who you trust, a person you trust with the most important of things. So when Socrates says that dogs are like philosophers because they love heir friends, Socrates is saying that philosophers are like dogs because they love their friends.
And let’s be clear. Fake-face-eating aside, Timmy loves his friends. I know because he has defended me from errant shopping carts, election signs, and, of course, maniacal squirrels.