“Humanities 12, The Pre-Socratics, the Theory of Forms; Baseball”
by Roger W. Smith
In the country of baseball, time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward, and forward, until we seem to be reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same. Ted Williams goes fishing, never to return to the ballpark, and falls asleep at night in the Maine summers listening to the Red Sox on radio from Fenway Park; and a ghostly Ted Williams continues to play the left-field wall, and his flat swing meets the ball in 1939, in 1948, in 1960. In the country of baseball, the bat swings in its level swoop, the ball arcs upward into the twilight, the center-fielder gathers himself beneath it, and Dixie Walker flies out to Willie Mays.
— Donald Hall, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball)
At Brandeis University, a college with a heavy liberal arts orientation which I attended in the 1960’s, I took a year long course in my sophomore year: Humanities 12, “Nature and Value.” It was a philosophy course.
In the first semester, we studied the Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers. In the second semester, we read the works of philosophers such as Kant and Hume.
Philosophy has never been my strong point. It leaves me confused and mystified.
The professor for the first semester, the course on the Pre-Socratics, was Peter Diamandopoulos.
Professor Diamandopoulos, who died recently, was at that time a rising academic star. He became dean of faculty at that time and went on to become a university president, serving successively as the president of Sonoma State University and then president of Adelphi University. Details of Diamandopoulos’s compensation package at Adelphi resulted in a conflict of interest investigation, which got wide publicity, and his removal from his post as president.
The second semester of the course was taught by an eminent philosophy professor, Henry David Aiken, who had just left a tenured position at Harvard and joined Brandeis in the fall of 1965.
I barely recognize Professor Diamandopoulos, a Greek-American who was born on Crete, from photos on the Internet, taken in his later years. When I took his course, he had a young, pudgy face and jet black hair.
I was at a complete loss in his course. To me, his lectures made no sense. There is one and only one thing that I remember from the course: that a Pre-Socratic philosopher was known for his observation that “whatever is, is.” Of course, I didn’t remember his name, but I Googled the statement. It was made by Parmenides of Elea, a Pre-Socratic philosopher from either the late sixth or early fifth century BC.
I had a sense of reductio ad absurdum when I heard the statement repeated over and over again by Professor Diamandopoulos.
Professor Aiken, whom I had for the second semester, seemed at times to be verging on mental instability. I cannot say this with anything like certainty. I had no knowledge of his actual mental or psychological state. But he acted histrionic while lecturing. He would pound the lectern and would be almost shouting in his high pitched, squeaky voice. Again, I had almost no idea of what he was talking about and did not understand most of the readings. (Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason was just words and was basically unintelligible to me. I should make it clear that this says nothing whatsoever about Kant and a lot about my own stupidity.)
Again, as was the case in the first semester with Professor Diamandopoulos, I remember almost nothing, except that the professor repeatedly used Aristotle’s phrase Zoon politikon (political animal). He said it again and again, pounding the lectern for effect each time.
At some point in the Humanities 12 course, we read Plato’s Republic, translated by Allan Bloom. It actually made some sense to me. We also read Plato’s Timaeus, which I found to be interesting and very well worth reading.
At the end of the second semester, there was a final exam, as usual. I had gotten a B in the first semester under Professor Diamandopoulos.
I did as well as I could – it was an essay exam. I was pretty good at writing answers to essay questions even when I knew very little, but this time I felt it was hopeless. I had learned hardly anything, had retained practically nothing, was just about as ignorant of philosophy at the end of the course as at the beginning.
In those pre Internet days, it would take a while to find out one’s final grade. We would put a self addressed postcard inside the blue book when we handed it in, with “EXAM GRADE _____ / “FINAL GRADE _____” printed in ink, to be filled in and returned by the grader.
A week or two later, the postcard came back, indicating that I had received an A for the second semester. Not even an A minus!
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t figure out how. As I recall, my grade on the midterm, which would have been factored in when calculating the course grade, was low.
I thought about it for a few days. I had a summer job on campus. I decided that there must have been a mistake and that I had been given someone else’s grade. So, I went to the department office. Of course, none of the professors was there, but I explained the situation to the department secretary. I said to her, in so many words: “I just got back my course grade for Humanities 12b. It was a straight A. I hadn’t been doing well all year. I’ll bet it was a mistake and that my exam booklet got mixed up with someone else’s. I don’t deserve an A, and I don’t want someone else to get a lower grade that they didn’t deserve when it was intended for me.”
The department secretary looked at me kindly and said, “I think you had best let the grade stand.”
Which brings me to baseball. You may be wondering, quite rightly, how did he get there?
Well, although I was at a loss in philosophy, I did enjoy reading Plato. I remember learning about his Theory of Forms (also known as the Theory of Ideas).
I have, when engaged in idle speculation, sometimes thought about Platonic forms as they do or might apply to what I perceive in the world around me.
I have often thought of baseball teams as illustrating the Theory of Forms.
Baseball teams, as is well known, have identities — “personalities,” so to speak. I have thought this may have something to do with the stadiums they play in, e.g., Yankee Stadium, the corporate headquarters for an efficient, well oiled winning machine made up of ballplayers who function as cogs in the machine and interchangeable parts; Fenway Park, a cozy, quirky place for ballplayers with separate identities and non conformist personalities who sometimes screw up and don’t always win; and so on.
Anyway, I have thought about this more specifically in terms of the players’ POSITIONS.
Why is it that the Red Sox have always seemed to have great left fielders (but, not necessarily, great center fielders)? It seemed as if, when Ted Williams retired, there had to be another Williams caliber player to take his place. The Theory of Forms required it.
Why do the Yankees, who had one star after another in center field, never seem to have had a star left fielder?
Why do the Red Sox seem to have historically had bad fielding but good hitting infielders (second baseman after second baseman who couldn’t make the double play)?
The Dodgers an ace (or perhaps two at the same time) with future Hall of Famer credentials?
Why have the Mets never seemed able to find a good third baseman (at least until recently)?
And so on.
I am sure you get the point.
An interesting idea, or a stupid one?
You tell me.
— Roger W. Smith
I have enjoyed again one of your posts on remembrances; now, this one, also especially because of the Pre-Socratics themselves: I knew something about them (some of them: Democritus, Tales, Pythagoras…) through math and physics (I studied Physics), but I came to read them (all of their extant fragments) thanks to the insistence from my sister when she was at the Uni. She studied Catalan Philology and, so, she coursed a lot of Latin and some classical Greek; she also followed a course on ancient Greek Philosophy and, like you, she had a whole semester on the Pre-Socratics (the rest was a shallow view from Plato/Socrates to Plotinus and the Fathers of the Christian Church). She became amazed and told me some of the unbelievable things these men knew about scientific matters, like the fact that the earth revolved around the sun and the very approximate distance between the Earth and the Moon. 2500 years ago …
I read my sis’ English edition of Frakmente der Vorsokratiker by Diels-Kranz and it was one of the greatest readings I have done in my life.
About Plato’s Dialogues I liked much in some of them (the half a dozen I’ve read): the Socratic sprightly defence of masculine homosexuality (I considered myself pansexual, but mainly “gay”, already back then).
To end this long comment, I thank you for having recalled me of times past, when my dear sister began her studies and I was still finishing mine.
Extremely interesting comments, Li. As always, thanks much.
Your comments require more study by me and a more detailed reply from me. Thanks again, Roger
By the way, Li, I studied, or at least became acquainted slightly with, Plotinus in college. A neo-Platonist. I thought he was cool.
You are very welcome, Roger. But my comments do not require anything. Ha ha ha! They are just scattered thoughts and remembrances about matters you write about and I feel empathy with. Have a nice Sunday!
I have never read his works, but Ari (that was my sister) told me he was cool as you say now). So, since she was (and surely you are) most smart and perceptive, he surely was great.