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The philosophy of home

OPINION: Edward H Spence

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19 May 2011

The Hellenes have been thinking of Home for as long as anyone can remember. And the collective memory of the Greeks goes a long way back. Like tributaries converging to their fountain-head, the idea of home is implicitly about the philosophy of home and firmly embedded in the Greek character.

It is a topic I have been molding in my mind for some time now. Socrates was perhaps one of the first to realise that home was a fundamental and important topic for a philosopher. For Socrates, it was literally a topic of life and death. For did not Socrates choose death as a lesser evil than exile? - An intolerable exile that would have seen him removed in his autumn years from his beloved Athens, where he felt most at home? Although Socrates did choose death over exile, his notion of home is still more ambiguous and complex.

After all, what was home for Socrates? Was it his house and family? Was it the city-state of Athens? Was it Greece? Was it the Agora where he spent most of his days debating his fellow Athenians? Was it his friends? Perhaps it was partly all those things.

But that answer may be incomplete and even misleading. For does not Socrates in Plato's dialogue the Phaedo talk of a different home, a celestial home, moments before he drinks the hemlock?

The home to which those who have lived and practiced a life of philosophy go after they die - and as a final reward, break free from the recurring cycle of re-incarnation that binds them like prisoners to earth. They become one with the realm of the eternal and immutable non-corruptible world of Ideas, later identified by Christians as God's own home.

A home for which we may have a vague "anamnesis" or recollection as Plato suggests in his dialogue the Meno. It is also in Phaedo that Socrates tells us that our human corporeal body is a prison, and death a welcome release to freedom. Philosophy is a preparation for death. Our true home for Socrates and Plato is the world of the eternal Ideas, the realm of the Good and the Beautiful as Diotima, the mysterious woman from Mantinea, intimates so evocatively in Plato's Symposium.

It is that realm that as thinking beings we should consider our ultimate and true home. By contrast, this perishable world of "fleeting sights and sounds" is no more than a shadow of our true home. It is merely the anteroom. We must, as we did before the Great Fall, grow wings and leave this gravity-bound earth to re-join the gods, whom we resemble, in the eternal heaven of Ideas. This is what Socrates tells us by way of a myth in another of Plato's dialogues, that of the Phaedrus.

Notice how close this notion of Platonic Fall resembles that of the Old Testament. Both evoke our primordial longing, our nostalgia, to return to a heavenly paradise, our original and ultimate home. But this is not strictly the sense of home of the Diaspora, the nostalgia of the migrant self-exiles forced through circumstance to live in foreign lands and their enduring yearning to return to their ancestral homes. Odysseus and not Socrates is the prototype exile for this sense of Home.

In Odysseus case the feeling of homelessness is akin to that of restlessness. Being a hopeless Platonist, I can't help but think that ultimately the clich<00E9> "home is where the heart is" is probably true. For Odysseus, home is Ithaca because Penelope is there. And Plato was right to ultimately base his metaphysical philosophy of home, on love.

Love is the continuum on a ladder of ascent from the visceral romantic love of warm embraces and broken hearts to the mystical love of the Good (or God) that makes as whole again. For Plato there's no sharp separation between the two.

It is after all love of another human being that first alerts us to the presence of the Good and drives us to seek it. It is then, in that sublime passage in the Phaedrus that we grow wings again and we fly upwards towards the Good. Love is what provides our true sense of home and helps us feel at home in the world.

It is the everyday objects of love that enchant us and on rare occasions provide us with a glimpse of Platonic Love, an Anamnesis or recollection of our true home of spirit that seems both distant but at the same time strangely familiar and intimately close.

Edward Howlett Spence, Senior Lecturer (Philosophy and Ethics), Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University.

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