Down by the Piraeus
Plato opens his Republic with the words, “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday.” The first verb is “kataben,” from “katabaino,” meaning “I went down,” the same verb that is so prevalent in Book 11 of the Odyssey, in which Odysseus offers his blood and descends into the underworld.
The movement of Plato’s long meditation can be seen as one of descent. In many ways the Republic is Plato getting off his high horse, descending from the heavens of rationality and righteousness, rolling up his sleeves, licking his lips and preparing to do the dirty work of governance. He is interested in the human world where people are not perfect. He is interested in practicality. His mathematics and high geometry are meant as much for intellectual speculation as they are for the construction of catapults or the guidance of ships at sea. Plato says that the true philosopher king must go down, must use his rationality and ethics in the sordid real world.
If the trajectory of the Republic starts in the rational heavens and moves to the real world, then Book 11 of the Odyssey starts in the real world and travels down to Hades. Odysseus is looking for guidance from the dead, but once he obtains it, he busies himself chatting up the residents of this strange land. He asks his mother for family news. He greets Achilles who wants to be told all about the exploits of his son. And everyone else crowds around Odysseus to ask after those they’ve loved and lost. When Odysseus tells us about his trip he quickly glosses over encounters with the godly dead like Minos and Orion. He rather spends entire paragraphs on the commonplace: the hovels of fathers, the airing of old arguments, old grudges concerning stolen armor. No one speaks about death, rather focusing on the banalities and joys of the living. Death is tempered by this menagerie of the living.
In Episode 6 of Ulysses, Joyce opens not with kateben but rather with, “Martin Cunningham, first, poked his silkhatted head into the creaking carriage and, entering deftly, seated himself.” This is Joyce’s recreation of the Odyssean descent to Hades, and while the word kateben itself is lost the motion stays the same: we start with an image of going down, of carriage riders ducking themselves into the funereal vehicle for a ride to the cemetery. But in this “underworld,” as before, death is only as powerful as the commonplace. During their deathly descent the men joke amongst themselves (“the sky is uncertain as a child’s bottom”). They worry about debts. Bloom notes that he is sitting on something hard, and it is making him slightly uncomfortable. This is a world of death, but it is mostly a world characterized by the worries of the living: where fathers complain about the company their sons keep, where sons observe the anniversaries of their fathers’ suicides. Death and the everyday go hand in hand, and it is through the everyday that Bloom arrives at the extraordinary. The mutterings of a father remind Bloom of his lost son Rudy, the origins of his marriage: among the most important events in his life. In the cemetery, Bloom and his compatriots have entered Hades. But even here—wonder of wonders—they are surrounded by the daily elements of their human world.
If the tension in literature comes from the embarkation on a journey—a journey down—then the release from that tension comes when we convince ourselves that down-here is mostly the same as up-there. Bloom sees it when he surveys the crowd-like rows of headstones (“How many! All these here once walked round Dublin”). Homer’s underworld and mortal land look strangely alike when, down below, we see Odysseus and Ajax, childlike, failing to reconcile their differences. But in the Republic we see this sameness most explicitly and artistically, in the closing Myth of Er.
A story of the regenerative afterlife, the myth details the post-mortem travels of the good soldier Er who dies in battle but comes alive again to tell us all about the underworld. He speaks of hosts of the dead and their great journeys across rivers culminating in a wide meadow where the dead choose who they want to be reincarnated as in the next life. Should they become rich? Poor? Powerful? Should they be a hero? Or simply reclusive and unknown? It is Plato’s belief that to make the right choice, to pick a future life that will be good and happy, one must be schooled in the ways of justice and reason. This is the ultimate carrot at the end of the string, an all-important reason to be good.
Tracing the trajectory of the Republic, the rational philosopher-king must go down from the heavens in order to school the masses in the ways of justice. Then these pupils must carry themselves up, just as Er does at the end of the myth. After their transformation, the reincarnated travel past the River of Unheeding and up the stream of forgetfulness, elevated back to the earthly plane. What goes down has come up. The two worlds become the same.
This is why the opening of the Republic sounds so familiar to us, from, “I went down to the Piraeus,” to, “The slave caught hold of my cloak from behind: Polemarchus wants you to wait, he said.” That’s when the philosophical conversation starts. In the lines up to it, Plato describes his descent into a real world that he can make just as holy as his rational heaven. He sees it so vividly, this world that he is so fond of, this land of human interaction and human agency: He tells us that “he went down to the Piraeus” yesterday with Glaucon, Ariston’s son. He wanted to say a prayer to the goddess, but mostly he wanted to see the parade that was coming through. Perhaps he watched the young girls tossing flowers or saw the old drunks staggering behind. He says he enjoyed himself at this admittedly frivolous entertainment, and was about to head back to Athens. Just then—a swish of a cape, a darting hand—a slave catches hold of his cloak. He bids him wait because his master wants a word.