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There are several parallels between the ideas presented in the Socratic dialogue Meno by Plato and the ideas suggested by Walt Whitman’s poetry in the first edition of his work Leaves of Grass. Though the Meno is presented as a work of philosophy, and the 1855 edition Leaves of Grass (Leaves) is a work of poetry, the ideas presented within each have certain commonalities with the other. Gay Wilson Allen has characterized Leaves as a “program poem” (Allen 120), meaning that the poet had a set of ideas to communicate. Though Allen quotes Whitman as saying that the poems were written out of “unconscious or mostly unconscious intentions” , the poet was also not aiming at “art or aestheticism” (120) either, so the ideas presented within the poems may be analyzed in a light not only poetic, but philosophical.
In the Socratic dialogues, a central thought that Plato puts forth is rather abstract, called in Greek anamnesis (Silverman, bibliography). It is the recollection of knowledge from some source other than what can be learned in this life. It is, essentially, an assertion that earthly knowledge has an unearthly, other-worldly, or, at least, immaterial source. Plato recounts that Socrates first and most cogently explains this in the dialogue called Meno, named for the prominent Thessalian to whom Socrates addresses most of his arguments. The topic of this dialogue was originally virtue, but through the process of elimination the speakers have agreed that virtue is a kind of knowledge or wisdom. The question which remains, however, is how that knowledge or wisdom can be obtained. Socrates and his companions agree that “virtue will be acquired neither by nature nor by teaching. Whoever has it gets it by divine dispensation without taking thought,” (Hamilton, Cairns, 383). Another question is how is this divine dispensation obtained? This leads to a central philosophical thought that Plato and Whitman share; namely reincarnation. Socrates has stated his belief in reincarnation earlier in the Meno, referring to a slave boy who has happened upon some principles of geometry, not by being taught it, but has been led to it by careful questioning by Socrates. “Either then he has at some time acquired the knowledge which he now has, or he has always possessed it. If he always possessed it, he must always have known; if on the other hand he acquired it at some previous time, it cannot have been in this life,” (370)
This idea recurs throughout the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Whitman refers to reincarnation more or less obliquely several times, but he states it bluntly in the “Song of Myself” section. “And as to you, life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,/No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before”(The Library of America 86). At the very end of “Song of Myself”, the poet proclaims “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles” (88). At the end of “The Sleepers”, when the poet has flown all through the night and the day, using the day and the night as metaphors for death and for life, he says “I will duly pass the day O my mother and duly return to you;/Not you will yield forth the dawn again more surely than you will yield forth me again,/ Not the womb yields the babe in its time more surely than I shall be yielded from you in my time” (117). But how does this link up with the idea of Socrates that, during death (or, by the same token, before birth) the soul of the human being has communion with all true knowledge, and therefore needs only to “recollect” it during his or her lifetime?
The answer lies in how Whitman believed somewhat in Transcendentalism. Allen explains, “… the message he is trying to convey by the arrangement of his poems and his group titles is that all physical life rests on an unseen but strongly felt spiritual world (a major doctrine of the American Transcendentalists),” (69). Since there is reincarnation of souls, and a “strongly felt” and influential spiritual world, could not all knowledge, or at least some knowledge and intuition, be gained in that passage between life and death?
Whitman talks of transcendental experiences in life, where he accesses some special knowledge or wisdom. This is a Platonic idea, that wisdom is “elicited by experience, although not directly derived from experience” (Russell 136) This is the wisdom or knowledge that Whitman is gaining by having experiences with the transcendent, not necessarily with the interaction with the world itself. It may be prompted by the world, but Whitman shows that the world is what draws him into this transcendent experience, not that what he learns is from the actual material world.
While Whitman is definitely in love with experiences of the material world, he appears to suggest that these experiences and the reasoning of the world are not what wisdom is. Rather, they are the clues of wisdom, something Plato would call it “recollection” (Hamilton, Cairns 370). Through a kind of memory of the crucifixion of Christ (though he does not state Jesus’ name) Whitman shows that not only will he be reincarnated in the future, but that he has been others in the past.
“That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning!
I remember….I resume the overstaid fraction,
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it … or to any graves,
The corpses rise….the gashes heal….the fastenings roll away.
I troop forward with replenished power, one of an average unending procession” (71)
Whitman has started this saying that he had been “stunned” (70). This experience, or flashback, to a previous life, has left him with “replenished power”. We are to assume that this is some kind of a transcendental or mystical experience, in which Whitman remembers a past life, or perhaps someone else’s past life. Is this the same as Socrates assertion that true knowledge or wisdom is gained outside of life, and only remembered in it? It’s not as clear in Whitman, but he does suggest transcendent wisdom prompted by sensory experience “Swift wind! Space! My Soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at; What I guessed when I loafed on the grass, What I guessed while I lay alone in my bed….and again as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the morning.” (59)
This problem of the source of knowledge Whitman addresses near the end of “Song of Myself”. “It is time to explain myself…let us stand up./ What is known I strip away….I launch all men and women forward with me into the unknown./The clock indicates the moment…but what does eternity indicate?” (79), but then he addresses the question of knowledge gained in the after- or pre-life more directly.
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, the vapor from the nostrils of death,
I know I was even there….I waited unseen and always,
And slept while God carried me through the lethargic mist,
And took my time….and took no hurt from the foetid carbon.
Long I was hugged close….long and long
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me (80)
Here, Whitman is describing the time before his birth, perhaps after his previous life’s death. He is describing a time when he “slept” and “All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me” (80). This is similar to the slaves at auction sequence (123-124), when the poet maintains that the “globe lay preparing” for quintillions of years to create this man or this woman. His idea of the universe having a will does not include the universe imparting that knowledge to him, either during this life or between lives, however. The most Whitman will say is “Pleasantly and well suited I walk,/Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,/The whole universe indicates that it is good.” (106).
Whitman does not, it appears, at least in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, agree with Plato that all knowledge is gained in the state between life and death, and remembered during life. The most Whitman will commit to is the possession of a kind of transcendent knowledge, gained from the universe, and obtained by being prompted by the material world into a state where that knowledge can be gained. This is an important distinction between the two belief systems. Whitman may claim to possess “the origin of all poems” (28), implying that he has some universal and important knowledge, but he does not tell us from where this knowledge came. Nor will he explain how it is derived exactly, simply that Nature is the vehicle for the knowledge. The most he will say is that “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself” (28)
In fact, in an interesting parallel between the Meno and Leaves of Grass, both Socrates and Whitman address children and discuss the nature of knowledge. The parable of the slave boy is presented as proof of Socrates’ argument of anamnesis, by the slave’s new understanding of geometric truths through being questioned, rather than by being taught (described above). The child and the grass sequence in Whitman’s poem, (“A child said, What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;/ How could I answer the child?….I do not know what it is any more than he.” (31)) shows Whitman’s unwillingness to pin knowledge down, and illustrates a main difference between Plato and Whitman. Both share the idea of an important spiritual world and recurrence of multiple lives for each soul. Plato and Whitman might have had similar cosmic worldviews, but epistemologically they were very different. Though Plato and Whitman agree that the “soul must be immortal” (Hamilton, Cairns 371) and “Is it wonderful that I should be immortal? As everyone is immortal” (The Library of America 141), they do not agree on what happens during the time between life and death. Neither do they agree on how, or if, knowledge is gained or lost during that time.
There are several other, less central ideas that recur in both the Meno and in Leaves of Grass. One is the interesting verbal recurrence of “virtue” and “manly”. “Manly” occurs six times in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, including the preface. It is usually, interestingly, in conjunction with a description of something good or virtuous. The root of the word virtue is the Latin vir, meaning “man” (Skeat 546). The word came into the English language specifically describing “manly” things, which was an accepted explanation of virtue at the time. To adhere to the qualities of manliness was to have vir-tue, and be virtuous. (Note, however, in the text of Plato, the Greek word for virtue is of a completely different origin.)
The whole of the Meno is concerned with defining virtue. Socrates even goes so far to explain that different types of virtue are better in men rather than women. “…the virtue of a man consists in managing the city’s affairs capably, and so that he will help his friends and injure his foes while taking care to come to no harm himself. Or if you want a woman’s virtue, that is easily described. She must be a good housewife, careful with her stores and obedient to her husband” (Hamilton, Cairns, 355). How does Whitman address the different types of male and female virtues?
Whitman does take the time, like Socrates, to describe the differences in virtue between men and women. In “I Sing the Body Electric” Whitman mentions several times different things he admires in men and women.
The male is not less the soul, nor more . . . . he too is in his place,
He too is all qualities . . . . he is action and power . . . . the flush of the known universe is in him,
Scorn becomes him well and appetite and defiance become him well,
The fiercest largest passions . . bliss that is utmost and sorrow that is utmost become him well . . . . pride is for him,
The fullspread pride of man is calming and excellent to the soul;
Knowledge becomes him . . . . he likes it always . . . . he brings everything to the test of himself, (122)
The active, powerful, and aggressive virtues are becoming to the male. Even “scorn”, a usually negative word, is considered a virtue. Contrast this with the female who also contains “all qualities” but “tempers them” (121). The adjectives he uses to describe the female are in direct opposition to those of the male. Socrates and Whitman agree, largely, on the difference in virtues desirable in male and female.
When Whitman first uses the word “virtuous” in Leaves, it is in describing a young man, whom he loves, but who is not virtuous in the traditional sense of the word.
The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived power but in his own right,
Wicked, rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear,
Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak,
Unrequited love or a slight cutting him worse than a wound cuts,
First rate to ride, to fight, to hit the bull’s eye, to sail a skiff, to sing a song or play on the banjo (The Library of America 83)
If this passage is analyzed and compared to Socrates’ comparison of sex-specific virtues above, some of the same manly virtues of Socrates are mentioned within the description of this boy, also. Whitman’s boy-man is somewhat bellicose, as Socrates describes his virtuous man, and both men have the ability and propensity to protect themselves from the “slights” of other men. This defense against other men seems to be an important part of masculinity for both Socrates and Whitman. In addition, self-determination, or self-reliance, appears as a virtue for both Socrates and Whitman. Whitman’s boy “becomes a man not though derived power but in his own right”. Socrates’ virtuous man manages city affairs, and, importantly, helps friends and injures foes and defends himself. Self sufficiency is an agreed-upon masculine virtue for both Plato and Whitman.
The next time Whitman uses “virtuous”, however, he is using a poetic conceit. In “A Song for Occupations” (89) he is comparing the efficacy of the message of his poetry to the works of a “head teacher or charitable proprietor”. “Were I to you as the boss employing and paying you, would that satisfy you?/ The learned and virtuous and benevolent, and the usual terms;/A man like me, and never the usual terms.” He is asking his readers what they are trying to get out of him. He is not asking for the readers to gain “educations practical and ornamental”, but rather to take him as they find him. He is telling his readers that he will be “even” with them. He is contrasting himself with the “virtuous” here. He is just a man, and not the usual kind, making his poetry for people to read. He is not holding himself up as “virtuous”, as a schoolteacher coming to a new town might hope to be described. In both instances in the 1855 Leaves Whitman has referred to virtuousness (which has a slightly different connotation than virtue, which he mentions briefly in “Song of Myself” in conjunction with evil) in a negative light.
Like Socrates in the Meno, Whitman offers no set definition for virtue. He only tells us what it is not, or gives us examples of not being virtuous. This is very much like the arguments about virtue in the Meno. The group, (Socrates, Meno, and Anytus) have finally, through many arguments about the definition of virtue, decided, “While the nature of virtue as a whole is still under question, don’t suppose that you can explain it to anyone in terms of its part, or by any similar type of explanation; you say this and that about virtue, but what is it?” There is no definition of virtue in the Meno. Both Socrates and Whitman seem able to recognize it, such as when Whitman says that the “universe says it is good”, but they cannot, and do not attempt to exactly describe virtue.
Manliness, as related to virtue and separate from it, shows up more often in the 1855 Leaves than virtue does. Whitman mentions the word “manly” four times in the poetic text, and three out of the four times it is referring to something good. While “manly” has a generally good connotation in English, it appears that for Whitman is it a far easier quality to admire than the vague idea of “virtue”. The fact that the words have similar root meanings may have significance to Whitman, and he applies the word “manly” in constructions where the word “virtue” or “virtuous” could well suffice. In “Song of Myself” he describes the “manly wheat” as something he could worship (51). In this section, it is clear that strong and healthy things of nature are to be revered for Whitman, but also things with masculinity, both in a general and a sexually referential way, are to be admired. Similarly, in a “Song for Occupations” Whitman admires the “manly exercises” (97). At the end of “Song of the Answerer” Whitman asks
You think it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses,
Well it would be good to be the writer of melodious verses;
But what are verses beyond the flowing character you could have?….or beyond beautiful manners and behaviour?
Or beyond one manly or affection deed of an apprenticeboy?..or and old woman? Or man that has been in prison or is likely to be in prison” (132)
Here Whitman is using the adjective “manly” to refer to the importance of what he would term the good deed (could it be a virtuous deed?) of an apprenticeboy. In it he includes an old woman being capable of manly acts. Manly is, to Whitman, a term not only applicable to men.
Finally, in “There Was a Child Went Forth”, Whitman describes a domestic scene, and includes the only negative mention of “manly” in the poem. It is to be assumed that this family scene is describing, at least in part, the poet’s own family.
The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper table,
The mother with mild words . . . . clean her cap and gown . . . . a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by:
The father, strong, selfsufficient, manly, mean, angered, unjust,
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure, (139)
Whitman is describing, perhaps in a remembrance of his own father, an instance of the negative aspects possible within the state of manliness. He implies by the juxtaposition of the words (“strong, selfsufficient,” two alliterative words with positive connotations, then “manly, mean” another alliteration both with negative connotations, and the line rounded out with the almost-assonance of “angered, unjust”, also with negative connotations) the limitations of manliness. He puts the father, whom the reader may imagine sitting sourly at the table, in direct contrast with the “mild” mother, performing a graceful household chore, and it becomes apparent that, though the poet has earlier admired manliness, it is not always considered a faultlessly positive attribute to the poet.
The Meno, a very famous and widely read work of philosophy, was possibly read by Whitman and referred to in his poetry. While there are similarities between the two works, it appears that the outgrowth of the ideas in it, begun twenty-three hundred years before Whitman wrote, were expanded and had variations made on them by him. This is in no doubt due to Whitman’s belief in Transcendentalism, which shares some ideas with Platonism.
The two writers, Plato and Whitman, would have agreed on reincarnation, the importance of the spiritual world, the immortality of the soul, and the practice, if not the nature, of virtue. However, Whitman has less precision in expressing his ideas, as is proper in the work of a poet rather than a philosopher, and his ideas have many more possible meanings than those set forth in the Meno.
Allen, G. W. 1997. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Hamilton, E., & Cairns, H. (Eds.). 1961. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Perseus Project. (06, September 20). Meno 70a. Retrieved September 20, 2006, from Perseus Digital Library Project. Ed. Gregory R. Crane. Updated daily. Tufts University. Web Site: <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu>.
Russell, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy (2nd ed., Rev. 1961). London: The Folio Society.
Silverman, A. 2003, June 9. “Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology”. Retrieved September 19, 2006, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2003 edition) Web Site: http://://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2003/entries/plato-metaphysics/>
Skeat, W. W. (1993). The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology. Ware, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
The Library Of America (Ed.). 1996. Whitman: Poetry and Prose. New York: Literary Classics of the United States.
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