Borges and Western Philosophy
According to legend, growing up as a young Athenian aristocrat Plato aspired to be a playwright, writing plays and poetry. Hearing Socrates teaching in the market one day, however, he engaged him in a lengthy dialogue. In the wake of this encounter, he abandoned his literary pretensions, burning his works, and embarked on a philosophical career. Although this story may be fictitious, it presents us with a powerful scene: the fateful moment at which the most prominent of Athens’ oral philosophers (to whose words Alcibiades later attributed the same effect as Marsyas the satyr’s melodies [Symposium 215c]) harnesses the person who will become the greatest writer of prose philosophy in Western history to his new career, in the wake of which Western philosophical tradition becomes, in Whitehead’s phrase, “a series of footnotes to Plato” (1979, 39).
Some 2500 years later, history presents us with another initiation scene, this time in Argentina. A young, shy, myopic lad by the name of Jorge Luis Borges grows up in his aristocratic father’s library in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. A philosophical anarchist, his father does not believe in traditional education, thus preferring to homeschool his son, teaching him poetry and literature. As Borges later recalled,
He also, without my being aware of it, gave me my first lessons in philosophy. When I was still quite young, he showed me, with the aid of a chessboard, the paradoxes of Zeno – Achilles and the tortoise, the unmoving flight...
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