RADIO; Thought for the day

From Plato to the Present Radio 4
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The Independent Culture
There is very little space for philosophy on the radio. The closest we get is Gary Richardson doing the sports reports on Today: last week, seguing from an item about a new rail depot in Doncaster, he claimed that as a boy he had always wanted to be a train driver, but his eyes were too close together to see through the two tiny holes - a remark that prompts all kinds of speculations about meaning, perception and whether somebody might have slipped something into Gary Richardson's tea.

But Radio 4 has now made that space: From Plato to the Present (Monday- Friday), a series of readings from the great thinkers, building up week by week into a history of Western philosophy and helping you - yes, you - to become visibly more enlightened, and enabling you to take life's reverses with a wry smile and a casual toss of the head. For all those who missed last week's opening episodes, here's a quick summary.

Monday: Plato, from The Republic, on the Cave. This is the one where Socrates says that unenlightened men are like people who have been living in a cave since birth, able to see nothing but shadows on the wall. He takes you through a series of steps to show you how the philosopher (a man who has been outside the cave) should behave. You can have fun imagining yourself seated at his feet while he expounds this idea; just as he's finishing you lean forward and say, "Don't you think you're pushing this analogy a bit far?"

Tuesday: Aristotle, from The Ethics, on the true object of friendship. His argument here is that "All friendship has as its object something good or pleasant". Ha, you think, he hasn't met my friends. Possibly he had some extremely high quality friends himself, or, and this is more plausible, he had no friends at all and fantasised. In any case, he demolishes as trivial all the reasons you have for having friends (such as actually liking them). Throw away that address book.

Wednesday: Marcus Aurelius, from his Meditations. "Begin each day by telling yourself, 'Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill will and selfishness, all of them due to the offender's ignorance of what is good or evil.' " Yes, but if you point this out to people they're not going to be grateful. Most of this is about the inevitability of death and triviality of ordinary pleasures: while both Marcus Aurelius and Aristotle place stress on man's status as a social being, they both have a killjoy streak a mile wide.

Thursday: Boethius, from the inappropriately named The Consolations of Philosophy. His theme is the unpredictability of "that monster, Fortune" - the idea being that everything you count as a blessing is either bestowed by nature or belongs to other people, so you shouldn't take too much pride in having it, or worry about losing it. You can imagine losing patience with him very rapidly in any kind of crisis.

Friday: Erasmus, from In Praise of Folly - the nature of happiness. The line here is that happiness has no relation to facts, but only to opinions - hence, fawning and deception of all kinds are a good idea as long as they keep you happy. This is meant to be ironic; but after Boethius seems welcome and deeply persuasive.

All this is very well done - nicely read by Anthony Hyde and Alan Howard, well-chosen extracts that give you a strong flavour of the author's style and themes. But all the extracts so far have concentrated on belittling everyday human activities by comparison with philosophy. It might be nice if, over the next few weeks, the producers could include something from a slightly more cheerful thinker. Gary Richardson would be good.

Robert Hanks

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