Bringing philosophers to life
The idea for my project came to me when I read about the attempts that Plato made to persuade Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, to adopt a better form of government. He continued to attempt this with the tyrant’s son, also called Dionysius, when he succeeded his father. There was also a homo-erotic affair between Plato and Dion, a relative of the tyrants. I thought this would make good longish short story. In fact it grew into a novella of 22,000 words, and I felt that in the course of telling the story I had explained something of Plato’s philosophy.
This gave me the further idea that the lives of philosophers could be fictionalised. By this I do not mean that I invent out of thin air. I try as far as is possible to stick to known facts, but relate their lives as narratives. Inevitably this does mean constructing likely dialogues arising from encounters we know occurred. Until modern times, nobody was recording such things, but it is the course of dialogues with others that philosophers evolve their thinking. I believed that this approach might form a unique way to introduce people to the thinking of past philosophers.
The first attempt at this was the life of Giordano Bruno, who has now come to be seen as a major influence on many subsequent philosophers. His life was indeed full of drama. He wandered Europe, met many leading intellectuals and three royal persons, including Elizabeth the First. Eventually he fell into the hands of the Inquisition. His vision of a universe infinite in both space and time was seen as shockingly heretical, and after eight years he was burned at the stake in Rome. This novella ran to 31,000 words.
Next was a biography of Spinoza. Again there was drama in his expulsion as a heretic by the Jewish community of Amsterdam. He lived in dangerous times. At one point there was a manhunt for the anonymous author (Spinoza) of a work which raised a philosophical challenge to the notion that the Bible could be taken as literally true. This piece came to 36,000 words.
Finally completed was a biography of Leibniz, a polymath who was philosopher, mathematician, geologist and physicist. Although the biggest part of his life was spent as librarian and genealogist to the Duke of Hanover, which might seem dreadfully dull, he corresponded with all of Europe’s leading intellectuals. He frequently wangled a reason to leave his duties and visit Vienna, Rome and Berlin and debate there with important figures. His belief that all our perspectives are partial made him unusually open-minded to the ideas of others, and to other cultures. This work came to 44,000 words.
I am currently working on a biography of Hegel.
24. Sep 2016