I do not think it a good thing for men that there should be a disquisition, as it is called, on this topic--except for some few, who are able with a little teaching to find it out for themselves. As for the rest, it would fill some of them quite illogically with a mistaken feeling of contempt, and others with lofty and vain-glorious expectations, as though they had learnt something high and mighty. (Seventh Letter, 341 c-e)A famous episode in the Gemara: a gentile approached the great teachers Shammai and Hillel, and asked for a summary of their teaching brief enough to be delivered while standing on one foot. The exacting Shammai, whose interpretation of halakah was stringent and uncompromising, was provoked by the question’s impertinence: a builder by trade, he took his cubit-length measuring rod and drove away the inquirer. Hillel took a different approach. Famous for his patience, Hillel said:
What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary; go and learn. (Shabbat 31a)In Aramaic, the sentence rendered “the rest is commentary; go learn” is grammatically a single unit (someone may correct me here; I am trespassing on ground in which I am, to put it gently, inexpert). The declaration does not break into two parts at a semicolon, and trying to so break it would render it meaningless. That is: “go learn” is inseparable from “the rest is commentary.” Hillel’s lesson is not that “the rest” is negligible. It is inherent and inescapable; incumbent upon one the moment one accepts the summary. To prescind from the learning of the commentary would be to reject the summary.
In both the Seventh Letter and in the Epinomis (which reiterates the Letter’s claims about how the substance of philosophy cannot be committed to writing), Plato underlines again and again the difficulty of the philosophical life, and why it takes so much effort. It is only “after much converse about the matter, and a life lived together,” Plato writes, that the “spark” leaps from soul to soul.
This “much converse” and life lived together, then, must be related to the “little” teaching. The teaching “itself” is little, but the life and the converse are much.
Wiitgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 124: Philosophy is descriptive; it “leaves everything as it is.” Wittgenstein is writing about language, but his point still feels very apposite to Marx’s famous claim in the Theses on Feuerbach: philosophers have always offered various redescriptions of the world, but the point is “to change it.” Wittgenstein’s attitude vis-à-vis revolution is not obvious. Sympathetic enough to the call of Marxism to seriously consider relocating to the Soviet Union, he was also deeply elitist in bent. He had given away his fortune, gone to work as a village schoolteacher, and loved ordinary lower-class entertainment, but he knew himself to be an aristocrat of the spirit. (This tension is another reason I love him.)
Between this turning the world upside-down and leaving it just as it is, is the μικρᾶς ἐνδείξεως – the “little teaching.” The word “teaching” here might be better given as “indication” (the root is the same as “index,” or pointing) . It is not necessarily a doctrine; it is a clue, a hint, something ambiguous that must yet be interpreted but also that can be interpreted. It is irreducibly a hint; it cannot be explicated or paraphrased; but it can be read. Philosophy is inherently a hermeneutics. Of what Levinas might call the trace.
Heraclitus: The god at Delphi “neither speaks nor is silent, but gives a sign”: οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.) (Fragment 93)
What is the relation between the “little” indication and the “much” converse, between the teaching and the commentary and learning? Is this relation part of the teaching, or part of the commentary?