There is a passing reference in Aristotle's Metaphysics to "the unwritten doctrines" of Plato's school. Certain (principally) German scholars in the late 20th century decided that this meant that there was some sort of secret teaching at the Academy that didn't make it into the dialogs. Aside from Aristotle's cryptic remark there is no evidence to support such a claim, but publish or perish, as they say, and now lots of folks write about this secret doctrine all the time.
I mention this for reasons that are probably not very closely related to anything at all relevant other than the fact that I am not hearing some things about Plato that I was expecting to be hearing right now. You see, I was supposed to go to a conference yesterday at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana on Plato's Timaeus (you can find the conference details here). I had been planning on, and looking forward to, going to this conference for months. Plato's Timaeus is a fascinating text, and can, in some ways, be read as a kind of introduction to Platonic philosophy of nature (though, as usual with Plato, there are lots of other, equally plausible, ways of reading the text). Many of the biggest and brightest names in Plato scholarship were going to be there, including a few friends of mine, among whom I count the redoubtable Allan Silverman of Ohio State University, a verifiable genius, and that other Allan, Allan Code, probably the best ancient philosopher in the country.
Since Illinois is not that far away, I decided that I would drive there. I didn't know it at the time, but that was my first mistake. My car is, for me, anyway, a relatively new one, a 1997 Subaru Outback. As recently as last May, however, I took it in to my mechanic because it was starting to have a little trouble with sticking in first and second gear. My mechanic replaced some fluids and put in some cleaners and said that sometimes these things get a little gunky and he suggested that, in a month or so, the problem would just clear up on its own. I didn't know it at the time, but believing that was my second mistake. Last month the whole family went for a trip to Lake Michigan, and the car continued to have that little problem, and it wasn't getting any better, as one might expect in the case of a problem that is in the process of "clearing up on its own". Every morning, I had to drive around the block for ten minutes until the gears started shifting normally. Until things got loosened up, I couldn't go above 20 mph without sending the engine to the redline.
So yesterday I packed up the car and hit the road. I didn't know it at the time, but that was my third mistake. I drove around the block until the gears loosened up and then went to the highway. I got as far as a little place called Huber Heights, Ohio, before I decided that it was time for lunch. I wasn't really all that hungry, but I decided that I may as well get some more gas, too, so I pulled off the highway. I'm still not all that sure whether this was my fourth mistake or not. The car was working fine, and maybe if I had just kept on going, I would have made it all the way to Illinois. On the other hand....
As soon as I got to the end of the exit ramp, I heard The Noise. Probably you've heard noises kind of like this one, even if you've never experienced transmission trouble. Have you ever seen a backhoe being used to break up an asphalt road? If so, then you've heard a noise just like the noise I heard coming from under my car as I pulled up to the traffic light. When the light turned green I noticed, with a little alarm, that the car would not go when I gave it gas. The engine revved, and then, ker-chunk, it just dropped into gear and took off. It reminded me of when I was learning how to drive a stick shift: it was just like somebody dropping the clutch. I also began to wish that I still had a stick shift car instead of automatic. As I went faster, I noticed that things got back to normal once I was in fourth gear, and I calmed down a little bit. But only just a little bit, because I am probably one of the most panicky bunnies on the road when it comes to car trouble miles from home.
So I headed over to the nearby McDonald's and had myself a QPC, but everything tasted rather dry because I was beginning to work myself up into a state. I actually called my mechanic and asked him what to do (my mechanic is fabulous: during his off hours his calls are forwarded to his cell phone so he can help customers just like me who are on the road and starting to chew through their own body parts). Like a doctor, he said he couldn't tell me much without running some tests. He did advise me to check the fluids, which I did. This was either my fourth or my fifth mistake, depending on how you keep count: I did not bother to note, when I pulled the dipstick out, just whence I was pulling it. I then found that I couldn't get the transmission dipstick back into the proper place so--I swear to you that I am not making this up--I called my mechanic again to ask him how to do it. I'm sure it was all he could do to keep from busting out laughing on the phone, but he helped me out and I did get it back in with only a small case of the jitters. It occurred to me that I should drive around a little to see how things were "clearing up", because the transmission fluid looked fine to me. And you know what an expert I am at judging the status of transmission fluid.
It was then that I discovered that the car had somehow forgotten how to move backwards. I put the car in reverse and applied the gas, but it surged forward. I put a stop to that right away (good thing, too, because I was parked facing a very busy road). I let the thing idle for a second--you know, to let the problem "clear up" a little on its own--and tried again. This time the car wouldn't move at all, but I had that feeling one sometimes gets that there was some kind of struggle going on just beneath me. It really did feel as though the car was being pulled in two different directions at once. Then it began to move backwards and forwards, though mostly backwards. I got out of the parking place and drove over to a smaller parking lot where there were no other cars, and I parked in such a way that I could just pull out forwards when I was ready to leave. If I could get myself to that kind of state, that is.
I called--yep--my mechanic, and he said that it sounded to him like the transmission was failing (apparently my recent discoveries vitiated the need for those fancy tests he had talked about earlier). He recommended that I return to Athens.
I avoided making my fifth or sixth mistake by not continuing on to Illinois. Instead, I got back on I-70 East and drove home. It took me a little while, because I couldn't go above 55 or 60. I was trying to keep the engine at about 3500 rpm, and I appeared to have only one gear, so this was rather tricky. It took me three hours to get back, and I went straight to--yep, my mechanic's shop. Here another mistake was made, but I am happy to say that, for once, it was not mine. I stopped in front of the shop, but my mechanic said to pull into the bay, and maybe it was partly my fault but then again he's the expert so who am I to second guess him but I did know that there was no reverse on my car and I probably should have said something to him about that but, well, I pulled into the bay. It took my mechanic about 10 seconds to figure out that the whole transmission was shot, and he said he'd have to order a rebuilt one and it would take a while so why not drive home and wait for the call. OK, so how to get the car out of the bay? Oh, yeah.
Interestingly, even in neutral the car would not move. The guys in the shop had to jack the thing up on one of those jacks with wheels and roll it out into the street, where I started it and managed to drive it home (we only live about two blocks from the shop, which is rather convenient when you have cars like ours).
So here I am today, in Athens, wishing I were in Illinois hearing about Plato's Timaeus, but grateful for the existence of just the sort of expertise that Plato was always talking about, because my mechanic is definitely one of the best, and if it weren't for him I would be even more nervous about cars than I already am. Someday the conference papers will probably be published, and I can read them at my leisure. But I won't get to ask questions--that's always the best part about hearing papers at a conference, and it's more like the dialectical setting that Plato recommends for philosophy. On the other hand, when I read them in journals I never find myself distracted by worries about how I'm going to get home.