Plato’s Birthday (sort of)

The traditional birthday of Plato was said to have occurred on the 7th day of the ancient Athenian lunar month of Thargelion (which next occurs on May 17th, 2013), while modern (solar) calendars give Plato’s approximate birthdate as May 21st. However, there is also a modern tradition, stemming from the Florentine Renaissance, of celebrating Plato’s birthday on November 7th, as the following two extracts show. And while I’m not sure if anyone else will understand why, I found the second article especially amusing. It was published in a Victorian-era Neoplatonist magazine (ah, the good old days when there were Neoplatonist magazines!), though it sounds like it was originally written for a local society column. It relates in great detail (so detailed that I only included a few excerpts) the November 7th, 1889 philosophical festivities of the “Plato Club” in Bloomington, Illinois! The whole thing is so damn charming that I totally want to start a Plato Club now.

The Celebration of the Natal Day of Platon
[from Roscoe’s Life of Lorenzo de Medici]

The Florentine Academy was still more influential for good, during the lifetime of Lorenzo de Medici, who was enthusiastically devoted to its interests, and who spared neither wealth nor influence to extend its usefulness and fame. He established the Platonic festival, which had been celebrated from Platon’s death to the days of his disciples, Plotinos and Porphyrios, but which had been discontinued for the long space of twelve hundred years. The day fixed for this purpose was the 7th of November, which was supposed to be the anniversary not only of the birth of Platon, but of his death, which happened among his friends, at a convivial banquet, precisely at the close of his eighty-first year. The person appointed by Lorenzo to preside over the ceremony at Florence was Francisco Bandini, whose rank and learning rendered him extremely proper for the office. On the same day another party met at Lorenzo’s villa in Careggi, where he presided in person. At these meetings, to which the most learned men in Italy resorted, it was the custom for one of the party, after dinner, to select certain passages from the works of Platon, which were submitted to the elucidation of the company, each of the guests undertaking the illustration or discussion of some important or doubtful point. By this institution, which was continued for several years, the philosophy of Platon was supported not only in credit, but in splendor, and its professors were considered as the most respectable and enlightened men of the age.

Platonic Celebration
[From Bibliotheca Platonica: An Exponent of the Platonic Philosophy. Vol. 1. November-December, 1889. No. 2]

We note with great pleasure that the holding of an annual Symposion or festival in celebration of the “birthday” (mundane descent) of the Divine Plato, revived by the Editor of this journal in 1888, will probably become a permanent custom. We hope to see the time when the birthday of Plato will not only be made a national holiday, but will also be celebrated throughout the civilized world by Platonists and all others who love Wisdom, and worship in the temple of truth. We are indebted to Mrs. Julia P. Stevens for the following report of the Symposion held at Bloomington, Ills., under the auspices of the Plato Club of that city. In justice to Mrs. Stevens it should be said that much of the success of this celebration is due to her indefatigable work and enthusiasm.

In imitation of the nine Muses, nine persons are accustomed to assemble at stated times for the purpose of making a study of the works of Plato. Their names are:
Miss Sarah E. Raymond, Miss Effie Henderson, Dr. E.W. Gray, Mrs. Mary A. Marmon, Miss Nellie Fitzgerald, Miss Clara Ewing, Prof. A.S. McCoy, Mrs. Emelie S. Maddox, Mrs. Julia P. Stevens.

This Club gave a Festival on November the 7th in commemoration of the Terrestrial Descent of Plato.

They met in a Symposion, with about fifty guests, among whom were the most cultivated people in the city. Three daily newspapers kindly lent their aid in presenting to the public the object of the meeting, viz. to attempt to awaken an interest in the Platonic Philosophy.

Music of a very high order was rendered by resident musicians, Prof. Benter, Miss Carrie Crane, Mrs. Eva Mayers Shirley, Mrs. Lydia Sherman.

Miss Raymond welcomed with cordial greeting, not only the Philosophers who appeared in response to the invitation, but those from suburban towns, distant cities, and our own home friends.

She gave likewise a short sketch of the Life of Plato. Mrs. Stevens stated briefly the reasons for fixing the Celebration on the 7th of November, rather than in May, November corresponding to Thargelion the eleventh month of the Attic year, and the time observed by the Florentine Platonists.

Several letters expressive of sympathy and an appreciation of the movement were read from friends deprived of the pleasure of attendance. One says:
“Your invitation is both beautiful and original. I like the idea of celebrating Plato’s birthday in Illinois.” [ . . .]

Rev. George Stevens read a paper by Alexander Wilder M.D., of New York City, entitled, “Philosophic Morality.” Then an anonymous essay was presented on “Euthyphron or Holiness.”

Both these papers provoked discussion. Many insisted upon concisely formulated definitions of the two qualities, morality and holiness; and some murmured at not having them shaped into jewels, to be borne away as keepsakes.

Mrs. South, of Jacksonville, Ills., recited a little poem, “Looking Backward,” contrasting the socialistic scheme of Edward Bellamy, with Plato’s Republic.

At the evening session, although the rain fell in torrents, there were about sixty souls present. The session opened with the following poetical tribute to Plato, which was read by Mrs. Julia P. Stevens:

“Immortal Plato ! Justly named divine !
What depth of thought, what energy is thine !
Whose God-like soul, an ample mirror seems,
Strongly reflecting mind’s celestial beams,
Whose periods too redundant roll along,
Grand as the ocean ! as the torrent strong.”

A few are always found in every age,
“To unfold the wisdom of thy mystic page.”

And now, though hoary centuries have fled,
We wish to honor still, the illustrious dead,
Dead ! Did I say ? Ah no ! He yet inspires
All lofty souls, with heavenly desires
To mount on Reason’s wing, beyond the sky,
Where truly beauteous forms can never die,
Where prophet, saint, and sage in bright array,
Behold the splendors of eternal day. [. . .]

Mr. Johnson, Editor of the Bibliotheca Platonica, read a paper entitled, “Plato and His Writings.” Much interest was manifested by various questions, at the conclusion of the reading.

Dr. Hiram K. Jones, of Jacksonville, Illinois, who declared that his “lucid interval” was in the morning, rather than in the evening, delivered a most eloquent extemporaneous discourse on the “Symposion of Plato.” [ . . .]

The audience after joining in the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” dispersed.

The next day, November 8th, was almost entirely occupied in conversations and discussions on Platonic topics; and I hold in grateful remembrance all the good things uttered both by Mr. Johnson and Dr. Jones.

The success of the Symposion was mainly due to the energy of Miss Raymond, who, gifted with appreciation, is the embodiment of generosity, and ever seeks to bring the best of everything to the citizens of Bloomington.

The next Celebration will be held on the 7th day of November, 1890, at Jacksonville, Ills.

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