Let's hear it for the soul sister

The philosophical debate was all Greek to me, until Mary Warnock popped up

The latest round of The Essay: Greek and Latin Voices (7-10 July, Radio 3, 11pm) - four short programmes on Plato - was rammed with coil-dense monologues, with Professor Chris Pelling's occasional "OK?" and "Do you see what I mean?" dropped into the mix when the going got tough.

"If we think about what we think and what we think is true, how will you know that this is the thing that you didn't know?" asked one actor of another in a dramatised exchange between two Greeks, obviously sitting outside the gymnasium swigging from a quart of Gatorade.

"Do you realise that a man cannot search either for what he knows and for what he does not know?" countered the other, affronted. "And that he cannot search for what he knows, since he knows it, and there is no need to search for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for!"

The second programme considered the notion of beauty: "A thing is not beautiful this way, and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, not beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another, nor is it beautiful here nor ugly there, as it would be if it were beautiful for some people and ugly for others."

Plato, we were quickly assured, was merely inviting us here to think: about what the entire world is made of. Such a prospect always renders your reviewer teenagerish. (How many stars are there in the multiverse? Loads. End of.) And so, when the last programme rolled round, perfectly open, useful and significant, it flew straight into the heart like the cleanest of rifle shots.

The elderly philosopher Mary Warnock told a story about how when she was young she used to go around with a book of Greek vocab, dutifully checking the meaning of each word she came across and thinking ("if indeed I thought at all") that, for every Greek word, there existed one exact English equivalent.

This worked until one day she found a description of a child's face as "chloris", which translates as "bright green" - surely odd. So she asked her brother, who explained that it was in fact the word used to describe "freshly opening leaves in spring. And I realised that chloris was not really a colour at all, but a word for clarity and freshness, suitable as a word for children." Hence Warnock's passion for Greek: its translation into English has to be conceptual.

Having loosened your reviewer's tension from the off with the mention of a super-intellectual brother, Warnock then trilled, "Let's get back to Plato!" and launched into a head-spinning masterclass on how the soul is not what it is but what it is like. Specifically a winged team of horses and a charioteer. Or, at the very least, not a single unitary item struggling to escape the body, but more to do with the way the human being is organised; and thus in many ways the word soul could also be translated as life. And clearly, this was the point towards which the series was always heading! (You may have to have been there.)

Pick of the week

The Essay: Greek and Latin Voices
14-17 July, 11pm, Radio 3
This week, Seamus Heaney and others consider the life of Virgil and his influence on western literature.

First Night of the Proms 2008
18 July, 8pm, Radio 3
Do you ever get the feeling that the Proms are never not on?

Marc Riley’s Musical Time Machine
14 July, 11.30pm, Radio 2
The former Boy Lard presents archive interviews with Tina Turner and Captain Beefheart.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’