In Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates remarks on the place that his companion has chosen for their conversation: “How lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! And it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas” (230c).[1] This circumstantial detail setting continues to play an important role during their talk, as Socrates calls attention to the cicadas several times. He urges Phaedrus to resist the drowsy, bewitching effect of their song and to continue with their talk. At the same time, he urges that they should keep talking on account of the cicadas’ role (258e-259b) in passing along divine revelation: “perhaps they will be pleased and give us the gift which the gods bestowed on them to give to men.”

The cicadas’ song even furnished the title for an influential study of the Phaedrus,[2] and through it, my own little reflection. Socrates’s talk about cicadas in Phaedrus bespeaks a complicated relationship between myth and philosophy in the dialogue,[3] but I am not writing about that. I have revisited the dialogue only because perhaps I too in my own way hope “to pass my life in philosophy,” and because lately, in my own place, I have been listening to cicadas.

The cicadas are singing now where I live. You can hear them everywhere. Bewitched and wakeful, intently and absently, morning and noon, I have been listening to them.

You can see them everywhere too. In late May, the nymphs emerged like a deluge, and, molting, they left their shells strewn everywhere, on trunks and leaves, bushes, branches, fences, and rails, as if washed in by waves. Now, singing, they have filled the trees. Winging round the branches in their numbers, the sunlit boughs sometimes seem to shimmer and ripple in the heat of day.

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Their sound is not common enough here to sound “summery.” Unlike the cicadas that sang to Socrates and Phaedrus, mine are most unusual visitors. Magicicada septendecim sings here only once every 17 years. I can remember when I heard them last. I was a young man; my children may have children when they make their next appearance.

Bewitching because mysterious, their joyful noise defies my library of familiar sound. It is like the mechanical hum of a distant engine, but loud, or a siren’s wail, but always building. Maybe it is most like the seesaw whine that in old movies always seems to herald extraterrestrial visitations. It is a weird and constant chorus. You can hear distinct parts within it, sections rhythmic and solos wavering, but you cannot follow the movements, nor make out the words.

It is impossible not to hear them, but I have found it equally impossible not to listen.

A rare and overpowering appearance, the cicadas’ and their racket would indeed be a fitting and appropriate manifestation for some ancient local deity, a god of earth and air and sunlight, some god of this place.

 

“What are these insects for?”[4]

According to Socrates, the cicadas have their origin in a divine transformation and serve now as divine messengers. Originally human beings, he explains, they were living when the Muses first came to be.

And when the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died. From them the locust tribe afterwards arose, and they have this gift from the Muses, that from the time of their birth they need no sustenance, but sing continually, without food or drink, until they die, when they go to the Muses and report who honors each of them on earth. (259b-c) [5]

This “report” of the cicadas, according to Socrates, went to the individual Muses, and commented on the devotion of human beings to their various spheres of art: from love to dance to epic poetry. Yet strikingly, in Socrates’ explanation, activities like philosophy are music as well: “they make report of those who pass their lives in philosophy and who worship these Muses [Calliope and Urania], who are most concerned with heaven and with thought divine and human and whose music is the sweetest.” (259d)

The godless lore of modern biology tells a story no less strange. The periodic cicada species are found only in North America. Unlike most other creatures, including other cicadas, these periodic cicadas live wholly synchronized lives. They know no stagger, no overlap of generations. Researchers have numbered different broods that emerge at different times in different places. Brood V has appeared now where I live, but in other places, other broods of the same species are on different schedules, appearing according to the same strange clock of their nature.

These periodic species have life cycles of 13 or 17 years. Magicicada septendecim is the seventeener. For that many years, they live their life in the earth. Then the nymphs issue en masse from their secret resting places. They molt and emerge from their shells adult, winged and complete. This is the culmination of their life cycle. For about six weeks, they glory in their final form — they fly and mate and lay their eggs — and sing! And then they die. The hatchlings return to the earth, to seek the shadows of the roots and stones, and for 17 years they await their own brief turn to sing and fly in the sunshine.

For me, the strange rhythm of these cicadas’ lives is stranger than their song. Seventeen years for just six weeks! This flying and riotous chorus is unquestionably the purpose and end of their being. Is there any reason to doubt what Socrates knew — that these strange creatures live to sing? Even a scientist can bow before their mystery, stretching himself in unfamiliar numerological directions.

Magical cicada
how come I always know
just when you will arrive;
no way to explain it
impossible to divide the years
into each other beyond the primes?
thirteen
seventeen
only your music counts such beats
no one else alive can feel them[6]

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures!” (Ps. 104:24)

Praise him

Cicadas, like everything else, have a divine origin: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Scripture extols creation as the revelation of God’s wisdom: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Psalm 19 especially looks skyward. The celestial bodies and their clockwork dance provide an especially poignant occasion to consider God’s enduring Law: the same wisdom orders the heavenly bodies and human conduct alike. And who really doubts that the sun and moon and stars are magnificent creatures? Compared to them, humankind seems small and insignificant (as in Ps. 8:4).

But celestial realms and bodies do not hold the Lord (Ps. 8:1), and Wisdom frames the world of lower bodies too. Cicadas are not mentioned, but the Psalms praise God with a vast sampler of animal life: young lions, wild goats, birds of the air, the teeming sea “and Leviathan, that you formed to sport in it” (Ps. 104:26).

The impressive order visible in the cosmos is not the sole source of these rhapsodies; the Psalms are not odes to a watchmaker. They hymn also the majesty and generosity of God. Lord over nature, nature’s bigness magnifies his greatness (as in Ps. 29). He is prolific and abundantly fecund, bringing forth progeny past counting and kindly providing them all habitation and food: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season” (Ps. 104:27)

Wisdom is closely associated with creation in her own words too. Wisdom personified declares, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago” (Prov. 8:22.). “I was there,” she says (8:27). At the beginning of all things, “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker” (8:29-30). Moreover, Wisdom describes this cosmic architecture in terms more like art or play than mechanical precision or efficiency of design: “I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (8:30-31).

Wisdom is God’s delight, and Wisdom herself delights in the world and its creatures. Loving Wisdom then should elicit our own delight.

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Pied Beauty.” I have thought of this poem often while considering the cicadas. A doxology offered on the rich variegation of nature, Hopkins’s poem celebrates the multiplicity of created forms. In their very difference, these forms declare the plenitude of God’s being and beauty. They declare the one who is inexhaustibly imaged in the rich and abundant variety of his creatures, within and through their many contrasts and counterpoints.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

“Praise him.” How shall I sing? How shall I fittingly praise this God of cicadas, who is undoubtedly the God of this place, its earth, and air, and sunlight? Their strange song and the stranger rhythm of their lives praises the God whose unfathomable richness defies the taming pretensions of human minds.

God’s creatures tell his abundance and generosity, beyond any claim or function. I cannot claim to understand their words, but I know that they praise the God who made them — “Who has cut a channel for torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass” (Job 38:25-27).

Praise him.

Caleb Congrove is a high school teacher in Ohio and a father of three. A layman, he belongs to a Byzantine Catholic parish. His other posts are here.

The featured image is in the public domain.


Footnoes

[1] Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1925).

[2] G.R.F. Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas: a study of Plato’s Phaedrus, Cambridge Classical Studies (Cambridge: CUP, 1987).

[3] See Daniel S. Werner, Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge: CUP, 2012).

[4] David Rothenberg, quoting an earlier poem of his own, in Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise (New York: St. Martin’s, 2013; repr. Picador, 2014), p. 6. The first chapter of the book, “The Seventeen-Year Pitch,” is devoted to the periodic cicadas.

[5] The Greeks knew their own cicadas well enough; they studied the stages of their life and lingered on their transformation. However, they also believed that the cicadas lived without sustenance. Rory B. Egan, “Cicadas in Ancient Greek Culture: Ventures in Classical Tettigology,” Cultural Entomology Digest 3 (1994), pp. 21-26.

[6] Rathenberg, Bug Music, pp. 41-42. The poem is signed “Cicada Boy,” but seems to be the work of a cicada researcher named John Cooley.

About The Author

Caleb Congrove is a high school teacher in Ohio and a father of three. A layman, he belongs to a Greek Catholic parish.

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