Category: philosophy

Plato: Socrates’ Defense

When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.

One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.

In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation.…

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New at Thermidor: The Poetics

I have a new post over at Thermidor Magazine, a review of the Poetics, by Aristotle. It’s not really necessary to explain his explanation on what the different literary genres are and how they work, so I also discuss why it’s worthwhile to spend time thinking seriously about literature. In a way it’s a follow-up to last year’s “Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

If that sounds interesting, you may also want to take look at my recommended reading page, or “Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?” which also features Aristotle prominently.

This is the second article I’ve written at Thermidor, the first being “Chesterton and The Man Who Was Thursday.”…

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From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought

Like any bibliophile, I have stack of books that I plan on reading eventually, so it’s fairly common for a book to hang out on the shelf for months, even years before I get around to it. As soon as I heard about From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, though, I knew I had to make it priority. So, after only, well, a year or so, I got right to it. After all, it features many saints and Fathers of the Church, as well as other luminaries like Origen, William of Ockham, and John of Paris. Unfortunately, it suffers the same weakness as almost all anthologies, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Obviously, editors Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan could only include excerpts from the works of the various authors, aside from a small handful of especially short pieces. So, one only gets a general idea of each writer’s positions. It’s like going to the movies, but instead of a single full-length feature film you sit through a succession of trailers for two hours.

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The Everlasting Man

Honestly, in a way, it feels superfluous to review G. K. Chesterton’s non-fiction. It seems that most everyone who might be interested in his work has already read something, and as I’ve said elsewhere, he’s nothing if not consistent. If you’ve read one of Chesterton’s books, you already know exactly what to expect from the others, and if you’ve read my review of either Heretics or Orthodoxy, you already know what I think of them.

That’s not really a major criticism. I remember someone on a forum I used to frequent criticising AC/DC for making the same album thirteen times, and the first reply was, “Yeah, but it was a damn good album.” That said, unless you absolutely love Chesterton’s style, as many people do, he can start to get tedious – and I’ve read a lot of his work at this point without even really intending to. He’s so ubiquitous in the Conservative milieu I grew up in and am still around, especially among Catholics, that it just seems natural to return to his books regularly. I’ve read at least nine of them, six of those non-fiction. At this point, he’s the author I’ve read the most of, and he’s not even in my top ten favourite authors.

He is, though, probably the best author who wrote primarily for a popular audience. Though not particularly rigorous, he is a clear thinker, often perceptive, well-read, and always entertaining.…

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Northern Reaction: The Dead-Tree Version

Those of use who’ve been around the Right for very long are well aware of that there is no shortage of blogs out there. Social Matter‘s weekly reviews link to hours worth of reading material, and that just covers Neoreaction and its immediate neighbours; if you venture into the Alt Right, and especially if you include the Alt Lite, you’ll never have time for anything else if you try to keep up with everything. A lot of that material is valuable for several reasons, but unfortunately, the web logging format has some limitations. Though it works for occasional commentary or introductions to larger topics, there’s just not room to go into depth in any one subject, at least not comfortably. So, speaking for myself, the blogging format has grown rather stale. I’ll still occasionally find a new writer with some worthwhile archives, but at this point I only follow a handful of them and Social Matter‘s weekly round-up.

Rather than continuing to multiply blog posts, one way forward for the Right would be to work in longer formats. A handful of people have attempted this already. Mencius Moldbug’s long series of essays are book-length and have been collected into e-books; I talked about Michael Anissimov’s A Critique of Democracy when it came out last year; beyond that, though, excluding the Alt Lite, I’m struggling to think of anything that’s currently available (note: if I’m missing anything, feel free to let me know either via Twitter or the comments section). We can, however, add one more item to that short list thanks to Bill Marchant’s Northern Reaction, recently published at the end of January.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

Plato’s dialogue Meno begins with the titular character asking Socrates whether virtue is something that can be taught. Socrates, of course, wants to begin by defining what exactly virtue is. Now, in LysisLaches, and Charmides, Socrates and friends couldn’t even figure out what a few particular virtues are, so it seems unlikely that we’ll find out what virtue as a whole is (spoiler: we don’t), but interestingly, unlike those three aporetic dialogues, Socrates does present a positive argument of his own and even offers a conclusion at the end.

So, in response to Socrates’ question, Meno attempts to define “virtue” as “desiring fine things and being able to acquire them.” This doesn’t stand up to Socrates’ scrutiny, though, in part because, when Socrates starts asking for more detail and examples, Meno isn’t able to define virtue as a whole without reference to individual parts of virtue, like justice, temperance, and so on.…

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A Brief Introduction to Mencius

When discussing Confucianism, the first book people think of is The Analects of Confucius, which is understandably the most famous Confucian work by a wide margin. This book is, Scripture aside, the most important book I’ve ever read in forming my own political and social ideas, and my opinion of Confucius is largely the same as his student Tsze-kung:

Were our Master in the position of the ruler of a State or the chief of a Family, we should find verified the description which has been given of a sage’s rule: he would plant the people, and forthwith they would be established; he would lead them on, and forthwith they would follow him; he would make them happy, and forthwith multitudes would resort to his dominions; he would stimulate them, and forthwith they would be harmonious. While he lived, he would be glorious. When he died, he would be bitterly lamented. How is it possible for him to be attained to?

Eventually, I’ll need to write an article on The Analects (aside from Lyall’s substandard translation). In any case, less known, at least in the West, are the rest of the “Four Books,” The Doctrine of the MeanThe Great Learning, and Mencius, which is awkwardly named after its author. I’ve just finished going through all four of these to gather material for my Twitter bot and it struck me that Mencius may be a better introduction to Confucianism than The Analects.

You see, one distinguishing feature of The Analects is that it’s composed mostly of individual sayings and very brief dialogues, often without context, and very few chapters are more than a paragraph or two. For example, Book VII Chapter VII, “The Master said, ‘From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh [as tuition] for my teaching upwards, I have never refused instruction to anyone.'” Another, from Book VIII Chapter VIII, “The Master said, ‘It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received.'”…

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Getting Started with Plato (Lysis, Laches, and Charmides)

My trip through the Classics so far was, to a large extent, a preparation for the works of Plato. I’ll work my way through The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, a few dialogues at a time, and posting about them as I go.

Now, one choice I had to make at the outset was what order to read these in. There is no one perfect method, it seems, but in a project like this I like to have some plan going in. When I asked about this on twitter I got a few very helpful suggestions (beginning here) from Megillus, who knows the dialogues well, and I also found this recommendation online. That one is fairly close to Megillus’s recommendation, so I slightly modified it and will proceed through them like so:

  • Getting started: Lysis/Laches/Charmides
  • Socrates’ trial: Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
  • The Sophists: Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor
  • The soul: Symposium + Phaedrus/Republic/Phaedo
  • Logos: Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
  • Dialectic: Parmenides + Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman
  • Kosmos: Philebus + Timaeus/Critias/Laws

 

You may notice that I cut out Alcibiades I, and I did that because it’s not included in my edition of The Collected Dialogues. I may look it up later; after all this I’ll be so close to being a Plato completist anyway that I may as well.

In any case, the first three, very short, works are all aporetic dialogues, that is, they each raise a question concerning some virtue that Socrates and his interlocutors try to define, but never come to a definite conclusion. At first glance that sounds rather pointless, but it does a few valuable things, namely introducing us to the style of Socratic dialogue, and forces us to begin thinking seriously about these virtues ourselves. This is why I don’t have a lot to say about LysisLaches, and Charmides, because I don’t think that the ideas raised are the point; rather, the point is the process, which isn’t something that can really be summarised adequately.

The style of these dialogues is taking some getting used to for me. When I read philosophy I generally prefer someone like Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas, who approach a question systematically, with all the directness and charm of a dictionary entry, and who offer a conclusion at the end of a discussion. I know a few people who much prefer Plato’s style, because it feels more natural, and philosophy does seem more entertaining when it includes a little storytelling and characterisation of the interlocutors. So I completely understand why many people like Plato’s work so much, but personally I much prefer a formal approach in works of non-fiction.

In any case, these are like the appetiser for the main course, and there’ll be more to follow, probably over the next several months.…

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The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists

Salvator_Rosa_-_Démocrite_et_ProtagorasWhen one begins a study of Western philosophy, especially with a focus on the history of philosophy, Plato is the most common starting-point. That’s reasonable enough, since he was, as far as I know, the first major philosopher from whom we have a lot of material, and so influential that Alfred North Whitehead famously commented that the rest of Western philosophy is “footnotes to Plato.”

However, there were several philosophers who do predate Plato. The problem, though, is that we don’t have complete works from these men, just fragments and testimonia. Fortunately, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, translated and edited by Robin Waterfield, collects many of these fragments in an accessible way for a general audience. Waterfield also translated the edition of The Histories that I read and reviewed recently, and his translation is just as good here as it was for Herodotus (in style, of course, since I can’t vouch for accuracy), and his introduction and annotations are consistently helpful.…

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