Category: philosophy

Plato’s Dialogues: Menexenus

If you’re wondering how I managed to write up another post on Plato’s dialogues so quickly after the last one, the answer is that this is Menexenus, which is both very short (twelve pages in the Bollingen Series edition), and because it’s not quite like Plato’s other work. It begins with Socrates meeting an acquaintance, Menexenus, who is on his way back from the Agora. There is to be a public funeral soon, so a speaker must be chosen for the occasion. Menexenus mentions the short amount of time speakers have to prepare for these things, but Socrates points out that such speeches are often ready-made and easy for a decent orator to compose quickly. It’s also not difficult to win the audience’s approval, since this genre of speech typically involves praising the deceased and the city he came from. As Socrates puts it:

SOCRATES: The speakers praise [the deceased] for what he has done and for what he has not done—that is the beauty of them—and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. […]

MENEXENUS: You are always making fun of the rhetoricians, Socrates; this time, however, I am inclined to think that the speaker who is chosen will not have much to say, for he has been called upon to speak at a moment’s notice, and he will be compelled almost to improvise.

SOCRATES: But why, my friend, should he not have plenty to say? Every rhetorician has speeches ready made; nor is there any difficulty in improvising that sort of stuff. Had the orator to praise Athenians among Peloponnesians, or Peloponnesians among Athenians, he must be a good rhetorician who could succeed and gain credit. But there is no difficulty in a man’s winning applause when he is contending for fame among the persons whom he is praising.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthydemus

I’ve been ignoring our friend Socrates lately, offering the excuse that I’m just too busy. That’s no way to treat a friend, though, so I’ve made some time to catch up with him and Plato, this time with the dialogue Euthydemus. It may not be Plato’s most insightful dialogue, but I do think it’s his most entertaining. Translator Benjamin Jowett even says that it’s “apt to be regarded by us only as an elaborate jest.” If you’re a fan of rhetorical gymnastics and watching people get verbally dunked on, then this is the dialogue for you.

Euthydemus is another work with a framing device, this time beginning with our old friend Crito asking Socrates who he’d been speaking with earlier that day; there’d been such a crowd gathered around that Crito couldn’t even get close enough to hear the conversation. Socrates had, it seems, met with the Sophists Euthydemus and his older brother Dionysodorus. After hearing them brag of their own wisdom, he, not quite seriously, I’m sure, asks them to teach his young friends Cleinias and Ctesippus, who were there with him. As Euthydemus begins to question Cleinias, though, Dionysodorus whispers to Socrates, “Whichever he answers, I prophesy that he will be refuted, Socrates.”

Say it with me, everyone:

It’s a trap!

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Cardinal Newman on Education and Journalism

Other obligations prevent me from writing up a full post this week, but rather than skipping a post entirely (other than the already completed lain20th series) I thought I’d turn over the blog to Bl. John Henry Newman. Below are a few excerpts from the preface to his excellent book The Idea of a University, in which he discusses the general purpose of education and, in particular in this section, contrasts it with those who have merely the appearance of an education.

[T]hese Discourses are directed simply to the consideration of the aims and principles of Education. Suffice it, then, to say here, that I hold very strongly that the first step in intellectual training is to impress upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principle, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony. This is commonly and excellently done by making him begin with Grammar; nor can too great accuracy, or minuteness and subtlety of teaching be used towards him, as his faculties expand, with this simple purpose. Hence it is that critical scholarship is so important a discipline for him when he is leaving school for the University. A second science is the Mathematics: this should follow Grammar, still with the same object, viz., to give him a conception of development and arrangement from and around a common centre. Hence it is that Chronology and Geography are so necessary for him, when he reads History, which is otherwise little better than a storybook. Hence, too, Metrical Composition, when he reads Poetry; in order to stimulate his powers into action in every practicable way, and to prevent a merely passive reception of images and ideas which in that case are likely to pass out of the mind as soon as they have entered it. Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.…

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Notes on Approaching the Confucian Canon

Let me begin with something of a disclaimer. Though I’ve read all but one of the Four Books and Five Classics, and even written about some of them, I don’t consider myself an expert on Confucianism by any means. So take this post with a grain of salt, and expect it to be revised in the future as I read and reflect on the subject more. I’m writing it simply because I am asked occasionally how to approach the Confucian canon, so I thought it would be helpful to have a single place to point these people to, where I lay out some basic advice based on my experience.

Much as with choosing a translation of the Analects, which I’ve addressed previously, the main questions are how deep you want to go, and how much guidance you’d like. What I’ll do here is lay out which books you should read in the order I’d recommend reading them, with a few comments on each covering their main topic, availability, a link to my reviews where available, and whatever else may be relevant. Keep in mind that the reading order is a bit loose; for the Four Books I’m drawing from Chu Hsi’s recommendations given on this page.

If you just want the bottom line, I’d say if you just read one book it should be the Analects. If you want one more add Mencius, then the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning together. Add An Introduction to Confucianism if you want the big picture, and The Everlasting Empire if you’re addicted to context. For the Five Classics, add the Odes if you’re interested in poetry, the Documents and Spring and Autumn Annals for history. Finally, add the Changes and Rites if you want to be a completionist.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

Over at Thermidor last month we talked about Homer, so it’s good timing that Plato is now giving us a chance to talk to Homer’s greatest interpreter, Ion. Who’s Ion? He’s a rhapsode and Socrates’ interlocutor in his shortest dialogue called, well, Ion. We know he’s the greatest because he says so himself, after telling Socrates about winning a contest in Epidaurus:

I judge that I, of all men, have the finest things to say on Homer, that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever lived, had so many reflections, or such fine ones, to present on Homer as have I.

Well, he’s still more humble than our man Hippias, who claimed to be the best at everything, and Ion even admits that interpretation of Homer is the only thing he’s great at (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly). Still, Ion is a likeable guy, and Socrates is amiable with him throughout the dialogue. It’s hard not to like his almost childlike enthusiasm for Homer; for instance, at one point Socrates wants to quote a few lines from the Iliad to illustrate a point, but Ion jumps in, “No, let me do it, for I know them.” He’s like a boy who just learned a new skill and wants to show it off.…

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The Art of Dying Well

Is it time for our annual visit with St. Robert Bellarmine already? Yes it is, and this time I’d like to talk about a short book of his called The Art of Dying Well.

Now, St. Robert is best known for his apologetical work, like De Laicis and De Romano Pontifice, and I’ve also covered his catechism, which serves a similar purpose for those already in the Church. He wrote The Art of Dying Well, though, near the end of his life, when he’d largely retired from public work, and it’s a much more immediately practical book than the others. In other words, where his other works are primarily concerned with what the reader should know, here he’s concerned with what the reader should do. It is, though, still noticeably his style, as he does explain why a man should do this or that, and every page is filled with quotations from Scripture and the saints.

He begins with the general precept “that he who lives well, will die well,” and continues:

[F]or since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well; nor can he die ill, who hath never lived ill; as, on the other hand, he who hath never led a good life, cannot die a good death. The same thing is observable in many similar cases: for all that walk along the right path, are sure to arrive at the place of their destination; whilst, on the contrary, they who wander from it, will never arrive at their journey’s end.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Cratylus

Hey, remember this series? Honestly, I’m rather proud of having kept up this web log on a regular schedule despite starting graduate school and working a full-time job. Unfortunately, though doing fairly short posts isn’t too hard, a series that demands more attention like Plato’s dialogues is significantly more difficult. I read Cratylus about a month ago. I barely remember what it’s about at this point. I’m not 100% sure who Plato is. He might’ve been a geek?

Okay, that’s only half-serious, but this series is still on, and we are indeed talking about Cratylus today. I’ll be briefer than usual on this one, for two reasons. One is that it’s becoming clear that I’m either going to write about it quickly, or it’ll never get finished. The other is that most of the dialogue is a discussion of the etymology of Greek words. Now, the etymologies aren’t the main point, exactly, but it is tedious reading about a language one doesn’t understand, so I was more interested in the conversation that took place before and after the bulk of the work. What I’ll do, then, is go through and share a few individual points that stood out to me as I was reading (fortunately, I do annotate my books somewhat, so I can find interesting passages even when a book isn’t fresh in my mind).

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The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

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A Confucian Notebook

At a glance, Edward Herbert’s short book A Confucian Notebook looks promising. I’d never heard of it until I ran across it in a used bookstore, but it’s intended to serve as an introduction to Confucianism through a series of thirty-three “notes,” each of them two, sometimes three pages long. Each offers a few brief observations or explanations on a given theme, varying from the Confucian use of prehistorical figures, Confucius’ favourite disciple, Mencius and Yang Chu, Mo Ti’s doctrine of universal love, etc. Unfortunately, it only partially succeeds.

First, I’ll give credit where it’s due. I do know a little more about Confucianism now than when I started, and someone new to the philosophy will find several helpful pieces of information that will make some aspects of the canon easier to understand. One of the most interesting notes, for example, was on Mo Ti. Mencius speaks of him and his doctrine of universal love scornfully, but doesn’t go into much detail. Herbert gives a summary of Mo Ti’s doctrine, and adds this observation:

But the principle [of universal love] is recommended, not so much on account of its goodness and naturalness, as on the ground that the exercise of it “pays.” The practitioner of filial piety, who extends this duty to include other people’s parents, is promised a dividend int he form of reciprocal attention by the latter to his own parents. It is further intimated that the social obligations generally, if universalized, will operate in this way, yielding a return to the community in benefits of greater safety, more creature comforts. “Master Mo,” who was a utilitarian at heart, seems not to have minded debasing his lofty ethic by linking it with the prospect of gain; nor to have realized that the effect of so doing was to encourage the self-love which he condemned. It escaped him, too, that it was incompatible with the high purposes of Universal Love to suggest imposing it by means of rewards and penalties.

That’s all good, but the book does have some shortcomings. One is that the book isn’t systematic, but tends to meander from topic to topic. That is implied by the title, of course, but it feels more like a series of short blog posts written for people who are already familiar with Confucianism. The preface sells this book as an introduction, but an introduction needs to be more systematic, like Xinzhong Yao’s. Also, much of the discussion on terms doesn’t provide any more information than is already found in the introductions or annotations to most editions of the AnalectsMencius, etc. So, even if you are new, why read this? Why not just read the introduction in the book you already have by Arthur Waley, James Legge, or whoever?

Worsening matters further, much of the book is strangely off-topic, since just over 1/3 of the notes spend most of their time discussing Taoism, usually (though not always!) in relation to Confucianism. Herbert, for what reason I don’t know, seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with Taoism and tries to use it to illuminate Confucianism. Some of that material is fine, and a note or two on the topic would be reasonable. Most of it, though, should’ve been cut and possibly used in a separate A Taoist Notebook.

So, is A Confucian Notebook bad? No, not really, but even at a mere eighty-four pages, it’s not worth the effort to track down and read. What Herbert set out to do has been accomplished much more successfully elsewhere, whether by Yao or even by many of the translators of the Confucian canon.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedo

After working through the Republic, we return once more to the events around Socrates’ trial and execution with Phaedo, which covers the death of Socrates. Like the Symposium, this one is narrated second-hand, this time by Phaedo, who was present for Socrates’ last moments and is telling his friend Echecrates about it. Incidentally, we have another rare mention of Plato himself, when Phaedo says that most of Socrates’ circle of friends was present but that “I believe Plato was ill.” Plato had been present at his trial, which gave it more of an air of authenticity than most other dialogues, so it’s interesting that he removes that for this one. How much we should read into this, though, I’m not sure.

In any case, one of the first things Phaedo mentions is that Socrates had spent his last few weeks on Earth writing poetry, specifically based on Aesop’s fables. He explains that he has, throughout his life, had recurring dreams where he’s told to “practice and cultivate the arts,” which he had always interpreted to mean philosophy. However, since the trial it had occurred to him that it may actually have been referring to poetry, so just in case he had misinterpreted his calling, he’s taken up writing some hymns and other verse. Socrates and his interlocutors don’t spend much time on this, but assuming this is true, one wonders how history would’ve been different if Socrates had pursued poetry instead of philosophy. He almost certainly wouldn’t have been as well-remembered now, since he was about as successful in philosophy as it’s possible to be, and he mentions that he struggled to write verse. Still, it’s an interesting side point to the dialogue.

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