Category: philosophy

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.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

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.

Read More The Art of Dying Well

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).

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Cratylus

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.

Read More The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

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.…

Read More A Confucian Notebook

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.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedo

Plato’s Dialogues: Republic

My friends, the eternal snows appear already past, and the first clouds and mountains seem the last. In the list of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic is at the centre of it all, being the halfway point of the reading order I’m using, as well as Plato’s most famous work and, arguably, most important (going by reputation and my observations so far, of course). This also means that it is, arguably, the most important work by the most important philosopher in the history of Western civilisation, so, hey – no pressure on us amateurs trying these towering Alps. Let’s trust in what we’ve learned so far, though, and soldier on.

So, Republic is by far the longest and most wide-ranging dialogue so far, with only Protagoras even in the same ballpark; the rest weren’t even in the same league, and hardly even playing the same sport. Now, though Socrates and friends cover many different topics, it is worth keeping in mind that the central question is “What is justice?” Many people get caught up in debating the utopian society Socrates and the others imagine and discussing the various aspects of that, and though that can be interesting it’s worth remembering that it’s meant as an aid for identifying justice in the individual. Since defining justice in the individual is difficult, they decide that it may be easier if they work at a larger scale, and so begin building this city. One occasionally sees arguments over whether Plato really intended this city to be ideal or what, because there are a few seemingly crazy ideas connected to it, but everything about it, I feel safe saying, is meant as an allegory for some aspect of the soul.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Republic

Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Since I’m among the brave few who dislike the Symposium, I was a little disappointed at first that most of Phaedrus covers the same subject, love. However, it also covers a couple other things that I find much more interesting, and it’s also back to having just one interlocutor for Socrates. Rather than the more-or-less hostile exchanges that characterised the dialogues with the Sophists, though, this conversation is much more amiable, similar to some of the earlier dialogues like Lysis and Laches. Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus isn’t a debate, but a conversation between two friends while out for a walk, albeit at a much higher level than any conversation I’ve ever had.

One interesting observation comes early on. Socrates happened to cross paths with Phaedrus while the latter was out taking a walk, and they happen to cross a river near the point where Boreas was said to have seized Orithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believed the myth to be true, and he says this:

I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.

Recall that Socrates will later be charged with corrupting the youth, and encouraging impiety. Yet, apparently there were “men of science,” which I take to be an ironic phrase roughly equivalent to calling the New Atheist twats “brights” or “fedoras,” who spent a good deal of time in trying to explain myths surrounding the gods rationally. Socrates, though, says that he accepts the common beliefs around these myths. That doesn’t mean he has no doubts, of course, but he focuses on other, more important matters first.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Plato’s Dialogues: Symposium

Guys, I’m not gonna lie to you: if I hadn’t already committed to discussing every dialogue, I’d punt on the Symposium. I know, it’s probably Plato’s second-most famous dialogue, after the Republic, and love seems like as universally interesting as a topic can be, but it just didn’t grab me as every other work has so far. It is the first so far to have some storytelling to it; even the dramatic Apology is essentially just a record of one speech. I’m sure Plato chose the form carefully and with a purpose in mind, but I’m not really here for storytelling and much prefer philosophy written in the more straightforward style of, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I’ve been receptive to the dialogues so far because, with only one or a few interlocutors, they feel almost like a single author developing an idea slowly, but with purpose. The Symposium, though, starting with someone asking for a second-hand account of the event in question, a series of loosely-connected speeches by multiple people, and an interruption by yet another group of people, making it oddly chaotic. Again, probably intentional, but not at all how I want to read this sort of material.

To get into the dialogue itself, though, one weird thing about Symposium is that it’s essentially all a double narration. Apollodorus is our primary narrator, and he’s been asked by a friend to talk about a discussion of love that had taken place some time earlier between a number of people at a party celebrating Agathon’s recent victory in a competition for a tragedy he’d written. Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, though, and furthermore this was a few years ago. Rather, he’d heard about it from Aristodemus, who had attended. We could hardly have a more unreliable account, then, and I could only guess why Plato decided to relate the dialogue this way.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Symposium

Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias