Category: special series

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.

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Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Now, this is a bit awkward, because I don’t even know the name of today’s friend. All I do know is that he was a Scottish balladeer, and that this poem was collected in Thomas Percy’s 1765 collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Whoever our poet was, he lives on through his work, which is certainly worth something. The poem for today is “Edward, Edward,” which I first encountered in high school, alongside “Sir Patrick Spens.” I’ve remembered many individual lines ever since, which given the amount of repetition meant that I had decent chunks of the poem committed to memory before I even began this project. The old-fashioned Scottish spelling is a little confusing at first, but not too bad. Checking RPO’s notes may not be a bad idea, though, if this is your first time reading the poem.

Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid,
Edward, Edward?
Why dois your brand sae drap wi’ bluid?
And why sae sad gang ye, O?
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my hauke sae guid,
And I had nae mair bot hee, O.

Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
Edward, Edward,
Your haukis bluid was nevir sae reid,
My deir son I tell thee, O.
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
Mither, mither,
O, I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
That erst was sae fair and frie, O.…

Read More Eighth Friend: Some Scottish Guy, “Edward, Edward”

Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

Today in the United States, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving, commemorating that well-known story of Native Americans helping out a bunch of proto-Yankee Puritans… Well, that was nice of them, I must give credit for that, but if the Natives had seen the future they may have followed the example of the friend we’re meeting today and done something far more laudable: not feeding Puritans, but fighting them.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, is one of my favourite of the Cavalier poets. Part of the reason, of course, is his poetry; I especially like “My Dear and Only Love,” which is a good romantic poem in its own right, and the specific imagery he uses to describe a loyal relationship between husband and wife, monarchy, is apt but today has the added satisfaction of political incorrectness. He also, of course, supported the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. Interestingly, though, he was a Covenanter, and as such opposed King Charles I insofar as the King attempted to impose Anglican forms of worship on Scotland. However, he insisted throughout his life that he was both a Covenanter and loyal to the monarchy, and in 1644, with the Civil War underway, he was appointed lieutenant-general and won several victories in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Royalists lost, Charles I was martyred, and so Montrose fled to the Continent, but returned to Scotland in 1650 with a force of about 1,200 men. That invasion failed and he was ultimately captured and hanged.

Before his execution, though, he did write one more poem, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence,” which is the one I’ve chosen to memorise:

Let them bestow on ev’ry airth a limb;
Open all my veins, that I may swim
To Thee, my Saviour, in that crimson lake;
Then place my parboil’d head upon a stake,
Scatter my ashes, throw them in the air:
Lord (since Thou know’st where all these atoms are)
I’m hopeful once Thou’lt recollect my dust,
And confident thou’lt raise me with the just.

An “airth,” by the way, is a quarter of the compass.

So, normally, I’d call that sort of imagery melodramatic, but from someone who knows he actually is about to die, all I can say is that this how one faces death like a man. The gory touches are justified, since according to the Montrose Society, “After he was dead his head, his arms and his legs were cut off, the head placed on a spike on the Tolbooth where he had spent his last hours, his other limbs were placed in the [four] major cities of Scotland in places of prominence.” So, as it happened, they basically did “bestow on ev’ry airth a limb.” Nonetheless, as he was led to the gallows and saw the gibbet he simply asked, “How long am I to hang here?” As if he had an appointment or something afterwards. His last words were “God have mercy on this afflicted land.”

This is a fine poem in its own right, but it’s this background story that makes it especially interesting. I doubt I need to stress the point, but there’s also a moral example here on how to behave when you’re seemingly defeated – but also never to lose hope. In 1650 the Royalist cause seemed lost, but ten years later, in 1660, the Puritan Interregnum ended and the monarchy was restored. Today the monarchist cause is again in poor shape, but the one way to guarantee that we lose is to give up. So, “Viriliter agite, et confortamini” –  act manfully, and be strengthened. In the worse case, you’ll have the opportunity to leave behind an immortal death poem.…

Read More Seventh Friend: James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, “On Himself, upon Hearing What was his Sentence”

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.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

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Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

I hope you brought a gift, because today is this friend’s birthday – Vachel Lindsay turns 138 years old today, having been born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879. Mr. Lindsay was quite popular early in his career, but his popularity began to decline later in his life and, unfortunately, has waned more since then. He started out selling self-published work on the streets, in New York in 1905 and during treks across the country on foot in 1906, ’08, and ’12. He caught a break when Poetry Magazine, at the time still new and already influential in the literary world, published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in 1913, and “The Congo,” which we’ll get to shortly, in 1914. Once his popularity took off, his tours and public performances were very successful, but his fame peaked early. His fortunes declined until, in 1931, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Though his reputation never reached the heights of the mid- to late-1910’s, Mr. Lindsay has never been forgotten, either. Friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography of him a few years after his death, and he still shows up in anthologies of American literature. One thing that may work against him is that his most famous poem, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” also happens to be of the sort that requires a trigger warning these days, and was also fairly controversial even in his own lifetime. It’s not the one I memorised for the Hundred Friends project since it’s far too long, but it’s interesting enough that I’ll go ahead and excerpt a bit:

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
     A deep rolling bass.
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
     More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
     A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Bing.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
     With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
     Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
     Like the wind in the chimney.
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
     All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”…

Read More Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Today, we’ll meet a friend who every American reader will likely already know as the only good New Englander (well, maybe not quite the only, but close), Mr. Robert Frost. Few Americans made it through high school without reading “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” or “Nature’s First Green is Gold.” For good reason, too. It’s not hard to see why Mr. Frost’s popularity has endured, as he’s one of the few modern poets to write mostly traditional verse, though his early work is more noticeably Modernist. So, his poems are generally aesthetically pleasant, but still thoughtful, and without the intense introspection that turns off some readers, and certainly without the degenerate form of introspection, the narcissism that marks lesser writers.

Now, for this project I’m using “Fire and Ice,” which I’ve actually memorised previously. In fact, it’s short and with such a strong rhyme scheme that I memorised it essentially by accident, simply after reading it several times:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I’ve always liked the understatement and dry delivery of this one, but I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to read into this poem or if it is, in fact, completely tongue-in-cheek. I suppose one could use the poem to make a ham-fisted point about the destructiveness of greed and hate, but that reading is rather too obvious for me, and a writer of Mr. Frost’s calibre would, I expect, find a more subtle way of expressing that. So, I’ll keep it short this time, and let this poem stand for itself.…

Read More Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

If you’ve been on social media for any significant length of time, you’ve probably seen a meme purporting to show books typical for each of the three major branches of Christianity. For Catholicism, it has Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for Eastern Orthodoxy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and for Protestantism, Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You. It’s funny, yes, but it also annoys me a little. For one thing, though I hate heresy and consider their revolt against the Church the greatest catastrophe of the past several centuries, I do have some sympathy for Protestants. I live in the American South, after all, which despite a significant Catholic presence is still a fundamentally Protestant place. Many of my friends belong to one of those denominations, and when I think of Protestants I first think, not of the despicable Luther and Calvin or the dopey Osteen, but of my Baptist grandfather, who in the last decade or so of his life approached his church with full sincerity, and collected an impressive library of different editions and translations of Scripture, comparing each and considering the commentaries of various theologians.

Also, it offends my sense of fairness, because there have been many great works of Protestant literature. I don’t think any come to the level of The Divine Comedy, but Protestants can claim no lesser artists than Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Donne, and indeed most great English authors from the Elizabethan era onward. Bl. John Henry Newman went so far as to say that the English literary tradition is fundamentally Protestant. Now, that was already debatable when he said it in the 1852, and it has become even more so since then, but I ultimately do agree with him and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some truth to it.

Read More Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

Plato’s Dialogues: Greater Hippias

When we last saw Socrates, he was debating the Sophist Protagoras on whether virtue was something that could be taught, as well as giving his young friend some words of warning about trusting Sophists, or anyone, as teachers due to the peril of bad instruction for his soul. Today we move on to Greater Hippias, where Socrates comes across another Sophist, Hippias, who happens to be the world’s greatest teacher, as he is happy to tell you, based on the extraordinary amount of money he makes giving his lectures and in service to the State. He tells Socrates:

If you were told how much I have earned, you would be astounded. To take one case only – I went to Sicily once while Protagoras was there. He had a great reputation and was a far older man than I, and yet in a short time I made more than one hundred and fifty minas. Why, in one place alone, Inycus, a very small place, I took more than twenty minas. When I returned home with the money I gave it to my father, reducing him and his fellow citizens to a condition of stupefied amazement. And I feel pretty sure that I have made more money than any other two Sophists you like to mention, put together.

Hippias doesn’t exactly come across as a modest man, though he did apparently give his great earnings to his father, so give him some credit for filial piety. Interestingly, that he did this makes it seem that his goal as a Sophist isn’t to make a lot of cash, but rather for fame. He gives specific figures to add credibility to his story, but his emphasis is on how his success impresses others. Socrates “would be astounded,” he succeeded despite the competition with Protagoras, his father and countrymen were in “stupefied amazement,” he’s made more than any other two Sophists put together. As a later example, he asserts that a troublesome person who’s been giving Socrates a hard time in a certain debate must accept his definition of a certain term, “on pain of ridicule,” ridicule apparently being among the worst things Hippias can think of.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Greater Hippias