Category: special series

Plato’s Dialogues: 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.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Socrates’ Defense

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.”…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

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.…

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Meno

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.…

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

Oh, My Goddess! v. 1-7 (75 Books LXIX – LXXV)

What? I said I’d read seventy-five books this year; I didn’t say how I’d get to seventy-five.

Anyway, considering how down I was on this series at the end, I enjoyed these early volumes more than I thought I would. Oh, My Goddess! isn’t really a must-read, but it’s charming, and it’s entertaining enough if you like the style of late-eighties or early-nineties anime or manga.

fujishima kousuke

Read More Oh, My Goddess! v. 1-7 (75 Books LXIX – LXXV)

Oh, My Goddess! v. 48 (75 Books LXVIII)

Fujishima Kosuke’s Oh, My Goddess!, a series approximately as old as I am, has finished; Dark Horse published the last volume earlier this year. I was a relative latecomer to the comic, picking it up only in 2007, I believe, when it was already approaching twenty years old. I was able to blow through most of it that had been published up to that point fairly quickly, since someone must have dumped the first twenty volumes or so at a local Half Price Books. I had to pick them up a few at a time, since I didn’t have that much spare cash in college, and also had to figure out what order Dark Horse’s initially unnumbered volumes ought to be read in. Still, the best way to read OMG is probably to marathon several volumes at once, take a break, read several more, and so on.

That isn’t to say that the series is bad, but rather, it’s very uneven. There were some story arcs that I enjoyed, but several others I was happy to just skim through quickly and get to the next good part. Generally, the best story arcs were the least ambitious, and Fujishima did much better at more-or-less slice of life material than action or large narratives.

Which shouldn’t be surprising, really. Our hero, Keiichi, is very much an everyman character, but a very likable one, and he’s an everyman who, by chance (or fate, I suppose) gets to star in the platonic ideal of nerd wish-fulfillment stories when the beautiful, traditionally feminine goddess Belldandy shows up and starts living with him. Comedy ensues, new characters come and go, we have our occasional dramatic moments while exploring this character or that’s backstory, and so on. My favourite moments, though – the ones I remember best – tend to be relatively simple things. For example, Keiichi deciding to buy a nice ring for Belldandy, killing himself for a couple weeks working lousy part-time jobs to get the money for it, then going to buy it once he has the exact amount he needs only to realise that he forgot to account for sales tax. Another: Keiichi goes to apply for graduation from college, only to be told that he’s not eligible because he didn’t get any credit hours for a second foreign language, so he’ll need to stay a little longer; this one’s a favourite because almost the exact same thing happened to me when I applied for graduation.

So when Fujishima got more ambitious, as I mentioned when talking about volumes forty-seven and forty-one, I lost interest fairly quickly. Unfortunately, this final story arc took years to resolve, and by the time it finished I’d nearly forgotten how it started. If you’re wondering why I’m being a bit vague, that’s why, and it’s the peril of long-running, serialised stories – I simply forget plot points over time, and I don’t want to go back and re-read things that, in this case, I didn’t enjoy much the first time around.

Getting to the ending, it’s fine. It’s roughly what I expected, though I would’ve thought that we would see more appearances of characters from throughout the comic’s run, or at least some of the main ones. Fujishima seems to enjoy hamming it up, and honestly I would’ve liked to see some of these guys who, in real-time, we haven’t seen in years.

Regardless, I’m just glad that the series finally got its happy ending. Perhaps I should go back and re-read some of the early volumes soon……

Read More Oh, My Goddess! v. 48 (75 Books LXVIII)

La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

Writing about Dante’s non-fiction Monarchia not once, but twice on this blog, and once at length on the main site, made me want to revisit his poetry. I haven’t had time to tackle The Divine Comedy this year, but was able to get through the fairly short La Vita Nuova over Christmas weekend, when not visiting with my kinsfolk.

La Vita Nuova is a bit of an odd work; the poetry makes up the centrepiece, but the work as a whole is autobiographical, and concerns Dante’s relationship, such as it was, with Beatrice. His love for Beatrice is famous, and plays a large part in The Divine Comedy, but as intensely felt as it was for Dante, from the outside not much seems to have come from it. They never really do anything together, barely so much as even a short conversation, and Dante deliberately hides his love for at least the first part of this story. If anything, the style of the book reminds me of the Hyakunin Isshu, which I just wrote about, in that it’s essentially a collection of occasional poems that Dante wrote capturing or commenting on moments with Beatrice, her friends, love in general, and so on. Basically, as the hundred poets would write a tanka as almost a matter of course whenever something subjectively interesting happens, Dante does the same but typically in sonnet form.…

Read More La Vita Nuova (75 Books LXVII)

One Hundred Leaves (75 Books LXVI)

There are only two groups of Americans who are likely to know about the Hyakunin Isshu, literature enthusiasts who’ve taken an interest in Japan, and fans of the comic and anime Chihayafuru. I’m certainly the former and like the latter enough to have imported the French edition, so Frank Watson’s One Hundred Leaves: A New Annotated Translation of the Hyakunin Isshu seemed like a must-have to me.

If you’re not in either of those groups, the Hyakunin Isshu is an anthology of one hundred poems, each by a different poet, compiled by poet and critic Fujiwara no Teika around 1237. For readers, myself included, who don’t have a lot of experience with Japanese poetry, Watson does offer a few things to help us out. There’s a short introduction on appreciating this style of poem, annotations explaining the intricate wordplay that characterises these works, and a “literal” translation of each poem to supplement the main translation. He also includes the original versions, both in Japanese script and English transliteration, for those who either know a little Japanese or want to read them out loud. Finally, he also provides a painting from traditional Japanese art to complement each poem. Unfortunately, a few aspects of the presentation do fall short of the ideal. The pictures are in black-and-white with no indication of the title or artist, and it’s sometimes hard to see what the picture has to do with the poem it ostensibly illustrates. Not all poems have annotations, either; some stand on their own well enough not to need much explanation, but it would be nice to at least get a short biographical note about the writers. The annotations also get a little repetitive; for example, he explains several times that the image of “wet sleeves” indicates wiping away tears.…

Read More One Hundred Leaves (75 Books LXVI)

Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton, is another book that I read back in college but decided to revisit recently since I’ll also be reading its follow-up, Orthodoxy, in the near future. That may have been unnecessary, though, because as enlightening and entertaining as Chesterton is, one always knows what to expect from him in his essays, and if you’ve read, say, Tremendous Trifles, What’s Wrong with the World, or any of his other non-fiction work, you know what you’re in for. Here, he goes through a set of erroneous modern ideas put forward by various prominent people, such as Rudyard Kipling or H.G. Wells, and demonstrates why they’re wrong typically by way of a paradox and with several asides.

For example, while discussing Thomas Carlyle’s arguments for aristocracy, he writes:

Carlyle said that men were mostly fools. Christianity, with a surer and more reverent realism, says that they are all fools. This doctrine is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. It may also be described as the doctrine of the equality of men. But the essential point of it is merely this, that whatever primary and far-reaching moral dangers affect any man, affect all men. All men can be criminals, if tempted; all men can be heroes, if inspired. And this doctrine does away altogether with Carlyle’s pathetic belief (or any one else’s pathetic belief) in “the wise few.” There are no wise few. Every aristocracy that has ever existed has behaved, in all essential points, exactly like a small mob… And no oligarchies in the world’s history have ever come off so badly in practical affairs as the very proud oligarchies— the oligarchy of Poland, the oligarchy of Venice. And the armies that have most swiftly and suddenly broken their enemies in pieces have been the religious armies— the Moslem Armies, for instance, or the Puritan Armies. And a religious army may, by its nature, be defined as an army in which every man is taught not to exalt but to abase himself. Many modern Englishmen talk of themselves as the sturdy descendants of their sturdy Puritan fathers. As a fact, they would run away from a cow. If you asked one of their Puritan fathers, if you asked Bunyan, for instance, whether he was sturdy, he would have answered, with tears, that he was as weak as water. And because of this he would have borne tortures.

I recall an acquaintance criticising Chesterton for not being “rigorous” is his writing, and since I’ve also written about some “higher class” philosophers this year, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that he’s known as the “Apostle of Common Sense” for good reason. He wrote for a general audience, and addressed that audience perfectly. His reasoning is (almost) always sound, and he’s obviously well-read, but those expecting in-depth Socratic dialogues or Thomistic systematization will be disappointed. Chesterton’s strength, though, is bursting the bubbles of “clever sillies,” that is, the type of person who is genuinely intelligent and well-read, but has reasoned himself into something nonsensical. I don’t recall the context, but I once saw an idea criticised as something “only a philosophy grad student could believe.”

As much as I enjoy Chesterton’s writing, there are a couple small things that bother me. He’s rather too “democratic” minded at times, as in the passage above. Also, he can be a little self-indulgent, getting to his points via roundabout paths, and reveling almost too much in his own paradoxes. Which, now that I think about it, is also a complaint brought against Mencius Moldbug, though Moldbug is more systematic. In any case, neither of these are major problems, and the latter just makes his essays a little more monotonous if one reads a lot of them at once, since they all have basically the same style and structure.

As I said, I will move on to the follow-up book Orthodoxy soon, but honestly I prefer Chesterton’s fiction over his essays, even though he seems better-known for the latter. His epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse is one of my favourite books, and I’d also highly recommend The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man who was Thursday to anyone. If you haven’t read Chesterton before, I’d start with one either Ballad or Napoleon, then pick a collection of essays, because he’s one of the few authors whose fiction and non-fiction are mutually enlightening.…

Read More Heretics (75 Books LXV)

Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)

Education at the Crossroads is a revised version of a series of lectures Jacques Maritain gave at Yale University in 1943 in which the author discusses, in four parts, “The Aims of Education,” “The Dynamics of Education,” “The Humanities and Liberal Education,” and “The Trials of Present-Day Education.” In other words, what education is, where it is now, and where it will, or at least ideally should, go.

Maritain’s idea of and approach to education is one that was probably moderate or Conservative by the standards of 1943, though by today’s standards I suppose one would call him a Paleoconservative. In any case, he’s a believer in a Liberal education (not a Progressive one, in today’s confusing terminology), and he defines the aim of education early on:

It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person – armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues – while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations. The utilitarian aspect of education – which enables the youth to get a job and make a living – must surely not be disregarded, for the children of man are not made for aristocratic leisure. But this practical aim is best provided by the general human capacities developed. And the ulterior specialized training which may be required must never imperial the essential aim of education.

In other words, education exists to hand down a culture, provide moral training, and essentially set him up to acquire wisdom. It is not primarily technical or vocational training, though it may aid in training for one’s eventual career and can, and probably should, provide some “practical” knowledge to that end. Unfortunately, by 1943 schools had begun losing sight of this goal, and the problem has only grown worse since then. There’s no underlying philosophy or ultimate, agreed-upon goal for what an educated college graduate should look like, so university curricula are an incoherent mess of “core classes” of history, mathematics, humanities, and other components of a Liberal education, but these have no connecting tissue between them and in effect are mostly just filler for the vocational training that most students attend university for. I noticed this problem during my own university education and wrote about it near the end of my junior year and again shortly after graduation, and Maritain drives right to the heart of this problem.

Maritain’s defense of Liberal education reminded me of  Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is what I’ve generally looked to in the past as the ideal of what a university education ought to look like. One difference, however, is that Maritain’s idea is much more democratic. Cardinal Newman takes for granted that many students aren’t suited for higher education, but Maritain writes in the third part, “In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all…” He also speaks elsewhere of the importance of Liberal education for all members of a democratic society. Now, it’s certainly best to offer university education to as many citizens as possible, but frankly many, if not most, people are not suited to higher education and to force them through it anyway is a waste of resources and cruel to the student. We’ve seen what happens when we try to get as many people into university as possible, and the result is a lowering of standards and the fragmentation of the curriculum just criticised above. Now, clearly, the modern university is not at all what Maritain argues for, but it’s the predictable, near-certain outcome of pursuing universal education.

That faulty assumption aside, though, Education at the Crossroads is still worth the relatively short reading time (it’s 118 pages in my edition), though I’d recommend supplementing it with Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is a more focused and thorough treatment of university education.…

Read More Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)