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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Tales of Mystery and Imagination

It’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, so now’s a perfect time to bring out Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Not the Alan Parsons Project album, though that’s good, too, but Calla Editions’ reprint of the classic collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Now, among the authors typically assigned for high school English, Poe stands out a bit from other members of the literary canon because, though many other canonical authors wrote for popular audiences, Poe’s stories come across as essentially pulp. It revels in the macabre, often hinges on suspense, and he’s primarily known for horror, and that genre is known for getting snubbed by critics. Most of his stories, because they sometimes do rely on the unknown, don’t benefit from re-reading like most great works, and Poe himself was strongly opposed to didactic fiction, so there aren’t many lessons to take from him, besides things like “Don’t bury your sister unless you’re absolutely certain that she’s dead,” or “Never bet the devil your head.” So what’s he doing on lists of canonical authors?

Simply, because he’s the master of this type of fiction.

"For the love of God, Montresor!" "Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"
“For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
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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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Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Recommended Reading Page

Those of you who follow me on twitter have likely already seen me talk about it, but I’ve added a page for books that I particularly recommend.

In short, I thought the Post Highlights and Review Index page had a shortcoming in that it doesn’t indicate which books I’ve reviewed are ones that I’d actually recommend. For the recommended reading list I broadened the scope a bit, so it covers the books that I’d recommend more-or-less universally to any educated person who asks.

So next time you’re looking for something to read and would like some suggestions, check it out.…

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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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Why Do You Not Study the Odes?

Compared to 2015, I’ve spent much of 2016 so far writing more about literature. Those who started following this blog last year, when non-fiction covered the bulk of my material, at least aside from comics I used largely to pad out the 75 Book Challenge, may see this as a slight change of course. However, it’s a return to what I’ve always considered my primary academic focus, and honestly I think that my discussions of literature are more important than those on history or political science.

Now, I think that much of my audience is already sold on the value of good art, and has some appreciation of beauty. I know a lot of people in my online social circles who’ve given up on television, and in a few cases even on popular music. This is very good; I and most of my readership are on the Right, and the Right stands for order, and good art is conducive to that while bad art is corrosive of it. It’s worth noting that Reactionary blogs have, to a small extent, begun to write more about the arts. Nick B. Steves noticed this trend in a recent edition of This Week in Reaction, in which he was generous enough to include a link to my post on the Cavalier poets, and he attributed it partly to Chris Gale. E. Anthony Gray’s very worthwhile series on various poets like Goethe and Coleridge published on Social Matter is worth pointing out, as well, and of course Wrath of Gnon has been encouraging an appreciation for the beautiful for a long time on both tumblr and Twitter.

Nonetheless, the lesson still hasn’t quite sunk in in many quarters. The overwhelming focus among Reactionaries is politics, some political theory, and occasional forays into history. Though understandable, since these seem to allow for more direct understanding of what’s wrong with the world and what to do about it, it creates a man with a rather inhuman, incomplete, and unpleasant outlook. The worst offenders, and I won’t specify them, are those who revel in outrage porn and finding the most degenerate news stories and social trends they can find, then blogging or podcasting about them, as though it’s something hidden that needs to be exposed. They’re like connoisseurs of crap; when most men would just step around whatever cultural dog turd they come across, these bloggers put it in a jar, label it, and insist on showing the rest of us their collection. Thank you, professor, that is indeed interesting and quite informative. Now, you are going to wash your hands before you eat anything, correct?

This obsession with finding the most dysfunctional people in the Western world and stewing in pots of outrage porn, besides being unpleasant, demoralises those who spend too much time on it, and likely contributes to the fairly high rate of burnout among online Reactionaries. A man of the Right should, of course, be aware of what’s going on in the broader culture he lives in, but he should spend more time on the beautiful than the ugly. Spend more time, much more time, on the beautiful, if only for your own sake. As I’ve discussed twice before, in “The Moral Dimension of Judging Art” and “An Experiment in Fandom Criticism,” too much bad art is unhealthy both spiritually and mentally; good art is healthy in both senses.

As for the practical aspect, the arts may have less immediate application than history or politics, but a well-rounded man will have some familiarity with both realms. No lesser thinker than Aristotle, besides writing foundational work on ethics, politics, and metaphysics, devoted an entire book to poetry, with the straightforward title The Poetics, which is still essential reading for anyone interested in literature.

Rembrandt_-_Aristotle_with_a_Bust_of_Homer_-_WGA19232

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The Homeric Hymns

The Homeric Hymns, traditionally attributed to Homer but with much controversy over that attribution, is another one of those works that shouldn’t really need much of an introduction. Since I know I’m not the only one whose formal education has failed me, though, there’s probably no harm in offering a brief overview of this, as well.

As one may guess from the title, this is a collection of poems praising several of the Greeks’ various gods. They vary greatly in length, the first few going on for over a dozen pages in my edition, but most of them fit easily onto one or two pages. The longer ones tend to be narratives, like Hymn II (to Demeter), and Hymn III (to Apollo), usually covering the god’s birth and one or two other tales. The rest are short hymns of praise, recalling to the audience the god’s accomplishments, things sacred to him, and so on. For example, here’s Hymn XXIV, to Hestia:

Hestia,
you are the one
who takes care of the holy house
in sacred Pytho, the house
of the archer Lord Apollo,

soft oil
flowing forever from your hair.

Come into this house,
come, having one heart
with wise Zeus,

and be gracious to my song, too.…

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The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars.…

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