Friday, January 27, 2012

Corrupting Your Neighbors

I mentioned that I found Socrates rebuttal of corruption charges to be unconvincing. I'd like to flesh that out a bit.
And now, Meletus, I will ask you another question--by Zeus I will: Which is better, to live among bad citizens, or among good ones? Answer, friend, I say; the question is one which may be easily answered. Do not the good do their neighbours good, and the bad do them evil?


And is there anyone who would rather be injured than benefited by those who live with him? Answer, my good friend, the law requires you to answer--does any one like to be injured?

Certainly not.

And when you accuse me of corrupting and deteriorating the youth, do you allege that I corrupt them intentionally or unintentionally? Intentionally, I say. But you have just admitted that the good do their neighbours good, and the evil do them evil. Now, is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him; and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too--so you say, although neither I nor any other human being is ever likely to be convinced by you. But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally; and on either view of the case you lie. If my offence is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offences: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally--no doubt I should; but you would have nothing to say to me and refused to teach me. And now you bring me up in this court, which is a place not of instruction, but of punishment.
(Bolding added by me.) Imagine if you will a mob boss who is on trial for organized crime. While on the stand he says that he would never lead young men into a life of crime because he knows that criminals hurt people near to them and he would never want that injury to come to him. Would anyone believe that? If you were on that jury, wouldn't you immediately discount such an argument? So why would someone risk corrupting those around him?
  • He might think that their personal loyalty would keep harm from coming back to him. I think this is how mob bosses usually operate.
  • He might think that such corruption wouldn't be deep enough to cause a big enough risk. In other words, if I steal a bike from down the block, it is unlikely that the same neighbor would steal something from me.
  • He might operate on the spur of the moment without any real long term thought.
  • He could very easily think that his ability to defend against harm would be proof of any rebound consequences.

But of course none of these alternatives are really entertained by Socrates or his accusers. Or to be more fair, Socrates doesn't bring them up and no one else does either. And to be even fairer than that, I should recognize that these are actually Plato's words so he is in fact the one who avoids this argument.

I've started reading 'The Republic' for next month and unfortunately this type of reasoning continues. It personally makes reading Plato more difficult because I have this constant feeling that he is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Syntopical Discussion

I haven't been all that good about hitting the dates that I'd suggested for the monthly plan. Hopefully no one is too bothered by that. I'm still finding my footing here. The plan calls for some syntopical discussion so we can talk about how the pieces we've read relate to each other. It's pretty early in the project for this to be useful but we may as well put down some early bricks. I've got a few preliminary thoughts but feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  • Three of the pieces (Apology, Crito, Clouds) have dealt with the place of the philosopher in society. Plato gives the position lots of credit while Aristophanes treats it with disdain.

  • Two of the pieces (Crito and especially Lysistrata) deal directly with how to correct a society. Again Plato and Aristophanes come at this from different sides with Socrates not wanting to damage the state and Lysistrata taking drastic measures to bring about change.

  • All four give a picture of ancient Greece, which is important since it really is the headwaters of Western philosophy.

Anyone else?

Monday, January 23, 2012

More Thoughts on Lysistrata

One thing I should have mentioned about 'Lysistrata' is its incredible treatment of women. Virtually the only positive members of the entire piece are the women, especially Lysistrata herself. I don't know a lot about the treatment of women in ancient Greece but they were obviously second class citizens. Aristophanes has them display a power over their men that gives them the upper hand. (Granted, the situation is hardly,well, dignified . . .)
Wikipedia tells me that I'm reading too much into this:
As indicated below (Influence and legacy) modern adaptations of Lysistrata are often feminist and/or pacifist in their aim. The original play was neither feminist nor unreservedly pacifist. Even when they seemed to demonstrate empathy with the female condition, dramatic poets in classical Athens still reinforced sexual stereotyping of women as irrational creatures in need of protection from themselves and from others.[43] Thus Lysistrata accepted the men's conduct of the war out of female respect for male authority[44] until it became obvious that there were no real men in Athens who could bring an end to the destruction and waste of young lives.[45] She must protect women from their own worst instincts before she can accomplish her primary mission to end the war – she has to persuade them to forgo sexual activity, even binding them with an oath, and later she must rally them with an oracle when they show signs of wavering.
Well. This seems to fall into the modern feminist idea that only modern feminism is feminism. When looked at as a range I'd say that 'Lysistrata' easily falls into the category of 'moving the ball forward'. It's not hard to see why modern adaptations think this way too.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Further Thoughts on Socrates

Stan has been good enough to put up a couple of posts on Socrates. He has read and understands the big picture of Socrates and Plato much more than I do so this is very helpful. The first post is about what Socrates means about knowing things. Excerpt:
I'd like to make a case for Socrates's sincerity. In other Platonic dialogues, Socrates makes paradoxical claims about ignorance. In Ion, Socrates claims that a poet is ignorant of the meaning of his own poems. In Cratylus, Socrates claims that a man is ignorant of his own name. In Theatetus, Socrates ironically asks a man how he can know that he knows nothing. These claims are more bewildering than Socrates's claim in the Apology, and they show that Socrates usually remains consistent about what he doesn't know.

To understand these examples, it's important to understand what Socrates means by the word "know." In Plato's dialogues (don't ask me to remember where), Socrates distinguishes between knowledge and opinion. To know something, one must be certain of it. If one can doubt a thing, then he can't really know it. He may believe it, opine it, or consider it more or less probable, but he doesn't know it. One of the major tasks of philosophy--perhaps the only task--is to determine the boundaries of doubt and certainty.
So when Socrates talks about speaking to other men who were known as wise:
When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and still wiser by himself; and thereupon I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,--for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.
He is really speaking about their misplaced certainty. The other men had (among other faults) a too vain certainty in their own knowledge. It seems that Socrates wanted to puncture that vanity.
However, Stan relates that as he was talking this through with his wife he had some second thoughts.
Lindsay said, "So, while it may be true that anything can be doubted, it seems like many doubts are not worth worrying about."

"Yeah," I agreed, "and it seems silly for Socrates to get himself killed over a quibble about absolute proofs." I felt less excited about my post. "Oh well," I continued, "it was fun to try to defend Socrates."
I can get pieces of what Socrates was talking about; certainly he makes lots of sense as he defends himself. I would have voted to acquit. But it seems he was playing a different game and that's what I can't crack. After being offered several different roads away from death, Socrates decided to dare his jury to execute him. They took him up on it.
But I don't understand what he wanted to accomplish! I don't know what grand point he was trying to prove. I can't get myself into his head and figure out what he thought he was doing.

History remembers the trial of Socrates as perhaps the first free speech trial. Athens condemned a man for saying the wrong things. I don't know what the immediate impact was but later cultures looked back and said 'this is an injustice' and decided not to follow in those footsteps. I don't get any sense whatsoever of whether or not Socrates intended this to happen but it certainly did.

February Reading


Plato: 'Republic' books 1 and 2 Kindle/Nook/Google
Aristotle: 'Ethics' book 1 Kindle/Nook/Google
Aristotle: 'Politics' Book 1 Kindle/Nook/Google

Monday, January 16, 2012

Western Thought

Outside of the project I'm reading an interesting book called 'Blue Latitudes' by Tony Horowitz. The author decided to travel to the various places where the explorer Captain Cook had gone. The entire thing is worth reading but this section on Tonga caught my eye.
Tonga is somewhat unique in Polynesia in that it was never colonized. Instead the Tongans consciously imitated British culture and reinforced their existing setup. The result was a continued monarchy and set of feudal lords. Tonga is fairly wealthy but has quite a bit of squalor at the low ends. With this in mind, Horowitz visited a maverick school there called 'Atenesi' which is Tongan for 'Athens'. He intereviewed the headmaster, an amazing man named Futa Helu. This paragraph stuck out at me:

"Western Europe had the seed of the greeks," he said, "while in Polynesia
criticism has never been encouraged. We are trying to change
that. There are enough automatons already in Tonga." Futa clearly wasn't
one of them. "We are what anthropologists call a shame culture. People spend
their time polishing their personal and family image, they don't want to lose
face or security. The church and nobility exploit this."

Is that the great gift of the Greeks? Social permission to criticize?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lysistrata - Aristophanes

This is one of the few selections in the whole run that I'd actually read before I started on this. Way back in '97 when I was living without a TV for a year I pulled this up in one of my books and read it through. I remember enjoying it and I enjoyed it again this time.
Even before then I'd heard of the idea of this play. The main theme is fairly memorable: women cutting their men off from sex until they stop going to war. It's surprising that this didn't have some kind of comeback during the hot phase of the Iraq war protests.
Again, the version that you read matters quite a bit. Mine was produced by Ingram, Berger and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team and purports to be a literal and complete translation from Greek to English. It is much, much more bawdy than the translation that was used for the Great Books. After a bit I started reading them side by side to see how they tackled certain situations. Here is a hint: if it seemed a bit dry to you, that's because the translator didn't trust you with adult material.
More serious notes? I'm a little bothered by the idea that war is simply caused by too much testosterone from men. And that if they wanted to put down their toys then we could simply have peace. This idea bugged me when we were fighting in Iraq and it still bothers me somewhat. On the other hand, the Pelopennsian War was a certainly bad for Athens. It's hard to look at it as 'essential' from the vantage point of 2000 years. My crystal ball doesn't work well enough to see how things will look from the year 2100.

Clouds - Aristophanes

I don't have much to say about 'Clouds' other than that I enjoyed it. Instead of taking notes I just read through. Well, I have a few notes I guess:

  • I guess mistrust of philosophers is pretty darn old. The treatment here reminded me of Mel Brooks in 'History of the World Part 1' where he told Bea Arthur that he was a stand up philosopher and she corrected him to 'bull-shitter'.

  • I'm guessing that you get very different experiences with Aristophanes depending on the translation. For instance when old and new school philosophies are debating, it's helpful to know what the punishment for adultry was in Greece. This post was helpful to me. Ouch!

  • I'll admit to some surprise at just how relateable 'Clouds' is to a modern audience. If you picked the right version and substitued a few modern names you could put this on at a college theater tomorrow.

  • I really enjoyed the idea of simple clouds being goddesses. Might have to pass that on to my kids sometime.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Crito - Plato

I talked about Plato's 'Apology' here and these two pieces really do belong together. In the 'Apology' we got the trial of Socrates and 'Crito' follows that up. On one of the last days before Socrates' execution he is visited by one of his followers named Crito who urges him to escape. In fact Crito has set up a path by which to do so and has paid the money that would allow it to happen. Socrates resists and refuses.
There are two main focuses here, or at least two main questions. The first has to do with whether or not it is ok to sometimes do an injustice. Socrates believes that no, it is not ever ok. We should always strive to do the just thing.
The second question is the more interesting one to me: are you committing an injustice in trying to avoid an unjust sentence? We get this:
Soc. Then consider the matter in this way: Imagine that I am about to play truant (you may call the proceeding by any name which you like), and the laws and the government come and interrogate me: "Tell us, Socrates," they say; "what are you about? are you going by an act of yours to overturn us- the laws and the whole State, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a State can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and overthrown by individuals?" What will be our answer, Crito, to these and the like words? Anyone, and especially a clever rhetorician, will have a good deal to urge about the evil of setting aside the law which requires a sentence to be carried out; and we might reply, "Yes; but the State has injured us and given an unjust sentence." Suppose I say that?

Cr. Very good, Socrates.
Soc. "And was that our agreement with you?" the law would say, "or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?" And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: "Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?" None, I should reply. "Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?" Right, I should reply. "Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country."
I'm fairly libertarian and this passage shocked me a bit. If you are a citizen of a country, enjoying all the privileges and rights of said country, must you really suffer in silence any punishment that your country gives you? Or may you speak out but if you can't convince your countrymen then you should simply drop the matter? That doesn't seem right to me.
I didn't mention this in the earlier piece but Socrates is certainly getting a raw deal here. He shouldn't be put to death for speaking his mind, even to young and impressionable youth. This is so far outside of our modern mindset as to be incomprehensible today. The sentence handed to Socrates is obviously unjust.
This was double striking to me because I've been reading a bit of Hugo's 'Les Miserables' lately. As we meet Jean Valjean we learn about his time in prison, specifically why he served as long as he did:
Towards the end of this fourth year Jean Valjean's turn to escape arrived. His comrades assisted him, as is the custom in that sad place. He escaped. He wandered for two days in the fields at liberty, if being at liberty is to be hunted, to turn the head every instant, to quake at the slightest noise, to be afraid of everything,--of a smoking roof, of a passing man, of a barking dog, of a galloping horse, of a striking clock, of the day because one can see, of the night because one cannot see, of the highway, of the path, of a bush, of sleep. On the evening of the second day he was captured. He had neither eaten nor slept for thirty-six hours. The maritime tribunal condemned him, for this crime, to a prolongation of his term for three years, which made eight years. In the sixth year his turn to escape occurred again; he availed himself of it, but could not accomplish his flight fully. He was missing at roll-call. The cannon were fired, and at night the patrol found him hidden under the keel of a vessel in process of construction; he resisted the galley guards who seized him. Escape and rebellion. This case, provided for by a special code, was punished by an addition of five years, two of them in the double chain. Thirteen years. In the tenth year his turn came round again; he again profited by it; he succeeded no better. Three years for this fresh attempt. Sixteen years. Finally, I think it was during his thirteenth year, he made a last attempt, and only succeeded in getting retaken at the end of four hours of absence. Three years for those four hours. Nineteen years. In October, 1815, he was released; he had entered there in 1796, for having broken a pane of glass and taken a loaf of bread.

This was a man who committed the true crime of theft. Was he committing an injustice to the state when he tried to escape time and again? Or was the sentence so out of step with the actual crime that escape was justified? This is an easy call for me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Apology - Plato

I teased last week that I'm having trouble understanding Socrates motivations. Let me lay this out now. (And remember, I'm taking Plato's word here which may or may not be the smart thing to do.) Let me construct the timeline.
A. Our story starts with a question to the Oracle at Delphi. Socrates had a friend that asked the Oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The Oracle answered that no one was wiser.
B. Socrates takes this answer and decides to talk to various wise and accomplished people of Athens and see if they are indeed wiser than he. He discovered that no, they really weren't wise so he became 'odious' to him and all others present. My reading of this is that he systematically started angering the powerful men of Athens.
C. While he was doing this, some of his students tagged along and watched. Then they started copying him and delighted in making fools of even more people.
D. Socrates is then charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. He's also charged with not believing in the city gods but that seems like more of a general charge. It is an especially easy thing to say of philosophers because of the prevalent belief that they looked into the nature of things only so they could confound others.
E. Socrates goes to court and defends himself from the charges. He apparently had some choice in this. I'm guessing that the other choice would have been to flee Athens and live in exile. He went, believing he would be condemned to death saying during the trial that "to fear death is nothing else than to appear to be wise, without being so; for it is to appear to know what one does not know." Are these simply brave words or does Socrates (through Plato) really not fear death?
F. As part of Socrates defense he says, "I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know." Got that? Socrates is the wisest because he simply declares that he doesn't really know anything. All of the other guys who think they do know things are ignorant for doing so. Can he really believe this? If so he is simply different than any other smart man that I have ever known, read or even heard of. I can't help but tag this as dubious.
G. Socrates defends himself from the charge of corrupting youth with a hard to believe defense that good people wouldn't want to harm others for fear that they would return that harm. (This part deserves it's own post and will get one.)
H. Socrates catches his accuser in a contradiction regarding his atheism. The charge of not believing in the city gods is pretty easily parried.
I. He declares that he does not fear death nor will he stop teaching. So don't even think about leveling that as a penalty, jury! He states that he can't be injured because he does 'not think it is possible for a better man to be injured by a worse [man]'. Which I don't understand. And also that he does not fear for himself but for the rest of Athens for they would not find his like again. He is speaking of his use as a 'gadfly' but is the pride in his position or in himself? It's hard for me not to believe that is pride in self.
J. After he concludes his defense he is found guilty. He is threatened with death but Athenian law allows the accused to suggest an alternative. Socrates suggests that he be given a spot in the Prytaneum, a special building of the Greeks in which prominent citizens and athletes were honored and fed. Instead of being punished he should be rewarded! Why a reward? Because he never injured anyone so he won't accept an injury as a punishment. And he reminds them that he doesn't fear death. So that wouldn't be a punishment. In this he seemly goads the assembly to condemn him to die.
K. After they uphold the death penalty he speaks again. One of the things he says is "neither in a trial nor in battle is it right that or anyone else should employ every possible means whereby he may avoid death". But surely some means are acceptable, aren't they? Socrates could very well have taken a different penalty without sullying himself.
L. He goes on to tell his accusers that they will suffer a more severe fate. They will be judged and accused by others. And boy howdy, I'm sure that has proved true. It would be very sobering to be on a jury that would be second guessed for more than two thousand years. On this point, I don't have any questions whatsoever about motivation . . .
M. And then Socrates tells his supporters not to worry because the gods never warned him away from what he was doing or saying. Therefore "there is a great hope that death is a blessing". This seems to be almost literally whistling past the graveyard.He also says that this will give him a chance to talk with great people who have died in the past. Doubtlessly he'll also expose them as fools.

To sum up, I don't understand why Socrates talked himself into dying. It seems to me that he got into this mess in the first place because he was going out of his way to be a jerk. Not only that but showing his students how they too could be jerks. His reasons for gauging the wisdom of others don't add up and I can't credit his position that he is only wiser because he knows that he doesn't know things. (And frankly, if he really did believe that, then I'm even more confused.)
Once he was in the mess he could have gotten out of it by swallowing a bit of pride and simply said that perhaps he should have talked with the other men privately. Or come to the conclusion that it may not be all that important to have loud contests of wisdom. And if his pride was too much for that he could have simply allowed for some smaller penalty. Socrates mentions that he has no money to pay a fine but he had to have known that he would have help from various supporters.
Instead he chose to die. For the life of me I can't understand what lessons he was trying to pass on. Even worse, I can't understand what lessons Plato is passing on. Is he saying that truth is so important to a philosopher that they would risk, nay welcome, death if that is the price for telling it? But what truth was told here? That some important people are blowhards? What a cheap truth! And it seems there must have been an easier way to convey that than to goad those same blowhards into killing you.
But maybe I've missed the point somewhere. If so, fellow readers, please help me find it!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Biography of Aristophanes

We don't know much about the life of Aristophanes other than what we can learn through his plays. He wrote 40 plays but only 11 of them still survive. He was a great comic playwright, and through him we get a more complete picture of daily life in Ancient Athens.
One notable thing about Aristophanes is that he wasn't afraid to get in a fight with some of the heavies of the day. In 'Clouds' he mercilessly lampoons Socrates and had previously mixed it up with other powerful members of Athenian society. I don't know how much this effect this has on his repeatability score. No one else really does either. One of the challenges of piecing together Ancient history is that there are few accounts and it isn't always easy to tell which one is definitive.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Biography of Socrates

(Since the first piece is really Socrates, I think it makes sense to look at him rather than the actual author, Plato.)

We don't really know much about Socrates. Or at least most of what we know is from the writings of his students.

Plato is frequently viewed as the most informative source about Socrates'
life and philosophy.
[5] At the same
time, however, many scholars believe that in some works Plato, being a literary
artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of "Socrates" far beyond
anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said; and that
Xenophon, being an historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical
Socrates. It is a matter of much debate which Socrates Plato is describing at
any given point—the historical figure, or Plato's fictionalization

He was a teacher, that we know. And from him we get the teaching method of asking questions so as to engage the subject more fully. He is widely viewed as a critic of the leaders of Athens and from him we get the concept of the 'gadfly'.
Socrates, through his students, laid the groundwork for much of Western Philosophy and in that sense is an excellent place to start.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Note on Socrates

The first piece is a pair of writings have to do with the trial of Socrates. 'The Apology' is the defense that Socrates puts forth at court and 'Crito' is a dialouge that takes place as he is waiting for sentence to be carried out. There is a third piece, 'Phaedo', which concerns Socrates last day. It doesn't pop up in this list until January of year five. If you want to read it now for a more full understanding and keep some notes for future use, be my guest.

Meanwhile, I'm having a devil of a time understanding Socrates motivations. Not that he doesn't put them out there in plain text, it's just that . . . well, they're hard to believe. Maybe I'm just having trouble getting my modern brain around his ethical judgments.
All of which means that I'm really looking forward to the discussion time!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Author Timeline

Aristophanes 446 - 386
Plato 424? - 348?
Aristotle 384 - 322

Plutarch 46 - 120
Gospel of Matthew, Acts of the Apostles (around the end of the first century)
St. Augistine 354 - 430
Machiavelli 1469 - 1527
Rabelais 1494 - 1553
Montaigne 1533 - 1592
Shakespeare 1564 - 1616
Locke 1632 - 1704
Rousseau 1712 - 1778
Gibbon 1737 - 1794
Declaration of Independence - 1776
The Constitution of the US - 1787
Federalist Papers 1787 -1788
Smith 1723 - 1790
Marx/Engles 1818 - 1883/1820 - 1895

Sunday, January 1, 2012