Saturday, May 31, 2014

Alcibiades Major

Plato scholars are split on whether Alcibiades, also called First Alcibiades, Greater Alcibiades, or Alcibiades Major, is actually Plato's. Until the nineteenth century, everyone accepted it as genuine, but at the turn of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schleiermacher and a young Friedrich von Schlegel got together and decided to translate Plato's dialogues into German. Schleiermacher largely had to do the project by himself as Schlegel became interested in other things and the two started not getting along very well. Schleiermacher looked critically at the question of whether all the works in the Platonic canon were genuine, and concluded that Alcibiades was not, on stylistic grounds. This has not had universal acceptance, and has in the past thirty years been vigorously challenged. Part of the problem is that general stylistic considerations -- which can involve judgment calls about what Plato would write -- are the primary reason to doubt it; the dialogue itself has no definite anachronisms, its vocabulary is not particularly strange (although there are a few terms unique to the dialogue, there aren't actually very many, and stylometric tests have gone both ways), and it contains nothing that is difficult to square with other things in the authentic corpus. Much of Schleiermacher's argument rests on his assessment that it is clumsy in comparison with the authentic dialogues; but even in the nineteenth century the details of his argument were often regarded as somewhat exaggerated. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we know from undeniably authentic dialogues that Plato is stylistically versatile -- almost all the dialogues show Plato doing something you wouldn't expect simply on the basis of other dialogues. One reason for regarding it as inauthentic that seems to have played a role is that it often did not fit into any early-middle-late scheme of the order in which Plato wrote the dialogues, having similarities with dialogues throughout the corpus. But one could just as easily regard this as merely evidence that the Platonic corpus is more unified than scholars have thought -- reading it as a sign of inauthenticity requires having other reasons to regard it as inauthentic.

In any case, through most of its history Alcibiades has been regarded as the gateway to the Platonic dialogues, the one to start off with, so there are any number of reasons to read it even if it is not actually Plato's. It is also relatively funny.

You can read Alcibiades online in Lamb's translation at the Perseus Project.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)



The Plot

Socrates opens the dialogue addressing Alcibiades and explaining why, after having avoided Alcibiades for so long, he is now approaching him. Alcibiades has for some time been pestered by men wanting to be his erastes, but Socrates was prevented from doing so by his daemon, the divine voice that prevents him from doing things that are wrong. However, Alcibiades has repudiated most of the attempts of other men, and the divine sign now no longer prevents Socrates from approaching Alcibiades now that the latter is preparing to enter public life. Socrates offers to explain to him the real reason why he rejected the others, and why he, Socrates, can offer what they did not. Alcibiades is quite clearly not thrilled, but lets Socrates tell him, and Socrates replies that Alcibiades wants his reputation and influence "to saturate all mankind, so to speak" (105c).

Alcibiades refuses to commit on that point, but asks what makes Socrates so indispensable to that project, even if so. Socrates then begins to question him as to what he is capable of offering to the Athenian assembly. Socrates establishes that he does not know, and, as he often does, brings it around to the question of justice, which is important to public life, asking when Alcibiades learned what justice and injustice were, and how he learned it. The boy is unable to answer the question, of course, and so shows himself ignorant of the most important things:

SOCRATES: Good God, Alcibiades, what a sorry state you're in! I hesitate to call it by name, but still, since we're alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, my good fellow, stupidity in the highest degree--our discussion and your own words convict you of it. this is why you're rushing into politics before you've got an education. You're not alone in this sad state--you've got most of our city's politicians for company. There are only a few exceptions, among them, perhaps, your guardian, Pericles. (118b-c)

But Socrates in fact goes on to argue that Pericles is not an exception. Alcibiades attempts to use the fact that politicians generally go into politics without a real understanding of justice and injustice as an excuse for doing it himself, but Socrates vehemently rejects the idea, arguing that this is unworthy of Alcibiades' ambition: he is settling for competing against "Midias the cockfighter" rather than the real players on the world stage, like the king of Sparta or the king of Persia. There is then some extensive discussion of the educations of Sparta and Persia, to show that each has significant advantages over Alcibiades on important points. In order to compete with them, Alcibiades must follow the inscription at the oracle of Delphi, Know Thyself, and cultivate himself.

Alcibiades is interested by now, so the discussion turns to self-cultivation. They conclude that this is cultivation of one's soul, and in particular one must have the self-control that comes from knowing the most divine part of oneself, the part where knowing and understanding take place. This is essential to Alcibiades' political ambitions, because the real prosperity of the city lies in justice and self-control, which Alcibiades can only give to Athens if he also has justice and self-control.

The boy by this point is impressed, and insists that from now on he will approach Socrates, and be his constant attendant. He will start cultivating justice in himself right now.

And Socrates replies that he hopes that Alcibiades will persevere, but he fears that the city, because it is so powerful, might get the best of both of them.


* The complexity of the erastes-eromenos relationship is too great to get into in any detail here. It is not found in the earliest strata of Greek culture, and seems to have arisen out of the confluence of a number of factors, including a strong emphasis on athletics and a highly misogynistic culture; Aristotle famously suggested that it might have been encouraged as a means of population control. For the Greeks, however, it was a mentorship relationship, allowing for sex, apparently always intercrural, that had very strict and complicated rules attached -- even the slightest violation of the rules or customs could result in the relationship being regarded as highly vulgar or degenerate. The relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades was famously nonsexual and purely educational; this is, in fact, the root of our phrase, "Platonic love".

* The four cardinal virtues make a brief showing in the description of the education of Persian princes (121e-122a).

The Thought

Although the argument is fairly straightforward, this dialogue covers quite a few issues. There is an especially interesting discussion of what the Delphic inscription really means. This includes a fascinating argument that part of knowing oneself is dialogue with another:

SOCRATES: You think about it, too. If the inscription took our eyes to be men and advised them, "See thyself,' how would we understand such advice?Shouldn't the eye be looking at something in which it could see itself?

ALCIBIADES: Obviously.

SOCRATES: Then let's think of something that allows us to see both it and ourselves when we look at it.

ALCIBIADES: Obviously, Socrates, you mean mirrors and that sort of thing.


SOCRATES: I'm sure you've noticed that when a man looks into an eye his face appears in it, like in a mirror. We call this the 'pupil', for it's a sort of miniature of the man who's looking.


SOCRATES: Then if the soul, Alcibiades, is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially at that region in which what makes a soul good, wisdom, occurs, and at anything else which is similar to it.

ALCIBIADES: I agree with you, Socrates.

SOCRATES: Can we say that there is anything about the soul which is more divine than that where knowing and understanding take place?

ALCIBIADES: No, we can't.

SOCRATES: Then that region in it resembles the divine, and someone who looked at that and grasped everything divine--vision and understanding--would have the best grasp of himself as well. (132d-133c)

If I had to pick one thing that sums up the dialogue, I think it would be this argument that knowing oneself requires interacting with someone else so as to recognize what is divine in them. Not only is it argued for, it is, in a sense, what Socrates has promised from the beginning, and what he is beginning to model throughout the dialogue. It also explains, I think, why Alcibiades is so genuinely intrigued by Socrates' offer.


Quotations are from D. S. Hutchinson's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 557-595.

Visitation of Mary

The Visitation. Mary and Elizabeth in the garden of a country house - Huth Hours (1485-1490), f.66v - BL Add MS 38126

Friday, May 30, 2014

Radio Greats: The Eternal Joan (CBS Radio Workshop)

Today is the feast of St. Joan of Arc, one of my favorite saints, so it seems appropriate to put something up for it.

CBS Radio Workshop came at the very end of the Golden Age of Radio. Radio drama was dying, its demographic taken by television, and so radio networks were trying bolder, more experimental things. CBS had had some reasonably good success with earlier series focusing on experimental theater, so it put a considerable amount of effort into this one. Probably what it really needed was a longrunning experimental series, to build up a significant audience loyalty; trying to jumpstart a new one in the late 1950s was a little too late to be trying to capture people's attentions, a way of locking the barn door after the cows are gone. But CBS did put a considerable amount of effort into it, and the overall result was not bad, and people did like it; it just wasn't enough to have much of a long-term effect.

Because CBS Radio Workshop did experimental theater, it has no typical episode. It opened with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, narrated by Huxley himself; another episode was an interview with William Shakespeare; another a modernized Cinderella story; another a series of Japanese Noh plays; there were several biographies and quasi-documentaries. "Report on the WeUns" is a clever two-edged satire. One of the most popular episodes was "A Passion Play", an Easter episode, which consisted of several famous radio actors reading portions of the Gospels (Vincent Price was the Gospel of John). Their version of The Little Prince is nicely done, and quite charming. There's a very, very good episode, perhaps the best episode, on Hamlet, "Another Point of View, or Hamlet Revisited", which, tongue-in-cheek, argues that Claudius is the hero of the play and that Hamlet is the villain.

"The Eternal Joan" is another good episode. It pulls together a large number of different historical and literary sources in order to build a composite picture of Joan. Louis Kronenberger's narration takes a little getting used to. At least, the way he pronounces French names cracks me up; 'Rouen' sounds like a donkey bray. But the Jimmy-Stewart-like earnest plainness of his voice nonetheless does a good job of binding together the different episodes of the story, which are often intensely acted. Allowing for occasional dramatic license, it's quite accurate, and a lot of St. Joan really does come through.

You can listen to "The Eternal Joan" online at My Old Radio.


That Axiochus was not strictly Platonic was recognized in antiquity, but it seems to have held up very well; it has had a fair number of translations, including one by Edmund Spenser, and occasional scholarly discussion. Nothing is known about its authorship, although it is generally thought to be quite late, coming from the end of the Hellenistic period. It is often compared to the rather extensive consolation literature found in antiquity -- letters, speeches, and the like addressed to people who have been bereaved, giving a large variety of arguments (not always consistent) for comfort. Axiochus is somewhat different in that it is not itself a piece of consolation literature but in a sense is about that philosophical genre, and the consolations are addressed not to the bereaved but to someone actually preparing to die.

You can read Axiochus online in George Burges's translation.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


The son of Axiochus. He is also a character in Plato's Euthydemus.

Axiochus was the uncle of Alcibiades; he was also a relative of Aspasia, the companion of Pericles. He was closely associated with his nephew, and had to flee Athens when, like Alcibiades, he was indicted for defamation of the statues of Hermes. He returned to Athens late in the War. His last known act was defending the generals who were at the battle of Arginusae, which is mentioned in the dialogue.

In addition there are two characters who are explicitly present, at least at the beginning of the dialogue, but who do not speak at all:
  Damon the musician, Clinias's music teacher; he was a student of Prodicus, and advisor of Pericles, and is mentioned occasionally in the Republic and Laches.
  Charmides, who is Plato's uncle and eventually became one of the Thirty Tyrants; he is, of course, a character in Charmides.

The Plot

Socrates, who narrates, is walking to the Cynosarges when he hears someone shouting his name. It turns out to be Clinias, who is walking with Damon and Charmides. Clinias has tears in his eyes, and asks Socrates to come visit his father, who has been unwell and is miserable because of his impending death. He asks Socrates to comfort him. They hurry to Axiochus's house. There they find Axiochus weeping and groaning. Socrates starts the discussion:

"Axiochus, what's all this? Where's your former self-confidence, and your constant praise of manly virtues, and that unshakable courage of yours? You're like a feeble athlete who put on a brave show in training exercises and lost the actual contest! Consider who you are--a man of such an advanced age, who listens to reason, and, if nothing else, an Athenian!--don't you realize that life is a kind of sojourn in a foreign land (indeed, that's a commonplace, on everybody's lips), and that those who have led a decent life should go to meet their fate cheerfully, almost singing a paean of praise? Being so faint-hearted and unwilling to be torn from life is childish and inappropriate for someone old enough to think for himself." (365a-b)

Axiochus agrees, but says that now that he's close to death, all the powerful arguments lose their strength and fear assaults his mind, because he will lose the good things of life and will become food for the maggots.

Socrates suggests that he is contradicting himself: he is upset both that he is losing sensations and that he will feel the loss. Just as nothing about what happened before he was born should upset him, so nothing about what happens after his death should harm him. He then suggests that the body is a prison and that being released from it is a good. Axiochus asks him, if he thinks living is bad, why he continues to live, but Socrates replies that he is not an expert on this subject, and so his remarks are taken from Prodicus, who recently gave a performance in which he denounced living. Socrates tells Axiochus what he remembers of the presentation. He ends by talking about the futility of trades and professions, including Axiochus's own, and gives as an example the Aginusae case.

Toward the end of the Peloponnesian War, an Athenian fleet under eight generals defeated a Spartan fleet near the islands of Aginusae; the Athenian fleet was not in great shape, so the victory was very unexpected, and nobody was prepared for it. In the course of the battle, however, twenty-five Athenian ships were sunk or sinking; rescue attempts were made, but a storm coming at the end of the battle made rescue very difficult. Further, the generals had what seemed like a chance to destroy the fleeing Spartan fleet, and the generals decided to devote of their resources to that (they failed, in fact, to destroy the Spartan fleet). When the Athenian assembly heard about the generals leaving so many Athenians to drown in the sea, they were furious. They deposed the generals and demanded that they return to Athens to stand trial. Two of the generals fled, but six returned.

When they did, some in the assembly suggested that the assembly should just vote on their innocence or guilt directly. Euryptolemus (a cousin of Alcibiades) and Axiochus opposed this as illegal, but they withdrew their opposition when people started proposing motions to apply the same treatment to them. As it happened, the presiding officer chosen by lot for that day was Socrates, and Socrates refused to put the proposal to a vote because it was illegal. Euryptolemus put forward a resolution to try each general separately in a proper trial, and it passed, but Theramenes and others managed to repeal the vote and the next day got the original proposal put forward by the new president of the assembly, which passed. All six generals were voted guilty and executed. So politics, Socrates notes, is not a very pleasant trade. Axiochus agrees and says that he essentially has given up politics ever since that incident, and Socrates continues with Prodicus's arguments. Axiochus replies, however, that they are all just words, and that an argument in order to be of any value would have to come down to his level.

Socrates goes on to present some arguments for the immortality of the soul, and gives an account of the afterlife, including the Elysian Fields and Tartarus, which he attributes to Gorbryas the Persian. These arguments do convince Axiochus, so that he almost longs for death. He says that he would like to be alone to think over what Socrates has said, but he asks that Socrates come back later in the day. Socrates promises and says that he is going to go back to his walk to the Cynosarges.


* The Cynosarges were a gymnasium near Athens where people went for all sorts of events. Quite a few philosophers and sophists seem to have taught in the area.

* Since Socrates sarcastically remarks that Prodicus teaches nobody for free, it seems clear enough that he should not be taken as endorsing anything he attributes to Prodicus.

* The Athenian assembly soon regretted its decision to put the generals from Arginusae to death, and decided to make it better by bringing charges against those who had advocated for the vote; those men fled Athens.

* Gaubaruva, or Gobryas, was a very common name among Persians, so I'm not sure which one is in view here.

The Thought

A dialogue of this sort is tricky to interpret, but I think a plausible way to read it is to take Socrates as initiating conversation with irony, in order to provoke Axiochus into thinking about the arguments rather than his own feelings. He doesn't seem to expect Axiochus to agree to the common views or the views of Prodicus, but only to respond to them. He then builds on Axiochus's response to argue for the immortality of the soul:

"As well as many other fine arguments for the immortality of the soul, a mortal nature would surely not have risen to such lofty accomplishments that it disdains the physical superiority of wild animals, traverses the seas, builds cities, establishes governments, and looks up at the heavens and sees the revolutions of the stars, the courses of sun and moon, their risings and settings, their eclipses and swift restorations, the twin equinoxes and solstices and Plaieds storms, summer winds, torrential downpours, and the violent course of tornadoes, and establishes for all eternity a calendar of the states of the universe, unless there really were some divine spirit in the soul which gives it comprehension and insight into such vast subjects...." (370b-c)

On the basis of this Socrates argues that Axiochus is passing away not into death but into immortality, in which he will be free from the entanglement of the body and be able to devote life to study of nature and practice of philosophy "in the bountiful midst of Truth" (370d). Giving an afterlife account is a fairly standard Socratic gambit after this kind of argument.

However, I suspect that there is something more here, although it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is. Axiochus's defense of the generals is made fairly prominent in the middle of the dialogue; civilized life is part of the brief argument for the immortality of the soul; and the afterlife myth, as afterlife myths in the genuine Platonic myths often are, seems devoted to emphasizing the importance of virtuous life, which the ancient world saw as closely connected to political life. And Socrates is quite clear about the overall moral of the story:

"...I am moved by argument, and I know only this for sure: every soul is immortal, and also, when removed from this place, free from pain. So whether above or below, Axiochus, you ought to be happy, if you have lived piously." (372a)

Moreover, Socrates seems to have aimed at exactly what he achieved; he now has Axiochus thinking not about pain and loss of pleasure, but about virtuous life.

Quotations from Jackson P. Hershbell's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1734-1741.

The Distant Echoes of a Buried Past

by Chambers Baird

As one who hears beside a quiet shore,
When seas are stilled and winds and waves are spent,
Faint murmurs of that vanished continent
Whose storied plains reach out on ocean's floor,
O'er which the dark, pulsating waters pour,
With sounds of bells by the swaying flood impent,
Tolling, now lone and low, now full and blent,
Then lost again amid the surfy roar,—

So through the silent spaces of the dark,
When lulls the world-hum on the muffled blast,
There strays a tender chord of some far strain
From time when love was sweet and hope not vain;
And pulses throb, and with dear longing mark
The distant echoes of a buried past.

Almost the only thing anyone seems to know about Chambers Baird is that he was a lawyer from Ohio.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Golden Villain of Athens

Alcibiades shows up throughout Plato's dialogues, so it is perhaps worthwhile to say something about the charming traitor. The story is about as colorful as it could possibly be, and you can see that from the fact that it starts with a family curse: the Curse of the Alcmaeonids.

In the seventh century BC, a man named Cylon decided he wanted to take over Athens. To do this he consulted the Oracle at Delphi as to what would be a propitious day for a coup. The Oracle replied that he could become a tyrant at the great festival devoted to Zeus. Cylon interpreted that as the Olympic festival. Unfortunately for him, he forgot the first lesson of dealing with an Oracle of the gods: never assume that you know what they mean. His plot failed and his supporters had to seek sanctuary in the temple of Athena Polias. Unfortunately for them, the archon at that time, Megacles of the powerful Alcmaeonid family, simply ordered them all executed, anyway. The Alcmaeonidae were banished from the city for the impiety and regarded as having been cursed by the goddess. Eventually they were allowed back by Solon -- but there was still that hint of being cursed hanging over their heads. Talent seems to have run in the family, so a number of important of people were Alcmaeonids -- indeed, they were major players in the increasing democratization of Athens. One of these great names was Pericles; and, in fact, as tensions began to rise between Athens and Sparta at the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War, the Spartan embassy (according to Thucydides) told the Athenians to "drive out the curse of the goddess", that is, to remove Pericles from power. Alcibiades was also an Alcmaeonid. And this is perhaps worth remembering because it helps to explain why the people of Athens -- and, indeed, the rest of the Greek world -- were so ready to believe that he was simply capable of anything, and to regard him as a possible danger. There was a miasma, a curse, around the family name. One can see the myths of the Trojan War as a story about how the entire Greek world became tangled up in the Curse of the Atreids; one could well imagine an epic retelling of the Peloponnesian War representing it as a story about how the entire Greek world became tangled up in the Curse of the Alcmaeonids.

Alcibiades was partly raised by his cousin Pericles after the death of his father Cleinias. He was handsome, he was intelligent, and seems to have been an entirely spoiled young man, inclined to be contemptuous of nearly everyone. The notable exception is Socrates, who seems somehow to have gotten through to him. Exactly how their association began is not known, but we do know that Socrates saved Alcibiades' life at the Battle of Potidae, and he may have returned the favor at the Battle of Delium.

Socrates doesn't seem to have been enough. Alcibiades, as he grew older and more influential, began to advocate vehemently for Athens to take more aggressive action against Sparta -- according to Thucydides, this was because he was resentful for having been passed over in treaty negotiations as too young to contribute. Because of this he is said to have sabotaged the treaty, meeting with the Spartan ambassadors in secret and persuading them to rely on his judgment in the negotiations. His ploy succeeded, allowing him to block the negotiators (Nicias and Laches) from actually achieving anything, and resulted in his being appointed General. Never short of ambition, he immediately used his new position to begin building an alliance among Sparta's major opponents -- Athens, Argos, Elis, and Mantinea. The alliance would soon be crushed by the still-mostly-unstoppable Spartan army at the Battle of Mantinea, but Alcibiades kept on scheming.

One of his big projects, after having outmaneuvered some of his political rivals, was the Sicilian Expedition, which was his pet idea. It was vehemently opposed by Nicias, his most influential opponent, but Alcibiades argued that the expedition would contribute to the wealth of Athens and it could be made quite feasible by recruiting allies in the region. Alcibiades had proposed a force of sixty ships; Nicias responded that you would need something like 140 ships. The Athenians decided to do the expedition -- but, in what seems just the first of a never-ending series of disasters, they took Nicias's estimate as their starting point. No doubt they thought they were being cautious and prudent; what they were actually doing was staking a massive portion of their resources on a project whose chance of success they did not know. Alcibiades, Nicias, and a man named Lamachus were put in charge of the expedition.

On the night before the expedition was to set sail, however, someone defaced the statues of the god Hermes throughout Athens. Alcibiades and a number of his friends were accused of the deed. Alcibiades, who may or may not have been guilty, nonetheless recognized that his opponents were taking this as an opportunity to get him out of the way. He demanded an immediate trial, but was denied; he had to set sail without anything being resolved. Alcibiades now out of Athens, his enemies began accusing him of all sorts of things, so when the fleet put into port, it found a swift trireme there that was waiting to take Alcibiades back to Athens to stand trial. Alcibiades managed to convince the messengers that he would follow them in his own ship, but he and his crew used the opportunity to escape. The Athenians convicted him in his absence.

Alcibiades, tacking with the wind, sabotaged the Sicilian Expedition by sending information to the Sicilian city of Syracuse, allowing them to avoid being taken by surprise. The Sicilian Expedition, soon entirely in the hands of Nicias, collapsed miserably because Nicias on his own did not have the range of skills required to organize the whole expedition and fight Syracuse on its home ground and build up the alliances necessary for victory.

Alcibiades in the meantime defected to Sparta, and with his usual golden-tongued oratory somehow managed to persuade them that he should be made a military adviser. But you mustn't get the wrong idea about Alcibiades: anything he set out to do, he intended to succeed at, and so he set out immediately finding ways to destroy Athens. He convinced the Spartans to build a fort at Decelea, because it would cut off the Athenians. This was a devastating strategic move, and far superior to the usual Spartan approach of marching up into Attica every summer.

However, Alcibiades couldn't stay out of trouble in Sparta, either. It began to be clear to a lot of Spartans that Alcibiades was having an affair with the wife of the Spartan king, Agis; and it was commonly believed that Agis's son Leotychides was in reality the son of Alcibiades. What happened at this point is a little unclear, but some say that one of the Spartan generals was ordered to kill him. So Alcibiades defected to Persia, and managed somehow to convince the Persians that he should be consulted on matters related to the Greeks.

The Persians at this point were a sort-of ally of Sparta -- the Persians were technically neutral, and the Spartans certainly didn't trust the Persians, and the Persians were always looking for ways to increase their power in Greek territory, but at the moment they had a shared interest in breaking Athenian domination of the Aegean Sea. Alcibiades seems to have set out guaranteeing that the Persians would not trust the Spartans, doing whatever was in his power to sabotage the alliance. In particular, he insisted that Persia's best route was to avoid committing to helping the Spartans very much -- after all, the more Athens and Sparta wore each other down, the less there would be to stop Persia from swooping in to mop up the remains.

According to Thucydides, Alcibiades was doing this sabotage deliberately in order to be able to argue that the Athenians should let him come back to Athens. This is confirmed by the fact that he started secret negotiations with some Athenians, trying to get them to install an oligarchy, promising that if they did so, he would return to Athens with a Persian fleet and Persian money to fight the Spartans. The war was going increasingly badly for Athens at this point, so a number of Athenian generals were favorable to the plan. The Athenian assembly, after some maneuvering, was persuaded by them to negotiate the matter.

Unfortunately, the problem with being perpetually persuasive is that you are unprepared for when people simply will not be persuaded. And Alcibiades could not persuade the one person who he absolutely needed to persuade in order to make the plan work: the Persian satrap Tissaphernes. Alcibiades had made his previous argument about wearing the Greeks out too well, and the satrap, an intelligent man who had to answer to a higher authority not at all inclined to be merciful to failure, simply refused to commit to anything definite. In a very Alcibides-like move, Alcibiades simply didn't tell his Greek counterparts this, instead coming to them with much stronger demands and giving them the impression that he had convinced the Persians to help, but only if the Athenians conceded much more. It put an end to his plan to return to Athens in triumph -- but he managed to make it seem like it wasn't his fault.

The conspirators nonetheless managed to overthrow the democratic government of Athens and establish an oligarchy. The remains of the Athenian army and navy, considering themselves to be the surviving democracy of Athens -- the Democracy-in-Exile, so to speak -- voted to recall Alcibiades on the recommendation of the general Thrasybulus, probably because they were still under the impression that he really could deliver Persian support. Alcibiades did not dispel the illusion; when he returned to the Athenian fleet, he delivered a famous speech in which he complained about the injustice of his exile and boasted about how influential he was with the Persians. So persuasive was he that the army voted him the rank of general. He was almost too persuasive -- he practically convinced them all to head out for an immediate attack on the Piraeus, so his first act as general was to help Thrasybulus convince them that a more cautious approach would be better.

Then comes what I think is, in some ways, the single most brilliant political move of Alcibiades' career. He arranged to lead a mission to the Persians, promising the Athenians that he would convince the Persians not to send a fleet to help the Spartans. Alcibiades, of course, already knew that nothing whatsoever would make Tissaphernes send a fleet in the first place. In the meantime, one of Alcibiades's longstanding political allies, Critias, managed to convince the oligarchy at Athens to recall Alcibiades -- but Alcibiades was looking for more than just a return to Athens. He wanted to return on his own terms. He remained with the fleet. While he was there, he managed to convince a number of cities to help contribute to the cause, meaning that he was able to pay his men, making him very popular.

In the meantime, things shifted, however. Tissaphernes was replaced by Pharnabazus, and Pharnabazus took a more active role on the Spartan side, actively protecting Spartan sailors when they were driven ashore by the Athenians. Alcibiades led a mission to try to persuade Pharnabazus, but he never got a chance to do it -- Pharnazabus had him arrested as soon as he arrived. He was soon able to escape, but his now obvious lack of influence with the Persians was a serious blow. He managed to maintain his position, however, by some competent tactical work in battle and his still-persuasive negotiating abilities.

Backed by this, Alcibiades decided to return to Athens, where democracy had been restored. He sailed into the Piraeus harbor and received a hero's welcome, but some people couldn't help but notice that he had happened to sail into the harbor on the Plynteria feast, dedicated to Athena Polias. On that day, the statue of Athena underwent cleaning, and therefore symbolically, the city was for that one day not under the protection of the goddess, and anything important begun that day in Athens was doomed to fail.

All charges against him were officially canceled and he was appointed chief general. Misfortune was brewing, however. He set out with troops, and was defeated; his fleet was lost through the error of one of his subordinates; and Cyrus the Younger was made the new satrap by his father the Great King, and he was proceeding with a policy of active support for the Spartans. Moreover, the great Spartan military leader Lysander was too experienced and clever to be outmaneuvered by any tricks or deceptions, and Lysander was winning significant battles. The Athenians repaid military failure in their usual way: they deposed all the generals. The stupidity of this is an example of why Greeks did not generally expect democracies to win against oligarchies in military matters; if your response to failure is to depose all of your most competent and experience people at once, you are likely just accelerating your self-destruction. Which it certainly did here.

Alcibiades never returned to Athens; he sailed north to Thrace and was there for most of the rest of his life. He did attempt to persuade the Persians to stop supporting Sparta, however. According to legend -- and legend is all we have at this point -- Pharnabazus killed him by setting the house he was staying at on fire while he was in it, as a gift to the Spartans. There are other stories; one of the legends is that he helped hasten his death by seducing the daughter of a well placed family.

So now you know something of what Plato and Xenophon and their contemporaries had in mind whenever the name 'Alcibiades' came up.

Probability and St. Olaf's Lucky 13

I've posted on this before, but I've been reading off and on things about probability theory recently, and it's the sort of story that should always be brought up in considering the basics of how probability theory works. It is from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla. Tensions between Sweden and Norway were quite high, and a border dispute was brewing between them. So King Olaf of Norway and King Olaf of Sweden met together to figure something out:

Thereafter ambassadors were sent to Norway to King Olaf, with the errand that he should come with his retinue to a meeting at Konungahella with the Swedish kings, and that the Swedish kings would there confirm their reconciliation. When King Olaf heard this message, he was willing, now as formerly, to enter into the agreement, and proceeded to the appointed place. There the Swedish kings also came; and the relations, when they met, bound themselves mutually to peace and agreement. Olaf the Swedish king was then remarkably mild in manner, and agreeable to talk with. Thorstein Frode relates of this meeting, that there was an inhabited district in Hising which had sometimes belonged to Norway, and sometimes to Gautland. The kings came to the agreement between themselves that they would cast lots by the dice to determine who should have this property, and that he who threw the highest should have the district. The Swedish king threw two sixes, and said King Olaf need scarcely throw. He replied, while shaking the dice in his hand, "Although there be two sixes on the dice, it would be easy, sire, for God Almighty to let them turn up in my favour." Then he threw, and had sixes also. Now the Swedish king threw again, and had again two sixes. Olaf king of Norway then threw, and had six upon one dice, and the other split in two, so as to make seven eyes in all upon it; and the district was adjudged to the king of Norway. We have heard nothing else of any interest that took place at this meeting; and the kings separated the dearest of friends with each other.

This I take to be perhaps the central question in philosophy of probability: What is the probability of St. Olaf rolling a thirteen with two ordinary six-sided dice? And of course it connects to the fact that probabilities are not just magic numbers independent of everything else; it matters what kinds of events you are assuming to be possible.

Music on My Mind

Kidd Video, "Video to Radio". You can blame Enbrethiliel for the trip to a cartoon show from three decades ago.

Kidd Video was a surprisingly good cartoon, full of the endless pop culture weirdness of the MTV era. In the first episode, the band has to rescue the people of Neon City, whose lives have been sped up by the Master Blaster to force them to attend a concert put on by the Copycats; to do this they have to rock down to Electric Avenue (as the music video in a book tells them) to fix the clock there. At the same time, since the Copycats can only sing stolen music, they have to free Lionel Richie from the bubble in which Master Blaster has trapped him. That is not even remotely the most surreal episode.

The reason the album cover is in Hebrew, incidentally, is that Kidd Video became a huge sensation and marketing craze in Israel, enough to merit the one and only Kidd Video album release.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Eryxias is another dialogue that seems to have been associated with Plato but was widely recognized even in ancient times as spurious. From an in-passing anachronism at 399a, there's good reason to think that it cannot have been written earlier than late fourth century BC. Other than that, nothing is known about its authorship. The work is a surprisingly sophisticated, if not always entirely clear, discussion of the nature of wealth.

You can read Eryxias online in Benjamin Jowett's translation or, if your prefer French, in Victor Cousin's translation.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


I haven't been able to find anything about him, but as 'Eryxias' is a name found in Critias's family, it is likely he was some kind of relative of Critias.

Critias was cousin to Plato's mother, according to Diogenes Laertius. He was a highly educated man, a poet and dramatist, very well respected in his day for his writings. However, when Athens fell at the end of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans instituted an oligarchy, the Thirty Tyrants. Critias was one of the thirty; indeed, one of the most prominent. The Thirty Tyrants then initiated a reign of terror, killing anyone who might possibly threaten their regime or might support Thrasybulus and the other Athenian generals away from Athens who were working to restore Athenian democracy. He was killed in a battle against Thrasybulus's forces when they retook Athens. Socrates's association with him might have contributed to the jury's lack of sympathy when Socrates was on trial. Critias also appears in Charmides and Protagoras; the Critias of Timaeus and Critias is probably his grandfather. Xenophon portrays him as very much cynic out for his own gain, associating with Socrates because he thinks it is useful for gaining power.

Erasistratus is of notable family. His grandfather, also called Erasistratus (of Ceos), was an important physician, and was, indeed one of the most important anatomists of the ancient world, giving detailed descriptions of the brain as well as of the veins and arteries. His uncle Phaeax was part of an important embassy to Sicily in 422 BC to try to build alliances against Syracuse; according to this dialogue (but as far as I can tell only this dialogue) Erasistratus went with him. Erasistratus himself became one of the Thirty Tyrants.

  Prodicus of Ceos
Prodicus was one of the greatest of the Sophists of ancient Greece; he is mentioned multiple times throughout the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, and is a character in Protagoras. He is said to have been put to death for corrupting the youth, as Socrates was. Here he is not a character in the main dialogue, but a character in a dialogue-within-the-dialogue.

  Unnamed young man
He is Prodicus's primary interlocutor in the dialogue-within-the-dialogue.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates, who is narrating, is walking with Eryxias around the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios when they meet Critias and Erasistratus. Erasistratus has just come back from the embassy to Sicily and Italy, after having spent the previous day walking from Megara. They sit down and Erasistratus makes some comments about Syracuse, noting that they've just sent an embassy to Athens and are probably trying to trick the Athenians. The Syracusan embassy happens to walk by and Erasistratus points out one of them, who is said to be the wealthiest man in all of Sicily and Italy. Socrates asks what his reputation is, and Erasistratus replies that he's also regarded as the wickedest man in Sicily and Italy. Socrates sees this as an opening for a discussion of virtue and wealth, and he will attempt to convince the others that wisdom is more valuable than other possessions, so the wise man is wealthier than the man with considerable property.

Eryxias jumps in and protests that no matter how wise a person is, if he lacks basic necessities, his wisdom is of no use. Socrates goes on to argue that what counts as wealth depends on what people can actually use. If you have a house full of gold and silver, you can only get even basic necessities if other people want the house or its contents; whereas if people wanted wisdom, the wise person would never have a problem getting basic necessities. Eryxias, annoyed, asks if he really thinks that he is wealthier than Callias, son of Hipponicus. Socrates criticizes him for thinking argument is just a game. Eryxias responds that they should be talking about whether it is good and bad to be wealthy. Socrates asks for his view on that question, and Eryxias responds that it is good to be wealthy.

Critias interrupts and asks if this is really his view. Critias will then argue against Eryxias that whether wealth is good depends on what it is used for; so that, for instance, someone who is using his wealth to commit adultery would be better off without the wealth. Critias outmaneuvers Eryxias easily so that "if it weren't for the embarrassment Eryxias was feeling in front of everyone there, he might very well have stood up and hit Critias" (397c). To defuse tension, Socrates gives us the dialogue-within-the-dialogue, telling about a discussion he participated in a few days ago on this very subject with Prodicus of Ceos. Prodicus had argued the same thing as Critias, that wealth is good for the good and bad for the bad. After reporting (somewhat obscurely) that dialogue, Socrates remarks that this seems to shed light on how people handle philosophy: Prodicus got thrown out of the gymnasium for making arguments like Critias, whereas everyone here agrees with Critias, so it seems that they determine the quality of arguments on the basis of the arguer's character rather than the arguments themselves.

Socrates asks Eryxias what he thinks wealth is, and Eryxias replies that it's the possession of lots of property; to which Socrates replies that this just requires that we consider what property is. If you had a large stash of cash that you couldn't possibly use, there's a sense in which you possess it, but it's actually worthless to you: you're not actually any wealthier for having it. So (in the relevant sense) it seems that everything useful is property. Eryxias counters that while everything that's property is useful, the reverse is not true: property is only one kind of useful thing. So what kind of useful thing could it be? Socrates proposes that they look at what would have to be removed in order to remove our need for property, and suggests as a possible answer (based on Eryxias's prior argument about why wisdom does not make Socrates wealthier than Callias), bodily needs, so that without bodily needs property wouldn't exist at all. Eryxias is getting confused at this point, but agrees. But if this is the case, gold, silver, and the like are only property (in the sense relevant to wealth) if they are useful for meeting bodily needs; otherwise, they aren't property. Eryxias says that gold and silver obviously are property; we do in fact find them useful for living.

At this point Socrates notes that lots of people sell their skills to get what they need for living; which means that they are property that contributes to wealth in exactly the same way gold and silver are. Further, even if you have gold and silver, they can only be useful for getting what the body needs if you know how to use them, and likewise, all that you need to make things useful to someone is to give him the right kind of knowledge. So whether or not something is wealth depends on whether you have the knowledge and wisdom required to use it. Socrates notes that Critias does not agree, and Critias says that Socrates's position is crazy, but asks Socrates to continue his argument; Socrates remarks that Critias enjoys listening to arguments like someone enjoys listening to a rhapsode reciting Homer, not believing any of it is true.

The argument about the relation between property and usefulness continues a little longer, but Socrates, noting that Critias is not being persuaded, changes his tack. Are we better off when we are healthy or when we are sick? Critias gives the obvious answer, and Socrates gets him to concede that the reason the sick person is worse off is that he has a greater need for all kinds of things -- and so, likewise, the person with the gambling or drinking or eating habit. But the person who has the most useful things for meeting the needs of the body seems to need all those useful things, otherwise they wouldn't be useful. So, Socrates ends the dialogue, somewhat abruptly, with a suggestion:

According to this argument, at least, it appears that those who have a lot of property must also need many of the things required to take care of the body, since property was seen as useful for this purpose. So the wealthiest people would necessarily appear to us to be in the worst condition, since they are in need of the greatest number of these things. (406a)

One of the noticeable things about the dialogue is that there seems to be an undercurrent here: Socrates comments negatively several times on how people treat arguments -- like a game, like a rhapsody, as something to be judged entirely in terms of the character of the arguer. In other words, Socrates's interlocutors do not find the arguments to be very useful; but this -- one might conclude from the claims made in the argument itself -- is because they do not have the appropriate knowledge and wisdom to find it useful. In this sense, wealth might almost be considered a secondary topic in the dialogue: what is really at issue is the opposition between those who have the wealth of wisdom and those without the wisdom to recognize that wisdom is true wealth, between the philosophers who seek wisdom rather than gold and silver, and those who are dominated by uncritical acceptance of commonplaces about what really makes one wealthy.


* The Stoa, or Porch, of Zeus Eleutherios was a walking & gathering space that was a monument from the Persian War. 'Eleutherios' means 'freedom', so it might possibly be an ironic setting, given that the dialogue ends with a discussion of lives dominated by needs.

* The Peloponnesian War led Athens to start taking an interest in Sicily. Syracuse, worried about Athenian power, tried to get all the Sicilians to agree to exclude foreigners from the island. The embassy led by Phaeax in 422 BC, from which Erasistratus is returning, foiled this plan by making alliances with Sicilian cities that were suspicious of Syracuse. The result would set up conditions that would later contribute to one of Athens's worst disasters in the war, the Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens set out to conquer Sicily with a massive expeditionary force that was in the end almost entirely destroyed. One way to read this setting is to see it as an indictment of Athens, greedy for wealth of "things that make you wealthy--slaves, horses, gold, and silver" (392d), and unable, in the persons of Erasistratus, Eryxias, and Critias, to grasp that these things are not what really matter -- a greed and folly for which Athens would pay very dearly.

* Megara is somewhere around twenty miles from Athens, and was on the Spartan side in the Peloponnesian war.

* Callias, son of Hipponicus, was one of the wealthiest people in Athens, and a patron of sophists. Plato's Protagoras takes place at his house.


Quotations from Mark Joyal's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1718-1733.


Demodocus is a dialogue in four parts; each of the parts, however, is relatively independent, to such an extent that some have speculated that it is really just a four different short works that at some point were accidentally put together, or, perhaps, two different works (consisting of the first section and then the other three sections). While it was apparently considered Platonic by some in antiquity, all our earliest references to work already recognize it as spurious. We know nothing about its authorship or redaction history.

The format of the work is interesting, though. Two of the sections (II and IV) explicitly end with a prompt ("What do you think?" and "What do you think about this?"), suggesting that what we have here is something like prompts to get students thinking about certain subjects. Indeed, you could take any of the four sections and easily use them in a modern philosophy course as an essay prompt or a class discussion prompt. So Demodocus might possibly represent a way in which teaching was done in Plato's Academy, or in which philosophical teaching more broadly was influenced by the Platonic dialogue genre.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Demodocus is presumably the same as the Demodocus in the Theages there he talks with Socrates about the education of his son Theages. (In passing Demodocus and Theages happen to mention the topic of advice, which is the topic of Section I.) Theages himself is mentioned in passing in the Republic and the Apology (and Demodocus in the latter), but not much is known about either him or his father. Demodocus never speaks in this dialogue; he is addressed, and so is present, but we hear nothing from him.

Each section of the dialogue is first person. The narrator is never named, and may or may not be Socrates.

The Plot

I. Section I is a monologue in which the narrator addresses Demodocus, who has asked him to give advice on matters that will be discussed in a meeting. The narrator says that he would prefer "to ask what is the point of your assembly and of the readiness of those who think to give you advice and of the vote which each of you intends to cast", and this gives the structure of the section: the narrator questions why the assembly would be asking advice, then why anyone would consider himself ready to advise the assembly, then why voting would be considered useful. The narrator ends with making a distinction between two kinds of topic on which one might give advice.

II, III, & IV. The next three sections each have the narrator describing in third person an argument between two people (different pairs of people for each section). In Section II we have a man rebuking a friend for believing the plaintiff in a case when he had not heard the defendant's story. They both discuss the proverb that you should never judge a case until you have heard both sides of the story, and the narrator ends perplexed about the question, asking the reader for help. In Section III we have someone criticizing a person for not trusting him enough to lend him money, and his interlocutor asks why he is criticizing someone for not being persuaded while refusing to criticize himself for failing to persuade. In Section IV someone is criticizing another for trusting strangers too easily, and his interlocutor argues that this criticism does not make sense. It then ends with the narrator admitting perplexity again and asking the reader about it.

The Thought

I. The argument of Section I has some affinities to that of Sisyphus. If it's impossible to give good and informed advice, it would be silly to ask someone to advise you. But what makes for good and informed advice? It seems that the adviser must have knowledge. If the assembly that's asking for advice, however, has that knowledge, it does not need the advice. But if the assembly doesn't have the knowledge, how can it discuss the topic? Moreover, the assembly asks advice from several people; but if one person has the knowledge to give good and informed advice, then that advice seems to be adequate, since good and informed advisers would give the same advice. So by asking for advice, the assembly is assuming that advisers have knowledge; whereas by asking several people, it is assuming that they don't.

The narrator then looks at it from the adviser's side. If there are several advisers, suppose they give different advice; then how could they all be giving good, informed advice? But if they give the same advice, why do they all need to be giving advice? So these are ways that the adviser's readiness to give advice. (Note, incidentally, that one case is not discussed, namely, of the single adviser who is genuinely informed. This is important.)

The next point has to do with the point of voting. It seems that it's a way of judging the people who give advice. But if the assembly knows enough to judge this, they don't need the advice. On the other hand, if they don't have the adviser's knowledge, they are not competent to judge the advice. The assembly cannot make itself competent to judge the advice. Nor can the adviser be claiming also to teach the assembly how to judge the advice, because people are only given a little time to advise assemblies and there are so many people in an assembly. So there is no point in voting:

Surely your meeting is inconsistent with your voting and your voting with the readiness of your advisers? For your meeting implies that you are not competent but need advisors, while the casting of votes implies that you do not need advisers but are capable of judging of giving advice. And the readiness of your advisers implies that they have knowledge, while your casting votes implies that the advisers do not have knowledge. (382b)

Further, even if the assembly implements a plan, it does not know whether the plan will fulfill the goal, nor does it know if the goal is really in its best interest, nor does it seem that anyone knows anything about these kinds of things. This means uncertainty and indecision. But this contrasts with what a good person would do: a good person would have knowledge of the things on which he advises, and those whom they persuade will attain good as their goal, and having good they will not have to change their minds.

There's more to this argument than seems to be happening on the surface, which is why I've given some detail in my summary here. Superficially it looks very skeptical, but the author is making a point quite similar to points made in Gorgias about practicing true politics, and how it cannot be done en masse but only one on one, and it must be based on knowledge of the good rather than persuasion, and it cannot be decided by general vote.

II. Why do we think you can't judge a matter fairly before you've heard both sides of the question? If you can't tell whether one person is speaking the truth, then it seems you can't tell which of two people are speaking the truth, and if one person is not clear enough, it doesn't seem that you can make it clear by adding another person when one of the two, one does not know beforehand which, is speaking falsely. Further, you can only hear them one at a time. But if you hear the first person and that's enough to clear it up, you don't need the second person's testimony.

III. Why do we criticize people for not trusting us? It seems we should criticize ourselves. First, because if they didn't trust us, they succeeded at getting what they want, but we failed at getting what we wanted, so we did something wrong. Second, if we asked for something they shouldn't have given us, they did what was right and we did something wrong. If, on the other hand, we asked for something that should have given to us, we failed, and did something wrong. Third, if they didn't trust us, we failed to persuade them; so we did something wrong. So we should be criticizing ourselves if others don't trust us.

IV. Why do we think it is more reasonable to be quick in trusting family and friends than in quickly trusting strangers? If we're quick to trust people who tell the truth, that's not a bad thing, whomever they may be. If we are slow to trust someone, and then eventually are persuaded, and turn out to be deceived, that doesn't seem a better thing. When we criticize people on this point, we criticize them for trusting those who are not trustworthy. To do this, if they are strangers, he needs to consider whether they tell the truth. But the same is true if they are family and friends. Further, whether one is trustworthy does not depend on whether one is a friend or a member of a family, because everyone is friend to someone or family to someone.

These four sections involve a somewhat tighter structure than I think they're usually given credit for. The first two sections both deal with persuasion in public settings (assembly and trial), and the second two both deal with trust. In fact, all of the sections are concerned with the problem of trust and persuasion, and they all indicate problems with how we typically understand these -- in particular, the same problem, that we do not actually treat truth as the real foundation of trust and knowledge or education as superior to persuasion. But the dialogue explicitly leaves it up to the reader to start working out how the alternative would work.

Quotations from Jonathan Barnes's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, trs., pp. 1699-1706.

A Man for Whom Time Would Not Wait

by Ann Hawkshaw

And what art thou?—an ideal of the great;
The personation of a nation's thought;
A giant figure by the ages wrought?
Rather a man for whom time would not wait,
But with rough hand consigned thee to the fate
Of a rude people and untutored age,
To bear the name of wizard, not of sage,
To be a thing of fear, and doubt, and hate.
Yet, wert thou not of nature's worshippers,
And knelt beside her mountain altars—lone
And silent—where the ocean-sounding firs
Bent (like thy soul) upon their rocky throne,
As the storm with its phantom-wings swept by,
Bearing the voices of Eternity?

From Hawkshaw's 1854 work, Sonnets on Anglo-Saxon History. This is a very interesting work; Hawkshaw alternates comments on Anglo-Saxon history, drawing from ancient and modern historians, with sonnets; the sonnets often raise questions, or explore issues, that historians do not, about not only the deeds and happenings but the passions, the hopes, and the dreams of the people who did and endured them.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On Plato for June

I'll be reading the Platonic dialogues (including the spuria) this summer, and have already started getting some of the spurious dialogues out of the way to leave more room for the rest. (The Definitions, Halcyon, and Sisyphus have already been done, and this week I should have Demodocus, Eryxias, and possibly Axiochus done, leaving only forty-nine more to go!) Several people expressed interest in reading along for June, so I thought I'd say something about my current thoughts for how it will go and give some relevant links.

Alcibiades (on self-knowledge), Rival Lovers (on the relation between learning and philosophy), and Charmides (on self-control or temperance) are first up. None of the three would be considered especially important today, but together they make a very good introduction to the Platonic dialogues as a whole -- Alcibiades, in fact, was used for centuries by the Neoplatonists for precisely that purpose. Of these works, Charmides is certainly genuine. Plato scholars are divided on whether Alcibiades is genuine; if it is not, it is nonetheless historically the single most important and influential spurious dialogue. Rival Lovers is usually thought to be spurious.

Since people may be reading along as they can, I want to hit some of the major dialogues, without planting them so thickly that it's difficult to keep up. Plato's masterpiece, the Republic, is a super-dialogue, twelve books long, and when people counted Plato's dialogues in antiquity, they sometimes counted it as twelve dialogues. It would crowd out other dialogues, and I'm not planning on doing it in June. The next obvious idea would be to do the Last Days dialogues -- Euthyphro, the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. However, I'm planning on mixing these with Xenophon's Memorabilia and Apology, so I'll be saving those for later, as well.

When these are out of the way, the five dialogues that are most influential historically are the Symposium, Phaedrus, Gorgias, Meno, and Timaeus. The Symposium I'm keeping for later for the same reason as the last days -- I want to pair it with Xenophon's Symposium. So that leaves four. So my current thought is that I will go through them in this order (with very roughly a week to each):

I. Phaedrus (on rhetoric, philosophy, and love), which I will pair with Ion (on poetry and rhapsodic recitation of poetry) and Menexenus (on recitation of rhetorical speeches). All three are generally considered genuine; doubts occasionally get raised about Menexenus, which is a very atypical dialogue whose purpose is unclear, but Aristotle appears to have regarded it as Plato's, and that's about as strong an external evidence of genuineness as a Platonic dialogue can get. Phaedrus is the must-read of the three, though.

II. Gorgias (on rhetoric, justice, education, and philosophy) is the one that I personally would regard as the absolute must-read among all Platonic dialogues. I haven't decided for sure what other dialogues to go with it, but I am leaning toward Lysis (on friendship), Laches (on courage or fortitude) and On Justice. The last is spurious, but the others are all genuine dialogues.

III. Timaeus (on the order of the world) is a very different kind of dialogue, but it is genuine and historically is perhaps the most influential dialogue Plato ever wrote. Timaeus has to be paired with its unfinished sister dialogue Critias (on order in society); together the two dialogues are the source of the Myth of Atlantis. I might also add Philebus (on the good of human life). All three of these are genuine.

IV. Finally, toward the end of June if it happens, or else into the first week of July, Meno (on whether virtue can be taught), along with On Virtue, Clitophon (on pursuit of virtue), and probably Euthydemus (on sophistry and philosophy). (I've partly saved the Meno for last because I know Enbrethiliel's already read it!) Of these Meno and Euthydemus are genuine, On Virtue is spurious. Clitophon is the single biggest mystery in the Platonic canon. It could be genuine; ancient authors insist, sometimes vehemently, that it is genuine; and yet the dialogue consists almost entirely of an attack on Socrates and his methods. Is it a satire of Socrates's critics? Is it spurious, an anti-Socratic dialogue that accidentally wandered into the Platonic canon? Nobody knows, and scholars are still divided.

This is all a bit up in there, and parts still might be changed (and depending on what time I have I might also throw in several extra spurious dialogues), but this allows people flexibility to decide how much they want to commit. I would recommend Alcibiades and/or Charmides, Gorgias, Phaedrus, at least the beginning of Timaeus along with the Critias, Meno, and (if we end up doing it) Philebus. As a solid minimum tour. I've put the relative lengths (in Stephanus, or standard edition, page numbers) below, so people can get some sense of the reading burden.

Alcibiades -- 32
Charmides -- 23
Gorgias -- 80
Phaedrus -- 52
Timaeus (complete) -- 75
Critias -- 15
Philebus -- 56
Meno -- 30

But, of course, Plato is interesting whatever dialogue he is writing!


Alcibiades, (Rival) Lovers, Charmides, Lysis, and Laches are here.

Euthydemus, Gorgias, and Meno are here.

Ion, Clitophon, Menexenus, Timaeus, and Critias are here.

Philebus and Phaedrus are here.

In all these cases the table of contents is on the lefthand side of the page.

Schlegel on the Imperfection of Human Reason

And yet it is true, though in a very different sense from that intended by these philosophers of reason, that man's knowledge is in reality limited. No absolute limit, indeed, is set to it. Yet because it is a mixed knowledge, composed of outward tradition and inward experience, and is founded on the perceptions of the external and internal senses, therefore is it made up of individual instances, extremely slow in its growth, and in no respect perfect and complete, and scarcely ever free from faults and deficiencies. Consequently, when considered in its totality, and as pretending to be a whole, it is invariably imperfect. But this character of imperfection belongs, in fact, to all real science, as derived from the experience of the senses. Seldom, indeed, is the first impression free from the admixture of error; numberless repeated observations, comparisons, essays, experiments, and corrections, which must often be carried on through many centuries, not to say many tens of centuries, are necessary before a pure and stable result can be attained to. In this way all truly human knowledge is imperfect, and "in part;" and although, on the contrary, the false conceited wisdom may parade itself from the very first as fully ripe and complete, yet in a very brief space indeed will its imperfection and rottenness appear.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 73. The 'false conceited wisdom' he has particularly in view is what he often (as here) also calls the positions of German 'philosophers of reason' who argue for absolute limits to human reason -- one of his points is that in doing so what they are really doing is treating their own systems, which set the limits, as absolute knowledge.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Links to Note and Notes of Note

* Amod Lele has an interesting discussion of what is often called the No True Scotsman fallacy.

* Donald R. McClarey looks at the life and work of poet Joyce Kilmer.

* A Clerk of Oxford looks at the history and legends of St. Augustine of Canterbury.

* Barry Stocker has two interesting recent posts at "NewAPPS" on Sextus Empiricus and virtue theory and Nietzsche and the novel (in the latter Schlegel makes a showing).

* Stacy Trasancos has been discussing Stanley Jaki on 'stillbirths of science' and the condemnations of 1277.

* The difference that teaching women philosophers can make to a philosophy course. I have had on multiple occasions students (not all female) thank me for explicitly drawing women philosophers into my courses (such as, in various Intro courses, St. Macrina the Younger, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, and Lady Mary Shepherd, and, in Ethics, Onora O'Neill and Hannah Arendt). And the thing of it is, too: it really does make the course more rounded. Female philosophers have historically often done their philosophical work in different venues than male philosophers; they have also sometimes looked at less glamorous (so to speak) topics; they have not uncommonly looked at major philosophical topics from different directions. (An obvious sort of example of this is that a lot of the best philosophy of education is done by women, and part of what makes it better is that there is a long history of women using philosophy of education to look, indirectly, at much larger questions. And in such cases, despite the fact that the topic they're directly looking at is philosophy of education, it may shed considerable light on ethics, metaphysics, or any number of other things. This is not uncommon.)

* Mark Greenberg, The Moral Impact Theory of Law

* I am taking a brief break from the Fortnightly Book, just to reduce the number of things I am juggling in the next couple of weeks. But it will be back.

Fourfold Revelation

Moreover, the revelation by which God makes himself known to man, does not admit of being limited exclusively to the written word. Nature itself is a book written on both sides, both within and without, in every line of which the finger of God is discernible. It is, as it were, a Holy Writ in visible form and bodily shape—a song of praise on the Creator's omnipotence composed in living imagery. But besides Scripture and nature—those two great witnesses to the greatness and majesty of God—there is in the voice of conscience nothing less than a divine revelation within man. This is the first awakening call to the two other louder and fuller proclamations of revealed truth. And, lastly, in universal history we have set before us a real and manifold application and progressive development of revelation. Here the luminous threads of a divine and higher guidance glimmer through the remarkable events of history. For, not only in the career of whole ages and nations, but also in the lives of individuals, the ruling and benignant hand of Providence is every where visible.

Fourfold, consequently, is the source of revelation, from which man derives his knowledge of the Deity, learns his will, and understands his operation and power — conscience, nature, Holy Writ, and universal history.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 65.

Schlegel, of course, is here adding universal history to Scripture, nature, and conscience, which were more commonly recognized. The idea is similar to Vico's notion of civil theology based on ideal eternal history, but it's difficult to pin down any definite historical connection between the two.


Sisyphus, or On Deliberation is one of the dialogues attributed to Plato by certain sources, but it is almost certainly a spurious attribution. It does involve Platonic themes (connections to Meno and Euthydemus are fairly obvious), but there are a number of ways in which the dialogue uses words un-Platonically. Also, as is fairly common in dialogues, the dialogue signals its fictional character by several anachronistic references, and they make Plato an implausible author. Nothing about the author is known.

The dialogue is interesting, however, in that it shows us a slice of the complicated interaction and occasional dispute between philosophers, following people like Socrates and Plato, and rhetoricians, following people like the orator Isocrates, that begins with Plato and, developing through the Hellenistic period, extends even into the Roman Imperial period. It has, in fact, been suggested that the Sisyphus is devoted to criticizing the work of Isocrates, who made deliberation a major element in his rhetorical theory, as the Meno is sometimes taken to be doing. At a much later date, we find another iteration of the Sisyphus dispute in the works of the orator Dio Chrysostom. Dio Chrysostom's twenty-sixth discourse, subtitled 'On Deliberation', rehearses arguments very similar to those given in the dialogue. Indeed, the arguments are in places so similar that the only two serious explanations of the similarity are that the Sisyphus author and Dio Chrysostom are both following a third source very closely or (much more probably) that Dio Chrysostom is adapting the Sisyphus argument to his own purposes.

The dialogue is also interesting in that it probably does give us some idea of how thinkers in Plato's Academy discussed this topic, drawing on Plato, but not being afraid to go beyond him.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


  Sisyphus of Pharsalus
There are occasional scattered references to a Sisyphus who led Pharsalus, in Thessaly, and it is probably the same person. It is notable that the Meno of Plato's dialogue is also from Thessaly (although a different city), strongly suggesting that any connections to the Meno are deliberate.

The Plot

Socrates opens by addressing Sisyphus, saying that Socrates and his companions had waited a long time yesterday for him; apparently they were all to attend a show by Stratonicus of Athens. Sisyphus, however, never showed. Sisyphus excuses himself by saying that he was called to join the deliberations of the authorities in Pharsalus and therefore could not get away. To this Socrates replies that obeying the law is an excellent thing and that it is also good to be considered a good deliberator by one's fellow citizens. He proposes, however, a discussion of what deliberation could possibly be. Sisyphus is a little baffled at the suggestion that Socrates does not know what deliberation is, but Socrates insists that he doesn't. They then discuss the relationship between deliberation and knowledge. The dialogue ends with Socrates suggesting that the issue would be worth further discussion at some other time.


* Stratonicus of Athens was a musician. He seems to have had a reputation for witty sarcasm and satire, since several proverbs and clever comebacks are attributed to him, but relatively little seems to be known about him.

The Thought

The essential puzzle of the dialogue is how deliberation differs from guessing or divination. What makes it different from just playing a game of odds-and-evens (i.e., the game, still played today, of guessing whether someone is holding up an odd or even number of fingers). Sisyphus points out that deliberation does not involve complete ignorance but instead partial understanding in which one tries to find things out. But Socrates replies that deliberation, as a way of finding things out, could not be about what people know but about what they don't know. He gives examples from geometry, like finding a diagonal or doubling the cube: you don't deliberate about whether it is diagonal or about whether it is a cube, but you look for something you don't know. The same is true of cosmological speculations. So Socrates concludes:

In all such cases, then, our conclusion is as follows: nobody can ever try to find out anything that he knows, only what he doesn't know. (389a)

He then suggests that deliberation consists in "somebody trying to find out the best course to follow in matters requiring him to take action" (389b) and that, apparently, what prevents people from finding it out is lack of understanding. He argues this last point with several examples: no one can genuinely deliberate about music, or military strategy, or anything else, unless they understand what they are deliberating about.

From this it follows that deliberation and trying to find things out cannot be the same: we only try to find things out if we don't understand them, and we only genuinely deliberate when we do understand them. Thus it doesn't seem that the Pharsalians were actually deliberating; they were just trying to discover things they didn't know. Socrates then asks Sisyphus whether it makes more sense, if you don't know something, to learn it from someone who does or to try to discover it all on one's own. When Sisyphus says it makes more sense to learn it from someone, Socrates criticizes the Pharsalians on that ground for stumbling around on their own rather than taking the trouble to find someone from whom they could learn what they needed to know.

The dialogue then shifts with Socrates asking about good deliberation. He gets Sisyphus to agree that there is a definite distinction between good and bad deliberation, and then that those who deliberate do so about future things. The future, however, does not exist yet, and thus has not come into being. But if the future has not even come into being, it has no definite nature. But suppose we imagined some archers and were testing whether they were good archers or bad archers. We'd usually do this by setting up a target and having them shoot at the target. But what if there were no definite target, and we just told them to shoot? How could we distinguish good and bad archers? And what corresponds to aiming at a target in deliberation is understanding what one is deliberating about. Since the future has no definite nature, it cannot be understood, so if deliberation is about future things, no one can be good or bad at it.

So we end the dialogue with an unanswered question: what is the real standard for good or bad deliberation? In addition, if the argument of the dialogue is right, we can only deliberate about what we know and we cannot deliberate about the future. Since we usually treat deliberation as being precisely about these things, we do seem to have quite the puzzle on our hands! Which, as we see from Socrates' parting insistence that it's worth thinking through sometime, is precisely the point.


All quotations from David Gallop's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., 1708-1713.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wilson on Descartes's Meditations

Catherine Wilson is an excellent philosopher and scholar of early modern philosophy, but I am somewhat baffled by this argument from a recent review:

An examination of the overall intentions of that text, its peculiar, isolated place in Descartes’s writings, its intended audience, and its anticipated and actual reception would have been a welcome addition. The Meditations assert a strong demand to be read as a self-sufficient and logically compelling chain of reasonings; Descartes explicitly did not want the work to be considered and evaluated as if it merely laid out one particular way of looking at the world. But the commentator can perhaps resist that demand without doing the author an injustice. Descartes’s aim was not really, after all, to prove the immortality of the soul. Rather, the work is a reductio ad absurdum of the proposition that the senses can only solicit us to wickedness and that human beings since the Fall are so cognitively impaired and so wracked by sin that they cannot obtain efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature. It was dangerous to assert the contrary in 1640, but the marvellous artifice of the Meditations got the point across to many of Descartes’s contemporaries.

The Meditations don't, as far as I can see, have a "peculiar, isolated place in Descartes's writings"; Descartes, after all, had presaged them in the Discourse on Method (as Descartes himself notes in the Preface), and he solicited objections for the Meditations themselves, even going so far as to publish the Meditations with the objections and replies. This very pairing of the Meditations with the Objections and Replies suggests that the work is not so isolated and self-contained as Wilson is suggesting. I think, in fact, this argument is confusing the idea that Cartesian meditation is self-sufficient and logically compelling, of which there is plenty of evidence within the Meditations, with the idea that the Meditations is self-sufficient and logically compelling, of which I think there is no evidence at all. We see this in the claim that "Descartes explicitly did not want the work to be considered and evaluated as if it merely laid out one particular way of looking at the world", which seems to require that we are talking about Cartesian meditation itself, but is applied to the text of the Meditations.

I'm also a little puzzled at what Wilson has in mind in saying that refutation of the claim that "the senses can only solicit us to wickedness and that human beings since the Fall are so cognitively impaired and so wracked by sin that they cannot obtain efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature" was 'dangerous to assert' in 1640. Since Descartes was living in the Netherlands at the time, he would have, despite the relatively robust free speech in the Netherlands at the time, been surrounded by Calvinists of various stripes, so perhaps she's suggesting that the Meditations is at least partly an anti-Calvinist work directed against total depravity? That would certainly be interesting. But I don't know who of Descartes's contemporaries would actually have been in mind. Certainly not the Reformed scholastics who dominated the Dutch universities and who would have been the Calvinists most likely to read him. And I'm not really sure how well it would work as the kind of reductio ad absurdum Wilson is suggesting, although it is certainly true that Descartes is interested, as a major plank of his larger project, in establishing "efficacious and worthwhile knowledge of nature". But I might simply not be understanding her suggestion.

Language and Tradition

But in the next place, language is intimately connected and co-ordinate with tradition, whether sacred or profane, with all the recorded fruits of human speculation and inquiry. And as the word is the root out of which the whole stem of man's transmitted knowledge, or tradition, has grown up, with all its branches and offshoots, so, too, in the eloquent speech, in the elegant composition, and even in all lofty internal meditation—which form, as it were, the leaves, flowers, and fruits of this goodly tree of living tradition — it is again the word by which the whole is carried on and ultimately perfected.

Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 50.

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Opening Passage:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Summary: A Tale of Two Cities begins with the recovery of Dr. Alexander Manette from prison in the Bastille, where he has been 'buried alive' for eighteen years. He is taken care of by the Defarges, who run a wine shop in the suburb of Saint Antoine in Paris. Jarvis Lorry, a banker, and Lucie Manette, his daughter, take him back to England. In the second book, we learn of Charles Darnay, who is the son of the Marquis St. Evremond, but has shed his name and gone to England out of disgust for his family's rather brutal ways. We also learn of Sydney Carton, who happens to look very similar to Darnay; they both fall in love with Lucie Manette, but Lucie marries Charles. They have a son (who dies in childhood) and a daughter, also called Lucie; Carton becomes a family friend.

In the meantime things are afoot in France. The Defarges help to storm the Bastille. Darnay, receiving a plea from a former servant who has been wrongly imprisoned, returns to France at exactly the wrong time, and finds himself accused of being an emigrated aristocrat; he is sent to prison. Dr. Manette and Lucie meet Lorry in Paris in an attempt to free him; after a considerable amount of effort, they are able to do so due to the influence of Dr. Manette, who is a hero for having been imprisoned in the Bastille. However, after the release, Charles is denounced by the Defarges and by 'one other'. The denunciation ends with a sentence to the guillotine. Sydney Carton happens to overhear comments by the Defarges indicating that they intend to denounce Lucie as well, and he begins to form a plan for getting Lucie and her daughter, and even Charles Darnay, out of France.

Most authors, writing a story like this, would give us the story of events occurring during the French Revolution; but Dickens goes farther and gives us something of the French Revolution. He is able to do this through his emblematic way of writing. Everything in Dickens's world is charged with moral significance. Early in the novel, a wine cask bursts in the street, causing a brief frenzy, which is emblematic -- Dickens makes this clear on multiple occasions -- of the frenzy for blood in the Revolution. The monuments and buildings suggest the moral features first of the old regime, then of the Republic One and Indivisible of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death. This is partly why, I think, much of the story is so memorable -- one can hardly forget, for instance, Madame Defarge, an increasingly ominous figure, knitting the condemnations of those she considers guilty of the crimes of the age, like some dark fate. Dickens is also unafraid to point out explicitly what he means at times, so that the emblems he gathers will not go to waste, and he often uses repetition to layer them, so that we get a sense of vastness, and sometimes oppressiveness, that would otherwise not be there.

The basic story as regards the characters is essentially taken by Dickens from a play by Wilkie Collins, The Frozen Deep; Dickens was involved in its production, helped improve it through rehearsal, and acted in it. But the real strength of Dickensian characterization is often in the secondary characters, and this book is no exception. I particularly like Miss Pross who rises suddenly, splendidly, unexpectedly, yet plausibly to the occasion when it most matters. Many of Dickens's characters here rise to the occasion, despite considerably varied (and not always reputable) backgrounds. This makes it a surprisingly bright book, for all the darkness and terror and threat.

Favorite Passage: There are a number of good ones, but this is a fairly striking passage, occurring after the wine cask passage.

And now that the cloud settled on Saint Antoine, which a momentary gleam had driven from his sacred countenance, the darkness of it was heavy—cold, dirt, sickness, ignorance, and want, were the lords in waiting on the saintly presence—nobles of great power all of them; but, most especially the last. Samples of a people that had undergone a terrible grinding and regrinding in the mill, and certainly not in the fabulous mill which ground old people young, shivered at every corner, passed in and out at every doorway, looked from every window, fluttered in every vestige of a garment that the wind shook. The mill which had worked them down, was the mill that grinds young people old; the children had ancient faces and grave voices; and upon them, and upon the grown faces, and ploughed into every furrow of age and coming up afresh, was the sigh, Hunger. It was prevalent everywhere. Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.

Recommendation: Highly recommended.