Friday, June 06, 2014

Two Extremes of False Thought

All erroneous systems, whether of philosophy or religion, lie somewhere between these two extremes of false thought. Every species of theoretical or practical unbelief or erring faith, or even of a scientific superstition, either approximates, on the one hand, to naturalism, whether under the garb of a poetical symbolism, or the scientific form of a dynamical theory, or, on the other, to the absolutism of the reason, with its dead formularies. Every religious and every philosophical error is either a subordinate or a distorted species of one or the other—or, it may be, a mixture—a mean compounded of both. Manifold, however, or, rather, innumerable, are the several changes and combinations into which these two elements of infidelity and an erring faith may, and, indeed, actually do, enter.

Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 221.

Thursday, June 05, 2014


Charmides is an undisputed dialogue (the first I've done so far); there were a few who questioned its bona fides in the nineteenth century, but there were only a few and there have been even fewer since. It is sometimes given the subtitle, On Sophrosyne, i.e., On Temperance.

You can read Charmides online at the Perseus Project, as well as in French at Wikisource.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


Chaerephon was one of Socrates's oldest and closest friends. Plato presents him as a little bit crazy, in a good way, and comic poets like Aristophanes continually make fun of his bat-like/corpse-like appearance, so he and ugly-as-a-Silenus Socrates must have made a curious pair.

Critias was an older cousin of Plato and became one of the Thirty Tyrants.

Charmides was Plato's uncle and became one of the Thirty Tyrants.

  Other young men

The Plot

Socrates narrates how he and others have just returned from the Battle of Potidaea. Visiting the palaestra of Taureas, he finds a considerable number of people, among whom is his friend Chaerephon. Chaerephon asks about the battle, so Socrates sits with Chaerephon and Critias and answers questions. Socrates eventually redirects the discussion to philosophy and young men distinguished for wisdom or beauty or both. Critias, who sees a number of young men coming through the door, replies that he thinks the most handsome young man in Athens will soon be behind them: Charmides son of Glaucon, Critias's cousin. Charmides does in fact enter, and he is indeed very handsome. Socrates says that with such a handdsome face, if he has the perfect body that others say he does, he only needs one thing to be a man without equal: he has to have a well-formed soul.

Critias says that Charmides is exactly such a man. Charmides has been waking up with a headache lately, so he suggests that if Socrates wants to talk to him, he should pretend to have a remedy for it. Charmides comes over and Socrates offers a charm for the remedy, but notes that doctors don't just dispense medicines, but treat the body in such a way as not to focus only on specific problems. For the remedy to work properly, it has to be part of a larger treatment, which involves temperance. Critias says that Charmides excels in temperance, and Socrates asks whether this is so. Charmides, blushing, says that it's a hard question to answer, because it would be an odd thing to deny that you have it, but if you say you have it, you sound like you are boasting. So Socrates proposes that if temperance is present in Charmides, "it provides a sense of its presence," so he should be able to say something about what it is.

This then leads to an extended examination of definitions of temperance. Charmides first proposes that it is a kind of quietness, then, when that doesn't pan out, he suggests that it is a kind of shamefacedness or bashfulness. This also does not work. But Charmides then says that he heard someone claim that temperance is minding one's own business. Socrates suspects immediately that Charmides is parroting Critias, and he is unable to defend it. This brings Critias into the argument to defend his definition.

Critias in developing his definition specifies it in terms of the Delphic inscription: 'know thyself' and 'be temperate' are two ways of saying the same thing. Socrates presses this point about knowledge, and Critias commits to saying that temperance is a kind of knowledge of one's own knowledge. This turns out not to succeed. Thus the dialogue ends with perplexity about what temperance is.

It also ends on an ominous note, after a short consultation between Charmides and Critias, in which they conclude that Charmides should receive Socrates's charm remedy every day:

"This is the course I shall follow," he said," and I shall not give it up. I would be acting badly if I failed to obey my guardian and did not carry out your commands."

"Well then," said Critias, "these are my instructions."

"And I shall execute them," he said, "from this day forward."

"Look here," I said, "what are you two plotting?"

"Nothing," said Charmides--"our plotting is all done."

"Are you going to use force," I asked, "and don't I get a preliminary hearing?"

"We shall have to use force," said Charmides, "seeing that his fellow here has given me my orders. So you had better take counsel as to your own procedure."

"What use is counsel?" said I. "Because when you undertake to do anything by force, no man living can oppose you."

"Well then," he said, "don't oppose me."

"Very well, I shan't," said I.

And thus a dialogue, beginning with reference to one of the opening battles of the major phase of the Peloponnesian War, a dialogue that shows that Charmides and Critias don't know what temperance is, ends with a foreshadowing of the role of Critias and Charmides in the bloodthirsty government of the Thirty Tyrants toward the end of the War.


* The Battle of Potidaea was fought in 432 BC between Athens on one side and Corinth and its allies (including Potidaea on the other side. Potidaea was in an ambiguous position, being a colony of Corinth but also a member of the Delian League dominated by Athens; Corinth and Athens were not on good terms. After tensions became fighting, Athens demanded that Potidaea tear down its walls, expel its Corinthian embassy, and send hostages to Athens. The Athenians, after heavy fighting, want the battles and settled down for a siege. When our dialogue opens, the siege is apparently still going on, because the Athenians are still camped out at Potidaea; it would last two years, draining the Athenian treasury and setting up the conditions for Pericles' fall from power. This apparent indication of context, however, is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the devastating battle mentioned in the dialogue seems to have occurred after the siege was over, on the way back home. That Socrates was a veteran of Potidaea is well-established; his bravery during the battle, in which he saved the life of Alcibiades, seems to have been widely recognized.

* Note that Socrates says that Critias' family -- which is, of course, Plato's family -- has a long history of combining poetry and philosophy.

* Socrates' invented backstory for the charm, in which it is a Thracian remedy, seems to be based on Herodotus (Persian Wars, Book 4.93 and following). Herodotus recounts that the Getae, one of the Thracian tribes, believed that they were actually immortal, and that instead of dying they went to their god Zamolxis.

The Thought

Since Charmides is one of the perplexed-conclusion dialogues -- it ends with perplexity about what temperance is, rather than any definite positive account -- one should see the main thought of the dialogue to be in what is only hinted. One of the clear major concerns in the dialogue is that temperance or discretion (sophrosyne) must be a practical skill, a craft, making something good. Socrates highlights this toward the end, and it is notable that none of the definitions given by Critias and Charmides make any sense of the idea that temperance is something making people's lives better. Quietness, modesty, minding one's own business, knowledge of one's own knowledge, all fail in some way in this regard. Indeed, they are all quite indeterminate; if temperance were any of these things, an immense number of obviously bad things could be accounted as temperance. And perhaps this is part of the point: Critias and Charmides, future tyrants, only know of a 'temperance' that is compatible with excess in action.

We are in fact provided with several other clues as to what temperance must be: we have the direct connection with beauty, and we have the fact that the discussion is explicitly placed in a medical context. (It's never said, but in context it's difficult to imagine that Charmides' recurring headache could be due to anything but the usual excesses of youth.) We also see that Critias and Charmides have tendencies opposing temperance: Critias is headstrong and unwilling to recognize his limits and Charmides is weak-willed and excessively inclined to obey Critias, while the two of them together are inclined to have their way regardless of what others want. But, as with all perplexed-conclusion dialogues, it is up to the reader to try to solve the riddle.


Quotations from Rosamond Kent Sprague's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 639-663.

Linkable Links and Notable Notes

* I will be in and out and not always near a computer for the next week or so; there are some things that are already scheduled to go up, but I may be slow with responding to comments and the like.

* Africa Windmill Project is fundraising to buy a minibus. You can see some of the work AWP does to help farmers in Malawi achieve food security on the AWP blog.

* Don't forget that Sarah Emsley's Mansfield Park event is ongoing.

* Rooting around, I happened to come across this handy family tree for Plato.

* Ergo is a new open-access philosophy journal.

Julia Jorati discusses one of the more interesting papers in this edition of the journal.

* Thony Christie has Galileo, the Church, and Heliocentricity: A Rough Guide

* Two interesting recent posts at "A Clerk of Oxford":
Christ the Bird and the Play of Hope: An Anglo-Saxon Ascension
St. Oda the Good: Son of a Viking, Forger of Broken Swords

* The Catechism of the Catholic Church was recently translated into Persian by Muslim scholars, as part of their study in comparative religions. Part of the significance is that, while Catholic groups have freedom to publish in Iran, they do not have freedom to publish in the Persian language; only Shi'ites can do so. So this is the only legal way in which the Catechism could possibly be published in Iran in the Persian language.

* Emily A. E. Thomas on Samuel Alexander at the SEP.

* An old article by Francis Dvornik on what counts as an ecumenical council.

* We're going to talk Phaedrus next week, and as it happens, this article is about an important part of the dialogue: the Myth of Theuth.

* Why refrigerating bread ruins it.

* Why keeping handwriting, cursive, and penmanship in schools may be important.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Hobbes and Descartes on Deception

Descartes gives the principle 'God is not a deceiver' an important role in his argument for the existence of bodies. Thomas Hobbes in the Third Objections replied:

The standard view is that doctors are not at fault if they deceive their patients for their health's sake, and that fathers are not at fault if they deceive their children for their own good. For the crime of deception consists not in the falsity of what is said but in the harm done by the deceiver. M. Descartes should thus consider the proposition 'God can in no case deceive us' and see whether it is universally true. For if it is not universally true, the conclusion 'Therefore corporeal things exist' does not follow. (AT VII, 195; CSM II, 136)

Descartes dismisses this:

My conclusion does not require that we can in no case be deceived (indeed, I have readily admitted that we are often deceived). All that it requires is that we are not deceived in cases where our going wrong would suggest an intention to deceive on the part of God; for it is self-contradictory that God should have such an intention. Once more my opponent's reasoning is invalid. (AT VII, 195; CSM II, 136-137)

One reason this exchange is interesting is that we seem to see the influence of the difference between Protestant and Catholic moral philosophy and theology here. Hobbes in talking about the "standard view" is in fact talking about what was the standard view in Protestant jurisprudence, as we find it in people like Grotius, who formulates the wrongness of deception in terms of a right to truth that one may or may not have depending on the circumstances. Descartes, on the other hand, is taking a more Catholic approach, in which defective intention is the central idea in discussions of deception.

Three New Poem Drafts


On Tabor we are the resplendent garment:
Christ is one, Christ is many,
Christ is the union of one and many,
but this does not exhaust Him.

On Tabor our light is His light in us:
we receive from Him and He from us,
we are in Him and He is in us,
but this does not exhaust Him.

On Tabor we are exalted in His glory:
Christ is infinite, Christ is finite,
Christ is the union of infinite and finite,
but this does not exhaust Him.

On Tabor we are lit with the acts of God:
what was impossible is possible in Him,
what would be lacking is found in Him,
but this does not exhaust Him.


The wind is still on tranquil wave
(the ache is great, the pain is deep),
no tempest-roar or storm to brave
(despair is gnawing, wound unstaunched),
and all is calm (but not my heart!)
and all is fair up on the sea
(except for in my inward part!).
So long ago my flight was launched;
I've yearned for love I could not keep;
I grieve, though calm is on the deep
and wind is still on tranquil wave.


The heart still beats in Peter's hall,
the world still turns upon the cross,
in silent gardens shadows fall
on leaves that do not heed their loss,
in holy skies the stars still burst
and milky still the stream is seen,
for which soft light the mind still thirsts
beside the lake of moonlit sheen.
How fair, how fair the evenings are
that bring a respite from the day --
and, sure and safe beneath a star,
the road of Christ lies where it lay.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


This dialogue is known by several different names -- Lovers (Erastai) and Rival Lovers (Anterestai) both go back a long way. One occasionally finds it subtitled, On Philosophy. It's important to keep in mind, if one is to interpret the dialogue correctly, that the erastēs is primarily a mentor, although Greek custom allowed, and indeed generally expected, that there was a precise kind of sexual relationship involved; as long as one recognized the latter (and the link to eros, desire), one could also translate the terms as 'Mentors' or 'Rival Mentors'. It is in fact rivalry in mentorship that is in view in the dialogue.

Since Schleiermacher, who held that everything in the dialogue indicated its spuriousness, it has generally been considered spurious on stylistic and vocabulary grounds, although in the past thirty years, due to a famous paper by Julia Annas, there has been an increasing tendency to think that, like Alcibiades, the case against it is weak, although perhaps (on grounds of vocabulary and grammar) stronger than the case against Alcibiades. According to Ledger, it is stylometrically much closer to Xenophon than Plato. On the assumption that it is not by Plato but by a student of Plato, it has sometimes been suggested (implausibly, I think) that the dialogue may be an attack on the somewhat polymathic approach of Aristotle; but it has also been suggested that Aristotle might be rejecting a key claim of this dialogue in Politics 1252a7-9,in which he says that it is not the same to be a statesman, head of a household, or a master of slaves.

You can read Rival Lovers online at the Perseus Project.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)


  Four unnamed youths

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates narrates how he walked into the school of Dionysus the grammarian and found there two young men arguing about natural philosophy. Their erastai were there, as well, and, sitting down next to one of them, Socrates remarks that they must be discussing something interesting and admirable.

The young man he directed the comment to, who is a jock, replied that they were merely "babbling about things up in the sky and talking philosophical nonsense" (132b). Socrates asks him why he holds philosophy in such contempt. At this point, his rival, who is a geek, replied that Socrates was wasting his time, since the jock does nothing but wrestle, eat, and sleep.

Socrates asks the geek whether he thinks that philosophy is admirable. At this point the two boys who were arguing come over to listen to the discussion, and so the geek replies, somewhat self-consciously and with a gesture at the jock in order to make a point to the audience that if he ever thought philosophy to be contemptible, he would no longer consider himself a human being. Socrates responds that if he thinks it is admirable, he must know what it is, and asks what it might be, to which the rival youth replies that it is polymathy.

Using the analogy between learning and athletics to pit the two against each other in an indirect way, Socrates is able to draw out the point that what is good and admirable must be moderate. Sensing that he's about to lose the interest of the boys, however, he shifts his approach and asks what kinds of things a philosopher would need to learn. The geek replies that the philosopher is supposed to train so as to appear to be expert in every craft, or, failing that, in the most important ones, focusing on theory rather than practice. When Socrates questions whether this is even possible, the geek replies that the philosopher only needs to know what is reasonable for a free man, so that he can understand the specialists more than other people.

Socrates compares this to the pentathlete who never excels at any task but is always only second-best at everything -- unable to place first, but still doing better than everyone else. The geek agrees that this is an appropriate analogy. Socrates asks whether the good people are useful or useless, and the geek replies that they are useful. He then asks whether philosophers are useful, and the geek replies that they are useful.

Socrates then points out the oddity of this. If you are sick, what's useful is a doctor, not the philosopher who has studied some medical theory. If you are on a ship in stormy weather, what you want is the pilot, not a philosopher who has studied some of the theory of navigation. And this is true for every kind of craft down the line. But civilized people will pretty much always have the specialists available, so philosophers seem to be useless. But, Socrates says, philosophers are not polymaths, but something quite different.

As he always does, Socrates brings the matter around to justice, which he argues requires knowing good human beings from bad human beings and knowing which one is, as a temperate person. And the just person governs the city well, and the household well, and himself well: it is all the same craft or skill. And this is the skill a philosopher should cultivate, and he should strive to excel at it, not settle for being second-best like the pentathlete.

Thus Socrates silences the geek; the jock says that he's right; and the others admire the argument.


* The theme that justice requires temperance or self-control is a very common one throughout the Platonic dialogues.

* The inscription of the Delphic Oracle, Know Thyself, is explicitly brought in and given a Platonic explanation: "it is this, it seems, which is prescribed, in the Delphic inscription, to exercise good sense [sophrosyne = temperance] and justice [dikaiosyne]"(138a).

* The structure here is perhaps a bit more subtle than it might seem: Socrates has managed to manipulate the situation so as to benefit everyone. The geek gets no more harm from being corrected on the subject than shame at having been wrong in front of his favorite, but now he will have a better view of the subject he already recognizes as important. In the meantime, by refuting the geek, with whom he might superficially have been expected to agree, he has interested the jock in the subject, and given the jock a view of philosophy that makes it something other than nonsense. The other boys have stopped arguing over astronomy and learned something, as well.

In the manuscripts, the dialogue is always called Erastai, Lovers, but the word anterestai, which is sometimes preferred by ancient lists of the dialogues, is found in the dialogue itself, and is very appropriate. But one of the things we can see in the dialogue is that there is a contrast between the rivalrous love of the two mentors and philosophy as love of wisdom: philosophy is a form of love but its love is nonrivalrous. Indeed, practiced Socratically it eliminates rivalries and benefits everyone involved.


Quotations from Jeffrey Mitscherling's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 618-626.

Monday, June 02, 2014

And Dream of Yet Untasted Victory

by Anne Brontë

Come to the banquet -- triumph in your songs!
Strike up the chords -- and sing of Victory!
The oppressed have risen to redress their wrongs;
The Tyrants are o'erthrown; the Land is free!
The Land is free! Aye, shout it forth once more;
Is she not red with her oppressors' gore?
We are her champions -- shall we not rejoice?
Are not the tyrants' broad domains our own?
Then wherefore triumph with a faltering voice;
And talk of freedom in a doubtful tone?
Have we not longed through life the reign to see
Of Justice, linked with Glorious Liberty?

Shout you that will, and you that can rejoice
To revel in the riches of your foes.
In praise of deadly vengeance lift you voice,
Gloat o'er your tyrants' blood, you victims' woes.
I'd rather listen to the skylarks' songs,
And think on Gondal's, and my Father's wrongs.

It may be pleasant, to recall the death
Of those beneath whose sheltering roof you lie;
But I would rather press the mountain heath,
With naught to shield me from the starry sky,
And dream of yet untasted victory --
A distant hope -- and feel that I am free!

O happy life! To range the mountains wild,
The waving woods -- or Ocean's heaving breast,
With limbs unfettered, conscience undefiled,
And choosing where to wander, where to rest!
Hunted, oppressed, but ever strong to cope --
With toils, and perils -- ever full of hope!

'Our flower is budding' -- When that word was heard
On desert shore, or breezy mountain's brow,
Wherever said -- what glorious thoughts it stirred!
'Twas budding then -- Say has it blossomed now?
Is this the end we struggled to obtain?
O for the wandering Outlaw's life again!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Four Sources of Human Error

The dead abstract notions of the intellect, the dialectical disputes of the reason, the purely subjective and one-sided apprehension of objects by a deluded fancy, and the absolute will, are the four sources of human error. Considered apart from the aberrations of passion, special faults of character, and prejudices of education, as well as the false notions and wrong judgments to which the latter give rise— these four are the springs from which flows all the error of the soul which makes itself the center of the terrestrial reality, and which, springing out of this soil, is nourished and propagated by it. To what, then, are we to look to dispel these manifold delusions but to a closer and more intimate union of the soul with God as the source of life and truth?

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, Morrison, tr., p. 107.