Friday, May 23, 2014


One of the dialogues that was sometimes attributed to Plato in ancient times, but even then often regarded as spurious, is the Halcyon, a very short little dialogue. It was also sometimes attributed to Lucian of Samosata, and, indeed, could be considered to reside on the border between a Platonic-style dialogue and a Menippean satire, although the content of the work seems rather un-Lucian. According to Diogenes Laertius (Life of Plato XXXVII), however, who was getting his information from Favorinus, it was written by some guy named Leon. Of Leon we know nothing else, so this was apparently Leon's greatest literary and philosophical accomplishment. It is, however, a pleasant little dialogue.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Chaerephon was Socrates' oldest and closest friend, and shows up several times in Plato's dialogues. He was also mocked along with Socrates in Aristophanes's The Clouds.


The Plot

Chaerephon and Socrates are apparently on the seashore near Phaleron. Chaerephon opens the dialogue by remarking on a sweet sound he heard coming from the sea, and wonders what it could be. Socrates replies by saying it is a sea-bird called the halcyon, and tells its myth.

Once there was a woman, Halcyon, the daughter of Aeolus, whose husband Ceyx died. Ceyx was extraordinarily handsome, being the son of Eosphorus, the Morning Star. Aching and lamenting the loss of her husband, she searched for him. Being unable to find him on land, she grew wings and now flies around the sea searching for him. Because of her love of her husband, the gods gave her a special privilege: her nesting days in winter are the halcyon days of tranquil weather.

Chaerephon remarks that it seems absurd to believe in ancient stories about birds turning into women or women turning into birds. Socrates takes a more agnostic stance. After explaining his position, Socrates engages in an apostrophe to the halcyon, saying that he will pass on the myth to his children and shall recommend Halcyon's piety and devotion to his two wives, Xanthippe and Myrto. He asks Chaerephon if he'll do the same, and Chaerephon remarks that it would be appropriate. Then they make plans to return to Athens.


* Phaleron was where the old sea-docks of Athens were located, before Themistocles did the work of converting the Piraeus to that task. It's about 3 miles (about 5 kilometers) from Athens.

* The Halcyon myth is a well attested myth. It is also mentioned in the Bibliotheca attributed to Apollodorus, one of the most important sources preserving ancient Greek myths, and in a lovely rendition in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and in Hyginus's Fabulae. Very noticeably, however, the dialogue makes the Ceyx of the story Ceyx of Trachis, who doesn't seem to be the same as the Ceyx in some other sources, although this might just be the usual difficulty of knowing whether the same name in myths are the same person or just two people with the same name.

* Xanthippe is known to have been Socrates's wife; she is portrayed as such by both Plato and Xenophon. Later stories portrayed her as a shrewish woman, so the author is having a bit of fun, having Socrates promise to sing the story of the faithful wife to Xanthippe. Later authors, such as Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, refer to stories about Socrates taking care of a woman named Myrto; the source was apparently a work attributed to Aristotle (Diogenes Laertius attributes the claim to Aristotle and Plutarch claims it comes from a work called On Good Birth and doubts whether it's really Aristotle's). While Plutarch does not describe her as a wife, Diogenes Laertius does, making Socrates out to be a bigamist.

The Thought

Socrates responds to Chaerephon's remark about the difficulty of believing the ancient myths by saying that human minds do not seem to be good judges of what is possible:

Many things which are feasible seem, to us, not feasible, and many things which are attainable seem unattainable -- often because of our inexperience, and often because of the childish folly in our minds. For in fact all human beings, even very old men, really do seem to be as foolish as children, since the span of our lives is small indeed, no longer than childhood when compared with all eternity.

Nature/divinity/heaven/cosmos can do extraordinary things beyond our capacity even to express very well. And even in the human case, we see that adults have extraordinary abilities compared to children, and people who are skilled can do things impossible to those who are not. So it appears that we have no way to deny that such things are actually possible to God/nature/the universe (the dialogue uses such terms interchangeably).

The dialogue therefore considers the difficulty of determining what is genuinely impossible. It can also be seen as suggesting, indirectly, that the primary reason for passing on stories like the myth of Halcyon is the moral edification received from them -- in this case, encouragement to strong marital bond. (This does fit with Plato's attitude to myths elsewhere.)


Quotation from Brad Inwood's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., 1714-1717.

Music on My Mind

Týr (with Liv Kristine), "The Lay of Our Love".

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Poem Draft and Two Poem Re-Drafts


Fresh, cool wind pours
on my face;
Frost-bright moon shines
in my eyes.
Swift fish play, splash,
in the lake.
High stars sing hymns
in the skies.
Where am I, but here?
Where are you, but here?

Breeze-blown leaves shush
in the trees,
Small birds trill flutes
in the dark.
Sweet blooms raise scent
for the bees.
Shy deer eat shoots
in the park.
Where am I, but here?
Where are you, but here?

Salme's Song

I will not love the night-lord,
nor marry the harried moon.
His work is always pressing,
his rising oft too soon.

I will not love the sun-king;
his fire I cherish not;
he blights the land with fury
and passions waxing hot.

The star I take as lover;
he shines with gentle light;
his eyes are kind and loving
and steady in the night.

Thus starry youth and Salme
shall wed in joy sublime
and waltz on Harria's shoreland
until the end of time.

The Bacchae

When the god of wine and revel
made dizzy the city's prince,
the omens darkly muttered
with a strange malevolence.

But the king kept to his folly
and was slain by the godly bull,
carried home in his mother's arms.
Amen: the gods are cruel.

You are proud in your ways, O mortals!
Better it is to mourn
than march through mocking streets
to where the beasts are torn.

You are vain with vain cosmetics
by which you hide your soul;
you boast of civic order
when destruction is your goal.

You speak the name of Justice?
But Justice walks with sword
to slit the throats of mortals
with a fate no charm can ward.

When your life is swiftly over --
when we see the path you've trod --
we will see not boasted glory
but the mocking of the god.

Ambassador, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a short story draft. Part I. Part II. Part III.

I found myself somewhat tongue-tied, and before I could come up with some properly Imperial greeting, the Matriarch clapped her hands together once and said, "Your Excellency must have had a very long journey. Let us have dinner."

In general it is best to avoid having dinner with someone who poisoned your predecessor's meal. In general it is also best not to face off with a dangerous enemy when ravenously hungry. Normally the former political truth would heavily outweigh the latter, but as I considered the possibilities they were surprisingly evenly matched. I could not help but reflect that the Matriarch would probably have some difficulty explaining yet another ambassador dying from bad food.

"I would be honored to dine with you, Matriarch," I said. "May it be the first such dinner of many, for many years to come."

She smiled at that. "Indeed," she said.

The small dining hall itself was quietly spartan, but this was offset by the lush paintings that hung on its walls. One of them caught the eye immediately. It was a snow scene with two figures. One, a man, lay dying on the ground. The other, standing, was a pale woman with fire-red hair blowing about her pale face like an aura of flame, looked right out of the painting at you with eyes of subtle green so skillfully painting that they seemed wet with tears and measurelessly lovely.

"I have heard of this painting," I said. "One of the old Matriarchs. It is one of the most famous paintings ever made."

"Yes," said the Matriarch, indifferently, as she sat at the table. "I have never liked it myself, but if I were to order it destroyed, someone would surely smuggle it out instead. Better to have it hang where no one ever sees it." She gestured at the table. "Please sit down. Go ahead and try the saltwater pickles, if you are hungry; they are splendid."

I was indeed hungry, but I politely declined the pickles. The steward brought the wine as I sat down.

"It seems to me," said the Matriarch, "that you have the look of a man with something to say."

"A question to ask, Matriarch, but it is a bold one."

She merely inclined her head.

"I am a loyal son of the Empire, but I was chosen for this position by a political enemy of my family. I am being set up, and I refuse to cooperate with it. I am certain by this point that there are spies on my staff and that my predecessor was involved in some sort of scheme; I suspect one that has something to do with the Republic of Five Cities." The meal was brought. It smelled heavenly.

The Matriarch's face was inscrutable. "You are bolder than I would have expected of an Empire-man. Truth is a dangerous weapon in this business, never to be given out without expectation of return, and despite your innocent, pretty-boy looks, you do not strike me as too naive to understand that. What do you wish from me?"

"I do not know what relationship you had with my predecessor, but I am wagering that your plans did not overlap. I will do nothing contrary to the interests of the Empire, but I think you and I can come to a more amicable arrangement. But I need to know what is going on, and I suspect that you know."

While I began eating, she leaned back and looked at me through narrowed eyes a long while. Then she smiled. "You would make an excellent confidence artist."

"I never lie," I replied hotly.

"The best confidence men never do," she said. She drank some wine, then said, "I do not know everything; your predecessor was many things, but not a fool, and my means of gathering information have necessarily been indirect. But this is what I know. A rumor has spread through the Five Cities that the army of Syan is in poor shape -- soldiers not being paid and regiments on the verge of revolt."

"Is that true?"

"It is true that the rumor has spread. Because of it, the Republic is preparing an assault on Syan. The Empire is being bribed, and I believe your predecessor was being bribed, to provide certain logistical support; I am not privy to all the details, but I believe part of the deal is that once the Five Cities took over, the Empire would receive certain valuable mining lands near the border, without having to do any hard fighting to get them. It is a very Imperial scheme; I would not be surprised if some Imperial senator had not suggested it once the Five Cities approached the Empire about the matter. I have also strongly suspected that the Imperial embassy has been providing cover for Republican spies, so your sense of things confirms my own. What I wish I knew was exactly when they intend to move....You do not seem to be very happy at the information."

Indeed, I had been trying not to swear out loud at it, although half of it I had already suspected. The Matriarch nodded.

"If you are thinking what I suspect, you are quite right: you were likely sent here to die. And while my reputation is partly the legend and mystique of the Matriarchs, it is not entirely empty. Once the Five Cities began to move, had any clear evidence turned up to confirm my suspicion of Imperial sheltering of Republican spies, you would have been responsible for it, whether knowing about it or not, and your life would have been forfeit. It is useless to follow Imperial politics too closely, given that these days it mostly consists of posturing and bribery and attempts to wiggle out of hard military decisions, but I have heard some few things about your family. I would be surprised if there weren't a plan to plant the evidence on you at just the right time, in the hope that I would take care of their problem for them. Were I them I would also falsify evidence that you had, in fact, been the major player in the plan the entire time. But I don't know if the Empire is that brazen anymore. If I wanted to conquer the Empire by force, I could almost do it by sending in a brigade of old women with brooms and ladles to take the Senate hostage."

I flushed at the insult, but was not at that point in the mood to rise to the Empire's defense. "I suppose we have a common interest in finding out exactly when the Republic will move and what the spies are doing in preparation for it."

"Then it is done," said the Matriarch. "I will keep you informed about what I learn if you will keep me informed about what you learn."

I was still finishing my meal, but she, who had hardly touched her plate at all, rose to leave.

"I have two more questions, Matriarch," I said, "if it would not be too much trouble."

She gestured at me to continue.

"I seriously doubt that the Five Cities would act on a rumor alone; if they are acting on a rumor, there must have been confirming evidence. Did you start the rumor that the armies of Syan were in disarray?"

She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. "Who can ever know how a rumor first starts?" she replied. "What is your second question?"

"Why do you hate the painting so much?"

She looked somber a moment, then said thoughtfully, "There is power and there is power. One kind of power is the kind I wield over Syan. It is clear, it is brutal -- and it is limited. It cannot be everywhere at once, it cannot loom over everyone all the time. Your Imperial peacocks let out their peacock-screams about the freedom of the Imperial citizen, but here in Syan the laws, though merciless, are clear and few. Murderers are shot, rapists and traitors flayed, brigands hanged, tax evaders and thieves branded, and almost everyone else can go about their business however they please. To try to rule everything would be a misstep. Every Matriarch is taught that from the first day she is Infanta, to make no plans requiring control of little details. But there is another kind of power, and it regards no limits. It exerts a slow pressure to conform to impossible standards, mythical standards, and it seeps into the very core of who you are." She pointed to the painting. "It is a power that she presumed to try to wield over future Matriarchs. And it is a power to which I refuse to give any opportunity for exercise."

And she turned and left, leaving me to finish my meal.

to be continued

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Platonic Horoi

In ancient philosophy, it is Plato above all who is associated with the philosophical enterprise of definition; and this interest was carried on by Plato's Academy (it was a feature of the school that was often satirized and parodied).

When Thrasyllus put together his ancient collected works of Plato, he discovered a number of works circulating under Plato's name that he thought were very likely not Plato's, and one of these was a work called the Horoi, or definitions, which is exactly what you would think: it is a list of definitions. The content is obviously connected with Plato's Academy, but Thrasyllus was probably right in taking the work to be spurious. Some ancient authors thought that the list was drawn up by Speusippus, who was Plato's nephew and the head of the Academy after him. This is probably also not right. We have no particular reason to attribute it to anyone we know, or even to regard it in its origins as the work of any single author. But it does give us some indication of Platonic thought and practice in the Academy that Plato left behind. Because the work consists just of a list of definitions without much context, it's usually regarded as a bugbear to translate -- it isn't always clear what is meant, and lists are more easily corrupted in transmission than more complex works which have many things that can help suggest that a word-choice is wrong, so who knows how it has changed and shifted over the many centuries since the Hellenistic period. But it is interesting to consider some of the definitions. I'll be using Dough Hutchinson's translation from the Complete Works, except for stripping out the Greek letters, which are not important to bother with here.

arete, virtue: the best disposition; the state of a mortal creature which is in itself praiseworthy; the state on account of which its possessor is said to be good; the just observance of the laws; the disposition on account of which he who is so disposed is said to be perfectly excellent; the state which produces faithfulness to law.

There is very little surprising about this definition of 'excellence' or 'virtue', but we see here the political character of the Greek understanding of virtue in its clear connection to law.

phronesis, practical wisdom: the ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.

We can see that the first three clauses in this definition of prudence or practical wisdom are related: prudence is that which through itself produces human happiness, and it is knowledge of good and bad, so it is knowledge that produces happiness. How does it produce human happiness, though? Through judgment of what is to be done and what is not to be done. The link between prudence and happiness (understood not as pleasure, but as a totality or completeness of good in a life) is essential for understanding its significance in any Platonic (e.g., the deuterocanonical book Wisdom) or Aristotelian (e.g., Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics) context.

dikaiosune, justice: the unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.

At first glance, these clauses seem to be a jumble of external and internal things, about the state of the soul and the state of the city. But, of course, in Plato's Republic we'll see how the two would probably have been taken to be interrelated. The definition of justice as 'the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved', or, as it is often put, the disposition of rendering to everyone what is due to them, is the dominate definition of justice in the history of philosophy. In any Platonic system, however, this rendering to others what's due to them presupposes, if it is to be consistent, a state of your own character in which all the parts of your life are rendered what is due to them -- a harmony of the soul with itself arising from the discipline of parts of your soul (which is just whatever it is that makes you a living thing) in relation to each other.

sophrosune, self-control: moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which tis possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

Sophrosyne, or temperance, is a big theme throughout Plato; a significant part of the Gorgias, for instance, is concerned with arguing that it is necessary for justice. It is thus perhaps not surprising that there seem to be connections between the definitions of justice and temperance in this work.

andreia, courage: the state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experience of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.

Here we get a rather more complicated tangle; it's unclear how all of these fit together. But courage, and particularly its relation to knowledge play a significant role in the Laches and the Protagoras.

These four, phronesis, dikaiosyne, sophrosyne, and andreia, are, of course, what later generations would call the cardinal virtues. Since this is one of the most influential and lasting elements of the Platonic legacy, it seems appropriate to select them out here as a sort of reminder to ourselves to be on the look-out for the roles they play in the dialogues.

Two other definitions of special note:

philosophia, philosophy: desire for the knowledge of what always exists; the state which contemplates the truth, what makes it true; cultivation of the soul, based on correct reason.

Wisdom itself is defined in the Horoi as knowledge of what always exists (which corresponds to the first clause here) and knowledge that contemplates the cause of beings (which seems to correspond to the second clause here).

sophistes, sophist: paid hunter of rich and distinguished young men.

This comes from Plato's Sophist (223b). The Visitor in the Sophist divides the hunting of men into two kinds: hunting by force and hunting by persuasion; the latter is divided into lovers and money-earners. Of money-earning hunters of men, some only manage to be hangers-on, like people who set honeyed traps and just collect what they can get from them, and these are flatterers. Sophists differ from these only in that they are better at what they do: instead of waiting for men to fall into their traps, they actively seek them out and bag them. This is not the complete account of the Sophist in the the dialogue, since the dialogue also goes on to discuss other aspects of the sophist's trade; so it's interesting that this alone is selected out.

Quotations from Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., Hackett (1997) pp. 1677-1686.

Elements of Modal Logic IV

Part I. Part II. Part III.

So far we've looked at Box and Diamond in a fairly abstract way. (This is deliberate -- most accounts of modal logic, I think, start too far downstream. This is like trying to figure out validity before you know very much about the structure of arguments.) But we should start looking at some broader applications than we have so far. So here's a small sample of important modal concepts:

Box Diamond
time always sometimes
location everywhere somewhere
duty obligatory permissible
truth necessary possible
logical quantity all at least some
mereology   whole at least part
topology interior closure

For each of these, our Box and Diamond Rules hold:

(1) □ on the Reference Table means the statement would be found on any table there might be.

(2) ◇ on the Reference Table means that there is a table on which the statement is found.

What differs is what the tables stand for, since they could stand for times, locations, or any number of other things.

These concepts often have more useful logical content than we find with just these two rules, and to use these concepts fully we often have to use this extra content. What exactly this is, will vary depending on the modality. But some kinds of content will be very common.

One very common example of extra logical information is what is known as duality. The Box Rule (1) and the Diamond Rule (2) don't tell us anything about how box and diamond relate to each other. But if you look at the concepts above, you can see that box and diamond do have something to do with each other. In particular, you can often redefine Box in terms of Diamond and Diamond in terms of Box.

If I say, "Always the birds are singing," and we want to restate this in terms of 'sometimes', one way I could do it is to say, "It is not true that sometimes it is not true that the birds are singing." This works a little like a double negative, except that the modal operator in the middle gets flipped by the negatives. Thus we say that 'always' and 'sometimes' are dual to each other.

Rather than write "it is not true" all the time, we'll just use the symbol ~. So this gives us two more rules that we can use to reason about modal concepts:

(3) □ is interchangeable with ~◇~.

(4) ◇ is interchangeable with ~□~.

The rules are less complicated than they might seem, because we actually use them all the time -- you know that when you say that the whole wall is red you are also saying that it's wrong to think that part of the wall is not red. That's just Rule 3.

There are cases where we don't use these rules. One example of a common modal concept where we usually don't is validity. Validity is a Box. You could propose a corresponding Diamond that is dual to validity, if you wanted; but we don't even have a word for it, and people don't usually care about any corresponding Diamond. So we don't need to bother with any way to get from Box to Diamond -- at least for most practical purposes. This is why we started with just Rule 1 and Rule 2. But for most complex situations the duality rules tend to be very useful.

A very common context in which we do see these duality rules used very extensively is the predicate calculus. In the predicate calculus you have expressions like, "For every x that is a dog, x is furry", which, if we represent 'furry' with F would be represented as something like (depending on the exact conventions being used -- I'm using a crude typing here just for making the point):

(∀x: dog)(Fx)

The ∀, called the universal quantifier, tells us there are no exceptions. There is another operator, called the existential quantifier, which we would use to say things like "There is some x that is a dog such that x is furry":

(∃x: dog)(Fx)

The universal quantifier is Box and the existential quantifier is Diamond, and they are dual to each other: ∀ is equivalent to ~∃~ and ∃ is equivalent to ~∀~. This duality is used all the time in proofs in the predicate calculus.

One of the ways this will change how we reason is if our Reference Table has a ~◇ or a ~□. Without Rules (3) and (4), this wouldn't mean much. But if we have them, then ~◇ also tells us □~ and ~□ also tells us ◇~. For instance, if your Reference Table tells you that it is not true that unicorns exist everywhere, you know there will be some table where "Unicorns exist" is not true.

There are other important assumptions that can come into play with modal reasoning, even if they are not quite as common as duality. We'll look briefly at one of the most important ones, subalternation, in the next post in the series.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Schlegel on the Importance of Equity

"Let justice be done," they say (and the word is here used in the juridical sense of strict and absolute law),—"let justice be done, though the world should be ruined." And we may well say in reply:—Woe to mankind, woe to every individual, woe to the world, were they doomed to be finally judged according to this rigid justice, and this rigid justice only, by Him who alone has the power and the right to dispense such severe justice unto men, and judge them by its rules. But since such full and inexorable justice belongs to God only, who is incapable of error; and since all human justice is but the temporary delegate of the divine; it should necessarily be mild, indulgent, qualified by circumstances; and should on the principle of equity be as lenient as possible, and be ever mindful of its due limits. And this principle is applicable to the most important as well as the most insignificant relations of life, and is so thoroughly connected with them all that, according as we adopt the one or the other principle of strict and absolute law, or of mild equity, the whole of our conduct, opinions, and views of the world must differ. The power of the state is only a temporary and delegated power, destined to accomplish the ends of divine justice; and this dignity, indeed, is sufficiently exalted, and the responsibility attached to it sufficiently great; but this supreme human justice, unless it disregard its own limits, as well as those of mankind, is not divine justice, nor the immediate authority of God, nor God himself.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of History, Robertson, tr., p. 266.

One of the consistent themes of The Philosophy of History is that the absolute is out of human reach, and that whenever anything human is treated as absolute, this is an expression of the corruption of the Zeitgeist. Thus he says later (p. 461),

In science, the absolute is the abyss which swallows up living truth and leaves behind only the hollow idea and the dead formula. In the political world, the absolute in conduct and speculation is that false spirit of time, opposed to all good and the fulness of divine truth, which in a great measure rules the world, and may entirely rule it, and lead it forever to its final ruin. As errors would not be dangerous or deceptive, and would have little effect, unless they contained a portion or appearance of truth, this false spirit of time, which successively assumes all forms of destruction since it has abandoned the path of eternal truth, consists in this: it withdraws particular facts from their historical connexion, and holds them up as the centre and term of a system, without any limitation, and without any regard to historical circumstances. The true foundation, and the right term of things, in the history of society as in the lives of individuals, cannot be thus severed from their historical connexion and their place in the natural order of events.

Thus in the original quotation, Schlegel is concerned with the tendency in classical Roman civilization to treat law as a kind of absolute. This creates what Schlegel calls a 'political idolatry', which in the long run debases a people, which serves as an excuse for endless series of abuses, and which (connected with both of these) teaches people to ignore the true value of the human beings around them. The principle of equity, of course, is that while law must be upheld, circumstances must be taken into account, and that the letter of the law should not be pursued to the extent of killing the spirit of the law.

A Poem Draft


The sun is bright and yet the stars
behind the sky still play their games.
Behind a smile our thoughts will dart,
a billion miles from any word.
Secrets fill the world,
galaxies of thought.
A trillion spinning wheels of light
are hid behind all human eyes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Soap Opera of Kings and Saints II

I've previously summarized some of the royal soap opera that was Great Britain in the tenth and eleventh centuries, for St. Margaret's day. Today is the feast of St. Dunstan, who also lived through that elaborate drama of Vikings, Scottish intrigue, Anglo-Saxon assassinations, and a Norman Invasion.

Dunstan was born at some point in the first half of the tenth century; his uncle Athelm was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Being bright and competent, Dunstan became part of the court of King Æthelstan, who, having joined Mercia and Wessex and conquered the Viking kingdom of York (or Jórvík, as it would have been in those days), had become the first Anglo-Saxon ruler of all England. Æthelstan also invaded Scotland (then known as Alba) and defeated King Constantine, bringing Alba into submission -- but the Scots were not exactly the kind to stay submitting and much of his reign was taken up with repeatedly having to defeat them. Dunstan became a favorite of Æthelstan, which, of course, inevitably made him enemies; they started spreading rumors of his involvement with black magic, and Dunstan was forced to leave court. He went to stay with what was probably another of his uncles, St. Ælfheah the Bald, who was Bishop of Winchester.

Ælfheah himself had an interesting life. While Bishop of Winchester, the area was subject to a massive Viking raid under the great Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason; Ælfheah seems to have convinced the king to accept a treaty with danegeld and go away peacefully. In any case, Ælfheah tried to convince Dunstan to become a monk, and after a terrible sickness, Dunstan agreed. He withdrew to a cell. Many of the most popular legends of Dunstan's life come from this period, including the legend of his fight with the devil:

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

In his monastic seclusion, Dunstan performed the monastic requirement of labor by working as a silversmith and in the illumination of manuscripts. He became an advisor and confessor to Lady Æthelflaed, who was Æthelstan's niece; when she died an early death, she left a small fortune to Dunstan, who used it to build monasteries.

As all of this had been going on things were happening in the succession of Carlovingian Western Francia. Louis IV was the son of Edmund's half-sister Eadgifu, or Edgiva; he was deposed by nobles when he was two years old, and Eadgifu and Louis fled to England and the court of Æthelstan -- which is why Louis is often called Louis d'Outremer, i.e., Louis Overseas. Louis would eventually return, but he only ever had a very limited power.

When Æthelstan died in 939, Edmund I became king; he is usually known as Edmund the Just or Edmund the Magnificent. Edmund called Dunstan back to court. For quite some time after he became king, Edmund faced some serious problems; King Olaf III Guthfrithson, who was a king of the Uí Ímair, or Dynasty of Ivar, which ruled the Viking Kingdom of Dublin, rose up against him. He was married to the daughter of Constantine of Alba, and had been itching to retake Northumbria ever since Æthelstan had beaten him in the Battle of Brunanburh, often considered the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon victories, in 937. Olaf did not manage to take everything in his invasion, but he did manage to force Edmund into a treaty ceding parts of Northumbria and Mercia. Olaf didn't live long after his success; according to legend he was struck down by St. Cuthbert for sacking church. He was succeeded by his cousin Amlaib Cuaran (Amlaib is the Gaelic form of Olaf). Amlaib is possibly the early origin for the later legendary figure of medieval romances, Havelok the Dane. In any case, Amlaib's mother was probably Æthelstan's sister. Amlaib was baptized, perhaps as part of an attempt to shore up his political position; Edmund became his godfather. But eventually, in 944, perhaps due to feuding between Amlaib and another local king, Ragnell, Edmund invaded and retook Northumbria from his godson and Amlaib fled back to Ireland, where he got tangled up in the politics over the High Kingship there.

Edmund conquered Strathclyde, one of the rivals against him, but as part of a treaty he eventually ceded the territory to King Malcolm I of Scotland, who was Constantine's cousin (Constantine having abdicated in order to become a monk). In the meantime, Louis IV was having trouble in Western Francia, having been captured by the Normans, who handed him over to Hugh the Great, one of his enemies (and an ally of Otto the Great, who was Holy Roman Emperor, was married to Edmund's sister Ædgyth, or Edith, and whose mother was Saint Matilda of Ringelheim). Edmund threatened Hugh, but nothing much came of it because Edmund was assassinated in 946 by a man named Leofa, who had been exiled for thievery.

He was succeeded by his brother Eadred, who spent much of his reign cleaning up various problems with the Vikings, including the former King of Norway, Eric Bloodaxe, who tried to set up his own kingdom in Northumbria. In the early 950s the Danes invaded, capturing Ælfheah the Bald. He refused to pay a ransom to his kidnappers, and refused to let anyone else do it. Angered (and, by all accounts, drunk), they took him out to throw things at him, and eventually he was hit with the butt of an axe and died, in 951. Eadred died in 955 and was succeeded by Eadwig, his nephew, usually known as Eadwig the Fair.

The reign of Eadwig was a trying one for Dunstan, because Eadwig and Dunstan were quickly involved in a feud. According to the stories, on the day he was crowned king, Dunstan went around trying to find him in order to talk to him about something; he discovered the young king cavorting with a young woman, and refused to come back with Dunstan. So Dunstan grabbed the king, literally dragged him back to his advisors, and forced him to denounce the young woman. Dunstan, on cooler reflection, considered that perhaps this might have angered the young king, and so returned to his monastery to get away, but Eadwig, incited by the young woman, chased him down, plundered the monastery, and forced him to flee to Flanders, which was ruled at that time by the Count of Flanders, Arnulf I. There Dunstan became involved in the Cluniac reforms. While he was there, a party opposed to Eadwig began to gather in Flanders and elsewhere, and in 957, Northumbria and Mercia revolted against Eadwig and installed his brother Edgar, often known as Edgar the Peaceful, as their king. Edgar recalled Dunstan to his court. In 959 Eadwig died and Edgar became King of Wessex as well. Despite his agnomen, Edgar was a very strong king, and with the advice of Dunstan managed to unify his realm as it had never been unified before.

On becoming king, Edgar made Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, so Dunstan made a brief trip to Rome to receive the pallium from Pope John XII. On return he used his position to push through further monastic reforms. He also continued to advise Edgar. According to some stories, Dunstan helped to consolidate Edgar's reign by managing various symbolic coronations at which various lords and kings came to recognize Edgar's kingship.

Edgar died in 975, and it was the beginning of extraordinary troubles. Edgar had two sons, Edward and Æthelred. Technically Edward succeeded his father, but a party of supporters sprang up around Æthelred, and Edward was assassinated in 978. He was about fifteen years old. He is usually known today as St. Edward the Martyr. Æthelred became king at the age of thirteen. He was almost certainly not involved in the murder at all (his mother was), but it was not a good start. Æthelred is known to the ages as Æthelred the Unready ('Unready' is a transliteration of Unræd, which means literally 'Ill-Advised', the opposite of the name Æthelred -- Æthelred Unræd is a deliberate oxymoron), so one can imagine how well his reign went. St. Dunstan himself died in 988.

Æthelred himself wasn't a bad king, but the Danes, sensing the genuine weakness in his position, took direct advantage and began to raid again. The raids started creating tension between the English and the Normans, who were enabling the Danish raids. A rough peace was worked out between England and Normandy, but the Danes attempted to invade in 991. This led to the famous Battle of Maldon, at which England was dealt a crushing defeat. Æthelred met with the leaders of the fleet, among whom was the great king Olaf Tryggvason, and worked out a peace, at the cost of a very harsh tribute. However, Olaf Tryggvason, already baptized, was confirmed in 994, and Æthelred became his confirmation sponsor. Olaf promised him never to return to England, and kept his promise. (He was not the only leader involved, however, and other Viking kings kept their footholds in England.)

In 1002, having had enough of these Vikings, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danes everywhere in England on St. Brice's Day. This was completely impracticable in significant portions of the island, but it was carried out where it could be carried out. Obviously this led various Viking kings outside of England to return with vengeance on their minds. For the next several years there was a consistent pattern: a Danish army would invade, then have to be bought off with an even larger bribe than the last. In 1009, Thorkell the Tall invaded with one of the largest Viking armies ever and had to be bought off with an extraordinarily vast tribute.

One of the Danes who is supposed to have died in the St. Brice's Day massacre was Gunhilde, the sister of the very powerful king Sweyn Forkbeard, who eventually set out to conquer all of England. Some sharp fighting managed to hold him off, but Sweyn's son, Cnute, perhaps the greatest of all the Viking kings ever, finished the job. Cnute, of course, was succeeded by Harold, who was succeeded by Harthacnut, who was succeeded by St. Edward the Confessor. All this period, of course, overlaps with the soap opera events I mentioned in the first post.

Some Thoughts Toward Reading Plato's Dialogues

I've been thinking about various ways to approach reading Plato's dialogues. There are many ways in which they have been grouped. The most common way in which they have been sorted for quite some time is according to early, middle, and late dialogues:

Early Dialogues:
Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Alcibiades, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis

Middle Dialogues:
Cratylus, Euthydemus, Gorgias, Menexenus, Meno, Phaedo, Protagoras, Symposium,

Middle or Late Dialogues:
Republic, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Theaetetus

Late Dialogues:
Clitophon, Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Laws

This is slowly falling out of favor, and I think this is a good thing. We know from Aristotle that the Laws was definitely written after the Republic. Internal evidence makes it highly probable that Parmenides, Phaedrus, the Republic, and Theaetetus were written in the same phase and that Critias, Timaeus, the Laws, Philebus, the Sophist, and the Statesman are all from the same phase of writing, because these two groups have very close links even on minor points of style. And that's getting about to the limit of what we can actually be said to know about whether the dialogues are really 'early' or 'late'. No Plato scholar I've ever met takes this ordering very seriously as even a roughly chronological ordering, although many seem to have their own pet scheme that they play around with. The major reason that I think this way of ordering the dialogues has survived, and probably will for quite some time, is that it makes a sort of sense even independently of any chronological questions. All the 'early' dialogues are very, very Socrates-oriented. All the 'late' dialogues are much more independent of Socrates. The 'middle' dialogues are appropriately in-between. Thus it made a sort of tempting sense as a progression from Plato mostly defending Socrates (early) to Plato doing his own thing (late). But outside the two groupings noted above, that's more of an attractive imaginative picture than anything else.

The traditional scheme for the dialogues is rather different, and goes back to Thrasyllus of Mendes, the first collector of the collected works of Plato. We know of Thrasyllus's scheme from Diogenes of Laertius. It was common for Greek dramatic works to come in tetralogies -- for instance, three tragedies and a satyr play. So Thrasyllus ordered the dialogues in tetralogical sets:

First Tetralogy
Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo

Second Tetralogy
Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman

Third Tetralogy
Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus

Fourth Tetralogy
Alcibiades, Second Alcibiades, Hipparchus, Rival Lovers

Fifth Tetralogy
Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis

Sixth Tetralogy
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno

Seventh Tetralogy
Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Menexenus

Eighth Tetralogy
Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias

Ninth Tetralogy
Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Epistles

There are a number of nice features about these groupings, although there seems to be no general principle governing them. The First Tetralogy constitute a sort of Last Days of Socrates: in Euthyphro, Socrates is heading to his trial, in Apology he is at his trial, in Crito he is awaiting his death, and in Phaedo he is on the verge of it. A number of other links are noticeable, but a number of possible links don't show up. The Theatetus has very little obviously to do with the First Tetralogy, for instance, but the dialogue is clear enough that, in internal chronology at least, the Euthyphro occurs only a little later than the Theatetus, and it is made so clear that Plato seems to have thought it important somehow. We get no sense from the way these are grouped of how Gorgias serves as a near-perfect thematic bridge between the death dialogues of the First Tetralogy and the Republic (one of many, many reasons why I think Gorgias is the single most essential Platonic dialogue to have read).

The classical Neoplatonists developed their own canons of Plato. One, usually attributed to Iamblichus, selected out twelve dialogues of special importance. Like practically everything in Neoplatonism, it was structured as an ascent. We start with Alcibiades, on the subject of knowing oneself, and sort of expand from there into the entire cosmic order:


There are other possible ways to group the dialogues. One interesting one that I've seen is that of Bernard Suzanne, a Plato enthusiast:


of tetralogies
a i t i a

epithumiai (desires)


phusis (nature)
thumos (will)

krisis (judgment)

èthos (behavior)
logos (reason)

kosmos (order)

Tetralogy 1 :

The start of the quest

what is man ?








Tetralogy 2 :

The sophists

eikasia (conjecture)



illusion of


illusion of

the "hero"

illusion of

Tetralogy 3 :

Socrates' trial


pistis (true belief)




letter of the




in action

spirit of the

Tetralogy 4 :

The soul



the driving

force :


nature of

the soul :


behaviour of

the soul :


destiny of

the soul :

Tetralogy 5 :

Speech (logos)


the words of


logos of the


logos of the


logos of the

Tetralogy 6 :


epistèmè (science)

the traps of


the limits of


the laws of


the goals of

Tetralogy 7 :

Man in the world

kosmos (order)

the good of







(Table last updated June 6, 2009)

This is a very nonstandard organization, but this kind of Neo-Neoplatonist approach to reading the dialogues (that is, in the sense of seeing them as a unified philosophical curriculum) has much to recommend it; as Suzanne argues, taking the dialogues in this way lets one see them all together as forming a sort of super-dialogue on the subject of what it is to live a philosophical life.

In my reading of the dialogues I won't be able, for scheduling reasons, to follow any rigorous order. But I like the idea, found in the Neoplatonists and Suzanne, of starting with Alcibiades. Currently my thought is that I might get some of the obvious spurious dialogues out of the way in the next week or so, and then come June start with Alcibiades, the Rival Lovers, and Charmides. (Charmides' authenticity is undisputed; Alcibiades is usually regarded as authentic, although after Schleiermacher argued that it was spurious in the nineteenth century it went through a disputed period, and its authenticity is still occasionally disputed; Rival Lovers is usually regarded as spurious, although Julia Annas has argued that the case against it is very weak.) But that might change a bit.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Music on My Mind

Tim Buckley, "Song to the Siren". This song has been covered a jillion times. An extremely popular cover of this song was done by This Mortal Coil in the 80s -- This Mortal Coil was kind of a rolling supergroup, constantly changing out various artists and smaller groups, and the actual artists were Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie from the Scottish group Cocteau Twins -- which has influenced a number of more recent covers. The best of the covers from the past few years that I've heard is Sinead O'Connor's.

Four Questions on Writing

The Darwins tagged me for a writing meme.

Dorothy Sayers once noted that writing requires three elements, which she called the Idea, the Energy, and the Power. Very good writing -- such as we get in Dante or Austen or Dickens -- almost perfectly balances the three in an equilateral triangle, while all other writing falls away from the ideal into a scalene triangle, usually strongly dominated by one. People who fall to the temptation to let Power dominate turn all writing into a reflection of themselves; they are always expressing something, even at the cost of everything else. People who fall to the temptation to let Energy dominate make writing entirely a matter of the technical work; writing workshops tend to encourage people like that, because writing for them is always about the things they are doing. People who give in to the temptation of letting Idea dominate tend to try to impose their conceptions directly. Every writer tends to be tempted by one more than the others; much of my answers to the following can be explained in the single sentence: My most serious temptation in writing is to let Idea dominate over everything else.

1. What are you working on?

I'm working on an awful lot, actually. I have a novel, Aegidius, which was a bit of lark, undergoing occasional revision; I have another novel, Tanaver, for which I have a few chapters, which I eventually intend to get done; I have a short story, "Ambassador", that I am in the middle of writing, just getting back to it. I am writing a book on early modern accounts of how we know that a world outside our minds exists, which is just starting to come together. I have notes going for about three other works for down the road, should their time ever come (including one on Jane Austen's moral philosophy), and I am preparing to work on a paper on Nicolas Malebranche's theory of motivation. And, of course, I occasionally write poetry. Ideas, you see; they pour down until I'm soaked and finally swept away.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?

I tend to like complicated philosophical puzzles, so there's always more going on in the story than there might seem to be. The big challenge, of course, is keeping the puzzle from making the story unreadable. Much the same is true of poetry, although I am slightly more careful of technique in poetry; writing a poem is for me much more of a conceptual exercise than anything else.

3. Why do you write what you do?

It just sort of happens. I don't generally set out to do things because I find them interesting, although sometimes I do. The fact of the matter is that I would be writing something anyway -- I am a compulsive notetaker, and go through a little pocket notebook of 400 pages every few months (from which my occasional Dashed Off posts come -- I transfer some of them here so that I can find them more easily if I need them), not counting the ordinary things I put up on the blog. Notes start linking to notes and building on other notes, and eventually it heads in a direction. Extraordinarily inefficient, but it is, as I said, what will happen regardless, so there's not much to be done about that.

4. How does your writing process work?

I find revision massively easier than anything else in the writing process, except for simply coming up with ideas. So when I write I throw something down and revise. And revise. And revise. And revise. And sometimes throw it all out and start anew, because a new set of ideas have come along that change everything. Extraordinarily inefficient here, too, and it's not actually a good way to do some things (like writing academic papers, where I continually have the problem of the paper being thoroughly obsolete by the time I feel like I'm done with revision, since I've already come up with a new and better way to see the topic). I do very little planning; I usually know the essential story already in my head by the time I start, and it's just a matter of finding the way to get it down somehow before it gets flooded out by other ideas. The one exception to all of this is Siris itself, since everything here is just thrown out and at best lightly revised -- new poem drafts are usually second drafts, and while I do a lot of revising, it tends to be detail-work, and only very rarely a significant change to the poem itself. It all would be better if I had the technique better to begin with -- but that's slower going than coming up with yet another new thing to do badly. But I'm in rather less hurry than most people when it comes to writing, I think. What gets done will get done, and what won't, won't.