Saturday, June 21, 2014

Gorgias (Part III: The Speech of Callicles)

(up to 492c)

With the entrance of Callicles, we get a new beginning. This is signaled by a repetition (481b):

CALLICLES: Tell me, Chaerephon, is Socrates in earnest about this or is he joking?

CHAEREPHON: I think he's in dead earnest about this, Callicles. There's nothing like asking him, though.

This calls back to the very beginning of the dialogue (447c), when Callicles, asked if Gorgias would be willing to discuss his craft, replied that there was nothing like asking him. Everything up to this point has been laying down the materials. It will now take a new shape and everything will be raised to a new level.

Callicles demands to know if Socrates is joking, since if what he is saying is true, everything in the world will be turned upside down. Socrates responds that he and Callicles have in common that they each love two things. Socrates loves Alcibiades son of Cleinias and also philosophy. Callicles, on the other hand, loves the citizenry (in Greek, Demos) of Athens and also the Demos son of Pyrilampes. (Demos son of Pyrilampes is Plato's stepbrother, through his mother's second husband.) Callicles is unable to contradict either Demos: he just says whatever they want him to say, and is willing to shift back and forth, and sometimes the only way to stop him from saying something is to get his beloveds to stop saying it. Likewise, if Callicles wants Socrates to say something different, he will have to make sure that Socrates' beloved, philosophy, stops saying them. And philosophy, unlike Alcibiades, is unwavering.

Thus Socrates in effect issues a challenge to Callicles: Callicles must refute philosophy or he will be stuck disagreeing with himself forever. Callicles takes up the challenge. The following is an outline of the speech I give my students:

The Speech of Callicles: Basic Themes

I. Diagnosis (482c-482e)

A. Why did Gorgias and Polus fail? They were ashamed to say what they thought out of deference to convention or custom.
1. Gorgias was ashamed to say that he would teach the power of persuasion to people who were ignorant of justice.
2. Polus was shamed into agreeing that doing what’s unjust is more shameful than enduring it.

B. How has Socrates been outmaneuvering the orators? By equivocating between convention and nature.

II. NOMOS and PHYSIS (482e-484c)

A. There is a distinction between what is just or admirable by convention (nomos) and what is just or admirable by nature (physis).

B. What is just by nature is for the superior or strong to have the greater share.
1. This is shown by animals in the state of nature.
2. It is also shown by relations between nations (e.g., Persia and Greece).

C. What is just by convention is imposed by the weak and the many, and requires that everyone be treated equally.

D. By nature it is better to do wrong than endure it, although by convention it is better to endure wrong than to do it.

E. The weak and the many, who are inferior, impose their will on the strong, who are superior, by educating them from an early age that being weak and stupid is better.

III. The Indictment of Philosophy (484c-486d)

A. Philosophy is only good in limited amounts at certain times of life.

B. Even the strong and intelligent become slavish when they spend too much time with philosophy, never saying anything important, appropriate, or suitable to a free person.

C. It is therefore excessive word-chopping in philosophy that is really shameful, because it makes people useless.

D. Because Socrates, despite his intelligence, dabbles too much in philosophy, if anyone decided to trump up charges against him, he wouldn’t be able to defend himself, but would be punished, even to the point of being put to death, if his enemies wanted it; it is Socrates, not the orators, who should be ashamed.

IV. Who are the superior people? (Clarifications from 491d-492c)

A. Those who have the phronesis (= prudence/intelligence) and andreia (=courage/bravery) to control society.

B. The superior do not control themselves, because this is slavish and stupid.

C. The best and happiest person is the one who allows his appetites and desires to grow as large as possible, without ever restraining them, and has the competence and intelligence to fulfill them.


Additional Remarks

* Callicles' distinction between nomos and physis is a common theme. Antiphon the Sophist, who lived in the fifth century, has some extant fragments of his work, Truth, in which he makes precisely this distinction, and something like the distinction is found in Thucydides' famous Melian Dialogue.

* Socrates refers to Euripides' play Antiope. The play, unfortunately, has not survived except in fragments, but we do know something of the background myth. Zethus and Amphion were twin sons of Antiope. Amphion was a great musician, taught by Hermes; Zethus became a hunter and herdsman. Together they built the walls of Thebes; according to the myth, Zethus had to carry stones one by one, but Amphion simply played music and the stones moved themselves into place. From what we can tell of the play, however, it covers the events leading up to this founding of the city. Euripides at one point has Zethus and Amphion arguing, and Zethus is trying to convince Amphion to give up music: music is unwise because it takes a well-favored man and makes him inferior. Amphion apparently loses the debate, but Hermes, in one of Euripides' typical deus ex machina endings, shows up and proves Amphion right.

Socrates in his comments about Demos portrayed Callicles and himself as doubles of each other. Callicles does the same, making them twins like Zethus and Amphion. Thus Callicles and Socrates are in a way mirror images of each other. It is ironic, though, that Callicles associates himself with Zethus, given that Amphion in some sense shows himself superior as a founder of the city of Thebes; too ironic, perhaps, not to be in view.

* Socrates mentions that Callicles is "partners in wisdom" (487c) with Teisander of Aphidnae, Andron son of Androtion, and Nausicydes of Cholarges. Of the first and the last I don't know anything but Andron son of Androtion was a sophist, and is mentioned as such in Protagoras. The others are likely also sophists.

* By 492c, all four of what would become known as the cardinal virtues are on the table. Callicles has distinguished two kinds of dikaiosyne, justice; the real kind of justice goes to the superior person, who has phronesis, prudence, and andreia, fortitude, although he certainly means here something more like 'cunning' and 'manliness' -- brains and balls, in fact, to use the vulgar expression. Socrates asks whether the superior person also needs sophrosyne, temperance or self-control, and Callicles denies this vehemently. This, which will let Socrates put the argument with Polus in a different light, will become a key element of the argument: Socrates will argue that temperance or self-control is necessary for justice and the good life in the city.

to be continued

Music on My Mind

Lauren O'Connell, "I Would Rather Be Gone"

Friday, June 20, 2014

Gorgias (Part II: Flattery and Civic Power)

(up to 481b)

Polus jumps into the conversation, claiming that all Socrates has done is take advantage of the fact that Gorgias was too ashamed to make a concession that would have saved him from inconsistency. Socrates replies that he'll be happy to discuss the matter with Polus as long as Polus doesn't use any long speeches. Polus indignantly asks whether or not he has the freedom to say as much as he likes -- to which Socrates replies that he does, and that Socrates has the freedom to leave as soon as he wants. But Socrates offers Polus a choice between questioning and being questioned, and Polus chooses to question, demanding that Socrates say what craft he thinks rhetoric or oratory is. Socrates replies that he thinks it is not a craft (techne) but a knack/familiarity/experience (empeiria) for getting gratification. Socrates, pressed by Polus, builds a complex analogy, which unfortunately is complicated by the difficulty of exact translation. This is my best shot:

  craft of health (knowing, aimed at real good)
  mere flattery [kolokeia] in matters of health (guessing, aimed at getting apparent good)
    haute cuisine [opsopoiia]

political life:
  political craft (knowing, aimed at real good))
    legislation (nomothetic)
    justice [dikaiosyne]
  mere flattery in political matters (guessing, aimed at getting apparent good)

He explains what he means by kolokeia or flattery ('pastry baking' is another possible translation of opsopoiia):

It takes not thought at all of whatever is best; with the lure of what's most pleasant at the moment, it sniffs out folly and hoodwinks it, so that it gives the impression of being most deserving. Pastry baking has put on the mask of medicine, and pretends to know the foods that are best for the body, so that if a pastry baker and a doctor had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children, to determine which of the two, the doctor or the pastry baker, had expert knowledge of good food and bad, the doctor would die of starvation. I call this flattery, and I say that such a thing is shameful. (464d)

Polus is not impressed by the comparison, and demands to know if Socrates really thinks that good orators are held in low regard like flatteries; Socrates replies that they aren't held in any regard. But they have the greatest political power, Polus protests. They have the least political power, Socrates replies. But they have the same power as tyrants, insists Polus. Tyrants also have the least power in their city, Socrates replies, because even though they do what seems good to them, they do not do what they want. Isn't being able to do what seems good to you the same as having great power? Polus asks. Not according to Polus, Socrates replies. Polus is baffled by this, and Socrates responds that Polus thinks that having great power is good for the one who has it, and Polus agrees. But, Socrates says, Polus doesn't think that it's good when a person does what seems good to him without having understanding, and Polus agrees. But, of course, this means that Polus has to prove that orators have understanding so that they do what they want. Polus points out that they do what seems good them; Socrates again states that they do not therefore do what they want -- what we want is genuine good, but what seems good to us might not be genuinely good. (I've summarized this portion of the discussion in detail because it raises lots of ideas that will be at issue for the rest of the dialogue.)

Polus protests that Socrates himself would welcome the ability to do what seems good to him, and would be envious of someone who had the power to put his enemies to death and confiscate their property. Socrates replies that a person who puts someone to death is not to be envied, and if he puts someone to death unjustly he is miserable and pitiable. "It's because doing what what's unjust is actually the greatest of evils," says Socrates (469b). In other words, it is always better to endure what's bad than to do what's bad. This important point will dominate much of the rest of the discussion between Polus and Socrates.

A real-life example comes up in the course of this discussion. The first, raised by Polus, is that of Archelaus son of Perdiccas. Archelaus was the son of the third son of the king of Macedon. He engineered his rise to power by killing his uncle and his cousin, so that his father ascended the throne. Archelaus was only the son of a slave woman, so his seven-year-old half brother became the heir. He then killed his half-brother by throwing him into a well. Polus notes that if Archelaus had only done what was just, he would essentially have just been his uncle's slave; instead, he became king of Macedon -- indeed, a great, wealthy, powerful king. Socrates will respond that, because punishing wrongdoers is good for them (being a correction), for an unjust person not to get their deserts for injustice is a reason to pity them.

Socrates will then conclude that the only value of rhetoric is that if you do something wrong, you can use it to make sure you get punished as you should! This, of course, will startle Callicles into the discussion.


* After the Athenian fleet was devastated in the Syracusan expedition, the Athenians came to Archelaus for timber to build a new one. Archelaus, who could have named any price he wanted, in fact treated the Athenians extraordinarily generously. Because of this he was highly regarded in Athens. That this is at least part of what is in view is strongly suggested by Socrates' passing mention of Nicias son of Niceratus, who died in the Syracusan Expedition.

* Aristocrates son of Scellius, whom Socrates also mentions, would later become one of the oligarchs involved in the overthrow of the democratic government of Athens.

* Socrates mentions in passing the day he was president of the Assembly and refused to put to the vote the illegal resolution to execute the generals from the Aginusae incident, which I discussed in looking at the spurious dialogue Axiochus.

to be continued

The Subcreation of Ephemeral Good

Two recent posts (here at Feser's and here at Chastek's) have me thinking about the importance of novelty within art.

Aquinas looks at the question of why there are natural evils, or in other words, why good gets destroyed, in Summa Theologiae 1.47 and following when discussing God as the cause of distinction in the world. His argument is that these must exist, not because they are absolutely necessary but because the world would be incomplete without them. That is to say, if destructible goods did not exist, the world would be missing a major kind of goodness. Aquinas, of course, is thinking of Genesis 1, with its listing of categories of creation, each of them good in its kind, and then the overall summary that the whole thing, i.e., having this diversity of goods of unchanging and changeable goods, is very good.

It's harder for us, but in the cosmology Aquinas knew it's easy to identify what a universe without destructible goods would be: it would be a world consisting entirely of angels in grace and heavenly bodies (which in Aristotelian cosmology were thought to be indestructible). On the medieval conception, that's almost the entire universe. Only an extremely minute, tiny, portion of the world would have been left out, on the typical medieval view, if God had made only heavenly angels and celestial lights. But it would have been missing the good of the endless variety of babies, the good of flowers achingly beautiful and gone tomorrow. It would have been missing an important kind of good; and God created the universe to be a complete good. Why are good things able to die, fade, pass away? Because a universe in which there were no goods capable of doing so would be an incompletely good universe.

As St. Robert Southwell and J. R. R. Tolkien have argued, we are subcreators, and, like our Creator, when we make something out of skill we like it to have a completeness of good. We want our works to have both timeless and novel good, and we evaluate them on the basis of whether we do. Notes in a harmony must make a timeless structure; but they fade away to other notes.

You could in theory have a conception of art in which the aim was only unchanging good within the composition. Music would consist entirely of compositions of single notes, or single chords, or, more daringly, works of structured silence like John Cage's notorious 4′33″ (but Cage wanted an impure silence of ambient noise; the musicians in our hypothetical world would strive for pure, precisely measured, perfectly complete silences). That is, the goals would be to capture analogues either of the silence of the void or the music of the spheres. The harmony of the spheres, of course, in the medieval view was a harmony consisting of unchanging notes throughout the entire 'composition' that is the history of the world -- a creation without destructible good would be a composition of a single -- very beautiful, but completely unchanging -- chord of goodness. But a music consisting only of the pursuit of timeless harmony, harmony unchanging within the composition, is a music that does not aim at musical good, per se, but only at a particular genus of musical good.

Likewise, literature would consist entirely of things like literary sketches and imagist poetry of rigorously classical ideals. It would aim to capture 'luminous details', as Pound put it, vivid snapshots, and poets would rigorously work to divest their words of anything discursive. (The proper way of reading would always be to take in the whole text, as much as possible, all at once.) We would all admire, I think, this 40,000 word palindromic poem as a pure, if simple, expression of what literary skill required: the ingenuity of expressing changing subjects as unchanging-within-the-composition. We can imagine such a literature because we can actually make the kind of thing, even if we are not all that good at it, of which it would consist. But it would be a literature aiming not at literary good, itself, but at one particular kind of literary good; it is the sort of thing we would do only when we were interested in that one kind of good in particular. And we do not treat it as the height of art, because though it is good, on its own it is not 'very good'. A literary work consisting only of this kind of good is a literary work we recognize as being in some way incomplete in its goodness. And our highest lauds go to literary works that manage in a unified way to capture the full range of literary good, both eternal and ephemeral.

Alas! The Bitter Banks in Willowwood

O Ye, All Ye that Walk in Willow-wood
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

'O ye, all ye that walk in Willow-wood,
That walk with hollow faces burning white;
What fathom-depth of soul-struck widowhood,
What long, what longer hours, one lifelong night,
Ere ye again, who so in vain have wooed
Your last hope lost, who so in vain invite
Your lips to that their unforgotten food,
Ere ye, ere ye again shall see the light!

Alas! the bitter banks in Willowwood,
With tear-spurge wan, with blood-wort burning red:
Alas! if ever such a pillow could
Steep deep the soul in sleep till she were dead,
Better all life forget her than this thing,
That Willowwood should hold her wandering!'

This is the third of the four Willowwood Sonnets which Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote after the death of Elizabeth Siddal, his wife. Obviously this is the sonnet to which Christina Rossetti 'hooks' her own response-sonnet, "An Echo from Willowwood". Christina shows herself easily to be the superior poet, although, of course, her brother's is deeply heartfelt.

Siddal, of course, has a very recognizable face, because she was one of the major models for Pre-Raphaelite paintings (which is how Rossetti met her). The following was painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a wedding portrait, followed by Siddal's own self-portrait from when she began studying painting:



Thursday, June 19, 2014

History, the Great Mistress of Wisdom

History, the great mistress of wisdom, furnishes examples of all kinds; and every prudential, as well as moral precept, may be authorized by those events, which her enlarged mirror is able to present to us.

David Hume, The History of Great Britain under the House of Stuart, volume I, 2nd edition, p. 461.

It tends to be forgotten today, but a considerable portion of the reason why David Hume was not forgotten as a philosopher has to do not with his philosophical work, which was depreciated in the nineteenth century, but with the quality of his historical work, which helped to keep his name in circulation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Gorgias (Part I: Opening Moves)

Plato's Gorgias, one of the longest of Plato's shorter works, is one of the more important Platonic dialogues, and I would say is the one that most deserves the title of 'Platonic dialogue everyone should read'. It comes very close to being the ideal Platonic dialogue. It has clear connections with the Republic and the dialogues concerned with Socrates' last days; it is one of the most interesting definitional dialogues; it has important Platonic myths and excellent argument. Like Phaedrus it touches on a very large number of Platonic topics, but unlike Phaedrus, whose structure is very difficult to grasp, it does so in a clear, structured, and orderly way. Perhaps most interesting of all, it contains the single greatest attack on philosophy in the ancient world, and perhaps ever, and the brilliant Socratic answer to it, so it is Plato's great defense of philosophy itself.

Its traditional subtitle is "On Rhetoric", but while this is an element throughout the dialogue, it scarcely even conveys what the dialogue does, since Plato in Gorgias starts with a simple question -- what craft or skill does the rhetorician or orator practice? -- and expands from there to take in the nature of justice, education, philosophy, and the good life. Olympiodorus, the great Neoplatonic pedagogue, tells us in his lectures on Gorgias that there were several different attempts to identify the point of the dialogue in ancient times. Some said it was about rhetoric; but Olympiodorus notes that this is to try to describe the whole by what is not even the most significant part. Others said that it was about justice, and Olympiodorus rejects this for the same reason, although considering it more accurate than the former proposal. Others said it was about the 'demiurge'; these took the concluding Myth of Last Judgment as the key point. But it suffers from a similar problem. Olympiodorus's own proposal is that the dialogue aims at establishing the ethical principles of good life in society (politiken eudaimonian, literally 'political happiness' or 'civic flourishing'). And like much of Olympiodorus's commentary on Plato's Gorgias, that is a very good suggestion, I think.

I teach Plato's Gorgias practically every term in my Introduction to Philosophy courses, so what I will do for the posts on the subject is to provide some of the resources I give my students to help them follow the structure of the work, combined with comments that seem relevant to me on my re-reading -- everytime I re-read the work I come upon something new, so despite using some of my ready-made materials, I will certainly learn something myself from reading it yet again.

You can read Gorgias online in English at Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Nothing is known about Callicles outside this dialogue, and he makes such a good anti-Socrates that some people have thought Plato simply made him up for the purpose. From the dialogue itself we learn that he is an Athenian aristocrat, probably quite wealth, and Gorgias's host in Athens.



Gorgias was one of the greatest orators and teachers of the day. He came from Leontini, in Sicily. His most famous work, which we only have in two different paraphrases, is On the Nonexistent, in which he argues that nothing exists, that if anything it existed it could not be known, and that if it could be known we could not communicate it. Also well-known is his Encomium of Helen of Troy. His Defense of Palamedes is thought by some to be partly in view in Plato's Apology, and his Epitaphios by others to be one of the targets of Plato's Menexenus. He first burst onto the Athenian scene as an ambassador from Leontini, which was a democratic city and an enemy of Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. The Syracusans were expanding their sphere of influence and Gorgias persuaded the Athenians to send twenty ships under the general Laches. Despite the fact that he is the main target of the dialogue, Plato treats him far more respectfully than he usually treats opponents of Socrates.

Polus of Arcagas was a student of Gorgias, also from Sicily. We know very little about him, but he is mentioned in Phaedrus and Theages and also in Aristotle's Metaphysics.

In addition, there is an anonymous audience referred to occasionally.

The Plot and The Thought
(to 461a)

Callicles opens the dialogue by greeting Socrates, remarking that he's late, too late to have caught Gorgias's demonstration. Socrates remarks that it's because Chaerephon kept them loitering in the marketplace. Chaerephon says it's no problem; Gorgias is a friend of his, so he can arrange another presentation. Socrates says he'd be interested in a discussion about Gorgias' craft, and they meet up with Gorgias. Socrates urges Chaerephon to start out questioning Gorgias, but Polus jumps in and insists that he can do quite as well. So Chaerephon and Polus, the two students, begin the discussion. Pressed to explain what Gorgias does, Polus launches into a speech (448c):

Many among men are the crafts experientially devised by experience, Chaerephon. Yes, it is experience that causes our times to march along the way of craft, whereas inexperience causes them to march along the way of chance. Of these various crafts various men partake in various ways, the best men partaking of the best of them. Our Gorgias is indeed in this group; he partakes of the most admirable of the crafts.

Socrates complains to Gorgias that Polus doesn't seem to be answering the question, and this switches the dialogue from the students to the teachers. Gorgias's answer to the question is that his craft is rhetoric (or oratory) and that he is capable of making other people orators, too, and that rhetoric is a craft concerned with making speeches. Socrates points out that practically every craft is concerned with making speeches of some kind, and thus pressed Gorgias clarifies that oratory is concerned wholly with speeches, and that what rhetoric as a craft produces is "the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place" (453e) and that this is the "source of freedom for humankind itself and at the same time it is for each person the source of rule over others in one's own city" (452d). Pressed further, he says that the persuasion it teaches is concerned "with those matters that are just and unjust" (454b). Socrates distinguishes between two kinds of things we might call persuasion: one providing knowledge and one providing conviction without knowledge. Gorgias concedes that rhetoric produces conviction without knowledge.

Socrates remarks that this is a puzzling thing. If the city is meeting to discuss harbors or walls, it would surely rely on the advice of builders, rather than orators. But Gorgias points to the examples of Themistocles and Pericles; the famous dockyards and Long Walls of the Athenians were in fact built through the advice of these two masters of oratory, not through the advice of craftsmen, and even the craftsmen themselves are appointed by the city through the influence of orators like them.

Socrates remarks that Gorgias seems to attribute to oratory an almost magical power, and Gorgias launches into his big speech of the dialogue (456a-457c). It is worth reading in full, but it falls into two basic parts. In the first part, Gorgias affirms the power of rhetoric, saying "it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished" (456a). Rhetoric gives the power to be more persuasive than a craftsman even about the craftsman's own craft -- an orator can persuade people to take treatments better than a doctor, and if he wanted to, he could persuade others to appoint him doctor rather than a real doctor. This leads to the second part, in which Gorgias argues that rhetoric should be used just like any other skill, justly, and that if students of rhetoric act unjustly, they should be blamed for it, not their teachers.

Socrates suggests that Gorgias is being inconsistent here, but he raises the idea very tactfully, and Gorgias says he'd be interested, but they need to make sure that the audience isn't tired after Gorgias's long demonstration. Chaerephon notes that the audience is very interested in hearing how the discussion will go, and there is nothing he himself would rather do. Callicles jumps in as well (it is a small point, but significant for the later course of the dialogue) and insists that as a matter of fact, he feels the same, and would be willing to listen to them "even if it's all day long" (458d).

The inconsistency Socrates identifies is this. Gorgias says that rhetoric persuades not by teaching but by providing conviction without knowledge, and he has said that the orator will be even more persuasive than the doctor. But an orator would not be more persuasive than a doctor among doctors, because they already understand the subject, so Gorgias must mean that the orator would be more persuasive than a doctor among people ignorant of medicine. And he has also said that rhetoric concerns matters of justice and injustice, or right and wrong. So this means either that the students of rhetoric are taught to persuade others about right and wrong without knowing what it is, or the students of rhetoric know what right and wrong is. Gorgias replies that if anyone came to him who did not know what justice and injustice were, Gorgias would teach it to him. But someone who really knows what right or wrong, or justice and injustice, are is a just person. So that would suggest that orators are necessarily just people. Gorgias, however, has already indicated that this is not so: oratory can be used unjustly.

People have occasionally tried to get Gorgias out of this dilemma by arguing it is not a strict inconsistency, but I think it is important to grasp that in the context of the narrative it places Gorgias in a position where no possible answer is satisfactory. Gorgias, selling his services as a teacher of rhetoric, has played up the power of rhetoric to persuade. But as a foreigner in Athens, he can't go around claiming that he is teaching the youth of Athens how to persuade others of what is right and wrong even if they have no idea what is really right and wrong; that would be a direct admission of corrupting the youth. At the same time, however, he cannot afford to take responsibility for the moral behavior of all his students. So Socrates has shut down the great Gorgias.


* The dialogue has echoes of Plato's Apology running throughout it. Socrates' mention that Chaerephon kept them out in the marketplace is almost certainly, given later points in the dialogue, an allusion to the famous story in which Chaerephon went to the Oracle of Delphi and asked whether Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. The Oracle replied that there was no man wiser in Greece. According Socrates in the Apology, he thought the god must have made a mistake, so he started asking experts questions in order to find someone wiser than himself; but over and over he found that these so-called experts did not actually know as much as they thought. In other words, Socrates' entire career consisted of Chaerephon keeping them late in the marketplace. And, as we will see, one of the purposes of the dialogue is to give a general account of what Socratic philosophy, and the career of Socrates, really means.

* One of the themes of the dialogue is education, and it seems clear that Plato is underlining this by starting the discussion not with the teachers themselves but with their students, so that we see something of what each teacher produces. Given that Socrates will effectively argue in the rest of the dialogue that the Gorgian approach to education in the long run ruins moral character and destroys societies, it's worth comparing the Gorgian approach to education with our own. They are remarkably similar in many ways.

* Polus's little speech about Gorgias's craft or skill (techne) being an experience (empeiria) will be used by Socrates in his later argument against Polus.

* The explicit introduction of the great statesmen Themistocles and Pericles will play a continuing, although secondary role in the argument, thus suggesting that one of the purposes of the dialogue is to criticize sharply the Athenian policies that led to the build-up of the Athenian empire and the Peloponnesian War. An implicit theme throughout the work is the relation between rhetoric and democracy. Gorgias explicitly claims that rhetoric is the source of democratic freedom -- but he also says that it gives the power to make other people, for all practical purposes, your slaves. One of the things Socrates will be doing is arguing that Gorgian rhetoric, while perhaps growing naturally in a democracy, is toxic to it. A very similar line of argument is also found in Plato's Republic.

* We've already had a very robust little dialogue, and Plato is just warming up. After Socrates outmaneuvers Gorgias, Polus jumps in and takes it to another level. Everything, and I mean everything, in the argument with Gorgias will be used in the rest of the dialogue, but it will be examined more and more powerfully. It's worth thinking about the structure of the dialogue. As I tell my students, don't assume that Plato does anything randomly. Socrates is arguing against Gorgias -- Gorgias is the title character, after all, and there's a sense in which he never stops arguing against Gorgias. But why does he then divide Gorgias' part among three different orators, Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles? Gorgias is not an Athenian citizen; he has no rights in the city and he must watch what he says. Perhaps even more importantly, he is very good at what he does, and is far too careful to say something stupid. In order to analyze what Gorgias is doing, you have to draw out the implications from someone who can be goaded into being less careful. Thus we have the young, impatient Polus picking up where Gorgias stops. But even Polus is not an Athenian citizen, and he, like Gorgias, is a teacher selling his services, so there are limits to what he can say. And thus we will come to Callicles, the man purporting to be without shame, who is an Athenian citizen, who does not depend on the teaching of rhetoric for a living, to bring us to the utmost implications of the Gorgian approach to rhetoric. And every step will take us into bigger and more important matters.

to be continued

Berkeley on Secondary Causes

160. The mind of man acts by an instrument necessarily. The to hegemonikon, or mind presiding in the world, acts by an instrument freely. Without instrumental and second causes there could be no regular course of nature. And without a regular course, nature could never be understood; mankind must always be at a loss, not knowing what to expect, or how to govern themselves, or direct their actions for the obtaining of any end. Therefore in the government of the world physical agents, improperly so called, or mechanical, or second causes, or natural causes, or instruments, are necessary to assist, not the governor, but the governed.

George Berkeley, Siris.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Resolute and Reluctant Without Speech

An Echo from Willowwood
by Christina Rossetti

"O ye, all ye that walk in Willowwood." (D.G. Rossetti)

Two gazed into a pool, he gazed and she,
Not hand in hand, yet heart in heart, I think,
Pale and reluctant on the water's brink,
As on the brink of parting which must be.
Each eyed the other's aspect, she and he,
Each felt one hungering heart leap up and sink,
Each tasted bitterness which both must drink,
There on the brink of life's dividing sea.
Lilies upon the surface, deep below
Two wistful faces craving each for each,
Resolute and reluctant without speech: —
A sudden ripple made the faces flow
One moment joined, to vanish out of reach:
So those hearts joined, and ah! were parted so.

Consent in Sexual Matters

I'm not a lawyer, by any means, but there are some facets of law that are interesting and worthwhile to consider. In Dewayne Williams v. State of Alabama (#CR-12-1385), an Alabama Appeals Court recently declared the state's sexual misconduct law unconstitutional. Lots of people are obviously celebrating that (although contrary to what is being reported, it wasn't the sodomy law but the sexual misconduct law that was at issue), and there's no question but that the law is inconsistent with prior rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court. But one of the things that makes the case interesting is if you actually read what the situation was. It was a rape case. Williams was charged with sodomy in the first degree (felony) and sexual misconduct (misdemeanor) for raping a young man in a hotel bathroom. Why was the rape case being handled under the sodomy and sexual misconduct law rather than the rape law (I've seen people ask)? Because under Alabama law 'rape' is technically defined as something done to a woman. 'Sodomy' is the term for rape of a man in Alabama law. In this case, the evidence was such that the jury remained uncertain whether the allegedly raped man had ever given consent or not; and because of that, it could not convict Williams of the strict rape charge, which was sodomy in the first degree -- the only evidence for lack of consent was indirect. It did, however, convict him of sexual misconduct. This came to appeal, and the prosecution, recognizing the sexual misconduct law was broad enough that it might be ruled unconsitutional, asked the court of appeals to interpret the sexual misconduct statute in a way that would not be inconsistent with Lawrence v. Texas, and allow a new trial for nonconsensual sex under the lesser offense. (This would have allowed them to argue that, while the strictest standard for proving lack of consent could not be met, nonetheless there was evidence of lack of consent that would survive a lighter standard for a lesser offense.) The appeals court denied that it could do that, and therefore struck it down entirely.

One of the things that makes the case interesting is that it underlines the point that a number of feminist critics of rape laws have made: if consent is the primary issue in rape law, it guarantees significant miscarriages of justice. Sexual consent is a slippery notion in the first place, and it virtually always occurs under circumstances of extreme privacy; but to make consent a viable way of handling these matters, it has to be treated as a very strict, definite concept requiring strict standards of evidence. Treating consent as the essential matter in a rape case throws almost all the burden of proof on the victims. This contrasts with another possible approach to rape, in which one treats it as assault is treated in many jurisdictions: consent is still relevant, but the burden on the alleged victim is just to prove that the act actually happened (of which there was no doubt in this case), and then the accused must establish that they took reasonable steps to secure the privilege of acting that way against the alleged victim.

The alternative, of course, is to treat laws governing sexual behavior as a sort of contract law, with all that this implies. There is currently a bill before the California legislature that does exactly that for college students: it requires, on pain of losing funding, that colleges have an affirmative consent standard: "an affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant to engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual activity". (Contrary to the way it is reported, the bill as it is being considered allows the consent to be conveyed verbally, in writing, or by unambiguous action.) Requiring colleges to implement policies based on requirements of explicit consent, of course, is somewhat different than imposing such a standard directly. But something like it really is required to make the concept of consent definite enough to be useful in sexual matters -- if consent is made central, you must actively treat it in a way that allows you to have standards that can be handled in courts of law, or you're really not doing much.

In the Williams case, we are dealing with a situation in which there were reasons to doubt that it was consensual, but not enough to rule out definitely that it was not. Outside of well-written contract law, this kind of situation is unavoidable when dealing with consent. Either one must take that into account or one must build the law around something other than consent. One of the things the Alabama Appeals Court pointed out was that a new trial was impossible because by not being convicted of sodomy in the first degree, under Alabama law this for all practical purposes meant that he was acquitted of nonconsensual sex, period. This shows a problem with the law as written: the standards of consent are quite low, since, assuming that the person in question is an adult, nonconsensual sex requires either provable forcible compulsion or physical or mental incapacity to consent. Forcible compulsion, in turn, is defined as "Physical force that overcomes earnest resistance or a threat, express or implied, that places a person in fear of immediate death or serious physical injury to himself or another person." This means there are lots of situations that we could reasonably think of as involving forcible compulsion that don't count as 'forcible compulsion' under the law. For instance, if A threatens B that someday he will kill him if he doesn't do something, that's not a threat that has much to do with 'fear of immediate death'. Or if A threatens B with B's spouse losing a job that is really crucial to paying the bills, it's not forcible compulsion; economic threats are not threats of immediate death or physical injury. And this sort of thing has been pointed out by feminist critics of other rape laws, as well; and it's a very difficult thing for a rape law to account for adequately -- if it is based on consent. The old way it was handled was something like what the prosecution tried here -- you deal with it under a lesser but broader offense category. This is increasingly difficult to do, though, for the obvious reason that the broader offenses raise many more political questions than they used to raise. And as that happens, cases like this, in which victims cannot meet the strict standards required for proving that they did not consent, in the strict and limited sense defined by law, but could nonetheless prove that they did not consent in a less strict sense according to a less strict standard, will fall through the cracks.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hippias Minor

Hippias Minor, or Lesser Hippias, called so because it is much shorter than the other dialogue named after Hippias, has the reputation of being one of the strange dialogues. While it is not so obviously strange as Clitophon or Menexenus, it has been throwing Plato scholars for a loop for a very long time. Its authenticity was questioned in the nineteenth century for reasons of content, but standing in the way of regarding it as spurious is Aristotle, who quite clearly refers to the dialogue in Metaphysics, in much the way he usually refers to Plato's work. The only kind of external evidence for its authenticity that would be stronger is Aristotle explicitly saying it was Plato; it is about as strong an evidence of authenticity as you can get. So Plato scholars have grudgingly given it a place in the authentic works, insisting, as they do with all dialogues so strange they don't understand them, that it was an early work of Plato's before he entirely knew what he was doing.

Be that as it may, the dialogue is quite sophisticated, logically speaking, and shows a higher-order awareness of how Plato's dialectical method, and argument in general, works. It is unsurprising that Aristotle, while critical of it, uses the dialogue as a way to discuss the logical features of induction.

The dialogue is structured much like Ion, is explicitly linked with Hippias Major, and has clear thematic links with Protagoras and Meno. The way of handling the themes, however, is unusual, and the nineteenth century scholars who questioned its authenticity did so entirely on grounds of its content. There is no definite consensus on how to interpret the work. It is also somewhat difficult to translate, since some of the key terms would have been very common for the Greeks but are tricky for us to handle without assuming things the Greeks might not have -- for instance, pseude, one of the most important terms and the one that gives the dialogue its common subtitle of 'On Lying', means 'liar' but in a very broad and loose sense (something more like in the colloquial English phrase 'make a liar of me', which implies that one did not strictly lie, but that events have intervened that made what you said turn out to be false).

You can read Hippias Minor online in English at Perseus Project, and in Victor Cousin's French translation at Wikisource.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Eudicus is only known elsewhere from Hippias Major; he is an Athenian hosting Hippias.


  Hippias of Elis
Hippias was, with Gorgias and Prodocus, one of the most famous teachers of oratory of the day. Besides the two dialogues named after him, he is also found in Protagoras and Xenophon's Memorabilia, and is mentioned in Phaedrus, the Apology, and Xenophon's Symposium. He was famous as a polymath, and this will play a role in the dialogue. By a very longstanding, and entirely possible, historical tradition, he is usually regarded as the discoverer of the quadratrix curve. At the beginning of the dialogue he has just finished giving a demonstration of his oratorical skills, taking Homer as his topic.

The Plot and The Thought

The dialogue breaks fairly easily into two parts, each distinguished by a deliberately shocking conclusion:

(1) The truthful and the false man or liar are the same man.
(2) The man who does wrong things voluntarily, if there is any such man, is better than the man who does them involuntarily.

I will call (1) the paradoxical conclusion and (2) the scandalous conclusion.

Eudicus opens the dialogue by asking why Socrates is so silent after Hippias's oratorical demonstration. Socrates responds that there are things about Hippias's discussion of Homer that he would like to hear Hippias discuss more, because it put him in mind of Eudicus's father's claim that the Iliad is a better poem than the Odyssey to the extent that Achilles is a better man than Odysseus. So Socrates asks Hippias which of the two men were better. Hippias agrees to answer questions because, after all, that's what he does. Socrates ironically remarks about how wise and confident Hippias is, to which Hippias replies that he has good reason to be confident, since he hasn't ever met anyone superior to him in anything.

Hippias's answer to the question is that Homer made Achilles best and bravest, Nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the wiliest. Socrates expresses bafflement, saying he can see why someone would say that Achilles was best and bravest or Nestor wisest, but what did he mean by saying that Odysseus was wiliest? Wasn't Achilles wily?

Hippias responds that Homer made Achilles not wily but the most guileless and truthful, quoting the Iliad (9:308ff):

Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,
I must speak the word bluntly,
How I will act and how I think it shall be accomplished,
For as hateful to me as the gates of Hades
Is he who hides one thing in his mind, and says another.
As for me, I will speak as it shall also be accomplished.

Thus, says Hippias, in these lines he lays out the nature of each: Achilles is truthful and guileless, and Odyssey is wiley and false-speaking.

Socrates moves the question for the moment from Homeric interpretation to Hippias's own claim, asking him if false-speakers have the power to do anything. Hippias says they do: the power to speak falsely. He asks is they are intelligent, and Hippias says they are: in false-speaking. This is the basic foundation.

Socrates then gets Hippias to agree that truthful people and false-speaking people are complete opposites, at which point he begins to argue against him, arguing that someone who is wisest in a field has the power both to tell the truth about it and to speak falsely about it. This is all Socrates needs to establish the paradoxical conclusion.

Hippias accuses Socrates of constantly quibbling and says that he will give Socrates plenty of evidence that Homer makes Achilles better than Odysseus, and that Achilles is not false-speaking and Odysseus is. Socrates goes on to give evidence from the very same passage Hippias quoted that Achilles said inconsistent, and therefore false, things. So Achilles and Odysseus are quite similar.

Hippias responds that Achilles when he speaks falsely does so involuntarily, whereas when Odysseus does it, he does so on purpose. Socrates argues that this is not so, but when Hippias continues to argue the point, he replies that Hippias now is arguing that Odysseus is better than Achilles. Hippias is baffled at how people who are voluntarily unjust could be better than those who are involuntarily unjust. Socrates says he is confused, and asks Hippias to cure his soul for this confusion; he appeals to Eudicus, and Eudicus remarks that he is sure Hippias will continue to answer questions. Hippias concedes this but only after saying that Socrates always sows confusion and argues unfairly.

Socrates then argues that in every other kind of case we take people who only do bad things on purpose to be better (more skilled and more able) than those who do bad things because they can't help it. But justice is a kind of power or knowledge or both, so someone who does injustice voluntarily is a better person than someone who does injustice because he can't help it. Or, as he puts it (376b): "it's up to the good man to do injustice voluntarily, and the bad man to do it involuntarily". It is good people who do injustice voluntarily. Thus the scandalous conclusion.

Hippias is unconvinced, and says he can't agree. Socrates replies that he doesn't agree with himself, but given the argument, it can't but look the way he said. And he ends the dialogue by remarking, ironically, that it is unsurprising if ordinary people like himself waver on the point; but it seems bad for everyone if they can't even stop wavering in the company of someone as wise as Hippias.


* We have from Porphyry a paraphrase of an argument from Socrates' student Antisthenes that discusses exactly the Homeric passage Hippias quotes, and at least raises some of the same issues. So some people have thought that perhaps this dialogue (and maybe Ion as well) was originally written by Plato as a polemic against Antisthenes; the two were quite opposed on a number of things. Unfortunately, we probably don't have enough of Antisthenes' argument to pin down exactly what would have been the point of contention. It's a salutary reminder, in any case, that Plato's dialogues had an original context, and when he takes a strange turn -- it might not have been strange at the time. It is also a reminder of how impoverished we are; only the works of Plato and Xenophon among the several major students of Socrates have survived more or less intact.

* It is probably not an accident on Plato's part that Hippias seems to get the interpretation of the Iliad passage he quotes incorrect -- while Achilles is talking to Odysseys, "he who hides one thing in his mind, and says another" is in context pretty clearly Agamemnon, not Odysseus. From claiming that he has never found anyone superior to himself, Hippias ends up being outmaneuvered by Socrates on Socrates' turf, outmaneuvered by him on his own turf, and forced to complain about how Socrates is unfair.

It is perhaps notable that Xenophon also depicts Hippias as complaining that Socrates does not argue fairly.

* Socrates' argument in this dialogue is often regarded as inconsistent with his argument in Crito; there he argues that we should never intentionally do injustice. But this supposed inconsistency is manifestly nonexistent; Socrates never at any point in this dialogue argues that we should do injustice. His argument here is not that we should do injustice, but that the only people who can do injustice in a way that comes from power and intelligence are just people. And it is worth noting that he says something very similar in the Crito itself (44d):

I only wish, Crito, the people could accomplish the greatest evils, that they might be able to accomplish also the greatest good things. Then all would be well. But now they can do neither of the two; for they are not able to make a man wise or foolish, but they do whatever occurs to them.

Likewise, people get very exercised about the scandalous conclusion, but, while paradoxically stated, there is a sense in which it is exactly right, exactly the same sense in which we can say that wrongdoing is a kind of weakness or foolishness -- recall the first few steps of Socrates' argument. But this doesn't necessarily make it any less paradoxical.

* People have noted that Socrates actually phrases the scandalous conclusion conditionally. In other dialogues (Protagoras and Gorgias) he gives arguments suggesting that injustice cannot actually be done voluntarily.

* Xenophon in his Memorabilia (IV.2.14ff, see especially IV.ii.20) has Socrates discussing much the same matter with Euthydemus -- so much so that either both Plato and Xenophon are drawing on a common source or one is adapting the other. However, there are a number of very importance differences. Most obviously, in Xenophon's version, Socrates is not perplexed about these things, only Euthydemus, and the whole discussion is preparatory to Socrates teaching Euthydemus plainly what things like justice are. That is, Socrates is bringing Euthydemus to recognize his own ignorance, and Euthydemus, of course, then concludes that he needs to learn these things from Socrates.


Quotations from Hippias Minor are from Nicholas D. Smith's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 922-936.

Quotation from Crito is from Harold North Fowler's translation at the Perseus Project.

Catching Up

I've spent the last week and a half visiting family in Oregon and Montana. Total distance of travel over 3600 miles (over 5700 kilometers). In Montana I saw Pompeys Pillar, which was very interesting -- worth at least dropping by if you're ever in the Billings area. In Billings we attended a Strawberry Festival, where I picked up a few books at an antique store. I read one of them, Prisoner's Base by Rex Stout, on the flight back from Billings to Austin; it was very good. I like Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries in general, but it was one of the best I've read.

In any case, I'm still catching up on things that piled up while I was out, so, while there are things in the pipeline, things might be a bit inconsistent around here this week.

In the meantime:

(1) Philosopher's Carnival #164 went up last week at "The Splintered Mind".

The 165th Philosopher's Carnival will be here at Siris at some point approaching mid-July. If you come across any excellent philosophical posts on other weblogs starting about June 10 or 11 into July, feel free to send the links my way.

(2) I had originally planned to do Menexenus after Ion, but I've decided to do Hippias Minor instead, the post for which should be up tonight or tomorrow morning. (I think Hippias Minor connects better with Phaedrus and Ion, and I want to save Menexenus until I can also look in detail at Pericles' Funeral Oration, which it obviously opposes.) In the meantime, Paul Woodruff has an article at the SEP on Plato's Shorter Ethical Works, of which Hippias Minor is one.

Gorgias, Lysis, and Laches are currently planned after Hippias Minor, but I might, as a breather, interpose a non-Platonic dialogue somewhere, namely, Plutarch's Socrates' Daimonion -- one of the other books I grabbed in Billings was Selected Essays and Dialogues of Plutarch, and it has what (at least at a glance) looks like a decent translation. Gorgias is the absolute must-do this week, and will certainly take several posts; Lysis and Laches I'll do as long as I have the time and don't think it will cut too much into Timaeus and Critias next week.

[ADDED LATER: Almost as soon as I put this up, I started thinking that perhaps I would rather do Euthydemus than Laches at this point. I am increasingly inclining to that now. It's a closer fit. I also had forgotten that I want to smuggle in the spurious dialogue On Justice about the time I did Gorgias. So we'll see how much I actually manage to get done this week.]

(3) A good post at "More Man Than Philosopher": The Detective Story as a Religious Exercise.

(4) St. Anthony of Padua's feastday was June 13. Anthropologists at the University of Padua recently did a forensic reconstruction of what he would have looked like, based on a digital scan of his skull.

(5) SF Debris had a good appreciation of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy (the first three books in the Foundation series) earlier this month.

The Whole Principle of Courage

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. "He that will lose his life, the same shall save it," is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so.

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VI.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Three Forms of Poetical Art

Poetry owes in every instance its first creative beginning to some great and singular ray of light from symbolical tradition, which, at the same time, illuminates the noble and memorable past, and points forward to the dark and mystical future. For it would be difficult to produce one among the great epic poems of antiquity that does not contain this poetico-prophetic element, and does not touch upon the profound mysteries of both worlds. The next and middle step is occupied by the poetry of sentiment and feeling— that music of the soul or poesy of song in which the calm deep longings and the wild tearing passions of the moment, once plunged and glorified in that immortal element, become eternal. But the height of perfection in the organic development of poetry is marked by the drama. This third and highest form of poetical art has for its subject-matter the whole struggle of human life, which in its vivid representations it aims to realize, and, as it were, to bring bodily before our eyes.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Life, p. 261.

Fortnightly Book, June 15

The Fortnightly Book this time around is Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914. It was the first 'fascicle' of Solzhenitsyn's The Red Wheel series, which has since included October 1916 (also known as November 1916 due to differences between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars), March 1917, and April 1917. The whole novel-cycle was to describe the dissolution of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union. August 1914 itself focuses on the Battle of Tannenberg, in which the massive Russian Second Army was disastrously defeated by the German Eighth Army; the Germans killed or wounded nearly eighty thousand Russian soldiers and captured more than ninety thousand more. The Germans would go on systematically to defeat the Russian First Army, as well, making the battle a textbook case of defeat-in-detail, the process of defeating an opponent by bringing massive forces to bear on fractured portions of the enemy forces.

There are two different versions of the novel, one published in the 1970s, and one in the 1980s; the latter is a much larger book that includes material that had been suppressed in the original and that Solzhenitsyn decided to add later. As it happens, the version I have on my shelves is a 1972 translation by Michael Glenny, so I have the earlier version. This contemporary review by Simon Karlinsky suggests that Karlinsky was less than impressed by Glenny's translation:

Glenny's approach to the problems involved in translating Solzhenitsyn may be demonstrated by citing a passage from the prose poem "Lake Segden" (Solzhenitsyn himself calls these short pieces "tiny stories"). An anonymous but reasonably accurate translation appeared in the Intellectual Digest in April, 1971: "There's the place where one would like to settle forever. . . . There one's soul, trembling like the air, would course between water and sky, and clean, profound thoughts would flow." And here is Glenny's version of the same passage as printed in "Stories and Prose Poems": "Here is somewhere to settle forever, a place where a man could live in harmony with the elements and be inspired." This, in a nutshell, is the manner in which most of "August 1914" has been translated into English.

Long, convoluted sentences are simplified and cut into bite-size chunks; passages of stream-of-consciousness in which the narration shifts from the third person to first or second are erased by transposing everything into the third person: rapid, staccato, elliptic exclamations are converted into matter-of-fact, smooth, neutral English; and poetic imagery is systematically eliminated or toned down throughout the text.

Karlinsky suggests that it should be described as 'paraphrased' or 'adapted' by Michael Glenny, rather than translated by him. So, probably not the version you'd want if you wanted the Solzhenitsyn experience; but, again, it's the version I happen to have on my shelves, having been given to me by grandfather when I was in high school, so it is the version for the Fortnightly Book.