Saturday, August 16, 2014

Shusaku Endo, Silence


Opening Passage:

News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of 'the pit' at Nagasaki had apostatized. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty-three years in Japan, had occupied the high position of provincial and had been a source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike.

Summary: There is a danger in reading stories involving martyrs that comes from the tendency of readers to put ourselves in a false position, as if we, were we in the same position, would hold out to the end. This is already not to understand what we are reading. There is a story about St. Felicity, who while pregnant was arrested for being Christian. She was kept in prison until the baby was born; and the next day would be sent to the arena. It was a hard labor, and she screamed during it. The guard sarcastically remarked that if she couldn't handle that, how would she handle the lions tomorrow? To which she replied that today she was relying on her own strength; tomorrow she would be relying on someone else's. Human goodness is frail. It does not matter how good you are, how strong you are, how forceful your will. There is some pressure, applied long enough, or in just the right point, where you can at some point shatter. There is some point beyond which you can guarantee nothing. You might last. But call it luck or grace, your doing so would be utterly out of your hands.

Silence is about the tsurushi torture. The victim is hung upside down, in a pit. It is very hot and very humid, and you just hang. Usually they cut a little slit behind the ear to drip blood. Doing so increases the length of time you are conscious and alive. Because you are hanging upside down, it never closes, it just drips from the pressure; and the blood is not being pumped back up your body fast enough. At some point you start bleeding out your nose, out your mouth. The pain is extraordinary. And it never stops, because gravity never stops. Slowly, surely, you die. It takes a few days. St. Magdalene of Nagasaki hung in the pit for thirteen before she died. That's what grace looks like, dying in agony for thirteen days while never wavering. It's something human beings cannot guarantee on their own strength. Most people would break after a few hours, and do anything, anything whatsoever, to get out of that pit.

When Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, S.J., goes to Japan, he knows very well that he may be killed for it. He does it for two reasons: first, that the Catholics of Japan need priests, and second, that he wants to know what happened to Cristovao Ferreira, leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, who according to rumors has apostatized, given up the faith. If the latter is true, it is shocking; no one expected it. If he did not apostatize, what has happened to him? And if he did, how did that happen? He and his fellow priest, Fr. Francis Garrpe, arrive in Japan with the help of a shifty but somewhat mysterious fellow named Kichijiro. He claims not to be a Christian but once in Japan, finds the Christians in hiding fairly easily. They spend most of their time on the run, being hidden by Catholic peasants in the Nagasaki area. They are eventually separated. And Fr. Rodrigues is eventually betrayed by Kichijiro, who was indeed a Japanese Catholic, but who had apostatized when captured, and whose weakness has not ended.

Fr. Rodrigues does learn what happened to Fr. Ferreira. He hung in the pit until he broke, until it seemed clear that everything the Jesuits were doing in Japan was worthless, because the Japanese might say the same Latin words as European Catholics, but they did not actually believe in the same God. He tries to convince Fr. Rodrigues of this, having been brought in by the magistrate Inoue as part of the attempt to get Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize. In the abstract the arguments are specious, of course; they are nothing that could not have been argued of the first Gentile believers, or the Ostrogoths, or the first Scandinavians, or the indios of the Americas. But context is part of how we assess arguments, and an argument that seems one way as you and I sit at a computer may look somewhat different to someone dying a slow and agonizing death in the pit.

The pit is not, however, Fr. Rodrigues's fate. The magistrate has something different in store for him. Other people are going to hang in the pit. They've already apostatized; more than once, in fact. But they are not in the pit in order that they might apostatize. All Fr. Rodrigues has to do in order to save them from the torture and certain death is to step on an image of Christ, to put out his foot and trample the face of Christ.

Kichijiro, of course, plays the role of Judas. He failed. But we often forget that all twelve disciples failed. Judas betrayed. Most fled. Peter followed along behind -- and apostatized. Human goodness is very fragile.

But it would be an error to leave it at that. A historical novel has history itself for a context, and history makes the matter more ambiguous. The magistrate Inoue argues that Christianity is too foreign to take root in Japan; that its roots rot and change in the mud swamps of Japan; that all they have to do is get the priests and the rest will wither away. But we who read know that it is a more complex matter. The Kirishitan continued to carry on, hidden, until again it could sprout to life. Two centuries, under terrible conditions. It did not die, any more than it died when its founder was nailed to cross and his most trusted followers failed him. Whether the faith was distorted in the culture of Japan was never the primary issue; that was not the test. Whether men and women, subject to terrible tortures, could hold the faith was never the primary issue; it was not the test, either. The point was never to show that the faith was easy for anyone, nor to show that one could endure by sheer strength of will.

There's an interesting phrase used by Fr. Rodrigues at one point. He often thinks about the face of Christ, and once he speaks of it as the face he "longs to love". I think this suggests the heart of the book. The point was never about endurance or strength, failure or weakness. It was about love, which is not something easily had, since mostly we don't love but simply long to love. But love is the point. And no one genuinely loves unless they love even if they break.

Favorite Passage:

They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints--how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily--in silence.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This is a good book on practically every count.


Quotations from Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, tr. Taplinger (New York: 1980).


Plato was, according to legend, a poet before he became a philosopher, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a collection of epigrammatic poems became attached to his name. They are from disparate sources, and in most cases the mechanism by which they came to be ascribed to Plato is likely the same as that by which stray quotations come to be ascribed to Oscar Wilde or William Shakespeare or Winston Churchill. But in several cases we cannot entirely rule out authenticity, and most scholars will concede that it is at least somewhat possible that the Dion epigram is Plato's.

You can read the Platonic epigrams online in English at the Perseus Project, and ten of them in a different English translation at Wikisource. Percy Bysshe Shelley translated a couple of them.

The Star Epigrams

Perhaps the most famous epigrams attributed to Plato are the Star epigrams. The major reason for thinking them inauthentic, as with many of the epigrams, is that they have features suggestive of much later poetry. In this epigrams we have someone addressed as a star, perhaps because his name or nickname was Aster:

You gaze at the stars, my Star; would that I were Heaven that I might look at you with many eyes!


Even as you shone once the Star of Morning among the living, so in death you shine now the Star of Evening among the dead.

Or to take the latter in Shelley's slightly looser but excellent translation of the latter:

Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled;—
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendour to the dead.

It's common for Greek epigrams to come in pairs. In the first epigram, the beloved, called a star, looks at the stars, so the lover wishes he were the sky (ouranos) so that he could look back at the beloved with many eyes (the many eyes being the stars). I think I would paraphrase it as:

Stars you watch, my star;
would I were the sky
looking back at you,
each star a shining eye.

It reminds one a bit of the argument for the importance of dialogue in Alcibiades Major, in which Socrates argues that self-knowledge requires seeing oneself in the eyes of another, but self-knowledge is not yet in view here. Rather, Alcibiades Major is taking the kind of idea that this epigram draws on, and putting it to new use.

The second Star epigram plays on a common Greek idea that the dead became stars, and on the association of life with morning and death with evening combined with the fact that the morning star and the evening star are the same, and both associated with love.

The Apple Epigrams

My favorite Platonic epigram is among those that have the best claim to being authentic:

I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love (phileis) me, take it and share your girlhood (partheneis) with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and considered how short-lived (oligochronios) is beauty.

The apple, of course, was a symbol of love to the ancient Greeks; 'to throw an apple at someone' became synonymous with declaring one's love for them. This is good solid work in any language; combining an expression of love with a "But if you do not love me, at least remember that your moments for really living are few" is a standard love poetry trope, and here it is concisely and vigorously expressed.

There is another apple poem, this one addressed to Xanthippe -- one would assume in the voice of Socrates:

I am an apple; one who loves you throws me at you. Say yes, Xanthippe; we fade, both you and I.

Here we have a greater emphasis on conciseness, although the same theme.

The Dion Epigram

According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato wrote an epitaph for Dion's tomb in Syracuse:

The Fates decreed tears to Hecuba and the women of Troy right from their birth; but for you, Dion, the gods spilled your widespread hopes upon the ground after you had triumphed in the doing of noble deeds (kalon epinikion ergon). And so in your spacious homeland you lie honored by your fellow citizens, O Dion, you who made my heart mad with love.

Of all the epigrams, this is the one most likely to be authentic if any is. Hecuba and the Trojan women, of course, is a famous tale from the aftermath of the Trojan war; Euripides has a particularly brutal telling of it. Thus the tale is associated with the loss of a city, and a fit opening for the loss of Dion and the vision of the city lost with his death. But a contrast is made between the lead-up to each disaster, since Dion's disaster occurs in the aftermath of noble works. Perhaps more interesting is the linking of thymos and eros in the last line: 'who drove mad my thymos from eros, Dion'. Thymos is that part of the soul that rises to challenges, loves victory, and seeks out difficulties to overcome. It's difficult not to think of Phaedrus or Symposium in reading of eros in this context, as well as the calmer emphasis of the Platonic Letters on the fundamental importance of friendship and companionship for the accomplishing of great things.


There are several other epigrams, often addressing or mentioning people we recognize from elsewhere: Phaedrus, Agathon, Sappho, the sculptor Praxiteles, and Aristophanes. The most famous of these is that which speaks of Sappho, since it gives us a famous description of her as the Tenth Muse:

Some say there are nine Muses. How thoughtless! Look at Sappho of Lesbos; she makes a tenth.

There are also two epigrams attributed to Plato on the deportation of the Eretrians during the Persian Wars after the Siege of Eretria, two concerning women about whom we know nothing else (Archeanassa and Lais), and some more generic pieces.

Quotations are from John M. Cooper's revision of J. M. Edmonds's translation, in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1742-1745.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Plato's Symposium

The Symposium is generally considered one of Plato's great works. It gives its own theme as ta erotika the science/art/craft of desire, eros. The dialogue has clear dramatic links to Protagoras; most of the people at this dinner party were also at that get-together. It also has thematic and dramatic links to Phaedrus and Lysis.

You can read the Symposium online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource. C. D. C. Reeve has a good article on Plato's account of friendship at the SEP.

The Characters

In the frame narrative:

Apollodorus is mentioned in the Apology and Phaedo, and has speaking parts in Xenophon's Memorabilia and Apology. He is represented by both Plato and Xenophon as being quite an emotional person.

Apollodorus is speaking with an anonymous companion.

Glaucon is Plato's brother. Apollodorus tells of a conversation he had with Glaucon in a subdialogue in the frame narrative.

In the main narrative:

  Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum
Both Plato and Xenophon remark on his short stature; Xenophon gives him as an example of Socrates giving good advice to his close friends in Memorabilia 1.4.


  Agathon of Athens
Agathon is mentioned in Protagoras as listening to Prodicus. He is a tragic poet who has want a great victory at a festival. The major victory party was the day before, but he is still celebrating with a more intimate dinner party for friends.

  Pausanias of Cerameis
Pausanias is mentioned in Protagoras as listening to Prodicus. Pausanias is Agathon's lover, and several of the speeches are clearly designed to flatter the two.

  Aristophanes of Cydathenaeum
Aristophanes is the only person given a full speech who was not at the sophist get-together in Protagoras.

  Eryximachus of Athens
All three times Eryximachus is mentioned in Plato (Protagoras, Phaedrus, and here), he is mentioned as a friend and associate of Phaedrus. In Protagoras, he and Phaedrus are listening to Hippias.

  Phaedrus of Myrrhinus
Phaedrus is the same Phaedrus as in the dialogue of the same name. In Protagoras he is mentioned as listening to Hippias.

  Diotima of Mantinea
Diotima is not actually present, but she plays such a big role in Socrates' speech it seems appropriate to treat her as a character. She is a priestess, whom Socrates claims kept the great plague away for ten years by giving Athens good advice on sacrifices. There are a lot of Plato scholars who think she was just made up by Plato, but there seems to be no evidence at all that this is the case; it is true that this is the only source mentioning her at all, but this is not surprising. If one takes her to be a historical personage one is not, of course, committed to saying that everything Plato puts in her mouth is historical as well.

  Alcibiades of Scambonidae
Alcibiades needs no introduction, but two things are worth noting that help to indicate a pattern in the dialogue: the dialogue occurs dramatically at the height of his reputation in Athens, not long before the incident of the desecration of the herms; and he was also at the party of sophists in Protagoras.

There are, in addition, a number of slaves, revelers, and participants who are given no names.

The Plot

We begin in the middle of a discussion with Apollodorus saying that yes, he can answer the question. He remarks that the other day, he was walking to Athens when he was hailed by a Glaucon, who said that he heard a story from Phoenix about a gathering at Agathon's; but Phoenix only had a garbled version, and said Glaucon should talk to Apollodorus if he wanted to know more. Glaucon asks if Apollodorus was at the gathering in question, and Apollodorus remarks that Phoenix must have really garbled the story, because it happened years and years ago, and that he wasn't there, but only (like Phoenix) heard the story from Aristodemus, although he had checked the details with Socrates. Apollodorus then tells his interlocutor, who is never named, that he will tell the same story that he told Galucon.

Aristodemus told Apollodorus that one day he ran into Socrates, who had bathed and put on sandals, both of which were unusual events. Aristodemus remarked on it, and Socrates replied that he was invited to a dinner party at Agathon's, to celebrate the poet's victory in a recent context, so, since Agathon is a handsome man, he was making a special effort to be presentable. He invites Aristodemus along, and Aristodemus accepts the invitation, but remarks that Socrates probably should invent an excuse for bringing him, since Aristodemus is technically uninvited. So they set out together. But Socrates began thinking of something else, and kept lagging, all the while insisting that Aristodemus go on ahead. So Aristodemus arrives at the party.

Agathon welcomes Aristodemus and says that he had tried to invite him, but never could manage to hunt him down, and asks why he didnt bring Socrates? Aristodemus looks around and realizes that Socrates isn't there, and says that Socrates was behind him, but he doesn't know where he is now. Agathon sends a slave out to find him, and the slave reports back that Socrates is standing in front of the neighbor's house and will not come in. Agathon tells the slave to try again, but Aristodemus insists that Socrates does this occasionally, just standing motionless (Alcibiades will confirm this later in the dialogue). If they just let him be, he'll be along when he's ready.

They start eating, and Socrates comes in when he's halfway done; Agathon calls Socrates over to his own couch, joking that perhaps he can pick up wisdom by osmosis. Socrates sits down next to him and replies that he wished one could, because his own wisdom is of no account, but Agathon has been showing his in front of crowds.

After dinner, they pour a libation to the god, sing a hymn, and went through the other little rituals ancient Greeks did in such cases, and then Pausanias asks what they can do to make sure that they don't drink too much. Most of them were at the victory party the day before and so are not in a state for serious drinking; so they agree to drink less at their drinking party, with Eryximachus, the doctor, arguing that serious inebriation is bad for the health. Eryximachus also goes on to propose a way to pass the time. Phaedrus is always remarking that of all the gods, Eros is shortchanged, because not many hymns are made to him. Thus, Eryximachus suggests, they should, starting with Phaedrus, each give a speech in praise of Eros. Socrates agrees quite enthusiastically:

"No one will vote against that, Eryximachus," said Socrates. "How could I vote 'No,' when the only thing I say I understand is the art of love? Could Agathon and Pausanias? Could Aristophanes, who thinks of nothing but Dionysius and Aphrodite? No one I can see here now could vote against your proposal.

"And though it's not quite fair to those of us who have to speak last, if the first speeches turn out to be good enough and to exhaust our subject, I promise we won't complain. So let Phaedrus begin, with the blessing of Fortune; let's hear his praise of Love" (177d-e)

Then Phaedrus gives his speech. Apollodorus says that after Phaedrus, several people spoke, but Aristodemus couldn't remember their speeches. Pausanias goes next. After Pausanias, Aristophanes is supposed to go, but he has the hiccups. Eryximachus recommends a series of hiccup cures -- hold his breath as long as possible, or, if that doesn't work, gargle thoroughly, or, if that doesn't work, make himself sneeze by tickling his nose with a feather -- and offers to go in his place. We are, of course, to imagine that the entire time Eryximachus is giving his speech, Aristophanes is right next to him holding his breath until he turns blue, then gargling and gargling, with hiccups the entire time, and finally by the end of the speech is tickling his nose with a feather to make himself sneeze. Aristophanes has a brilliant speech next. Agathon is next. After Agathon goes, Socrates questions him until Agathon admits that he had no idea what he was talking about when he was praising Eros. Then Socrates begins his speech, which has a speech within the speech, since it is a narrative of his interaction with a priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, in which she teaches him the true nature of Eros. Everyone applauds the speech. In the course of Socrates' speech, Diotima happened to criticize Aristophanes' speech, so it's unsurprising that Aristophanes tries (unsuccessfully) to raise his voice over the noise of the applause to respond to Socrates (perhaps by pointing out that Diotima years before could not possibly have known Aristophanes' story!), and before he can do any respounding, a loud and noisy party of revelers comes crashing into the party, headed by Alcibiades, drunk as a lord and wearing a crown of violets and ivy (212e).

Aristophanes sits on Agathon's couch in order to put his own crown on him, but then discovers (he is, after all, drunk) that Socrates is there, too. Alcibiades insists that they all should drink until they are drunk, or, at least, until everyone except Socrates is drunk, since Socrates can drink without ever getting drunk. Eryximachus lets him in on what they have been doing, and insists that he give his own encomium of Eros. Alcibiades agrees but insists on giving an encomium of Socrates. After the speech, Socrates jokes that Alcibiades is just jealous of the relationship between Socrates and Agathon, and insists that Alcibiades let him praise Agathon. Agathon moves over to hear what Socrates has to say, but at this point another large crowd of drunken revelers comes crashing in, and a number of people, including Eryximachus and Phaedrus, excuse themselves. Aristodemus fell asleep, and only woke up at dawn. Then he saw that Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates are the only ones who are still awake and talking, although Agathon and Aristophanes are nodding off. Aristodemus couldn't remember the details of their conversation,b ut he did remember that Socrates was trying to convince Agathon (the tragic poet) and Aristophanes (the comic poet) that the skillful tragic poet should also be a comic poet. When they other two fall asleep in the middle of his argument, Socrates leaves, Aristodemus trailing behind; and Socrates goes straight to the Lyceum to wash up, then spent the day exactly as he always did.

The Thought

Given the number of speeches, there is obviously a great deal in this dialogue. Some people suggest that there is a sort of progression in the speeches, although I haven't come across any suggestions that are strikingly plausible. It is nonetheless true that each speech contributes something, and that they provide mutual corrections for each other. Phaedrus introduces the idea that Eros is powerful for gaining virtue and happiness (180b) and that Eros is high and good; Pausanias distinguishes a higher Eros, concerned with the soul, from a vulgar Eros, concerned with the body (183e); Eryximachus links Eros with health, harmony, and order; Aristophanes introduces the idea that Eros is "our pursuit of wholeness" and "our desire to be complete" (192e); Agathon introduces the idea that we need to determine first what the qualities of Eros are if we are to talk properly of what Eros does in human beings (194e-195a). Each one (especially that of Aristophanes) could be studied in detail; in particular, looking at the positive contributions and the ironies (e.g., the fact that Pausanias' speech is clearly self-interested, since he is implicitly praising the relationship between himself and Agathon). But as these are in a sense setting up for the speeches of Socrates and Alcibiades, we can move on directly to those.

Socrates attributes to the priestess Diotima his own view of Eros; deliberately ironic, perhaps, given that the role of women in Eros has been pretty limited up to this point -- Phaedrus mentions how Alcestis is rewarded for love even though she was a woman (179b) and Aristophanes insists that his account of Eros applies to men and women alike (193c), but neither Eryximachus nor Agathon bring women in at all, and Pausanias explicitly consigns women entirely to the common or vulgar Eros (181b) and even then only talks about the desire of men for women. According to Diotima, all the other speakers are wrong in thinking Eros to be a god. He is not, because if Eros were a god he would have everything he needs in himself. Eros is instead a daemon, and intermediary spirit between the gods and the human race, partaking something of the nature of both. Likewise, all the previous speakers are wrong in thinking that Eros is beautiful and good. He is not ugly and bad, but a third kind of thing: a drive to the beautiful and good, and which is not ugly and bad, but also by its very nature cannot be regarded as fully in possession of beauty and goodness (otherwise there would be no need for a drive toward, or pursuit of, them). Eros is, so to speak, a direction or orientation to what is beautiful and good rather than that beautiful and good that is its object. This makes Eros a lot like a philosopher, in fact, and this is exactly what Diotima argues: Eros is a philosopher (204b), because philosophers are not fools but they are not properly in possession of wisdom either, being seekers and pursuers of it.

Now, everyone, in fact, has this drive to the good and beautiful, this desire for having the good forever, but we can discern different kinds of ways people act on this. A particular version of this drive is especially suitably regarded as Eros: that which involves "giving birth in beauty, whether in body or in soul" (206b). It is certainly not insignificant that it is only Socrates up to this point who has indicated that Eros in and of itself has any connection with fruitfulness; indeed, he says (what it is difficult even to imagine the other speakers saying) that it is because of its connection with giving birth that the union of man and woman in Eros is a divine affair (206c). Giving birth is the immortality of a mortal creature, a divine thing found in harmony. Thus Eros is in a sense not even love of beauty as such; it is a drive toward birth in beauty (tokos in kaloi). It is only through giving birth, through fruitfulness, that any mortal thing can be said in any way to have the good forever; thus it is this that Eros seeks.

But fruitfulness can be in soul as well as body. Our souls have a desire, an Eros, to give birth in beauty just as much as our bodies do; they give birth to logoi about virtue and virtues themselves. Thus that person who has the version of Eros that is particularly marked out as suitable for the name will begin early with Eros for beautiful bodies, first starting with the beauty of one body, and then recognizing that the beauty of all bodies is the same (210b). Then the lover must rise above this, recognizing that beauty of soul is far better than beauty of body, first seeing the beauty of works and laws, then the beauty of knowledge, and through this, coming to gaze upon "the great sea of beauty" (210d). In doing so, he will come through unselfish philosophy to give birth to reasonings and, ultimately, to knowledge. And only when someone looks at, to have knowledge of, the beautiful itself can one give birth to true virtue, and attain a kind of divine immortality.

This would be a resounding note on which to end, but, of course, we do not end on it. Alcibiades gives his speech, and Alcibiades insists that he will only give a praise of Socrates. Alcibiades says that Socrates is like a satyr, like Silenus (teacher of the wine-god Dionysus) or Marsyas (according to myth one of the greatest musicians of all time). Like Silenus statues, Socrates is ugly on the outside, but inside has little figurines; and Socrates's figurines are so beautiful as to be divine (217a). Alcibiades relates how, after having seen some of Socrates' inner beauty, he pursued Socrates, only to be put off by him, and gives accounts of Socrates at the battles of Potidaea and Delium. He says that Socrates' arguments ar elike this, too:

Come to think of it, I should have mentioned this much earlier: even his ideas and arguments are just like those hollow statues of Silenus. If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they'd strike you as totally ridiculous; they're clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He's always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he's always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you'd find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments. But if you see them when they open up like the statues, if you go behind their surface, you'll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They're truly worth of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They're of great -- no, of the greatest -- importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man. (221d-222a)

Thus a complete account of Eros requires an account of Socrates himself; the one thing, perhaps, that Socrates himself cannot spend much of his speech providing. But drunken Alcibiades, playing Dionysus to Socrates' Silenus, can complete the picture: now, perhaps, we know what it means to say that Eros is a philosopher. But we readers can notice that Alcibiades in fact never does what would be required (indeed, what Socrates almost outright told him would be required) to win the love of Socrates: he would need to transform himself so that he too was beautiful with virtue inside.


Quotations are from Plato, Symposium, Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, translators, Hackett (Indianapolis: 1989).

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rough Timeline of Japan in the Years of Persecution

Since I'm reading Shusaku Endo's Silence, I thought it would be handy to work up a crude timeline of events concerning the Tokugawa Shogunate and Catholic Christianity in Japan. All dates are rough.

1467 Approximate beginning of Sengoku or Warring State Period

1543 First Portuguese ships in Japan

1549 St. Francis Xavier comes to Japan

1573 Approximate beginning of Azuchi-Momoyama phase of the Sengoku period: unification is beginning to take shape under Oda Nabunaga

1582 Oda Nabunaga dies; Toyotomi Hideyoshi takes over and continues conquest of dissident daimyo

1587 Hideyoshi issues decree banning Christianity, although it is only inconsistently and usually lightly enforced in order to maintain trade with Europe

Hideyoshi begins laying down plans to invade Ming China through Korea; the Koreans, despite the inconveniences of being a Chinese puppet state, are understandably not cooperative

1590 Hideyoshi allies with Tokugawa Ieyasu and forces him to move his center of operations to the backwater town of Edo, in modern-day Tokyo

1592 Japanese forces invade Korea; the Chinese Empire sends armies to recapture Pyongyang and Seoul

A ship carrying Korean prisoners is shipwrecked; one of the survivors is nursed to health in Kyoto by Christians, is converted, and takes the name Caius

1593 Having retaken Pyongyang, the Chinese army is decisively defeated at the Battle of Byeokjegwan, leaving Seoul in Japanese hands, and making the remaining army reluctant to take aggressive action; the Korean army has a major victory over the Japanese army at the Siege of Haengju; the Japanese eventually pull out of Seoul due to stalemate conditions that look increasingly unfavorable to them

Peace talks begin between the Ming dynasty and Hideyoshi; since the Ming Emperor is told that Japan is surrendering and Hideyoshi is told that China is surrendering, the talks break down completely

1597 Hideyoshi orders the crucifixion of the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan (including St. Paul Miki) in Nagasaki; the result is actually an increase in Catholic converts

Hideyoshi invades Korea again, an invasion that is less successful militarily, although more effective diplomatically; the overall result, however, is to begin the weakening of both the Ming dynasty in China and the Toyotomi clan in Japan

1598 Hideyoshi dies

1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu wins decisive victory over those opposing him at the Battle of Sekigahara

William Adams becomes first (known) Englishman in Japan after the Dutch vessel for which he was a pilot is shipwrecked; he is taken to Ieyasu, who takes him on as an advisor.

1603 Ieyasu becomes shogun, beginning the Tokugawa Shogunate

Edo (in modern-day Tokyo) becomes the seat of government.

1605 Ieyasu resigns and his son, Tokugawa Hidetada becomes shogun, although Ieyasu continues to control affairs

1606 Anti-Christian decrees are proclaimed.

1609 Cristóvão Ferreira enters Japan as a missionary

1610 Decree of expulsion for all Spanish and Portuguese missionaries

1613 The Eight Martyrs of Arima are killed

1614 Ieyasu and Hidetada expel all Christians and foreigners and ban Christianity; the diamyo Dom Justo Takayama and other Christians (including Bl. Caius of Korea) are also expelled

1616 Ieyasu dies

1619 The Fifty-Two Martyrs of Kyoto are killed

1622 St. Francix Xavier canonized by Gregory XV

The Great Martyrdom of Nagasaki: A very large number of Christian priests, missionaries, and laity are killed

1623 Hidetada resigns and his son, Tokugawa Iemitsu becomes shogun

1624 Bl. Caius of Korea and James Koichi are burned alive for Christian missionary activities

1627 Bl. Thomas Tsugi and companions are burned alive for Christian activities

1629 The Fifty-Five Martyrs of Yonezawa are killed by beheading

1632 Great Genna Martyrdom: 55 Catholics killed in Nagasaki

1633 Iemitsu issues decrees restricting overseas travel.

St. Jacobo Kyushei Gorobioye Tomonaga de Santa María is killed by the tsurushi (reverse hanging or pit) torture

Bl. Domingo Ibáñez de Erquicia is killed by the tsurushi torture

Cristóvão Ferreira is captured and subjected to the tsurushi torture; after six hours in the pit, he apostasizes; this is the event that sets off the story in Shusaku Endo's novel Silence

1634 St. Giorgano Ansalone is killed by the tsurushi torture

St. Magdalene of Nagasaki is killed after thirteen days of the tsurushi torture

1635 Iemitsu begins the policy of Sankin Kotai, requiring the daimyo to reside part of every other year in Edo, a move that will severely curtail the power of the daimyo by siphoning money from their treasuries that might otherwise be spent on armies

1637 Shimabara Rebellion near Nagasaki begins as a peasant uprising but from the beginning is backed by many Japanese Christians

St. Lorenzo Ruiz is killed by the tsurushi torture

St. Antonio Gonzalez dies in his cell after extended torture

1638 Shimabara Rebellion is crushed at Hara Castle, with 40000 peasants, a significant number of them Catholic, slaughtered; this leads to an increasingly strict persecution of Christians

1639 Iemitsu bans Portuguese ships from Japan; Sakoku, the National Seclusion Policy, begins

[The year in which the narrative of Shusaku Endo's Silence starts]

1651 Tokugawa Ietsuna becomes shogun

1657 The Meiriki Fire sweeps through Edo; tens of thousands are killed in the fire

1680 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi becomes shogun

1688 The Genroku Period begins, expanding and deepening Japanese theater and teahouse culture

1701 The 47 Ronin

1709 Tokugawa Ienobu becomes shogun

1713 Tokugawa Ietsugu becomes shogun

1716 Tokugawa Yoshimune becomes shogun

Kyoho economic reforms begin; ban on imported books is lifted

1745 Tokugawa Ieshige becomes shogun

1760 Tokugawa Ieharu becomes shogun

1782 Temme Famine begins, and will last until 1787; hundreds of thousands die

1787 Tokugawa Ienari becomes shogun

1837 Tokugawa Ieyoshi becomes shogun

1839 Crackdown on critics of the national seclusion policy

1853 Tokugawa Iesada becomes shogun

Commodore Matthew Perry sails into Bay of Edo with American warships demanding that Japan open its borders

1854 Kanawaga treaty: Matthew Perry returns and the period of Sakoku, or seclusion, ends

1858 Tokugawa Iemochi becomes shogun

Iemochi ends Sankin Kotai, requiring daimyo to reside alternate years in Edo

1862 The Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan are canonized by Pius IX

1864 Oura Tenshudo, the first Christian church in Japan dedicated to the Twenty-Six martyrs, is finished in Nagasaki

1865 The Kakure Kirishitan, or hidden Christians, are discovered, especially in and around the village of Urakami: Catholic life had not completely died in Japan despite the persecutions

1866 Tokugawa Yoshinobu becomes shogun

1867 The Two-Hundred Five Martyrs of Japan (including Bl. Caius of Korea and Bl. Thomas Tsugi) are beatified by Pius IX

1868 Tokugawa Shogunate comes to an end; Meiji period begins

1869 Urakami Yoban Kuzure: Thousands of Japanese Christians exiled from Japanese village of Urakami

1873 Ban on Christianity lifted; returning Japanese Catholics begin building Urakami Cathedral

Strange Sounds are Heard, and Mournful Melodies

To Melancholy
Written on the Banks of the Arun, October, 1785
by Charlotte Turner Smith

When latest Autumn spreads her evening veil
And the grey mists from these dim waves arise,
I love to listen to the hollow sighs,
Thro' the half leafless wood that breathes the gale.
For at such hours the shadowy phantom, pale,
Oft seems to fleet before the poet's eyes;
Strange sounds are heard, and mournful melodies,
As of night wanderers, who their woes bewail!
Here, by his native stream, at such an hour,
Pity's own Otway, I methinks could meet,
And hear his deep sighs swell the sadden'd wind!
Oh Melancholy!—such thy magic power,
That to the soul these dreams are often sweet,
And soothe the pensive visionary mind!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

St. Hippolytus the Antipope

Today is the feast day of a saint with an unusual background. St. Hippolytus of Rome was one of the greatest theologians of the third century. He may have been a student of St. Irenaeus (who was a student of St. Polycarp, who was a student of St. John the Apostle). He certainly was a holy man. And he was an antipope, a schismatic. To understand this we have to look a bit at his opponent, St. Callixtus.

St. Callixtus was already a confessor when he became pope; he had suffered for the faith, being sentenced to hard labor, and near death, in the mines for being a Christian. When he became pope, he began a program of actively allowing converts from other sects to participate in church life without additional penance; according to Hippolytus, if I understand him correctly, he took the conversion itself to be sign of repentance and declared that they were absolved personally by himself. As St. Hippolytus puts it in his attack on St. Callixtus in Refutation of All Heresies, Book 9, Chapter 7:

And he first invented the device of conniving with men in regard of their indulgence in sensual pleasures, saying that all had their sins forgiven by himself. For he who is in the habit of attending the congregation of any one else, and is called a Christian, should he commit any transgression; the sin, they say, is not reckoned unto him, provided only he hurries off and attaches himself to the school of Callistus. And many persons were gratified with his regulation, as being stricken in conscience, and at the same time having been rejected by numerous sects; while also some of them, in accordance with our condemnatory sentence, had been by us forcibly ejected from the Church. Now such disciples as these passed over to these followers of Callistus, and served to crowd his school. This one propounded the opinion, that, if a bishop was guilty of any sin, if even a sin unto death, he ought not to be deposed. About the time of this man, bishops, priests, and deacons, who had been twice married, and thrice married, began to be allowed to retain their place among the clergy. If also, however, any one who is in holy orders should become married, Callistus permitted such a one to continue in holy orders as if he had not sinned. And in justification, he alleges that what has been spoken by the Apostle has been declared in reference to this person: "Who are you that judgest another man's servant? " But he asserted that likewise the parable of the tares is uttered in reference to this one: "Let the tares grow along with the wheat;" or, in other words, let those who in the Church are guilty of sin remain in it. But also he affirmed that the ark of Noe was made for a symbol of the Church, in which were both dogs, and wolves, and ravens, and all things clean and unclean; and so he alleges that the case should stand in like manner with the Church.

So, in other words, St. Callixtus allowed easy conversions and married clergy, and when confronted with this, replied, "Who are you to judge?" St. Hippolytus goes on to argue that this attitude led to all sorts of nonsense: people, instead of repenting, justified their sins, people who were not legally married counted themselves as married, and women began to use contraception and drugs for abortions extensively. It was, St. Hippolytus thought, a terrible thing masquerading as the Catholic Church.

A bunch of people who agreed with St. Hippolytus elected him pope -- it is unclear whether it was during St. Callixtus's tenure or at the end of it, although Hippolytus himself does make it sound as if it were during. The problem was that the person who was actually elected pope after Callixtus, in a way following the traditional customs of Rome, was St. Urban I. St. Hippolytus and his followers had split the church. We know almost nothing about St. Urban I, beyond his dates (he is the first pope whose reign can be precisely dated using independent historical sources) and the fact that there were many converts during his reign. He may have been martyred -- but even this is unclear. What we do know is that St. Hippolytus's schism continued through his papacy. After St. Urban came St. Pontian; and St. Hippolytus's schism continued. We know only bits and pieces of Pontian's reign, but we do know that almost five years of relative peace were shattered by the rise of Maximinus to the Imperial throne. Christians began to rounded up quite aggressively. St. Pontian, realizing as the nets began to close that he would not be able to avoid capture, did something that no pope had ever done before: on the 28th of September, AD 235, he resigned, in order to guarantee an orderly succession. He was arrested almost immediately afterward, and St. Anterus was elected the next pope.

St. Hippolytus had also been caught in the persecution, and both St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus were sentenced to heavy labor in the mines of Sardinia, which was for all practical purposes a death sentence. Both St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus died there.

St. Anterus was martyred and succeeded by St. Fabian. At this point the persecution was letting up, and thus St. Fabian was able to reclaim the bodies of martyrs and bring them back to Rome for proper burial. He brought back the bodies of both St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus, buried them both with full honors as martyrs, and put them both on the calendar. As far as we can tell, it ended the schism completely.

A lot of stories say that St. Pontian and St. Hippolytus reconciled in the mines of Sardinia. That would be wonderful, but in reality we have no definite reason to believe this. For all we know, they were opponents till the end. But they were both martyrs. They were both wise and holy men. They are both on the calendar of saints. And they both share the same feastday, today, the 13th of August; as is only fitting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Epistolai (Part IV: Seventh and Eighth)

Seventh Letter

The Seventh Letter is, without any question, the most important of the epistles. While its authenticity is still disputed, and no one earlier than Cicero (in the Tusculan Disputations) identifies it as Platonic, it is the one that is most actively defended as authentic, and there is a general consensus that if any of the Platonic Letters are authentic, the Seventh is. One line of argument for its authenticity is that (unlike some of the letters) its historical claims are fairly plausible (there isn't anything that could be anachronistic, for instance). Another is that its vocabulary is reasonably Platonic. But the single most influential argument is based on the philosophical content: whoever wrote this letter, if not Plato, had both a philosophical insight and a manner of expressing it worthy of Plato. Even people who regard it as inauthentic generally concede to it intelligence and a good Platonic style.

One of the arguments against its authenticity is that the story the letter gives of itself, of how it came to be written, is a bit convoluted and difficult to understand. The most important argument against its authenticity, however, is also content-based: the Seventh Letter says that there are Forms or Ideas of artifacts, whereas Aristotle tells us that Plato denied that there were Forms or Ideas of artifacts. Those who regard it as inauthentic are usually content to leave the author as unknown, although occasionally one finds a scholar who will venture that it might be by Speusippus, Plato's nephew and successor as head of the Academy.

It probably is the case, however, that whether a Plato scholar accepts it as authentic or not generally comes down to whether he or she wants it to be: it would provide a fascinating, if incomplete, insight into Plato's philosophy, but at the same time the interpretation of Plato that it suggests is not one people always find antecedently likely on other grounds, and many people would have to revise their preferred interpretations of Plato if it's taken to be authentic. However, it also seems to me that even people who think it is not authentic tend to be influenced by it at least indirectly, in their assumptions about the course of development of Plato's thought, since a lot of assumptions made about Plato himself have very little ground unless the Seventh Letter is more or less right in its account of Plato's early life.

The letter is an open letter addressed to friends and followers of Dion. Plato notes that they have written him, saying that since their aims are the same as Dion's, he should cooperate with them, and he replies that if their aims really are the same, he agrees, but only if they are the same. Plato knows Dion's aims personally, not by mere conjecture; he came to Syracuse at about forty years of age, when Dion was a young man, and it was at that time that Dion formed the major opinions that would last until his death: "the Syracusans, he though, ought to be free and live under the best of laws" (324b). He then gives an account of how such convictions arose, starting with his own case.

When he was young, Plato, like most young men, thought he would go into the active life of politics, but at about the time this was appropriate, the democratic government was overthrown and the oligarchical government of the Thirty Tyrants was established. Because he had relatives who were members and associates of the Thirty (he doesn't specify, but we know from other sources that his cousin Critias was a member of the Thirty itself, and his uncle Charmides was a member of the closely associated Ten who governed the Piraeus), he was invited to join their cause. He hoped that they would lead the city from injustice to justice; but he soon saw that the Thirty were so terrible that they made the unjust democratic government prior to them seem like a golden age; in addition, they treated his friend (philon andron) Socrates very poorly:

Among their deeds they named Socrates, an older friend of mine whom I should not hesitate to call the wisest and justest man of that time, as one of a group sent to arrest a certain citizen who was to be put to death illegally, planning thereby to make Socrates willy-nilly a party to their actions. But he refused, risking the utmost danger rather than be an associate in their impious deeds. (324e-325a)

(Compare Apology 32c.) Because of this he disassociated himself from them; and when they were overthrown and he considered returning to politics again, he was less enthusiastic. The restoration was turbulent and, of course, in the aftermath his companion (hetairon, often used for a co-worker or a partner in an enterprise or project) Socrates was tried and killed:

By some chance, however, certain powerful persons brought into court this same friend Socrates, preferring against him a most shameless accusation, and one which he, of all men, least deserved. For the prosecutors charged him with impiety, and the jury condemned and put to death the very man who, at the time when his accusers were themselves in misfortune and exile, had refused to have a part in the unjust arrest of one of their friends. (325c)

By this point Plato had a low opinion of politics in Athens generally, and it only got lower; but looking at other cities, he found that this seemed to be a general problem, not something exclusive to Athens. It is not easy to govern cities rightly without men who are friends and trusty companions (philon andron kai hetairon piston):

At last I came to the conclusion that all existing states are badly governed and the condition of their laws practically incurable, without some miraculous remedy and the assistance of fortune; and I was forced to say, in praise of true philosophy, that from her height alone was it possible to discern what the nature of justice is, either in the state or in the individual, and that the ills of the human race would never end until either those who are sincerely and truly lovers of wisdom come into political power, or the rulers of our cities, by the grace of God, learn true philosophy. (326a-b)

(Cp. Republic Book V, 473d.) Mulling this over, he toured the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily. He was not impressed, thinking their style of life suited only to produce intemperance and excess, and that style of life a guarantee of corruption and restless change in government. At this point he met Dion, whom he found a quick student, and Dion began to develop the opinion previously noted, that the only appropriate constitution is one in which one has a just government under equal laws. He hoped that Dionysius the Elder might come to share his opinions, and to this end convinced Dionysius to invite Plato to Syracuse. Plato was reluctant, well knowing that young people get sudden enthusiasms and then change their minds as quickly, but he went, finally considering that if there was any time to try to make a properly philosophical view of politics take real form, now was the time to take courage and do it. When he arrived at Syracuse, however, the court was full of nasty rumor and innuendo about Dion, whom Plato defended. Only a few months later, Dion was driven out; Dion's friends were afraid for their lives at that point, but as it happens Dionysius himself was worried that Dion's friends might be the cause of something drastic if he did not conciliate them. But Plato was practically a prisoner under the guise of Dionysius's friendship, for quite a while.

Thus Plato's first trip to Syracuse. At this point in the letter, Plato considers the topic of advice, which turns out to be directly relevant to the question of revolution. If you are advising a sick man on the way to get well, first you tell him to change his life to a more healthy way of living. If he does this, then you can move on. If he refuses, however, there's very little one can do. The same thing happens when we are dealing with cities. If the city is already well run, it's reasonable to set about advising the citizens on how to contribute to what the government recognizes as good. If the city has a corrupt government, however, the wise man will refuse to advise people on how to contribute to what the government recognizes as good; he will advise the city to change, and if it does not, there is not much else to be done. One could try to compel the one being given advice -- in the case of a government, this would be a revolution -- but this is impious, like compelling one's parents to follow one's advice. "If what he thinks is best can only be accomplished by the exile and slaughter of men, let him keep his peace and pray for the welfare of himself and his city" (331d).

Therefore Plato advises them, as he and Dion used to advise Dionysius, to develop mastery over themselves and to win trusty friends and companions (pistous philous te kai hetairous). This was the mistake of Dionysius the Elder: "he was poor in friends and loyal followers (andron philon kai piston), and the possession or lack of these is the best indication of a man's virtue or vice" (332c). Dion and Plato advised Dionysius to "induce others among his relatives and companions to become friends and partners in the pursuit of virtue; but above all to become a friend to himself" (332d). Dion eventually returned with an army and taught Dionysius a lesson the hard way. They Syracusans then believed lies about Dion, and Athenian comrades he had gained rose up to help kill him; but, Plato notes, there was an Athenian (himself) who would not betray Dion even when honors were to be had for doing it; he was bound to Dion by free and common cultivation (eleutheras paideias koinonian), which is a stronger bond than mere kinship in soul and body like casual friends have.

Thus, says Plato, the course is clear: "Do not subject Sicily nor any other state to the despotism of men, but to the rule of laws" (334c). Despotic power is always destructive, and it would be better to die honorably and nobly than to live defiled by wickedness. Those who do the latter are worse off both in this life and in the next. What we actually have with Dionysius, and with the murder of Dion, are injustices against humanity:

If in his [Dionysius's empire there had been brought about a real union of philosophy and power, it would have been an illustrious example to both Greeks and barbarians, and all mankind would have been convinced of the truth that no city nor individual can be happy except by living in company with wisdom under the guidance of justice, either from personal achievement of these virtues or from a right training and education received under God-fearing rulers....[If Dion had lived and fulfilled his plans to resettle Sicily and equalize the laws,] such deeds accomplished by a man of justice and courage and temperance and philosophy would have produced in the multitude the same respect for virtue which, if Dionysius had listened to me, would have made its saving appearance, one may say, among all mankind. (335d, 336a-b)

But it was not to be. Plato encourages the friends of Dion to imitate him and try to finish what he could not; get help to resettle Sicily and give the Syracusans equal laws, i.e., laws for common good and not private good.

Plato then continues his narrative of the relation between himself and Syracuse by relating his last trip to Syracuse. Dionysius had extracted a promise from him previously that he would return, and Plato agreed on condition that Dion also could; Dionysius never fulfilled the condition, but he did ask Plato to return allegedly because he was interested in philosophy again. Plato didn't rate this as worth much, but he was encouraged by Dion and others (like Archytas, the addressee of other letters) to return, and so he did, hearing all the while of the wonderful progress Dionysius was making in philosophy and that Plato's return was important for making sure that Dionysius continued his friendship with Archytas and others. He set out to test what Dionysius really knew of philosophy: he explained just how much learning, and effort, and time, and difficulty, was required to do philosophy, giving them a glimpse of the sheer sublimity of that to which it tends. True lovers of wisdom are not turned off by such things; it fires them up, even more eager to meet the challenge. Others, like manual laborers, will hear and conclude that it's just not the life for them. But another group of people will hear and conclude that they don't actually need to make the effort; they have already achieved everything important. Dionysius fell into this third group; he claimed to have knowledge of many of the most important things; he even went on to write a book about the things he and Plato talked about, conveniently not citing Plato anywhere.

This launches Plato into what is often known as the Philosophical Digression, but it is not a digression, since he is showing just how absurd Dionysius's attitude was (and, it should be said, the Seventh Letter, even in narrating events has been entirely philosophical up to this point as well). We have the famous comments about writing (cp. Phaedrus) and teaching:

There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one. For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself. (341c)

He explains this using the doctrine of the Forms or Ideas. This argument could fill an entire post; it mostly just needs to be read in its own context. But the essential idea is that Plato is doing to the reader what he was doing with Dionysius: he is giving us the test, and emphasizing the importance of teacher and student working together to achieve the goal. He concludes:

...whenever we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions. (344c)

Thus Plato saw entirely through Dionysius; there was no true philosophy there, but only an extraordinary arrogance masquerading as love of wisdom. He goes on to describe some of Dionysius's related failings, and how he barely managed to get out of Syracuse this time, with the help of Archytas. When Plato told Dion, he was ready for vengeance, but Plato tells him that he is with him only if he desires friendship and the accomplishing of good things.

Thus we return again to Dion's aim: "the best and most just constitution and system of laws" (351c). He merely erred in not realizing the sheer extent to which wicked people will go.

There is so much in the Seventh Letter that one could talk about it for a very long time. But I want to highlight one thing: it is a letter about the centrality of virtuous friendship to the health of a city. Friendship, virtue, philosophy, and rule of law are all interlinked; only through genuine and trustworthy friendships can we achieve the philosophy and cultivate the virtue that makes it possible to aim at the true common good of everyone, which is necessary to equalize the laws and build a city in which laws rule, not despotic men.

Eighth Letter

The Eighth Letter seems mostly to get by on the coattails of the Seventh, because they have a number of similarities. The most common complaints raised by those who judge it inauthentic is that it makes some historical claims that are difficult to square with other historical sources we have; but some of this might simply be compression.

The letter is addressed to the relatives and friends of Dion, like the Seventh, and gives advice on how to quell the tumult that Sicily is undergoing in the struggles between Dionysius and the friends of Dion. Plato's suggestion for a compromise between the tyrannical party of Dionysius and the democratic party of the friends of Dion is a kingship governed by laws, giving the example of the ancient legislator Lycurgus, who arranged things so that "law became the lord and king of men, not men tyrants over the laws" (354b-c), and warning the democratic party that an untimely thirst for freedom can result in destructive anarchy. Obedience and liberty are both good in moderation, but destructive in excess. But this does require the rule of law: "Due measure is found in obedience to God, the absence of measure in obedience to men. And the god of wise men is the law; of foolish men, pleasure" (354e). He then imagines what Dion might say to Syracuse:

Of the three goods--soul, body, and wealth--your laws must give the highest honor to the excellence of the soul, the second place to that of the body, and the third and lowest rank to wealth, since it serves both body and soul. (355b)

The imagined Dion continues by proposing three kings, dividing up the power among them according to law, and also giving power to a body of guardians (who handle matters of war and peace, and also capital crimes) and an assembly.


Quotations from the Platonic epistles are all from Glenn R. Morrow's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1634-1676.

A Poem Draft

Something I roughed out while my students took their Ethics tests.

Abyss and Sea

The thunder shatters air and will, the rain is cold, the lightning fierce.
The world is battered, broken, upside-down; its heart is pierced;
and all our hope beneath the wave is sinking now, beyond our reach.
Not wealth nor strength nor lore can move the lands to rise; they, shattered each,
are crushed beneath the heavy sea, and nevermore will they return.
Yet I recall the shining streets, the lamps that seemed like stars to burn,
and I remember meadows, fields, and mountains like a summer dream
surrounding cities bright with lights that like the snow in sunlight gleamed.

On sandy shores we once would walk and feel the salty, sea-sent breeze,
but nevermore shall footsteps grace that sand; the roaring, angry seas
have seized it all in chilling grasp and nothing now remains
save fragments made of memories, their razor edges trimmed with pain.
And I recall the winter snows on little houses, trim and neat,
where children played with shouting voices, endless games, and nimble feet,
but where are they? They too are gone. The earth and sea will spare no soul.
They spared not me, for what is left to sigh and grieve is not the whole.

The storm is pounding; not a sound can break its rumbling wall,
but still inside I hear the songs that honeyed voices softly called
beneath the dewy apple trees in autumn days, cool, crisp, and clear.
The trees are driftwood-dead and lost; the songs are lost in yesteryear,
but I can feel the ache inside, I can feel that they once grew,
and I can feel the loss that only comes with glories one once knew.
But harsher still the tearing pain, suspended doubting, cold as stone,
not knowing where you are: Are you alive? And am I now alone?

Music on My Mind

Hillsong, "Oceans". I ended up having to catch the 5 pm Mass on Sunday, which left two options within reasonable driving distance: one at a church that almost always has awful music and a 'Contemporary Music' Mass down the road. I ended up going to the CM one, partly because it's a slightly straighter shot for me, and partly because they do put a real effort and some talent behind it (and having been raised Southern Baptist, I'm free of any allergy to 'uplift' music, despite not having a particular taste for it). The major problem with Contemporary Music Masses, besides the fact that they are only contemporary in a parallel universe, is simply that Catholics, unlike Baptists, don't know how to participate when uplift-music is involved. In any case, this one turned out to be catchier than the usual fare. The version they sang was less interminable than this one, though.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Epistolai (Part III: Third, Sixth, and Eleventh)

Third Letter

This letter is addressed Dionysius the Younger. Plato remarks that he avoids the usual fawning expressions people address to tyrants:

For my part I should not address such an exhortation even to a man, far less to a god. To God it would be enjoining something contrary to nature, since the divine has its seat far removed from pleasure and pain; and as for man, pleasure and pain more often do harm, by breeding stupidity, forgetfulness, folly, and insolence in his soul. (315c)

Plato says that he has heard that Dionysius has been saying that while Dionysius wanted to repopulate devastated Greek colonies in Sicily and turn Syracuse from a tyranny to a monarchy, Plato prevented it. Plato replies that he did minor things that he thought would do good, like work on the preambles of the laws, but even those have often been revised by Dionysius. He recounts the story of his involvement in the affairs of Syracuse after Dionysius took over the city, noting Dionysius's repeated refusals to take his advice and recommendation seriously and his constant attacks on Dion, Plato's friend.

Sixth Letter

This letter is addressed to Hermias, Erastus, and Coriscus. Hermias was the tyrant of Atarneus, and may have been a student at the Academy, at least for a while; Erastus and Coriscus were certainly students at the Academy. (Aristotle repeatedly uses Coriscus as an example throughout his works.) Plato recommends that they support and benefit each other as friends:

Hermias should know that his power for all purposes has its greatest support not in the number of his horses or other equipment of war, nor in the gold he adds to his treasury, but in steadfast friends of solid character. And to Erastus and Coriscus I say, "old as I am," that they need to supplement their knowledge of the Ideas--that noble doctrine--with the knowledge and capacity to protect themselves against wicked and unjust men. (322d-e)

He ends with an interesting, if somewhat cryptic, remark, when talking about a covenant between them to be allies and friends:

Adopt it as a just and binding law and covenant, taking a solemn oath--in gentlemanly earnest, but with the playfulness (paidia) that is the sister of solemnity--in the name of the divine [leader] of all things present and to come, and in the name of the lordly father of this governor and cause, whom we shall all some day clearly know, in so far as the blessed (anthropon eudaimonon) are able to know him, if we truly live a life of philosophy. (323d)

(The Morrow translation in the Complete Works has 'divine letter'; I take it that this is a misprint for 'divine leader', since the Greek is hegemona, hegemon or leader.) We see here another manifestation of the idea of Plato having a special esoteric doctrine in addition to the exoteric doctrine of the dialogues.

Eleventh Letter

This letter is addressed to Laodamas, who is a mathematician and student in the Academy. It mentions a Socrates, very possibly the Socrates the Younger who is a character in Plato's Statesman. Laodamas has asked for assistance in drawing up the laws of a new colony; Plato replies that he is too old to travel, and since Laodamas cannot visit Athens, and Socrates the Younger who might otherwise be a go-between is suffering from strangury, the most he can do is give some advice. The advice emphasizes the absolute importance of cultivating virtuous behavior in the citizens:

If they think that a constitution can ever be well established by the enactment of laws, of whatever sort they may be, without some authority in the city to look after the daily life of the citizens and to insure that both free men and slaves live in a temperate (sophron) and manly (andrike) fashion, they are thinking wrongly. This could be done, however, if you have at hand men worthy of exercising such authority; but if you lack an educator, then you have neither teachers nor learners, as I see it, and no course is left but to pray to the gods. (359a-b)

He notes, however, that many cities have only received this kind of good government after they were established, due to some circumstance or other in which "a man of nobility and character (kalos kai agathos) has appeared and exercised great power" (359b). The latter ends by saying that Laodamas should reflect on this, hoping for it, but should be careful not to assume that success is easily had.

The Good I Never Knew

by G. K. Chesterton

So you have gained the golden crowns, so you have piled together
The laurels and the jewels, the pearls out of the blue,
But I will beat the bounding drum and I will fly the feather
For all the glory I have lost, the good I never knew.

I saw the light of morning pale on princely human faces,
In tales irrevocably gone, in final night enfurled,
I saw the tail of flying fights, a glimpse of burning blisses,
And laughed to think what I had lost—the wealth of all the world.

Yea, ruined in a royal game I was before my cradle;
Was ever gambler hurling gold who lost such things as I?
The purple moth that died an hour ere I was born of
That great green sunset God shall make three days after I die.

When all the lights are lost and done, when all the skies are broken,
Above the ruin of the stars my soul shall sit in state,
With a brain made rich, with the irrevocable sunsets,
And a closed heart happy in the fullness of a fate.

So you have gained the golden crowns and grasped the golden weather,
The kingdoms and the hemispheres that all men buy and sell,
But I will lash the leaping drum and swing the flaring feather,
For the light of seven heavens that are lost to me like hell.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Epistolai (Part II: Second, Fourth, Tenth, and Thirteenth)

Second Letter

This letter is addressed to Dionysius the Younger. It is notable for having a particularly vivid statement of the idea that Plato's real teaching is not found in his dialogues. In the course of the letter, Plato remarks that he has been teaching his main doctrines for more than thirty years, which is difficult to reconcile with any plausible dramatic dating.

Plato notes that Dionysius has been complaining about Plato and his associates complaining about Dionysius, and remarks that he has no power to control his friends; however, he has heard nothing of this matter, and recommends that if Dionysius hears such rumors in the future that he simply write Plato and ask about it. The relation between Plato and Dionysius is very public and will be known to future generations, for people like to converse about such relationships, since "wisdom and great power go together" (310e). Thus they should take care to conduct themselves well, since "men of superior virtue do everything in their power to have themselves well spoken of after they are dead" (311c).

He continues by noting that when he went to Syracuse his reputation among philosophers was very good, and that he went in order to show philosophy in a good light to the masses, but failed utterly. The cause is that Dionysius did not trust him. If he has no interest in philosophy, he should leave well enough alone; if he is interested but thinks he has found better doctrines, he should hold to them; but if he agrees with Plato, he should honor both Plato and his doctrines. If he does this, Plato can honor him; but if Plato honors him without being honored in return, Plato looks like a flatterer out for money.

The letter then turns to philosophical matters, talking in deliberately enigmatic terms of "the first":

Upon the king of all do all things turn; he is the end of all things and the cause of all good. Things of the second order turn upon the second principle, and those of the third order upon the third. Now the soul of man longs to understand what sort of things these principles are, and it looks toward the things that are akin to itself, though none of them is adequate; clearly the king and the other principles mentioned are not of that sort. (312e-313a)

Dionysius had said that he had discovered this himself, although Plato had remarked that he had never met anyone who had; but perhaps Dionysius did indeed start on the right track and just "neglected to fix fast the proofs of it" (313b), so that they constantly seemed to shift, which is certainly a common experience. But by conversing with philosophers as he is doing, he will, if his inquiry is sincere, remedy this problem.

Plato warns him not to let his letters be read by the uninitiated; those not instructed properly will only find themselves strange. Those with whom Plato has discussed them have often found that after many years of inquiry the things that initially seemed hardest to understand are now clear and self-evident, while the things that seemed clearest turned out not to be. Thus one should not expose the teachings without due care:

The best precaution is not to write them down, but to commit them to memory; for it is impossible that things written should not become known to others. This is why I have never written on these subjects. There is no writing of Plato's, nor will there ever be; those that are now called so come from an idealized and youthful Socrates. Farewell and heed my warning; read this letter again and again, then burn it. (314b-c)

(The phrase translated 'idealized and youthful' here, kalos kai neos, could also be translated as 'fine and new' or 'beautiful and renovated'.) The letter then ends with comments about mutual acquaintances.

The enigmatic discussion of the first sounds a lot like late Middle Platonism or early Neoplatonism, so it is possible that this is an attempt to give an account of how the philosophical speculations of Platonists in the author's day is related to Plato's dialogues. The answer, which appears to have affinities to ideas in both Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter, is that there was an esoteric teaching by Plato, passed on orally, with respect to which the dialogues were merely introductory, so that the dialogues give not Plato's views but the views of a Platonized Socrates. On the other hand, since this letter is likely one of the sources of these strands in Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism, whether authentic or inauthentic, the origin of its ideas may be something else entirely.

Fourth Letter

This letter is addressed to Dion. Plato says that his good will toward Dion's work has been driven by "no other reason than admiration for noble deeds" (320a), because those who do virtuous deeds deserve recognition. He urges Dion to continue in "truthfulness, justice, high-mindedness, and the grace of conduct which these virtues express" (320b-c), so that they can show themselves to be the men they claim to be. This is especially important because the whole world already knows of Dion; people will be looking for him to fail. He ends by urging Dion to write, since Plato is receiving nothing but rumor, and reminds Dion that it is necessary to please men if one is to do anything with them.

Tenth Letter

This letter, the shortest of the Platonic epistles, is addressed to an otherwise unknown Aristodorus, encouraging him in his support of Dion. Plato says that he hears that Aristodorus manifests the most philosophical virtues, "for to be steadfast, loyal, and dependable,--this, I say, is true philosophy; whereas all other learning, and all cleverness directed to any other end than this, I call--and I think rightly--mere ornaments" (358c).

Thirteenth Letter

This letter is addressed to Dionysius the Younger, and is mostly taken up with money matters. It has a clear reference to Phaedo under the subtitle/description "On the Soul" (363a).

Plato sends some treatises and Helicon, a mathematician, encouraging Dionysius to learn from him. In addition, he is sending some statues, wine, and honey. All of this has been done on credit, and Plato remarks that while he is stewarding it as best he can, but notes that there are problems with the funds and expenditures -- some of Dionysius's contacts are reluctant to supply money on credit because they had difficulty getting money back from Dionysius's father. He insists that Dionysius must make sure that he keeps informed about expenses, despite the reluctance of his men to talk about them:

You must therefore compel them to form the habit of speaking about these things as well as other matters; for it is your duty to know everything, so far as is possible, and pass judgment and not shrink from any facts. This will be the best of all ways of enhancing your authority. To make expenditures rightly and to repay debts properly is a good thing in many ways, and even furthers the acquisition of money, as you yourself will see more and more. then do not allow those who profess to be looking out for your interests to give you a bad name; for there is no advantage nor honor in being known as difficult in money matters. (362d)

There then follows a number of pieces of advice on various particular matters of concern.

Some nineteenth century scholars defended the authenticity of this letter by pointing to Aristotle's curious mention of "sailing to Aegina is necessary to recover one's money" as an example of a sine qua non condition in the Metaphysics; they suggested that the example might be an allusion to this letter. This is a very slim thread, though, and not such as to convince most scholars.

Epistolai (Part I: First, Fifth, Ninth, and Twelfth)

The Platonic Letters are a set of highly disputed works. The first attestation of them is relatively late, so almost all the evidence for considering them authentic or inauthentic has to be drawn from the letters themselves, which means that the arguments for and against are often quite weak. I'll be looking at them very roughly in the order of how disputed they are, starting with the letters that are very generally considered spurious (First, Fifth, Ninth, and Twelfth) and moving eventually to the letters that are most commonly defended as authentic (Seventh and Eighth). In general, the most probable origin of the letters, if they are not authentic, is as school exercises. Writing works in a given style or from a particular perspective was a standard exercise in rhetoric. We've seen something like this already in the dialogues, in (e.g.) Plato's imitation of Lysias in Phaedrus, and some of the probably spurious dialogues in the canon likely arose in precisely this way. Writing Platonic letters wouldn't have been any different from writing a Platonic dialogue for practice; indeed, the ancients thought of epistles or letters as semi-dialogues. That's probably the best way to think of them, regardless of questions of authenticity -- as half-dialogues or dialogue fragments with Plato himself as a character.

You can read the Platonic letters online in English at the Perseus Project. The letters aren't numbered according to any particular chronological or thematic order. If you want to read them in the most probable dramatic order, Debra Nails in The People of Plato, drawing on several different sources, gives the probable dramatic order as: Ninth, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fifth, First, Second, Eleventh, Tenth, Third, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Sixth.

The Background

The background for most of the letters is Plato's involvement in the politics of Syracuse, the most important Greek colony in Sicily. Unfortunately, much of our understanding of the events are somewhat tentative, but here is one possible reconstruction. At some point in his travels, Plato visited the city of Syracuse, possibly by invitation and there met the young Dion of Syracuse, who was the brother-in-law of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse. Dion became one of Plato's students. Dion introduced Plato to Dionysius, but Dionysius at some point seems to have taken a dislike to the philosopher and either (depending on the story you follow) tried to assassinate him or to sell him into slavery. Plato left. However, he may have returned after Dionysius's death, when Dion invited him back to educate the new tyrant, Dionysius II. Dionysius the Younger was suspicious of both Dion and Plato, however, and when Dionysius II discovered that Dion was secretly negotiating a peace with Carthage, Dion was banished (or perhaps fled) and toured various Greek cities, becoming very popular in Athens; he may have become good friends with Plato's nephew, Speusippus, who would go on to become the second head of the Academy. Plato tried to negotiate a reconciliation, but failed and left the city; he may have returned a third time for the same purpose, but seems to have been treated almost like a prisoner; he was only able to get away due to the help of Archytas, the philosopher and mathematician. Dion was assassinated several years after this.

First Letter

This letter is addressed to Dionysius the Younger. Given how short it is, it makes a remarkable number of surprising claims that tell against its authenticity (for instance, that Plato supervised Syracuse for Dionysius II), and doesn't seem to be consistent with the much more likely authentic Seventh Letter, although it shows a good poetic sense. In it Plato says that Dionysius the Younger will die without friends because of his behavior as a tyrant.

Fifth Letter

This letter is addressed to Perdiccas, the king of Macedon (and elder brother of Philip of Macedon), recommending that he listen to advice from Euphraeus. Although very short, its comment on politics is worth quoting:

Constitutions, like species of animals, have each their own language--democracy one, oligarchy another, and monarchy still another. Many persons would say they know these languages, but for the most part, and with rare exceptions, they fall short of understanding them. The constitution that speaks its own language to gods and men, and suits its actions to its words, always prospers and survives; but it goes to ruin if it imitates another. (321d)

It then ends with a defense of Plato for not speaking up in political matters: He would gladly do so, but when Plato was born, the city was already advanced in age and had bad habits that would make the advice he would give useless.

I confess I find myself a bit puzzled at some of the arguments for this letter's inauthenticity. It has connections with the Republic (493a-b) and the Seventh Letter, without being a blatant case of copying, but these connections are often made the argument for its not being authentic. I am no doubt missing something. Regardless, if it's not by Plato it is a good bit of work in writing from a Platonic perspective.

Ninth Letter

This letter is addressed to Archytas of Tarentum, in southern Italy; Plato had met him and become friends with him during his travels. It notes a letter that has arrived from Archytas. It is mostly concerned with reports that Archytas is weary of public service; Plato remarks that while it is certainly sweeter to follow one's own interests, there are higher concerns: "none of us is born for himself alone" (358a). One shouldn't refuse public service, especially when considering that doing so would leave public matters in the hands of people with the wrong motivations.

This letter is sometimes panned as too colorless for Plato, but this criticism itself is of doubtful value given that Cicero quotes it twice (De finibus 2.14; De officiis 1.7), and without intending any disrespect to modern classicists, Cicero is a better judge of whether a work was too colorless and commonplace than they are.

Twelfth Letter

This letter is also addressed to Archytas, expressing joy and admiration at having received several treatises from him. Plato remarks that the author of the treatise is worthy of his ancestors, who were said to have descended from the Trojans. Archytas had asked for treatises by Plato in return; Plato says they are not finished, but he is sending copies of them as they are.

There is a note attached to this letter in some manuscripts stating that some have claimed it was not Plato's, thus making it the one letter we definitely know to have had its authenticity questioned even by the ancients. The letter also spells Archytas's name differently than the other letters do.