Saturday, September 13, 2014


Philebus is not the strangest Platonic dialogue, by any means, but it is a dialogue people have difficulty knowing what to do with. It starts abruptly, in the middle of conversation; it ends abruptly, still in the middle of the same conversation. It has few discernible dramatic clues, and Socrates' interlocutors are unknown outside this dialogue, and possibly are even fictional. Plato scholars do not agree even about whether the dialogue is tightly organized or a loose collection of otherwise only thematically linked arguments. Its authenticity has never seriously been questioned, but it is also one of the most understudied dialogues; some of the spurious dialogues have had more attention than it has. Nonetheless, it has occasionally been influential, and the Neoplatonists saw it as a transitional dialogue suitable for preparing students for Timaeus (with which it certainly has some verbal links) and Parmenides. Cousin argues that it is the complement of Theaetetus.

You can read Philebus online in English at the Perseus Project and in Victor Cousin's French at Wikisource.

The Characters

The characters are Socrates, Protarchus, and Philebus. Protarchus is called the son of Callias, but the Callias in question does not seem to be the famous wealthy one who occasionally appears in other dialogues; that is the only definite marker of who these two young men might be. There is also a crowd of unnamed young men.

The Plot and The Thought

The dialogue opens in the middle of a discussion on pleasure. Socrates has been arguing with Philebus, but Protarchus is now taking over for Philebus, and they agree on the crux of the argument:

Philebus holds that what is good for all creatures is to enjoy themselves (chairein), to be pleased (hedone) and delighted (terpsin), and whatever else goes together with that kind of thing. We contend that not these, but knowing (phronein), understanding (noein), and remembering (memnosthai), and what belongs to them, right opinion (doxan orthan) and true calculations (aletheis logismos), are better than pleasure and more agreeable to all who can attain them; those who can, get the maximum benefit possible from having them, both those now alive and future generations. (11b-c)

They also agree on how to proceed. If it turns out that some kind of life is better than either the life of reason or the life of pleasure, they will look at the question of which of the two is closer to that better life.

One of the points that Socrates will insist upon is that there are in fact many different kinds of pleasures. This lets him raise the question of how one and many are related, linking them with limit and the unlimited (i.e., the indeterminate). The boys have difficulty following how any of this is relevant, but Socrates insists that answering the question they are trying to answer requires understanding how pleasure or knowledge can be both one and many. Protarchus responds that they have no answer to this question, but that this doesn't let Socrates off the hook; if they can't answer it, he has to do it.

Socrates replies that "once upon a time I heard in a dream--or perhaps I was awake" (20b) that there was something superior to both the life of pleasure and the life of knowledge, and that if he can make a case for its existence, he will have shown that pleasure is not the good. So he argues that the good is complete and sufficient, and proposes that they consider two unmixed cases: a life of knowledge (phronesis), etc., with no pleasure, and a life of pleasure (hedone), etc., with no knowledge. He points out, though, that a life of pleasure without knowledge will certainly miss out even in matters of pleasure: it is a life in which one cannot rationally plan for future pleasures and in which one cannot remember past pleasures, the life of a mollusk. Protarchus insists that the life of mere pleasure and the life of mere knowledge both seem equally undesirable, but, of course, this suggests that there is a life better than either, namely, the mixed life of both pleasure and knowledge. Thus neither one alone is complete, sufficient, and choice-worthy as the good itself should be. Thus neither reason nor pleasure get the first place; they are now arguing over second place, and Socrates says that he is sure that pleasure will not even get second place as very good-like rather than the good itself.

He returns to the limit and the unlimited. These are two kinds of things; there is also the mixture of them, as a third; and, Socrates suggests, they need a fourth, the cause of their combination. If we take something like the hotter or the colder, these things admit of more and less by nature, and thus are in some sense unlimited -- if they reach their fulfillment, they are ended: "Whatever seems to us to become 'more and less', or susceptible to 'strong and mild' or to 'too much' and all of that kind, all that we ought to subsume under the genus of the unlimited as its unity" (24e-25a). If we take the unlimited, constantly in flux, and mix it with limit, we get harmony, or proportion, and this is a generation (genesis) of something new. This applies directly to pleasure, which admits of more and less, and which therefore requires a limit in order to be excellent.

Socrates and Protarchus then turn to the cause and agree that "everything that comes to be comes to be through some cause" (26e). Thus any sort of coming to be is understood in terms of four kinds: the unlimited and the limit from which it comes to be, the thing that comes to be, and the cause of its coming to be. Now, the mixed life to which they gave first place is clearly the third kind of thing (the thing that comes to be), being a union of unlimited and limit. The life of pleasure, admitting of more and less, is clearly the unlimited or indeterminate. Reason (nous) is cause because all the wise agree "that reason is our king, both over heaven and earth" (28c). Both Socrates and Protarchus agree that this is true of the world: it is ruled by reason, as seen in the orderly character of the heavens. They also agree that this suggests that there is a world soul, organizing everything in an orderly way, because if wisdom organizes the world everywhere, then there must be some kind of life or active cause that has this wisdom.

Socrates argues that pain is a disruption of the harmony (i.e., mixture of unlimited and limit) of a living creature, and its restoration is pleasure. But there are other kinds of pleasure, like the anticipatory pleasure one has by hope of such restoration. (In either case, however, we
seem to have a link to restoration of some kind, and this immediately suggests that if there were an animal that could not be destroyed, and therefore did not need to be restored, it would have no pleasure or pain, although it could very well have knowledge -- as perhaps with the gods.) In addition, 'pleasure' can sometimes be used to include absence of pain, although other pleasures can be had while simultaneously having pains.

From this point, Socrates argues that pleasures can admit of true or false, just like judgments; that they can seems to follow directly from the fact that some pleasures are themselves anticipations, and anticipations can be wrong. In addition, sickness can sometimes intensify pleasures, whereas in health they are moderate, and the same opposition is found when we consider wild passions like fury or malice, which can intensify pleasures, while virtue moderates them. In addition, pleasure seems to be a process (genesis) rather than being (ousia). All of these suggest that pleasures fail in quite a few ways to be complete and sufficient in the way the good must be, and consistently it does so in ways that compare unfavorably with knowledge (phronesis). Further, if we consider the mixed life and ask what in it most contributes to its value, it seems clear enough that it is order and measure, since without order and measure its worth is corrupted; and the good is clearly allied with the beautiful: "For measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas as beauty and virtue" (64e). All of these tests or trials give the preference to prudence over pleasure.

Socrates then says they should do a "third libation" (66d), and go over the argument again; Protarchus, of course, replies that they have already done so twice, but Socrates summarizes the argument, concluding that pleasure is not the greatest good, and would not be even if all of the lower animals testified that it were, for, in fact, many people accept their testimony in the same way that diviners accept the testimony of birds, instead of following reasoning "under the guidance of the philosophical muse" (67b). Socrates asks if he can now go, and Protarchus says that there is still a bit more to do, and the dialogue ends.

  Additional Remarks

* Catherine Zuckert in Plato's Philosophers discusses the surely important dramatic fact that Philebus, Protarchus, and the other boys, keep insisting that they will force Socrates to finish:

Although neither the setting nor the characters have any political or historical significance, we are repeatedly reminded in the course of the conversation (16a, 19d-e, 23b, 28c, 50d-e, 67b) that there are many young men present who will force the philosopher to complete the argument. In other words, Socrates is compelled to present this argument because of the power (of the opinion) of the many. The threat to the philosopher is said to be "playful" because it is leveld by "boys" who do not yet have the force of the city or its fathers behind them. The threat is, nevertheless, real. Socrates will not be able to attract youths to a life of philosophy so long as they believe that pleasure is the highest good and, consequently, follow Philebus' example in giving up argument when it appears to involve unnecessary painful effort. (p. 387)


Quotations are from Dorothea Frede's translation in Plato, Completed Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 398-456.

A Rotation of Petty Cares

When we have deducted all that is absorbed in sleep, all that is inevitably appropriated to the demands of nature, or irresistibly engrossed by the tyranny of custom; all that passes in regulating the superficial decorations of life, or is given up in the reciprocations of civility to the disposal of others; all that is torn from us by the violence of disease, or stolen imperceptibly away by lassitude and languor; we shall find that part of our duration very small of which we can truly call ourselves masters, or which we can spend wholly at our own choice. Many of our hours are lost in a rotation of petty cares, in a constant recurrence of the same employments; many of our provisions for ease or happiness are always exhausted by the present day; and a great part of our existence serves no other purpose, than that of enabling us to enjoy the rest.

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler #108. Due to car trouble, meetings, and the like, I am a bit behind on things. I should get most of it straightened out this weekend, though, so Philebus and the fortnightly book, at least, should get done at some point -- although I don't know exactly when.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Love's Irony

True irony—for there also is a false one—is the irony of love. It arises out of the feeling of finiteness and one's own limitation, and out of the apparent contradiction between this feeling and the idea of infinity which is involved in all true love. As in actual life and in the love which centers in an earthly object, a good-humored raillery, which amuses itself with some little defect of character, either apparent or real, is not inconsistent with sincerity— not, at least, when both parties have no doubt of each other's affection, and its ardor admits of no increase—but, on the contrary, lends to it an agreeable charm, even so is this true of that other and highest love. Here, too, an apparent, or it may be an actual, but still only insignificant and trivial contradiction, can not destroy the idea on which such a love is based, but, on the contrary, serves rather to confirm and strengthen it. But only there where love has reached the highest purity—has become profoundly confirmed and perfect—does this appearance of contradiction, which is thrown out in an affectionate irony, fail to alloy or weaken all higher and better feeling.

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., p. 382.

Zmirak on Usury

I find John Zmirak exasperating because he repeatedly shows himself unable to distinguish between his personal opinion of Catholic teaching and Catholic teaching itself, and yet insists on putting himself forward in published venues as if he were in any way an authority on the latter, while simultaneously failing to back up his comments with research worth taking seriously. He's done it again recently in an article entitled The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching; I find myself wondering if the editor came up with the absurd title because it is the least absurd thing about the article. The ridiculousness of it is too much to waste endless time on, so I will simply show an example of it here, from Zmirak's discussion of usury:

Lending at interest. Condemned for centuries by popes and councils (Clement V; Lateran II, III, IV & V) as a sin against nature akin to sodomy (Dante, following Aquinas, put bankers alongside pederasts in Hell), usury was later redefined from “any interest” to “excessive interest.” That is not a minor tweak, but a fundamental change. To appreciate its significance, imagine a future pope redefining “contraception” to make room for its general use, withholding permission only when it was employed “abusively.” Pius VIII and Pius XII each allowed for lending at interest, and the Vatican runs its own bank, which charges interest.

Where does one begin with such a tissue of falsehoods? Just a few of the obvious problems here:

(1) The definition of usury was not 'any interest'. For one thing, the word 'interest' has at different times and places been of wider or narrower scope (failure to recognize this is one of the first signs of complete ignorance on this subject), and everyone recognized that there were legitimate cases in which someone might charge a fee on a loan, which would sometimes have been counted as part of the interest -- for instance, if even giving the loan was costing someone something. And all of the condemnations Zmirak explicitly mentions are contemporary with recognition of at least some distinction between interest derived from intrinsic title and interest derived from extrinsic title: it was only ever the former that was considered to be usury.

(2) Usury was never redefined to mean 'excessive interest' by Catholics; this is a Protestant redefinition. The definition of the sin of usury for Catholics is still precisely the same as it was at Fifth Lateran in the sixteenth century: when, from its use, a nonproductive thing is used for gain and profit without any work, any expense or any risk. Notice, incidentally, that the word 'interest' didn't even have to be used for the actual definition.

(3) Zmirak's potted history makes the worst of amateur mistakes when dealing with the history of thought: it assumes that things stayed the same while the ideas changed. In this case it is especially ridiculous, since starting in the High Middle Ages massive expansion in banking increased the kinds of available loan contracts far beyond what they had previously been. Assuming that loan contracts were exactly the same at the height of Renaissance banking in the Late Middle Ages as they were in the twelfth century is utterly absurd. What really happened is that an ever-increasing crowd of different kinds of loans grew up, including, famously and importantly for the subject, the loan contracts used by mons-pietatis foundations created for the poor, and it wasn't always clear that these new kinds of contract fit the old definitions. The Church indeed explicitly ruled that some of them did not, as in Benedict XIV's famous Vix pervenit. This does not mean that the old-style contracts that had originally been condemned stopped being condemned. This is a truly egregious error; moral theology, like ethics itself, has to deal with specific, contingent circumstances, which are legion and constantly changing. Failure to recognize this guarantees not only that one will get one's historical claims wrong, but also that one will get one's moral claims wrong.

(4) The Church still condemns usury; it's not all that difficult to find examples. Nor is this surprising, because moral theology is still beholden to Scripture, which condemns usury, and still respects the Church Fathers, who condemn usury, and still takes the major scholastics seriously, who condemned usury. Nor is it surprising from the purely ethical side, either, since making usury permissible causes serious problems for any attempt to have a coherent account of the justice of contracts. The provenance of the kind of argument he is making, though, is telling; it originally started as an argument by liberal Catholics, cribbed from Noonan and the like, for the conclusion that they could ignore certain parts of the Church's moral teaching because the Church's moral teaching changed over time. It was a bad argument then; there's no excuse whatsoever for it now.

This is the sort of junk Catholics too often have to wade through these days. And junk it is; all you have to do to see that is to read Fifth Lateran on usury and Vix pervenit, both of which are excellent contributions to moral theology, and then Zmirak, to see that the third of these things is junk. Nor is there the slightest doubt what Zmirak is about; he comes out straightforwardly with it: he wants to ignore the moral teaching of the Church whenever he finds it inconvenient to take seriously. Of course, what I really love about the article is the elaborate pretense that you either agree with him or you are taking the Church to be "sacramentally married to every assertion on economics and politics by any pope," whatever in the world such a lunatic position would actually mean. In reality, of course, we are talking about teaching, and teaching is multifaceted by its very nature; it requires a multifaceted response and self-cultivation on the part of the students -- which would be people like myself and other Catholics, including, yes, Zmirak, whether he wants to be the student of the Bishops or not -- not the simplistic dichotomy Zmirak is trying to peddle, which is an improvement over exactly nothing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Protagoras (Part II: The Great Debate)

Socrates begins his response to Protagoras by noting that many speakers are able to give impressive speeches, but are unable to answer questions, but as Protagoras is famously good at both, he will ask just one question, which is his major worry on the subject:

You said that Zeus had sent justice and respect to mankind, and furthermore it was frequently stated in your discourse that justice, temperance, holiness and the rest were all but one single thing, virtue: pray, now proceed to deal with these in more precise exposition, stating whether virtue is a single thing, of which justice and temperance and holiness are parts, or whether the qualities I have just mentioned are all names of the same single thing. This is what I am still hankering after. (329c-d)

Protagoras replies that this is an easy question: justice, temperance, and the like are all parts of virtue. Socrates asks whether they are parts of virtue that are all different from each other, like the parts of a face, or parts of virtue that are the same as each other. When Protagoras says that they are different from each other, however, Socrates is able to argue in response that this yields strange results -- we end up having to say that piety, for instance, is not just, or that justice is not pious. Protagoras is unconvinced, so Socrates tries a different tack. If two things share the same opposite for the same reason, it seems that they must be in some way the same kind of thing. But folly, for instance, is the opposite of both wisdom and temperance, and it seems for the same reason.

Protagoras by this point is starting to get irritated. They argue a bit about the way they should proceed, with Protagoras not wanting to get involved in question and answer, and Socrates preparing to leave because, he says, he cannot follow long speeches very well at all. The others intervene, however, with Callias arguing that Protagoras should be able to argue in his style just as much as Socrates, and Alcibiades jumping in (as had been noted at the beginning of the dialogue) to say that Socrates already concedes that Protagoras is better at long speeches, so if Protagoras really wants to concede that Socrates is better at discussion than he is, he should feel free to do so. After this, several others put in their two cents, with Prodicus and Hippias making sure to show off a bit in doing so. Socrates eventually proposes that Protagoras ask the questions, and this is accepted at large.

Protagoras attempts to shift the discussion back on his ground by starting to ask Socrates questions about a poem by Simonides about whether it is difficult to be virtuous -- poetry being a major part of what Protagoras has previously said is education in virtue, and Protagoras no doubt being very familiar with the poem in question. Socrates claims he was dazzled by Protagoras' argument, and to buy time, he started a discussion with Prodicus. Prodicus, of course, is happy to be able to put one over Protagoras himself, and plays along, helping Socrates argue that Protagoras has misinterpreted the poem. Socrates, in his turn, plays Prodicus off of Protagoras, but then agrees with Protagoras that that interpretation might not be right. He proposes to give his own thought about what Simonides really intends, and Protagoras agrees to the proposal.

Socrates argues then that philosophy is associated with laconic utterance -- the very opposite of the speechifying of the Sophists:

Now philosophy is of more ancient and abundant growth in Crete and Lacedaemon than in any other part of Greece, and sophists are more numerous in those regions: but the people there deny it and make pretence of ignorance, in order to prevent the discovery that it is by wisdom that they have ascendancy over the rest of the Greeks, like those sophists of whom Protagoras was speaking; they prefer it to be thought that they owe their superiority to fighting and valor, conceiving that the revelation of its real cause would lead everyone to practise this wisdom....[Y]ou can tell that what I say is true and that the Spartans have the best education in philosophy and argument by this: if you choose to consort with the meanest of Spartans, at first you will find him making a poor show in the conversation; but soon, at some point or other in the discussion, he gets home with a notable remark, short and compressed—a deadly shot that makes his interlocutor seem like a helpless child. (342a-b, d-e)

This is confirmed by the fact that the wisdom associated with the Seven Sages of Greece consists entirely of short little maxims like 'Know Thyself'. Thus, says Socrates, what Simonides really was trying to do was to outdo Pittacus, whom he quotes, by coming up with something more clever, and interprets Simonides as arguing that Pittacus's maxim, 'Virtue is difficult', is inaccurate: continually being virtuous is actually impossible, being a divine thing. He likewise takes Simonides to imply that nobody willingly does something bad.

This interpretation is probably no more serious than his attribution of philosophy to Sparta (and may just be to put into question the possibility that poetry could have the role in moral education Protagoras claims), but by this point Hippias is feeling left out, and offers to give everyone his own speech about Simonides' poem. He's stymied by Alcibiades, though, who points out that Protagoras and Socrates are not yet finished, because they were supposed to do some question-and-answer. Socrates says he's willing to do what Protagoras deems best, but suggests that they leave off talking about poems, which he dismisses as an excuse not to discuss. Protagoras seems to refuse to say what he wants to do, but Alcibiades jumps in again by asking Callias whether it is really appropriate for Protagoras to refuse to answer, thus shaming Protagoras into saying that he would be willing to answer whatever questions Socrates wished to put to him.

With a number of compliments to Protagoras, Socrates returns the discussion to the original question: Are the virtues all somehow one thing, or are particular virtues parts of virtue different from each other? Protagoras responds by arguing that courage (andreia) is very different from other virtues, since one can be courageous and yet also unjust. (An argument, incidentally, that people regularly still make.) Socrates points out that this gets us odd results again, however: Protagoras has said that he teaches virtue, and the virtue is a wholly good thing; further, it seems clear that in every situation those people behave most courageously who know what they are doing. All of this suggests, though, that wisdom is courage.

Socrates goes on to get Protagoras to tell him whether the pleasant and the good are the same thing, and seems to try to press him to say it is. This has puzzled some commentators, since Socrates in other dialogues quite clearly denies that pleasure and goodness are the same, but I think it's pretty clear what Socrates is doing: if the pleasant and the good are the same, Protagoras has made a mistake somewhere. We see this by how he goes about his argument. Having raised the question of whether the pleasant and the good are the same, he immediately goes on to talk about knowledge, noting that most people regard knowledge as unable to guarantee action. He gets Protagoras to agree that knowledge is not like this (as, indeed, Protagoras must say if he also claims to teach virtue). He then indirectly leads Protagoras into an argument with the many (polloi), who claim that people can be led to do things they know are bad by being overcome with pleasure. The many are also committed to saying that good things can be painful or unpleasant. In the course of this indirect argument, Protagoras does, in fact, commit himself to the claim that the pleasant and the good are the same. If this is the case, however, nobody willingly does wrong (notice how Socrates was preparing for this in his previous discussion of the poem), because then if we 'do wrong' because we are overcome with pleasure, this would be the same as saying that we do wrong because we are led by the good.

If, however, virtue comes down to making the right choice of pleasure and pain, the result is that the measurement of these things, "study of their excess and defect and equality in relation to each other" (357b). This makes virtue a matter of knowledge: the reason people make bad choices is nothing other than ignorance, which the Sophists claim to cure. Socrates asks all three Sophists if they agree with this, and they all three agree.

Then Socrates springs the trap. If all of this is so, it seems to follow that virtue, including courage, is all one thing: wisdom or knowledge. Protagoras, of course, gets sulky at this and stops cooperating, so Socrates wraps it up by insisting that he is not simply trying to put one over on Protagoras, but has uncovered a real puzzle. Socrates had originally doubted that virtue is teachable, but then ended up arguing that virtue is knowledge, which suggests that it is teachable; whereas Protagoras had originally insisted that virtue was teachable, but in the course of the discussion has argued that virtue is not all one thing, which means that it is not all knowledge, which seems to indicate that some parts of virtue are not actually teachable. And he ends by saying that he would like to go through the whole thing more closely.

At this, Protagoras replies by complimenting Socrates on the quality of his argument and saying that it is his view that Socrates would one day likely have a very high reputation for wisdom; but, he says (no doubt due to his assessment of what going through the matter even more closely would be like), they should probably end the discussion and do other things. And thus it comes to an end, and Socrates leaves.

  Additional Remarks

* Prodicus's little speech urging Protagoras and Socrates to go on seems clearly to be a parody of Prodicus's style; Prodicus we know from elsewhere was famous for making lots of distinctions in terms, and that fits what we get here. It is likely the little bit by Hippias immediately afterward is also a parody of Hippias's style of speaking.

* The claim that Sparta is more philosophical than Athens and that all the typical Spartan characteristics are really attempts by Sparta to keep its philosophy a secret is certainly comedic, and would not doubt have been regarded as such.

* Note that Socrates explicitly goes out of his way to insist that among the philosophical Spartans women are educated, too.

* Plato at 343a is one of the sources for the traditional list of the Seven Sages of Greece: Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene, Solon of Athens, Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and Chilon of Sparta. However, on most other lists, Periander of Corinth or Anacharsis the Scythian takes the place of Myson of Chen. Plato makes it sound as if the list of the seven were already widely known in his day.

* John Stuart Mill, who knew Plato very well (since he had been reading Plato in the original Greek since he was only a few years old), points to Socrates' argument at the end of this dialogue as an example of (classical) utilitarianism. It seems clear, though, that Socrates develops the utilitarian-sounding parts of the argument in the person of the Sophists, since he explicitly claims to be speaking for them. If this is so, the overall thrust of the argument seems to be that this utilitarian-sounding theory is really incoherent.

* Note that in both Parmenides and Protagoras, the Socratic dialogues with the earliest dramatic dates, in which Socrates is at his youngest (about nineteen or twenty in the first and in his mid-thirties in the second) the eminent Grand Old Man of the dialogue compliments Socrates' skill at argument and remarks on his potential to do great things with it.


[The quotations from the dialogue in this second post are from the Perseus Project. They are currently just standing in for the main translation I've been using, because I've been having car trouble, which has shifted my schedule so that I don't currently have access to the translation I originally read and used, and which was quoted in the first part. I'll replace all the quotations with those from the right translation as soon as I have a chance.]

Impatience of Study

The mental disease of the present generation, is impatience of study, contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity. The wits of these happy days have discovered a way to fame, which the dull caution of our laborious ancestors durst never attempt; they cut the knots of sophistry which it was formerly the business of years to untie, solve difficulties by sudden irradiations of intelligence, and comprehend long processes of argument by immediate intuition.

Men who have flattered themselves into this opinion of their own abilities, look down on all who waste their lives over books, as a race of inferior beings, condemned by nature to perpetual pupilage, and fruitlessly endeavouring to remedy their barrenness by incessant cultivation, or succour their feebleness by subsidiary strength. They presume that none would be more industrious than they, if they were not more sensible of deficiencies; and readily conclude, that he who places no confidence in his own powers, owes his modesty only to his weakness.

Samuel Johnson, Rambler #154

Tuesday, September 09, 2014


Magicalersatz has a good post at "Feminist Philosophers" on the charge sometimes made that feminist philosophy is not sufficiently rigorous. 'Rigor' is a lot like 'clarity' in certain sectors of academic philosophy: it is a word that is used a lot, and in very different contexts, but people use it as if it required no explanation. People just think they know it when they see it. The post in question considers two possible informal ways of understanding 'rigor' -- the use of technical jargon and 'clear and careful argument'. I tend to think that neither of the adjectives here is of any use, but it is certainly the informal explanation you would probably most often get.

One other obvious candidate for what one might mean in general by 'rigor' is something like this: the systematic minimization of factors that can distort reasoning. This would have to include, however, close investigation of potential biases, a kind of critical investigation that in fact makes up a considerable portion of feminist philosophy. So faced with the claim that feminist philosophy, or philosophy of race, or philosophy of disability is 'not rigorous', this can only be taken in two senses: either the distorting factors that they investigate are nonexistent, themselves products of distorting factors, or we are simply saying that their attempt to minimize distorting factors is not itself systematic. The latter is obviously not a genuine problem -- that the work is incomplete does not imply that it is not good as far as it goes -- and the former quite obviously requires considerably more argument than just slapping a label on something.

Of course, whatever one means by 'rigor', the criticism seems to be quite the cop-out. Let's take it at face value. Here is a field in philosophy that is 'not sufficiently rigorous'. So, then, the obvious response of a reasonable person to this is not to dismiss the field but to work on making it rigorous. It reminds me of people who drop various dismissive complaints about philosophy of religion; it's obviously the case that religion exists, so even if one were sincere about the complaints, why would one take the complaints as reason to drop philosophical analysis of religion rather than to contribute to making it better? But this sort of deliberate insistence on being an uncooperative malcontent seems disturbingly common. (It's interesting, incidentally, to contrast this with feminist philosophers themselves, who certainly do complain a lot -- occupational hazard of any approach to philosophy in which critique plays a big part -- but they also quite commonly jump in and try to show how it should be done. That's why one can easily find active work in feminist approaches to practically every field of philosophy. There is no one so stupidly useless for philosophy as someone who claims to be a philosopher and doesn't take 'this is not rigorous enough' or 'this is not clear enough' or any other such thing as a challenge to start making it rigorous/clear/whatever enough.)

Monday, September 08, 2014

Protagoras (Part I: The Great Speech)

Plato's Protagoras is certainly authentic, being referred to many times by Aristotle. It is the dialogue with the second earliest dramatic date; Socrates is only in his thirties here. We are in the interim period between the First and the Second Peloponnesian War (or the first and second phases of the Peloponnesian War, depending on how you divide things up), Socrates has not gone off to battle, and he is not yet known for his teaching. We get to see Socrates interacting with the major Sophists of his day, especially the Sophist, Protagoras himself.

You can read Protagoras online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource.

The Characters

There is a frame narrative in which an unnamed interlocutor talks with Socrates, after which Socrates narrates the events of the gathering of Sophists. The dialogue depicts a fairly large gathering, so there are over twenty named characters. They can easily be grouped, however. Notably, everyone who will be in the Symposium, except Aristophanes, is in attendance; this may be due, however, less to a connection with that dialogue than to the fact that both dialogues have a number of characters associated with the desecrations of 415 that led to many wealthy young men fleeing Athens and Alcibiades defecting to Sparta.

The Independents

  Hippocrates, son of Apollodorus
A wealthy young Athenian. Debra Nails suggests that he might be a nephew of Pericles -- there are quite a few members of Pericles' family at the gathering, and 'Hippocrates' occurs several times in the known family tree. It would also explain a few things in the text.

This is the same Critias from Charmides, Plato's relative, who would later become one of the Thirty Tyrants.

Alcibiades is very young here, and the dialogue seems to predate any relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates.

This is the same Callias who is Hermogenes' rich half-brother. He is the host of the gathering.

Those with Protagoras

  Protagoras of Abdera
While Protagoras was born far to the north, he seems to have lived a considerable part of his life in Athens. He claimed to teach rhetoric and virtue. He seems to be around sixty years of age at the time of the dialogue.

  Xanthippus and Paralus, sons of Pericles
The sons of Pericles' first wife. Both of them would die within a few years in the Great Plague at the beginning of the Second Peloponnesian War, which makes Protagoras's comments about their age perhaps a bit poignant.

Plato's uncle, the same Charmides after whom Charmides is named. He became one of the Ten Tyrants ruling the Piraeus under the Thirty Tyrants of Athens.

  Philippides of Paeania and Antimoerus of Mende
Philippides is known to be from a wealthy family, but nothing else is known of the two.

Those with Hippias

  Hippias of Elis
Hippias the polymath is the same sophist who is mocked mercilessly in Hippias Major and Hippias Minor.

  Eryximachus of Athens
The same as the character in the Symposium; he was a physician and a friend of Phaedrus. He would be implicated in the sacrilege of 415 and have to flee Athens.

  Phaedrus of Myrrhinus
The same Phaedrus from Phaedrus and the Symposium. He would be implicated in the sacrilege of 415 and have to flee Athens.

  Andron of Gargettus
He is the Andron mentioned in passing as an associate of Callicles in Gorgias. Most of what is known about him is really about his son Androtion, who was a wealthy and famous writer. Andron himself, however, seems to have been put in prison for debt at some point. He would become a member of the Four Hundred who overthrew the democratic government of Athens in 411.

Those with Prodicus

  Prodicus of Ceos
Prodicus is the sophist who is consistently treated most favorably in both Plato and Xenophon. He was famous for always making distinctions.

  Pausanias of Cerameis
The same Pausanias as in the Symposium. He is the lover of Agathon.

  Agathon of Athens
The same Agathon whose victory is celebrated in the Symposium.

  Adeimantus son of Cepis and Adeimantus son of Leucolophides
Nothing much is known about these two, but Adeimantus son of Leucolophides was the Adeimantus who was implicated with Alcibiades in the mutilation of the herms in 415. His property was confiscated, and by chance the record of it has survived, showing that he was a very wealthy person with several slaves.

In addition, there are a number of other unnamed participants and at least one unnamed (and grouchy) slave.

The Plot and The Thought

An anonymous interlocutor remarks to Socrates that he is sure Socrates has been hunting Alcibiades, and asks if the youth favors Socrates in any way. Socrates remarks that Alcibiades had come to his support in a discussion earlier today, but at the time he wasn't paying attention to Alcibiades, but to someone far more beautiful, because more wise -- Protagoras. Protagoras has been in town for two days, and Socrates has had a long conversation with him earlier that day. So they sit down and Socrates tells the story.

It was before dawn and Socrates was still in bed when Hippocrates came into his bedroom, full of excitement, because he had discovered that Protagoras was in town. The reason Hippocrates has come to Socrates is that he wants to meet Protagoras, but he's very young, and so he's hoping that Socrates will introduce him, since Protagoras is staying at the house of Callias. Socrates remarks that it's a bit too early, so they walk around the courtyard until after dawn. While they do so, Socrates presses Hippocrates about what he wants to become, noting that if Hippocrates went to Hippocrates of Cos (of Hippocratic Oath fame) to learn, he would be made a physician. Reluctantly, Hippocrates admits that Protagoras is a Sophist and thus that one would apparently learn from him how to be a Sophist, which would be a shameful thing to be; but Socrates suggests that perhaps what he is looking for is a more general education suitable to a gentleman's life. When Hippocrates agrees, however, Socrates makes clear in another line of questioning that this is even more serious -- he's about to hand his soul over to a Sophist, even though he can't even clearly identify what a Sophist would do with it. He ends by noting that he and Hippocrates are a bit too young to handle the problem without the help of their elders, and so they set out for Callias's house.

When they get there, the slave almost refuses to let them in, grumbling about all the Sophists who have been coming. Inside, they see quite a comical picture. Protagoras is walking in the portico with a crowd of people following him:

He enchants them with his voice like Orpheus, and they follow the sound of his voice in a trance. There were some locals also in this chorus, whose dance simply delighted me when I saw how beautifully they took care never to get in Protagoras' way. When he turned around with his flanking groups, the audience to the rear would split into two in a very orderly way and then circle around to either side and form up again behind him. It was quite lovely. (315b)

On the other side of the colonnade is Hippias of Elis, sitting in a high seat and taking questions on astronomy and physics from a group of people around him. Prodicus of Ceos turns out to be still in bed in a side storage room, talking to students seated around him.

Socrates introduces Hippocrates to Protagoras, saying that he wants to be a respected man and is hoping to get this by association with Protagoras; he asks Protagoras if he wants to talk about it privately or not. Protagoras thanks him for his discretion, noting that there is considerable hostility to Sophists, but he also says that unlike other Sophists he himself is quite open about being one. If Socrates and Hippocrates have a request, he would be happy to do it right there. Socrates, of course, is shrewd enough to see that what Protagoras really wants to do is show off in front of Hippias and Prodicus.

The pull together a makeshift auditorium around where Hippias had been teaching, and Protagoras asks Socrates for his question again; Socrates replies that his friend Hippocrates is interested in studying with him, and wants to know what the result of that will be. When Protagoras replies that Hippocrates will get better and better every day, Socrates says drily that this makes sense, but wants to know what Hippocrates will be better and better at. Protagoras replies that Hippocrates will be better at craft of politics (politike techne). Socrates expresses the doubt that this is teachable (although given how he argues as the dialogue continues, this may be ironic), giving the example of the children of Pericles. He asks for a demonstration of this idea, and Protagoras gives the audience a choice of getting a story (mythos) or argument (logos); and when they tell him to do whichever he pleases, he gives them a story.

Protagoras' Great Speech

Originally there were only gods. When they decided to make mortal creatures, they did so by mixing earth and fire and then giving them into the care of two brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus, so that the latter would give them their appropriate capabilities. Epimetheus begged Prometheus to let him do it himself, and Prometheus agreed. Epimetheus gave some speed, some flight, some strength, and so forth. He did this by compensation (epanison), giving to each what it needed to survive both other creatures and the weather. When Epimetheus got to human beings, however, he discovered that he had run out of gifts. At this point Prometheus arrived to check his work. Discovering human beings left with no natural gifts at all, knowing that the deadline was coming up quickly, Prometheus cheated by stealing the conjoined gifts of craft-wisdom and fire from the workshop of Hephaestus and Athena and giving it to human beings. This craft-wisdom allowed men to do everyday things; but it was not political wisdom, which they lacked entirely. And the old story goes, of course, that Prometheus was put on trial for his theft.

A side effect of human beings having a divine gift is that they, because of their kinship with the gods, were the only animals who worshipped gods and invented things like languages and beds. Originally they all dwelt apart, but the wild beasts were picking them off, so they banded together into cities for protection. But, of course, they had no political wisdom, so the result was that instead of being harmed by wild animals they were harmed by each other. Zeus, afraid that human beings would perish entirely, sent Hermes to earth in order to teach them right (dike) and reverence (aidos). Hermes asked Zeus how he was supposed to distribute it -- should it be given to a few, who then distribute it to the rest, or to everyone. Zeus replied that it should be given to everyone, because cities cannot survive if only a few people have right and reverence; and, further, Zeus decreed that anyone who lacked right and reverence should be put to death. Thus it is that when people want advice in medicine or the like, they look for the few who have it, but if they want advice in how to govern, they allow advice from everyone. And another sign of this is that we regard people without technical skills as merely ignorant; people without political skills we regard as crazy.

However, even though everyone has some of it, it does not arise naturally or by chance but only by training and education. A sign of this is that we take people who lack a good by nature or by fortune to be only unfortunate, whereas we actively blame and punish people who lack justice, the punishment being to deter others from doing the same.

This leaves only Socrates' question about how it is that great men cannot teach virtue to their children, and Protagoras says that he will respond to this by argument rather than story. Essentially, Protagoras argues that they do, in fact, teach their children -- it would be odd, after all if, they taught their children everything but the things that come with a death penalty. The course of education that they use is pretty much what you would expect: they constantly try to teach them the meaning of ethics-words, and if the children get things wrong, they get spanked. Parents then send their children to school to learn poetry, and also music and athletics. Then after school people are trained by the laws of the city.

This shows that everyone does, in fact, take virtue to be teachable. Why, then, do good people often fail? Precisely because of what was said before: everyone is the teacher of justice. In a city in which everyone taught everyone flute-playing, the people who would end up being the best flute-players would just be the ones that had the most natural aptitude, regardless of who their parents were. But everyone in the city would be an at least competent flute player. So it is with justice: everyone being the teacher of justice, the people who end up most just are merely those who have the most natural aptitude for it. But everyone is more just than they otherwise would be. It's just like the Greek language, of which everyone is the teacher. But, says Protagoras, sometimes people are just a little bit better at the teaching, and we should be grateful to them. He counts himself as one of those, and notes that he leaves it to his students to agree -- he'll name a price, but if the student doesn't think it was a fair exchange, they'll go to the temple, the student will swear before the gods what he thinks the real value was, and Protagoras will take that.

Socrates says that he was spellbound by this speech, and after it was finished waited for Protagoras to go on. But, of course, Protagoras was finished, and we all know that Socrates has a reply.

  Additional Remarks

* The scene at Callias's seems to show two themes. The first is that Plato is borrowing the conventions of Greek comedy, complete with a Protagorean chorus. The second is that Plato presents it as a descent into the underworld, even quoting Odysseus on his descent into the underworld. There is probably also some significance in the fact that Protagoras is walking, Hippias sitting, and Prodicus lying down in bed, but I'm not wholly sure what it is supposed to be.

* Socrates regularly uses the example of Pericles unable to teach his children throughout the dialogues. The difference here is that Pericles' children are actually sitting in the audience when he uses the example. Socrates' use of the example here seems to be at least half-joking -- as is the example of Clinias and Alcibiades, Alcibiades being in the audience as well.

* It is done with ingenious subtlety, but Protagoras' Great Speech is a very flattering eulogy of Athenian democracy. Only in a democratic city like Athens is every citizen treated like an expert in justice. And the direct implication of his speech is that, because Athens has education and law-courts, the most unjust Athenian who has ever lived is more just than a barbarian who lacks such accoutrements of Greek culture. Justice is literally like the Greek language (note that teaching the meaning of words is where Protagoras says we begin in teaching children to be just): it is just part of the culture. This is going to play an important role in shaping parts of Socrates' rather mischievous reply, in which (for instance) he treats Sparta as more educated than Athens. It is also why Protagoras and Socrates will go on to argue the interpretation of a poem -- this is not a digression, because poetry is the second stage of the educational scheme for becoming just.

* There was a rumor in antiquity that a significant part of the Republic was taken from Protagoras' book, Truth. We don't know quite what this means since we don't have Protagoras' work, but it's notable that there are similarities between how Protagoras here describes moral education and how Socrates in the Republic does -- and it may well be that in the latter Plato is indirectly criticizing Protagoras' overall view by, so to speak, rewriting it.

* Given that Protagoras is currently in a room filled with a number of his students, it's hard not to read as self-serving his casual remark that we should be grateful for those with better skills for teaching justice, particularly when he goes on immediately to talk about his payment scheme. At the very least, the whole speech, beautiful as it is, comes across in context as something of a sales pitch.

Music on My Mind

Chisu, "Sama nainen". A rather sad song, about being unable to break out of an abusive relationship. The chorus might be translated as "I don't promise anything anymore; I'm the same person, the same heart, the same mind, the same woman."

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Rushing of the Sea-Tides of the Soul

The Sound of the Sea
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
A sound mysteriously multiplied
As of a cataract from the mountain's side,
Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
And inaccessible solitudes of being,
The rushing of the sea-tides of the soul:
And inspirations that we deem our own,
Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
Of things beyond our reason or control.