Monday, March 31, 2014

Courage in Nicomachean Ethics

I want to talk about Aristotle’s discussion of the virtue courage, which he goes through in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics. His goal in this passage is to clarify a virtue that is commonly praised and sought out. However, he tells the reader that of the many conceptions and seeming appearances of courage are not truly instances of it. His description of courage is this: “courage is a mean in relation to what inspires confidence and fear in the circumstances described… it makes choices and stands its ground because it is noble to do so, or shameful not to.” (1116a). The bit to focus on here is that courage acts founded on nobility and against shame, not on a basis of fear of pain.

 Aristotle lists five instances of pseudo-courage (things that appear to be courage but are not). Citizen courage is the closest to the original formulation, in that it is motivated by desire for honor and avoidance of shame. However, often it is the case that the real avoidance is of pain, not shame. A second type is what Aristotle calls “experience of particulars” (1116b). This state is situational; soldiers will feel brave in their line of work because they are accustomed to it, but in others, they may not. Third, he lists spirit, with the flaw that courage is “accompanied by rational choice and directed toward some end” (1117a). Hopefulness is next, stopping short of courage because it is founded on confidence based on previous successes, and when it becomes clear that victory is unlikely, it fades. “Foreseen can be rationally chosen on the basis of calculation and reason, but unforeseen ones only in virtue of one’s state of character.” (1117a). Finally, Aristotle mentions people who act out of ignorance. They appear courageous, but have less confidence than the hopeful people. These all fall short of the ideal courage Aristotle proposes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Symbolism at the End of Symposium

The end of Plato’s Symposium sees the entrance of Alcibiades, claiming to be drunk, but still speaking very eloquently. This section is ripe with interesting symbolism and activity between the speakers, and it is these I want to focus on.

 Alcibiades makes quite an entrance, stumbling in resting his weight on others, including the flute girl who the party had earlier dismissed to play for the women of the house. It is interesting that she returns here, at the beginning of a section filled with strife between would-be lovers. She was sent away because Eryximachus wanted the men to be alone for intelligent conversation, but now, under the arm of a drunken younger man and directly after a speech regarding love from a woman (Diotima), the female presence returns to the room.

A second piece of symbolism that sticks out is the desire of Alcibiades to crown Agathon with a wreath of garlands. Alcibiades is already wearing it himself, though, and says “I want this crown to come directly from my head to the head that belongs… to the cleverest and best-looking man in town” (212e). He does not mention Agathon’s name, and sure enough, a few minutes later he has given part of the crown to Agathon, but gives a second part to Socrates, implying that there is some dispute as to whom it really belongs to. Alcibiades speech is in great praise (and some frustration) to Socrates, but the warning he issues at the end is to Agathon. Alcibiades cautions him not to fall in love with Socrates, or end up like him.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Symposium 1

During the reading from Symposium for today, I was again and again struck by how idealism perfused the speeches of some of the Greeks. The love they propose is truly incredible, and each one of them thinks so in a different way. Phaedrus believes that love, specifically a lover-beloved relationship, is key not only to the lives of both people involved but to society as a whole. He claims that the benefit to the pair is that they love and honor each other’s soul; the younger man receives wisdom and encouragement from the older, and the older gets to enjoy the company of and to guide the younger. He says that this relationship encourages the younger (and older, to a lesser extent) to behave in honorable ways and avoid anything shameful. Pausanias takes a similar line of thought, digging into the separation between what he describes as “common love” and “heavenly love.” He condemns common love, which he represents as a love of flesh and sexual pleasure, and exalts heavenly love, which, like Phaedrus said, is a love of the soul. He contrasts the vulgarity of the former with the purity of the latter, arguing that loving a soul is to become truly open, sharing everything and devoting oneself to the other. I should note that Pausanias is concerned with homosexual relationships, which is why the roles of mentor and student seem at play here. Aristophanes talks about perhaps the highest ideal, the root of what we might call soul-mates. He tells the tale of Zeus splitting humans in half and dooming them to search for their missing parts for much of life. This places love high on a pedestal; we can only truly love one person and must find this person. Aristophanes describes the two together as desiring to be forged by Hephaestus into one being because they would never want to spend a moment apart. Such a powerful love is expressed in these speeches that I would label these Greeks as idealists. It leads me to wonder whether Plato agrees with them, this being my first time through this work.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Protagoras: 309-14

There really is not much to say so far (given that we are only a little ways in) about Protagoras. It was clear to me from the moment Protagoras was mentioned that Socrates was critical of him and that he was a sophist. Hippocrates, who has shown up in the early morning to Socrates, wants desperately to go and learn from Protagoras, who has just blown into town. We learn in 310d that Protagoras takes money in exchange for ‘wisdom’ of some sort, in 310e of his “mastery of speech” and the fact that he travels and visits. Socrates takes a familiar tact, a similar one to the dialogue Theaetetus (in which he is searching for wisdom itself), by beginning to list various people who know things and teach apprentices: doctors, sculptors, and other specialists. He indicates to Hippocrates that each of these people gives the wisdom of their trade, and then he asks what Protagoras knows or teaches. Hippocrates is baffled by this and tries to respond, but he really can’t, which Socrates of course knew beforehand. Socrates then cautions Hippocrates, saying that doctrines are nourishment or poison to the soul, and that one should be very selective about which ones we take or listen to. Hippocrates agrees, and the two go to listen to Protagoras and measure him by his speech. So here we are, waiting to hear what Protagoras has to say in defense of himself and his way of life.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Normative Relativism in the Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s allegory of the cave is extremely well known throughout western cultures; people who have had almost no direct exposure to the study of philosophy are still fairly likely to be aware of it. I first read it in middle school, in a history class with a teacher who had a passion for classical thought. Since then I have read it and written on it many more times, and each time I find myself drawn to the same subjects: the epistemic ideas about our limited perception and struggle against it, the Jungian psychological underscore, and the like. This time, though, I want to write on the very end of the passage.

            The end of the allegory relates the return of the newly enlightened person to the cave. In the gloom, he is subjected to the criticism of his peers over his lost eyesight. They have been trying to understand the shadows and fancy themselves to have expertise in them. The enlightened man has seen the true nature of the figures casting the shadows, but his eyes have been impaired by the lack of light, so the inhabitants of the cave disdain his attempts to reveal anything. Because they have no evidence or even contextual grounds (other than the complete abstract) for comprehending his experience, they reject it for their truth, the truth of the cave. Here is where I find an interesting epistemology (which I think Plato disagrees with) coming through: a normative relativism of truths. The relativistic aspect is that there exist here two different truths: the enlightened truth and the truth of the shadows. I think that Plato is making a point to say that there IS a better truth (the former), but that the denizens of the cave, or the unenlightened, will not accept it. Perhaps it requires direct experience to comprehend it. This is why the enlightened must return the cave and help the inhabitants, even though they do so against what is true.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


What strikes me most about Empedocles is that the nature of many of his writings is very religious. In fact, a lot of his thoughts seem to be less philosophical and more theological. He believes the root of existence to be in the Gods Zeus, Hera, Nestis and Aidoneus, but dominating existence are the four elements (fire, water, air, and earth) and two opposing forces, Strife and Love. Love is fairly close to our conception of it; Empedocles parallels it with joy and says that it causes peaceful and just acts and kindness. Strife is the more interesting force because Empedocles believes it is an active evil and that it causes mortals to commit bloodshed.

     He writes that in an ancient decree set down by the Gods it is mandated that "whenever anyone pollutes his own dear limbs with the sin of bloodshed... commits offense and swears a false oath..." he is made to live changing forms of mortal life for thirty thousand years, returning to the Aither, an ethereal, omnipresent force that regenerates mortals and gives them "an alien garb of flesh" upon reincarnation. He writes that these must place their faith in "raving Strife." For this reason, Empedocles seems to condemn sacrifice to the Gods and the subsequent feasting. he refers to cases of sons killing and eating their parents, not knowing who they once were, and to a father sacrificing his son who has been reincarnated from the Aither as a beast. It is not clear if he condemns eating meat at all (since any animal might well have been another human, maybe even acquaintance), but it would seem to follow that he does. This interpretation of reality is a grim one, but appears oddly similar to some eastern religions with regard to reincarnation based on sins committed. It also appears that transcending this system is the goal, possibly something that Empedocles believes he has accomplished, hence his referring to himself as immortal, which would mean not eligible for reincarnation.


Socrates on Anaxagoras

In the section of the Phaedo dialogue we read for today, it appears that Socrates agrees with my opinions on Anaxagoras’ concept of Mind: he doesn’t like it. He says this about how he had hoped Anaxagoras would help him understand the way Mind acts on the world: “I never thought that Anaxagoras, who said that those things were directed by Mind, would bring in any other cause for them then that it was best for them to be as they are.” (98a). However, he discovers that Anaxagoras does not give an explanation of the Mind’s relation to the world. Instead, he “made no use of Mind, nor gave it responsibility for the management of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other strange things.” (98c). This is about the same issue I have with Anaxagoras: his theory of everything explains the world nicely and is many years ahead of its time, but his vagueness when it comes to Mind’s role in it is a serious problem. The Mind is both something that began the revolution of the world, but also some kind of soul-like quality possessed by all living things in equal portions? That seems entirely implausible, and does not mix well with his other theories. Socrates takes issue further with the fact that Anaxagoras attributes the actions of people to physical things instead of the Mind. “He would mention other such causes for my talking to you: sounds and air and hearing, and a thousand other such things, but he would neglect to mention the true causes…” (98e).  I take issue with the vagueness of his Mind concept, while Socrates disagrees with his ideas concerning the root of human action.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Parmenides and the Truth

      Perhaps I am a little bitter in my thoughts on Parmenides, but I'll spill them all the same. He seems to me to be inaccessible compared to the other ancient philosophers we have explored, possibly simply because of his writing in poetry, but I think it goes beyond that. The limitation of poetry would not force him to be at times so repetitive and in the same breath so vague with what he means. The subjects of his thought are far removed from their descriptions and so are hard to track down, and he changes his drift seemingly mid-thought sometimes.
     All those grievances being aired, I will say that there are things I appreciate. His idea about the seeming incorruptibility of truth is interesting. He clearly has a conception of an objective truth, one that exists transcendent of the reality it dictates, that cannot be altered. This truth has no beginning or end, but simply is. Nor can it suffer any rival non-truth to rise beside it, because such a competitor would emerge from mortal conception and thus would immediately be lesser than the objective truth.     
     Parmenides' truth reminds me of the idea of a transcendent code of morals found throughout history, but takes everything one step further. Most cultures throughout time that have left enduring marks have had a relatively close scheme of morals, often believing that the existence of the code was a manifestation of some transcendent truth, be it a God, an afterlife thought, or whatever. However, I am not so sure Parmenides feels that a divine or otherworldly existence is the root of the truth he describes. No, it seems to him that the truth does not transcend in a divine manner, but rather in a metaphysical one; the truth is not God or a universal soul, but a framework upon which our perceived reality lies.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Not Concerning Right Triangles

What I find most interesting about reading these short passages on Pythagoras is how little of what he did and thought seems to have passed into the semi-canonical knowledge we possess, especially considering the one bit that is taught to every middle school kid, the Pythagorean theorem. The observation I would make regarding this is that the piece of Pythagoras that survived is from the branch of Pythagorean thinking called mathemata, which seems to me to be analogous to more logical thought of modern times and less about religion. I was not aware of anything else Pythagoras thought, especially the idea of cyclical reincarnation.

In fact, this selection of passages does not go into much detail about the ideas of mathematics, but instead features moral and spiritual concepts. There are tales of his encounters with soul transference, from a supposed discovery of a friend's soul in an animal to the story of Pythagoras' own reincarnations. It is interesting to observe that, by Diogenes Laertius word, Pythagoras' soul inhabited many humans instead of animals, and that these humans were rather prominent figures. If the story were in Pythagoras' own writings instead of another person's, I would be inclined to suspect him of inflating his own story and status by creating a doctrine of his own wisdom that could not be struck down.

Perhaps the most philosophical concepts I drew from these passages were the ideas of searching for wisdom, which seems to be connected to reincarnation somehow, and a prototype arrangement of ideas, appearing as a dichotomy and as a conception of how to search for knowledge. The akousmata school of thinking, the counterpart to mathemata, is more concerned with moral acts and metaphysics. It observes what things are beyond mathematic observation and what moral behaviors we should observe. So I suppose my ending thought on Pythagoras is that I am glad there is more to him than right triangles.