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.