Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Savalescu

January 24, 2013

Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu* has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other.  Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens.  He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.

Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.

Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.

(Our first Lyceum lecture of the season is coming right up, btw, a week from Friday. Richard Shusterman‘s  our distinguished visiting philosopher. He believes ” improved body consciousness can enhance one’s knowledge, performance, and pleasure.” Come if you can, locals & regionals (& Vandy friends) for the talk and food & drink at a colleague’s home afterwards.)

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

*Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Nigel just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think LH begins with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust, revolt, repel, and appall us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling  to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.

The real cosmopolitans

September 18, 2012

What does “cosmopolitan” really mean? Don’t trust Google on this, it takes you straight to that silly magazine with its sex tips and “lifestyle” advice. Funny, or sad, how current linguistic use has corrupted these grand old terms. (Think also of “epicurean,” “cynic,” maybe even “platonic”…)

We started to talk about this yesterday, in connection with Anthony Appiah’s book and interview. We’ll discuss it some more today. Kosmopolites is the Greek root meaning citizen of the world, the cosmos. What a large identity to claim, and yet what a miniscule corner of existence we actually occupy.

The cosmos used to coincide strictly with the known terrestrial world, before anybody’d ever even circumnavigated it. Now we’ve seen our tiny world from space, in perspective.

So now we know: it’s a really big cosmos, and we are here.

So far as we can tell we’re the only part, around these parts anyway, that knows it’s part of a cosmos. We’re the cosmopolitans.

Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People of all nations came here to live, to trade, to learn. On any given day, its harbors were thronged with merchants, scholars, and tourists. This was a city where Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews, Persians, Nubians, Phoenicians, Italians, Gauls, and Iberians exchanged merchandise and ideas. It is probably here that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ realized its true meaning: citizen, not just of a nation, but of the Cosmos. To be a citizen of the Cosmos

More Saganportalmotecalendargolden record… apple pie

So who was the first cosmopolitan in philosophy? Socrates, possibly, he’s said to have declared himself a citizen of the world – but still so loyal an  Athenian that he insisted on having his hemlock. Scholars wonder if that was really him or Plato talking.

Whether Socrates was self-consciously cosmopolitan in this way or not, there is no doubt that his ideas accelerated the development of cosmopolitanism and that he was in later antiquity embraced as a citizen of the world. In fact, the first philosopher in the West to give perfectly explicit expression to cosmopolitanism was the Socratically inspired Cynic Diogenes in the fourth century bce. It is said that “when he was asked where he came from, he replied, “I am a citizen of the world.” SEP

That doesn’t sound “cynical” in the perverted modern sense at all, does it? Diogenes spent a lot of time under the stars. He knew where he was.

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, “yuk”

September 4, 2012

Labor Day was nice. Now then, what’s up with those old Greeks? Some of their transgressive behavior might elicit a “yuk” from some of us. And by the way, isn’t it funny how a “yuk” can be either a laugh or a groan? Julian Savulescu has some thoughts about the latter sense of the word, the instinctive revulsion we all feel for something or other.  Where does that come from? What’s it good for? When can’t we trust it? (Well, that hemlock can’t have been too appetizing.) But first,

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

Socrates asked a lot of questions for someone from New Jersey. (Just kidding, that was a dated SNL reference my students probably won’t get.) Socrates was in fact from the deme Alopece, near Athens.  He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  He was an impious and relentless corrupter of youth, said the court that convicted him of those charges in 399 B.C. and made him a perpetual role-model to western philosophers like me forever after. Woody Allen is a fan, too.

Plato, they say, could stick it away-they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.

Aristotle‘s in the song as well, but never mind. He rejected his teacher Plato’s metaphysics, returned to the cave of the phenomenal world to take a closer look, avoided CAPS and abstractions, and inspired the name for our annual Spring speaker series in the philosophy department at MTSU, the Lyceum.

The best quick & graphic way of illustrating the difference between Plato and his student Aristotle, I’ve found, is by pondering Raphael’s famous painting School of Athens [annotated]. Pay close attention to the hands.

Julian Savulescu, an Oxford bioethicist, is our first Philosophy Bites interviewee. Did Warburton and Edmonds just want to get the topic of revulsion out of the way? No, I think they begin with this because we usually recoil too quickly from the things that disgust us. A good philosopher tries to understand these reactions, examine and sometimes challenge them, rather than rely strictly on the “yuk” feeling  to guide all our choices and attitudes. The message is clear: in philosophy it’s not enough to emote, we’ve also got to think.

Walk softly & carry a big philosophy club

January 19, 2012

This sign popped up all over campus yesterday, including here in front of my building.

The philosophy club is already laying plans to respond with

Philosophy Study

& Free Food

for thought

They usually meet on Thursdays at 5 in JUB 304, for those in the neighborhood. Gotta fight fire with fire. Or better yet, with intelligence and smart conversation. Maybe a film now and then. (Did you guys ever finish screening Life of Brian, Ryan?)

So in CoPhi today we’ll be looking at JMH‘s Olympian Gods, pre-Socratics, Democritus, Socrates & Plato, and Aristotle.

And later in A&P, it’s the first of two classes devoted to Cass Seltzer’s (Rebecca Goldstein’s) 36 Arguments, split five ways:

Arguments 1-6 , Cosmological Argument through Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws; 7-12, Argument from Cosmic Coincidences through Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness;  13-18, Argument from the Improbable Self through Argument from Free Will; 19-29, Argument from Personal Purpose through Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity;  30-36, Argument from Mathematical Reality through Argument from the Abundance of Arguments.

Where to begin? The gods, of course. Whatever happened to them, anyway?

JMH points out how human they were, Zeus and Hera and the gang. The pantheon was close at hand, just up the hill.

They were imminent in human life and in the environment: they brought meaningful dreams to sleepers and threw thunderbolts when they were angry. They even lived nearby, on Mount Olympus. They also gave an external cause for human inconsistency or illogic…

Cupid hurled his arrows and your fate was sealed. Gods and daemons pulled our predecessors’ strings and they felt relieved of responsibility for their world. The gods may have been flighty and injudicious and unpredictable but at least they imposed a kind of chaotic order on our human chaos, “invisible bvut made apparent by the authority of the poets.” Until a few pre-Socratic philosophers and Socrates himself came along to question authority of every kind, their rule stood unchallenged by mortal men. But “under the gaze of philosophy”…

==

Richard Dawkins has famously observed that

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic,  homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

Outrageous,” say some. I say he’s too kind, and Seltzer/Goldstein say

The God of the Old Testament commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals, and commit many other heinous acts. Of course, our interpretation of which aspects of Biblical morality to take seriously has grown more sophisticated over time, and we read the Bible selectively and often metaphorically. But that is just the point: we must be consulting some standards of morality that do not come from God in order to judge which aspects of God’s word to take literally and which aspects to ignore. (Argument #16, “The Argument from Moral Truth”)

And that’s why we philosophers always go back to Plato’s Euthyphro, again and again, when we begin talking to students about philosophy, ethics and morality, and religion. (full textLast Days of Socrates)

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy [or good] is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

“Reference to God does not help in the least to ground the objective truth of morality.”

Or you could take it on the authority of two guys called Jesus and Mo.

Beyond the shadows of everyday

September 12, 2011

Lots to talk about today in Intro, including Buddhism and Confucius [Confucius Institute], pre-Socratics (my favorite is Democritus),  Sophists (Protagoras has gotten a bad rap), and much more. As always, JMH has helpful things to say about them all.  Consider her remarks on the Buddha’s conception of karma, for instance, and how questions like whether there’s a God or an afterlife “do not edify“…

Today’s section brings us to Socrates and Plato. The former “taught” the latter, who in turn taught Aristotle.  Each student in turn disagreed with his mentor in big ways, without abandoning attention or respect. Good role models for us all, we co-philosophers and listeners.

Socrates was not opposed to the Sophists; he was the best of them…

Soccrates believed that virtue is the most valuable of possessions, that the truth lies beyond the “shadows” of our everyday experience, and that it is the proper business of the philosopher to show us how little we really know. PW

Plato’s allegory of the Cave, in Republic  Book VII, is a thinly-veiled homage to his teacher Socrates (whose “last days” he witnessed and was deeply affected by, though his own philosophy went considerably further than Socrates’ in asserting metaphysical knowledge of another world.)

==

It was the big 9/11 anniversary yesterday, though as Older Daughter pointed out, “anniversary” seems too cheery a word. On a personal note, it’s three years now since my Dad’s death. I noted a year ago that it was a “sad anniversary,” but time does heal. I’m not sad this morning, thinking of him. His presence is still felt and still makes a difference, every day.

Speaking of Older Daughter: her comment to me on the way to school this morning was that she thinks it’s just nice for people to have something to believe in. I agreed, though adding again that I find undelusional beliefs, and beliefs rooted in the evidence of our actual experience on this planet, more helpful than those born of fanciful but unfounded wishes. Then we talked about ghosts. There too, it would be fun to believe… but whether there are disembodied intelligent entities among us or not, Sting was right: we all are spirits  in the material world, even if our spirits are ultimately material in genesis and composition, and even if (as the pre-Socratics mostly believed) they’re mortal.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: today we’ll set up our Questions database, I’ll welcome a volunteer familiar with PowerPoint and/or our Clicker devices to help with that. Also, remind me to talk to you about the pop culture report option. And again: group leaders, post your summaries ASAP after each class, group members post your comments (etc.) before the next class. That’s all group members, before every class.

Socrates & Plato (2)

February 10, 2011

Snow again this a.m., for something like the dozenth time this winter here. It took forever to get home last night, and the roads aren’t exactly beckoning this morning. So…

No class today, STUDENTS. We’ll conclude our discussion of Socrates and Plato on Tuesday. Read about Aristotle, Skeptics, & Stoics (O 16-26) for Tuesday as well. Remember, on Thursday I’ll need your midterm report topic & summary.

“Practitioners of wisdom” (aka Sophists) turned away from metaphysics and towards practicality. But what’s more practical, really, than a confident feet-on-the-ground feeling for reality? Confidence is precisely what Protagoras affirmed with “man is the measure.”

“The proper business of the philosopher,” said Socrates, is not business (tell that to the TBR) but humility, virtue, and truth.

Plato was a throwback: unlike Socrates, and like the pre-Socratics, he was drawn to systematic philosophy and The Big Questions.

Two worlds, Plato? One at most is more credible, but it’s full of sub-worlds.

The perfect Forms of virtue, justice, and courage would be dazzling. But isn’t every natural display of real-world virtue, justice, and courage dazzling enough? And more impressive for being real?

Rejecting Plato’s world of Ideas  is not the end of Platonic idealism. The idea of perfection exerts a powerful pull on the imagination of many of us. But perfection really has to calibrate with reality, and that means it has to be grounded and earth-centered.

Well, that’s what Aristotle’s going to say…

Last Days of Socrates… Sophists, Socrates, Plato… apologies (deB, Soc on self-confidence)… Socrates & Bill Maher… Socrates off-side… David’s “Death of Socrates“… World Cup… Euthyphro & “my team”… Bettany Hughes on Socrates… The Hemlock CupChris Phillips: Socrates in Love… Socrates Cafe… Six Questions of SocratesBlackburn on Plato & the cave… Ring of Gyges… Divided Line… Play-dough

Socrates & Plato

February 8, 2011
Today in Intro it’s Socrates and Plato.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: the syllabus is still out of skew. We’re reading Osborne today, pages 11-15.  Next time it’s PW 33-39.

But first, the Sophists. They’re the guys who gave sophistry and sophism a bad name, ahead even of the legal profession. They taught rhetorical skills and earned (or acquired) a reputation for making bad arguments look good. There’s some dispute amongst scholars as to whether Socrates was one of them. He denied being a professional instructor of any kind, and insisted that he was only interested in genuinely good arguments. Again, scholars differ on this. (Why Socrates Died)
Muckrakers like Izzy Stone have questioned the polished image, too.
But Socrates has become an iconic figure in western philosophy, thanks largely to the air-brushed portrait drawn by his “student” Plato. He has become the very figure of intellectual integrity and the refusal to renounce principle in the face of personal prosecution (and persecution).
Protagoras definitely was a Sophist. He said “man is the measure…” That’s a truism, a profundity, or a blasphemy– depending on what we think it means. On my view, whoever holds the tape measure is the measurer. That, by analogy, is what philosophy tries to be: a conceptual tape measure. The thing measured is still the objective world, and the point is still to get the measure right.
Unlike some, I do not hear Protagoras’s statement as a repudiation of objective truth. It does acknowledge the fact that humans always come with a point of view. But what else is new?

“We owe a cock to Aesculapius,” Socrates reportedly said after quaffing his hemlock. Why? Had the Greek god of healing and medicine really rendered services for which payment was due?

Unlike his mentor, Plato was an unabashed educator. He ran the Academy and did his best to teach critical thinking. Did he teach his students the parable of the cave? Does it stand up to critical scrutiny? Wouldn’t you have to know the way up and the way back (to paraphrase Heraclitus), to squeeze knowledge from the admittedly-entertaining simile?


Plato’s theory of education (in Meno) as recollection is intriguing, but also– to one whose memory is not exactly the steel trap he recalls it once to have been– worrying. I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten at least as much of my book larnin’ as I’ve retained.

Same for Plato’s isomorphic mapping of the parts of the soul onto the branches of government, in his ideal republic. Is there any good reason to identify reason with any particular segment of society? Or even with just one segment of the brain? Philosopher-kings: really? In our dreams, maybe.

Last Days of Socrates… Sophists, Socrates, Platoapologies (deB, Soc on self-confidence)… Socrates & Bill MaherSocrates off-side… David’s “Death of Socrates“… World CupEuthyphro & “my team”Bettany Hughes on Socrates… The Hemlock CupChris Phillips: Socrates in LoveSocrates CafeSix Questions of SocratesBlackburn on Plato & the cave… Ring of GygesDivided Line… Play-dough

Socrates & Bill Maher

November 12, 2010

We squeezed in Tamia’s report at the end of class yesterday. It was on Bill Maher and philosophy.

I’m not a fan. He’s bellicose, self-righteous, uncharitable, and mean-spirited.  The fact that I agree with him on many points only accentuates those character deficiencies.

But… what’s wrong with Bill Maher is not that he’s out of step with 7 out of 10 Americans on religion, or vaccination, or anything else. Being visibly unpopular in middle America is no vice. It may even signal courage and virtue. It definitely doesn’t make him either a Skeptic or a Cynic.

It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder about Maher’s philosophy, and it still doesn’t. But as Alain de Botton said of  Socrates,

he had been up at dawn for most of his life talking to Athenians; he knew how their minds worked and had seen that unfortunately they frequently didn’t… He had observed their tendency to take positions on a whim and to follow accepted opinions without questioning them… He possessed the self-belief of a rational man who understands that his enemies are liable not to be thinking properly, even if he is far from claiming that his own thoughts are invariably sound.

Maher would benefit from a larger dose of Socratic humility, for sure. But he has Socratic irony in spades. And obnoxious as he is, he understands this:

The validity of an idea or action is determined not by whether it is widely believed or widely reviled but by whether it obeys the rules of logic. It is not because an argument is denounced by a majority that it is wrong…

Or right. Real prophets and sages don’t typically score high Nielsen ratings. Nasty or nice, wrong or right, we need our gadflies. And they don’t need the approval of Fox News.

Sophists, Socrates, Plato

September 23, 2010

Reality. What a concept.

It would be misleading to say that Plato cared more about it than his predecessors. But he differed from them sharply in propounding an account according to which our everyday default condition is to be wildly out of touch with it. In the dark, until we see the brilliant light of day outside the cave of custom and ignorance.

Plato’s myth of the cave invites us to think of ourselves as cave-dwellers seeking the light. My old college prof vonS., who first introduced me and my peers to it in our benighted undergrad days back in the 70s, was sure it was the best way to think about education, never mind the metaphysics.

Another humble pedagogical metaphor he offered portrayed us as his fellow ladder-climbers, with himself just a rung or so ahead. We were all inching up Plato’s line. Taken that way, all can agree with James: “The fons et origo of reality is subjective, is ourselves,” but truth is something else again.

And speaking of loving wisdom and learning: Plato loves play-dough. Who knew?

Well, Simon Blackburn (author of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy) did. Here he is talking Plato in a podcast. And here’s the super-condensed 3-minute version of Plato.

apologies

September 21, 2010

Socrates offers deep consolation for unpopularity, says Alain de Botton.* He still serves up a powerful shot of self-confidence. The “think for yourself” theme pioneered by the pre-Socratics, not always with the most impressive results, gets his dying endorsement.

Euthyphro didn’t understand what he meant, by asking if the pious or holy (or good) is so because the gods decree it, or if they decree it just because it’s so.  I hope you do.  Think of it this way: if the ref decrees that you’re not offside, does that make it so? Even if the replay shows otherwise?

We’ll discuss, and maybe take a look at the thrilling Philosophers’ Cup final. But leave the vuvuzellas at home.

P.S. If that’s not enough comic relief for you, read Socrates’ Apology and then Woody Allen’s. But then, sober up for the most moving final scene in all of philosophy.

*


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