Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

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.

Stoic pragmatism

November 26, 2012

It’s an exciting day: John Lachs, my old mentor at Vandy, will put in a virtual appearance in CoPhi to kick off our reading of his new book Stoic PragmatismAnd Sidney McPhee, President of our school, will appear  for real in EEA [JUB 202, 2:20 pm] [works by JLwikiJL@dawn/DS]

I hope Dr. M heeds Dr. L’s  main message: “Stoic pragmatists are committed to making life better…” We can’t green the planet or save life on earth all by ourselves, but we can do a lot more than we’ve done to make life in our small corner of it better. And greener. There’s a lot we can do to exemplify sustainable forms of life.

Leading by example is what John Lachs is all about.

That’s the public Berry Lecture Lachs delivered at Vanderbilt last February, drawn from chapter three and described in this space as characteristically crisp, elegant, and insightful. “The limits of human capacity and the vagueness of the ideal make attainment of perfection impossible, yet its lure ruins our satisfaction with what is clearly excellent and therefore good enough.” He’s not calling for mediocrity or laziness, but he is calling us to pursue our happiness and our ideals with a measure of stoically-informed common sense. Our standards of excellence must be ours, and thus must be imperfect. Plato would object, but he was of course an unrealistic metaphysician. Perfection was always an illusion, in Forms and Gods alike. [“An Imperfect God,” nyt] Some Christian fundamentalists even imagine God will wreck our economy, for our own good.  Or (as Van Jones tweets) that the “end times” are nigh “and we’ll all be forced to become Muslims.” That’s definintely not good enough, I’d say.

I first met Lachs as a “green” (in this context meaning inexperienced, not environmentally attuned)  grad student back when we both were young. Long story short: his interest in the American pragmatists James and Dewey, like his general joie de vivre,  was infectious. I committed to working under his tutelage on a Dewey-centered dissertation that ultimately transmuted into a celebration of James’s philosophy (with just a side of Dewey). I gave up on my project more than once. He never did. He’s a prince, a model, an inspiration, and a continuing fount of wisdom. That’s what somebody says at amazon, anyway.

Lachs writes:

Age clarifies… the arrival of self-recognition warrants celebration… only recently [have] I managed to characterize my attitude to life as that of a stoic pragmatist… The great question we face again and again is how long to pursue our goals with all our energy and when to pack it in… pragmatists are unlikely ever to give up, while stoics may acquiesce too soon.

I’m really glad I caught Lachs in a pragmatic mood, back in grad school. I was an accidental stoic before my time, when I really needed to be engaged with discovering what I could still do, not complacently settling for what I’d already done. Thanks to his strong shot of pragmatic encouragement– I fondly recall his cheerleading emails, as I labored over the final lines of my final chapter, imploring me to “go go go!!!“– I’m where I am today, not looking to pack anything in just yet, looking for others (like President M) to encourage in turn.

And like my teacher I’m happy, in all my delighted finitude, to be here.

“Like riding a bicycle”

September 21, 2012

I was a kid at Christmas last night.

I finished afternoon office hours at the naked eye observatory (yesterday definitely qualified as one of the “pleasant” days the sign on my office door says will usually find me there, then) and hopped on the bike (I’ve been bringing it to school daily, to shorten the last leg of my commute and to prod my spontaneity) for a quick spin around campus before heading to I-24 for the less exciting ride home.

Our campus has a different feel this year, with the sprawling new Student Center and related renovations. One of those is a new bus/bike lane that now makes it easy to cycle from one end of campus to the other without dodging or nearly creaming pedestrians, and to pop into Starbucks for commuter fuel.

This day, I remembered the Rec Center’s new rent-a-bike program. I thought it was just for students, but to my delight they gave me a bike for the weekend. And a lock and basket and “stylish” helmet too.

As we keep noting in EEA, integrating cycling into our daily routines is one easy form of “activism” for the environment open to us all. “A short, four-mile round trip by bicycle keeps about 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air we breathe.” Just ride!

James Garvey, environmental ethicist and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, is on a long bike-ride: 1,000 miles across Britain. He seems to be having second thoughts, or at least concerns, about striking the correct balance between mental and physical exercise.

Plato advises a careful blend of physical exercise and cultural pursuits… Neglect the Muses, and you become a graceless brute, but without the rigours of sport, the individual “melts and liquefies till he completely dissolves away his spirit…”

But then

there’s Mill’s claim about intellectual versus physical pleasures – Bach versus back rubs — that the former are “worth more” than the latter, and those who have experienced intellectual pleasures prefer them to mere physical pleasures.

So he asks us:

Are you with Plato and Mill, or anyway the caricatures above, holding on to the idea that physical and mental pleasures are distinct, or do you think, maybe with the long-distance runner [or biker], that the two are intermingled, something not easily divisible?

This seems like an easy one: of course they’re intermingled, every bit as much as mind and body. The very terms are an abstraction. People who think they must choose between them have failed to integrate fundamental aspects of life. Mens sana in corpore sano. Get back on the bike, James. But I’d advise shorter day trips, if the intermingling ceases to please.

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.

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

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.

cave philosophy

February 8, 2010

Today’s Passion for Wisdom sections jet us from Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens past Greek and Roman Stoics and Skeptics to African animists and Meso-American Incas and Aztecs. All pose big imponderable questions: What is real? How real is experience, compared with ideas? What does “reality” mean? Where to begin?

Perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, and the messages implicit in their body language in the famous Raphael painting “School of Athens.” Plato’s gesture bespeaks his two-worlds philosophy, according to which our everyday experience is less real than “Ideas” and “Essences” (or “Forms”) in contrast with Aristotle’s more grounded view that ideas and forms are in the things at our feet.

Then there’s Plato’s cave with its image of some very strange prisoners, on his view much “like ourselves.” On Plato’s telling, Socrates was a cave-dweller who was  willling to return to the cave, to “descend to human affairs,” and was persecuted for doing it. This is an allegory about the search for wisdom, the willingness to be unpopular in its pursuit, and the dangers that befall persons who – like Socrates – personify courage and intellectual integrity. It’s a plea to tolerate and even encourage dissenting voices and different ways of thinking and living. It’s also, as noted, a symbol of Plato’s “two world” metaphysics, about which Socrates typically was agnostic.

And – in modern terms – it’s a warning to resist the allure of the cave and its reassuring but shadowy unreality. Many of our caves, and the flickering images on their walls, are warm and dry and wired. But would Plato think they were an improvement?
Aristotle might not think  much better of our pastimes, but he did not distrust the senses; he used them to observe, collect, and experiment. There is no place and no need for a theory of Forms, a theory of another world.

Stoics had an almost fanatic faith in reason.

They regarded emotions as irrational judgments  that make us frustrated and unhappy. Like Buddha they urged: minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering. 

Anger is pointless and  can only be self-destructive. Love and friendship can be dangerous.

The wise form only limited attachments. Stoics and skeptics value the feeling of at-homeness above all, and (like Buddhists?) perceive “attachment” as that feeling’s greatest threat. More on this from Simon Critchley next time.

Halfway ’round the world, while the Greeks and Romans were getting themselves memorialized in our cultural histories, reflected in our classic architecture, and inspiring generations of Vulcans et al, the Aztecs and Olmec (who seem to come up in class at every sports season transition… how ’bout ‘dem Saints!) and Navaho and other native Americans were creating their own rich– but because mainly oral, now obscure– traditions. Like their contemporaries on the African continent they became animists and sought soul and spirit everywhere. The voodoo supernaturalism of this perspective can be off-putting to a logically-minded Stoic or Skeptic, but there are other chords in the Meso-American and African worldviews that speak directly to some of our most pressing planetary concerns. We are a part of the Earth, we are dependent on it, and it is dependent on us. We have ecological responsibilities; the world around us, “nature,” is not just a resource… we are nature… nature is essentially spiritual.

Postscript: Thoreau had some thoughts about this reality stuff…

Hecht @home

February 4, 2010

Jennifer Hecht contributes a weekly post to “The Best American Poetry” blog, ranging over all kinds of topics including happiness and atheism. Take a look.

She noted recently, at the passing of People’s Historian Howard Zinn (who inspired both impassioned admiration and criticism), that he blurbed Doubt.

And check out her musings on “poetic atheism“: How strange to find our little thinking and blinking faces amid a universe that is for the most part not alive at all. Believers say,  “If this weirdness is true, why not believe angels,” but adding nonsense is not helpful.

Hecht is one of the breed of kinder, gentler atheists, like Rebecca Goldstein (of whom a reviewer writes: “Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. [She] doesn’t want to shake your faith or confirm it”).

Neither shaking nor confirming? Sounds agnostic, though it may simply be “doubtful” and pluralistic. In any case, she has a rich and largely-neglected story to tell. The New Atheists stand on the shoulders of giants. Atheism is not new.

About those Greeks…

Hecht really sheds fresh light, in Doubt: a history, on the naturalizing impulse of the pre-Socratic and Hellenic thinkers. For instance, Democritus (the beautiful regularity of the universe was neither created nor maintained by the guiding intelligence of a god), the Cynics (Diogenes‘ advice is that we stop distracting ourselves with accomplishments, accept the meaninglessness of the universe, lie down on a park bench and get some sun while we have the chance) and Stoics (feeling a part of the community of the universe) and Epicureans (there are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us… we might as well make an art of appreciating pleasure… in this beautiful moment one is alive) and Skeptics (I do not lay it down that honey is sweet but I admit that it appears to be so), with fresh slants on Socrates (among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth) and Plato (whose form of the Good has been illicitly conflated with God for two millennia).

What I like most in her section on Greek doubt (or as I prefer, Greek spirit): the forest metaphor, which offers the most timeless but (in an age of restless spiritual “cherry [*berry?]-picking”) also timely wisdom: The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest… we could stop being lost if we were to just stop trying to get out of the forest. Instead, we could pick some *blueberries, sit beneath a  tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze. The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest… Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time.

As Epicurus realized, it is accepting the finality of death that makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden. This is a very different garden than the one we got kicked out of in the Eden story. This time you have to eat from the tree of knowledge to get in.

That’s James and Sagan redux: at home in the universe, at ease with the human condition.