Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Free as Life and the Free-Formed Spirit Itself

Free as life and the free-formed spirit itself, ever new, wonderful, versatile, and infinitely varied, both in internal structure and external manifestation, are the ways of man's thinking and speculative spirit. A ready and apposite illustration will clearly demonstrate this peculiar freedom and manifold variety in the methods, species, and developments of philosophy. At any rate, if it do not place it vividly before our eyes, it at least suggests the idea of it. The written dialogues of Plato—that great master of philosophical exposition and of the thinking dialogue of science, with its ever-living and changing play of thought, and earnest spirit of investigation—are perhaps not less diversified in their course; not less wonderfully manifold and exuberant with all the riches of genius; not less peculiar in their general conception, as well as external development; not less exquisite in the finish of the several parts and divisions, than the poetical productions of the greatest and most admired of dramatists.

Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophy of Language (p. 343).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another Poem Draft

The Ocean's Daughter

When the moonlight comes,
it dances on water,
forms a path of light
silver and fair
that leads the way
to the Ocean's daughter;
a net of stars
shines in her hair.
The night is dark,
but her eyes are deeper
than all the expanse
of heaven above.
She holds my heart,
for she is its keeper,
and the ocean's waves
spread from her with love.


Theaetetus ended with an agreement to come back the next day in order to discuss the matter further. This is done in Sophist and Statesman, the latter picking up right where the former leaves off. Since Theaetetus was very clear about occurring the day Socrates was indicted, these two discussions, despite continuing the prior discussion, occur under very different circumstances: Socrates has now been indicted and is heading for his trial. The indictment is never directly mentioned in these dialogues, so it is difficult to determine exactly what the implications of this is, but the point was made so clear in the prior dialogue, there must be some significance. Perhaps this is why Socrates is relatively quiet, taking a backseat in the discussion? It has also been suggested that, as Euthyphro and Cratylus before the indictment dealt with the general question of impiety, so this one looks, albeit indirectly, at the specific charge of corrupting the youth.

The authenticity of this and the next dialogue have usually not been questioned, because stylistically they are very closely linked with Laws, Timaeus, and Critias, and there are fairly good reasons for thinking those authentic, especially the Laws. In addition there are statements in Aristotle that seem to be references to the Sophist, although they could also be read other ways (e.g., as claiming that Plato himself made a statement about sophists). Content-wise, however, people have often been uncomfortable with the Sophist and the Statesman, because they are so very different from what one would expect of Plato. As I've said many times before, this in itself means nothing -- all the dialogues do something you wouldn't expect simply from the other dialogues -- but it is true that these dialogues give us something rather different from most other dialogues. Because of this, questions about their inauthenticity occasionally reappear. It has even been argued that they are really by Aristotle, in part because they match up fairly well with comments Aristotle himself makes about his own philosophical dialogues in the Politics. Nice as it would be to discover that two of Aristotle's missing philosophical dialogues were actually hiding in plain sight all this time, I find the arguments to this end rather tenuous, and I take it that Plato scholars do, as well.

You can read the Sophist online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource. Mary Louis Gill has an interesting article on Method and Metaphysics in Plato's Sophist and Statesman at the SEP.

The Characters

The dialogue has the same characters as Theaetetus (Socrates, Theodorus, Theaetetus, Socrates the Younger) and one addition, the Eleatic Stranger (xenos), about whom, of course, we know only that he is a stranger from Elea and that he studied with Parmenides and Zeno.

The Plot

Theodorus opens the dialogue by telling Socrates that they've come back and brought a visitor from Elea, who is "very much a philosopher" (216a). Socrates remarks that in Homer visitors are sometimes gods in disguise, and the visitor might well be "a god of refutation to keep watch on us and show how bad we are at speaking--and refute us" (216b). Theodorus replies that it isn't the visitor's style and he is only divine in the way all philosophers are. Socrates says in return that philosophers are probably no easier to distinguish from other men than gods are:

Sometimes they take on the appearance of statesman, and sometimes of sophists. Sometimes, too, they might give the impression that they're completely insane. (216c-d)

He asks the Stranger whether they distinguish sophists, statesmen, and philosophers. The Stranger replies that they do, but it isn't easy to do so. They settle on the Stranger teaching the topic by question and answer with the young men, and Theaetetus agrees. They begin the discussion, first giving a practice run with angling before going on to sophistry.

The Thought

The Stranger makes use of division, but not a strict one, since he allows one thing to fall under different branches of a division, a point which will be essential to the attempt to pin down what a sophist is, who seems to practice both a productive and an acquisitive skill (techne). This shows why the sophist is so hard to define: he is found under different guises or appearances. The Stranger will identify five different guises under which the sophist appears (231d-e):

1. Hired hunter of rich young men.

2. Wholesaler of learning about the soul.

3. Retailer of learning about the soul.

4. Seller of his own learning.

5. Athlete in verbal combat and debate.

In addition, a sixth is mentioned and put into doubt, but is added for the sake of discussion:

6. One who cleanses the soul of beliefs interfering with learning.

None of these guises is actually put forward as a definition. Rather, the Stranger is weaving a net of descriptions (235b) to hunt down the sophist by hemming him in from several different sides. They then discuss the way in which the sophist is an imitator, since the sophist could not possibly know everything he purports to teach; he is a copy-maker, but someone who produces false copies. But this raises the question of falsity, and how anyone can speak falsely at all; a question that the Stranger answers by arguing against Parmenides. This is necessary, because the fundamental principle of Parmenidean metaphysis is 'that which is, is, and that which is not, is not'; but the sophist uses an interweaving of that which is and that which is not to mix the two. In order to capture the sophist, we need to have a proper account of falsehood, one that Parmenides cannot provide.

When we look at accounts of that which is and that which is not, we find "something like a battle of gods and giants" (246a). One side insists that being must be given an account entirely in terms of what can be sensed, what is bodily; the other insists that certain noncorporeal forms can be thought of and that these alone truly are. But, the Stranger says, neither side can be right if philosophy is to exist at all:

The philosopher--the person who values these things the most--absolutely has to refuse to accept the claim that everything is at rest, either from defenders of the one or from friends of the many forms. In addition he has to refuse to listen to people who say that that which is changes in every way. He has to be like a child begging for "both," and say that that which is--everything--is both the changing and the unchanging (249c-d)

This requires dialectic, the process of being able to make distinctions; and making distinctions requires attention to the five forms of being: change, rest, same, different, and that which is. This leads the Stranger to argue that 'that which is not' in some way is -- it is not inconsistent with that which is but something different. Thus, for instance, to distinguish the beautiful from the non-beautiful is really to set being over against being. Negation always presupposes being. This allows one to give an account of the sophists, who deal with mere copies, appearances.

And the dialogue ends with the Stranger's definition of sophistry, and Theaetetus' agreement with it:

Imitation of the contrary-speech-producing, insincere and unknowing sort, of the appearance-making kind of copy-making the word-juggling part of production that's marked off as human and not divine. (268c)

That is, the sophist is a producer of mere appearances on the basis of mere opinion, using words to force people to contradict themselves.

  Additional Remarks

* The trilogy of dialogues has a theme of appearances and copies and imitations, and that extends even to the characters: Theaetetus is like Socrates in appearance; Socrates the Younger, who will speak in the next dialogue and is said in this one to be Theaetetus' substitute or stand-in, shares Socrates' name but is not Socrates; the sophist seems to be like a philosopher but is not; Socrates seems to be like a sophist and yet is not; and so forth.

* The Stranger's being from Elea is of course significant. Theaetetus had laid out the opposition between the fluent philosophers, represented by Heraclitus, and the steadfast philosophers, represented by Parmenides; it then criticized the former and sophists like Protagoras as being of the same family. Cratylus continued the criticism of the fluent philosophers by examining implicit assumptions of Greek culture (as represented in Greek language and literature) that were allied to the fluent philosophy. With the Eleatic Stranger we get an examination of the other side of the opposition. (It is notable that there seems to be a direct reference at 216c to Socrates' own discussion with Parmenides in Parmenides.) Elea, a Greek colony in Italy, was the home of the two major Eleatic philosophers, Parmenides and Zeno, so he is, so to speak, in the know when it comes to their philosophy -- Theodorus introduces him as a follower of them, and he quotes Parmenides' poem-treatise -- and can thus serve as an informed critic of their position.

The crux of the criticism of the Parmenidean position, interestingly, is its inability to account for the sophists, and thus its inability to demarcate dangerous sophists from beneficial philosophers; an important matter as we approach Socrates' trial.

* The Stranger's account of how they will proceed at 218b-c fits very well with what the Cratylus suggested would be required:

But with me I think you need to begin the investigation from the sophist--by searching for him and giving a clear account[logou] of what he is. Now in this case you and I only have the name in common, and maybe we've each used it for a different thing. In every case, though, we always need to be in agreement abut the thing itself by means of a verbal explanation [dia logon], rather than doing without any such explanation [choris logou] and merely agreeing about the name.

However, this could also suggest the last part of Theaetetus, about how true judgment with logos is not knowledge; it at least raises the question whether we will get anything from the Stranger beyond true judgment with logos.

* The description of the sixth guise is worth noting, since it sounds remarkably like Socrates (230b-d):

They cross-examine someone when he thinks he's saying something though he's saying nothing. Then, since his opinions will vary inconsistently, these people will easily scrutinize them. They collect his opinions together during the discussion, put them side by side, and show that they conflict with each other at the same time on the same subjects in relation to the same things and in the same respects. The people who are being examined see this, get angry at themselves, and become calmer toward others. They lose their inflated and rigid beliefs about themselves that way, and no loss is pleasanter to hear or has a more lasting effect on them. Doctors who work on the body think it can't benefit from any food that's people who cleanse the soul, my young friend, likewise think the soul, too, won't get any advantage from any learning that's offered to it until someone shames it by refuting it, removes the opinions that interfere with learning, and exhibits it cleansed, believing it knows only those things that it does know, and nothing more.

This should be compared with Socrates' comments to Theaetetus at the very end of Theaetetus.

* There is no consensus on how the overall dialogue should be interpreted, in part because Socrates is quiet for most of the discussion. Some commentators see the Stranger and Socrates as being in fundamental agreement: Socrates 'noble sophistry' contrasts with sophistry in the proper sense. Others see the final definition of the sophist as an implicit attack on Socrates, an attack continued in the Statesman. One example of the latter is Catherine Zuckert in Plato's Philosophers:

If the Eleatic is an exemplar of the dialectical science and thus of philosophy, as he suggests, then in his judgment Socrates cannot be a philosopher, even though the Eleatic is too urbane to say so explicitly. He contents himself with intimating that Socrates is a sophist who imitates a knower by refuting his interlocutors in private conversations, even though he himself is perfectly and ironically aware that he does not know. (p. 706)

If this is true, the Eleatic Stranger is setting up a set of challenges to which Socrates must respond at his trial and in his final days: to show that he is a philosopher and not a sophist.


Quotations from Sophist are from Nicholas P. White's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 235-293.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Her Winds Have Thundered from of Old

The Unnamed Lake
by Frederick George Scott

It sleeps among the thousand hills
Where no man ever trod,
And only nature's music fills
The silences of God.

Great mountains tower above its shore,
Green rushes fringe its brim,
And over its breast for evermore
The wanton breezes skim.

Dark clouds that intercept the sun
Go there in Spring to weep,
And there, when Autumn days are done.
White mists lie down to sleep.

Sunrise and sunset crown with gold
The pinks of ageless stone,
Her winds have thundered from of old -
And storms have set their throne.

No echoes of the world afar
Disturb it night or day,
The sun and shadow, moon and star
Pass and repass for aye.

'Twas in the grey of early dawn,
When first the lake we spied,
And fragments of a cloud were drawn
Half down the mountain side.

Along the shore a heron flew,
And from a speck on high,
That hovered in the deepening blue,
We heard the fish-hawk's cry.

Among the cloud-capt solitudes,
No sound the silence broke,
Save when, in whispers down the woods,
The guardian mountains spoke.

Through tangled brush and dewy brake,
Returning whence we came,
We passed in silence, and the lake
We left without a name.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Fortnightly Book, July 20

The next fortnightly book is Eugenia Price, The Beloved Invader.

Price was a notable radio scriptwriter; she had a major conversion in 1949 and as a result started writing for Unschackled! I hadn't realized that before I looked up additional background on Price, because I had very little prior knowledge of her, but it caught my eye: Unschackled! is the longest-running series in the history of radio, and the only series from the Golden Age of Radio that is still going -- it has been coming out with a new episode every week since 1950. It is also quite old-school; sound effects are an organ and voice effects, and the production is low-budget. It focuses on conversion stories, and thus is somewhat formulaic, but some of the stories are interesting, dealing with war, love, drugs, and the entire panoply of human failings, as conversion stories tend to do. In any case, Price used her work there as a beginning for a new career as an inspirational writer.

The Beloved Invader, however, is from the third phase of her writing career, and the one that made her most famous. She was returning home once from a bookseller's convention with a friend, Joyce Blackburn; they were driving along a state highway in Georgia and had some extra time, so they decided to explore a little, and visit a small island, St. Simons, noted on their map. And that, too, was a conversion of a sort: she fell in love with the place, its beauty and its history. She had already been thinking about trying her hand at a historical novel that would have more in common with biography than historical novels usually do, and as she wandered around the island, she came upon a cemetery, and, coming across the graves of Anson Dodge and his family, wondered if there was a story behind them. She came back again to research it -- and came back again -- and finally moved there.

This book, telling the tale of Reverend Anson Dodge, is the first and third novel in the St. Simons trilogy -- it was the first published, but as successive books explored backstory, it is the third in the chronology of the works. It was extraordinarily successful. I don't have the others, but we'll see how this one goes.

Eugenia Price is still there on St. Simons Island; in love with the place until the end, she died at age 79 in 1996 and was buried in the church there.


Cratylus is not usually placed among the Last Days dialogues; but there is an argument for its being there. The dispute over this has become a major dispute, which I can only summarize briefly here.

The dialogue does not give itself a clear dramatic date. However, it does mention Euthyphro the diviner. In fact, it mentions him four times. And among these mentions, at 396d, Hermogenes remarks that Socrates seems like a prophet (mantis) who has suddenly been inspired, and Socrates responds that he had been talking in the very early morning with Euthyphro, "lending an ear to his lengthy discussion" and been inspired by his superhuman wisdom. This occurs just after a discussion of Ouranos, Chronos, and Zeus, who were explicitly mentioned in the Euthyphro. Against this, many people argue that it's not possible for Socrates to have had the discussions in Theaetetus, Euthyphro, and Cratylus all in a single morning. Debra Nails has even more subtle prosopographical arguments against it.

However, I am convinced that it should be seen as a Last Days dialogue, and for a reason I have not seen anyone else give: the dialogue not only has the obvious apparent links to Euthyphro, it has obvious content links with Theaetetus, down to making some of the same points. In both dialogues, the issue of Protagoras & Heraclitus comes up as a crucial problem, and Protagoras and Heraclitus are named explicitly. And especially compare these two passages, first from Theaetetus:

This problem now, we have inherited it, have we not, from the ancients? They used poetical forms which concealed from the majority of men their real meaning, namely, that Ocean and Tethys, the origin of all things, are actually flowing streams, and nothing stands still. In more modern times, the problem is presented to us by men who, being more accomplished in these matters, plainly demonstrate their meaning so that even shoemakers may hear and assimilate their wisdom, and give up the silly idea that some things in this world stand still while others move, learn that all things ar ein motion, and recognize the greatness of their instructors. (180c-d)

then from Cratylus:

Most of our wise men nowadays get so dizzy going around and around in their search for the nature of the things that are, that the things themselves appear to them to be turning around and moving every which way. Well, I think that the people who gave things their names in very ancient times are exactly like these wise men. They don't blame this on their own internal condition, however, but on the nature of the things themselves, which they think are never stable or steadfast, but flowing and moving, full of every sort of motion and constant coming into being. (411b-c)

Earlier in Cratylus, Socrates had used Ocean and Tethys as one of his examples that Heraclitus was saying the same thing as Homer. When one adds to this clear confluence of ideas the references to Euthyphro's inspiration, the comments about the pious son of an impious father (394e) and the gods (400d-401a), various small similarities between Cratylus on the correctness of names and Euthyphro on piety, the direct introduction of Protagoras and Heraclitus, and various smaller things reminiscent of Theaetetus like the reference to geometry (436d; cp Theaetetus 180c) and the topic of knowledge (440a-b), then it seems that we are getting too many apparent links for none of them to be actual.

In any case, we will be reading it as a Last Days dialogue.

You can read Cratylus in English at the Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Hermogenes had a rich father, Hipponicus, and a rich brother, Callias, but was himself not wealthy, possibly because he was illegitimate, although Plato seems to suggest that he may have been unjustly deprived by Callias. He was Xenophon's source for Socrates' last days, and Plato makes him one of the students around Socrates in Phaedo.

According to a brief comment by Aristotle, Plato studied under Cratylus before he studied under Socrates; other than that, almost all that we know about Cratylus is in this dialogue. There is a story, however, that eventually Cratylus came to the conclusion that the only way to communicate anything was to point to it.


The Plot and The Thought

Hermogenes opens the dialogue by asking Cratylus whether they should have Socrates join their conversation, and Cratylus permits it. We then discover that there are two opposing positions on the table.

(1) Cratylus holds that there is an intrinsic correctness of names, independent of convention.
(2) Hermogenes, on the other hand, holds that names are purely a matter of convention so that there is no correctness of names.

Socrates will argue that there are insuperable problems with both of these. of course, there is a position that is neither of these: naming involves convention or custom but there is a correctness associated with it, and in fact this is what Socrates will end up arguing -- more precisely, he will argue that if names are for instruction, they must involve convention but also be subject to standards of correctness based on knowledge of things to which they apply.

In response to Hermogenes, Socrates asks if he accepts the Protagorean idea that man is the measure of all things. There is no non-arbitrary distinction between private and public conventions in a matter like naming, so Hermogenes's position seems to come to something like it. Hermogenes doesn't accept Protagoras's position, however, although he has difficulty not falling into it. He agrees with Socrates that we use names as instruments in order to "divide things according to their natures" (388b). On the basis of this Socrates argues that names require a nomothetes, which could be translated as 'lawmaker' or as 'custom-maker', and that the custom-maker must be supervised by the dialectician, since it is the dialectician who actually divides things according to their natures. They discuss a large number of names -- Socrates claims to have inspiration derived from Euthyphro -- and in the course of this Socrates remarks that the names seem to suggest the idea of Heraclitus and many modern thinkers that everything is constantly in flux. Socrates after this turns to a discussion with Cratylus -- who is, in fact, a Heraclitean.

Cratylus also agrees with Socrates that names are for instruction, and Socrates shows that this causes problems for the Heraclitean view, since it seems that if names are able to communicate there must be something not constantly flowing. Exactly how this works is not explored here, but Socrates gives us a good idea of what he has in mind:

But if there are always that which knows and that which is known, if there are such things as the beautiful, the good, and each one of the things that are, it doesn't appear to me that these things can be at all like flowings or motions, as we were saying just now they were. (440b)

Socrates remarks that Cratylus must investigate these matters very carefully. Cratylus promises he will, but says he has already given a lot of thought to these matters and is sure that Heraclitus is more or less right. Socrates seems to regard this as a reason to end the discussion, and tells Cratylus to tell him all about it when he gets back from his trip, and Cratylus ends the dialogue by saying that he will, but he hopes Socrates keeps thinking about these things, too.


* In the dramatic timeline, the next dialogues are Sophist and Statesman, in which a dialectician, the Eleatic Stranger, shows how to divide things in an attempt to get names to express natures correctly, the need for which is expressly argued in this dialogue. So if we take Cratylus to be a Last Days dialogue, it directly contributes to the sequence of thought that begins with Theaetetus. In addition, the dialogue can be seen as explaining the problem with the charge against Socrates, impiety: as we saw in Euthyphro, there is good reason to think that the Athenians -- as represented by Euthyphro and Meletus -- are not holding themselves to standards of correctness in names like 'piety' and 'impiety'. The reason, or at least a diagnosis, for this is given in this dialogue, as well, and links the dialogue to Theaetetus: the subjectivism of sophistry (as represented by Protagoras) and excessive focus on the flowing sensible rather than the stable intelligible (as represented by Heraclitus) is interfering with the knowledge required for correctness in naming (and thus in teaching, for which naming is an instrument).

* This dialogue has several puns on Hermogenes's name. 'Hermogenes' literally means 'son of Hermes'. Hermes is the god of profits, so the fact that Hermogenes is unsuccessful in monetary ventures is a reason why Cratylus might say he is poorly named. Hermes is the god of matters dealing with speech, and so this is also perhaps a reason why he is poorly named, since he is not good with speeches. But Hermes is the Psychopomp, Hermes Pompaios, and Socrates' last statement to Cratylus is that Hermogenes will go with (propempsei) Cratylus, a related term, so the dialogue ends happily with a joke that Hermogenes is appropriately named after all.

* Philosophers over the past century have tended to regard Cratylus as a baffling and mostly useless dialogue, which I think establishes conclusively that philosophers over the past century have been lacking in self-awareness. Of all Plato's dialogues, this one is the one that most directly touches on the kinds of philosophical issues that became central to philosophy in the twentieth century. On the 'analytic' side, the 'linguistic turn' was precisely motivated by the general kind of idea for which Socrates argues here: when it comes to conveying ideas, there is a standard of correctness by which one corrects error and misunderstanding. What is more, analytic philosophers have always struggled with the problems that arise in both engaging in this kind of dialectical activity of correcting names and also being inclined or tempted to Hermogenes's position that language is purely conventional. On the 'phenomenological' side, Heidegger can be seen as accepting the general kind of idea for which Socrates argues here, as well; but this side of twentieth century had the difficulty of being already inclined and thus at times tempted to a modern form of Cratylus's position, namely, that the understanding conveyed in language is rooted in temporal flow. This characterization, of course, is a crude representation; but one will find that it nonetheless goes quite far even without refinement.

* The perceptive reader will, I think, notice that this dialogue is in essence arguing for the viability of real classification, since that is effectively how all three participants in the dialogue are understanding naming. If you want a good way to see why the argument here is not merely some weird discussion of etymologies, think about scientific taxonomy, such as was done by Lavoisier or Linnaeus and was discussed by William Whewell. Whewell's eighth aphorism on scientific terminology conveys exactly the sort of correctness of names at issue in this dialogue:

Terms must be constructed and appropriated so as to be fitted to enunciate clearly and simply true propositions.

Scientific classification is a form of naming. It is not merely conventional, because it is held to standards of correctness; it does not naively follow the assumptions of ordinary language but is dialectically examined and corrected. Scientific classification, in other words, presupposes exactly the points made by Socrates in this dialogue.

* The main stumblingblock most modern readers have in their reading of the dialogue, of course, is the very, very long discussion of etymologies. But it's important to note that there is more going on in this discussion than just fanciful (and, note, Socrates himself flags its fancifulness at several points) playing around with syllables. In the course of doing thi, Socrates also incidentally does several other things. (1) He shows, rather than simply argues, that the correctness of names cannot be a matter of mere syllables but must somehow be a matter of understanding the natures of things themselves. (2) He prepares the discussion for the worries about Heraclitus that will come about later, by repeatedly introducing the assumption that all things flow, and in so doing also anticipates the discussion he will have with Cratylus. (3) He shows, regardless of the correctness of the etymologies, that both Hermogenes and Cratylus are wrong, since exploration of names requires attention to those things to which names are applied (pace Hermogenes) and yet also implies the need for critical care (by what amounts to a reductio by anticipation of Cratylus).

* Since we are reading this as a Last Days dialogue, the following passage in the discussion of Hades seems particularly relevant:

The words Hades knows how to speak are so beautiful, it seems, that everyone--even the Sirens--has been overcome by his enchantments. On this account, therefore, this god is a perfect sophist, and a great benefactor to those who are with him. So great is the wealth that surrounds him there below, he got the name 'Pluto'. On the other hand, because he is unwilling to associate with human beings while they have their bodies, but converses with them only when their souls are purified of all the desires and evils of the body, doesn't he seem to you to be a philosopher? For hasn't he well understood that when people are free of their bodies he can bind them with the desire for virtue, but that while they feel the agitation and madness of the body not even the famous shackles of his father Cronus could keep them with him? (403d-404a)


Quotation from Theaetetus is from Myles Burnyeat's revision of M. J. Levett's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 157-234.

Quotations from Cratylus are from C. D. C. Reeve's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 101-156.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Beowulf; and J. R. R. Tolkien, "Sellic Spell"


Opening Passage: From Beowulf:

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute -- a good king was he! (p. 13)

From "Sellic Spell":

Once upon a time there was a King in the North of the world who had an only daughter, and in his house there was a young lad who was not like the others. One day some huntsmen had come upon a great bear in the mountains. They tracked him to his lair and killed him, and in his den they found a man-child. They marvelled much, for it was a fine child, about three years old, and in good health, but it could speak no words. It seemed to the huntsmen that it must have been fostered by the bears, for it growled like a cub. (p. 360)

Summary: If we ask what Beowulf is about, it is easy to focus on the most vivid scenes, on, for instance, Beowulf and Grendel. But if we do that, it is difficult to grasp a unified thread in the story. I think that the poet, however, has told us what Beowulf is about in his very first sentence: Danish kings. This is a poem about kingship: about its nobility, its glory, its sorrows, its responsibilities, its demands. Beowulf is in this sense not so much the main character as the representative character. And once one realizes this, one discovers that the poem goes out of its way to make this clear. We begin not with Beowulf himself but with Danish kings, and slowly focus in on Hrothgar, a wise king with a seemingly insoluble problem. Only then do we find Beowulf. Slowly we learn about him, as the poet builds up the picture of a king-in-making -- and Hrothgar himself at one point highlights it, and gives advice on kingship. Then Beowulf becomes king, and eventually dies a kingly death and is given a kingly burial.

Even the monsters Beowulf fights reflect on this theme. Grendel and his mother, scions of wandering Cain, the most monstrous summation of what it is to be an outlaw, are as it were the negative counterparts of Beowulf-as-champion, Beowulf as having the potential of kingship, and Beowulf in fighting them returns the land to law and order. The dragon, on the other hand, is the negative counterpart of Beowulf-as-king. We tend to think of hoarding treasure as just a sort of random thing dragons do; but in this tale, hoarding is what a dragon is. A dragon is an ungenerous king. He hoards without giving benefit; he hoards in such a way that if he cannot have his treasure, he will guarantee that no one has it; his hoarding is so great that in return for the theft of a drinking cup he will destroy an entire kingdom. But the purpose of a king is not to hoard, but to give; generosity is the heart of kingship.

It is a stable characteristic of this Anglo-Saxon ideal, and shared by all Nordic storytelling, that greatness, and virtue, and nobility are all taken to be not abstractions but highly concrete and material. The poet endlessly talks about material wealth -- gold, treasures, rings, swords, cups, plates, gilded benches in golden halls. It is the language in which he speaks of kingship, of heroism, of excellence. To be great is to be worthy of gold and silver and fine things. But while it is a very material view, it is not a very materialistic view, because none of this wealth is seen as a private thing. One's possession of wealth, unless one is a thief, arises from the good one does to the whole people. One's excellence as a champion is not winning wealth for oneself but for all. One's glory as a king is pouring forth treasure to those who merit it. We see this in Beowulf's death. He asks to see the dragon's treasure, all the fine wealth he has won, to ease his death; but it is not the gold itself that matters to him. He thanks God for the treasure and commands, as his last command, that it be used for the needs of the people. That seems fitting enough to us; but we, I think, have difficulty seeing it for what it really is. This is not some extraordinary fit of generosity, but the practical work of the king, the ordinary, everyday, mundane, almost pedestrian activity of a sovereign ruler. What is notable is not that this is above and beyond the call of duty; it is that Beowulf does his duty as king to the very end. And after his end, his people express their devotion to him in the same material way -- but, again, their material expression of respect for a true king is infinitely removed from anything materialistic.

Tolkien's translation is very good, but reading a number of reviews of it, I can see that people don't grasp the point of it. It was not made to present the story of Beowulf, or to give a poetic representation analogous to its original; it was made to assist in understanding the original poem, designed to draw out things that could otherwise be easily overlooked. It is an instrument serving an end beyond itself. As such it is rather different from almost any other translation available. It thus fits very well with the extensive commentary from Tolkien's lectures on Beowulf and also the short story, "Sellic Spell".

"Sellic Spell" is worth reading on its own; he presents a Beowulfian fairy tale or folk-story. But it, too, was an instrument, something written with a purpose beyond itself: by means of it, Tolkien provides a contrast by which certain features of Beowulf can be better understood. The poem is an intersection of fairy tale and historical legend, and "Sellic Spell" is Tolkien's attempt to draw out, in a coherent way, something like the purely fairy tale aspect of it, to show what kind of thing you might get if you looked beyond the historic/heroic aspect of the tale to the folktale-structures that were adapted to historical events (or to which historical tales were adapted). It holds up well enough on its own -- it deserves to take its place among classic fairy tales -- but it, too, is an instrument for understanding Beowulf.

Thus both the translation and the fairy tale adaptation foil attempts to stop at themselves. They interfere with the temptation to think that in reading a translation, or an adaptation, we in some sense have the original. They point beyond themselves, and by the very way they work, by their very purpose, they insist that you look beyond them, and see the wonder of Beowulf itself, even if you do so in the translation, or the adaptation, as in mirror darkly.

Favorite Passage:

Then was the keeper of the barrow swollen with wrath, purposing, fell beast, with fire to avenge his precious drinking-vessel. Now was the day faded to the serpent's joy. No longer would he tarry on the mountain-side, but went blazing forth, sped with fire. Terrible for the people in that land was the beginning (of that war), even as swift and bitter came its end upon their lord and patron. Now the invader did begin to spew forth glowing fires and set ablaze the shining halls -- the light of the burning leapt forth to the woe of the men. No creature there did that fell winger of the air purpose to leave alive. Wide might it be seen how the serpent went to war, the malice of that fall oppressor, from near and far be seen how that destroyer in battle pursued and humbled the people of the Geats. Back to his Hoard he sped to his dark hall ere the time of day. He had wrapped the dwellers in the land in flame, in fire and burning; he trusted in his barrow, in its wall and his own warlike might, and his trust cheated him. (pp. 80-81)

Recommendation: Highly recommended all, Beowulf and Tolkien's translation of it and "Sellic Spell"; but it is important to remember that the latter two aren't intended to stand on their own, but to contribute to the understanding of how the original works.

Two New Poem Drafts


Long with razored edge the Light of Battle
gleams in flawless line and glints with stars;
he bears it on his breast, his hands upon it,
unsheathed, the proudest sword, of biting steel.
Now rest where legends dream, O blade,
and glow with sunlike flame upon this night,
when mighty war-maids lift on glory's threads
the soul of fallen slain, and hero make;
then guide the barge below the salted wave
and mark a hero's grave with memory.

Queen of Martyrs

O Queen of martyrs, fortitude
upon your brow has wreathed its light
in tears, in ache, in solitude,
in prayers whispered in the night;
the sword has pierced your heart, your soul,
your spirit flawless flees in sigh:
each nail, the spear, they take their toll
as on the Cross your glory dies.

O Queen of heaven, pray for me,
that with your heart my heart should hold
in life, in truth, in charity,
your strength, through prayer, pure and bold.
Who will not die for virtue's sake,
who will not suffer for the good,
has failed; and none to heaven wake
save those with hearts on Cross of wood.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Except for in the nineteenth century, no one has proposed that Euthyphro is anything other than Plato's; and even then, very few did, and the case for its inauthenticity was never regarded as very strong. Schleiermacher famously had a very low opinion of the dialogue -- no progression of ideas, limited object. He only accepted it as authentic on the bare ground that it actually fit very well into his account of the development of Plato's ideas. I think it's safe to say that this view is not generally accepted; the dialogue is more often regarded as an elegant dialogue with something important to say -- although I'm not sure that people who regard it this way usually do so with an interpretation that makes it any less simplistic than Schleiermacher thought it. There is more to this little dialogue, I think, than has yet been uncovered.

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

The Characters

Pretty much everything we know about Euthyphro comes from this dialogue (he is also mentioned in Cratylus, but the mentions don't obviously add anything to what we learn here). He is a mantis, which might variously be translated as a diviner, seer, soothsayer, or prophet.


The Plot

The archon basilieus, or king archon, was in Socrates' day a yearly position, primarily concerned with organizing religious rites. He oversaw certain serious cases involving impiety. Anyone could bring a charge before the court of the king archon, who would then determine whether the suit were legally proper, and schedule an anakrisis (literally, interrogation) as a preliminary hearing. At the end, formal charges would be drawn up, and a trial (krisis) scheduled. The dialogue opens at the Stoa Basileus, or porch of the king archon, as Socrates is going to the anakrisis for Meletus's charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.

Euthyphro opens the dialogue by expressing surprise at finding Socrates at the stoa of the archon basileus. Socrates explains that he is here because Meletus laid an indictment against him. Euthyphro doesn't know who Meletus is. Socrates says that he thinks Meletus must be wise, since he knows how the youth are corrupted, and he is the only politician beginning in the right way, since he cares for the youth of the city in order to make them good. If he carries on as he has begun, he will greatly benefit the city. Euthyphro replies that it seems to him that Meletus has instead begun by injuring the city, and asks in what way Meletus claims Socrates corrupts the youth. Socrates replies that he claims that Socrates makes new gods and does not worship the old ones.

Euthyphro responds that it is because of Socrates' daimonion, and sympathizes since he has had people laugh at him for talking about divine things and foretelling the future in the Assembly, saying that one must fight them closely. Socrates says that if it were only laughter, this would be insignificant; but he fears that they are in earnest. Euthyphro says that perhaps Socrates will be as successful as Euthyphro thinks he will in his own. This gets them talking about Euthyphro's case, in which he is prosecuting his father for impiety, and Socrates is surprised, since prosecuting one's own father would ordinarily be considered impious. They then discuss the nature of the pious (hosios) and the impious (anosios). Euthyphro's proposals turn out to have problems, so that they end up circling around, and Socrates says that they must keep going until it's sorted out. But Euthyphro says he has to go, and Socrates ends with the comment:

What a thing to do, my friend! By going you have cast me down from a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus' indictment by showing him that I had acquired wisdom in divine matters from Euthyphro, and my ignorance would no longer cause me to be careless and inventive about such things, and that I would be better for the rest of my life. (15e-16a)

  General Comments on the Plot

It is worth noting that while Euthyphro is prosecuting, and Socrates defending, impiety charges, the charges in each case would have been very different. Euthyphro's charge against his father is an oral charge, for private crimes, and (as Socrates notes to him) usually only allowed for relatives of the victim; the charge Socrates is facing is a written charge, suggesting that the offense is against the city itself, and as such could be brought by any citizen. Murder was a religious crime; a fact often forgotten when people discuss what the dialogue says about impiety.

Euthyphro's case is remarkably complicated. His family had a farm at Naxos. The island of Naxos was conquered territory (it had been crushed by Athens for trying to leave the Delian League), and one way in which the Athenians handled conquered territory was to portion out land grants from the territory to Athenian citizens to colonize it (in exchange, the territory's tribute to Athens was reduced); this made the territory what was called a 'cleruchy'. The cleruchy at Naxos ended in 404, at least five years earlier, so the crime Euthyphro is prosecuting is already five years old. A drunken laborer killed a house slave; Euthyphro's father bound the murderer and put him in a ditch, then sent to Athens for information on how to handle the situation. However, the laborer in the ditch, not given any amenities, died before any message came back from Athens. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for murdering the laborer. One puzzle presents itself immediately: the advice Euthyphro's father needed was religious advice; so why didn't he get it from Euthyphro? He might not have been the right kind of authority -- Euthyphro's father sent for the advice of an exegete, which as far as we can tell would have been someone specializing in religious law, and there's no indication that Euthyphro had that kind of expertise. The fact that Euthyphro must have spent a good part of his life at Naxos, however, explains why he can both be an Athenian citizen (he has spoken in the Athenian assembly) and why Socrates always speaks of 'the Athenians' as if Euthyphro weren't one of them.

Euthyphro clearly knows Socrates well; he recognizes Socrates on sight, knows that he spends much of his time at the Lyceum, and knows that Socrates claims to have a divine sign, his daemon or daimonion. Euthyphro also regards this divine sign as indicating a common ground with Socrates: in his mind, Socrates and he are alike. This is not unreasonable, nor does this appear to be (as some commentators seem to suggest) a bit of irony: both Plato (Apology 40a, Phaedrus 242b-c) and Xenophon (Memorabilia 1.1.3) treat Socrates' divine sign as equivalent to divination or the work of a mantis, although it is mantic in a peculiar way (it is worth also remembering that Plato depicts Socrates as having premonitory dreams and both Plato and Xenophon take Socrates to be supported by the oracle at Delphi). When we are introduced to Euthyphro as a mantis, it is absolutely essential to not to read back modern ideas of quackery or superstition into this; ancient Greeks often took omens very seriously in political and military matters (cp. Nicias in Laches), and manteis had a generally respected role in their society, although there is certainly evidence that not everyone gave them the same credit (e.g., Laches in Laches). Why then do people laugh at Euthyphro? Perhaps a comment by Thucydides (History 8.1.1) might indicate it; he notes that after the Syracusan disaster, the Athenians became angry at interpreters of oracles and manteis, whom they blamed for misleading them as to the viability of the expedition. The intervening fifteen years were not especially shining for Athens, and there's some reason to think that the reputation of diviners recovered only very slowly after that (although it did recover).

I find that Euthyphro is often treated as if he were either stern and close-minded or fanatical; but there is no indication at all in the dialogue of either. He is very sympathetic to Socrates -- perhaps this is partly politeness, but there is no question that he expresses clear sympathy and support for Socrates. He even seems to joke around with Socrates at one point (when talking about Daedelus). He does hurry away at the end, but we do not actually know the reason why. It could be, as usually assumed, that he was annoyed or angry; but since he quite clearly hadn't been originally planning to have an extended philosophical discussion on the nature of piety as he went about his business, it could equally well be anything else. (It's worth pointing out as well something that occasionally gets noted by commentators: given that Euthyphro's motive for the suit seems to be to purify himself from ritual pollution, we can't even be sure that Euthyphro expected or even wanted his father to be convicted, since from his perspective simply bringing the matter to the notice of the proper court may be enough.)

The Thought

Part of the significance of the discussion is that Euthyphro is actually someone whose 'career', as we would call it, concerns divine things, and who has a reputation for devoting himself to these things, even if he does get laughed at for it; if anyone has a background that promises insight into what piety is, he certainly does. Meletus, who is only an obscure poet whose name Euthyphro doesn't even recognize (and therefore who does not have a reputation for his insight into divine matters), is certainly not better placed than Euthyphro to understand piety and impiety. (Contrast this with Socrates; Euthyphro recognizes him personally, is astounded to find him on the porch of the king archon involved in an impiety suit, and immediately thinks the charges against him are absurd.) The dialogue is often treated as if it were intended to put the concept of piety itself into question, but the primary idea put into doubt is not piety but rather impersonal justice; the discussion of piety at least partly makes a point about how human beings can or should approach matters of justice. And what Euthyphro and Meletus both share is the attempt to go around charging people with impiety for abstract and general crimes rather than things that have been done to them personally. Piety itself survives unscathed, if not yet defined; it's not so clear that impersonal justice does.

The discussion of piety itself goes through several stages. Euthyphro begins by saying that the pious is to prosecute the wrongdoer, and for his own case he gives the divine precedent: Zeus bound Chronos, and Chronos castrated Ouranos, for unjust actions. Socrates, suggesting that his disinclination to believe such stories is a reason for his indictment, asks if Euthyphro really believes these stories of war among the gods, and Euthyphro replies that he does. (This links, I think, Euthyphro to Theaetetus and to Cratylus, and also sets up the obvious problem for the next suggested definition.)

Socrates remarks that Euthyphro has not actually given the idea/form (eidos) that everything pious shares. So Euthyphro tries again: "what is dear [prosphiles] to the gods is pious, what is not is impious"(7a). This idea of the pious as being what is lovely to the gods founders, however, on the fact that he just said that the gods disagreed.

This leads to the next idea, that "the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is the impious" (9e). This introduces the most famous passage in the dialogue, what is often known as the Euthyphro Dilemma: Is the pious lovely to the godsbecause it is pious, or is it pious because it is lovely to the gods? It is important to grasp, however, that Socrates does not at any point argue that the pious is not what is lovely to all the gods; what he argues is that Euthyphro in saying this has not told him what the being (ousios) of the pious is, but only an adventitious feature (pathos) or something that happens to it. So they are back at the beginning; and Euthyphro remarks that he can't tell Socrates what he thinks about the pious and the impious because any statement they put forward moves around rather than sitting still, and that it is Socrates who is doing it.

At this point, Socrates suggests a new starting point: "all that is pious is of necessity just" (11e), and from this they conclude that justice is the genus and piety the species (or part). (It is perhaps worth noting that this approach is reminiscent of the approach we'll see used more extensively in the Sophist and the Statesman.) This raises the question of which part it is, and Euthyphro suggests the next possibility: "the godly [eusebes] and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care [therapeia] of the gods, while that concerned with the care of men is the remaining part of justice" (12e). This obviously raises the question of what care is; in most cases it means to benefit and make better, but for a human being to try to make the gods better would obviously be impious. So in this case, care must be service/subordination [hyperetike] to the gods.

Socrates then asks the obvious question: what is the achievement at which service to the gods aims? Or in other words, what do the gods achieve through our service? Euthyphro replies that it is many fine things (polla kai kala), but, of course Socrates is not going to be put off by this, so Euthyphro says the pious is to say and do what pleases the gods in prayer (euchomenos) and sacrifice (thuos). Socrates points out that this means service is to give gifts and to beg, so it seems that piety is a kind of trade. But this runs right back to the problem: we seem to be saying that the pious is to benefit the gods by giving them something that they need and that therefore will make them better. Euthyphro, however, denies that it is a matter of benefiting the gods; what the gods receive are reverence (time), honor (gera), and gratitude/graciousness (charis). But, Socrates points out, this then means that the pious is what is lovely to the gods, and we have gone in a circle again.

And that is where it comes to an end. We perhaps have more than we might think. It is notable that the claim that the pious is the part of justice concerning the gods is never refuted (it is also a claim that Plato's Socrates makes elsewhere); Euthyphro's attempt in this direction fell apart solely through his understanding of 'care of the gods'. And recall the beginning -- Socrates praising Meletus, albeit ironically, for seeking to make young and old better. And recall exactly how it ends: Socrates says that if Euthyphro had taught him what piety is, he would live a better life for the rest of his life. I don't think these are just trimming. Plato generally doesn't do mere trimming; he does not just argue with his explicit statements but also with his insinuations. But even setting that general consideration aside, it seems unlikely to be an accident that Socrates emphasizes this idea at both the beginning and the end of the dialogue.


Quotations are from G. M. A. Grube's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1-16.

Links of Note

* The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World is awesome. Want to know how long it takes for an ancient Roman to travel by oxcart from Damascus to Rome? This is the source to go to. (The answer, incidentally, is approximately 309 days; obviously an ancient Roman really wanting to go from Damascus to Rome would go by sea rather than by land where possible, and by foot rather than by oxcart, cutting the total trip across the Mediterranean to about a month.)

* Alicia Puglionesi had an interesting post on the shift away from amateur contributions to research in psychical research. There were analogous shifts in other fields of research, e.g., natural history, so studying it here potentially sheds light on a lot more than psychical research itself.

* Volume 4 of the Whewell Gazette is up, with lots of links on the history of science.

* "Renaissance Mathematicus" has a guest post by Melinda Baldwin on the history of the word 'scientist'. I happened to mention some of this history in passing when talking about the Google N-gram for the word 'scientist'; but there are lots of quirks in the history of the word that make it interesting.

* Sarah Emsley's Mansfield Park event is still going on.

* John Farrell talks about the influence of the Timaeus.

* Sr. Mary Melone was recently appointed the first woman rector of a Pontifical University.

* Catarina Dutilh Novaes has a good interview at 3 A.M.

* Philosophers' Carnival #165

* A bit of poetry reading:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Idealist Materialist

Charlie Huenemann has a baffling post at "3 Quarks Daily" in which he presents a Berkeleian theory of external objects as if it were an alternative to Berkeley:

The more I have thought about it, the more I am drawn to an "obstaclean" theory of matter. To put the theory as simply as possible: matter is ultimately stuff that gets in our way. Material objects are obstacles, pure and simple. We might want this or that, and so we embark upon some plan, but then - wham! Something gets in our way. We didn't plan for that, and we certainly didn't want it. It's there independently, on its own.

Or, as Berkeley says (PHK 1.29):

But, whatever power I may have over my own thoughts, I find the ideas actually perceived by Sense have not a like dependence on my will. When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power to choose whether I shall see or no, or to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will.

And Huenemann again, on Berkeley:

He might insist that the obstacles are still just further ideas, but since they originate from some independent source that does not regard of our own wills and desires, they gain a "stand-alone" significance that marks them as material objects. He can insist upon their ideal nature all he likes, but if they are obstacles to me, they are material.

And Berkeley in response (3DHP, Dialogue 3):

But if by material substance is meant only sensible body—that which is seen and felt (and the unphilosophical part of the world, I dare say, mean no more)—then I am more certain of matter’s existence than you or any other philosopher pretend to be. If there be anything which makes the generality of mankind averse from the notions I espouse, it is a misapprehension that I deny the reality of sensible things.

And that Huenemann's 'materialism' is, indeed, a flat-out idealist theory, is clear enough:

According to the obstaclean theory, being material has more to do with the role a thing plays in our explanations than any "in itself" quality or feature. When something represents forces of brute contingency in our lives, that makes it material. This is a virtue of the theory, since no one has really been able to describe "matter in itself" to anyone's satisfaction.

Which is what Berkeley argued, and at great length; he just prefers to use other words than 'material' in order to avoid confusion. The only thing Huenemann gets out of not using 'idealism' to describe his 'obstaclean theory of matter' is the illusion of not having to provide a further explanation of the obstacle-properties of objects.

Into the Pale Depth of the Noon

by Archibald Lampman

From plains that reel to southward, dim,
The road runs by me white and bare;
Up the steep hill it seems to swim
Beyond, and melt into the glare.
Upward half-way, or it may be
Nearer the summit, slowly steals
A hay-cart, moving dustily
With idly clacking wheels.
By his cart's side the wagoner
Is slouching slowly at his ease,
Half-hidden in the windless blur
Of white dust puffiing to his knees.
This wagon on the height above,
From sky to sky on either hand,
Is the sole thing that seems to move
In all the heat-held land.

Beyond me in the fields the sun
Soaks in the grass and hath his will;
I count the marguerites one by one;
Even the buttercups are still.
On the brook yonder not a breath
Disturbs the spider or the midge.
The water-bugs draw close beneath
The cool gloom of the bridge.

Where the far elm-tree shadows flood
Dark patches in the burning grass,
The cows, each with her peaceful cud,
Lie waiting for the heat to pass.
From somewhere on the slope near by
Into the pale depth of the noon
A wandering thrush slides leisurely
His thin revolving tune.

In intervals of dreams I hear
The cricket from the droughty ground;
The grasshoppers spin into mine ear
A small innumerable sound.
I lift mine eyes sometimes to gaze:
The burning sky-line blinds my sight:
The woods far off are blue with haze:
The hills are drenched in light.

And yet to me not this or that
Is always sharp or always sweet;
In the sloped shadow of my hat
I lean at rest, and drain the heat;
Nay more, I think some bless├Ęd power
Hath brought me wandering idly here:
In the full furnace of this hour
My thoughts grow keen and clear.