Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Philosophical Bendideia (Re-Post)

Since I'm gearing up to go through the Republic for the Plato/Xenophon project, I thought I would re-post this comment from two years ago.

Plato's Republic is notable because it doesn't take place in Athens itself. It occurs in the Piraeus, which was the very nearby docktown serving as home for the formidable Athenian navy. When people are setting out the background for the Republic, they often emphasize the fact that it was considered the sort of place reputable Athenians would rarely go; it was crawling with Thracian foreigners, and had the sort of reputation docktowns often do. So what is Socrates doing in the Piraeus? The answer lies with the Thracians.

The Thracians had a moon goddess, called Bendis, a very wild sort of goddess. Due to an oracle given at Dodona, the Athenians had established a shrine for her. Both the Athenians and Thracians had festivities devoted to her, and in the fifth century these festivities, while still remaining distinct, had become so popular that the day was made an official holiday, the Bendideia. While Thracians and Athenians had distinct processions, the festival was given full ceremonial backing by the state. In the beginning of the Republic Socrates tells us has gone down to the Piraeus with Glaucon for the very first such holiday, to see how it would be celebrated.

"I was delighted with the procession of the inhabitants," he says; "but that of the Thracians was equally, if not more, beautiful." After seeing the processions and making their prayers, Socrates and Glaucon begin to head back to Athens, but are stopped almost immediately when young Polemarchus has a servant physically grab Socrates's cloak (not the last time in the dialogue that Polemarchus will stop someone with a grab). Polemarchus is at the festival with a group of young men, including Adeimantus and Niceratus. Polemarchus insists that Socrates and Glaucon remain -- indeed, he jokingly threatens to force them to stay because they are outnumbered. When Socrates still refuses, Adeimantus points out that there are evening festivities -- especially a horseback relay race with torches. And Polemarchus dangles the last bit of bait by saying that a whole group of young people are going to be getting together to talk, so Socrates and Glaucon stay, and the rest of the dialogue occurs in Polemarchus's house.

Commentators have occasionally speculated as to the significance of this elaborate set-up. Descending and ascending end up being important concepts throughout the dialogue, most strikingly in the Allegory of the Cave, and sosome have suggested that there is an important significance to the fact that Socrates and Glaucon descend to the Piraeus, and this seems to be plausible. Others have suggested that there is an irony, since Socrates will be charged later with worshipping foreign gods, that the whole scene is a festival in which a foreign god is given official recognition. Others have suggested a sharp contrast between the wild revelry of the barbarian festival and the civilized topic of the discussion.

There is probably something to all this, although it's hard to know how far to take it. But I would suggest that, at the very least, there is something else going on. I mentioned that Socrates says that the procession of the Thracians is just as beautiful as the procession of the Athenians, if not more so, and that Bendis was a Thracian goddess. The Thracians are mentioned explicitly one more time in the dialogue:

Must we not acknowledge, I said, that in each of us there are the same principles and habits which there are in the State; and that from the individual they pass into the State?--how else can they come there? Take the quality of passion or spirit; it would be ridiculous to imagine that this quality, when found in States, is not derived from the individuals who are supposed to possess it, e.g., the Thracians, Scythians, and in general the Northern nations; and the same may be said of the love of knowledge, which is the special characteristic of our part of the world, or of the love of money, which may, with equal truth, be attributed to the Phoenicians and Egyptians.

Notice that the Thracians are associated with "the quality of passion or spirit" while "the love of knowledge" is associated with the Athenians. The love of knowledge, of course, is closely associated with reason. And the quality of passion or spirit here is thumos (or thymos, depending on how you transliterate it). It's hard to translate; 'spirit' in the sense of 'spirited' is very close, which is why it is usually used, but it's our drive for exaltation, honor, eminence, glory. Thumos is important in the Republic, and what is notable is that much of the dialogue is concerned with arguing that justice in human beings requires a particular relationship between thumos and reason. One sees this, for instance, in Socrates's many-headed image of man: we have a human head, a lion head, and a many-headed monster. The human head is our reason; the heads of the many-headed monster are our passions; and the lion head is our thumos. Left to themselves the heads of the many-headed monster will terrorize the human head and, because they have no unity will drive a human being every which-way. But if the human head and the lion head work together, they can intimidate the many-headed monster, giving it unity and order. Other examples of the important relation between reason and thumos can be found.

It's significant, then, that the Thracians, who are associated with thumos, and the Athenians, who are associated with reason, are joined together in the festival: they remain distinct, but they both play a part. And, remember, Socrates said that the procession of the Thracians was a part of the festival just as beautiful as that of the Athenians. The Piraeus, with its heavy mixture of Athenians and Thracians, on the Bendideia, the day that is most due to the mixing of Athenian and Thracian culture, is the perfect setting for a dialogue in which the relation between thumos, represented by the Thracians, and reason, represented by the Athenians, plays a key role. Even if we read a sort of implicit disapproval of the revelry and foreignness of the festival (I think it, like Plato's disapproval of democracy, is often exaggerated), it is surely an ironic disapproval, because the foreign revelry is itself a sort of picture of what the Republic proposes. From the very beginning, the very way in which the dialogue is set, we know that the what the Platonic Socrates is proposing here is a philosophical Bendideia, the idealized truth of which the Bendideia itself is a crude picture.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Anti-Natalism at the Limit

John Danaher discusses an interesting recent argument from suffering by Dagfinn Sjaastad Karlsen:

(1) There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and morally good Creator (a ‘true God’).
(2) Beings who suffer have been caused to exist.
(3) A true God meets any requirement entailed by benevolence.
(4) Benevolence requires that harm be avoided unless its avoidance implies greater harm or deprivation of benefits that outweigh the avoided harm.
(5) The never-existent cannot be deprived.
(6) The falsity of (2) avoids harm.
(7) The falsity of (2) entails no harm discouraged by benevolence, nor any deprivation of benefits (from (5)).
(8) A true God could have caused (2) to be false (from (1)).
(9) Benevolence requires that (2) be false (from (4), (6), and (7)).

What's called benevolence here is what's usually called nonmaleficence; this would be a purely stipulative matter except for the fact that nonmaleficence is very often considered only a presumptive or prima facie obligation capable of being overridden by more robust moral principles, showing that the argument is assuming that there are no other relevant moral principles on the table. Karlsen assumes that the only or even most obvious way to reject (3)+(4) is to take divine goodness to be 'inscrutable', but this is very obviously false; there are a lot of different ways one could go here; (4) is not as innocent of presuppositions as it is taken to be. Giving someone a free immense and ongoing benefit in exchange for having risked (and, as it happens, received) a painful papercut today would violate 'benevolence' understood in this way: the only reason (4) allows for harm not being avoided (note that it is not 'harm being caused' but the much weaker 'harm not being avoided') is avoiding worse harm or an overweighing deprivation of actual benefits. (If one were to interpret it as allowing not giving the immense and ongoing benefit as deprivation of benefits, it wrecks validity of the argument, because (6)+(7) would no longer cover all the options that need to be considered to draw a conclusion. Thus it has to be deprivation of benefits already in hand, and not deprivation of future benefits.)

Karlsen states flat-out, "The primary objective of morality is to avoid harm." While it is uncontroversial that this is an objective, Karlsen actually needs it either to be the only objective or the primary objective in such a way that it can never under any circumstances or conditions be subordinated to another objective. That is, simply holding that it is the usually-most-important of many objectives is too weak, because then (3) would immediately be in doubt -- perhaps there are exceptions to the requirements of benevolence consistent with being morally good.

What (4) is effectively doing in the argument is making it so that one is not allowed to consider what benefits might follow from existence or non-avoidance of harm. Take a very simple example like letting one's children play a sport. Letting one's children play a sport is not avoiding harm; the risks of harm involved in playing a sport are many, extensive, and ineliminable from the game. In sports people will occasionally get hurt and, again, (4) does not require that one be causing the harm oneself, but only that one not be avoiding the harm. (This interpretation is not only the most obvious interpretation of the words, it is required by (8)'s having any function in the argument. (4) in this argument requires that one avoid harm not just by not causing it but also by eliminating risks for it.) It is almost never going to be the case that not letting your children play sports implies greater harm or deprivation of benefits than a serious sports injury; there are plenty of children who do just fine not getting anywhere near sports, and while one makes the worst sports injuries as rare as possible, the only way to avoid them entirely is not to let any children play sports ever. Now we see here a case where at the very least where people in fact regularly consider the benefits of non-avoidance of harm in their reasoning, and, indeed, clearly think it is defective not to do so. But even if we set that aside, while we could obviously discuss the prudence of the options on the table, is it really a violation of the requirements of benevolence to allow one's children to participate in activities with a risk of harm on any other grounds at all except to avoid greater harm or deprivation of benefits in hand? Are we really all committed by the requirements of morality to strict tutiorism? There are excellent reasons to reject such an idea, and, in fact, the number of serious views in ethics consistent with it are very, very few.

So the argument seems to run into problems from the get-go. It's worth noting, incidentally, that the argument overall is in fact simply an anti-natalist argument taken to its limit. Anti-natalism is a philosophical position that is, as they say, trending upward. The reason that Karlsen's argument runs into this problem is simply that anti-natalist arguments usually do. It's relatively easy to argue that people should be cautious about having children; it is remarkably difficult to argue that everyone has presumptive or prima facie obligation not to have children, and the arguments for such obligations usually depend on highly controversial ethical assumptions. Karlsen needs something even stronger than this sort of prima facie anti-natalism; and, in fact, his argument is a rigorously anti-natalist argument, requiring that no one procreate (which is a non-avoidance of harm involving causing beings who suffer to exist) if they can at all help it. The reason (4) ends up being odd the way it is, is that it's the way Karlsen is getting something like the asymmetry central to rigorously anti-natalist arguments like David Benatar's; it is a way to avoid the question of whether a being who suffers in any way can also have a genuinely good life.

This, of course, is all not even getting into the vexed question of whether (5) is true. However, the primary questions about (5) are really questions about (4), as well. (5) is clearly not true as a matter of how 'deprived' is used in colloquial speech, so the question is whether it still turns out to be true in whatever very specific sense is required to make (4) true, assuming it can be made true.

Hippias Major

Hippias Major, so called because it is longer than Hippias Minor, is a highly disputed dialogue, although in recent years scholarly judgment seems to be tipping heavily in the direction of authenticity. The major problem it faces is simply that it is never actually cited by anyone until very late, although some comments by Aristotle might be alluding to it. The dialogue is on the topic of to kalon, which is tricky to translate; the closest translation is probably 'the beautiful' (it is the word usually translated as 'the beautiful' in Plato's Symposium), but it can also be translated as 'the fine' and 'the noble'. Perhaps a translation that would fit with the scope of the word is 'the splendid', and I will use that term myself (although the translation I will use uses 'the fine'). It is perhaps one of the most important terms in ancient Greek culture, being the term that more than other indicated a favorable evaluation. The dialogue is structurally interesting in that it is structured by an ingenious joke that is very well executed, and the surprise of which I will not spoil here. It is a sign of how humorless nineteenth-century German Plato scholarship was that the mere existence of the joke was what actually launched doubts about the dialogue's authenticity. As it is, it is probably the most thoroughly humorous of the aporetic or perplexed-conclusion dialogues.

You can read Greater Hippias online in English at the Perseus Project or in French at Wikisource. Nickolas Pappas's SEP article on Plato's Aesthetics has a short but handy summary of some of the most important ideas of the dialogue. But you can get an even shorter handy summary from the last line of the dialogue, which gives one of the few things Plato's Socrates ever claims to know: Chalepa ta kala, the splendid things are difficult.

The Characters

The dialogue is an apparently private discussion between Socrates and Hippias of Elias, the same polymathic sophist who is a character in Hippias Minor. It happens to be important for a key passage in the dialogue that Socrates is the only son of Sophroniscus.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates opens the dialogue by hailing Hippias as splendid and wise, and notes that he hasn't been in Athens in a while. Hippias replies that he constantly gets sent on embassies for Elis, and has recently most often been sent to Sparta. Socrates remarks ironically that this is what it is to be wise: make a lot of money off of young people while providing very public services to the city. But, he notes, it's odd that the wise of antiquity, the Seven Sages of Greece, and some more recent wise men like Anaxagoras, have avoided such state affairs. Hippias replies that this was surely due to lack of ability, and agrees with Socrates' suggestion that the skill of sophists has progressed like the skills of others, although he says he always plays up the skill of the ancients on the principle that one should avoid the envy of the living and the wrath of the dead. Socrates remarks that Hippias is putting splendid thoughts into splendid words, and adds the examples of Gorgias and Prodicus and, earlier than they, Protagoras. Hippias replies that Socrates has no idea just how splendid it is, since he makes an immense amount of money. Socrates' response to this, of course, is highly ironic.

Socrates then asks if Sparta is where Hippias has made the most money, and this leads to a discussion of Sparta, the implication of which is that Hippias perhaps does not actually know how to make people virtuous, at least in the judgment of Sparta, which has the reputation for producing the most virtuous Greeks. Hippias relates that recently in Sparta he gave a speech in the person of Nestor, the famed wise man from the Trojan War, speaking to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, on what sort of activities are splendid, i.e., "the sort of activities that would make someone famous if he adopted them while young" (286b). He is going to demonstrate the same speech at the invitation of Eudicus (who is mentioned in Hippias Minor, as well), and invites Socrates along. Socrates says he will "if all goes well" (286c), but says that Hippias has reminded him of someone who was insultingly questioning him about whether he would be able to say what the splendid was, and how he was completely stuck in trying to answer it.

On the basis of this Socrates gets Hippias to try to give a definition of the splendid, but Hippias turns out to have difficulty distinguishing between giving a definition of the splendid and giving examples everyone recognizes as splendid. (It is the kind of weakness to which polymaths are subject, in my experience.) His attempts at answering the question are:

(1) A splendid woman is a splendid thing.
(2) The splendid is gold.
(3) The most splendid is to achieve old age, to give your parents a splendid funeral, and to have a splendid funeral given by your children.

Socrates, of course, is able to show a number of problems with these suggestions. He then goes through some possibilities of his own (while playing off answers Hippias gives to the questions):

(1) The splendid is the appropriate (to prepon).
(2) The splendid is the useful (to chresimon).
(3) The splendid is the beneficial (ton ophelimon).
(4) The splendid is the kind of pleasant that comes to be through hearing or seeing (to meros tou hedeos to epi te opsei kai te akoe gignomenon).

Each of these has problems, though. The first seems to founder because it cannot be used to distinguish what is really splendid from what only appears to be so; the second runs into problems because usefulness is based on power, which can be used to do the base as well as the splendid; the third seems to make the splendid different from the good; and the fourth seems not actually to identify what the splendid is, since it does not say what it is that the pleasant through hearing and the pleasant through sight have in common.

Hippias gives his last account of what is splendid (or fine):

But here's what is fine and worth a lot: to be able to present a speech well and finely, in court or council or any other authority to whom you give the speech, to convince them and go home carrying not the smallest but the greatest of prizes, the successful defense of yourself, your property, and friends. (304b)

Hippias continues that Socrates' friend who keeps asking the annoying questions should abandon his quibbling. (Compare Callicles in Gorgias.) Socrates replies that he seems to be in a bad place; if he tries to compete with wise men like Hippias, he gets "mud-spattered" (304c) by their speeches; but if he agrees with them, then the annoying interlocutor insults him for not knowing what the splendid is. But, he says, it is probably for the best; as the proverb says, what's splendid is difficult. And thus the dialogue ends.

  Additional Remarks

* Catherine Zuckert in Plato's Philosophers has an excellent summary of the implications of Hippias's proposals for the splendid/fine/beautiful/noble:

Readers get a sense of the customary noble pursuits Hippias would say that Nestor recommends to young men like Neoptolemos from the sophist's three attempts to say what is noble (or beautiful)--a noble virgin (whom a young man should take as wife), gold (which he should amass not merely to support but to adorn himself and his family), and finally a beautiful burial by one's own offspring (after having become rich, healthy, and honorable enough to reach old age and have provided a noble funeral for one's parents). The definitions correspond, loosely, to three stages in a man's adult life. (pp. 261-262)

This no doubt relates to Hippias's conception of what an irrefutable account is: saying what everyone thinks (288a); these answers are calculated to be the kinds of things that young men would have assumed without thinking constituted the successful life.

* As always with the aporetic dialogues, even though we never get an account of to kalon, the journey is not fruitless. We learn just how expansive the concept is, and that it has some connection to the good (ton agathon) and to pleasure. We also, and perhaps more importantly, have put into question what many of the ancient Greeks would have thought of as a splendid life.

Quotations are from Paul Woodruff's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 898-921.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Links of Note

* Donald Rutherford, The Future of the History of Modern Philosophy
Martha Bolton, Some Reflections on Scholarship in the History of Modern Philosophy

* Jean Paul Sartre and Jorge Luis Borges reviewed Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Sartre argued that it was not cinema and Borges said it was tedious.

* Thony Christie, Galileo, Foscarini, The Catholic Church, and heliocentricity in 1615 Part 1 – the occurrences: A Rough Guide.

* Jimmy Akin has started a blog to review every Doctor Who episode.

* Two recent IEP articles:
Julia Jorati, Gottfried Leibniz: Philosophy of Mind
Andrew Blom, Hugo Grotius

* The Clerk of Oxford on the Battle of Maldon

* Philosophers' Carnival #166

* Ed Feser considers an argument that omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible.

* The LegoAcademics Twitter feed

* Paul Raymont discusses Viennese cafes and their role in the intellectual life of the day.

* Evan Thompson on Buddhist philosophy and the embodied mind.

* Mark Blitz, Understanding Heidegger on Technology

* A reporter in Ferguson, MO, saw some things on the ground, took a picture, and put up a tweet asking for confirmation that they were rubber bullets. They were quite obviously foam earplugs, leading to extensive mockery on Twitter, some of which is actually very funny. What's actually sad is that in American journalism today it's a tribute to the reporter's integrity that he actually took the trouble to make sure.

* John Wilkins recently did a number of interview-videos on key concepts in philosophy of science:

Philosophy of Science
The Demarcation Problem
Bayesian Epistemology, Scientific Realism, Science and Politics, Maps and Territories

* Bertrand Russell in Bollywood:

Shravasti Dhammika explains the background to this somewhat surprising Bollywood casting.

The Method of Truth

It is far, therefore, from being requisite that philosophy, following the mathematical sciences as a handmaid, should endeavor servilely to copy them, as has been so often erroneously done, and, in spite of experience of its impracticability, over and over again attempted....The true method (that, namely, which alone deserves to be so called, the method of truth) is based on the simple process of thought and its living development, in which one thought springs and unfolds itself naturally from another, and rigidly excludes all that is foreign and repugnant. The true method does not move in paragraphs and numbered propositions, making an outward parade of an apparently strong chain of evidence, in which, however, a rigid scrutiny often detects some specific link in the chain totally valueless and without illative force, or at least weak and far from cogent, or placed in a false position, to which it has properly no reference, and only in appearance filling the void it covers.

Friedrich von Schlegel, The Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., p. 346.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mereological Syllogisms

Mereology is the logic of parts and wholes, although in practice people mostly stick to parts. The two major mereological operators are Part and Overlap. They are pretty much what they sound like. Overlap is symmetric; if a overlaps b, b overlaps a. Part is asymmetric; if a is part of b, it does not follow that b is part of a. (One tricky point is that parthood as usually understood requires that everything is a part of itself, and allows for the possibility that a may be part of b and b part of a, in which case a and b are equivalent.) Part directly implies Overlap. In principle you can do everything with Part than you can with Overlap and vice versa, but it is sometimes convenient to have both.

One of the things you can do with Part and Overlap is to do syllogisms with them, quite literally. For instance, here is a mereological Barbara syllogism:

b is part of c
a is part of b
Therefore a is part of c.

We could summarize this as Pbc + Pab = Pac. (If we wanted to say that something was not a part of something else, we would use ~P instead of P.) Add O for overlap and all the other traditional syllogisms, including the weakened ones, follow with valid mereological arguments.

Barbara: Pbc +Pab =Pac
Celarent: ~Obc + Pab = ~Oac
Darii: Pbc + Oab = Oac
Ferio: ~Obc + Oab = ~Pac
Barbari: Pbc + Pab = Oac
Celaront: ~Obc + Pab = ~Pac

Baroco: Pcb + ~Pab = ~Pac
Cesare: ~Ocb + Pab = ~Oac
Camestres: Pcb + ~Oab = ~Oac
Festino: ~Ocb + Oab = ~Pac
Cesaro: ~Ocb + Pab = ~Pac
Camestros: Pcb + ~Oab = ~Pac

Bocardo: ~Pbc + Pba = ~Pac
Darapti: Pbc + Pba = Oac
Datisi: Pbc + Oba = Oac
Disamis: Obc + Pba = Oac
Ferison: ~Obc + Oba = ~Pac
Felapton: ~Obc + Pba = ~Pac

Bramantip: Pcb + Pba = Oac
Camenes: Pcb + ~Oba = ~Oac
Dimaris: Ocb + Pba = Oac
Fesapo: ~Ocb + Pba = ~Pac
Fresison: ~Ocb + Oba = ~Pac

In addition, invalid categorical syllogisms correspond to invalid mereological syllogisms. Any logical method adequate for categorical syllogisms -- Venn diagrams, for instance, or literal diagrams, or distribution rules, can be directly applied to mereological syllogisms. You can also do the ordinary traditional operations on the mereological syllogisms. For instance, to transform a Cesare to a Celarent, you do exactly the same perfectly legitimate operation, conversion:

~Ocb + Pab = ~Oac
becomes, through conversion of the major,
~Obc + Pab = ~Oac

None of this is in any way surprising or new, for the simple reason that the original reasoning went the other way. Aristotle thought out the rules governing categorical syllogisms in part by thinking them out mereologically, and the discovery of logical quantity is due to recognition that you could have in some sense terms as parts of other terms (giving us A propositions) and terms as overlapping other terms (giving us I propositions). Universal and particular quantity are just Parthood and Overlap.

Since mereological operators are just modal operators, this is one reason, albeit not a definitive one, for thinking that logical quantifiers are just a kind of modal operator, Box and Diamond for a particular kind of domain.

Xenophon's Symposium

Xenophon's Symposium often gets lost in the shadow of Plato's, which is unfortunate, because it is in its own right excellent as both a literary and a philosophical work. It does certainly have some connection with Plato's; at one point, for instance, it brings up an argument that combines ideas from Phaedrus's and Pausanias's speeches in Plato, one that is so close that there must be some connection one way or another. Xenophon's is usually considered the later one primarily because it has, unlike Plato's, definite anachronisms that suggest it is quite late. The most obvious of these is a mention of the Sacred Band of Thebes, although it's always worth reminding ourselves that we have only speculation as to how early or late Plato's Symposium was written. You can also still find a minority of scholars who think that Plato's Symposium relies on Xenophon's.

Despite the connections, Xenophon's dialogue is very different from Plato's. While eros is also thematically important here, he takes things in a very different direction. It is also a more humorous dialogue, and despite its clear anachronisms, a more realistic dinner-party, as people enjoy the entertainments, get rambunctious and occasionally goofy, over-drink, and get annoyed at each other. Plato gives us after-dinner speeches; Xenophon gives us a party, complete with a dancing Socrates.

You can read Xenophon's Symposium online in English at the Perseus Project or Project Gutenberg.

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Xenophon opens by claiming that he witnessed the events in question, but he does not actually participate in any of them. (And it has been noted more than once that he is one of the anachronisms of the dialogue; he would have been less than ten years old at the time the dialogue takes place.)

  Callias son of Hipponicus
Callias is hard to summarize. He would have been extremely well known to anyone in Athens, being the wealthiest in all of Greece (with his father the wealthiest man in Greece before him), and actively involved in politics. Because of his extraordinary wealth, he was repeatedly required to fund liturgies and warships by the city of Athens (the Athenians had no regular taxation, since they covered anything not already covered by tribute from their empire by requiring wealthy citizens to pay for them, a fact noted with some ire in this dialogue by Callias himself). He repeatedly is mentioned in comedies and did not have an entirely savory reputation, being something of a regular scandal-magnet. He is the same Callias who holds the sophists' get-together in Protagoras, and his connection with the sophists is explicitly referred to here by Xenophon, as well. He was related on his mother's side to Pericles and Alcibiades and through his first wife to Plato.

Autolycus is mentioned here at being the pancratist winner in the summer of 422. (The pancratium was a mixed martial arts event in which one could use any means to defeat the opponent except biting and gouging.) He is mocked by comedians like Aristophanes for dissolute behavior. An outspoken democrat, he was eventually murdered by the Thirty Tyrants.

Autolycus's father. This is almost certainly the same Lycon who with Anytus and Meletus would later bring charges against Socrates. There is nothing in Xenophon to indicate that he was even aware of Lycon's role (Xenophon had all his information about Socrates' trial secondhand, since he wasn't in Athens at the time), but if he was, it makes his parting comment to Socrates extraordinarily poignant. He was of some influence in Athens, and had a reputation for extravagant living despite his poverty.

Niceratus is the son of the Nicias who is a character in Laches. He is one of the anachronisms of the dialogue, since he would have been too young to be wed at the time the dialogue took place. He would be executed by the Thirty Tyrants.


Critobulus is the son of Socrates' close friend Crito.

Hermogenes is Callias's half-brother, but he was illegitimate and as poor as Callias was rich. Plato's Cratylus, in which he is a character, mentions that he saw Callias as having cheated him out of his inheritance. He shows up a lot in Xenophon, since he is apparently Xenophon's source for Socrates' last days.

Antisthenes is one of the more important students of Socrates, because he formed his own school, and his thought is generally thought to have been an influence on the later Stoic and Cynic movements. He was wealthy, but he seems to have made a point of non-attachment to possessions. Xenophon portrays him as quite volatile.

Charmides is Plato's uncle, and, of course, a character in Charmides. He was one of the ones accused of illegal performance of the Eleusynian mysteries at the time of the sacrilege of the herms, and as a result was sentenced to death in absentia. A firm oligarch, he was a close associate of Critias's and would become a member of the Ten who governed the Piraeus under the Thirty Tyrants.

Philippus is known only from Xenophon; he was a clown or comic, getting invited to dinners by joking around at them.

In addition there's a Syracusan with girls and boys who are dancers, reed-players, and the like.

The Plot and The Thought

After the horse-races at the Great Panathenaea, Callias is walking home with Niceratus, Autolycus, and Lycon when he comes across a group consisting of Socrates, Critobulus, Hermogenes, Antisthenes, and Charmides. He invites them to his dinner-party. Socrates actually remarks that he must be teasing, and all the others try to beg off, but it is clear that if they don't attend he will be quite annoyed. They all go to Callias's house and start eating in silence when Philippus comes uninvited and tries to get in; Callias decides to let him in, and Philippus tries to crack some jokes, unsuccessfully. After dinner they pour libations to the god and sing a hymn, and then the Syracusan comes in with two girls and a boy for the entertainment. After listening to the music of reed and lyre a bit, the conversation happens to turn to the question of whether true goodness can be taught. Socrates refuses to discuss it (compare Meno), but as the entertainments progress repeatedly makes comments that together constitute an argument that it can be taught. Note also Socrates' explicit statement that women are capable of education -- a more controversial claim for the highly misogynistic ancient Greeks than it would be for us -- and that women can be taught the virtue of andreia, which is translated as 'courage' or 'fortitude', but in the Greek means 'manliness'; the claim that women can even have the virtue would have been highly paradoxical to the ancient Greeks. Obviously, if women can have the virtue of manliness it follows directly that virtue can be taught, since they wouldn't be manly by nature.

Socrates asks the Syracusan if he could teach him to dance; and when everyone laughs, notes that Charmides came in on him dancing that very morning, which Charmides confirms. Philippus gets up and parody-dances. They start drinking, following Socrates' suggestion to have lots of little glasses of wine rather than a lot of wine all at once. They go around the room stating what they are most proud of. Callias says his is the skill of making people good with money; Niceratus's skill is being able to repeat all of Homer by heart; Critobulus's is being good-looking; Antisthenes's is wealth, despite having very little money; Charmides's is poverty;Socrates says that his is mastropeia, which is (more or less) the trade of pimp; Lycon says his son Autolycus; Autolycus says his father Lycon; and Hermogenes says it is the goodness and influence of his friends.

Having stated what they're most proud of, they then have to give their reasons. They do this with most joking. The most significant of the arguments are Critobulus's argument for good looks (which sets up a later stage of the dialogue, since ugly Socrates challenges handsome Critobulus to a beauty contest), Antisthenes's speech that wealth is all in the mind (which seems clearly to be an indirect attack on Callias, although Callias doesn't seem to be too riled by it), Hermogenes's argument that his friends are the gods, and, of course, Socrates' argument that he is an expert at pimping or sexual procuring. Socrates' argument is that what he does is to set up handsome young men with minds to teach them; he ends by conceding that straight-laced and ascetic Antisthenes is a better pimp than he is.

Socrates and Critobulus then face off in the beauty contest, judged by the musicians, with Socrates arguing that he is, in fact, more beautiful than Critobulus. Critobulus wins, of course, and Socrates accuses him of bribing the judges. The conversation lags, although Socrates manages to get it going again (it's notable all the way through that almost all of the actual conversation is due to Socrates; Callias himself, despite his training under the sophists, doesn't seem to be any good at keeping the discussion going). The Syracusan, however, notices that the guests are paying more attention to each other than his entertainments, and insults Socrates. (The Syracusan's view of Socrates is taken directly from the way Socrates is portrayed in Aristophanes' The Clouds.) This threatens to get out of control very quickly, since Antisthenes immediately jumps to Socrates' defense, but Socrates defuses the situation masterfully.

Socrates then begins a discussion of eros that is worth comparing with Plato's Symposium. If Xenophon's Symposium was written after Plato's, a good deal of this speech is a vehement attack on the speech of Pausanias, whose claim that pederasty was a higher love than love of man and women Socrates attacks as a defense of wallowing in license. The overall theme of the argument, however, is that eros for beauty of mind is greater than eros for beauty of body.

Lycon and Autolycus leave, with Lycon saying that Socrates seems to be a truly good man, and then the Syracusan's troupe does a little play about the love of Dionysus and Ariadne. It's a fairly intense little production, and has the married men all going home to sleep with their wives. It's a little difficult to know what to make of this; but one way of reading it is to take it as showing that no one has actually learned anything from Socrates' argument. Socrates and some others set out with Callias for Autolycus's house, and so the dialogue ends.

A major theme of the work as a whole is found in the very first paragraph:

It seems to me that in writing about the deeds of truly great men, it is proper to record not only their serious activities, but their diversions too.

The intermingling of spoude, earnestness, with paidia, playfulness, is repeatedly mentioned in the dialogue. Thus Xenophon is showing that philosophy involves a kind of play (paidia) as part of its teaching (paideia) of virtue.


Quotations are from Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Tredennick & Waterfield, translators, Penguin (New York: 1990), pp. 219-267.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

All Night the Pool Held Mysteries

The Morning Pool
by Clark Ashton Smith

All night the pool held mysteries,
Vague depths of night that lay in dream,
Where phantoms of the pale-white stars
Wandered, with darkness-tangled gleam.
And now it holds the limpid light
And shadeless azure of the skies,
Wherein, like some enclasp├Ęd gem,
The morning's golden glamour lies.

Clark Ashton Smith was most famous in his own day as a poet, although since that time he has perhaps become somewhat more famous for being one of the Big Three writing for Weird Tales, the other two being H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (with both of whom he corresponded extensively, although he never met either in person). The three regularly shared story elements, so several things one finds in Lovecraft and Howard were originally invented by Smith, and vice versa. Lovecraft sometimes refers to him in his short stories as Klarkash-Ton. You can read one of Smith's short stories, Sadastor, online.

Fortnightly Book, August 17

The earliest mention of William Tell is in the White Book of Sarnen, a fifteenth century compilation of various documents in the archive of the town of Sarnen; it mentions William Tell as part of the history of the Old Confederacy of the Swiss. This is not the source of the William Tell legend, however; he was a folk hero well before that, and the Tellenlied, or song of William Tell, although it was first written down in the early sixteenth century, probably predates the White Book, at least in its earliest forms.

What made William Tell more than a local hero, however, were revolution and Romanticism. William Tell became a symbol both of fight against tyranny and of national heroism in the French Revolution. Toward the eighteenth century, Goethe was traveling around Switzerland and came across the tales of Tell. He intended for some time to write a play about William Tell but eventually passed his sources on to Friedrich Schiller. Schiller's William Tell, the next fortnightly book, was first performed and published in 1804. The play became an international sensation.

Rossini's opera is based on a French adaptation of Schiller's play, so here's the famous Finale to its Overture (officially known as "The March of the Swiss Soldiers") to get us going:

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Shusaku Endo, Silence


Opening Passage:

News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of 'the pit' at Nagasaki had apostatized. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty-three years in Japan, had occupied the high position of provincial and had been a source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike.

Summary: There is a danger in reading stories involving martyrs that comes from the tendency of readers to put ourselves in a false position, as if we, were we in the same position, would hold out to the end. This is already not to understand what we are reading. There is a story about St. Felicity, who while pregnant was arrested for being Christian. She was kept in prison until the baby was born; and the next day would be sent to the arena. It was a hard labor, and she screamed during it. The guard sarcastically remarked that if she couldn't handle that, how would she handle the lions tomorrow? To which she replied that today she was relying on her own strength; tomorrow she would be relying on someone else's. Human goodness is frail. It does not matter how good you are, how strong you are, how forceful your will. There is some pressure, applied long enough, or in just the right point, where you can at some point shatter. There is some point beyond which you can guarantee nothing. You might last. But call it luck or grace, your doing so would be utterly out of your hands.

Silence is about the tsurushi torture. The victim is hung upside down, in a pit. It is very hot and very humid, and you just hang. Usually they cut a little slit behind the ear to drip blood. Doing so increases the length of time you are conscious and alive. Because you are hanging upside down, it never closes, it just drips from the pressure; and the blood is not being pumped back up your body fast enough. At some point you start bleeding out your nose, out your mouth. The pain is extraordinary. And it never stops, because gravity never stops. Slowly, surely, you die. It takes a few days. St. Magdalene of Nagasaki hung in the pit for thirteen before she died. That's what grace looks like, dying in agony for thirteen days while never wavering. It's something human beings cannot guarantee on their own strength. Most people would break after a few hours, and do anything, anything whatsoever, to get out of that pit.

When Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, S.J., goes to Japan, he knows very well that he may be killed for it. He does it for two reasons: first, that the Catholics of Japan need priests, and second, that he wants to know what happened to Cristovao Ferreira, leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, who according to rumors has apostatized, given up the faith. If the latter is true, it is shocking; no one expected it. If he did not apostatize, what has happened to him? And if he did, how did that happen? He and his fellow priest, Fr. Francis Garrpe, arrive in Japan with the help of a shifty but somewhat mysterious fellow named Kichijiro. He claims not to be a Christian but once in Japan, finds the Christians in hiding fairly easily. They spend most of their time on the run, being hidden by Catholic peasants in the Nagasaki area. They are eventually separated. And Fr. Rodrigues is eventually betrayed by Kichijiro, who was indeed a Japanese Catholic, but who had apostatized when captured, and whose weakness has not ended.

Fr. Rodrigues does learn what happened to Fr. Ferreira. He hung in the pit until he broke, until it seemed clear that everything the Jesuits were doing in Japan was worthless, because the Japanese might say the same Latin words as European Catholics, but they did not actually believe in the same God. He tries to convince Fr. Rodrigues of this, having been brought in by the magistrate Inoue as part of the attempt to get Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize. In the abstract the arguments are specious, of course; they are nothing that could not have been argued of the first Gentile believers, or the Ostrogoths, or the first Scandinavians, or the indios of the Americas. But context is part of how we assess arguments, and an argument that seems one way as you and I sit at a computer may look somewhat different to someone dying a slow and agonizing death in the pit.

The pit is not, however, Fr. Rodrigues's fate. The magistrate has something different in store for him. Other people are going to hang in the pit. They've already apostatized; more than once, in fact. But they are not in the pit in order that they might apostatize. All Fr. Rodrigues has to do in order to save them from the torture and certain death is to step on an image of Christ, to put out his foot and trample the face of Christ.

Kichijiro, of course, plays the role of Judas. He failed. But we often forget that all twelve disciples failed. Judas betrayed. Most fled. Peter followed along behind -- and apostatized. Human goodness is very fragile.

But it would be an error to leave it at that. A historical novel has history itself for a context, and history makes the matter more ambiguous. The magistrate Inoue argues that Christianity is too foreign to take root in Japan; that its roots rot and change in the mud swamps of Japan; that all they have to do is get the priests and the rest will wither away. But we who read know that it is a more complex matter. The Kirishitan continued to carry on, hidden, until again it could sprout to life. Two centuries, under terrible conditions. It did not die, any more than it died when its founder was nailed to cross and his most trusted followers failed him. Whether the faith was distorted in the culture of Japan was never the primary issue; that was not the test. Whether men and women, subject to terrible tortures, could hold the faith was never the primary issue; it was not the test, either. The point was never to show that the faith was easy for anyone, nor to show that one could endure by sheer strength of will.

There's an interesting phrase used by Fr. Rodrigues at one point. He often thinks about the face of Christ, and once he speaks of it as the face he "longs to love". I think this suggests the heart of the book. The point was never about endurance or strength, failure or weakness. It was about love, which is not something easily had, since mostly we don't love but simply long to love. But love is the point. And no one genuinely loves unless they love even if they break.

Favorite Passage:

They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints--how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily--in silence.

Recommendation: Highly recommended. This is a good book on practically every count.


Quotations from Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, tr. Taplinger (New York: 1980).


Plato was, according to legend, a poet before he became a philosopher, so it is perhaps unsurprising that a collection of epigrammatic poems became attached to his name. They are from disparate sources, and in most cases the mechanism by which they came to be ascribed to Plato is likely the same as that by which stray quotations come to be ascribed to Oscar Wilde or William Churchill. But in several cases we cannot entirely rule out authenticity, and most scholars will concede that it is at least somewhat possible that the Dion epigram is Plato's.

You can read the Platonic epigrams online in English at the Perseus Project, and ten of them in a different English translation at Wikisource. Percy Bysshe Shelley translated a couple of them.

The Star Epigrams

Perhaps the most famous epigrams attributed to Plato are the Star epigrams. The major reason for thinking them inauthentic, as with many of the epigrams, is that they have features suggestive of much later poetry. In this epigrams we have someone addressed as a star, perhaps because his name or nickname was Aster:

You gaze at the stars, my Star; would that I were Heaven that I might look at you with many eyes!


Even as you shone once the Star of Morning among the living, so in death you shine now the Star of Evening among the dead.

Or to take the latter in Shelley's slightly looser but excellent translation of the latter:

Thou wert the morning star among the living,
Ere thy fair light had fled;—
Now, having died, thou art as Hesperus, giving
New splendour to the dead.

It's common for Greek epigrams to come in pairs. In the first epigram, the beloved, called a star, looks at the stars, so the lover wishes he were the sky (ouranos) so that he could look back at the beloved with many eyes (the many eyes being the stars). I think I would paraphrase it as:

Stars you watch, my star;
would I were the sky
looking back at you,
each star a shining eye.

It reminds one a bit of the argument for the importance of dialogue in Alcibiades Major, in which Socrates argues that self-knowledge requires seeing oneself in the eyes of another, but self-knowledge is not yet in view here. Rather, Alcibiades Major is taking the kind of idea that this epigram draws on, and putting it to new use.

The second Star epigram plays on a common Greek idea that the dead became stars, and on the association of life with morning and death with evening combined with the fact that the morning star and the evening star are the same, and both associated with love.

The Apple Epigrams

My favorite Platonic epigram is among those that have the best claim to being authentic:

I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love (phileis) me, take it and share your girlhood (partheneis) with me; but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not, even then take it, and considered how short-lived (oligochronios) is beauty.

The apple, of course, was a symbol of love to the ancient Greeks; 'to throw an apple at someone' became synonymous with declaring one's love for them. This is good solid work in any language; combining an expression of love with a "But if you do not love me, at least remember that your moments for really living are few" is a standard love poetry trope, and here it is concisely and vigorously expressed.

There is another apple poem, this one addressed to Xanthippe -- one would assume in the voice of Socrates:

I am an apple; one who loves you throws me at you. Say yes, Xanthippe; we fade, both you and I.

Here we have a greater emphasis on conciseness, although the same theme.

The Dion Epigram

According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato wrote an epitaph for Dion's tomb in Syracuse:

The Fates decreed tears to Hecuba and the women of Troy right from their birth; but for you, Dion, the gods spilled your widespread hopes upon the ground after you had triumphed in the doing of noble deeds (kalon epinikion ergon). And so in your spacious homeland you lie honored by your fellow citizens, O Dion, you who made my heart mad with love.

Of all the epigrams, this is the one most likely to be authentic if any is. Hecuba and the Trojan women, of course, is a famous tale from the aftermath of the Trojan war; Euripides has a particularly brutal telling of it. Thus the tale is associated with the loss of a city, and a fit opening for the loss of Dion and the vision of the city lost with his death. But a contrast is made between the lead-up to each disaster, since Dion's disaster occurs in the aftermath of noble works. Perhaps more interesting is the linking of thymos and eros in the last line: 'who drove mad my thymos from eros, Dion'. Thymos is that part of the soul that rises to challenges, loves victory, and seeks out difficulties to overcome. It's difficult not to think of Phaedrus or Symposium in reading of eros in this context, as well as the calmer emphasis of the Platonic Letters on the fundamental importance of friendship and companionship for the accomplishing of great things.


There are several other epigrams, often addressing or mentioning people we recognize from elsewhere: Phaedrus, Agathon, Sappho, the sculptor Praxiteles, and Aristophanes. The most famous of these is that which speaks of Sappho, since it gives us a famous description of her as the Tenth Muse:

Some say there are nine Muses. How thoughtless! Look at Sappho of Lesbos; she makes a tenth.

There are also two epigrams attributed to Plato on the deportation of the Eretrians during the Persian Wars after the Siege of Eretria, two concerning women about whom we know nothing else (Archeanassa and Lais), and some more generic pieces.

Quotations are from John M. Cooper's revision of J. M. Edmonds's translation, in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1742-1745.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Plato's Symposium

The Symposium is generally considered one of Plato's great works. It gives its own theme as ta erotika the science/art/craft of desire, eros. The dialogue has clear dramatic links to Protagoras; most of the people at this dinner party were also at that get-together. It also has thematic and dramatic links to Phaedrus and Lysis.

You can read the Symposium online in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource. C. D. C. Reeve has a good article on Plato's account of friendship at the SEP.

The Characters

In the frame narrative:

Apollodorus is mentioned in the Apology and Phaedo, and has speaking parts in Xenophon's Memorabilia and Apology. He is represented by both Plato and Xenophon as being quite an emotional person.

Apollodorus is speaking with an anonymous companion.

Glaucon is Plato's brother. Apollodorus tells of a conversation he had with Glaucon in a subdialogue in the frame narrative.

In the main narrative:

  Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum
Both Plato and Xenophon remark on his short stature; Xenophon gives him as an example of Socrates giving good advice to his close friends in Memorabilia 1.4.


  Agathon of Athens
Agathon is mentioned in Protagoras as listening to Prodicus. He is a tragic poet who has want a great victory at a festival. The major victory party was the day before, but he is still celebrating with a more intimate dinner party for friends.

  Pausanias of Cerameis
Pausanias is mentioned in Protagoras as listening to Prodicus. Pausanias is Agathon's lover, and several of the speeches are clearly designed to flatter the two.

  Aristophanes of Cydathenaeum
Aristophanes is the only person given a full speech who was not at the sophist get-together in Protagoras.

  Eryximachus of Athens
All three times Eryximachus is mentioned in Plato (Protagoras, Phaedrus, and here), he is mentioned as a friend and associate of Phaedrus. In Protagoras, he and Phaedrus are listening to Hippias.

  Phaedrus of Myrrhinus
Phaedrus is the same Phaedrus as in the dialogue of the same name. In Protagoras he is mentioned as listening to Hippias.

  Diotima of Mantinea
Diotima is not actually present, but she plays such a big role in Socrates' speech it seems appropriate to treat her as a character. She is a priestess, whom Socrates claims kept the great plague away for ten years by giving Athens good advice on sacrifices. There are a lot of Plato scholars who think she was just made up by Plato, but there seems to be no evidence at all that this is the case; it is true that this is the only source mentioning her at all, but this is not surprising. If one takes her to be a historical personage one is not, of course, committed to saying that everything Plato puts in her mouth is historical as well.

  Alcibiades of Scambonidae
Alcibiades needs no introduction, but two things are worth noting that help to indicate a pattern in the dialogue: the dialogue occurs dramatically at the height of his reputation in Athens, not long before the incident of the desecration of the herms; and he was also at the party of sophists in Protagoras.

There are, in addition, a number of slaves, revelers, and participants who are given no names.

The Plot

We begin in the middle of a discussion with Apollodorus saying that yes, he can answer the question. He remarks that the other day, he was walking to Athens when he was hailed by a Glaucon, who said that he heard a story from Phoenix about a gathering at Agathon's; but Phoenix only had a garbled version, and said Glaucon should talk to Apollodorus if he wanted to know more. Glaucon asks if Apollodorus was at the gathering in question, and Apollodorus remarks that Phoenix must have really garbled the story, because it happened years and years ago, and that he wasn't there, but only (like Phoenix) heard the story from Aristodemus, although he had checked the details with Socrates. Apollodorus then tells his interlocutor, who is never named, that he will tell the same story that he told Galucon.

Aristodemus told Apollodorus that one day he ran into Socrates, who had bathed and put on sandals, both of which were unusual events. Aristodemus remarked on it, and Socrates replied that he was invited to a dinner party at Agathon's, to celebrate the poet's victory in a recent context, so, since Agathon is a handsome man, he was making a special effort to be presentable. He invites Aristodemus along, and Aristodemus accepts the invitation, but remarks that Socrates probably should invent an excuse for bringing him, since Aristodemus is technically uninvited. So they set out together. But Socrates began thinking of something else, and kept lagging, all the while insisting that Aristodemus go on ahead. So Aristodemus arrives at the party.

Agathon welcomes Aristodemus and says that he had tried to invite him, but never could manage to hunt him down, and asks why he didnt bring Socrates? Aristodemus looks around and realizes that Socrates isn't there, and says that Socrates was behind him, but he doesn't know where he is now. Agathon sends a slave out to find him, and the slave reports back that Socrates is standing in front of the neighbor's house and will not come in. Agathon tells the slave to try again, but Aristodemus insists that Socrates does this occasionally, just standing motionless (Alcibiades will confirm this later in the dialogue). If they just let him be, he'll be along when he's ready.

They start eating, and Socrates comes in when he's halfway done; Agathon calls Socrates over to his own couch, joking that perhaps he can pick up wisdom by osmosis. Socrates sits down next to him and replies that he wished one could, because his own wisdom is of no account, but Agathon has been showing his in front of crowds.

After dinner, they pour a libation to the god, sing a hymn, and went through the other little rituals ancient Greeks did in such cases, and then Pausanias asks what they can do to make sure that they don't drink too much. Most of them were at the victory party the day before and so are not in a state for serious drinking; so they agree to drink less at their drinking party, with Eryximachus, the doctor, arguing that serious inebriation is bad for the health. Eryximachus also goes on to propose a way to pass the time. Phaedrus is always remarking that of all the gods, Eros is shortchanged, because not many hymns are made to him. Thus, Eryximachus suggests, they should, starting with Phaedrus, each give a speech in praise of Eros. Socrates agrees quite enthusiastically:

"No one will vote against that, Eryximachus," said Socrates. "How could I vote 'No,' when the only thing I say I understand is the art of love? Could Agathon and Pausanias? Could Aristophanes, who thinks of nothing but Dionysius and Aphrodite? No one I can see here now could vote against your proposal.

"And though it's not quite fair to those of us who have to speak last, if the first speeches turn out to be good enough and to exhaust our subject, I promise we won't complain. So let Phaedrus begin, with the blessing of Fortune; let's hear his praise of Love" (177d-e)

Then Phaedrus gives his speech. Apollodorus says that after Phaedrus, several people spoke, but Aristodemus couldn't remember their speeches. Pausanias goes next. After Pausanias, Aristophanes is supposed to go, but he has the hiccups. Eryximachus recommends a series of hiccup cures -- hold his breath as long as possible, or, if that doesn't work, gargle thoroughly, or, if that doesn't work, make himself sneeze by tickling his nose with a feather -- and offers to go in his place. We are, of course, to imagine that the entire time Eryximachus is giving his speech, Aristophanes is right next to him holding his breath until he turns blue, then gargling and gargling, with hiccups the entire time, and finally by the end of the speech is tickling his nose with a feather to make himself sneeze. Aristophanes has a brilliant speech next. Agathon is next. After Agathon goes, Socrates questions him until Agathon admits that he had no idea what he was talking about when he was praising Eros. Then Socrates begins his speech, which has a speech within the speech, since it is a narrative of his interaction with a priestess, Diotima of Mantinea, in which she teaches him the true nature of Eros. Everyone applauds the speech. In the course of Socrates' speech, Diotima happened to criticize Aristophanes' speech, so it's unsurprising that Aristophanes tries (unsuccessfully) to raise his voice over the noise of the applause to respond to Socrates (perhaps by pointing out that Diotima years before could not possibly have known Aristophanes' story!), and before he can do any respounding, a loud and noisy party of revelers comes crashing into the party, headed by Alcibiades, drunk as a lord and wearing a crown of violets and ivy (212e).

Aristophanes sits on Agathon's couch in order to put his own crown on him, but then discovers (he is, after all, drunk) that Socrates is there, too. Alcibiades insists that they all should drink until they are drunk, or, at least, until everyone except Socrates is drunk, since Socrates can drink without ever getting drunk. Eryximachus lets him in on what they have been doing, and insists that he give his own encomium of Eros. Alcibiades agrees but insists on giving an encomium of Socrates. After the speech, Socrates jokes that Alcibiades is just jealous of the relationship between Socrates and Agathon, and insists that Alcibiades let him praise Agathon. Agathon moves over to hear what Socrates has to say, but at this point another large crowd of drunken revelers comes crashing in, and a number of people, including Eryximachus and Phaedrus, excuse themselves. Aristodemus fell asleep, and only woke up at dawn. Then he saw that Agathon, Aristophanes, and Socrates are the only ones who are still awake and talking, although Agathon and Aristophanes are nodding off. Aristodemus couldn't remember the details of their conversation,b ut he did remember that Socrates was trying to convince Agathon (the tragic poet) and Aristophanes (the comic poet) that the skillful tragic poet should also be a comic poet. When they other two fall asleep in the middle of his argument, Socrates leaves, Aristodemus trailing behind; and Socrates goes straight to the Lyceum to wash up, then spent the day exactly as he always did.

The Thought

Given the number of speeches, there is obviously a great deal in this dialogue. Some people suggest that there is a sort of progression in the speeches, although I haven't come across any suggestions that are strikingly plausible. It is nonetheless true that each speech contributes something, and that they provide mutual corrections for each other. Phaedrus introduces the idea that Eros is powerful for gaining virtue and happiness (180b) and that Eros is high and good; Pausanias distinguishes a higher Eros, concerned with the soul, from a vulgar Eros, concerned with the body (183e); Eryximachus links Eros with health, harmony, and order; Aristophanes introduces the idea that Eros is "our pursuit of wholeness" and "our desire to be complete" (192e); Agathon introduces the idea that we need to determine first what the qualities of Eros are if we are to talk properly of what Eros does in human beings (194e-195a). Each one (especially that of Aristophanes) could be studied in detail; in particular, looking at the positive contributions and the ironies (e.g., the fact that Pausanias' speech is clearly self-interested, since he is implicitly praising the relationship between himself and Agathon). But as these are in a sense setting up for the speeches of Socrates and Alcibiades, we can move on directly to those.

Socrates attributes to the priestess Diotima his own view of Eros; deliberately ironic, perhaps, given that the role of women in Eros has been pretty limited up to this point -- Phaedrus mentions how Alcestis is rewarded for love even though she was a woman (179b) and Aristophanes insists that his account of Eros applies to men and women alike (193c), but neither Eryximachus nor Agathon bring women in at all, and Pausanias explicitly consigns women entirely to the common or vulgar Eros (181b) and even then only talks about the desire of men for women. According to Diotima, all the other speakers are wrong in thinking Eros to be a god. He is not, because if Eros were a god he would have everything he needs in himself. Eros is instead a daemon, and intermediary spirit between the gods and the human race, partaking something of the nature of both. Likewise, all the previous speakers are wrong in thinking that Eros is beautiful and good. He is not ugly and bad, but a third kind of thing: a drive to the beautiful and good, and which is not ugly and bad, but also by its very nature cannot be regarded as fully in possession of beauty and goodness (otherwise there would be no need for a drive toward, or pursuit of, them). Eros is, so to speak, a direction or orientation to what is beautiful and good rather than that beautiful and good that is its object. This makes Eros a lot like a philosopher, in fact, and this is exactly what Diotima argues: Eros is a philosopher (204b), because philosophers are not fools but they are not properly in possession of wisdom either, being seekers and pursuers of it.

Now, everyone, in fact, has this drive to the good and beautiful, this desire for having the good forever, but we can discern different kinds of ways people act on this. A particular version of this drive is especially suitably regarded as Eros: that which involves "giving birth in beauty, whether in body or in soul" (206b). It is certainly not insignificant that it is only Socrates up to this point who has indicated that Eros in and of itself has any connection with fruitfulness; indeed, he says (what it is difficult even to imagine the other speakers saying) that it is because of its connection with giving birth that the union of man and woman in Eros is a divine affair (206c). Giving birth is the immortality of a mortal creature, a divine thing found in harmony. Thus Eros is in a sense not even love of beauty as such; it is a drive toward birth in beauty (tokos in kaloi). It is only through giving birth, through fruitfulness, that any mortal thing can be said in any way to have the good forever; thus it is this that Eros seeks.

But fruitfulness can be in soul as well as body. Our souls have a desire, an Eros, to give birth in beauty just as much as our bodies do; they give birth to logoi about virtue and virtues themselves. Thus that person who has the version of Eros that is particularly marked out as suitable for the name will begin early with Eros for beautiful bodies, first starting with the beauty of one body, and then recognizing that the beauty of all bodies is the same (210b). Then the lover must rise above this, recognizing that beauty of soul is far better than beauty of body, first seeing the beauty of works and laws, then the beauty of knowledge, and through this, coming to gaze upon "the great sea of beauty" (210d). In doing so, he will come through unselfish philosophy to give birth to reasonings and, ultimately, to knowledge. And only when someone looks at, to have knowledge of, the beautiful itself can one give birth to true virtue, and attain a kind of divine immortality.

This would be a resounding note on which to end, but, of course, we do not end on it. Alcibiades gives his speech, and Alcibiades insists that he will only give a praise of Socrates. Alcibiades says that Socrates is like a satyr, like Silenus (teacher of the wine-god Dionysus) or Marsyas (according to myth one of the greatest musicians of all time). Like Silenus statues, Socrates is ugly on the outside, but inside has little figurines; and Socrates's figurines are so beautiful as to be divine (217a). Alcibiades relates how, after having seen some of Socrates' inner beauty, he pursued Socrates, only to be put off by him, and gives accounts of Socrates at the battles of Potidaea and Delium. He says that Socrates' arguments ar elike this, too:

Come to think of it, I should have mentioned this much earlier: even his ideas and arguments are just like those hollow statues of Silenus. If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they'd strike you as totally ridiculous; they're clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He's always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he's always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you'd find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments. But if you see them when they open up like the statues, if you go behind their surface, you'll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They're truly worth of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They're of great -- no, of the greatest -- importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man. (221d-222a)

Thus a complete account of Eros requires an account of Socrates himself; the one thing, perhaps, that Socrates himself cannot spend much of his speech providing. But drunken Alcibiades, playing Dionysus to Socrates' Silenus, can complete the picture: now, perhaps, we know what it means to say that Eros is a philosopher. But we readers can notice that Alcibiades in fact never does what would be required (indeed, what Socrates almost outright told him would be required) to win the love of Socrates: he would need to transform himself so that he too was beautiful with virtue inside.


Quotations are from Plato, Symposium, Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, translators, Hackett (Indianapolis: 1989).