Monthly Archives: December 2015

Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.


Aristotle on the Soul

In our modern era a book titled “Of the Soul” could be nothing but a theological work and, without thinking, I assumed that that’s what I would be reading when I started Aristotle’s De Anima. I quickly realized, though, that this work is primarily concerned with biology. Unlike Plato’s Phaedo, for example, which is also largely concerned with the soul, there is no consideration of how an individual’s moral conduct (or lack thereof) affects there soul, or how the soul’s condition relates to virtue. There are only passing references to the afterlife: Aristotle argues that a particular soul is shaped or fitted to a particular creature, and can not be transferred to another, thus refuting the Pythagorean notion of transmigration. He doubts whether a soul could can survive outside the body at all. One gets the impression, however, that both points are secondary to his main inquiry.

To Aristotle, the “soul” is nothing more or less than the essence which makes a creature alive. In a characteristically teleological Aristotelian formulation the soul is the “final cause” of the body or, conversely, the purpose of the body is to be an “organ of the soul”.

The book begins with a lengthy literature review in which Aristotle mentions previous work on the soul by Plato and many other philosophers, mostly dismissing their theories on the basis of logical errors or because they are so abstract as to be ridiculous (e.g. those theories that attempt to prove that the soul is number or geometrical figure). The remaining two thirds of the book contains a detailed examination of each of the four attributes that Aristotle identifies as belonging to different orders of besouled creatures. The first, with belongs to all life forms, is nutrition and reproduction. That is, it has a way of taking in food and using that food to continue its existence through offspring. The second, which belongs only to animals, is sensation. The third, which belongs only to higher animals, is local movement. Aristotle also hypothesizes that appetite is a necessary condition for local movement and imagination for appetite, so all three attributes will necessarily be found together. Finally, humans alone, of all besouled creatures known to Aristotle, have the attribute of reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.


As is typically the case with Aristotle’s scientific works, De Anima is well organized and the conclusions are logical based on the facts he had to work with. Numerous details are completely wrong because of his reliance on the “four elements” model of physical science and lack of all but the most basic scientific instruments. Nonetheless, at least from a biological point of view, his general definition of the soul and the attributes of organisms with souls still seem perfectly plausible.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.


Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

What is Knowledge? Plato’s Theaetetus

In Theaetetus Plato plunges into epistemology, the theory of knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we know things? How do we really know what reality is? and similar questions are the topics of discussion.

The dialog opens with a flashback to Socrates, at the end of his life shortly before his trial, talking to the geometer Theodorus about his current pupils. Theodorus tells Socrates that one, Theaetetus, shows particular promise. The youth arrives on the scene and Socrates decides to test him dialectically. After some preliminary banter, he asks Theatetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus initially starts by listing different kinds of knowledge such as geometry, calculation, shoe making, and others. After some prompting from Socrates, he states that knowledge is perception. Socrates accepts this provisionally but points out that different observers perceive things differently. Does this mean that knowledge is relative? This begins a section which introduces the debate between objectivism and subjectivism which has been a perennial question of Western philosophy. According to most of the pre-Socratic philosophers, including Protagoras, Heracleitus, and Empedocles, reality is not only relative but in a state of constant flux, so knowledge about reality is also relative and mutable.

"Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2" by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

“Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2 (on Luna)” by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

This argument is the precursor not only to later Epicurean theories of the universe, such as we read about in Lucretius, but also foreshadows both postmodern theories of subjectivism and much of modern physics including thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory. For example, the passage,

Yes, Theaetetus, and there are plenty of other proofs which will show that motion is the source of what is called being and becoming, and inactivity of not-being and destruction; for fire and warmth, which are supposed to be the parent and guardian of all things, are born of movement and of friction, which is a kind of motion;–is not this then the origin of fire?

Expresses at least the glimmerings of an intuitive understanding of the laws of thermodynamics.

Socrates leads Theaetetus to explore the implications of these ideas further. He also introduces the point that mad men and dreamers see things that are not there, so perception does not necessarily lead to true knowledge. This struck me as interesting, since at the same time I was reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, in which the main character certainly seems to gain knowledge from events which occur only in his own mind. Be that as it may, however, Socrates’ arguments are more than enough to force Theaetetus to rescind his definition of knowledge as perception.

Socrates then steers the dialog into a discussion of the nature of memory. What about a man who has obtained true knowledge but then forgets or makes mistakes based on that knowledge?

At this point, Theaetetus needs a little help and, at the urging of Theodorus, begins to argue the opposite position. Among other things, he mentions the point that while all men might perceive things differently, wiser men and those with reason and specialized training in the subject at hand, are more likely to perceive correctly and gain true knowledge.

Socrates has another trick to spring, though, when leads Theaetetus to explore the question “What is perception?” and points out that sensory inputs are meaningless until processed by the mind (soul). He then asks about abstract concepts which can not be perceived with the senses. Theaetetus soon agrees that “[K]nowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained[.]”

If knowledge is actually a sort of opinion, though, what about false opinions? This line of inquiry leads them back into an exploration of memory, since failure of memory is one possible cause of false opinions. This leads them back into deep waters. Socrates then points out that they have not adequately defined the verb “to know”, nor the concept of “false opinion”. With these points clarified he leads the boy on another discussion in which they define knowledge as “a way of understanding something by understanding it’s component parts.”

From this position, Socrates introduces yet a third conception of knowledge, understanding things by understanding the differences between them. But after discussing this, they conclude,

But how utterly foolish, when we are asking what is knowledge, that the reply should only be, right opinion with knowledge of difference or of anything! And so, Theatetus, knowledge is neither sensation nor true opinion, nor yet definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion?”

Since the definition itself includes the word “knowledge” and is thus circular. However, even though they have failed to provide the definition for which they were seeking, they are better for the attempt itself. Socrates then leaves for his indictment before the king archon, possibly never to see Theaetetus again.

Never mentioned explicitly, yet ever present in the dialog, is Plato’s theory of ideas. Plato believed that even though the material world is indeed mutable, imperfect, and subjective, everything in it partakes of perfect ideals or ideas which are unchanging and objective. Perhaps Socrates doesn’t bring up the theory of ideas because he wants to see if Theatetus will discover the concept on his own. Perhaps Plato is simply trying to keep the dialog to a manageable size and complexity. Or perhaps the state of epistemology conveyed in the dialog is actually as far as Socrates ever got on the subject, and this particular dialog is meant to express the master’s views without Plato’s later additions.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse cover image

Steppenwolf is an easy book to write about; the semiotics are so strong, the tropes are so plentiful, and the plot so powerful, that a critic has a wealth of material to seize on. At the same time, like all great works, it contains paradoxes and ambiguities which make it difficult or impossible to sum up the “meaning” or main idea of the book. Hesse himself, who lived to see the age of postmodern criticism, wrote that it was a “poetic work” in which the reader should find his own meanings. In the same author’s note, however, he states,

Yet it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more frequently and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly.

By these words we can infer that he did indeed have an objective message in mind and that he felt that at least some readers would be able to discover it.

The book is set in Weimer Republic Germany between the World Wars. It is a time of political and cultural uncertainty in which many of the old ideals and cultural norms no longer seem relevant. While the bourgeoisie, the class least affected by ideals and culture, continue their stolid lives, relatively unaffected, the rest of the society is adrift and devotes their lives to vice and transient material pleasures–living for the day because they know that the next war will start soon and be even more horrible than the last one. In this setting we find Harry Haller, a middle-aged intellectual who is almost completely alienated from his society, thoroughly lonely, and deeply depressed. Unable to form lasting relationships and convinced that the high culture he loves is dead, Haller repeatedly considers suicide but lacks the courage to go through with it. Haller’s life changes when he meets a “courtesan of moderately good taste” named Hermine. Hermine makes it her project to teach Haller to enjoy life, forcing him to learn to dance and engage himself with the beau monde of the city, associating with party girls, jazz musicians, and others whom he would never have approached on his own.

The book can be understood in various ways. Most literally, it is the story of a man’s mid-life crises. Like all of Hesse’s novels, it is partially autobiographical. Hesse wrote the book when he was fifty years old an “dealing with the problems of that age”. And so, the book is at least partially the story of a man who is approaching fifty who feels like his life has been wasted and compensates by dating younger women and trying to fit in on the modern musical scene. On a slightly deeper level, it is a case study in paranoid schizophrenia. Haller is far from “sane” in the conventional sense. Right up to the end of the book it is unclear which characters and events are real and which exist in his own mind. The word “schizomania” appears several times in the text and Haller himself excuses himself at one point by explaining that he is a “schizomaniac”. The parallels with other works treating with schizophrenia, such as A Beautiful Mind are quite obvious.

Beyond these interpretations, however, Steppenwolf is fundamentally an investigation into the concept of personality. All men, particularly men of genius, have personalities made up of many facets or aspects. Haller, who is still dealing with his divorce, is having trouble with his long distance relationship, has recently been fired from his writing job for his political views, and has moved to a city where he has no close friends, is clearly under massive stress. In this situation he is forced to integrate the various aspects of his personality or go mad.

This is far from easy, because his mind is occupied by a number of “people” who aren’t necessarily compatible. One of these is Harry Haller The Man, who is the somewhat artificial personality that Haller tries to present to the world. Shaped by bourgeoisie norms and long education, The Man is the least flexible (and likable) of Haller’s personalities. Opposed to The Man is The Steppenwolf, which represents both Haller’s animal nature and his individuality. The Steppenwolf is dangerous, because there is no place for him in civilized society but he gives Haller the strength to stand up for his convictions about the war and other issues. The beautiful and sensual Maria represents the part of Haller that loves freely and lives for pleasure, as well as the feminine part of his nature. This personality is initially completely suppressed, but waxes stronger as the book goes on. The wise and androgynous Hermine is Haller’s aspirational self. She represents mature sexuality and a balance of sensuality in which one pays for one’s pleasures but enjoys them unreservedly. She also represents religion, which used to be a factor in his life and will be again. Pablo, the brilliant young jazz musician who never talks about music but only plays it, represents Haller’s artistic soul–true art, not The Man’s dry intellectual analysis of art–and his emotions. He keeper of the “Magic Theater” i.e. Haller’s subconscious mind. Only by “meeting” each of these aspects and following the relationships between them through to their conclusions can Haller integrate the best parts of each of them into his core personality.

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Max von Sydow and Dominique Sanda as Haller and Hermine in the 1974 movie adaptation of Steppenwolf

Major Tropes and Themes

Unification of Eastern and Western Thought – Like most of Hesse’s middlew and late works, Steppenwolf is infused with several ideas from Buddhism. Haller himself is represented as being a scholar of Eastern religion and it is implied that the ultimate end of his process of self discovery is to extinguish the self so as to become one with the all, a very Eastern concept.

Man is Never the Same Over Time – Haller at first seems like a static character, who has always been as he is now. It soon becomes apparent that he has changed greatly over time and is still changing. As Horace said, “Non sum homo eram” (I am not the man I used to be). His quest for self awareness and actualization is thus a never-ending process.

The “Real Man” – Society creates artificial men who are conformist and hypocritical. Real men are individualist and pursue their drives, particularly sexual drives, naturally and without guilt. Compare T.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from the same period, particularly the character Oliver Mellors. The real men often feel that they should have been born in a different time and place.

Conflict Between Intellectuals and the Bourgeoisie – Intellectuals can see the way things “ought to be” but the bourgeoisie won’t listen. As much as the intellectuals rebel, they can never completely escape their own bourgeoisie roots.

The Fine Line Between Genius and Madness – One of the most memorable monologues of the book contains the lines, “[M]any persons pass for normal, and indeed for highly valuable members of society, who are incurably mad; and many, on the other hand, are looked upon as mad who are geniuses.”

Substance Abuse to Suppress the Personality – Many of us writers, especially, have chosen to sedate our personalities with alcohol and other drugs rather than dealing with them, as Haller does early in the book.

The Inevitability of Death (and War) – Everyone dies, and all societies eventually go to war. It is useless for men to try to oppose these forces; they must learn to accept them.

Suicide as an Ongoing Process – Suicide has bad and good sides. On the one hand it can be a cowardly escape. On the other, it can represent killing the ego to seek enlightenment. In either case, it represents and ongoing decision or commitment to kill ones personality and actual physical death is strictly ancillary.

Parmenides of Plato

The Parmenides is Plato’s account of a meeting between the Italian-Greek philosopher Parmenides, then a venerable sage of sixty-five, and a young Socrates. Unlike earlier dialogues, which tended to focus on a particular topic, usually some aspect of virtue, it is not completely clear what Plato was trying to accomplish in the Parmenides. It is clear that Plato held Parmenides himself in high esteem, even though he would have been too young to have met him personally. A simple wish to memorialize him would not have been enough reason for him to write a dialog, however–particularly one as technical as this one. It is possible that he meant it as some sort of teaching aid for the dialectal method, but this also seems unlikely since there are so many good examples of dialectic in his earlier works. In addition, this is not the best written or most dramatic of Plato’s works. It flows awkwardly and the characters are poorly developed. It is easy to see why this has traditionally been one of the less popular Platonic dialogues with readers. So is this just an example of mid-career slump, or is there a deeper message to be gained?

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides' Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides’ Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

The dialog begins in a somewhat convoluted manner as a recollection by Cephalus of a recollection by Adeimantus (Plato’s older half-brother) of the meeting. Parmenides and Zeno are in town and Socrates and his friends have gone to see Zeno recite one of his own dialogues. Afterward, Socrates begins asking questions and, in the course of the conversation, starts arguing for an early version of his (Plato’s?) theory of ideas. Parmenides breaks in and offers several objections which Socrates is unable to answer. He then advises the young philosopher to be more rigorous in exploring all the implications of his hypotheses to their ultimate conclusion. Socrates then convinces Parmenides to provide a demonstration of his dialectal methods which he does, with Adeimantus as interlocutor.

Zeno has been speaking about “the One” (as opposed to “the Many”) so Parmenides chooses to examine the null hypothesis “The One does not exist”. There follows a rather long and tortuous dialog, the main structure of which are summarized in Jowett’s preface to his translation of the dialog):

1. One is.
2. One is not.
If one is, it is nothing.
If one is not, it is everything.

But is and is not may be taken in two senses:

Either one is one,
Or, one has being,

from which opposite consequences are deduced,
1.a. If one is one, it is nothing.
1.b. If one has being, it is all things.

To which are appended two subordinate consequences:
1.aa. If one has being, all other things are. If one is one, all other things are not.

The same distinction is then applied to the negative hypothesis:
2.a. If one is not one, it is all things.
2.b. If one has not being, it is nothing.

Involving two parallel consequences respecting the other or remainder:
2.aa. If one is not one, other things are all. If one has not being, other things are not.

This is barely more easy to follow than the dialog itself. In the end, though, Parmenides proves that the one must exist:

Parmenides: Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is
not, then nothing is?

Adeimantus: Certainly.

Parmenides: Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Adeimantus: Most true.

We are told that after this Adeimantus gave up philosophy and focused on training horses.

The existence of “The One” or Unity is certainly an important part of number theory and (much later) abstract algebra, but I don’t think Plato had math on his mind when he decided to write this dialog. We don’t know as much about Parmenides as we would like, but it seems from what we do know that his primary interest was cosmology. “The One” has a central place in Platonic and neo-Platonic cosmology as the First Hypostasis of the godhead: The One, The First Existant, The Unknowable, Infinite Unity which Christian theologians would eventually equate with The Father.

The first half of the dialog might have been a chance to memorialize a respected philosopher, but I think that Plato, who was himself turning more to metaphysics and cosmology in his later career, deliberately used the second half of the dialog to record an important proof that he knew would be useful in later work by himself and his students.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

Automatic Indexing of LaTex Documents

A couple weeks ago I mentioned in a post that I was working on a Python script to automatically generate indexes of books written in the LaTex typesetting system.  At the time I promised to post the script in “a couple of days”.  Predictably, weeks have passed, my little script has ballooned into a full on open-source software project, and the code is now too long to post (or explain) in a single blog article.  If you’re interested, however, you can now download my alpha release from sourceforge.

The package includes two Python programs.  Indexmeister is a console utility which reads a file (in several formats, not just LaTex) and suggests terms for indexing.  It uses three different methods to figure out which terms are important.  Imbrowse is a Curses program which helps you interactively browse multi-file LaTex books and quickly insert the right tags to generate an index.

I made this video tutorial to show how the system works:

In the future I am thinking of adding a plug-in for LibreOffice, and possibly a graphical interface (probably using GTK bindings). Porting it to Windoze is not a priority, however.