Category Archives: Essays

On The Nature of the Universe by Titus Lucretius Carus

On the Nature of the Universe (aka Of the Nature of Things) book cover, Penguin edition

The entire universe is constantly moving. Objects, images, even souls are really unending streams of atoms, eternally reconfiguring themselves. Everything contains the seeds of its own creation and destruction. No sooner have the atoms assumed a form than it starts to decay–whether that thing is a person, a world, or a universe. This is the world view of first century Epicureanism, which the poet Lucretius tried to spread to the masses by casting it in the form of a book-length philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura. As a poem, it was apparently a hit when it was published posthumously about 55 BCE (possibly after having been edited by Cicero, although this story is usually considered apocryphal). Nonetheless, Epicureanism never really took off in the Roman Empire. The claims that there was no afterlife, nothing except matter, and that the gods, if they existed, had no interaction with the world of men, held no resonance with the people. The takeaway point, that the philosopher should live simply, enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding ambition and the pursuit of wealth, was anathema to Roman society, which was, if possible, even more bourgeoisie than our own. Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophies of Rome, until both were replaced (and largely absorbed by) Christianity.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and their fellows were centuries before their time; it was not until Spinoza, their natural scion, rediscovered and built upon their ideas in the 16th century that Western Civilization began to seriously incorporate these ideas in its main stream of thought.

In Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, George Santayana writes the Epicurus was primarily a moral philosopher who adopted and adapted the natural philosophy of Democritus to support his moral platform, “Epicurus, the Herbert Spencer of antiquity, was in his natural philosophy an encyclopaedia of second-hand knowledge.”  Lucretius, on the other hand, puts the natural philosophy in the foreground in his poem, striving to present a well justified, internally consistent system–a grand unified theory, if you will. When I read it, I was surprised how many things he got right, well before his time. For instance, his understanding of air resistance is fairly sophisticated. He also correctly identified smells as being composed of tiny particles which slowly diffused through the air. He was half right when he advanced a similar explanation for light (photons sometimes behave like a particle, and sometimes like a wave depending on circumstances) but makes up for it by correctly arguing that light will move faster in a vacuum than in a medium like air or water. He also correctly identifies that the shapes of particles are an important determinant of the physical properties of substances. At times he brushes tantalizingly close to a notion of entropy.

Of course he gets plenty of things wrong, mainly because he is mistaken about some of his fundamental axioms. For instance, his anatomy suffers from the fact that he thinks the mind is lodged in the upper abdomen. He does not question that the earth is the center of the solar system. Most importantly, because he feels everything is made up of matter, he advances completely erroneous explanations for many phenomena which really involve energy. For example, he believes that lightning is a concentrated form of the kind of matter which is found in fire. He sees the human brain as being composed of a multitude of microscopic moving particles which shift around rapidly, sort of like a very complex pachinko machine.  He believes that magnets extrude microscopic fibers of iron to entangle other iron pieces. He believes that what we would call chemical bonds are caused by a physical hooking together of the shapes of atoms. Many of these errors were unavoidable, however, since he had no instruments with which to detect energy or fundamental forces. And on one level he was absolutely correct: Einstein would eventually prove, with his famous E=mc2, that everything is matter, or at least convertible into matter.

Despite these occasional quaint misconceptions, On the Nature of Things is a fascinating piece of work. To me, the epicurean viewpoint is much more intuitive that that of Plato and Aristotle, whose books I have recently been studying. I attribute this to the fact that, since my early training was in engineering, I have taken quite a few science classes in my life, so it is very easy for me to slip into the materialist/naturalist viewpoint. Then again, Spinoza–who, as I said, is the Epicureans philosophical heir–has long been one of my favorite philosophers. That being said, I find that I just can’t accept Lucretius’ contention that there is nothing beyond the material world. As fabulous and infinite as the universe (multiverse?) is, I just can’t accept that this is all there is. Lucretius seems to have been unquestioning in his atheism. For myself–even if I were not a Christian–I just find it hard to be that sure about anything.

Note About Editions:

Lucretius’ original poem was written in Latin in dactylic hexameter, a meter which isn’t compatible with English (or Latin, really–Lucretius literally couldn’t use certain words and phrases because they wouldn’t fit). English translations are either in verse or prose. The poetry translations give more of a sense of the original experience, but the prose translations are much easier to read. Project Gutenberg has William Leornards’ blank verse translation. Penguin’s prose translation (by Ronald Latham) is sold as On the Nature of the Universe. It would be preferable, of course, to read the poem in the original language, but that would require a better recollection of high school Latin than I can boast.

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Off to Grad School Again: The Second Essay

The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.

Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.

Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.

With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.

Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.

Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.

Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.

Writing From Your Subconcious

Where do stories come from?  For the past few weeks I’ve been a little stuck on my current nonfiction book.  This is unfortunate, but it has given me time to workshop and revise several short stories and fiction chapters write new ones.  Since I have been hopping around in a portfolio of pieces rather than focusing on a single piece it has given me an interesting chance to compare and contrast a cross-section of my work.  One of the things that I have noticed is that I have at least three discrete mechanisms for generating story ideas.

Writing From Experience – I have been working on a novel off an on for the past five years.  While it is definitely a work of fiction, not a memoir, it is set in the Mountain Northwest, where I grew up, and is inspired by events which I participated in or heard about in my twenties.  The challenges have been to impose a coherent and interesting plot on a series of what would otherwise be unrelated vignettes and to remix the character traits of a large group of real people into a smaller group of fictional characters.  I’m currently happy with the state of the project, yet I suspect I have done more work than if I had created a plot and setting from scratch.

Writing from Concepts – Sometimes, and particularly when I write SpecFic, I start with a particular concept and build a story around it.  For instance, I might be reading one of the histories on my Great Books List and ask myself “How would this story have been different it <historical figure> was actually a disguised alien from another dimension?”  or I might read about a new technology on the science blogs and decide to write a story about it.  In this case, the plot is designed to showcase the idea and the characters are created because the plot requires them.  It is still easier than writing from experience, because I have free rein to do what I want with the story structure.  The challenge, though, is to avoid a result that feels contrived or artificial.

Writing from the Subconscious – By “the subconscious”, I mainly mean dreams.  Looking at my fiction output over the past four years, I realize that the majority of my stories originated as dream sequences.  I have always had extremely vivid dreams and I am often able to remember them when I wake.  This method has the advantage that I essentially get to start with a complete, or at least nearly complete, story which I need only write down to have a first draft.  The challenge of this method is that, since the dreaming mind works in a multi-threaded mode, a particular dream will often have several different stories overlaid in one sequence and it can be difficult to separate them.  I often write down one of these dream stories only to realize that the resulting piece has two or three unrelated stories running through it.  Still, as time goes on this increasingly becomes my preferred method of story generation and I will focus on it for the remainder of this essay.

In his Sandman series Neil Gaiman, possibly the most “meta” of all living SpecFic authors, returns repeatedly to the idea of stories coming from dreams.  His protagonist Morpheus has the sobriquet “Lord of Stories” and has the power to send dreams to mortals to inspire them to artistic greatness, or even to punish authors by driving them insane by sending them more story ideas than they can physically write down. In his introduction to the second Sandman TPB, Clive Barker contends that Gaiman is special because he is able to write in a state of consciousness between dreaming and waking. To me, this seems to be the ideal to aspire to as a dream inspired writer.

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Devian Art]

Morpheus the Sandman. Miguel Regodon [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 via Deviant Art]

Of course Neil Gaiman is hardly the only famous writer to use dream techniques.  H.P. Lovecraft was well known for it and, like Gaiman, frequently used if for a theme in his works.  This is elegantly expressed in his story Celephais, among many others.  In this story the characters “money and lands were gone, and he did not care for the ways of the people about him, but preferred to dream and  write if his dreams,” clearly a sentiment held in some measure by Lovecraft himself.  Or consider the later work of James Joyce, particularly Finnegan’s Wake, which is essentially one long, raw dream sequence.

Nor are writers the only ones who can benefit from dream inspiration.  The Indian mystic Srinivasa Ramanujan, possibly the most brilliant mathematician of the 20th century.  Ramanujan is far less famous than he deserves for two reasons.  First, because he had almost no access to the work of Western mathematicians in his early career he was forced to derive a hundred years worth of mathematical theory independently, leaving him less time to create new work.  Second, he died in his early thirties.  During the few years he spent at Cambridge before his death, however, Ramanujan wrote down hundreds of theorems, nearly all of which came to him in dreams.  Now, a century later, physicists and mathematicians are still studying and struggling to understand his notebooks, which may hold the keys to unlocking the mysteries of string theory and other “21st century” mathematics.

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

Srinivasa Ramanujan [CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikiquote]

So how does one get started?  There is a large body of material available on lucid dreaming, and I will not try to recreate it here.  However, I will try to convey a few pointers for a writer who wants to start tapping into subconscious dream states for inspiration.

Mindfully remember your dreams and write them down.  All writers about lucid dreaming agree that this step is critical.  When you wake up in the morning, before you even get out of bed, take a few moments to concentrate on remembering as much as you possibly can about your dreams.  Write it down in a dream journal as soon as possible.  Avoid censuring yourself at this stage or trying to force your dreams into a story plot; there is plenty of time for that later when you mine your dream journal for story ideas.

Employee conscious programming when you go to sleep.  If you are already working on a project, especially if it is giving you problems, it is helpful to spend a few minutes before sleep calling it to mind so it will be easily available for your subconscious to work on.  If you do not have a current project then review your dreams of the previous night, or simply clear your mind and concentrate on an intention such as “Tonight I will have wonderful, vivid dreams and in the morning I will remember them.”  This step works even better if it is combined with a nightly meditation practice or if you assume a light autohypnotic trance first.

Get enough sleep.  It sounds obvious, but the more you sleep, the more you will dream.  I had great difficulty convincing myself that my afternoon siesta was part of my writing “work”.  When I finally accepted it, though, I found that I get some of my best dream ideas during this period.  Periodically sleeping in is also helpful.

Become familiar with meditation and autohypnosis.  The more experience you have functioning in altered states of consciousness, and especially in alpha and beta brain states, the more comfort and control you will have when you are actually dreaming–eventually leading to an ability to control your dreams and focus on particular aspects which interest you.  The two practices are very similar.  Meditation is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state and clearing your mind so as to temporarily lose your sense of self and become one with the universe.  Autohypnosis is a process of assuming a low frequency mental state so that you can access deeply buried memories or issue suggestions and instructions to your subconscious.  I think of autohypnosis as being similar to dropping to a command line interface on a computer so I can launch background tasks or read system files.  Numerous books and classes are available to learn both practices, so I won’t attempt to offer specific instructions here.  The best advice I can give, though, is that the more you engage in a practice, the easier and more natural it will become for you.

Be extremely cautious with psychedelic drugs.  Drugs can be a shortcut to the sort of altered states which are reached with dreaming, meditation and hypnosis.  In general, repeated drug use breaks down certain barriers between the conscious and subconscious, which can lead to more vivid dreams.  However, there is a massive risk that you will become dependent on the drugs and not be able to write without them.  Add in the possible health and legal risks, and experimentation with psychedelics can be a VERY BAD IDEA.  That being said, there are certain circumstances in which psychedelic drug use can be justified, but only for specific reasons and under the guidance of a qualified Shaman or other practitioner.  You should never use them habitually or without a guide who knows what they are doing.  And remember trying to justify recreational drug use as being beneficial to your art is just sad.  Remember the words of the band Alabama 3, “The righteous truth is, there ain’t nothin’ worse than some fool lyin’ on some third world beach in spandex psychedelic trousers smokin’ damn dope and pretending he gettin’ consciousness expansion.”

In conclusion, dreams can be a wonderful source of story ideas for a writer and anyone who makes a conscious effort can improve the quality, quantity, and recall of their dreams.  Dream on!

American Politics According to Kevin

Before I begin, I must make a confession:  I rarely follow day-to-day American politics.  Not only do I find most of the developments tediously predictable, but the vast majority of the commentary–whether from the media or by individuals on social media–is so ignorant that I can barely read it.  That being said, I am aware that there is an election coming up.  In anticipation of that event, and particularly for those who live abroad or are newcomers to our country, I thought I might lay out some basic notes on the American political landscape as I understand it.

Conservatives vs Liberals

With certain rare (and ultimately unimportant) exceptions the US only ever has two main political factions.  While the names change, and are occasionally traded, they aren’t really important.  It is better to think of them as a Conservative faction and a Liberal faction.  Most Americans have no idea what the two factions stand for, yet are quick to label themselves as one or the other.  Many people are under the impression that these labels have something to do with fiscal policy, that Conservatives prefer to pay smaller taxes and receive less from the government, whereas liberals are willing to pay more in return for more.  In reality, there are very few true fiscal Conservatives left in the US.  The population, despite denying it loudly, is overwhelmingly in favor of big government.  Regardless of which faction or sub-faction they belong to, however, they all feel that they should pay smaller taxes and members of other factions should pay more.

The real issue is change (in any form).  Conservatives favor actions which will prevent change.  Liberals favor actions to accelerate change.  Unfortunately, the assumption that a political party can control change is completely unfounded.  All of the evidence of history is that change happens on its own, regardless of human interference.  The only real choices are whether to ignore it or embrace it.

The climate is changing, and always has been since the Earth was formed.  It is irrelevant whether these changes are man-made (although the overwhelming scientific evidence points this way).  The only choice is whether to ignore climate change or to make other changes to adapt.

Culture is changing.  Conservatives would rather believe that there is a static American culture and that any deviations from this norm are aberrations which need to be corrected.  History shows us, however, that a culture only stops changing when it is dead.  Liberals would rather engage in social engineering to change culture to their own specifications.  Unfortunately, culture is an incredibly complicated phenomenon.  Every historical attempt to change it to order has resulted in unintended and usually horrible consequences and has eventually backfired.  I draw your attention to the French Revolution, the Third Reich, or the efforts of the Russian Soviet in the 1930’s.  The problem is complicated further by the fact that the US, since its colonization, has consisted of not a single culture but a mesh of affiliated subcultures.

Technology is changing, and the pace of technological change has been accelerating exponentially since at least the eighteenth century.  Conservatives would like to use new technology without it changing any other factor of the society.  Liberals would like to use technology to change the society itself.  Neither seems adequately aware of the two-way influence between technology and culture or between technology and the economy.

Finally, the economy is changing.  The form of the economy is dictated by technology and demographics (neither of which can be controlled) and (to a far lesser extent) by government policy.  There are very few true economic liberals.  Both Conservatives and “Liberals” in this country seem to expect the economy itself to remain static while they focus on issues of wealth distribution, ignoring the fact that the economy itself changes over time.

Social Class

Social class exists in the US just as much as in any other country, even though it has long been fashionable to ignore it.  For nearly two centuries the primary determinant of social class has been money.  However, many other factors, more or less correlated with money, also play a role.  For instance more recent immigrants are generally considered socially inferior to earlier immigrants (although Native Americans have traditionally been near the very bottom).  Lighter skinned people typically have higher social status than darker skinned people.  Those who speak English as a first language are considered superior to those who speak Spanish, or other languages.  The result is a complicated formula that leaves most Americans continually wondering and worrying about where they fall in the social pecking order.  This is further complicated by an enduring myth that everyone in America is a member of the middle class, or at least would be if they worked at it (often referred to as the “American Dream”).  This idea is patently nonsense, and originated in government propaganda from the New Deal years.

It is a fact that, due to technological and economic factors, the middle class, as a percentage of the population, grew to unprecedented size during the twentieth century.  History shows, however, that the middle class generally constitutes only a small fraction of most societies.  At present the middle class is again shrinking, which is a source of great angst to most middle class Americans.  Most political rhetoric (from both factions) consists of pandering to the middle class and false promises to reverse this trend.

Wealth Distribution

Americans as a whole are fairly wealthy, by world standards.  However, an ever increasing amount of that wealth is concentrated at the top.  Leaving aside questions of fairness (one of the slipperiest of all philosophical concepts) this is a very dangerous situation.  Wealth concentration beyond a certain level always leads to social unrest and eventually to revolution.  It paves the way for a totalitarian dictator to seize power, slaughter most of the wealthy citizens, and give (some of) the wealth back to the people.  Such dictatorships rarely last more than a generation, but that is beside the point.  It is a matter of self preservation for the wealthy to find ways to redistribute much of their assets, either through philanthropy, higher wages for their employees, or higher taxation at the upper levels.  If they fail to do so the best we can hope for is a Solon, Caesar, or Mussolini.  Analysis of history implies that we are more likely to end up with a Pol Pot, a Robespierre, or a Hitler.

Geopolitics

The range of options open to world leaders tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control and is much more limited than their citizens believe.  However, dependence on fossil fuels to prop up the middle class and maintain the status quo collapses these options to one.  Until America gets her domestic affairs in order, she can’t live without oil and will continue to anything she must to get it.  And yes, cars are primarily a middle class status symbol.

My Own Platform

As a philosopher, I am an observer and commentator, not a participant in my country’s politics.  As Socrates said, “Do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life?”

However, I personally lean towards the Liberal side, in that I accept change and favor adapting to it as it comes.  I believe that we need to actively address the issues of social class and wealth distribution while accommodating changes in technology, economics, and culture as they arise.  I think that small government is a beautiful ideal which is totally impractical in the 21st century, so we should try to build the most efficient and responsive big government we can.

In terms of social class, I feel that we should establish a formal class system that is divorced as much as possible from income or assets.  My preference would be to support a large proletariat, a small middle class, and a smaller aristocracy.

A welfare class is unavoidable, since we literally do not have enough work for our excess population.  However, we need to make realistic policies to reduce the size of this class over time.  One solution is large scale public works programs (preferably funded from the assets of the wealthy) to give jobs to members of the welfare class, thus converting them into proletarians.  A program of voluntary sterilization in return for eligibility for certain welfare benefits might also be useful.

I also believe that we need to recognize a separate class consisting of intellectuals and professional artists, the members of which would be drawn from all classes.  People of demonstrated ability in these areas should be supported by the state so they can live roughly as well as the proletariat, but they should be forbidden to file for copyright protection or to make money from their work, which would be made available to all Americans (e.g. in government sponsored exhibitions or by distributing it via the Internet).

Most importantly, we must create well defined processes for upward and downward mobility between all of the classes.  Everyone should be able to find their own level, based on natural aptitude.  No one should ever be in doubt about which class they belong to at a given moment.

As far as wealth distribution goes, I think it is imperative to periodically remove assets from the aristocracy and middle class and distribute them to the remaining three classes.  The obvious tool for this is aggressively progressive taxation.  The idea I mentioned above, of requiring the richest individuals to fund large public works projects out of pocket, worked well for Imperial Rome and may also have merit for the US.  The middle class is shrinking on its own.  I would, however, suggest discontinuing any government programs that exist mainly to prop them up including–but not limited to–tax breaks for home owners and subsidies of the automotive industry.

I fully realize that none of my recommendations are likely to come to pass any time soon.  To paraphrase Plato’s Socrates again, “Until philosophers are kings or kings are philosophers, good luck making it happen.”.  Still, I felt I would have been remiss to write an essay of this type without mentioning my own opinions.

How to Live Like a Modern Socrates

For several weeks now I have been blogging about Socrates, or at least how Socrates is portrayed by Plato and Xenophon. Since he is the archetypal Western philosopher and model for all who came later, it makes sense that we should all try to live a bit more like him. I thought I would take a post list some of the practical aspects of Socratic living. I’ll start with the easy stuff and work up to advanced topics.

Avoid Working at a Job

Socrates was raised to be a stone cutter but, by the time history hears about him he hadn’t worked in years. If you can, don’t have a job at all. It will wear you out and suck up all the time when you could be philosophizing. As Mr. B says, “How many brilliant minds are lost to work?” If you find you absolutely have to work, you have two choices. Either find a low stress, low hours job (e.g. bicycle mechanic, grocery store night clerk) or a job with flexible hours and a large philosophical component (e.g. freelance writer). Remember, though: It’s always easier to save money than to make it.

Don’t Spend Money on Material Possessions

We never read about Socrates owning anything except the clothes he was wearing, and those were nothing to brag about. In The Symposium Alcibiades, describing how he tried to seduce Socrates, talks about climbing under his “much patched cloak”. So buy your clothes at thrift stores and choose comfort and durability over style. Also, think long and hard before buying things like cars or mobile phones which are basically status symbols, don’t contribute anything to your philosophy, and suck money every month whether you use them or not.

Never Miss a Free Meal

The dialogs are full of instances when Socrates showed up at someone’s house right around dinner time and got a free dinner. This is a good way to economize and can lead to many interesting philosophical conversations. Also, be sure to take home leftover if you can, since you never know when your next free meal is coming.

Make Rich Friends

Besides providing better free food, rich friends can come in handy in a number of ways, such as posting bail when you are on trial by the assembly. It’s always nice to be on good terms with a Crito or two if you can manage it.

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Socrates. [photo by Oscar Anton]

Find Your Xanthippe

Socrates’ wife has a bad reputation, mainly because Xenophon didn’t like her. From the description in the Phaedo, however, it is clear there was real affection between her and Socrates. An understanding spouse, especially one with a regular income, can make all the difference in your survival as a philosopher.

Always Try to Learn from Other Philosophers

Whenever another philosopher was in town Socrates made a point of seeking them out and asking them questions. Now that we have the internet we don’t need to wait for them to visit since we can communicate at will with anyone, anywhere in the world. Remember the point from the last part of The Phaedrus: Reading someone’s written work is good, but it is no substitute for hearing them speak in person.

Teach Anyone Who Asks

Many of the greatest men of the age claimed Socrates as a teacher. A true philosopher has a moral duty to help others learn. To be like Socrates, however, remember two key precepts: (1) Don’t charge money for teaching if you can avoid it. (2) Always treat your students as equals and colleagues, never as inferiors. Philosophy is about joint inquiry, not received information and authority.

Stand by Your Conclusions

Socrates died for his principals. Most of us will never need to drink hemlock (literally or figuratively), but philosophy is about the search for truth. Once we conclude, through a process of exhaustive philosophical inquiry, that a principal is true, we need to be brave enough to commit to it, whatever the personal consequences.

Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.

Role of the Philosopher in Greek and Roman Society

Lately I have been drilling down to write about specific works by individual Greek authors. It seems worthwhile, though, to break for a bit to write generally about the role of the philosopher in Hellenistic society. By “Hellenistic” I mean not only the society of Greece in Socrates’ time, but also under the Macedonians and their successors and the thoroughly Hellenized pagan Rome. Indirectly, though, since our own western civilization is itself a successor to these cultures, considering how philosophers fit into them might yield some clues about the place of intellectuals in our own society.

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Greek Philosophers [photo by J.D. Falk CC BY-SA 2.0]

Many feel that philosophy was born in the work of epic poets, and no one can deny that works of Homer, at least, are laden with philosophical concepts. Philosophy and literature have always been linked. However, the first people we would consider to be philosophers, in the modern sense, all affluent men from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor. The Greek economy had evolved and society had stabilized, to the point where the upper classes had leisure to contemplate the great questions and write down their conclusions for the edification of their friends. Interest in philosophy as an aristocratic hobby soon spread to the Sicily and the Greek mainland, particularly the Attic peninsula and the newly boobing town of Athens. For generations, however, no one considered philosophy to be a career: philosophy was something one did, not something one was. The business of Greek aristocrats to govern the polis and their own estates; philosophy was nothing but an interesting distraction.

By the time of the Periclean golden age, this was beginning to change. Sophists like Protagoras and Hippias earned fame and a comfortable living by teaching practical rhetoric, spiced with philosophy, to aspiring politicians. Judging by the descriptions of them in Plato’s dialogs, they were happy to accept free room and board on their travels and “sing for their supper” by lecturing or engaging in philosophical discourse. When Socrates became interested in philosophy, probably some time in his thirties, he began seeking these men out whenever he heard they were in town. Socrates, however, was a different kind of philosopher. While he was a member of the citizen class, he never seems to have been wealthy. He came from a family of stone cutters and probably followed the trade himself as a young man. Unlike some of his aristocratic friends, he spent at least half his life as a full time philosopher. Unlike the sophists, and to the consternation of his wife Xanthippe, he never attempted to charge tuition from his students. He was always desperately poor, and is the first and most famous of many in history to choose a life of philosophical poverty.

By the time of Plato, philosophy seems to have been regarded as a legitimate career choice. Young Plato considered becoming a politician like his uncle, almost became a playwright, and finally chose to be a philosopher after being influenced by Socrates. Plato had family money and his academy itself seems to have been bought with money originally raised by his friends to rescue him when he got in trouble during an ill-advised foray into in Sicilian politics, effectively making him the first endowed chair of philosophy in Western history. Even so, it is important to draw the distinction that he was a full time philosopher from an aristocratic background, rather than an a full time aristocrat who happened to be interested in philosophy.

Socrates and Plato became the archetypes for generations of philosophers who came to Athens from all over the known world to teach and study philosophy. Some were wealthy, others much less so, but material affluence had little affect on life at the Athenian academies. John Henry Newman, The University: Its Rise and Progress (of which I recently edited a new edition) describes the entry of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (born about a century later than Plato) in Athens,

So now let us fancy our Scythian, or Armenian, or African, or Italian, or Gallic student, after tossing on the Saronic waves, which would be his more ordinary course to Athens, at last casting anchor at Piraeus. He is of any condition or rank of life you please, and may be made to order, from a prince to a peasant. Perhaps he is some Cleanthes, who has been a boxer in the public games. How did it ever cross his brain to betake himself to Athens in search of wisdom? or, if he came thither by accident, how did the love of it ever touch his heart? But so it was, to Athens he came with three drachmas in his girdle, and he got his livelihood by drawing water, carrying loads, and the like servile occupations. He attached himself, of all philosophers, to Zeno the Stoic—to Zeno, the most high-minded, the most haughty of speculators; and out of his daily earnings the poor scholar brought his master the daily sum of an obolus, in payment for attending his lectures. Such progress did he make, that on Zeno’s death he actually was his successor in his school; and, if my memory does not play me false, he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. Yet, even when he was the head of a school, he continued in his illiberal toil as if he had been a monk; and, it is said, that once, when the wind took his pallium, and blew it aside, he was discovered to have no other garment at all;—something like the German student who came up to Heidelberg with nothing upon him but a great coat and a pair of pistols.

The academy of Athens continued until it was finally closed at the order of Justinian I in 529 AD. In other parts of the Greek world we find professional philosophers serving as tutors to royals and nobles, as Aristotle did to Alexander, or occasionally as state employees, such as those at the library of Alexandria under the Ptolemies. Everywhere in the East though, the philosophy was considered a respectable–if rarely lucrative–profession.

Ancient Library of Alexandria.  O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Ancient Library of Alexandria. O. Von Corven [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

In Rome and the eastern Mediterranean things were somewhat different. Roman culture had been heavily influenced by Greece from a very early point. After Rome annexed the Greek mainland following the Third Macedonian War (an event Will Durant called “The Conquest By Greece”) Roman and Greek high culture became nearly indistinguishable. However, the professional philosopher never attained the same stature as in the east. Ironically, philosophy itself was extremely popular in the pagan Roman Empire. All young upper class Romans (of both sexes) were exposed to Greek philosophy as part of their education and some even studied in Athens. All individuals of cultivation were expected to have articulate opinions on philosophy. Many leading citizens identified with particular philosophic sects: most often Stoicism, but sometimes Epicureanism, Cynicism, or Neo-Platonism. Paul Veyne, in A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium writes about how it was fashionable for senators and even emperors to style themselves as “philosophers” and adopt the unkempt beards and simple robes of the profession, yet few or none of them actually practiced the ideals of this philosophy in their daily lives. They were far too busy holding offices, running their estates, and finding ways to become even more wealthy.

These Romans were very much like a modern American bourgeoisie who takes yoga classes and wears yoga clothes everywhere, yet doesn’t bother to integrate the teachings into her career in any way. According to Veyne, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was actually a writing assignment, one of the “steps” of a three step self-help program.

There were professional philosophers in the Western Empire, but most of them seem to have been attached to the household staff of wealthy Romans, and at least some of them were slaves (as were many many doctors, accountants, and other professionals in Rome). As tutors to the pater familias and his children they probably had a high status relative to other household servants, but they were still poor and dependent on their patrons for protection. Those who didn’t have a patron tried to find one quickly, or else headed back East.

The one group of affluent Romans who came closest to actually practicing philosophy were the philosophical poets of the early Imperial period: particularly Lucretius, but also Horace, Virgil, and others. Clearly, there work contains much philosophy, but were they themselves philosophers? George Santayana dealt with this question in Three Philosophical Poets,

Here, I think, we have the solution to our doubt. The reasonings and investigations of philosophy are arduous, and if poetry is to be linked with them, it can be artificially only, and with a bad grace. But the vision of philosophy is sublime. The order it reveals in the world is something beautiful, tragic, sympathetic to the mind, and just what every poet, on a small or on a large scale, is always trying to catch.

[E]ven if we grant that the philosopher, in his best moments, is a poet, we may suspect that the poet has his worst moments when he tries to be a philosopher, or rather, when he succeeds in being one.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that Lucretius and his fellows did not discover any great new ideas in philosophy. Every truth which they included in their poems, no matter how beautifully and clearly, was parroted from one or another of the Greeks. There work, like Homer’s before, is great literature. It is not great philosophy.

And so, the Eastern and Western halves of the Hellenistic world had more or less similar conceptions of the amateur gentleman-philosopher, and very different ideas of the professional philosopher. In Greece and the East he became a revered academic who devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophic truth. In Rome and the West he was simply one more hanger-on of the well equipped household, almost a human fashion accessory. At this time I am not going to comment on the present status of philosophers in Western Civilization, having already run some six centuries ahead of myself in my Great Books program. I will say only that our own society’s views contain elements of both the Greek and the Roman, yet seem to be trending more towards the Roman as time passes.

Plato’s Gorgias

The Gorgias is probably among the last dialogs of Plato’s early period. In it we see him experimenting with the longer format, using multiple interlocutors, which he will later use to great effect in his magnum opus, The Republic. In it also, we get the sense that Plato is coming up against the limitations of the Socratic elenchus (question and answer technique) as a way of teaching philosophy; two of the three interlocutors remain unconvinced and refuse to change their position after Socrates questions them.
The second of these, Callicles, becomes openly hostile and refuses to continue, forcing Socrates to finish up in the sort of monologue argument which he hates. The fundamental weakness of the Socratic method, as any of us who have used it in the classroom know, is that it requires full participation from both sides (which is why I used to give my students a participation point every time they asked or answered a question in discussion section).

Gorgias was a prominent teacher of oratory (public speaking) from Sicily. The dialog opens with Socrates and his side-kick Chaerophon (whom we met in Clouds and heard mentioned in The Apology) waiting to meet Gorgias as he leaves a dinner party. They have heard that he is in town, and want to question him regarding Socrates’ current inquiry: what is the nature of oratory, and is it one of the true arts? When Gorgias comes out he is accompanied by Polus, a younger and less famous teacher of rhetoric, and Callicles, a budding Athenian politician who is hosting Gorgias while he is in town.

The School of Athens.  Rafael.  [public domain via Wikimedia]

The School of Athens. Rafael. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Gorgias good-naturedly agrees to answer Socrates’ questions, and Socrates soon proves to his own satisfaction that oratory, far from being the highest art, as Gorgias believes, is a spurious art–more of a knack, really. It relates to the true art of politics the same way that cooking relates to medicine and cosmology relates to physical training: it panders people’s enjoyment but isn’t actually good for them on any deep level.

At this point Polus wades into the discussion to defend his profession. His argument is that oratory is a good because those who become skilled in it can obtain great power and take advantage of those who are less skilled in court and the assembly. Socrates then launches a series of questions intended to school Polus on the difference between ends and means. Means cannot be good in themselves, but ends can. Next, Socrates introduces one of the most radical concepts in Platonic philosophy: it is better to suffer an injustice than to do one. Thus a man who uses oratory to become a tyrant and take unfair advantage of others is harming himself worst of all. Polus is clearly unconvinced by these assertions, but just as clearly out of his depth trading words with Socrates.

Callicles, who has been quiet so far, can restrain himself no longer. Socrates, he says, has been using logical tricks to take advantage of Gorgias and Polus, and they are too noble to call him on it. Socrates’ position is ridiculous because the natural law of the world is for stronger and “better” men to take from their inferiors. I was reminded of the line from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeny Todd,

In all of the whole human race Mrs Lovett
There are two kinds of men and only two,
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face.
Look at me Mrs. Lovett look at you.

Socrates, of course, is able to refute Callicles’ position in short order, and Callicles responds by shifting his position and even resorting to personal insults. Unable to hold his ground and unwilling to admit that he is wrong, he tries to end the conversation. Gorgias, however, who is now enjoying himself, urges him to continue. For the rest of the dialog he answers sullenly and agrees with Socrates only to get the discussion over with faster. Eventually he becomes so unresponsive that Socrates is forced basically to lecture. Meanwhile Socrates has broadened the topic to how a man should live virtuously to achieve the good live (i.e. eudaimonia). A great leader, according to Socrates, would live his life with order and self control. He would speak to the people in order to educate them and improve them in virtue, not merely to talk them into things and pander to them. Even famous men like Pericles and Cimon, while adequate as civil servants, were not great leaders because they used oratory and didn’t actually improve the people in their charge. At this point, the dialog has cycled back to Socrates’ initial conclusion that oratory is not more than a pseudo-art used to pander to the masses.

At the conclusion of the dialog, Socrates offers one of the myths which appear in several of Plato’s dialogues. This particular one deals with the judgement that awaits people in the afterlife. Those who behave unjustly will damage their souls in ways that will be obvious to the judges, who will consign them to punishment in Tarterus. This myth serves as additional support against Callicles’ position, possibly more appealing to a man like Callicles, who is apparently immune to reason.

The Gorgias treats with several concepts which are worthy of further consideration. For instance, the doctrine of avoiding revenge because doing injustice harms the doer became a cornerstone of Platonism, and later of Christianity. Almost as radical was the idea that punishment for injustice was good for the person punished, which has also enjoyed a long currency in Western Civilization, particularly in the Catholic Church. The main theme of the dialog, the distinction between legitimate education and oratory, is of particular interest in the modern world. While we have less opportunity to watch orators in person than classical Greeks, we are barraged all day with advertising and “news” using all the ‘ old techniques and appeals. As Socrates points out, while some of it may pander to us by giving temporary pleasure and telling us what we want to hear, none of it is good for our souls. None of it will bring us closer to eudaimonia in any way.

The Crito of Plato

The Crito is an interesting addition to the Platonic canon. Stylistically and linguistically, it doesn’t seem to fit with the other dialogs. Most scholars explain these by assuming that it is either a very early or very late work. In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Hugh Tredennick explains that either of these poses difficulties. The majority theory that the Crito is one of Plato’s first dialogs is appealing because of the extreme simplicity of Socrates’ line of questioning–more a series of rhetorical questions than the knife-like elenchus we see in the other dialogs. However, there is still the problem of the inconsistent language and lack of Socratic Irony, as compared to the other earlier, more “Socratic” dialogs. There is also a line which seems to reference a later work by Polycrates the Sophist.

The less popular theory, that the Crito was written either by an elderly Plato or another Platonist, perhaps his nephew Speusippus. The simplicity of the Crito works against this theory, as does its failure to reference any of the sophisticated metaphysics which were such a feature of later Platonic works. These objections can be partly dealt with, however, if we assume that the Crito was deliberately kept simple because it was intended for a lay audience. This would explain the choice of Crito himself (respectable and affluent, but no intellectual giant) as a relatable interlocutor. The text itself also seems to imply that it was intended to overcome the criticism of Athenians who essentially asked, “If Socrates was so great, why did he let himself be killed?”,

Crito: …But, O! my beloved Socrates, let me entreat you once more to take my advice and escape. For if you die I shall not only lose a friend who can never be replaced, but there is another evil: people who do not know you and me will believe that I might have saved you if I had been willing to give money, but that I did not care. Now, can there be a worse disgrace than this- that I should be thought to value money more than the life of a friend? For the many will not be persuaded that I wanted you to escape, and that you refused.

 

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy.  From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Speusippus, 2nd head of the Academy. From a medieval manuscript [public domain via Wikipedia]

Despite its failure to joint neatly into the rest of the corpus, the Crito is unmistakably a Platonic work, even if it is not a work by Plato. The primary question is whether Socrates should allow himself to be rescued by Crito and his other friends. Crito argues that public opinion would be on Socrates’ side and that he has an obligation, under the general norms of their culture, so preserve himself so he can care for his family. Socrates reduces the argument to one of justice. In the eyes of Justice, any obligation he owes do to public opinion or norms is insignificant compared to that he owes to the laws–what we today might call “rule of law”. Socrates has been fairly condemned through due process of law. His conviction may have been unjust, but that does not free him to commit his own injustice against the law and reason.

To me this offers the most digestible justification for why Socrates allowed himself to die: he was a martyr for Reason. Having reasoned his way through an ethical dilemma and convinced himself of the just path, he could do nothing else without ceasing to be a philosopher; a philosopher who does not trust reason is no philosopher at all.

I like this justification much better than Xenophon‘s, that Socrates was ready to die and wanted to do so before his powers failed. It also seems more noble than the argument in the Phaedo that philosophers are destined to a better afterlife, or at least a more pleasant reincarnation, than normal people and should welcome death, particularly since they are forbidden to suicide. That point, however, will have to wait until I write about the Phaedo in a future post.

Lady Justice.  J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Lady Justice. J.L. Urban [photo by Michal Maňas, CC-BY-SA 2.0]

Xenophon’s Anabasis

The Anabasis is Xenophon’s best known work. Besides being the first known work of what later became as popular literary type–the account of a military expedition cast int he form of a novel–it is often studied by beginning students of Ancient Greek because of Xenophon’s simple and direct, yet vivid, prose. He was the Hemingway of Attic Greek.

The name “Anabasis” means “Going Up” but came to connote a march or military expedition “up country”. After Xenophon numerous Anabasi were written in imitation, The most famous is the Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian of Nicomedia. The title of Xenophon’s Anabasis plays a role in a humorous sketch provided by John Henry Newman, in his The Idea of a University, in which a young student, seeking admission to a university, has asked to be examined on the works of Xenophon,

Tutor. Mr. Brown, I believe? sit down.

Candidate. Yes.

T. What are the Latin and Greek books you propose to be examined in?

C. Homer, Lucian, Demosthenes, Xenophon, Virgil, Horace, Statius, Juvenal, Cicero, Analecta, and Matthiæ.

T. No; I mean what are the books I am to examine you in?

C. is silent.

T. The two books, one Latin and one Greek: don’t flurry yourself.

C. Oh, … Xenophon and Virgil.

T. Xenophon and Virgil. Very well; what part of Xenophon?

C. is silent.

T. What work of Xenophon?

C. Xenophon.

T. Xenophon wrote many works. Do you know the names of any of them?

C. I … Xenophon … Xenophon.

T. Is it the Anabasis you take up?

C. (with surprise) O yes; the Anabasis.

T. Well, Xenophon’s Anabasis; now what is the meaning of the word anabasis?

C. is silent.

T. You know very well; take your time, and don’t be alarmed. Anabasis means …

C. An ascent.

T. Very right; it means an ascent. Now how comes it to mean an ascent? What is it derived from?

C. It comes from … (a pause). Anabasis … it is the nominative.

T. Quite right: but what part of speech is it?

C. A noun,—a noun substantive.

T. Very well; a noun substantive, now what is the verb that anabasis is derived from?

C. is silent.

T. From the verb ἀναβαίνω, isn’t it? from ἀναβαίνω.

C. Yes.

T. Just so. Now, what does ἀναβαίνω mean?

C. To go up, to ascend.

T. Very well; and which part of the word means to go, and which part up?

C. ἀνά is up, and βαίνω go.

T. βαίνω to go, yes; now, βάσις? What does βάσις mean?

C. A going.

T. That is right; and ἀνά-βασις?

C. A going up.

T. Well, now you say Anabasis means an ascent. Who ascended?

C. The Greeks, Xenophon.

T. Very well: Xenophon and the Greeks; the Greeks ascended. To what did they ascend?

C. Against the Persian king: they ascended to fight the Persian king.

T. That is right … an ascent; but I thought we called it a descent when a foreign army carried war into a country?

C. is silent.

Etc.

It is hard to imagine that anyone reading the Anabasis would not know what it was about, since it is a very engaging book in any language. An army of around 10,000 Greek mercenaries, recruited from throughout the Hellenic world are hired by Cyrus the younger, a Persian prince, ostensibly for use in a local brush war. Soon after the men are gathered, however, it becomes clear that Cyrus actually intends to use the army to attack his older brother and place himself on the throne. With some misgivings the 10,000 agree to follow Cyrus. Unfortunately in the first real battle, a nominal victory for Cyrus’ army, Cyrus himself is killed. After multiple disastrous attempts to parlay with the Great King the mercenaries realize that he absolutely can’t be trusted. Accordingly, they set off to march and fight their way across the breath of the Persian Empire and Armenia to reach the Black Sea where Greek cities offer the chance of taking ship for home.

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon's Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

Illustrations of Greek Soldiers from An Illustrated Dictionary to Xenophon’s Anabasis, 1892 [public domain via Internet Archive]

The Anabasis more or less introduces the literary trope of the “wandering mercenary company”, which has since been used by numerous authors. It is easy to draw parallels with the free company in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company, for instance. The trope is a mainstay of military sci-fi: David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers was one of the most successful series of the 1980’s. A somewhat more recent example is David Weber’s and John Ringo’s March Upcountry tetralogy, the name of which is itself a nod to the Anabasis. In fantasy the exploits of the mercenary companies in Glen Cook’s long running Black Company series and Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk trilogy are utterly unforgettable. More recently, “sell sword” companies play a recurring role in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series Of course, there have been plenty of historical mercenary units since the time of Xenophon. Yet his way of writing about life in a mercenary army seems to have set the pattern for all later authors.

One of the interesting things that differentiates Xenophon’s 10,000 from many other armies, particularly the Persian forces that they fought, is that it never has unity of command. There are rarely less than five generals in command at any given time. Towards the end of the book Xenophon himself, who has accepted a generalship to replace a man killed by Persian treachery, is increasingly able to dominate the other four. He is never able to ignore their wishes completely, though. When he tries to simply override them they take their own men and do what they want. Still less are the generals able to ignore the will of the common soldiers. The generals command in the heat of battle but all other decisions are put to a vote. And if a general becomes too unpopular he faces a real chance of getting lynched by his own men.

Another interesting feature of Xenophon’s account is that he is the first military author I am aware of who actually mentions camp followers. In most armies in history the number of actual armed “effectives” was dwarfed by the hostlers, merchants, mistresses, prostitutes, servants, and others who traveled with them. In the ancient world, when slaves were an important type of individual wealth, a successful army was usually further swelled by numerous captives bound for sale in the first slave market the army came to. This is why it is interesting that historians like Thucydides and Herodotus never mention any of these people. In Xenophon, however, the need to protect the camp followers is mentioned as a recurring tactical consideration. While he doesn’t attempt to count them, it is clear that they are numerous and are regarded as bona fide stakeholders in the overall venture.

It is also interesting that Xenophon mentions the presence of “comrade-women”,

As soon as the victims were favourable, all the soldiers began singing the battle hymn, and with the notes of the paean mingled the shouting of the men accompanied by the shriller chant of the women, for there were many comrade-women in the camp.

It is hard to say whether these women were primarily prostitutes, mistresses, or adventurers in their own right. They certainly weren’t wives–he mentions several times how eager the men were to return to their families back in Hellas. It certainly seems though, that while they could not have been expected to have fought in the hopelite battle line, these “comrade-women” were present and played a role in battle. This is yet another of the tantalizing mentions of women that we find in various works that is so at odds with the accepted view of women in the Greek world as a secluded and disenpowered class that was rarely allowed out of the women’s part of the house.

Overall, Xenophon was an important literary innovator whose books are still accessible and interesting to the modern reader. While they do not always make their way onto the various published Great Books lists, I still would recommend them. And if you only read one of his books, the Anabasis is probably the one you should pick.

Note: The Penguin Group’s popular translation of the Anabasis is sold as The Persian Expedition. I personally read Dakyns’ translation, which is also quite good and is available from Project Gutenberg.