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Plato: Introduction

The man we know as Plato was born Aristocles son of Ariston but adopted his old wrestling nickname as a nom de plume (Platon means “wide” in Greek). As a young man he considered a poetic career and seems to have written a tragic trilogy and several lyric poems. In his early twenties he discovered an interest in philosophy when his brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus became members of Socrates‘ circle. After Plato himself became a disciple of Socrates he burned his poems and resolved to be a full time philosopher. After Socrates’ execution Plato gradually extended his teacher’s philosophy to create his own school. Platonism was probably the most important school of thought in the ancient and medieval periods, heavily influencing both pagan and Christian writers. Even today, some writers consider Platonism “the secret religion of the majority of intellectuals”.

Display of books by Plato

Plato was a prolific writer. Today we have 37 of his dialogs (26 of which are believed to be authentic) and 13 letters, the authorship of which is hotly disputed. Will Durant once jokingly wrote that Plato wrote dialogs because he was a frustrated dramatist. In fact, Plato and his contemporaries believed that the only way to really learn philosophy was to discuss it with other philosophers. If this wasn’t possible, a dialog was the next best thing. It is important to remember that a philosophic dialog–much more so than a play–is meant to teach rather than to entertain. Because of this, it may contain sections that seem boring, repetitive, or different to understand. The dialog is meant to be parsed as a unity, however, and these passages are there intentionally, to make some point to the reader. Allan Bloom, in the introduction to his translation of the Republic, criticizes translators who abridge the boring sections of the dialogs or simplify the wording of difficult passages. According to him, any translation of Plato should be as literal as possible, even at the expense of readability (although, actually, Bloom’s translation is quite readable).

The Socratic Problem

Socrates didn’t leave any writings of his own, as far as we know, but he is a main character in all of Plato’s dialogs. The great unanswerable question in Platonic studies is where Socrates’ philosophy leaves off and where Plato’s begins. There are a couple avenues we can go down to gather clues: We can compare Plato’s earlier dialogs to his later work, on the assumption that he began by summarizing his master’s teaching and developed his own viewpoint as time went on. This approach relies on our ability to date the texts, which requires further assumptions and guesswork. We can also try comparing Plato’s portrayal of Socrates to the writings of others who knew him when he was alive, such as Xenophon and Aristophanes. Unfortunately, Xenophon was a mercenary soldier who dabbled in historical fiction and Aristophanes was a comic playwright. Their descriptions of Socrates are neither as complete nor as credible as Plato’s. Finally, we can read the opinions of writers who lived closer to the time of Plato and Socrates and might have had access to sources and oral traditions that are now lost. Of course, there is no guarantee that their educated guesses are any better than our own. Ultimately, the best answer we can produce to the Socratic problem will be little better than an opinion.

Virtue

One subject that was apparently highly important to both Socrates and Plato was the cultivation of virtue and the question of whether or not it could be taught. Before we go on, though, lest we make the same mistake that Meno does in his eponymous dialog, we need to be sure we understand what virtue means. The word translated as “virtue” in most editions of Plato is actually the Greek arete. An equally valid translation would be “manly excellence”, which is not a common connotation of the modern English word virtue. Bloom puts it well when he writes,

It has been said that it is one of the great mysteries of Western thought “how a word which used to mean the manliness of men has come to mean the chastity of women.”

He goes on to imply that one can glean a summary of the entire history of political philosophy by comparing the changing usage of “virtue” in Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Rosseau.

Arete, according to the Greeks has five components: piety, justice, courage, temperance, and wisdom. One of the recurring themes in the dialogs is discussion of how these relate to each other and to virtue as a whole. As for the question of whether virtue can be taught–as opposed to being an innate quality with which some people are born–it seems that Socrates, the man who was wisest because he knew his own ignorance, was ultimately undecided. Plato’s answer, however, is based on his own theory of forms. Virtue, like every other idea, exists in an ideal form. Souls are exposed to the ideal forms of things before they become incarnate as humans. Thus teaching virtue is a process of leading the soul to remember the ideal which it has already encountered.

Reading Order

In general, I recommend reading all of the Great Books in the order in which they were written. For Plato, this order would be approximately:

Early Works Middle Works Late Works
Apology Cratylus Critias
Charmides Euthydemus Sophist
Crito Meno Statesman
Euthyphro Parmenides Timaeus
Gorgias Phaedo Philebus
Hippias Minor Phaedrus Laws
Hippias Major Republic
Ion Symposium
Laches Theaetetus
Lysis
Protagoras

Another popular organizational scheme is to group the dialogs into thematic tetrologies, in which they are grouped into a 7×4 matrix; The rows are labeled: “What is man?”, “The Sophists”, “Socrates’ Trial”, “Speech and Knowledge”, “The Soul”, “Dialectic”, and “Man in the World”. The columns are labeled: “Cause”, “Desire and Nature”, “Will, Judgment, and Behavior”, and “Reason and Order”. The idea is to read the works in each row from left to right to explore a particular topic.

Another semi-thematic grouping is that used by The Penguin Group, which publishes some of the most popular translations. Penguin’s grouping has a lot to do with creating paperback volumes of a manageable length,

I will be mostly following the Penguin scheme for the simple reason that I mostly own the Penguin translations. I will be beginning with the dialogs in The Last Days of Socrates as I have found many forum posts which suggest it as a starting point for the study of Plato.

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Clouds of Aristophanes

Aristophanes’ play The Clouds is fascinating in a number of ways, not least because it contains one of the earliest literary mentions of Socrates.  Socrates, or at least the complex of ideas that Socrates came to represent, would become one of the most important figures in the Western tradition and the well-spring of one the two most important strands of Western philosophy (the other of which would begin with Aristotle).  At the time of The Clouds, however, Socrates was just starting to become a salient figure–a well known local character, but not yet the famous philosopher who would be immortalized by Plato and others.

Aristophanes picked Socrates to be his caricature of a “modern” teacher at least partially because Socrates’ famously homely appearance would lend itself to a hilarious and recognizable mask.  When the Socrates character first came on stage in the original performance the actual Socrates stood up so the crowd could admire the resemblance.  Shortly before this period Socrates seems to have spent considerable time talking to sophists and other pre-socratic philosophers, prior to fully developing his own philosophy, so this portrayal as a Sophist is not completely unwarranted.  On the other hand, the main criticism that Aristophanes levels against the sophistic school, that they are willing to argue both sides of an issue and are more concerned with the argument itself than the truth, is decidedly not applicable to Socrates’ mature philosophical methods, as portrayed by Plato. Plato’s  Socrates is only interested in understanding universal truths, and seeks them not through argument but by admitting his own ignorance and asking questions.  We must keep in mind, though, that The Clouds was written decades before Plato’s dialogues.

Plato’s Socrates rejects Aristophanes’ caricature in The Apology,

I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of me, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to proof this charge against me. Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations.

We should remember, though, that the framing of this statement might represent a revisionist attempt on the part of Plato.  The Clouds was a popular play and many copies were made.  Plato might have been concerned that the play was tarnishing the memory of his teacher, and gone out of his way to refute the impression.

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Antique Bust of Socrates, Paulus Pontius, 1638 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The basic plot of the play is that Strepsiades, whose son Phidippides has racked up huge debts in his name, goes to the “Think Shop”, a sort of school of sophistry run by Socrates.  His goal is to learn rhetoric so well that he can argue his way out of paying his creditors.  After finding that he is too old to follow Socrates’ logical acrobatics, he decides to send Phidippides in his stead.  Phidippides learns so well that he is later able to publicly beat his father and justify it so convincingly that no one can argue with him.

The Clouds, of course, is a story about conflict between old and new systems of education.  The old system, represented by Strepsiades, emphasized military training and memorizing traditional poetry, preparing a young citizen to be a successful hopelite citizen-soldier.  The new system of the sophists was also practical, since it emphasized rhetoric and public speaking  to make the student successful in lawsuits or the assembly.  To Aristophanes, who thought that his fellow Athenians were far too litigious, and was at heart a social conservative, the new system would have provided a rich field for ridicule, even if generational conflict was not a classic subject for comedy.  As is often the case with the deeply intellectual comedy of Aristophanes, however, there were deeper philosophical issues in play.

“What is the best form of education?” is one of the perennial philosophical questions.  We will meet it again repeatedly in the Great Books.  On a more meta level, the Great Books movement in general represents one side of a modern debate about education.  At the risk of oversimplification, Great Books proponents believe in a more traditional form of education based on the core literature and concepts of Western Civilization, as opposed the newer “progressive” or “democratic” systems of education which emphasize relativism, openness, and inclusion of minority viewpoints.  The Great Books approach is based primarily on that used in ancient universities in the high medieval through early Victorian periods, as adapted by such Victorian reformers as John Henry Newman.  Its primary modern champions were Mortimer Adler and his associates.  More recently writers such as Allan Bloom, John Lukacs, and Donald Kagan, though they shy away from associating themselves with the Adler clique, have argued for a similar approach.  The progressive/democratic approach was first articulated in the works of John Dewey, reached its full realization during the culture wars of the 1960’s, and is taught as dogma in nearly every Education graduate program today.

In the later Hellenistic world, particularly among the elite of the Roman Empire, the dominant educational philosophy that emerged was a essentially a synthesis of the old gymnasium education and sophism, and post-Socratic philosophy.  This gives me hope that our own civilization may yet learn to balance the ideals of the Great Books movement with those of Dewey and his disciples.

John Lukacs on Intellectual Bureaucratization

I am currently reading historian John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age.  I only discovered Lukacs’ work fairly recently, after reading a review of one of his other books on David Withun’s blog.  He is an insightful and very readable author whose platform happens to match my own in several interesting ways; I’m sure I will be mentioning him again in the future.

John Lukacs speaking at Eastern University in 2009 (copyright by Eastern University.  fair use justification:  this is a low resolution still from a video, used for educational purposes.  No public domain substitute is available.  There is no foreseeable financial impact on Eastern University.)

John Lukacs speaking at Eastern University in 2009 (copyright by Eastern University)

I will probably do a full review of the book as soon as I finish it.  At the moment, however, I would like to respond to one of the ideas which he discusses multiple times in the first half of the book:  intellectual bureaucratization.  The main thesis of At the End of an Age is that the modern era of history, which began around the end of the fifteenth century, is now drawing to a close.  One of the main attributes that Lukacs points out as differentiating the modern era from previous eras is a the massive growth of bureaucracy in every area of human existence.  This trend is even evident–in fact especially evident–in the pursuit of knowledge.  Lukacs points to the increasing tendencies towards specialization, the need for credentials, and the drive to place intellectuals within some sort of larger organization.  He points out that the words “writer”, “scholar”, “philosopher”, and “intellectual” were once essentially synonyms but have not come to mean very different things.  The word “scientist”, meaning a philosopher who cultivates scientific knowledge, did not even appear in print until 1840.  Now “scientist” usually implies a practitioner of the natural sciences who has little or no connection with philosophy.

In many ways, this parallels an argument in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I reviewed in back in December.  Like Bloom, Lukacs infers a connection between the growth of Democracy and academic specialization.  Bloom, however, argued that the preeminence of Democracy was itself the result of the concerted efforts of philosophers from Machiavelli on to ensure their own comfort and survival. Lukacs, so far at least, has identified no such causal relationship.

Like Bloom, Lukacs points out that education is increasingly concerned with credentials such as specialized college degrees which are designed to fit students into particular pigeon holes in society and assign them a label (e.g. “physicist, business analyst, journalist”) that equate what they are with what they do.

Thinking on my own career, I realize that I have often chaffed against this phenomenon of intellectual bureaucratization.  My “official” academic specialty is operations research, the field which is concerned with using certain techniques of applied mathematics to find optimum solutions to problems in management and engineering.  I have succumbed to societal pressure and acquired certain credentials on this area, such as my MBA degree with a concentration in operations.  In my final terms in graduate school I was strongly urged by my adviser and others to continue to a PhD program so I could become a “real” operations researcher.

But I never wanted to label myself that way.  I don’t think of myself as an operations researcher.  I am an intellectual.  Operations research is a set of useful tools which I use to understand the world and create knowledge; it isn’t what I am.  Nor do I think of myself as a scientist, a philosopher, a scholar, or even a writer, though I do think that each of these are important facets of the intellectual life.  Even the label of “intellectual” is limiting.  If I am an intellectual, does that mean that I’m less of a worker, or an artist, or a homemaker, or any of a dozen other roles which I fill?

Society though, at least in this age, is very uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t wear a label.  If someone at a cocktail party asks me “What do you do?” they become flustered when I don’t have an easy answer.

At the beginning of the modern era a PhD, or “doctor of philosophy” degree was a general degree, because philosophy was the discipline that included all of the others.  A PhD was someone who had achieved a breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of philosophy sufficient to provide a liberal education to students.  Nowadays, though, PhDs are incredibly specialized.  The professors and PhD students I knew at school were entirely focused on publishing in the “hot” areas of their own disciplines, to the extent that they would refuse to consider or comment on questions in other fields.  Many operations PhDs will not even answer a student’s question about economics or finance, even though these are closely related disciplines.  Many of them teach the same two or three classes year after year and become offended when asked to take on a course which is outside their own research interests.  I enjoy both research and teaching, but was horrified at the idea of doing either at that level of specialization.  Lukacs is right:  an intellectual who is willing to be labeled and limited in such a way has become a bureaucrat, a cog in machine which is supposed to create knowledge, but mostly just produces citations and degrees.

For a few months now I have been reading my way through the Great Books and publishing my responses to them on this blog.  One of the things all of the authors of the Great Books have in common was that none of them allowed themselves to be cogs in a machine or limited themselves to considering one narrow area of study.  As a writer, there is only a slim chance that I will myself produce the next great book.  On the other hand, if devoted the rest of my life to being a professor in some narrow area of operations research, there is no chance I would write such a work at all.

Perhaps things will be different in the next era of history, and people will be able to just be people, without labels that fit them into a bureaucracy.  Perhaps Lukacs is right and that next era is coming soon.  I rather hope so.

The Closing of the American Mind (Book Review)

I ask that you bear with me as I continue my detour of discussing books about Great Books.   Reading the great books to improve myself as a writer is likely to be a pretty long project–probably even more time consuming than the time I decided to watch all 726 Star Trek episodes in chronological order.  Before I get started too far into it, I want to be sure and examine some of the motivations for someone to launch on a Great Books reading program.  Next time I will return to discuss the Odyssey.

The Closing of the American Mind cover picture.

I just finished reading The Closing of the American Mind: How higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987) by Allan Bloom.  Allan Bloom was a Great Books veteran, having produced well respected translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as two books on Shakespeare.  The Closing of the American Mind, written a few years before his death, is his magnum opus of popular nonfiction and is one of the last articulate 20th century pleas for greater integration of the Great Books in education.

The book covers quite a bit of ground, since Bloom was trying to trace a complete intellectual history of the purpose of a liberal education in our society.  He brings up quite a few interesting points, any one of which would make a good blog article, but I will try to keep this post brief.

Bloom argues that in a liberal democracy, which by definition has no aristocracy or powerful established religion, the university is the only place where young people have a chance to experience a larger world of ideas and possibilities before going back to the “vulgar bourgeoisie” world of their future careers.  Furthermore, a university is the only place where dissenting or new ideas are allowed to thrive, free from a democracy’s moral consensus.  However, the fact that modern universities exist within a democracy means that they have been under pressure to encourage “openness” to different ideologies, lifestyles, values, etc.  This has caused the academy to fragment into a “Chinese restaurant menu” of different disciplines, depriving students of any commonality of experience or deep exposure to the core ideas that make up our civilization.  Also, the wide acceptance of Neitzeism and other German philosophies has led to a new nihilism in both the academic Right and the academic Left, causing them to abandon teaching about The Good and instead teach a vague sort of value theory where nothing is good or bad and a dangerous relativism where all lifestyles and philosophies are equally valid as long as their proponents exhibit a proper level of commitment, leaving students adrift with no means to evaluate anything in terms beyond simple utility.

Bloom’s solution is a return to the wellsprings of Western Civilization, i.e. “the good old Great Books approach.”  However, he admits that this is unlikely to happen now that the humanities have been stripped of their traditional prestige and allure, the physical sciences have decided they don’t need the other disciplines, and an increasing number of undergraduates are shameless careerists, intent only on getting the prerequisites they need to get into professional programs.  He points out, however, that even if there is no solution to the problem, the problem itself is eminently suitable as a subject for study by philosophers.

I honestly am not sure whether I agree with Bloom.  Many readers have detected overtones of elitism in his argument.  If we were to reset the curriculum to what it was in, say, the Victorian period, it would again create a massive advantage for upper-class, white males.  On the other hand, I would embrace any program that could teach undergraduates to read and think, two things which very few of them now do well.  Also, as a member of Western Civilization, I do think that it is important to protect and cherish our own intellectual and cultural heritage.  On my most recent trip through college I was frequently shocked to learn what little awareness my fellow graduate student had of Western culture, literature and history.  There education had failed in that respect, and there must be a better system.

One section of the book which I found very interesting was Bloom’s discussion about the role of the philosopher in society (pp. 268-293).  The philosopher, Bloom says, is an inherently vulnerable individual because he is different from the rest of the society and his contribution is not measurable in terms that regular people can necessarily understand.  Very seldom has a philosopher been a ruler.  In fact, most of them have lived in poverty. Philosophers are thus subject to all sorts of persecutions, starting with Socrates’ execution.  I was reminded of Spinoza’s excommunication from the Jewish community and Galileo’s censure by Catholic church.  Because of vulnerability, philosophers have “engaged in a gentle art of deception” to woo the aristocracy for protection and support:

In sum, the ancient philosophers were to a man proponents of aristocratic politics..They were aristocratic in the vulgar sense, favoring the power of those possessing wealth, because such men are more likely to grasp the nobility of philosophy as an end in itself, if not to understand it.  Most simply, they have the money for an education and time to take it seriously. (p. 284)

However, by the 17th century, philosophers had come up with an even better scheme:  Enlightenment.  This plan was Machiavellian in the truest since of the word, given that Machiavelli was the one who thought of it.  By simultaneously showing the world the fruits of scientific inquiry while teaching a theory of rights, the philosophers inspired revolutions which led to liberal democracy and allowed the existence of the modern university–an institute dedicated to teaching and protecting philosophy.  Once the rule of Reason was firmly established, the philosophers no longer needed aristocratic patronage and switched to”the party of democracy”.

Now, if we return to Bloom’s main argument, the universities are in a state of decline and philosophy is no longer central to education, yet philosophers are now unable to survive outside the university.  Bloom would like to change the university back to what it once was, if possible.

For my own part, I must ask if it isn’t time for philosophers to come up with a new plan.  If the aristocracy is gone, and universities are now more of a hindrance than a help, perhaps it is time to move on.  To where?  I don’t know; I’m no Machiavelli. It seems, though, that this too is a good question for philosophic inquiry.