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Off to Grad School Again

The past year and a half of focusing entirely on my writing has been intensely rewarding, but it’s time to start thinking about my formal education again. This morning I took the first steps in applying to CSUDH’s External MA in Humanities (HUX) program. The program seems flexible yet rigorous and I expect to write a thesis which will form the first draft of a future book.

So, fingers crossed and let’s hope that they will admit a business school guy/hack sci-fi writer like me.

One section of the CSU application asks for a personal statement describing my reasons “for pursuing graduate or postbaccalaureate study.” After looking at my statement I realized that it is pertinent to this blog, particularly my ongoing Great Books project, so I decided to post it here:

    During the first half of my career I mainly saw education as a process of training in skills. I earned three business degrees, took years of engineering coursework, and completed several professional certifications–learning how to do many useful things. As time went on, however, I became aware of what I was missing. True education, as distinct from mere training, should be general and liberal. The vocational degrees and training programs I completed did little to teach me about the culture, history, and language of the society in which I live. All the knowledge I acquired was specific and targeted at getting and succeeding in specific jobs. It did not address larger more general questions of the human condition.

 
As I entered my thirties and began spending an increased portion of my time writing, the gaps in my knowledge were made obvious, especially in the areas of literature, history, and philosophy. In order to function, a writer needs to be able to draw from a broad and deep background of cultural knowledge. But my background was unbalanced and primarily technical. To address the problem, I then spent several years deliberately expanding my reading, especially of the so-called “great books” of the Western Cannon. I was aware from the beginning that this would be a poor substitute for a true liberal education. Autodidacticism, however personally rewarding, is inefficient. I know I can learn about the humanities much more effectively if I have teachers and a program with structure.

 
I am now ready, both financially and intellectually, to dedicate two years of my life to the full time study of the humanities. The external MA program at CSUDH is ideal, both because of the content and because I have always done well with distance learning in the past.

The second stage of the application, which goes to the department itself, requires a longer analytical essay which I will probably also post in a few days when I am finished writing it.

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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.

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.

Apology of Xenophon

Apology of Xenophon

Since in the last post I wrote about Plato’s Apology, it seems timely to consider Xenophon’s Apology, which was probably written around the same time or shortly later. Xenophon, like Plato, had studied under Socrates as a young man. unlike Plato, it is impossible that he could actually have attended Socrates’ trial because we know he was fighting in a Persian civil war in 399 (the story of which is told in his book The Anabasis). His information comes second hand, though a friend named Hermogenes, son of Hipponicus.

Xenophon [public domain via Wikimedia]

Xenophon [public domain via Wikimedia]

Xenophon’s apology is considerably shorter than Plato’s. By his own admission, he makes no attempt to dwell on philosophy but merely strives to explain Socrates’ attitude towards death. In a way this is a back-handed critique of Plato and other philosophers who, in their accounts of Socrates, tended to put words into the master’s mouth to legitimize their own philosophic theories. Actually, however, Xenophon’s Apology is just as much a testament to the writer’s personal philosophy as any of the others. The difference is that Xenophon, while he was prolific writer, was never a professional philosopher like Plato. He was, above all else, a mercenary soldier and his Socrates demonstrates a simple soldier’s philosophy: Don’t fear death, because it’s better do die quickly and escape the depredations of old age. Live as well as you can, but don’t apologize to anyone.

Xenophon’s Socrates makes no effort to craft an artful speech in his defense, even when urged by his friends, saying that his life so far is all the defense he needs,

Do you not know that up to this moment I will not concede to any man to have lived a better life than I have; since what can exceed the pleasure, which has been mine, of knowing 10 that my whole life has been spent holily and justly? And indeed this verdict of self-approval I found re-echoed in the opinion which my friends and intimates have formed concerning me. 11 And now if my age is still to be prolonged, 12 I know that I cannot escape paying 13 the penalty of old age, in increasing dimness of sight and dulness of hearing. I shall find myself slower to learn new lessons, and apter to forget the lessons I have learnt. And if to these be added the consciousness of failing powers, the sting of self-reproach, what prospect have I of any further joy in living?

The Athenian juries disagrees when the time comes, but this is of no great import to Socrates, who answers to no one but his daemon and himself. He takes the poison with good grace, embracing the painless death at the the height of his intellectual prime which, to him, is so preferable to future senility or present exile.

Apology of Plato

Two posts ago I wrote about the difficulty we encounter, when reading Plato’s dialogs, distinguishing his teachings from those of Socrates. Because the Apology is an early dialog and the subject matter is Socrates himself, it may give the most accurate portrait of him of all the dialogs. The apology is a “transcript” of Socrates’ defense while on trial for his life. In the decade following his execution (in 399 BCE) a number of authors wrote their own accounts of the trial, and Plato probably wanted to create a definitive version to defend the memory of his teacher. Of course no record of the trial is completely accurate, if only because the Greeks had not yet invented the concept of a court reporter and thus had to rely on their memories of what was said.

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Socrates Dictates his Will, Josef Abel, 1800 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

One of the most important things to remember when reading the Apology, is that Socrates really didn’t care whether he won or lost the trial. He was 70 years old and had already reached a place in his philosophy in which he no longer feared death,

For let me tell you, gentlemen, that to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows when one does not know. No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man; but people dread it as though they are certain that it is the greatest evil; and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable. (29a-b)

Transcending fear, particularly the fear of death, is one of the great benefits of studying philosophy. Unmotivated by fear, Socrates was free to follow his own convictions–and possibly the urgings of his daemon–and seize on the trial as one more chance to educate the Athenians and set an example for his students by demonstrating his dialectic.

Thus Socrates, whose disclaimer that he doesn’t know how to speak in court sounds weak from a man who has already put the greatest sophists of the day in their place, spends most of the trial bringing up edgy theological ideas, such as when he calls on the god Apollo as a witness or when, in passing, he asserts that the Gods cannot lie. Both of these points required a number of unorthodox assumptions and would have made most of the jurors uncomfortable. Socrates then goes on to demonstrate his teaching method by cross examining Meletus which, to most of the jurors, would have been more a demonstration of how annoying he could be. Towards the end of his defense he declines to beg for the court’s mercy (a standard section in Athenian court practice) and explains away his lack of political service by saying that he just would have been gotten himself killed by the other Athenians had he involved himself,

The true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone. (32a)

No one, least of all Socrates, is surprised when the court returns a “guilty” verdict. The prosecution recommends the death penalty. Athenian law allows the defendant to propose his own penalty, and everyone expects him to suggest exile, which the jury will probably accept. Instead, he proposes a trivially small fine, saying its the most he can afford. He then raises the number, after Crito and others offer to pay. Obviously, though, if Socrates’ friends are paying it won’t really be a punishment.

Socrates is sentenced to die and soon becomes the most famous martyr to philosophy in Western history (or perhaps the second most famous, depending how one classifies Jesus).

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Plato [public domain via Internet Archive]

At this point, let’s pause to contrast the careers of Socrates and Plato. Socrates “The Gadfly” was an outsider who was always as odds with, and ultimately executed by, the system. Plato was a respected citizen who died in his sleep at a party. Socrates’ teachings were primarily dialectical–dealing with ways to change and improve society. Plato’s were primarily metaphysical and idealistic and implied that one might as well accept society because the physical world wasn’t the real world anyway as well as advocating a world view that was ultimately static. Socrates discarded his (probably lower-middle) social class and became something else. Plato remained close to his aristocratic roots. Socrates conversed in the streets and at dinner parties. Plato taught at an a academy.

If we think of “philosopher” as a role in society then, in many ways, these two men are the original archetypes of the two kinds of philosopher that have historically been found in Western Civilization. For want of better terminology, I call them Outsiders and Academics, and I am currently writing a book about the Outsiders. While I would of course love it if you were to buy my book, when it comes out, everything you really need to know about the two can be found by studying Socrates and Plato. Outsiders like Socrates are the initiators: they force society to examine new ideas. Since societies don’t really like new ideas, the Outsiders usually suffer for it, financially and/or physically. The Academics, on the other hand, safe within legitimized social organizations such as universities, are the developers and guardians of the new ideas which were first introduced by outsiders. Occasionally, an academic is able to conceive and promulgate a truly original idea, but this is rare because the process they go through to earn their positions selects against innovators and because they have too much to loose to buck the system. Our civilization seems to need both types of philosopher to function.

Great Books Project: End of Part I

I am now about six months into my Great Books project and this seems like a good time to stop and take stock.  I have now read and blogged about works written up to the end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE) in the Hellenistic tradition and up to the establishment of the Second Temple (516 BCE) in the Hebrew tradition.  Up to this point, the two have had almost no first-hand intellectual contact.  Soon, though, they will begin influencing each other to an increasing degree, beginning with Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire and continuing until Paul and other evangelists permanently fuse them together to create the new tradition of Christianity.

I have come to think of the death of Socrates in 399 BCE as the end of Part I of the Great Books.  Socrates wrote no books himself, yet he brought together all previous Hellenic philosophy and all future Western philosophy owes something to the work of his disciple Plato, who is the next author whom I plan to cover.

Before I go on, I thought it would be useful to present a timeline of the lives of the Hellenistic authors in this first section.  I also included Plato and Xenophon because, though I think of them as belonging to the next period, their lives overlapped with the others.

Great Books Authors Timeline: Ancient Greece (Click to Enlarge)

Great Books authors timeline: Ancient Greece (click to enlarge)

I think the most striking thing about this timeline is that, other than Homer who really belongs to an earlier age, all of these men lived within such a short span of time.  Only 139 years separate Aeschylus‘ birth and Aristophanes‘ death.

I also recently drew this diagram to express how the different strands of Western thought are related in the ancient world.  It is over-simplistic and not particularly scientific, but I find it’s helpful to think about how the ideas relate to each other.

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome

Development of thought in the Great Books: Prehistory to fall of Rome (click to enlarge)

Finally, now that we have reached the end of Part I, I need to mention that I will be posting more erratically for the next several weeks.  Other literary commitments, including finishing my own book and doing editing work for clients, will take most of my time.  I also don’t want to rush the Plato section, since his work is so important.  I will try to post at least two or three times per month over the summer, however.

Frogs of Aristophanes

The main protagonist in The Frogs is Dionysus, but Aristophanes shows us an altogether different side of the god than Euripides did in The Bacchae.  Euripides’ Dionysus is cryptic, subtle, rather scary, and tremendously powerful.  Aristophanes’ Dionysus, from the time he appears on stage in a ridiculous costume, is a bit of a buffoon.  On  one level this is simple caricature for comic effect; Aristophanes was fond of singling out and lampooning his audience members, and the god whose stature observed every performance had finally received his turn.  We need to keep in mind, however, that Dionysus, as the god of the theater, was actually Aristophanes’ patron deity.  Dionysus was god of comedy as well as tragedy, and Aristophanes’ portrayal actually captured one of the God’s aspects.  Drinking, sex, and humor were all part of the god’s ethos.  Even the costume, which combines a woman’s robes, a tragic actor’s shoes, and Heracles’ lion skin is appropriate for a god who was normally portrayed androgynously and was known for trickery and disguise.

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Modern ceramic Bacchus (Dionysus) mask [photo by Spencer Means via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Dionysus’ mission is to descend into Hades to retrieve Euripides, as Athens no longer has any good tragic poets.  Presumably this task has fallen to him as god of theater.  We are also reminded of tradition of Orpheus in Hades, and the close association between the cults of Dionysus and Orpheus.

In many ways, The Frogs is Aristophanes’ eulogy for Euripides, who had died several months earlier.  Euripides was one of the favored targets for the comedian’s humor.  The Frogs is his way of showing that he actually had great respect for Euripides’ work.  After all, he didn’t write a play about Dionysus going after Sophocles, who had died a year earlier.

After various comic hijinks, Dionysus and his slave Xanthias arrive at Hades’ palace. There, they find that a contest is about to take place between Aeschylus and Euripides to determine which will be allowed to dine at Hades’ table.  Hades allows Dionysus to judge the contest.  Furthermore, he offers to let Dionysus take home the poet of his choice.  In the ensuing throw-down it becomes clear that, while Aeschylus is by far the better poet, Euripides is wittier and more accessible.  Aeschylus presents larger-than-life heroic characters, while Euripides presents relatable characters with real flaws and quirks.

In the end, somewhat surprisingly, Dionysus chooses to take Aeschylus.  Athens was losing the Peloponnesian War. The final defeat was a year or so off, but few citizens questioned that it was coming soon.  The people didn’t need wit, satire, and realism.  They needed beauty and elevation.  They needed to be reminded of the days when heroes walked and Athens was still great.  Aeschylus, not Euripides, was the man for the job.

The Frogs is a fantasy.  In real history, no tragic poet emerged who could match the talents of the “big three”.  While Greek tragedy continued to be performed for centuries, the art all but ceased to evolve after the passing of Sophocles and Euripides.  In late Hellenic times Euripides was easily the most popular playwright of the three, possibly because his language and themes seemed more “modern” to later readers.

Greek comedy remained viable for a longer time.  Aristophanes himself lived another twenty years, long enough to take part in the transition from old comedy to middle comedy and to see the new comedy on the horizon.  His son and others wrote in the new comedy, which stayed popular throughout the Macedonian period.

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.