Saturday, November 15, 2014

Plutarch, On the Genius of Socrates (Part IV: Interpretation of Signs)

The Thought

So much is going on in Plutarch's De genio Socratis that it's probably an error to think of the dialogue as having only one end or theme. However, I would suggest that a good first approximation in interpretation would take seriously the idea that a major theme of the dialogue is that of interpretation of evidence for the purposes of making decisions. The dialogue is constantly talking about this. Not only do we have the recurring discussions of Socrates' divine sign (in the three interpretations of Galaxidorus, Simmias, and Theanor), but we also have recurring instances of sacrificial omens (especially the opposition between Hipposthenides's interpretation of the sacrifices of Ceres and Theocritus's interpretation of his own sacrifices) and the various signs associted with the opening of tombs, as well as some indication of divine oracles. Nor is it only divine signs that are in play here. The conspirators have to coordinate with the exiles by messages and they have to assess the state of their conspiracy by reading the political signs, including those that suggest that the people in power already have wind of the conspiracy. Archias blunders by failing to read a message from Athens. At several points, people miss some key event and have to guess at or reason to it on the basis of what evidence they do have. It is specifically suggested at several points that the reading of divine signs is just a more finely tuned example of what we all regularly do in reasoning on the basis of our experiences. We swim in an ocean of evidences; signs are everywhere. All our decisions depend on skill and good judgment in the interpretation of signs.

Closely linked to this are the clear indications in the dialogue that personal character plays a significant role in interpretation of signs. It is especially good people who are given the aid of divine signs. Archias's wantonness leads to his failure to read the essential message on which his government depends. Hipposthenides without any malice misinterprets signs due to the weakness of his nature. And perhaps most significant of all is the character of Epaminondas, which adds an additional layer of complexity to the meaning of the dialogue.

Epaminondas was one of the greatest generals of the ancient world. After the liberation of Thebes, he would go on to do what even a generation before would have been thought virtually impossible: he broke the apparently unbreakable military might of Sparta. The Battle of Leuctra is one of the major case studies of military history, and it would be by building on his tactical innovations that the Macedonians under Philip and Alexander would change the face of the world. He is a significant character, of course. Unfortunately, we cannot compare his presentation in this dialogue to that in Plutarch's Life of Epaminondas, since the latter has been lost, but we do have Plutarch's Life of Pelopidas -- Pelopidas was Epaminondas' best friend, one of the exiles, and the one who struck the killing blow against Leontidas. In the Life of Pelopidas, Plutarch puts great emphasis on Epaminondas as a philosopher, which matches his portrayal in the dialogue on Socrates' daimonion. Epaminondas was a student of Lysis the Pythagorean; he devoted his life to philosophy and the cultivation of the mind. Plutarch portrays him in the Life of Pelopidas as having a wide array of virtues -- fortitude, magnanimity, gentleness, temperance, and justice, all of which are also on display here. In addition, in this dialogue Theanor insists that he has inherited the daimonion of Lysis, or at least some similar one.

This brief but vehement insistence by Theanor is all the more significant when one considers that Epaminondas is not portrayed as fully in favor of the revolution. He does not disagree with his goals, and has been working toward that end. In the Life of Pelopidas we have an interesting example of this:

Epaminondas, too, had long since filled the minds of the Theban youth with high thoughts; for he kept urging them in the gymnastic schools to try the Lacedaemonians in wrestling, and when he saw them elated with victory and mastery, he would chide them, telling them they ought rather to be ashamed, since their cowardice made them the slaves of the men whom they so far surpassed in bodily powers.

However, he refuses to participate in the conspiracy itself because of the danger of injustice toward his fellow Theban citizens -- a danger that becomes real in the assault, since a number of Thebans end up dead even despite the efforts of the leaders to persuade them at least just to stand by. That Epaminondas opposes the full conspiratorial plan is partly due to the fact that Plutarch is working with a historical story, in which Epaminondas only helps to consolidate the liberation of Thebes, but his philosophy, his virtue, and the claim that he is guided by a daimonion all contribute to showing that Plutarch does not intend the conspirators to be regarded uncritically. Unlike Epaminondas, who always acts with equanimity, most of the conspirators are heavily influenced by their passions. That the passions distort our interpretation of signs and lead us even to overlook essential ones is made explicit by Simmias and shown vividly by the fall of Archias. It is the fact that Socrates has purified himself of anything that might enslave himself to the passions that makes it possible for him to recognize what his daimonion wishes to indicate. Epaminondas, too, has trained himself to rise above his passions; he even clarifies exactly what this training was in his argument with Theanor about whether he should accept Theanor's gift: Epaminondas argues that we should train ourselves in virtue by foregoing the satisfaction of even acceptable pleasures, when they are not necessary. Epaminondas interprets signs well because he has the character for it. The conspirators have the right ends in view; but their means guarantee that they are continually in alarm at the possibility of discovery, and continually in danger of overreacting.

This emphasis on character, incidentally, is almost certainly one of the links between this dialogue and Plato's Phaedo, since the latter explicitly makes the case that the philosophical life is a kind of dying to the passions in order to achieve greater intellectual contemplation. I think it is clear that it is this purification from passion, not Socrates' death itself, that Plutarch primarily has in view in building the obvious links between this dialogue and that one.

What we learn from the dialogue, then, is that we live in a world filled with signs, both divine and otherwise. Proper interpretation of signs, however, requires the cultivation of a philosophical character, like that of Socrates, like that of Epaminondas. This is relevant to the making of decisions. Galaxidorus notes the fact of human psychology that we are often in some doubt about what we are to do, and that in this case a minor sign that would otherwise not sway us may actually tip the balance of our decision. (Simmias will deny Galaxidorus' claim that Socrates' divine sign was just a rule he had discovered by experience and inquiry, but everyone in the dialogue recognizes that small things can make massive contributions to decisions.) It appears to follow from this, however, that having a sense of what signs to follow and how to interpret them is part of the moral life: whether you do right or wrong will depend in part on how you take the little signs and evidences with which you are inundated. The passionate natures of the conspirators are constantly seeing causes of alarm; Epaminondas sees instead when it is appropriate to act, or to avoid acting, in order to act justly and with restraint.


Quotations from De genio Socratis are from William W. Goodwin's translation of Plutarch's Moralia, at the Perseus Project.

Plutarch, On the Genius of Socrates (Part III: Assault and Victory)

Theanor the Pythagorean enthusiastically affirms the story of Timarchus that was related by Simmias, noting that people will take swans, dogs, and reptiles to be sacred animals, and yet are for some reason averse to thinking that a human being could be a sacred animal, as well. In reality, the gods pick out some human beings and train them in divine signs:

Now as one that loves horses doth not take an equal care of the whole kind, but always choosing out some one excellent, rides, trains, feeds, and loves him above the rest; so amongst men, the superior powers, choosing, as it were, the best out of the whole herd, breed them more carefully and nicely; not directing them, it is true, by reins and bridles, but by reason imparted by certain notices and signs, which the vulgar and common sort do not understand. For neither do all dogs know the huntsman's, nor all horses the jockey's signs; but those that are bred to it are easily directed by a whistle or a hollow, and very readily obey.

The gods themselves direct very few such souls, and only those that they wish to raise to the heights of happiness. When these people die, they are not, like the rest of us, reincarnated, but instead become daemons or daemon-like things, advising and encouraging others. (His analogy is that of an old wrestler becoming a wrestling coach!) When some of us have been reincarnated a thousand times or more, having worked out the baser mistakes, the daemons are permitted by the gods to step in and give us extra help.

Epaminondas at this point notes that Caiphisias has a wrestling appointment elsewhere, but Caiphisias draws him, Theocritus, and Galaxidorus off to a corner of the porch. They try again to get Epaminondas in on the conspiracy; but he replies again that while he knows about it, the key issue is that it is intolerable for Theban citizens to be killed without due process of law. In addition, if the conspiracy is going to go through, there need to be citizens outside the conspiracy itself, who can be recognized as having an impartial point of view; otherwise, everything done in that direction will look as if it were just done for private ends. Epaminondas goes back to Simmias, while Caiphisias and the others head off to the gym for wrestling, during which they finalize revolution plans. From there, Phyllidas takes charge of Archias and his crowd, egging them on to partying in the hopes of keeping them from executing Amphitheus before anything can be done.

As night draws on, it is cold and stormy, and different bands of conspirators meet with different exiles: "Some as they entered had a flash of lightning on their right-hand, without a clap of thunder, and that portended safety and glory; intimating that their actions should be splendid and without danger." Forty-eight conspirators and exiles then met at Simmias's house. However, as they are meeting and Theocritus is making the sacrifices for an auspicious endeavor, guards from Archias bang on the door. Charon goes out with them and is told that he is summoned by Philip and Archias. The conspirators, of course, assume that they have been discovered, with most suspecting Hipposthenides. Charon sets out, but not before handing his fifteen-year-old son to his co-conspirators, telling them that they should kill him if Charon betrays anything of the conspiracy. (The conspirators, while admiring the bravery and commitment to the cause, are insulted by the gesture, and tell him to send his son elsewhere so that if worst comes to worst he will not be harmed by the association. Charon refuses, however, and insists that his son should stay.) After Charon is gone, another conspirator comes in, and hearing about Charon, demands that they set the plan in motion, lest they wait too long. Theocritus also comes in and says that his sacrifices are auspicious.

They thus start arming themselves, but, while they are doing so, Charon returns in an excellent mood. Archias and Philip were staggering drunk. Archias said he had heard that there were exiles returned and hiding in the city. Charon, acting surprised, replied that he has heard nothing, and that it might just be an idle rumor stirring up trouble; but he promised that he would ask around to find out what was going on. Thus, Charon suggests, the time is right for moving.

It has begun to snow, and the wind is blowing fiercely. The conspirators and exiles divide into parties and head out to strike at the tyrants. Charon had scarcely left Archias when Archias received an urgent message from Athens that laid bare the entire plot. But by this point Archias was falling-down drunk and, eager for women, tossed it aside without reading it, saying that business was for the morning. They assault Archias's house, and Archias dies, as does Philip; Cabirichus, the Theban chosen as archon by lot, they try to convince to stand with the revolution. Unfortunately, persuading drunk people is very difficult, and one of the conspirators ends up killing him, as well. In the meantime, the assault on Leontidas has proceeded, as the conspirators pretend to have an urgent letter for him. The servants open the door, and they all rush in. Leontidas, hearing the commotion, is ready for them, but he makes the mistake of keeping the candles lit rather than using the cover of darkness. He manages to run Cephisodorus through and to wound Pelopidas, but Pelopidas finally manages to strike a fatal blow; he falls on dying Cephisodorus, who dies with a smile on his face. They then assault the house of Hypates, and kill him as he is trying to flee across the roof of his neighbor's house.

Everyone meets in the forum, and they all head to the prison. Phyllidas tries to fool the jailkeeper by saying that Archias wants him to bring out Amphitheus for his execution; but the jailkeeper is not fooled, and Phyllidas ends up running him through. They free all the prisoners, and the word of what is happening begins to spread through the city.

Caiphisias goes to the temple of Minerva, where Epaminondas, Gorgidas, and their friends are gathered, and gives them the news. They declare the freedom of the city and begin arming the Theban citizens. Hipposthenides and his friends come out and join in, as well. They assault the fortress and its defenders. Inside the fortress, the defenders are perplexed; Lysanoridas the Spartan gave them orders to stay inside, but he is, by chance, not there that day. They finally surrender.

And thus was Thebes liberated.

So, with such an intricate, complicated, layered structure, what in the world is going on in this dialogue?

(to be continued)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rosmini on Civil Society

It is high time for us to realise that civil society is not a universal society in the sense that it embraces all other societies and their rights. It is a particular society which exists alongside others, as it does alongside everything individual which cannot be absorbed by civil society without losing individuality.

Antonio Rosmini, About the Author's Study, Murphy, tr., Rosmini House (Durham: 2004), p. 14b. This work is the prologue or prelude to Rosmini's Introduction to Philosophy.

The point made here is quite an important one: a civil society that takes itself as all-encompassing, as if its members could not be part of any society independent of the civil society itself, is already beginning to be corrupt, since it is already usurping power and authority to which it has no right. Individuals are capable of taking part in many societies; these societies involve many ends, rights, and forms of authority that cannot be encompassed by, or reduced to, the ends, rights, and forms of authority of civil society, and thus civil society does not have any automatic authority for deciding what to do with, or about, or to these other societies. Civil society is not universal society; it is one society among a great many other societies.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Directly, Thoroughly, Intimately

It is impossible for the individual to reach the larger social conscience by sheer expansion, by a benevolent endeavor to be interested in all men. This leads inevitably to a tenuous filmy consciousness, a loss of grip on the realities of human beings — on the concrete man. It becomes easily a theoretical rather than a practical humanitarianism, and has often been illustrated in the world's history by the wavering and doubting of the philanthropic mind.

We can only be interested in men by knowing them — knowing them directly, thoroughly, intimately; and this knowing leads ever to the greatest of human discoveries,—the recognization [sic] of one's self in the image of one's neighbor; the sudden, startling revelation, "This is another Me, that thinks as I think, feels as I feel, suffers even as I suffer." This is the beginning, and the only true beginning, of the social conscience.

W. E. B. DuBois, "The Individual and Social Conscience". He goes on to emphasize that it is, however, only the beginning.

Plutarch, On the Genius of Socrates (Part II: Secret Messages and Souls Like Stars)

To Part I

Theanor begins to recount his story to the gathered conspirators. Lysis was an important Pythagorean who escaped a purge. Nobody had known exactly where he had escaped to, however; although there was one clue in that Gorgias of Leontini, the famous orator, had claimed that he had talked to Lysis while in Thebes. Gorgias had told this to Arcesus, who wanted to go to Thebes to find Lysis alive, if possible, or to bring back his body if he was dead. However, "wars, usurpations, and seditions" interfered with his ability to do so, and he and his friends never actually made it. However, Lysis' daimonion had provided assistance, and others had told them that the family of Epaminondas had buried Lysis with honor. So Theanor, although a very young man, has come as a representative of his elders; he is carrying a lot of money, which he is willing to offer to Epaminondas and his family (which includes Charon, Caiphisias, and Polymnis) as a gift of thanks for their honoring of Lysis. Polymnis weeps at the memory of him. It turns out, however, that Epaminondas has been refusing to accept the money, and he gives an extended argument to his family that it is more noble to forego it: Lysis, through his teaching, has already given them more than enough to repay what they had to spend in burying them. Epaminondas and Theanor argue about this a while, with Epaminondas arguing that even if there is nothing wrong with taking the money, "abstinence from lawful pleasure is exercise against unlawful".

Simmias approves of Epaminondas' nobility, but points out that this is an argument they can have among themselves in private. What he wants to know is what Theanor's plans are -- does he intend to remove the body? Theanor says that Lysis is probably pleased with his burial in Thebes; the reason he's here is that once the Pythagoreans realized that Lysis had died, because they had dreams about him, they realized that he had not been buried with the proper Pythagorean death rites. So he went to the tomb of Lysis and, having performed his sacrifices, summoned the soul of Lysis. When he did so, he heard a voice, saying, "Move not those relics that ought not to be moved, for Lysis's body was duly and religiously interred; and his soul is sent to inform another body, and committed to the care of another Daemon." (Pythagoreans, of course, believed in reincarnation.) In the morning, when he met Epaminondas, he discovered that Lysis had initiated Epaminondas into the rites of the Pythagoreans, and that (apparently) the daimonion that looked after Lysis was also looking after Epaminondas.

At this point they are interrupted (this dialogue has almost as many interruptions as characters) by Simmias's doctor, who unbandages and prepares to dress the knee again. Phyllidas comes in with Hipposthenides, and he looks very concerned. He pulls Caiphisias, Charon, and Theocritus aside. Phyllidas accuses Hipposthenides of trying to sabotage the conspiracy because of his cowardice. Hipposthenides protests that Phyllidas should not confuse courage with rashness. Phyllidas merely reiterates that Hipposthenides has tried to ruin everything by sending a message to the exiles not to come today. Naturally this troubles the other plotters, whose plan depends on the exiles returning that day. Hipposthenides defends himself. The plotters may make Archias drunk, but they can hardly get his entire guard of fifteen hundred men drunk. What's more, it is clear that the Spartans suspect something, since they've had the guards on alert, and the fact that they are so adamant about putting Amphitheus to death is a sign that the conspiracy is discovered -- they may not know exactly who is in it, but they surely know something is going on. In addition, diviners sacrificing an ox to Ceres had read the omens, which indicated sedition and danger. And to top it all off, Hipposthenides was stopped yesterday by someone he knew who had had a dream in which Charon's house was in labor; Charon and his family were praying around the house to stop its groaning, but a fire broke out from it that burned most of the city to the ground, although the fortress was only singed. Hipposthenides says he thinks that the city is the Thebans and the fortress is their overlords.

Theocritus protests that all of his sacrifices had good omens for the conspirators. He gives a completely different interpretation of the dream, in which it shows that the plans of the conspirators are not uncovered, and accuses the priests of Ceres of being under the influence of the tyrannical government. Caiphisias, somewhat more practical, asks Hipposthenides who he sent with the message, and when, in order to find out whether the damage can be avoided. It turns out to be Clido, master of horses to Melon, and he is riding the best horse in Thebes, so Hipposthenides says that won't be able to catch up to him. Which is good reasoning, but stumbles on the fact that while they have been discussing these things, Clido himself has walked up to the gate. He wasn't able to take the message. When he went to get his horse and called for his bridle, nobody could find it. He wasted a lot of time looking for it before his wife admitted that someone else had borrowed it. He then shouted at her, and she cursed his journey. Then Clido started beating her; but then the neighbors and other women came in and started beating him, and he is now so bruised that he asks Hipposthenides to send someone else.

Instead of being relieved by this, the conspirators are now anxious about their plans -- having come so close to crashing, it no longer seems stable. But they begin to carry out:

Presently we parted. Phyllidas went home to prepare his entertainment, and to make Archias drunk as soon as conveniently he could; Charon went to his house to receive the exiles; and I and Theocritus went back to Simmias again, that having now a good opportunity, we might discourse with Epaminondas.

Theocritus and Caiphisias find Simmias in heated debate with Galaxidorus about the nature of Socrates' daimonion. They had missed Simmias's major reply, but they could get the gist of it. Simmias had once asked Socrates about it, but did not get a reply. However, Socrates did tend to regard as frauds people who claimed to have seen divine apparitions, while he showed an active interest in people who claimed to have heard divine voices, which suggests Socrates' daimonion was manifested as a sensible perception of voice, or, even more likely, an understanding of words without voice (as sometimes occurs in dreams):

But inasmuch as language, apprehended without any sensible voice, easily excites; so, in my opinion, the understanding of a superior nature and a more divine soul may excite an inferior soul, touching it from without, like as one speech may touch and rouse another, and as light causes its own reflection. We, it is true, as it were groping in the dark, find out one another's conceptions by the voice; but the conceptions of the Daemons carry a light with them, and shine to those that are able to perceive them, so that there is no need of words such as men use as signs to one another, seeing thereby only the images of the conceptions, and being unable to see the conceptions themselves unless they enjoy a peculiar and (as I said before) a divine light.

Thus Simmias regards the sneezing theory of Socrates' divine sign as obviously absurd. He offers to tell a story he heard from Timarchus on the subject, and Theocritus, in particular, is eager to hear it. Timarchus was a close friend of Socrates' son Lamprocles. He had been curious about Socrates' divine sign, and he had come up with a scheme, which was known only to himself, to Simmias, and to Cebes, in which he performed special rites in the cave of Trophonius.

The cave was very dark and Timarchus was unsure whether he was waking or dreaming, but he imagined that his soul escaped his skull and heard a subtle music. He looked up and saw islands of fire shining brightly in a beautiful blue sea. The sea was fed by rivers of white fire. When he looked down, however, he saw an abyss of rolling darkness filled with distant screams and groans. Then something spoke to him, asking what he wished to understand; to which Timarchus replied that he wished to understand everything. The voice replied that the things above were the domain of other gods, but he could visit Proserpina's quarter, if he'd like. Proserpina's quarter is one-fourth of the underworld, as divided by the River Styx, which is the way to Hades. Timarchus sees stars vanishing and reappearing, and the voice says that these are divine things:

These, said the voice, are Daemons; for thus it is. Every soul hath some portion of reason; a man cannot be a man without it; but as much of each soul as is mixed with flesh and appetite is changed, and through pain or pleasure becomes irrational. Every soul doth not mix herself after one sort; for some plunge themselves into the body, and so in this life their whole fame is corrupted by appetite and passion; others are mixed as to some part, but the purer part still remains without the body,—it is not drawn down into it, but it swims above, and touches the extremest part of the man's head; it is like a cord to hold up and direct the subsiding part of the soul, as long as it proves obedient and is not overcome by the appetites of the flesh. That part that is plunged into the body is called the soul, but the uncorrupted part is called the mind, and the vulgar think it is within them, as likewise they imagine the image reflected from a glass to be in that. But the more intelligent, who know it to be without, call it a Daemon.

The stars that vanish are souls plunging into bodies; those that reappear are those who have died; and those that rise to the highest levels are the daemons for sages and philosophers. Each of the stars has its own motion; some are erratic (these are the undisciplined) while others are very regular (the philosophically educated). The latter are those that are capable of responding to the light touches of the divine signs.

The voice tells Timarchus that he will know more in three months, and the young man felt a sharp pain in his head, as if his soul were being stuffed back into it and his skull forcibly pressed closed. Three months later Timarchus died; Simmias and Cebes told Socrates the story. Socrates was angry that they waited to tell him.

At this point, Simmias suggests that they ask Theanor to discourse on the subject. Theanor points out that Epaminondas is also an initiate; but it is replied back to him that Epaminondas likes keeping quiet about such things. So Theanor begins to reflect on the story of Timarchus.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Plutarch, On the Genius of Socrates (Part I: Conspiracies and Sneezes)

Plutarch of Chaeronea was one of the great philosophers and historians of the Middle Platonist period. He was a prolific writer, and an excellent one, so we have a remarkable number of his works, despite the fact that we have evidence that what we have is only part of his total corpus. Among his works is this curious dialogue on the daimonion of Socrates, the divine something that Socrates claimed guided his actions. One of the major puzzles in interpreting the dialogue is how the philosophical discussion of Socrates' divine sign is supposed to relate to the explicit context of the dialogue, which is the liberation of Thebes in 379 BC, in which the Thebans managed to throw off the Spartan yoke. The dialogue is very odd; it reads like someone dropped a spy novel, a mystery novel, a ghost story, and a philosophical dialogue into a blender and liquified them: it's difficult to know how all of this is supposed to relate to each other. Another major point of dispute in interpreting the dialogue is what relation it has to Plato's Phaedo. There are numerous echoes, and the two dialogues even share an important character (Simmias), but the themes of Plutarch's dialogue aren't related in any obvious way to the themes of Plato's.

You can read Plutarch's On the Genius of Socrates in English at the Perseus Project.

The Plot

The dialogue opens with Archidamus asking Casiphias to describe to him the entire plan by which the liberation of Thebes took place, from beginning to end. Casiphias agrees, but waits to launch into his tale until he has been introduced to the other people with Archidamus: Lysithides, Timotheus, the sons of Archinus, and some unnamed friends. Then Casiphias asks how much they already know about the topic.

Archidamus replies that they know how the Spartans surprised the Thebans in a military maneuver and took over the city, ruling it in ways contrary to justice, and that they know what they have gathered from those who were exiled. So they only need to know what Casiphias and his associates actually did to make it possible for the exiles to return and to seize control of the government again.

Casiphias replies that at that time all the plotters met in secret at the house of Simmias; they met there because he had a knee injury that made it difficult for him to move about. Their cover story was that they were meeting for philosophical discussion; to make the cover story stronger, they even occasionally invited some of the Spartans who liked philosophical conversation. Through a system of messages through Charon, the brother of the important Theban general Epaminondas, they discovered that the exiles were set to return. Theocritus the soothsayer remarks to Casiphias that it is surprising that Charon, who is not philosophical by nature, nonetheless is willing to go to such risks for his city, while Epaminondas seems to do nothing; but Casiphias replies that this is simply a matter of differences in reasoning:

Courageous Theocritus, we do what upon mature deliberation we have approved, but Epaminondas, being of a contrary opinion and thinking it better not to take this course, rationally complies with his judgment, whilst he refuseth to meddle in those matters which his reason upon our desire cannot approve, and to which his nature is averse. Nor can I think it prudent to force a physician to use fire and a lancet, that promiseth to cure the disease without them.

Epaminondas has not signed on with the plotters because their plan is going to require deliberate killing of Thebans without trial. Because of the importance of Theban freedom, he does not interfere with their plotting, but he himself refuses to participate in it, preferring to look for an opportunity to rid Thebes of the Spartans and their puppets in a more just way. Anaxidorus hushes Theocritus and Casiphias, noting that Archias and Lysanoridas the Spartan are coming this way. Archias calls Theocritus aside and talks with him and Lysanoridas in private for a long time -- for so long a time, that the conspirators begin to fear that their scheme has been discovered. This gives Phyllidas, however, who is secretary to Archias but also one of the plotters, the chance to get caught up on the situation with the exiles from Casiphias. He himself has planned a feast for Archias to make sure that Archias will be drunk when the exiles surprise the city, but he hasn't been able to drawn Leontidas in as well, so it will be necessary to divide their forces into two groups in order to get both Archias and Leontidas at once. Casiphias agrees to pass this on, but wonders what Archias is talking to Theocritus about. Phyllidas does not know, but he does know that the Spartans, who are famous for paying attention to omens and oracles, have reportedly been worried because of omens and oracles indicating that disaster would come on Sparta.

At this point, Theocritus returns and Phidolaus the Haliartian comes in as well, saying that Simmias asks them to wait a moment, because he is currently pleading with Leontidas to lighten the capital punishment for Amphitheus to banishment. This leads to a curious turn in the conversation; Theocritus remarks that Phidolaus must have been present at the opening of the tomb of Alcmena when the Spartans took its relics back to Sparta and asked what he saw. Phidolaus replies that he was not there, refusing to be a party to the impiety, but there was no body in the tomb. There was, however, a bronze tablet with ancient writing on it, and the Spartan king Agesilaus had sent to Egypt to try to discover what it said. Not long afterward there was a great famine and the area flooded, which the Haliartii believed was a judgment on Sparta for their impiety. Theocritus responds that this was what he was talking to Archias and Lysanoridas about; omens are suggesting that Sparta is under judgment, and thus Lysanoridas will be going to Haliartus to perform rites to Alcmena and Aleus, and then to return and find the tomb of Dirce, but Theocritus thinks he will not find it.

At this point Leontidas leaves, and they go in to see Simmias. Simmias is troubled because his petition has been denied. He then asks if Casiphias knows who the stranger is. Casiphias has no idea what he is talking about, so Simmias replies that Leontidas had said that a man was seen coming out of the tomb of Lysis with a long train of attendants, and that when they went to investigate they found traces of burnt sacrifices. Nobody knows who it is. Phidolaus asks Simmias what he knows about the bronze plaque found in the tomb of Alcmena. Simmias replies that he doesn't know anything about the tablet itself, but he does know that there has been back-and-forth between Sparta and Egypt, and that the language is from the days of Proteus and Hercules. The message on the tablet said something about instituting games in honor to the Muses, and the interpretation that was given was that the Greeks ought "to live peaceably and at quiet, to contend in philosophy to the honor of the Muses, and, laying aside their arms, to determine what is right and just by reason and discourse." That this seemed to be right was confirmed by the fact that it solved an otherwise puzzling oracle from Apollo: "Then the Delians and all the other Greeks should enjoy some respite from their present evils, when they had doubled the altar at Delos." This seemed to be an admonition that the Greeks should study geometry rather than fight. Casiphias's father Polymnias comes in with a message from Epaminondas, asking them to provide hospitality for an important Pythagorean from Sicily who came to Thebes to make offerings at the tomb of Lysis.

At this point Galaxidorus (I'm beginning to think that everyone in Thebes happens to be congregating at Simmias's house, the cast of characters is getting so large) cries out that it is apparently impossible to find a man without superstition. All these omens and oracles and sacrifices only exist to give people in power a way to control the vulgar and the stupid, but astonishingly there are people trained in philosophy who get taken in by them, so that philosophy, which starts out promising to investigate everything by reason, eventually falls back into unreason and dreams and appeal to the gods. Thus, he says to Simmias, "your Socrates" had the right idea. Theocritus protests that this is just the accusation Meletus made against Socrates, that he despised all divine things. Galaxidorus responds that it's not that Socrates despised divine things, but receiving the dream-filled Pythagorean philosophy, he applied the standard of reason to it. Theocritus replies that this doesn't make any sense of Socrates' daimonion, and he gives some stories about Socrates following the counsel of his divine sign.

Galaxidorus dismisses this. The 'divine sign' was just Socrates' experience combined with reason:

For as one grain doth not incline the balance by itself, yet added to one of two weights that are of equal poise, makes the whole incline to that part; thus an omen or the like sign may of itself be too light to draw a grave and settled resolution to any action, yet when two equal reasons draw on either side, if that is added to one, the doubt together with the equality is taken off, so that a motion and inclination to that side is presently produced.

Polymnias remarks that Galaxidorus heard a story from a Megarian, who got it from Terpsion, that Socrates' daimonion was actually just sneezing -- if someone sneezed to the left, he took that as a sign that he should stop doing what he was doing. But this is certainly an odd story -- if that's all there was, why not just say so rather than make all this fuss about a divine something-or-other? Nor does it seem plausible that a wise man would be so moved by something as insignificant as a sneeze. Galaxidorus dismisses the skepticism of the others, however, responding that little things can be quite significant. What is actually happening is that, since we don't really know the sources of our guesses, we attribute their success to divine power; the sneeze was just a sign, and it's not surprising that Socrates attributed it, as the source of his very successful guesses, to a divine power. But he's willing to hear what Simmias would say about it.

However, they are interrupted by Epaminondas, who is coming with friends and the stranger from the tomb of Lysis, whose name turns out to be Theanor.

(to be continued)

The Friendship of Mothers

But in its essence friendship seems to consist more in giving than in receiving affection: witness the pleasure that mothers take in loving their children. Some mothers put their infants out to nurse, and though knowing and loving them, do not ask to be loved by them in return, if it be impossible to have this as well, but are content if they see them prospering; they retain their own love for them even though the children, not knowing them, cannot render them any part of what is due to a mother.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1159a. The notion of parenthood as a kind of friendship with children plays a fairly important role in Aristotle's account of friendship.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On the Virtue of Temperance, Part III

If the positive aspect of temperance consists in pursuit of the morally beautiful, the negative aspect involves avoidance of the morally ugly. That is to say, the temperate person eschews the base, the ignoble, the disgraceful, the shameful, the beastly, the foul, the turpid, the vile, the brutish. We have a great many names for it, but it is remarkable that the morally ugly is rarely discussed by ethicists.

Temperance regulates the pursuit of pleasure according to the needs of human life, and the emphasis, if we are considering the morally ugly, is on the human. Temperance draws a line between that of which human beings are merely capable and that which is genuinely appropriate to them; it expresses human dignity and communicates the importance of humanity itself. As such, the temperance person avoids, as much as possible, what is even suggestive of the inhuman.

In Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three kinds of character that are in some way opposed to the genuinely virtuous character: the vicious character, the incontinent character, and the brutish or beastly character (the 'incontenenza, malizia e la matta bestialitade' of Dante's Inferno XI.82-83). The brutish or beastly character is involved in the pursuit of pleasures not appropriate to human nature. The pleasures sought by the beastly, in other words, are things that can only please someone if they are in some way mentally sick, whether through madness, or through a twisted education inappropriate to a human being, or through some injury or illness. Aristotle's examples are often quite vivid: a woman who enjoys ripping open pregnant women in order to eat their children, a man who sacrifices his mother or eats his slave's liver, someone pathologically devoted to eating cinders and dirt. Obviously these things are more than a mere lack of restraint; they are even in some way, as Aristotle famously says, 'beyond the limits of vice'; there is something about them that is inconsistent with the way a rational person should act, something inhuman.

Temperance will obviously avoid actions of a beastly character, but if temperance is concerned with acting in a way that manifests virtue, it will also avoid things that could be reasonably seen as suggestive of a beastly character, even if they are not themselves strictly beastly. We human beings are inveterate pretenders and imaginers, for instance, play-actors by nature, and one can imagine the temperate person avoiding, to the extent possible and reasonable, not just bestial pleasure but the pleasure in pretense at bestial act, not just (for instance) the bestial act of rape but play-acting through a rape fantasy for the thrill of it. The pleasures are not the same. But the latter pleasures, like the former, are morally ugly, and, indeed, inherit their moral ugliness from the former. A bit more distantly, the temperate person might avoid pleasures in things that involve taking the bestial act too lightly -- frivolous joking about it, for instance. This pleasure is different yet again; the act with which it is concerned is not itself beastly, not itself inhuman. But it also inherits a sort of moral ugliness from the beastly, by not manifesting its beastliness. In the same way, and more distantly the temperate person would avoid pleasures that, even if different entirely and harmless in themselves, could in context be seen as a little too suggestive of something beastly, or as condoning it, or as treating it too lightly.

All of this inappropriateness to human life has to do with reason. Aristotle noted that the beastly character seems to involve living a life governed entirely by senses and feelings, and not by reason; it is this that makes it in human. The beastly act is not merely off-putting; it is the kind of act that doesn't make sense, the kind of act that is not consistent with civilized life. And the same will often be true more broadly, in that moral ugliness seems to express the downfall of rational order, either directly (by being itself contrary to all reason) or indirectly (by being suggestive of it, or condoning it, or treating it too lightly). Child pornography is morally ugly even if does no harm to any child, as in purely virtual child pornography involving cartoon or CGI representations of children and kept private by an individual who himself never harms children; the fact that it is purely virtual, involves no real children, and is kept private, does not eliminate the baseness or vileness of it. The beastliness lies in what it communicates, and in the unreason involved in communicating that, of giving the pursuit of sexual pleasure, even in this private and mere-fantasy way, a dominance over rational respect for children. And often when we are dealing with harms, this element of irrational communication is involved as well. One of the harms of rape, too often overlooked, is the forced imposition on a person of a vile message, that this rational person is to be subordinated to one's lust. This upside-downness is a form of unreason; but one can communicate the same unreason without actually committing the act. Merely to desire to eat someone's face off is beastly regardless of whether one actually does; and so too pursuing pleasures that suggest, or in a way that suggests, that it is acceptable is in some way beastly, and to be avoided for the same reason.

As with brutishness, however, so also with incontinence and vice. The temperate person will, by the very fact of being temperate, tend to avoid incontinent and vicious actions. This is not the full extent of how temperance as a virtue works, however; being concerned with manifesting good character, it will likewise avoid what could reasonably be taken as a sign of moral weakness or vice. In these matters as well, what one's actions communicate about right and wrong, good and evil, are important even if one's actions are not themselves wrong or evil.

Interestingly, the area of ethics today in which one most finds recognition of this is professional ethics. We recognize that doctors, lawyers, judges, should not just avoid moral wrongdoing; they should also avoid actions, not morally wrong in themselves, that are suggestive of moral wrongdoing in the context of their profession. It's important not only that they do not wrong, but also that they avoid things, even permissible things, that could muddy communication about what is good and bad for their responsibilities, and thus it is common to put something in professional codes of ethics about this. But it's clear that this cannot just be confined to people in professions and careers of some kind. After all, we all have responsibilities, for the care of children, for the aid of those less fortunate than ourselves, for justice in the societies of which we are a part. The same kinds of considerations seem to apply to our life at large. The moral life is not, and cannot really be, just the avoidance of what is wrong; it must also be an avoidance of what could reasonably be taken to communicate the idea that what is in fact wrong is really right, or that what is seriously wrong is only mildly wrong. In short, if temperance is a virtue, then it will go beyond avoiding what is wrong in itself and also avoid what is morally ugly because of its connection to it.

Have You Forgotten Yet?

by Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Armistice Day, of course.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Another Poem Re-Draft

The Moon Sang Soprano

The moon sang soprano to the bass of the sea:
The fish danced in schools and defined ecstasy
As the waves crashed the shore with a drum and a bliss
That was voiced by the deep and unending abyss.
The tide measured time and the waves measured shore
As the song like a chorus resounded the more;
The moon sang its light, and that moonlight was borne
By the weight of the sea as it sounded its horn.

Three Poem Re-Drafts and a New Poem Draft

Desinas Ineptire

Some poems are not made
to move the mind,
but only hold the world
as in crystal.

Others strive to say
the thing unsaid,
in words to paint
what no words show.

And some but play a game,
place counters on a page.
But this one has no point
but to remind of you.

The Ocean's Daughter

When the moonlight comes,
it dances on water,
forms a path of light
silver and fair
that leads the way
to the Ocean's daughter;
a net of stars
shines in her hair.
The night is dark,
but her eyes are deeper
than all the abyss
of heaven above.
She holds my heart,
for she is its keeper:
the ocean's waves
spread from her with love.


Long ago, in a dream,
I saw your face, just a gleam;
it was light, it was hope,
in the dark.

Long ago I had heard
a gentle song without words,
soft and low, spreading hope
in the dark.

Now I wander the earth
and I wonder life's worth
when the fight only ends
with defeat again.
But hope grows where there is love,
where you are, and God above,
so I rise, so I fight,
though I must lose again.

Long ago, in a dream,
I heard your voice -- bright it seemed
in the dark.


Behind the eyes, a cave, a maw,
is pouring darkness down a hole;
within the hole our secrets wait
in shrouds of night more black than coal,
more deep than jet, and old despair
still waits for some long-feared rebirth,
a panic formed in ancient worlds
that came when man first sprung from earth,
a fear of things a god might know,
a fear of death and doom and dearth.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Fortnightly Book, November 9

The fortnightly book this time around is The River Witch, by Marjorie McIntyre, a tale of love and riverboats on the Missouri River in the 1850s. (It should not be confused with the book of the same name by Kimberley Brock.) This was McIntyre's debut and apparently only novel, although I think she also wrote short stories for magazines. I don't know much other than that about the author or the book. Published in 1955, it seems to be a book that's hard to get a hold of, but occasional internet reviews of it are almost all glowing, so it may well be an overlooked treasure.

This book was in my grandparents' library. I suspect it is from my granmother's side of the library, although it lacks anything to indicate for sure. It has a nice map inside the covers of "River Witch Country 1850", depicting the Missouri River from St. Joseph in Kansas to St. Louis in Illinois.

The First Foundation of Knowledge

The living thought of a real object, however imperfect and incomplete it may be, contains, nevertheless, the first beginning and germ of a knowing. It is only out of a dead thought that a true knowing can never arise; properly, indeed, whenit is but a mere formula, it is not even a true thinking. Knowledge, therefore, in general is the living thought of some real object; but perfect and complete knowledge is the full and correct development of this thought, by means of which it becomes perfectly defined, both outwardly and inwardly. But a real object is invariably the first foundation and beginning, from which all knowledge springs up, and to which all thought must be immediately directed and also closely attach itself.

Friedrich von Schlegel, Philosophy of Language, Morrison, tr., p. 538.