108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Socrates has explained his ideal society to his friends Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates in The Republic, and asked them to supply some real-world evidence of its likely success. Timaeus started with an account of the creation of the Universe and Mankind in Timaeus (see post 107) and now Critias describes the lead up to the ancient battle between Athens and Atlantis in this fragment. Whether it was ever finished, or if the third part of the trilogy to be supplied by Hermocrates was ever written will never be known.

My version is included in the Plato volume of Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

My thoughts:

Critias offers Ancient Athens as a workable example of Socrates’ (Plato’s) Republic, with the warrior caste of men and women living selfless, communal lives of service to the state.

Equally virtuous were the ten kings of Atlantis, until they gradually became more debased and selfish, until Zeus decided to punish them. This is where the surviving fragment ends, but presumably the war with Athens, and finally the earthquake which sinks Atlantis are divinely ordered.

The island of Atlantis, beloved by Poseidon, consisted of concentric circles of land separated by canals, with the Royal Palace on the centre island. A lush, fertile land where there lived

” a great number of elephants in the island, for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both of those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those that live in mountains and on plains …. whatever fragrant things there now are in the Earth, whether roots or herbage or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived”

I haven’t been including most fragments in my reading unless they are the only surviving text for a renown author (e.g Sappho) or of some personal interest. Plato was apparently the first author to mention Atlantis so I was intrigued to see its description here.

Personal rating: 4/10

Next :  Probably Plato’s Laws

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Following on from his presentation of his model society in The Republic, Socrates now asks those who were present for examples of practical applications of those ideas. Initially Critias tells of a time 9000 years earlier when ancient Athens had such a society (as recorded by the Egyptians, but now forgotten by the Greeks themselves) and fought a war against Atlantis; but before going into detail (which is covered in the next read Critias), Timaeus is asked to set the scene by a description of the creation of the universe and mankind, underlain by divine purpose, which traverses astronomy, atomic physics, psychology and philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and religion. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

My version is the Penguin Classic translated and introduced by H. D. P. Lee, published 1965.

Key points:  Unlike Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, this is more like a long lecture, and Socrates is content to take a back seat and listen. Firstly Timaeus describes the deliberate creation of the universe/world, with its own soul and intelligence, by a God, but notably not the supreme leader of the usual Greek pantheon Zeus. He then describes how this creator used the entirety of all four elements – earth and fire, bound together by air and water, into a perfect physical sphere complete with soul. (The only things which have independent power of movement are living, and living things have souls, therefore heavenly bodies in motion must be living and have souls as there is no evidence of an external force causing them to move)

The distant stars are placed on an outermost ring, (the Same) with the nearer Sun and planets on concentric rings (the Different) closer to the World. All these are gods, the whole creation infused with the Soul – the Same and Different rotating in different directions to allow us a measure of Time – day and night, month and year.

Of living creatures associated with the World, there are four types: gods (those known from traditional Greek mythology, made by the Creator), and birds, water creatures and land creatures. Plants are mentioned later as living, but with souls focused solely on appetite, and the perception of pleasure and pain (!). Mankind are included in the land creatures – made by the lesser gods and with a mixture of mortal (the body) and immortal nature (the soul).

Mankind has a soul placed in a spherical head (modelling the Universe), transported by a body with arms and legs. Daylight combines with the natural fire within the body that shines out of the eyes, to provide a sensation of sight to the soul. At night the lack of daylight renders the visual stream from the eyes ineffective and induces sleep, as the eyelids shut off the flow of the internal fire. And so on… not quite how Professor Orr explained it to us in Biology 100.

This leads to the rudimentary atomic theory using geometric solids formed of various triangles as the particles of the four elements, which can be broken down and transformed into each other or combined with each other e.g. fire and water can be combined in different ways to make wine, honey or acid.

Much of the description of how things work or are composed does make a sort of logical sense, and is often ingenious based on the limited information available at the time. It will be interesting to hear Aristotle’s thoughts on some of this, one generation further on.

The least logical belief is one of “de-evolution” : where the first generation of men who lived weak or cowardly lives were reincarnated as women (Plato’s words, not mine!!) , and then birds or four-legged animals if their thoughts or desires were misplaced, with the basest individuals brought back as sea creatures. Yet it does indicate a belief in every living creature having some fragment of immortal soul.

Favourite lines/passages:

The gods gave mankind sight to allow us to observe the movements of the Heavens, and thereby inquire into the nature of things and become philosophers. Likewise, speech and hearing are for the betterment of the intellect : music is to restore internal harmony, not “irrational pleasure”, while rhythm “was given us from the same heavenly source to help us in the same way, for most of us lack measure and grace”    page 65.

“This we postulate as the origin of fire and the other bodies, our argument combining likelihood and necessity ; their more ultimate origins are known to god and to men whom god loves.”                                                                                                                    page 72

“A man’s genitals are naturally disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that will not listen to reason, and will do anything in their mad lust for possession. Much the same is true of the matrix or womb in women, which is a living creature within them which longs to bear children. And if it is left unfertiised long beyond the normal time, it causes extreme unrest, strays about the body, blocks the channels of the breath and causes in consequence acute distress and disorders of all kinds”                                                                                                                                                                   page 120

Personal rating: Ingenious in its own way. 5/10.

Kimmy’s rating: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *leg twitch, snort* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 Also in that year: Around this time, Rome is busy subduing its neighbours, while Philip II has become King of Macedonia (356 BC). Iron Age technology has reached sub-Saharan Africa.

Next : Critias by Plato.

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  A description of the rules of government of Sparta, providing a major source of otherwise scarce information about the daily life of that civilisation. Legend has it that Lycurgus made the Spartans promise to uphold these laws until he returned from visiting the Delphic Oracle. He never did return.

Lacedaemonia (or Laconia) is the region for which Sparta was the capital, as Athens was the capital of the Attica region, although I don’t remember seeing the names before now. I imagine if you lived a spartan lifestyle then your speech and manner might be described as laconic.

I can now return the Minor works edition of Xenophon (published 1888 by George Bell & Sons of London) to the library. How many more years will it sit quietly on the shelves at the back of the 800s?

My thoughts: My final read by Xenophon (there is another treatise on the Constitution of Athens, but that is now believed not to have been written by Xenophon, and is attributed to the “Old Oligarch”)

The points that stand out when reading this are the differences from what we think as normal for Ancient Greece. Remember the following are taken from legislation enacted by Lycurgus to establish the military themed society for which Sparta was noted.

  • To ensure healthy robust children, it was required that older men with younger wives should introduce them to virile younger men to father their children, and men unable or unwilling to have children with their wives might father children on other men’s wives (with their consent)
  • Spartan boys were raised with less clothes and food than would make them comfortable, to prepare them for hardship during campaigns. However, the boys were encouraged to steal as much cheese as they could, to foster their skills in procuring supplies in wartime. But of course, if caught they would be punished.
  • Unlike the rest of Greece, sexual relations between men and boys was considered to be on a par with incest.
  • All citizens were to eat their meals in public to ensure they did not succumb to gluttony or drunkenness,
  • Parents were allowed to chastise not only their own children, but others as well,
  • Free men were prohibited from any form of business, and the possession of gold or silver was a punishable offence,
  • Citizens were not allowed to live in other countries “lest they be initiated in licentiousness”

Lycurgus (if indeed he was a real person) lived around 900 BC, and, alas, by the time Xenophon was writing, he himself admits the Spartans did not continue to obey all these laws so thoroughly.

Personal rating:   Short but interesting. A 5.

Next :  Farewell and thanks for the company Xenophon.  Next is Timaeus by Plato, discussing “cosmology and anthropology”

Not finishing everything on my plato

Not finishing everything on my plato

Ok I have looked ahead and made the decision to NOT read the rest of Plato except for The Laws (which is a biggie) and Timeaus and Critias (which at least sound interesting).

So I will be pushing the following Brussels sprouts to the side : Parmenides, Theaetetus, The Sophist, The Statesman, and Philebus. After all, life is short, and I’ll never get to Dickens if I don’t make some concessions.

After all, as Socrates himself said : “Party on, dudes!”

105. Hiero by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  Simonides the poet interviews Hiero, King of Syracuse, over the differences between being a king and a private citizen, and the expected benefits that come with the throne. Hiero feels that kings are worse off than private individuals in every possible way : from their inability to travel as they please ; the constant bombardment of insincere praise and lack of true love from his favourites ; the jaded appetite with delicacies which have lost their novelty and may be laced with poison ; and the constant fear of assassination, even from the paid mercenaries that guard him – sovereignty is but splendid misery.

Simonides urges Hiero in the final section to do everything in his power to ensure that the entire community benefits from his power and wealth, from rewarding meritorious acts and achievements in every sphere, to providing civic amenities and services; which will in turn make the King beloved by his subjects.

My copy is again part of the Minor Works by Xenophon published in 1888 by George Bell & Sons, London.

My thoughts: Despite its brevity, this work quickly becomes tiresome as Hiero bewails his situation. No matter which tack Simonides attempts to investigate, Hiero shuts down any suggestion of pleasure or benefit. Even the idea to abdicate and pass the troubles to another are rejected as Hiero is convinced he will still be a target and unable to defend himself. While much of what Hiero says is no doubt realistic, his dejection is difficult to appreciate.

The employment of foreign mercenaries as personal bodyguards is interesting. Hiero (and probably other rulers) did not feel they could trust their own countrymen, yet also feared that paid mercenaries could be paid more to turn on the King and kill him. Yet the presence of foreigners protecting the King spoke loudly to the citizens that they were not trusted by the King and might provoke anger and hatred. However, Simonides’ suggestion that the mercenaries be sent into the community to guard and protect citizens and their farms and property seems to me likely to cause greater opportunities for conflict and oppression of the public by unruly or poorly disciplined troops.

Another point to note is the term tyrant. In modern English it means a ruler who uses his position and power to rule oppressively, but the original meaning was a ruler who held absolute power over the state, regardless of how well he treated his subjects. The behaviour of the Thirty Tyrants in the days after Athens rejected democracy in the war with Sparta may have helped set the negative connotations to the term.

Favourite lines/passages:

Simonides’ (perhaps naïve) advice to Hiero :

“Esteem your country as your own family, your fellow-citizens as your friends, your friends as your children, and your children as your own life ; and study to surpass them all in acts of kindness. For if you go beyond your friends in kind offices, no enemies will be able to stand before you. And if you constantly pursue such a course of conduct, be certain that you will secure the most honourable and blissful possession attainable among mankind, for you will be happy.”                                Page 70.

Certainly seems to describe the kind of model king that Xenophon pictured Agesilaus.

Personal rating:3.

Next :  Finishing off Xenophon with the Constitution of the Spartans (Lacedaemons)

104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

104. Phaedrus by Plato (c.360 BC)

Plot:  Socrates begs Phaedrus to repeat a speech by Lysias on the nature of love, comparing the lover and the non-lover (which seems to mean a friendship without desire, or perhaps a desire held in check). Phaedrus does so, but then insists Socrates make his own speech on the subject. Like Lysias’ speech, Socrates finds flaws with the inconstancy and selfishness of the lover, but before he can leave the spot, he is divinely struck to repent of his words against Love, who is after all a god.

He makes a second speech, beginning by praising the overwhelming madness of a lover as a divine gift, similar to the madness which allows prophecy, or possession by the Muses, or as a release from other griefs. In this case the madness is the admiration of earthly beauty (again invariably in the guise of a handsome youth) as a reminder of heavenly beauty glimpsed in an earlier incarnation and scarcely remembered.  This digresses to cover Socrates’ suggestion of a system of reincarnation where it takes 10,000 years for a soul to regrow its wings and fly back to heaven (or 3,000 years if you choose to be a philosopher three cycles running), and a description of the human soul as a charioteer with two steeds, one noble and virtuous with self-restraint, and the other base and degenerate, ruled by lust. It is the bad horse that drives the soul towards lustful physical acts.
The second half of the dialogue then veers onto the art of writing and rhetoric, and the art of persuasion by introducing a series of small differences in definition during a speech which leads from one viewpoint to the extreme opposite. These differences are easier to introduce when the definitions are not universally agreed by everyone, such as the concepts of justice or goodness or love. And if one knows which arguments will have the greatest impact on which sorts of personalities, one will do well.

There is a rather curious ending where the pastime of writing is seen as inferior to the truth of the word in one’s own mind, suitable only for the reminiscences of old men. Think of this when you read my posts or write yours.

For this read, I used the Plato volume of the 54-volume set Great Books of the Western World, translated by Benjamin Jowett and published by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, on thin semi-gloss paper and featuring only a brief biographical note and few footnotes. The set is still published (the latest edition contains 60 volumes, will take up 5 ½ feet of shelf space and weighs 47 kg.)

My thoughts:  Interestingly the setting for this discussion is an idyllic spot on the banks of a quiet river outside town, rather than the usual gathering in a friend’s house or the gymnasium, baths or meeting place. Perhaps this more secluded and private beauty spot is meant to suggest a lover’s trysting place?

I loved the story of the grasshoppers, who had originally been human beings with such a love of music that they sang all day, forgetting to eat or drink, until they died. The Muses turned them into grasshoppers so that they could sing all day without hunger or thirst, and in return the grasshoppers inform the Muses which humans honour them. There must be a lot of farmers who scoff at the idea of a grasshopper that doesn’t eat!!

And souls are always and naturally female – which shows a greater respect for women than the silence of the rest of Plato’s dialogues.

Favourite lines/passages:

“For only hold up before me in like manner a book, and you may lead me all around Attica, and over the wide world.”    Socrates, page 117.

“As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves”   Socrates, page 122 (although this may have been a quote from someone else)

“Is not rhetoric, taken generally, a universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments, which is practised not only in courts and public assemblies, but on private houses also, having to do with all matters, great as well as small, good and bad alike, and is in all equally right, and equally to be esteemed?”    Socrates, pages 131-132

“of madness, there are two kinds; one produced by human infirmity, the other was a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention”   Socrates page 134 (sounds pretty but I remain unconvinced)

Personal rating: While not particularly memorable for me, I can give Phaedrus a higher rating simply on the strength of the passages I have quoted above, so maybe a generous 5?

Next : Hiero the Tyrant by Xenophon.

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

103. Hellenica (A History of my Times) by Xenophon (c.359 BC)

Plot:  Consciously written to begin precisely where Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War leaves off in 411 BC, and covering the last seven years of that conflict, and the subsequent ongoing squabbles between Sparta, Athens, Persia, Thebes and their various allies and subjects up to 362 BC.

My version was Rex Warner’s translation from 1966 published by Penguin (9780140441758).

My thoughts:  This was a slow and difficult read for two reasons. Firstly the editor makes no secret of the fact that Xenophon left much of the story out of his record to make Sparta and his friend King Agesilius appear in the best possible light. I am a sucker for footnotes despite their breaking my reading flow, but I found myself avoiding most of them after a couple of hundred pages as they constantly berated the author at every step. Perhaps a more enthusiastic critic might have still made the journey enjoyable.

Gross omissions and slanted reporting may be, but I also did not find Hellenica as engaging as Xenophon’s other more personal works. It details the war until its end but more in the style of Thucylides and does not offer the warmth and closeness of individuals (except for a few pages on Teleutias, a typically virtuous Xenophon leader). Of course he is writing now on a much vaster canvas, but perhaps this is also partly my subconscious preference for a personalised approach to history. Other critics have explained that Xenophon has written this book for people very familiar with the leaders, places and events; and I certainly found myself floundering to keep track of it all.

The first couple of ‘books’ do fill in the political events in Athens that have been background to much of Plato : the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the removal of their democratic government and the establishment of an oligarchy : The Thirty, led by Critias, and their gang of killers, The Eleven, putting to death all their personal enemies, competitors or those whose possessions they coveted, and the later restoration of democracy. The remaining five ‘books’ details the tug-of-wars between the major parties for control of the various neighbouring states rather than directly attacking each other.

Politics was just as much the cult of personality and popularity as it is today. Loved generals such as Lysander and Agesilius are requested by cities to lead the forces coming to their aid.

Sparta and Athens eventually come to a longer lasting peace around 371 BC, only for Thebes, Thessaly and Arcadia to start stirring up trouble. Xenophon also raises the first mention of Celts and Iberians as present in the Athenian navy commanded by Dionysius but whether they are mercenaries or slaves is not clear.

Diversions and digressions:  King Agesipolis dies of fever while on campaign, and his body is returned to Sparta embalmed in honey, as centuries later Nelson will return to Portsmouth in a barrel of brandy.

One interesting figure was Jason of Pherae, the ambitious King of Thessaly who rose from seemingly nowhere and threatened to have the ability to take over the whole of Greece (foreshadowing the deeds of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great) before his unexpected assassination. I had never heard mention of Jason yet Xenophon suggests he might have rightly been described as “the greatest man of his times”.

Personal rating:  A disappointment following my enjoyment of previous Xenophon works. I gave Thucylides a 5 but this can only get a 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I read this title while on holiday in Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis. Kimmy is also on holiday at Kiweli Kennels and Kattery so there is no rating from her this time. The other dogs probably don’t read a lot of Greek classics.

Next :  Here’s the crunch – do I really want to read the entirety of Plato? Next on my list is his Phaedrus but I am tempted to skip the rest of his Socratic dialogues at least and only read the landmark remaining work (The Laws) and move straight on to Aristotle. I will probably start each of the remaining Platos, and skip if they seem to be more of the same.