Month: September 2016

76. Charmides by Plato (c. 399-387 BC)

Socrates has returned to Athens from a battle at Potidaea and is introduced to the most handsome youth in the City who has all the other young men madly in love with him. His name is Charmides, and he is suffering from headaches. To successfully effect a cure, it must be judged if Charmides has sufficient health of soul, which is measured by his degree of self-control, which of course needs to be defined first.
My thoughts
This time I started straight into the dialogue without reading the editor’s introduction first, and I tried to read it slowly and carefully.
Socrates’ first comment before meeting Charmides is that to be totally irresistible, this boy must not only have a beautiful face and body, but also a fine soul (no argument so far). The next principle is that to cure one part of the body, a good doctor must apply the cure to the whole body (the invention of holistic medicine?) and then introduces the need to ensure that the soul (which provides self-control) is also healed, and indeed must be healed first before any charms and remedies can be successful to the body. So the argument becomes to define self-control, so that it can be ascertained if Charmides needs to receive a charm without which the cure is useless, or has sufficient health of soul (and therefore, self-control) to require only the cure.
The first definition proposed for self-control describes someone who acts with orderliness and quietness. Yet Socrates thinks of many physical and mental actions where a quick response is better than a quiet one (and no-one presents examples to the contrary, which is quite frustrating, so Socrates starts to build his ‘house of cards’!)
The second definition is based on modesty, but as self-control must be a good thing, and modesty is not always a good thing, this fails the test as well. The third suggestion seems to move further away in testing if self-control is “doing your own job” which Socrates argues is the same as “doing and making everything you need for yourself”. As craftsmen make things for others and yet can have self-control, the definition must be further refined. The fourth definition suggests that the “doing of good things” demonstrates self-control, until Socrates argues that therefore someone can be self-controlled without knowing it, as he can do good without being aware of it, to which his audience disagrees, blowing that definition out of the water.
It gets murkier with the fifth definition, that self-control is really knowing oneself, leading to some rather impenetrable arguments about the knowledge of knowledge which eventually through a long and tortuous route of ‘logic’ lead us to the belief that self-control, while admirable, cannot be beneficial!!!
If Charmides didn’t have a headache when this started, he probably does by now!

Favourite lines/passages:

Critias sums up my thoughts pretty well
“But Socrates, your method of investigating the question is wrong. It isn’t like the other knowledges and they aren’t like one another either, but you’re conducting the investigation as if they were.”
Personal rating: I’ll give this one a 3
Next : Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, being again Socratic dialogues reported by Plato.


75. The Ecclesiazusae (Assemblywomen), by Aristophanes (c.392 BC)

Plot:  The women of Athens have had enough ineffective government from the men of the city, so they disguise themselves as men, and led by Praxagora, invade the Assembly and vote women into the role of managing the city. They instil a form of communism or shared wealth, with banquets for all to share, and although Scene 2 shows one man unwilling to hand over all his goods to the State, we don’t see his clever idea for evading the collection as promised.  Closure of the brothels and encouragement to open lovemaking is also made a priority, providing any man wanting to sleep with a beautiful young woman must first satisfy an ugly old woman or two.

This was the fourth play in the Penguin edition of Aristophanes’  The Birds and other plays translated by David Barrett and Alan Sommerstein (ISBN 9780140449518)

My thoughts : While certainly in his usual vein of comedy, with social and political commentary alongside quite graphic toilet humour : singeing off pubic hair with oil lamps, and defecating in the street (I will never feel comfortable near a cucumber again!) this is a fairly disjointed play with each scene (especially the short second and third ones) being separate vignettes. There is no reversal or comeuppance for the new order, no discovery of the trick and every citizen bar one just goes along with the new rules.

It was suggested by the editor that the reduced role of the Chorus in this play reflects the financial constraints of a defeated and battered Athens, after their defeat in the Peloponnesian wars. It is also suggested that the utopia created by the women in the play matches Plato’s Republic, which I will have to remember to consider when I get to that in due course.

Favourite lines/passages:  Despite being a result of the new laws and not part of the story of their creation, the most fun is in Scene 3, where three old painted hags compete to be the one to insist on having their legal rights by way of the randy young suitor who is trying to reach the nearby young beauty.

Personal rating : 4

Also in that year : In 405 BC, Athens lost the war to Sparta, and her empire was in tatters. Pro-Sparta rulers started a reign of terror with thousands of Athenians killed or banished. Persia joined forces with Athens to recover, and by 392 BC, a slow recovery of Athenian power is realised. Meanwhile, Roman dictator Camillus is consolidating his control over his neighbours and Rome is now the most powerful city on the Italian peninsula…..
Next : Back to Plato and his Socratic dialogue Charmides


74. Lysis by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

74. Lysis by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

My version is part of the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders. (ISBN 9780140455038)
My thoughts
My own naïve and unstudied thoughts on Socratic arguments so far is that they are based on a chain of assumptions which lead to a unsatisfactory conclusion because they treat generalisations as facts and fail to recognise exceptions. For instance, take the Socratic argument that possession of knowledge allows someone the freedom to do as they like (as no one with knowledge of good would knowingly do evil) and with that freedom comes happiness. So to be happy, one must be educated. While there is no doubt a lot of truth in that statement, being educated is certainly no guarantee of being happy.
In Lysis, the dialogue revolves around the concepts of love and friendship. Hippothales, a teenager fancies himself in love with a younger boy, Lysis, who is best friends with another boy Menexenus. Socrates questions Menexenus on reciprocal and non-reciprocal friendship to discover, in the case of non-reciprocal friendship, which party is the friend – the loved or the lover, or indeed neither? It is a typical example of Socrates saying black is white, then arguing it is black, then arguing it is white again, while everyone else merely agrees with him or admits confusion.
He then turns to Lysis and explains that bad men can never be friends with any other men as they are unstable, while good men can be friends with like good men. But then because he includes usefulness as a necessary criterion for friendship, how can good men be friends as the second man could be of no use to the first man who is self-sufficient, and without usefulness, how can there be affection? He then suggests that like cannot be friend to like as envy and hatred will arise from their competition, before coming back again to now suggest friendship cannot exist between like and like, or opposites. So the good man can be friend to no one?!
At this point my brain exploded and left me no choice but to admit defeat.
Aristotle gets closer to the truth for me when he stresses the idea of mutual or reciprocal goodwill as essential to the definition of friendship, as we will discover in his Nicomachean Ethics.

And of course the picture at the top of the post shows that famous duo Bill and Ted meeting Socrates, and expounding their own definition of friendship “Be excellent unto each other, …… and PARTY ON DUDES!”
Personal rating : 2
Kimmy’s rating : Kimmy sat on the couch beside me with her head on my leg. Her love for me and our family is definitely five star.
Next : Time for a change, and Aristophanes’ comic play The Ecclesiazusae

73. Laches by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Plot: Two Athenian generals, Nicias and Laches, are asked their opinions on the value of a military education for the sons of Athenian noblemen. Laches invites Socrates to join the discussion. Nicias takes the view that a military education provides a number of valuable benefits, including making the recipient braver and more daring in battle. Laches is not inclined to see any benefit.

Socrates reminds the generals that what is required of them is their advice on the education of the boys for the ultimate goal of good character development, for which military training is the chosen means to that end. To instil this goodness, they must be able to recognise and describe it. Socrates narrows goodness down to a definition of ‘bravery’ in keeping with the military nature of their experience. Laches initially defines bravery as someone who stands up to the enemy and fights without fleeing. Socrates asks about other instances of bravery : fighting at sea, or being brave in facing disease or poverty. He then offers a definition of ‘quickness’ to show what he is seeking : doing something in a short space of time. But as the editor points out, Socrates chooses a physical action which does not require a moral decision.

Laches suggests that introducing the concept of endurance as necessary to exhibiting bravery in all these situations, but then Socrates asks if that is endurance with wisdom or knowledge, or without wisdom (= foolishness), and again they reach an impasse as Socrates offers examples of bravery in both circumstances.

Nicias re-enters the debate and offers the thought that bravery includes knowledge of what is fearful and what is encouraging or not fearful. Socrates counters with asking if animals or children are brave if they are unafraid of danger, but Nicias explains they are not demonstrating bravery but are merely unaware of the danger they face, and draws a wider distinction between bravery and those who are “reckless, daring, fearless and blind to consequences”.  Socrates then asks Nicias if knowing something is fearful is based  on the expectation of future evil as a result, to which he agrees. Then Socrates argues that the recognition of future good or evil is the same as recognising past or present good or evil, which is further a recognition of all goodness, not just bravery, and they all admit defeat in their efforts.
My version is part of the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders. (ISBN 9780140455038)
My thoughts:

Phew! Socrates is again shown as being able to turn any argument inside out and convincing his opponent that their initial assertion is not what they subsequently support once Socrates leads them through a logical (but perhaps not watertight) series of questions and examples.  The end result is basically a collapse of the validity of all their arguments (and a certain degree of squabbling and name calling between Laches and Nicias) as they still don’t have a satisfactory definition of bravery. To a student of philosophy, this might be a reasonable outcome, but I must say I find it a little frustrating and futile.

Laches’ initial arguments against military education seem very weak even before Socrates begins to speak – his assertion that the Spartans do not rate military training as useful in the field flies in the face of everything we now believe about the legendary Spartan education of boys; that the Greek military trainers have never gloried themselves on the actual battlefield is supported by only one example which is not recorded in any other surviving text.

Favourite lines/passages:As the dialogue finished with Socrates admitting that none of them could find an answer, he suggests

“we should all cooperate in looking for the best teacher we can find  – primarily for ourselves”

Personal rating: 4

Next: Lysis, another Socratic dialogue by Plato, this time trying to define friendship.



72. Ion by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

72. Ion by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Contents : Plato’s early Socratic dialogues consist of Ion, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor and Euthydemus ; each named after the second party in each dialogue who verbally duels with Socrates, aiming to define a particular moral  idea.

My version is part of the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders. (ISBN 9780140455038)

My thoughts : So we enter the 4th century BC, but first a confession – I have never read philosophy before so this is a real step into the unknown.  Luckily, Plato reports each philosophical argument as a dialogue between Socrates and another debater so there is a strong level of drama to each argument – indeed some include a list of parties involved like a play’s Dramatis Personae. As Socrates left no writings to posterity, it is to Plato that we owe most of what we know about Socrates and his methods of investigating philosophy. The validity of these dialogues actually arising from Socrates is worth questioning, but as Plato was the best known of Socrates’s students, at least we know he knew Socrates and was directly exposed to his ideas and style of argument.

It seems that Socrates held to the belief that moral principles could be prescribed by a body of exact knowledge with its own fixed rules and standards and therefore should not differ from person to person or country to country. The aim for philosophers was to discover what that body of knowledge was, and the rules and procedures which apply to it.

I was intending to cover all the early Socratic dialogues in one post, but this would not do them or you justice, so we’ll start with Ion, which asks : can a poet, or in  this case a rhapsode (a minstrel-like performer who presents sections of epic poems to an audience) be a technical expert of a skill he has not performed but is described in the poems he recites?  Ion is an expert in Homer’s epics but cannot comment on other poets such as Hesiod even when they discuss the same topics in their poetry. Socrates argues that both poet and rhapsode are merely pawns under divine inspiration from God or Muse to pass messages to mankind. They are not only not proficient in the skills they read or write about such as medicine or chariot racing which they can only describe to their audiences and do not employ in real life (that seems fair enough) but neither are they themselves skilled  in writing and performing the stories at all as they are just vessels (a pretty harsh statement). Socrates argues Ion around to admitting being divine but not skilled in the art of warfare and generalship as he claimed. Not the deepest philosophical point to win, but it does introduce us to the style of dialogue Plato claims Socrates employs.

Diversions/digressions:  And as for the image at the head of this post, I would have reversed the names to have Socrates seemingly dictating to Plato.

Personal rating: 4
Kimmy’s rating:  Kimmy actually refutes Socrates’ claim that no one can be happy who knowingly does wrong, as she is the naughtiest dog in the world, knows it, and yet radiates pure happiness and contentment. Kimmy 1 – Socrates 0.
Also in that year : In 399 BC Socrates was accused of corrupting Athenian youth and aetheism. He was sentenced to death and required to drink poisonous hemlock, and this is discussed more fully in Plato’s later works. Also around this time, the Iron Age reaches England, and Xenophon’s “Ten Thousand” Greek mercenaries reach the Black Sea (more on this later also)
Next : Laches, a Socratic dialogue on bravery, by Plato