Month: November 2016

93. Cratylus by Plato (c.387-380 BC)

Plot:   Another philosophical dialogue featuring Socrates, this time attempting to discover if the names of things are arbitrarily assigned and agreed by people, or have some internal ‘rightness’ to their relation with their subject beyond human selection.

My thoughts:    OK, I admit defeat with Plato’s Socratic dialogues. This should have been a simple enough argument compared to some of the earlier dialogues, but I soon lost interest in trying to follow the Greek letters and words in the text. Much of Socrates’ explanations come across as sheer guesswork and the first of his two interlocutors Hermogenes, who is probably the worst yes-man in literature, is all too happy to concede every point to Socrates. When the great man’s imagination starts to run dry, he waves some definitions away as foreign imports or degraded from the truth. And his whole attitude that a few letters added or missing do not change the meaning of a name fills my order-loving soul with horror!

Personal rating:  2.

Next :  Lets get back to Xenophon, and see how he treats Socrates in his Memorabilia.

Classics Club meme question #47

Classics Club meme question #47

Each month The Classics Club website for lovers of reading classics asks their members a question to ponder. I don’t usually post but I often read other bloggers’ replies. This month the question is:

What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why?

A fairly straightforward question, especially as I have given them each my personal rating. So far, after 92 books in 17 months, I have given no book 10/10 but two plays by Aristophanes The Wasps and The Thesmophoriazusae were given 9/10.  I suspect many bloggers will  have difficulty narrowing their choice down to one book, so if I had to urge a friend which one to read, I would choose The Wasps as the mental pictures created by the old man trying to escape his house, and the chorus of old men singing and dancing dressed as wasps is delightful.

Interestingly, when I read the Classics Club question, my initial thoughts went to the Ramayana which is also an excellent read, and I gave 8/10 at the time, If Ancient Greek comedy is not your thing, or you are  open to trying something outside the Western canon, you could do a lot worse than this excellent fantasy. I am sure the version will make a big difference too, so I recommend the modern English translation by Ramesh Menon. You can read my review at

So I guess I can’t choose just one either 🙂

92. Meno by Plato (c.387-380 BC)

92. Meno by Plato (c.387-380 BC)

Plot:  Plato (via Socrates) returns to the topic of whether wisdom can be taught, and if not, how does man obtain wisdom? This was covered earlier in Protagorus, but now Socrates comes to a different conclusion.

My version this time is the Plato volume of the Great Books of the Western World set published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1950s, and translated by Benjamin Jowett.

My thoughts: In discussing the nature and source of wisdom in this dialogue, several points are covered

  • Socrates again brings in ‘evidence’ of the spontaneous recovery or recollection of knowledge, this time demonstrated by the apparent understanding of one of Meno’s uneducated slaves of mathematics and geometry. This knowledge could only be present if it has been carried by the soul from one earthly body to the next, proving immortality of the soul.
  • A quite vehement attack on the Sophists is provided by another character (Anytus) allowing Plato to make this point without attributing the words directly to Socrates
  • The fact that virtuous men can have sons who do not display similar virtue argues that virtue cannot be inherited  or taught, but is an instinct given to some from God.
  • Right opinion is also an appropriate guide to virtuous acts as knowledge.

Favourite lines/passages:  A more general call to arms advocating enquiry and learning

“Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know – that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power”                                        Socrates, p.183

Personal rating:   4

Next : The next Socratic dialogue by Plato is Cratylus, with a new topic on the correctness of names so let’s give it a whirl.

91. The Anabasis (The Persian expedition) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

91. The Anabasis (The Persian expedition) by Xenophon (c.370 BC)

Plot:  Cyrus, the younger brother of Persian King Aratxerxes, recruits a large army of Greek hoplites (heavy infantry) and peltasts (light infantry) to help him take the crown. When battle is eventually joined, Cyrus’ forces are hugely outnumbered, yet they manage to win the battle. This means little as Cyrus is killed in the fighting. The bulk of the Greek generals are then captured and killed due to the treachery of the Persian Tissaphernes, and the remaining 10,000 Greek soldiers must make their way home through hostile territory, led in large part by a young Athenian called Xenophon. They cross deserts, mountains and rivers, face snowstorms and suffer hunger and frostbite, and must fight against the natives of each area they march through for supplies.

Written in seven ‘books’, each consisting of very short chapters, this was an easy and quick read. I could imagine how this would lend itself to readers beginning to learn Ancient Greek. My version was an old edition of a Penguin Classic translated by Rex Warner and printed in 1952 (pre-ISBN)

My thoughts:   Told in third person, this “Boy’s Own adventure” is a far cry from Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and its immediacy dealing with one historic event from the report of a significant player in the drama distinguishes it from previous histories by Herodotus and Thucydides. The author even makes use of flashback and flash forward to fill out more of his personal story.

Although the narrative is admittedly told from the Greek perspective, the unwillingness of the Persians to stay on the battlefield when they had vastly superior numbers is still surprising.

There is a  lot of strategy described in the tale,  which reputedly was taken by Alexander the Great as required reading when he was in the field. It ends before Xenophon gets home as the army is given to two Spartan generals who intend to attack Tissaphernes.

Some points of note:

  • No actions involving the army are taken without consulting sacrificial entrails – it must help with morale to have the promise of success fulfilled. Xenophon also claims to have put many decisions to the vote and acted on the result – not typical of ancient generals surely? If we believe Xenophon, he makes some early strategic mistakes but learns from them and takes immediate action to remedy and improve their position. He does not glorify himself but presents himself as an honest and honourable man.
  • The Persians archers and slingshot firers were being whipped by their commanders as they fired on the Greeks – surely a different and ultimately less successful way of motivating soldiers.
  • The Mossynoici (a tribe most unlike the Greeks in many ways) had jars of pickled dolphin slices amongst their supplies – urk!!

Favourite lines/passages:  Not a lot of standout literary quality but the following lines did ring

“Whoever says or does something brave and gallant now is making himself remembered among the people whom he would want to remember him.”      Xenophon, Book VI, Ch.5, page 237.

Personal rating:  Lost its way a little in the last chapter, almost as if there was more to tell which is now missing, or Xenophon simply ran out of interest after starting a new thread. Still a refreshing change from philosophy. A 5 from me.

Next :  Much against my inclination, I will push on with Plato and tackle yet another Socratic dialogue, Meno.

90. Protagorus by Plato (387-380 BC)

90. Protagorus by Plato (387-380 BC)

Plot: Socrates engages the famous Sophist Protagorus on the the nature of human goodness (virtue), specifically what it consists of and if it is teachable.

My version is contained in the Cambridge Press edition Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagorus edited by Malcolm Schofield and translated by Tom Griffith (9780521837293)

My thoughts:

Ack! I think I have hit the Socratic wall with this one. A relatively long dialogue which starts with Socrates arguing that goodness is not teachable (and therefore his young friends should not waste their money becoming students of Protagorus or any other Sophist who charges for his teachings). Part of the argument asks if the various parts of human goodness (wisdom, prudence, courage, justice, holiness, etc.) are similar but not identical, or all one. After lengthy digressions through mythology and poetic criticism, we finally turn back to the question and the conclusion reveals that now all is knowledge, which by definition can be taught, so Socrates has changed his mind on that, while Protagorus who stated that the various virtues were separate must also change his opinion.

I did feel Protagorus fared much better against Socrates’ style than earlier adversaries, and raised logical points as well as rebelling against Socrates’ method of twisting words and denying his opponents lengthy replies.

Favourite lines/passages: Rather than the argument over defining goodness, the section my zoologist heart enjoyed most was the description of the mythological distribution of characteristics to each species by Epimetheus, who neglected to keep anything back for mankind.

“Once upon a time there were gods but no mortal species. And when their time came, the time appointed for their creation, the gods formed them within the earth from a mixture of earth and fire … they commanded Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them and assign to each species the powers appropriate to it. And Epimetheus asked Prometheus to let him do the job by himself … His way of assigning them was to bestow strength but not speed on some, and to equip the weaker ones with speed. To some he gave weapons, or if he gave them an unarmed nature, then he devised some other mechanism for their safety. Some of them he clothed in smallness, but gave them winged flight or a dwelling under ground. Others he made larger, making this their salvation in itself. In the same way he assigned the remaining powers, keeping a balance between them.

His chief concern in all these provisions was that no species should be exterminated; …. the next thing he devised was protection against the elements, clothing them in thick hair and tough hides … on their feet he gave them hooves, and others hard, bloodless skin. Next he provided different creatures with different food  -the earth’s pasture for some. fruit from the trees for others, roots for yet others. And to some he gave the flesh of other living things as their food. To these he gave few offspring, while to those who were preyed on by them he gave many offspring so preserving the species”                                                                                                                        page 157

If I was writing Genesis now, I would have plagiarised this without a second thought. Excellent observation and description.

Unfortunately Epimetheus uses up everything and forgets mankind, leaving him “naked, unshod, without bedding or weapons”. So Prometheus steps in and steals knowledge of the arts from the Gods, including fire, to give to the humans  (he gets punished for this in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound)

Personal rating:  Overall only a 3.

Next :  OK, so I really need a break from Plato’s Socratic dialogues or I will collapse into a puddle of incoherent mumblings ; but I really want to push through the Greeks so I think I will take advantage of the rubbery dates and start some Xenophon. His works are not nailed down to specific dates either, and since I don’t need more Socrates in my life right now, I will leave his Socratic stuff for later and start with perhaps his most famous work, The Anabasis, also known as The Persian Expedition, or The March Up-Country.

89. Menexenus by Plato (c.386 BC)

89. Menexenus by Plato (c.386 BC)

Plot: Very different from Plato’s other Socratic dialogues, Menexenus provides no philosophic debate, but consists largely of a funeral speech to honour the war dead of Athens repeated by Socrates to his young friend Menexenus. Socrates claims he overheard the speech, which was written and given by Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, although Menexenus seems to have doubts over the likelihood of this.

The speech begins by praising the Land which gave birth and nourishment to these noble dead, and has now received them back in her soil. It then praises the political system of democracy which made them good citizens, and provided equality of birth and station to them all, with only wisdom being an honourable distinction between them. There is a lengthy praise of their ancestral  war heroes that fought and died at Marathon, Platea, Saramis and other famous battles, which also summarises very briefly the history of the major wars and conflicts between Athens, Persia and Sparta and the other Peloponnesian states, partly covered by Thucydides’ Histories, and the civil war in Athens and the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants, up to 394 BC  (five years after Socrates’ death!)

The speech is largely a work of patriotism, extolling Athenians to aim for even greater glory, as much as consolation for the bereaved, and ends with reassurance that the City of Athens will always honour those who died bravely for her, and protect the families left behind.

For once, my copy was not a Penguin edition, but a volume in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought series (sounds rather grand, doesn’t it?) edited by Malcolm Schofield and translated by Tom Griffith, containing the texts of Gorgias, Menexenus and Protagoras  (ISBN 9780521837293)

My thoughts:

While the speech was far easier to read and follow than the philosophical dialogues, the most enjoyable part of Menexenus was at the beginning in the conversation where Socrates makes a  gentle mockery of funeral speeches and orators and the supposed impact they have on him.

“There are certainly plenty of reasons why being killed in battle looks like a good move. You get a fine, imposing funeral, even if you die a pauper; you get praised, even if you’re a nobody, by wise men speaking not just off the cuff, but after lengthy preparation of what they are to say. So fulsome is their praise – invariably crediting you both with qualities you possess and with qualities you don’t possess, and using the finest language to embellish it all that they cast a spell over our souls …. to fill me with feelings of my own nobility. I stand there entranced each time, as I listen, and I feel that I have suddenly become taller, more noble, and more good-looking…. it’s not until three or four days later that I come to my senses and realise where I actually am”      pages 117-118.

Socrates would not have received such public ovation at his funeral, which may be the point Plato is subtly making here?

Favourite lines/passages:

“They acted as guides and teachers to the rest of Greece, the lesson being that the power of the Persians was not irresistible, that all the numbers in the world, and all the wealth in the world, are no match for courage”   page 125

“And for all in his life to turn out in accordance with his wishes is, for a mortal man, no easy matter”    page 133

Personal rating:  Edges into a 5 on the strength of the lines I quoted above, and to be honest, its brevity and comprehensibility.

Next :    May as well finish the volume with Protagoras, another Plato dialogue featuring Socrates. Perhaps the 4th century BC should be known as the Socratic century?

88. Gorgias by Plato (399-387 BC)

Socrates questions the orator Gorgias (and bystanders Polus and Callicles) about the art of oratory, which then becomes a discussion of “right and wrong, honour and dishonour, good and bad” to Socrates’ theses of “it is better to suffer wrong than do wrong” and “it is better to be punished for one’s wrongdoing than escape one’s punishment”. Socrates eventually leads his listeners to the view that individuals and societies must strive for happiness through uprightness and self-discipline whereby the universe is an ordered whole or cosmos and not a state of disorder, chaos and license. They discuss what it means to be a good statesman or politician, and several past leaders (Pericles, Cimon, Themistocles and Miltiades) had failed as orators because they had neither made men better (true oratory) nor kept them gratified (false oratory) , leaving Athenians worse and more vicious than before.  Finally Socrates dwells on his view of judgment after death, with the souls, stripped of identity and only distinguished by the marks of good or evil performed during life, are judged and sent to the Isles of the Blessed, or to Tartarus where the irredeemable are eternally punished and the potentially redeemable can learn by their example.

My copy was the Penguin edition of Gorgias translated by Walter Hamilton (0140440941)

My thoughts:

A far-ranging discussion that begins with the misuse of oratory to appeal to and flatter the masses rather than enlighten them, through to the ideals for which everyone should lead their lives, to the correct use of power in leadership and the rewards of a good life.

I had to smile at Socrates’ view that medicine and physical training were necessary for physical wellbeing, but cookery and beauty were counterfeits of these two, providing instant gratification but not improvement or true health. Likewise, legislation and justice were spiritual necessities and should provide for the public interest, while popular lecturing and oratory mask themselves as these  to pander to the ignorant and gullible. In which case I wonder what Socrates would think of our progress in political rhetoric in two thousand years, leave alone reality television shows.

It is ironic that Socrates defends the punishment of oneself and one’s own family and friends for any crime, but one’s enemies should go unpunished to the ultimate detriment to their souls. Plato is again explaining how Socrates could embrace his execution by the State, and believe himself more moral than his enemies who sentenced him to death.

“Whatever the punishment which the crime deserves he must offer himself to it cheerfully, whether it be flogging or imprisonment or a fine or banishment or death.”    page 73

Favourite lines/passages:

“…think what hard luck it would be for me if, when you making a long speech and refusing to answer the question put to you, I am not to be allowed to go away and get out of hearing.”  p.42

“in my view oratory is a spurious counterfeit of a branch of the art of government.”    p.44

“…consider whether a true man, instead of clinging to life at all costs, ought not to dismiss from his mind the question of how long he may have to live. Let him leave that to the will of God … and let him devote himself to the next problem, how he can best live the life which is allotted to him”  p.125

Diversions and digressions:   The copy I read was printed in 1973, and glancing at the back cover, I could see the original price was 35p in Great Britain and $1.20 (recommended) in Australia.

img_1682I can still remember when I was a boy <insert appropriate old-timer voice here, Yorkshire accent optional>   buying paperbacks and wondering about Australian prices being ‘recommended’ – could I bargain the price down as a frequent book buyer, age 10?

If only we could buy books for these prices now (sigh)

Personal rating: Though my interest wavered in parts, I think this one is a 5.

Next :    I am tiring of the Socratic dialogues and would really like to finish Plato now by just reading his major works The Symposium and The Republic, but I will try and stay patient a little while longer. So next will be Menexenus by Plato.