Tag: Ancient philosophy

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

117. The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  The science of persuasion, or more precisely, the identification of persuasive aspects (‘ammunition’), to prepare the orator for the ever-increasingly important role of speech making in Athenian public life.

My copy is the Penguin Black Classic The Art of Rhetoric, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140445102)

My thoughts:  Just as with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I found parts of Rhetoric completely over my head, while other parts (with the assistance of the editor’s introduction and notes), reasonably straightforward.

Aristotle presents a structured approach which at least gives the inexperienced modern reader a handle on his explanations. There are three ways to speak persuasively, (i) by logical argument, (ii) by appealing to the character of the audience (their age or fortunes), and (iii) by appealing to the emotional state of the listener. These three rely on an understanding of logic and psychology.

The first part outlines these approaches, then looks in more detail at the reasons and key points   for persuading by logical argument : (a) to establish justice (or injustice) of a subject, a forensic or judicial approach to either prosecute or defend, and deals with past events, (b) to present the admirability, virtue or nobility of the subject (or the opposite : to denigrate a subject), usually in the present, or (c) to promote the advisability or inadvisability of a subject, which is the deliberative or political approach, to exhort or deter future action. For each of these, various examples are listed where a speaker might adopt one or more to use in their rhetoric to persuade more strongly e.g. acts which might be considered more noble (because they are more memorable or more beneficial to others) or crimes more serious (more brutal, or repeated, or fill the jury with fear)

The advice to litigants is basically to take whatever tack is best suited to their argument, from the nature of the law itself ….

“if the written law is contrary to our position, we must use the general law, and the principles of greater equity and justice …. but if the written law should be favourable to our position, then we must say .. that seeking to be wiser than the laws is what is forbidden by the most reputable legal systems”                                                                                                 pages 130-131

to the strict legality of one’s own contract versus the higher call of justice against someone else’s contract, or the unreliabilty of evidence acquired by torture when it doesn’t meet your case’s needs, etc.   One can almost hear the ghost of Aristophanes mocking.

The next section describes the characteristics of human emotions which influence decisions, and thereby ways of turning an audience to or from feelings of anger or calm, fear or confidence, friendship or enmity, shame or pride, pity or indignation or jealousy, without regard to the specific subject matter. Naturally gifted orators probably do this by instinct, identifying what will sway a crowd.

The nature or composition of the audience is also discussed, albeit briefly, with youthful audiences hot-tempered and slaves to their desires, confident, optimistic, intense and naive; while old men are the opposite in all these.

The third part of Rhetoric deals with themes common to all speeches, including the style of speech (the way of speaking) and the composition or structure of a speech. Again my concentration lapsed and I took in little of the discussions.

Favourite lines/passages:

“… unbuttonedness, leisure, lack of worry, games, relaxation and sleep are among the pleasant things … ”                                                                                                                           page 115

“Winning is also pleasant .. for it produces the imagination of superiority…”    page 117

“… in misfortune men never want to be seen by their rivals – for our rivals are our admirers”   page 160

“men who will envy … are small-minded, for all things seem great to them”       page 169


Some more new words :

Banausic : mundane, manual (particularly with regard to employment)

Knout : a heavy scourge-like multiple whip, usually made of a bunch of rawhide thongs attached to a long handle, sometimes with metal wire or hooks (Wikipedia definition)

Pancratiast: athlete who uses boxing, wrestling, choking and kicking moves to defeat their opponent, in a sporting event called a Pankration, sometimes held at the ancient Olympic Games

Veridical: truthful (you know, like everything in my blog! 😉  )

Personal rating: People who regularly make speeches or are required to speak persuasively would benefit from reading this work, or a careful repackaging with more familiar and modern examples; and taking from it what they find useful or interesting. I enjoyed some parts but found myself flagging in others, so for me it is a 4.

The sanity in between:  Ozma of Oz (book 3 of the original The Wizard of Oz series of books by L. Frank Baum) as part of the Read-along hosted by Lone Star on a Lark (http://lonestaronalark.com/2017/04/oz-read-along-3/ )  – surprisingly enjoyable!

Next : My interest and endurance quota for Aristotle is dwindling, yet I am loathe to give up on another author yet, especially one of such influence. So my fallback is to resume my stop-start progress with the Protestant Old Testament , starting with the Book of Isaiah.

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  A discussion of the virtues and vices in the character of man.

My copy is still from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. I would prefer a more approachable and perhaps more true translation, but needs must.

My thoughts:

First things first, the term Nicomachean is not mentioned by Aristotle in the work itself, but seems to have been a dedication to either his father or son (both were named Nicomachus).

The lecture starts with the question “What is happiness?”    Aristotle admits that most men equate happiness with pleasure, some others with honour, wealth or a life of contemplation. But happiness is bigger and more final than any of these ; it is the ultimate good for which the others are simply a means to achieve. (Admittedly happiness also requires a degree of luck or prosperity along the way!)

Not content with this definition, Aristotle pushes further to suggest that happiness must be entwined with the function of man, and results in the view that happiness requires the “virtuous activity of the soul”.  I started to disagree here, as he points out that animals and small children cannot feel happiness as they are incapable of this virtuosity. Perhaps he would distinguish joy from happiness, but you cannot tell me a small boy playing with his dog are not both capable of feeling and demonstrating obvious happiness.

He classifies virtues as either intellectual (such as philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) or moral (liberality, temperance, courage, etc.) Moral virtues are a result of the nature of the individual reinforced by habit, with the ideal being an intermediate point between extreme vices  of excess and defect

To someone at the extreme end of one of these states, an intermediate person may seem to be at the opposite extreme, (i.e. a miser would see a liberal person as much a spendthrift as a carefree squanderer). Sometimes one extreme is more acceptable than the other, or closer to the intermediate (e.g. a rash and confident person will be more admired than a coward, and deemed not so far removed from the courageous ideal)

Thankfully Aristotle recognises that the intermediate state (virtue) is an ideal for which we must strive but cannot always reach.

“Any one can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble”    page 354.

But virtues (and vices) are voluntary choices : it is in the individual’s power to act (or not act) in their belief of what is good to achieve the end they desire. (Acts may also be involuntary for which no blame ensues e.g. things done under compulsion or through ignorance – although drunkeness, carelessness or ignorance of the law is not considered involuntary). This is a more realistic approach to the foundation of criminal law than Plato’s (Socrates’?) statement that no person knowingly does wrong, and approaches the basis of our modern criminal law – I wonder if legal philosophy in modern law courses includes the Nicomachean Ethics?

Aristotle then goes on to discuss moral virtues and vices individually. Much of this was straightforward and reminded me of an old snakes and ladders game I had as a child where shameful characteristics such as pride, profligacy and envy sent you down a snake, while the corresponding virtues led you up ladders.

I skimmed over the chapters on justice and intellectual virtues, and settled down to read about friendship. Aristotle classifies friendships in three types (excluding friendships of association such as fellow-travellers) : (i) friendships of utility, where one person gains an advantage from the relationship, and these only last as long as the usefulness continues, (ii) friendships of pleasure, where a person is amused by the company of another and (iii) ‘true’ friendship which is based on mutual love and goodwill between the friends, and is long lasting, takes time to develop and is proofed against slander of each party from outside. This discussion wanders around to comment on political constitutions and family relationships as well, but was easy to follow.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Those who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving  … to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort”                              page 368

“For his friend is another self”                                                                                                 page 419

Diversions/digressions:  After Aristotle left Athens, his School was taken over by one of his students Theophrastus, who also wrote on many topics. Although better known for his contributions to botany, one of his surviving works Characters is a series of brief character sketches of different moral types, and may be a sort of descendant of this work. I’ll get to it once Aristotle is done.

Personal rating: Difficult to stick at – some parts were obvious and easy to follow, while others become convoluted and required more concentration than I admittedly gave them. Settle for a 4.

The sanity in between:  Desperation by Stephen King. Had been taking up space on my shelves. Similar ground covered as his classic The Stand  (which was much better and deserves a re-read itself) but this still kept me intrigued to the end.

Next : More Aristotle. Perhaps The Art of Rhetoric.


110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

My copy is the Penguin classic edition translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140444718)

My thoughts:
Aristotle, student of Plato, was Renaissance Man 1800 years before the Renaissance, with writings on biology, physics, philosophy, ethics, literature and politics. While scholars cannot agree in what order his surviving works were written, it seems like De Anima was the beginning of a series of lectures on the biological sciences so I thought this would be an easy introduction for me. Wrong.

The first thing to note is that the word ‘soul’ in the English title is not analogous to the religious meaning we currently associate with it, but translated from the Greek psyche as some sort of life force, which endows the body with the abilities of movement and perception. While reading On the Soul, it is very hard to keep reminding oneself that it is life force we are really discussing.

Aristotle starts by reviewing the works on the subject by earlier authors, most of whom concentrate on the material composition of the soul on the atomic level. As I discovered earlier in Plato’s Timaeus, the Ancient Greek view of the universe included a belief in solids being composed of atom-sized particles, with different sorts and shapes for fire, water, earth and air. Dust motes in the air were taken to be visible atoms. This was also taken further to suggest that some objects were made from a combination of different sorts of atoms, in fixed proportions. Genius stuff!!

Other suggestions on the nature of the soul include that it is the ratio of the mixtures of various elements of the body, and different parts of the body (muscle, bone, etc.) have different ratios and therefore different souls (life forces) throughout the body; or that the soul is the intellect which is set on a circular course like the heavenly bodies (which Aristotle dismisses as it would mean that we would think the same thoughts repeatedly – circular thinking, indeed!) An even more outlandish theory was that the soul is a number, and I won’t even try to explain that!

Suffice to say that Aristotle is not having any of this. His theory introduces consideration of the type of body the soul is attached to; so he proposes three levels of soul, one for plants which provides only a nutritive drive (to seek sustenance and reproduce), a higher level for animals which also allows both perception (desire, pleasure, pain) and movement, and the highest level for man allows belief and imagination.

The last two thirds of the work dwell on the five senses  – how they work, and their importance. Much of this seemed almost within my grasp but slid away – all the more frustrating than Plato as this was based around the biological sciences which I should have a grasp on. Does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Favourite lines/passages:

“[Reproduction] is the most natural of the functions of such living creatures … namely to make another thing like themselves, an animal an animal, a plant a plant, so that in the way that they can they may partake in the eternal and the divine”         II, 4 (page 165)

Personal rating:  3.

Kimmy’s rating:  A wet rainy day for the last day of summer, so Kimmy wisely stayed wrapped in her blanket and conserved her life force.

 Next :  Aristotle will dominate the posts for the next couple of months, but the end of the Greek era is in distant sight. Next will be his Parva Naturalia.


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.

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.

102. The Symposium by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

102. The Symposium by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

Plot:   Socrates and his buddies partake of an after-dinner drinking session (a symposium) and each puts his praise of the God Love into words.

My version is an older copy (19151) of the Penguin classic translated by Walter Hamilton.

My thoughts:  Firstly I will never again hear the word ‘symposium’ without imagining a booze-up rather than an academic conference. i never went to a conference which had any likelihood of rising to the challenge of a drinking party. (Maybe I went to the wrong conferences!)

Back to Athens. Most of the participants are still hung over from the previous night’s celebrations for the tragic poet Agathon’s win at the festival. To moderate their drinking this night, they settle on each man drinking to his own comfort (presumably they had drinking games the previous night) and each required to make a speech praising Love.

Phaedrus starts by suggesting as no one in love wants their beloved to see them act cowardly or in any dishonourable way, an army of soldiers consisting only of those in love with another in that army, would “defeat practically the whole world” (page 43). Pausanias divides love into two sorts : common love which is a baser love driven by sexual desire and can be felt for women or young men, and a nobler heavenly love which strives for a lifelong relationship based on attainment of excellence and directed towards young men only.  The next speaker, a doctor named Eryximachus, both expands the concept of Love to include other objects both animate and inanimate which men may take delight in, but also compares the idea of baser and nobler loves to define the state of balance of beneficial and harmful elements in the body, which when out of balance cause sickness and disease.

The comic Aristophanes is next, and spins a wonderful imaginary creation tale where all humans were originally rounded creatures with “doubled bodies” – two faces on one head and neck, four arms and four legs (and moving at speed by cartwheeling about), two sets of genitalia, etc. Zeus grew angry with mankind and split them all down the centre. Apollo stitched the ends together, drawing the skin together and tying it to form the navel. Humans now spend their lives looking for their other halves : women who were originally wholly females seek women partners, men who were originally wholly male seek male partners, and halves of hermaphroditic wholes are heterosexual in nature (and more likely to be adulterous or promiscuous, although this insight is not explained ).

Agathon makes a beautiful poetic speech praising both Love himself and the blessings He bestows on gods and men.  Love creates “peace among men, and calm upon the sea ; rest for the winds from strife, and sleep in sorrow” (page 71)

Finally, Socrates describes how Love was explained to him by Diotima, a woman from Mantinea, as a progression from the desire to possess forever something believed good, to strive for immortality- either by begetting offspring, or more spiritually, to move from the love of physical beauty of a single individual, to love of all physical beauty, to love of moral beauty, then to the beauty of knowledge of various branches to a love of absolute beauty, leading to true goodness which approaches a form of immortality.

Thinking the discussion at an end, there is suddenly commotion at the door and a drunk Alcibiades enters. He makes a speech praising Socrates : “whenever I listen to him my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy, and tears run down my face …. my soul [is] thrown into confusion and dismay by the thought that my life was no better than a slave’s … he compels me to realise that I am still a mass of imperfections … he makes me ashamed of myself … so I behave like a runaway slave and take to my heels”   (pages 101-102)

The debate collapses as more revellers join the party, and by morning only Socrates is still awake and capable to take his leave.

Favourite lines/passages:  Second to Aristophanes’ marvellous tale, the most striking passage was the sad observation of mankind’s inability to strive for self-betterment:

“The tiresome thing about ignorance is precisely this, that a man who possesses neither beauty nor goodness nor intelligence is perfectly well satisfied with himself, and no one who does not believe that he lacks a thing desires what he does not believe that he lacks”    (page 83)3

Personal rating:  Aristophanes’ creation tale alone deserves an 8. Tied to the rest of the discussion, it averages out as a 6.

Next: This time last year I was on holiday in Hawaii and reading Herodotus’ Histories. Likewise next week I will be holidaying a little closer to home, in Melbourne to watch the Australian Open for a couple of days and taking Xenophon’s History of my Times to fill in the time between sets.  Image result for tennis emoji


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.