Tag: Plato

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

Plot:   An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into a bar …. no, sorry, …. walk from Cnossus to Zeus’ shrine on Crete, listening to the nameless Athenian formulate legislation for a new city to be called Magnesia.

Having recognized that his ideas for the ideal society as described in The Republic are unlikely to see the light of day, Plato here addresses a second-best blueprint for his utopia by laying down laws for every aspect of human life, from birth to death and everything in between.

My edition is the Penguin Classic translated by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140442227)

My thoughts:  The last of Plato I will probably ever read, and not too bad an experience, albeit lengthy, and my mind did start to wander by the time I reached the criminal law section. He does not hide behind Socrates any more, but still puts his words into the mouth of this ‘nameless Athenian’. The constant agreement of the other two with Plato’s suggestions becomes tiresome, so I simply learnt to skip their comments (which are mostly just a phrase or two praising or asking for more clarity, on Plato’s ideas).

These ideas, expressed as laws and guidelines to build and maintain his idea of Utopia are a mixed bag when taken from a 21st century viewpoint. On the plus side are his views on the equality of women, where a society which does not train women in the same way as men is “only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement”   (page 294)

while on the negative are his strong views on censorship in the arts, where music and literature are heavily regulated to prevent subversive progress or innovation for the sake of novelty.

“No one shall sing a note, or perform any dance movement, other than those in the canon of public songs, sacred music, and the general body of chorus performances…”   (page 286)

The projected utopia Magnesia is to be formed from 5,040 households, no more or less, at the time of establishment, as that magic number can be divided by all numbers 1-12 (except 11) making it ideal for administrative purposes. Oh, and buying or selling your house or land is a criminal act – you must stick to what you are given – which in theory would make real estate agents at best redundant and at worst criminals 🙂

Wealth and money is generally frowned upon, except for small amounts to pay tradesmen and wages for slaves. This last point I had not heard before, but it could have only been small amounts – maybe to let them buy some food or clothes?

And when selecting settlers from other parts of Crete to embark on this new enterprise, if anyone should not agree to their participation, they would be “gently compelled” 😦

The section on impiety towards the end did revive my interest, as it discussed three kinds of heresy : (i) disbelief in the gods (atheism), (ii) belief in gods who ignore man entirely, and (iii) belief in gods who could be persuaded by prayer or sacrifices to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour, all of which could weaken the morals underlying the community laws Plato was setting down. The argument for refuting all these heresies is based on the primary existence of a soul (actually two souls, one good and one evil) which brings about motion and order in the universe, and from which all else has arisen, and disregarding the supposed atheistic belief that everything in nature has arisen by randomness and chance.

I must confess that after this section, the last 100 pages did not look particularly interesting, and I was content to let the three gentlemen walk on discussing commercial and family laws and other miscellaneous legislation without me.

Favourite lines/passages:

  • Drinking parties are an educational opportunity whereby resisting temptation of further pleasure once mildly inebriated helps build self-control. Indeed, drunkenness is frowned on, and wine is the gift of Dionysus “to help cure the crabbiness of age…. to make us young again…. ready to sing his songs .. with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment”  (page 105)
  • “All the gold upon the earth, and all the gold beneath it, does not compensate for lack of virtue”  (page 190)
  • “An expectant mother should think it important to keep calm and cheerful and sweet-tempered throughout her pregnancy”   (page 277)

Personal rating:  Only a 3. Sorry Plato me old china, and you put so much work into it too.

Also in that year (ish):  Around 349 BC Athens is at war with Macedonia, under the rule of Philip II. The next decade sees Macedonia eventually become the dominant Greek state, while Rome is now the dominant city on the Italian peninsula.

Next :  Adieu Plato (and Socrates), and welcome to the next generation with Aristotle’s musings On the Soul (De Anima)

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.

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!”

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


100. The Republic by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

100. The Republic by Plato (c.380-360 BC)

Plot : A Socratic dialogue which starts by attempting to define justice and whether it is better to be a just man or unjust, it uses the search for a definition of justice on the scale of a whole community or State to build an outline of a model society and government.

My edition is the Penguin Black Classic translated by Desmond Lee with a new introduction by Melissa Lane, published 2007 (ISBN 9780140455113). It confused at first as it is broken into 11 parts which do not correspond with the 10 ‘books’ traditionally cited, although these divisions are  recorded in small print in the margins

My thoughts : This is a very hard book to read with my liberal 21st century sensibilities, and many of my comments below are very subjective. It may be that The Republic can be read on a different level, and others may get more satisfaction from it than I did. Many ideas on the surface are repugnant or carry the odor of some of the worst social experiments of the 20th century.

After a preliminary discussion of the meaning and value of justice (which are as unsatisfactory as many of the earlier Socratic dialogues), we come to describing the basics of communal society – essentially people as individuals are not self-sufficient and will manage best by undertaking one occupation most suited to them (farmer, builder, merchant, sailor, … ) and relying on others to tend to the other occupations, and by means of exchange, meet their remaining needs. This eventually becomes the definition of “justice” : doing one’s own job and not interfering with another, essentially minding one’s own business, which also acts to protect revolution in the society Plato develops below.

A discussion on the education of ‘the Guardian’ – a sort of watchdog of the community to allow them to be gentle to their own community yet fearless when defending the society – is then used as a way of encouraging censorship over poetry and plays to prevent stories of the Gods showing any strife between themselves or any form of maliciousness or deception to mankind, or even any excessive laughter or lamentation, from being told to children  – a very different depiction of Socrates then we have seen before and not in keeping (at least in my mind) with the humble lover of knowledge. This censorship then quickly extends into the styles of literature appropriate to be taught, then to the types of music listened to and the musical instruments played, then to the arts and crafts in general, and even to dividing true love from sexual pleasure, creating a picture of a very unpleasant totalitarian society – it is easy to see where the accusations that The Republic sowed some of the seeds for Nazism and Communism arose.

By Book IV, these ‘Guardians’, having been tested since childhood to have proven themselves the individuals most concerned with the well being of the state, have evolved into ‘Rulers’ and ‘Auxiliaries’, and a caste system is being formed that segregates the society, justified by an artificially created ‘legend’ (read ‘colossal lie’) based on ‘divine selection’. Shades of Orwell’s 1984 in 4th century BC!  Yet the pretence of equality is defended by a dubious promise of (i) promotion and demotion between the classes for children recognised of being of the right temperment, and (ii) the Guardians, fed and housed by the State, are forbidden from owning private property or gold or silver, as they should have the well being of the community as their sole desire. ‘Minding one’s own business’ and not seeking to take a role not ‘natural’ to an individual acts to maintain this stratification and is labelled ‘justice’ to further cement its ‘rightness’.

The status of women in this new society is almost equal to men, with Socrates recognising that women can and should be allowed to perform any occupation that men do, including Guardians, but perhaps not as well. But marriage and the family unit is banned from Guardians, and the Rulers must encourage the most worthy men to mate only with the most worthy women, and their babies to be taken away and raised by nurses. Any babies born with any infirmity are quietly disposed of. This whole eugenic mess is balanced precariously on more lies.

The remainder of the book dwells on the idea of the “philosopher-king” who reluctantly rules the State, and is perhaps the most famous part of the work, and a description of four inferior models for society : the timocracy (based on the Greek idea of the Spartan state, where a military autocracy rules a serf population), the oligarchy (where the wealthy rule), the democracy and the tyranny. I must confess that I only skimmed these chapters, wearied by Plato’s idea of the utopia in the first half.

The Republic should perhaps deserve praise for Plato’s effort to imagine a perfect society even if its terms are repugnant to modern day readers. Prescribed reading for dystopian writers?

Favourite lines/passages:  I had to look for more light-hearted quotes and luckily there were a few.

“When a man no longer has to work for his living, he should practise excellence”  apparently quoted from Phocylides, a sixth century lyric poet                                                      (page 105)

In discussing the excellence of the medical profession, and in particular the sons of Asclepius,

Socrates : “The life of a man whose constitution was bad and undermined by loose living was, they thought, of no use to them or anyone else; it was not their business to use their skills on such cases or cure them, even if they were richer than Midas”

Glaucon : “Discerning men, these sons of Asclepius”                                                   (page 106)

“Sex is perhaps more effective than mathematics when it comes to persuading or driving the common man to do anything”                                                                                       (page 169)

Personal rating:  So many ideas I personally find repellent. 2.

Kimmy’s rating:  I explained to Kimmy that dogs are natural philosophers according to Socrates as they distinguish between the familiar and the unfamiliar based on knowledge and ignorance, and therefore must have a true love of knowledge.  She was more interested in a true love of dinner and the knowledge there was left over meat in the frying pan.

Next : Starting 2017 with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia