BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alcibiades I & II by Plato

Alcibiades I and IIAlcibiades I and II by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While these two dialogues feature Socrates questioning Alcibiades (a youth – apropos of nothing – for whom the philosopher has the hots,) they’re different. While it’s not certain that either was written by Plato, it’s much more widely accepted that the first dialogue was so authored. I found the first part to be the more engaging read.

In Part I, Socrates urges Alcibiades to put off going into politics (as the young man is about to do) until he’s more enlightened on the subject at hand – i.e. justice, expediency, and virtue as it pertains to matters of war and peace. In the second part, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that the subject of prayers should not be taken lightly, leading the young man to delay his sacrifice and prayer to a time he can be wiser about it.

The first part is more piquant. In it, Alcibiades on occasion seems to be holding his own (rather than being a talking head.) A great example of this can be seen after Socrates makes clear that Alcibiades’ education in language, the lyre, and wrestling hardly qualify him to advise Athens on matters of war and peace. Alcibiades turns the tables and asks whether it isn’t possible that he could attain the requisite knowledge of justice other than through formal education. Socrates admits that he could by discovery, but just when Alcibiades thinks he has the point, Socrates argues that the only way Alcibiades could make a discovery was if there was a time that the youth didn’t think he already knew. Socrates goes on to show that – even as a child – Alcibiades labored under the impression that he knew what was just.

The most interesting topic of the second dialogue is the question of whether lack of wisdom and madness are the same thing. In Phaedrus, Socrates explores several varieties of divine madness, and I wondered how closely this dialogue might echo that one. (It doesn’t because it’s more about madness that’s not so divine, but Socrates does refute Alcibiades’ equation of the two concepts.)

Definitely read First Alcibiades, and if you have time, the second one makes some intriguing points as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Charmides by Plato

CharmidesCharmides by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Temperance is the subject of this Socratic dialogue, debated with Charmides and Critias. The opening may feel a bit icky as it’s essentially a few old men obsessing over beautiful youths (of which Charmides is one) in a way that may not explicitly be lecherous, but kind of feels that way. However, they soon get into systematic reflections of the nature of temperance. Charmides is said to have this quality in droves, but, of course, that begs the question of just what it is.

It’s worth noting, they aren’t using “temperance” in the way the English word is typically defined, i.e. the quality of knowing to what degree one should participate in varied activities, if at all. At least, they don’t get to that definition within the dialogue, but – in point of fact – they don’t arrive at any definition. However, they seem to equate “temperance” with “wisdom.” They do try out a series of alternate definitions, which Socrates systematically disassembles, including: temperance as quietness, as modesty, as “doing one’s own business,” as a science of itself and of the absence of science, and as the science of recognizing good and evil. The first couple of these are summarily dismissed, the latter ones take more effort and elaboration to tease out, but ultimately don’t produce a definition that’s both agreeable and useful.

In the process there is a discussion of epistemology as it pertains to what one can know, and whether one can have any clear understanding of one’s “known unknowns” and how they compare to the “unknown unknowns.” The relevance is rooted in a discussion of whether temperance is the ability to know what one knows and what one doesn’t.

This isn’t one of the best Socratic dialogues, but it does provide food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson [Ill. by Chris Garratt]

Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Ethics: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is one title in the “A Graphic Guide” series of books, many of which (including this one) are available on Amazon Prime. The books in the series explain fundamentals for a wide range of academic subjects, using simple descriptions supported by graphics. This particular book examines the philosophy of ethics and morality.

The book consists of a large number (almost 130) short topical sections, each with supporting graphics. Each section is just a page or two in length. The book has a chronological flow, moving from Socrates through the Postmodern philosophers. The nature of the topics varies, sometimes it is the view of a particular philosopher or school of philosophy, sometimes it’s a fundamental question or point of contention, and sometimes it’s a specific ethical issue. The last twenty-ish statements elaborate on two specific cases that the book addresses in detail: animal rights and euthanasia.

I felt the author did a good job of laying out a number of fault lines, controversies at the heart of differing views of ethics. The controversy that gets the most attention is that between absolutists and relativists. (Absolutists claim there are a set of core moral rules that are universally applicable, while relativists say one can’t make such rules because the morality of every action is relative, be it: situationally, culturally, or individually. An extreme view from either perspective is inconsistent with what one tends to sees in the real world.) A second point of contention regards whether ethical constraints are determined at the individual level or the societal / tribal / group level? A third controversy consists of a subjectivity versus objectivity divide – i.e. is morality just about what feels right or is there an objective way of defining moral knowledge? A significant portion of the book deals with the rivalries about these points, and – to a lesser degree – others (e.g. is biology the root of ethics or is it a domain devoid of ethics?)

There are cartoon drawings with most of the sections that illustrate key points, and / or depict interactions between rival philosophers. There is a “further reading” section in the back that suggests books to expand one’s grasp of the subject beyond the bare fundamentals that are addressed in this book.

I thought this book did a good job of laying out the issues. The cases (animal rights and euthanasia) helped show how different schools of thought apply their ideas to specific questions. I particularly enjoyed how the book clarified the subject through discussion of key questions of contention. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s definitely worth checking this one out. If not, you may want to see how it compares to the “A Very Short Introduction” guide for Oxford University Press, which is a similar series that explains the basics of a subject in a concise fashion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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