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: 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: Hipparchus by Plato

HipparchusHipparchus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On-line

In this Socratic dialogue about “lovers of gain,” Socrates and an unnamed friend debate whether pursuing gains can be wicked. Usually, the title of a dialogue is the name of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner, but, herein, Hipparchus is a historical figure who Socrates cites as the reason he wouldn’t hornswoggle his friend, quoting “Walk with just intent” and “Deceive not a friend” as credos that he, Socrates, lives by.

The friend tries a number of approaches to argue the loathsomeness of lovers of gain. Recognizing the starting premise will be that a gain is a good, the friend argues that such people (presumably greedy / materialistic types) purse valueless gains. Socrates attacks that as an oxymoron. Next, the friend argues that lovers of gain seek gains that no honorable man would pursue. Again, Socrates argues that a gain is a good and all humans seek good. Since the friend doesn’t want to call the lovers of gain fools (i.e. unable to recognize a gain when they see it,) the friend is stuck. The third approach is to argue that a wicked gain could be considered a loss. This is also swiftly rebutted. The last tack is to argue that some gains are good, while some are evil, which runs afoul of the same argument.

This isn’t one of the best dialogues – in fact, many question whether it was written by Plato. That said, it brings up a few ideas that are worthy of consideration. It felt very much like a conversation I once heard in which a young woman argued, “No one should have that much more than they need.” Which drew the response, “You realize that 90% of the world would say you have tons more than you need?” Which resulted in the instigator walking off in a huff. If you want to engage in debates about the virtue (or vice) of wealth acquisition, this might be a good place to begin your reflection.

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5 Philosophical Questions Life Forces You to Answer

Like it or not, life makes philosophers of us all. You may hate philosophy, but you can’t escape it. You can — as many people do — outsource how you answer these questions, but that still requires a decision.

5.) How do I know a thing is true?  Sometimes the answer is self-evident, but, more often then people acknowledge, it’s not. This is exacerbated by the confusion of subjective truth (a personal “truth”) with objective truth (the universally true.)

Some people relinquish decision to an authority — be it a teacher, a scripture, or the scientific consensus. Some people only believe what said person’s personal experience tells them.

There is a related question of how tightly should one hold onto whatever beliefs one acts as if are true. The scientific approach suggests one should be ready to abandon something one believes is true in light of new information (assuming the new information is sound and can be validated.) Religions tend to prefer that the truths that have been handed down should be grasped firmly no matter what one sees, hears, or learns. One’s philosophical stance may take either approach, or one in between.

4.) [Who] am I?  As the brackets suggest, this is actually two questions. The full question, “Who am I?” presumes that there is a self (an I.) Some philosophies, e.g. Buddhism, reject this presumption, hence the more fundamental question of “Is there an I?”

3.) What constitutes a virtuous or moral life? Of course, some philosophies would reject the ingrained presumption that one should care, but that’s a fringe position. Maybe the more general question of “What constitutes a good life?” is a better one.

2.) What does it mean for something to be real? Some will say, “Come on. I know what’s real. I don’t need to philosophize about that?” Really? Because the best minds in the world are constantly debating this and have reached no consensus on the subject. It’s certainly possible to get through life behaving as though reality is “x,” whether or not “x” turns out to be true. But that’s very different from knowing what is true.

1.) Is there free will, and — if so — in what sense?  It feels like we have complete free will, but there are a couple of grounds on which this has been questioned. For the religious, reconciling an omnipotent god and free will takes some mental gymnastics. (If one can act completely freely, how can a god also?)

But more recently, free will has been challenged by science as well. Benjamin Libet’s work showed that “decisions” take place before people become conscious of them, and — therefore — aren’t decisions in the sense we usually understand that word (i.e. the product of conscious deliberation.) Of course, while some have argued that the repeated validation of Libet’s work shows free will is purely an illusion, there remain many who argue there are still possible ways in which some form of free will exists. (Including, apparently, Libet who believed we at least have “free won’t” even if we don’t have free will — i.e. we can consciously veto deterministic “decisions.”)

Best of luck picking — or building — your own life philosophy.

POEM: Blake’s Virtue

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

box of virtue, or box of sin
which one does this act go in?
and why put each one in a box?
to sell the sins down by the docks?

Blake the madman, Blake the pious
the difference reflects your bias
wedging each act into a crate
dilutes the evil and the great
all so the vain can extricate
themselves above the ones they hate

BOOK REVIEW: The Sayings of Confucius by Confucius

The Sayings of ConfuciusThe Sayings of Confucius by Bc- Bc Confucius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There’s no one more firmly associated with Eastern wisdom—particularly in the form of aphorisms that fit nicely onto a fortune cookie—than Confucius. This is a book of such aphorisms.

I must admit, I’m not a wholehearted devotee of the Chinese philosopher, and am more likely to side with the Taoist sages who mocked Confucian ideas at every turn. In short, I’m not a big fan of the Confucian idea of societal hierarchies based on some elements of society accepting being infantilized in exchange for the protection and goodwill of others. It’s not just that I’m a youngest child that causes me to ask, what if the younger brother is smarter?

Once one gets beyond what is probably Confucius’s best known teaching—the five relationships—one sees a great deal of solid wisdom that even a Taoist would be hard pressed to refute.

Many of Confucius’s sayings aren’t novel or unique. Like Socrates, Confucius advocates knowing what one doesn’t know—which implies accepting that there are things one doesn’t know and not acting like one knows it all. (A common enough vice in modern times as in ancient.) Like the Indian sages, Confucius emphasized that one shouldn’t chase fame or act out of a desire for the fruits of one’s actions. Like the Stoics, Confucius said, “A gentleman knows neither sorrow nor fear.”

One of the most quoted sayings in this work is, “A gentleman should be slow to speak and quick to do.” This contains two bits of wisdom rolled into one: a.) Think before you say something stupid. b.) and, Get off your ass and do it, already. Of course, Confucius also produced an early (if not the earliest) formulation of what is usually called “The Golden Rule.) Confucius say, “What I do not wish done to me, I likewise wish not to do to others.”

I think everyone should read this short book of even shorter sayings.

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Eulogy for Sonny

Sonny was a stray who hopped up into my lap one day as I was reading on the back porch. He petted himself against me, and moved in shortly thereafter. He was between kitten and cat then, and so we estimate his age was approaching 12 when he left us.

Being a gruff, introverted stoic, I realize that I am an acquired taste as a friend. I have few non-contextual friends: that is, friends outside of a common endeavor such as a workplace or a school. Not that there’s anything wrong with friendships born of a common workplace or pastime, but Sonny’s out-of-the-blue arrival created a special fondness. That was Sonny’s nature.

He was a little dirty at first. A tiny notch in his ear–one that would be made symmetric later in life, marked him as a fighter as well as a lover. All about the love in the home, but ready to scrap to defend his adopted lair at a moment’s notice.

The books said his breed wasn’t inclined to be lap cats, but—being a cat—Sonny didn’t read much. And, therefore, he would spend hours curled into a torus on my lap, until my legs fell completely asleep and I had to stumble through pins and needles to refresh his throne.

Sonny developed a growth in his head. It was removed and biopsied, and then once more. Though Sonny’s Chi was strong, each time his nemesis grew back with greater ferocity. He fought it quietly and calmly. Making no complaints; demanding no sympathy. He was unflappable.

Sonny was a bundle of virtue: patient, kind, forgiving, strong, and stalwart. If the religions that believe in transmigration of souls are right, Sonny has earned the right to be whatever the hell he pleases in his next life.  He was a Bodhi-cat-va, helping us to eliminate stress and teaching us how to accept upset.

Your gentle head-butts will be missed. Your popcorn bowl conformity will be missed. You, my friend, will be missed.

We never knew where Sonny’s scars and nicks came from, but I imagine it quite like that of Neil Gaiman’s The Price

POEM: Deceit Days

What an apple!
–spoiled and rotten
The weave of lies
is soon forgotten.
Cast and reel,
no hook is set.
Which lie is true?
He soon forgets.

He says,
Just let me be, and I won’t lie.
But ask me now and it’s fib or die.

The lying life is tenuous.
Backpeddling? Strenuous