This is an interesting little dialogue. I’d encountered bits of it, as it is one of the sources (besides Herodotus and Thucydides) for the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and it is also a source that tells us something about the herms which my 415 project has me interested in. So the middle part of the dialogue, about Hipparchus, was familiar to me. But I’d never read the full context.
I’ve been delaying blogging on the Lysis because I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s odd! The subtitle is “On Friendship” (philia), and that’s what the bulk of it is about, but the frame is much more concerned with eros. Socrates visits a wrestling-school and finds a young man besotted by a boy (he is described as “quite young” and designated a pais; but how old? 10? 12?). The initial part of the dialogue involves Socrates instructing the young man how best to go about wooing his favorite. It is only in this context, as he demonstrates how Hippothales should converse with his beloved Lysis, that we get the discussion about friendship. Continue reading
Charmides 163-172. Here Critias has taken over as interlocutor from sweet young Charmides; he pushes first his revised definition for temperance (sophrosune): from “doing your own business” to “doing good things” (163e) which is abruptly dropped (when Socrates asks if it’s still temperance when you do good in ignorance) and replaced with the Delphic admonition to “know yourself” (164d).
Now given that Socrates himself, back in the First Alcibiades, suggested this as a good goal, and furthermore defined it as knowing your own soul, and furthermore suggested that the method for knowing one’s own soul was to contemplate the knowing soul in someone else (thus practicing knowing knowing, as it were), it is odd and confusing that here he absolutely resists the possibility of any such thing. Continue reading
I’ve clearly gotten way behind with Plato, and now will need to read at a rate of 10 Stephanus pages per day rather than 5 to keep up. I’m going to experiment with the Charmides on the possibility of blogging this daily, rather than having a posting per dialogue (which frankly encourages me to skip reading and then catch up later). So here’s a quick post on the first 10 pages of the Charmides, which is about “temperance” or sophrosune. (There are a lot of Greek words below, but I’m figuring that anyone actually reading this knows what they mean.)
Charmides 153-162: Socrates returns from the campaign at Potidea and goes to the wrestling-school to catch up on hot youths. Continue reading
For reasons not entirely clear to me, my Loeb (1927) tells me that the Second Alcibiades is spurious while the first is not. The dialogue is about prayer, and the risks of being granted what you wish for, but the underlying assumptions being probed have more to do with desire. Socrates suggests to Alcibiades that if a god were to grant him power, but that power resulted in his death, then the prayer for power would result in harm rather than good; best (like the Spartans) simply to pray “that the gods will give them for their own benefit the beautiful as well as the good” (148c).
For Socrates this all has to do with knowledge, and specifically “knowledge of the best” — the possession of which alone allows one to pray safely. Desire without knowledge is dangerous. Knowledge — at least knowledge of “the best” — is what allows us to regulate our desires, to understand that things we think we want may end up being harmful.
It was interesting to read this right after the essay of Richard Seaford (currently at the top of the Obiter Lecta list) on the Greeks and money. Seaford claims that money differs from goods in being, theoretically, without limit. At a certain point, the argument goes, you have enough cows or tripods or slave women, but you never have enough money: when you have 6 talents you want 16, then 40. This unlimited nature is problematic for the Greeks, Seaford claims, and their philosophical tradition therefore values limit over the unlimited. Seaford quotes the Philebus in support of this, as well as Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: “bad is of the unlimited, as the Pythagoreans surmised, and good is of the limited”.
Seaford’s essay (like his 2004 book) is fascinating and thought-provoking. But I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s the introduction of coinage that focuses the Greeks on the dangers of the limitless: desire (and other emotions, like anger) seems by nature to be infinite; this is why the Epicureans and Stoics tried so hard to learn to control it. The question raised by the Second Alcibiades is whether “knowledge of the best” is the way to do that. If I know that great power will put me in personal danger, will I stop desiring power? Perhaps. If I know that my child may be “utterly bad” or may be killed by disaster (142c), will I stop desiring children? What kind of a world will we end up in if everyone somehow gets this knowledge? This feels like a cost-benefit analysis gone wild!
The answer in the context of the dialogue is to avoid specific requests in prayer, and leave to the gods the question of what will be beneficial to us. But at the end, Alcibiades gives Socrates the garland he was going to offer to the gods; Plato (or whoever wrote the dialogue) clearly implies that Socrates possesses the knowledge of the best.
Alcibiades I (Major) is, I must admit, a tiny bit of a let-down after the Meno. While nobody seemed to doubt its authenticity in antiquity (Plutarch seems to have used it for a source on Alcibiades), modern scholars have disputed whether Plato wrote it; the 1927 Loeb I’m reading seems to think it’s authentic if early.
The Meno is probably most famous for setting out the doctrine of anamnesis: the notion that your immortal soul possesses knowledge it has forgotten at your birth, but under the right conditions (i.e. if you are lucky enough to have Socrates ask you some strategic questions) you can be prompted to remember it. Socrates demonstrates this by leading an uneducated young slave through some geometry. Continue reading
Toward the beginning of the Philebus (“On Pleasure”) we get the following exchange:
SOC. First, then, let us take three of the four and, as we see that two of these are split up and scattered each one into many, let us try, by collecting each of them again into one, to learn how each of them was both one and many.
PRO. If you could tell me more clearly about them, I might be able to follow you.
And it’s supposed to lack humor!
Socrates and Protarchus are debating whether the highest good is pleasure or knowledge. Continue reading
In the Ion, Socrates converses with a rhapsode who specializes in Homer. Rhapsodes were performers, and celebrity performers at that; in the opening of the dialogue Ion tells Socrates that he has just come from the festival to Asclepius at Epidaurus, where he has been awarded the first prize for his performance, and is hoping to carry away the first prize at the Panathenaea as well. Presumably these prizes were valuable (Ion at one point mentions that he keeps a sharp eye on his audience, since if they weep at his performance he knows that he’ll be “making money”). But in addition to performing, the rhapsodes evidently also lectured on the poets. Ion claims that no one “the world has ever seen had so many nor such fine comments to offer on Homer” as he has. Continue reading