28 February 2005

Down East

Consult with Mark McPherran.

--A good rule for an ancient philosopher to follow generally, to be sure, but especially, it would seem, if one is planning a ski trip to SugarloafUSA.

I drove there yesterday to take advantage of 'kids pay their age' day (friends will understand). But winds of up to 90 mph shut down the mountain for the day.

Not that I regret seeing the winter scenery--but I don't doubt that if I had written to Mark, who lives about 45 minutes from the mountain, I would have gotten fair warning.

(A real post later.)

26 February 2005

Give Me Immortality, or Give Me Death!

Apart from purely 'definitional' dialogues, it is often difficult to say precisely what a Platonic dialogue is about. The ideal constitution or justice? Rhetoric or goodness? Sophistry or ultimate forms? The Forms or.....?

In contrast, hardly anyone would hesitate to say that the Phaedo is about "the immortality of the soul". And yet, is it about immortality?

But what else could it be about?

Well, about death, of course. As Socrates announces: "..it is perhaps most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder (apodhmein) to tell and examine tales about what we believe that journey to be like (peri ths apodhmias ths ekei, poian tina authn oiometha einai)" (61 d-e, Grube)

This is Socrates' description of what the day will be spent talking about. The topic of discussion, he says, is most suitably death or dying--not 'immortality'.

Christopher Rowe in the notes to his edition says that apodhmia can just as well mean one's sojourn at the place to which one is traveling, as the journey itself, and that that is how the term should be taken here. Yet the context I think rules that out. Socrates has just told Simmias to tell Evenus that, if he is wise, he ought "to pursue me as soon as possible" (eme diwkein hws tachista). "I'm leaving today (apeimi) ", Socrates remarks (61c), and, "A philosopher should want to follow (hepesthai) a dying man" (61d). These terms--pursue, leave, follow--denote movement, not rest. They are metaphors for dying, not for where one might end up after death.

Well, what difference would that make? Perhaps none. But perhaps regarding the dialogue as about death has interesting consequences:

1. Immediately, it seems, the dialogue becomes more coherent: the discussion of suicide is not out of place; 'philosophy as the practice of death' makes perfect sense; and the whole thing has a unity through to Socrates' actual departure at the end.

2. Again, particular arguments within the dialogue seem to take on a new significance. The Final Argument, for instance, should perhaps not be approached as a proof of the everlastingness of soul substance, but rather simply as making the point that what happens at death does not happen to the soul. Nothing happens to the soul at death. (Thus the argument becomes very similar to the argument in Republic X.)

3. And then the Phaedo's position as completing the sequence, Euthyphro-Apology-Crito, would become even more intelligible, since the theme that perhaps most binds together those dialogues is that Socrates' virtue is a consequence of his attitude toward death. And the Phaedo then would aim to give an account of this.

Is it death, then?

I'm not afraid of that.

Antiquarian Musings?

A commentator wrote:

...if we do not reject the biology that supports the fairly standard sociobiological account of humanity offered up by the likes of E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker, etc., how is ancient philosophy anything more than quaint, obsolete musing by the intellectual equivalent of children?

A pointed way of raising a fair question, which one might rephrase: Given developments in science since the time of Plato and Aristotle, are the accounts offered by these philosophers even close to being ones that we can regard as true?

Admittedly nostalgia is often a snare for philosophers. Quine in his lectures on Hume describes the worldview of classical, Newtonian physics--how it looked that nature was like then--and says, in effect, 'Would that the world actually were that way!' I've heard analytic philosophers say that they remain obsessed with the Tractatus because they very much wish that it were right. It ought to be right, they think. (No, it's not right.) Perhaps ancient philosophers, too, are indulging in nostalgia--for the good ol' days when it looked as though there were substantial forms and 'ends'?

Aren't ancient philosophers faced with a dilemma: "Either admit that you are simply doing history of ideas, or justify--in a way that contemporary philosophers and scientists would regard as reasonable, if not compelling--this talk of 'nature', 'form', 'matter', and 'ends'. " But have we provided the latter?

The commentator posed this question to me. I have some answers, but I'd rather--no, this is not avoidance!-- throw open the question first to others.

25 February 2005

Why That Awful Orange?

Some friends have asked me why I chose a blog format with such a ... curious...shade of orange.

The reason: I finally found the color that matches exactly the dustjacket of Logic, Science, and Dialectic!

The Consolation of Pagan Philosophy?

Okay, a blog is a place to try out ideas, right? (And if they're dumb, I can delete them.)

The problem: The Consolation of Philosophy is a work of 'prison literature' by a man who at least earlier in his life was a devout Christian, and yet it contains, apparently, not even any allusions to Christian ideas. One can't dispel the problem by saying that it's meant, after all, to be a work in philosophy, because why ever should Boethius have taken philosophy alone to be a sufficient consolation (cp. Thomas More)?

Proposed solution: Boethius as a young scholar, imagining that he will live an 'intellectual life', sketches out a plan for his life's work:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom ... Everything Aristotle ever wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretative explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato's Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict each other. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I will dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me.

But circumstances require him to follow an 'active' life (not even a 'mixed' life, as with Thomas More), as senator and eventually Magister officiorum. When he is thrown in prison and realizes he has only a few months to live (and 'leisure' of a sort, at last), he writes the Consolation to give a sketch of the synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelism that he had in mind. It's the best he can do, given the circumstances, to realize his goal.

So the work is not really a consolatio at all, either for himself or for others. That's merely a device, to allow the unfolding of the synthesis.

Les Preludes

It's curious what counts as a contribution to scholarship in different cultures. A good instance of this is J-F Pradeau's lecture at Boston College last night, in the Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy.

Pradeau thought it sufficient to sketch a conception of law according to Plato in fairly general terms and then cite in footnotes scholarly papers (esp. of F. Lisi and L. Brisson, but presupposing his own work as well), which he took to provide the evidence for his view.

Pradeau's talk could be boiled down to two claims:

(1) "There is indeed a coherent conception of the law in the Platonic corpus" which is stable across the Republic, Statesman, and Laws: law is "reasoning imposed on the city", addressed to the souls of its citizens, to "forge human morals".
(2) The 'preludes' or 'preambles' in the Laws "do not transmit a teaching" and do not aim "to set forth rationally the appropriateness of such-and-such a conduct" but rather to persuade with "a form of parental admonition."

Pradeau understood these claims to be directed at the views of both at G. Kosko (The Development of Plato's Political Theory) and C. Bobonich (Plato's Utopia Recast).

One might want to ask: How is this an original contribution to scholarship?

I think Pradeau might reply: simply to summarize and state succintly (what he regards as) the sound and sensible view is to do a service.

I don't regard this as an indefensible position. There is room in academia for attempts to articulate, synthetically and with some subtlety, a particular conception, such as "Plato's conception of law." Without doubt, Pradeau is qualified to do this. He might justifiably rely on his great familiarity with the Laws from the translation he's just completed. And he's published a couple of books on the subject.

Yet, again, it's curious. In U.S. academic culture, one would definitely present such a paper precisely through criticizing Bobonich, or through the careful exegesis of one or two key texts. The paper would need to be adversarial, and it would have to contain all the relevant evidence for its claims.

24 February 2005

A Material Difference, Then?

Someone might be wondering: But what about the disparity in how Aristotle and Plato classify key goods such as pleasure and happiness? Doesn't this suggest that their classifications are different?

Let's recap. What is at issue is whether Aristotle's classification of goods into three classes in NE 1.7 was understood by him as based upon, derived from, or in some way a development of Plato's apparently similar classification in Rep. 2. (Why is this important? I'll explain in a later post. For the moment, let's assume that it is.)

The common view is yes; Lear gives plausible arguments that no.

Lear's arguments are of two sorts. Let's call them formal and material. Her formal argument is that, from what Plato says about the classification (sc. has his characters say about it), we can see that the basis or nature of Plato's classification is different from Aristotle's. We looked at this argument in yesterday's post and saw that it was inconclusive.

The material argument is precisely the observation that Plato and Aristotle differ in how they place important goods in the three classes--which suggests that they viewed their classifications differently (rather than differed on how to make use of a classification understood in the same way). So the task today is to consider this material argument.

For the sake of efficiency, not to beg any questions, let's assume for the moment that we are dealing with a single classification, which might roughly be explained as follows:

Class I: goods valuable in their own right (which should be loved for that reason)
Class II: goods valuable in their own right and for what they lead to (which should be loved for both of those reasons)
Class III: goods valuable only for what they lead to (which should be loved only for that reason)

What are the relevant disparities between Plato and Aristotle?

  • Plato places what he regards as a low level good (pleasure) in Class I, but Aristotle puts only the highest good in that class (happiness).
  • Plato does not place happiness in any class.
  • Plato seems to regard Class II goods as the highest: at any rate, Socrates refers to this class as the 'finest' (kalliston) of the three.
1. Aristotle and Plato would apparently agree on what things to place in Class III.
2. Aristotle would presumably agree with Plato that thinking (to phronein), seeing (to horan), and being healthy (to ugiainein) belong in the second class (generally so, but perhaps some kinds of thinking he would not wish to place there). He would presumably also wish to place the virtue of justice there.

Thus, everything hinges on what things to include in Class I, and on the ranking of the classes.

Consider these disparities as 'data', and there are two explanations:

Hypothesis 1 (Lear): Plato and Aristotle differ in how they regard the basis or nature of these classes.
Hypothesis 2 : Aristotle agrees with Plato on the basis or nature of these classes, but he disagrees about which goods should be placed in them.

Which hypothesis explains the data better?

Hypothesis 2 really needs to be given this specific form: The character of Aristotle's argument in NE is precisely what one might expect, if he were taking the classification from Plato, but disputing how goods are to be classified within Class I, and how the classes are to be ranked.

In support of Hypothesis 2, thus recast:

Plato puts happiness nowhere: Aristotle argues at length in 1.7 that happiness, rather, goes in Class I.

Plato regards Class II goods as the 'finest': but Aristotle's almost heavy-handed argument in 1.7.1097a30-34 is that Class I goods, if described with the right qualifications, should be ranked higher.

Plato puts both 'joy' (to chairein) and 'all non-harmful pleasures' (hosai ablabeis) in Class I: Aristotle argues in 10.6 that the latter in fact belong in Class II (they prepare us for more work) and in 10.1-5 that the former belong in Class I (even when that class is correctly ranked as the best).

In sum: Isn't it as good an explanation of the disparities between Plato and Aristotle, then, that Aristotle very much had Plato's division in mind; that he regarded himself as appropriating it; but that he needed to make important adjustments (which he argues for deliberately)?

Of course, someone might now object, "Look, it's a distinction without a difference: that Aristotle ranks the classes differently, and classifies important goods so differently, shows that he views the classification in a very different way. Whether we call this a 'formal' or 'material' difference of viewpoint is irrelevant."

Perhaps... but maybe already the important point has been conceded. (More later.)

All Future Posts of Greek in SPIonic

Let's all agree to post in Greek using SPIonic. That's available for free here or here. You can find a nifty test of whether your computer is fitted to read it here.

23 February 2005

Three Classes of Goods in Plato and Aristotle: Different Bases of Classification?

Let's consider Lear's interesting arguments one-by-one. Do they stand up?

In this post I look at the first argument, that the basis of Plato's division is different from Aristotle's, because it is a division of 'ways that goods supply us with happiness'.

The argument is as follows:

Notice that Socrates says that the second group is the finest, because it provides its possessor with happiness by two routes: The good thing will itself make him happy, and it will lead him to other sources of happiness (Rep. 358a). This suggests that Glaucon's groups are distinguished by the different ways they supply us with happiness.

But what Socrates actually says is:

e)gw\ me\n oi)=mai, h)=n d' e)gw/, e)n tw=| kalli/stw|, o(\ kai\ di' au(to\ kai\ dia\ ta\ gigno/mena a)p' au)tou= a)gaphte/on tw=| me/llonti makari/w| e)/sesqai.

Literally: "' [I place justice] I suppose,' I said, 'in the finest class, that is, the class of what should be loved both because of itself and because of the things that result from it, if one is to be a thoroughly blessed man.'"

One small point to put aside. Is it significant that Socrates does not refer here to a 'happy' man (eudaimon) but rather to a 'thoroughly blessed man' (makarios)? No, Plato uses these terms interchangeably: cf. 354a. Nothing can be made of that.

The more important point is this. Plato seems to be supposing something like the following principle:

1. Happiness requires that we love goods appropriately.

Something that is valuable only because it leads to other valuable things is appropriately loved for that reason. Something that is valuable in its own right is appropriately loved for that reason. And something that is valuable on both grounds is appropriately loved for both reasons--on pain of unhappiness (presumably, if the thing is non-trivial).

Glaucon's challenge is for Socrates to show:

2. Justice is valuable in its own right, besides being valuable for what it leads to.

It is assumed:

3. All of us already love justice for what it leads to.

From which it would follow that:

4. Happiness requires that we love justice (also) for the reason that it is valuable in its own right (or 'what makes it valuable in its own right').

And, if this were shown, then Thrasymachus would be satisfactorily refuted. The task of Republic II-IV then becomes to establish 2.

Note that there is nothing here about a good in the second class itself making someone happy: it's our love of that good, on the correct grounds, which is a requirement of happiness.

Again, there is nothing here about goods' being classified as to whether they lead to happiness or not, or sources of happiness. The goods that (everyone acknowledges) justice typically leads to, are such things as a good reputation and credibility in commercial transactions, not happiness.

In any case, the idea that the classes are 'distinguished by the different ways they supply us with happiness' seems to have no application to Glaucon's first and third classes:
  • Members of the first class--including such goods as joy and non-harmful pleasures--supply us with nothing.
  • Members of the third class--including such things as physical training and noxious medicines--supply us with mundane goods such as fitness and health, not happiness.
So the argument does not stand up. So far, we see no difference between Plato's three classes and Aristotle's.

But what about the other arguments for that claim? We'll look at another tomorrow.

22 February 2005

Upcoming Lecture--February 24

I'll be attending this lecture and will give my reactions to it and the commentary on Friday.

My apologies if not all the symbols below and graphics appear on your screen. In the future I'll post such things as graphics pieces. (It will take a few days to get the kinks out.)

By the way, if you need further information, you can contact Prof. Gary Gurtler, Philosophy, Boston College: gurtlerg@bc.edu.

A map to Shea, where the lecture is being held, may be found here.

The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy


The Law According to Plato

By Prof. Jean-François Pradeau

(University of Paris X Nanterre

and Institut Universitaire de France)


Prof. Gavin Colvert

(Department of Philosophy, Assumption College)

Shea Room (Conte Forum, Boston College)

7:30 p.m.

A Substantive Post is Owed

εὐδαιμονία !

Okay, that solves the Greek problem: compose in Word; cut and paste.

The following issue has been bothering me from Gabriel Lear's book. I will set up the problem today and say more tomorrow.

I have assumed (and have argued in print) that Aristotle's classification of goods in Nicomachean Ethics 1.7. 1097a30-34 is derived from Plato's in Republic II 357b-c. But Lear gives a good argument against this.

Recall that Aristotle gives three classes of goods:
1. reasonably sought (only) for the sake of something else
2. reasonably sought for its own sake and for the sake of something else
3. reasonably sought only for its own sake (and never for the sake of something else)

And Plato gives three classes of goods:
A. welcomed for its own sake
B. welcomed for its own sake and for the sake of what results
C. chosen only for the sake of something else

At first glance one might think: 1. maps to C.; 2. maps to B.; and 3. maps to A.

But Lear writes on her page 32:

In fact the threefold division of goods in Republic II is not equivalent to the threefold division of goods in NE 1.7. Notice that Socrates says that the second group is the finest, because it provides its possessor with happiness by two routes: The good thing will itself make him happy, and it will lead him to other sources of happiness (Rep. 358a). This suggests that Glaucon's groups are distinguished by the different ways they supply us with happiness. Since Glaucon's middle group is more useful in causing happiness, it is the best according to the terms of his division. Aristotle's groups, on the other hand, are distinguished by different levels of teleological subordination. From Aristotle's point of view, insofar as the goods in all three of Glaucon's groups are valuable because they provide us with happiness, they are choiceworthy for the sake of happiness. That is, none of them is valuable as something haplos teleion. Thus, despite superficial similarities, Plato's threefold division of goods as objects of desire gives us no reason to think that middle-level ends in the Nicomachean Ethics are essentially ends desired for themselves and for their results.

Lear adds in a footnote that Glaucon cites pleasure as an instance of A., but Platonists regarded pleasures as not the highest good, because pleasures are processes, and processes are not themselves goals or goods:

If Plato meant Glaucon to be distinguishing levels in a teleological hierarchy, he ought not have provided as the sole example of a good choiceworthy for its own sake a good that, on Plato's philosophy, is notorious for not having its end in itself.

So Lear's arguments are that:

  • the principle of division is different in the two cases
  • Plato takes B. to contain the best goods, but Aristotle takes 3.
  • happiness falls within Aristotle's 3, but it is not even meant to fall within any of Plato's three classes
  • Plato's gives pleasure as an example of A., a good that he would not have placed in Aristotle's 3.
Seems fairly conclusive, doesn't it? But perhaps things are not so clear. I'll say more later.

Inaugural Post: Starting for Real

Here's a new blog, on ancient philosophy. (I won't exclude medieval if there's something interesting to say.)

Resolve: to post everyday. Each post will pose a problem, raise an issue, or propose an idea.

Here are the books I'm currently reading, which will provide, I suspect, much of the grist for my mill:

Gabriel Richardson Lear, Happy Lives and the Highest Good
Lorraine Smith Pangle, Aristotle and the Philosophy of Friendship
David Sedley, ed., Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (don't know the volume--will tell you tomorrow!)
Augustine, De Trinitate
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Plato, Phaedo
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (of course!)

I might just post occasionally on the New Testament, if something is of philosophical significance. I'm currently studying Paul's letter to Philemon.

Other sources for my posts will be conferences, colloquia, and meetings I've attended, currently attend, or plan to attend, including:

Spindel Conference 2004 (in the past, but worth discussing)
Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy (BACAP)
New York City Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy
Cambridge University 2005 Mayweek Seminar

I'm the Director of BACAP. I plan to seek permission of lecturers in BACAP to post papers at this blog. Then the blog, among other things, can serve as a point for discussion.

How to post in Greek? I haven't figured that out, but I will!