Saturday, June 28, 2014

Timaeus (Part II: The Thought)

The Thought

In getting a handle on this complex dialogue, it is helpful to keep in mind two things:

(1) The explicit purpose of the discussion is to show the origin and nature of the universe and of human beings (27a), and these two topics are linked: we are less perfect images of the same intelligible Living Thing of which the universe itself is a more perfect image.

(2) Timaeus's discourse has three major sections. The first section, starting at 27c or 29d, depending on whether you count what Socrates calls the "overture" or "prelude" (29d) has to do with Mind or Intellect as cause; the second section, starting at 47e, has to do with Necessity or the Straying Cause; and the third section, starting at 69a, "weaves together" the two to finish the account of human nature.


We begin with a key distinction: some things are the object of knowledge and some things are the object of opinion. What pertains to knowledge is what is and it is always and unchanging; we get knowledge of it by reason. What pertains to opinion or belief is what is generated, and it is always changing and never purely is; opinion or belief arises about it through sensation. Everything generated has a cause that generates it. When a craftsman/artificer (demiourgos) makes something, if he considers what is ever the same, and, taking this as the model or paradigm, makes what he is making to fit this form, this is what we mean when we say something made is beautiful.

When we take the whole beautiful cosmos and ask whether it is generated, the answer is pretty clear: we sense it, and thus it is an object of opinion. It must then have a cause, a something-responsible that makes it, whatever that first originator might be. This artificer must have made the cosmos on the model of an unchanging paradigm, because the cosmos is beautiful; and thus we can conclude that the world "is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom" (29a).

To understand this, we need to have some kind of answer -- even if we cannot rigorously demonstrate it -- to two questions: Why did the artificer make it, and what model did the artificer use? The answer to why the artificer made it is that the artificer is good, and those who are good want other things to be good. This ends up being very important: the cosmos is set up on the principle of the lower imitating the goodness of the higher to the extent and in the way it can.

As to the model or paradigm, it is the intelligible Animal or Living Thing (zoa) which every other living thing participates. Thus Plato's cosmos is itself a visible living thing that imitates this intelligible living thing, by being alive itself, with a body and a soul, and by being a living thing which other living things participate or partition, and by being in some way a totality of the living and therefore unique. Because it is a self-sufficient living thing, it has no need for the appurtenances we usually associate with animal bodies; it is instead a pure sphere whose vital activity consists entirely of turning on itself in thought and in body, in the closest imitation of its unchanging model that a changing thing can have. Within the universe as well, the higher living things, like the gods who are the fixed stars, imitate that model in the way they can.

Beneath the gods are lesser beings, including men, which imitate the same, but are less pure in their imitation, wandering around in body and in thought, ebbing and flowing in force, buffeted around in sensation and motion, like the cosmos and yet unlike.


Plato's artificer, however, is not a cause creating ex nihilo; he is a shaper of materials. And this means that full understanding of the cosmos (and thus of human beings) requires some idea of the material side. The cosmos is made by Mind (nous) persuading Necessity (ananke) to take a form that imitates the intelligible. This latter is the cause of the errancy or impurity that characterizes the way in which the changing imitates the unchanging.

So in addition to the model and the image or imitation of it, we must also have something that receives the imitation, the "wetnurse" (49a) or "mother" (51a) of all generation. This is obviously very difficult to characterize, because it has no nature of its own, but merely receives the impression of everything else, and indefinite something-or-other capable of being persuaded into becoming any changing thing -- fire, water, earth, air. This receptacle is in a constant state of commotion, constantly shifting as it imitates the unchanging; and the artificer's work is to persuade it to shift in just the right way to be an even better imitation. The way Plato puts it is quite famous. There is a constant commotion of flat triangles in the receptacle; the artificer makes it so that these triangles come together to form volumes, namely, the Platonic solids:

The Platonic solids - 5 Polyhedra

It is worth keeping mind throughout all of this that when we act rationally, we are artificers in our own ways, and we, too, use Mind to persuade Necessity to imitate higher things, drawing out depth from the flatness the world would otherwise have.


It also needs to be kept in mind at this point that, however much fun Timaeus may be having as he speculates about how different features of the world were made by the artificer by mathematical construction in a changing medium, this is all going somewhere quite specific. Timaeus is setting up for Critias's account of human beings in the excellent society, which means that all this needs to contribute to an account of the nobility and corruption of human beings. (In this sense, the philosophical work most similar to Timaeus is Spinoza's Ethics. The Ethics is a treatise on human happiness, human beings at their most excellent. But Spinoza starts pretty much were Plato does, with the All, and from there works out the general principles of the world, which allows him to work out the general principles of human nature, which allows him to get to human happiness.)

Thus the artificer makes the cosmos, the living thing containing living things; the artificer also makes the higher living things, namely, divine things, including the gods and the human soul. The gods make the lower things, including the human body. So the gods make a lesser cosmos, the human body, to be set in order by the divine soul; this lesser cosmos has its own "mortal soul" (69c-d), which works not by intellect but by sensation. The divine soul they put in the head, and the mortal soul they put in the torso. The mortal soul in turn has two parts, a higher victory-loving part, which displaces manliness/courage/fortitude (andreia) and spirit/drive (thumos), and a lower craving/desiring part (epithumios). The higher part they put nearer the head, so that when the lower part decides not to obey the commands coming down from the acropolis of reason, the higher part can listen to reason and restrain desire by force if necessary. (Readers of the Republic will note that this is in fact exactly the account of human nature given there, and it is the same structure that is reflected in Socrates' account of the ideal city both in that dialogue and at the beginning of this dialogue.) The lowest parts of the mortal soul do not understand reason at all; they must be directed by images of reason's commands. So the intellect's commands come down from on high, and they are stamped or painted in the gut, and it is these indirect images that the lowest part follows.

From this we can understand what is required for a human being to be whole and beautiful in both body and soul. This requires the proper proportioning of soul and body, so the means of having a good life is clear:

...there is in fact one way to preserve oneself, and that is not to exercise the soul without exercising the body, nor the body without the soul, so that each may be balanced by the other and so be sound. The mathematician, then, or the ardent devotee of any other intellectual discipline should also provide exercise for his body by taking part in gymnastics, while one who takes care to develop his body should in his turn practice the exercises of the soul by applying himself to the arts and to every pursuit of wisdom, if he is to truly deserve the joint epithets of "fine and good." (88b-c)

"Arts" here is whatever falls under the province of the Muses; "pursuit of wisdom" is philosophy; and to be called both "fine" (kalos) and "good/noble" (agathos) was one of the very highest possible compliments in Greek culture. We should therefore imitate the structure of the cosmos as a whole, always exercising like the every-shifting receptacle, but doing so in a moderate and constructive way according to reason, and in particular we should strive to be (in our own way and to the extent possible) self-sufficient, moving ourselves to health and beauty, just like the cosmos itself constantly moves itself in vital beauty.

But more than this, we need to keep in mind that we have an immortal and a mortal part, and act accordingly. Our divine soul needs to be kept our guiding spirit (daimona), because it is akin to the heavens themselves. (The image in which Plato expresses this, that we stand erect because our divine part tends toward the heavens, in which it is, so to speak, rooted, will later be put in vivid form by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, and thence will become a major image in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. This sort of philosophical chain-reaction of images through history is something that one constantly finds if one looks at the reception-history of Timaeus.)

If we live a life that follows only the mortal part, becoming absorbed in our cravings and ambitions, we make ourselves as merely mortal and beast-like as possible; if, on the other hand, we devote ourselves to love of learning (philomathia) and true wisdom/prudence (phronesis), keeping our guiding spirit (daimona) in order, we make ourselves as immortal and divine as possible, and become supremely happy (eudaimona). And when we are well-ordered in this way, we have an affinity to that living god that is the cosmos itself; and this is the most excellent life possible.

Timaeus ends by discussing beasts. This dialogue has a view of reincarnation very similar to that of Phaedrus, so this is not a digression, but one way of looking at the opposite side of the coin. Those who study astronomy -- recall that the stars are gods in Timaeus's account -- but go about foolishly assuming that the only things that are known about them are those thing that can be reached by sensation rather than intellectual understanding, tend to become birds. (The idea seems to be that such astronomers wing about in the sky, but cannot reach the heavens themselves.) Men who have no philosophy at all, and do not study the cosmos, become beasts of the earth. (Guided not by reason but by the thumos in their chests, they are bent over, their heads looking at the ground.) Those with even less reason and understanding become serpents and worms, close to the earth. The stupidest and wickedest men become beasts of the waters, fish and shellfish, no longer even breathing pure air. (These last two are the Men without Chests that C. S. Lewis talks about in The Abolition of Man; Lewis, of course, got the image from Plato.)

And so we are prepared to hear Critias's story, knowing now enough about human beings to know what makes them noble and what makes them degraded.


Quotations from Donald Zeyl's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1224-1291.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Timaeus (Part I: The Plot)

Plato's Timaeus is, without much doubt, the single most influential Platonic dialogue. It was very widely read, and its ideas widely disseminated. For several centuries in the early medieval period it was the only significant Platonic work available in the West (in a not-entirely-complete translation by Chalcidius). Its influence on medieval philosophy is incalculable. While not as widely read to day, it continues to exert a considerable influence; Whitehead's Process and Reality (1929), for instance, shows clear signs of its influence at every turn, and has been just one channel by which its influence has been kept alive. The influence has perhaps been even greater in language, in general sense of the world, and in ambition than in detail; but the influence of particular ideas in the dialogue has always been considerable in its own right. It has been read in quite a few ways (and it is noticeable that early readers in Plato's Academy, like Speusippus his nephew, did not read it as in any way a literal account); a considerable portion of Neoplatonism can be understood as a re-synthesis of the vast number of divergent ways of reading it that had sprung up in the Hellenistic and early Roman Imperial periods. (This is especially useful to keep in mind when reading Proclus, for instance.) Timaeus with its sister-dialogue Critias is the source of the most famous Platonic myth, the Myth of Atlantis, and the most vividly remembered detail of that Myth comes from the Timaeus summary. One could go on and on.

Timaeus as we have it seems to have been intended as the first in a projected trilogy of dialogues, to be followed by Critias and a dialogue devoted to Hermocrates. However, the third does not seem ever to have been written -- even in antiquity no one knew it -- and Critias as we have it is incomplete, and, indeed, is usually thought never to have been completed. Timaeus is one of six dialogues that Aristotle both attributes to Plato and designates by its title, and he refers to it on multiple occasions, so it has the strongest possible external attestation.

Timaeus can be read in English at the Perseus Project and in French at Wikisource. (The Timaeus is a fairly long dialogue, and not wholly easy reading; but if you're reading along, I strongly recommend you at least read the opening, from 17a to 31b. The opening frame applies to the much shorter and easier Critias as well, and the tail-end of that section will also give you a taste of Timaeus's discourse. But there is no dialogue in the Platonic canon that will explode your mind with crazy images than the Timaeus will; it's worth reading as much of it as you can.)

The Characters
(in order of appearance)

Socrates opens the dialogue, but he is, beyond some early comments, not a major contributor to the discussion, and mostly spends his time listening to Timaeus talk at great length.

  Timaeus of Locri
Timaeus is the primary speaker in this dialogue. He is mentioned in Critias, but is unknown outside of Plato, and it is a matter of considerable dispute whether he is historical or fictional.

  Hermocrates of Syracuse
Hermocrates is mentioned by Thucydides and by Xenophon in the Hellenica. He was originally a general for Syracuse, although he was removed because of his lack of success in battle; however, he became advisor to the general Gylippus, and, having what seems to have been a good diplomatic sense to make up for his military haplessness, he may have been a major contributor to Syracuse's building of the alliance with which they resoundingly trounced the imperialist Athenians.

The problem we have here is that there are two Critias's. The most obvious one, who is found as a character elsewhere in Plato's dialogues, is the oligarch who became the most important of the Thirty Tyrants. This is the assumption that has usually been made by commentators through the ages. However, John Burnet in 1914 argued very firmly that this was not the case: the Critias here is the grandson of that Critias (it was very common for Greek men to have the same name as one of their grandfathers). That would make this Critias Plato's own great-grandfather. There is a still a minority of scholars who will argue that the oligarch is intended here, but most take it to be the older Critias, because the indications of time (e.g., in Critias's account of the transmission of the Atlantis story) fit better. This makes sense to me, although Plato is not afraid to distort dates when it meets his purposes.

The Plot

Socrates opens the dialogue by asking Timaeus where the fourth guest is. (The fourth guest is never named and never described; some have speculated that if the trilogy had been completed we would have learned who he was.) The three guests who are presents will be returning Socrates' hospitality by speeches, because the day before Socrates had held them fascinated recounting his own speech. Socrates then goes on to summarize the ideas he had discussed, and his account basically runs through a significant portion of the argument of the Republic, describing the ideal city that gives that dialogue its name. Socrates continues, however, by suggesting that he is somewhat frustrated because it is like seeing a magnificent animal in a painting and wanting to see it in motion. So he says that he'd love to hear a speech showing the city in action: how it goes to war, how it deals with other cities, and the like. So the three guests are to give their own speeches reflecting on this aspect of the city; all three are excellently suited because they are familiar with philosophy and politics alike.

Hermocrates remarks that they are all excited about it, and that Critias had mentioned a story that might fit the bill perfectly. Critias says the story is "a very strange one, but even so, every word of it is true" (20d). Critias got it from his grandfather (also called Critias), who got it from his friend Dropsides, who got it from the sage Solon, who got it from an Egyptian priest, who learned it as part of an Egyptian tradition tracing back eight thousand years, which recorded an event that happened a thousand years before that. In those days Athens was a great and flourishing city that had been established by Athena and Hephaestus:

And, being a lover of both war and wisdom, the goddess chose the region that was likely to bring forth men most like herself, and founded it first. And so you came to live there, and to observe laws such as these. In fact your laws improved even more, so that you came to surpass all other peoples in every excellence, as could be expected from those whose begetting and nurture were divine. (24d)

But great as Ancient Athens was, it was surpassed by another power, the Island of Atlantis, which ruled the Atlantic Ocean and increasingly came to dominate the Mediterranean, spreading its empire as far as Italy in Europe and as far as Egypt in Africa. Only Athens and Egypt stood in the way of its enslaving all of mankind, and it gathered its power to destroy them both. But Athens rose up, although forced to fight alone, and pushed back the armies of Atlantis, freeing all the other Mediterranean peoples. But it was a victory at great cost:

Some time later excessively violent earthquakes and floods occurred, and after the onset of an unbearable day and a night, your entire warrior force sank below the earth all at once, and the Isle of Atlantis likewise sank below the sea and disappeared. (25c-d).

Critias remarks that he was amazed to hear Socrates' description of the ideal city, because it fit so perfectly with what Solon had said. So what will happen is that Timaeus will start their discourse out by telling how human beings originated. Critias will then combine Timaeus's account of human nature with Socrates' account of ideal education to make up the citizens of the Ancient Athens of Solon's story.

Socrates then asks Timaeus to invoke the gods, which he does, and then begins his discourse, reasoning backwards to first principles. He insists, however, that we should be cautious in how we understand what he says:

Don't be surprised then, Socrates, if it turns out repeatedly that we won't be able to produce accounts on a great many subjects -- on gods or the coming to be of the universe -- that are completely and perfectly consistent and accurate. Indeed, if we can come up with accounts no less likely than any, we ought to be content, keeping mind that both I, the speaker, and you, the judges, are only human. So we should accept the likely tale on these matters. It behooves us not to look for anything beyond this. (29c-d)

Socrates agrees, and Timaeus continues his discourse, which takes up the rest of the dialogue. Timaeus ends on a vivid flourish:

And so now we may say that our account of the universe has reached its conclusion, This world of ours has received and teems with living things, mortal and immortal. A visible living thing containing visible ones, perceptible god, image of the intelligible Living Thing, its grandness, beauty and perfection are unexcelled. Our one universe, indeed the only one of its kind, has come to be. (92b)


* Socrates' account of his speech the prior day is very definitely the argument of a significant portion of the Republic (Books 2 through 5, in particular), but it is not the discussion we actually get in the Republic, which occurs at a different time of year with completely different people. The usual way of handling this is to say that Socrates simply re-told the discussion he had had at the Bendideia festival, and which is recorded in the Republic. Whatever the solution, Timaeus and Critias are explicitly linked to the Republic.

* Solon was one of the seven sages of Greece. Solon instituted a number of legislative reforms in Athens and then went traveling the world, supposedly so that the Athenians would not be able to pressure him to repeal any of his laws. He is also the earliest extant Athenian poet.

* The festival being celebrated is usually thought to be the Panathenaia (which is usually thought to be the subject of the famous Parthenon frieze), but the dialogue does not get more specific than saying it was dedicated to Athena.

The Apaturia is another festival mentioned; it was an especially important festival for boys.

* I will discuss Atlantis a bit more when I get to Critias, but it is worth noting here that Ancient Athens as described in the story shares features of both Athens and Sparta, and that there are features of the story that are reminiscent of (but more extreme than) the Battle of Marathon, when Athens held off a much more powerful Persian army.

* Notice that the whole point of Timaeus's discourse is to tell us about human nature.

Sydenham's Scheme for the Platonic Dialogues

The most general division of the writings of Plato, is into those of the Sceptical kind, and those of the Dogmatical. In the former sort, nothing is expressly either proved or asserted : some philosophical ques­tion only is considered and examined ; and the reader is left to himself to draw such conclusions, and discover such truths, as the philosopher means to insinuate. This is done, either in the way of inquiry, or in the way of controversy and dispute. In the way of controversy are carried on all such dialogues, as tend to eradicate false opinions; and that, either indirectly, by involving them in difficulties, and embarrassing the maintainers of them ; or directly, by confuting them. In the way of inquiry proceed those, whose tendency is to raise in the mind right opinions; and that, either by exciting to the pursuit of some part of wisdom, and showing in what manner to investigate it; or by leading the way, and helping the mind forward in the search. And this is effected by a process through opposing arguments.

The dialogues of the other kind, the Dogmatical or Didactic, teach explicitly some point of doctrine: and this they do, either by laying it down in the authoritative way, or by proving it in the way of reason and argument. In the authoritative way the doctrine is delivered, sometimes by the speaker himself magisterially, at other times as de­ rived to him by tradition from wise men. The argumentative or de­monstrative method of teaching, used by Plato, proceeds in all the dialectic ways, dividing, defining, demonstrating, and analysing; and the object of it consists in exploring truth alone.

From "General Introduction" to The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty-Five Dialogues and Twelve Epistles, Floyer Sydenham and Thomas Taylor, eds. (London: 1804), page xciv. (The Introduction overall is Taylor's, but the passage and scheme is Sydenham's and is also found in his Synopsis of Plato; the Synopsis was a major influence on Samuel Taylor Coleridge.) So the scheme is:

Sceptical (insinuate ideas and leave it to the reader to draw conclusions)

  (1)   in the way of inquiry (directed to raising right opinion)
                (a) by exciting to the pursuit of wisdom
                (b) by helping in the investigation

  (2)   in the way of controversy and dispute (directed to eradicating false opinion)
                (a) indirectly: showing embarrassing difficulties in false opinion
                (b) directly: refuting false opinion

Dogmatical/Didactic (explicitly draw conclusions)

  (1) by laying it down authoritatively
                (a) magisterially, from the speaker's own authority
                (b) traditionally, from the tradition of wise men

  (2) by proving it with argument

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Notable Links

* D. G. Myers on the mercy of sickness before death, with a follow-up here.

* Volume 1 of the Whewell's Gazette collects links on the history of science.

* Jonathan Wolff argues that higher education is creating conditions favorable to sophistry.

* Ashok Karra at "Rethink" discusses David Foster Wallace and Alcibiades.

* The life of a North Korean poet.

* Ian Bogost discusses communication and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Darmok", which, while not the strongest story, is one of the most interesting concept-episodes of the series.

* You can see reconstructions of ancient athens at Ancient Athens 3D.

* Historians might be on the verge of rediscovering David Hume's wine cellar.

* Carson Holloway on polygamy and human dignity.

* Paul Raymont considers the question of why Berkeley seems to strike the imaginations of poets more than Hume.

* Marilyn Adams, What's Wrong with the Ontotheological Error?

* R. C. Sproul on Thomas Aquinas.

* The Environmental Protection Agency has been plagued by scandals recently. The most famous recent example was the man who managed to embezzle nearly a million dollars of federal money by pretending that he was a CIA agent. That's hard to top. But recently the Denver branch of the agency had to send out a memo asking people to stop defecating in the hallways.

* Matt Strassler discusses the notion of 'vacuum' in modern physics.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

De Justo

The De Justo, or Peri Dikaiou, is occasionally found in manuscripts of Plato's dialogues; it has, however, never been generally regarded as other than spurious. It is not especially readable -- it reads like an abridgment and clumsy adaptation of some other work, and is usually taken to be such -- but it does have some interest. It has close affinities with a passage in Xenophon's Memorabilia (IV.2.12-20), which suggests two possibilities -- either the author is adapting Xenophon or, what is usually taken to be more likely, both Xenophon and the author have a common text that they are adapting -- Hutchinson's introduction in the Complete Works suggests as a possibility the (nonextant) dialogue On Law by Socrates' student Antisthenes.

I can find no online translation of this short dialogue, but you are not missing much if you don't read it; it is somewhat unclear and abrupt, and of more historical than substantive interest.

The Characters

One of the characters is explicitly called Socrates; the other is not named.

The Thought

Socrates opens by asking what the just is; his interlocutor suggests that it whatever is established as just by custom. Socrates doesn't like this answer; he notes that if you asked what an eye was, the natural way to respond would be to say it is what you see with. So what does justice do? The interlocutor doesn't know, so Socrates goes through a number of other analogies, and manages to get the interlocutor to recognize that justice has something to do with what judges do by speaking. Since the interlocutor is still unable to say what justice is, Socrates asks whether people do injustice willingly or unwillingly. The interlocutor says willingly, but Socrates quotes Epicharmus of Syracuse: "No one is willingly wicked, nor unwillingly blessed" (374b).

The interlocutor responds that singers tell many lies, so this turns the discussion to lying. Socrates gets the interlocutor to admit that "lying, harming, and deceiving are unjust" (374c), but when he asks if this is the case even with enemies, the interlocutor balks, and then on further pressing says that it is not unjust to help a friend by lying. Socrates gets the interlocutor to characterize justice by saying that an act is just if it is done if and when one should do it. But in general, Socrates notes with a few examples, people who do what they should do it because of their knowledge; so people would then do justice because of their knowledge: "justice is what our ancestors handed down to us as wisdom and injustice is what they handed down to us as ignorance" (375c).

But if it comes down to knowledge, people are ignorant unwillingly, so they would be unjust unwillingly. Socrates concludes that Epicharmus did not lie, and his interlocutor concedes.


Quotations from Andrew S. Becker's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper and Hutchinson, eds., pp. 1687-1693.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Circle of Sages

For, as the story goes, some of the Coans fishing with a net, some strangers, Milesians, bought the draught at a venture; the net brought up a golden tripod, which, they say, Helen, at her return from Troy, upon the remembrance of an old prophecy, threw in there. Now, the strangers at first contesting with the fishers about the tripod, and the cities espousing the quarrel so far as to engage themselves in a war, Apollo decided the controversy by commanding to present it to the wisest man; and first it was sent to Miletus to Thales, the Coans freely presenting him with that for which they fought against the whole body of the Milesians; but Thales declaring Bias the wiser person, it was sent to him; from him to another; and so, going round them all, it came to Thales a second time; and, at last, being carried from Miletus to Thebes, was there dedicated to Apollo Ismenius. Theophrastus writes that it was first presented to Bias at Priene; and next to Thales at Miletus, and so through all it returned to Bias, and was afterwards sent to Delphi.

Plutarch, Life of Solon. Thales and Bias were two of the traditional Seven Sages of Greece. Diogenes Laertius also tells the story in his life of Thales, giving several versions of the story.


Plato's Lysis is a charming and funny, if somewhat puzzling, dialogue about friendship. One of the aporetic or perplexed-conclusion dialogues, it explores a number of puzzles about philia, a Greek word that means friendship, but can also mean the kind of love one might have for a cause, or for a kind of activity. (It expresses the notion of one thing being dear or favored or worthy of being cherished.) It is also, notably, a root word of philosophia, love of wisdom. There's no general consensus about the argument of the dialogue; some people take it to be a rich dialogue closely linked to Phaedrus and the Symposium, while others take it to be a light, immature work. It seems clearly to be an influence on Aristotle's important discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, however, and in past decades there has been an increasing tendency to suggest that the work might shed important light on the Platonic canon as a whole.

You can read Lysis online in English at Perseus Project or in Victor Cousin's French at Wikisource. Gregory Sadler has several useful handouts on the dialogue at

The Characters

Socrates narrates this dialogue.

Hippothales son of Hieronymus
Hippothales is unknown outside this dialogue, although it is a common name.

Ctesippus of Paeania
Ctesippus is also found in Euthydemus, where he is closely associated with Clinias the son of Axiochus, and he was with Socrates in his last days (he is present, but does not speak, in Phaedo); he is Menexenus's cousin. We know very little else about him. He seems to have been quite outspoken, since both this dialogue and Euthydemus show him as willing to say things others aren't; Euthydemus characterizes him as well-bred but wild. Curiously, we never learn who his father was; we are merely told he is from the deme (borough) of Paeania.

Lysis son of Democrates
Lysis is one of the main interlocutors, of course, a friend of Menexenus and the person on whom Hippothales has a crush. Most of what we know about Lysis outside this dialogue is from monumental evidence -- archeologists have discovered his gravestone and those of his immediate family. He apparently went on to live a long life.

Menexenus son of Demophon
Ctesippus's cousin and best friend of Lysis. Like Ctesippus, he is mentioned in Phaedo as being with Socrates at the end. He is, of course, the other interlocutor in Menexenus.

There is also an anonymous crowd of other boys.

The Plot and The Thought

Socrates narrates that he was going straightway from the Academy to the Lyceum -- two important common areas in Athens -- when at "the little gate that leads to the spring of Panops" (203a) he comes across Hippothales, Ctessipus, and some other youths. (Panops is another name for Hermes.) Hippothales hales him, and persuades Socrates to turn aside to "a sort of enclosure and a door standing open" (203b). It is a palaestra or wrestling school, where the boys hang out and mostly spend their time in discussions. Socrates wants to know who the most handsome boy in the school is, and when he presses Hippothales in particular to say who he thinks the most handsome, the youth blushes. Socrates notes that Hippothales is in love, remarking that however he might be useless in other areas, he has a gift for recognizing lovers and beloveds.

Hippothales blushes even more, and Ctesippus, apparently amused, lets the story out, complaining that Hippothales never shuts up about Lysis, especially when he's drunk, and worse than that are the poems and eulogies, and worst of all is when he gets it into his head to sing about the boy. Socrates demands that Hippothales provide a demonstration of what Ctesippus is talking about, which the boy, of course, refuses to do, denying that he writes love poems and eulogies. But Socrates replies that he does not want to hear Hippothales reciting poetry, but simply what sort of thing he is saying about Lysis. Hippothales remarks sarcastically that Ctesippus can probably say, and Ctesippus doesn't hesitate to oblige, describing (in perhaps exaggerated ways) how Hippothales extols Lysis' ancestors, and things like that.

Socrates chides Hippothales for singing his own triumph-songs -- if he gets Lysis, then everything he's saying will redound to himself, whereas if he fails, he will look ridiculous. It also swells the heads of the subject and makes them harder to catch. Hippothales asks for further advice, and Socrates remarks that he might be able to help if he can talk to Lysis, since he could give an example of the real way one should talk with the youth.

Ctesippus leads him inside, where the boys are celebrating the Hermaea, Hermes being the patron of wrestling schools. There they find the boys playing knucklebones in their best clothes, having finished the sacrifices for the day a little earlier. There they see Lysis with a garland, but at first he's too shy to approach. He only comes over when Menexenus sees Ctesippus and joins them. Socrates starts talking about their friendship. Menexenus is called away, so Socrates begins interrogating Lysis, putting a puzzle to him.

(1) Lysis's parents love him. If so, they obviously want him to be happy. But if happiness is being able to do what you like to do, we get the reverse: they prevent him from doing all sorts of things he'd like to do. So they must not love him. Indeed, they let the house slaves do things that they would prevent Lysis from doing, so in that sense they love their slaves more than Lysis. Lysis suggests that this is because he is not yet of age, but Socrates points out that this doesn't really explain the difference between what they will and won't let him do. Socrates argues that the key difference in such cases is understanding (phronesis): people trust those who understand. If he becomes wise, everyone will be his friend.

Lysis at this point concedes that perhaps he's not very impressive, at which point Socrates looks for Hippothales, who is hovering at the edge of the crowd trying not to look interested in Lysis. He almost says something to him about how this is the way to treat favorites, but refrains from doing so in order to avoid embarrassing Hippothales. Menexenus comes back at this point. Lysis playfully asks Socrates to tell Menexenus what he just said. (Menexenus is a good debater, so one gets the impression that Lysis has a lost a few arguments with Menexenus and wants Menexenus to know what it's like! And indeed, he will say later that he wants Socrates to trounce Menexenus.) Socrates insists that Lysis himself do it, and Lysis promises that he will, but that in the meantime Socrates should tell Menexenus something else.

(2) On the one hand friendship seems to be mutual. On the other hand, it is possible to love without return, and it seems in that case that the lover is a friend who has no friend. Yet again, though, if one loves one's child, the child seems to be the parent's friend, even if the child, after being punished, currently hates the parent. But this is generalizable -- you might love someone who hates you, and thus, it seems, be a friend (philos) to your enemy (echthros, a word, incidentally, that might be familiar to readers of Madeleine L'Engle). Yet it seems absurd to say that you can be friends to your enemies and enemies to your friends. So perhaps there is something wrong with how they are approaching the matter.

Lysis at this point says he thinks they are, so Socrates switches back to him.

(3) It seems that in friendship like attracts like; people say this, anyway. But unjust people don't seem to be drawn together at friends, so this doesn't seem true. So Socrates suggests that what that really means may be that the good are friends with the good and the wicked being divided in themselves, aren't even friends with themselves. But on the other hand, if like is friend to like, then what's the use of friendship -- what can a friend provide you that you can't provide yourself? But yet again, people also say that opposites attract. But then, the hater is the opposite to the friendly, which seems therefore to imply that the hater is friend to the friendly. Thus we seem to be driven to the conclusion that what is neither good nor bad is friendly to the good -- that is, what is neither good nor bad is not the enemy of good, but is unlike (and therefore can need) the good. Socrates links this with philosophy:

And consequently we may say that those who are already wise no longer love wisdom, whether they be gods or men; nor again can those be lovers of wisdom who are in such ignorance as to be bad: for we know that a bad and stupid man is no lover of wisdom. And now there remain those who, while possessing this bad thing, ignorance, are not yet made ignorant or stupid, but are still aware of not knowing the things they do not know. It follows, then, that those who are as yet neither good nor bad are lovers of wisdom, while all who are bad, and all the good, are not: for, as we found in our previous discussion, neither is opposite friend to opposite, nor like to like. (218a-b)

Everyone is satisfied with this, but suddenly Socrates shouts out that they've all put their trust in untrustworthy arguments.

(4) It seems that we are friends for the sake of something -- at least, it would be odd to say that we were friends for no reason at all. But what kind of thing is it for the sake of which we are friends? It's the kind of thing we love -- something dear, something favored, something 'friendly' (in the sense that even we today talk about environments being 'friendly' or computers being 'user-friendly'). But it seems that we cannot have an infinite regress in things that are dear or favored ('friends' in a broad sense, what we love or cherish). So there must be a First Friendly Thing (proton philon), for the sake of which we hold dear all the other things we hold dear. But if this is right, then why would we not simply say that there is only one friend, the first, and that everything else is just a means to it. If this is the case, then the obvious candidate for the first friend is good itself. But we have already suggested that we love that for which we have some need, and thus lack. But if we love good because of our need or lack for it, we love it because of what is not good, and thus for what is bad. Thus it seems that what is friendly is friendly for the sake of what is inimical to us. Yet it seems that if you abolished everything inimical some things would still be friendly. Thus friendship appears not to be based on needing but on having: things are friends because they have a bond that makes it so that they belong to each other.

Menexenus agrees that this seems likely, but Lysis is silent. Hippothales, however, is simply beaming. Socrates then reviews the argument, and is about to draw in some of the older boys there, but the tutors of Menexenus and Lysis show up, dragging along their brothers, and the tutors are loud and drunk and insistent on the boys coming with them. Although all the boys there try to get them to go away, it is futile, so the band starts to break up. Before they do, though, Socrates ends the dialogue with a comment on the whole discussion:

Today, Lysis and Menexenus, we have made ourselves ridiculous—I, an old man, as well as you. For these others will go away and tell how we believe we are friends of one another—for I count myself in with you—but what a “friend” is, we have not yet succeeded in discovering. (223b)


* Despite the extraordinary suggestiveness of Socrates going from Academy to Lyceum, which are best known today for being the locations of Plato's school and Aristotle's school respectively, both locations of course long pre-existed either school. The grove of Akademos was to the northwest of the main city; the Lyceum was just inside, or just outside, the main city on the eastern side, not far from the Acropolis. There seems to be no consensus about what to make of Socrates' claim that he was going straight from Academy to Lyceum by means of the road outside the town wall, which seems to be a long way around. (You can see both on the map below; you can click through to the Wikimedia Commons page.)
1785 Bocage Map of Athens and Environs, including Piraeus, in Ancient Greece - Geographicus - Athens-white-1793

* Unlike most aporetic dialogues, where there is an ambiguity about how much Socrates is just letting the argument follow a natural course and how much he is deliberately maneuvering to show the interlocutor's ignorance, in this dialogue Socrates is quite clearly maneuvering; this is set up explicitly by the fact that Socrates is demonstrating the opposite of Hippothales's approach (which gives the beloved a swelled head), and is confirmed by the fact that Socrates stops just short of highlighting this explicitly to Hippothales, after he gets Lysias to admit his ignorance. He is deliberately flummoxing the argument.

* The word for belonging at the end of the dialogue is oikeion, which could also be understood as 'belonging with' -- or, perhaps even better, 'at home with', since it is related to the Greek word for a household.

* Notice Socrates' slyness here, which is also shown elsewhere in other dialogues (e.g., Rival Lovers): he is drawing boys in not by arguing directly with them, but by arguing with someone else. He draws Hippothales toward philosophy by arguing with Lysias; he draws Lysias into philosophy by arguing with Menexenus. He draws all the rest of the boys, who at the end want the discussion to continue, by arguing with both Menexenus and Lysis.


Quotations from W. R. M. Lamb's translation at the Perseus Project.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Two Poem Drafts

Unity of Mind and World

I see the world; it is a sight,
so brightly lit it sheds a light.
I think of all the world I see--
the world is thought inside of me.
Within, without, the world is one,
the sun as seen is really sun,
the world as thought is thought inside,
and thus I think it true and wide.


Every road is broken;
no path is laid down straight;
ways are warped and snarled;
twisted is our fate --

but, though the highway falters,
never need it bar
the voyage to forever:
there is a guiding star.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gorgias (Part IV: The Philosopher and the Jury of Children)

Socrates' response to Callicles ties everything together, so there's no way to fit everything in this part of the dialogue into a post. What follows is an outline I give my students, with additional comments.


Socrates’ Response to Callicles

Remember: Callicles has argued that what is just by nature, which is that the stronger or better do what they like, is different from what is just by convention. Pressed by Socrates, Callicles specified what he meant by the stronger or better people: those who have the courage (andreia) and practical intelligence (phronesis) to control the city (491d). Pressed by Socrates again, he denies that this includes self-control (sophrosyne); it requires letting your desires grow great and then having the competence to achieve them (491e-492c). This connects with the understanding of success we found in the Gorgias and Polus discussions. If the good or successful life is a life in which you get what you like or do whatever seems good to you, the most successful life is the one constantly devoted to the satisfaction of desires (i.e., pleasure). The good life and the pleasant life are the same thing.

I. The Leaky Jars

The orderly life vs. the insatiable life

If success is found in having more desires so you can satisfy them, you should want to itch as much as possible so you can enjoy the pleasure of scratching.

If success consists merely of greater pleasure, then it wouldn’t matter how shameful the pleasure is (the catamite).

By leading the argument in this direction, Socrates is showing that Callicles, like Gorgias and Polus, is also capable of shame.

II. Good and pleasant are not the same.

First point: Good and evil are opposites, and you cannot be good and evil at the same time. But you can experience pain and pleasure at the same time. In satisfying thirst, we experience both thirst (pain) and the satisfaction of it (pleasure) at the same time, and the same goes for hunger. Therefore what is pleasant and what is good are different.

Second point: By Callicles’s account of pleasure, you stop having pleasure if you stop desiring more than you have. But good and evil aren’t related in this way; if you take away evil, you don’t take away good at the same time.

Third point: Callicles has said that the better people are those who have andreia and phronesis. This means that good people are not cowardly or foolish. But the cowardly and the brave feel the same kind of pleasure in retreating from an enemy, with the cowards perhaps feeling it even more. But if good and pleasant are the same, this would mean that the cowardly are at least as good as the brave, and maybe better, because they can have as much or more pleasure than the brave.

III. Justice requires self-control and the successful life is the just life.

At this point Callicles insists that some kinds of pleasure are better or worse than others (499b). There are good and bad pleasures, good and bad pains. This implies that the good life is a life of having good pleasures and avoiding bad pains. Note that this means Callicles is changing his argument; in effect, he has conceded Socrates’s point that goodness and pleasure are not the same. Pressed by Socrates to clarify, Callicles agrees that good pleasures are those that benefit, and bad pleasures are those that harm.

But note that this gets us right back to Socrates’s arguments in the discussion with Polus! It assumes that some things are really good and some things only seem good because they are pleasant, and that pleasant things are only good if they are done for the sake of things that are really good. This is why Socrates summarizes the discussion up to this point (500a and following).

For oratory to be good, it must produce good pleasures, that is, things that really do benefit people, and not merely flatter them by giving them what only seems good. But the real good of a thing is to have the order appropriate to it: health is the order appropriate to the body, justice is the order appropriate to human life in society. But this requires discipline or self-control. Therefore all justice requires self-control, and to have injustice is bad. And from this it follows that the person who wants success or happiness or the good life must “pursue and practice self-control” (507c). This requires, however, that we accept discipline, including punishment, when we have done wrong.

From all that has been said, the worst and most shameful thing is to do what is unjust, not to have to endure injustice. Neither Polus nor Callicles has been able to come up with a consistent position that rejects this claim. But then consider two kinds of power: the kind that comes from the craft/skill that lets you avoid doing evil, and the kind that comes from the craft/skill that lets you avoid suffering it. The latter is the kind Polus and Callicles have been talking about; the only way to avoid suffering is to control society or else be with those who control it. This, however, often requires injustice; and therefore it is not genuine power.

IV. The practice of philosophy is worthwhile even if it leads to death.

From everything that has been said it also follows that surviving is not the greatest good; just like pleasure, it is less good than justice: “Perhaps one who is truly a man should stop thinking about how long he will live” (512e). The true craft/skill of justice is not the one that keeps you alive at any cost, but the one that benefits society with what is really good by bringing order to it. Merely giving the citizens what they’d like to have is not enough; the good politician will be the one who helps the citizens to be better people, with the self-discipline that makes justice and truly good life possible. It follows from this that the true craft/skill of politics is not oratory but the kind of craft/skill practiced by Socrates, which is concerned not with flattering the people but with improving their self-control and justice (cf. 521d).

But if people in society are unjust, they might indeed put the person who practices true politics to death. (The Jury of Children.) Socrates agrees with Callicles that this is likely to happen to him. But it is better to be put to death unjustly than to do what is unjust. If someone unjustly puts a just person to death, the just person is still better off than the person doing the injustice.

This brings us back to phronesis and andreia: “For no one who isn’t totally bereft of reason and courage is afraid to die; doing what’s unjust is what he’s afraid of. For of all evils, the ultimate is that of arriving in Hades with one’s soul stuffed full of unjust actions.” (522e)

V. The Myth of the Last Judgment


Additional Comments

* The attribution of the interpretation of the Leaky Jars to "a Sicilian, perhaps, or an Italian" is a bit mysterious; the interpretation is usually taken to be Pythagorean in character or simply made up by Plato/Socrates. Note, however, that both Gorgias and Polus are Sicilians, and that the interpretation directly links it to persuasion. Assuming for a moment that Socrates is simply making it up, one could see this attribution as a sly way of keeping Gorgias and Polus in the conversation.

* Gorgias at 497b suddenly jumps into the discussion and forces Callicles to continue the discussion. Perhaps he's returning the favor for Callicles pressuring him to go on when he tried to back out at 458b?

Also, note that Callicles at 458d said that Socrates will be gratifying him if he will discuss, even if it's all day long. That attitude changes pretty drastically when he's the one who has to discuss things with Socrates! At 505d he recommends that Socrates simply drop the discussion or find someone else, and then suggests that Socrates finish the discussion by arguing with himself. Note, interestingly, that Gorgias, in his last speaking part at 506b, insists that the discussion be finished. His urging is a little ambiguous -- it isn't clear from what he says whether he's really interested, or just wants to see Socrates argue with himself. In any case, Socrates starts out taking up Callicles' part, and then transitions into a long speech, then manages to get Callicles back into the conversation.

* If you recall the analogy Socrates used with Polus, the true counterpart of which rhetoric was the flattering imitation was justice itself; this is what is meant by the dialogue's occasional hints at a true rhetoric. We can see the brief discussion of true politics, which moves directly into the jury image he had used with Polus, as a confirmation of this.

* The Jury of Children, of course, combined with Socrates' response to Callicles' insistence that because he philosophizes he could be condemned by some no-good wretch of an accuser, turns this dialogue into an extended meditation on the meaning of Socrates' condemnation and death. Callicles was in one sense exactly right -- a no-good wretch of an accuser brought charges against him, and his defense speech (as found in either Plato's Apology or Xenophon's) was not the sort of thing to get a man off by ingratiating the jury, and he was put to death. And Socrates here concedes that Callicles is right thus far -- and that this does not matter.

* A number of people are mentioned as being in Tartarus in the myth of the Last Judgment. Tantalus cut up his son and served him in a stew to the gods; the gods were not amused. Sisyphus regularly killed his guests, then kidnapped Death in an attempt to live forever. Tityus attempted to rape Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo, who killed him.

Thersites is from the Iliad; Socrates almost certainly takes him to be a peasant or commoner because the Iliad does not say what his father's name is, although his behavior is in any case presented by Homer as quite coarse. He was an extremely ugly man who insulted Agamemnon and was beaten down by Odysseus with Agamemnon's scepter. By insisting that he is better off than kings and potentates -- like Agamemnon and Odysseus -- Socrates is turning the world upside down, as Callicles said his position would.

* Aristides son of Lysimachus, who is praised here at 526b as just, opposed Themistocles's expansion of Athenian naval power. He was an excellent general, admired by the allies of Athens, and was a key figure in the creation of the Delian League. In Meno, Socrates praises him as a good man, but says he was unable to teach his son to be so.

* In William Altman's "Reading Order and Authenticity: The Place of Theages and Cleitophon in Platonic Pedagogy", Altman has an interesting comment linking Gorgias and Theages:

Unlike either Laches or Charmides, Theages refers to Gorgias and Polus (127e8-128a1), a reference suggesting that Theages also follows Gorgias. The statesmen Pericles, Cimon, and Themistocles are likewise used as negative examples in both Theages (126a9-10) and Gorgias (515d1). More importantly, Socrates’ suggestion (at Theages 125a2) that Theages enter εἰς διδασκάλου τυραννοδιδασκάλου τινός (“into [the lair] of a teacher, a kind of tyrant-teacher”) is thematically connected with Gorgias: the question of Gorgias’ responsibility qua teacher for the unjust actions of his students may be said to be one of that dialogue’s principal themes (Gorgias 456e2-457e4). When Theages follows Gorgias in the reconstructed reading order, the student already knows that Socrates is not serious about sending young Theages to Polus and Gorgias: he is more inclined to entertain the crippled boy’s suit—of course we do not learn until Republic that Theages is crippled and that Socrates did entertain his suit—than he might otherwise appear.


Quotations from Plato, Gorgias, Donald J. Zeyl, tr. Hackett (Indianapolis: 1987).

A Flower in the Hay Season

Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it's God's part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas More, so I watched A Man for All Seasons (from which the above quote is taken). It really is, as is often thought, one of the great movies of all time. The More of the movie, as of the play on which it is based, is less driven by the idea of authority than the real More, and is less brutally acidic in his wit, but it is still perhaps the best summation of the man.

It is also the feast of St. John Fisher, who died, of course, for the same reasons, although in a different way. From one of his sermons on the penitential psalms:

The life of man is here but for a while, shortly it shall perish and be at an end; no space, no void time, no leisure can be had but always it draweth to an end; it cannot be at a point, it is never at rest, truly, one minute of an hour. Whether we eat or drink, wake or sleep, laugh or weep, ever our life here draweth to an end. Where be now the kings and princes that some time reigned over all the world, whose glory and triumph was lifted up above the earth? Where is now the innumerable company and puissance of Xerxes and Caesar, where are the great victories of Alexander and Pompey, where is now the great riches of Croesus and Crassus? But what shall we say of them which some time were kings and governors of this realm? Where be they now which we have known and seen in our days in so great wealth and glory that it was thought of many they should never have died, never to have been out of mind? They had all their pleasures at the full, both of delicious and good welfare, of hawking, hunting, also goodly horses, goodly coursers, greyhounds and hounds for their disports, their palaces well and richly beseen, strongholds and towns without number; they had great plenty of gold and silver, many servants, goodly apparel for themself and for their lodgings; they had the power of the law to proscribe, to punish, to exalt and set forward their friends and lovers, to put down and make low their enemies, and also to punish by temporal death rebels and traitors. Every man held with them, all were at their commandment, every man was unto them obedient, feared them, lauded also and praised them, and over all shewed their great renown and fame. But where be they now? Be they not gone and wasted like unto smoke? Of whom it is written in another place Mox ut honorificati fuerint et exaltati, deficientes quemadmodum fumus deficient: "When they were in their most prosperity and fame, anon they failed and came to 'by nought even as smoke doth." St. James compareth the vanity of this life to the vapours, and saith it shall perish and wither away as a flower in the hay season. Therefore since that the time of our life draweth fast unto an end, if we be not heard shortly and soon of Almighty God when we call for help, death shall come upon us or ever we can be succoured. For this cause, Blessed Lord, have in mind the shortness of our life here, and as soon as we call to Thee give audience unto us all.

A Passing Violet

In explaining Aquinas's account of natural evil elsewhere, I came up with this; it needs refinement, but I am putting it here so that I will remember it.

We can put it all in a picture, as well. Suppose you're given the opportunity to create a sandbox-universe, to make it beautiful. And suppose one of the things you can put into your sandbox-universe is a violet that is extraordinarily beautiful, but the kind of beauty it has is very fragile, so that it will likely last only one afternoon.

One way of approaching this, the Manichean way, is to say: "This violet is corruptible, inherently passing, and its corruptibility taints its beauty with ugliness. It could only be allowed if its beauty, or the beauty of things coming from it, were greater than the ugliness of its destruction."

But another way of approaching this, the Thomistic way, is to say: "Though the violet may pass away, it is extraordinarily beautiful, and thus will play an important role in the fullness of beauty that is the end of the sandbox-universe, even if we only have it one afternoon. As for its passing away, we can even set things up so that its contribution of beauty to the universe continues even when it is destroyed by its making possible other beautiful things. By giving up its beauty it will have a share in the beauty of others."