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Socrates the Prophet?

by on June 17, 2015

By Van Bryan

I originally thought of this article idea some time ago. I remember standing in the basement of Strands bookstore and pulling a book off the shelf at random in the history/ philosophy section. It was an introduction to Socratic thought and the life of Socrates.

Sounds good to me.

I remember that in the Foreword the author had,

SocratesWas Socrates a Prophet?

somewhat capriciously I thought, referred to Socrates as “the Christ of Greece.” The author didn’t bother to add any real clarification to this statement and I was rather taken aback by the absence of any substantiating evidence. It was as if I was just supposed to accept that statement in the same way I might accept the statement “Dublin is the capital of Ireland.” In other words, I got the impression that the author believed such a statement to be demonstrable, unimpeachable; and here I was, some senseless boob who just hadn’t gotten the memo.

But you can’t just compare Socrates to Christ and then expect everybody to move on from there! At the very least give me a few paragraphs to go off of so I can write a decent article.

The author did not, unfortunately, bring up the topic again, so far as I could tell. And I never bought that book so I don’t have the luxury of a second look.

I know that this might turn out to be a rather controversial column. Still, this is a newsletter dedicated to all you classical lovers, and budding classical lovers, so I figure that question is as good as any to discuss in a weekend newsletter. Was Socrates, after all, a prophet?

The word “prophet” comes from the ancient Greek word “profétés” (προφήτης), which is a derivative of pró (before) and phēmí (I tell). In the context of ancient Greece, a prophet would have been someone who, among other things, interpreted the words of the oracles, the holy priestesses who were said to commune with the gods and speak on their behalf.

If this were our sole understanding of a prophet, then there certainly is evidence that Socrates was indeed one. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates recounts how the Oracle of Delphi declared him the wisest man in all of Greece. Hoping to make sense of such a claim, Socrates embarks on a quest to find others who are wiser than he.

Oracle at DelphiThe Oracle of Delphi, by
John Collier

What follows is Socrates retelling how he had met with various artists, poets and politicians who, while appearing to be wise, knew very little. Moreover, these people did not even know how much they did not know, instead associating their false beliefs with absolute knowledge.

From this, Socrates draws the conclusion that true knowledge is recognition of ignorance. Socrates, like the artists and poets, does not know anything truly and definitively. However, unlike the artists and poets, Socrates recognizes this and is better for it. We see now that Socrates is truly wise because he does not believe he is wise.

While slightly paradoxical, this idea has been championed through the centuries among philosophers. By coming to such a conclusion, Socrates interpreted the words of the oracle and is, at least according to the ancient Greek meaning, a prophet.

However, this is not what we truly mean when we ask if Socrates is a prophet. Instead, our understanding of a “prophet” is probably closer in line with the ancient Hebrew word “navi” (נָבִיא) which traditionally translates to mean a teacher or mentor who is divinely inspired and labors amongst his people to bring them a better understanding of morality, virtue, or to instill in them some divine truth that was otherwise unknown.

And even here, there is some evidence to suggest that Socrates might fit this description.
“Virtue is knowledge”, is Socrates’ great maxim. He who comes to understand the knowledge that underlies his actions will be better for it. By understanding truly the ideas of “Justice”, “Wisdom”, “Virtue”, and so on, we will be better suited to live according to these axioms and improve ourselves and our souls.

Socrates may very well have been a teacher of righteousness to the Athenians, and we can see that he went about his mission with a burning zeal that could not be quenched even by the prospect of death.

Moreover, Socrates may also have been divinely inspired. Within Plato’s Apology, Socrates claims that a heavenly voice speaks to him from time to time and guides him away from wickedness and towards righteousness and philosophical study. This voice, which is commonly known as a “daemon”, is the reason Socrates began his philosophical career in the first place. The voice prompted him away from politics and public life and towards a life of contemplation and dialectic.

“This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am planning to do, but never commands me to do anything.”-Socrates (Plato’s Apology)

At this point, it is probably important that we recognize that the story of Socrates is a type of fiction. That isn’t to say, however, that it is untrue. The tale of a simple craftsman with a keen mind and an aversion to nonsense who goes about challenging the prevailing paradigm of knowledge and truth, and who is ultimately


executed for his troublesome nature is all too familiar for us. It’s the same story that has been told time and time again in undergraduate philosophy classes and found in the pages of every meaningful piece of philosophical literature since about the fourth century BC.

However, because we become acquainted with Socrates through the works of his students, specifically Plato, there is no way of knowing how much of Socrates the man lines up with Socrates the icon. Within each of Plato’s philosophical dialogues, the superior argument invariably ends up in the mouth of Socrates, while the other philosophical combatants, who are thought to represent the prevailing ideas of 5th century Athens, appear shortsighted and flawed to a modern reader.

As a result of this, we tend to scoff at the Athenians who persecuted Socrates. How foolish those ancients must have been to execute such a fine and noble teacher like Socrates! His death takes on a feel of martyrdom and therefore the idea that he might have been a prophet gains credence.

However, what we often do not realize is that Socrates was, in many ways, attempting to undo the mortar of the classical Greek world and topple a cultural paradigm that had, up until this point, created one of the greatest societies the world had ever seen. It is possible then that he was not a prophet at all, but a bona fide threat to the Greek way of life.

What do I mean by this? Tune in next week to continue this discussion and find out for yourself.

Was Oedipus a Hero?

by on June 17, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

I’m fairly sure it would be safe to say that everyone’s heard of Oedipus. If that’s too much of a generalization, I would only amend it to something like “most people” have heard of him—he’s the legendary character of classical tragedy who killed his father, slept with his mother, and fathered children who were also his siblings. It’s the classic story of patricide and incest.


Largely thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud, the name “Oedipus” has become such an accepted addition to our cultural lexicon that you would be able to have discussions about the “Oedipal complex” with people who have never even heard of Sophocles, let alone read his plays about the aforementioned character.

Many people, then, would be surprised to hear that Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus—the last of his three Theban plays—argues that Oedipus’ burial in Athens would bring great benefit and safety to the city. This should immediately raise several eyebrows and one very important question: how can the grave of a man who killed his father, slept with his mother, and begot children who were also his siblings be considered a boon of any kind?

For those of us who need a quick recap, this odd play takes place well after Oedipus discovers the identity of his parents and his own transgressions, blinds himself, and is exiled from Thebes. By this time Oedipus is an old, frail man who has ceaselessly wandered the country with help from his daughter, Antigone.

OedipusOedipus and Antigone

The play begins as Oedipus and Antigone arrive at Colonus, a small village within sight of Athens (and, incidentally, Sophocles’ birthplace). A wandering stranger tells Oedipus and Antigone that they are standing in a grove sacred to the Furies, which immediately agitates Oedipus. We learn that the same oracle who told him he would kill his father and marry his mother told Oedipus that he would die in a place sacred to the Furies, and his grave would be an immense gift to the place in which he is buried.

Thus the question: how could the grave of a man like Oedipus possibly be considered a gift? In fact, as soon as the villagers of Colonus realize who Oedipus is, they want to kick him out of the village! No one wants anything to do with him—and they certainly don’t want to bury him in town.

No one, that is, except Theseus—the legendary king of Athens. He intervenes, offers Oedipus protection, seems to agree that Oedipus’ grave would indeed be a gift to Athens, and promises to bury him.

Okay, what’s going on here? Many of us may pity Oedipus, but it’s difficult to understand why Theseus would befriend him and defend him so wholeheartedly.

Before diving into an examination of Oedipus’ role in Athens, it’s incredibly important to understand the political relationship between Athens and the titular city, Colonus. It is clear that Colonus is separate from Athens, and when Oedipus and Antigone first arrive, they learn from a wandering stranger that the town has its own unique founding myth. However, when asked if Colonus is ruled by a sovereign, the stranger replies that their ruler is Theseus, Athens’ king.

Even before the hundredth line of the play, we’re led to understand that Athens and Colonus are experiencing some political awkwardness.

OedipusMost people want nothing to do with Oedipus

According to legend, Theseus was, at the time of the play, attempting to unite the lesser Attic communities with Athens proper in the hopes of forming a cohesive, powerful city-state. The historian Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, says:

“In the days of Cecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of’ Theseus, Attica was divided into communes, having their own town halls and magistrates. Except in case of alarm the whole people did not assemble in council under the king, but administered their own affairs, and advised together in their several townships. But when Theseus came to the throne, he, being a powerful as well as a wise ruler…dissolved the councils and separate governments, and united all the inhabitants of Attica in the present city, establishing one council and town hall. They continued to live on their own lands, but he compelled them to resort to Athens as their metropolis, and henceforward they were all inscribed in the roll of her citizens” (Book 2 Chapter 15).

As readers of Oedipus at Colonus, we are meant to understand that Colonus is still in the process of being absorbed—and this is inherently a complicated process which involves so much more than Theseus declaring himself ruler. For Colonus to be truly united with Athens into one larger city-state, Theseus will have to encourage the people of Colonus to break their natural attachment to the literal, geographical place on which their town was founded. The permanent presence of Oedipus, in the form of his grave, can actually help Theseus achieve the breaking of this bond. To understand how this is possible, we also have to understand how Oedipus has changed since the revelation of his crimes.

By the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is so distraught at the realization that he killed his father and slept with his mother that he begs for banishment from Thebes. He appears to completely blame himself for his actions, and says: “I beg of you in God’s name hide me/ somewhere outside your country, yes, or kill me/ or throw me into the sea, to be forever/ out of your sight.” These are obviously not the words of a man who believes he’s done nothing wrong.

However, by the time Oedipus arrives in Colonus, he is singing a different tune. “Do not see me as a lawbreaker,” he says to the Chorus, “that I entreat you.” Oedipus, in this play, argues rather passionately that he is guiltier of suffering than he is of law-breaking. His reasoning? That he can’t be fully guilty because his crimes were committed through ignorance.

Basically, Oedipus argues that he did not know he’d be killing his father when he killed Laius (out of self-defense, he’s careful to emphasize), so he can’t be truly guilty of patricide, and he certainly had no idea that Jocasta was his mother when he married her, so he can’t technically be guilty of incest. In essence, he did commit the crimes, but it wasn’t his fault that he committed them, and this double-ness makes him, in some way, innocent.

Of course, this reasoning isn’t exactly bullet-proof—but the point isn’t really to pick it apart. It’s more important to consider how this sort of reasoning would affect our big question: why is Oedipus’ grave a gift?

Oedipus tells Theseus that for his burial to bring true benefit and protection to Athens, the location must be kept completely secret. He entreats Theseus to describe the gravesite “to no man, ever/ neither where it is hidden nor in what region,/ that doing so may make you a defense/ beyond the worth of many shields.” At first glance, the goal of this secrecy seems purely practical: if the burial location of Oedipus were common knowledge, thieves from another city could steal the body and re-bury it in their own city. The true reason is much more complex, and highly symbolic.

In the ancient world, graves were considered sacred ground, and it was forbidden to walk on them. If Oedipus’ grave, like all graves, is to be sacred ground, and no one actually knows where that grave is, Oedipus’ secrecy makes it impossible not to violate the sanctity of the burial site. Anyone, purely through ignorance, could walk upon his grave and thus commit a crime.

This crime-through-ignorance is a clear echo of Oedipus’ own transgressions, and because of this, his burial site seems to bring a kind of pervading guilt to Athens. But this doesn’t tell us why his grave is considered a gift—or what it has to do with Theseus’s unification project.

If Oedipus’ ignorance makes him in some way innocent, his life reveals to us that we are not responsible for who we get as parents—or what family we’re born into ( I’m sure we all know plenty of people who have expressed this same idea before, usually while they’re angry and talking about never calling home again). Family is, in essence, accidental.

The idea that family is accidental immediately implies that the natural attachment a person will feel for his or her family is, for all intents and purposes, irrational. For example, Oedipus would probably say that it makes more sense to love your sister because she’s a lovely person with whom you’re close than to love her simply because you share the same mother.

Because the mental and emotional processes that attach us to our family are so similar to the processes that attach us to our cities, countries, or general places, this idea that the attachment is irrational is the number one weapon Theseus can use to break the bonds between people and particular place.

Oedipus’ grave, in that case, doesn’t symbolize guilt as much as it symbolizes the irrationality of our attachment to things we didn’t even consciously choose for ourselves.

OedipusOedipus awaits death

This is absolutely critical to Theseus’s plan for a unified Athens. It is not enough for the lesser Attic communities to recognize his sovereignty—they have to feel Athenian. Even if they remain on the same land, in the same houses—even if daily life barely changes—the people of Colonus (and the people of every other town Athens is absorbing) have to become “people of Athens.” Without this kind of mental and political cohesion, Theseus’s imagined city-state would fall apart, and the whole area would be incredibly vulnerable not just to outside attack, but also to internal conflicts between communities. However, this cohesion is impossible if the townspeople don’t first reject their attachments to the land on which they were born.

This is why Theseus chooses to protect Oedipus, and to grant Oedipus’ requests. The permanent (though hidden) presence of Oedipus’ grave and its symbolic meaning does indeed grant Athens a very important boon. By promoting the principles that Oedipus’ life and death represent—disassociation from theaccidental, the rejection of irrationality—Theseus is one step closer to uniting the lesser Attic communities into the wealthy, powerful, and especially cohesive city-state we know Athens became—a city-state whose wealth and power would indeed provide a great deal of protection.

So, in some way, the answer is yes: a man who killed his father and slept with his mother can play a big role in Athens’ survival and success—at least according to Sophocles.

Oedipus maskOedipus’ grave symbolizes the importance of tragedy as an art form and cultural phenomenon

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the idea of a man like Oedipus can play a role—and that’s really the point, in the end, of the play. Like so many classical tragedies, Oedipus at Colonus ultimately points back to the importance of tragedy, or poetry, itself. Oedipus’ grave may lead citizens to realize the irrationality of their attachments to things over which they had no control, but only because those citizens will know Oedipus’ story. A grave without a story would simply be a plot of land. Athens gets no real benefit from the physical grave alone—all the benefit comes from a combination of the secret grave and the circulation of Oedipus’ tale. The city benefits, then, from the presence of poetry, or tragedy to be specific, and Athens’ particular devotion to tragedy will be one more thing that holds its citizens together—and ultimately sets Athens apart.

In that case, despite his crimes, Oedipus may be a hero in his own right after all.

Introducing Plato and the Theaetetus

by on June 10, 2015

By Samuel Gren
Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly partner

A.N. Whitehead once characterized Western philosophy as “a series of footnotes to Plato,” and he did so with good reason. Plato established the framework for a host of philosophical

PlatoPlato, Author of Theaetetus

disciplines—from logic and mathematics to ethics and religion—and his thought continues to shape philosophical discussion today.

A philosopher of Classical Greece, Plato lived during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. Key to understanding Plato’s thought is recognizing the place of his teacher, Socrates, in his dialogues. Plato was Socrates’ best student, and since Socrates never penned any of teachings, we only know of Socrates and his thought through his students such as Plato (or Xenophon, for example, also a student who wrote about Socrates).

Socrates often taught in the agora of Athens (the city square or marketplace), attracting youth like Plato through his use of the Socratic Method–a mode of instruction in which the teacher engages her student through series of questions and answers, or dialogical exchange.

Unlike traditional classroom teaching styles, the Socratic Method actively involves the student in the pedagogical process. The teacher draws the desired conclusion from her student by framing issues in a way that uncovers contradictions in the student’s thought, or leads her to new insights. Socrates plays this role in Plato’s dialogues, seeking to bring Greek youth to philosophical truth through the use of this method. Let’s see how this plays out in one of Plato’s most well-known dialogues: the Theaetetus.


The Theaetetus: Outline and Concepts

The Theaetetus opens by introducing two individuals, Euclid and Terpsion, who meet after searching for each other in the agora. We learn that Euclid recently encountered another individual, Theaetetus (the dialogue’s namesake), who had been recently wounded in battle and was thus on the verge of death. This triggers for Euclid his memory of having witnessed a conversation between Socrates and Theaetetus earlier in life—a conversation that Euclid later recorded. Excited to learn of this, Terpsion suggests that Euclid’s servant read the dialogue to them as he recovers from his travels. And so the dialogue begins.

We first learn that the framing question of the Theaetetus has to do with the theory of

SocratesSocrates is a central character in the dialouge and provides the framing question “what is knowledge?”

knowledge, or with what philosophers today call epistemology—the philosophical investigation of how we come to know anything at all. Socrates asks Theaetetus the central question of epistemology: “What is knowledge?” In contrast to most of his dialogues, Plato doesn’t present Socrates as having an answer to this question in the Theaetetus. Instead, as the dialogue unfolds, Socrates simply demonstrates how three common answers to this question are false. While this might seem strange for us as readers (don’t philosophers try to answer “big questions” rather than complicate them?), it’s best to consider this dialogue as a ground-clearing exercise for Plato. He will provide a positive account of knowledge in a related dialogue called the Sophist.

Before leading Theaetetus through an exploration of the three possible answers to the question, Socrates characterizes his mode of instruction (the Socratic Method) as a kind of midwifery. Theatetus tells Socrates that the question, “What is knowledge?” is difficult and makes him feel anxious. Socrates replies: “These are the pangs of labor, my dear Theaetetus; you have something within you which you are bringing to birth.” Socrates serves here as midwife to Theaetetus as he gives birth to philosophical insight. Like the midwife, Socrates is skilled in the “art” of facilitating this kind of birth; however, his task is more “important” than the midwife, for he deals not with the birth of children but with the birth of truth. Socrates thus guides Theaetetus through the pain of thinking through the question regarding the nature of knowledge.

As the dialogue continues, Theaetetus proposes three answers to the question regarding knowledge. As before, Socrates complicates each answer by demonstrating their falsity. Theaetetus first equates knowledge with sense perception in saying that “to know” is simply “to perceive.” Through a lengthy exchange, Socrates brings Theaetetus to the realization that sense perception cannot yield instances of knowledge beyond what we perceive about the world at any given moment. For one individual, a blowing wind may feel cold, while to another the same wind feels warm; to a healthy Socrates, a particular wine will taste sweet, whereas to a Socrates in ill health, the same wine tastes sour. Sense perception clearly leads to contradicting claims regarding reality and thus cannot serve as the basis for knowledge.

Theaetetus thus proposes that knowledge is not just perception but true judgment, or true belief. To this Socrates considers the case of a jury who has been convinced by a lawyer of a true position. He maintains that even if the lawyer has successfully persuaded them to assent to a true position, they do not have knowledge, as they’ve simply relied on the lawyer’s testimony. Who’s to say that the lawyer isn’t simply gifted in the arts of persuasion and has convinced the jury of a falsehood? The jury would never be in a position to distinguish true from false beliefs in this case.

PericlesSocrates argues that persuasion through rhetoric is not the same as true knowledge

Theaetetus replies by proposing that knowledge is true judgment and an explanation as to why one holds to such judgment. Through an analysis of what it might mean to provide an explanation for one’s beliefs, Socrates holds that even here knowledge cannot be found. Explanations generally seek to understand an object in terms of its parts, such that an understanding of these parts is held to constitute an explanation of the object as a whole.

Socrates maintains that this notion of explanation fails to get at the essence of an object. Perhaps then explanations require that we understand how a thing is different from other things. This position, however, requires that we understand what the thing in question is in the first place, so neither will this account of explanation work.

Considered together, these examples show that an account of judgment as knowledge cannot simply appeal to the additional presence of an explanation—there’s more to say.
Socrates and Theaetetus thus conclude that each of these proposals are insufficient. Yet, they maintain that they are wiser for at least having considered each proposal in turn. Socrates bids Theaetetus farewell, but not before asking him to meet the following day to talk further. As we will see later, the conversation is far from over.

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King Croesus vs. Fate

by on June 3, 2015

By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner

Best-known for his epic history, The Persian Wars, Herodotus has been referred to as both the “Father of History” and the slightly less flattering title, “Father of Lies”.

HerodotusRelief of Herodotusflattering) “Father of Lies.”

Herodotus earned the first title through narrating a series of globally-significant events in terms of cause and effect. The source of the second is likely his colorful writing style. A master storyteller, he wove together facts, legends, and gossip. To Herodotus, these aspects were an important part of humanity’s story—adding context to data, dates, and wars.

Herodotus’ love of legends and drama is apparent in his tale of King Croesus of Lydia. He took the historical Croesus and transformed him into a tragic, allegorical figure. More than just a fascinating read, this story provides insight into ancient perspectives on pride, religion, and fate.

The Most Blessed of All Men?

After ascending the throne, Croesus, king of Lydia, set about expanding his empire. Thanks to the legendary Lydian cavalry, he succeeded. The already wealthy Croesus became wildly, fabulously, wantonly rich. He was proud of his riches and delighted in showing them off to those who visited him in Sardis.

Among these visitors was the Athenian lawgiver and sage Solon. True to form, Croesus had his servants lead his visitor around the palace, showing off his treasures. When the tour concluded, Croesus sought out compliments, asking Solon if he had “ever seen a man more blest than all his fellows.”

Solon’s answer was surprising. Apparently, the most blessed of all men was Tellus of Athens. Solon explained his reasoning to the shocked Croesus:

“Tellus’ city was prosperous, and he was the father of noble sons, and he saw children born to all of them and their state well stablished; moreover . . . he crowned his life with a most glorious death . . .” (Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)

In Solon’s opinion, wealth wasn’t the only blessing. He then elaborated, stating that it was actually impossible to judge the happiness of a living person. Many may begin their lives with wonderful things—only to experience a reversal of fortunes.

SolonSolon before Croesus by Nicolaes Knüpfer

As it turns out, Croesus’ unchecked hubris angered the gods, who conspired to take him down a peg or two. That night, Croesus had a horrifying dream—a premonition that his favorite son, Atys, was fated to be killed by a spear.

Watch Out for Sharp Objects

As mortals often do, Croesus decided to thwart fate. He arranged a marriage for his son, informed Atys that he would no longer be commanding the spear-filled Lydian armies, and had all sharp objects removed from the palace.

Shortly after Atys’ wedding, a monstrous boar descended from the mountains and began wreaking havoc in nearby fields. A hunting party was organized, and Atys desperately wanted to join. Croesus didn’t want his son to go, but Atys pleaded, stating that boars fought with tusks, not spears. Croesus relented, but as an extra precaution, required Atys to have a guardian, whose sole duty was to protect the youth.

You can probably guess what happens next: the guardian hurls a spear at the boar, misses, and accidentally kills Atys. Croesus was horrified. He thought he’d been taking steps to circumvent fate . . . and, instead, they’d led him directly to it.

Croesus spent the next two years in deep sorrow. During this time, the Persian Empire expanded and grew in influence. When Croesus took notice of this, he awoke from his sadness and decided that he must put a stop to the Persian power.

An Empire Will Fall

Prior to waging war against the Persians, Croesus decided to consult an oracle about the outcome. He wanted to be sure that he received accurate information, so he devised a test.

Croesus sent delegates to oracles at all four corners of the earth, instructing them to “on the hundredth day inquire of the oracles what Croesus . . . was then doing,” write down the oracular answer, and return to Sardis.

When the delegates arrived at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the Pythian priestess, unprompted, uttered:

“What is it now that I smell? ‘tis a tortoise mightily armored
Sodden in vessel of bronze, with a lamb’s flesh mingled together:
Bronze thereunder is laid and a mantle of bronze is upon it.”
(Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)

Meanwhile, back in Sardis, Croesus was busily

CroesusCroesus as imagined by Claude Vignon

boiling tortoise and lamb meat. The oracle of Apollo had passed the test with flying colors.

Croesus’ next step was to buy the favor of Apollo, god of sun and light, with a hefty donative. Thanks to Herodotus’ love of colorful detail, we know that Croesus sent the temple at Delphi a gigantic lion figure made from refined gold, gold and silver ingots, and a collection of his wife’s necklaces and girdles (unfortunately, Herodotus does not tell us how she felt about this).

After presenting Croesus’ offerings, his delegates asked the oracle what would happen if Croesus waged war against the Persians. The oracle’s now (in)famous answer was: “. . . that if he should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire.” To Croesus, this could only mean one thing: victory was his!

And so Croesus, his old confidence regained, made powerful alliances and commenced with attacking lands under Persian control. After mixed results, he withdrew to Sardis for the winter and dismissed his mercenaries. His plan was to assemble a larger force and resume his invasion in the spring.

Unfortunately for Croesus, King Cyrus of Persia caught wind of the plan and realized that this was the perfect time to attack the Lydian city.

When Croesus first saw Cyrus’ army marching on Sardis he knew he was in trouble. Cyrus had the numbers. But, perhaps the legendary Lydian cavalry would prevail! What Croesus didn’t know was that Cyrus had a secret weapon . . . an army of fearsome camels! Herodotus puts it best:

“The reason of his posting the camels to face the cavalry was this: horses fear camels and can endure neither the sight nor the smell of them . . . So when battle was joined, as soon as the horses smelt and saw the camels they turned to flight, and all Croesus’ hope was lost.” (Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)

A great empire did indeed fall—the Lydian Empire, that is.

A chastened Croesus was taken prisoner. Condemned to be burned to death on a pyre, Croesus had a revelation and finally understood Solon’s wisdom. Even the most powerful can experience a reversal

CroesusRed figure vase of Croesus on the pyre

of fortunes. As the flames climbed higher, he cried out “Solon!”

Cyrus was confused by his prisoner’s antics and asked his interpreters to find out what Croesus was babbling on about. Croesus, through the interpreters, shared Solon’s wise words with Cyrus. Cyrus realized that he could just as easily be the one seated on the pyre. He ordered his men to quell the flames.

The fire couldn’t be put out. Croesus panicked and began crying out to Apollo. Perhaps his lavish gifts to the temple at Delphi would pay off. Apollo must’ve really liked that gold lion—a sudden rainstorm quenched the flames.

Cyrus saw that Croesus was both wise and beloved by Apollo. He decided to make him a trusted counsellor.

Fate Strikes Again

Some may argue that Croesus’ hubris caused his fall from power. Others may blame it on the loathsomeness of camels. More may argue that his failure to ask the oracle exactly which great empire would fall was the ultimate source of his doom. As it turns out, it was all of the above . . . with the addition of fate.

After his stunning defeat, Croesus felt betrayed by Apollo. With Cyrus’ permission, he sent yet another delegation to Delphi—this time, to reproach the Greek god.

In response, the priestess reproached Croesus for not asking the right questions. However, she went on to explain that Croesus’ fall from power wasn’t entirely his own fault. As it turns out, due to the sins of his ancestors, his doom had been fated and therefore inescapable.

Nevertheless, due to his decisions (and poor oracle-interpreting skills), Croesus had gone about fulfilling his fate in a most bombastic way.

And the Moral of the Story Is . . .

A skilled storyteller, Herodotus weaves together elements both human and divine. In the tale of Croesus, the mortal king encountered the divine in the form of meddling gods, a premonitory dream, and those darn ambiguous oracles. Croesus responded to each of these encounters with his flawed, limited, and, ultimately, human understanding. Due to his pride, he incited the wrath of the gods, attempted to foil the unstoppable force of fate, and interpreted oracles as telling the future as he wished it to be.

With this tale, Herodotus sets the tone for the rest of The Persian Wars. Throughout his inquiry, he continues to explore the fickleness of fortune, the mutability of empires, and the fact that no one—not even a god—can escape their fate.

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Who Are The Semi-Socratics?

by on May 26, 2015

You may be wondering, who are the Semi-Socratics? Allow me to paint a picture for you.

The year is 399 BC and Socrates, the man known as “the Father of Western Philosophy” is to be executed. What of his crimes? He has been found guilty of corrupting the youth and believing in strange gods. After a brief trial, which was immortalized by Plato within his Apology, Socrates is sentenced to death and willingly drinks hemlock poison. He dies in a small prison cell, surrounded by his friends and acolytes.

Death of SocratesDeath of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David

With Socrates’ body quickly becoming cold, a question arises: Now what?

While the Father of Western Philosophy did die in the year 399 BC, many of Socrates’ disciples would live for several more years. They would spend their time cultivating and developing new schools of thought that were intended to build upon the Socratic lessons that they had learned.

When classicist talk of Socratic disciples, we immediately think of Plato and his contributions following the death of Socrates. So profound were Plato’s ideas, so remarkable in their scope and implications that it is easy to just assume that Plato was the only follower of Socrates who ever did anything of note in the field of philosophy.

Believe it or not, there were other thinkers, influenced by Socrates, who went out and, for better or worse, planted their flag within the intellectual landscape of classical Greece. I say “for better or worse” because while Plato is often considered to have appropriately encapsulated Socratic thought, capturing all the intricate details while making sense of seemingly contradictory arguments, Socrates’ other followers started with core Socratic concepts and pushed them to extremes.

That isn’t to say that these Semi-Socratic schools were “wrong”. However, Socrates was a large and many-sided personality whose teachings were composed of many divergent truths. Upon his death, it would seem that Socrates’ teachings were split into their component parts and his disciples latched onto certain precepts that suited their particular disposition and worked them to their logical extremes.

And so, following the death of the Father of Western Philosophy, several of these one-sided schools of thought arose in ancient Athens. Each of them claimed to truly represent the principles of Socratic philosophy.

The Cynics were one such school of thought. Founded by Antisthenes, a pupil of Socrates, the Cynics latched not onto Socrates the philosopher or Socrates the intellectual, but became infatuated with Socrates as a man of independent character.

As a result of his teachings, Socrates was often uninterested in material possessions. He did not accept payment for his teachings, believing that wisdom and the prospect of knowledge was reward enough in itself. His disregard for applause, treasures, or the opinion of others was simply a byproduct of his unique lifestyle. They were not ends in themselves.

DiogenesDiogenes of Sinope, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Cynics, however, interpreted this to mean that independence from earthly pleasures was the goal and end of life. Virtue alone is important, and all that is required of a virtuous man is to live contently without the distractions of this world.

The cynics often refused to live in homes, opting instead to survive as vagrants. It was said that Diogenes of Sinope, perhaps the most famous Cynic, lived in a large ceramic jar in the Athenian Agora. The Cynics flouted public opinion, and often engaged in indecent acts in the public square to demonstrate their indifference to societal norms.

Virtue is sufficient for happiness, and for virtue nothing is requisite but the strength of Socrates.”- Antisthenes (The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers)

The Cyrenaics, named for the hometown of their founder Aristippus of Cyrene, also concluded that virtue alone was important. Their definition of virtue, however, robbed it of any real meaning.

Socrates claimed that the virtuous life was choice worthy because it would make us happy. This does not necessarily mean that Socrates did not recognize our duty to do right for its own sake, even if it was not specifically advantageous for us. However, he was never clear on these points. Aristippus, following Socrates’ thinking to extremes, came to a hedonistic conception of virtue.

The Cyrenaics, like Socrates, advocated that the sole aim of life was virtue. However, the Cyrenaics went one step further and claimed that the sole aim of virtue is our own advantage. Aristippus took this to mean that pleasure was, believe it or not, a virtue.

As a consequence of this thinking, the Cyrenaics lived a life of hedonistic pleasures. It is not just in our best interest to seek out wine, luxury, food, and sex, it is also our responsibility as morally responsible citizens!

If luxury were ugly, it would not be found at the feasts of the gods.”- Aristippus (The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers)

Euclid of Megara, not to be confused with the mathematician of the same name, is our final Semi-Socratic philosopher.

Euclid of MegaraEuclid of Megara

In order to understand Euclid’s philosophy, we must understand that Socrates did claim that virtue was the sole aim of life. But what is virtue? Socrates seems to tell us that virtue is knowledge. This leads us to the question: knowledge of what? Certainly virtue is not the knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, or biology. Some would suggest that virtue is knowledge of the ethical sciences, of morality.

Some of you may already be realizing the trouble with that suggestion. We would essentially be saying that virtue is the knowledge of virtue!

In truth, Socrates did not mean that virtue was the knowledge of virtue. Rather, he intended to tell us that virtue DEPENDED on the knowledge of virtue. To live virtuously, we must be educated in that which is virtuous. When we see it this way, we realize that Socrates was not arguing in circles at all.

Again, this was not always clear. So when Euclid of Megara put himself to considering the question of virtue, he actually borrowed a piece of philosophy from Parmenides to make sense of things. Euclid combined the philosophies of Socrates and Parmenides (click here for a refresher on Parmenidean philosophy) and created what would be known as the Megarian school of thought.

The Megarians believed that virtue was a knowledge and acceptance of the One Absolute Being. What does that mean exactly?

Essentially, the Megarians, with the help of Parmenides, claimed that all of reality has existed and continues to exist forever. There is no such thing as coming into being or change. Any change we might perceive is illusion cast over us by our senses.

All that exists is eternal, indivisible Being.

If the central concept of Socratic philosophy was The Good, and the central precept of Parmenidean philosophy was Being, Euclid now combined them and identified The Good as Being. Being, The Good, God, Divinity, these are all merely different names for the same thing.

What of other virtues? Virtues like benevolence, temperance, and prudence are merely different names for the one true virtue, knowledge of Being.

As I mentioned before, there is probably a reason you have never heard of the Semi-Socratics. They aren’t Socrates, and they might not be the next best things either. They exist, however, as an interesting chapter in the history of philosophy. It is a chapter that not everybody gets to read.

Aristotle and the Art of Friendship

by on May 4, 2015

How many friends do you have? Are they really your friends? Is it possible that your friends are using you for utility or pleasure? If you have never thought about these questions, then you really should. Aristotle certainly did.

Aristotle addresses the question of friendship in Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII. Friendship, Aristotle tells us, is of supreme importance. Moreover, it is essential to our happiness. As the philosopher says,

“No one would choose to live a friendless existence, even on the condition of having all other good things.” –Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII)

It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor; friendship is essential to our lives. Aristotle tells us that if we are rich and prosperous, then we will need friends to partake in our beneficence and to help protect our prosperity. Conversely, if you are poor, friendship is viewed as one of the only refuges from misery.

The young need friendship to keep them from error and to teach them the ways of the world. The old need friendship to care for them and support them when their bodies fail to weakness.

Perhaps most surprising, friendship is not only important to the individual, it is necessary for the continued existence of the state.

“Moreover, friendship would seem to hold cities together, and legislators would seem to be more concerned about it than about justice. For concord would seem to be similar to friendship and they aim at concord among all, while they try above all to expel civil conflict, which is enmity.” –Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII)

AristotleWhile friendship is indeed important, there are so many questions about friendship that we must answer. What types of people make good friends? Is it true that similars attract, hence the phrase ‘birds of a feather’? Or are similar people like “the proverbial potters” who always quarrel with one another?

Interestingly, Aristotle actually appeals to the philosopher Heraclitus, whom we just spoke of, to give credence to the idea that opposite forces create beautiful harmony out of struggle. Perhaps then it is opposite types of people who become the best of friends.

Putting all these considerations aside for the moment, Aristotle comes up with a general account of friendship as being reciprocated goodwill between people for reasons of usefulness, pleasure, or goodness.

Amusingly, Aristotle takes the time to inform us that we cannot be friends with inanimate objects. Objects cannot reciprocate our goodwill and love. So no matter how much you might wish it, and I swear to god he says this, you can’t be friends with your wine.

Aristotle continues by telling us that there are essentially three types of friendships. For just as causes differ, so do the types of living and types of friendship. The first two types of friendships are based on utility or pleasure.
This seems obvious enough to us. Those who love for either utility or pleasure do not love the person for their character or virtue. Rather, they love the person based on what is either good or pleasant for them.

If you were to give yourself some time to think, you certainly would be able to name friends who love you only insofar as you provide them with utility or pleasure.

Aristotle gives the example of a relationship between a host and a guest as a type of friendship based upon utility. And the friendship between young lovers typically is a friendship based upon pleasure.

While these types of friendships are commonplace within society, and occur frequently throughout a lifetime, they have the tendency to dissolve rather quickly. A friendship based upon utility or pleasure, obviously, ceases to exist once the individuals in the relationship are no longer advantageous to each other.

Aristotle tells us that these superficial friendships are common amongst young people. Young people, largely, are guided by their emotions and they pursue, above all, that which is pleasurable or that which is expedient.

It is not surprising then that so many youthful friendships have the tendency to dissolve rather quickly once the youths grow and their ideas of what is pleasurable or useful changes. They do not, in short, tend to create lasting friendships.

nic ethicsSo is there a way to attain real, enduring friendship? Are we doomed to live with false friends who only love us so long as we are useful to them?

Aristotle tells us that there is a third type of friendship. It is this friendship, more than any other, which we should seek out in our lives.

The third friendship is a friendship based on virtue or goodness. This type of friendship occurs when two people with similar understandings of true virtue meet and come to love one another for each others character or virtues. Moreover, the friends in this relationship wish goodness upon their friends for each other’s sake, and not because it might benefit themselves somehow.

These friends are friends most of all and their friendship may last as long as they are good and their virtue is enduring. Interestingly, while this friendship is based on altruism, it also provides the friends with both utility and pleasure. For it can be said that having a true friend is useful in that it makes us better people, and it can be said to be pleasurable because it gives us a true companion to share life with.

While this type of friendship is truly good and virtuous, Aristotle tells us that these friendships are the most rare of all. True friends take time to know each other. Often times they must partake of hardships together so that they might truly appreciate the other’s companionship. Aristotle says that true friends must sometimes “share the peck of salt” before they can sincerely know each other.

This might be a good time to take stock. How many friends do you have? More importantly, which of those friendships are based upon pleasure or utility? And which ones are the third type of friendship, a friendship based on mutual, altruistic love?

You might be unsurprised to find that your list of true friends is relatively short. Aristotle concludes this section by telling us that this is to be expected. While the wish for friendship might come quickly, true, lasting friendship does not.