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In Pursuit Of The Good

by on April 21, 2014

If Plato’s ideas on ethics seems a bit hazy to you, then rest assured you’re not alone. There are several reasons why Plato’s conception of a good life are illusive. For starters, in all of his early dialogues the philosopher spends his time giving a thrashing to our conventional ideas of virtues such as justice, piety, and bravery. 

Plato PortraitIt is only in Plato’s later dialogues, specifically The Republic, that the philosopher articulates, to any discernible degree, his ideas on human virtues and their relation to a good life. However, even this is done through the voice of the grand old master, Socrates, leaving room for interpretation and further obscuring our view of Plato’s true philosophies.

Additionally, Plato’s ethics are based upon metaphysical presuppositions that often appear ambiguous, obscure, and out of the realm of normal thinking.

Taking all of this into consideration, it might seem easier to just give up and perhaps go read Aristotle. At least that guy just says what he wants to say.

In order to examine Plato’s ethics, we will need to examine his metaphysical and epistemological views. Very simply, Plato’s philosophy of being and of knowledge are intimately linked with his philosophy of living well.

The best example where these three paths intersect can be found within the philosopher’s magnum opus, The Republic. It is near the end of Book VI that Plato, through the voice of Socrates, begins to make his case for the existence of an ultimate source of virtue that shines upon all existence and grants us the ability to live wisely and virtuously.
For Plato, this grand source of all morality is known simply as “The Good.”

And it all begins, rather simply, with a divided line…

“Now take a line which has been cut into two unequal parts, and divide each of them again in the same proportion, and suppose the two main divisions to answer, one to the visible and the other to the intelligible.” -Plato (The Republic)

Plato asks us to imagine a line divided in half. The first half of the line will correspond to the realm of sensible perception, where objects can be perceived using empirical observations.  The second half corresponds to a realm of existence that transcends our physical world and can only be understood through an application of philosophical reasoning.

Divided Line
This latter half, which later philosophers (especially Immanuel Kant) would refer to as the phenomenal world, is of great importance to Plato.
Much of the philosopher’s ideas on ethics is dependent upon the existence of this conceptual world.

Plato asks us to again divide the line. Both segments will be halved, giving us four different sections lying on this line. Each segment will refer to a type of knowing, and, as you will soon see, the line progresses; starting with shadows and ending with perfect philosophical understanding.

The first segment on the line represents shadows and illusions that we perceive in our world, reflections that we see off of the surface of a still pond for instance. The second segment represents the objects themselves, the universe as we understand through the use of our senses.

Moving on into the phenomenal world, segment three refers to a type of understanding that we often associate with mathematical reasoning and theoretical understandings. We arrive at this type of understanding when considering ideas such as a perfect triangle or a perfectly straight line. It is important that we do not confuse our conception of a triangle with the physical drawing of a triangle.

Plato sketch
Finally we arrive at the last segment on the line, the portion that corresponds to the realm of the forms and, more importantly, the form of The Good.

Very briefly, Plato’s World of Forms is a realm of existence where the perfect conceptions such as beauty, justice, piety, truth, and goodness, exist indivisibly and eternally. It is only by virtue of these forms that our sensible world has any of the qualities that it does.

his means that if something is beautiful, then that object partakes of the form of beauty. If something is just, then that thing partakes of the form of justice. 

Plato’s forms are at the center of the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas. That is to say that through the use of the forms, Plato attempted to explain why the universe is the way it is, why things have the qualities that they do.

However, the forms also speak to Plato’s ideas on epistemology. The forms emphasize attaining true understanding through an application of reason and philosophical dialectic. This reflects Plato’s belief that the only way to attain true knowledge is through logic and that our empirical observations are merely shadows.

So we see that Plato’s divided line is actually a hierarchy of sorts. The four segments on the line correspond to four different types of knowing. In numerical order, these types of knowing are opinion, belief (conviction), theoretical knowledge, and absolute understanding.

We ought not to be satisfied with merely living in the observable world, but we should, to the best of our ability, transcend the physical world and endeavor to discover the phenomenal world where we may become aquatinted with the form of The Good and live our life in harmony with this ultimate goodness.

Here we begin to grasp at Plato’s ethics. But what exactly is The Good? Understanding this ultimate form might actually be easier than you think.

If I were to ask you, “Was Hitler good?” what would you say? While you are thinking about that, let’s consider a few other questions.


Was Hitler good at instigating a second world war? Yes. 

Was Hitler good at creating a propaganda machine? Yes.

Was Hitler a good painter? Maybe.

But back to our original question. Was Hitler good? The answer, rather obviously, is no.
While Hitler was good insofar as he was a dictator or a public speaker, we can say rather confidently that he was not Good.

Whether you consciously recognize it or not, there is a standard for goodness, an understanding of that which partakes of morality and that which does not. This seems self evident. To Plato, this goodness was the form of The Good, and it is the single most important thing we can ever recognize as philosophers.

Plato compares the form of The Good to the radiance of the sun. It is only by virtue of the sun’s light that we are able to gaze upon the world. It is only by virtue of the sun that we are not cast into darkness.

Similarly, The Good is the thing that by virtue of which we have an understanding of other forms such as beauty, justice, and piety. We can not have virtue without having The Good. It is towards this goodness that we must strive if we are to live fully, wisely, and virtuously.

“You would say, would you not, that the sun is not only the author of visibility in all visible things, but of generation and nourishment and growth, though he himself is not generation? In like manner the Good may be said to be not only the author of knowledge to all things known, but of their being and essence, and yet The Good is not essence, but far exceeds essence in dignity and power.” -Plato (The Republic)

So there we have a very brief examination of one of Plato’s most fundamental philosophical contributions. In just one theory, Plato gives us a look into his metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical beliefs. While some might find this feat remarkable, it perhaps should not surprise us that Plato’s philosophies overlapped so much.

Much like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that an educated life and a good life were one in the same. We can not live well without living wisely and we can not live wisely without also living well. Pursuing a true understanding of knowledge and being will inevitably lead us closer to the form of The Good and as a result, closer to a fulfilled and satisfying life.

Voyage To The Moon

by on April 14, 2014

Considering the strange nature of this tale, we simply can’t launch into this without a little background information. The sheer insanity of the story might permeate through your computer screen and cause you to question your own grasp on reality. Let’s take a few baby steps, shall we?

Lucian Lucian’s True History is a blatant parody of celebrated classical epics like The Odyssey and The Iliad.  Homer may occasionally dabble in mythology, but Lucian indulges to the point of absurdity. His stories include, among other things, space travel, men riding on the backs of vultures, space centaurs, vegetable themed warriors, and an all out war between the inhabitants of the moon and the sun.

The irony of Lucian’s True History, rather obviously, is that it is an epic tale where absolutely nothing is true. The author tells us as much himself…

“For now I make the only true statement you are to expect- that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defence against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.” -Lucian (True History)

This ironic humor is only heightened by the narrator, a man who continues to profess the accuracy of his tale even as the stories become more and more unbelievable.

“Any one who doubts the truth of this statement has only to go there himself, to be assured of my veracity.” -Lucian (True History)

Why was such a tale ever crafted in the first place? Well, Lucian tells us that just like an athlete must occasionally rest from his training, so to must intellectuals take a break from the philosophy and literature of high-minded individuals. It’s kind of like when you stop doing actual work around three in the afternoon and start watching cat videos on the internet.

Since we have discussed some rather serious philosophical topics the past few weeks, I thought it might be a good change of pace if we looked at something that didn’t question the essence of reality or consider the truest form of virtue. For once, let’s look at something that is, and let’s be honest, a bit silly.

The tale begins innocently enough. The narrator tells us that he set out on a quest to explore the lands beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) with a crew of fifty men and a ship that was well equipped for a long and arduous journey.

For the first day the ship traveled serenely through the waters and managed to keep sight of land. However, on the dawn of the second day the wind rose to a gale and the seas turned dark. The wind took hold of the sails and, being unable to navigate, the crew was carried away by the torrent for eleven long weeks.

Lucius tells us that the crew then landed upon a mysterious island. Upon investigating the island, they found a pillar upon which was inscribed,

“Heracles and Dionysus reached this point.”

Continuing on, the explorers came upon a river that flowed red with wine. They found fish living within the waters and learned that eating the creatures would cause a man to become drunk.

True History
The explorers met other incredible sights. They witnessed creatures with the torsos of women, but tree trunks where a woman’s legs would be. They sprouted vines from the tips of their fingers and embraced the travelers and kissed them upon the lips. While the men were amused with the creatures at first, they found that whoever embraced the tree-women for too long would suddenly be transformed into a tree himself. After two explorers were transformed to a pile of vines, the remaining men ran back to the ship in horror and set sail immediately.

Okay, so that wasn’t so crazy. Compared to other ancient myths, a mysterious island with a river of wine and tree-women monsters are par for the course. But Lucian isn’t done, he is just getting warmed up.

Rather than calm seas and a return trip home, the explorers are swept up by a tornado and carried to dizzying heights. For an entire week they are carried upward by the winds. On the eighth day, the explorers come upon a shimmering island surrounded by glistening air instead of water. It did not take the explorers long to realize they had landed on the moon.

Voyage To The MoonBefore long, the explorers are discovered by soldiers riding on the backs of giant vultures. The men are detained and brought to the court of the king of the moon.

A man named Endymion, the moon king, recognizes the explorers as Greeks. He confides in them that he too is mortal and had begun his life on earth. It was only after falling asleep one night that he mysteriously was transported to the moon and had become ruler of the country.

Rather than enslaving or punishing the Greeks, Endymion asks them to join him on a rather lofty military campaign.

“And if I am victorious, he added, ‘in the campaign which I am now commencing against the inhabitants of the Sun, I promise you an extremely pleasant life at my court.’ We asked about the enemy, and the quarrel. ‘Phaethon,’ he replied, ‘king of the Sun (which is inhabited, like the Moon), has long been at war with us.” – Lucian’s True Histories

As strange as this all sounds, and it sounds pretty strange, this is still an ancient Greek epic. And no Greek epic, whether it be The Iliad or Voyage to the Moon, would be complete without an epic battle. But Lucian’s battle is one that is so massive and so ridiculously fantastic that it makes the Trojan War look like a playground skirmish.

Lucian’s explorers assent to the King’s proposal. They saddle up upon the backs of the giant horse-vultures and take their places in the ranks of the other warriors.

Lucian tells us that moon’s army contained nearly 100,000 soldiers; 80,000 of these soldiers were mounted on the backs of horse-vultures. The remaining 20,000 men were mounted on Salad-wings. These latter creatures are monstrous birds whose wings resemble the lettuce leaves that we see on earth.

In addition to these numbers, there are 30,000 archers who ride on the backs of giant fleas. Additionally, there are 50,000 infantrymen known as “Wind-coursers.” These warriors fly through the air using their oversized shirts as sails.

Lucian's battle
There are spiders the size of an Aegean island that stretch their webs across the vastness of space. The warriors of the moon walk on these web bridges and prepare for battle against the forces of the sun.

70,000 Ostrich-slingers and 50,000 Horse-cranes were said to have been on their way from a neighboring star, but they did not arrive in time to see battle. Lucian does not bother describing these warriors as he, rather unfortunately, did not witness them with his own eyes.

The forces of the sun are equally numerous and equally outrageous. There are Sky-gnats, archers who sling large turnips, dog faced men who ride on flying acorns, and vegetable themed soldiers who use mushrooms as shields and asparagus stalks as spears.

The battle commences!

“The Sunite left at once broke without awaiting the onset of the Horse-vultures, and we pursued, slaying them. On the other band, their right had the better of our left, the Sky-gnats pressing on right up to our infantry. When these joined in, however, they tumed and fled, chiefly owing to the moral effect of our success on the other flank. The rout became decisive, great numbers were taken and slain, and blood flowed in great quantities on to the clouds, staining them as red as we see them at sunset.”

Victory seems all but assured for the forces of the moon. Just as defeat seems unavoidable for the sun army, much needed reinforcements arrive.

XXXCloud-centaurs, flying horse/human hybrids from the milky way, arrive from nowhere and attack the disarrayed moon forces. The army or Endymion is defeated and the human explorers are taken as hostages.

This is a grim sight indeed. Our heros are taken as prisoners, the moon forces are crushed, and it seems that this tale might end with death for our explorers. Very fortunately, Endymion seeks peace with Phaeton, the king of the sun.

It is agreed that all hostages will be released to their homelands, neither country will pursue violence against the other, and the moon king will pay a yearly tribute of ten thousand jars of dew to the king of the sun.

Our heros are returned to the moon. The king asks them to stay and live out their years among his people. It would seem, however, that our explorers have had quite enough of lunar warfare and request that they be sent home.

The king reluctantly agrees. After some feasting and celebration, our narrator and his men are returned to earth.

Lucian’s story continues in a similarly outrageous fashion back on earth. Our explorers are swallowed by a whale that measured 200 miles long, they discover a sea of milk and an island of cheese. They even discover a mystical island upon which can be found the heroes of the Trojan war and even Homer himself.

You may be scratching your head at all of this. Like I said, it is one of the strangest pieces of literature I have ever read. It is also considered the very first science fiction text, and for that reason remains of curious interest to classical enthusiasts like ourselves.

If you want to read about Lucian’s voyage to the moon in its entirety, and trust me you do, then you really ought to order The Essential Classics.  You really never know what you will uncover.

History: A Factual Fiction

by on April 10, 2014

By Ben Potter

Nero fiddling as Rome burns.

The solidarity of dozens of men claiming ‘I’m Spartacus’.

Death of Caesar
Caesar looking into the eyes of his surrogate son as the blade of betrayal sliced open his mortal flesh while he pathetically gasps, through a mouthful of blood and spittle, the words: “et tu Brute”.

The mnemonic power of these images of the Ancient world are well-known to us all. We shouldn’t, however, thank the likes of Plutarch or Tacitus for such vivid portrayals, but Mervyn LeRoy, Stanley Kubrick and William Shakespeare.

Modern artists like these are not responsible for the immortalization of well-documented facts, but rather for giving us a history which is undeniably more effective at infiltrating the collective-consciousness.

Rome burning

Just to set the record straight: the fiddle hadn’t yet been invented in the 1st century AD, and Tacitus, an eye-witness to the blaze, reports that Nero made considerable efforts to counter its deadly effects.

Moreover, we’ve no idea as to the exact dialogue from the revolting slaves during the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), and the famous ‘et tu’ was considered an anachronism within a century of the event itself.

So, what to make of all this? Is this important? Do we care? Does the truth get in the way of a good yarn?

Perhaps talk of this sort is enough to get you a little hot under the collar. Well… if so, let’s hope that this source-based approach to the value of authenticity takes some of that heat and uses it to shed a little light.

The words of the aptly named professor Donald Watt are a good place to start our investigation:

“The historian’s main concern is accuracy; the producer of film and television is concerned with entertainment. The unspoken premise of the first proposition is that to be accurate is to be dull. The unspoken premise of the opposed proposition is that to be entertaining it is necessary to distort or misrepresent”.

‘Balderdash!’ The purist in us screams.

Well… let’s compare notes. Livy and Polybius both wrote of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. However, whilst Polybius was in his late teens at the time of the Carthaginian general’s death, Livy would not even be a twinkle in his father’s eye for another 120 years.

Here’s the contemporary account:

“The summits of the Alps, and the parts near the tops of the passes, are all quite treeless and bare, owing to the snow lying there continuously both winter and summer. But parts halfway up both sides are wooded and generally inhabitable”.

And here’s Livy, writing 170 years after the fact:

“There were no tree trunks or roots by which a man could hoist himself up, only smooth ice and thawing snow, over which they were always rolling… Four days were spent at the cliff, and the animals nearly perished of starvation: for the mountaintops are all particularly bare and such grasses as do grow are buried beneath the snow. Lower down one comes to valleys, and slopes bathed in sunlight, and streams, and near them are woods, and places more suitable for human habitation”.

To put this plagiarized and embellished passage into a modern time-frame, it would be like one of us picking up a pen one lazy afternoon and writing with vivid veracity about the annexation of Texas in 1845.

And although we often give the ancients a pass when it comes to the art of historiography, Livy wasn’t writing during the pioneering days of Herodotus. Indeed, by his time the genre was already well-established. More to the point, the man he uses as his ‘inspiration’, Polybius, wrote a largely factual and, often, disinterested work.

In other words, Livy couldn’t say that he didn’t know any better viz-á-viz the presentation of the cold, hard facts.

That said, facts, no matter what the temperature, may not have been Livy’s raison d’etre; there’s no reason to think he was trying to pull a fast one. As a product of the Golden Age of Latin Literature, and a contemporary of men like Virgil, Horace and Ovid, he may have been much more concerned that his prose was purple than precise.

The underlying question that we’re left with then is: ‘Who is better, Polybius or Livy?

Despite my own personal love for Polybius, I cannot find any ammunition with which to argue that he is more entertaining or accessible than the text of Livy. Meanwhile it’s hard to deny the allure of Livy’s work.

Therefore, we have to ask yet another question: Do we ‘learn’ more with an entertaining tale?


Well… possibly, though possibly not. To be accurate we should say we learn less, but learn more easily and swiftly.

So where does such thinking lead us? Shall we watch Braveheart to learn about British history? Or read Dan Brown to learn about Da Vinci?

The very notion repulses.

These two examples are perhaps perverse extremes. There are other, more moderate illustrations such as HBO’s Rome. It has all the main historical events in the right place and looks astonishingly good, but it too must be taken with a pinch of salt.

It seems that Professor Watt’s proclamation about the incompatibility of truth and entertainment is not without its supporting evidence… But, in our humble opinion, there is still a place for the trustworthy historian. It is because we have such confidence in his or her credibility that we are overawed by the truth they communicate… and so the long dead world comes alive on the page.

Take, for instance, Thucydides’ accounts of the Athenian plague or Polybius’ of the inadequacy and pomposity of Roman social climbers. They resound strongly, simply because they are believed.

So while I would always advocate reading the more accurate source, I feel it is still better to read something rather than nothing. People should enjoy history, not neglect it on the bedside cabinet.

Whatever the source and whatever the motivation, it is hard to argue with the words of a man who knew a thing or two about writing, William Faulkner:

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”

Tacitus’ Germania: the Mythology Behind German Nationalism

by on April 9, 2014

By Benjamin Welton

Tacitus’ ethnographic work, Germania (98 AD), caused quite a stir among the Renaissance’s numerous intellectuals when it was rediscovered in 15th century Italy. This is because it provided a lengthy history of Europe’s deep divide between what was considered Roman and “non-Roman.” After all, it was once believed that the Germanic peoples—the very “barbarians” who caused the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD—were responsible for Europe’s bleak age of ignorance, savagery, and constant warfare.

These longhaired and bearded peoples had only been lightly touched by Greco-Roman culture, and, as a result, they remained mired in their tribal affinities and cold superstitions.

Map of Germania
But this once common view has fallen out of favor in recent years, due to a renewed interest not only in the foibles of Rome’s imperial culture, but also in the overlooked accomplishments of the so-called “Dark Ages.” Author of “Why the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were just as civilized [sic] as the savage Roman Empire,” Dr. Dominic Selwood laments how it is popularly believed that “the ‘glory’ of Rome was ruthlessly snuffed out, trampled under hooves that sought only plunder.”

Worse still, these defilers of culture are often misrepresented as “boorish hordes” who propelled Europe backwards rather than forwards.

It is Dr. Selwood’s assertion, however, that these Germanic raiders were little different from their Roman opponents, as “violence and ruthlessness” were the primary pillars upholding imperial Rome. In order to back-up this grand claim, Dr. Selwood points to Tacitus’s Annals (14-68 AD), which provides a graphic depiction of the Roman army’s utter destruction of the druids on the Welsh island of Anglesey:

Reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.

Of course there is little doubt among historians—both amateur and professional—that ancient Rome was a warlike power. One does not capture most of the known world through diplomacy alone. And so, it is not shocking that a society that originally built itself upon its martial prowess would see little wrong with the occasional slaughter.

Still, the fact remains that Tacitus, a senator, historian, and lifelong bureaucrat who is most famous for his often pessimistic histories, is the predominate Roman scholar used in the service of dissecting the mythology of Rome.

Roman Decadence
The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the well-known fact that Tacitus was repulsed by imperial Rome’s slip into decadence. Like the much later British historian Edward Gibbon, Tacitus bemoaned the decline of the virtues of the Republican era. In particular, he disliked imperial Rome’s acceptance of debauchery, from orgies to rampant infidelity. In the conservative tradition of Cato the Elder, Tacitus believed that Rome was rotting from the inside due to its easy acceptance of the Greek philosophies of Hedonism and Epicureanism.

In Germania, Tacitus juxtaposes the morals of the Germanic peoples with those of Rome.

During the time of Germania’s construction, the Roman Empire stopped at the Rhine, and this served as the boundary between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’. Roman legionaries patrolled this desolate region with stern stomachs, for despite Rome’s technological superiority, the Germanic tribes were widely feared due to their supposed love of battle and their fierce bravery.

Roman soldiers also knew well the story of the Teutoburg Forest—the scene of the decisive ambush that destroyed three Roman legions. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest effectively halted further Roman expeditions into Magna Germania, and as such, Germania is a chronicle of Rome’s most feared and tireless enemy in Europe (the Parthians held that honor in Asia).

Throughout his account, Tacitus, who is mostly concerned with an itemized account of the major and minor tribes of western Germany, constantly refers to the virtues of the Germanic tribes—they are large, strong people who are faithful to their wives and they allow only the best among them to rule. In Chapter 18, Tacitus writes favorably about Germanic marriage laws, all the while quietly criticizing the indecent practices of his own Rome:

Their marriage code, however, is strict, and indeed no part of their manners is more praiseworthy. Almost alone among barbarians they are content with one wife, except a very few among them, and these not from sensuality, but because their noble birth procures for them many offers of alliance.

Tacitus also details how Germanic wives are reminded during their wedding ceremonies that they are bound to share the sufferings of war, alongside their husbands. This spirit of mutual allegiance and courage is especially vaunted by Tacitus.

But the real thrust of Germania is this: it is partially a politically-minded critique of Roman society that uses the Germanic barbarians as a counter-example, while at the same time upholding Roman civilization as the one culture that undertakes war and adventure for more complex reasons than simple rites of passage.

Conversely, although Tacitus is often looked upon as the most cynical of Roman historians, he nevertheless maintains the superiority of the Roman Empire in each one of his histories.

Then in a strange twist, Germania became a favored book among the nascent German nationalists of the nineteenth century.

As Christopher Krebs shows in A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania From the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, German nationalists and their coterie of militarist partisans used Germania to testify to the moral superiority of the ancient Germanic peoples. These writers, politicians, and agitators saw in Tacitus’ account a clear history of the otherwise little known pre-Christian Germanic peoples, as well as definitive indication that Germanic culture was separate from and relatively untouched by Greco-Roman culture.

This, of course, was used to justify all sorts of goals, from the eradication of democracy (which originally came from Athens) to state-sponsored mythologies that idolized the totems of a pagan past.

By the 1930s, National Socialism attached itself to these popular misconceptions, and again Tacitus was misused in the name of anti-Semitism and needless warfare. In a blunt example of the book’s power, the SS were ordered to an Italian villa in 1943 for the sole purpose of retrieving the oldest copy of Germania ahead of the approaching Allies.

Sadly, some movements still read Germania as an unwavering example of Germanic superiority, from Neo-Nazis to Scandinavian musicians on the fringe of the “black metal” music scene. Clearly, this mistake comes from a misreading of Tacitus, who, despite his reservations, was a thoroughgoing Roman who was deeply proud of the accomplishments of his people.

Furthermore, Germania was not written for Germans but for Roman citizens—the people who earnestly believed that their culture could be adopted across the world (a lesson they learned from Alexander the Great).

Germanic Peoples
In another cruel irony, the people who mistake Germania as a paean to the glories of Northern Europe’s pre-Christian past also overlook the historical fact that the Germanic tribes who caused the downfall of the Western Roman Empire were themselves Christian—a religion they adopted after their prolonged exposure to Greco-Roman culture.

By any stretch of the imagination, the men who sacked Rome were well versed in Roman culture, especially since many of them were veterans of the Roman army. And by the time of the “Dark Ages,” the people most responsible for keeping Greek and Roman learning alive in Europe were the Franks—a Germanic tribe who had once been knocking at Rome’s imperial border.

It appears then that the old lines between civilized and barbarian, Roman and Germanic were more than a little blurred.

Injustice For All: Plato’s Republic And The Pursuit Of Justice

by on April 7, 2014

Plato’s The Republic is often, and for good reason, considered the single most important philosophical text of the western world. You simply cannot call Platoyourself a philosopher without having read it. It’s like calling yourself a poet without reading Robert Frost, considering yourself a musician without having ever listened to The Beatles, or referring to yourself as a hard-drinking writer without being fond of Ernest Hemingway. It just can’t be done.

Anyway, back to Plato. The magnum opus was penned by the philosopher between his fortieth and his sixtieth year and is believed to best represent the political, ethical, and to a point, metaphysical views of Plato.

The Republic is often oversimplified as a foray into political philosophy. While Plato does indeed make strides in the area of political theory, such an assumption detracts from the overall importance of The Republic.

It is not an examination of the State for the sake of understanding the ins and outs of societal structure. The Republic creates a hypothetical, perfect society for the purpose of critically examining the true nature of justice and attempts to ascertain the role justice plays in the lives and souls of human beings.

With this in mind, we see that The Republic is an examination of the morality of mankind as well as an examination of the political integrity of any given society. Taken as a whole, The Republic is an epic treatise that touches on the existence of objective morality, the purpose of life, and the function of the human soul.

Like I said, pretty basic philosophy stuff.

It is in the opening of Book II of The Republic that Socrates is confronted by Glaucon, a man who makes the argument that justice only exists because men fear the consequences of being unjust. He continues by saying that, without the consequences of the law, any person would prefer activities that are unjust.

He gives the mythical example of a shepherd who happens upon a magical ring that bestows invisibility upon whoever wears it. While the shepherd had lived his life up until this point by abiding by the laws of justice, given this newfound ability he travels to the nearby kingdom, slays the ruler and steals his gold.

Glaucon’s argument is that justice is not something that we would seek out for its own sake. Justice is not choice-worthy in itself, but is merely something we partake in because we do not possess the capabilities or the fortitude to live unjustly.

To illustrate this point, Glaucon asks us to imagine a hypothetical man who exemplifies injustice. The truly unjust man would convince the society through speeches and rhetoric that he is actually just; for there is nothing more unjust than convincing people through devious means that you are actually just. This unjust man would rise to power and influence within the society under the guise of justice, all while concealing his truly unjust nature.

Is this starting to sound like politics?

“With a view to concealment we will establish secret brotherhoods and political clubs. and there are professors of rhetoric who teach the art of persuading courts and assemblies; and so partly by persuasion and partly by force, I shall make unlawful gains and not be punished.” -The Republic Book II

RepublicSo, Glaucon tells us that justice is not something that we would pursue if we had the option of living unjustly. He leaves it to Socrates to tell him why any man should pursue justice for its own sake. What are the benefits of living justly? Why should we care at all about justice?

Not one to shy away from big questions, Socrates proposes that they not only examine justice for the individual, but that they examine justice within a society. For if we could examine justice within the state then we might better identify the benefits of justice for the individual.

At this point, perhaps it’s important to emphasize that the ancient ideas on political philosophy were rather different than the philosophies we hold now. They viewed the state as a larger extrapolation of the individual. The qualities of the state must be derived from the qualities of the individuals, for it is only through the existence of the individuals that the state exists. Socrates’ suggestion to examine justice within the state would not have seemed strange to the ancient Greeks. It would have seemed rather appropriate, the natural thing to do.

Socrates starts by asking us to imagine a handful of men who decide to coexist. Each man will become skilled in a trade and provide for a budding society. There will be shoemakers, carpenters and farmers. Each man shall only do what he is most suited for and in this way will contribute to the well being of his fellow man.

This idea of specialization is rather important. All the members listening to Socrates’ speech agree that it is wisest that each man do what is most appropriate for him. The carpenter ought to craft. The shoemaker ought to make shoes. The farmer ought to plow fields. In this way the society will grow great.

And so Socrates proceeds to construct a hypothetical city state, starting from a few individuals who decide to coexist and growing to a vast society with distinct societal classes. The party discusses several topics of interest.

What if our city went to war? How should we educate the youth? Who shall be the leaders? What type of man should we seek as a soldier? These and more are discussed at some length.

Eventually Socrates concludes that within this state there are three classes of citizen. There are the protectors who go to war whenever it is necessary to protect the society. There are the merchants who contribute to the general wellbeing and thrive on commerce within the state. Finally, there are the rulers.

These men, who are referred to as “The Guardians,” would exemplify the virtue of wisdom and reason. The rulers would not be paid lavishly. They would receive meager remuneration for their services. Instead, the rulers would lead for the sake of duty and the need to exert virtue within the polis. Essentially, the rulers are philosophers.

Socrates continues his examination by declaring that within this perfect society there must exist essential virtues like wisdom, bravery, temperance, and of course justice. But where to find them? More importantly, how does any of this relate back to our examination of justice?

Socrates declares that we ought to find the first three virtues within the polis, whatever remains must logically be justice. Onward then.

Wisdom appears to be obvious enough. Wisdom is exemplified by the rulers, the calm and collected individuals who lead their country to greatness through the application of reason and brilliance.

What of bravery?

Marcus AureliusBravery can be seen within the warrior class of the society. They are the individuals who are willing to fight and die nobly for the cause of protecting their home. That seems reasonable.

What of temperance?

This is a bit tricky. However, Socrates points out that temperance is very similar to a sense of harmony. It is a sense of “being one’s own master.” Just as their is a better and worse part of the soul, there is a better and worse part of the state. By keeping in check the worse part of the society and allowing the better and more virtuous part to rule, we can see that temperance can be found within the state.

Very well then. Finally, we must arrive at justice within the state. What is justice?

Socrates reminds the listener that early within the discussion they had all decided that the society would thrive if each man did what was most appropriate for him. That is to say that the warrior who is spirited will go to war, the wise ruler will lead, and so on.

The philosopher concludes that justice is the act of doing that which is best suited to you and not to be involved in actions that are contrary to your nature. An application of justice would mean that an individual within the state would adhere to his or her role and thrive within that role.

To explain this, Socrates continues by saying that suits of law often focus on a man not taking that which is anothers or being deprived of that which is his own. When this is done adequately, we say that justice has been realized.

So it would appear that justice within the state is the proper placement and application of every individual and their abilities. Justice is doing your own business and not concerning yourself with things you are unsuited to do.

So how does this apply to the individual?

Socrate tells us that just as the state is divided into separate classes, the soul is similarly divided into three distinct portions. He says that these three are reason, spiritedness, and desire.

bust of platoIf we apply the notion of justice to the individual then we see that it is merely the proper ordering and appropriate functioning of the human soul.

“The just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,—he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself…”

So it would seem that justice for the individual is the proper harmony of the soul. When wisdom is properly applied, spiritedness is directed toward admirable goals, and when desire is kept in check there can be said to be justice within a human being.

If we are to accept this claim, then it would seem that justice is indeed choice-worthy upon its own merits. Living justly means living well, it means having a soul that is proper and good. Injustice is a disease, one that plagues the soul and causes the deformation of your true inner self.

This account of justice has often been contested. Additionally, Plato’s ideal society is often considered an ancient depiction of communism.

That is perhaps unsurprising. It is likely that Plato would have viewed democracy unfavorably. After all, it was only through the application of strict democracy that Athens was able to execute Socrates in the first place. So perhaps it is only natural that Plato would conclude democracy to be a system where the ignorant, innumerable masses overwhelmed the few truly wise individuals.

Whatever your take on Plato’s political ideas, his philosophical implications are quite staggering. He attempts to pore through a series of intricate arguments the existence of the human soul. Moreover, he attempts to categorize the soul and explain its true purpose within our lives.

It is perhaps for these reasons more than any other that The Republic remains one of the few essential philosophical treaties of the ancient world. It is a testament to the potentiality of human virtue and the rewards that might be gained from an application of true wisdom.

Well… How was that for an introduction to philosophy?

Are You Feeling Lucky?

by on March 31, 2014

While Aristotle was most certainly a busy man, revolutionizing human thought can be rather time consuming, he still managed to carve some time out to tell us about the difference between luck and chance and the role these two things play within our universe.

Aristotle Truth be told, the role of luck and chance had great importance to Aristotle. His examination of the topic comes about within Physics Book II.
Aristotle is interested in what can be said to cause events. Luck and chance certainly seem to play a role in creating events, so they certainly are worth exploring.

Aristotle begins by noting the criticisms of other philosophers. Some believe that luck and chance do not exist. How can it be said that something is caused by chance? It seems obvious enough that for every action there is a definite cause. Why must we concede that luck and chance play a role in causation when it would appear easy enough to point to any specific action as a cause?

Aristotle counters this by pointing out that the ideas of luck and chance are, at least in some way, universally accepted by human thought. How can something that does not exist be ever present in our minds? There must be some support for the ideas of luck and chance. There must be some evidence that would could appeal to.

“Though people know perfectly well that everything that comes to be can be referred to some cause, as the old argument doing away with luck says, everyone nonetheless says that some of these things result from luck and that other do not.” -Aristotle (Physics)

The philosopher continues by saying that yes, events are caused by specific preceding events, as is central to the argument against luck and chance.  However, Aristotle points out that there are different types of preliminary actions that cause events.

Aristotle's Physics
The first type occur out of necessity, they simply must happen. The second type occur because they occur often, or regularly. However, there is a third type of event. This type of event occurs not out of necessity or by virtue of it regularly happening. It simply occurs. What to call such events? Aristotle calls them lucky.

To demonstrate this idea, let us imagine that you are standing in a field with a ball. For reasons known only to you, you throw the ball into the air with all of your strength. What will happen, obviously, is that the ball will eventually fall back to earth.

We would not say to ourselves, “Boy, we sure were lucky that gravity kicked in.” That seems absurd. The ball falling from the sky is an event that happens with necessity, that is to say it could happen no other way.

We can also note that the ball will most likely land somewhere in the field. Perhaps it will occasionally get caught in a tree or become stuck on somebodys roof, but with regularity it will land somewhere nearby. This can not be said to be a lucky event.

However, let’s say you throw your ball into the air. All of the sudden a hawk swoops down and snatches it out of mid air and carries it away. Can we say that such an event is caused by necessity? Can we say that this event occurred with any regularity? Of course not. So we must conclude that such an action was caused by chance.

“First, then, we see that some things always, others usually, come about in the same way. Evidently luck and the result of luck are not said to be the cause of either of these things-either of what is of necessity and always or of what is usually.” -Aristotle (Physics)

Aristotle StatueWell, okay then. It seems that we were wrong to doubt you, Aristotle. So now that we have seen that luck and chance are real and that they can be considered to be responsible for events, what exactly is the difference between the two? “I’m glad you asked,” said Aristotle’s ghost as it hovers above my keyboard.

It can be said that luck is a type of chance. However, not all chance is a type of luck. We must see that “chance” is the general term for coincidental causes. Luck, therefore, is a very specific type of chance.

The difference is that luck requires conscious decisions, an intent that is only possible with the intellect of a grown human being. In order for an event to be lucky, a person must attempt to accomplish some task. If in their pursuit of this task, they succeed by means of a coincidental cause, then the event is lucky.

Chance, on the other hand, is merely an occurrence that came to be out of the chaos of events. It has no purpose or end. Simply put, it just happened.

To demonstrate this, Aristotle gives the example of a man attempting to collect on a debt. Imagine that the man who is owed a debt seeks a debtor and coincidentally wanders into the market in search of this man. As chance, or luck, would have it, he does indeed come upon the debtor in the market and is then repaid what is owed to him.

However, if this man were to go into the market for any other reason, perhaps to purchase food or listen to Socrates lecture, and he then coincidentally comes upon the debtor, we would say that this was chance.

AgoraWe can see that in the former example there is the element of human intent, of a willing decision. The second example possesses no such element, so it can not be said to be lucky.

Aristotle further strengthens this argument by saying that having good luck is similar to being happy. Since being happy is an action of sorts, we see that being lucky must in some way relate to human action and decision.

“For luck and its results are found in things that are cpable of being fortunate and in general capable of action, and that is why luck must concern what is achievable by action.” -Aristotle (Physics)

How does all of this fit in with philosophy? Why did Aristotle bother bringing this all up? In short, who the heck cares?

Well, Aristotle cared. More importantly, you should too.

Previously in Physics Book II, Aristotle had mentioned his rather famous “Four Causes.” At the very least, they are famous within the philosophical community. They are four causes that we use to examine a thing so that we might come closer to understanding its true form.

What is its matter? What form is it in? What prompted its initial motion? What is its purpose? These are the questions we must ask ourselves when examining a thing, whether it be a simple rock or the soul of a human being. If we can answer these questions, then we have the four causes, and we then have a better understanding of truth.

The third cause is of importance here. Aristotle has shown that luck and chance are ever present within our universe. This leads us to wonder about what things may have been caused by luck or chance. Could it be that the universe was created by chance? Is our existence nothing but a random outcome from innumerable variables? Does my life have any purpose or was it all by chance? Now you see how the little questions very quickly become big questions.

We do not have the answers for you this day. I’m sorry about that. We will have to be content with our new understanding of luck and chance and how we all fit in. Keep searching, dear reader. Keep philosophizing. Who knows, you might get lucky.