Skip to Content

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates

by September 4, 2017

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of Socrates, according to Plato.

Reading Socrates’ final utterance, one could be forgiven of thinking he was a practical, material man. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, was a gentleman who shunned the physical world and all thing corporeal. An individual who dedicated his life, and eventually lost it, in pursuit of wisdom and abstract ideals such as Beauty and Justice. In a word: Spiritual… even in the modern sense of the term.

But before we proceed, we must first dispense with the essential caveats that collocate with all Platonic/Socratic texts. As always, the distinction between teacher and student is a hard line to draw, as is the influence the former had on the latter. With time though, the mentor’s exact words started to fade and were replaced by the young philosopher’s own theories. This can be seen in Plato’s Phaedo, which was conceived much later than the Apology or Crito, though it still follows the tragic story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment and eventual death.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

Therefore, when Socrates speaks, we should see him more and more as a puppet for Plato’s words… a sacred protagonist.

So what does Plato’s frontman do in the final hours of his life? Bewail his fate? Seek the comforts of his wife and children? Or question and prove to his companions the existence of the immortal soul? Of course we can’t know what Socrates actually did while waiting in the shadows of his imminent execution… we only know how Plato wanted to envision it.

Of course, it isn’t a large stretch to imagine a thoughtful man pondering the future of his soul considering his situation. Surely the inmates in Huntsville, Texas’ death row are contemplating the same thing with their quickly diminishing lives. Will their spirit exist once their body has deceased? And, if that life force within us escapes its prison of flesh and blood, where does it go?

To these questions Socrates posits a few of his own suggestions. To begin with, he endeavors to prove the immortality of the soul with four theories.

Socrates’ first thesis is the Argument of Opposites. Everything comes to be from its opposite, in the way that ‘Tallness’ comes to be only from ‘Shortness’. With this logic, life can only come from death and vice versa. This would imply that life and death do not have a definitive end, but exist in a perpetual cycle.

The second, more famous concept, is the Theory of Recollection, which is dealt with much more thoroughly in Plato’s Meno. This argument is that we do not learn, only remember knowledge we’ve had before we were born. It can be hard for modern readers to swallow this thought, but it is important to distinguish fact from form. Socrates is not advocating that we ‘remember’ things like: when did the Peloponnesian war begin? Especially if it did not happen until after we were conceived. Instead, it is the idea that within us is an innate, built in ability to distinguish the essential concepts of Beauty, Equality and the like.

death of socrates

The Death of Socrates

In regards to the immortality of the soul, this theory proves to Socrates and his friends that the soul existed before the body.

The third idea is the Argument of Affinity. It is the categorization of things that are invisible, indivisible and immortal versus those that are material, dissolvable and mortal. The body is of the latter, the spirit of the former. Therefore, the soul can not cease.

At this moment, the two other Pythagorean philosophers in the dialogue put Socrates on his back foot with strong rebuttals. Think about a musical instrument, says Simmias, the beauty of ‘Harmony’ only exists with the tangible structure of the lyre, same as the soul and the body. While Cebes agrees that the soul is long living and can exist after the physical form has died, he is not yet convinced that it is immortal.

Socrates concedes that these are excellent points, and so brings out his final and most formidable notion. The cornerstone of his winning argument is the Theory of the Forms. It is one of Plato’s most important contributions and it proposes that greater abstract concepts exist as immaterial and unchanging ideas, such as courage or Justice or Beauty or Goodness, and that all worldly items take in these forms.

The soul, therefore, partakes of the form of “Life” and is in fact an essential property of the soul. Consequently it can never die.

Socrates concludes his arguments with a myth that describes the concept of an afterlife. Throughout his whole conversation, however, he has sprinkled references to where he feels his spirit will go next.

Relaying: “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

This is the reason why Socrates does not fear death. Like more contemporary believers, he is convinced that his future spiritual life will be better than his current physical existence. In fact, as a lover of wisdom and truth, his body only distracts him from finding reality.

“And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her-neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure-when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling, but is aspiring after being?”

Socrates spirituality was unlike the traditions of the Hellenic era, where the multitude of gods and the destination of Hades ruled over life and Death. Socrates never evokes the plethora of olympian dwellers. He does refer to the underworld though… he paints a hell-like finale for those who spent their life impurely and committed to the physical.

And so, knowing his life has been dedicated to finding the truth, and that his soul will live forever in a heaven like residence, Socrates bathes, bids his farewells, takes his hemlock and dies.

“Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates” was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder

by August 24, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what is ‘Just’. Is it defined by laws and men or is it something separate, something ideal? When one is wrongfully imprisoned, for example, is it okay to escape, to break the “law” as it is written? This was the quandary in which Socrates found himself when facing an unfair death sentence.

Crito by PlatoOf course, we can’t be sure which ideas actually belong to Socrates or to Plato. We only know that Crito, the second defense of Socrates, was written after the events took place. Even if Socrates did utter the words contained therein, it was a secondhand account at best. Chronologically though, it follows Socrates’ trial as seen in the Apology and slots in before his final death in Phaedo.

Crito is actually the shortest of these three dialogues, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to understand.

In it, Plato attempts to find justice in an unjust action. He wants to reconcile the injustice of his beloved friend’s execution with the respect that he has for the city and its laws. Certainly that is no simple feat, and one that some might say Plato did not entirely accomplish.

To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words – laws vs. Laws, respectively. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize mere laws to kill him.

We begin the dialogue with Socrates in his cell, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend, Crito, has found him asleep and, impressed by his quiet slumber, does not want to wake him up to face his unfortunate reality. When finally Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic to make his case.

He begins, perhaps, with a selfish point. Should Socrates allow himself to be killed, others will think his friends were not loose enough with their purses to rescue him. Crito makes clear that Socrates need not worry about his friends’ welfare or wallets. The provocative philosopher has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.

Crito’s second argument addresses the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. By fulfilling their decision, Socrates is acting unjustly. By refusing to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This, says Crito, is morally wrong.

Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.

Statue of SocratesHe beseeches: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.

As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he deny his own progeny his lessons?

Socrates, in turn, counters these arguments with his own. He attacks Crito’s concern for public approval, responding that the only opinions that matter, are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”

The matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be unrighteous.

Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.

The Laws take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would collapse as well. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. He argues allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…

Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time, but chose not to.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

The fact that the Laws are personified in Crito is important for our understanding of the “social compact” as viewed by Socrates. This is not Rousseau’s famous social contract, though it does at first appear that way. In the 18th century concept, the state or sovereign is a direct consequence of the people’s general will. Therefore, the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live together under the same laws. For Plato, however, this agreement is not made between citizens. It’s made between the individual citizen and the Laws – an entity in and of itself.

For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is also an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, “Yes, that is chair,” having in our minds a form of what a chair is.

In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, according to Socrates, but a law can be unjustly used.

This is how Plato tries to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. By acquiescing to the injustice, Socrates upheld the Laws and Justice and therefore, the State built upon them. Failure to do so would have destroyed all the ideals, truths and forms he held dear. This is why Socrates had to die.

 

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder – Classical Wisdom Weekly was written by Anya Leonard

The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by July 25, 2017

by Anya Leonard

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?

The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.

One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.

Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.

Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.

In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.

Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?

Bradley Manning, who was accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1

“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?

“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:

“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2

It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, defiant and unwavering.

The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.

The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The Delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.

Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.

Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.

At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.

Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:

“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3

But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.

“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4

And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.

Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.

Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.

 

1. http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/01/julian-assange-wikileaks-afghanistan) 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard

Emperor Trump?

by November 18, 2016

NEW YORK- “How’s everything with you post election?” our fearless leader, Anya Leonard, wrote to us on Wednesday morning.

We look out the window. Sun still shining.

We glance over our shoulder. Dog still napping on the couch.

We pick up a piece of paper, drop it, and watch it waft slowly to the floor. Laws of physics still behaving normally.

That’s a start…

All of our well-meaning liberal friends predicted utter chaos should Emperor Trump take the throne.

‘What sort of chaos?’ we wondered.

Would the Spartans tear down our city walls?

Would Rome burn anew while Donald tuned his fiddle?

Would the Visigoths storm the city, desecrate our monuments and make off with our women?

Since none of that has happened (yet) we’d like to think we’re getting off okay. You know…all things considered.

#NotMyCaesar

There may be celebration in “fly over America” where The Donald is heralded as an American hero, but the bicoastal citizens view him as tantamount to the devil.

“What the f*** is wrong with you?” bemoaned Silicon Valley investor, Dave McClure during a web summit in Lisbon last Wednesday. There is now a very real effort to have California secede from the American Republic.

Protests erupted across Manhattan following the election announcement. They congregated in Union Square and clogged up much of 5th avenue. We got caught up in the madness and had to find a different way home.

#NotMyPresident was trending as of Wednesday morning. We stop for a minute and wonder how it is that our forefathers every expressed their outrage without the advent of hash tags. How quickly would Caesar been assassinated if #NotMyEmperor had been trending in ancient Rome? How did the American founders possibly revolt without 140 characters and #NoTaxationWithoutRepresentation @BostonHarbor #TeaParty?

I guess we’ll never know…

But dear reader, you don’t pay us to cheer for the winners or howl alongside the losers. In fact, you don’t pay us at all! Which makes our observations on this matter worth at least what you pay for them.

That being said, we always viewed The Donald with guilty fascination; the way you might view a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass or a flaming garbage truck barreling through a retirement home.

He’s a scoundrel; it’s true. We even wondered, despite backlash from readers, if he might just be a tyrant. The man lacks the eloquence of Pericles or the philosophical mind of Marcus Aurelius, but he’s captured the hearts and minds of the everyman. He promises eternal glory to the empire. In that regard, perhaps Trump’s a Cesar-like leader: bold, brash, beloved. Will the Senators stab him to death?

Time will tell.

But back to the abovementioned anger.

The justification for the outrage, or so we glean, is that HRC seems to have won the popular vote. That is to say more of the unwashed voters pulled the Clinton lever. It was the Electoral College, not the popular vote, which delivered Trump his win.

“The man lacks the eloquence of Pericles or the philosophical mind of Marcus Aurelius, but he’s captured the hearts and minds of the everyman. He promises eternal glory to the empire.”

N.B. Our international readers, as well as any American readers who skipped American Gov 101, might want to brush up on the Electoral College. Try here.

“The Electoral College has outlived its usefulness,” reads a very real petition to abolish the whole shebang, “It is part of the constitution, written when communication was by pony express.”

Has the Electoral College outlived its usefulness?

A lot of our millennial friends seem sure that the answer is ‘yes’.

At Classical Wisdom, we’re never sure or unsure about anything, but always questioning. Like Socrates, we’ve only ever claimed to know nothing, and not once have we failed to live up to that standard.

But since we’re here, let’s get into it.

Tyranny Arises out of Democracy

If you want to see the consequences of a direct democracy, look no further than classical Athens.

marcus aurelius

Athens is heralded as the cradle of democracy. The caveat being that said democracy was very much a work in progress. While democracy was popular with the demos (the people) it was far from perfect. Just for starters- Socrates was executed as a result of a democratic vote. So were numerous generals and treasurers during the Peloponnesian War.

The people of Athens continuously voted for more and more military campaigns against neighboring states following the end of the Greco-Persian Wars in the early 5th century BC.

And why not?

Money was pouring in from plundered states, the citizens had regular work as oarsmen on the military Triremes (warships), and the Generals were being heralded with untold amounts of glory (political capital).

Never mind that such events led to the Peloponnesian War between the Athenian Empire and the Spartan coalition of the Peloponnese. The war would ultimately conclude with the destruction of the Athenian city wall and a brief suspension of democracy itself.

The philosopher Plato so despised democracy that he would later make the bold claim that democracy could lead only to tyranny.

Or, from the man himself…

And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.

The Republic, Book VIII

 

Elected Despotism

The American framers opted to avoid such an outcome by attempting to create, at least on paper, a democratic republic that would restrain both the conniving tendencies of politics and the winner-take-all demands of, as Madison put it in Federalist 10, “an interested and overbearing majority.”

The American founders took a page from the Roman historian, Polybius and crafted a government of “mixed regime.” Much in the way that the Roman Republic attempted to balance power between the Consuls, Senators and the people, so too did the American framers hope to stabilize the country through the checks and balances of federal branches.

And as for the “over bearing majority”, the Electoral College was created to keep them in check and avoid the mob rule of a direct election.

The obvious kicker being, and some of you might already know this, the original Electoral College system is not used today.

Originally, the Constitution allowed citizens do elect “electors” who could then deliberate and discern the wisest candidate and vote in turn on the citizens behalf.

From Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution…

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

 

These electors were supposed to be impartial, free agents who could discern the true qualifications needed for the office of Presidency and vote for a candidate who exemplified such qualities.

But in the early 1800s this plan was effectively scrapped. The electors became “voluntary party lackeys and intellectual nonentities.” The electors bowed down to the wishes of the party and the state, without the bother of impartial deliberation.

N.B. the above quote is from Chief Justice Robert Jackson, Ray v. Blair, dissent, 1952

This trend continued until the original Electoral College was replaced with the general ticket that we know today. It was not, and this is just between us chickens, the original intention of the classically-minded men who were very aware of the ebbs and flows of history; men who would have been educated in the classical ideas of the ancient world’s most prolific thinkers.

Even still, would reverting to this original system indeed give us the wise and just rulers that we so deserve? More likely it would be a replay of the massive outrage seen during the Democratic primaries when people figured out precisely what a Super Delegate actually was.

To paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the worst system of government… except for all the others.

Democracy is an experiment originating in the classical age. It was, at the start, a work in progress.

Maybe it still is.

Ego is Your Enemy

by October 14, 2016

This month we have been occupied with politics- discussing politics, reading The Politics, mourning the state of politics, writing about aforementioned lamentation of politics.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

No answers for certain.

Maybe your editor is a masochist. If you’re a long-time sufferer of our scribblings, then that also makes us a sadist.

This week, we continued the self-flagellation of our soul and listened to the vice presidential debate here in the States.

“So… this won’t be like the last one, right?” our girlfriend inquires with us. “These guys are like…normal people…right?”

We hate to be the one to break it to her, but figure she’s got to learn sooner or later.

“No, honey. They’re not normal people. They’re politicians.”

The Big ‘So What?’

This week, we turn away from politics, cross our fingers, and hope that the demos (people) don’t ruin the polis (State) while our back is turned.

But that isn’t to say that we aren’t talking about important stuff. Far from it!

Before putting any ink to parchment (digital ink on digital parchment, mind you) your editor always considers what we have affectionately dubbed “the big ‘so what?’”

Why should you care? Will reading this week’s newsletter make our subscribers better, smarter, more introspective people?

Or will their eyes glaze over as soon as the edition hits the inbox?

I once had a fellow university student ask me if he could contribute to our weekly mailings. He wanted to submit part of his term paper that focused on the plausibility of the Aristotelian understanding of sense organs.

“Needs more applicability,” we told him.

“Applicability? Never heard of that philosopher.”

You get the point…

The biggest hurdle your editor faces, since our beat is the ancient classics, is contending with the big ‘so what?’ Most people assume that the wisdom of classical antiquity is just that…antiquated.

The classics, most assume, might be right at home in a smoking parlor where Reginald and Irving sew elbow patches on their tweed jackets and pontificate through billowing clouds of pipe smoke.

(Click here to read our previous writings on the fictional Reginald and Irving)

But what of the hearts and minds of those of us here in the real world? The mortgage payer? The soccer mom? The entrepreneur with the scrappy young startup?

Is there room in their lives for the classics?

We think so… and we’re not the only ones.

Ego Is The Enemy

Your editor keeps busy most days, but we put aside some time this week to crack open Ego Is the Enemy, a new book from the New York Time’s bestselling author, and occasional Classical Wisdom contributor, Ryan Holiday.

…ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Of repeating and retaining your success. It’s a magnet for enemies and errors. It is Scylla and Charybdis.

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)

 

If you caught that classical reference at the end, there’s a reason for it. As Ryan puts it, “Like my other books, this one is deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy and indeed all the great classical thinkers.”

Ryan’s a man after our own heart- a writer who uses the wisdom of antiquity to inspire and cultivate the life of the modern citizen.

Most good ideas are old ideas, and the idea that our ego is the enemy is not just old…it’s ancient!

Hate Those Who Flatter

Ego Is The Enemy opens the first chapter by mentioning the ancient essayist and philosopher, Isocrates.

“Sometime around the year 374 B.C., Isocrates, one of the most well-known teachers and rhetoricians in Athens, wrote a letter to a young man named Demonicus. Isocrates had been a friend of the boy’s recently deceased father and wanted to pass on to him some advice on how to follow his father’s example.”

-Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy)

 

Thanks, Ryan. We’ll take it from here.

Letter to Demonicus, as the piece is known, is brief by ancient standards. You could read the whole shebang in a few minutes. All the same, the letter is filled with practical advice intended to arm the young man for the years ahead.

Isocrates warns Demonicus to “Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.” And that a young man of noble stock should, “Consider that propriety, a sense of shame, justice, and self-control, especially become you; for by all these a young man’s character seems to be adorned.”

Isocrates, in essence, is urging Demonicus to follow the precepts of goodness that would be later propounded by the likes of Socrates and Plato.

Plato believed that the soul was like a chariot, pulled along by two wild horses. The horses represented our desires, both noble and ignoble, and it is only through the skill of a veteran charioteer (wisdom) that we are able to control the direction of the chariot and avoid catastrophe by letting our desires run rampant.

chariot

An ego, left unchecked, has the tendency to lead to disaster and ruin. It is only through the skilled hand of virtue, wisdom, and modesty, that we are able to properly engage our soul in the necessary duties of life.

Ego, as Holiday puts it, is indeed the enemy.

The Internet Has Made You Ignoble

We usually propose that lessons from antiquity are just as important now as they were thousands of years ago. Today’s particular missive is unique in that it’s not just as important, it’s more important now than it’s ever been.

“Isocrates warns Demonicus to ‘Hate those who flatter as much as those who deceive, for both, if trusted, injure those who trust them.'”

It has never been easier than it is today to indulge in self-aggrandizement. As Holiday puts it, “Now, more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego.”

We stick out our chest; share our perspective on social media outlets with the assumption that our opinions innately matter. Young people are taught that they, by their mere existence, are special. We are told to follow our dreams and that success is all but guaranteed.

Your editor, anecdotally, has observed old friends sink into depression or mania when the realities of the world come crashing down. They are not rock gods or movie stars by the age of 27 and are therefore cheated out of the future they were promised.

The ego has run amok. The horses have slipped the reins. The charioteer is asleep at the wheel.

If ego is the enemy, then wisdom and modesty are your allies. Our classical forbearers knew this lesson well. Socrates said…

It would be better for me… that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself.

 

Cultivate virtue and wisdom. Learn to, as Isocrates says, “hate flatterers”, and that includes the flatterer within all of us.

How important is the health of a ruler?

by September 23, 2016

The classical age was rife with plague and disease. After all, the ancient world very often chalked up illnesses to the whims of capricious gods; and when you consider that there were open sewer systems, deplorable hygiene practices, not to mention a severe lack of penicillin, getting sick and dying weak and infirmed was par for the course.

Rulers, while able to afford a better quality of living, were not immune from disease.

From the Greek world: the statesmen Pericles was claimed by the Plague of Athens in the late 5th century BC.

It has long been believed that Julius Caesar was epileptic. Caesar’s abilities were greatly deteriorated by his sickness. It is said he collapsed while on campaign in Cordoba, Spain in 46 BC. Enfeebled by his sickness, Caesar also caused a public scandal when he refused to stand when the Senate was honoring him.

N.B. a new hypothesis states that Caesar actually suffered from mini-strokes, not seizures.

However, Rome’s first dictator perpetuo was not the only imperial ruler to succumb to illness.

It has long been suspected that Nero (37-68 AD), the supposed fiddle player, was mentally unfit for to hold the seat of power. It’s been suggested that he suffered from Histrionic personality disorder, a sickness characterized by excessive attention-seeking behavior.

Claudius
Gratus proclaims Claudius emperor
by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Emperor Claudius (10 BC- 54 AD) had remarkably poor health that lead to unsightly behavior and paranoia. Polio has been suggested as a possible diagnosis. The historian Suetonius writes how…

…his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting, for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose; he stammered besides and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.

-Suetonius (Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

 

And then there’s Caligula.

Worst-Case Scenario

 

When considering the possible impacts of poor health of a ruler, Caligula certainly takes the cake as a worst-case scenario.

Seneca the Younger claimed Caligula (12-41 AD) possessed “monstrous cruelty”. It is reported that he killed on a whim; detaching heads from bodies of anybody who had ever crossed or disagreed with him.

“How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?”

During a gladiator games, they ran out of criminals to throw into the arena. So Caligula ordered his guards to haul spectators into the ring to be eaten by lions.

A citizen once insulted Caligula. As punishment, the emperor ordered the man to be beaten with chains every day. The punishment was carried out for three months before the man was eventually beheaded.

In addition to his penchant for needless murder, Caligula is accused of other odd conduct.

It is said he publically had sex with his three sisters at banquets, sometimes on the table while the food was being served. He turned the imperial palace into a brothel. He also appointed his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a priest.

Caligula didn’t just take a page from the crazy book, he might have written the entire corpus.

What was the source of his madness? How is it that a young emperor, who was initially beloved by all, turned into one of histories most infamous loons?

For the first seven months of his reign, all adored him. Then, in 37 AD, the emperor became exceedingly ill. While Caligula made a full recovery, ancient writers report that he was never the same. His dire sickness seems to have either caused, or was at least preceded, by his monstrous killings and bizarre behaviors.

…it was not long before Gaius-who was now looked upon as a saviour and benefactor, and who was expected to shower down some fresh and everlasting springs of benefits upon all Asia and Europe, so as to endow the inhabitants with inalienable happiness and prosperity, both separately to each individual and generally to the whole state-began, as the proverb has it, at home, and changed into a ferocity of disposition.

-Philo of Alexandria (On the Embassy to Gaius)

So…. how important is the health of a ruler?

Well, maybe more than you think.