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Socrates the Prophet?

by 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.

Who Are The Semi-Socratics?

by 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 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.

Why Does Stuff Exist?

by April 27, 2015

If that title seems a bit vague, not to mention all-around weird, then there is probably a reason for that. The subject matter we are tackling today tends to be so head-scratchingly confusing that any attempt at explaining it via a brief title just falls short.
ParmenidesThat’s right everybody. This week we are looking at one of those grand and profound questions that philosophy has blessed us with over the centuries; it’s one of those real nitty-gritty, what-does-it-all-mean sort of questions that tends to infuriate amateur philosophers and causes first year philosophy students to consider pursuing a degree in art history instead.
So…why does stuff exist? How did it get here? Did it come from nothing? Or did it always exist? We are going to get to all that in just one moment.
First, believe it or not, I actually do get quite a bit of reader mail. After my article a few weeks ago, I woke up to a flurry of emails in my inbox.
“Outstanding newsletter, thank you.”, read one such letter.
“Interesting stuff, keep it coming!”, read another.

Some of our readers turn out to be philosophers themselves and wasted no time in sharing their views.

“…Religion and metaphysics seek to understand the source of it all. Science said it all started with the Big Bang which created Space, Time, Energy and Matter, Location and such. Since there was no Space until the Big Bang- what did it go Bang in?

In religion they say it all started with God saying “Let there be light and there was light”. Since the word “let” is a request or command, who was he aiming that communication at?
Both explain how ‘something’ came into being. Since the laws of nature, God and physics say all words to exist must have its opposite. (check any thesaurus). SO the opposite of something is NOTHING. What NOTHING created all the somethings?”

An interesting idea, I think to myself. It is an idea, however, that is slightly flawed.

For starters, the Big Bang theory does not state that matter and energy suddenly appeared from nothingness. Rather, it tells us that the universe once existed in an incredibly dense state and then BANG, it rapidly expanded. As a cosmological theory, the Big Bang does not necessarily promote the idea that something (the universe) came from nothing (all physicists reading this should feel free to write in and correct me if I’ve made some unforgiveable mistake).
Ignoring the religious explanation for the creation of being, because I am simply not up for more theology this week, we are still left with that final, dangling question: What nothing created all the somethings?
Believe it or not, that is a question that has been puzzling philosophers for centuries, and it brings us back to our topic of the day: how does stuff come into existence?
parmenides statueThis question of the origin of existence was of supreme importance to the Greek philosophers. There was perhaps no philosopher who better explained the confusion behind “coming into being” than Parmenides.
Parmenides of Elea was a pre-Socratic philosopher who lived either in the late sixth or early fifth century BC and is often considered to be the founder of the Elatic school of ancient philosophy.
Parmenides is best remembered for his critiques on change and motion. He makes the seemingly baffling claim that all matter is incapable of change. Moreover motion, insofar as it is a type of change, is also impossible. How exactly is change impossible? His argument goes something like this:
Change consists of coming into being (the philosophers used the Greek word, genesis). If something changes, comes into being, then it came into being from something else. What did it come into being from? There are only two options as far as Parmenides can see.

1. Being comes from nonbeing

2. Being comes from being

If #1 is correct, then it would tell us that being (existence) springs from nothingness. This is a logical impossibility since nothing can come from nothing (not even the Big Bang).
If #2 is correct and we conclude that being comes from being, then that would imply that there existed a state of non-being at one point. However, we know this to be impossible.
We cannot say that B came to exist from A, because that would imply that there was once a time that B partook of non-existence, and we have already shown that that which does not exists does not exist out of necessity and nothing can come from nothing.
Put very frankly, so long as a thing can be thought of or expressed, it can be said to exist. More importantly, it can be said that that thing ALWAYS existed and will always exist. Change is impossible and the entire universe is indivisible and eternal.
If this seems like a rather tricky argument, then that is because it is. It is an argument that would seem to contradict our own empirical observations, our perception that all things are changing all the time.
Our senses, according to Parmenides, are actually an illusion. The way of perception is the way of opinion, and only be adhering to strict rational thought can we arrive at the way of the truth, namely that all of existence is One and cannot partake of change.
protagorasThe ideas of Parmenides would actually have implications for the field of ethics as well as philosophy. This “parmenidean problem” would be hijacked by some unscrupulous figures of ancient Greece and used to justify a relativistic view of morality and ethics.
The sophists, specifically Protagoras of Abdera, would make the claim that, since perception is illusion and only being truly exists, there was no true standard of goodness based on human nature.
Each idea is just as good as the next, both equally valid and invalid at the same time. In short, there is no standard for morality. Man is the measure of all things. The sophists would use these ideas while defending their plaintiffs in court or when teaching the subject of ethics and morality.
Men like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle believed that an acceptance of ethical relativism was the worst thing that could happen to an individual. Philosophy ought to lead us to a better understanding of virtue, not deprive us of any standard with which to judge the goodness of our life.
To counteract the claims of the sophists, and to dispel some serious teleological, metaphysical, and even theological concerns, a proper counter argument must be made against Parmenides.
Enter Aristotle.
Aristotle lays out his argument against the Parmenidean problem in book 1, chapter 8 of his Physics. Aristotle first lays out the problem of change as expressed by Parmenides.
“What is cannot come to be (since it already is), while nothing can come to be from what is not.” –Aristotle (Physics)

To avoid the Pamenidean dilemma, the philosopher does something uniquely Aristotelian. He draws an important distinction.

And here we come back to our reader mail briefly. Our subscriber wrote into us suggesting that, perhaps, some thing comes to be from its opposite. And in a way, Aristotle agrees.
Change consists of a pair of contrasting or opposite properties and a subject that gains one property while losing another. Change consists of three things: an underlying subject, a form (a positive property), and a lack or privation of that form.
Aristotle uses the example of…

A. An unmusical man who becomes musical

B. A shapeless pile of bronze that becomes a statue.

In the case of A, the subject is the man, the aristotleform is “musical” and the privation of the form is “unmusical”. In the case of B, the subject is “bronze”, the form is “statue” and the privation is “shapelessness”.
Change occurs when the privations (unmusical and shapelessness) are replaced by the forms “musical” and “statue”. Throughout this process, the subjects of “man” and “bronze” remain in existence. They simply partake of different accidental (non-essential) properties.

Parmenides might ask us, “Where did the musical man come from? From being or nonbeing?” Aristotle might respond that he came from both, and at the same time neither.
The unmusical man has a potential to become the musical man. However, until the privation of “unmusical” is destroyed and replaced with the form of “musical”, the musical man subsists in a state of potential existence, not actualized existence.

If this topic still seems a bit hazy, then don’t worry. It’s not necessarily the easiest topic to grasp. I would encourage you to write in and we can discuss it more. Until next time, keep philosophizing my friends. We will speak soon.

Deterministically Indeterminate

by January 13, 2015

“Marx was right!”, declares Bill Bonner’s Diary of a Rogue Economist.
Marx“Oh yeah?”, I wonder to myself. You certainly know how to write a good hook there, Mr. Bonner. Please, go on. What was Marx right about?
Strangely, the first thing that comes to mind is a quote that I either read, heard, or made up. Supposedly, Marx once said that we out to “be careful when trusting a person who does not like wine”.
I’ve always been dubious about the authenticity of that quote. Authentic or not, that’s some solid advice if you ask me. If you don’t like wine, then you have either never had any or you have never drank enough of the stuff.
But now I’m just getting away from the subject at hand. What was it that Marx was right about?

“Karl Marx had plenty of bad ideas. But he had at least one good one: historical determinism.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but their social being that determines their consciousness.
Or as Marx put it:
‘At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto.
From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.’” -Bill Bonner (Diary of a Rogue Economist)

Determinism? Consciousness? Plenty of bad ideas?! Great Scott! We are talking about philosophy here!

The newsletter continues, detailing how economic forces are, largely, determined by the events of preceding years. I’m certain my modest stock portfolio could benefit from this type of advice, but I was already too deep in thought.
Historical determinism you say? Marx might have been waving that banner for some time, but it was the ideas of the ancients that made the banner in the first place.

And if you think the question of determinism within society, economics, or the consciousness of human beings is interesting, then certainly the notion of determinism within the scope of all of existence would be even better!

This brings us back to that age old question- Do I do what I want to do? Or do I do what I must do? We are talking about determinism and indeterminism, obviously. And it is something of an ongoing debate that will either fascinate you or throw you into a fit of existential depression.
It could go either way to be honest.
I won’t go into too much depth at this point, but what you basically need to know is the following: Determinism tells us that all events, even human events, are caused by forces other than our own will. That is to say that we are not in charge of what we do, but are merely just one more domino falling in a sequence that started with the beginning of existence. Assuming, of course, that there even was a beginning.
Indeterminism, on the other hand, tells us that we are, at least to some degree, in control of our own actions. We aren’t just passengers in our lives. We are, partially, the authors of our stories.

It basically comes down to free will. Do you have it or don’t you?

In his Physics, and later in Metaphysics, Aristotle makes a case for a continuous sequence of motion. Basically, it comes down to the assertion that for every motion there is a mover. Simple enough, right?
The rock is moved by the agency of the stick. The stick is moved by the agency of the hand. The hand is moved by the agency of the man- so on an so forth.
The question becomes ‘where did it all start?’ We could have, conceivably, continued that regression ad infinitum (which is just a fancy way of saying “forever and ever and ever”).
Aristotle then concludes that there must have been some first mover that kicked off all of this motion in the first place. There must have been some thing that was unmoved itself, but was able to initiate motion. This is what is known as ‘the unmoved mover’.

“Since motion must be everlasting and must never fail, there must be some everlasting first mover, one or more than one.” -Aristotle’s Physics

metaphysicsAt first glance, we might think that this idea espouses the notion that everything we do is predetermined. We are all just falling in line behind the unmoved mover. However, we must remember that Aristotle also was a big fan of the idea of potentiality and actuality. He even centered most of his ethical philosophy around the idea.
The sequence of events that was set in motion by the unmoved mover does not dictate what we do. Rather, the unmoved mover allows for the potentiality of all things. We are still, at least partially, in charge of our lives.
Now that was just a roundabout way of saying that events are partially determined by previous events and partially determined by our choices. And if that seems unsatisfying, then that’s because it is.
The question of “determinism or indeterminism” was not properly addressed by Aristotle because it was not a question that was consciously known by philosophy at the time. Epicurus, however, is another story. Perhaps it is with him that we might find a suitable answer.
Epicurus, who studied philosophy one generation after Aristotle, subscribed to the atomic model of Democritus and Leucippus, two pre-socratic philosophers whose theory tells us that all of our world is composed of atoms and void.
Atoms move through void and often smash into one another. These collisions create causal chains and result in all the events within our universe. This gave rise to the idea of causal determinism, or the idea that all things occur out of physical necessity. Within the fragments of Leucippus’ writing he tells us that…

“Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.”

Epicurus attempted to combat this deterministic position by suggesting that atoms do not always follow predictable paths. They can swerve, change course, and collide with other atoms. These random collisions give rise to new causal chains.
Epicurus argued that these new causal chains gave us more control over our actions, which would mean that ideas like praise or blame are appropriate when looking at human behavior. We are, in short, not slave to necessity.

“Fate, which some introduce as sovereign over all things, he scorns, affirming rather that some things happen of necessity, others by chance, others through our own agency. For he sees that necessity destroys responsibility and that chance is inconstant; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.” -Epicurus (Letter to Menoeceus)

Some of you might be scratching your heads over this one. Epicurus seems to tell us that there are gaps in the causal chains which occur right before a human decision. This gives rise to the possibility of spontaneity and free will.

But wait a minute there, Epicurus! How is it that we can assume that these causal gaps occur with any regularity during the exact moments of human decision? Moreover, you seem to be suggesting that indeterministic actions are dependent upon these causal gaps. How can it truly be free will if it is dependent upon some previous event, or lack thereof?

The clever and astute reader that you are, you may be asking yourself these questions. To this, Epicurus would tell us absolutely nothing because he is an ancient philosopher who died thousands of years ago.
There really aren’t any fulfilling answers to these sorts of questions. Epicurus believed that the random motion of atoms allowed for the potentiality of human decision. However, the relation between the causal gaps and human free will is murky. Moreover, the fact that free will is dependent upon these causal gaps means that we really only possess some sort of quasi-free will.
In other words, we are deterministically indeterminate.
If Epicurus and his deterministic indeterminism seems just way too wonky for you right now, then you could always just subscribe to the ideas of the early stoics. It’s like that old expression says…
Those who can’t reconcile their own free will against the causal forces of the universe ought to just concede to the divine logos within all existence.
People say that, right?
That, however, is a discussion we will leave for next week. Speak soon.

The Pitiable Tyrant

by January 6, 2015

Do you remember a few weeks ago when we had a bit of a discussion on the Platonic dialogue, Gorgias? I sure do. Those were good times, simpler times.
Most of you are dedicated readers so I won’t have socratesto remind you that we discussed the nature of rhetoric, the morality of rhetoric, and Socrates’ assertion that, without philosophy, rhetoric is merely a form of flattery, a way to entice people to accept a position that is often unjust.
Then again, a lot of you are reading this newsletter for the first time. So for those of you who are just joining the party, I would like to invite you to come on in, man, shut the door, the bar is in the back.
Okay! Let’s get to it.
So we were talking about Gorgias, right? Well, as it turns out, we stopped right before we got to some serious philosophical musings. It is the sort of ancient philosophy that most people take for granted but can, in fact, shed some light on the way we perceive our world today.
Basically, it’s my bread and butter.

Anyway, when we last left Socrates he had just finished up a discussion with the dialogue’s namesake, Gorgias, and had made the assertion that rhetoric, without philosophy, was something of a vice.

The implication of this is that speechmakers like Gorgias, not to mention politicians and sophists, have the tendency to become good-for-nothing dogs who couldn’t care less for true understanding or justice.
Well, this struck a nerve with Polus, another participant in the dialogue, and he begins something of a crusade against the Father of Western Philosophy.

“And do even you, Socrates, seriously believe what you are now saying about rhetoric? What! because Gorgias was ashamed to deny that the rhetorician knew the just and the honourable and the good, and admitted that to any one who came to him ignorant of them he could teach them, and then out of this admission there arose a contradiction-the thing which you dearly love, and to which not he, but you, brought the argument by your captious questions. Do you seriously believe that there is any truth in all this?” -Polus (Gorgias)

Polus argues that rhetoricians possess great power within a city. A good rhetorician might persuade a court to confiscate the property of a man or to exile a criminal from a state. In this way it would seem they are like tyrants and possess great power.
Well, it’s funny you should mention tyrants, says Socrates, because those bums are just as bad as the rhetoricians. In fact, tyrants and rhetoricians possess no real power at all and are really the most pitiful people in all of society.

“And I tell you, Polus, that rhetoricians and tyrants have the least possible power in states, as I was just now saying; for they do literally nothing which they will, but only what they think best.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

What?! Socrates must have been to too many symposiums because he is talking absolute nonsense. Polus certainly thinks this is the case. At one point he even laughs a Socrates for proposing such a foolish idea.

Polus gives the example of a real-life king who unjustly murders his brother and seizes his throne. This man will, presumably, live the rest of his life in luxury, endowed with the ability to take anything he pleases.

Certainly, Polus argues, this king is truly happy and should be envied. However, Socrates is sticking to his guns on this one. This man should not be envied. He is actually miserable and deserves only our pity.
In order for Socrates’ argument to stand any sort of chance, he will have to prove that tyrants, the men who kill and exile and condemn, only do what they think is best and not what is truly best. To do this, Socrates makes the second claim that it is a far better thing to suffer injustice than to commit injustice.

“Then I said truly, Polus that neither you, nor I, nor any man, would rather, do than suffer injustice; for to do injustice is the greater evil of the two.” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Socrates asks Polus to tell him if it is worse to suffer injustice or to commit injustice. Polus claims that it is worse to suffer injustice.
Socrates then asks which is more disgraceful. Polus concedes that committing injustice is more disgraceful.
The philosopher pushes on and claims that when comparing the goodness of a thing, we ought to consider it’s utility and pleasure.

“Let me ask a question of you: When you speak of beautiful things,such as bodies, colours, figures, sounds, institutions, do you not call them beautiful in reference to some standard: bodies, for example, are beautiful in proportion as they are useful, or as the sight of them gives pleasure to the spectators; can you give any other account of personal beauty?” -Socrates (Gorgias)

Conversely, we should consider if things are evil by examining the amount of pain and disgrace within an activity.
When considering committing injustice or suffering injustice, Polus concedes that committing injustice can be painful, but suffering is far more painful. However, when it comes to disgrace, committing injustice is truly disgraceful while suffering injustice is not disgraceful at all.
And so we must conclude that committing injustice is painful and disgraceful while suffering injustice is merely painful. Therefore, committing injustice is the greater evil. And would any reasonable man ever wish to pursue that which is most evil and bad?
Certainly not.
This is where we come back to the claim that tyrants do only what they think is best and not what is truly best. Therefore, they should be pitied.
Now, some of you might be scratching your head over this one. It would seem like Socrates won his point because of a technicality. When comparing an unjust king to and just prisoner who is, oh let’s just say, having his skin peeled from his bones, we might be hesitant to say that the latter is happier than the former.
Polus actually raises such an objection.

“If a man is detected in an unjust attempt to make himself a tyrant, and when detected is racked, mutilated, has his eyes burned out, and after having had all sorts of great injuries inflicted on him, and having seen his wife and children suffer the like, is at last impaled or tarred and burned alive, will he be happier than if he escape and become a tyrant, and continue all through life doing what he likes and holding the reins of government, the envy and admiration both of citizens and strangers?”-Polus (Gorgias)

Well, when you put it like that…
Socrates’ argument that tyrants are pitiable certainly might come under fire. It might seem absurd to suggest that we would truly be happier suffering injustice rather than reaping the spoils of committing injustice.
We must remember that at the heart of this argument there is the Platonic idea that there exists the form of Goodness (with a capitol G). We can only live a happy, fulfilled life by actively pursuing and understanding the Good.
By behaving unjustly as if we were tyrants, we are actually damaging our true self, our inner self. Tyrants are pitiable because they possess a tarnished soul, an incomplete existence.
The bottom line is that it is a far better thing to suffer whilst in pursuit of truth than to live ignobly in the shade of ignorance and injustice. And if there ever was a purely Socratic idea, it is this sentiment exactly.
Nowadays we don’t have tyrants, per say, but we still have politicians. Plato had a few things to say about them as well, namely that democratic government tends to create a bunch of corrupt, self-interested tyrants who care nothing for the people, but we will get to that another day.
If we do choose to accept Socrates’ argument for the pitiable tyrant, then we might view our modern-day tyrants in a new light. The next time you read about a massive corruption scandal in the newspaper or see an elected representative lying through their teeth on the television, you simply need to shake your head and say…
Those poor, miserable bastards.