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How To Be an Aristotelian and a Yogi

by April 30, 2021

Written by Leigh Duffy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
While yoga has exploded in popularity in the last twenty years or so, the larger system of yoga—of which the physical practice is a mere part—has been around since before the time of Aristotle. This eight-limbed (or eight-part) system of yoga, which was developed just after Aristotle’s time, is rooted in a rich philosophical school of thought addressing metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe, the nature of humanity, and the nature of knowledge.
This ancient school of thought addresses how our knowledge about the universe and our place in it can help us live better lives. In other words, it proposes answers to questions that Aristotle himself was asking. Aristotle had different answers, but there are many similarities. Those similarities help teach us how to live noble and virtuous lives. 
The yoga practice developed by Patañjali in The Yoga Sūtras sometime between the 2nd Century B.C.E. and the 2nd Century C.E. is based in Sāṁkhya philosophy, which adheres to metaphysical dualism. Dualism points to the polarities of existence. On one hand, there is an aspect of the universe that is ever-changing and temporary: prakṛti. This includes the physical stuff of the universe: from mountains and rivers to tables and chairs to human beings – including our brains, flesh, bones, and blood. But prakṛti also includes our minds. Thoughts, mental states, dreams, and emotions are all prakṛti because they are impermanent and ever-changing in nature. 
It might sound like everything in the world is prakṛti – what else is there aside from the temporary, changing parts of the world? Dualism reminds us there is another side of the coin. In Sāṁkhya philosophy, there is also an aspect of the world that is permanent and does not change. This is puruṣa and is understood to be the true nature of the self (ātman). This divine nature exists in us all independent of the qualities of the physical world. Puruṣa is considered many in nature; the same non-changing Self unites us all. 
The more well-known physical practice of yoga helps us understand this dualism and experience the nature of the true Self. The goal of the three stages of meditation –  dharaṇādhyāna, and samādhi – is to experience or realize puruṣa and to be able to distinguish that permanent self from the impermanent world. Other aspects of yoga, including the physical practice, āsana, prepare a person for this. 
While puruṣa does not act, prakṛti cannot avoid acting since its very nature is to change. Therefore, to choose not to act is an action – it is a choice one makes. The ethics of yoga include a sense of duty with regards to how we act in the world.
The Bhagavad-Gītā, one of the principal yogic texts, teaches that yoga is “perfection in action” or “skill in actions” (2.50). The perfection or skill here is understood as acting without attachment (without attachment to anything in prakṛti), selfless action where good deeds are done for the sake of the good. 
Later chapters of the Gītā give examples of this: to be sincerely generous, one must give without attachments. Giving charitably “to secure some favor in return, or again in expectation of a future reward, or with reluctance” (17.21) or “without proper regard and with contempt” (17.22) are both examples of giving with attachment. However, giving “for the sake of duty alone, given at a proper time and place to a deserving recipient … that is thought to be of the nature of goodness” (17.20). 
We see echoes of Aristotle in that very quotation. One Aristotelian virtue is generosity, which is an intermediary between “excess wastefulness and … ungenerosity” (1107b10). Actions are virtuous when they are done “at the right times…toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way” (1106b21-23). 
In yoga, the right reasons are egoless reasons, without attachment. Being attached to prakṛti — the ever-changing world, over which we have little control — is not only self-defeating, it fails to recognize the connected nature of puruṣa. In yoga, we must act for the sake of doing what’s right, out of a sense of duty.
Aristotle says something similar: “Actions done in accordance with virtue are noble and done for the sake of what is noble. So the generous person will give for the sake of what is noble and in the correct way – to the right people, in the right amounts, at the right time, and so on” (1120a24-27).
A key component of living well has to do with intention. In yoga, our actions are noble when they are done with the intention of honoring the divine nature in all beings. That implies particular duties like not lying and not causing harm. Nevertheless, yoga also teaches that it is impossible to live a life without any harm or suffering at all.
In the Bhagavad-Gītā, the protagonist, Arjuna, is told that his duty, as a warrior, is to fight a holy war for the sake of his kingdom. This war is to be fought against his cousins. Arjuna is reluctant to fight at first because of his vow to create no harm, but he soon learns that not fighting would still be a choice—and would create more harm in the world. Fighting is his duty and while it will harm others (his cousins), he must remember that the intention is to protect the vulnerable citizens of the kingdom from his cousins.
Bhagavad-Gita’s revelation: Krishna tells Arjuna the Gita, source: Mahavir Prasad Mishra 
The intention behind Arjuna’s action matters greatly: if he chooses to fight for glory, that would not be noble. Yet it is equally not-noble to choose not to fight since that choice is rooted in his attachment to his cousins. Thus, choosing to fight for the sake of the kingdom is to choose to act at the right time and for the right reasons. This is noble and good. 
What would Aristotle have said about this? His comments on the virtue of courage are relevant here. Courage, he says, is an intermediary between never acting in the face of danger (being a coward) and acting in any dangerous situation at all (bravado). Courage acts at the right time and for the right reasons and is therefore virtuous. For Arjuna, fighting a war he’s afraid to fight is courageous in exactly that way. 
In order to choose virtuous action, Arjuna must have knowledge. The importance of knowledge and the application of reason is another similarity in Aristotelian and yogic texts. Both views teach that in order to live a good life, one must have knowledge about right and wrong. One must then apply that knowledge, making conscious decisions about when it is appropriate to act and how to do so. In other words, one must also use philosophical knowledge to act well.
For Aristotle, knowledge without action is incontinence. For yoga, knowledge without action is impossible since choosing not to act is an action in and of itself.  This shifts knowledge without action to knowledge without right action
Image credit: Stoabuddhism
Aristotle teaches that to act virtuously, we must act for the right reasons and for the sake of goodness itself. He also cautions us that it is better to act in this way even if the reasons aren’t yet “right”. By acting in the way that a virtuous person would act, by making it “habit”, we will indeed become virtuous. We will come to care about goodness for goodness’ sake. 
Yoga also teaches that it is better to give for the wrong reasons than not to give at all. Giving to those in need creates more good and less harm in the world. We can continue to give while working on our attachments at the same time. The practice of yoga helps develop non-attachment. Meditation is a way to remind ourselves of the temporality of the world (prakṛti) and the permanent part of ourselves that connects us all (puruṣa). That knowledge allows us to let go of the desires attached to our actions, purifying them. We can focus on the very general intention of helping others experience less harm, less suffering while in this world. 
To be a good yogi and a good Aristotelian involves being aware of the intention behind our actions. It is about developing the “right reasons” for acting. This can be done through the yogic practice of meditation or through active contemplation of the nature of goodness and of harm.
Yoga practice also involves study (Jnana yoga is the yoga of seeking knowledge), meaning one can practice yoga while studying philosophy! Finally, to be a good yogi and a good Aristotelian, one needs to act. It’s not enough to have the right intention and the right knowledge, but we must use that knowledge to act in a way that we create more good and less harm in the world. 
Illustration by Eddie Guy, source: Tricycle
Our intentions, knowledge, and actions can all influence the way we approach both the particular yoga ethical principles (yamas and niyamas) as well as the Aristotelian virtues. We can take their shared guidelines of right intention, right knowledge, and right action to help us live better lives.
For example, rather than trying to create no harm (ahimsa in yoga), we can have the intention of less harm or as little harm as possible as we go about our lives. We can make deliberate decisions that respect that. Rather than trying to calculate the perfect amount to give in order to be generous, we can cultivate the intention to give to create more good in the world and then consider – with reason – what is the right charity to which we can give. 
Being a good yogi and a good Aristotelian might just boil down to being a good philosopher! Be thoughtful about intentions, consider the choices we have before we act, be deliberate about which choices create more good in the world, and act with the intention of doing what’s right for its own sake. Namaste!

Plotinus: Founder Of Neo-Platonism

by April 29, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Plotinus (205-70 AD) was one of the most important philosophers of late antiquity. He is often called the founder of Neo-Platonism, an interpretation of the philosophy of Plato. Plotinus’ thought influenced many philosophers and was respected by Christian thinkers. 
The Life of Plotinus
Detail of Plotinus from Raphael’s The School of Athens
There are few records of Plotinus’ life. It has been claimed that he was born in Egypt. His name is a Latin one, but he was deeply influenced by Hellenic philosophy and culture. At the age of 28, Plotinus decided to study philosophy, becoming the pupil of Ammonius. Ammonius also taught several other prominent thinkers, including the Christian theologian Origen. 
In 250 AD, Plotinus accompanied Emperor Gordian in his invasion of Persia. It was later claimed that Plotinus went along because he wanted to meet the wise men of Persia and India. After the death of the Emperor, Plotinus was lucky to return to Roman territory with his life. Later he went to Rome, where he became a teacher of philosophy. 
Plotinus was both a man of action and an intellectual. He became friendly with Emperor Gallienus and tried to persuade him to build a new city in Italy modeled on the teachings of Plato. It seems that Plotinus was very well-connected; many leading Romans made him the guardian of their children in their wills. The philosopher died after a long illness. His works were compiled by his disciple Porphyry in the work known as the Enneads
The Philosophy of Plotinus
Plotinus was a disciple of Plato, but he interpreted the great philosopher in a new way, in so doing developing a new philosophy. Plotinus argues that the transcendent and indivisible exists. It is neither being nor non-being, and is the ultimate form of reality. 
In philosophy, this concept is known as Monad. Plotinus argued that all things emanated from the One. Everything we see around us has its source in the One. Things emerged from the One without any act of creation; they simply emanated from the transcendent reality. 
In the Enneads, Plotinus compared the One to the Sun which emanates light but is not diminished by this. The most important emanation from the One is the World Soul followed by Nous (intelligence). Human souls and being, or matter, have their source in the World Soul. Plotinus believed that just as everything came from the One, everything seeks to return to union with the One. 
The Meaning of Life
Plotinus was a moral and religious philosopher concerned with humanity’s ultimate happiness. He believed that happiness could only be attained if a person identifies with the highest thing in the universe. 
Taking a page from Plato, Plotinus argued that happiness was the contemplation of the Forms. These Forms are the eternal ideas and ultimate source of reality. Plotinus believed that the ‘perfect life’ was possible if a person contemplated the Forms and lived a life of reason. 
For Plotinus, the meaning of life was unity with the One. This could be achieved intellectually by the mind (Nous). By contemplating the world and not being attached its material manifestation, the mind is elevated. This can lead to ‘henosis’ which is the mystical union of the human soul with the ultimate reality—the World Soul and then, ultimately, the One. In this way, humans can become whole and, it is suggested, attain a form of perfection due to the dissolution of the self with the One. There are many religious interpretations of Plotinus’ work. Modern scholars have also noted similarities between Plotinus’ work and Buddhist and other Eastern traditions. 
The Influence of Plotinus
Plotinus with his disciples. Source: Harvard University
Plotinus’ teachings led to a growing interest in Plato and many regard him as the founder of the Neo-Platonic School of thought. This was not only influential in philosophical circles but also contributed to a revival in paganism among those opposed to Christianity. After the death of Plotinus, the Christian Church became very influential, becoming the de-facto state religion during the reign of Constantine the Great. Emperor Julian the Apostate—the last pagan ruler of Rome—was very influenced by Plotinus and attempted to restore paganism, but he failed. 
Ironically, despite his popularity with anti-Christian thinkers, Plotinus was also influential in Christian circles. Many scholars have also detected the influence of the Neo-Platonist in medieval Jewish and Muslim thought. The mystics, in particular, have been influenced by his writings throughout the centuries. There are possible similarities between Plotinus’ views and those of Spinoza. 
Marble bust believed to be of Plotinus, Ostia Antica
Plotinus was one of the most important thinkers in the late ancient world. He created a new philosophical school based on the teachings of Plato in which he developed a metaphysical system based on the One. Plotinus believed that individuals could achieve happiness by unifying with this transcendental reality through the use of their intellect. Plotinus’ work was very influential in his own time and beyond, even contributing to a pagan revival in the 4th century AD. 
Russell, B (2000). The History of Western Philosophy. Routledge: London. 

Antigone and the Ethics of Desire

by April 21, 2021

Written by Claudia Hauer, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Sophocles’ play Antigone remains one of the most compelling and oft-performed of the Greek tragedies. The play was recently adapted for use in Ferguson, Missouri by Theater of War, a social justice project which uses performances of Greek tragedy to encourage communities to bridge the military-civil divide.
In the case of Ferguson, Antigone addressed the stark divide between law enforcement and citizens. Antigone’s resistance to the tyrannical authority of the state resonates with audiences. The opposition between uncle Creon and niece Antigone reflects the timeless conflict between the laws of the state and the laws of conscience—for instance, French playwright Jean Anouilh’s famous 1944 re-staging of the play in Nazi-occupied France emphasized Antigone’s rejection of authority. 
Antigone from ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles, by Marie Spartali Stillman
In these popular productions, Antigone’s conflict with the state has focused on her taking a stand for the good. In the early 19th century, in his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel argues that Antigone is the greatest of the Greek tragedies for the perfection in which it pits Antigone and Creon’s principles against one another. But there is another possibility as well. One of Antigone’s strongest qualities is her desire. Aristotle argues in the Nicomachean Ethics that all men by nature desire the good. What if the key word in Aristotle’s statement is not ‘the good,’ but ‘desire’? 
This emphasis on desire forms the basis for an alternative interpretation of the play offered by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This interpretation takes Antigone beyond social justice issues on into the realm of identity that often underlies broader social patterns of oppression. Lacan’s psychological view focuses on the way Antigone comes to terms with the fact of her incestuous birth not through reason or principle, but through her focused and manifest desire to bury her brother.
Antigone giving burial to Polynices, by Sébastien Norblin, 1825
According to Lacan, Antigone demonstrates how ethical conduct can and will occasionally transcend the conventional social boundaries when it comes to human identity. Antigone shows us that the conventional boundaries we draw between human and other-than-human are not fixed, but porous.
By presenting us with a character who is undeniably human and yet whom convention labels ‘unnatural’, Antigone remains relevant not just to social justice issues, as in the Hegelian interpretation, but also to contemporary boundary issues such as gender identity that challenge conventional social categories. To give a contemporary example, the notion of an individual being transgender seems to many to be ‘unnatural,’ despite the obvious evidence of the humanity of the individual. 
Lacan’s reading begins with a variety of passages in the play that suggest Antigone is not acting on principle at all. For example, while lamenting to the Chorus after hearing her death sentence, Antigone says, “Had I had children or their father dead, I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen in such a case to cross the state’s decree” (905-7).
Lacan goes on to argue that while Antigone may lack principle, her burial of her brother is driven by an ethics of desire. In that respect, Antigone’s ethics align with Aristotle’s view that the ethical is located at the conjunction between action and desire. This interpretation sees Antigone as unquestionably ethical in the actions she takes to fulfill her desire to bury her brother.
Antigone imploring Oedipus to lift his curse from Polynices, by Michel Lambert 
The hold Antigone has over us cannot be understood in terms of a dry and intellectual analysis of elements like character or moral principle, Lacan argues, but rather by acknowledging the fact that we are fascinated by her, even that we desire her. As he writes:
“We know very well that over and beyond the dialogue, over and beyond the question of family and country, over and beyond the moralizing arguments, it is Antigone herself who fascinates us. Antigone in her unbearable splendor. She has a quality that both attracts us and startles us, in the sense of intimidates us; this terrible, self-willed victim disturbs us.”
Lacan preserves the Aristotelian combination of value and desire as the basis for ethical character, but instead of sharing in Aristotle’s assumption that it is our values that reveal our quality, Lacan finds the more interesting element to be desire. 
In terms of conventional humanity, Antigone should not have come into being at all. This is made clear in the legend—she comes into being both through divine mandate and the abomination of incest. Antigone challenges the audience and the characters within the text to reposition the conventional border between human and nature, now stretched to its limits by the taboo of incest.
Antigone illustrates that she too is a human being, even though the terms of her birth defy human convention. In this way Antigone herself challenges those who view the play – whatever is concealed within her or beyond her, we do not want to see; it would threaten the ethical basis of our community to see it.
As the daughter of Oedipus’ terrible incest, she should not, according to society, exist. Yet she does exist, and she does not deny herself the power of her passion for the brother who is equally the product of a broken taboo. Lacan argues that the audience relies on Antigone to protect us from those aspects of her being that may be too intense for us. From her very first opening lines, Antigone demonstrates that she is prepared to act with or without our help. 
Study for Antigone, by Frederick Sandys
In disturbing us, Antigone also challenges us in how we respond to her. Lacan suggests that the Chorus gives us the clue about how to respond to Antigone. In Lacan’s reading, the Chorus serves as a  mediator between Antigone and the audience, doing the difficult and honest work of responding to Antigone so that the audience can manage their own responses. In this manner, the Chorus makes it tolerable for all audiences to engage with Antigone. 
Antigone can endure something that an ordinary human could not: the realization that the borders that we have constructed around what it means to be human are not fixed. Antigone asserts her humanity with passion and courage, despite her incestuous birth. Admiring Antigone’s self-control, the Chorus marvels: “Many the wonders but nothing more wondrous than man.”
Antigone controls her world through her own desire. Antigone teaches us that the work of each human being is to confront, each to the limit of her ability, the uncomfortable truths of our collective uncertainty about what it means to be human. 
 Lacan, Jacques. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book VII. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. Translated by Dennis Porter. New York: Norton & Company.
Aristotle. 2000. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

If You Win, You Lose: The Philosopher’s Political Dilemma

by April 16, 2021

Written by Justin D. Lyons, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The philosopher in Plato’s Laws, called the Athenian stranger, converses with old men settled in their habits and attached to the regimes in which they live. Kleinias and Megillus are exemplars of pious traditionalism. Moreover, they propose to travel to its very source–the cave in which the god delivered the laws of Crete. Two topics one never discusses must be confronted: politics and religion.

Such challenges are usually not well received and can result in ingesting harmful substances.

Because of the subtlety required in questioning the firmly-held beliefs of his interlocutors, we can expect the Athenian to frame his speech very carefully.

Socrates sketch

The journey will be difficult for them–physically, because they are old; mentally, because they must question what they are not accustomed to questioning; and spiritually, because they must summon the courage for that questioning.

The travelers will rest from time to time in the shade of trees, for the bright light of inquiry constantly peering into the dark places of convention and accepted belief can be overwhelming. They must also be encouraged to continue their wearisome journey; the Athenian rallies them to the cause and keeps them moving forward.

He begins with an inquiry into the incompleteness of the Dorian regimes, which were ordered exclusively to martial virtue. He attempts to guide his interlocutors to the understanding that  laws should aim at the whole of virtue. This process involves delicate questioning and the use of various images to lead them beyond strict conformance to the conventions of their own regimes.

That the actual practice of politics is at stake is made clear when Kleinias reveals that he is about to engage in the task of founding a city.

Colossal statue of Zeus in the ancient Greek city of Lebadeia (modern Livadeia), by Joseph Gandy, 1819, source: Tate Britain

The Athenian then takes them through the creation of a city in speech, which emphasizes the massive difficulties involved in founding and maintaining a virtuous city and thus makes clear the necessity of philosophical wisdom.

The philosopher educates men who will have political power, but shows a reluctance to become involved politically himself. The Athenian evades one attempt to involve him in the new colony by suggesting that it is not his responsibility (Book VI).

But when the travelers reach the end of their journey, Kleinias and Megillus decide that the city they have been discussing simply cannot be founded without the presence of the Athenian:


Dear Kleinias, from all that has now been said by us, either the city’s founding must be abandoned, or this stranger here must not be allowed to go, and by entreaties and every contrivance he must be made to share in the city’s founding.


What you say is very true, Megillus, and I will do just these things, and you must help.


I’ll help (Laws, 969c-d).

They have now reached the cave and will compel the Athenian to go in. Like the famous image in the Republic, this cave represents the realm of convention and obfuscation from which the philosopher has already escaped.

Cave illustration, artist unknown

By now, Kleinias and Megillus have glimpsed the true nature of law and recognized extra-political standards of judgment. In fact, they have grasped the importance of philosophical understanding so well that they press the Athenian to get used to the dark.

The Athenian does not answer them. Apparently, he does not wish to go in. His silence is an indication that, while the philosopher’s wisdom is necessary to guide the city, he does not himself wish to engage in politics. His quest for wisdom requires that he maintain the freedom to pursue his inquiries without directly engaging in political rule.

The suggestion of compulsion in the remarks of Kleinias and Megillus indicates they are aware of the Athenian’s reluctance, though it can be doubted whether they understand it. They have grasped the importance of philosophy, but they have not grasped philosophy itself or come to appreciate its need for independence. They are concerned with the health of their city; thus, they remain willing and able to use compulsion, the means available to political men, to force wisdom to meet the practical needs of politics.

Statue of Socrates

This outcome raises the question of how well the philosopher knows how to escape the snares of pious traditionalism. He knows well how keep political men talking, convincing them that philosophy is not useless to political life. But he does so by descending to the particulars of founding a city that will inevitably require a pious traditionalism of its own.

The philosopher seems to be caught in a dilemma: If he wins, he loses. The very nature of his investigations necessarily puts him in contact with purely political men. If he wins them over, they will force him to participate in practical politics. He will not have convinced them of the desirability of philosophical wisdom as such, but only of its usefulness, and in so doing will have destroyed the freedom necessary for pursuing the very wisdom he has employed.

Learning Greek with the Ancients: Noesis

by February 17, 2021

Written by Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

It is old news that ancient thinkers were constantly questioning human learning, morals and behavior. Greek perceptions of the mind or soul were very different from contemporary views, which can make them all the more difficult to grasp for the modern reader.

However, we will make an effort to understand quite a complex concept in the ancient Greek thought: mind. Considering that the mind is quite a broad topic, I decided to focus on what it meant to just one philosopher—Plato.

Mosaic from Pompeii (1st c. BC) showing Plato’s Academy.

Starting as early as Homer, ancient thinkers began differentiating learning through perception or sensation from the learning that comes through awareness. Even though we can claim with certainty that this distinction existed, these two ways of learning were never clearly defined, and a lot of things about them remain obscure.

One thing we do know for sure is that learning through perception or sensation in Greek was called aisthesis (αἴσθησις) and that learning through awareness was always related with nous (νοῦς).

The meaning of nous depended on the concept it represented, as well as the philosopher who used it, but, roughly put, we can say that it meant ”mind”.

Aristotle claimed that the Presocractic philosophers did not make this distinction between learning through the mind and learning through perception. There were, however, some attempts.

Heraclitus, for example, in his teaching about logos, agrees that the senses are unreliable, but he does not clearly explain how logos (the truth, the essence) is revealed to us. He does relate it with nous, though.

Plato sheds new and slightly clearer light on the concept of learning through his theory of knowledge as presented in Phaedo. He puts the soul in the center of this theory, making all cognitive activity the result of the operation of the soul. He characterizes sensation as the perception of the soul through the body, whilst reasoning is made by the soul itself.

However, in Phaedo, this distinction comes through in terms of the objects perceived/understood. There is no further clarification regarding how these processes function nor the differences between them.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher Plato

Marble statue of Plato

In the Republic, on the other hand, these concepts reappear in a much more complex manner through Plato’s famous analogy of the divided line (γραμμὴ δίχα τετμημένη). In a short discourse (509d-511c), Plato’s Socrates presents an epistemological theory that later proved fundamental to Plato’s metaphysics. In this discourse, he describes the four levels of existence and, more importantly, the four corresponding ways of knowing these levels of existence—i.e., the four ways of accessing knowledge.

Plato visualizes this as a line that is divided into two, unequal parts, which are then further divided into two parts each. These four parts represent four different states of mind, as well as four ways of acquiring knowledge. The fact that these parts are unequal is important.

The first part, the smaller one, consists of the visible world, the world we perceive through senses, or the physical world, if you will. This physical world is just a series of passing reflections of the other world, the world of ideas.

This corresponds with the lowest form of learning, called eikasia (εἰκασία) (opinion-imagination). In this realm, the eye makes guesses whilst observing the likenesses of the visible things. Another part of this world is pistis (πίστις) (opinion-belief), in which the eye makes predictions based upon observing physical, visible things.

For us, the second part is far more relevant and interesting, because in it, Socrates claims that the knowledge we have of the forms is of a much higher importance than the knowledge of the particulars of the perceptual world. He refers to this as dianoia (διάνοια), which Plato characterizes as knowledge (thought) that recognizes some ideas and makes hypotheses, similar to mathematical reasoning.

Socrates teaching

Alcibiades being taught by Socrates (detail), by Marcello Bacciarelli c. 1776

The highest realm and the highest form of knowledge is our noesis (νόησις). This is considered philosophical understanding, containing ideas and truth given by the Good itself.

It is not accidental that noesis is represented by the largest part of the line, given that Plato thought that few people understood the world of ideas. This is elaborated further in his allegory of the cave, which most readers are probably already acquainted with. Understanding noesis can make it much easier for us to understand Plato’s epistemological theory.

Through reading about this, we may (and probably will) agree with Socrates that we know that we know nothing, as the highest truth is quite difficult to grasp. However, learning about the questions that the ancient philosophers were discussing and grasping the concepts that they came up with will hopefully take us one step closer to understanding of noesis itself and the greater world in which we live.


Phaedo, Plato

Republic, Plato

Greek Philosophical Terms, F. E. Peters

Psychology, Philosophy, and Plato’s Divided Line, John S. Uebersax


The Undermined Valentine

by February 12, 2021

Written by Nickolas Pappas, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

There’s a story about love in Plato’s Symposium that captures the feeling of romantic love superbly, like a Valentine to everyone who’s ever had that experience. This may be why the story is one of those pieces from a Platonic dialogue (like the Atlantis legend) that people know about even if they don’t know it’s from Plato.

Within the Symposium the story is told by Aristophanes, in real life a comic playwright, in this dialogue also someone relaxing at a dinner party with Socrates and others and wondering where love comes from. He says the first human beings were double creatures: a big head on each one, with two faces looking in opposite directions, and a spherical, four-legged, four-armed body.

These first people were contented things but they thought they could conquer heaven, and to punish them for their arrogance the gods decided to weaken them. Zeus and Apollo cut every happy four-legged double-faced human into a pair of single-faced bipeds—needless to say, unhappy ones. Misery defines existence for people like them, which is to say people like us. You have had half of you amputated. You’re all phantom pain.

Image source: Sapardanis Kostas

The story slides out of mythical past into the literal lives of those hearing it. You’re only half alive until you come upon that one that you used to be joined to. No wonder you embrace each other, trying to go back to your original condition.

Sex is part of that reunion. The gods planned it that way by moving the first split humans’ genitals around to their front sides, so people could stimulate each other as they hugged and find some relief. And yet, as Aristophanes tells the other guests at this dinner party, sex isn’t everything even in this earthy tale. These couples want something else when they find each other. They may not have the words for their yearning, but what they most crave (isn’t this romantic?) would be to find themselves reconnected into a single being.

Wedded, by Sir Frederic Leighton

There are other notable details in the story. It seems to acknowledge sexual orientation as few works did before the modern age. For this reason there’s a musical number based on the story in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But even though Plato is unembarrassed by same-sex desire, the taxonomy of sexual identities is an addition to the story, whose main message is that love comes from a crisis long ago. You used to be half of a large complete person, and you never will be again.

Later in the Symposium Socrates offers an alternative theory about thoughtful lovers’ redirecting their erotic desire to worthier objects like social institutions, and then every species of learning, on up to the philosophical understanding of beauty itself.

But even without this theory, Plato’s readers have dashed cold water on the fantasy from Aristophanes. How would you ever find that Ms or Mr Right, if this were true? You don’t know what to look for. It’s impractical to try embracing everyone in the world to see if it will give both of you that special spark.

Idyll, by Sir Frederic Leighton

Let’s say you find someone special. You might reach for words that justify your love – witty, kind, sings like an angel – but according to this story, they’re excuses. The vital decision of whom to join with for life is a decision you made for no other reason than that this is your missing half. Maybe this explains why some long-time couples can only shrug and say they grew up together.

That seems to be the end of it: some recognition of romantic passion on one side, unsexy common sense as the alternative. The true romantic isn’t really silenced by these reasonable objections, because after all, everyone knows the right person is hard to find. (What else would it mean for there to be a right person?) You can still go on dreaming the dream of romance. There’s no law that says you have to be reasonable.

But Plato has more tricks up his sleeve than common sense. He’s more of an underminer than a naysayer. What if the danger with the story of Aristophanes were not that you never get together with the right person, but that you might?

Look at three details in the story that could seem extraneous. Imagine Plato putting Aristophanes on the couch in the psychoanalytic sense instead of the couches that the ancient Greeks reclined on to eat. As Aristophanes spelled out his myth, the double creature that was divided to create you and your special lover had two faces that looked very much alike.

When those first beings were cut in half, Apollo stitched them up leaving only one scar, the navel, and he turned their faces so that they would always look down at themselves and see this reminder of their old separation.

Turning their faces meant that they no longer saw their sex organs (this was prior to their movement, so they were on the other side), meaning these half-people pined for each other without hope for relief, and not knowing what to do together when they did meet up. So then the gods put them through a second operation, moving their genitals to the front side where people could see them. Romantic longing then acquired the new accompaniment of sexual intercourse.

If you were this storyteller’s shrink, you might circle back to some of these points. The story works fine without them, so what are they doing there? Romance is still romance, and the picture of someone you desire as someone you share a body with continues to be a compelling fantasy. “So why did you throw in the part about looking down at your belly button?”

Aristophanes shrugs it off. A fun detail. You tell a story like this and you throw in a little reality as if it’s supporting evidence. The gods cut you apart from your other half so they leave a scar. “It’s a joke!”

But the navel really is a scar, you point out, and it really does show where you were separated from someone else, namely your mother.

“I wasn’t thinking of that!”

“Wait a minute.” You’re not the type of therapist who interrupts, but you want to stay on track. “Why did you say the two faces were alike? People fall in love all the time with people who don’t look like them. But you know who does look alike? A mother and her child.”

Things never move this fast in real-life treatment. For dramatic purposes I’m having you resemble the type of analyst who shows up in movies with a gotcha question that rips away the veil of illusion. But then this Aristophanes is not a real-life character. Plato composed the story that Aristophanes told, making it up out of thin air or taking elements from someone else’s invention. He planted these clues in the story, hints that this is not really about a mythical past and other kinds of beings. If you try to tell a story about powerful one-on-one romantic feeling that goes beyond explanation, you will end up telling the story of returning to your mother.

Plato didn’t know the kinds of things that modern psychologists know. He had little idea of how the brain works. (He did know that thinking happens in the brain, and that a disease like epilepsy, despite being called “sacred,” had its origin in the brain’s material physiology.) But he had made close studies of the people around him, and he observed the characteristics of those who struck him as unbalanced – the form that inner conflict took in such people, or the socially unacceptable sexual desires that lurked in people’s souls and often appeared in their dreams. He had the delicacy to pick up on the resemblance between unquestioning erotic love in adulthood and the infant’s unquestioning mother-love.

Roman Relief of Mother and Child at Aphrodisias, Image Source: Fine Art America

Anyway, Plato didn’t have to be all that original in ascribing incestuous wishes to people. A year or two before he was born, the Athenians watched Sophocles’ great tragedy about Oedipus, whose mother/wife Jocasta says “Men have long slept with their mothers in their dreams”—not as if she were revealing anything new, but as something commonplace.

Bringing this revelation into a description of romance is a way of saying that this man or woman you feel so in love with is a substitute. The story had warned that you might need to find a replacement to love, because common sense says that you might not ever find your other half.

By linking it to infantile desire, Plato changes the whole image of falling in love. Instead of the long familiarity of growing up together, we’re talking about an older familiarity that says “I never grew up.”

What about the third detail? It’s awkward and it slows down the action to say that people were split in half, only later to have their genitals moved around so that they could see this fact about themselves, becoming sexual creatures in the process. As part of a streamlined narrative, it is clunky. But it does click as psychobiography. After the first separation from your mother, you languish, helpless. As a child you experience yearning without knowing where it comes from. Only in puberty do you become aware of yourself sexually, as if for the first time seeing your genitals for what they are.

Sure, it’s impractical to think that there is a single person just right for you. From philosophy’s point of view, as Plato understands philosophy, those other attacks on romance still hold true. But he is also canny enough to write a rival’s tale of romance that spills the beans about the forbidden desire behind it. If you want to see what’s wrong with that cult of romantic love, he’s saying, listen critically to the stories that people tell about it.

The legacy of romantic love is an old one. Valentine’s Day reminds us of that fact every year. Plato reminds us that there’s also an ancient legacy of exposing romantic love as something very different indeed.