“Townsend’s book should be required reading not only for classicists and ancient philosophy scholars but also for political theorists and people interested in gender studies more broadly.”
Category Archives: Socrates-Plato[post_grid id="10039"]
You know how it goes… all ancient men hated women. Right?
And Socrates… well, he was a terrible husband. So surely that means he wouldn’t have anything nice to say about the ‘fairer’ sex.
And then, there is the Woman Question...
It’s a scene in Plato’s Republic…. The debate between Glaucon and Socrates is over what women’s nature, role, and political position in the human community is or ought to be.
The solution is notoriously unsatisfying.
Indeed, most readers across time and space have found reasons to quarrel with it, whether by attempting to explain that Plato did not mean women to study philosophy after all, or by considering that the caveat of women’s relative weakness undermines the whole of the text’s treatment of women.
But what if…. Socrates (aka Plato) actually wished to educate women?
Perhaps even… gasp… with the goal of creating a Philosopher Queen?
It is this point that one of our Classical Wisdom Symposium speakers – the Assistant Professor at St. John’s University, Department of Philosophy, Mary Townsend – addresses in her excellent book The Women Question in Plato’s Republic.
It’s a book that may make you rethink your views on the Republic… and indeed Plato himself!
In the words of Emily Wilson, Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and British Classicist famous for her Odyssey translation:
Listen to Mary speak live on… Pleonexia.
What is Pleonexia??
First, let me ask – why are we humans almost never satisfied with what they have?
Even after major successes, why do we continue to find new avenues of desire?
The examples of this are endless… but we know in our hearts of hearts that we are all guilty of this.
Well, fortunately for us, Plato wrote many works that explore aspects of our desire for more, always more, the kind of wanting that was known as “pleonexia” in ancient Greek.
In fact, Plato shows us a way to transform our Pleonexia into a pursuit for the highest possible version of what we want: the Good Itself.
Make sure to sign up for our upcoming Symposium (One Week Away!) to learn all about Pleonexia and our desire for more…
NB: Our wine option has closed, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out! In fact, you can get either the One Day or Two Day Pass HERE (now discounted!)
IMMERSE Yourself in the Ancient World… For a Weekend of Wit & Wisdom
By Van Bryan
So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?
After all, the popular opinion today is that you shouldn’t change for love and that your spouse shouldn’t make you change. I am who I am and that’s all that I am!
That certainly seems to be the mindset these days; at least that’s what my single friends tell me. They spend their evenings swiping left on their smart phones and making connections with total strangers on Tinder or J-swipe or…whatever.
“Never change for love.” That’s the battle cry.
Besides, if you just be yourself, surely you will find somebody just like you and you will inevitably fall in love.
“Wrong!” says Plato.
The problem with never changing who you are for love, or never letting your spouse change who you are, is that who you are might very well be a terrible person. What if who you are is an inconsiderate sociopath? Or worse, what if you are a sophist?
What I’m trying to say is that maybe a bit of change wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps we really should let our lovers change us. Who knows? Maybe they will make us better.
That seems to be Plato’s line of thought at least. Our particular topic of interest comes from Plato’s Symposium, that unique piece of philosophical literature that asks the question: “What’s love?”
Plato is a giant in the field of philosophy. He was easily one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher in the Western tradition. His Symposium, for those of you who don’t already know, sounds more like the setup for a particularly funny joke than an actual piece of philosophical literature.
“Okay, okay, so a philosopher, a comic playwright, and a politician walk into a bar…”
See what I mean?
A symposium was like a dinner party in the days of ancient Greece. Except, instead of casually drinking beer and playing charades, the participants of a symposium would get rip-roaringly drunk off of wine and then commence to discuss some central topic of philosophical interest; although, that does sound pretty fun too.
Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the man dubbed “the Father of Western Philosophy”, is joined by a handful of important Athenian figures of the age, the most notable of which are the general Alcibiades and the comic playwright Aristophanes. They all gather to discuss the topic of love.
For the more initiated of you, you will recall that there are no shortage of interesting ideas to discuss in Symposium. However, today we are looking at the speech of Pausanias and the assertion that we ought to let our lover change us.
Pausanias first notes that love is the only thing that can justify some questionable behavior. Under normal circumstances, we might look strangely at a man who lies all night on a front porch. However, when we learn that this man is doing this in pursuit of his lover, then his behavior not only becomes somewhat acceptable, but even admirable.
“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, an supplicate, and swear, and lie on a mat at the door, and endure a slavery worse than that of any slave…” –Plato (Symposium)
Heck, Pausanias tells us that even the gods will forgive you if you commit some transgression whilst in pursuit of your love, and we all know how unforgiving those gods can be.
So love seems to be something of great power and importance. However, Pausanias tells us that, just like anything, there can be good and bad love.
It all comes down to your motivations. Why do you love somebody? It may very well be that you love somebody because they are beautiful or wealthy. This, however, is not true love, and is actually quite dishonorable.
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account. To love either of the latter is truly a base thing, because both of these things are temporary. The beauty of youth invariable recedes, and misfortune may befall any rich man and reduce him to a peasant. Where will your love be then? It will take wings and fly!
“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable…” –Plato (Symposium)
So don’t love your spouse’s beauty and don’t love their account balance. What do you love? Their virtue!
“There remains only one way of honorable attachment which custom allows in the beloved, and this is the way of virtue.” –Plato (Symposium)
Okay, so Plato isn’t telling us that, come next Valentine’s Day, we write on the card, “Dear Honey, I love your virtue.”
Instead, he is telling us that we ought to be drawn to a person for their inner qualities. We should fall in love with the beauty of their soul and its capacity for virtue and goodness.
Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account
Moreover, we should, ideally, find somebody who has different virtues than us. This is where the whole “let your lover change you” thing comes into play.
Find somebody who has different qualities than you. Perhaps they are brave when you are timid. Maybe they are organized while you are messy. Whatever the situation, you should find somebody who possesses qualities that you yourself lack, and then let that person seduce you into becoming a better version of yourself.
True love does not mean loving your spouse for who they are right now. True love means that two people are committed to educating each other in the ways of virtue and enduring the stormy seas that result of such a union.
“This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to the individual and the cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement.” –Plato (Symposium)
So the next time you think your spouse is trying to change you, just remember that they probably are, and you really ought to let them.
By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Imagine this… You are born into a political and social structure which has three classes. The class you are born into depends upon your lineage and will determine the career you have for your entire life. This structure is upheld by a noble lie which is embedded into each citizen of the city-state.
The lie claims that each citizen, being a creation god, has within him or her one of three metals. Those endowed with gold during creation are part of the ruling class. Those with silver are part of the warrior class. Those with bronze are part of the craftsmen and farming class.
Now, it is possible for someone of the gold demarcation to beget a child of silver or bronze status, and it is also possible, but rare, for someone of the lower classes to beget a child of higher status. It is also possible, but difficult, for someone to move up the classes during their lifetime.
Men and women receive the same education, and both are capable of ascending to the highest class, because in this society, the soul is more important than the structure of one’s body.
A plan of eugenics is established, and a careful strategy which seeks to breed the best with the best is enforced. Children are raised collectively and according to political and social dictation.
The silver and gold classes are not allowed to marry or have a private family. They are also not allowed to obtain private property or wealth. They are sustained on what is necessary and nothing more.
The bronze class is allowed more in way of material goods. They receive the biggest portion of their work as farmers and craftsmen, but they have no say in how the city is run. Rules and law come from the top down.
Education is rigid and includes both academic studies and athletics. What one is allowed to read is dictated by the ruling class; mass censorship is put into practice. They will tell you which poetry you can read, and they will destroy the rest. They will rewrite the works of great poets, allowing only the poetry that encourages moral behavior. The so-called immoral and amoral works are destroyed.
Say goodbye to much of Homer…
The city-state is closed off to immigration, and travel is discouraged. Everything must be closed off if this delicate and fragile political structure is to exist. Once so-called real knowledge is established, it must be permanent and unchanging. Once the myths are in place, they must be permanent and unquestionable. Questioning the structure of this society and attempting to enact change are both viewed with contempt.
Before we continue, let’s reflect on the city-state outlined above, and ask ourselves if this is a society that we would like to live in. Further, let us ask ourselves if this city-state sounds more like a harmonious utopia or a tyrannical hell…
Got your answers locked in?
As some of you might have already guessed, the city-state outlined above comes from the dialogue titled the Republic. This political and social structure is, for Plato, the ideal state.
Now, I can only speak for myself here – but I’m not much of a fan…
I value freedom and autonomy as a living-breathing individual, this city-state sounds extremely oppressive and tyrannical. I don’t think anyone should dictate what I read, and to establish a city-state on a foundation of self-recognized lies sounds altogether insane.
Although the gold-ruling class is to be comprised of philosopher-kings, I don’t think much philosophizing will be going on. If knowledge is set in stone, there is no room for creative or original thinking.
I think that the ruling-class would be more like computers. They are taught a very specific mode of thinking, and mathematics is of the utmost importance to their education. They would be programmed for certain thought patterns, and they would be instructed to perpetuate the noble lies.
Plato’s vision for a harmonious state – for a utopia – is just that, a vision. It is part of his theory of forms, which is to say, not a part of this world.
In the same dialogue, Plato wants to claim that if his theory of forms – his ideals – cannot be realized in this world, it is because something is wrong with the world that we find ourselves in.
Plato denigrates this world for the transcendent world of forms; he refuses to accept this life. He wants to exist free of the human condition; free of body, desire, and sensation. He wishes to exist as a disembodied soul.
In trying to free himself and his peers from the illusions of this world, he unwittingly stumbles further into a fictional realm.
As much as he hated the thought, Plato was human, and even the most recognized and decorated philosophers are wrong about some things.
By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Socrates loved the pursuit of wisdom more than any other. He valued truth, understanding, and examination of self and life above all else. He believed that the most valuable thing a person could do was question their thoughts, beliefs, and perceived truths. For Socrates, the examined life was the only life worth living.
Even if you know little-to-nothing about Socrates, you have probably heard the famous dictum which states that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates apparently made this pronouncement at his trial, essentially choosing death over exile.
He thought that living a life in exile would prevent him from taking part in the great philosophical quest for truth.
For Socrates, death wasn’t the end because he believed his soul would continue an existence apart from his body. Socrates believed that the incorporeal-soul was better inclined toward philosophical wisdom, truth, and understanding when it wasn’t weighed down by earthly and bodily desires.
So he chose death over exile.
I can kind of see where he is coming from. After all, my earthly body has already interrupted my writing-flow a few times in the past two hours – bathroom break, drink of water, food… It isn’t easy being a living-breathing organism.
But I would still happily accept exile and be on my merry-way…
Perhaps I am lacking in nobility?
Jump to the 20th century, and we hear a similar pronouncement from the Nobel-prize winning Existentialist – Albert Camus: “Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”
Camus then goes on to describe consciousness as awareness and makes the claim that along with consciousness comes an inherent desire for truth and meaning. Consciousness allows us to illuminate and examine ourselves, the world, and our place within the world…
…And when we tire of all this self-examination, we can simply point our consciousness in another direction, promptly forgetting about all of our shortcomings.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Socrates’ examined life is one of conscious awareness. Socrates is conscious of our fallibility when it comes to knowledge and wisdom, and he wishes to illuminate such problems through philosophical discussion with the hopes of finding truth. His examined life is possible only through his conscious awareness.
Socrates and Camus share a system of values. They both believe that the search for truth, meaning, and value is an essential activity of life.
They part ways, however, when it comes to choosing death over an unexamined life…
For Camus, the truth is not worth more than life itself. Life is what allows us the opportunity to question and seek philosophical wisdom. Camus, being an atheist, would refuse the notion of an incorporeal-soul. This life is all that we are given – and this world is all that we can know.
Camus cherished life over truth with such passion that he commended Galileo for abandoning his scientific theory of heliocentrism when the church threatened his life for holding such a controversial position.
While there aren’t usually contests about such things, I would claim that Camus knew less than Socrates. By this I am referring to that other famous dictum uttered by Socrates that states “I know that I know nothing.”
The accuracy of this pronouncement is questioned by scholars who know more of the matter than I do. These scholars argue that Socrates doesn’t claim to know nothing, but that he is simply aware of his ignorance on certain matters.
The paradoxical “I know that I know nothing” is actually better translated as “What I do not know I do not think I know either.”
In the Apology Socrates is portrayed by Plato as confident in his knowledge to the point of death. One must ponder the notion that if Socrates was actually the person he is often portrayed as being – the wise sage that claims to not know – his fate might have been different.
His confidence is what sealed his fate. His claim to divine inspiration which consequently led him to interrogation-like discourse with his fellow citizens is far and above an earthly-grounded confidence in one’s knowledge.
Socrates believed that he knew quite a lot. He was so firm in his beliefs that he chose death over exile. For Camus, the truth isn’t so firm, and so dying for something which might not actually be true was fundamentally ridiculous.
Keeping all of this in mind, one is tempted to ask – was the death of Socrates really as noble as it is often portrayed? Or does it reveal to us a disharmony and potential ingenuine nature of Socrates and his intellectual stubbornness?
His constant pestering as the gadfly of Athens coupled with his claim of divine inspiration makes him seem less of a noble seeker of wisdom and more like a charlatan.
But who am I to make such accusations?
I leave you here, to question and reflect on this recognizably unpopular position of Socrates and his death… and I thank Zeus that my impious corruption of you, the reader, is unlikely to end in execution by hemlock.
By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Plato, along with his instructor Socrates, are often recognized as the minds which began the western philosophical tradition as we know it today.
Plato’s theory of forms and the Allegory of the Cave are not only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science. So relevant, in fact, that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to Plato’s.
But before we get to that, let’s take a quick moment to revisit Plato’s theory of forms…
For Plato, the world as perceived isn’t the ultimate reality. The objects of everyday life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you could only look at the wall in front of you. You couldn’t look behind you or turn your head in any direction. Behind you, in the distance, is a roaring fire. In front of the fire are a variety of objects. The shadows of those objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion…
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn’t be simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality. For Plato, this is similar to our everyday experience.
In the same way that the shadows on the wall don’t constitute the ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are derived, the objects of everyday experience aren’t a true or perfect reflection of ultimate reality either.
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal, timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect imitations of the forms. For example, a mathematical triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can be found in nature. The triangles of our experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including things like beauty. Beauty has an ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Therefore, the world as we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection of the ultimate reality of forms.
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed the idea in a radical way. The idea is called information realism and was recently covered in an article by Scientific American.
Information realism claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions… Instead, what is considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely derived from the underlying information. The information which underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality. Everything else is but a perceptual illusion.
Information Realism, just like Plato’s theory of forms, uses the epistemological method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such conclusions. Rationalists claims that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of reason – independent of experience. Empiricists claim that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience and the use of our senses.
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical one? I would argue that it is philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific. Then again, philosophy and science were at one time a joint discipline – and even the great Isaac Newton was considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory of forms, could also be raised against information realism. One such challenge regards the idea of an ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience as unknowable in itself.
In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of experience, how can we say anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience? How do we even know that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists beyond ours? How do we know that such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical artifact? How can we test these theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world. But it is ideas like these that inspire movies such as The Matrix, give philosophers more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and philosophy.
By Ben Potter
The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life. The dialogue is primarily an argument for the immortality of the soul that Socrates is trying to convince his grief-ridden colleagues, and maybe indeed himself, of in order to prove that his execution is merely the separation of his soul from his body… and not his actual ‘death’.
But how does Plato/Socrates prove that there is an immortal soul? It’s not an easy task, no doubt, and so he employs the idea of recollection (or anamnesis). However, like with most of Plato’s concepts when fully investigated, it reveals far more than what is immediately obvious.
The theory of anamnesis was, in fact, first introduced in one of Plato’s earlier works, the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates informs Meno that nothing can be either taught or learnt as we already possess all the knowledge in the world. Socrates explains that, through the lifetime of our soul, we have already learnt all there is to learn and that we can answer every question, provided we are asked in the correct manner.
He goes on to prove this by getting an uneducated slave to figure out a math problem by asking him a series of extremely leading questions. ie. “Is your personal opinion that the square on the diagonal of the original square is double its area?” Socrates seems convinced that he has done nothing to ‘educate’ the slave, but merely asked him the appropriate questions that allowed him to recollect.
This argument for recollection is taken a step further in the Phaedo, as Plato claims there are two aspects of recollection. The first involves no lapse of time and is less a recollection of something, but more a reminder of it: “you know what happens to lovers, whenever they see a lyre or cloak or anything else their loves are accustomed to use: they recognize the lyre, and they get in their mind, don’t they, the form of the boy whose lyre it is?”
The second aspect of recollection is one that does involve the lapse of time and is more familiar to the theory of recollection in the Meno. Additionally, it relates to Socrates’ goal of establishing the immortality of the soul. The argument that he lays out is that we are neither capable of learning anything new, nor were we born with the knowledge of things, but that we knew these things before our birth.
But before we proceed with the Theory of Recollection, we must first examine Plato’s Theory of Forms. As many will no doubt recall, Plato believed that the Forms were ethereal entities of extremely general terms, ie. sameness, difference, justice, purity, vice, beauty, etc. The reason these things were entities, rather than concepts, was due to the fact that Plato perceived them as something very real indeed, even though it seems they were invisible… at least to our eyes.
Returning to our foremost theory, Plato uses the Form of ‘equality’ to try and transmit his views on recollection. He states that in viewing two sticks of equal length, we recognize that they posses ‘equality’. However, he also makes clear that two sticks of unequal length can also cause us to recognize ‘equality’ by its absence. He also conveys that even what appears to be perfectly equal, can, in fact, fall short of ‘equality’, for the simple reason that only the Form of ‘equality’ can be truly, purely equal.
So how do these ideas bring us to the primary aim of the dialogue, the immortality of the soul?
Essentially, in order for the theory of recollection to work, our souls would have had to exist before our earthly incarnation, as well as go on existing after it. Additionally, if the soul is immortal then it must also be eternal, because if something can never come to an end, then it must never have had a beginning in the first place.
The fact that we can identify ‘equality’ (or any Form) is due to the fact that we have experienced the true Form ‘equality’ during a time when our souls were apart from our bodies and at one with (or at least closer to) the Forms.
So, when we see double yellow lines, we can recognize the equality that they posses by recollecting the Form ‘equality’ and concluding they are the same length, width and distance apart. The conclusion then is that because we can recognize/remember the Form of ‘equality’, our soul existed before our bodies, and consequently it will exist afterwards. Hence, the soul is immortal.
Interestingly, despite the willingness of Plato to change his opinions throughout his works, the Theory of Recollection seems to be the one he particularly cares to develop, rather than disregard. What is more of a passing thought in the Meno becomes an intrinsic part of his dialogues in the Phaedo. The elaboration of the concept almost appears to be a consequence of Plato himself re-reading the Meno in search of inspiration.
That said and despite Plato’s inclinations to put words into Socrates’ mouth, the concept of recollection might actually be one we can assign to the older thinker. Cebes, in fact, comments to Socrates in the Phaedo, ‘there’s also that theory you’re always putting forward, that our learning is actually nothing but recollection.”
Although the idea of recollection is vital for the Phaedo, the Phaedo itself is not purely a dialogue about recollection, but about the soul’s immortality. As it was obviously written after the death of Socrates, it could be Plato’s attempt to not only convince the philosophic community that Socrates, and his great mind, lives on, but also his endeavor to make one of the great theories of his friend and mentor persevere throughout time. And maybe that’s how Socrates really achieved his immortality…
You can read Plato’s Phaedo for yourself for free here: