Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Middle period Plato - He’s garbage, he cares about nothing but the truth.

Assembling yesterday’s post I saw that I was only missing one dialogue from Plato’s early period, so I knocked off Greater Hippias last night.  The early dialogues are generally short; the three in the “death of Socrates” group are only fifty pages total, for example.

Hippias is the highest paid of the Sophists, so he is treated as a braggart and a fool, unable to understand what Socrates is asking.  The quotation in the title of the post is Socrates describing himself in Greater Hippias (288d).

The debate is over the definition of “fineness” or “excellence,” not just what is excellent about a painting or horse or god but what the term means abstractly.  Socrates concludes that since no one can define the term, he can no longer say anything at all is fine or excellent.  What nonsense, but Hippias is not the punching bag for this fight.  As usual, Plato is groping towards his Theory of Forms, where all will become clear.

I have read four masterpieces from the middle period, or five counting The Republic from thirty years ago.  Socrates is more likely in these dialogues to be a mouthpiece for Plato, but Symposium, which many of us read last fall, is thought to be “middle.”  It is a creative period for Plato, when he greatly expands the form of the dialogue.

Euthydemus – I mentioned this one a few weeks ago as an anti-Sophist classic.  The title Sophist and his partner are like a comedy duo, astounding potential students with paradoxes and blatant logical fallacies, arguing simultaneously that everyone knows everything and that no one knows anything.

Socrates in the end backhandedly defends Euthydemus and his partner.  Either drop philosophy completely or learn what you can from everyone, even from these goofballs.

I would love to know more about how Plato’s dialogues were read, how they were used.  I assume, for example, that many of the logical fallacies, including those of Socrates, are in the text for pedagogical reason.  The attentive reader is supposed to spot fallacies and false premises and wild leaps in logic.  Or so I imagine.  Maybe not.

Meno – “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” is how this begins (tr. G. M. A. Grube).  So now I know that the discussion will quickly move, inconclusively, to “What is virtue?”  Along the way Socrates describes his crackpot theory that we do not learn anything but are born with all knowledge.  What we call learning is really just bits of this inherent knowledge being knocked loose.  He proves his point by leading a boy through a geometrical proof, an extraordinary scene. 

Near the end of Meno a new character, Anytus, enters the dialogue, directing it back to the original question.  The Sophists, he argues, teach virtue.  Anytus was, or in the fiction of the scene will be, one of the lead accusers of Socrates.  He angrily leaves the dialogue with a warning:

I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people.  I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful.  Perhaps also in another city, and certainly here, it is easier to injure people than to benefit them.  I think you know that yourself.  (94e)

Sinister and chilling.  Meno is among the best of Plato, and I believe one of the most-taught.

Theaetetus – I think I will save this complex work – it is, for example, hard to spell right – for its own post.

I have tried just one dialogue from Plato’s “late” period, Sophist.  In the late dialogue Socrates is often barely present, as here where he only has a few lines.  “What is a Sophist?” is the question, with an explicit contrast to the statesman (the next dialogue is Statesman) and the philosopher.  Many definitions are proposed and dismantled in detail.  I found it quite tedious.  I have doubts that I will read all of the late dialogues.  Critias is fifteen pages long and features the story of Atlantis – I am not skipping that one.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Many of Plato's early Socratic dialogues - It was quite lovely.

I’ve been enjoying Plato’s dialogues recently.  I’d read some of them before, at university or during my last Greek phase 25 years ago, and this time I hope to read almost all of them.

I will make some notes on them in a few posts.  Give them a tag if nothing else, and make some comments on what Plato was doing.

Given the care with which the manuscripts were preserved compared to the Greek plays or almost anything other Greek literature, it surprised me that almost nothing is known about the dates of composition of the dialogues.  They are plausibly divided into three groups – early, middle, and late – based on easily observable characteristics.

For this month’s look at Socrates as such, independent from Plato, I recommended reading Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, the three short dialogues on the death of Socrates.  These are civilization-defining texts, great stuff.  My guess is that they are the first dialogues Plato wrote.  He wanted to defend his great teacher and hero.  Then he used the dialogue form to explore other major themes of Socrates’s life.  The early period dialogues always feature Socrates, are more likely to reflect his thought rather than that of Plato, and often end inconclusively.  Socrates does not know the answers but is wise because he knows he does not know.

The early dialogues also often feature scene-setting and character-building and even little plots that I associate with literature.

Gorgias – Gorgias is a Sophist who teaches rhetoric, but what is rhetoric?  As will be common in the dialogues, Socrates deftly shows that no one really knows.  The conversation takes a surprising turn, though, to the question of power and virtue, with Socrates arguing that true power is doing good and nothing else.  A new opponent, Callicles, emerges from the crowd; he is a hedonist and an immoralist, arguing that power and the good are whatever is good for him, with no exceptions.  Socrates, as far as I can tell, has no logical answer, retreating to religion (good people will go to heaven, bad to hell).

A frustration of later Plato, certainly visible in The Republic, is that no one seriously challenges Socrates.  He just marches forward, constructing his ideas.  Not in Gorgias, though.

Protagoras – another Sophist in the title, perhaps the most respected one.  Protagoras believes he is teaching virtue and gives a long defense of his practice.  Socrates believes virtue cannot be taught.  After a long discussion about the nature of virtue, Socrates concludes that virtue in fact can be taught while Protagoras thinks it cannot.  Perverse!  Surprising, at least.

This dialogue has some of Plato’s most elaborate scene-setting.  This excerpt describes some of the “chorus” of followers of Protagoras:

There were some locals also in this chorus, whose dance simply delighted me when I saw how beautifully they took care never to get in Protagoras’ way.  When he turned around with his flanking groups, the audience to the rear would split into two in a very orderly way and then circle around to either side and form up again behind him.  It was quite lovely.  (315b, tr. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

None of this is necessary for the philosophical part of the dialogue, as Plato eventually decides for himself.

Also, I will note that although most of the dialogues are written as if they are plays, some, like Protagoras, are narrated by Socrates.

Charmides – what is sophrosune, or temperance, or moderation?  No one, as usual, knows.  More proto-novel comedy:

He did come, and his coming caused a lot of laughter, because every one of us who was already seated began pushing hard at his neighbor so as to make a place for him to sit down.  The upshot of it was that we made the man sitting at one end get up, and the man at the other was toppled off sideways. (155d, tr. Rosamond Kent Sprague)

Lesser Hippias – who is the greater liar, Achilles or Odysseus?

Laches – what is courage?

Lysis – what is friendship?  Discussed with a group of attractive, moony teenage boys.

Ion – is the poet knowledgeable or inspired?  Socrates argues for divinely inspired.  “As long as a human being has his intellect in possession he will always lack the power to make poetry or sing prophecy” (534c, tr. Paul Woodruff)  We will revisit this in The Republic.

More scraps of Plato tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The elegant, intricate, sour comedies of Terence

The great Roman playwright Terence wrote six plays between 166 and 160 BCE, twenty years after the death of Plautus.  The story is that he wrote the first one at age nineteen, while enslaved, thus winning his freedom and entry into a world of aristocratic patrons.  Plautus was vulgar and popular, stuffing his plays with gags, while Terence was sophisticated and elegant, although both writers openly based their plays on those of Menander and other writers of Greek New Comedy.  Together, the vulgar and the elegant, they supplied the models for Renaissance comedy.

The other story about Terence is that, after six whole plays, he ran out of Menander and sailed off to Greece to search the archives.  He never returned.  There is an opportunity here for a picaresque novel in which Terence keeps moving east in search of the world’s funniest comedy.  I suppose the real story is that he died very young.

Terence ran out of Menander plays so quickly because 1) he was writing toward the end of the Roman comedy tradition which was based on adaptations of Greek comedy and 2) he would combine two Menander plays into one Terence play, apparently an innovation.  He invented the double plot.  Even when not using a double plot, as in the Mother-in-Law, he preferred an intricate, complex plot where much of the comic effect is simply watching it tangle and untangle.  I find them engaging but rarely funny.

An example, The Brothers, perhaps Terence’s last play, and a distant source for Molière’s The School for Husbdands.  One brother, Aeschinus, is in love with and has impregnated a poor woman.  This is hidden from both his father and adoptive father.  The other brother is in love with a lute-player, a slave.  Aeschinus abducts her for his brother, so that everyone thinks he is in love with the lute-player.  Two intertwined plots.  After many steps and much running around, Aeschinus marries the mother of his new baby and his brother gets the lute-player., and most importantly the fathers are all reconciled to the matches.

One might get a hint here that The Brothers treats women less as people than as commodities.  The relevant Menander plays have been lost, so there is no way to really know, but it seems to me that the more powerless place of women is genuinely Roman, an adaptation of the plays to Roman culture. 

Key female characters, like the title character of The Girl from Andros, do not even appear on stage.  Sexual assault is a regular means of bringing men and women together.  The happy endings generally leave a sour aftertaste.  Everything works out for the young men, and I suppose the women end up better than several horrible alternatives.

“The play depends on the natural purity of its spoken words” Terence writes in the prologue to The Self-Tormentor, and that is how antiquity took him, preserving multiple manuscripts of Terence in large part because of his pure, elegant Latin, and effect lost on me.  I do not find him very quotable, nor do I think any of his plays are as good as Plautus’s Amphitryon.

Now I will switch to Seneca, the great Roman tragedian, and his insane, bloody adaptations of Euripides.  The Elizabethan revenge tragedy tradition comes directly from Seneca, and he is worth reading just as a source.  If you want to try one, I suggest Medea or Thyestes.  It is well worth looking at the Elizabethan translations of Seneca, collected in Seneca His Ten Tragedies (1581), a book read by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and everyone else.  But modern translations are good, too.  I plan to read some of each.