Wednesday, April 26, 2023

What books am I reading this summer in the Greek philosophy readalong? Some details.

Now that we are almost done with Plato, the bulkiest figure in my little Greek philosophy readalong, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit, clarify, and puzzle over the texts that will take us to the end of the project, now that I have given the matter a little more thought.

Next month I will turn to Aristotle and The Nicomachean Ethics, a substantial and as I remember readable book.  I am not sure if I will read much more Aristotle.  On the Soul, which sounds like it is about religion but is really more about psychology, is tempting, and only a hundred pages.  I read Politics thirty years ago and remember it as admirably clear, but I won’t revisit it now.  I may look Metaphysics but doubt I will really read it.

But just reading Ethics may be enough.  It is a real book.

In June the topic is Cynicism.  The first text I have picked is some version of the sayings or quips of Diogenes the Cynic (4th C. BCE).  I strongly recommend the presentation, stripped of sources, in Guy Davenport’s 7 Greeks (1995), best read for the extraordinary translations of the poets Sappho and Archilochos but full of other treasures as well, including the thirteen pages of Diogenes.  You gotta meet this nut, if you haven’t already.

The same material is presented with more verbiage in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, and I am sure it can be found in many other books.

I want to supplement Diogenes with Lucian (2nd C.) who was not a philosopher but a Greek satirist whose target was often philosophy.  I recommend Selected Satires of Lucian (1962), translated by Lionel Casson, specifically the sections: Zeus’s World, Pluto’s World, and Man’s World.  If you are in a hurry, skip to the “Dialogues of the Dead,” “Philosophies for Sale” and “The Death of Peregrinus.”

If you are not in a hurry, the rest of the book contains extraordinary things, especially “A True Story.”  So many later works are direct descendants of “A True Story.”  It is, for example, the beginning of science fiction.

Satirical Sketches, tr. Paul Turner, contains some of the relevant pieces but I think not enough.  Otherwise I Think you have to rummage through the eight Loeb volumes, which would likely be interesting.

Reading Lucian as part of a philosophy sequence is my one semi-original idea.

July is Epicurianism.  This one is easy and obvious: the great Latin cosmological poem On the Nature of Things (1st C. BCE) by Lucretius.  There are many translations under many titles (I’ll read Rolfe Humphries).  My understanding is that some original works of Epicurus have been rescued from the cinders of Herculaneum, but I do not know if they have been edited and translated.

August is Stoicism.  I will read the old warhorse, the Meditations (2nd C.) of Marcus Aurelius, and will look at the Discourses of Epictetus if I have time.  Even better, perhaps, would be to wander around in the writings of Seneca, for example the Penguin Classics Letters from a Stoic.

Cicero was not a Stoic – I am not sure what he was – but he often wrote about Stoicism and other philosophical ideas.  I would like to revisit The Nature of the Gods (2nd C. BCE) in which a Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic debate.

Likely many Cicero works would be of interest.  I hardly know him.  I feel a bit bad about not giving a month to Skepticism; apparently the key text would be Cicero’s Academica.  Maybe I will squeeze it in.

The project wraps up in September with the great essayist Plutarch (1st-2nd C.), who often wrote on philosophical subjects in his essays collected under the title Moralia.  I thought this was an original idea, bit of course Adamson has a chapter on Plutarch.  Unfortunately, no selection of the Moralia quite suits my purpose, although the Oxford World’s Classics Selected Essays and Dialogues is not too bad.  I believe I will have to explore the sixteen (!) volumes of the Loeb translation to find the most relevant pieces.  Well, I will revisit the issue then.

Please suggest other books as alternatives or supplements.  Original texts or secondary, anything you have read that is good.  Thanks!

Monday, April 24, 2023

it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap - Peter Adamson's Classical Philosophy, the beginning of the History of Philosophy without Any Gaps

Peter Adamson is an English philosopher with a long-running podcast, History of Philosophy without Any Gaps.  What can that mean, without any gaps?

We’ve finished Aristotle, and it’s right about here that there would normally be a gap.  In an undergraduate philosophy course you might reasonable expect to jump from Aristotle to, perhaps, Descartes, leaping over about 2,000 years of history in the process.  A more enlightened approach might include looking at Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century – still omitting the better part of two millennia. (Classical Philosophy, p. 309)

So we have an experienced undergraduate lecturer frustrated that he rarely gets to teach about Empedocles and Diogenes and all of the other figures who are so much fun.  I am reminded of the beloved Barnard philosophy professor in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field who spends too much time on the pre-Socratics because they are so enjoyable, and then has to blast through Plato and Aristotle before leaping to Descartes in the next semester.  There is only so much time in a semester, but not in a podcast series.  Adamson happily lingers among the pre-Socratics.

Then again, here is an episode on Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka, which suggests a different kind of thoroughness.

I have no room in my life for podcasts.  Fortunately Adamson has also written books.  To some degree the books must be edited transcripts of the podcast, although some episodes have guests and the book chapters do not.  I have only read the first book, Classical Philosophy (2014) and look through Philosophy in the Hellenistic & Roman Worlds (2015), the first half of which will be very helpful this summer as I look at Stoicism and Cynicism and so on.  The second half is neo-Platonism, pagan and Christian; I deliberately stopped before neo-Platonism which feels to me like a move to a philosophy of a different kind.

Other published volumes are: Philosophy in the Islamic World, Medieval Philosophy, Classical Indian Philosophy, and Byzantine and Renaissance Philosophy.  There are some tempting books here.

I had heard of but did not really know about Adamson’s when I planned my little Greek philosophy project.  If I had, I may not have thought of it as a readalong, but just read some texts alongside Adamson’s short pieces.  Why read along with me when you can read along with Adamson?  Too much thinking like this leads to torpor, so never mind.

It is helpful, though, to read along with an expert.  “The pages that follow [the second half of Plato’s Sophist] are among the most difficult in Plato’s writings, and have been much debated” (171).  What a relief to read this, since I did not understand that part of the dialogue at all.  How nice to know.

Adamson encourages the reading of original texts, but is realistic.  I read the third of Classical Philosophy covering Aristotle hoping to get a better idea of the readability of his books.  What should I read besides Nicomachean Ethics?  On the Soul, a work on psychology, sounds possible.  Metaphysics, as Adamson describes it, is still daunting.  Politics is perfectly readable.  I don’t know.  Still, I have read and perhaps even thought about Aristotle’s texts.  Reading about philosophy is doing philosophy.

Classical Philosophy is written with energy and good humor, and is a perfect fit for my level, whatever that is.  Interested undergraduate?  Persistent autodidact?  I have been enjoying myself and am likely to continue on into the series once I am done with the Greeks.

If someone knows the podcast, please let me know what you think.


Wednesday, April 19, 2023

What has happened to me may well be a good thing - the death of Socrates

Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, the extended version of the death of Socrates.  These texts, especially the last three, are a large part of the fame of Socrates, the reason he is an exemplar of the wise man to this day.  He asked annoying questions, he rejected material goods, but most importantly he died well, in the name of justice.  Almost no one, really, will read Plato’s or Xenophon’s writings in his name, but we have a sense, picked up from who knows where, of Socrates as a man.  He is a Western culture hero.

Euthyphro is a typical early dialogue, a friendly investigation of the definition of piety.  As usual,  no answer is satisfactory.  But in the frame of the dialogue, Socrates is on his way to defend himself in court, where he is accused of, among other things, impiety.  So there is a horrible irony this time.  The discussion is not just for the pleasure of philosophizing but is a matter of life and death for Socrates.

The non-apologetic Apology is some kind of masterpiece.  Who knows, it may well be close to Socrates’s actual defense, transcribed by Plato, who was in attendance.  Or maybe not.  Whether fiction or truth, Apology is the strongest presentation of Socrates as a personality, spikey and arrogant but then modest and generous.  Now that I am reading the more dogmatic The Republic, I miss this Socrates.

I suppose he should not have insulted the jury at that one point.  Much of the discussion in Xenophon’s Apology is about just this issue.  But Socrates appears to truly believe that his death does not matter much.

What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken.  (40b)

Crito and Phaedo both continue this strain.  Crito is the attempt by Socrates’s friends to convince him to flee Athens, which turns into a discussion of justice, while the more complex Phaedo attempts to demonstrate the immortality of the soul.  The latter involves a long discussion of the Forms.  My edition of these texts is the one I used in Western Civilization I over thirty years ago, and I see that I recorded which pages were actually assigned: all of Apology and Crito (fundamental Western works) and Phaedo except for the discussion of the Forms.

But we rejoined Phaedo for the magnificent last four pages:

Those who are deemed to have lived and extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison; they make their way up to a pure dwelling place and live on the surface of the earth.  Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body; they make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which it is hard to describe clearly, nor do we have time to do so.  Because of the things we have enunciated, Simmias, one must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great. (114c)

Then Socrates make his preparations, drinks the hemlock, and dies surrounded by his friends.

I do not expect much pathos from philosophy, but these are unusual texts.

Finally, I have caught up with my supposed readalong.  In April I shifted from Socrates as himself to Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato, especially as seen in the aggravating masterpiece The Republic, which I hope to write about in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Xenophon's Socrates

I’m still catching up with myself.  I wanted to spend March thinking about Socrates as a philosopher, independent from Plato’s use of him, to the extent that it is possible.  The Socrates of Aristophanes in The Clouds is not much help.  But luckily we have Xenophon, a close contemporary of Plato, and his Recollections of Socrates.

Xenophon was not really a philosopher.  He wrote many books in a wide variety of genres, most famously Anabasis, his account of leading ten thousand Greek mercenaries to safety through hostile Persian territory, and since he wrote some of everything he wrote some philosophical works, since that was one of the modes of the time.  Since he did not have any original ideas, the lasting value of his philosophy is his loving, down to earth portrait of Socrates.

Just today I found a quite good piece by Cambridge professor Carol Atack about Xenophon’s “kinder Socrates.”  I am not sure that “kinder” is the right word.  Maybe.  Xenophon shows a practical Socrates who dispenses common sense ethical advice on a range of problems.  My brother is being a jerk to me; should I therefore be a jerk to him?  Socrates says no, be a good guy.  Much of his advice is not so far form the Golden Rule. 

He takes the position that leaders ought to have knowledge, which does not sound so controversial to me.  Young Glaucon is planning to get into politics:

“Shouldn’t we give advice when we no longer surmise something, but actually know it?”
“Perhaps,” said Glaucon, “that is better.” (3.6, tr. Anna S. Benjamin)

“Advice to Artists.”  “On Table Manners.”  “Socrates Advises Eutherus on Finding Suitable Employment.”  For example.

Xenophon does not contradict but extends my idea of who Socrates was.  It is easy to imagine him playing the advice columnist for most people while saving the aggressive Socratic takedowns for his enemies the Sophists and the complex investigations of fundamental concepts for dedicated students like Theaetetus.

I tried Xenophon’s Socratic dialogue.  Oeconomicus is about household management, a long-lasting genre of book that is rarely especially literary.  I do not understand the advantage if the dialogue in this case, except to lend Xenophon’s common sense ideas the authority of Socrates.

Symposium is more fun, although hardly as interesting as Plato’s.  It’s another drinking party where the guests talk about love (of men for boys), but this time there is no Aristophanes fantasy and no interruption by Alcibiades.  There are, though, flute girls.

After this, the other girl began to play the flute for the dancer and someone standing beside her passed twelve hoops over to her.  As she took them she danced and threw them spinning into the air, calculating how high she would have to throw them in order to catch them on the beat.  (138, tr. Robert C. Bartlett in The Shorter Socratic Writings, Cornell University Press)

I also read the nine-page Apology of Socrates to the Jury.  Where Plato’s Apology purports to be the actual speech Socrates gave in his own defense, Xenophon’s Apology is a dialogue in which Socrates and his friend discuss his defense.  It is a quite interesting piece n the way it reinforces but occasionally contradicts Plato’s account of the trial and death of Socrates.

Tomorrow I will move to Plato’s version.

Monday, April 10, 2023

there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough - what is knowledge? - Theaetetus and Parmenides

The epistemological crisis of Greek philosophy has surprised me.  The early attempts to systematically understand, without the help of the revealed truth of religion, difficult concepts like existence and virtue led, almost immediately, to the question of whether anyone can understand the truth of anything.  Early philosophers picked radical positions: all perception is false, says Parmenides (skepticism); or maybe all perception is true, even if people perceive things differently, says Protagoras – “man is the measure of all things” (relativism).

Theaetetus is Plato’s Socratic dialogue that hits the problem directly.  The big question is “What is knowledge”?  Is it perception, or belief, or true belief?  Socrates, as usual, takes apart each suggestion, which perhaps leaves us closer to an answer in the end, and perhaps not.

“The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough” (150c) says Socrates, curiously comparing himself to a midwife, barren himself but aiding in the birth of wisdom in others.  In this dialogue, his companions are a mathematics teacher, who does not quite see the point of the discussion, and a teenage math prodigy, Theaetetus, who throws himself into the discussion, taking it entirely seriously and, unlike so many of Socrates’s companions, offering useful ideas and arguments.  The real Theaetetus will become one of the great Greek mathematicians.  I have been impressed by the variety of characters, with a variety of attitudes, that Plato uses in his dialogues.  This time he seems to want to show the Socratic method as a pure, cooperative, search for truth, an ideal of philosophizing.

I singled out Theaetetus for the readalong because of its focus on the ideas of the pre-Socratic Parmenides and the sophist Protagoras.  I would now add Parmenides, in which a teenage Socrates attends a reading by Zeno and Parmenides, who are visiting Athens.  Who knows if this really happened.  Parmenides, we may remember, argued that the universe was a ball of motionless grey goo and that any perception to the contrary was error and illusion, while Zeno ingeniously and outrageously proved the non-existence of motion through his aggravating paradoxes.

Plato hates both the relativism of Protagoras and the meaninglessness of perception of Parmenides and spends his life developing the theory of the Forms to combat it.  He wants some fixed truth out there somewhere, so he invents a world of immaterial Platonic concepts that interact in complex ways to create what we perceive as reality.  Parmenides is an imagined debut of the Forms, with the prodigal young Socrates taking them straight to the enemy:

Pythodorus said that, while Socrates was saying all this, he himself kept from moment to moment expecting Parmenides and Zeno to get annoyed; but they both paid close attention to Socrates and often glanced at each other and smiled, as though they admired him. (130a)

What happens next is that Parmenides, using what we now call the Socratic method, thoroughly dismantles Socrates’s idea of Forms.  He tears Socrates apart.

For a simple example, keep in mind that Socrates is interested in the Form of Largeness, and the Form of Beauty, and the Form of Difference, and similar abstractions.  Parmenides asks:

“What about a form of human being, separate from us? Is there a form of huma n being, or fire, or water?” (130c)

Socrates is not sure.  How about “’[t]hings that might seem absurd, like hair and mud and dirt’” (130d).  No way, says Socrates.

“That’s because you are still young, Socrates,” said Parmenides, “and philosophy has not yet gripped you as, in my opinion, it will in the future, once you begin to consider none [?] of the cases beneath your notice” (130e)

All credit to Plato, writing such a convincing assault on his own ideas, or at least an early version of them.  Amazing.

Parmenides spends the second half of Parmenides demonstrating how he thinks Oneness and Difference and Largeness and so on interact to do I do not know what.  I did not understand this section at all.  Win some, lose some.

When I last approached Plato and Greek philosophy seriously, twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize the epistemological problem at all.  I doubt I knew what the word epistemology meant.  Who knows what I will find when I return to Plato twenty-five years from now.

If I were on schedule, I would mention that next month, in March, we will focus on the character of Socrates, especially as portrayed in the “death of Socrates” dialogues (Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo).  But it is now April.  Still, next up, the Socrates of Xenophon, and then his great death.


Monday, April 3, 2023

Books finished in March 2023

For some reason I have been putting a monthly account of completed books on Twitter, where it is a common practice, although mostly with photographs of book stacks.  I am not sure why I have not put the lists here as well.  I guess I am not sure any of this is interesting.

Soon, I hope, I will write long overdue posts on Seneca, Xenophon, and Plato.  But until then, there is this.


Greater Hippias




Phaedo, 4th C. BCE, Plato

Recollections of Socrates

Shorter Socratic Dialogues, 4th C. BCE, Xenophon




Thyestes (tr. Heywood, 16th C.)

The Trojan Women

The Madness of Hercules (tr. Gioia)

Hercules Furens (tr. Heywood, 16th C.), all 1st C., Seneca



The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

The Ballad of the Sad Café (1943)

The Member of the Wedding (1946), Carson McCullers

Tell Me a Riddle (1961), Tillie Olsen

The Day of the Owl (1961), Leonardo Sciascia

Women of Messina (1964), Elio Vittorini

With luck I will visit Sicily this fall, so I have been reading more Sicilian and Italian books.  Tne Vittorini novel is by a Sicilian writer and has a Sicilian title but was not Sicilian at all.  Or perhaps just allegorically.  A dirty trick, but a good novel anyway. 



Deaths and Entrances (1946), Dylan Thomas

Piercing the Page: Selected Poems 1958-1989, Antonio Porta

Olives (2012), A. E. Stallings

Seren of the Wildwood (2023), Marly Youmans - another strange Youmans poetry fantasy, an event.



Les faux-monnayeurs (1925)

Journal des faux-monnayeurs (1927)

Journal 1925-1927, André Gide

A Marvelous World: Poems 1921-52, Benjamin Peret, the perfect Surrealist

O Roubo do Punhal Sagrado (2009), Amâncio Leão, a silly juvenile novel