Plato’s “Clitophon”: frustration with Socrates

Posted in Greek by Alex L. on May 27, 2009

Clitophon is the shortest Platonic dialogue but one that is very intriguing. In the dialogue, Clitophon, a student of Socrates, accuses his teacher of never leading him to happiness by failing to offer any positive knowledge. The dialogue ends with Clitophon exclaiming, “For I will say this, Socrates, that while you’re worth the world to someone who hasn’t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.” Indeed, this feeling of wanting more is a familiar one to any serious reader of Plato. In Laches, Socrates refutes all proposed definitions of courage without offering any himself (cf. my post on Laches). Socrates ends the dialogue by saying to his friends that they should seek knowledgeable teachers of that virtue and that he will meet with them on the following day. The dialogue ends there, but the reader is left yearning to join Socrates and his friends the day after, where presumably Socrates, the ‘knowledgeable teacher’ he had coyly hinted at, would spill the beans about courage.

If nothing else, Clitophon is a testament to the meekness of Plato as an author. The work is a harsh denunciation of Socrates – Plato’s protagonist in almost all of his works – and a sober admission of the limitations of Plato’s method of philosophy. It reminds us that Socrates’ gift, as he described in the Apology, is to reveal the ignorance of others, not put forth positive knowledge himself. What Socrates offers us is first and foremost humility, not knowledge (at least not the kind that describes the definite nature of the good). It is easy to see how Aristotle, a student in Plato’s Academy for almost two decades, could grow frustrated with Plato’s approach and react against it. In his works, Aristotle offers the reader something Plato never directly does: a positive formulation of happiness, the virtues, and the good (rather, goods, which demystifies the problem) to give us practical advice on how to lead a better life.

Plato still stands as a giant among philosophers the more so because of his humility. But, at the risk of misunderstanding his deep meaning, I think Plato voluntarily left much of the work of learning how to live a better life to the hands of more able thinkers. We should remember Socrates lest our own theories fail his examination for ignorance, but we must not grow skeptical of personal improvement altogether (the leaders of the Academy took such a turn after Plato’s death). For Socrates never liked the timid of mind nor for that matter those lacking in courage, though he could never quite tell them exactly what that is.

Stephen Colbert is greater than Achilles

Posted in American, Greek, Just for Fun, Television by Alex L. on May 21, 2009

Stephen Colbert portrait

A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.

Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.

Plato’s “Laches” – is courage choosing faith over fear?

Posted in Greek by Alex L. on April 3, 2009

Plato’s Laches is a dialogue about the nature of courage (literally translated, “manliness”). Socrates and his friends proceed in a manner typical of Plato’s dialogues: Socrates’ companions propose various definitions of courage, and a communal inquiry led by Socrates finds each one of the proposals inadequate. Courage is defined in turn as endurance (189d-192c), wise endurance (192c-194b), knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (194c-199c), and knowledge of good and evil (199c-199e).

While all of those definitions fail to describe the nature of courage, I think the best one was the third one, knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (or, at least, it sparked some thought in my mind). Socrates describes fear as the expectation of future evils. Hope or faith (there is a slight difference in the meaning of the two terms, but I will henceforth refer to “faith” since it more closely parallels Socrates’ definition of fear), then, is the expectation of future goods. Fear is the opposite of faith and faith is the opposite of fear, according to Socrates. Both describe a present relationship with future events, though from opposing perspectives. Socrates’ view differs from how we usually think about courage, cowardice, fear, and faith. “Courage in the face of death” is the usual way people talk about that virtue (as in, soldiers fighting enemies or patients battling cancer). “I have no faith in him” suggests that the opposite of faith is mistrust, not fear (no one would substitute “I fear him” for that expression). Socrates challenges us to examine these things further.

The last two definitions of courage in the dialogue fail because Socrates and his companions Laches and Nicias can not define what type of knowledge constitutes courage. But is not courage more than just knowledge? In a moment of conflict within the individual, isn’t there a sort of choice involved which determines whether his action turns out to be courageous or cowardly? Should we not say, then, that courage is choosing and acting in accordance with faith (that is, the expectation of future goods) over fear (the expectation of future evils)?

Immediately, an objection could be raised to this new definition. What is the difference between this new proposal and just saying that courage is knowledge of good and evil (the fourth definition of the dialogue, which Socrates disproved)? For Socrates, knowledge of good and evil always leads to virtuous action – only ignorance, not individual will, leads to evil. So then isn’t choosing to expect future goods over future evils the same as knowing what those goods and evils are? Well, yes, perhaps my attempt at philosophizing fails there. But maybe my proposal can still be salvaged if we look at courage through the lens of our imperfect world, just as Socrates does about love in the Symposium. Diotima, Socrates’ teacher in that dialogue, says that a lover is “in between being wise and being ignorant” (204b). She goes on to define love as “wanting to possess the good forever” (206a). Once one possesses the good, one is no longer a lover. Love is an imperfect state – the gods, being perfect, are not lovers. Perhaps courage is also a virtue only possible in an imperfect world. In moments of trial or uncertainty, when the fog descends over our understanding and the future seems uncertain, the lover desires the good nonetheless. The courageous man, undeterred, goes no small step further: he chooses to expect it.

Counsel against thirst for power

Posted in Greek, Medieval, Reading by Alex L. on March 12, 2009

In the Republic, Plato warns us that the pursuit of power and prestige leads to suffering, injustice, and perhaps even death. Living – as some of us are – in comfortable homes and safe neighborhoods, one easily forgets that Plato’s advice is very pertinent to real life. One need only to look at history at some of the most famous cases of worldly ambition to see that striving for power often meets the grizzliest of ends. One such example is that of Beyazit I, an early Ottoman sultan who was also called Yilderim (“Thunderbolt”) because of his notorious spurts of anger. He set out to do what no former Muslim ruler could up to that point – capture the jewel of the eastern Roman world: the city of Constantinople. He came fairly close. The Byzantine empire was fragmented and weak. Beyazit had just crushed at the battle of Nicopolis (1396) an alliance of western European armies sent to thwart the Ottoman advance. Constantinople was for the Thunderbolt’s taking. Beyazit himself was to fulfill a prophecy of Muhammad that a blessed Muslim ruler and army would capture the ancient capital, ensuring his place in history as a hero of Islam. But then, Beyazit’s prize was snatched from his hands and he himself would meet a bitter end. The armies of Tamerlane, one of history’s most famous conquerors, swept in from Central Asia and invaded the territory of the Ottomans. At the battle of Ankara on July 28, 1402, Beyazit’s armies were defeated and he was captured by Tamerlane. Here is how Stephen O’Shea describes Beyazit’s fate in Sea of Faith:

“The Thunderbolt was not as lucky – taken prisoner, he was carted around in a litter, which later legend made into a cage, as Timur sacked the cities of northwestern Turkey that the sultan’s ancestors, Osman and Orhan, had conquered. Apparently, during this campaign Beyazit’s lovely Serbian bride, Olivera [by whom “he was, by many accounts, deeply smitten” when he was getting to know her], was relieved of her clothes and forced to serve, stark naked, at the table of the great Mongol. Beyazit, dejected and humiliated, died the following year” (252, 245).

Hearing about Beyazit’s life, Plato’s advice rings truer. He would have us be like his Odysseus in the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic. For Odysseus – who is in Hades having to choose a new life for himself – “the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the [same] had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.”