Thursday, February 26, 2009

Courage, Temperance and Friendship

I was reading a Hemingway novel a week, but reading Plato has turned my sprint into a crawl. The GBWW reading program requires that I only read Plato's Apology, Crito, The Republic this year. However, a few years ago I read these, so I decided to skip ahead and read a few of Plato's other dialogues. I finished reading three of these which discussed the topics of courage (Laches), temperance (Charmides) and friendship (Lysis).

In Laches, Socrates tries to determine what it means to have "courage" by speaking with two generals (strategos), Laches and Nicias. Who knows courage better than a soldier? Lachias calls courage "an endurance of the soul", which he eventually refines as a "wise" endurance of the soul. This is because the difference between a brave and foolish man is how much he knows. However these is no way to know if a man is courageous or an idiot if he fights against something he does not think he can overcome. Niceas tries to link courage to knowledge of the opposition. However, if knowledge makes us brave then just knowing things makes us courageous (which they agree is not true).

I have often wondered about the difference between being brave and being a moron. Recently I watched a History Channel special on WW2 fighter aces, one of whom said that "courage is instinct" when you are utterly terrified . It seems to me that "thought" is not part of the equation in this particular person's mind. I was happy to read that this issue perplexed Plato and his contemporaries and it was interesting to see it thoroughly vetted. Does standing against fear make us courageous? What is the difference between unthinking fearlessness and thoughtful retreat?

Charmides is the eponymous character of this dialogue who Socrates questions to discover the meaning of "temperance". The Greeks held this trait in high regard and linked it to the inscription at the Oracle of Delphi which read "Know Thyself". The conversation tries to define temperance as being "modest", "doing our own business", "self-knowledge" or a "knowledge of knowledge". As a "self knowing restraint" it appears that temperance means you know what your know (know yourself) and also know what you do not know. (Having known unknowns, or maybe unknown unknowns to quote Rumsfeld).

I thought it was interesting when Socrates says that by asking someone a question, we are really asking a question to ourselves. I had to think about that for a while. Another phrase that held my attention was when Socrates said that by "acting according to knowledge we shall act well and be happy". Does that mean I will only be happy when I act according to what I know? For example, I know studying for a test will give me a better grade and I will be why would I act contrary to my knowledge? Why would I drink more wine knowing that I will have a hangover the next day? I must not be acting according to my knowledge, I suppose.

Conversely, does that mean that my happiness is limited by my knowledge? I have often said that "ignorance is bliss". According to Plato I am only deceiving myself since I can only be happy with knowledge and making good decisions. Of course I have thought that WE alone are the cause of 90% of our own problems.

Lysis is a story about "friendship" and why we choose to be friends with other people. We have often said that opposites attract, but Socrates says it is "monstrous" to think that a good person would be friends with a bad (or unjust) person. Also, Socrates does not think that bad people can be friends with bad people (apparently bad people have no friends!). Therefore "likeness" or a common view of the world must be what draws people together. However, if people have everything they need why would they want to friends with someone who is just like them? Socrates suggests that we desire friends because they fill a need. Does this mean that if we did not have a "need" to fill, we would not need friends? It made me wonder if all my friendships were just ephemeral relationships that would pass into time as the needs which justified their existence dissipated.
"May not the truth be that, as we were saying, desire if the cause of friendship; for that which desires is dear to that which is desired at the time of desire?"

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