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?"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Plato: an introduction

Reading Plato can be both light and easy, but also dense - kind of like getting hit with a wet sponge. Plato's "Dialogues" are conversations between Socrates and other people, where Socrates searches for "truth" and "wisdom" through a method of questions, inquiries, analogies and a lot of discourse. Plato was a student of Socrates, but Socrates never wrote anything down. Therefore, we only know Socrates's thoughts and words through Plato, and therefore some of Plato's own philosophy surely contributes to what Socrates says.

I have caught myself laughing out loud when I read Plato. Some of his dialogues, especially when Socrates is speaking to the Sophists whom he dispises, can be amusing. Socrates appeals to the persons ego, flattering them, while claiming he only wants to learn what great wisdom they have. They typically oblige him, often in a condensending manner.

When the Sophist has laid enough rope to hang themself, Socrates then uses their own logic against them by pulling the most outlandish example he can think of. The person Socrates is speaking with must agree to support his points since their whole arguement depends on it, but then they find themselves completely disarmed and their arguement undone.

Although reading these dialogues is easier than reading a text book, the material still requires that I pause and reflect on the meaning behind what is being spoken.

Hemingway: historical fiction

I thought I should add a few more things about Ernest Hemingway before I move on to other authors. Reading EH’s books I admire his adventurous life and his ability to present complex material in a simple narrative. However, what makes EH great to me is that his stories resonate in me long after I have put his books down. RecentlyI have come to appreciate EH in a way that I think he never imagined. His stories were written 60-80 years ago therefore, when you read his books, you are taking a step back in time.

In “A Farewell to Arms” I was thinking about how Frederic Henry encouraged his wife to smoke and drink during pregnancy to keep their newborn small. No doubt doctors encouraged this as well, but it didn’t do any good since she died in childbirth anyway. It would be appalling to think of this today, but in 1918 I suppose this was the norm.

I was impressed that EH was able to write his detailed and well researched book about the Spanish Civil War “For Whom the Bell Tolls” while he was sequestered away in far off rural Idaho. Published in 1940, he predicted the coming devastation of WW2, Fascism vs. Communism and the future of war. Although WW2 had technically begun by the time the book was in print, I felt like EH could have been describing the events of 1945 in post-script.

I found it amusing how EH could not depict sexual scenes in his books, providing only suggestions of the deed done. This is not surprising given the values and reading tastes at the time compared to the graphic books of today. Likewise, I imagine this also explains why the dialogue where characters utter profanities was replaced with colorful language or merely “obscenity” this. This was particularly funny when characters engaged in heated arguments as in FWTBT where the dialogue is: obscenity you and the obscenity mother that brought you into this obscenity world. In contrast the “n-word” and other racial epithets are spoken without hesitation.

I thought that EH portrays an antiquated view of women as clingy, needy, vacuous arm candy. In both FWTBT, AFTA and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” the women appeared to me to be equating their own self-worth to their association and adoration of the protagonist. I do not fault him for this at all and he probably was expected to have characters like this in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s.

I do wonder how much Hemingway also wrote about himself. Clearly his love of bullfighting came through in his character’s detailed descriptions in TSAR and FWTBT. When Hemingway was 62, at his home in Idaho, he crept carefully downstairs one morning as to not wake his wife. He then loaded both barrels of his 16 gauge shotgun, placed the gun to his head, and ended his writing career. Toward the end of FWTBT, the last book of EH I read, the main character Robert Jordan describes his grandfather’s suicide in an eerily similar way. Looking back it seems that Hemingway predicted his own death 20 years earlier, which is something that we only appreciate by compressing his life under the microscope of time.