Friday, March 27, 2009

Other "Great Books"

Reading Plato's lengthy dialogue "The Republic" is like pulling a parachute through water. I am taking notes as I read, which is probably the real reason my pace is suddenly languid. Rather than slog through Plato (which I am still doing) I decided to do some side reading.

About two months I added a collection of books to my library that I found at my wife's grandmother's house. Assembled in 1967, these books are from the makers of the GBWW and the reading selections are still considered classics, but they are directed toward children. Therefore I am still reading "western literature classics" and this is a needed break from Plato.

Recently I have finished:

A Christmas Tale by Charles Dickens - Although we are all familiar with this work I think few of us have read the original work. I would not call this a children's book unless your child has a graduate school vocabulary. It is quite well written and I am looking forward to reading more of Dickens in the future.

Stories from 1001 Arabian nights: Several short stories, includes "Ali Babba and the 40 thieves".

Greek and Roman Mythology: Lots of stories here - quite informative.

Fables by Leo Tolstoy - Probably the most accessible literature written by Tolstoy.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: This is a great story! The wooden legged pirate Long John Silver, a loquacious parrot and buried treasure marked "X" on a map! The pirate, swashbuckler dialogue is fantastic - and it makes you want to drink a lot of rum.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Socrates describes Euthydemus and Dionysodorus as two brothers who are "perfect in the use of their bodies" and "invincible in every sort of warfare". They are also sophists who take money and offer wisdom in the art of rhetoric and persuasion.

Euthydemus and Dionysodorus have come to Athens to "teach virtue" for those willing to pay and the Athenian noblemen have brought their sons to learn from them. Socrates wants to know how you can teach virtue. It soons becomes clear that the brothers do not want to teach wisdom, but only the skill of manipulating an argument with absurd, abstract reasoning. At times it can seem as though the brothers are employeeing similar tactics as Socrates. However, Socrates approaches the discussion from a point of ignorance, hoping to "learn" from the brothers while they attempt to make others feel foolish. They also claim that everyone already has wisdom, but that they can help it be revealed.

Euthydemus: Do you not know letters?

(Clinias) He assented.

E: All letters?

C: Yes.

E: But when a teacher dictates to you, does he not dictate letters?

This again was admitted by him.

E: Then if you know all letters, he dictates that which you know?

This reminds me of an infomerical on late night television when the the demonstrator tells you that the power to make money (lose weight, do math in your head, etc) is inside you but his special book (video, 6 week program, etc) will help you become a better person. It is comical if you get it, but don't buy it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Protagoras the Antagonist

If Socrates had an enemy it would be the sophists, and the greatest sophist was Protagoras. The sophists traveled throughout the Greek world teaching wisdom, or really rhetoric; the ability to make a weak argument look stronger and to trap people in their words. Protagoras was the most famous of these and is known for his quote, "Man is the measure of all things". This is a sort of moral relativism; if we feel something is good, just, etc., than it is, even if someone else feels differently based on their own perspective. For example, what is good for the undertaker is not good for the person who just died. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Obviously some people (like the Catholic church) would disagree strongly with Protagoras. I recognize that what seems moral and acceptable in one culture or time is not acceptable in another place or time. I think that is part of being open-minded, well traveled and understanding.

This dialague concerns a discussion between Protagoras and Socrates to determine if virtue can be taught. Socrates says that "virtue" is knowledge and that "evil" is another name for ignorance. It is impossible to be "bad" if we know "good" (i.e. have knowledge). Socrates believes that no one willing commits an evil act (steal, lie, etc), unless they slip into a state of ignorance and become unaware of how their actions will adversely affect them.

I have my own theories on why people commit evil acts or harm themselves. It is a constant struggle for some people, including myself, to overcome their appetites. I do not think it is a lack of knowledge, but a lack of good judgement, which is an emotional response not a logical one. I will "harm" myself because it feels good at the time, just like a jury can be swayed by arguments that appeal to their emotion despite the evidence on the contrary.

Plato does parse words, which I think is good and bad. Of course we want to define what it is to be just, good, holy and virtuous, but he also makes arguments pivot on the definition of “being” compared to “becoming” and to “will” instead of to “wish” as he does in Protagoras. It does make me feel as though ancient Greek and English are not so different; but semantics are the same in any language, modern or ancient. Socrates is debating if “hard” is the same thing as “evil” from an ancient poet, Simonides. Likewise, the fact that a sentence ends in “truly” apparently can change the whole meaning of a phrase. I am impressed that language could be used like a tool, almost like math to calculate the meaning of a message (which I guess would be called “Logic”). However, sometimes words lack clear definitions (unlike numbers!). I believe this is where this where Plato gets into trouble.