Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sophocles: The Oedipus trilogy

Sophocles (496 BC-406 BC) was the second of the three greatest ancient Greek tragedians, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Of his 125 plays, only 7 survived. The story of Oedipus the King, or "Oedipus Rex" is part of a trilogy of tales whose most famous legacy is giving us the term "Oedipus complex", an unconsci0us desire for the parent of the opposite sex.

This triology of dramas describes the downfall of Oedipus as he struggles to avoid his fate. His father, Laius the king of Thebes, receives a prophecy that his newborn son will eventually kill him. To prevent this, he has his son taken into the wilderness to die. Instead, he is rescued and is adopted by the king of Corinth as his son. When Oedipus learns that he is prophesized to kill his father, he leaves Corinth to avoid this fate. This sends him on a collision course with his real father whom he meets and kills. He then unknowlingly marries his mother, the queen of Thebes, and they have several children.

(You know you have problems when you have a triangle in your family tree!)

When a plague strikes Thebes, the only cure is to discover and banish the man who killed Laius. Oedipus then learns through the oracle that he killed Laius, who was his father, and married his mother. In anguish, he blinds himself and then seeks refuge at Colonus, near Athens (Oedipus at Colonus) Oedipus's children then fight amoungst themselves as to who will succeed him as ruler, which raises the death count even higher. The last drama, Antigone, chronicles Oedipus's daughter Antigone as she struggles to have her brother buried near Thebes, which eventually leads to her own death as well.

I think that the theme of this story is that it is difficult to avoid fate. However, this entire tragedy could clearly have been averted if Oedipus had been ignorant of his lineage. Certainly ignorance would have been blissful compared to the chain of tragic events that unfolded after Oedipus discovered the consequences of his actions.

It was very insightful to read on the earliest and greatest tragedies that we have a record of. I can see where Shakespeare derived some of his inspiration, including the clever phrases and descriptions than Sophocles uses.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plato: Apology

“The unexamined life is not worth living. Know thyself”

Socrates is brought to trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and for promoting impiety. He must now deliver his defense speech, or apologia.

Socrates is known as someone who always asks questions and seeking the truth. He compares himself to a gadfly stirring the horse (Athens) into motion with his meddlesome questions. Socrates says that the Oracle called him the wisest of all men because he admits he does not know anything. Therefore, he knows what he does not know.

Socrates is found guilty by a vote of 280 to 221. When asked to choose a penalty, he suggests a fine, although he admits he will never stop philosophizing. The jury then sentences Socrates to death. Socrates suggests that they try to live a better life rather than kill off their critics. He then marches off to prison awaiting his date with the hemlock.

Plato: Crito

In this dialogue, Socrates is in his cell waiting execution. His friend Crito visits him and tries to convince him to flee, saying that he can bribe the guards and help him escape. Socrates says that he cannot flee, since he has always obeyed the laws of Athens and he would be a hypocrite if he fled now. He would lose all integrity and respect and his life would mean nothing.

Crito thinks that it is OK to break the law if he considers it unjust. Socrates has adopted a form of a “social contract” with the state of Athens and accepts their judgment. I am inclined to agree with Crito that I would rather rebel against an unjust law rather than sacrafice my life obeying a flawed state. I especially believe this given that democracies are unstable and capricious.

The Republic: Allegory of the Cave

The Allegory of the Cave

This has been called the most famous metaphor in Western philosophy. Socrates asks us to imagine men who have spent their entire lives imprisoned in a cave underground, seeing only shadows and believing these to be real. One of the men escapes and sees the “real” world, not of shadows but of real things. He then travels back into the cave to enlighten his fellow prisoners with his observations.

In Plato’s city-state, education will allow the philosopher-kings to see the real world. They then must return to the cave to help the great masses. This is their obligation to the state which has given them an education.

Another way to think of this is to ask someone what beauty, courage, justice, etc “is”. Do you imagine, believe, think or understand the real concept of the word? Are these just "shadows" to you or do you really understand their meaning (can you seperate the word from an image?)

No child left behind and information control

Socrates was sentenced to death for crimes including corrupting the youth and impiety. In the Republic, Socrates surprisingly proposes a very strict regimen of study for the children of his ideal city. The classics from Hesiod and Homer, whom he calls ancient texts, must be significantly edited to remove any improprieties about the "gods". Foreshadowing Christianity, Socrates says that no god would do anything that would harm people - gods only do good things. Because Zeus is pure virtue and without fault it is therefore impossible for him to do anything that is not good. This is a severe deviation from traditional Greek thought, especially editing texts which many Greek consider sacred. However, this editing does reflect much of the editing that would take place at the "Council of Nicaea" when Christians tried to determine who/what God was.

God is never the “author of evil” to anyone. God would also never assume a less perfect form (a beggar, a traveler, etc) since he could never lie or deceive.

Plato has a complete plan for finding and training his philosopher-kings from childhood to their 50's. This includes much schooling in mathematics, which he regards as a step away from empirical reasoning (using the senses) toward a pure form of investigation using math and logic. For example instead of thinking of 2 apples or 2 oranges, Plato wants you to think of an intangible number “2”, not associated to any particular object.

Plato's Ideal Government
"the state is the soul writ large"

Socrates explains the best and worst forms of government in this order: monarchy, oligarthy, democracy and tyranny. Finding democracy in third place is strange given the development of this form of government in Athens. Plato seems to think that democracy is a world of absolute freedom where everyone can do as they please. He thinks this will descend into anarchy as everyone pursues their own interests and will eventually lead to a strong leader emerging (a tyranny).

Socrates describes a most bizarre form a government which seems authoritarian and proto-communistic, with the goal of establishing harmony and diminishing discord. First, information control is critical, such as regulating what poetry, stories, music and education the youth receive. The guardians also do not get to own property, which is a great idea and sort of reminds me of a cross between the Doges of the Republic of Venice and samurais of medieval Japan (both property/salary-less).

The utopian vision become absurd when Socrates describes how babies will be taken from their mothers so no one knows whose child is whose. This will discourage people from treating other people's children differently, since any kid could be yours. I wonder if this makes it easier to find a baby-sitter? I would have to think this would really mess a kid up, especially if you do not look like any one else! Plato also wants people to share wives (which would keep you from coveting your neighbor's). Unfortunately sex is entirely for procreation and only done on certain times of the year (to ensure we all think those kids belong to us).

Lying should be reserved only for the rulers of states to control the masses, but lying to rulers is the worst crime. This seems to contradict the virtuous nature of the philosopher-kings.

Poetry and Television

When I see people in television shows I remind myself that this is not how real people act (or should act). I am becoming more aware of it since we hope to start a family and I am becoming more cognizant of the ridiculous behavior of many TV characters. Plato saw the same problem with plays and stories performed or read in his day. Socrates states that stories that depict characters acting in inappropriate or unmanly ways will be banned or edited. I guess he thought this would be easier than just having a heart-to-heart with "your" child. Children should be taught false stories first, then true ones.

The Republic: Theory of Forms

Plato's Theory of Forms

This is probably Plato’s most well known idea. Using the “allegory of the cave”, Plato suggests that all we see are shadows of images (animals, people, and objects). However, we do not see the real things as they are themselves. Plato hypothesizes that there is a true, ideal form for everything that is impossible to know. For example, an ideal horse which is the “idea” of a horse but not a horse that actually exists. Sweetness may exist in an apple, but nothing will ever be as sweet as the form (idea) of sweetness. Forms cannot be seen, but only visualized in the mind.

To think about this, it may take a mind like Schopenhauer who once said, "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see." The sweetness that we visualize is unchanging, perfect, and will last forever. It is an abstract standard that can only be imagined.

The pleasure of a philosopher (seeking truth) is the only real pleasure. Everything else is only a temporary relief from pain.


Plato believed that cognitive ability could be divided into four tiers of ability. The lowest grade is imagination (he means imagining something is there when it is not). In today’s world this could be a person whose entire view of the world is from what they observe on television. They have no idea of how real people behave or how real events occur.

The next step up is belief (like the belief in an almighty-creator-of-heaven-and-earth?). These lowest two levels are in the "visible" realm, which can be easily deceived. (my television analogy may belong here as well).

The next two levels are in the higher "intellectual" realm: thought and understanding. Thought realizes on observations and making intelligent reasoning based on previous events. Understanding is a level up from this, when we are not thinking about particulars in that thing, but about a general idea of that thing, and this is not something can be actively observed with our senses.

The pleasure of a philosopher (seeking truth) is the only real pleasure. Everything else is only a temporary relief from pain.

The Republic: Justice

Right and Wrong versus “advantage”

The sophists, such as Thrasymachus in this dialogue, believed that right and wrong were subjective – there being no absolute right or wrong. All actions were either for your advantage or disadvantage (i.e. might makes right). He thinks that justice is an unnatural constraint on our desires. It is like Thomas Hobbes Leviathan - we have all had to make compromises to live within a state and have laws to protect us. It seems that it is better to be thought of a just, but really be unjust.

“Appearance tyrannizes over truth”

Socrates says that justice is not only being honest and following laws. For example, you would take a weapon away from an insane friend. It is suggested that Justice is do harm to friends and harm to enemies, but this is imperfect since we can make mistakes. Also our friends are not entirely virtuous and our enemies may not be pure malcontents.

Socrates then explains that injustice is contrary to wisdom and therefore cannot be a virtue. He says that a virtue like justice is its own reward and that we all want justice and it protects us from injustice. “Laws exist to provide reason for those who are not strong enough to rule their own soul.”

The Republic: an overview

The Republic is Plato’s most well-known dialogue, contains his most memorable metaphors and is his most articulate attempt at describing what “justice” is. Reading this was a long, slow journey (with my note taking), even though I had read it a few years ago. Much of this dialogue concerns Socrates conversing with others trying to understand what a just person is by comparing the individual to a city-state. “A city is the soul writ large”, Socrates says as he makes an analogy between different individuals within a city to qualities that exist within a person.

Socrates says there are basically three elements to a person or a city. At the lowest level are the great masses of people, the “producers” of goods and services, which in an individual would be the “appetites”. These give us desires and drive us to do things. They must be controlled by the “auxiliaries” or soldiers, who in an individual would be represented as courage or spirit. These auxiliaries, who also protect us from outside forces, must in turn be ruled over by “reason” in the individual, or in a city-state this would be the “guardians” or “philosopher-kings”.

Every class has its own desires: the mass of people (appetites) lust after all things and pleasure ,but especially desire money; the auxiliaries (courage) want honor and pride and can lead us to anger; the philosopher-kings (reason) strive for knowledge and wisdom and rule over all. When the balance is upset in a city, much as in an individual, disaster will result.

I think Plato’s tripartite soul sounds very familiar to Sigmund Freud’s Id, Ego and Super-ego. The Id is like Plato’s appetites, the Ego could be considered the auxillaries and the Super-ego is certainly the guardians. I am not a Freud expert, so this is only an observation.