Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alcibiades on Socrates

When Alcibiades turns up, drunk as a skunk at Agathon's Symposium, he is startled to find himself lying next to Socrates. To Socrates annoyance, he starts making indiscreet comments about Socrates' qualities, physical, mental, and moral.

Socrates has a big head, he crows.  He's proud, because he'll grumble if he doesn't get a wreath as a man who "has never lost an argument in his life."  He has hollow legs, because he can drink all night and not get drunk.  He implies that Socrates talks rubbish ("the truth is just the opposite").

Socrates is like Silenus, i.e., ignorant, drunk, and lustful, but full of the images of the gods.  Or he is like Marsyas, also a satyr.  He's "impudent, contemptuous, and vile", a good "fluteplayer", that "possesses" people with words alone.  He's the only person that can make Alcibiades "feel shame".

Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys but not because they are beautiful.  He poses as an ironist, but inside he is godlike, "amazing".  Socrates is not really interested in carnal pleasures.  Alcibiades got alone with him and all he did was talk.  Then he got Socrates in bed with him and, in his "arrogance and pride," Socrates still wouldn't bite.

But now Alcibiades stops the clowning around and proceeds to admire Socrates' "courage and fortitude" with "strength of character and wisdom".  Money means nothing to him.  He's a hardy man, that "stood up to hunger" better than anyone in the Potidaea expedition.  He doesn't like to drink but when he does, nobody sees him get drunk.  And he's resistant to the cold.  He can focus on a problem, and he is brave, staying back to help and rescue the wounded Alcibiades and his armor, but was happy to have Alcibiades get the credit.  Even more brave was his coolness in retreat from Delium with Laches.

Socrates is unique; there is nobody like him.  You laugh at his arguments and "the same tired old words" but you come to realize that they are "worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside".  He's a deceiver, who "presents himself as your lover" but makes you fall in love with him.  Watch out, he tells Agathon.

At the end of the Symposium we see that Plato is a cunning fellow.  He knows that the best way to put across his idea of Love is not with the pedestrian mumblings of Eryximachus or the high-flown rhetoric of Agathon, or even Socrates hiding behind Diotima.  No, the best way is to bring riotous Alcibiades in and have him pretend to make a fool of Socrates, and in fact show that Socrates is the very incarnation of a man on the top rung of the ladder of love.  He is beyond loving one beautiful boy, or even several, or even learning beautiful things.  Look at him inside his armor of irony, and you see "just what it is to be beautiful."

Monday, May 28, 2012

Plato's Ladder of Love

It is telling that when Plato finally wants to get down to brass tacks in his Symposium on Love, on Eros, he finally calls in a woman, the divine Diotima.  Apparently it's all very well for the lads, from Phaedrus to Pausanias, to Eryximachus to comic playwright Aristophanes and the noble tragedian Agathon to discourse on Love, and it's all very well for Socrates to demolish Agathon's soaring prose in his usual manner.  But Diotima is needed to give Love a feminine flourish and teach Socrates a thing or two about Love.

Even the pedophiliac Greeks seem to think that a woman needs to be called in to get to the heart of Love, and so Socrates recalls a conversation on Love with Diotima of Mantinea.  And Diotima leads Socrates up the Ladder of Love.

Yes, she says, you start with your love of a single beautiful boy, on the bottom rung of the ladder, and make beautiful speeches to his beautiful body.  But you'd have to be pretty dull not to realize that if one body can be beautiful then it is a single step upwards to realize that another can also be beautiful.  And if two bodies are beautiful then it is merely a single step upwards to "become a lover of all beautiful bodies."

But if bodies are beautiful, surely beautiful souls are even more valuable, and you will step up and seek to make the souls of young men better.  To do this you will be forced to "gaze at the beauty of activities and laws" and begin to think that "the beauty of bodies is a thing of small importance."

But customs and laws are one thing; it is merely a step up to move on to appreciate the "beauty of knowledge" and learn to give "many gloriously beautiful speeches, in unstinting love of wisdom."  So here we are back at the philosophy ranch boosting the glories of philosophy and philosophers.

Then at last you can take the final step up and view the Form of beauty.  It is not beauty in contrast to ugliness, or beautiful body parts, or speeches or knowledge or indeed instantiated in any Thing, but "learning of this Beauty, so that in the end you comes to know just what it is to be beautiful."  It is to "see the Beautiful itself, absolute, pure, unmixed, not polluted by human flesh or colors or any other great nonsense of mortality."  And thus, "looking at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen" you can give birth not to "images of virtue" but "true virtue" itself.
The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given birth to true irtue and nourished it, and if any human beling could become immortal, it would be he.
So much for that.  The next moment everything gets thrown into turmoil when the turbulent rich kid Alcibiades turns up at the gate, drunk as a lord. 

E.J. Dionne's Mistake about Conservatives

Liberals say the darnedest things.  Like humans everywhere they regard their own approach to human social relations as the correct one, and the approach of others, particularly American conservatives, as mad or bad.

Thus E.J. Dionne's lament that "Conservatives used to care about community.  What happened?" is a classic case of "us" and "them."  He assumes that because conservatives don't agree with the liberal agenda of the moment, including the mammoth ObamaCare and the bureaucratic corporate regulation of Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, that conservatives are mad individualists that care nothing about human community.

Of course this is rubbish.  Conservatives do too believe in community.  It's just that conservatives believe in different forms and different arrangements of community than liberals.  Most obviously, conservatives believe that the big-government approach to community beloved by liberals is profoundly anti-community.  That's because government is force.  The whole point of human social relations, conservatives believe, is to avoid use of force except in extreme cases.  Yet the liberal solution to almost any social problem is to create a government program, i.e. use force.

It is perhaps helpful to analyze this in the context of "relational models theory," a framework for categorizing human "sociality" first published by sociologist Alan Page Fiske in the early 1990s.  The theory is simple(pdf).  People relate to each other in just four ways.  There is the Community Sharing model,  where people interact as though their group was an undifferentiated unit.  There is Authority Ranking, the assumption that people interact based on an understanding of an authority hierarchy.  There is Equality Matching, in which people try to achieve a balance of giving and taking.  Then there is Market Pricing, where people interact on the basis not of straight giving and taking, but a more precise reckoning of ratios, i.e., market prices. Market Pricing is no more or no less social than the other models.  Success and achievement in the market economy are no more or less social than altruistic caring in a Community Sharing or Equality Matching context.

You can see that the differences between liberals and conservatives arise out of different world-views that value the four models differently and implement their values in different ways.  For instance conservatives believe in the authority of fathers, mothers, and mediating structures like churches and associations.  Liberals believe in the authority of activists and "idealists."  Conservatives believe in the Invisible Hand to govern the working out of Market Pricing.  Liberals believe that Market Pricing is inherently exploitative unless minutely controlled by by a strong Authority Ranking government regulatory apparatus.  E.J. Dionne thinks that access to affordable health care is well-nigh impossible for many unless the government dictates universal rules of access.  Conservatives think that most people can afford to buy their own health insurance and charitable organizations can fill in most of the gaps.

We can thus interpret the great battle between socialism and capitalism over the last two centuries as an argument about the extent to which Market Pricing is a beneficial and useful model for basing social relationships among humans, the social animals.  Today's conservatives believe that Adam Smith's Invisible Hand doctrine is true, that in normal social interactions of an economic nature people satisfy their individual needs by serving the needs of others.  Today's liberals believe Marx's dictum that capitalist interactions are inherently exploitative because the capitalist always and everywhere denies the laborer the full value of his labor.

There are other disagreements.  Liberals seem to think that Community Sharing and Equality Matching relationships should usually be implemented in Authority Ranking government programs.  Conservatives believe that, where possible, we should do Community Sharing and Equality Matching in ways that avoid the hard power of government and use the soft power of civil society associations.

These arguments and conflicts about human society are, and should be, eternal.  But let us close with a word from Alan Page Fiske on "the inherent sociability of homo sapiens."
The most striking characteristic of Homo sapiens is our sociality. Social relations pervade every aspect of human life and these relationships are far more extensive, complex, and diverse (within and across societies) than those of any other species. And for survival and reproduction we are far more dependent on our social relationships and our cultures than any other animal.
In the coming weeks I am going to try and analyze this basic human social trait against the metric of government, to evaluate human social relationships directed by the social emotions against human social relations directed by governmental force.  Because I think that it is essential to understand that government is a limit case of human sociality.  For most things, government should be the red handle locked in a glass cabinet: "In Emergency, break glass."

E.J. Dionne and his liberal friends won't like it.  But that's too bad.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When Eros Means Man-Boy Love

I have to admit that I can't really get my arms around the idea that the noblest form of erotic love is the love of an older man for a beautiful boy.  But Socrates and his pals at the Symposium seem to think it's the most natural thing in the world.

The only question, for young Phaedrus, is what is honorable or dishonorable in man-boy love, or whether, for Pausanias, there are two kinds of eros, the common or the heavenly. The common is the one for those that care only about "completing the sexual act" and like women as well as boys.  Whereas the heavenly version...

For Eryximachus the doctor eros suffuses everything, even in the business of the physician and his patient, for "the physician's task is to effect a mutual reconciliation and establish mutual love between the most basic bodily elements."

And then there is Aristophanes, with a Platonic "likely story" about humans as "completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands".  Plus two faces, two sets of sex organs, etc., until Zeus decided to cut humans in two.  Thus cut in half, humans wanted to reunite with their lost half, and that is how you get love.

Then Agathon goes off into ecstasies about the beauty of the erotic god, his youth and delicacy.  "Love fills us with togetherness and drains all of our divisiveness away." Mildness, kindness, "comrade and savior".  Everyone should follow love.

I suppose the problem for us 21st century moderns is our attachment to the ideal of romantic love.  In that, at least, we can understand Aristophanes and Agathon.  But the curious way in which man-boy love is experienced by Greek aristocrats as a preparation for valor, and a way to socialize boys into manhood:  t's just as weird as what comes next: Plato's insistence that the highest form of love is philosophy, the love of wisdom.

Today's philosophers don't seem to be much in love with wisdom.  They just love to chop logic.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Souls of Living Things

We moderns may think of the universe as as an unimaginable vastness, with a few rocky planets sporting a curious kind of fuzz.  But Plato in the Timaeus sees the universe as a single Living Thing "that contains within itself all living things, mortal and immortal."

Plato wanted the human living thing to have both a mortal and an immortal soul, with the immortal soul containing divineness, and the mortal part the other things, "those dreadful but necessary disturbances" such as pleasure, pain, boldness, fear, "expectation easily led astray" and "fused with unreasoning sense perception and all-venturing lust."  The immortal soul resides in the head and the mortal part in the trunk, with the neck as an isthmus to keep the two types of soul safely apart.

The mortal part of the soul, safely confined to the trunk of the body, comes in two flavors.  The part "that exhibits manliness and spirit" the gods settled in the upper trunk between the midriff and the head "so that it might listen to reason" and restrain the appetitive part.  The appetitive part they put between the midriff and the navel, tied down "like a beast, a wild one."  Plants were also created by the gods, but these living things on the ground only have souls of the appetitive kind, like the human mortal soul situated between the midriff and the navel.  The plant soul is passive, and cannot "discern and reflect upon any of its own characteristics."

Plato comes up with all kinds of inventive explanations of the the body's organs.  The lungs, for instance, are there to cool the heart.  The liver is there to receive the "force of the thoughts sent down from the mind" to help tame the wild beast below.

Natural death from old age, according to Plato, comes about in this way.  Firelike triangles (actually tetrahedrons) cut up food and send nourishment all through the body.  But as the body ages, the triangles lose their ability to cut up the food and are "destroyed by the invaders from outside."  Eventually the "interlocking bonds of the triangles around the marrow can no longer hold on" and "they let the bonds of the soul go."  The soul is then released in a natural way, and finds it pleasant to take flight."  If this comes naturally, and not through disease, it can provide a "pleasant, not a painful death."

Of course, your basic human is a man.  Women only come into existence when "male-born humans who lived lives of cowardice or injustice" are "reborn as women."  Animals are descended from less than perfect men.  Birds, for instance, are descended from simpleminded men, and land animals came from men "who had no tincture of philosophy" and followed the mortal soul in their chest rather than the immortal soul in their head.  Water animals came from the most stupid and ignorant men of all!

It's easy to sneer at the natural and biological sciences of the ancients.  But mankind demands an answer to our questions, and the ancient philosophers did the best they could.  No doubt future generations will sneer at our foolish notions of the nature of life, the universe, and everything.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Plato's Receptacle

Suppose you are Plato and you've been pushing your concept of the Forms for ages. Everything comes from these perfect ideas that can be comprehended up there in the firmament beyond the rim of heaven. Ordinary things that you and I see, the perceptions and particulars, are not reality but opinion, true belief.

But if you were Plato you might worry a bit about how you get from the perfect Forms to the everyday sensible particulars. So Plato pops behind the curtain and briefs his alter ego Timaeus on a quick and dirty fudge, a half-way house between the Forms and the particulars: The Receptacle.

You can think of this Receptacle as a kind of wetnurse. Or you can think of it like gold: Gold is gold, but you can manipulate it into all kinds of shapes. Or you could think of it as the mother, the receptacle of the father's seed or Form, which incubates the offspring. Or you could think of it as a plastic, impressionable stuff, or you could think of the receptacle as the odorless liquid that is used as the base for a fragrance.  You see the point.  Plato reckons he needs something more substantial than Forms upon which to hang the everyday impressions of moment to moment sensation.

In our modern science we have a similar concept, for we understand that the sensible particulars we detect with our eyes are in fact the result of electromagnetic radiation emitted from a lattice of atoms and molecules, which don't necessarily have sensible properties by themselves but emit signals to us that we interpret as red and yellow, hard and soft, solid and liquid.

Let us take an example: a left shoe. First of all, the left shoe comes into being in a Receptacle, as an instance of the Form of shoe in a process of shaking disordered elements into order, producing the particular instance of left shoe. On the gold analogy, it would be the combination of elements shaped and molded into a shoe. On the mother-father analogy it is the offspring of the Form of a shoe incubated by a lactating mother. On the plastic, impressionable stuff, it is the Form of shoeness impressed upon plastic stuff into the particular of a shoe. Or the receptacle is shaken and stirred, like the pieces in a kaleidoscope into the instance of a shoe from the Form of shoeness. On the reflection metaphor, the left shoe is a projection into a certain space or site of the Form shoenessness.

In part, the Receptacle is meant to represent stuffness, the place where Form is manifested into stuff; in part, according to another interpretation, the Receptacle is the space, the place, the room where an instance of a thing comes into being and then, in time goes out of being.

But what happens when the left shoe moves? Perfectly simple. We have the shaken-and-stirred analogy to account for that. The shoe is shaken from its original position and moved, for the Receptacle is not just stuff but a space, a site of stuff. Or it is gold, moved and remolded into a new shape in the Receptacle. Or it is switched from one breast of the wetnurse to the other.

There is no doubt that, the more specific you get, the more incoherent the analogies become that Plato uses to illustrate his Receptacle concept. But there is no shame in that.  Our modern science is barely free from incoherence. We have the action-at-a-distance problem with the notion that a single photon can seem to go through two slits at once and interfere with itself. And what really do we have in a solid lattice of molecules, or a soupy wetland of a liquid? We have our likely story, our true belief about what is going on that is developed by persuasion and we have our understanding, our theories of relativity and quantum mechanics that are communicated to young physicists by years of instruction.

What does it all mean? Ask Plato about that.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Four Causes in Plato

Everyone knows that Aristotle invented the Four Causes.  In the Metaphysics he lays it out: the Material Cause, the stuff that something is made of; the Formal Cause, the form or pattern, the shape of something; the Efficient Cause, the source of the something, such as the father of a child; and of course the famous Final Cause, the purpose or "end" of something in the world.

Today of course, we often like to think that nothing has a purpose: everything just is.  But then everything in the world acts as if it had a purpose, whatever that means.

Aristotle may have been the chap to define the Four Causes, but Plato seemed to take the Four Causes for granted in his dialogues.  For instance, in the Timaeus he tells us how the world came into being.  First of call, of course, it came into being because God wanted it.
The god wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible, and so he took over all what was visible--not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion--and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order, because he believed that order was in every way better than disorder. [30a]
Reads like an Aristotelian Final Cause to me, even if young Timaeus spoke it.

Having decided to bring order out of disorder the god next had to decide what the world would look like.  And so he decided to make it like "the best of the intelligible things... a single visible living thing".{31a]  But here's a puzzler.  Should there be one heaven or many?  What a modern thought: universe or multiverses?  But if it is to be One Living Thing, then obviously it must be one and not two.[31b]  Of course it ought to be shaped in a way "that embraces all the shapes there are" and that would obviously be a sphere.  And there it is, turning in a circle in a single solitary heaven.[34b]

So much for the Formal Cause of the heaven and the earth.

What of the material of the earth?  It would obviously have to be at least "fire and earth."  Now it is clear that if two bodies need to be bonded together they need a third agent, and since the world is to be a solid, it needs not one but two bonding agents: air and water.  So the universe will be composed of earth, fire, air and water, just as we would expect.  The Formal Cause of binding together the universe requires a Material Cause of the four elements.

Then there is the Efficient Cause, the designer god himself.  In his art he had to decide whether the universe needed all the appurtenances that humans need: ears, eyes, nose, hands, and feet.  It wouldn't need that, he decided, because he would build it complete and self-sufficient.  It wouldn't need to see or hear or breathe or digest, or catch or stand on anything.  It would just need to spin.  It would be complete and entire, organizing the disorganized, able to "keep its own company without requiring anything else."  There are a lot of decisions to make when you are designing and building the universe.

A rather male universe too, it seems to be.  But then Plato probably didn't ever ask his wife Xanthippe what she thought about the origin of the universe.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What About Atlantis?

When Socrates and his chums gather the day(!) after they discussed The Republic for another chat on important philosophical matters, the first thing they do is rehearse what they agreed to the day before.  How everyone should stick to one job, how the guardians were a race apart, how children should be raised in common and how "the bad ones were to be secretly handed on to another city".  But now Socrates wants to look at his ideas in motion and see his ideal city compared to other cities, and who better than Timaeus, a well-born man from Lucri in Italy, and his pals, to give a response to Socrates.

Oddly, you might think, in his review of The Republic, Socrates doesn't mention the philosopher-kings we've all grown to know and love, and that Karl Popper anathematized in his Open Society and Its Enemies.  But he doesn't really need to.  It is perfectly clear that Socrates and his young friends would form the junta in their ideal Republic: philosopher-kings in practice if not in name.

Then Critias launches into the myth of Atlantis, supposedly given by an Egyptian priest to Solon the Greek lawgiver centuries before Socrates' time.  Curiously the priest seems to intuit that Atlantis is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and "provided passage" to other islands and "to the entire continent on the other side, which surrounds that real sea beyond."  You could take that as a description of the Atlantic Ocean, the Americas, the Pacific Ocean, and East Asia beyond.  Of course, some people now think that there was contact between the Egyptians and the early South American civilizations; there seem to be artifacts and food residues in the Americas that suggest this.  The Egyptian priest is modest about how big the continents and oceans are out there.  You can use your imagination about that.  The Atlantians, did not dwell on their Atlantic island as if in an Isle of the Blessed.  On the contrary, they tried to conquer and enslave Europe and Asia, but were stopped by the mighty Greeks.  But a short while later both Greeks and Atlantis were drownded, like Li'l Em'ly's father and many others.  It was storms that did for Li'l Em'ly's dad, but earthquakes and floods that did for the Atlantians.

Was there an Isle of Atlantis where now you will find nothing but unnavigable waters obstructed by a "layer of mud at shallow depth?"  Hardly.  But it is telling that the center of the Atlantic Ocean has an oceanic ridge, and actually rises above the watery and misty hollows up north in volcanic and glacier-covered Iceland.