The World’s Longest and Least Funny Joke

Plato’s dialogues can be rather difficult. And of all the dialogues, Parmenides may be the most baffling. And within Parmenides, the second part, where Socrates has tapped out and Aristoteles acts as Parmenides’ primary interlocutor, is particularly confounding. And the conclusion of the second part is the most enigmatic passage of the lot. But none of that is going to stop me from telling the world just what I think about it, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

It is my position that the conclusion of Parmenides is a goof.* It is a joke at the expense of Parmenides and his followers, a parody of his overly formal, but ultimately meaningless philosophy. To see how I arrived at that conclusion, we need a bit of background.

The dialogue ends like this:

[Parmenides]: “Then let us say that, and we may add, as it appears, that whether the one is or is not, the one and the others in relation to themselves and to each other all in every way are and are not and appear and do not appear.”

[Aristoteles]: “Very true.”

[END]

Out of context, it is clear why I take that conclusion to be a joke. By itself, it is an incomprehensible mashing together of contradictory conditions. Read it again; it simply does not make sense.

But the context of the dialogue matters, and all this talk about the one and contradictions do not come out of nowhere. In the first half of the dialogue, the characters primarily focus on Socrates’s famous theory of forms. Parmenides points out several potential problems with the forms, ultimately concluding that Socrates has some work to do.

In the second half, things go a bit pear-shaped. Parmenides, now conversing with Aristoteles, goes through the process of analyzing his own theory of “the one”. His plan is to “consider not only the consequences which flow from [the hypothesis that all reality is one], but also the consequences which flow from denying the hypothesis.” The result of an exhaustive exchange, without the ornamentation typical of most Platonic dialogue, is the nonsense quoted above.

There are a few features of the dialogue that make the concluding line look less like an actual philosophical position held by Plato, and more like a jab at Parmenides’ own philosophy.

In the first place, interpreting Plato is always difficult because he never speaks with his own voice. He generally speaks through the character of Socrates, but that does not mean that everything the character Socrates says should be interpreted as Plato’s own belief. Indeed, Plato has Socrates say a number of things that are pretty clearly NOT what Plato believes, often with the intent of mocking or patronizing his interlocutors. Consider, for example, the end of Ion, where Socrates professes to believe that the rhapsode Ion is divinely inspired, second-hand, by the same muse who inspired Homer. Parmenides is especially obscure when attempting to attribute any ideas directly to Plato. The main narrator is Cephalus, but he was not present for the conversation between Parmenides, Zeno, Socrates, and Aristoteles. Cephalus hears about the conversation from Antiphon. But even Antiphon was not present for the conversation. Antiphon claims to have heard it from Pythodorus, in whose house the conversation supposedly took place. So that final line uttered by Parmenides reaches us fifth-hand. And, notably, Socrates is out of the conversation by that point, so it seems incredible that the line represents what Socrates actually thought, let alone what Plato thought. And if it is not what Plato actually thought, then Plato must have believed there was something wrong about it, if not laughably wrong.

In the second place, Plato is funny, and he meant to be. As mentioned above, Socrates clearly intends to mock some of his interlocutors, and the end of Ion is a great example of him toying with an unworthy interlocutor. And in the Apology, part of the charge leveled against Socrates was that the young men of Athens found the Socratic take-downs of prominent men so amusing. This undermined the youth’s respect for their elders, among other things. Although the character Socrates argues that he was only trying to help his interlocutors find out whether their ideas were built on philosophical bedrock, it seems clear that he occasionally took joy in making them look foolish. So making Parmenides look foolish does not seem out of character for Plato.

It may be argued that the ending of Parmenides is unlike Ion, etc., because in other dialogues, Socrates corners his interlocutors and confronts them with the absurd results of their logical missteps. In Parmenides, however, Socrates is not an active participant in the conversation by the end. He does not twist Parmenides into the absurd conclusion; Parmenides does that to himself. But that distinction could be explained by the age and experience of the character of Socrates. In dialogues with later dramatic dates, an older Socrates is willing to wield the interlocutors’ logical blunders like a slapstick, but the young Socrates, not yet confident in his own philosophy (as demonstrated in the first half of Parmenides,) and faced with the older and respected Parmenides and Zeno, simply observes the absurd conclusion without comment. That doesn’t mean that Plato didn’t chuckle to himself as he wrote that last line.

And finally, the conclusion is a philosophical dead end. There is simply nowhere to go from there. The theory of forms, as discussed in the first half of the dialogue, went on to become a great hallmark of Platonic philosophy, not the one and it’s implicit self-contradictions. So either the last line of Parmenides is an extremely complex but profound and valid philosophical conclusion that remains inexplicably absent from the rest of Plato’s work, or it actually is as silly and nonsensical as it appears on its face. And because I do not understand it, I choose to believe it is not serious.

Parmenides is a joke, bring on the next book.

Beer of the week: Colbitzer Weizen – This hefeweizen comes from Germany’s Hofbrauhaus Wolters. It pours with a big sticky head. The aroma has the classic yeasty notes of the style. The flavor is pleasant, with hints of bread, banana and clove. I would like more of a spice bite at the end, but this is a pretty good beer at a really good price.

Reading of the week: Parmenides by Plato, 126a-128e: As a final bit of support for my theory that the dialogue is a satire of Parmenides’ philosophy, this week’s reading includes the part where Zeno explicitly states that people “jeer at [Parmenides] and assert that if the all is one many absurd results follow which contradict his theory.” Before the philosophical substance of the dialogue begins, Plato primes us for the idea that Parmenides’ ideas are laughable.

Question for the week: Sometimes, satire is so on-point that it is difficult to identify as satire. (See also Poe’s Law.) Is that good satire because it is so close to what it is mocking, or is it bad satire because it does not serve its purpose if people can’t tell whether it is earnest?

*My claim is a big one, and somewhat unusual for this blog. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, which explains the length and depth of this post. To the rest of my analysis above, I would also like to add the weight of an appeal to authority. (Whatever value that may be.) In the book Plato’s Parmenides Reconsidered, Mehmet Tabak apparently argues that Parmenides does not have an important philosophical message, but is primarily a satirical criticism of Plato’s philosophical opponents. I learned of Dr. Tabak’s book near the end of drafting this blog post, so although I have not actually read it, I am more than willing to assume that Dr. Tabak makes all the same points that I do, and that he supports my conclusion entirely.

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Impostor Syndrome

This is the forty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVIII: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works by Blaise Pascal

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python contains the advice: “remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.” Blaise Pascal put the concept slightly differently: “you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.”

The point (to Pascal, if not Python) is that we have no particular “right” to anything we have. Although it may be possible to earn things, we already won the existential lottery simply by being born. Consequently, our own merit accounts for relatively little of what we’ve “accomplished.”

As important as that understanding is, it is vital not to be overwhelmed by it. In the face of such a realization, one may be tempted to give up every effort and ambition on the grounds that an infinity of conditions beyond our control may crush us at any time. A more commendable reaction is to try harder to be the best that we can be. As Epictetus recognized, even though we are subject to an infinity of forces beyond our control, what we can control is our reactions to those forces.

Beer of the week: Creeker Double IPA – Through an infinity of chances, I happened to visit the Ithaca Beer Company recently. This IPA from that small brewery is hazy and yellowish, with plenty of head. The aroma is replete with citrus and tropical fruit notes. The flavor follows. And despite the fact that there is relatively little malt flavor, the beer does have a nice, full body. And at 9% alcohol by volume, it packs a punch.

Reading of the week: Discourses on the Condition of the Great by Blaise Pascal – In this essay, Pascal is particularly interested in the chance that makes one man an aristocrat and another man a commoner. Perhaps he should have focused on the when and where of people’s births; everybody who reads this post almost certainly has a higher standard of living than any of the nobility in Pascal’s day.

Question for the week: What is the biggest factor in an individual’s success: station of birth, education (if that can even be distinguished from station of birth), or something else?


When I’m Gone

This is the forty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLII: English Poetry 3 Tennyson to Whitman

A great deal of the action in the Iliad is driven by the desire to perform appropriate funeral rites. The Greeks and Trojans fight over corpses, to either recover and bury them or to strip them and leave them as carrion for birds and dogs.

Although this sort of conflict appears numerous times throughout the Iliad, the two most important corpses are those of Patroclus and Hector. The fate of each tells us something different about the motivations behind mourning.

The fight for the body of Patroclus is a back-and-forth affair featuring many of the main characters from each side. And when the Greeks finally recover the corpse, it is the spirit of Patroclus himself who explains the purpose of funereal rites: “Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades. Afar do the spirits keep me aloof, the phantoms of men that have done with toils, neither suffer they me to join myself to them beyond the River, but vainly I wander through the wide-gated house of Hades. And give me thy hand, I pitifully entreat thee, for never more again shall I come back from out of Hades, when once ye have given me my due of fire.”

A proper burial, according to Patroclus, is performed for the sake of the deceased’s soul. The soul survives after death and is aided on its way by the funeral. An entire book of the Iliad is then dedicated to Patroclus’s funeral and attendant games.

Perhaps Cicero had this scene in mind when he wrote, “I do not agree with those who have recently begun to discuss these things, when they say that minds die with bodies and that everything is destroyed by death; I am more swayed by the dictum of the ancients, both of our ancestors, who assigned such reverant laws to the dead, which they would not have done if they judged that nothing affected them.”

The treatment of Hector’s corpse is markedly different. Achilles defiles Hector’s body by dragging it around the city behind his chariot. Ultimately, he returns Hector’s corpse for burial, but not for the sake of Hector’s soul. Hector’s father, Priam, begs Achilles to return the body: “Have thou awe of the gods, Achilles, and take pity on me, remembering thine own father. Lo, I am more piteous far than he, and have endured what no other mortal on the face of earth hath yet endured, to reach forth my hand to the face of him that hath slain my sons.”

Achilles is moved by Priam’s plea, returns the corpse, and arranges a truce for the funeral. The funeral is brief compared to that of Patroclus, and the narrative is dominated by the mourning of Hector’s widow, mother, and sister-in-law. Hector’s funeral shows that the burial rites are for the sake of the living as well as – or rather than – for the sake of the dead. Hector’s family seemingly gets more from the funeral than Hector does himself.

Christina Georgina Rossetti explores the value of mourning in her poems Song and Remember. In Remember, she writes, “Better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.” She seems to mean that the dead do not need to be remembered or venerated; memory is only valuable to the extent that it is pleasant to the living person doing the remembering. This idea is taken further in Song, in which she says that she wants no songs or flowers when she is gone, because she will not be there to hear the music or see the flowers.

What she seems to miss in Song that seems so right about Remember is the value for the survivor. It may be true that the deceased cannot hear songs or see flowers, but perhaps singing and making wreaths has value for the person mourning. When Andromache, Hecuba, and Helen wept for Hector, they did not do it for his sake, they did it for their own.

Beer of the week: Agave Wheat – This is an unfiltered beer from Breckenridge Brewery. It pours pale orange and hazy with plenty of white foam. The aroma is a bit sweet, with hint of yeasty sourness. Agave Wheat has a light body with a bit of sweetness and hints of bread. This is a good warm weather brew.

Reading of the week: Song and Remember by Christina Georgina Rossetti – Rossetti does not go as far as those philosophers alluded to by Cicero, who do not believe in an immortal soul. She appears more agnostic on the point, writing that after death, “Haply I may remember, / And haply may forget.”

Question for the week: Would you mind if nobody attended your funeral?


Where have all the philosophers gone?

This is the thirty-fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIV: French and English Philosophers

It has always seemed odd to me to refer to a living person as a philosopher. I am aware of a number of living people who may be considered philosophers, but I think of them variously as authors or professors. Or I consider them in the context of their specific fields: economists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like.

Clearly, part of the distinction that I draw comes from the increasingly specialized nature of study. Aristotle and Bacon did not specialize; their interests and writings are wide-ranging. Even the relatively recent Darwin was more than a biologist; he was also a historian, geologist, and anthropologist. In short, he was a natural philosopher. Likewise, Maimonides was more than just a theologian and an astronomer, he was a physician at a time when the fields of endocrinology, dermatology, and oncology were still centuries from being particularized. Perhaps the lack of specialization and differentiation was key to his ability to think more universally, to be a philosopher.

That is not to put down specialists. As human knowledge becomes both broader and deeper, any given individual must focus more narrowly to make any new headway. But can a philosopher be a specialist? Isn’t universality at the heart of philosophy?

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom.” I think that it is clear that the wisdom in the word is quite distinct from knowledge. Specialization forces people to look at discrete and minute facts, perhaps prioritizing particular knowledge over universal truth.

The love part of philosophy also seems problematic today. The love of wisdom is a different sort of motivation than I perceive in most people. To pursue wisdom for its own sake is not the same sort of thing that I see in professional academics and authors. I assume that most people, even thinkers that I respect greatly have a profession rather than a passion. Perhaps I see living people as sociologists, legal theorists, or historians rather than philosophers because I can hardly conceive of them working out of a love for wisdom rather than financial and professional necessity. Even “popular philosophers” seem to be doing a job rather than philosophizing as I understand it.

J. J. Rousseau similarly questioned the motivations of purported philosophers: “But were the philosophers in a situation to discover the truth, which of them would be interested in so doing? Each knows very well that his system is no better founded that the systems of others; he defends it, nevertheless, because it is his own. There is not one of them, who, really knowing truth from falsehood, would not prefer the latter, if of his own invention, to the former, discovered by any one else. Where is the philosopher who would not readily deceive mankind, to increase his own reputation? Where is he who secretly proposes any other object than that of distinguishing himself from the rest of mankind? Provided he raises himself above the vulgar, and carries away the prize of fame from his competitors, what doth he require more? The most essential point is to think differently from the rest of the world. Among believers he is an atheist, and among atheists he affects to be a believer.”

Obviously, nobody who would prefer preeminence to truth is a philosopher under our provisional understanding of the word. And if Rousseau is right that all philosophers love their reputation more than they love wisdom, then there are no philosophers at all. I hope that he is wrong, but I wouldn’t even call myself a philosopher. And at least with me,  I have the advantage of knowing my own motivations. I think.

Beer of the week: Sea Quench Ale – This sour beer from Dogfish Head is like licking the rim of a margarita glass. It is yellow and cloudy with a slight green tinge. It smells of lime and the flavor has lots of citrus sourness and a bit of lime rind bitterness. It is really good, but so limey that it is unlike other beers, even other sours.

Reading of the week: Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar by Jean Jacques Rousseau – Rousseau claimed that this section of his Emile was not necessarily an explication of his own philosophy, but simply an example of how to properly reason with a pupil. This excerpt starts near the beginning of the Vicar’s personal investigation, beginning with his Cartesian doubt of anything that he cannot reason from first principles.

Question for the week: Who is your favorite living philosopher?


Blog Only About That Which One Could Simultaneously Will That All Blogs Were About

This is the thirty-second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXII: Literary and Philisophical Essays

Of a contemporary author, Thomas de Quincy wrote, “he has not read Plato in his youth (which most likely was only his misfortune), but neither has he read Kant in his manhood (which is his fault).” Well I did read Plato in my (relative) youth. And I read Kant shortly thereafter. Not that I have anything particular to show for it. For the amount of time I spent with the Critique of Pure Reason, it is criminal how little I have retained.

Many hours of reading and discussing Kant (now more than a decade ago) has left me with only a vague desire to act only according with the maxim whereby I can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law. That and an uneasiness about ever reading another of Kant’s sentences. But do not let my experience dissuade you, dear reader, from diving into the great Königsberger’s work.

Taking into account the categorical imperative, I cannot help but recommend as a starting place Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (That’s either mildly witty or I am even less familiar with Kant than I thought.)

The introductory note to the Groundwork in the Harvard Classics says, “Kant is often difficult and obscure, and became more so as he grew older; but the present treatise can be followed, in its main lines, by any intelligent person who is interested enough in the fundamental problems of human life and conduct to give it serious and concentrated attention.”

You are an intelligent person who is interested in the fundamental problems of human life, aren’t you? Splendid! You’ll do just fine. And in case you feel lost after the first page or so, I have created a table from the first five paragraphs or so of Kant’s preface:

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By the way, I spent an inordinate amount of time on that table, so you had better read this week’s blasted reading!

Also, I’ve noticed an error in the table but didn’t save the text version, so there is no way I am going to edit it. The bottom right square should conclude “METAPHYSICS of MORALS or MORALITY,” not “METAPHYSICS of NATURE.”

Beer of the week: Stone IPA – This beer is slightly hazy, with a nice sticky head. It is very light orange in color. The flavor is dominated by juicy hops, but it does not seem as aggressively hopped as one might expect for a beer that was on the forefront of the craze for hoppy West Coast IPAs. Also, in the 12 oz. package, Stone’s bottles have transparent labels rather than painted. More cost efficient, but less fun.

Reading of the week: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant – There is no place to start quite like a preface. And despite my protestations, this essay really is readable. Lest anybody become (unnecessarily) confused, please note that the Harvard Classics edition translates the title as Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. I went with the title with which I am more familiar, and this week’s reading is a different translation from the Harvard translation.

Question for the week: Is there any subject that you have studied closely but now almost entirely forget?


Origin Story

One of my most vocal critics recently commented about this blog, “It’s not like you write anything original; you just rehash the ideas of classical authors.” For the most part, I agree. Even the original poetry that I’ve posted here is absolutely packed with classical references.

But my critic’s observation is, itself, unoriginal. Virtually nothing is wholly original.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” – Issac Newton

“A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“When Shakespeare is charged with debts to his authors, Landor replies, ‘Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life.'” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoting Walter Savage Landor, discussing William Shakespeare

“As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care o’ th’ main chance,
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, ye are like to reap.” – Samuel Butler, paraphrasing John Lyly, John Heywood, and St. Paul

“[The] borrowing and refurbishing of shop-worn goods, as a matter of fact, is the invariable habit of traders in ideas, at all times and everywhere. . . .  At the moment of the contemporary metaphysician’s loftiest flight, when he is most gratefully warmed by the feeling that he is far above all the  ordinary airlanes and has absolutely novel concept by the tail, he is suddenly pulled up by the discovery that what is entertaining him is simply the ghost of some ancient idea that his school-master forced into him in 1887, or the mouldering corpse of a doctrine that was made official in his country during the late war, or a sort of fermentation-product, to mix the figure, of a banal heresy launched upon him recently by his wife.” – H. L. Mencken

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Beer of the week: Bavaria Premium – This beer is fairly unoriginal. The name clearly meant to evoke thoughts of the great beer-producing region of Southeast Germany, despite the fact that this beer is from Holland. Similarities in the packaging and price of this beer led me to speculate that Bavaria is a product of the same brewery that gave us Hollandia. A quick search indicates that my hunch was correct. Bavaria is a golden pils with little head retention or aroma. There is a malty sweetness that has a hint of honey. For the price, it is not a bad choice, though I prefer a bit more hops in my lagers.

Reading of the week: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken –  The introduction to this book is typical Mencken: plenty of wit and cynicism, and, ultimately, a good deal of sense. “If I knew what was true, I’d probably be willing to sweat and strive for it, and maybe even to die for it to the tune of bugle-blasts. But so far I have not found it.”

Question of the week: Many argue that the word “unique” does not admit of degrees; something either is or is not unique. Is the same true of “original”? Can something be “slightly” or “very” original?


Moral Perfection

This is the first in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts will be available here.

In response to Socrates’s professed ignorance of virtue, Meno lists the different virtues of men and women, children and the elderly, freedmen and slaves. And Socrates, ever the jerk, replies, “I seem to be in a most lucky way, Meno; for in seeking one virtue I have discovered a whole swarm of virtues there in your keeping!”

The clear disconnect is that Socrates and Meno have different objectives. Socrates is interested in the metaphysical question of what virtue is. Meno is interested in the practical question of how virtue is obtained. Over two thousand years later, Ben Franklin takes Meno’s side.

In His Autobiography, Franklin describes how he “conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” And rather than start from a professed position of ignorance as Socrates does, he starts with a practical division of virtue into several virtues for each occasion. In the end, he settles on 13 moral virtues, acknowledging that various writers have combined or divided different virtues in a number of ways. For example, it could easily be argued that moderation could be an umbrella term that would include temperance, silence, and chastity as Franklin defines them. But this is a practical project, and Franklin finds it more advantageous to use “more names, with fewer ideas annex’d to each, than a few names with more ideas.”

And rather than attempt to simply adopt all of the virtues at once, an unreasonably difficult task, Franklin plans to work his way though them, one-by-one, dedicating a week to temperance, a week to silence, a week to order, etc. By the end of each week, he hopes to have habituated himself to practicing that week’s virtue, so that by the end of 13 weeks, he will have developed the habit of moral perfection.

It is a very ambitious program, but well worth the effort. Over the next 13 weeks, you are invited to join this blog in progressing through Franklin’s program, with readings and reflections on each of his moral virtues. By the end, we will probably not be able to say what virtue is, but we may well be able to say that we have gotten closer to moral perfection.

And, at the very least, we’ll have had some good beer and read some good books. Next week: 1. Temperance.

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Beer of the week: Šenkovní 10 – This is a fairly standard Czech lager from Pivovar Jihlava (Hedgehog Brewery.) It is very pale and very carbonated. There is not a lot of aroma or flavor. There is a hint of honey to this beer and just enough hops in the finish to lift this brew to the level of “serviceable”. I would certainly drink it again. By the way, the “10” in the name of this beer is the specific gravity, measured in Plato units. Beers in most of central Europe have to have their specific gravity on the label. The specific gravity is the density of the wort (the mixture of water and barley malt that gets fermented into beer.) The higher the specific gravity, the more malt. More malt means more flavor and more alcohol.

Reading for the week: His Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin – As promised, excerpt is where Franklin describes his program of moral improvement. Although it was conceived as a 13 week regimen, Franklin periodically revisited this program over the years to stay on top of his moral game.

Question for the week: Must one be able to define morality in the abstract to make any concrete progress in moral improvement?