Great Men Make Lousy Fathers

This is the second in a series of posts on family (and Sierra Nevada beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

The general and politician Themistocles laid the groundwork for Athens to become the greatest naval power in ancient Greece. He was also instrumental in repelling the second Persian invasion, leading the Greek fleet to victory in the Battle of Salamis. And yet, according to Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Meno, Themistocles’s son Cleophantus never approached his father’s greatness. Socrates says that the story is the same for Aristides and Pericles: great men with inferior sons.

The ultimate conclusion of the dialogue is that greatness cannot be taught. If it were possible, surely Themistocles et al. would have taught their sons to be great. But maybe they were simply too busy being great men to be great fathers. In an essay, Francis Bacon wrote that “the best works, and of greatest merit for the public, have proceeded from the unmarried or childless men; which both in affection and means, have married and endowed the public.” In short, civic greatness and great parenting each require so much attention and effort that they are mutually exclusive; one may be a great man or a great father, but not both.

In the essay, Bacon does not explicitly advocate one choice over the other. For himself, he seems to have chosen greatness; rising to the position of Lord Chancellor and fathering no children. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, suggests that choosing parenthood over greatness may be the better decision for society. She agrees with Bacon that childless men were more likely to become great, “[b]ut the welfare of society is not built on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would be still less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.” One can more reliably do more for the world by raising children well than by trying to be a hero.

Beer of the week: Torpedo Extra IPA – Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo is hazy amber, with a head of small, off-white bubbles that never seem to dissipate. The aroma is floral and piney. It is a very smooth beer considering how hoppy and alcoholic it is (7.2% ABV). The taste starts with some biscuit and caramel malt flavors, but the hops quickly take over and leave a lingering bitterness in the back of the throat. 

Reading of the week: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft – This excerpt from Wollstonecraft’s most famous work is primarily about the distinction between reason and sensibility. Women, she opines, are raised with an excess of the latter and a dearth of the former.

Question for the week: Themistocles and Pericles (and Bacon) are but a few examples of great men without great offspring. Can you think of any good counter examples?

Tetrapharmakos – Fourth Dose

This is the last in a series of four posts on Epicureanism (and South American beers.) The rest of the posts can be found here.

Step 4: τὸ δὲ δεινὸν εὐκαρτέρητον – What is Terrible is Easy to Endure

Epicurus writes that “[c]ontinuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which barely outweighs pleasure in the flesh does not last for many days together. Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.”

If, as Protagoras said, man is the measure of all things, then one man—Socrates—is the measure of all Greek philosophy. Would he agree with Epicurus’s statement about pain and endurance?

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates muses on the odd pleasure he experiences upon having his chains removed: “How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.” This curious connection between pain and pleasure may lend weight to Epicurus’s point of view. One can endure almost anything because even truly awful pain must have its related pleasure.

In Xenophon’s Apology, however, Socrates identifies a sort of suffering that is chronic and worth dying to avoid. In the face of capital charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, Socrates decided to commit suicide by jury. He reasoned that it would be better to die while still at the peak of his mental powers than face the possibility of a protracted physical and psychological decline in old age. “If my years are prolonged, I know that the frailties of old age will inevitably be realized,—that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned.” Old age, to Socrates, was both terrible and impossible to endure—the exception that proves Epicurus’s rule.


Beer of the week: Latitud Cero° Concordia – This Helles-style lager comes from La Paz Cerveceria in Ecuador. It’s straw-colored, with a slight haze. The aroma is of light toast, caramel and grass. The body is more substantial than I’d have guessed, which results in an uncommonly long finish for such a light lager.

Reading of the week: The Apology of Socrates by Xenophon – Those familiar with Plato’s Apology may be surprised how different Xenophon’s version is.

Question of the week: Is suicide acceptable in the face of protracted suffering?

Bird Law

It has been said that cross-examination is the attorney’s opportunity to testify. That is because on cross-examination, lawyers are allowed to ask leading questions. So the lawyer shapes the testimony, and the witness is simply asked to confirm it. The witness doesn’t have a chance to explain himself or expand on his answers; he is simply expected to say “yes” or “no” on cue. And, as any Socratic interlocutor knows–or quickly learns–giving a series of yeses and noes can often lead to an indefensible position. On redirect examination, the other attorney may be able to get out any explanations or expansions needed to rehabilitate the witness, but it may be too late.

Once one recognizes the power that the questioner has, The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe becomes infuriating. The titular fowl answers gives the same one-word answer to every single question. The narrator recognizes almost immediately that the word “nevermore” is the raven’s “only stock and store.” And yet, the narrator still frames every single question to the raven in a way that is guaranteed to disappoint him! Instead of asking questions that call for negative answers, he continually seeks positive answers.

Here are a few places he could have greatly improved his interview with the raven:

Q: [Will I ever] forget the lost Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Q: Will I continue to be tormented by the loss of Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

Q: Shall [my soul] clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore[?]
A: Nevermore.

Q: Will I remain separated from Lenore?
A: Nevermore.

See? Once the narrator knows the answer that is coming, all he has to do is arrange the question to suit that answer. Instead, things get worse and worse as he keeps asking the wrong questions. And when it is time to rid himself of the bird, he makes the same mistake.

Q: Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!
A: Nevermore.

Q: Do you plan on staying here long?
A: Nevermore.

It’s almost like the narrator didn’t really want to forget Lenore and be rid of the avian manifestation of his grief.


Beer of the week: Sorachi Ace – This farmhouse ale from The Brooklyn Brewery is brewed with the somewhat unusual Japanese hybrid hops variety of the same name. The beer is quite light in color and slightly hazy, with a foamy white head that dissipates quickly. The aroma is yeasty and lemony. The beer is crisp and bright, and finishes with a bit of spice and a lingering tartness that hangs in the back of the throat.

Reading of the week: Apology by Plato – Expected The Raven, didn’t you? Well that poem has already been used as a weekly reading, so although it is certainly worth rereading (which can be done here,) I picked Socrates’s cross-examination of Meletus for this week. Nearly two and a half millennia later, this portion of the Apology remains a masterclass in cross-examination.

Question for the week: In what contexts do you carefully frame questions to your advantage?

Unknown Knowns

According to the Socratic Paradox, Socrates knew more than anybody else because he knew that he knew nothing. I would like to suggest that I personally have surpassed Socrates in that respect.

Since the age of Socrates, there has been an unthinkable increase in things that can be known. Among the newly knowable things are scientific facts that had been unknowable because the technology had not yet advanced sufficiently. But the universe of knowable things has also grown by production. Socrates could not have known any Shakespearean poetry, for example, because the English language did not yet exist. Similarly, Socrates could not know how to change a fuel filter on a 1987 Buick Regal. For me, however, the poetry of the Bard, and the basic maintenance of mid-sized American automobiles are well within the realm of knowable things. Socrates may know that he knows nothing, but the nothing that I know is even less!

I do know, however, six more poems than I did three months ago. In that time, as in the first three and second three months of this year, I memorized two poems per month:
Invictus by William Ernest Henley,
I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson,
The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
To Althea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace, and
Hot and Cold by Roald Dahl.

As I typed that list, I could not recall the title of Hot and Cold for the life of me. Somehow I had a poem totally memorized and yet I could not think of it. I can’t really claim to know the sixth poem if I cannot think of it. I don’t even know the things that I know. Take that Socrates!

Beer of the week: Tuckerman’s Headwall Alt – This “German style brown ale” is a handsome red-brown, with a lovely head. The aroma is of dark bread. Dark bread notes dominate the flavor as well, with a pleasant smokey finish.

Reading of the week: I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson – The flavor of “a liquor never brewed” is one of the many things that I do not know. But I know that this is a fun poem that draws on a lot of temperance imagery, including being an “inebriate of air” and “debauchee of dew.”

Question of the week: The sum total of human knowledge is much greater now than it was in antiquity. Consequently, each individual–even the most educated among us–knows a smaller portion of the total. So do we know more than the ancients or do we know less?

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.”


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.

Woman’s Ornament

In my experience, people tend toward one of two extremes when analyzing the writings of the ancients (and, to varying degrees, those of other bygone eras.) The one extreme is to assume that the authors, as products of a primitive time, have nothing to offer. We are so much more enlightened now; all of the ancients must be regarded as quite ignorant. The other extreme is to ignore the faults of the ancients, or, if they cannot be ignored, to make every possible contortion to explain them away. The ancients could not err when it came to thinking because, as Homer’s heroes could single-handedly lift boulders that a dozen modern men could hardly budge, the philosophers of old possessed intellectual powers far beyond those of any modern genius.

Take, for example, the treatment of women by Aristotle and Plato. Our modern understanding of the differences between men and women is very much at odds with the apparent opinions of Aristotle and Socrates on the subject. What do we do in the face of these problematic ancient texts?

One approach is to throw out Aristotle and Plato entirely. Sexism is so embedded in their thought, some opine, that their writing can have no value in our modern world. Even as early as the 15th century, William Caxton wrote that “if [Plato] had made fault in writing of women, he ought not, ne should not, be believed in his other dictes and sayings.”* (As we will see shortly, Caxton does not actually find fault with Plato’s treatment of women.) Likewise, Aristotle was extremely wrong about the role of the female in sexual reproduction, so his philosophy on humans generally can’t be trusted. These “dead white men” are so out of touch with our modern knowledge and sensibilities that they can hardly be considered authoritative on any philosophical question.

(I pause to note that the bland dismissal of these thinkers as “dead white men” always amuses me. The ad hominem attack itself adopts the language of racism, implying that the value of the authors is somehow related to their skin color. At the same time, it ignores the fact that classifying Aristotle and Plato as “white” should certainly raise a few eyebrows.)

On the other side, there are those who would wave away the apparent sexism of the ancients. The easiest way to do that is to simply call them a product of their times and move on. But some offer more convoluted explanations in an effort to keep the ancients from ever being “wrong”. Caxton wrote, “I cannot think that so true a man and so noble a philosopher as [Plato] was should write otherwise than truth.” And because Plato must have been right, Caxton was forced to come up with a way to reconcile the apparently sexist writings of Plato with the more enlightened views of his own day. He did so by concluding that if Plato ever said anything derogatory about women, he was only speaking of Greek women. “For I wot well, of whatsoever condition women be in Greece, the women of [England] be right good, wise, pleasant, humble, discreet, sober, chaste, obedient to their husbands, true, secret, steadfast, ever busy, and never idle, attemperate in speaking, and virtuous in all their works—or at least should be so.” So if Plato says, for example, that teaching a woman to write is multiplying evil upon evil, that may true of ancient Greek women, not of modern English women.

A more modern defense of that same type is to find esoteric meanings that are different from the ancients’ explicit meanings. So when Aristotle, in Book I of his Politics, says that “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he actually means nothing of the sort. The line is actually a quotation from Sophocles’s play Ajax. In the play, Ajax has gone insane by the time he utters the line. Obviously, Aristotle would have been familiar both with the play and the context of the quotation. So when Aristotle says “silence is a woman’s ornament,” he is slyly hinting that only a mad man would actually believe what he is saying. See? Aristotle was never sexist in the first place!

As usual, I favor the course of moderation. We should neither discard the ancients (or any author, really) out of hand, nor should we engage in mental gymnastics to defend the position that any author is always right. There is untold value in studying our intellectual predecessors, but nothing is gained by accepting their writings uncritically.

Beer of the week: Furious IPA – This aggressively-hopped ale from Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company pours with a nice fluffy head. The piney hops certainly dominate, but there is a good balance with caramel malt notes. The label says that this beer defies categorization, but the IPA label seems right to me.

Reading of the week: Hymn To Aphrodite by Sappho – Here’s a crazy idea: if you want to know the ancients’ views on women, how about reading the poetry of an ancient woman? This is the only complete poem that has survived from Greece’s greatest poetess.

Question for the week: Is there any extant writing older than, say, 1,000 years that is actually not worth studying? Is it possible that anything has survived that long without some serious merit?

*Caxton actually discusses the sayings of Socrates as if Socrates himself was the author of the Socratic dialogues. I have substituted Plato into the quotations to give Caxton the benefit of the doubt; surely he meant to discuss what Socrates said and what Plato wrote.

NAP Time

This is the second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume II: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius

The non-aggression principle (or “NAP”) is an important concept in natural rights theory and contemporary libertarian political theory. Essentially, the non-aggression principle holds that one may not forcibly interfere with another or his property. I’ve heard it expressed as: you are free to do as you like so long as you keep your fist away from my nose and your hands out of my pocket.

Wikipedia helpfully lists several other formulations over time:

“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” – John Locke

“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual…. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” – Herbert Spencer

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill

“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” – Murray Rothbard

Sounds pretty reasonable to me…

Beer of the week: Mastne Cieszyńskie – This is a really good Polish ale. Mastne Cieszyńskie is light brown and a little bit hazy. The smell is classic and malty with a hint of raisin. The flavor follows the aroma. This is a very enjoyable ale.

Reading for the week: Crito by Plato, 44e to 48d – The fact that Plato is in the same volume of The Harvard Classics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius seems to indicate the editor of the series sided with the Stoics in the ongoing battle for what school of thought gets to claim Socrates as its own. In this excerpt from Crito, the title character is trying to convince Socrates to escape from Athens, where he has been sentenced to death. In part, he argues that if Socrates choses to die when he might otherwise live, he will be committing an act of violence upon his friends and children.

Question for the week: Particularly in the the formulations by Locke and Jefferson, it is clear that the NAP relies on an underlying assumption of equality. Without that assumption, can the principle still be compelling?