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.
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?
As repugnant as many Americans find the idea of monarchy, there are some arguments to be made in favor that particular form of government:
- A monarch has a vested interest in the continuing stability of his country. If he may be on the throne for several decades and then pass the crown to his son, there is a lot of incentive for a king to plan for the long-term. Compare this to an elected politician, who is either subject to term-limits or must always have an eye on the polls for the next election. Once he reaches his term-limit, he is at liberty to steal as much as he can and let the next office-holder take the blame. If there is no term-limit or if he has not yet reached it, the elected politician has a lot of incentive to prioritize short-term results lest he be ousted at the next election. Fiscal responsibility, therefore, seems much more likely to exist in a monarchy than in a republic.
- A monarch may act as a very effective check on popular government. Because he has no fear of being removed when the people go to the polls, a king may safely attempt to stand in the way of a popular faction that would inappropriately impose itself on others. Emperor Franz Joseph supposedly claimed that his role as monarch was “to protect my peoples from their governments.” Alcohol prohibition in America is a great example of how a dedicated faction can overrun all official opposition with the threat of the ballot box. The result is often gross incursions of the government into private affairs.
- A monarch also serves as a unifying principle. Like the flag, the crown is a non-partisan symbol of national unity. To be sure, not every monarch is universally loved. But it is possible for an American president to be elected by a relatively small fraction of the population. (Bush the Second got some 50 million votes in 2000, and the total population of the USA at that time was well over 280 million.) And elections are almost always very decisive. As a result, it is uncommon for Americans generally to “rally behind” their elected officials the same way royal subjects may rally behind their king.
These arguments are certainly somewhat compelling. In particular, the independence of the monarch from popular whims and contentious factions is an attractive feature of the system. History, however, tells us that people are not always better off under a king than under a republic, (or under a rightful king rather than a usurper.) The customary means by which one ascends to the throne is birthright, but not every child of a king is fit to wear the crown. In Meno, Socrates antagonizes Anytus, one of the men who would eventually accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens, by listing great men who had inferior progeny; if Themistocles, Pericles, or Thucydides did not have sons who lived up to their fathers’ reputations, why should we expect great kings to fare any better? And if the notion of birthright is abandoned on these grounds, what is left of monarchy?
Beer of the week: Arthur – Speaking of progeny, Arthur has a family connection. This farmhouse ale is not named for King Arthur, but for one of the brewers’ uncles who grew up on the farm that gives Hill Farmstead Brewery its name. It pours a cloudy straw color with lots of big, white bubbles. The aroma is of yeast and tart grapes or white wine. The finish is more sour than expected, with lots of lemon, white grape, and earthy yeast flavor. I really enjoyed this Vermont treat.
Reading of the week: The Tragedy of Richard II by William Shakespeare, Act III, Scene 2 – When King Richard returns from Ireland, he finds that some of his supporters are fled, others dead, but most have gone over to the usurper, Henry of Bolingbroke. Richard flashes from hope to despair and back (and back again) in this scene. Two of his speeches are of particular interest to me. In the first, Richard enlists nature itself to preserve his monarchy by setting spiders and vipers and toads in Bolingbroke’s way. In his later speech, however, he acknowledges that there is nothing about the nature of kings that separates them from other men: “For you have but mistook me all this while: I live with bread like you, feel want, Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, How can you say to me, I am a king?”
Question of the week: Are the above arguments for monarchy really compelling? And if so, how can the problem of unfit heirs be remedied adequately to justify a monarchy?
Writer’s block has proved to be a very fruitful topic for a number of authors. When heeded, the classic advice “write what you know” leads to an awful lot of writers writing about writing and writing’s attendant struggles. The film Barton Fink, for example, is a film about a screenwriter who can’t seem to get any words on paper. It is no mere coincidence that the Coen brothers wrote and produced that film while taking a hiatus from writing and producing Miller’s Crossing. Unable to find the right way to finish the first film, they turned to writing about writer’s block. (Unsurprisingly, Barton Fink features many of the same cast members as Miller’s Crossing. But that might have more to do with the fact that the Coen’s work with the same actors repeatedly.)
A quick google search turns up innumerable pieces of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. From a change of scenery, to a change of diet, there are heaps of “sure-fire ways to get your creative juices flowing.” But nobody seems to ask the question: should the person be writing at all?
In Phaedrus, Socrates relates a myth about the god called Theuth. Theuth was a great inventor, who devised mathematics and astronomy as well as “draughts and dice”. His greatest invention, however was writing. Theuth congratulated himself on giving such a great gift to humanity. But as it turned out, his gift was not as beneficial as he had expected.
People now do not have to remember anything, since they can always just reread anything they don’t recall. As a consequence, apparent knowledge is everywhere, but actual knowledge is seldom seen. Likewise, writing does not make people more wise. One does not become wise by reading, but by internalizing and understanding. Particularly where there is a very large amount of available writing (for example, a library or the internet,) one is apt to read more but understand less.
As a result of these contemplations, I have elected not to write a blog post this week. Kindly disregard the foregoing. (I wrote the beer review beforehand, so you might as well read it.)
Beer of the week: Dundee Stout – After declaring that I was done with winter beers last week, the weather forced me to reconsider. It snowed the next day, as well as several subsequent days including this morning. I suppose that one more hearty stout is in order. This very dark brown brew pours with a pretty tan head that fades just a bit too quickly. There are hints of ripe, dark fruit in the aroma. Although stout is not my favorite type of beer, I really enjoy this one. The dark roasted malt gives a sort of chocolate-covered espresso bean flavor to this beer. I did not expect much of Dundee (brewed by the the same company as Genesse,) but I think they might actually be one of the best values in American beer.
Reading of the week: Phaedrus by Plato, 274c – 275e – Phaedrus intended to impress Socrates by reading to him a beautiful speech. Socrates, in typical fashion, totally derailed his interlocutor’s desired course of conversation. Instead, the couple discuss at length the art of rhetoric.
Question of the week: What do you do when you feel creatively stifled?
A post by a facebook friend of mine notified me that it was Fasnacht Day (also called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Carnival or Marti Gras.) Unfortunately, I am some 14 time-zones ahead of that friend, so I was already in Ash Wednesday. Ever the rules lawyer, I bought a box of donuts Ash Wednesday morning on the grounds that it was still Fasnacht Day in my home town. In case you were meaning to give something up for Lent but haven’t gotten around to it, I have another loophole ready for you; according to the Orthodox Christians, Great Lent doesn’t start until Clean Monday! That’s right, you can be as intemperate and gluttonous as you want this weekend, just settle down in time for Vespers on Sunday evening.
If you don’t observe Lent (because you are a Mennonite or Atheist or Sihk) that is no reason that you should not take this opportunity to reflect a bit on the subject of temperance. We could all use a bit of temperance now and then. But not too much, that would be intemperate. Maybe. I am not even totally sure what temperance is.
In the Socratic dialogue Charmides, Critias proposes a definition of temperance as “self-knowledge.” Socrates proceeds to thoroughly tear Critias apart, but only after slyly replacing “temperance” with “wisdom” and getting Critias to shift from “self-knowledge” to “the science which has itself as its object.” And then at the end, there is a very awkward back and forth between Socrates and Charmides that makes it really look like they are about to have sex. But ignoring all of these shenanigans, let’s consider on our own what it would mean for temperance to be self-knowledge.
Temperance has, on occasion been used to mean something like total avoidance. The so-called “temperance movement” was organized for the total ban of alcohol. Various religious groups have used the word temperance in conjunction with sexual abstinence. However, temperance is more commonly understood as moderation. This understanding is very much in line with the idea that temperance is self-knowledge.
Take, for example, drinking beer. It will be generally agreed that moderation is the best course with regard to this action. (We take for granted here that totally abstaining from beer is no virtue and drinking to excess is a vice.) Still, it takes a deal of self-knowledge to stay in control of the situation, especially as the more beer one drinks, the less important moderation seems.
The same is true of almost everything. Many great minds have recommended “moderation in all things,” but think of how much self-knowledge is required to know what a “moderate amount” is. So this is temperance: know thyself! And here is where the concept becomes difficult.
When you “know” that you shouldn’t eat that last donut, but you can’t help yourself, you don’t really know it. If you really had full knowledge of yourself and your situation (something that seems impossible,) you would never knowingly act in a way that is to your own detriment. I can feel you objecting through the internet. Seriously though, it is only a lack of knowledge that makes you act in ways that hurt yourself. People act this way all the time, but if they really honestly new better, they wouldn’t. Even if you say to yourself every single day “I know I should go to the gym” but you never actually get there, it isn’t because you are lazy. (Well, not only because you are lazy.) It is because you don’t really know that working out will improve your life any more than lying around in your pajamas watching an entire season of whatever television shows you watch entire seasons of. In fact, it is possible that you are wrong for feeling guilty about not going to the gym; maybe what you are doing instead really is better for you and you are more self-aware than you think.
In the end, the more self-knowledge you have will lead to choices that are more advantageous. And in general, these decisions will tend to be moderate since extremes are rarely the best choices. The better you know yourself the more moderate you will be. And, in the end, the healthier and happier you will be. Once you know yourself, being moderate is much less of an effort, it is only doing what you know is in your best interest.
PS. Only eating a box of donuts all day Wednesday was NOT the action of a temperate man. Hopefully I learned something about myself and will be more temperate in the future.
Beer of the Week: KEO Premium – KEO is the perfect beer to celebrate the arrival of Great Lent because KEO’s majority owner is the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. This is an exceptionally pale and clear beer. Slight malt and just a hint of noble hops on the nose. Good white head. There is something oddly familiar about the taste of this beer but what is familiar is unclear and not good. The finish is light but distinct and slightly sweet, with very soft notes of lemon and vanilla.
Reading of the week: Charmides by Plato – Here, Critias does what I wish more Socratic interlocutors would do; he admits that Socrates has somehow trapped him and simply says that if any of the things that he assented to lead to a contradiction, he is willing to “withdraw them.” But he still asserts that it is not clear whether Socrates or he is “more right.”
Question of the week: How close can one get to perfect self-knowledge? What about perfectly right self-opinion?