Reading questions on Plato’s “Crito”

February 28, 2011

My apologies for getting these up a bit late.

(1) Crito argues that Socrates should escape the city of Athens. He offers several reasons. What are the reasons he offers?

(2) Before he explains why he is obligated to stay and face his execution, Socrates reminds Crito of several principles that they have traditionally shared. What are some of these ideas?

(3) Why does Socrates say that we should not pay attention to the opinions of the masses regarding questions of justice? Is his argument convincing?

(4) Why does Socrates say that it is always wrong to do an injustice, even if an injustice has been done to the person? Is this argument convincing?

(5) Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates has “the laws” speak: what are the arguments the laws use to convince Socrates and Crito that Socrates must not escape? There are several different ones, so be sure to differentiate between them.

(6) Do the laws violate the principles Socrates first establishes with Crito? More to the point, is there any reason to think that the laws Socrates describes are just?

(7) Do you think Socrates believes the argument he gives to Crito? Try to make the negative case. If he does not believe them, why does he make the arguments?

(8) Is the argument that Socrates makes in “Crito” consistent with his defense of philosophy in “The Apology”?


Vonnegut on Gov’t and more

February 26, 2011

Below are a couple Kurt Vonnegut quotes that apply very nicely to our discussion we had in class about government and how it conflicts with philosophy.  These quotes apply directly to the U.S. government but they can also apply to government in its entirety.

“There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.”

“If you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington DC.”

Also, on another topic but still taking advantage of Kurt Vonnegut, the question of  “What makes life worth living?” was brought up in class last Tuesday.  Vonnegut loved music and felt that music was what made life bearable at the very least.  He was a great supporter of all music, but in particular, the blues.  One of his most famous quotes about music is:

“The only proof [I] need for the existence of God [is] music.”

It’s nice to get a little reassurance from somebody of the real world for all of us conservatory students.

And here’s one more just for the hell of it:

“To be is to do – Socrates

To do is to be – Sartre

Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra”

Reading questions on Plato’s “The Apology of Socrates”

February 21, 2011

(1)  What does “Apology” mean in this context? Hint: it doesn’t have the meaning we usually ascribe to it.

(2)  How does Socrates begin his speech to the jury? What themes does he introduce? Be sure to examine how those themes develop throughout his speech.

(3)  After his preparatory remarks, Socrates responds to what he calls his “first accusers.”

  1. Who are the first accusers and what do they accuse Socrates of doing?
  2. Why did Socrates get such a bad reputation?

(4)  What are the current charges against Socrates?

(5)  Examine Socrates’ response to his current accusers, primarily his dialogue with Meletus. Note that there are effectively three arguments Socrates has with Meletus. For each one, ask:

  1. What is Meletus’ accusation?
  2. How does Socrates respond to Meletus’ accusations?
  3. Is Socrates’ response convincing? More to the point, does it actually refute the charges against him?

(6)  After his dialogue with Meletus, Socrates launches into a broader defense of his way of life. What is this defense?

  1. To whom does Socrates first compare himself in making this defense?
  2. Does Socrates really intend this as a serious comparison? Explain your answer.
  3. What are the values and virtues Socrates thinks should guide Athens?
  4. Later, Socrates shifts metaphors and instead of the first comparison he offers, he creates a new comparison of himself to a gadfly. What is a gadfly? What does this new comparison imply about Socrates’ role in the city? What does Socrates’ offer of this new comparison imply about his first metaphor?

(7)  Why doesn’t Socrates appeal to pity?

(8)  After his conviction, Socrates proposes a punishment; what is his proposal? Why do you think he proposes it?

(9)  What does Socrates say to those who voted against him? What does he say to his supporters?

(10) Do you think Socrates really means what he says about death at the end of his speech?

(11) Was Socrates’ defense designed to persuade people? Why do you think Socrates defended himself as he did?


Some thoughts on nihilism and tragedy

February 20, 2011

Let me begin with what I take to be a fairly uncontroversial point: the experience of being alive entails a great many features that are often interpreted as bad, wrong, or even evil. There is suffering, vividly described, for instance, in the chorus we read from Oedipus at Colonus; there is constant change, so that the moments of joy and happiness never last; there are bullies and brutes of all kinds, ignorance and misunderstandings, inconsistent/contradictory feelings, and we often seem to lack the ability to determine what is really true or right.

We might say that nihilism comes in a variety of forms, but I’ll mention two: 1) because of the features I just described, life is not worth living (“not to be born is best of all/ when life is there, the second best by far is to go hence where you came, with the best speed you may,” as the chorus puts it in Oedipus at Colonus). This version of nihilism is a form of despair 2) We don’t know exactly what makes life worth living; that is, our highest values/goals appear to be illusory, in the sense that we do not and cannot know whether they are truly valuable.  This form of nihilism is a form of disorientation, wherein I don’t know what I should do with my life. I focus attention on the first variety, since I think it is most relevant for understanding tragedy.

Now, one common response to the first form of nihilism is to posit a “next world,” in which these values are in fact realized.  The most obvious case of this among Americans is in Christian thinking: life in this world is much as the nihilist describes it; humans are pretty awful and sinful creatures; our institutions are irredeemably flawed and unjust.  But their conclusion is to hold out hope for a final redemption—an act of grace from the supernatural that will help us achieve some final reconciliation. There are other versions of this same motif: Marxism, for instance, does not hope for an act of supernatural salvation, but rather that History will eventually to produce our highest values (freedom, equality, brotherhood), at least in the long run in the long run.  This is also a doctrine found in much contemporary political rhetoric: we always cast the present merely as an incomplete realization of the high ideal to be found in the future (as in, “sure, there are still problems with racism, but we’re making progress”). In short, one common response to nihilism is to develop a vision of “rectilinear” time, wherein there is a definite and identifiable beginning and ending, and that all of the events that occur push us closer to or further away from the end. There is a final state of being at the end of time, which Christians call “salvation,” and others call something else (a just society, for instance), and that the past and present are all pointing toward that point.

Nihilistic despair emerges, then, when we start to doubt the possibility of the realization of this end; perhaps one no longer thinks that the end is possible, or perhaps one thinks that even if it is possible, the end does not actually justify the suffering in the present. I could add that this nihilism often takes two basic forms: “passive nihilism” is a kind of resignation; one realizes that the world is inhospitable to one’s highest values, and so one attempts not to will any longer—to simply endure (often with the aid of many distractions, such as entertainment, alcohol, and so forth).  Active nihilism, by contrast, takes the form of destruction.  Think Lenin here: he realizes that the world, as it is currently organized, is inhospitable to the realization of his highest values, and so he wills its destruction (Lenin, for instance, once decided that he could no longer listen to Beethoven any longer, since the beauty of the music overly reconciled and made him willing to live in it as it is). Active nihilism can take many forms—from Christian millennialism, to various fantasies about the destruction of the earth in an environmental catastrophe, to the fantasies that murdering people in a discothèque will lead to the creation of a new Caliphate or the return of the Twelfth Imam (just to be clear, I want to add that none of these beliefs as such necessarily imply a form of active nihilism; they embody nihilism only when there is an active and destructive desire to transition to an otherworldly or transcendent state–i.e., a state of affairs that represents a totalizing break with the world as it exists). What all of these phenomena share (or more accurately, can share) is a general belief that the world as it exists is evil and must be cleansed in order to achieve “otherworldly” values (e.g., Salvation, Justice, Peace on Earth, andother Ideals with Capital Letters).

But there is another way of understanding nihilism, and this is basically Nietzsche’s conception. From a tragic point of view, the first variety of nihilism emerges primarily because we value the wrong things: we become nihilistic insofar as our highest values include permanence and “being” (rather than flux, impermanence, and “becoming”), rest or completion (as opposed to a struggle to overcome obstacles), and the hope for some sort of final triumph or salvation (rather than an acceptance of the inevitability of failure).  The idea here is that tragedy represents a more or less fully worked out ethical system of values—one that places value primarily on the parenthetical statements above (i.e., it values impermanence and becoming, struggle and the suffering that attends such struggle, and acceptance of the inevitability of ultimate failure).  In this sense, tragedy is a response to nihilism, not an embracing of it.  “Oedipus the King” takes seriously the claim that “not to be born is best of all,” but I think that Oedipus (and by extension the play as a whole) rejects that idea (perhaps Creon does too, since he does not quite “lose himself” at the end of “Antigone,” and he also refuses to commit suicide).

Some of this can be seen in an aspect of tragedy that I have not emphasized but should have.  Tragic narratives often proceed by juxtaposing heterogeneous (or indeed opposite) elements in the same character, event, or object.  These juxtapositions occur throughout “Oedipus the King.”  Oedipus’ actions to avoid his fate are simultaneously the actions that bring it about; his in-sight into the nature of his fate is symbolized by his blindness (and conversely, his inability to understand is represented by his sight in his interactions with the blind-but-seeing Teiresias).  This dimension of tragedy is connected to the basic idea of tragedy as an ethical worldview: when things are represented as X and not-X at the same time, one is drawn to the notions of imperfection, impermanence, and becoming (e.g., one is drawn to one of the essential features of reality as we experience it: the things of this world are transitory, relative, and internally contradictory).  The tragedian invites us neither to deny this, rail against it in anger, nor to despair over it.  Rather, a tragic worldview embraces and affirms these elements of life as the way to embrace life as it is, and perhaps to improve it into what it could be.

I would argue that some of these ideas play roles in “Antigone” and in Thucydides too, though I’ll not focus on him so much here.  In “Antigone,” the conflict is tragic because it appears to be unavoidable; that is, the position of the play appears to be that, whatever is going on between Antigone and Creon, their conflict reveals the fact that, at least in this world, it is sometimes impossible to resolve certain affairs.  That is, the play reveals that there are certain irresolvable dilemmas (e.g., one must mourn and pay allegiance to the irreplaceable individual who dies, but one must also organize citizenship and/or politics in such a way that one sees citizens as replaceable; or put more simply, one is a unique and irreplaceable individual, but also a mere member of a more general community—just one case of a 6 billion other humans). Again, one response to this is not to despair that we cannot resolve this conflict, but to learn how to live with it. Thucydides adopts the same sort of point of view, I think; he reveals humans in all of their messy, contradictory, and hypocritical glory. But he does not rail against this or despair over it. Rather, his attitude (particularly if you read the rest of the book) appears to be a kind of bemusement, or ironic detachment, as he juxtaposes these actors’ self-seriousness and declarations of virtue, with their often-ridiculous actions and their self-interest/fear. In this sense, Thucydides presents the Peloponnesian war as a tragedy.


February 15, 2011

So while we were discussing Euthyphro and his views on piety, in particular his very literal interpretation of Zeus’ actions, I was reminded of this letter I found online: It may offend some people if so, I apologize. I’m sure some you have seen this as well.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t, the writer takes passages from the bible and shows how ridiculous the literal translation of these passages are in a modern society.  In both this letter, and Plato’s dialogue there seems to be a conflict between the “old” or more literal way of interpreting the parables/myths and the way those readings fit into the society or government of that time.

Theme of Fate in Works Today -The Adjustment Bureau

February 15, 2011

I just saw a trailer for the upcoming movie “The Adjustment Bureau.” From the released content so far, this movie is about a man that accidentally runs into a mysterious group of men whose job it is to control everything in society. In this futuristic sci-fi movie everything in your life in controlled by the adjustment bureau. Their activities will influence your ideas, your choices, and everything else in your life. This reminded me of our running discussion of fate in the tragedy genre. One of the trailer lines is even “You can’t outrun your fate.” This is an interesting take on the idea of your fate being set, but not by some unknown force, but by a group of people with a specific plan for how your life will play out. One thing I am interested to see is how they explain the protagonist finds out about the bureau, and if these random occurences can happen how this guy is more important than other people that have found them. I would imagine if they aren’t in complete control of each life they would be found on accident a lot, and would be quite efficient at fixing those glitches swiftly. Regardless of skepticism, this looks like it could be cool, and I just thought I would share it.

Greek Ethos as Tragic Heroes

February 14, 2011

An ethos is the tragic hero of government.  The Homeric ethos focuses on the individual and their role that individual plays in their family; stressing the importance each person has in other’s lives.  With everything, there is a healthy level to which something can be stretched to, but as soon as that threshold is crossed corruption and abuse of power becomes eminent.  It happened with the public mournings that were held purely as displays of wealth during Homeric Athens.  These elaborate displays ultimately created a division between the wealthy and poor as that threshold gradually stretched and broke.  This idea of the individual was not only the Homeric ethos’ greatest strength but also its greatest weakness just as Oedipus’ steadfastness/stubbornness destroyed him.

Likewise, the same could be said for a Democratic ethos.  It stresses equality amongst citizens, but being a “tragic hero” it must have its extreme, its tragic flaw.  The Greeks stretched Democracy beyond its appropriate threshold and developed this idea of replaceability.  If all people are equal under Democracy doesn’t that mean everybody is the same?  Why can’t one person just step in and take another’s place, they’re equal.  While the idea of equality is a great idea there are just too many issues with its extreme.  People are not the same just because they’re citizens under the same state.  This form of Democracy shares the same principle with Communism in Russia (I believe it was Russia) where they just handed people any random job.  Doctors became Chicken Farmers and Journalists became Physicists virtually over night.  Well everybody is equal, so anybody can do any job, right?

Both the Homeric ethos and the Democratic ethos are initially practical solutions to social and political issues; however, they are corrupted from generation to generation.  What I’m getting at is that as these things continue the original ideals are continuously taken one step further leading to extremes.  And why are these things expanded upon?  Do the future generations actually believe in these different ideals or are they just supporting them and trying to improve them because that’s what their forefathers would want?  This reminds me of a science experiment that I read about that goes something similar to this:

Scientists placed four monkeys in a cage with a staircase leading up to a pile of bananas, when one monkey tried to get a banana the other three monkeys were punished.  After a while, the monkeys start to catch on and from that point on whenever one of the monkeys attempts to grab a banana the other two monkeys beat the monkey going for the banana to try and stop it.

Soon one of the monkeys is switched out with another monkey and when it tries to eat a banana the other monkeys attack it.  One of the other original monkeys is switched out and replaced with another.  When that one tries to eat a banana it is nearly beaten more brutally.  This happens until there are no longer any of the original monkeys that knows what happens when one of them tries to eat a banana, and yet the monkeys still beat one another with increasing ferocity when anyone of them tries to eat a banana.  Although none of the monkeys knows what happens, they know that this is the way its always been done, and that’s the way they’ll keep doing it.

Now, about ethos being tragic heroes, if that is the case, then that must mean that their strengths are in turn their weaknesses and they are fated to crumble by forces outside of their control.  It is the very things that created them, what makes them great, that destroys them.  If you accept this idea of ethos being tragic heroes then you will accept that there is no perfect system, they all have their flaws and all ethos are fated to be defeated.