I have greatly expanded and updated the excerpt post from Simone Weil.
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition”, wrote Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality, “is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  If he is even partially or qualifiedly correct, we would be remiss not to make ourselves familiar with Plato’s writings.
Plato (420’s–348/347 B.C.) did not write treatises, but dialogues (letters aside). Plato himself does not directly show up in these dialogues — similar to how Shakespeare does not directly appear in his plays. Likewise, just as locating Shakespeare’s voice among the voices of his characters can be quite tricky, so too locating Plato’s voice is not always a simple affair.
Plato’s dialogues are customarily divided into three periods — his early, middle, and later dialogues. His early dialogues are understood to focus on Socrates as a moral philosopher, where ethical concerns predominate in response to what can rightly be called the moral relativism and skepticism of the Sophists. (To oversimplify: the Sophists were a phenomenon, rather than an organized group, like a church or a guild: the Sophists were rhetoricians, public speakers who would teach the art of persuasion-through-speech to clients willing to pay them. In Athens, where laws were passed –or vetoed– by speaking in the public assembly, this skill was a veritable means to power.) Plato’s middle dialogues also feature Socrates as the protagonist, although these middle dialogues are where we get the first flowering of Plato’s more mature thought, with a more robust and developed metaphysics and epistemology on display, among other things (the well-known Republic is among these middle dialogues). His later dialogues are not our concern here.
Plato’s dialogue the Phaedo is usually classed as the final of a trilogy of dialogues dealing with the trial and death of Socrates: the Euthyphro, the Apology, and then our dialogue, the Phaedo. The Euthyphro and the Apology are usually dated to Plato’s early period, but the Phaedo is dated to his middle period, and the more mature metaphysical concerns of his middle period are well on display in this dialogue.
There is one section of the Phaedo where Plato has Socrates recount Socrates’ own philosophical path, his own intellectual biography. It is fascinating, and some of us might be tempted to read it either as an intellectual biography either of Socrates or Plato. We must be careful.
In general, the Phaedo is better read as a philosophical memoir than as a biographical record. Even the famous passage in which Socrates rehearses the story of his intellectual development (96a–100a) [our excerpt, link below] is artfully contrived to serve a philosophical purpose, and may have little or no foundation in fact. 
There it is: you’ve been warned.
There was an article published in 2012 on the religiously unaffiliated, and, at the time, on another now-dead blog, I pulled an excerpt, with a brief comment. It is more deserving of your attention than this post. I offer it here as something of an afterthought to an earlier post on R. Hütter on the loss of the Church as a distinct public, and even a Thanksgiving-Day conversation that I had with one of my cousins, which was about the media of perpetuating cultural distinctives and anchors and what things we hold up as valuable mirrors for self-understanding, whether individually and communally. Continue reading
Time has named the #metoo Silence Breakers as their Person of the Year for 2017; this is not the first time that they have named a group. (Vox has a piece on it here.) I don’t mean to say anything negative at all about the movement, which is really only incidental to the pattern that I want to call attention to with two quotes. Continue reading
“The good is the only source of the sacred.
There is nothing sacred except the good
and what is relative to the good.”
Simone Weil (pronounced “Vey”, because of her roots in France, despite what I understand to be the German origin of her family name) was one of the most brilliant, fascinating, and edifying figures of the 20th century. Every time I return to her I cannot escape the conviction that she is, in so many ways, like the North Star. I do not mean to suggest that she has no flaws, but it is not without reason that Albert Camus said that she was “the only great spirit of our times”, and I’m told that he visited Weil’s mother and meditated in Simone’s room on his way to receive his Nobel Prize. Her fame does not stop there. Even presidents cite her. At least one prominent student of Wittgenstein’s wrestled with her. Naturally, she has her own society.
The way I learned about Weil was through two books, Gravity and Grace as well as Waiting on God, both of which I’d read for several classes during my first two graduate degrees. (The essayist-activist Susan Sontag, mentioned below, once judged that Waiting on God is the best introduction to Weil.) They are intense, extremely beautiful, but in the way that they showcase a love that follows through on principle to the point of sacrificing itself for others in solidarity, rather than culminating in grand thoughts or flowery language or merely in learned tomes. I could say something about the political and mystical elements in Weil here, but I won’t. This post is already somewhat long. A decent encyclopedia introduction to her can be found on Britannica. Continue reading