Excerpt #17 — Plato’s Socrates on Socrates’ Philosophical Path to Forms (From the Phaedo)

“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.” [1] 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. [2]

There it is: you’ve been warned.

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Excerpt #14 — John Bremer on the Singing and Hearing of Homeric Becoming and the Seeing and Reading of Platonic Being

In an earlier post, I offered some words about my late friend and former professor, John Bremer. John was a prolific writer, and most of his work went (and remains) unpublished. One of these unpublished works was a not-fully-edited set of short essays, titled “Plato’s Understanding of Philosophy” (or simply the “P.U.P. Papers”, as John called them). There, John wrote that Continue reading

Excerpt #13 — Larry Siedentop on Reason, Authority, and Will from Homeric Greece through the High Middle Ages

I am packing my library for a move, but dawdling in some of the books I should be carefully Tetris-ing into boxes. As I do, I am running across passages that are worth putting up here. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is one of several works with such passages.

We have examined the Homeric idea of the good and goodness here before on Into the Clarities, and it is worth noting that the Platonic idea of the philosopher is set against the background of the ideal of the Homeric hero. We have also looked at the kind of cosmos in which the stars were thought to hold sway, such as in the opinion voiced by Seneca the Younger, below. Here below, the difference introduced by reason (λογος) in the ancient Homeric world stands out as remarkable; the post-Platonic and Late Antique model of reason is also contrasted with developments in the later Middle Ages. After Aquinas, the will played a more and more prominent role in anthropological models and in the way that individual virtue was understood. (On this note, see Bonnie Kent’s Virtues of the Will, which I also began dipping into.)  Continue reading

Meanwhile, in the Aftermath: The Groundwork for Disenchantment in Augustine

The following is a fairly accurate transcript of a talk I gave at a conference organized by the Pappas Patristics Institute at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in early March of this year (2017). I was flattered that nearly all of the attendees at my session skipped the following session to extend the Q&A time by nearly an hour. I am grateful to my respondent for his helpful feedback, and to those who attended my presentation for their stimulating questions. 

I am still reading through the primary and secondary literature to evaluate responsibly the assertions I made in that talk. Some of my work to dig into the primary and secondary literature shall appear here on Into the Clarities, as four of them are nearing completion (although “approaching completion” is a condition that can, in my excessive caution, fall prey to Zeno’s paradox).

Hurriedly preparing for this conference paper, and especially reading voraciously in the wake of delivering this paper (to weigh its merits), has likely been the primary reason for my relative silence here at Into the Clarities for many months now (and the reason I had to halt work on the second Ullmann post).

During the conference, I frequently went off-page on a tear to clarify points when I’d made marginal notes to myself that I should do so — I had a stack of books by Augustine and Weber and Midgley with me, and read from several excerpts and discussed these relative to the points I was making. Here below, I have made a small attempt at inserting sentences to give at least some stubs for those mini-digressions and clarifications.

Here is something close to the talk I delivered.

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