Excerpt(s) #20 — Seneca, Letters 58 & 65 on the Scale of Nature, and on the Ideas and on Form: Stoicism Compared & Contrasted with Aristotle & Plato

In recent excerpts, we have looked at passages relating to what is meant by the language about form, first from Plato, then Aristotle on Plato, and then Cicero on the path from Socrates through Aristotle, have been cited. There is nothing exhaustive about this inventory of excerpts, though they are helpful. Here, we look at Seneca.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. — A.D. 65, usually simply known as “Seneca”, or else “Seneca the Younger” to distinguish him from his father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Elder) usually follows after Cicero (106 B.C. — 43 B.C.) in modern histories of Roman Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is, of course, Greek in its origins, but became a Latin inheritance, and was, perhaps, better suited to the temperament of Latin culture than was Platonism. The chronological priority Cicero enjoys in the Latin Stoic tradition, however, is overshadowed by the priority of influence that Seneca enjoys as a source for our knowledge of Stoic ethics [1], if not Stoicism itself. (Sadly, some significant sections of Cicero have been lost.) Stoicism is often touted as more practical, more pragmatic, than Platonism; perhaps accordingly, it may not come as a surprise to learn that the Stoic Seneca was, as is often noted, a senior advisor to the emperor Nero. He was forced to commit suicide in A.D. 65 because of his suspected involvement in plotting against the emperor; his Letters were likely written during retirement after A.D. 62.

Seneca was a rather eclectic Stoic, however. Arguments have been made to include him in the history of the Platonic tradition. [2] Certainly both his familiarity and engagement with the larger Greco-Roman philosophical tradition makes him fit to be included in this series of excerpts, which largely focus on Plato, and which are largely preparatory for other work here.

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Excerpt #18 — Aristotle on Plato on the One and Forms

In Excerpt #17, we looked at a narrative that Plato (died 348/347 B.C.) gives us about Socrates’  (d. 399 B.C.) philosophical path. Here, we something comparable narrated by Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.), who also gives us a narrative about Plato’s development, and distinguishes between Socrates and Plato.

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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 #11 — Plato’s “Ship Of State”

No matter how well-intentioned, public speech from candidates on the campaign trail –or elected officials who are already in office– cannot ever be entirely sincere, but is something between being either a technology entirely for the purpose of securing political power (an anecdotal exhibit B of this here) or else is in some sense caught up into the gravity well of such a game, no matter how honest and authentic the politicians wish to be. (Even the honesty and “authenticity” of any given politician, insofar as these makes such a candidate attractive to an electing populace, become tools, instruments, means to gain power as soon as they enter into the political game. [1] Anyone watching recent popular TV shows recognizes this.) The game holds sway over what can and must be said in order to be successful, for success means persuasion and even domination according to the rules of the game, rather than the communication of truth. For Plato’s Socrates, however, true speech is not about control.

For Socrates, a philosopher should be always concerned with truth. Those who are interested in power are at a distance from this ideal, for they cannot be entirely so interested in truth: their pursuit of political office means that, to the degree that they as politicians are interested in truth, it must aid in their acquisition of, or retention of, power. Within a democratic polity, a principled and consistent concern with truth on the part of those in power will, at least at times, fight against the interests of those who are in power. Continue reading

The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 2 of 5

Continued from Part One.
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