Friday, May 18, 2018

The Life of Plato

The son of Ariston (his father) and Perictione (his mother), Plato was born in the year after the death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. His brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus are portrayed as interlocutors in Plato’s masterpiece the Republic, and his half brother Antiphon figures in the Parmenides. Plato’s family was aristocratic and distinguished: his father’s side claimed descent from the god Poseidon, and his mother’s side was related to the lawgiver Solon (c. 630–560 BCE). Less creditably, his mother’s close relatives Critias and Charmides were among the Thirty Tyrants who seized power in Athens and ruled briefly until the restoration of democracy in 403.

Plato as a young man was a member of the circle around Socrates. Since the latter wrote nothing, what is known of his characteristic activity of engaging his fellow citizens (and the occasional itinerant celebrity) in conversation derives wholly from the writings of others, most notably Plato himself. The works of Plato commonly referred to as “Socratic” represent the sort of thing the historical Socrates was doing. He would challenge men who supposedly had expertise about some facet of human excellence to give accounts of these matters—variously of courage, piety, and so on, or at times of the whole of “virtue”—and they typically failed to maintain their position. Resentment against Socrates grew, leading ultimately to his trial and execution on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth in 399. Plato was profoundly affected by both the life and the death of Socrates. The activity of the older man provided the starting point of Plato’s philosophizing. Moreover, if Plato’s Seventh Letter is to be believed (its authorship is disputed), the treatment of Socrates by both the oligarchy and the democracy made Plato wary of entering public life, as someone of his background would normally have done.

After the death of Socrates, Plato may have traveled extensively in Greece, Italy, and Egypt, though on such particulars the evidence is uncertain. The followers of Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 BCE) seem to have influenced his philosophical program (they are criticized in the Phaedo and the Republic but receive respectful mention in the Philebus). It is thought that his three trips to Syracuse in Sicily (many of the Letters concern these, though their authenticity is controversial) led to a deep personal attachment to Dion (408–354 BCE), brother-in-law of Dionysius the Elder (430–367 BCE), the tyrant of Syracuse. Plato, at Dion’s urging, apparently undertook to put into practice the ideal of the “philosopher-king” (described in the Republic) by educating Dionysius the Younger; the project was not a success, and in the ensuing instability Dion was murdered.

Plato’s Academy, founded in the 380s, was the ultimate ancestor of the modern university (hence the English term academic); an influential centre of research and learning, it attracted many men of outstanding ability. The great mathematicians Theaetetus (417–369 BCE) and Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 395–c. 342 BCE) were associated with it. Although Plato was not a research mathematician, he was aware of the results of those who were, and he made use of them in his own work. For 20 years Aristotle was also a member of the Academy. He started his own school, the Lyceum, only after Plato’s death, when he was passed over as Plato’s successor at the Academy, probably because of his connections to the court of Macedonia.

Because Aristotle often discusses issues by contrasting his views with those of his teacher, it is easy to be impressed by the ways in which they diverge. Thus, whereas for Plato the crown of ethics is the good in general, or Goodness itself (the Good), for Aristotle it is the good for human beings; and whereas for Plato the genus to which a thing belongs possesses a greater reality than the thing itself, for Aristotle the opposite is true. Plato’s emphasis on the ideal, and Aristotle’s on the worldly, informs Raphael’s depiction of the two philosophers in the School of Athens (1508–11). But if one considers the two philosophers not just in relation to each other but in the context of the whole of Western philosophy, it is clear how much Aristotle’s program is continuous with that of his teacher. (Indeed, the painting may be said to represent this continuity by showing the two men conversing amicably.) In any case, the Academy did not impose a dogmatic orthodoxy and in fact seems to have fostered a spirit of independent inquiry; at a later time it took on a skeptical orientation.

Plato once delivered a public lecture, “On the Good,” in which he mystified his audience by announcing, “the Good is one.” He better gauged his readers in his dialogues, many of which are accessible, entertaining, and inviting. Although Plato is well known for his negative remarks about much great literature, in the Symposium he depicts literature and philosophy as the offspring of lovers, who gain a more lasting posterity than do parents of mortal children. His own literary and philosophical gifts ensure that something of Plato will live on for as long as readers engage with his works.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Voltaire’s political philosophy - "Treatise on Tolerance" - Religion and State

A Tolerant Family

Jean Calas was a 68-year-old merchant living in Toulouse during the latter half of the 1700s. His story is one of religion, suicide and, most shockingly, parricide. The "Treatise on Tolerance" begins with a description of his family. Jean had two sons, Louis (the younger) and Marc Antoine (the older). Louis converted to Catholicism with his father's consent. Marc Antoine, however, did not and apparently didn't possess proof of belonging to any religion, which caused considerable problems for him in his professional aspirations. Marc Antoine one evening, having lost all his money gambling, decided to hang himself after dinner with the family, to everyone's shock and horror. The family knew his death to be suicide. The town, having existed in a state of religious intolerance, decided the parents killed their son because of his unwillingness to prescribe to their religion and willingness to embrace Catholicism.

Saint Marc Antoine

The magistrate of Toulouse, in an effort to expand his reputation, then decided to throw the entire Calas family (including their Catholic maid) into jail on the basis of hearsay alone. As it turned out, Marc Antoine died a Calvinist and was therefore given a martyr's burial. After his funeral procession, the man who should have been buried in unconsecrated ground, due to death by his own hand, was canonized and given sainthood. Soon enough, miracles were reported at the site of Saint Marc Antoine's grave, including a semi-deaf woman reporting that she heard the sound of bells.

Trial and Conviction

As each family member testified during the trial, they were all together during the fateful night. The defense demanded, "How could such a murder take place without drawing the attention of neighbors or surrounding villagers?" The court would hear none of it and decided upon banishment to a nunnery for the females in the family, mandatory conversion to Catholicism for the youngest son and death by the wheel for the oldest son and Jean Calas himself. It is perhaps worth mentioning that all of this occurred around the same time of year that the villagers commemorated the massacre of 4,000 Huguenots; such remembrance fueled the fanaticism and rage against the Calas family.
Justice at Last

The Widow Calas appealed to the magistrate in Paris to avenge the unfair executions of her husband and son. A famous lawyer by the name of M. de Beaumont took up her case and was able to publicize it widely enough that her husband was cleared of all charges (although he was already dead). Her daughters were restored to her, and all remaining members of the family were declared innocent. However, the religious fanatics in France would not accept this reversal and refused to admit that the original judge and magistrates trying the case were biased and unjust in their sentencing.

Virtue and Learning

After the account of the death of Jean Calas, Voltaire discusses religious dogma as a scourge on society and how it leads to more disputes and vice than the virtue it is meant to inspire. He mentions the classical opinion held by Cato, Cisero and Socrates that men are fools to argue about what they cannot know. Voltaire also discusses the sad fact that reason was lost during the early days of Christendom when religious supremacy became radical doctrine. At last, he states that all the barbarians "civilized" Christians feared, such as the Goths, Vandals and Huns, have done far less damage and caused far less brutality than the Christian churches of the world in their quest to unite man by peace or by sword.

A Prayer for Tolerance

The "Treatise on Tolerance" ends with a description of the similarities between all of man's major religions and how they should work together for the good of mankind. Voltaire mentions the smallness of mankind in comparison to the vastness of space and the universe and questions the need for all the fighting and bickering in the face of so much man cannot know or explain. He asks those who dwell in an unenlightened state of intolerance whether they are sure that all the civilizations before and all of those that must come after the foundation of the Christian church are doomed to hell. Finally, he pleads with god that all mankind might come to know that they are brothers in the darkness and must learn to dwell together in peace before the end of all things. Also, he asks that all men, regardless of religious preference or cultural differences, might come together to praise life and love one another, to begin the process of healing and undoing all of the misery and death that has come from religious intolerance.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Voltaire and Rousseau

Voltaire's junior contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau commented on how Voltaire's book Letters on the English played a great role in his intellectual development. Having written some literary works and also some music, in December 1745 Rousseau wrote a letter introducing himself to Voltaire, who was by then the most prominent literary figure in France, to which Voltaire replied with a polite response. Subsequently, when Rousseau sent Voltaire a copy of his book Discourse on Inequality, Voltaire replied, noting his disagreement with the views expressed in the book:

    “No one has ever employed so much intellect to persuade men to be beasts. In reading your work one is seized with a desire to walk on four paws [marcher à quatre pattes]. However, as it is more than sixty years since I lost that habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is impossible for me to resume it.”

Subsequently, commenting on Rousseau's romantic novel Julie, or the New Heloise, Voltaire stated:

    “No more about Jean-Jacques' romance if you please. I have read it, to my sorrow, and it would be to his if I had time to say what I think of this silly book.”

Voltaire speculated that the first half of Julie had been written in a brothel and the second half in a lunatic asylum. In his Lettres sur La Nouvelle Heloise, written under a pseudonym, Voltaire offered criticism highlighting grammatical mistakes in the book:

    Paris recognized Voltaire's hand and judged the patriarch to be bitten by jealousy.

In reviewing Rousseau's book Emile after its publication, Voltaire dismissed it as "a hodgepodge of a silly wet nurse in four volumes, with forty pages against Christianity, among the boldest ever known." However, he expressed admiration for the section in this book titled Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar, calling it "fifty good is regrettable that they should have been written by...such a knave."  He went on to predict that Emile would be forgotten after a month

In 1764, Rousseau published Lettres de la montagne, containing nine letters on religion and politics. In the fifth letter he wondered why Voltaire had not been able to imbue the Genevan councilors, who frequently met him, "with that spirit of tolerance which he preaches without cease, and of which he sometimes has need". The letter continued with an imaginary speech delivered by Voltaire, imitating his literary style, in which he accepts authorship for the book Sermon of the Fifty—a book whose authorship Voltaire had repeatedly denied because it contained many heresies.

In 1772, when a priest sent Rousseau a pamphlet denouncing Voltaire, Rousseau responded with a defense of Voltaire:

    He has said and done so many good things that we should draw the curtain over his irregularities.

In 1778, when Voltaire was given unprecedented honors at the Théâtre-Français,an acquaintance of Rousseau ridiculed the event. This was met by a sharp retort from Rousseau:

    How dare you mock the honors rendered to Voltaire in the temple of which he is the god, and by the priests who for fifty years have been living off his masterpieces?

On 2 July 1778, Rousseau died one month after Voltaire's death.[214] In October 1794, Rousseau's remains were moved to the Panthéon, where they were placed near the remains of Voltaire.
Louis XVI, while incarcerated in the Temple, had remarked that Rousseau and Voltaire had "destroyed France", by which he meant his dynasty

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Nietzsche’s Superman - The Übermensch

The Übermensch (German for "Beyond-Man", "Superman", "Overman", "Superhuman", "Hyperman", "Hyperhuman"; German pronunciation: [ˈˀyːbɐmɛnʃ]) is a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (German: Also sprach Zarathustra), Nietzsche has his character Zarathustra posit the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself. It is a work of philosophical allegory, with a structural similarity to the Gathas of Zoroaster/Zarathustra.


Nietzsche introduces the concept of the Übermensch in contrast to his understanding of the other-worldliness of Christianity: Zarathustra proclaims the Übermensch to be the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth.The turn away from the earth is prompted, he says, by a dissatisfaction with life—a dissatisfaction that causes one to create another world in which those who made one unhappy in this life are tormented. The Übermensch is not driven into other worlds away from this one.

Zarathustra declares that the Christian escape from this world also required the invention of an eternal soul which would be separate from the body and survive the body's death. Part of other-worldliness, then, was the abnegation and mortification of the body, or asceticism. Zarathustra further links the Übermensch to the body and to interpreting the soul as simply an aspect of the body.

Death of God and the creation of new values

Zarathustra ties the Übermensch to the death of God. While this God was the ultimate expression of other-worldly values and the instincts that gave birth to those values, belief in that God nevertheless did give meaning to life for a time. 'God is dead' means that the idea of God can no longer provide values. With the sole source of values no longer capable of providing those values, there is a real chance of nihilism prevailing.

Zarathustra presents the Übermensch as the creator of new values. In this way, it appears as a solution to the problem of the death of God and nihilism. If the Übermensch acts to create new values within the moral vacuum of nihilism, there is nothing that this creative act would not justify. Alternatively, in the absence of this creation, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action, including the particular values created and the means by which they are promulgated.

In order to avoid a relapse into Platonic idealism or asceticism, the creation of these new values cannot be motivated by the same instincts that gave birth to those tables of values. Instead, they must be motivated by a love of this world and of life. Whereas Nietzsche diagnosed the Christian value system as a reaction against life and hence destructive in a sense, the new values which the Übermensch will be responsible for will be life-affirming and creative (see Nietzschean affirmation

Thursday, May 3, 2018


Biopolitics is an intersectional field between biology and politics.

The term was coined by Rudolf Kjellén, who also coined the term geopolitics, in his 1905 two-volume work The Great Powers. In contemporary US political science studies, usage of the term is mostly divided between a poststructuralist group using the meaning assigned by Michel Foucault (denoting social and political power over life) and another group who uses it to denote studies relating biology and political science.

Various definitions

In Kjellén's organicist view, the state was a quasi-biological organism, a "super-individual creature". Kjellén sought to study "the civil war between social groups" (comprising the state) from a biological perspective and thus named his putative discipline "biopolitics"
The Nazis also used the term occasionally. For example, Hans Reiter used it in a 1934 speech to refer to their biologically based concept of nation and state and ultimately their racial policy.
Previous notions of the concept can actually be traced back to the Middle ages in John of Salisbury's work Policraticus in which the coined term Body politic is actually used. Modern usage of the term starts to gather pace in the 19th century with Walter Bagehot's work Physics and politics in which he reflects on the term as if he was a trained scientist in the form of Jakob von Uexküll. Bagehot didn't have the scientifically trained mind such as von Uexküll so he (Bagehot) falls rather short in the explanation of the term. Nevertheless the book has some novel points particularly on the subject of Natural selection and politics.
Morley Roberts in his 1938 book Bio-politics used to argue that a correct model for world politics is "a loose association of cell and protozoa colonies".
Robert E. Kuttner used the term to refer to his particular brand of "scientific racism," as he called it, which he worked out with noted Eustace Mullins, with whom Kuttner cofounded the Institute for Biopolitics in the late 1950s, and also with Glayde Whitney, a behavioral geneticist. Most of his adversaries designate his model as antisemitic. Kuttner and Mullins were inspired by Morley Roberts, who was in turn inspired by Arthur Keith, or both were inspired by each other and either co-wrote together (or with the Institute of Biopolitics) Biopolitics of Organic Materialism dedicated to Roberts and reprinted some of his works
In the work of Foucault, the style of government that regulates populations through "biopower" (the application and impact of political power on all aspects of human life).
In the works of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, anti-capitalist insurrection using life and the body as weapons; examples include flight from power and, 'in its most tragic and revolting form', suicide terrorism. Conceptualised as the opposite of biopower, which is seen as the practice of sovereignty in biopolitical conditions. The political application of bioethics.
A political spectrum that reflects positions towards the sociopolitical consequences of the biotech revolution.
Political advocacy in support of, or in opposition to, some applications of biotechnology
Public policies regarding some applications of biotechnology.
Political advocacy concerned with the welfare of all forms of life and how they are moved by one another.

The politics of bioregionalism.

The interplay and interdisciplinary studies relating biology and political sciencprimarily the study of the relationship between biology and political behavior most of these works agree on three fundamental aspects. First, the object of investigation is primarily political behavior, which—and this is the underlying assumption—is caused in a substantial way by objectively demonstrable biological factors. For example, the relationship of biology and political orientation, but also biological correlates of partisanship and voting behavior
According to Professor Agni Vlavianos Arvanitis biopolitics is a conceptual and operative framework for societal development, promoting bios (Greek = life) as the central theme in every human endeavor, be it policy, education, art, government, science or technology. This concept uses bios as a term referring to all forms of life on our planet, including their genetic and geographic variation.

Michel Foucault

French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault first discussed his thoughts on biopolitics in his lecture series "Society Must Be Defended" given at the Collège de France from 1975–1976.[20] Foucault's concept of biopolitics is largely derived from his own notion of biopower, and the extension of state power over both the physical and political bodies of a population. While only mentioned briefly in his "Society Must Be Defended" lectures, his concept of biopolitics has become prominent in social and humanistic sciences.

Foucault described biopolitics as "a new technology of power...[that] exists at a different level, on a different scale, and [that] has a different bearing area, and makes use of very different instruments." More than a disciplinary mechanism, Foucault's biopolitics acts as a control apparatus exerted over a population as a whole or, as Foucault stated, "a global mass."In the years that followed, Foucault continued to develop his notions of the biopolitical in his "The Birth of Biopolitics" and "The Courage of Truth" lectures.

Foucault gave numerous examples of biopolitical control when he first mentioned the concept in 1976. These examples include "ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population, and so on." He contrasted this method of social control with political power in the Middle Ages. Whereas in the Middle Ages pandemics made death a permanent and perpetual part of life, this was then shifted around the end of the 18th century with the introduction of milieu into the biological sciences. Foucault then gives different contrasts to the then physical sciences in which the industrialisation of the population was coming to the fore through the concept of work, where Foucault then argues power starts to become a target for this milieu by the 17th century.With the development of vaccines and medicines dealing with public hygiene allowed death to be held (and/or withheld) from certain populations. This was the introduction of "more subtle, more rational mechanisms: insurance, individual and collective savings, safety measures, and so on.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Aristotle: his travels, the road to Macedonia

When Plato died about 348, his nephew Speusippus became head of the Academy, and Aristotle left Athens. He migrated to Assus, a city on the northwestern coast of Anatolia (in present-day Turkey), where Hermias, a graduate of the Academy, was ruler. Aristotle became a close friend of Hermias and eventually married his ward Pythias. Aristotle helped Hermias to negotiate an alliance with Macedonia, which angered the Persian king, who had Hermias treacherously arrested and put to death about 341. Aristotle saluted Hermias’s memory in “"Ode to Virtue,"” his only surviving poem.

   While in Assus and during the subsequent few years when he lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Aristotle carried out extensive scientific research, particularly in zoology and marine biology. This work was summarized in a book later known, misleadingly, as The History of Animals, to which Aristotle added two short treatises, On the Parts of Animals and On the Generation of Animals. Although Aristotle did not claim to have founded the science of zoology, his detailed observations of a wide variety of organisms were quite without precedent. He—or one of his research assistants—must have been gifted with remarkably acute eyesight, since some of the features of insects that he accurately reports were not again observed until the invention of the microscope in the 17th century.

The scope of Aristotle’s scientific research is astonishing. Much of it is concerned with the classification of animals into genus and species; more than 500 species figure in his treatises, many of them described in detail. The myriad items of information about the anatomy, diet, habitat, modes of copulation, and reproductive systems of mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects are a melange of minute investigation and vestiges of superstition. In some cases his unlikely stories about rare species of fish were proved accurate many centuries later. In other places he states clearly and fairly a biological problem that took millennia to solve, such as the nature of embryonic development.

Despite an admixture of the fabulous, Aristotle’s biological works must be regarded as a stupendous achievement. His inquiries were conducted in a genuinely scientific spirit, and he was always ready to confess ignorance where evidence was insufficient. Whenever there is a conflict between theory and observation, one must trust observation, he insisted, and theories are to be trusted only if their results conform with the observed phenomena.

In 343 or 342 Aristotle was summoned by Philip II to the Macedonian capital at Pella to act as tutor to Philip’s 13-year-old son, the future Alexander the Great. Little is known of the content of Aristotle’s instruction; although the Rhetoric to Alexander was included in the Aristotelian corpus for centuries, it is now commonly regarded as a forgery. By 326 Alexander had made himself master of an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Indus and included Libya and Egypt. Ancient sources report that during his campaigns Alexander arranged for biological specimens to be sent to his tutor from all parts of Greece and Asia Minor.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Aristotle on Democracy and Demagogues

· Passages: Destroying Democracy ·

1304b: 20-1305a7: The main cause of the overthrow of democracies is the outrageous behavior of demagogues. By attacking [rich] property owners they motivate them to band together out of fear, and they also spur on the people [to try to bleed the rich]. In this way democracy has been overthrown at numerous places: Cos, Rhodes, Heracleia, Megara, Cyme. This is more or less the way democracies are destroyed. To win popular support, demagogues propose unjust treatment for the notables and thus force them to band together, by making them give up their property for redivision, or by having them expend their resources on public service, or by slandering them to force confiscations of their property.

1311a: 22-26: The same beginnings lead to the overthrow of polities and monarchies alike. For those who are ruled attack monarchies on account of injustice, fear, and contempt

1301b: 26-29: Factional conflict (stasis) erupts everywhere on account of inequality, or at least it does if no proportion exists between those who are unequal. In general, people engage in factional conflict seeking equality.

1303b: 6-7: In democracies, the notables cause factional conflict because they have [only] an equal share in things even though [in their own eyes] they are not equal [to everybody else but feel superior and therefore feel they should possess more political power, etc. than those whom they see as their inferiors].

1302a: 31-34: Factional conflict is the result of fighting to gain profit and honor and to avoid their opposites, dishonor and penalties.

1301b: 26-29: Factional conflict (stasis) erupts everywhere on account of inequality, or at least it does if no proportion exists between those who are unequal. In general, people engage in factional conflict seeking equality.

1303b: 6-7: In democracies, the notables cause factional conflict because they have [only] an equal share in things even though [in their own eyes] they are not equal [to everybody else but feel superior and therefore feel they should possess more political power, etc. than those whom they see as their inferiors].

1302a: 31-34: Factional conflict is the result of fighting to gain profit and honor and to avoid their opposites, dishonor and penalties.

1302b: 21-24: Fear causes factional conflict, both when men fear punishment for injustice they have committed and also when they fear being treated unjustly. At Rhodes, for example, the notables rebelled against the people on account of legal prosecutions that were being brought against them.

1302b: 27-33: Factional conflict occurs in democracies when the rich feel contempt for the disorder and anarchy [of the government], as at Thebes and Megara following defeats in battle and on Rhodes preceding the rebellion [of the notables].

1302b: 15-18: Factional conflict can arise when there is a person or a group whose power exceeds that of the city-state or its government. The institution of ostracism came into being to prevent this.

1308b: 20-22: Since men’s private lives can lead them to seek the overthrow of the system of government, a magistracy is needed to oversee those living against the common advantage of the city-state, for example, in a democracy those living lives disadvantageous for democracy.

1303b: 7-12: City-states sometimes fall into factions on account of their topography. At Athens, for example, the citizens ones living in the Piraeus [the harbor district] are more democratic than those in the urban center.

1302a: 8-13: Democracy is more stable and less prone to factional conflict than oligarchy. In an oligarchy there are two types of possible conflict, namely, conflict between the oligarchs themselves and conflict between the oligarchs and the people. In a democracy, however, there is only conflict between citizens favoring democracy and citizens favoring oligarchy, as no serious factional conflict arises in the people [that is, those favoring democracy] against themselves.