Monday, August 28, 2017

Plato: The Republic

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Republic has been Plato’s most famous and widely read dialogue.  As in most other Platonic dialogues the main character is Socrates.  It is generally accepted that the Republic belongs to the dialogues of Plato’s middle period.  In Plato’s early dialogues, Socrates refutes the accounts of his interlocutors and the discussion ends with no satisfactory answer to the matter investigated.  In the Republic however, we encounter Socrates developing a position on justice and its relation to eudaimonia (happiness).  He provides a long and complicated, but unified argument, in defense of the just life and its necessary connection to the happy life.

The dialogue explores two central questions.  The first question is “what is justice?”  Socrates addresses this question both in terms of political communities and in terms of the individual person or soul.  He does this to address the second and driving question of the dialogue: “is the just person happier than the unjust person?” or “what is the relation of justice to happiness?” Given the two central questions of the discussion, Plato’s philosophical concerns in the dialogue are ethical and political.  In order to address these two questions, Socrates and his interlocutors construct a just city in speech, the Kallipolis.  They do this in order to explain what justice is and then they proceed to illustrate justice by analogy in the human soul.  On the way to defending the just life, Socrates considers a tremendous variety of subjects such as several rival theories of justice, competing views of human happiness, education, the nature and importance of philosophy and philosophers, knowledge, the structure of reality, the Forms, the virtues and vices, good and bad souls, good and bad political regimes, the family, the role of women in society, the role of art in society, and even the afterlife.  This wide scope of the dialogue presents various interpretative difficulties and has resulted in thousands of scholarly works.  In order to attempt to understand the dialogue’s argument as a whole one is required to grapple with these subjects.

1. Synopsis of the Republic

a. Book I

Socrates and Glaucon visit the Piraeus to attend a festival in honor of the Thracian goddess Bendis (327a).  They are led to Polemarchus’ house (328b).  Socrates speaks to Cephalus about old age, the benefits of being wealthy, and justice (328e-331d). One would not claim that it is just to return weapons one owes to a mad friend (331c), thus justice is not being truthful and returning what one owes as Cephalus claims.  The discussion between Socrates and Polemarchus follows (331d-336b).

Polemarchus claims that justice is helping one’s friends and harming one’s enemies and that this is what one owes people (332c).  Socrates’ objections to Polemarchus’ definition are as follows: (i) Is this appropriate in medicine or cooking?  So in what context is this the case? (332d)? (ii) The just person will also be good at useless things and at being unjust (333e). (iii) We often do not know who our friends and enemies are. Thus, we may treat those whom we only think are our friends or enemies well or badly.  Would this be justice? (334c). (iv) It does not seem to be just to treat anyone badly, not even an enemy (335b).  Discussion between Socrates and Thrasymachus follows (336b-354c).

Thrasymachus defines justice as the advantage or what is beneficial to the stronger (338c).  Justice is different under different political regimes according to the laws, which are made to serve the interests of the strong (the ruling class in each regime, 338e-339a).  Socrates requires clarification of the definition: does it mean that justice is what the stronger think is beneficial to them or what is actually beneficial to them (339b)?  And don’t the strong rulers make mistakes and sometimes create laws that do not serve their advantage (339c)?  Thrasymachus points out that the stronger are really only those who do not make mistakes as to what is to their advantage (340d).  Socrates responds with a discussion of art or craft and points out that its aim is to do what is good for its subjects, not what is good for the practitioner (341c).  Thrasymachus suggests that some arts, such as that of shepherds, do not do this but rather aim at the advantage of the practitioner (343c). He also adds the claim that injustice is in every way better than justice and that the unjust person who commits injustice undetected is always happier than the just person (343e-344c).  The paradigm of the happy unjust person is the tyrant who is able to satisfy all his desires (344a-b).  Socrates points out that the shepherd’s concern for his sheep is different from his concern to make money, which is extraneous to the art (345c) and that no power or art provides what is beneficial to itself (346e).  Socrates claims that the best rulers are reluctant to rule but do so out of necessity: they do not wish to be ruled by someone inferior (347a-c).

Socrates offers three argument in favor of the just life over the unjust life: (i) the just man is wise and good, and the unjust man is ignorant and bad (349b); (ii) injustice produces internal disharmony which prevents effective actions (351b); (iii) virtue is excellence at a thing’s function and the just person lives a happier life than the unjust person, since he performs the various functions of the human soul well (352d).  Socrates is dissatisfied with the discussion since an adequate account of justice is necessary before they can address whether the just life is better than the unjust life (354b).

b. Book II

Glaucon is not persuaded by the arguments in the previous discussion (357a).  He divides good things into three classes: things good in themselves, things good both in themselves and for their consequences, and things good only for their consequences (357b-d).  Socrates places justice in the class of things good in themselves and for their consequences.

Glaucon renews Thrasymachus’ argument to challenge Socrates to defend justice by itself without any consideration of what comes from it (358b ff.).  Glaucon gives a speech defending injustice: (i) justice originates as a compromise between weak people who are afraid that suffering injustice is worse than doing it (358e-359a);  (ii) people act justly because this is necessary and unavoidable, so justice is good only for its consequences (story of the ring of Gyges’ ancestor, 359c-360d); (iii) the unjust person with the reputation for justice is happier than the just person with the reputation for injustice (360d-362c).

Adeimantus expands Glaucon’s defense of injustice and attack on justice by asserting: the reputation of justice is better than justice itself, so the unjust person who is able to keep the reputation of being just will be happier than the just person; discussion of various ways that the unjust can acquire the reputation for justice (362d-366d).

Socrates is asked to defend justice for itself, not for the reputation it allows for (367b).  He proposes to look for justice in the city first and then to proceed by analogy to find justice in the individual (368c-369a).  This approach will allow for a clearer judgment on the question of whether the just person is happier than the unjust person.  Socrates begins by discussing the origins of political life and constructs a just city in speech that satisfies only basic human necessities (369b-372c).  Socrates argues that humans enter political life since each is not self-sufficient by nature.  Each human has certain natural abilities (370a) and doing only the single job one is naturally suited for, is the most efficient way to satisfy the needs of all the citizens (370c).  Glaucon objects that Socrates’ city is too simple and calls it “a city of pigs” (372d).  Socrates describes a city that allows for luxuries (“a feverish city,” 372e-373e).  Socrates points out that the luxurious city will require an army to guard the city (373e).  The army will be composed of professional soldiers, the guardians, who, like dogs, must be gentle to fellow citizens and harsh to enemies (375c).  The guardians need to be educated very carefully to be able to do their job of protecting the city’s citizens, laws, and customs well (376d).  Poetry and stories need to be censored to guarantee such an education (377b).  Poetry should: (i) present the gods as good and only as causes of good (379a); (ii) as unchanging in form (380d); (iii) as beings who refrain from lies and deception (381e).

c. Book III

Socrates continues the political measures of the censorship of poetry: (iv) the underworld should not be portrayed as a bad place so that the guardians will not be too afraid of death (386b); (v) the heroes and gods should not be presented lamenting so that the guardians can develop courage (387e); (vi) poetry should prevent people from laughing violently (388e); (vii) poetry should promote the guardian’s sense of truth-telling but with the willingness to lie when this is conducive to the good of the city (389b); (viii) it should promote self-discipline and obedience (389c-d); (ix) it should not include stories that contribute to avarice (390d); (x) it should not include stories that contribute to hubris or impiety (391a).  Socrates moves on to discuss the manner in which stories should be told (392d).  He divides such manners into simple narration (in third person) and imitative narration (in first person, 392d).  To keep the guardians doing only their job, Socrates argues that the guardians may imitate only what is appropriate for this (394e-395d).  The just city should allow only modes and rhythms that fit the content of poetry allowed in the just city (398b-399c).  Socrates explains how good art can lead to the formation of good character and make people more likely to follow their reason (400e-402c).  Socrates turns to the physical education of the guardians and says that it should include physical training that prepares them for war, a careful diet, and habits that contribute to the avoidance of doctors (403c-405b).  Physical education should be geared to benefit the soul rather than the body, since the body necessarily benefits when the soul is in a good condition, whereas the soul does not necessarily benefit when the body is in a good condition (410b-c).

Socrates begins to describe how the rulers of the just city are to be selected from the class of the guardians: they need to be older, strong, wise, and wholly unwilling to do anything other than what is advantageous to the city (412b-414b).  Socrates suggests that they need to tell the citizens a myth that should be believed by subsequent generations in order for everyone to accept his position in the city (414b-415d).  The myth of metals portrays each human as having a precious metal in them: those naturally suited to be rulers have gold, those suited to be guardians have silver, and those suited for farming and the other crafts have bronze.

Socrates proceeds to discuss the living and housing conditions of the guardians: they will not have private property, they will have little privacy, they will receive what they need from the city via taxation of the other classes, and they will live communally and have common messes (415e-416e).

d. Book IV

Adeimantus complains that the guardians in the just city will not be very happy (419a).  Socrates points out that the aim is to make the whole city, and not any particular class, as happy as possible (420b).  Socrates discusses several other measures for the city as a whole in order to accomplish this.  There should be neither too much wealth nor too much poverty in the city since these cause social strife (421d-422a).  The just city should be only as large in size as would permit it to be unified and stable (423b).  Socrates reemphasizes the importance of the guardian’s education and suggests that the guardians will possess wives and children in common (423e). He suggests that they should only allow very limited ways by which innovations may be introduced to education or change in the laws (424b-425e).  The just city will follow traditional Greek religious customs (427b).

With the founding of the just city completed, Socrates proceeds to discuss justice (427d).  He claims that the city they have founded is completely good and virtuous and thus it is wise, courageous, moderate, and just (427e).  Justice will be what remains once they find the other three virtues in it, namely wisdom, courage, and moderation (428a).  The wisdom of the just city is found in its rulers and it is the type of knowledge that allows them to rule the city well (428b-d).  The courage of the just city is found in its military and it is correct and lawful belief about what to fear and what not to fear (429a-430b).  The city’s moderation or self-discipline is its unanimity in following the just city’s structure in terms of who should rule and who should be ruled (430d-432a).  The city’s justice consists in each class performing its proper function (433a-b).

Socrates then proceeds to find the corresponding four virtues in the individual (434d).  Socrates defends the analogy of the city and the individual (435a-b) and proceeds to distinguish three analogous parts in the soul with their natural functions (436b).  By using instances of psychological conflict, he distinguishes the function of the rational part from that of the appetitive part of the soul (439a).  Then he distinguishes the function of the spirited part from the functions of the two other parts (439e-440e).  The function of the rational part is thinking, that of the spirited part the experience of emotions, and that of the appetitive part the pursuit of bodily desires.  Socrates explains the virtues of the individual’s soul and how they correspond to the virtues of the city (441c-442d).  Socrates points out that one is just when each of the three parts of the soul performs its function (442d).  Justice is a natural balance of the soul’s parts and injustice is an imbalance of the parts of the soul (444e).  Socrates is now ready to answer the question of whether justice is more profitable than injustice that goes unpunished (444e-445a).  To do so he will need to examine the various unjust political regimes and the corresponding unjust individuals in each (445c-e).

e. Book V

Socrates is about to embark on a discussion of the unjust political regimes and the corresponding unjust individuals when he is interrupted by Adeimantus and Polemarchus (449a-b).  They insist that he needs to address the comment he made earlier that the guardians will possess the women and the children of the city in common (449b-d).  Socrates reluctantly agrees (450a-451b) and begins with the suggestion that the guardian women should perform the same job as the male guardians (451c-d).  Some may follow convention and object that women should be given different jobs because they differ from men by nature (453a-c). Socrates responds by indicating that the natural differences between men and women are not relevant when it comes to the jobs of protecting and ruling the city.  Both sexes are naturally suited for these tasks (454d-e).  Socrates goes on to argue that the measure of allowing the women to perform the same tasks as the men in this way is not only feasible but also best.  This is the case since the most suited people for the job will be performing it (456c).

Socrates also proposes that there should be no separate families among the members of the guardian class: the guardians will possess all the women and children in common (457c-d).  Socrates proceeds to discuss how this measure is for the best and Glaucon allows him to skip discussing its feasibility (458a-c).  The best guardian men are to have sex with the best guardian women to produce offspring of a similar nature (458d-459d).    Socrates describes the system of eugenics in more detail.  In order to guarantee that the best guardian men have sex with the best guardian women, the city will have marriage festivals supported by a rigged lottery system (459e-460a).  The best guardian men will also be allowed to have sex with as many women as they desire in order to increase the likelihood of giving birth to children with similar natures (460a-b).  Once born, the children will be taken away to a rearing pen to be taken care of by nurses and the parents will not be allowed to know who their own children are (460c-d).  This is so that the parents think of all the children as their own.  Socrates recognizes that this system will result in members of the same family having intercourse with each other (461c-e).

Socrates proceeds to argue that these arrangements will ensure that unity spreads throughout the city (462a-465d).  Responding to Adeimantus’ earlier complaint that the guardians would not be happy, Socrates indicates that the guardians will be happy with their way of life; they will have their needs satisfied and will receive sufficient honor from the city (465d-e).  Thereafter, Socrates discusses how the guardians will conduct war (466e).

Glaucon interrupts him and demands an account explaining how such a just city can come into being (471c-e).  Socrates admits that this is the most difficult criticism to address (472a). Then he explains that the theoretical model of the just city they constructed remains valid for discussing justice and injustice even if they cannot prove that such a city can come to exist (472b-473b).  Socrates claims that the model of the just city cannot come into being until philosophers rule as kings or kings become philosophers (473c-d).  He also points out that this is the only possible route by which to reach complete happiness in both public and private life (473e).  Socrates indicates that they to, discuss philosophy and philosophers to justify these claims (474b-c).  Philosophers love and pursue all of wisdom (475b-c) and they especially love the sight of truth (475e).  Philosophers are the only ones who recognize and find pleasure in what is behind the multiplicity of appearances, namely the single Form (476a-b).  Socrates distinguishes between those who know the single Forms that are and those who have opinions (476d).  Those who have opinions do not know, since opinions have becoming and changing appearances as their object, whereas knowledge implies that the objects thereof are stable (476e-477e).

f. Book VI

Socrates goes on to explain why philosophers should rule the city.  They should do so since they are better able to know the truth and since they have the relevant practical knowledge by which to rule.  The philosopher’s natural abilities and virtues prove that they have what is necessary to rule well: they love what is rather than what becomes (485a-b), they hate falsehood (485c), they are moderate (485d-e), they are courageous (486a-b), they are quick learners (486c), they have a good memory (486c-d), they like proportion since the truth is like it, and they have a pleasant nature (486d-487a).

Adeimantus objects that actual philosophers are either useless or bad people (487a-d).  Socrates responds with the analogy of the ship of state to show that philosophers are falsely blamed for their uselessness (487e-489a).  Like a doctor who does not beg patients to heal them, the philosopher should not plead with people to rule them (489b-c).  To the accusation that philosophers are bad, Socrates responds that those with the philosopher’s natural abilities and with outstanding natures often get corrupted by a bad education and become outstandingly bad (491b-e).  Thus, someone can only be a philosopher in the true sense if he receives the proper kind of education.  After a discussion of the sophists as bad teachers (492a-493c), Socrates warns against various people who falsely claim to be philosophers (495b-c).  Since current political regimes lead to either the corruption or the destruction of the philosopher, he should avoid politics and lead a quiet private life (496c-d).

Socrates then addresses the question of how philosophy can come to play an important role in existing cities (497e).  Those with philosophical natures need to practice philosophy all their lives, especially when they are older (498a-c).  The only way to make sure that philosophy is properly appreciated and does not meet hostility is to wipe an existing city clean and begin it anew (501a).  Socrates concludes that the just city and the measures proposed are both for the best and not impossible to bring about (502c).

Socrates proceeds to discuss the education of philosopher kings (502c-d).  The most important thing philosophers should study is the Form of the Good (505a).  Socrates considers several candidates for what the Good is, such as pleasure and knowledge and he rejects them (505b-d).  He points out that we choose everything with a view to the good (505e).  Socrates attempts to explain what the Form of the Good is through the analogy of the sun (507c-509d).  As the sun illuminates objects so the eye can see them, the Form of the Good renders the objects of knowledge knowable to the human soul.  As the sun provides things with their ability to be, to grow, and with nourishment, the Form of the Good provides the objects of knowledge with their being even though it itself is higher than being (509b).

Socrates offers the analogy of the divided line to explain the Form of the Good even further (509d-511d).  He divides a line into two unequal sections once and then into two unequal sections again.  The lowest two parts represent the visible realm and the top two parts the intelligible realm.  In the first of the four sections of the line, Socrates places images/shadows, in the second section visible objects, in the third section truths arrived at via hypotheses as mathematicians do, and in the last section the Forms themselves.  Corresponding to each of these, there is a capacity of the human soul: imagination, belief, thought, and understanding.  The line also represents degrees of clarity and opacity as the lowest sections are more opaque and the higher sections clearer.

g. Book VII

Socrates continues his discussion of the philosopher and the Forms with a third analogy, the analogy of the cave (514a-517c).  This represents the philosopher’s education from ignorance to knowledge of the Forms.  True education is the turning around of the soul from shadows and visible objects to true understanding of the Forms (518c-d).  Philosophers who accomplish this understanding will be reluctant to do anything other than contemplate the Forms but they must be forced to return to the cave (the city) and rule it.

Socrates proceeds to outline the structure of the philosopher king’s education so that they can reach an understanding of the Forms (521d).  Those who eventually become philosopher kings will initially be educated like the other guardians in poetry, music, and physical education (521d-e).  Then they will receive education in mathematics: arithmetic and number (522c), plane geometry (526c), and solid geometry (528b).  Following these, they will study astronomy (528e), and harmonics (530d).  Then they will study dialectic which will lead them to understand the Forms and the Form of the Good (532a).  Socrates gives a partial explanation of the nature of dialectic and leaves Glaucon with no clear explanation of its nature or how it may lead to understanding (532a-535a).  Then they discuss who will receive this course of education and how long they are to study these subjects (535a-540b).  The ones receiving this type of education need to exhibit the natural abilities suited to a philosopher discussed earlier.  After the training in dialectic the education system will include fifteen years of practical political training (539e-540c) to prepare philosopher kings for ruling the city.  Socrates concludes by suggesting that the easiest way to bring the just city into being would be to expel everyone over the age of ten out of an existing city (540e-541b).

h. Book VIII

Socrates picks up the argument that was interrupted in Book V.  Glaucon remembers that Socrates was about to describe the four types of unjust regime along with their corresponding unjust individuals (543c-544b).  Socrates announces that he will begin discussing the regimes and individual that deviate the least from the just city and individual and proceed to discuss the ones that deviate the most (545b-c).  The cause of change in regime is lack of unity in the rulers (545d).  Assuming that the just city could come into being, Socrates indicates that it would eventually change since everything which comes into being must decay (546a-b).  The rulers are bound to make mistakes in assigning people jobs suited to their natural capacities and each of the classes will begin to be mixed with people who are not naturally suited for the tasks relevant to each class (546e).  This will lead to class conflicts (547a).

The first deviant regime from just kingship or aristocracy will be timocracy, that emphasizes the pursuit of honor rather than wisdom and justice (547d ff.).  The timocratic individual will have a strong spirited part in his soul and will pursue honor, power, and success (549a).  This city will be militaristic.  Socrates explains the process by which an individual becomes timocratic: he listens to his mother complain about his father’s lack of interest in honor and success (549d).  The timocratic individual’s soul is at a middle point between reason and spirit.

Oligarchy arises out of timocracy and it emphasizes wealth rather than honor (550c-e).  Socrates discusses how it arises out of timocracy and its characteristics (551c-552e): people will pursue wealth; it will essentially be two cities, a city of wealthy citizens and a city of poor people; the few wealthy will fear the many poor; people will do various jobs simultaneously; the city will allow for poor people without means; it will have a high crime rate.  The oligarchic individual comes by seeing his father lose his possessions and feeling insecure he begins to greedily pursue wealth (553a-c).  Thus he allows his appetitive part to become a more dominant part of his soul (553c).  The oligarchic individual’s soul is at middle point between the spirited and the appetitive part.

Socrates proceeds penultimately, to discuss democracy.  It comes about when the rich become too rich and the poor too poor (555c-d).  Too much luxury makes the oligarchs soft and the poor revolt against them (556c-e).  In democracy most of the political offices are distributed by lot (557a).  The primary goal of the democratic regime is freedom or license (557b-c).  People will come to hold offices without having the necessary knowledge (557e) and everyone is treated as an equal in ability (equals and unequals alike, 558c). The democratic individual comes to pursue all sorts of bodily desires excessively (558d-559d) and allows his appetitive part to rule his soul.  He comes about when his bad education allows him to transition from desiring money to desiring bodily and material goods (559d-e).  The democratic individual has no shame and no self-discipline (560d).

Tyranny arises out of democracy when the desire for freedom to do what one wants becomes extreme (562b-c).  The freedom or license aimed at in the democracy becomes so extreme that any limitations on anyone’s freedom seem unfair.  Socrates points out that when freedom is taken to such an extreme it produces its opposite, slavery (563e-564a).  The tyrant comes about by presenting himself as a champion of the people against the class of the few people who are wealthy (565d-566a).  The tyrant is forced to commit a number of acts to gain and retain power: accuse people falsely, attack his kinsmen, bring people to trial under false pretenses, kill many people, exile many people, and purport to cancel the debts of the poor to gain their support (565e-566a).  The tyrant eliminates the rich, brave, and wise people in the city since he perceives them as threats to his power (567c).  Socrates indicates that the tyrant faces the dilemma to either live with worthless people or with good people who may eventually depose him and chooses to live with worthless people (567d).  The tyrant ends up using mercenaries as his guards since he cannot trust any of the citizens (567d-e).  The tyrant also needs a very large army and will spend the city’s money (568d-e), and will not hesitate to kill members of his own family if they resist his ways (569b-c).

i. Book IX

Socrates is now ready to discuss the tyrannical individual (571a).  He begins by discussing necessary and unnecessary pleasures and desires (571b-c).  Those with balanced souls ruled by reason are able to keep their unnecessary desires from becoming lawless and extreme (571d-572b).  The tyrannical individual comes out of the democratic individual when the latter’s unnecessary desires and pleasures become extreme; when he becomes full of Eros or lust (572c-573b).  The tyrannical person is mad with lust (573c) and this leads him to seek any means by which to satisfy his desires and to resist anyone who gets in his way (573d-574d).  Some tyrannical individuals eventually become actual tyrants (575b-d).  Tyrants associate themselves with flatterers and are incapable of friendship (575e-576a).  Applying the analogy of the city and the soul, Socrates proceeds to argue that the tyrannical individual is the most unhappy individual (576c ff.).  Like the tyrannical city, the tyrannical individual is enslaved (577c-d), least likely to do what he wants (577d-e), poor and unsatisfiable (579e-578a), fearful and full of wailing and lamenting (578a).  The individual who becomes an actual tyrant of a city is the unhappiest of all (578b-580a).  Socrates concludes this first argument with a ranking of the individuals in terms of happiness: the more just one is the happier (580b-c).

He proceeds to a second proof that the just are happier than the unjust (580d).  Socrates distinguishes three types of persons: one who pursues wisdom, another who pursues honor, and another who pursues profit (579d-581c).  He argues that we should trust the wisdom lover’s judgment in his way of life as the most pleasant, since he is able to consider all three types of life clearly (581c-583a).

Socrates proceeds to offer a third proof that the just are happier than the unjust (583b).  He begins with an analysis of pleasure: relief from pain may seem pleasant (583c) and bodily pleasures are merely a relief from pain but not true pleasure (584b-c).  The only truly fulfilling pleasure is that which comes from understanding since the objects it pursues are permanent (585b-c).  Socrates adds that only if the rational part rules the soul, will each part of the soul find its proper pleasure (586d-587a).  He concludes the argument with a calculation of how many times the best life is more pleasant than the worst: seven-hundred and twenty nine (587a-587e).  Socrates discusses an imaginary multi-headed beast to illustrate the consequences of justice and injustice in the soul and to support justice (588c ff.).

j. Book X

Thereafter, Socrates returns to the subject of poetry and claims that the measures introduced to exclude imitative poetry from the just city seem clearly justified now (595a).  Poetry is to be censored since the poets may not know which is; thus may lead the soul astray (595b).  Socrates proceeds to discuss imitation.  He explains what it is by distinguishing several levels of imitation through the example of a couch: there is the Form of the couch, the particular couch, and a painting of a couch (596a-598b).  The products of imitation are far removed from the truth (597e-598c).  Poets, like painters are imitators who produce imitations without knowledge of the truth (598e-599a).  Socrates argues that if poets had knowledge of the truth they would want to be people who do great things rather than remain poets (599b).  Socrates doubts the poet’s capacity to teach virtue since he only imitates images of it (599c-601a).  The poet’s knowledge is inferior to that of the maker of other products and the maker’s knowledge is inferior to that of the user’s (601c-602b).

Now Socrates considers how imitators affect their audiences (602c).  He uses a comparison with optical illusions (602c) to argue that imitative poetry causes the parts of the soul to be at war with each other and this leads to injustice (603c-605b).  The most serious charge against imitative poetry is that it even corrupts decent people (605c).  He concludes that the just city should not allow such poetry in it but only poetry that praises the gods and good humans (606e-607a).  Imitative poetry prevents the immortal soul from attaining its greatest reward (608c-d).

Glaucon wonders if the soul is immortal and Socrates launches into an argument proving its immortality: things that are destroyed, are destroyed by their own evil; the body’s evil is disease and this can destroy it; the soul’s evils are ignorance, injustice and the other vices but these do not destroy the soul; thus, the soul is immortal (608d-611a).  Socrates points out that we cannot understand the nature of the soul if we only consider its relation to the body as the present discussion has (611b-d).

Socrates finally describes the rewards of justice by first having Glaucon allow that he can discuss the rewards of reputation for justice (612b-d).  Glaucon allows this since Socrates has already defended justice by itself in the soul.  Socrates indicates justice and injustice do not escape the notice of the gods, that the gods love the just and hate the unjust, and that good things come to those whom the gods love (612e-613a).  Socrates lists various rewards for the just and punishments for the unjust in this life (613a-e).  He proceeds to tell the Myth of Er that is supposed to illustrate reward and punishment in the afterlife (614b).  The souls of the dead go up through an opening on the right if they were just, or below through an opening on the left if they were unjust (614d).  The various souls discuss their rewards and punishments (614e-615a).  Socrates explains the multiples by which people are punished and rewarded (615a-b).  The souls of the dead are able to choose their next lives (617d) and then they are reincarnated (620e).  Socrates ends the discussion by prompting Glaucon and the others to do well both in this life and in the afterlife (621c-d).

2. Ethics or Political Philosophy?

The Republic has acquired the recognition of a classic and seminal work in political philosophy.  It is often taught in courses that focus on political theory or political philosophy.  Moreover, in the dialogue Socrates seems primarily concerned with what is an ethical issue, namely whether the just life is better than the unjust life for the individual.  These two observations raise two issues.  The first is whether the Republic is primarily about ethics or about politics.  If it is primarily about ethics then perhaps its recognition as a seminal political work is unwarranted.  Moreover, considering it a political work would be somewhat mistaken.  The second issue is that even if thinking of it as a classic in political philosophy is warranted, it is very difficult to situate it in terms of its political position.

Interpreters of the Republic have presented various arguments concerning the issue of whether the dialogue is primarily about ethics or about politics.  As is evident from Books I and II, Socrates’ main aim in the dialogue is to prove that the just person is better off than the unjust person.  In Book II, he proposes to construct the just city in speech in order to find justice in it and then to proceed to find justice in the individual (368a). Thus, he seems to use a discussion in political matters as a means by which to answer what is essentially an ethical question.  But, Socrates also spends a lot of time in the dialogue on political matters in relation to the question of political justice such as education, the positions and relations among political classes, war, property, the causes of political strife and change of regimes, and several other matters.  Each of these could provide important contributions to political philosophy.

One argument, suggesting that the dialogue is primarily concerned with the ethical question, focuses on Socrates’ presentation of the political discussion of justice as instrumental to discovering justice in the individual.  Another relevant consideration is that there are several indications in the dialogue that the aim in the discussion is more pressing than the means (the just city).  Thus, the argument goes, Socrates does not seem primarily interested in discussing political philosophy but ethics instead. Another related argument indicates that the discussion entails great doubts about whether the just city is even possible. Socrates claims this along with the idea that the function of the just city in the argument is to enable the individual to get a better idea of justice and injustice (472b-d, 592a-b).  Thus, it is very difficult for us to conclude that Socrates takes the political discussion as seriously as he does the moral question (see Annas, Julia.  Platonic Ethics, Old and New).

Other interpreters indicate that the Republic is essentially about both ethics and politics (among others see Santas, Gerasimos. Understanding Plato’s Republic; Schofield, Malcolm. Plato: Political Philosophy; Reeve C.D.C. Philosopher Kings). Some emphasize that many of Socrates’ proposals for social reform (education, property, the role of women, the family) go beyond what is needed to be able to argue that the just person is better off than the unjust person.  Thus, these social reforms seem to be developed for their own sake.

Some indicate that Socrates’ discussion of political matters is meant, in part, to provide us with Plato’s critique of Greek political life.  In Book VIII he criticizes democracy as an unjust regime and thus he seems to launch a critique against Athenian democracy.  He also adopts several measures in the just city, which were part of the Spartan constitution.  Like Spartan citizens, the guardians of the just city are professional soldiers whose aim is the protection of the city, the guardians eat together, and they have their needs provided for by other classes.  But unlike Sparta, the just city has philosophers as rulers, a rigorous system of education in intellectual matters, and it is not timocratic or honor loving.  These differences may be construed as a critique of Sparta’s political life.  Thus, the argument suggests, in addition to the main ethical question the dialogue is also about political philosophy.

Another position is that even though the discussion of political matters is instrumental to addressing the main ethical question of the dialogue, Socrates makes several important contributions to political philosophy.  One such contribution is his description of political regimes in Book VIII and his classification of them on a scale of more or less just.  Another such contribution is his consideration of the causes of political change from one political regime to another.  Moreover, Socrates seems to raise and address a number of questions that seem necessary in order to understand political life clearly.  He raises the issues of the role of women in the city, the role of the family, the role of art, the issue of class relations, of political stability, of the limitation of people’s freedoms and several others.  Thus, according to this view, it is warranted to regard the Republic as a work on political philosophy and as a seminal work in that area.

A further relevant consideration has to do with how one understands the nature of ethics and political philosophy and their relation.  Since modernity, it becomes much easier to treat these as separate subjects.  Modern ethics is more focused on determining whether an action is morally permissible or not whereas ancient ethics is more focused on happiness or the good life.  Many ancient thinkers want to address the question “what is the happy life?” and in order to do this they think that it is warranted to address political matters.  Humans live their lives in political communities and the kind of political community they live in can be conducive or detrimental to one’s happiness.  Thus, ethics and political philosophy are more closely linked for ancient thinkers than they may be for us since modernity.  Ethics and political philosophy seem to be different sides of the same coin.

The second issue has to do with situating the Republic’s political stance.  There are several competing candidates.  The Republic entails elements of socialism as when Socrates expresses the desire to achieve happiness for the whole city not for any particular group of it (420b) and when he argues against inequalities in wealth (421d).  There are also elements of fascism or totalitarianism. Among others, there is extreme censorship of poetry, lying to maintain good behavior and political stability, restriction of power to a small elite group, eugenic techniques, centralized control of the citizen’s lives, a strong military group that enforces the laws, and suppression of freedom of expression and choice.  Several commentators focused on these elements to dismiss the Republic as a proto-totalitarian text (see Popper, Karl.  The Open Society and Its Enemies). There are also some strong elements of communism such as the idea that the guardian class ought to possess things in common.  Despite, Socrates’ emphasis on the individual and the condition of his soul, the Republic does not entail the kernels of what becomes modern liberalism. Socrates seems to argue against allowing much freedom to individuals and to criticize the democratic tendency to treat humans as equals.  Some have argued that the Republic is neither a precursor of these political positions nor does it fit any of them.  They find that the Republic has been such a seminal work in the history of political philosophy precisely because it raises such issues as its political stance while discussing many of the features of such political positions.

3. The Analogy of the City and the Soul

The analogy of the city and the soul, is Socrates proposed and accepted method by which to argue that the just person is better off than the unjust person (Book II, 368c-369a).  If Socrates is able to show how a just city is always happier than unjust cities, then he can have a model by which to argue that a just person is always happier than an unjust one.  He plausibly assumes that there is an interesting, intelligible, and non-accidental relation between the structural features and values of a city and an individual.  But commentators have found this curious approach one of the most puzzling features of the Republic.  The city/soul analogy is quite puzzling since Socrates seems to apply it in different ways, thus there is much controversy about the exact extent of the analogy.  Moreover, there is much controversy concerning its usefulness in the attempt to discover and to defend justice in terms of the individual.

In several passages Socrates seems to say that the same account of justice must apply to both cities (justice is the right order of classes) and to individuals (justice is the right order of the soul).  But even though he says this he seems to think that this ought to be the case for different reasons.  For example, at (435a), he seems to say that the same account of justice ought to apply to the city and to the individual since the same account of any predicate X must apply to all things that are X.  So, if a city or an individual is just then the same predicates must apply to both.  In other passages Socrates seems to mean that same account of justice ought to apply to the city and to the individual since the X-ness of the whole is due to the X-ness of the parts (435d).  So, if the people in the city are just, then this will cause the city to be just as well.  Yet still in other passages he seems to say that if a city is just and this causes it to have certain features such as wisdom or courage, then we can deduce that the individual’s being just will also cause him to be wise and courageous.  So if a city’s X-ness entails certain predicates, then the individual’s X-ness must entail the same predicates.  In other passages still, he seems to claim that the justice of the city can be used as a heuristic device by which to look for justice in the individual, thus the relation between the two seems quite loose (368e-369a).  (For a thorough discussion of these issues and the various interpretations of the city/soul analogy see Ferrari, G.R.F. City and Soul in Plato’s Republic.)

4. Plato’s Defense of Justice

In response to Thrasymachus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus, Socrates seeks to show that it is always in an individual’s interest to be just, rather than unjust.  Thus, one of the most pressing issues regarding the Republic is whether Socrates defends justice successfully or not.  David Sachs, in his influential article “A Fallacy in Plato’s Republic”, argues that Socrates’ defense of justice entails a crucial problem which renders the defense problematic.  Sachs argues that Socrates commits the fallacy of irrelevance.  Socrates sets out to defend the idea that it is always in one’s interest to be just and to act justly and he presents the just person as one who has a balanced soul.  Sachs observes that what Socrates defends is psychic health or rationality which may lead one to be happy but he fails to defend justice.  Socrates fails to show why having a balanced soul will lead one to act justly or why psychic health amounts to justice.  Sachs implies that justice, as this is traditionally understood, includes actions in relation to others, it includes considerations of other people’s good, and also includes strong motivations not to act unjustly.  According to Sachs, Socrates’ defense of justice does not include compelling reasons to think that a person with a balanced soul will refrain from acts that are traditionally thought to be unjust such as say, theft, murder, or adultery.  Thus, Plato presents Socrates defending psychic health rather than justice.

Sachs’ critique indicates that as Socrates presents the just person, the person’s balanced soul does not entail a sufficient causal or logical connection to performing socially just actions.  In order to save Socrates’ defense of justice one needs to show that there is a logical and a causal connection between having a balanced soul and performing socially just actions.  Otherwise, the problem of being psychically just but socially unjust remains

Given Sachs’ critique, several commentators have come to Socrates’ defense to bridge the gap between a just soul and just actions (these are discussed in detail by Singpurwalla, Rachel G. K. “Plato’s Defense of Justice in the Republic”).  One approach to bridging the gap between a just soul and just actions has been to show that the just person with a balanced soul operates according to certain values and desires which cannot lead to unjust actions (see Kraut, Richard “The Defense of Justice in Plato’s Republic”).  The just person’s soul entails desires for certain kinds of objects the most important of which is knowledge.  Socrates indicates the difficulty and extreme effort required to attain knowledge of the forms and the form of the Good, thus the just person will pursue learning and not spend time indulging in the satisfaction of desires that typically lead to unjust actions.  This approach of bridging the gap between a just soul and just actions may have some drawbacks.  One drawback may be that several unjust actions may be motivated by desires that are compatible with the desire for knowledge.  For example, why wouldn’t a person with a great desire for knowledge steal a book if this would contribute to his knowledge.

A second approach to bridging the gap between the just soul and just actions has been to show that the just person’s knowledge of the good, directly motivates him to perform just actions and to refrain from unjust ones (see Cooper, John “The Psychology of Justice in Plato’s Republic” and White, N. A Companion to Plato’s Republic).  A crucial piece of evidence for this approach is Socrates’ presentation of the philosopher who agrees to rule the city even though this will interfere with his desire to learn.  The proponents of this approach argue that the philosopher agrees to rule since his knowledge of the good directly motivates him to act against his interests and to do something that is good objectively and for others.  This approach has met at least one serious objection: the just person’s knowledge of the good may motivate him to do what is good for others but Socrates seeks to also argue that it is always in one’s interest to be just, thus this approach may suggest that just actions may not always be in the just person’s interests (for a discussion of this see Singpurwalla).  This objection amounts to the claim that the second approach may show that the just person will do just actions but it does this by sacrificing Socrates’ claim that being just is always in one’s interest.

Given the problems of the first two approaches, a third one attempts to show that the just person will do what is just in relation to others while at the same time doing what is in the just person’s interests.  In other words, this approach seeks to show that the just person’s own good is realized in doing what is also good for others.  According to this approach, the just person has a value that motivates him to do what is just, in relation to others and this value is the just person’s love of the forms (see Dahl, Norman “Plato’s Defense of Justice”).  The just person’s love of the forms is the desire to contemplate and also imitate or instantiate these in the world.  Thus, the philosopher regards ruling as something in his interest despite the fact that it interferes with his pursuit of knowledge, since in ruling he will be imitating the forms.  Even though this approach seems to bridge the gap between the just person and just actions and the gap between just actions and such actions being in the just person’s interest (this was the problem with the second approach) a criticism remains. Singpurwalla points out that only very few people can acquire such knowledge of the forms so as to be just persons, thus for most people Socrates offers no good reason to be just.  This third approach may save Socrates’ defense of justice only for people capable of knowing the forms, but falls short of showing that everyone has a reason to be just.

Singpurwalla suggests a fourth approach which can defend Socrates contra Sachs and which will avoid the criticisms launched against the other approaches.  She aims to show that Socrates has a good reason to think that it is in everyone’s interest to act justly because doing so satisfies a deeply ingrained human need, namely, the need to be unified with others.  Singpurwalla attempts to make her case by showing the following: (1) that according to Socrates our happiness largely resides in being unified with others (she cites the tyrant’s unhappiness due to bad relations with others as evidence for this, 567a-580a); (2) that being unified with others entails considering their own good when we act (she cites Socrates’ claims that when people are unified they share in each other’s pleasures and successes and failures as evidence for this, 462b-e, 463e-464d); (3) thus, behaving unjustly, which involves disregarding another’s good, is incompatible with being unified with others and with our happiness.  Singpurwalla’s position tries to show that even though the average person may not be able to attain the knowledge of the form of the good, he can still be motivated to act justly since this is in his interest.  Thus, Socrates’ defense of justice may be compelling for the philosopher as well as the average person.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Descartes’ Support for the Ontological Argument

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) is generally regarded the founder of modern western philosophy. Descartes was instrumental in bringing about the Age of the Enlightenment in Western Europe. His writings challenged conventional beliefs which were still based upon Church teachings.
Descartes imagines the entire universe to be the work of a malevolent demon who creates the illusion that things exist. This is known as Cartesian Doubt. Descartes asked the question, ‘How can I be sure that what I am experiencing through my senses is true?’ After speculating that he is being deceived by a demon he concludes that the only thing he can be sure of is the fact that he is thinking. This gives rise to probably the most famous quote in western philosophy, “I think, therefore I am.” >p> Having established that at least he exists, Descartes begins to look at things in the universe which can be established independently of empirical investigation i.e. a priori things e.g. mathematics. Anselm’s deductive ontological argument became a powerful tool in Descartes hands.

Like Anselm, Descartes thought of God in terms of a perfect being. Following Anselm’s first argument, Descartes was in agreement that existence was more perfect than non-existence. For Descartes, God’s existence was part of His essence. For Descartes, there are some qualities that an object necessarily has or else it would not be that object. To illustrate this Descartes argued that the essence of a triangle is a ‘three sided plane figure’. To say that God does not exist is rather like saying ‘a triangle does not have three sides’ or that the internal angels don’t add up to 180o. In the same way, existence cannot be separated from the concept of God.

Descartes took on board Gaulino’s criticism of Anselm’s first argument. Like Anselm before him, Descartes points to the distinction between a necessary being and a contingent being. The argument applies only to an absolutely perfect and necessary being. The argument cannot be applied to islands, dragons, unicorns or even pizzas! For Descartes, God alone is the being whose essence entails His existence. There cannot be more than one such being.

God then becomes the guarantor of the certainty that the external world exists. There is no longer the fear that there might be a malevolent demon out to deceive you. God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, He would not permit such a thing. God becomes the basis of Descartes’ epistemology.

Criticism of Descartes’ Ontological Argument

A priest called Caterus responded to Descartes’ argument. Caterus argued that the statement ‘If God exists then he is highest being’ was a tautology (the truth of the statement is self evident). But Caterus emphasised the word ‘if’. It was not illogical to say, ‘God does not exist therefore there is no highest being’. To use Descartes’ analogy of a triangle it is possible to say, ‘If a triangle exists it has three sides’. However, all this really tells us is something about triangles. It is equally coherent to say, ‘triangles do not exist therefore three sided things do not exist.’ Likewise, we might say, ‘unicorns have one horn’ but this does not prove there are any unicorns.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Cynicism originates in the philosophical schools of ancient Greece that claim a Socratic lineage. To call the Cynics a “school” though, immediately raises a difficulty for so unconventional and anti-theoretical a group. Their primary interests are ethical, but they conceive of ethics more as a way of living than as a doctrine in need of explication. As such askēsis—a Greek word meaning a kind of training of the self or practice—is fundamental. The Cynics, as well as the Stoics who followed them, characterize the Cynic way of life as a “shortcut to virtue” (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 104 and Book 7, Chapter 122). Though they often suggest that they have discovered the quickest, and perhaps surest, path to the virtuous life, they recognize the difficulty of this route.

The colorfulness of the Cynic way of life presents certain problems. The triumph of the Cynic as a philosophical and literary character complicates discussions of the historical individuals, a complication further troubled by a lack of sources. The evidence regarding the Cynics is limited to apothegms, aphorisms, and ancient hearsay; none of the many Cynic texts have survived. The tradition records the tenets of Cynicism via their lives. It is through their practices, the selves and lives that they cultivated, that we come to know the particular Cynic ēthos.

1. History of the Name

The origin of the Cynic name kunikos, a Greek word meaning “dog-like”, is a point of contention. Two competing stories explain the source of the name using the figure of Antisthenes (who Diogenes Laertius identifies controversially as the original Cynic), and yet a third explanation uses the figure of Diogenes of Sinope. First, Antisthenes is said to have taught in the Cynosarges, which is a Greek word that might mean “White Dog,” “Quick Dog,” or even “Dog’s Meat”. The Cynosarges is a gymnasium and temple for Athenian nothoi. "Nothoi" is a term that designates one who is without Athenian citizenship because of being born to a slave, foreigner, or prostitute; one can also be nothoi if one’s parents were citizens but not legally married. According to the first explanation, the term Cynic would, then, derive from the place in which the movement’s founder worshipped, exercised, and, most importantly, lectured. Such a derivation is suspect insofar as later writers could have created the story through an analogy to the way in which the term “Stoic” came from the Stoa Poikilē in which Zeno of Citium taught. Though nothing unquestionably links Antisthenes or any other Cynic to the Cynosarges, Antisthenes was a nothos and the temple was used for worshipping Hercules, the ultimate Cynic hero.

A second possible derivation comes from Antisthenes’ alleged nickname Haplokuōn, a word that probably means a dog “pure and simple”, and is presumably referring to his way of living. Though Antisthenes was known for a certain rudeness and crudeness that could have led to such a name, and later authors, including Aelian, Epictetus, and Stobaeus, identify him as a kuōn, or dog, his contemporaries, such as Plato and Xenophon, do not label him as such. This lack lends some credence to the notion that the term kunikos was applied to Antisthenes posthumously, and only after Diogenes of Sinope, a more illustrious philosopher-dog, had arrived on the scene.

If Antisthenes was not the first Cynic by name, then the origin of the appellation falls to Diogenes of Sinope, an individual well known for dog-like behavior. As such, the term may have begun as an insult referring to Diogenes’ style of life, especially his proclivity to perform all of his activities in public. Shamelessness, which allowed Diogenes to use any space for any purpose, was primary in the invention of “Diogenes the Dog.”

The precise source of the term “Cynic” is, however, less important than the wholehearted appropriation of it. The first Cynics, beginning most clearly with Diogenes of Sinope, embraced their title: they barked at those who displeased them, spurned Athenian etiquette, and lived from nature. In other words, what may have originated as a disparaging label became the designation of a philosophical vocation.

Finally, because Cynicism denotes a way of living, it is inaccurate to equate Cynicism with the other schools of its day. The Cynics had no set space where they met and discoursed, such as the Garden, the Lyceum, or the Academy; for Diogenes and Crates, the streets of Athens provide the setting for both their teaching and their training. Moreover, the Cynics neglect, and very often ridicule, speculative philosophy. They are especially harsh critics of dogmatic thought, theories they consider useless, and metaphysical essences.

 2. Major Figures and the Cynic Lineage

The major figures within Cynicism form the pivotal points within a lineage traced from Antisthenes, Socrates’ companion and a major interlocutor in the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon (see especially his Memorabilia and Symposium), through his student, Diogenes of Sinope, to Diogenes’ pupil Crates, and from Crates to both Hipparchia of Maronea, the first known woman Cynic philosopher, and Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism.

Some others among the more notable Cynics include Metrocles of Maronea, brother to Hipparchia and pupil of Crates, Menippus, Demonax of Cyprus, Bion of Borysthenes, and Teles. Thinkers heavily influenced by Cynic thought include Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes of Assos, Aristo of Chios, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Dio Chrysostom, and the emperor Julian.

The Socratic schools tend to trace their lineage directly back to Socrates and the Cynics are no exception. As such, the historical authenticity of this heredity is suspect. Nevertheless, it accurately tracks a kind of intellectual transmission that begins with Antisthenes and is passed on to Diogenes, Crates, and Zeno. Cynics seem to have survived into the third century CE; two of Julian’s orations from 361 CE disparage the Cynics of his day for lacking the asceticism and hardiness of “real” Cynics. As a “school” of thought, Cynicism ends in the sixth century CE, but its legacy continues in both philosophy and literature.

 3. Cynic Ethics

Foremost for understanding the Cynic conception of ethics is that virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom. Social conventions, however, can hinder the good life by compromising freedom and setting up a code of conduct that is opposed to nature and reason. Conventions are not inherently bad; however, for the Cynic, conventions are often absurd and worthy of ridicule. The Cynics deride the attention paid to the Olympics, the “big thieves” who run the temples and are seen carrying away the “little thieves” who steal from them, politicians as well as the philosophers who attend their courts, fashion, and prayers for such things as fame and fortune.

Only once one has freed oneself from the strictures that impede an ethical life can one be said to be truly free. As such, the Cynics advocate askēsis, or practice, over theory as the means to free oneself from convention, promote self-sufficiency, and live in accord with nature. Such askēsis leads the Cynic to live in poverty, embrace hardship and toil, and permits the Cynic to speak freely about the silly, and often vicious, way life is lived by his or her contemporaries. The Cynics consistently undermine the most hallowed principles of Athenian culture, but they do so for the sake of replacing them with those in accord with reason, nature, and virtue.

 a. Living in Accord with Nature and Opposing Conventions

Though the imperative to live life in accord with nature is rightly associated with Stoicism, the Stoics are following a Cynic lead. Diogenes of Sinope fervently rejects nomos, or convention, by showing the arbitrary and frequently amusing nature of Athenian social, religious, and political mores and trampling the authority of religious and political leaders. Fundamental to this is a redefinition of what is worthy of shame. Diogenes’ body is disorderly, a source of great shame among the Athenians and the reservoir for the principle of shamelessness among the Cynics.

Diogenes uses his body to upend the conventional association of decorum with the good. He breaks etiquette by publicly carrying out activities an Athenian would typically perform in private. For example, he eats, drinks, and masturbates in the marketplace, and ridicules the shame felt when one’s body is unruly or clumsy. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing about which a person ought to feel shame. For example, in Lives of Emminent Philosophers, one finds the following anecdote: “Observing a fool tuning a harp, ‘Are you not ashamed,’ he said, ‘to give this wood concordant sounds, while you fail to harmonize your soul with your life?’ To one who protested ‘I am unfit to study philosophy,’ Diogenes said, ‘Why then live, if you do not care to live well?’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 65; R.D. Hicks’ translation is altered for this article.)

As Diogenes ’ reappraisal of shame suggests, the Cynics are not relativists. Nature replaces convention as the standard for judgment. The Cynics believe that it is through nature that one can live well and not through conventional means such as etiquette or religion. One reads that Diogenes of Sinope “would rebuke men in general with regard to their prayers, declaring that they asked for things which seemed to them to be good, not for such as are truly good” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 43). This captures the crux of the Cynic notion of living in accord with nature and contrary to convention. Praying for wealth, fame, or any of the other trappings convention leads one to believe are good is a mistaken enterprise. Life, as given by nature, is full of hints as to how to live it best; but humans go astray, ashamed by petty things and striving after objects, which are unimportant. Consequently, their freedom is hindered by convention.

 i. Freedom and Parrhēsia

The Cynics clearly privilege freedom, but not merely in a personal sense as a kind of negative liberty. Instead, freedom is advocated in three related forms: eleutheria, freedom or liberty, autarkeia, self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, freedom of speech or frankness. Their conception of freedom has some shared aspects with other ancient schools; the notion of autonomy which derives from the imperative that reason rule over the passions is found in the ethics of multiple Classical and Hellenistic thinkers. A specifically Cynic sense of freedom, though, is evident in parrhēsia.

An element of parrhēsia, which can be overlooked when it is defined as free or frank speech, is the risk that accompanies speaking so freely and frankly. Legendary examples of the Cynic’s fearlessly free speech occur in Diogenes of Sinope’s interchanges with Alexander the Great. One such example is the following: “When he was sunning himself in the Craneum, Alexander came and stood over him and said, ‘Ask of me any boon you like.’ To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 28). At another point, Alexander pronounces his rank to Diogenes of Sinope by saying, “I am Alexander the Great King.” Diogenes responds with his own rank, “I am Diogenes the Cynic,” which is to say “Diogenes the Dog” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 60).

The examples above demonstrate the unique confluence of humor, fearless truth telling, and political subversion which distinguishes the Cynic way of living. With a few notable exceptions, the philosophers of antiquity can be found at some time or another in the company of rulers (Plato, Aeschines, and Aristippus all attended the court of Dionysius, Xenophon is intimately associated with Cyrus, Aristotle with the Macedonian ruling family, and so on). The Cynics, however, made it a point to shun such contact. The Cynics strive for self-sufficiency and strength, neither of which is capable of being maintained once one enters into the conventional political game. The life of an impoverished, but virtuous and self-sufficient philosopher is preferable to the life of a pampered court philosopher.

Diogenes Laertius writes that, “Plato saw [Diogenes of Sinope] washing lettuces, came up to him and quietly said to him, ‘Had you paid court to Dionysius, you wouldn’t now be washing lettuces,’ and [Diogenes] with equal calmness answered, ‘If you had washed lettuces, you wouldn’t have paid court to Dionysius’” (Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 58). The lesson of this exchange is clear: whereas Plato views paying court as freeing one from poverty, the Cynic sees poverty as freeing one from having to pay court to a ruler. This second sense of freedom so forcefully advocated by the Cynics, comprises both autarkeia, or self-sufficiency, and parrhēsia, or the freedom to speak the truth: something one at court is never free to do. It is no surprise, then, that when asked what is “the most beautiful thing in the world,” Diogenes replied, “Parrhēsia.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 69.)

 ii. Training and Toughness

In order to live the Cynic life, one had to be inured to the various physical hardships entailed by such freedom. This required, then, a life of constant training, or askēsis. The term askēsis, defined above as a kind of training of the self but which also means “exercise” or “practice,” is appropriated from athletic training. Instead of training the body for the sake of victory in the Olympic Games, on the battlefield, or for general good health, the Cynic trains the body for the sake of the soul.

The examples of Cynic training are multiple: Antisthenes praised toil and hardship as goods; Diogenes of Sinope walked barefoot in the snow, hugged cold statues, and rolled about in the scalding summer sand in his pithos; Crates rid himself of his considerable wealth in order to become a Cynic. The ability to live without any of the commodities usually mistaken for necessities is liberating and beneficial. It is also, however, a difficult lesson: “[Diogenes of Sinope] used to say that he followed the example of the trainers of choruses; for they too set the note a little high, to ensure that the rest should hit the right note” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 35).

 4. Cosmopolitanism

The Cynics are not always given credit when it comes to the notion of cosmopolitanism, for the origin of this term is at times ascribed to Stoicism. Moreover, when it is attributed to Cynicism, it is often characterized as a negative tenet that gains content only once it is transplanted into Stoic doctrine (see John L. Moles’ discussion of “Cynic Cosmopolitanism” in The Cynics). However, cosmopolitanism can be fully understood within its Cynic context if it is taken as more than an oxymoron or a pithy retort: “Asked where he came from, [Diogenes of Sinope] said, ‘I am a citizen of the world [kosmopolitēs]’” (Diogenes Laertius, Book 6, Chapter 63). In this last quote, Diogenes is responding to a question calling for him to state his origin with what seems to be a neologism. To be a politēs is to belong to a polis, to be a member of a specific society with all of the benefits and commitments such membership entails. By not responding with the expected “Sinope,” Diogenes is renouncing his duty to Sinopeans as well as his right to be aided by them. It is important to note that Diogenes does not say that he is apolis, that is, without a polis; he claims allegiance to the kosmos, or the universe.

The Cynics, then, cast the notion of citizenship in a new light. To the Greek male of the Classical and Hellenistic period, citizenship was of utmost value. The restrictions on citizenship made it a privilege and these exclusions are, to the Cynic, absurd. Under cosmopolitanism, the Cynic challenges the civic affiliation of the few by opening the privilege to all. General national affiliation was likewise esteemed, and Diogenes’ cosmopolitan response is therefore also a rejection of the limitations of such a view.

Finally, cosmopolitanism revises the traditional conception of the political duties of an individual. As such, the Cynic is freed to live according to nature and not according to the laws and conventions of the polis. The conventional polis is not just rejected but replaced. This has important ethical connections to the notion of living in accord with nature, and can likewise be seen as an important precursor to the Stoic understanding of physis, or nature, as identical to the kosmos, or universe.

 5. The Cynic Legacy

The first and most direct Cynic influence is upon the founding of Stoicism. One story, preserved in Diogenes Laertius, tells of Zeno of Citium reading a copy of Xenophon’s Memorabilia in a bookshop while shipwrecked in Athens. He became so taken with the figure of Socrates that he asked the bookseller where he might find such a man. At just that moment, Crates passed by, and the bookseller pointed him out as the one to follow.

Though this, like many of Diogenes Laertius’ stories, may strike one as too propitious to be historically accurate, it preserves the way in which the primary tenets of Stoicism emerge out of Cynicism. The primacy of ethics, the sufficiency of virtue for happiness, the cultivation of indifference to external affairs, the definition of virtue as living in accord with nature, and the importance placed on askēsis, all mark the shared terrain between the Cynics and the Stoics. Indeed, when various Stoic thinkers list the handful of Stoic sages, Cynics, and especially Diogenes of Sinope, are typically among them. Epictetus in particular advocates the Cynic stance, but warns against taking up lightly something so difficult (see Discourses 3.22).

Within political philosophy, the Cynics can be seen as originators of anarchism. Since humans are both rational and able to be guided by nature, it follows that humans have little need for legal codes or political affiliations. Indeed, political associations at times require one to be vicious for the sake of the polis. Diogenes’ cosmopolitanism represents, then, a first suggestion that human affiliation ought to be to humanity rather than a single state.

The impact of Cynicism is also felt in Christian, Medieval, and Renaissance thought, though not without a good deal of ambivalence. Christian authors, for example, praise the Cynics for their self-discipline, independence, and mendicant lifestyle, but rebuke the bawdy aspects of Cynic shamelessness.

Finally, the mark of the Cynic is found throughout the texts of literature and philosophy. Menippean Satire has a clear debt, and Diogenes of Sinope in particular appears as a character in literary and philosophical contexts; Dante, for example, situates Diogenes with other virtuous but pagan philosophers in the first level of hell and Nietzsche is especially fond of both Diogenes and the Cynic attitude. One striking example occurs in section 125 of The Gay Science. Here Nietzsche alludes to the anecdote wherein Diogenes searches for a human being with a lit lamp in daylight (D.L. 6.41). In his own rendition, Nietzsche tells the story of the madman who entered the marketplace with a lit lamp on a bright morning seeking God. It is this same madman who pronounces that God is dead.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Renaissance Philosophy - Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and his esoteric thought

Pico was the first Christian to treat knowledge of Kabbalah as valuable. Flavius Mithridates, his most prolific Jewish informant, translated (and mistranslated) thousands of pages of Kabbalah into Latin for him. Large portions of the Oration, drawing on these texts, are also informed by Kabbalah in ways that no contemporary Christian could have detected—least of all a Christian who lacked the clues provided by the Conclusions. The esoteric intention of Pico’s thought, proclaimed emphatically in the Oration, is the feature that most distances it from the whole project of post-Cartesian philosophy in the West and also from earlier philosophies outside the Platonic tradition. Wishing not just to mystify but also to provoke, Pico succeeded and paid the price of the Church’s censure.

Theology, spirituality and philosophy—all in the broadest sense—are the main topics of Pico’s Kabbalah, which shows (or hints) how God reveals himself in the Sefirot, the divine names and the words of scripture. In the 72 Kabbalist theses at the end of the Conclusions, this revelation becomes Christology and Trinitarian theology. From a Kabbalist point of view, the Sefirot and the divine names are actors in dramas of theology, cosmology, anthropology and angelology whose major themes are exile, death, atonement and redemption, stories that Pico transposes onto the Christian Trinity, with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as the saving hero.

Accordingly, leading points of spiritual practice in the Conclusions are prayer, prophecy and ascent to mystical union with God, which is also the main topic of the Oration, where Pico makes positive use of magic and theurgy as steps toward the ascent. The Conclusions, which confirm this endorsement of magic, also show in greater detail than the Oration why Pico links magic with Kabbalah. He sees it as a spiritual technique which, like the higher theurgy of the Neoplatonic philosophers, locates and opens routes to God which ordinarily are unknown to humans. The practice of Kabbalah starts with theory because these hidden channels of divinity must be disclosed and interpreted before they can be used: spirituality follows hermeneutics.

Technical details of hermeneutics are the most obscure material in the Conclusions, especially Pico’s speculations about Hebrew words and letters. Language is the gateway to wisdom, the elements of language are letters and numbers, and these signs proliferate in secret codes. Pico’s genius and ambition, which the Church would see as impudence, attracted him to this provocative theology of the hidden word, whose enigmas and ambiguities encouraged his fascination with the esoteric. The larger Kabbalist project of the Conclusions, and hence of the Kabbalah in the Oration, is Christological and Trinitarian. The smaller exhibitions of Kabbalah that Pico uses to support his grand theory focus on particular Biblical texts, which are also illuminated by the Gentile wisdom of the ancient theologians.

Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Pythagoras and other ancient theologians are among the authorities from whom Pico derives his 900 theses, but so are Aquinas, Albertus and other scholastics, Averroes, Avicenna and other Muslims as well as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Proclus and the Greek commentators. The Conclusions are, among other things, an egregious advertisement of Pico’s learning in a catalog of philosophical propositions which are often challenging to orthodoxy and sometimes paradoxical—a word that Pico himself used to describe some of his propositions, whose ancestors were the quodlibetal theses debated in medieval universities. He ascribed only the last group of about 500 to himself, attaching the first set of roughly 400 to ancient and medieval authorities, among whom were the Kabbalists—by far the least familiar to Pico’s contemporaries.

In the Heptaplus of 1489 we can still hear the Kabbalist voice of the Conclusions, but mainly because Pico’s earlier works since the Commento of 1485–6 have prepared us to listen for it. Although all these texts discuss Kabbalah more openly than the Heptaplus, they seem to have made little impression on Pico’s contemporaries. Roberto Salviati, a well informed Florentine who knew Pico well, called the Heptaplus “the first fruits of his studies” when he arranged to have it printed. That Salviati thought the Commento, Conclusions and Apology negligible or embarrassing is more likely than that he did not know those works. Simple ignorance is likelier in the case of the Oration, which Pico’s nephew would later describe as having been kept out of circulation by his uncle. For readers whom Kabbalah might alienate, the Heptaplus was not much of a threat because Pico had sanitized it.


Although Genesis was not as attractive to Christian interpreters as Job or the Psalms, explicating the creation narrative of Gen. 1:1–26 had been a task of hermeneutics since the great hexameral commentaries of Basil of Caesarea and Ambrose. Like all of the Bible, the creation story was thought to have three layers of meaning beyond its literal or ‘historical’ sense: allegorical, tropological and anagogical. The standard view was that “history talks about events, allegory about how one thing is understood from another, tropology discusses morals, … and anagogy is the spiritual meaning … that leads to higher things.” The Heptaplus proposes and practices a new kind of allegory, a method derived from the structure of creation itself and directed toward a new type of anagogy or ascent to supreme bliss (felicitas) in the Godhead.

Pico provides the key to his system only in the last part of the Heptaplus, which seems to be an appendix tacked on to the work—just another display of the author’s virtuoso skill in Hebrew. But to learned Jews of the day, whether they were Kabbalist or not, Pico’s analysis of the Hebrew letters of the first word of Genesis (Bereshit, “In the beginning”) would have seemed crude and simple-minded. Only from a Christian perspective was there anything exotic in it, and its main effect on Christians would have been to dazzle them with art.

This seemingly extraneous ending is actually a grand and arcane finale. It hints at a secret that no Christian of Pico’s day could have grasped: that Moses himself, the author of the creation story, had passed through 49 Gates of Understanding—7 × 7—on his way to the fiftieth, the supreme and final Gate to union with God. The 49 preliminary Gates are all the compartments of creation, which in turn demonstrate Pico’s new allegorical method by exemplifying it: the universe of existence is also the universe of understanding that shows the path to mystical union.

Although Pico does not explain the Gates in the 900 Conclusions, he does mention them in a way that gave later scholars, like Johann Reuchlin, the clues that they needed to find such enigmas in Kabbalist texts and then decipher them. The short version of the story is that Wisdom, the second Sefirah  builds the palace of Intelligence and carves 50 Gates into it, 7 revealed in each of the 7 lower Sefirot and another one unrevealed. The 50 Gates, also called the Jubilee, correspond to the 50-year festival ordained in Leviticus but also to a millenarian Great Jubilee of 50,000 years, when the 7 sabbatical cycles or weeks of 7,000 years come to an end. After the lower Sefirot collapse into S3 in a final millennium, the cycle starts again, having been completed in that last generation of a thousand years—in the Sabbath of the Shekinah (S10). This Sabbath, the seventh day of rest after the six days of creation, is Pico’s ultimate allegory of mystical union, the secret encoded not only in the letters of Bereshit but also in the sevenfold structure of the Heptaplus itself.

But who knew or could have known? In 1489, when the Heptaplus was published, its only informed readership was the handful of learned Jews in Italy who could also read Latin—the very people who had taught Pico himself enough Kabbalah to fill his Conclusions with it. In the Heptaplus, however, even where its structure and content obviously depend on Kabbalah, Pico suppresses what the Jews had taught him, until the final exposition of Bereshit that could only have baffled Christian readers if it did not offend them. As in his earlier works, Pico intends to mystify because he believes that the highest and most sacred wisdom must not be divulged in plain language. He wants God’s secrets to be understood only by an élite clever enough to unravel the allegories that conceal them. The surprising thing, in the Western tradition of philosophy, is that Pico thinks of this project as philosophical.