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Friday, April 20, 2018


On Wednesday I met my OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute] class on Plato.  About fifteen old folks turned out, including enough retired physicians to staff a small hospital and an Anthropologist.  OLLI is a hoot.  Preparing for the class I re-read the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and will in due time re-read the Gorgias, the four Dialogues I am covering.  As I think I remarked here earlier, all of us “professional philosophers” [or Sophists, to use the Athenian term] are so familiar with Plato, and have been for so long, that it is easy for us to forget how extraordinary he was and is.  I mean, he invented our field [the Pre-Socratics to the contrary notwithstanding.]  The distinction between Appearance and Reality, which lies at the foundation of all philosophical thinking, was virtually given to us by Plato, along with the technique of definition by division.  On top of which, he was far and away the greatest artist of the entire Pantheon of great philosophers.  And he lived TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO!

If I accomplish nothing else, I need to help the members of the class to see and appreciate how truly remarkable he was.  It is a challenge.


Michael said...

Somewhere I have that book of transcripts of Bryan Magee's interviews with various scholars on the history of philosophy. It was one of the very first things I read as I was beginning to develop a serious interest in philosophy. There I remember Martha Nussbaum making a striking remark, about Aristotle, but really it could apply to every one of the handful of philosophical giants - namely, that the reader who had a grasp of his work could "only stand in awe."

Surely every reader is different, and many readers never find themselves awestruck by any philosopher at all.* But for me, the awe has only come somewhat recently in my philosophical life - incidentally the most recent source was Plato's Theaetetus. The thought that some human being began to write - as in, took a seat with some writing utensils and a bunch of blank paper - something that would later be called an immortal masterwork by virtually all intelligent readers throughout the ages, is totally jarring and humbling. But I think there's a tendency for inexperienced readers to merely parrot that judgment, because it's "what everyone says." But something that's helpful in the way of achieving this as a genuine insight is to perceive the philosopher's role in "the great conversation," and/or as seeming to articulate something deep and fundamental to the human experience. Footnotes to Plato indeed: to take one of several examples, the Theatetus as the ancestor of "justified true belief," which every theory of knowledge student hears something about. Just about any single one of his dialogues will be littered with examples like that.

And that doesn't even mention Plato's accomplishments as a literary artist.

*Sadly I've occasionally seen some marginal notes in used philosophy books that register with me as - to use some words I almost never use - offensive, disgusting, disgraceful. E.g., Peirce said something to qualify as a "dumbass"; Whitehead's mere mention of metaphysics induced "vomit"; Kant's praise of Hume as a superior writer, albeit philosophically flawed, was met with some sarcastic net-speak, "i.e. I CAN'T WRITE BUT TRUST ME MY IDEAS ARE AWESOME YOU GUYS!"

Anonymous said...

“The distinction between Appearance and Reality, which lies at the foundation of all philosophical thinking, was virtually given to us by Plato”

Well, the basic concept here was quite popular in India hundreds of years prior to Plato...

s. wallerstein said...

If by the greatest artist of the great philosophers, you mean that greatest literary stylist, the one who writes sentences that one reads and rereads, wondering how a human being can write so fucking well, I'd nominate Nietzsche.

Michael Llenos said...

I believe the grey-eyed goddess Athena loves Plato more than all other philosophers combined. But for myself some of his ethical rules are so draconian that they almost could rival those of Draco himself. E.g. in Book 11 (of the Laws) he fined bachelors at the age of 35 or older with between 30 to 100 drachmas annually for not being married. But no matter how inconceivable (or non-pragmatic) his views are he will always have his admirers for all time and at various degrees. In the second century, the great philosopher Plotinus once petitioned the emperor (Hadrian?) so he could have some territory and resources to found and oversee a colony based on Plato's Laws.

Michael Llenos said...

It was the Emperor Gallienus, not Hadrian he petitioned.

David Auerbach said...

The Euthyphro has one of my favorite argument schemes. The disjunction: is an act pious because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it's pious? It has a million interesting variants. (A NYTimes subhead: Are we fat because we overeat or do we overeat because we're fat?) Do people like the Mona Lisa because it's great art or is it great art because people like it? Exercise: construct the Euthyphro disjunction around "Why do fools fall in love?"
“Is Nadal a great tennis player because he wins many major
tournaments or does he win many major tournaments because he’s a great
tennis player?”
“Do certain synapses fire in my brain because I feel pain or do I
feel pain because certain synapses fire in my brain?”
Why is Wheaties the breakfast of Champions?
I could go on. It's a great little switchblade.

LFC said...

In the case of Nadal, the disjunction is a bit misleading: winning lots of tournaments is not constitutive or definitive of being a great tennis player though it is one index. Arthur Ashe for example was a great tennis player but, if memory serves, he won only two grand slam titles in his career: the US Open once and Wimbledon once.

LFC said...

Or to put the same pt differently: Nadal wins tournaments because he's a great player but not vice versa.

s. wallerstein said...

Also "are we fat because we overeat or do we overeat because we're fat" isn't a philosophical dilemma, but a question that can be solved by empirical data. It may be of course that some people overeat because they're fat and some people are fat because they overeat, but a bit of empirical research can tell us that.

David Auerbach said...

Yes, @wallerstein, that was part of my point. Ditto @LFC. I used a bunch of Euthyphro disjunctions with my students to a) show them that they aren't all similar to the ur-Euthyphro. (After first pointing out that one disjunct leads to a very odd theology, while the other requires no God to establish the good.) The Nadal case, at best trades on a ambiguity, where people are tempted to read the first disjunct as "how does one come to know that..." Which is sometimes what theists have in mind to rescue the usefulness of a moral god--namely that God is a useful goodness detector. The synapses one is a whole other kettle of fish.
If anyone has any more interesting Euthyphro disjuncts I'd be interested in adding to my collection.