About This Blog
About The 'Socrates 4 Today' Project
Whether we like it or not, we all have important Life Choices to make, and these choices are largely ‘philosophical’ in nature. Knowing about some of the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle can help us all make more informed life choices today and live happier and more fulfilled lives as a result.
The Socrates 4 Today project is not an official group or institution of any kind, but rather an umbrella banner for a loose collection of friends (and occasionally friendly organisations) to carry out philosophy related activities. These friends all share the idea that the ancient (yet living) ‘real’ philosophy and wisdom of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle has relevance and importance for us all today.
While some of these friends might enjoy a more academic approach to this philosophy personally, they all share the view that philosophy is essentially a ‘practical’ subject, and is something to be applied to the way we live our lives – not just read about in a book. (Even Plato himself says, there is only so much you can learn about philosophy from a book!)
It is hoped that the Socrates 4 Today Project will help to make some of the central ideas and themes of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and some of the other Greek philosophers more relevant to a wider modern audience. ‘Real’ philosophy after all is said and done – is simply about giving people important tips for living a better, happier and more meaningful life. It is about making better and more informed Life Choices today.
Friday, December 16, 2011
Friday, November 18, 2011
Monday, November 7, 2011
(Posted by James Head – Autumn 2011)
This may sound a shocking thing to say or perhaps admit - but it is my impression after some 20 years of part time deliberation on various philosophical matters; that the secret (if there is one) of living a good and happy life is perhaps a little simpler than perhaps many great philosophers like Plato and his philosophical descendants such as Proclus make out. My reasons for saying this are as follows.... We should keep in mind that while Proclus wrote many long detailed commentaries on the dialogues of Plato (which are for sure of great interest, help and academic value for those with an interest in an in depth study of Plato and his philosophy) – that Socrates, a philosopher with no less statue or reputation than Proclus, chose to write nothing at all for a wider audience if our records are correct.
This suggests to me – that the illusive “good” and happy life (surely a prime concern for all true philosophers who are trying to walk the path) – discussed regularly by Socrates, Plato and later Platonists like Plotinus and Proclus - may be a great deal simpler than many commentators today would have us believe. In any case, we are obliged to take a view more akin to say Proclus who wrote a great deal; or to Socrates who wrote little or nothing at all.
In my view, it is important that at a very early stage of our own exploration of – let’s call it for convenience the Socratic/Platonic philosophic tradition - be clear and sure what our motives are for our study – and readily accept that different people may by studying the texts and philosophy for various valid yet different reasons. Some (most perhaps) will be studying from an academic interest, while others like me (fewer most likely) will be studying Socrates and Plato for the simple truths they have to tell us about religious and spiritual matters and how best to live this short human existence on earth – which Socrates suggests is only a part (and a lesser part at that) of our total immortal existence. For Socrates claims that we ourselves are in fact souls (with bodies just attached) that will go on forever in one way or another – and that the most important thing to do during this short human existence is to take care of our soul’s well being; rather than worry too much about material wealth and the gratification of most bodily pleasures. Now, my point is that for the purely academic student of Socrates/Plato – this primary motive of mine just expressed will be of little interest or consequence – although of course it was of prime importance to Socrates and to a large extent his students such as Plato.
In addition to 'students' who study Socratic-Platonic philosophy primarily for “spiritual” motives like me, and those who study purely for academic purposes like perhaps most readers and commentators on the subject, there is another group of students for us to be aware of and give short consideration to. (By 'students' I mean anyone who is trying to understand the ideas of Socrates and Plato further - be they learned university Professor or teenager reading Plato for the first time.) This other group of students are those who search for wider relevance to modern life in Plato’s writing particularly on various political and social matters – including Politics, Statesmanship and how to run the “ideal” State – and how these ideas might be relevant to the affairs of a modern society like ours today. This latter group of students may be divided into two broad categories in my view; those students (like me at times) who will see a few “general” ideas or words of wisdom to keep in mind for the political and social scientists of today, whilst others will see clear literal advice and recommendations that we can deduce from Plato’s writings in his times on how we should organize and do things today. I am 'very' cautious of this last group of students of Socrates and Plato - very cautious indeed of their good sense or motivation.
I do not want to labour the above point unduly; but clearly, the various reasons and motivations for a student’s study of this detailed and widely written about and commentated upon philosophic tradition are relevant to the way the particular student goes about this study. Probably, most “students” will have several reasons for their study – but clearly these reasons will have different priorities from student to student. Speaking on a personal level - and only by way of example - while I am interested in all aspects of Socrates and Plato to a greater or lesser extent; my main priority as I have already stated is to understand the spiritual world I live in today better and what my place is in it. To quote a Delphic or Apollonian maxim I wish to “Know Myself” better – what I truly am – and what I should truly try to be in order to live the best life available to me. The benefits of various democratic political or educational systems as discussed by Plato are – although important and interesting – of secondary importance to me.
This primary “spiritual” motivation of mine and others like me – gives us an advantage I believe when we study privately or choose to comment publicly on Socrates and Plato. For when it comes to my own spiritual beliefs and well being; and when decisions are made by me on how best to live my life; it is me who is the master of my own destiny and indeed my own “expert” and judge on my life and beliefs; as with similar like minded souls. We can agree or disagree with Socrates and Plato on these divine and spiritual matters simply on the personal feelings and beliefs we have, and this should not provoke criticism from others for so doing. However, this is not the case for those people who choose to comment on Plato’s ideas on things such as political and social science.
Clearly, to be able to comment in some kind of serious or authoritative way on these matters we would of needed to have studied ourselves in some way the principles and core ideas of political and social science if we are to make well informed comments in this area. An obvious example is that I do not question (or feel myself able to question or comment) for the most part on the advice given by a doctor or surgeon to a friend these days since I have had no formal medical training myself. At most, I might advise the friend to get a “second opinion” from another well trained and experienced medical professional – but I am not going to start offering medical advice myself. In similar fashion, I cannot take a medical book from ancient Athens 500 B.C. and start recommending its ideas for adoption by the medical profession in the 21st century. Of course not; and it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise.
Surely the above medical example suggests we should be very cautious also when reading political science or indeed any other scientifically based writing from ancient Athens and then recommending its ideas for adoption in modern times. These principles apply surely (or do they?) to political matters and matters of social science and public administration. How can I judge whether Plato’s idea and recommendations on these matters were even sound for his own world and time; let alone whether they are still good and sound and appropriate for our own time and particular place; if I do not have a sound grasp of political and social science myself ? One is entitled to disagree with this question of mine of course – but I do feel that the question is one we are obliged at least to ask ourselves if we enter the realm of recommending or otherwise Plato’s more practical and worldly ideas. A more specific example to illustrate my point is that the Athens city Plato lived in had some 20,000 “citizens’ only although the total population was perhaps as many as 200,000. Although not the biggest city at the time for sure – the Athens of Plato’s day was a big European city by anyone’s reckoning at that time. Athens today has some 5 million citizens, and London double that. Plato’s political and social ideas for Athens were based therefore on a population of just 4% of what it is today. I mention this just to highlight the difficulties of studying Plato’s “specific” political and social ideas and then simply supporting the ideas as useful or relevant today (perhaps with a spot of quick maths on certain numbers) without careful analysis by properly well qualified modern political scientists and administrators. We lovers of Plato (including even many renowned experts on his texts) can surely leave ourselves exposed to justified criticism today when we simply recommend Plato’s ideas in these areas as having merit today when we ourselves may have little or no experience in political science, politics, social science, political administration or even party politics which allows the opportunity to implement any political idea - good or bad.
Some readers of this piece (perhaps most) may not agree with me on this; but I hope that most readers will at least except that the danger I have mentioned with commenting on these areas of Plato “as relevant or useful for our modern times” could and might exist. It might therefore be better therefore for us to keep to the more “general” ideas and advice that Socrates and Plato gave us in these matters.
(Posted by James Head - Autumn 2011)
'The Myth of the Cave'
Written 360 B.C.E (Plato)
Translated by Benjamin Jowett
'WHAT' was Socrates may seem an unusual or obvious question. However, if we simply say that Socrates was a 'philosopher' then we may be missing the point a little - since it seems to me (and I am sure to many others) that Socrates uses the word "philosopher" to mean something rather different - perhaps rather more - than what the word has come to mean in modern usage (?).
Plato - Book VII of The Republic
The Allegory of the Cave (Socrates is speaking with Glaucon)
[Socrates:] And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
[Glaucon:] I see.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -- will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer:
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such a one then coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not appear ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went, and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
No question, he said.
This entire allegory, I (Socrates) said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of 'the good' appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right; parent of light and of the Lord of Light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life, must have his eye fixed.
(Posted by James Head - Autumn 2011)
PLATO'S ACADEMY AND ‘KNOW THYSELF’
Plato's academy was started in Athens around 387 BCE by Socrates' student and friend Plato. It was still going as a place of learning in the middle of the 5th century CE - some 850 years later, albeit with some breaks along the way. This enormously long period for the existence of an important place of learning cannot have been just by chance - or can it? Surely there must have been some important substance to the philosophy studied there that might perhaps be worth our attention today; just as much as any popular philosophy from more far away and seemingly exotic lands.
By say 450 CE the headmaster or principal of the Academy was a philosopher called Proclus – and the school had been moved to Proclus’ modest home in Athens to avoid the unwanted attention and possible danger from the Christian authorities then in power in Greece. Interestingly, one of the first exhibits you see on the way into the New Acropolis Museum in Athens today is about Proclus' little house where Plato’s Academy was based for some years during the 5th Century CE
It had become an established tradition by Proclus' time that the first book of Plato that the new students studied was usually a book called: ‘The First Alcibiades’. This was because it encouraged and emphasised to the new students the importance of the Delphi maxim 'Know Yourself' before starting any philosophical investigation or path. (Incidentally, the second maxim written above the entrance to the temple of Apollo in Delphi was 'Nothing to Excess') The new students were taught the importance of asking: 'Where am I and where am I going?’ – but even more importantly: 'What Am I and where did I come from?'
Are You a Philosopher?
If you ‘wonder’ about things and have the curiosity to find out when your do not know something then you are a philosopher. Philosophy is simply the love of wisdom and trying to make ourselves a little bit wiser as we go through life. However, we will need to search for wisdom in a range of topics and areas unless we have enough curiosity to find things out: 'to wonder I suppose'.
By clicking onto this website and similar ones; by reading books on the various subjects raised; attending some lectures from time to time, or simply by just talking to your friends about various important subjects you start to become philosophers as well.
The only other thing that you really need to be a philosopher is to keep an open mind on various subjects - but especially ‘the truth’ of all things as the years go by. We must also know that sometimes we do not know all the answers – and therefore need to investigate a subject further.
Socrates said that: ‘the un-investigated life is not worth living’.
Face to Face Philosophical Activities with James & Socrates 4 Today.
Socrates deliberately chose to keep his philosophical conversations with his students and friends an oral tradition and to discuss his philosophy face to face with them. He chose not to write things down at all for a wider audience (i.e. books) and clearly had his reasons for taking this approach. In keeping with this wisdom, talks are organised ‘‘face to face’ in Athens and Delphi in Greece, and occasionally in London, for small informal talks, discussions and philosophical walks.
Socrates never charged money for his teaching and time and most talks and other activities organised by James under the 'Socrates 4 Today' banner are usually without any charge or fee for people who come along.
(Kindly note that details of talks and events arranged by various other individuals and organisations are sometimes posted on this blog for information purposes – and ticket charges may apply in these cases.)
The current face to face activities outlined below are very informal - with other like-minded people who are simply interested in understanding Socrates, Plato and Aristotle or indeed “life” just a little better and finding their own unique philosophical or spiritual path.
Current Activities Include:
1.Introductory Talks and 'Walks with Talk' in Athens and Delphi - Greece
Regular programs of introductory talks, and pedestrian 'walks with talk' are organised in Athens and occasionally in Delphi or London. The talks are very informal and usually followed by a discussion of the philosophical issues raised. “Click” for Details of Talks for 2016 + 2017
2. Coffee, Philosophy and Perhaps A Little Greek Salad.
James regularly meets individual visitors to Athens and Delphi (and sometimes London) - to drink a beer or a coffee and chat “without template” about the ‘real’ Greek philosophy (and spirituality) of Socrates and the ancient Greeks or to answer various other questions people may have.
3. Skype Sessions
As well as a growing number of face to face opportunities to discuss philosophy, James and the Socrates 4 Today network of friends can arrange to discuss philosophy on line using Skype where distance prevents face to face meetings.
For further details contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Little Academy of Athens ©
The ancient Greeks had a saying that if you want to do something well: 'Start and finish with the hearth', and it is at the hearth (the kitchens and fireplaces of our homes) that The Little Academy of Athens has started its small and informal school/s for ‘real’ Greek philosophy. The rationale is that if a little house was sufficient for the great Socratic philosopher Proclus to keep Plato's Academy and ideas alive in Athens during the 5th century CE - then it is certainly sufficient for the friends of the Socrates 4 Today project to meet and discuss various subjects and deepen their knowledge in the search for wisdom, truth and perhaps even philosophical enlightenment. Over time it is hoped more and more friends of ‘real’ philosophy will pass through the The Little Academy of Athens, and as a result, shine more brightly and consistently in their own part of the world.
Reviews of Unusual and Interesting Books Associated With Socrates
Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths (by Lucy Coats)
This is a great book for anyone who enjoys reading to their children at bedtime, or wants to try and get their children to read more a bit more by themselves. Interesting, enchanting, inspiring, all at the same time. Beautifully produced and with great illustrations to keep young eyes turning the pages. Good clear English for youngsters who want to improve their English language skills as well. (Many of these myths are pillars of our culture and way of life)
'Travels In Elysium' by Williamk Azuski.
'The Travels' starts with the simple premise of young Nicholas ‘Nico’ Pedrosa taking his first job as an assistant at an archaeological dig on Santorini in Greece. However, within just a few pages William Azuski has begun adding the many layers of intrigue and mystery which he develops throughout his well crafted and philosophically thought provoking book. Nico tries to work out whether his new boss and would be mentor, Marcus Huxley, really will find new levels or reality and truth hidden under the deep volcanic ash of the ancient Minoan eruption; or whether it is just a wild obsession with Plato’s World of Ideas and Forms, the Orphic Mysteries, and “all things ancient Greek and metaphysical” that drives Huxley forward. Surely no personal or greater good can come from the situation Nico finds himself in or Huxley's dubious methods; or can it? One cannot help but keep turning the pages to find out. (James) See:
'Plato For Beginners' by Robert Cavalier.
Robert Cavalier’s little book with cartoons and pictures puts Plato into "bite size chunks" for young people, and this is certainly one of the aims of this blog. Cavalier's book encourages people to go out and read a bit more and so it deserves a mention on this blog. This short book will be of interest to all 'beginners' of Socratic philosophy – whether young and old - if they want to get a quick overview of what the subject is about. There are a few small points where I think a mistake has been made, and certainly a few spelling mistakes - but what the heck - the cartoons are very good. Ideal stocking filler for young philosophers! (James)
'Socrates and Plato & Their Essential Tip for Young International Travellers' by James Head.
Socrates and Plato are without doubt two of the best known philosophers and thinkers from ancient Athens or indeed any other period of history including our own. Why is it that they are still so well known today, and what is it really that makes them such important people? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer for you in this first book of three understandable essays for general readers.
Keep in mind right from the start that philosophy after all is said and done, is simply about giving people tips for living a good life or a better more fulfilling kind of life. Socrates was quite simply a wonderful teacher about life in its various shapes and forms; which is what ‘real’ philosophy is all about. ‘Where am I and where do I want to go?’ - are the fundamental philosophical questions for Socrates summed up in the Delphi Maxim or phrase: ‘Know Thyself’. I hope this book will start to explore some of these questions for you, as well as giving you a good idea of what Socrates and Plato were all about and why their advice or ‘tips’ are still worth our consideration today.
The three essays move progressively deeper into the philosophy of Socrates and Plato for those who wish to know a little more. After a general introduction to what ‘real’ Greek philosophy actually is in the traditional Socratic sense, the first essay looks at the essential question of ‘Know Thyself’ and talks about Plato’s book The First Alcibiades. Interestingly, this was also the first book that new students at Plato’s Academy began with – so it is undoubtedly a good place for us to start. The second essay is appropriately titled: ‘The Nuts and Bolts of Plato’ and looks at some important ideas and themes which crop up in many of Plato’s books. By the end of this second essay you will have a very good ‘general idea’ of what Socrates and Plato were all about.
Finally, the third essay discusses Plato’s book The Phaedrus in some detail. As described within the previous essays, Plato can be thought of as a poetic writer who often adds several layers of meaning to his books. The Phaedrus can simply be read as a description of what it means to fall hopelessly in love with someone; or it can be read as a road map to philosophical enlightenment. As described at the start of this final essay, this is one of the many choices we all have to make for ourselves. (Regular free offers - See top right of this blog page for details.)
Let me know if you would like to add a book review in the above section of the Socrates 4 Today blog.