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.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Three Powers of The Psyche (Soul) and their Virtues

In the early spring of 2013 I had the pleasure to attend three “Socratic” lectures in London given by the Prometheus Educational Trust. I posted brief details on this blog at the time for anyone who might want to go along; but now I wish to pick out one or two threads and ideas from those talks. This post will outline the essence of what Socrates and Plato meant by VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE (ARETE)– which is just slightly different than what we often regard as “the virtues” as later described in specific detail by Aristotle. Tim Addey reminds us in his first talk ‘The Philosopher in the World’ that philosophy (the love of wisdom) in its simplest sense is just about making the best choice we can when faced with a range of possible actions in a given situation. Every human being chooses what they consider to be the wisest choice and rejects the more foolish according to their own criteria. No-one would choose to act foolishly we can presume – although that may become apparent in hindsight.

We have as Tim suggests to make our way through the drama of life, hopefully avoiding too much tragedy – and hopefully not “frutting and stretting like poor actors across the stage” too much as Shakespeare once beautifully put it. In order to live well – we must Know Ourselves as inscribed above Apollo’s temple in Delphi; and this means to know where we are and what we are as individual human beings, collective societies and as human beings within a vast universe. Now whether readers of this piece are religious and spiritual people or not – I want to find and use a term for the inner self – or rational consciousness – that makes rational decisions about the actions we can take. Tim Addey suggests using the word ‘soul’ providing we can leave the considerable baggage associated with this word behind. I somehow doubt this – and so will stick to the word “psyche” used by the ancient Greeks, which literally meant 'breath'. Keep in mind that the word 'psyche' meant a little bit more to the ancient Greeks in some ways that soul means to us today; but in other ways carried less baggage than the word 'soul' does to most people today. For the non-spiritual reader “rational consciousness as yet to be fully scientifically explained” will do just as well – but I shall use psyche for convenience now.

Now the seeker of wisdom – the philosopher – in the Socratic and Platonic tradition consciously cultivates wisdom as he goes through the life lived by the psyche while living as a human being here on earth.

The psyche is seen as having three essential faculties or powers - and one of these might be called the ‘desiring’ nature which pursues what it perceives to be goodness through an instinctive attraction to whatever is beautiful.

The second faculty we can call the ‘knowing’ nature which peruses goodness and truth through investigation and trying to look beyond the first appearances of the person or situation requiring action. On another level it persues the truly good rather than what merely appears to be good or a good idea.

The third faculty or power sits somewhere between the previous two - almost trying to harmonise them into a unified whole. This third faculty was known as ‘thumos’ in Greek – which actively desires the good but listens also to the rational and investigative part of the psyche. It is often vary clumsily translated with the word 'anger' today – but it should include ‘spirited’ and 'vibrant' and 'positive actions' within its borders. Once again, we must be cautious with the way some words are translated since we use some words differently these days. I will therefore keep to the word thumos for this third faculty or power of the psyche.

This gives us a tri-partite psyche (soul) in the Platonic view – and this idea comes up time and again in the writings of Plato in various ways. My favourite example is in the Phaedrus dialogue – where we find the Myth of the Charioteer presenting the rational part of the psyche as a Charioteer being pulled by a good white horse (the spirited, active and ordinative part of the psyche) and a dark unruly horse which represents the desiring or appetitive part of the psyche.  Without going into all the details here – it is sufficient to quote that: ‘the life of the Charioteer is not always an easy one…..’

Now….. finally moving to my main theme of this particular blog – the virtue & excellence of the various parts of the psyche – I should point out that each of the three main faculties of the soul mentioned above can be improved individually – which leads on to the improvement of the whole psyche. Indeed, each of the three faculties has a perfection – and were a person able to perfect all three areas he would have perfected his psyche or soul as much as a human being could in the this mortal life. The perfection of these three faculties of the soul is ARETE in its formal description – that is VIRTUE and EXCELLENCE.

Specifically, the improvement and excellence of rational, knowing, investigative faculty of the soul (the Charioteer) is wisdom - where we become proficient in recognising the truly good from what only appears to be good…. 

The excellence of the thumos (spirited and active part - the white horse) is fortitude or courage – which keeps us going in tough and difficult times – and can keep us steadfast and stable amidst the storms of life.  It also helps to keep us true to the directions of the rational faculty, even in difficult times when easier options to choose from might tempt us away from the path we have chosen.

The improvement or excellence of the desiring quality of the soul (the dark unruly horse) is temperance – so that our pursuit of goodness in the form of beauty remains within its proper limits…. and allows our normal human desires to be kept under the control of the rational faculty. (It is not wrong to have desires per se in Plato –or to act on these desires providing that are kept under rational control.

In addition to the three virtues or excellences of the psyche mentioned above (temperance, wisdom, fortitude or courage) there is a fourth virtue in the Platonic tradition JUSTICE – which is mostly where a civil community is arranged in the best way for the community. Justice can also be applied to our personal choices and therefore psyche or soul in some ways.This is a reasonable enough point to clarify that while we often talk about a tripartite soul in Plato - it does not mean that it is in three distinct bits which are then stuck together - it simply means that there are three distinct qualities or powers to the psyche.

Now just a little more about these four virtues – three which are mostly faculties of the psyche or soul – and the fourth which largely applies to our communities and societies as a whole. The psyche can exercise its various powers outwardly towards the world, inwardly towards itself, and upwardly so to speak towards the immaterial causes, the divine, and the metaphysical. In each of these three cases (directions) the development of the four virtues is necessary if the process of obtaining excellence (ARETE) is to be advanced.

When the virtues are directed outwardly they are called civic or political virtues;

When the virtues are directed inwardly for self-improvement they are called cathartic (or purifying) virtues;

When directed upwards they are called contemplative or theoretic virtues; (….. and Tim Addey reminds us in his talk that: ‘for the causes from which we descend are only to be seen in purest contemplation’.)

“Bite Size Chunks” is one of the promises of this blog and so I will finish this introductory look at the Socratic Platonic four virtues here. I will conclude by adding just one more paragraph from the notes to Tim Addey’s talk on this subject:

‘This then, is the internal constitution of the human soul, with its powers and excellences: but what is the place of such a creature in the world? If justice enables parts to contribute to the whole, what kind of life should we be living in order to both give and take goodness in the universe…….. and how will the lover of wisdom extend the goodness inherent in his or her soul into the material world.

Notes: I hope to place some more ideas from these Prometheus Trust talks into “Bite Size Chunks” in due course. For those who would like to read more on this now take a look at my original post about these talks which has links to the full notes.

For those of you who would like to read how I personally think this background is useful for our lives today (4 Today) there is a short piece on this subject on my more personal blog at: Virtue and Excellence In Leisure Time

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Phaedo - Some Thoughts - 01

I am in the process of re-reading the Phaedo where Socrates talks to a group of friends on the morning of his execution in his prison in Athens. These discussions are quite detailed (and timely as Socrates points out) since they are mostly about the soul and its immortality after physical death along with various related topics.  As usual, a number of these discussions and topics will stand out as being of particular interest to individual readers – at a particular moment in their lives - as is often the case with the writings of Plato. This short blog post of mine today merely wants to highlight a few small points that I found particularly interesting myself while reading a few pages of Phaedo again with my coffee this morning and indeed over the last couple of days.

Firstly, I thought Socrates encapsulated that modern feel very well for those people who have done any “spiritual searching”  themselves and have gone to one type of religious meeting after another offered by various groups such as those based on many different types of Christianity, Buddhism, or New Age style practices. 

Socrates recounts to his friends that once he heard someone reading from a book by the philosopher Anaxagoras that: ‘mind was the disposer and cause of all’ and that he [Socrates]: ‘rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired’. Unfortunately for Socrates – and I am sure for many modern day searchers for spiritual wisdom and fellowship – he continues a few lines later:
     ‘What expectations I had formed, and how grievously I was disappointed! As I proceeded , I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities.’

The above few lines reminded me of the feelings I had myself as a young man of joining a new religious or philosophical organisation and then being disappointed as one goes further to find less and less substance holding up the deck of cards of their beliefs and practices. However, these few lines also sounded a very positive and harmonious note to me for the benefits of studying philosophy – being that by far the best and most honest solution for our search is a personal exploration of matters divine and spiritual – where one can discard those things that seem to be ‘improbable’ and hang on to those things that seem to be the most probable and plausible after a careful examination of any proposition and the alternatives personally. 

It seems also a good moment now to repeat an advice of mine to new students of Socrates and Plato – whether young or old – and that is not to even contemplate taking the whole corpus of Plato’s more spiritual writing and regarding it like some religious totalitarian doctrine to be swallowed in full without question or doubt - as is often the case with the doctrines offered by most of the more established religious organisations of today and previous years. No; this is not the way of the evolving “real” philosopher. It is much better for real platonic philosophers to accept some parts and disagree with other parts (and indeed perhaps to sit on the fence with other parts)  according to one’s own deliberations and explorations at a given period of time in their lives. (i.e. we may change or amend our views as the years go by and should not be afraid or too proud to do so….)

I should like now to raise one nagging difficulty I have with various explanations and descriptions of the soul that come up in the Phaedo dialogue and indeed throughout the works of Plato. If for the sake of argument we accept that the soul exists – then to my mind it most certainly is a very unusual and unique thing or perhaps kind of stuff. I therefore find explanations of the soul and its various attributes very weak if they make use of ‘universal principles’ as occurs often in Plato’s writings. For example, if one said that wardrobes, chairs, and tables are hard on the outside – it does not naturally follow on for me (and most others I suspect) that the soul is also hard on the outside. If one said that liquids such as tea, coffee and brandy need to be kept in a vessel to stop them simply dispersing away – it does not follow on to me that this also applies to the soul. In other words, unless we have a pretty good idea about what this soul stuff is in the first place – I think it is pretty hard to suggest what it can and cannot do and achieve with any kind of accuracy – or offer up an argument using examples from this ‘world of the senses’ as some kind of “proof” .

Talking of proofs - as a former high school maths teacher myself (but certainly no mathematician) – I have some idea of course about the use of mathematical proofs in order to support the truth of various hypothesise and proposals. However, in mathematics each proof usually relies on at least one accepted truth at its foundation. A simple example might be that if I take a scale and weigh 1 litre of wine – I can see that it weighs 1 kilogram. Now if somebody asks me what do you thing half as much wine (500 mls) weighs – I do not really have to speculate – but rather can calculate that it is 500 grams and I can explain why and offer a proof if needed. I can do this because the original starting point or truth (1000mls = 1 litre = 1 kilogram) is a rock solid foundation to start to build an endless number of examples on.

Explaining schoolboy maths and explaining the existence, immortality, and various lives and functions of the soul seem to be very different things to me – and the idea that by using any combination of words, arguments or examples from the sensible world one can claim to have proved something about the soul seems awkward at best to me.  This is not to say one cannot perhaps offer convincing reasons for choosing a personal position on these and similarly metaphysical matters.

I could not make a few quick comments on the Phaedo without mentioning a few favourite lines from Plato of many years standing that come up towards the end of the dialogue just after Socrates gives his frankly bizarre description of the soul’s passage through the underworld and giant rivers circling the earth. Just after this strange description are some simple but truly important lines to me which bind me to the texts of Plato and the philosophy of Socrates even if some of the descriptions appear hard to believe. Socrates says:
     ‘A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true…’  [i.e. we can think of it in this way even if it is not ‘literally’ accurate … like most diagrams of atoms or molecules and a host of other ideas in any modern day science classroom.]

In conclusion, I am not sure that words alone will ever be able to prove the existence of the soul and its activities and qualities to anyone; let alone a sufficiently large number of people in the modern world.

What Do You Think? If not words, then what other ways are there? 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bite Size Comments on ‘Parmenides’ by Plato

Using Translation by H. N. Fowler / Heinemann
(Note: Delightful short 2 -3 page introductions by Fowler)

In my opinion it is the first 15 pages or so of this 35 page dialogue that are by far the most interesting. For me the latter pages are rather hard work to read and frankly become rather tedious. Of course, I accept that this view may not be shared by some readers of this text and I will come to back to this point again below.

The dialogue begins with Plato describing how Cephalus relates a storey that was told to him by Antiphon; who heard it from Pythodorus– who was present as a listener when Parmenides (the great Eleatic philosopher) conversed with a young Socrates (apx 20 years old we suppose) and other listeners. It is therefore dramatised by Plato as a 4th or 5thhand account of the original tale - and this is emphasised for some reason –and perhaps for important or understandable reasons? This dialogue is therefore a good illustration of how the Socratic-Platonic philosophic tradition was kept alive by an oral rather than purely written tradition.

Plato starts his dialogue as usual by giving the dramatic setting, and with Socrates refuting some of Zeno’s paradoxes (who is also present at the discussion) which he claims not to be paradoxes at all. Parmenides has said “the one [divine] exists” and gives a number of proofs – and Zeno has said that “the many does not exist”. According to Socrates, Zeno has taken the same view as Parmenides and merely expressed it the other way around and so his ideas are nothing new and not a paradox.

Parmenides congratulates young Socrates on his observations and then the experienced and respected philosopher advises him on how to develop his philosophical skills – and recommends certain practical “training”methods. Firstly he sensibly suggests (paragraph starting line 136a) that:
     ‘…if you wish to get better training (in philosophy and knowledge), you must do something more …. you must consider not only what happens if a particular hypothesis is true; but also what happens if it is not true.’

Parmenides then explains in more detail what he mean by this – and the various angles from which we should discuss a topic from. Socrates exclaims that this is a “stupendous amount of work” he is suggesting; but is it I wonder? Or is it just an hour or two today and another hour or two tomorrow and for a few days thereafter to examine any hypothesis in some detail and from all the various angles? Indeed, if we wish to suggest a hypothesis on anything serious, important or worthwhile ourselves, should we not – as trainee or “real” philosophers – be examining the implications of what we are saying from all angles as a pre-requisite. Would it not be better to say that we do not have an opinion on something if we have not carried out this work which Parmenides suggests is essential first?

Socrates then asks Parmenides to take a hypothesis of his own choice as an example and then discuss it from various angles to demonstrate what he means by this suggested method; to which Parmenides says: ‘….. this is a great task…. to impose on a man my age…. ‘. At line 136 E, Pythodorus tells Socrates:
      ‘If there were more of us, it would not be fair to ask it of him, for it is not suitable for him to speak on such subjects before many, especially at his age; for the many do not know for except by this devious passage through all things the mind cannot attain the truth.’

Parmenides agrees to Socrates’ request and suggests for an example hypothesis the supposition: ‘that the one exists…. or that it does not exist.’

[Suggestion for facilitators and group leaders – if you are studying this text with students – I think this is a good point to stop and first get the students to discuss the hypothesis themselves for an hour at least before reading further and seeing how Parmenides himself goes about it. You may even wish to leave the students to think about the above supposition for themselves for the rest of the morning/day…. and then perhaps make their own short presentations – before reading further with the text.]

At line 142.B Parmenides says:
     ‘Shall we then return to our hypothesis and see if a review of our argument discloses any new point of view?’

He then proceeds to summarise and develop his previous arguments in just a page or two. All nice and succinct and clear you might be thinking but I do not feel this to be the case. For example, Parmenides asks Socrates:
      ‘In this way: If being is predicated of the one which exists and unity is predicated of being which is one , and being and one are not the same, but belong to the existent one of our hypothesis , must not the existent one be a whole of which the one and being are parts?’

To which Socrates replies (almost amusingly in my own view): ‘Inevitably…’ Is Socrates joking? It seems like a rather complicated and bewildering statement for Socrates to give such a reply that he thought the statement obvious or inevitable. Perhaps the truth is they have both left me behind in terms of intellect or in terms of interest by this asking questions this way and then that – and then back the other way again. And I wonder, in truth – which is the subject of our discussion here, are they any closer to proving or deciding or knowing whether the divine is “One “ or “many” at the end of it all?

There then follows a discussion on the existence of the one and of ‘being’ itself. At line 160.B (P.311 Fowler) Parmenides in keeping with the training method he has earlier suggested to Socrates asks:
     ‘Well, and ought we not next to consider what must happens if one does not exist?’

For expediency with this blog I will quote here two paragraphs from the Wikipedia website:
      'This difficult second part of the dialogue is generally agreed to be one of the most challenging, and sometimes bizarre, pieces in the whole of the Platonic corpus. It consists of an unrelenting series of difficult and subtle arguments, where the exchange is stripped of all but the bare essentials of the arguments involved. Gone are the drama and colour we are accustomed to from [Plato’s] earlier dialogues.
      The long, austere second half of the dialogue is organised as a series of eight (or alternatively, nine deductions about the relation of the one to the many. The reasoning is often, as are Parmenides' arguments in the first section of the work, obscure, and at times appears to be blatantly fallacious. Further, the deductions appear to be set up in a way to deliberately produce antinomies, or mutually contradictory conclusions…..’

Wikipedia then list the main points covered in the rest of the dialogue at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parmenides_(dialogue).However, although perhaps convenient, this summary by Wikipedia may be an over simplification of the discussion in the second half of the dialogue. If you want to read a little deeper there is as usual a good longer essay on the Stanford University website at:http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-parmenides 

“Bite Size” Summary:
As mentioned at the start of this blog while I enjoyed very much indeed the first 15 pages or so of this dialogue, I did find the latter pages rather hard going and dry: and as you must know by now I am usually a big fan of Plato’s writings on many fronts including the vivid myths, rich flowing language, humour and general readability. Below I give two opposing views on the dialogue by respected commentators: the first by H N Lamb who seems to sympathise with my own view (and that expressed above by Wikipedia) to some extent, and then secondly a quote from the 15th Century Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino who feels that in this dialogue Plato:
      ‘…surpasses even himself - to bring forth this work miraculously from the adytum of the divine mind and from the innermost sanctum of philosophy.’

Firstly Lamb writes:
      ‘There can be no doubt that Plato’s contemporaries, living in the atmosphere of philosophical discussion which pervaded the Athens of those days; understood many of the allusions in the text which are lost on us, and were able to appreciate Plato’s point of view more fully than any modern scholar can hope to do, but even for them the result of this dialogue must have been chiefly, if not entirely negative. In greater or lesser degree the same is true of several other dialogues which appear to belong to nearly the same date. Such are the Theaetetus, the Cratylus, the Sophist, the Statesman, and the Philibus. These all seem to be more or less polemical, and in most of them the interest in method is evident. ’

However, Marsilio Ficino says:
     ‘While Plato sprinkled the seeds of all wisdom throughout all his dialogues, yet he collected the precepts of moral philosophy in the books on the Republic, the whole of science in the Timaeus, and he comprehended the whole of theology in the Parmenides. And whereas in the other works he rises far above all other philosophers, in this one he seems to surpass even himself and to bring forth this work miraculously from the adytum of the divine mind and from the innermost sanctum of philosophy. Whosoever undertakes the reading of this sacred book shall first prepare himself in a sober mind and detached spirit, before he makes bold to tackle the mysteries of this heavenly work. For here Plato discusses his own thoughts most subtly: how the One itself is the principle of all things, which is above all things and from which all things are, and in what manner it is outside everything and in everything, and how everything is from it, through it, and toward it.’ (Klibansky, 1941)

Certainly Parmenides is not one of Plato’s easier texts, and people will delight or otherwise by reading it. As with all things I recommend making your own minds up and taking a couple of hours at least to have a look at that first 15 pages I mentioned above which I found interesting and worthwhile.

James (London - Jan 2013)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

'The Philosopher Amongst the Stars' - A talk by Tim Addey

 'The Philosopher Amongst the Stars'

[I am currently attending in London a very interesting series of 5 talks/seminars presented by the Prometheus Trust. A sample of the notes to the third talk is below with a link to the full notes on the Trust’s website for those that like the flavour of my “taster”…]

'... In the political life we perceive eternal ideas in material forms – for example we see a number of beautiful things, but we don't see beauty just by itself; we see a number of instances of equality, but not the equal itself; and we see a whole range of things grouped into, say, fives, but we never perceive five just as itself. Nevertheless, we could not bring to bear our reason upon the outer world of "instances" unless we were able to affirm the presence of beauty, equality, fiveness and a host of other ideas within the mundane world..... 

The attempt to apply reason to that world –and I'm using the word reason in its widest and deepest sense, so that it includes intuition as well as more the more usual forms of reason - is a necessary part of soul life: it places the human soul in the great chain of goodness which connects all things in a procession from, and a return to, the ineffable Principle of Principles.....

In the cathartic life we begin to perceive eternal ideas more clearly – we move inwards to apply our faculties upon ourselves and the more opaque clothing of materiality around the ideas drops away. Now we see those ideas in terms of the soul – which is immaterial, an essence, and the first of moving things – in other words we see ideas as reasons which are the real and immaterial streams of truths which emerge from eternal unmoving but dynamic ideas. But this is by no means the end of the journey......... '

'The Philosopher in the Soul' - A Talk by Guy Wyndham-Jones

[I am currently attending in London a very interesting series of 5 talks/seminars presented by the Prometheus Trust. A sample of the notes to the second talk is below with a link to the full notes on the Trust’s website for those that like the flavour of my “taster”…]

     “It is difficult to become good, for the Gods have placed sweat before virtue. But he who has arrived at the summit will find that to be easy, which it was difficult to acquire.” (Hesiod)

'..... The purpose of the Prometheus Trust is summed up in one line, and that is, “To encourage, promote and assist the flowering of philosophy as the living love of wisdom.” Hence, it does not seek to develop Platonists, or Aristotelians, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Islamists or any other ist or ism or sect of specific doctrine. For philosophy itself has no sects; it is simply the love and admiration of all that is real and good......

Adepts of the Platonic tradition have often said that man is a microcosm of the macrocosm, and that all such things subsist in him partially, as the world or the universe contains divinely and totally. Yet so many of us may lead our lives as if the converse is the true state of things, that is, that the universe is a macrocosm of the microcosm – leading to the most arrogant of assumptions

For the way of philosophy is the way of the hero and of the heroine, and demands of each one who longs for permanent and good empowerment that he or she becomes wise, becomes brave, becomes just, and temperate, faithful and pious and willing of only good – and those that are wise in their turn will assist in providing every opportunity for us to become so, giving us ample and varied times in which to develop and test our fortitude and courage, our temperance, our justice, our faith and our wisdom, through curmstances that require them, throughout as many lives as it takes; until the soul shines out from herself, like some vital golden orb, impervious to any and every impurity and attack, a self-shining light and good according to every virtue………'

The Philosopher in the World - A talk by Tim Addey

[I am currently attending in London a very interesting series of 5 talks/seminars presented by the Prometheus Trust. A sample of the notes to the first talk is below with a link to the full notes on the Trust’s website for those that like the flavour of my “taster”…. :)  ]

'.... Every human being stepping into the world has before him or herself a part to play in a drama: whether that drama is a tragedy or not just as clearly depends upon how well the self is known. Indeed, the whole human race living and acting upon this earth also has a collective drama to enact – and the message is still the same: unless we as a global society know what we are, what kind of creatures we truly are, we are likely to find out only through tragedy…….

….. This said, we can see why the Platonic tradition sees the soul as having various faculties: one might be called the desiring nature, another the knowing nature. The desiring nature, or appetitive faculty pursues goodness – or at least what it takes to be goodness – through an instinctive attraction to whatever appears beautiful. The knowing nature, or rational faculty, pursues goodness through an investigation of its truth – it looks beyond appearance,
examining the immaterial causes behind specific effects. Sitting between these two faculties is a third which harmonises their sometimes differing directives: it runs with the appetitive faculty, desiring good and rejecting the less-than-good, but listens attentively to the guidance of the rational faculty: it especially rejoices in good order. In Greek this third faculty was called the thumos – translated by some as 'the spirited part' and by others as 'anger' (although one has to be careful to understand anger used in this way, as that which reacts against in-ordination).

…… Now each of these faculties of the soul has a perfection which contributes to the perfection of the soul in itself, and the Platonic tradition has much to say about the perfection of these powers which it denominates arĂȘte – that is to say virtue or excellence. The excellence of the rational, guiding faculty is wisdom, through which we discern that which is really good from that which only appears to be good, and through which, also, we can adapt universal truths to particular situations and problems.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Plato's World View and Christianity - Essay

‘Plato’s World View – St Augustine and Jesus’ – By Thomas Williams

I would like to recommend this short, amusing, contemporary and easily understood essay by Thomas Williams. Firstly he gives a short and contemporary metaphor to explain the basic Platonic World View – and then explains the main areas of agreement and disagreement the Christian scholar St. Augustine had with this view. Williams’ own conclusion in his final paragraph while not to everyone’s taste is certainly a very interesting one. I hope Platonists will comment below what they feel about this conclusion.  Below is a short taste of the essay and the link to the full document is below:

A lecture given to the Freshman Program of Christ College, the Honours College of Valparaiso University, 23 October 2003 by Thomas Williams, University of Iowa.

I’m not really sure what they were after when they asked me to talk to you about Augustine and the Platonists. Maybe they wanted me to talk about some specific Platonists, and the elements of Augustine’s views that he adopts or adapts. And no doubt I should at least mention a couple of names. There’s Plato himself, of course (428-348 BC). The thing is, it’s pretty clear that Augustine had never read Plato directly, whether in Greek (which Augustine couldn’t actually handle very well) or in Latin translation. The best he could do was to read what other people said about what Scotus said.
Then there were two followers of Plato whose work Augustine did read in Latin translation: Plotinus (204-270) and his student Porphyry (233-305). He probably read them in the translation of Marius Victorinus, who is discussed in Book 8 of the Confessions. There’s a lot of debate, though, about exactly what he read and exactly how it influenced him.

I have a somewhat non-standard view about this. I call it the “Who cares what Augustine read?” view. My view is that even though Augustine read Plotinus and Porphyry rather than Plato, his version of Platonism is actually much closer to Plato himself than it is to Plotinus and Porphyry. So knowing the details of Plotinus and Porphyry doesn’t really matter much for understanding Augustine, because Augustine’s kind of Platonism doesn’t really depend on those details. In spirit, it’s much closer to the real Plato, because it adopts the overall outlook of Plato without a lot of the additions and complications of later Platonists.

And that’s why I’m going to start with a story. I’m going to use this story to get across what I think is the essence of this Platonic outlook. Then I’ll show you how various Platonists put the insights that this story encapsulates to work in three different aspects of philosophy. After I’ve laid all that out, I’ll talk about how Augustine transforms this Platonic picture in the light of his Christian faith. And then to conclude, I’ll take one episode from the Confessions that illustrates all my main points about the Platonic outlook and 
Augustine’s Christian transformation of it.

So to begin with, here’s my story. Imagine that you’re a high-school senior. You’re dating someone who, for purposes of gender-inclusiveness, I’ll call Pat. Now Pat is perfect for you. Pat is everything you could possibly want. Pat has the sense of humour, the smile, the personality, absolutely everything. No one could be better for you than Pat, and you know it. But you graduate and go to Valpo Coi, and Pat stays back in your hometown.

[The rest of this short, amusing, contemporary and easily understood essay is at: http://shell.cas.usf.edu/~thomasw/aug&plat.pdf ]


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 jamesdelphi2000@gmail.com

Embryonic Activities:

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)

100 Greek Myths for Children

'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:

The Travels

'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)

Plato for Beginners

'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.)

Essential Tips for Young Travellers

Let me know if you would like to add a book review in the above section of the Socrates 4 Today blog.

Why Not Spend 3 Days In Delphi ?

Why Not Spend 3 Days In Delphi ?
I guess many philosophers like to walk in 'special' places like Delphi....