There be dragons!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Plato Akrasia and the True Path

One of my students, now in college, sent me her very fine essay on akrasia. I'll try to get her to post it on line so I can link to it.

Here is my response:

I think you have a fine analysis of The Protagoras using a philosophical standpoint.

Some helpful observations on this concept (including reference back to Aristotle's points about the same; I noticed your point similar to Aristotle on page 3 of the essay - people do what they think will make them happy; the problem is in learning where true happiness resides and habituating ourselves to it; the Nichomachean Ethics.)

Here is the Greek in context:
εἰ ἄρα, ἔφην ἐγώ, τὸ ἡδὺ ἀγαθόν ἐστιν, οὐδεὶς οὔτε εἰδὼς οὔτε οἰόμενος ἄλλα βελτίω εἶναι ποιεῖ, καὶ δυνατά, ἔπειτα ποιεῖ ταῦτα, ἐξὸν τὰ βελτίω: οὐδὲ τὸ ἥττω εἶναι αὑτοῦ ἄλλο τι τοῦτ᾽ ἐστὶν ἀμαθία, οὐδὲ κρείττω ἑαυτοῦ ἄλλο τι σοφία.

Then if, I proceeded, the pleasant is good, no one who has knowledge or thought of other actions as better than those he is doing, and as possible, will do as he proposes if he is free to do the better ones; and this yielding to oneself is nothing but ignorance, and mastery of
1 oneself is as certainly wisdom.

- from Perseus project (

Some few thoughts of my own on this dialogue (which, thank you, I am intrigued enough to go back and read a second time now).

1. note that from the start Plato is setting up a series of dual figures; a bad (or false) and a good (or true). First Socrates and "the friend" who open the dialogue, then Socrates' comment about leaving Alkibiades (the true love) for Protagoras (the false love), which is ironic b/c Alkibiades is also the false man (loved only for appearance) whereas Protagoras is jokingly held up as the true man (loved for his mind/soul/nous); then the slave makes way for Socrates at The Friend's bidding; then Socrates mentions that his conversation with Hippocrates occurs in the morning (btwn the false dark ignorance of night and the dawning truth of daylight); then there is the analysis of what sophism is in comparison with philosophy (as a false act of knowledge for personal gain compared to a true act of knowledge for love), also the seeking out by Hippocrates of Socrates as the true "doctor of the soul" compared to the contingent journey to Protagoras as a false "doctor of the soul" and then the discussion between the two in which the true doctor trounces the false. Seems that the factors that from the beginning are being established are false vs. true, ignorance vs. knowledge, selfish vs. selfless , lack of love vs. love. Thus the opening "chords" of this little rondo by Plato seem to concern a comparison btwn a false path of life and a true.

2. taken in the larger context of the Platonic corpus, this dialogue seems to be a repetition of that thesis that the vision of the good is an overpowering vision that prompts a man to transcend the pettiness of selfish desire and thus become master of himself (autonomous).

3. seen in the light of the literary context and the overall corpus, it would seem that the discussion of akrasia has to be fitted into the larger discussion of incontinence or inability to rule (akrates) and the power to rule (krates). Plato is offering a philosophical distinction which does indeed set philosophy buffs panting, but really it is more of a theological work.

What does the right or true path of the good do for a man? makes him krates(note that krates is the Greek word that ends such cognates as autocrat or plutocrat or aristocrat), strong enough to rule b/c he no longer wants any of those petty things that constitute the world of evil. It isn't, then, so much a question of the manner in which we choose good or evil but an attempt to depict what The Good has to offer.

Drawing, then, from Michael Davis' most excellent article on the death dialogues (Wonderlust: I would hazard that this is what Socrates/Plato is actually doing in the passage on akrasia. He is giving to his audience an alternate vision of the universe; a hopeful vision that allows them to become autonomus individuals capable of dealing with the two great horrors of human life vis a vis death (extinction) and despair (hopelessness). The actual philosophical terms are, in this context, not so significant (no offense) but only in so far as they serve to provide for the audience at large the hopeful vision that they can transcend themselves and master their own false libidinous urges to destruction.

I am most intrigued by the passage that runs

When you buy victuals and liquors you can carry them off from the dealer or merchant in separate vessels, and before you take them into your body by drinking or eating you can lay them in your house and take the advice of an expert whom you can call in, as to what is fit to eat or drink and what is not, and how much you should take and when; so that in this purchase the risk is not serious. But you cannot carry away doctrines in a separate vessel: you are compelled, when you have handed over the price, to take the doctrine in your very soul by learning it, and so to depart either an injured or a benefited man.

For Socrates in this small triage on the soul of Hippocrates the doctrines matter; to set a man on the right course of action away from the false course of action is an imperative. Thus to the passage on akrasia: the "other possible course of action". Here the impotence, or incontinence of the present life or actions (
ποιεῖ) of weakness are held in comparison to the stronger (δυνατά), better (βελτίω) way which is fostered by true wisdom (σοφία). Here's the ultimate point: Socrates' "new way" of action is one which acknowledges the darkness and meaninglessness of our existence but also recognizes that living in that meaninglessness (whether as a nihilist or as a sophist) emasculates a person and makes them incapable of acting. Aquinas also seems to recognize this, that the abyss is a reality but discussion of it is bootless and only makes one incapable of acting. Only adherence to the seemingly paltry and rather shabby doctor, Socrates, offers a resurrection of thought, like the dawn breaking, that can trounce these sowers of sorrow and addiction and offer the real autonomous rule that provides a counter to the horror of death.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Achilles and the inverse Rhetoric

The Embassy

Reason - Odysseus

Authority - Phoenix

Emotion - Ajax


Emotion - Patroclus' death

Authority - Priam (as Peleus)

Reason - Achilles himself

Increasing the Ol' Lexicon

fantods : restlessness; the willies; the fidgets. Used by Huck Finn in Mark Twain's book they have the same connotation as "boojums" or skittishness at some supernatural force.

But in a little while I see a pale streak over the treetops, and knowed the day was coming. So I took my gun and slipped off towards where I had run across that camp fire, stopping every minute or two to listen. But I hadn't no luck somehow; I couldn't seem to find the place. But by and by, sure enough, I catched a glimpse of fire away through the trees. I went for it, cautious and slow. By and by I was close enough to have a look, and there laid a man on the ground. It most give me the fantods.

bezoars : A bezoar or enterolith is a sort of calculus or concretion, a stone found in the intestines of mostly ruminant animals, but occurring among others including humans. Though used by my dad in the context of "dreaded bezoars" it meant any sort of physical malady. (from

Bezoars were sought because they were believed to have the power of a universal antidote against any poison. It was believed that a drinking glass which contained a bezoar would neutralize any poison poured into it. The word "bezoar" comes from the Persian pâdzahr (پادزهر), which literally means "protection from poison." In fact, some types of trichobezoar are apparently able to precipitate or bind arsenic compounds (long used as poison) from a solution. In 1575, the surgeon Ambroise Paré described an experiment to test the properties of the Bezoar Stone. At the time, the Bezoar stone was deemed to be able to cure the effects of any poison, but Paré believed this was impossible. It happened that a cook at Paré's court was caught stealing fine silver cutlery. In his shame, the cook agreed to be poisoned. He then used the Bezoar stone to no great avail as he died in agony seven hours later. Paré had proved that the Bezoar stone could not cure all poisons as was commonly believed at the time.

fomes : any agent, as clothing or bedding, that is capable of absorbing and transmitting the infecting organism of a disease. Though as used by Saint Thomas they normally are something that foments rebellion in the body, temptations, particularly those to lust.

So, then, this very inclination of sensuality which is called the "fomes," in other animals has simply the nature of a law (yet only in so far as a law may be said to be in such things), by reason of a direct inclination. But in man, it has not the nature of law in this way, rather is it a deviation from the law of reason.

hypos : an excessive preoccupation with one's health, usually focusing on some particular symptom, as cardiac or gastric problems. Though, Melville uses it to mean something like "excessive worry about the situation in general".

From Moby Dick:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs--commerce surrounds it with her surf.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The timelessness of the Iliad

While researching ideas for my students who are reading the Iliad I came across this new book cover for Stanley Lombardo's translation of the Iliad published by Hackett publishing company.

I haven't yet read the translation but the cover alone is remarkable. Students frequently ask, though perhaps not so eloquently as did Hamlet, "what is he to Hecuba or Hecuba to him?" In other words, why ought we be concerned with a work that was written in a foreign language over 2000 years ago (with a war that was 3000) years ago?

I think that this cover reflects that question. It's a fantastic choice for the cover of this masterpiece. Whereas most publishers have chosen stark pictures of Greek helms, or hoploi, or a panoply of empty, ghostlike armor, or others have chosen that famous statue of the spartan king, Leonidas, or still others have perhaps shown a painting or fresco of the legend of Achilles, the publisher here has chosen Robert Sargent's famous photo of the landing at Omaha beach, June 6, 1944, thus connecting the tumultous event of D-day in our modern era to the timeless themes embodied in Homer's great work.

Like the work of the Iliad, the stark black and white photo conveys a sense of fatedness and oppression from divine necessity. What is is and what will be will be. The gods themselves are merely slaves to the destructive fatedness of character in the Iliad and man is even more fated to endure "the will of Zeus moving toward its end." Events begun in wrath on Achilles' part work themselves out to the inevitable destruction of "so many sturdy souls hurled down to the house of death" such as Hector and Patroklus. Nor is there any justice in the slaughter of these men for they were "great fighters' souls" not cowards or evil men. Fate seems to grind down the good, the noble, the virtuous and the pure and there seems to be no escape from such horrible ruin. Hector himself acknowledges to Andromache that "one day mighty Ilium will fall" and Achilles states that "the same fate waits the coward and the brave." Courage, nobility and honor do not save a man from suffering the horrid ruin of being "hurled down to the house of death."

Similarly, Sargent's photo is framed by the steely cage of the Higgins boat, tomblike, funneling men onto the killing field of the sands of France. The colorless world of smoke and horror seems oppressive, fated, lifeless and terrifying. Nor does one have any assurance of surviving the hail of bullets from German pillboxes once he emerges from the relative security of the womb of the boat into the bloody world of war's reality. The young men who fought on that day undoubtedly had a sense of their own fate and the cruel jesting unfairness of it all.

Yet what more could they have done then their duty? They saw this moment as the beginning of the "Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months" as Eisenhower urged them. "The eyes of the world are upon you," Ike wrote, "The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you." No more could the young men butchered in those first few moments of terror shirk their duty then could Hector have remained behind the walls of the city. Hector claims that he cannot follow Andromache's command and remain in Troy for shame at facing "the women of Troy with their long robes trailing behind them" or the men who would mock him for his cowardice. The necessity of Honor drives Hector as it later would drive the young men on Omaha, Utah, Sword, Juno & Gold beach to give their own lives rather than shirk duty.

But more even than duty or honor what drives both Hector and the men at Normandy is the sense of love. Hector claims that he would sooner die than see Andromache "led off in chains, servant to some Greek woman" or see his little boy, Astyanax, thrown from the walls of the city (as later he would be). Love ultimately drives Hector to do the impossible task of defending a failing cause against overwhelming odds. Similarly the men at Normandy beach may have had different motives for joining the army, but in those moments before the gate dropped and the first waves dissolved in an hazy smear of blood, love must have been a motivating factor. Each man loved country, freedom, family, mothers, sisters, wives, children and each other. Driven by a love for the world and desire to stop the marauding hordes of darkness that threatened to engulf the fragility of human life and human civilization in a wave of Fascist nihilism, each man somehow found the courage to inch up that beach and reach the shingle. In a primordial way they struggled merely to survive; but beyond that animalian impulse they also wished to "bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for (themselves) in a free world," just as Hector sought to preserve some vestige of human civilization and beauty for himself and those whom he loved.

Saint Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Love seems to be the distinguishing mark of the free man. It is a deep seated power that transcends the acrid putridity of Treblinka and Auschwitz, the violent superfluity of Krystalnacht, and the tragic ruin of Hissarlik. Consequently it speaks of man's greatness who alone can, in the face of overwhelming odds, look beyond his world to a greater light and endure unimaginable pain for the "little low heavens" he sees around him. Ultimately, as in Sargent's photo, man seems to be heading toward a grey dismal land, only dimly seen through terrified eyes. But love, even in that last test of our heroism, allows us to stand against the barbarism that seeks to beat us down and say

My time has come!
At last the gods have called me down to death.
Well let me die -
not without struggle, not without glory, no,
but in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Liturgical Taste Test

Okay, so here is old church:

Here is new church:

Now you tell me that both are equal in quality, talent, beauty and that both equally create an atmosphere of reverent and dignified prayer. All things are not equal and the switch from exhibit A to exhibit B (a switch very frequently seen and heard in modern churches) is not a lateral but a vertical downwards shift. But I suppose that if one conceives that there is no metaphysical world, or if one conceives that all images are equivocal and equally bullshit then why not have the Doobie Brothers or Led Zeppelin playing at your next Benediction ceremony? Advocates of the old forms of worship are sometimes cranks who simply hate change, but more often they have a valid point: images effect imagination, conception, the soul - lex orendi lex credendi. If the forms of worship or Bacchic, cheap, tawdry and shallow what they effect in the nous (mind/soul) will be of equal quality; an entire generation or two or three might grow thinking of Christ only as their non-threatening buddy and not as their leader, savior, guide, hope and salvation. But then, wait, that's already happened, hasn't it?


Saturday, November 1, 2008


This is a video with the great "I've Seen All Good People" by Yes. Just thinking about the birth of Elanor, and traveling back from my faculty retreat up north for her birth here in MN.

It seemed an appropriate video.