On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

In his famous essay, John Stuart Mill defends the importance of individual liberty, which he suggests has been ignored in previous philosophical work. He explores the boundaries between our own individual liberty and society’s right to impede upon it, which Mill foresees as being “the vital question of the future.”

The major conclusion of the essay can be summarized like this: individuals should be free to make their own choices concerning themselves and their own interests without coercion from society or others, except if their choices harm others or society. Being able to consult our individual preference and ideas are a necessary ingredient for human happiness. People are at their best, happiest, and display their most admirable qualities when they are free to pursue their own interests. When society interferes and says you must do this and can’t do that in matters that only concern ourselves, people feel stifled and unhappy.

The problem is that society often does try to shape our values and limit our freedom. One way society does this is through laws. Some laws are just and necessary in so far as they regulate situations where one person may harm another, but many laws try to control behavior, actions, or permissible thoughts of others that have no direct effect on other people. Even democratic representative governments can pose problems for individual liberty in so far as the political ruling class serves the tyranny of the majority. There is a danger in the majority of society or the current ruling class infringing upon personal liberty and forcing others to adopt their values.

People often want to legislate their own sense of morality. Mill argues that what they are really doing is consulting their own preferences and confusing them with objective reality. Our ideas of how we think others should act are often just our personal preferences. I think it is worth mention that this can also happen at an individual level and not only at the societal level. Think of everyday remarks such as someone who says in disgust “why would you want to eat sushi?” People who make remarks like this fail to acknowledge that people have diverse tastes and they’re not forcing you to eat sushi if you dislike it.

Another factor that prevents us from consulting our inclinations and embracing our individual liberty is custom. Often we ignore our own preferences in order to conform to customs of our social class, religion, or culture. Customs require no discernment or critical thinking; they are already there and all we must do is accept them. Again, I don’t believe Mill is claiming we should never follow a custom if they conform to our individual preferences. Instead I think he means we shouldn’t follow customs blindly; we shouldn’t practice a custom simply because everyone else does or without thinking about our own reasons. If a person considers why they follow a custom and decide they enjoy the custom, then in many cases this may be a sufficient reason for continuing to follow it.

One way people can push back against ideas they dislike or think are harmful for individuals is through free speech. Mill is a strong advocate of free speech. People should be free to convince others that their way of life or their ideas about a particular topic are wrong. His arguments against society infringing on personal liberty mostly pertain to laws or attempts of suppression of free speech. One reason to support free speech is that people should have the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument. Suppression is bad because it prevents us from hearing both sides. We shouldn’t silence opinions because they may be true and since humans are fallible we may miss an opportunity of learning the truth. If we silence those who have different ideas, we may fail to learn the reason why our own ideas are false and discover what is true. In some cases, it’s possible that neither side has the truth, but “a portion of truth.” It is only in “the collision of adverse opinions” that occurs during a debate that we can hope to identify the portion of truth in each position that is missing from the other. Mill conceptualizes history as short bursts of progress made from one age to another in which the succeeding age has discovered a portion of the truth and progressed further than its predecessor, but not all the way, which is why progress continues to be made as history moves forward. Free speech is a critical part in the beginning stages of this progress from age to age that benefits everyone. Another reason that free speech is so important is that in cases where a person has the truth, it is worthless as a truth if it is never tested in the arena of debate. In Mill’s view, a truth is worthless if we can’t explain why it is true. Truth, even when true, becomes a dogma without good reasons and evidence and tests in debate to back it up.  The wise man tests his opinions by seeing if they can survive the many objections they will encounter and corrects his own when necessary. It is this process of testing and accumulation over time that brings wisdom to society as a whole. The only time opinions or free speech should be limited is when it may cause someone to act violently to others. He also suggests that insults and intemperate language should be avoided in debates whenever possible. Insults and mockery typically are advantageous to received or accepted opinion, however, minority opinions should avoid it for practical purposes as it decreases the likelihood of getting a fair hearing from those in the majority. The ideal person in a discussion gives everyone a fair hearing, interprets everyone’s arguments fairly, and even calls out unfair debate tactics of people on his or her own side.

Defending the principle of personal liberty allows everyone who takes advantage of it to engage in that which will make them happiest and the best human being they can be. Those who don’t wish to take advantage of this liberty and are fine with the status quo or received traditions can still benefit from those who do. Freethinking individuals are in a good position to identify when old truths no longer suffice or have evidence to support them, while their originality of lifestyle can offer new models for society of ways to live. Without those who innovate, life and society would not progress. We would be in a “stagnant pool.” Society needs these free individuals to create progress and persons of genius thrive in an atmosphere of freedom.

At the same, we do have some obligations to society as members who benefit from it. We have a duty to society to provide help to others who are in danger (such as someone who is on the side of the road and injured in a car accident), serve on a jury in a trial, and be drafted for the nation’s defense. In its best form, society protects our interests, so we owe our service to society in these things as needed.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; I understood it to be an argument about why it’s important to investigate the issue in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. For this reason we need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus

 

In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.

 

An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.

 

“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.

 

Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

Gorgias by Plato (trans. Donald J. Zeyl)

“I’m referring to the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place. In point of fact, with this ability you’ll have the doctor for your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he’ll turn out to be making more money for somebody else instead of himself; for you, in fact, if you’ve got the ability to speak and to persuade the crowds.”

In this famous dialogue that served as a test run for The Republic, the reader witnesses Socrates shift from the defensive posture of earlier dialogues to an aggressive attack on Sophistry. Like the Protagoras, Socrates attempts to prove the superiority of philosophy in comparison to the cheap tricks of rhetoric.

The dialogue opens with Socrates arriving late for a banquet where the sophist Gorgias was giving a speech. A politician named Callicles greets Socrates. With him is Polus, a dim-witted student of Gorgias, and Chaerophon, a student of Socrates.

Socrates is interested in questioning Gorgias about the nature of oratory because he has seen how influential this new method of teaching is among the youths and politicians. During his speeches, Gorgias promises to answer any questions his audience asks about any topic in the world.

As a preliminary to the great debate that will follow, the two students of the great masters go at each other. Chaerephon attempts to ask questions of Polus about the nature of rhetoric; he wants to know what craft Gorgias is knowledgeable in, and what would be the correct title to call someone who teaches this craft. Polus gives an ornate response about how their craft is the most admirable of all the crafts, but never answers the actual question. In this introductory debate, Plato sets the tone of the conflict by pitting the two methods of dialectic and rhetoric against each other. Any time someone turns to long speeches in the dialogue, it usually is a way of avoiding the answers to tough questions.

Socrates and Gorgias take over at this point. Gorgias defines himself as an orator and calls his craft oratory. Gorgias claims that oratory is knowledge about how to make speeches. Socrates questions whether the orator is concerned with all forms of speeches like explaining how sick people should be treated in order to get well, which are clearly the domain of doctors and the craft of medicine. He extends this line of reasoning by pointing out that all crafts are concerned with speech-making in their own specialized areas.  Gorgias tries to slip out of this by claiming that the reason these other crafts are not oratory is because they still consist of mostly working with your hands rather than speech-making. Socrates scrutinizes this claim by breaking down certain concrete disciplines like math and sculpting, showing that certain disciplines require more hands-on work than speeches, while other disciplines approach their craft with words. By establishing this, Plato shows that many disciplines share the methods of oratory in how they deliver knowledge to pupils, and that Gorgias still has not explained with what area of knowledge oratory concerns itself.

Gorgias continues to avoid defining it, until finally he claims that oratory allows you to manipulate others for your own personal gain. Ironically, Gorgias paints oratory in a particularly bad light in this instance; oratory is the knowledge of how to manipulate others through words. It is the craft of persuasion.

Gorgias notes that oratory can convince a person with no knowledge to appoint himself over a person with real knowledge of a subject. The specific example he uses is a doctor. This claim demonstrates the full corrupting power of sophistry: when you go into surgery you probably do not want a fake doctor performing the procedure, but rhetoric’s primary purpose is allow the charlatans who have no knowledge to put themselves in positions of power.

One lecture I listened to compares Gorgias to Darth Vader. When Gorgias says,

“Oh yes, Socrates, if only you knew all of it, that it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished.”

I can not help when reading this but hear Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “if only you knew the power of the Darkside.” In fact that might be a good way to frame this entire debate, Socrates’ philosophy is the light-side of the force, espousing truth and justice, while Gorgias’ sophistry is the darkside. One teaches a true understanding of justice, the other gives the illusion of it and perverts it.

At this point, Polus, the student reenters the fray, thinking he can best Socrates, even though his master pretty much just got schooled by him. In reverse of a typical Socratic dialogue, we now have the sophist asking questions and Socrates answering them. Socrates claims that he does not think oratory is a craft at all, but rather a knack. He compares it to pastry-baking whose counterpart would be medicine. Pastry-bakers will try to convince you that the sweets they produce is good for you, that they know better than doctors, even as the sugary foods slowly fatten you up and rot your body. Oratory has the same effect on the soul.

Socrates  noted earlier in the dialogue that learning and convincing are not the same thing. Convictions, by which I think he means beliefs or opinions, can be true or false. Real knowledge for Socrates can never be true or false; it is knowledge by the very fact that it is the truth. Oratory produces the persuasion that comes from being convinced, not the persuasion that comes from genuine learning, of what is just and unjust.

The student of Gorgias goes on to claim that the life of a tyrant is enviable because they can do whatever they want without repercussion and, therefore, must be happy. Rhetoric gives one the power to do what one pleases — even to engage in injustice. Socrates disproves this notion by showing that tyrants do not do what they truly want or what is best for themselves. In relation to this argument, Polus also suggests that it is worse to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, thus implying that you might as well be on the living at the top of the power food chain than living at the bottom. Socrates responds to this argument by showing the opposite is true; it is in fact better to suffer violence than to commit it. He points out that it is more shameful to commit a violent act against another human being than to be the one who suffered from it.

Polus’ defense of tyranny and unlimited power to do evil reaches its peak in the dialogue quoted below. I have never seen Socrates take to task anyone like he does Polus.

Polus: As if you wouldn’t be envious whenever you’d see anyone putting to death some person he saw fit, or confiscating his property or tying him up!
Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?
Polus: Whichever way he does it, isn’t he to be envied either way?
Socrates: Hush, Polus.
Polus: What for?
Socrates: Because you’re not supposed to envy the unenviable or the miserable. You’re supposed to pity them.

Socrates says you are supposed to pity the unenviable or the miserable, yet he is not just claiming it, but showing us this idea in action. Socrates’ response to Polus’ belief that tyrants should be envied is to pity him for believing such a terrible thing. Polus only proves Socrates’ point about the corrupting nature of rhetoric.

Earlier in the dialogue, Gorgias goes on an impassioned defense of his art, noting that if a boxer abuses his training and starts beating up people in the streets, you do not exile or blame their trainer for the bad apples. Socrates turns this argument around on Gorgias; if oratory trains young men in the way of justice as Gorgias claims, and many of them are still engaging in unjust acts nonetheless, then surely oratory is not very good at what it claims to teach. The irony, which Plato excels at, is that Polus himself is a shining example of how oratory degrades the soul; he is made worse by Gorgias’ teaching.

Last up is Callicles the politician; we had the teacher, pupil, and now the practical application of oratory. Callicles thinks Socrates a child for still engaging in philosophy. Much of this part of the dialogue is spent recapitulating the earlier points made in the dialogue. In particular, Socrates shows that the most celebrated Athenian politicians of the past and present are prime examples of what he has been criticizing thus far. Callicles responses are hilarious; he gets frustrated with Socrates, and seems to constantly be rolling his eyes as he grudgingly goes along with the dialectic. Many parts of this section foreshadow the events of the Apology.

Like The Republic, this dialogue closes with a myth about the survival of the soul after death in which Socrates claims that at death the soul appears in the underworld naked, stripped of body and identity before mythological judges who will then proceed to assess its quality based its virtue and wickedness. Plato reminds us once again that philosophy’s main purpose is to prepare us for death

Protagoras by Plato (trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

“While the power of appearance often makes us wander all over the place in confusion, often changing our minds about the same things and regretting our actions and choices with respect to things large and small, the art of measurement in contrast, would make the appearances lose their power by showing us the truth, would give us peace of mind firmly rooted in the truth and would save our life” – Socrates.

The Protagoras presents a comical theatrical performance that pits two Greek intellectual heavy weights against each other in an all out battle of methods where the central questions are: What is virtue? And can it be taught?

At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates meets up with a friend where he recounts a philosophical discussion he had with Protagoras, along with other well-known Sophists. Hippocrates wakes Socrates up in excitement that Protagoras is in town. Hippocrates would like to train with Protagoras, but Socrates warns him that he should know what he is paying for before he spends his money. So Socrates goes with him to visit Protagoras who is staying at another sophist’s house. When they arrive, Socrates asks Protagoras what he teaches. The famous sophist responds that he teaches virtue to young man. Socrates is not sure that virtue can be taught, and wants to see if Protagoras can convince him otherwise. Protagoras presents a myth and a long-winded speech that at first seems to effectively prove his point. However, Socrates is still not entirely convinced and has a few minor quibbles. He attempts to engage Protagoras in a back-and-forth Socratic dialogue to discover what virtue is and whether it can be taught, which the infamous sophist participates in reluctantly.

This dialogue reads like a comedy that could make Aristophanes blush with envy, poking fun at the Sophists featured in it. Plato consistently mocks them, especially Prodicus who consistently splits hairs about the meaning of words. Socrates’ attitudes towards Protagoras might also be seen as ironic more than genuine; he continually refers to him as a wise man, despite showing that he knows very little about the teaching of virtue.

One major theme of the dialogue is the battle between Sophistic Rhetoric versus Socratic Dialectic as methods for the inquiry into truth. Socrates wants to engage the issue with a question-and-answer method, while Protagoras wants to address the problem with long-winded polemics. The problem with bloated speeches is that they are difficult to follow, jump from point to point without really saying anything significant, and it is far too easy to manipulate listeners by giving superficial answers to complex topics without any real precision; likewise, it encourages your opponent to spend his time coming up with his or her own speech without having to pay much attention to what you are actually saying. The sophist Hippias does just that when he compliments Socrates on his thorough analysis of the Simonides poem that they end up briefly discussing and then wants to deliver his own speech about the poem, while completing missing the fact that Socrates was spouting nonsense about the poem. In other words, Hippias did not pay close attention to what Socrates was actually saying. The difference of the dialectic method is its question-and-answer structure forces speakers to pay attention to each other and requires precision in the inquiry of the topic; it allows you to get into the details of a topic and better see contradictions and inconsistencies in a response rather than gloss over the substance for polished superficial responses.

Socrates repeatedly claims he cannot follow the argument of long speeches. However, we realize right away that this statement is untrue by the fact that Socrates has thus far responded point-by-point to Protagoras’ initial speech. Likewise, the entire dialogue is frame-story in which Socrates is recalling this event and the speeches Protagoras gave during it to a friend by memory. Is Socrates being duplicitous then? Well, we can say with certainty that this is one of those times Plato is demonstrating his characteristic irony. Socrates’ goal here is to disarm Protagoras’ greatest strength and the biggest detriment to discovering truth, long meandering speeches that lack precision. He wants Protagoras to engage in a Socratic dialogue, while Protagoras is reluctant to do so.

On the other hand, one might be tempted to read the character of Protagoras more generously and Socrates slightly less so. Instead of reading this as a play that mocks Protagoras as ignorant along with his fellow Sophists, we can instead read it as a play where both Socrates and Protagoras have some of their initial points confirmed and some of their initial thoughts proven wrong: Protagoras was right that virtue can be taught, but has the wrong method at getting to that point. Socrates is wrong in his belief, but has the right method to get at the truth.

In the middle of the dialogue, Socrates threatens to leave like a petulant child because Protagoras will not play along with his method. However, is this really all that different from the behavior Protagoras displays when he refuses to engage in the dialectic any longer and wants to debate with his own method? I think the parallels between the two characters are no accident, and it may be fair to judge Socrates at times as acting like a hypocrite. However, the real test of their characters come at the end when we see that Socrates does not mind being proven wrong so long as it leads to the truth, but Protagoras chooses to end the dialogue apparently from sour grapes.

Protagoras tries to con his way around Socrates by drawing on an argument from a Simonides poem. Protagoras claims early on in the play that Homer, Hesiod, and the poets were the early Sophists, while Plato demonstrates his characteristic mistrust of literature. It is with a great sense of irony that Protagoras opens his initial speech about virtue with a myth, a literary construct. This only furthers the divisions between the two men’s methods.

Socrates pokes fun at the art of literary criticism by concocting wild and crazy interpretations of the Simonides poem; one of the most hilarious interpretations of the poem proved that the success of the Spartans during the Peloponessian War was not because of their intense military training, but because they possess a secret cabal of philosophers to guide them that they horde and keep away from the other city-states. He notes the slippery nature of literary criticism, while mocking those who engage in it:

“Discussing poetry strikes me as no different from the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd. . . . When a poet is brougnt up in a discussion, almost everyone has a different opinion about what he means, and they wind up arguing about something they can never finally decide.”

Socrates glorifies the precision and accuracy of math over the relativisitic subject of literature. He is attempting to apply mathematic principles to human knowledge of abstract concepts. Where Protagoras, famous for his statement, “Man is the Measure of all Things,” flourishes in plurality and relativism, Socrates wants to delimit truth to one precise answer.

The dialogue resolves with only a partial resolution and without a completely satisfactory answer to the question: what is virtue, and can it be taught? Keeping Plato’s other dialogues in mind, the answer seems to be that virtue can be taught, but only to those with a certain philosophical inclination already born in them.

Plato in this dialogue states that no one willingly does bad or what he believes to be bad. However, he also recognizes that despite this truth people still perform bad actions. He suggests that when people do bad it is from ignorance, they literally do not understand that what they are doing is harmful to themselves and others; they might even mistake the good with the bad, as many of the Sophists do in this very dialogue.

Plato seems to suggest that all people are born essentially good, but some are born with a higher capacity for good than others. Still, anyone no matter what their aptitude can improve their level of virtue and become more virtuous with practice, sort of like practicing the guitar. Anyone can become a better guitarist with practice and time, but not everyone will end up as the next Jimi Hendrix. The exception is that some people become so tainted with evil over time by making the wrong decisions that they can never improve themselves. Another way to think of this concept is to imagine that one is born with a seed inside them that we’ll call virtue, and when someone more virtuous than yourself teaches you it functions as water to nourish that seed and help it blossom into a full grown tree; however, if nobody ever properly nourishes the seed it can rot and wither. And, of course, the proper method of teaching virtue is through the Socratic dialogue.

Phaedo by Plato (trans. G. M. A. Grube)

The character Phaedo recounts to Echecrates the final hours of Socrates. True to his nature, Socrates uses this time to engage in a dialogue with Simmias and Cebes on the nature of death and knowledge. The “dialogue,” if it can be called that given the flashback nature of the piece, discusses the place of philosophy in preparing one for death and engages in a long-winded dialogue about the existence of the soul before birth and after death. Socrates finishes their conversation with a myth reminiscent but different from the one in The Republic about the journey of souls after death. Then when the appointed hour arrives, Socrates drinks the poison, and everyone around him bursts into tears, which is the most emotionally interesting section of the work in what otherwise reads as a lot of mystic mumbo-jumbo cloaked in the facade of “reason.”

I didn’t enjoy reading this work in comparison to the other dialogues. It reads too much like a religious text than a philosophical one at times. In the Phaedo Socrates finally disappears and Plato articulates his own philosophical vision, which foregrounds the entire dialogue. Many of the concerns such as the immortality of the soul, the theory of recollection of knowledge, the introduction of the Forms that dominate the philosophical discussion of The Republic can be found here as well. We see Plato’s characteristic mistrust of the physical body and the senses as our primary sources of knowledge; he instead prefers to exalt intuition, reason, and what we can learn when we divorce ourselves from the senses. He goes so far as to blame the body and its desires for all the civil strife in the world.

Many scholars point out the similarities between Plato’s ideas of reincarnation and the Pythagorean’s; however, even more notable is the affinity many of these ideas have to Christianity. When Christianity arrived on the scene hundreds of years later it is not difficult to understand why so many Christians found a lot they could relate to in Plato.

The literary attributes of the “dialogue” are top-notch. The flashback structure of the dialogue compliments the theme of recollection as our source of knowledge since the reader experiences the entire dialogue as the recollection of one of the people present during the Socrates’ last hours. Similarly the flashback serves as yet another reminder that the soul which Plato associates with philosophy is more important than the body as we are hearing the immortalized words of Socrates, his philosophy, long after his body has decayed. The myth at the end is not as enjoyable or memorable as The Myth of Er in The Republic, however, I did appreciate the imagery of the rivers dragging those from Tartarus who only committed minor crimes up every few years, and who can only be freed from their punishment if the loved one whom they wronged forgives them.

Crito by Plato (trans. G.M.A. Grube)

“My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done.” – Socrates

After his trial, Socrates’ execution is delayed until the return of an Athenian ship sailing on an annual religious mission to the island of Delos. Crito discovers the ship will soon return to port. He comes to beg Socrates to flee into exile, afraid that people in the community will believe that he did nothing to save his friend and mentor. He plans to bribe the guards and lodge Socrates with friends in another city, but first he must convince Socrates that fleeing would be just, and staying unjust.

Crito’s main argument is not only an impassioned plea for his own honor, but also a genuine belief that a person dedicated to the philosophical life ought not to accept an unjust verdict of those who despise such a life. He also adds an additional appeal to the duty Socrates owes his family, especially his children. Socrates reminds us that one should care more about truth than public opinion. A thematic undercurrent that runs throughout the dialogue is to disregard the opinions of the majority, especially when it conflicts with truth. The truth is more important than public opinion because it is the key to achieving the good life, which is all that matters to Socrates.

Socrates elaborates on many of his views found in The Apology. In that work, Socrates shrugs off the prospect of death as just another adventure not to be feared. For Socrates life has no value in itself, but the good life is everything. The good life gravitates around following the principles of justice. One must try their best to constantly strive towards the good life, what Socrates also calls the beautiful life and the just life. He points out it is never right to retaliate against mistreatment with more mistreatment, presenting a sophisticated version of the general principle that two wrongs do not make a right.

As my introduction points out there is a problem with this line of thinking; it disregards the possibility that if Socrates fled he would not actually be retaliating, but rather would simply be preventing himself from being mistreated by those who wish to mistreat him. Socrates avoids this line of thinking, and perhaps addresses it implicitly with his conception of the social contract.

In the work, Socrates offers a version of a social contract. He states that one’s nation takes precedent over one’s family; likewise, that if one does not like their country and its rules they have the opportunity to leave it, seemingly anticipating the future American conservative’s favorite line, “love it or leave it.” On the other hand, he argues that he owes allegiance to his country due to the benefits he has reaped from its social services; they gave him an education and took care of him. He emphasizes the communal spirit and reciprocal nature of the community.

The concept of the social contract that Socrates develops explains why he chooses to respect the court’s decision. If he is willing to reap the benefits of his society, he should also accept its decisions, even if those decisions are bad. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the system you want to participate in and which parts you don’t. Society and the justice system function because people agree to these rules. If everyone simply escaped prison for exile whenever they disliked the verdict of a case, then justice could not exist and the rule of law would mean nothing. Unfortunately this also means that sometimes innocent people get convicted. Crito offers very little defense to this argument, meekly responding to Socrates throughout the entire dialogue as if he gave up long before he even got started.