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REVIEW: Why Socrates Died by Waterfield

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

[ Mark Safranski / “zen“]

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Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield

2400 years after his trial and execution at the hands of the restored Democracy, Socrates continues to exert a fascination over the Western mind. He is a seminal figure in the development of philosophy and was part of the cognitive revolution in classical Greece that saw a shift from archaic Homeric values to humanistic, rational and proto-scientific values. The death of Socrates, condemned for thought crimes, was the great contradiction of Athenian self-conception of Athens as  “the school of Hellas” and his execution remained an indictment leveled by the enemies of democracy ever since. While the importance of Socrates is universally acknowledged, the exact circumstances and motives for his death remain obscure; ironically, a philosopher who so deeply valued “truth” had prosecutors and apologists equally determined to conceal or distort it.

British scholar and translator Robin Waterfield has attempted, as did radical journalist I.F. Stone a generation earlier, to unearth the truth behind the myths about Socrates. Unlike Stone, Waterfield’s investigation, Why Socrates Died , rests on an extensive career translating and writing about the classics, including the major primary and secondary sources used for his book. This provides a firmer base for the inevitable speculation from limited evidence that is frequently required in historical reasoning about antiquity. Waterfield is also far less influenced by contemporary political and cultural conflicts than was Stone, whose turbulent career as an investigative journalist was intertwined with Cold War controversies and his activities on behalf of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Waterfield also understands far better the machinery of the Athenian state and the nature of Greek polytheistic religious life, which Stone erroneously believed had become thoroughly secularized by the time of the trial of Socrates.

Waterfield notes that while it is normal that most of the records of historical events during antiquity are fragmentary or have vanished, we two purported records for Socrates’ defense speech at his trial, one of the prosecution and numerous apologia. Socrates trial was obviously no ordinary law case for impiety, being still recalled by Athenians a half-century later. Nor did the disciples of Socrates who most ardently took up his cause, Plato and Xenophon, wish the case to be forgotten but rather endeavored to protect their master’s reputation for all posterity. Waterfield writes:

….Both Plato and Xenophon wanted to give their readers the impression that a high-minded philosopher was convicted by the stupidity of the mob, but this was an attempt to distract attention from the real reasons Socrates was killed.

The real reason posited by Waterfield was that Socrates  was the teacher of Alcibiades and Critias and thus bore some responsibility for the grave misfortunes suffered by Athens during the war and the crimes of the Thirty Tyrants afterwards. Moreover, as Waterfield argues, Socrates was not so much the victim of a political show trial in which Socrates deliberately provoked the democratic faction to kill him, as I.F. Stone argued but was a religious sacrifice or scapegoat for the transgressions of his students against democracy so that a fragile Athenian society could heal its wounds.

Much of the book is devoted to the career of the mercurial and highly charismatic Alcibiades, who entered politics young and as a disciple of Socrates. According to Wakefield, A scion of the greatest of Athenian houses, Alcibiades in his person was emblematic of all of the virtues and vices of the old Athenian aristocracy that had once ruled Athens from the grand council of the Aeropagus. Of the rising generation of young and clever men of good breeding who aimed to play a role in the politics of the radical democracy, Alcibiades had the greatest promise. Highly intelligent, wealthy, handsome and with a magnetic charm, Alcibiades had the natural arête and metis to romance the mob and bend it to his will. It was this that Waterfield argues attracted the attention of Socrates, who saw in Alcibiades and other young men of promising talent he took on as students the future of Athens.

Unfortunately, with Alcibiades, his numerous gifts could never be separated from his equally stupendous flaws – sexual libertinism, flamboyant profligacy, megalomaniacal ambition and reckless hubris – that were frequently his undoing. A psychological chameleon and demagogue, Waterfield argues that the Athenians, as much as they repeatedly forgave and embraced Alcibiades and his schemes, ultimately feared him as an aspiring tyrant. This feeling crystallized into blame for Socrates in the public mind when other students of his who lacked the charms of Alcibiades, notably Critias, sought revolution and oligarchy. Critias’ bloodthirsty pro-Spartan regime as well as the elite’s prior attempt at oligarchy are explained but not with the same space and attention to detail devoted to Alcibiades. One point that Waterfield takes further than most is arguing that Critias aspirations for a morally reformed and less populated Athens are very much in line with the teachings of Socrates. That far from an aberration for whom Socrates bears little responsibility, Critias represented the philosopher’s hopes for Athens and the Athenian democrats who had suffered at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants wanted someone held accountable. That someone was Socrates, whose teachings as it were, would imperil democracy again were he left at liberty.

Waterfield’s handling of the trial itself is less satisfying and includes a lengthy foray into fictive speculation of material prejudicial to Socrates that his notable apologists, Plato and Xenophon, have carefully omitted from their elegies to their beloved master and his trial. The parallels between Athenian religious ceremony and the results of Socrates trial – a trial for impiety held in defiance of the general amnesty that had been decreed for actions under previous regimes – are present. The Greeks did not as a rule go in for human sacrifices in the classical era (though it wasn’t quite as unknown as is commonly believed) but the symmetry is present if more metaphorical than perhaps explicitly religious. It is difficult as a modern to game out exactly where matters of state end and religion begin when the religion is pagan and intertwined in the mind of Athenians with the fate of the state. A debate more for classical scholars than the average layman.

What is difficult to dispute is the centrality of Socrates life in the evolution of Western philosophy and the contradiction he presents for admirers of self-government and free speech and thought as the core of a liberal society. Socrates elenchus is radically subversive; his Homeric tenets on rulership were arch-reactionary even by the standards of his day and Socrates devotion to his beliefs could not be dented even when they required the supreme sacrifice.

What would an American Socrates look and sound like today? How would “the herd” react to his immovable defiance of popular ideologies? Judging by the barometer of social media and the lynch mob mentalities and angry censoriousness that prevail in elite quarters of American life, I’d have to say: poorly. I see no evidence that Americans living in the bastion of civil liberty would prove more tolerant of dissent than did the Athenian democrats who put Socrates to death.

Waterfield has written a lively and informative explanation of a philosopher whose execution casts a long shadow even after two thousand years.  Recommended.

 

Trump, Flynn and immunity

Friday, March 31st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — tweets, and how they become, for me, a problem in number theory ]
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The initial question is, should I pair this:

with this:

Or this:

— or the last two with each other?

Such are the hazards of imprisonment within the DoubleQuote system — two, when three or more are available and relevant, becomes a constraint rather than a facilitation. So would any other positive integer — and god save us from the irrationsals!

Dawson & Amarasingam, Furnish & McCants

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — multi-causal and single focus motivations not incompatible ]
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Tim Furnish offered a terse “File this under ‘duh.'” in response to a CNSNews report titled Study: Religion is ‘Primary Motivator’ of Foreign Jihadists Who Go to Iraq & Syria on Facebook today. In response to a comment, he elaborated: “I’ve done the same study about 37 times over the last 15 years.”

Tim’s right. But I also believe we need a more nuanced approach to the issue of motivation.

**

Here’s the passage from the study in question, Lorne Dawson and Amarnath Amarasingam‘s Talking to Foreign Fighters: Insights into the Motivations for Hijrah to Syria and Iraq:

The findings reported here converge with those of these other studies in terms of how people radicalize and become foreign fighters. However, they tend to diverge with regard to why they go. In the twenty interviews analyzed no one indicated, directly or indirectly, that forms of socioeconomic marginalization played a significant role in their motivation to become a foreign fighter. Moreover, the interactions with these individuals were so heavily mediated by religious discourse it seems implausible to suggest that religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is not a primary motivator for their actions. Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives, and this reality should be given due interpretive weight.

There we are:

Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives

I couldn’t agree more. But then again, as Will McCants reminds us in Trump’s misdiagnosis of the jihadist threat (late 2016, but now twitter-pinned “because the causality question comes up constantly”):

The disappoint stems from the desire to attribute the jihadist phenomenon to a single cause rather than to several causes that work in tandem to produce it. To my mind, the most salient are these: a religious heritage that lauds fighting abroad to establish states and to protect one’s fellow Muslims; ultraconservative religious ideas and networks exploited by militant recruiters; peer pressure (if you know someone involved, you’re more likely to get involved); fear of religious persecution; poor governance (not type of government); youth unemployment or underemployment in large cities; and civil war. All of these factors are more at play in the Arab world now than at any other time in recent memory, which is fueling a jihadist resurgence around the world.

**

I’ve never been clear-headed enough to follow Aristotle‘s distinctions between material, formal, efficient, and final causes, let alone discussion of hypothetical causes that follow their effects, but it seems to me that the two statements above are easily reconciled if we understand that there are many causes for disgruntlement, to which a religious solution is in all cases present as disgruntlement turns to ISIS-sympathetic recruitment.

Religion (as Dawson & Amarasingam have it, “i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox”) is the sine qua non of jihadism.

**

So yeah, doh! — with multi-factorial causality earlier in the process..

Mosquitoes of the mind

Saturday, October 22nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — or should that be Uber über alles?]
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uber-drones
Forget billboards — motorists now have ads buzzing a few feet above their windshields — MIT Technology Review

**

There is an endless variety of possible starting points for a critique of oneself and the world. One might start from:

  • the message in a fortune cookie
  • whatever one’s parents imparted
  • whatever one rejected of what they imparted
  • Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates
  • a return to the Green Line
  • Palestine from the river to the sea
  • the sweet humility of the Magnificat
  • the fierce doctrine of Original Sin
  • the Cloud of Unknowing
  • the uncontaminated Unity of Godhead
  • the Buddha’s Noble Truth of suffering
  • the shining suchness of the Tathagata
  • something Karl Marx said, or Darwin
  • a tall tale from Chuang-Tzu
  • Lao Tzu’s unspeakable truth, unmappable path..
  • or the way someone reacted when one trod on their foot in the subway
  • Myself, I tend to go from either:

  • the Bene Gesserit adage, Fear is the mind-killer
  • or its obverse in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga is the cessation of waves in the mind.
  • **

    Which brings me to advertising.

  • Yoga is the cessation of waves in the mind.
  • Advertising is the paid attempt to capture my attention regardless of my wishes in the matter.

    In terms of the Yoga Sutras‘s goal of an unruffled mind, advertising attempts to stir up trouble — not in Syria or Afghanistan, or even in my kitchen, but within my consciousness.

    And I’m not alone in detesting this invasive behavior. “Nearly 90% of people watching timeshifted shows fast-forward the ads,” the Guardian reported in a piece titled TV advertising skipped by 86% of viewers, and while Victoria may have a secret ingredient which makes her ads memorable — I’m referring here, of course, to a recent Nobel Prizewinner — most ads are simply irritants.

    The benefit of advertising, to those whom it speaks, is that it acts as a road-sign to what we may want. It’s adverse effect is to clutter up our lives with road-signs to irrelevant and possibly offensive destinations. Apples don’t need little stickers on them proclaiming “apples by the Creator” but a discreet mention of “All purpose disinfecting cleaner by Bright Green” was quite helpful to me the other day, as I was wandering the aisles of Safeway in search of a brand they no longer carry..

    And yes. Advertising drives sales drives manufacturing drives employment drives a roof over the head for many who might otherwise find themselves in the rain. Granted.

    **

    But here come the mosquitoes.

    The image at the head of this post comes from an article titled Uber’s Ad-Toting Drones Are Heckling Drivers Stuck in Traffic.

    The unfortunate drivers in traffic jams in Mexico City are close to ground zero of an epidemic; Beelzebub, remember, is Lord of the Flies.

    October 8: ignore this till afterwards — or afterlife

    Friday, October 7th, 2016

    [ Charles Cameron — glance, okay, because it’s strange, and about tomorrow — no need to play the videos ]
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    Nostradamus:

    Brother Nathanael:


    Sheikh Imran Hosein:

    Illuminati:


    And:

    **

    Just dipping my toe in the strange waters of Matthew 24:36:

    But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

    and Qur’an 33:63:

    People ask you concerning the Hour. Say, “Knowledge of it is only with Allah. And what may make you perceive? Perhaps the Hour is near.”

    So:

  • Socrates, The unexamined life is not worth the living…
  • Christ, That they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly..
  • Anais Nin, The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself..
  • Bob Dylan: It’s life and life only..

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