Tag Archives: dialog

Thoughts on “Crito” by Plato

This short dialog is included in The Last Days of Socrates which I originally read in college (and yes, I still have my old copy). It takes place while Socrates is in prison awaiting execution, and his friend Crito offers to help him escape and leave Athens. The two discuss whether it is right to do something that is wrong if something wrong is done to you, ultimately concluding that it is not justified, that the ideal of the social contract is more important than an individual’s self-interest. Essentially, Socrates would not break the law by escaping prison even though he was wrongly convicted, because upholding the ideal to which he agreed to live mattered more than his life.

Reading this in a time of social unrest as a result of individuals being frustrated with an unjust legal system raised a lot of questions for me, particularly: At what point does the social contract become invalid? If the laws themselves are just, but the people enforcing and applying those laws are unjust, is it right to respond unlawfully to foment social change which is clearly in the best interest of society? These are not easy questions to grapple with and I do not feel equipped to address them, but I felt I would put them out there for individuals to contemplate on their own.

There are a couple passages worth sharing and considering.

SOCRATES: I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good; which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.

(Last Days of Socrates: p. 81)

There are some interesting things to think about here. First, it seems that Socrates is asserting that a person’s ability to do good is equal to that person’s ability to do wrong, and vice versa. This is important, especially in our current world of social media where people tend to view others as either good or bad, depending upon how that persons actions or ideologies correlate with the person making the judgment call. In our drive to squeeze everything down to a Tweet or a meme, we’ve lost the ability to recognize the complexity and range of scope that every individual possesses.

The other thing that struck me about the previous quote is Socrates’ claim that ordinary people “simply act at random.” At first glance, this seems rather insulting, but upon further reflection, one begins to see the truth in the statement. The problem with many people in the world is that they react to situations without taking the time to adequately think through the ramifications of their actions. A wise person would pause, consider the situation, and come to a logical conclusion. Conversely, a stupid person would pause, consider the situation, and come to an illogical conclusion. Too many people do neither. They react without consideration, essentially acting at random, as Socrates would claim.

Later in the dialog, Socrates debates whether it is best to listen to public opinion or to defer to a single authority.

SOCRATES: In that case, my dear fellow, what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth. So in the first place your proposition is not correct when you say that we should consider popular opinion in questions of what is right and honorable and good, or the opposite.

(ibid: p. 86)

Socrates builds on this to establish that the law is the one authority that represents truth and that the public opinion that he should break the law by fleeing prison is the wrong course of action. But this again leads back to my quandary, which is, at what point does public opinion outweigh the law and previously agreed-upon social contract? It is a really difficult question, and one worthy of analysis via Socratic Method. But that is beyond the scope of this post, so I will leave you with the questions to ponder.

This dialog is very short (a mere 16 pages), but evokes a lot of questions relevant to our society today. I encourage you to give it a read. I suspect you can find a digital copy online for free.

Thanks for stopping by and for reading and thinking.

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“The Apology of Socrates” by Plato

DeathOfSocrates

“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Philip-Joseph de Saint-Quentin

I read this back when I was in college, but since I have been listening to the Philosophize This podcast on my drives to and from work, I was inspired to read it again. And yes, I still have my copy of The Last Days of Socrates from school which includes this text.

This text is basically Socrates on trial and the three arguments he presents to the court. The first argument is his closing statement to the jury; the second is after the guilty verdict is returned; and the final section is Socrates addressing the court after they decided on the death penalty.

What struck me upon reading this again is that although the title is the Apology, Socrates never apologizes for his actions. He remains steadfast in his righteousness and asserts that history will prove that he was justified in his pursuit of philosophic truth. I could not help but thinking that the title was meant to be sarcastic or satire.

UPDATE TO POST: A fellow blogger at Earthpages pointed out that Apology as used here comes from the Greek apologia which translates to answer or reasoned defense. This makes more sense. Check out Oxford Center for definition of apologetics

Probably the most famous passage from this text is where Socrates asserts that the reason he is the wisest of all men is because he knows how little he actually knows.

However, I reflected as I walked away: ‘Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.’

(Last Days of Socrates: p. 50)

We live in an age when technical knowledge is increasing exponentially, and this begs an important question: Does all this knowledge and information actually make us wiser? It’s a legitimate question for the information age. Socrates would say “No.” He asserts that technical knowledge does not equate to wisdom.

Last of all I turned to the skilled craftsmen. I knew quite well that I had practically no technical qualifications myself, and I was sure that I should find them full of impressive knowledge. In this I was not disappointed; they understood things which I did not, and to that extent they were wiser than I was. But, gentlemen, these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I noticed in the poets; I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject, however important; and I felt that this error more than outweighed their positive wisdom.

(ibid: pp. 51 – 52)

Socrates states that “…so long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet.” (ibid: p. 61) Essentially, he is committed to being a life-long learner, something I also aspire to. The day we stop questioning and learning and exercising our mental faculties is the day our minds begin to atrophy. Following Socrates’ example, I plan on reading and writing and thinking for as long as I am physically and mentally capable of doing so, and I hope that you do the same.

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“Fergus and the Druid” by William Butler Yeats

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Fergus. This whole day have I followed in the rocks,
And you have changed and flowed from shape to shape,
First as a raven on whose ancient wings
Scarcely a feather lingered, then you seemed
A weasel moving on from stone to stone,
And now at last you wear a human shape,
A thin grey man half lost in gathering night.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. This would I Say, most wise of living souls:
Young subtle Conchubar sat close by me
When I gave judgment, and his words were wise,
And what to me was burden without end,
To him seemed easy, So I laid the crown
Upon his head to cast away my sorrow.

Druid. What would you, king of the proud Red Branch kings?

Fergus. A king and proud! and that is my despair.
I feast amid my people on the hill,
And pace the woods, and drive my chariot-wheels
In the white border of the murmuring sea;
And still I feel the crown upon my head

Druid. What would you, Fergus?

Fergus. Be no more a king
But learn the dreaming wisdom that is yours.

Druid. Look on my thin grey hair and hollow cheeks
And on these hands that may not lift the sword,
This body trembling like a wind-blown reed.
No woman’s loved me, no man sought my help.

Fergus. A king is but a foolish labourer
Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.

Druid. Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams;
Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.

Fergus. I See my life go drifting like a river
From change to change; I have been many things —
A green drop in the surge, a gleam of light
Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill,
An old slave grinding at a heavy quern,
A king sitting upon a chair of gold —
And all these things were wonderful and great;
But now I have grown nothing, knowing all.
Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow
Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing!

I really like this poem . First off, I like how it is written as a dialog, almost like a slice out of a play. It reads nicely and the cadence and flow of the verse is beautiful.

The poem begins with Fergus following the Druid amid the rocks as the Druid goes through a series of metamorphoses. I see two interpretations for the rocks: first, they could represent stone circles, similar to Stonehenge where the Druids would have worshiped; but the stones could also refer to Fergus being in a cemetery, contemplating his mortality and seeking answers to his life.

When the Druid assumes his human form, Fergus expresses his desire to relinquish his rule and bestow it upon Conchubar. I had to do a little research to determine the relationship between Fergus and Conchubar. Basically, according to the mythology, Fergus fell in love with Ness and Conchubar was Ness’ son from another marriage. So this seems to tie in to the archetype of the connection between the death of the king and the assumption by the son to continue the earthly cycles, such as explored by Frazier in The Golden Bough.

In addition to relinquishing rule as king, Fergus seeks knowledge from the Druid. The Druid seems reluctant to grant Fergus his request and points out how he is burdened by his knowledge. There is a parallel here. Fergus is burdened by the weight of the crown while the Druid is burdened by the weight of his knowledge. In the end, the Druid grants Fergus his wish and gives him a “little bag of dreams,” which ultimately opens the doors to Fergus’ mind and allows him to see into his own future, seeing all that will be.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

In the end, Fergus is overwhelmed with sorrow as a result of his knowledge. He no longer has any hope and life is now void of all mystery. He sees only the inevitable future which is the “small slate-coloured thing,” his own gravestone.

It seems as if Yeats is giving us a little warning here. The pursuit of knowledge is something that should not be taken lightly, especially occult knowledge which allows one to peer through the veils of mystery. One must be fully prepared to face the hidden knowledge, which is often hidden for a reason.

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“Euthyphro” by Plato

Euthyphro

This is a short dialog that takes place between Socrates and Euthyphro as Socrates is awaiting trial for corruption of Athenian youth. Euthyphro is a seer and an expert on religion who is about to bring manslaughter charges against his own father. This leads to the debate over what is piety, which may also be interpreted as holiness.

Socrates seeks to grasp the ideal of piety, but all Euthyphro is able to provide are examples of pious acts. For Socrates, this fails to get at the essence of what piousness truly is.

Socrates: Well, then, do you recollect that what I urged you to do was not tell me about one or two of these many pious actions, but to describe the actual feature that makes all pious actions pious? – because you said, I believe, that impious actions are impious, and similarly pious ones pious, in virtue of a single characteristic. Or don’t you remember?

Euthyphro: Yes, I do.

Socrates: Then explain to me what this characteristic is in itself, so that by fixing my eyes upon it and using it as a pattern I may be able to describe any action, yours or anyone else’s, as pious if it corresponds to the pattern and impious if it doesn’t.

As the dialog continues, Euthyphro attempts to argue that what is pious is that which is loved by the gods. Socrates disproves this based upon the assertion that being loved by the gods is an attribute of piousness, but not the essence.

Socrates: But if what is god-beloved were identical with what is pious, my dear Euthyphro, what is god-beloved would be loved because it is god-beloved; and if what is god-beloved were god-beloved because it is loved by the gods, then what is pious would be pious because it is loved by them. As it is, you can see that the relation between them is just the opposite; which shows that they are entirely different from each other. The one is loveable because it is loved, and the other is loved because it is loveable. I rather think, Euthyphro, that when I asked you what piety is you were unwilling to disclose its essence to me, and merely stated one of its attributes, saying that piety is the attribute of being loved by all the gods; but you have not yet told me what it is that has this attribute. So, if you have no objection, please don’t conceal the truth from me, but make a fresh start and tell me what piety is that it is loved by the gods or has any other attribute – we shan’t quarrel about that –; tell me without reserve what piety and impiety are.

After the discussion goes around several times, Euthyphro gives up and takes his leave. There is no resolution and the essence of piety is never uncovered. I suspect that the reason is that it is ineffable, as are other ideals. The true essence of an ideal, just like a form or an archetype, exists beyond the grasp of our comprehension. We can only see manifestations of the ideal or the form, but not the thing itself. I personally would venture to assert that these ideals are also subjective, just as beauty and ugliness are subjective. We can claim that something has the attribute of being beautiful, but that does not tell us what beauty is.

OK, that’s enough mental gymnastics for one day.

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