Tag Archives: Socrates

Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!


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“The Apology of Socrates” by Plato


“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.


Filed under Literature, Non-fiction

“Euthyphro” by Plato


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.


Filed under Literature

“Orphic Reform” by Harold R. Wiloughby

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I recently read an article on the Symbol Reader blog about Orpheus. If you are not familiar with this blog, I suggest you check it out. It is my favorite blog out there. Anyway, I inquired about a suggestion to read that would give me some more information about Orpheus, since I was not very familiar with the mythology. She pointed me to the following page.

Sacred Texts

This is actually a chapter from a larger work called Pagan Regeneration. It is a very good piece and gave me a lot of information regarding Orpheus and the mystery cult that developed from the myth.

Wiloughby explains that it is not clear whether Orpheus actually existed or not. What is clear is that Orpheus seems to balance the Dionysian frenzy by adding a sober and calming view. He is credited with teaching the mystical arts to humans. Essentially, he was a reformer.

It is not possible to pronounce with certainty whether such a man as Orpheus ever really existed or not. He may have been a purely mythical figure. If he was a real man he was a religious leader of mark and deserving of admiration: a prophet, reformer, and martyr. Whether mythical or real, Orpheus was the antitype of the flushed and maddening wine-god Dionysus. He was a sober and gentle musician who charmed savage men and beasts with his music, an exact theologian, the prophet of reform in religion, who was martyred for his efforts.

The Orphic teachings passed down through the cult include instructions for the afterlife, not dissimilar to Egyptian writings.

Quite as revealing as these literary references, however, are the so-called Orphic tablets from tombs in southern Italy and Crete. They are eight in number and are all of very thin gold. According to a consensus of scholarly opinion, they contain the mutilated fragments of a ritual hymn composed for members of the Orphic sect as early as the fifth century B.C. In their present form they may be dated roughly from the fourth century B.C. to the second century of our era. Their purpose is self-evident. Buried with the dead they were intended to give instructions concerning conduct in the next world, formularies and confessionals to be repeated, and directions as to postmortem ceremonial observances. Their ritualistic character and the tone of conviction that pervades them give them peculiar value as sources of information concerning Orphic experience and practice. These remarkable tablets, though they are few in number, constitute our most valuable source materials for the Orphic cult.

One aspect of the Orphic philosophy that I found fascinating was the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, something that has always interested me. Essentially, initiates into the cult believed that the soul passed through a series of reincarnations until it was purified to the point that it became godlike again.

In its first analysis, therefore, the Orphic process of salvation was a process of purification from bodily taint. The problem, however, was not such a simple one as these words would indicate. It was not merely from the evils of a single existence that the Orphic sought deliverance, but from the evils of a long series of bodily existences. The Orphic first, and the Pythagorean later, believed in the transmigration of souls from body to body. On leaving the corpse at death, the soul was normally doomed to inhabit the bodies of other men or of animals even, passing on through a chain of physical existences until finally purified. An Orphic fragment preserved by Proclus reads: “Therefore the soul of man changing in the cycles of time enters into various creatures; now it enters a horse, again it becomes a sheep . . . . or as one of the tribe of chill serpents creeps on the sacred ground.” Reincarnation, like dualism, was an important item in Orphic theology.

Wiloughby points out the similarities between a Bacchanalia and the Orphic rites, but notes that there are also differences. While both include the consumption of raw flesh (it appears to be that of a sacrificial bull), the Orphic rites are much less savage and view the eating of the bull’s flesh as both communion and a reenactment of what happened to god Dionysus.

In general the prescribed Orphic ritual was a modification of the rude Bacchic rites we have already examined. The persistent representation of Orpheus in antiquity was that of a reformer of Dionysiac rites. Diodorus affirmed that “Orpheus being a man highly gifted by nature and highly trained above all others, made many modifications in the orgiastic rites; hence they call Orphic those rites that took their rise from Dionysus.” From the standpoint of ritualistic observance, therefore, there was much in common between Dionysian and Orphic practices. On the very threshold to the Orphic cult stood the omophagy, or feast of raw flesh, which was so prominent a Dionysian rite. In the remaining fragment of Euripides’ Cretans an initiate tells of certain ritual acts which he performed in the process of becoming a “Bacchus” and the one he stresses particularly is the eating of raw flesh.

The last thing I wanted to point out was the Orphic doctrine against suicide. Since the soul must go through the series of reincarnations to purify itself, it is offensive to God to kill yourself without going through the necessary suffering needed to help cleanse the spirit.

At one point especially the moral influence of Orphism was clear and indubitable: that was in its protest against suicide. Since the body was the soul’s place of penance a man had no right to take his own life. If he did he was a fugitive prisoner trying to escape before God had released him. Here Plato found Orphic thought peculiarly congenial to his own. In the Phaedo he represented Socrates as saying, shortly before his death, “There is a doctrine whispered in secret that a man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand. Yet I too believe that the gods are our guardians and that we are a possession of theirs.”

The whole chapter is very good and worth taking the time to read. I want to thank Symbol Reader again for the suggestion. I really got a lot out of reading this. I hope you do as well.


Filed under Literature