Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I couldn’t let what I found around the close of book five slide. Near the end of that book, Athens makes an expedition against the small island of Melos. But before they invade, they send a few representatives to the islands to negotiate with the Melians. Here’s how, near the beginning of the ensuing dialogue, the Athenians justify the pending invasion:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of a wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That sounds an awful lot like what Thrasymachus tells Socrates in Plato’s Republic: that justice “is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

The Athenians attacked Melos in 416 BCE, Socrates drank the hemlock in 399, and Plato wrote the Republic somewhere around 380. I don’t know if Thrasymachus’ argument was supposed to be representative of popular Athenian opinion; nor do I know how much of Socrates’ positive moral realist argument in the Republic actually came from Socrates, and wasn’t just Plato putting words in the mouth of his mentor and surrogate. But if we take Thucydides’ transcription of events as evidence that Athenians were largely Thrasymachans, and if we take Plato at his word regarding Socrates’ metaethical beliefs, then all of this adds a new shade to popular understandings of the trial of Socrates.

The beliefs that got Socrates killed are generally understood to be negative beliefs. He is said to have questioned the gods, or challenged democratic rule. But maybe his moral realist critique also got him in some trouble. Applying Socratic standards, Athenian behavior during the Peloponnesian War certainly doesn’t look all that stellar. Maybe the shame of the Athenians helped doom Socrates.

But hey, what do I know? I’m no classicist, and this is just uninformed speculation. I’d like to hear from some people who know more about this.

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7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
December 3, 2010

The title of this post is the full text of Wittgenstein’s seventh, and final, proposition. After pages and pages of dense epistemology, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of language — sprinkled with the occasional zen-like pronouncement — we’re left, on the final page, with Wittgenstein at his most zen-like.

The seventh proposition exemplifies the doctrine of philosophy as therapy adopted by the New Wittgenstein school of thought. I see New Wittgenstein as an extrapolation from Wittgenstein’s assertion (back in the fourth proposition) that “[p]hilosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” To the New Wittgensteinians, there are tremendous psychological benefits that come along with eliminating confusion in one’s understanding of the world.

This, a New Wittgensteinian might argue, is why Wittgenstein is so careful to delineate what we can and cannot put into intelligible propositions. Too much of philosophy ties itself into knots trying to put into words that which cannot be put into words. The philosopher creates tremendous anxiety for herself by trying to reason through unintelligible statements, when she would be much better served by the recognition that these subjects are inherently unintelligible.

I have some caveats about this approach,* but overall I think it’s brilliant. And Wittgenstein’s conception of the purpose of philosophy is eminently sensible. Since I first read it, I’ve adopted it as my own.

It’s funny: When the Tractatus was originally published in 1921, the whole notion of philosophy as clarification must have seemed incredibly startling. I mean, we’re talking about a definition of what philosophy is and does which writes off thousands of years of metaphysical inquiry. Yet as devastating as that sounds, the kernel was always there, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks. In Athenian dialogues featuring Socrates — most notably Plato’s dialogues, of course — the insufferable genius would always prevail by asking probing questions of his fencing partners, forcing them to clarify their own assertions until the internal contradictions were inherently obvious. It was only when Socrates took it upon himself to propose positive theories that his acuity took flight and he fell into the same sort of ponderous metaphysical invention he had so effectively demolished in others.

What Wittgenstein proposes is little more than all of what made Socrates great with none of the chaff. And most of his own positive assertions about the nature of epistemology and what he calls “the scaffolding of the world” are beyond brilliant. It’s more like hearing the things you always sort of knew were true yet never had eloquence and expertise to put into words put before you in plain (well, sometimes) language.

In other words, it’s the clarification of statements. Namely the really big, really important statements. And no denying that it’s therapeutic.

I hope you guys had as much fun with this as I did.

*Which I addressed in my last Wittgenblog.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Twilight of the Idols
September 25, 2010

Gotzen-dammerung - The first edition cover of ...
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With the beginning of Twilight of the Idols, we move into late-era Nietzsche. Soon he’ll be swallowed up by insanity, and I think here is where the first warning signs appear. He’s still the Friedrich we know and love (or hate, or feel deeply ambivalent about), but something’s different. The wit and mockery on display here is a little more acidic. And Nietzsche is ripping into his fellow philosophers like we have never seen before.

I’m not that deep into Twilight of the Idols, but so far almost all of it seems given over to harsh criticism of different philosophical traditions. Platonic forms and Kantian idealism each get savaged as different incarnations of the same error, and Utilitarianism gets dismissed in a single snide comment. Not even Socrates escapes unscathed.

Here’s a passage from the essay, “The Problem of Socrates,” which I think gets at Nietzsche’s larger project in this work:

It is a self-deception on the part of philosophers and moralists if they believe that they are extricating themselves from decadence when they merely wage war against it. Extrication lies beyond their strength: what they choose as a means, as salvation, is itself but another expression of decadence; they change its expression, but they do not get rid of decadence itself.

He is referring here to the Socratic method, and reasoning itself. It’s a jarring argument coming from the man who once held up reason as the only true path to the truth.

But I don’t think this is a contradiction so much as it is a summary of his whole project. Nietzsche is deeply passionate about reason as he sees it, not the idealism of prior philosophers. But perhaps more importantly, he’s an enemy of intellectual complacency and the self-assuredness he identifies as a symptom. Attacking the assumptions of even his own heroes is a way of fighting that good fight.

Nietzsche Blogging: Homer’s Contest
August 23, 2010

The Death of Socrates
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I’m about 30 pages into The Portable Nietzsche now, and a few prominent themes are already becoming pretty obvious. The most obvious one: Nietzsche loves himself some Greeks. Homer, of course, gets a major shout out in “Homer’s Contest,” but the German philosopher’s greatest affinity seems to be for the Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and so on.

It turns out that Nietzsche likes the ancients for a lot of the same reasons I do: he takes issue with the utilitarian, enlightenment-era notion of aggregate pleasure or utility as an ultimate moral end. Nietzsche sees truth as a worthwhile end in and of itself, not to mention excellence.

I’m completely onboard with truth as an end, but on the fence regarding virtue and excellence. Or, to put it more accurately, I think virtue and excellence are fine things, but that it’s nonsensical to think of them as something that could put you above other persons in any morally relevant sense. I’m not sure how I feel about the second formulation from Kant’s categorical imperative (the part that says: never treat others as means, always treat them as ends in and of themselves) as a set in stone law ad absurdum, but I think there’s considerable merit to it as a general rule of thumb.

Nietzsche clearly disagrees. To him, the lives of the vast majority of humankind are valuable only to the extent to which they serve as means for the truly virtuous, excellent people. Or as he puts it, when discussing why we have civilization: “The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates.”

To my delicate liberal sensibilities, the idea of calling any person a simple “blank” with no moral weight of their own is morally repugnant. But what little I know of Nietzsche’s work suggests this will grow into a major preoccupation of his, and I’m interested to see how he develops it.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

Republican candidate Mitch Daniels
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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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The Platonic Code
July 1, 2010

Plato along with Socrates and Aristotle were f...
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The Guardian ran an article a couple days ago by philosopher Julian Baggini, featuring some new insights into the way Plato structured his writings. The findings are pretty stunning. It turns out the number of lines in his most famous works are all multiples of twelve, the significance being:

Believing that this pattern corresponds to the 12-note musical scale widely used by Pythagoreans, Kennedy divided the texts into equal 12ths and found that “significant concepts and narrative turns” within the dialogues are generally located at their junctures. Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth “notes”, which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.

Things get even more interesting at the bottom of the article:

The secrecy was because Plato’s was “a dangerous idea”, claims Kennedy. “It meant that mathematical law governed the universe and not Zeus.” Given that Plato’s teacher, Socrates, had been executed for sowing impiety among the youth he would have been “very cautious abut revealing doctrines that threaten the gods of Olympus”.

Well sure, that’s one theory. Or maybe Plato made up this code to conceal the location of The Lost Treasure of Socrates.

 Wait, Socrates lived in poverty? Oh. Never mind. 

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“I think Socrates and Plato would have laughed themselves silly.”
June 23, 2010

This is a couple days old by now, but I’m still trying to figure out why exactly far-right Iowa congressman Steve King found it necessary to namecheck Socrates and Plato in the process of defending his claim that, to put it Kanye West-style, “Barack Obama doesn’t care about white people.”

As far as I can figure out, the reasoning goes like this:

  1. My argument is correct.
  2. Smart people agree with correct arguments.
  3. Smart people disagree with incorrect arguments.
  4. People laugh at what they disagree with.
  5. Smart people laugh at incorrect arguments.
  6. Socrates and Plato are famous smart people.
  7. Socrates and Plato would laugh at views that conflict with my argument.

Which is internally consistent I guess, but not, um, up to inclusion in the Republic.

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Literary Readings of Plato
May 25, 2010

Cover of "Republic (Oxford World's Classi...
Cover of Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)

A lot of commenters have been offering up very smart readings of Platonic dialogues, and particularly the Republic, that understand the arguments Socrates, Glaucon, Thrasymachus and others offer up as standing for more than just the arguments themselves. I’ve heard a lot of similar readings of Plato; for example, in Grand Strategies, Charles Hill insists that the Republic is obviously a satire, and Plato meant to satirize, not endorse, the vision Socrates offers up of a nation-state run by philosopher-kings.

I’m not so sure about that. But regardless of the merits of what Hill says, it’s not so much a philosophical critique as it is a literary one. When one argues that the debate between Socrates and Thrasymachus over the nature of justice is a metaphor for something else, that, too, is a literary critique.

Obviously literary readings of the Republic have a lot of value, and the text is, among many other things, a great work of literature. But I think attempts to read it like this expose some of the limitations of philosophy: in order to do a philosophical analysis of the arguments in the Republic, we pretty much have to take them at face value and assume that the participating parties mean exactly what they say and no more. Otherwise, the argument gets so mired in  ambiguity that there’s no clearly defined logical progression of ideas to break down and evaluate.

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May 25, 2010

Since I don’t think that Thrasymachus’ argument is about philosophy of law, it’s time for me to attach a definition to what I think is really going on: he and Socrates are engaging in one of the earliest, and most well-known, metaethical debates.

Metaethics, for reasons that have a lot to do with this argument, is the philosophical topic I’m most fixated on. My metaethics professor put the central question of the discipline in this way: “When we discuss, or argue about, ethics, what is it we’re doing?”

The Socrates of the Republic is what you might call a moral realist. He thinks that when one debates ethics, one is debating over a set of mind-independent facts about the world.

Me, I’m not so sure. And, in fact, I found his conception of ethics as relating to these universal forms of justice and the good that exist on a higher plane than mere physical objects wholly unpersuasive.

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Thrasymachus and Philosophy of Law
May 24, 2010

Welcome, readers of Matthew Yglesias, and thanks to my friend Young Zeitlin for the link.

In response to my last post on Thrasymachus, a couple of commenters brought up the notion that Thrasymachus’s response to Socrates was aimed more at human law than the ideal of justice. This isn’t an uncommon interpretation, but it is an important one; depending on what you think Thrasymachus intends to rebut, he is either a nihilist or a mere legal realist.

I never got around to studying philosophy of law, but my understanding of legal realism is that it’s the belief that law is constructed through practice, precedent, and text, and is therefore subject to the whims and errors of those who write and practice it. This is in contrast to any theory that attempts to understand the law through reference to natural law or laws that supposedly stem from anything other than human practice.

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this—I don’t think legal realism is terribly controversial in this day and age, but I also don’t think it was what Thrasymachus was getting at. Recall that while he does argue that “justice” is something that is in the interests of the ruling class, when pressed by Socrates he insists that even then the ruling class doesn’t necessarily know what justice is. So it is not necessarily something that they create as it is something that automatically favors power, a sort of “might makes right” philosophical doctrine.

So it seems to me that Thrasymachus is making an overtly amoral argument.

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