What is Opinion?

A proper understanding of doxa/opinion’s place in human cognition is crucial to grasping the meaning of the Republic. Indeed, it may even be its most important teaching. To get at what Plato means by doxa, let’s look carefully at a passage in Book V in which Socrates is trying to establish the nature of opinion and the opinable. Socrates first points out that two opinions about who (or what) is beautiful can differ — even if they are opinions about the same thing by the same person — so that the same thing can look either beautiful or ugly depending on the circumstances. Let me give you an example of the phenomenon by means of an experiment (very fun with kids): (more…)

What is tyranny?

The original meaning of tyrannos is not bad/oppressive rule, although it did come to mean that, but rather rule by someone foreign to the jurisdiction in which he governs. Not coincidentally, the word itself seems to be a foreign term ingested into the Greek language, perhaps during some epoch of occupation by a foreign power. To cite one well-known example of this relation between tyranny and foreignness: Oedipus Tyrannos isn’t given that epithet for being evil but for being raised outside of Thebes — Oedipus for the most part seems to have been considered a good ruler. So how does the word “tyrant” come to mean what we now take it to mean? (more…)

What I think I understand about Platonic form

My title is tentative, I know, and so is what follows. But we always must begin with the tentative, in its etymological sense of stretching — stretching toward what we don’t yet fully know and yet which grips us by means of anticipations present in the desire to know. I want to write a straightforward statement of what I believe forms to be in Plato. I have no book in front of me and so will not cite any texts. My purpose is to lay bare my own pre-understanding so that I will have a sample to test against the texts themselves. The dialogues are the testing-stone, the basansos, that I can measure myself against when I do return to them, and measure myself without evasions. (It is as if I write what follows in answer to a kind of subpoena from a divine judge — I will really try not to perjure myself!) (more…)

On learning from books

I am reading a book called The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha. I am enjoying it so far, but of course I am a terrible sucker for books about the discovery and impact of books in people’s lives. Reading such accounts throws me into sweet reveries about my own encounters with books and the enticing prospect of more of the same. Books are personal to me and I am emotionally moved by first-hand descriptions of how others work through the person/book dialectic. Some of my own reading experiences (more…)

What is a virtue?

The question of what exactly a virtue *is* has come up in the contributing comments of my Symposium question. Since this is a key issue in Plato studies, I think it would be helpful to expand on this matter. I will provisionally define virtue/arete (at least this is how I understand the Greeks to define it) as “a power of sustained excellence in purposive activity.” Whatever has a functional aim (whether thing, or craft or instrument or tool) has a virtue specific to it. I am able to drive a nail with a hammer (sort of), but a carpenter with skill can drive it well. A brick can be used to (more…)

Symposium question on knowledge and decision

I think it would be fun to have a little online symposium on a question of philosophical interest. Here’s how it will work: I will ask a question of you and (if you can spare a little time to think and respond), we can consider the question and answers together. Don’t feel you have to respond just to me and my question, but feel free to respond directly to the other respondents too.

My question is based on a quotation from the Gorgias. Socrates has just pressed a conclusion upon a young (more…)

Did Plato write three drafts?

I mentioned in my last post that a sense of the Republic’s structure attunes its reader to notice certain discontinuities that seem to mar its implicit order. One of these is the transition from Book IV to Book V, which is the opening of the middle (climatic) act of the five act division I gave of the Republic as a whole. The end of Book IV seems, on a first reading, to reach a climax:  the characters were trying to trying to answer the question, “What is justice?” and Book IV reaches consummation with a set of satisfying (or at least agreed upon) definitions of justice and the other (more…)

The structure of Plato’s Republic

I think the structure of the Republic is vitally important to understanding its meaning. Every dialogue, and especially this one, is an organized whole, and none of the parts will be fully understood if the nature of the whole is overlooked. Perhaps a first clue towards discovering this structure is in the obvious point that the dialogue is a drama, a type of play. If I were to divide Plato’s Republic into five acts as in a play, I would carve it this way: (more…)

Two types of problems

In E. F. Schumacher’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed (a short book that I often recommend to people who want to dip into philosophy for the first time), there is a final chapter called “Two Types of Problems.”  In it, Schumacher contrasts what he calls “convergent problems” from “divergent problems.” I am convinced of the vital importance of the distinction for the governance of our lives and politics, so let me give you a thumbnail version: (more…)

My discovery of the mystery of being

I want to share three experiences from my early childhood that planted in my soul the questions which still motivate me.  These are not academic questions to me at all, but living, concrete, personal provocations for living and thinking. I hope that, by this detour into autobiography (somewhat embarrassing to me), my peculiar questions (and my peculiar way of answering them) will acquire some context for you.

First memory. My father was serving in the U.S. Navy when I was born and so I spent my early years moving (more…)