Charmides reading: the Etymology of Sophrosyne

NOTE: This is the 4th of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

I would like to attempt an etymology of the word sophrosyne. Although there is scholarship enough to make my attempt  plausible, I do not think it is altogether necessary to get the philology right. The purpose of my etymology is opening up understanding rather than nailing down the actual trajectories of word. (Plato wrote an entire dialogue, Cratylus, based on playful etymologies.) Take all this with appropriate moderation!

Sophrosyne is compounded from two Greek roots, sophron and syne.

Let’s begin with the suffix, since it is easier. Adding “syne” to the end of an adjective turns that adjective into an abstract noun. So dikaios (just) + syne = dikaiosyne (justice). Sophron (sound-minded) + syne = sophrosyne (soundminded-ness). So -syne (more…)

Charmides reading: Is sophrosyne untranslatable?

NOTE: This is the 3rd of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

In my last post, I mentioned the historical context of the Charmides, a context that Plato would have assumed all of his Greek readers would have readily have understood. But in addition to this assumption by Plato of his reader’s already understood background, there is also the simple fact that a Greek reader would already have a working understanding of the word sophrosyne. Our situation is a little more complex. Most of us must labor with translated equivalents, which are imprecise at best and misleading at worst. I have noticed a (more…)

Historical Context of the Charmides

NOTE: This is the 2nd of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

The historical setting of the Charmides haunts the dialogue and its arguments. At the very least, the allusions to political events and persons emphasize what is at stake in the presence/absence of the virtue of sophrosyne. (English translations: moderation, self-control, temperance, continence, sound-mindedness) Three events in particular deserve special attention for the purposes of understanding the dialogue: (1) the battle and siege of Potidaea (432 to 429 BC), and by extension the entire Peloponnesian War (432 BC to 404 BC); (2) the reign of the Thirty Tyrants from 404 to 403 BC, of which Critias was a leader and Charmides at least a henchman; and (3) the execution of Socrates by the restored democracy in 399 BC. All three are (more…)

Reading Group on Plato’s Charmides

NOTE: This is the 1st of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view later posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

If anyone out there is interested, some friends and I will be gathering to discuss Plato’s dialogue Charmides beginning on June 5th. I will start posting notes, discussion questions and background information this week and next, mostly to get you thinking about the text. Feel free to contribute with questions or comments wherever you are and as you see fit. The dialogue is largely a search for the meaning of the reality behind the Greek word sophrosyne, variously translated as “moderation” or “temperance” or “sound-mindedness”. There is no exact English equivalent, which may actually help us since we will be less prone, as a Greek reader might, to presume that we already know what it is. A problem for the Anglophone reader is that the (more…)

Life as Non-totalizable Wholeness

A quote:

“All living beings are in effect characterized by a movement, which nothing can cause to cease, a movement that largely exceeds what is required by the satisfaction of needs and that, because of this, bears witness to an essential incompleteness. This incompleteness reveals that life is originarily bound to a world. Because the world to which the living being relates is essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable, living movement can not essentially complete itself. Thus, in the final analysis, life must be defined as desire, and in virtue of this view, life does not tend toward self-preservation, as we have almost always thought, but toward the manifestation of the world.”

From the abstract to “Life, Movement, and Desire” by Renaud Barbaras, Research in Phenomenology, Volume 38, Issue 1 (2008)

Living things are necessarily incomplete. Incompleteness is kinetic (“characterized by a movement”) and erotic (“defined as desire”) since it is in-complete only against the intuited backdrop of an encompassing whole. Barabaras is correct to say that this relation is “essentially non-totalizable and unpresentable” — to represent it would require completing it and to complete it would strip it of life. Plato is not just reticent to write deepest truths (e.g. discussions in Phaedrus and 7th Letter) — he is incapable of it. But what he can communicate is the incompleteness, the felt absence of the whole that is the source of movement and desire.

I am reminded of Socrates’ longing to bring the city-in-speech of the Republic to life:

“I should like, before proceeding further, to tell you how I feel about the Polis which we have described. I might compare myself to a person who, on beholding beautiful animals either created by the painter’s art, or, better still, alive but at rest, is seized with a desire of seeing them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict to which their forms appear suited; this is my feeling about the Polis which we have been describing.”  — Socrates in Plato’s Timaeus, 19b-c

To present a “living city”, as I believe Plato attempts in the Republic, must be to present it as incomplete but as containing the seeds of its striving in the recognition of that incompleteness. To read that work requires that we read it defectively. If he were to succeed in writing a satisfactory account, then it will be be inscribed not on paper but rather into living souls of his readers.

The Meno Paradox and the the Intentional Remainder of desire

(Another post on trying to articulate Plato’s use of the term “doxa”, i.e. opinion. I hope you will forgive me!)

Opinion can be used in either a pejorative or positive sense. On one hand, opinion can be a dead end, a idolatrous substitute for knowledge, dampening concern for the desire that informs it. On the other hand — assuming that one’s beliefs/opinions are the expression of a desire to know what is true — then opinion can function as a bridge between ignorance and knowledge. In either case, opinion is intentional. (There is also the fact that opinion informs all of our practical behavior; we couldn’t function without it.)

What do I mean when I describe opinion as “intentional”? An opinion is the expression of a movement toward some telos, which in the case of intellectual eros, is to know the real. Opinion is a first attempt to satisfy the intellectual eros — although it never fully can. Its proper end is never mere appearance but something true and good. Eros is the root of the kinesis toward the real. Every eros aims at the good of truth and opinion provides a provisional satisfaction of that aim. Socrates makes the point again and again that every desire really desires what is good — not an apparent good, but a real one. Socrates directs attention to the inadequacy of one’s doxa to satisfy the demands of intellectual (noetic) eros. The difference between real and apparent is for Plato also an epistemological question: “What is really so?” Intellectual desire intends knowledge of the real. Of course, most of the time we allow ourselves to be satisfied with mere appearance. This creates a difference between (A) the satisfaction that we think satisfies our desire and (B) that which is really good but which we don’t yet recognize as such. The difference between these (B-A), i.e. the difference between the real and the apparent, is what I shall call the “intentional remainder”.  It remains as a haunting reminder, the felt absence of the satisfaction of eros which is not yet fully realized in opinion.

The Meno Paradox is at the core of my thinking — the question: how can we search for what we don’t know? If we don’t already know what we are looking for, then seeking is impossible. And yet if we do already know, then seeking is unnecessary. So, the paradox implies that seeking is either impossible or unnecessary. Obviously, seeking is both possible and necessary, as we all know from experience. The apparent paradox implies a strict either/or that is inconsistent with the both/and/neither/nor essence of seeking. All desirous seeking must anticipate its end and be able to recognize it when reached. Every desire includes the criterion of its own satisfaction. This criterion is a heuristic anticipation of what would fulfill the intention. Meno’s notion of learning is that there is nothing in-between ignorance and knowledge. Self-satisfied with the appearance of wisdom and frightened by the appearance of ignorance in his soul, he fails to grasp the in-between character of intellectual eros.

A comparison between what one doesn’t know and what one wants to know haunts every stage. Any hint that a search is getting close is sufficient to generate strong feeling. I have often noticed a thrilling rush of emotion that precedes my discovery of an answer. This everyday phenomenon of seeking ought to alert us that the emptiness or lack of desire is not altogether separated from noetic insight. Desire has three components: (1) felt absence, (2) anticipation of fulfillment and (3) a movement from lack toward intended fulfillment — two poles and the erotic bridge between them. Each of these components is generated by noetic insight: (i) Socrates asks for a definition, which provokes a desire to know — felt absence is dominant. (ii) The respondent answers with a definition that seems to satisfy that desire — the anticipation of fulfillment is dominant. (iii) The definition is shown to be faulty, making the intentional remainder dominant. The question is reasserted, which reasserts the intellectual desire and its demand for full satisfaction. Making an implicit noetic insight explicit is the process that Socrates calls anamnesis: the criterion of the satisfaction of intellectual desire precedes the actual fulfillment and drives the search. Each stage is at least partially a product of the light of noesis. At each successive stage, the light of noetic insight ought to increase.

(A slight aside. If the term “following your heart” has any meaning it is this — that you must not ignoring the promptings of the intentional remainder when a comfortable pseudo-satisfaction has been reached.)

Socrates both asks for a definition and infallibly demonstrates its inadequacy — in doxa, there is always a remainder. Definitions have remainders and the generation of remainders is a definition’s most important work. The remainder is, in fact, not incidental to the attempt to define, but is an effect of the attempt, perhaps its chief effect. The search for definition produces in the soul a proper intellectual eros, which fourth question shapes and refines. What Socrates is trying to create is not just a true definition, but even more importantly a property oriented intellectual eros. It is the definition that is incidental!

Of course, this benefit of the intentional remainder depends on the intention. If what is being sought is the appearance of truth or a reputation for knowledge, the intentional remainder will not direct thinking in the correct direction. Only if the desire to know becomes the prime criterion of satisfaction does the intention, and its intentional remainders, have epistemological value.
For instance polemical situation tends to derail opinion from its kinesis toward truth, because it shifts the object of desire from a desire for knowledge to a desire for victory. Then the opinion that is a seeming-true confronts a counter-opinion that is a seeming-false. The victory motive of thumos replaces the intentional object from truth to overcoming the other’s pretension to superiority. Stubborn opinions usually have polemical support. Opinions are pliable and receptive when truth is the goal, but a desire to assert oneself competitively can derail advance toward knowing the real and harden our striving into dogma.

The duality of opinion

All opinion is partial. It always treats as the whole true an aspect that seems true. But other aspects are always possible. A particular opinion is prone to wander away from its seeming-true to reveal another face of reality. Opinion harbors a residue — a marker, usually some nagging feeling like doubt or hesitancy — of what has been abstracted away in order to make opinion seem true. For belief there is focal confidence and excluded, affective doubt. In thinking, both confidence and doubt are included and made focal. In any case, opinion is a dual phenomenon — it is always only ambiguously true. This duality is often masked from the one who holds the opinion. It takes a special effort to “see” what is outside its frame.

Socrates often refers to those moments in experience where the repressed other of opinion becomes unveiled and duality revealed. The paradoxes of optical illusions provide good examples. But even our everyday experiences harbor dualities. In one passage in Republic, Book VII (523c-e), Socrates turns to an experiment that I like to call the “three-finger exercise.”  Look at three fingers of your hand: specifically the pinky, ring-finger and middle-finger. Compared to the other fingers the pinky is small and the middle-finger large. This seems so-far unambiguous. But now look at the ring-finger. Is it small or large? It is either small and large, depending on which of the other fingers serves as the ground of comparison. “Large” and “small” are definite features of appearance, and yet they depend on their context, on what is proximate to them. Another favorite example of Plato’s is the one and the two: each of a pair is a one, but within the pair it is a half. Each one only brings oneness to the table, yet when combined with another one, there are emergent properties of two-ness and half-ness.

These examples may seem uninteresting, but they are special cases manifesting the ambiguity present in all opining. Usually, what appears true *seems* to be a property of the focal thing, but the property shifts when the thing is placed in different contexts. These thought experiments of Socrates demonstrate that something else is going on, that seeming depends on context. The examples Socrates gives are trivial, no doubt. However, if we turn our attention to debatable (and debated) social goods like justice and goodness, isn’t it likely that something similar is going on — that what *seems just* from our perspective, may *seem unjust* to another and vice-versa? And isn’t it also clear that the criterion of “seeming-just” is not sufficient to adjudicate between these competing visions? Could it be that we are just adroit at repressing aspects that disturb our comfortable self-assessment?

Socrates calls moments of paradoxical appearance (as in the three-finger exercise), parakletikai, “provocatives”, in that they provoke thought to one’s aid:

The experiences that do not provoke thought are those that do not at the same time issue in a contradictory perception. Those that do have that effect I set down as provocatives (parakletikai), when the perception no more manifests one thing than its contrary, alike whether its impact comes from nearby or afar. (Rep. 523b-c)

Our usual dealings with the world hide duality behind a veil of taken for granted belief. Aporia and paradox are useful for bringing thinking to bear on an issue:

“Yes, indeed,” he said, “these communications to the soul are strange and invite reconsideration.” “Naturally, then,” said I, “it is in such cases as these that the soul first summons (parakalousa) to its aid the calculating reason and tries to consider whether each of the things reported to it is one or two.” (Rep. 524b)

Thinking is the attempted adjudication between competing visions of the true. Thinking begins by summoning into focal presence the otherwise tacit aspects of opinion. The duality that haunts opinion and is avoided in belief (pistis) becomes thematic in thinking (dianoia). Perhaps Socrates has so much interest in sophists because they are expert in exploring this duality and relativity present in all opinion. (The Euthydemus is a particularly good dialogue to take as an example.) Skilled sophists are able to manipulate the seeming-true of opinion by creating the contextual conditions for their preferred seeming-true to gain force. Manufacturing opinion is particularly easy when the job is simply to reinforce the seeming-true of the vulgar, since only a patient exercise of difficult thinking is sufficient to dislodge it. The mob doesn’t think. If it did, it wouldn’t be a mob.

“Partiality” is when we privilege one aspect of this duality to the exclusion of the other. For instance, in giving reasons for a favored political policy, a partisan concentrates on the benefits of the policy to the exclusion of the costs. (Just listen to any partisan debate: one side will speak only of benefit, the other only of cost.) In evaluating our own virtue, our seeming-virtuous will be quite favorable if we contrast ourselves with the morally challenged. This is partiality. We tend to pay excessive attention to villainy, attention mirrored by the scandalizing obsessions of the press, in order to seem good to ourselves and others. Albert Camus wrote that “Each of us, in order to justify himself, relies on the other’s crimes.” There is also a bias called a “halo effect” in which a single fact or characteristic of a person or circumstance colors one’s opinion about the matter as a whole. Politicians who “look the part” have a leg up on the the one who doesn’t, even if the latter has superior political acumen. (We might also call this the Warren G. Harding effect.) Clearly, there are enormous political and moral implications at work here.

We can easily see the biases of others; we are much more blind to our own. This asymmetry creates the common-sense illusion that seeming-true is sufficient evidence for being-true. Thinking requires that we confront this bias, not just in others, but most importantly in ourselves. In order to have any possibility of overcoming the deficiencies of the seeming-true, we must account for our own self-deceptive tendencies. Transcendence of one’s opinion in favor of knowledge requires knowledge of our own biases. There is no knowledge of moral or political matters that can free itself from this demand for self-knowledge. What Plato claims we need is a “conversion” (metastrophe) away from accepting seeming-true as true and begin the slow process of liberating ourselves from our bondage to mere seeming. As Bernard Lonergan puts it, “Objectivity is the fruit of an authentic subjectivity” — i.e. a subjectivity that takes ownership of its own bias. We have to understand the chains that hold us fast before we can ever escape the prison of partiality.

FYI — One book that I have found useful for understanding the various forms of bias that plague our thinking is Rolf Dobelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly. Most of the biases have their roots in the partiality of opinion as I have articulated above.