Why Philosophy?

September 25, 2016

thalesPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives, we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end, is not on Thales, but those who laughed at him, because, according to Aristotle, having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune by cornering the market in olive presses (Politics 1.11 1259a5-19).[1] Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being. In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what the word ‘philosophy’ means in Greek (φίλος meaning ‘love’ and σοφία meaning ‘wisdom’), is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas non-philosophers always know they have found the truth and everyone else is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.[2]

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, and is something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though our time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own death. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here.[3] He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life lived without knowing how it might end up.

Works Cited

White, Stephen, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.


[1] For a full account of what we know about Thales, which is very little, see, Stephen White, ‘Thales and the Stars’, in Presocratic Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Alexander Mourelatos, ed. by Victor Caston and Daniel Graham (Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 3–18.

[2] Perhaps Plato typifies the non-philosophy in the figure of Thrasymachus in the Republic, who does not like arguing or contemplating the truth from different perspectives but always wants to win. The practice of philosophy, what it means to philosophise, is as of much importance to Plato, perhaps even more so, than the content.

[3] You can watch him talk about this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e0O09_ZekE. He starts talking about his spiritual experience at about 8.36.

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Why Philosophy?

February 19, 2015

Hubert_Selby,_JrPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., speaks about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

October 4, 2013

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on, and defend, some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites (thus it is perfectly possible to think that animals are capable of ethics in this sense).[1] We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudaimonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects. To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].


[1] This is not to say that animals have rights for Spinoza. Not even human beings have these, at least not in the normal way that we think of them. A right is a power for Spinoza and so we have a ‘right’ over something to the extent that we have power over them.


Why Philosophy?

February 24, 2013

Plato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine that this what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that would be the reason that you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill that one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do of all. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual. Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., writes about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.[1]

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.


[1] From an interview with Hubert Selby Jr. that you can find here http://www.cunepress.com/cunemagazine/news/articles/selby.htm. He also described pretty much the same experience in an interview with the American actress Ellen Burstyn https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1Zcf1maJlE&feature=g-user-f&list=FLA11eaq9wA-dQezPhEv8IWQ.


Might is Right – Lecture 2

October 10, 2012

The difficulty with the first book of the Republic is that the reader cannot be sure whether to take the argument seriously or not. It is clear that many of Socrates’ responses to his interlocutors are unconvincing. If we are unimpressed by the first book, then we might not be persuaded to read on.[1] The way to read it, therefore, is not to take it as Plato’s last word but as an introduction to many of the themes of the dialogue as a whole. Indeed Plato himself has Socrates say that he himself is not convinced by what has been said:

For we started off to inquire what justice is, but gave up before we had found the answer, and went on to ask whether it was excellence and knowledge or their opposites, and then when we stumbled on the view that injustice pays better then justice, instead of letting it alone off we went in pursuit, so that I still don’t know nothing after all our discussion. For so long as I don’t know what justice is I’m hardly likely to find out whether it is an excellence or not, or whether it make a man happy or unhappy. (354a-b)

The style of the first book is also written in the form of Plato’s early dialogues. That is, its content is morality (in this case justice), and its form is in the manner of Socrates’ method of asking questions. Finally it ends in aporias as Plato’s entire early dialogues do. Is this because, as some commentators think, that he had written this part first, and then later added the rest of book? I think it is more plausible, as Pappas suggests, that Plato wrote a pastiche of his early work so as to demonstrate that Socrates’ method of philosophising was not adequate to answer questions like ‘what is justice?’ and they he required his own method that is clearly different in the rest of the Republic. (Pappas, 2003, pp. 29-30).

The dialogue opens, as many of them do in the middle of things and the narrator (who is Socrates) tells us that yesterday in had gone down to the festival of Bendis (a Thracian Goddess) in Piraeus, which was the port of ancient Athens. When they were on their way back to town they were stopped by Polemarchus who said that they ought to stay because later there was to be a torch race and carnival. They agree and decide to wait at his house where Socrates falls into his first conversation with Cephalus.

As in all early dialogues the character of the speaker and what they say mirror one another. Cephalus is an old man. His views perhaps reflect the common held conservative beliefs of Athens.[2] It is clear that he doesn’t wish to engage in philosophical debate with Socrates and he soon uses the excuse of having to go to his sacrifice, but none the less he does introduce the theme of justice. Cephalus tells Socrates that when old men meet up together rather than speaking about the wisdom they might have learnt about life, what they talk about is their youth and how much they miss it. But if they were telling the truth and old age were to blame, then every person who was old would feel the same. He recounts the story about someone who asked Sophocles (the great tragic poet of Greece) whether he missed sex, and he replied that he was glad to be rid of a ‘fierce and frenzied master’ (329c). Socrates responds that maybe it is not old age that has given him tranquillity but wealth. Maybe there is some truth to that, Cephalus responds, but the usefulness of wealth is not where most people might think it is. As one gets older one thinks of the afterlife more than when one is young, and being rich allows one to avoid cheating and lying, and also to pay off one’s debts both to men and the gods. Thus one avoids eternal punishment. It is at this point that Socrates asks whether this is best definition of ‘doing right’, which in Greek is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne), and which is usually translated as ‘justice’ in the sense of what is right, fair or appropriate (Walker, 2000, p. 129). The problem with his definition is that it is not broad enough. Thus it is quite easy for Socrates to find counter examples. Thus if justice is to give back what one owes others, would it be right to give back a spear to a madman from whom you had borrowed it? Quite clearly this would not be just.

Though Cephalus does not stay to defend his views his little discussion with Socrates has already introduced some of the important themes of the Republic: the afterlife, that dualism of the mind of the body, and the higher importance of the former, and of course the question of justice, which his son Polemarchus now takes up on his father’s behalf. He will give a much broader definition of justice so his argument will not be open to counter examples as his father’s was. Socrates’ method will therefore be different. He will attempt to show that the very various premises that support his definition are self-contradictory.

What then is Polemarchus’ definition of justice? As was the custom in Athens, he introduces his theme by quoting a poet, Simonides: ‘that it is right to give everyman his due.’ (331e).[3] Socrates replies that he does not really understand what the poet means by this, so Polemarchus offers a further explanation. It means giving to everyone what is appropriate. Thus to one’s friends what is good, and to one’s enemies what is bad. Socrates answer to this definition is to introduce one of the key concepts of the dialogue which is ‘skill’ (τέχνη in Greek – technē). The issue here is whether justice is a skill like any other, such as the skill of being a doctor, who making ships or cooking a meal.[4] If we think of justice as a skill then it is hard to see what it is adding to any activity. Thus a doctor is meant to treat an unhealthy body, and the skill one presumes is medicine. But what would justice add to this? Surely he is either a good doctor or a bad one. Polemarchus responds by giving a more detailed definition of justice: it is to be useful in business and money. And yet again Socrates asks whether this really is that specific to justice. Surely if I want to sell a horse, then it would be better to have the skill of horse selling rather than justice. To answer this criticism, Polemarchus is even more precise: justice is putting money on deposit. But then this would be to make justice something useless, since when money is on deposit, as when a knife is in a drawer, it is not being used. Also if I think about skills generally, then to be skilled in one thing, is also to he skilled in its opposite. A doctor who can make be well also knows how to make me ill. This would seem to imply that the just man would be a thief, which cannot be right. Polemarchus is now no longer sure what he means by justice, but he goes back to his original definition: justice is to help one’s friends and to harm one’s enemies. But is it not possible to be confused by whether someone is one’s friend or enemy? Thus one could end up harming one’s friend and doing well for one’s enemy. In response, Polemarchus improves his definition, by saying that one does well to whom one thinks and is one’s friend, and does harm for those who one thinks are one’s enemy. Thus the more precise definition of justice is: ‘It is just to do good to one’s friend if he is good, and to harm one’s enemy if he is evil.’ (355a). And yet if we harm something, do we not make it worse, and how can justice be associated with making something worse, even if that is making evil men more evil.

At this point in the dialogue, Thrasymachus interrupts, though he has wanted to do so for some time. Unlike Polemarchus he is not respectful of Socrates. In fact he is quite the opposite and it is important to note that in real life he was a Sophist, so Plato wants to portray him harshly.[5] And yet for all that, he does give him the stronger argument, and the whole of the Republic is an attempt to answer his objections to justice. Thrasymachus’ argument has two parts. In one part he wants to say that justice has a non-moral origin (he has therefore a natural theory of justice), and in the other, he is an immoralist. The second follows from the first, since if the only justice is natural justice, then the best thing to be is unjust.

Let us first look, therefore, at Thrasymachus’ idea that all justice is natural. What is important is that his definition of justice is the broadest and just an expression of the common morality of Athens, as expressed fitfully by Cephalus and with a bit more panache by Polemarchus, but without much sophistication. For this reason, it gives Plato something to get his philosophical teeth in to. His definition of justice is famously that might is right: ‘I say that justice or right (diakaiosunē) is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party.’ (338c) Socrates asks him in whose interest this is, and Thrasymachus replies that it is in the interests of the ‘ruling classes’. It is they who make the laws of the city (whether it is a tyranny, aristocracy or democracy) and therefore it is they who say what is right or wrong. In other words morality is just a screen for power.[6] Again with Thrasymachus Socrates will aim to show is that the premises of his argument are contradictory, though he will be a lot less willing partner in this enterprise than Polemarchus. First of all he asks him whether it is the case that rulers are always infallible and Thrasymachus replies that they are not. This means they could act not in their self-interest because they could pass poor laws which their subjects would have to obey even though they would fatally undermine the power of their rulers, which would contradict Thrasymachus’ original definition. He replies that Socrates, as usual is being absurd, and that to be a ruler is to rule well, just as we would not call someone a doctor who had no medical skill.  Even if that is the case, Socrates asks, are we clear what we mean by a ruler. Does a ruler rule in the same way that a doctor is a medical practitioner, and captain commands a ship. Thrasymachus says he does. Well in these cases it is clear that it is the subject matter of the skill that the person is interested in and not the skill for its own sake. If this is the case, then a skill seeks the interest of the weaker rather than the stronger (the doctor aims to heal the sick not the well), which again would contradict Thrasymachus’ definition. But he replies that the shepherd does not look after the flock for their interest but his own in order to sell them at the market for meat. He then adds a further definition of justice that unjust will always do better than the just. At first this might appear to be a contradiction, since he earlier asserted that justice is power, so the powerful would appear to be just not unjust. In reality, however, he has only changed his perspective from the ruler to the ruled. In a world where the powerful rule, then it is your best interest to be immoral. Socrates counter to this view is that justice cannot be a matter of self interest and indeed this is what the rest of the Republic will argue.

Socrates is not happy to leave the conversation there though Thrasymachus is not happy to continue either. He wants to know what we really mean by a skill. Each skill, Socrates says has a function (ergon) and the function of every skill is a perfection or an excellence (aretē). Every skill provides benefit for its subject matter and not itself. Thus the doctor brings benefit for the patient. If there is another benefit than the function of the skill itself, like money for example, then this would require another skill (money making). Ruling is not in the interest of the ruler but the ruled. This is why no-one want to rule and have to be paid (which was the custom of the democracy). And yet at the same time it seems dishonourable to be paid, since this is mercenary, so rulers should be compelled to rule against their own self-interest. All of this signals debates of the later Republic, especially the idea of philosophical guardians, but it is not clear that Socrates really has defeated Thrasymachus’ argument, rather than just stating the opposite. It is far more important for Socrates at this stage is to prove that justice is better than injustice. For Thrasymachus, on the contrary, it is clear that injustice is the virtue or excellence (aretē) and justice the vice, since it is injustice which pays. The unjust simply have the common sense, whereas the just are ‘simple’. Socrates responds that it seems strange to make injustice what is wise and good and asks him whether the just man competes with another just man or only with the unjust. Thrasymachus agrees that this is so. And whether, then, on the contrary, that the unjust man competes both with the unjust and the just. Thrasymachus also agrees with this. This means that it cannot be the case the being unjust is the greater advantage then the just, for injustice, even amongst thieves would break of all bonds of trust and honesty, which is the basis of any group functioning well. This again introduces one of the most important themes of the Republic that justice has to do with order and stability, and injustice with disorder and instability. This is also the case, Socrates adds, with the individual. An unjust person is more disordered than a just one, and therefore less happy. He does not tell us why this is the case at the moment, but this psychology will be of great importance later in the Republic.

Further more, Socrates adds, the just man is happy whereas the unjust one is not. ‘Happy’ (εὐδαίμων – eudaimon) here does not mean the psychological state, but well being. Again the strength of Socrates’ argument is based upon how we think about a skill. Each skill has a function (ergon), where it aims at the highest excellence (aretē). The function of the eye is to see, and if it does not have the excellence of sight then it cannot perform. The function of the soul, Socrates asserts, is to live well. Thus the just man must have a better life than the unjust one, because this is the excellence of justice. Again we might think that Socrates is merely asserting the opposite of Thrasymachus rather than showing us why his position is the true one.

The purpose of the first book of the Republic is not to defeat the arguments of Cephalus, Polemarchus and Thrasymachus. If that were the case then it would be failure, for many of Socrates’ arguments are weak just as arguments. Rather what Socrates says is true. Justice is better than injustice. It is the task of the rest of the dialogue to convince us of this in way that the reader might not be so at the end of book 1. Nonetheless all the major themes have been introduced by this mini-dialogue within a dialogue and the reader is ready to listen to the better arguments that occur later.

 Bibliography

Graeber, D. (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, N. Y.: Melville House.

Pappas, N. (2003). Plato and the Republic. London: Routledge.

Steinberger, P. J. (1996). Who is Cehpalus. Political Theory, 24(2), 172-199.

Walker, J. (2000). Rhetoric and Process in Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[1] The Republic was not originally divided into books. This was done by later editors. Some times these divisions do not make sense, but as we shall see, Book 1 is remarkably uniform in style and content.

[2] Peter J. Steinberger gives us a more detailed investigation of Cephalus’ character in his article ‘Who is Cephalus’ (Steinberger, 1996). It is important to note that he and his sons were part of the Democratic party of Athens. Cephalus’ wealth was seized by the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ who also executed Polemarchus. It is also important to understand the anthropological background to this speech. We have to remember that ancient Athens was a debt culture. Debt was equivalent to morality (Graeber 2011, pp.195–7).

[3] Plato’s argument later on in the Republic that poets should be banned from the ideal city is precisely for this reason. Rather than thinking philosophically, people are happy to quote poetry because it sounds good, but they don’t really have any understanding of the subject matter. This is an attack on the normal Athenian education which was largely based on learning the poets, especially when it came to morality, which in Plato’s views is the last place that one should look for instruction.

[4] This way of thinking about justice as a technē was common to Plato’s early dialogues, but the failure of the first book of the Republic is due precisely to thinking of justice in this way. What Plato will want to show is that justice is not a skill but a way of being, or what he would call a virtue (in Greek, ἀρετή – aretē). Thus one could be a just doctor or an unjust doctor, which is not a difference in skill, but of character.

[5] Indeed he will only give his definition of justice after receiving payment, 337d.

[6] It is interesting here that Thrasymachus’ example is political rather than straightforwardly ethical. This introduces an important theme of the rest of the Republic.