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Plato:  c. 428-347 BCE

LX:84 | Pursuit of the Examined Life

Perhaps the most persuasive reason not to embark on an examined life comes from the feeling that it must already be too late. There seems little point in beginning to scrutinise one’s ethical assumptions when others - more schooled and erudite that we, those privileged scholars who have none of our practical commitments - have studied for epochs and already contributed more than we will ever be able even to assimilate. This accumulation of knowledge, rather than being a cause for joy and an incentive to the development of our own mental life, functions simply as a depressant and a reason to abdicate independent thought. It seems neither necessary nor possible to add anything to the density of what has already been said.

This is a stance with which Plato, and the Socrates through whom he articulated his thoughts, was in the strongest disagreement.1 Few philosophers have had more minimal views of what is required to pursue a thinking life than Plato did. For a start, it was not necessary to disengage from ordinary commitments. Philosophising could go on alongside shopping, working, bathing, loving; it was no alternative to an active life but its necessary complement. This point was emphasised by Plato’s decision to develop Socrates’ thoughts within dialogues set in quasi-novelistic contexts. The central tenets of Western philosophy are thus shown to unfold naturally during conversations between a man who didn’t wash his cloak too frequently and some of his friends, as they strolled to the harbour and visited the gymnasium. The dialogues are strewn with banter and gossip unexpected in philosophical treatises, but because such static is part of existence, philosophy, its illuminator, has a duty not to shy from it.


[1] Plato articulated almost all his thoughts through the historical figure of the philosopher Socrates, whom he had known as a young man in Athens.  Here, when I refer to Socrates, I am talking exclusively of the Socrates found in Plato’s dialogues. 


Source

De Botton, Alain. Introduction.  The Essential Plato.  1999. ix-x. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

For in Many Ways Human Nature is in Bondage; The Notion of Liberation

Works and Days

 

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LX:32 | Reflective Understanding

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look toward the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned toward more real existence, he has a clearer vision - what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them - will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer.

And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said. (360-1)


Source

Plato. The Republic.  Trans. Benjamin Jowett.  Dover Publications 2007. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

The Notion of Liberation; Socratic Midwifery; The Red Ink;A Fundamental Quality of an Act;Standing Toe to Toe 

Works and Days

 

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Notes

 


LX:25 | I Know That I Know Nothing

I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” (21d)


Source

Plato. Five Dialogues (Apology).  Trans. G.M.A. Grube.  Hackett Publishing 1981. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

Radical Reflection 

Works and Days

 

Documents

 


Notes

 


 

LX:20 | Socratic Midwifery

But my art of midwifery, though it has in other respects the same conditions as theirs, differs in these points, that I attend men, not women, and that I inspect the labour of their souls, not of their bodies. The most important skill in our art is, the being able to test in every way whether the sound man’s mind is bringing forth an idol and an unreality, or a genuine and true progeny. For to me as well as to the midwives belongs the following condition. I am incapable of producing wisdom, and the reproach which many ere now have cast on me, that, while I question others, I myself give no answer about anything, because I have no wisdom in me, is a just reproach. The reason of it is this: the god compels me to act the midwife, but hindered me from engendering. I then am not indeed perfectly wise myself, nor have I brought to birth any discovery of that kind, as the outcome of my own soul. But of those who resort to me, some indeed appear in the outset utterly ignorant, but all, as the intercourse proceeds, and the god gives opportunity, make wonderful progress, in their own opinion and in that of others.  And it is evident that they do so not by any learning they have gained from me, but because they have of themselves discovered many excellent things, which they retain. (113-4)


Source

Plato. Theaetetus.  Trans. Benjamin Hall Kennedy.  Cambridge University Press 1881. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

Reflective Understanding
Fertility of the Didactic Action
The Red Ink
A Fundamental Quality of an Act
The Trap of Life and Experience 

Works and Days

 

Documents

  pdf The Socratic Method: What it is and how to use it in the Classroom (22 KB)  


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LX:18 | Apologia

Even if you acquitted me now and did not believe Anytus, who said to you that either I should not have been brought here in the first place, or that now I am here, you cannot avoid executing me, for if I should be acquitted, your sons would practise the teachings of Socrates and all be thoroughly corrupted; if you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practise philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die;” if, as I say, you were at acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practise philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happened to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” Then, if one of you disputes this and he says he does care, I shall not let him go at once or leave him, but I shall question him, examine him and test him, and if I do not think he has attained the goodness that he says he has, I shall reproach him because he attaches little importance to the most important things and greater importance to inferior things. I shall treat in this way anyone I happened to meet, young and old, citizen and stranger, and more so the citizens because you are more kindred to me. Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god. For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” (29c)


The word "apology" is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek apologia which means defense.  There is certainly nothing apologetic about the speech.


Source

Plato. Five Dialogues (Apology).  Trans. G.M.A. Grube.  Hackett Publishing 1981.


See Also

Lexicon Entries

Act
A Fundamental Quality of an Act
Parrhesia
Training of the Self By Oneself

 Works and Days

 

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LX:17 | The Most Blameworthy Ignorance

To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know. It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have.  I do know, however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man. I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad.  (29b)


Source

Plato. Five Dialogues (Apology).  Trans. G.M.A. Grube.  Hackett Publishing 1981. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

The Central Attitude; The Red Ink 

Works and Days

 

Documents

 


Notes

 


LX:16 | Some Might Say

Some might say: “Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?” However, I should be right to reply to him: “You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or a bad man.” (28c)

This is the truth of the matter, gentlemen of the jury: whenever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace. (28d)


Source

Plato. Five Dialogues (Apology).  Trans. G.M.A. Grube.  Hackett Publishing 1981. 


See Also

Lexicon Entries

La Mort 

Works and Days

 

Documents

 


Notes