The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

Archive for the tag “platonic dialogues”

Socrates, Philosophy, and the Military Virtues

One of the facets of history that i find most amusing is to reflect on the differences between the Greeks and the Romans. I think it is safe to say the Romans when they were virtuous were hardworking, sober, pragmatic, disciplined and devoted to their state and to their duty. And as a whole the Romans were not very interested in abstract matters; philosophy was not their forte. The Greeks on the other hand were almost polar opposites. While they were brave and disciplined in battle, the Greeks in general were fractious and argumentative. While such characteristics may make for good philosophers, the Greeks, good philosophers though they were, nonetheless were a challenging people to govern. And for this reason several Roman Emperors at times resorted to banning Greek philosophers from Rome.

I can sympathize. Having been affiliated with the military for as long as i can remember, I recognize that the philosophical spirit presents a challenge to the military virtues. It is not that the military is inimical to the life of the mind. Indeed, the military for it to be effective requires that its members be crafty and resourceful, to be able to make good decisions on the fly. In fact the best Generals in history such as Caesar and Macarthur have been avid students of history. That being said one thing is certain what a military requires above all is respect for authority and for the institution itself. Without that authority a military will lose it cohesion and its effectiveness as a fighting force. It can even become a threat to the state itself.

This is evident in the case of Socrates. the rise of philosophy in Greece had undermined traditional mores. And much like our experience in Vietnam free thought in Athens was associated with military defeat, in this case the victory of Sparta over Athens in the Peloponnesian War. As Anthony D’Amato, a law professor at Northwestern University puts it:

The Athenian establishment recognized certain gods, certain duties, and a certain lifestyle; these institutions served as a cement keeping the society together and making it strong in battle. Socrates’ disinterested pursuit of truth chipped away at this cement and therefore at the foundations of Athenian society. In this basic sense, Socrates’ very life, devoted to teaching philosophy, was perceived as a threat to the state. Therefore, it was not by random accident that
Socrates was prosecuted. Although the immediate cause of his prosecution may have been a petty vindictiveness on the part of certain poets, orators, and politicians, the basis for their trial of Socrates was nothing less than this perceived threat contained in Socrates’ own teachings. This situation is analogous to a modern dictatorship or totalitarian government silencing an individual for having addressed fellow citizens about the true nature of their political system.  (1)

I find much to agree with in D’Amato’s passage above but leads me with a nagging question-is philosophy and the disinterested search for truth inimical to loyalty to our own country or good social order?

The answer I think is no. Philosophy and the search for truth is never harmful to the individual or to the city, What is harmful is sophistry. Sophistry is like the evil doppelganger of philosophy. It arises whenever Philosophy appears on the scene. It needs the fertile soil of freedom of thought but where philosophy seeks the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Sophistry seeks power by subverting traditional moral restraints and like a philosophical parasite it attacks and weakens its host. We must remember that one of the reasons Plato began writing his dialogues was to exonerate Socrates from being a Sophist.

And it is easy to see Socrates as a sophist. For many years Socrates, from what little I had read of Plato, always struck me as a bit of a jerk quite frankly, forever walking around making people look foolish. But the more I read the dialogues and learn about the historical context context in which the dialogues were written a different Socrates emerges. Far from being innocent victims most of the people Socrates interviewed were the sort of shysters, self-help gurus and flim-flam men that parade through our own democracy. Who can forget Euthyphro who is on his way to prosecute his own father when Socrates interviews him, or Thrasymachus, St John the Baptist to Machiavelli’s Prince. No what Socrates wanted was for people to practice philosophy so that they would become ore virtuous.So that they wouldn’t pursue foolish adventures that brought them to ruin like the Peloponnesian War.

Socrates’s very life proves that philosophy does not preclude the practice of the military virtues or weaken the moral fabric of society. Unlike many of the sophists who were itinerant foreigners, Socrates had served as a soldier to defend the Athenian state and while he was a philosopher he also accepted the authority of those military leaders who commanded him in battle. Likewise Socrates accepted the authority of the States laws and the decision of the jury who convicted him even the outcome was clearly unjust.

(1) D’Amato, Anthony. “Obligation to Obey the Law: A Study of the Death of Socrates.” 2010. Web. 28 May 2015. <>.


If Socrates Claimed He Had No Teaching Was He Really a Philosopher

I think that Socrates certainly was a philosopher, particularly in the sense that he was lover of wisdom. One of the reasons I think that he had no teachings was that Athens in the midst and wake of the Peloponnesian War had been overrun with Sophists (the political consultants of the day) who all had ‘teaching’ they would sell to the whoever paid them. Since the Sophists viewed knowledge merely in instrumental terms for the wealth and power they could generate they and their students were not in a position to love truth and beauty, that is to be true philosophers. As Reeve and Miller remind us the Sophists and their ilk were arrogant because they though they had all the answers (Reeve Miller, pg 45). Socrates, however, as a true philosopher believed that philosophy, especially through the use of the Elenchus, had a moral aim which was to get people to realize that they really didn’t know what they thought they knew and a result they would be open to truth and beauty which would help them lead happy and virtuous lives. (Reeve & Miller, 45-46)


Reeve, C.D.C., and Patrick Lee Miller, eds. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett, 2006.

Plato’s not so bad

I read the Euthyphro last night and was pleasantly surprised. I’d read a few dialogues before but I was undoubtedly not ready for them and I didn’t get much out of it. But last night Plato came alive for me. The most shocking thing about them was how funny the Euthyphro is, I mean laugh out loud funny. The character of Euthyphro is priceless “why they even mock me as if I were crazy”. All through the dialogue I kept wondering if Euthyphro would come to the realization of what a dolt he was and near the end he must have realized that self-realization was perilously close but he chose to retain his comfortable illusions and beat a hasty retreat.

In keeping with the Platonic theme I loaded some teaching company lectures by Michael Sugrue on the Platonic dialogues onto my mp3 players and listened to them on my long run this afternoon.  Sugrue’s lectures are without doubt the best I have ever heard on Plato. He’s also very funny in his own right and his commentary on the half-wits and nit-wits in the Euthydemus had me chuckling while I ran.

Sugrue also gave me a deeper appreciation of Socrates. I’d always harbored the suspicion that Socrates, as smart as he was, was in reality a bit of a horse’s ass.  As I’ve learned more about Socrates this semester I realize that the social situation in Athens and the rise of the Sophists meant that Socrates really was providing a service to his fellow citizens by showing up knuckleheads like Euthydemus and Dionysodorus.  The tragic part was, Sugrue points out, the influence of Sophists such as Gorgias was the real corrupter of the Athenians not Socrates. Just how intellectually corrupted the Athenians were was pointed out to good effect by Sugrue when he noted how dumb the Athenians were when they stood around cheering the imbecilities of the nit-wit Dionysodorus.

All this has, I think, some important ramifications today where the Sophists have been resurrected and now populate our schools and our news media, not to mention the internet.  The only real antidote to this is a return to classical education.

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