Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Appetitive: Marathon 2500 Lectures

More Marathon 2500 lectures are coming up. I signed up to listen to the final three. The next one is Thomas Scanlon on "War and Sports" (sign up here). I am most excited about Robert Strassler's lecture on Herodotus (May 10th) because he is the editor of the wonderful Landmark Herodotus and Landmark Thucydides. Reviews will be posted after the lectures.

Spirited: A Quick Note on Gorgias

I have an absolutely absurd amount of Μήδεια to translate on account of my math exam and general laziness but I thought I would spout out a few remarks.
Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition)
First, in the final stretch of my reading of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, I found his style easier to translate, even if I continued to have some problems understanding his meaning (or the particular definition of a word to chose when translating one of his phrases). I assume that part of this was because I was better prepared and I have been reading Gorgias for a while, but there is also something to the fact that as he went on his arguments had more similarities to arguments made by Plato, with which I am familiar.

Second, these foreshadowing of Platonic arguments are truly striking. The most obvious one is the use of φαρμακόν as a metaphor for speech. Gorgias says that speech acts on the soul/mind (ψυχή) as drugs/remedies/poisons (φαρμακόν-- or φαρμακά in plural) act upon the body. This is similar to Plato's move in Phaedrus where Socrates [1] states that writing is a φαρμακόν. By this odd statement Socrates is primarily referring to the deficiencies of writing: it may look like it says something profound, but it cannot correct a reader who makes a mistake or ask for clarification and it does not necessarily impart understanding to anyone who reads it. In doing so, writing may look like an aid to memory or understanding, but it can act as either a remedy or a poison (both meaning of φαρμακόν) to the mind, depending upon the reader and the use Gorgias means that rhetoric can alter and affect the soul in the same way as a drug in that it can cause certain symptoms and affect the mood or emotions of a person. The rhetorician has the same ability to control a person as a doctor. Plato does make similar claims, but he refers to this ability of the orator as leading the soul rather than using the metaphor of a doctor and a φαρμακόν, which strikes me as an interesting contrast. Propertius II reminded me that Derrida claims in "Plato's Pharmacy" that in Plato's φαρμακόν metaphor, writing stands in for both speech and writing. I am going to keep ponderng it...

  1. For the sake of clarity, I when I say Socrates I mean Plato's Socrates as he speaks in the Phaedrus. I make no claims about the historical Socrates or a general trend of Plato's portrayal of Socrates.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Appetitive: Archaeologists on Strike?

I had no idea we lived in a world where archaeologists could go on strike. Apparently, this is actually something that can happen in Egypt. According to Egyptology News, in responses to a mass of looting, archaeologists might be striking in protest against the failure of the new government to appoint a minister to handle archaeological affairs. I think it's great that archaeologists have this power (although, obviously the looting is unfortunate).

More to come. I have a great old friend in town and I still have a lot of Medea to read...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Reasoning: The Beginning of the Iron Age

I am not a military historian or an archaeologist, but the transition from bronze to iron is something that is a radical symbol in the ancient Greek world (from Hesiod to Plato and beyond). This In Our Time broadcast explains the beginning of the Iron Age in broad terms for the uninitiated (like me) and provides a nice broad background. Enjoy!

Note: Thoughts on Gorgias coming tomorrow.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Appetitive: Plato's Cave Comic

I found this comic on Rogue Classicism:

Appetitive: Minoan Archaeology Conference

I took a math exam yesterday. One of the reasons I was annoyed about the exam was that I wanted to listen into a live online conference mentioned on AWOL concerning Minoan Archaeology. The conference, hosted by the University of Heidelberg, is running for two more days and can be accessed live online. I am hoping to have a little bit of time to tune in tomorrow.

I must now go back to reading Μήδεια...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Spirited/Reasoning: Reflections on Gorgias

Gorgias' prose is very troubling. It looks simple, but it is deceptively frustrating. The text is corrupt, to be sure, but his actual way of writing is more problematic than that. Most of his sentences require the reader to work backward to understand the meaning and even then are often quite confusing. His prose is often so repetitive that editors make emendations to try to make it less so.

Plato's prose often plays with words, repeats words for a particular effect, but there is something less confusing than Gorgias' prose which seems meant almost to move the audience into such a befuddled state as to trick them into following his lead. Plato's prose, to be sure, manipulates his readership, but he does it in one of two ways. Either he uses the elentic argument where the questions that Socrates asks and his interlocutor answers cudgel the reader into a particular thought pattern or, when Socrates provide answers the audience is carried through various flights of rhetoric and myth which leave the audience questioning many things and possibly wondering about the logic, but, at least for many, not in such a way that they simply agree like the interlocutors do. Maybe I am assuming every reader follows Plato the same way that I do. I now think I understand why the sophists appeared as such a threat to Plato.
Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition)
Propertius II and I are finished up the Encomium of Helen tomorrow. I am hoping that the Greek starts to get easier with Isocrates' Helen, but maybe I just have lost the logic of Greek prose.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reasoning: Vlastos' Socratic Studies #4

In a combination continuation of the chain of blogposts on Gregory Vlastos' Socratic Studies as well as a follow-up to yesterday's note on Gregory Vlastos and the historical Socrates. The fourth essay in the collection is "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy." 
Socratic Studies
Vlastos begins the essay with his two principle theses:
  1. "In his own time and place Socrates was widely percieved as μισόδημος, i.e. as antipopulist (literally as a people-hater)" (Vlastos 87).
  2. "This public perception of him was a misperception: he had not been the crypto-oligarch many had thought he was" (Vlastos 87).
Vlastos spends only a little over three pages using quotations from a few authors to back this up. There are essentially two prongs to the evidence that he levels for the claims. Prong (a) was that Socrates was the educator of Critias, Charmides, and other members of the Thirty Tyrants [1]. He quotes a smattering of people (Aeschines, Plutarch and Xenephon) to back up this claim. Prong (b) is that Socrates was a condemner of democracy. He provides a Xenephon quotation (Memorabilia of Socrates 1.2.9) to back up this assertion, which asserts that choosing a person for any profession by lot is a problematic idea.

This thesis makes a lot of sense. Plato spent much of his career defending his Socrates from the charge that he educated Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants and taught them their unscrupulous and cruel ways [2]. Xenephon, according to the introduction of Penguin edition of Xenephon's Socratic dialogues, was exiled from Athens because of his elitist tendencies (Waterfield 7) both because of his own political proclivities, but also because he was one of Socrates' students, all of whom were under suspicion (Waterfield 6-7) [3]. Using only Xenephon as a source to corroborate the second prong of this first thesis seems problematic as Xenephon (at least in my view) sticks a lot of his own elitist political viewpoints in Socrates' mouth. This is not to say that Socrates was pro-democracy-- I have no basis on which to assert his political views-- but it seems that using Xenephon and Xenephon alone for this provides a warped view.

Vlastos spends the rest of the essay trying to prove his second thesis--that Socretes was pro-democratic government. He starts by looking at the evidence in Crito, where Socrates and him speaking as a personified form of the Laws of Athens attest his love of Athens, even above "well-ordered" oligarchies such as Thebes, Megara, Crete, and Sparta. The rest of the essay is essentially a proof by contradiction. He explains that the only way to establish the premise in the Crito is false would be to establish one of two other premises:

  1. "That this preference is contradicted by the other sentiments expressed by Socrates elsewhere in Plato's Socratic dialogues" [4] (Vlastos 93).
  2. "This it is contradicted by opinions voiced by Socrates in Xenophon, our other major source, and that we have evidence independent of both Xenophon and Plato for rating Xenophon's credibility more highly than Plato's" (Vlastos 93).

Vlastos argues that if there he cannot dig up evidence for either of these premises, than the pro-Athenian testimony from the Crito stands.

I think this is a perfectly irrational way to attempt to prove something for two reasons. First, this procedure for proving a claim is untenable, especially for ancient ideas. Proving by lack is difficult enough to do in the first place, because it requires the assumption that what one believes is true, until someone else finds a piece of evidence that challenges the work. To use this method in an ancient text is ridiculous, because there is always the possibility that the evidence necessary is now lost or will not be found until some later time. The fact that such evidence does not exist may be simply due to scribal error or disintegrating documents rather than truth.

Second, even if one is to buy the premise, for which Vlastos argues extensively elsewhere [5], that the "Socratic Dialogues" form a unit and endeavor to recreate the philosophy of historical Socrates, the Crito does not mean that Socrates was a particular proponent of Athenian democracy. On it's most basic level, the argument in the Crito is on of a social contract: Socrates has lived in the city all these years and has benefited from it's people and it's protection and raised his children there, so in return he must obey the laws that govern the city just like any other citizen. If we take into account Vlastos' argument that the historical Socrates and the Socrates from the "Socratic Dialogues" is only a moral philosopher (Vlastos 101), then this makes sense; Socrates is not endorsing a political political system, but instead a moral contract with the state, irrespective of the form of rule that governs it.

Third, in my opinion, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the "Socratic Dialogues" are a group, nor that Plato tried to recreate the historical Socrates at all. A dialogue in which a character called Socrates, who somewhat resembles an historical figure, was a genre in itself. Plato, although only one of two authors of extant dialogues, was only one of at least thirteen authors who actually wrote Socratic Dialogues. Just because the main speaker is named Socrates does not hold any bearing over whether the Socratic dialogues portray Socratic philosophy as the historical Socrates might have practiced it. Vlastos rests much of his argument on the assumption that there are three distinct stages of dialogue in the Platonic corpus. I argue in the soon-to-be-complete series of blogposts on "Dates in the Platonic Corpus" that this is not the case.

Over the next few pages, Vlastos argues that in the moments where Socrates criticizes Athens in the Apology and the Gorgias that he is merely criticizing the people not following the laws rather than the democratic procedures themselves. He argues that this means that the preference expressed in Crito is not  "contradicted by the other sentiments expressed by Socrates elsewhere in Plato's Socratic dialogues" (Vlastos 93) and so he has fulfilled his first obligation in proving the second thesis.

Next, Vlastos tackles Xenephon's Socrates. Unlike Plato's, Xenephon's Socrates cannot be called a crypto-oligarch, but is easily in the oligarchic camp. Most importantly in this, statecraft is a "royal art" that can only be exercised by an elite group, and hence cannot operate in a system chosen by lot. So, as Vlastos sees is, Plato and Xenephon's Socrates are diametrically opposed. So now, if there is a reason to prefer Xenephon's view over Plato's than Vlastos' second thesis is proven false. Oddly enough, Vlastos does not tackle the argument of whose Socrates is more accurate (which he does in other texts). Instead, he faces the question as to whether governing is a "royal art" in Plato as well.

In Plato, Vlastos contends, Socrates may think that virtue is a "royal art," but he believes it is one that is necessary for all persons, regardless of their station or disposition, to practice and lead an examined life governed by moral knowledge (Vlastos 105). He claims that this Socrates considers the necessary wisdom with which people act to be a moral rather than a political statement. Vlastos then says that although he believes the Socrates of Plato is more accurate, a declaration of his faith is not convincing and he leaves the essay with two historical tidbits.

The problems I have with this argument are numerous. For the present moment I will stick with the procedural ones: Vlastos simply does not fulfill the things he lays out as necessary to prove his point. He says at the beginning that if Xenephon provides evidence of Socrates' oligarchic tendencies and if Xenephon can be proven to be more historically important/accurate than Plato, than Vlastos' second thesis is false. Instead, Vlastos sidesteps the essential last argument as to which of the two authors the audience should consider as more important because he claims it would be a "declaration of faith." As such, he cannot fulfill his second premise, and he cannot prove his second thesis.

He ends the essay with two historical "crumbs": first that Socrates taught and consorted closely with Chaerephon, an ardent democrat, and second that Lysias, who was also pro-democratic, is thought to have written an Apology of Socrates (now lost) in the few years following Socrates' execution (Vlastos 108).

The problem with these last two "crumbs" is that Socrates also consorted with anti-democratic proponants including Critias, Charmides, and Xenephon. d

  1. The Thirty Tyrants were a group of Sparta-sympathetic oligarchs installed by Sparta to rule Athens following the Peloponnesian Wars and they were kicked out of Athens a few years before Socrates' death. For more information, see Perseus or Wikipedia.
  2. See Symposium, Charmides, and Republic (Book 6 I think).
  3. I discussed this briefly in a blogpost musing on Xenephon.
  4. By the "Socratic Dialogues," Vlastos refers to the "early" elenchic dialogues: "Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Menexenus, Protagoras, and Republic [Book] I [only]" (Vlastos 135), in which he believes Plato reconstructed the philosophy (although not actual historical circumstances) of the historical Socrates.
  5. This argument is the focus of "Socrates contra Socrates" from Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reasoning: What About the Historical Socrates?

As I proctored my first exam for my new class, I spent much of the day reading the book which interested me int Plato in the first place: Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher by Gregory Vlastos. I have gotten a lot further this time than either of my previous attempts to finish it [1] and it certainly provides a great wealth of knowledge. I will be writing about Vlastos' interpretation of Socratic irony soon. My real issue with much of Gregory Vlastos' analysis is his constant attempts to create a philosophical difference between the philosophy of Socrates and the philosophy of Plato using Socrates as a mouthpiece. He explains himself in the introduction that he cannot leave the historical Socrates to the historians.
Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher Socratic Studies
Yet, attempting to find the philosophical method of the historical Socrates yields problematic results. Vlastos seems willing to disregard sources that he does not like or using sources like a show of hands: the more sources agree on one thing, the more likely Vlastos deems it. The problem with this is that the sources come from all different ages. Vlastos is willing to take Aristotle's word about Socrates over Xenephon's, although Xenephon was a contemporary of Socrates and Aristotle was not. Furthermore, Vlastos is willing to consider a number of late and problematic sources including Cicero and Plutarch over Xenephon's word on whether or not Socrates disavowed knowledge just because there are more in Plato's camp. More thoughts on this soon.

This reminded me that I have to finish writing up my summery and analysis of Socratic Studies. I will recommence soon.

  1. I am only two essays away from the end, although I do not think I internalized the last two essays I read particularly well due to the freezing temperatures in the room in which I was proctoring.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Appetitive: Online Libianus Translation Project

I have been waiting for something like this to come up. This may not be the first collaborative online translation project, but it is the first one upon which I have stumbled. AWOL posted the Online Libanius Translation Project, which will attempt to translate the rhetoric of the Fourth Century CE orator into English (much of it for the first time).

I have been expecting this ever since I read the beginning of an MIT-published study on education in the digital age. The study spent a few pages introducing the difference between Information Technology (IT) and participatory media (i.e. user-generated content). One of the findings of the study was the critical difference between the way that modern students respond to the two forms of media: students are more engaged by participatory media than the traditional top-down approach of information technology. Even Perseus is fundamentally information technology because although users can vote on definitions of particular words, there is no real content generated by users. It is fascinating to see a classical project looking for user-generated content.
The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age
I am returning from my Alma Mater today and normal posting should resume soon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Appetitive: Cleopatra

While making lunch and cleaning the kitchen yesterday while Cerinthus was working, I decided to listen to some of the BBC "In Our Time" podcasts. I have really been enjoying the science ones recently (on the Nervous System and the Age of the Universe), but I wanted to listen to some historical pieces. One that caught my attention discussed the life of Cleopatra.

Obviously Cleopatra is a figure who inspires much discussion-- and ridiculous conjecture-- but I thought that the table of experts did a lovely job explaining the political situation in Egypt and Rome before she came to power and discussing the context as well as her life. Furthermore, I did not realize that so little writing about her survives from Egypt-- almost nothing. Most of the Egyptian evidence is self-depictions on coinage that she minted. Almost all of the evidence that exists comes from Rome and most of it (save a few snide remarks from Cicero in his letters) comes posthumously.

I found the piece very enjoyable. It is not particularly in-depth, but it provides a lively discussion between scholars and a nice background for the topic. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Appetitive: Cerinthus and Homer on the iPad

I am going up to visit Cerinthus this week. Posting may be a bit spotty, but since he has midterms I may have some more time to work on my blogs.

In other news, the coolest iPad app I've ever heard of has just been released: you can now own your own copy of Venetus A, one of the preserved Homeric manuscripts. The Homer Multitext reports that the text has been fully digitized and can be downloaded from the iTunes store. Now that's a cool reason to get an iPad.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spirited: Μήδεια and the "Royal We"

In English, there is a phenomenon known as the "royal we" where a speaker used first person plural as a stand-in for first person singular. Generally, this phenomenon associates itself with arrogant and schizophrenic-type personalities. In Greek or Latin, poets often employ the first person plural so it is essentially the "poetic we" rather than the "royal we."

Herodotus II and I have recently doubled our number of lines per week in order for us to finish before summer vacation. Although this certainly requires more time, it also provides me with a greater sample size in which to notice patterns. One of the things that stood out to me as I read our most recent section was the use of the "poetic we." Μήδεια employs this tactic quite frequently, although she also uses the first person singular within 2-3 lines of her first person plural. I did not notice, although I might have missed it, Kreon using the poetic plural, nor any of the other characters (I am happy to be corrected if someone notices an instance). So, I wondered why Medea, specifically, might use this rhetorical device.

Euripides, as I remember reading in my Bacchae class freshman year, likes to use "halved" characters, i.e. two main characters who each represent one set opposing characteristics usually housed in a single person. Unlike his half characters, Medea seems to be a duel (or possibly more) character. She switches from courageous and fearsome at one moment, to helpless and despairing the next, to conniving and persuasive, sometimes within a single speech. Like Hekate (Μήδεια line 397), the goddess she worships, to whom each of the three main Gods (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) gave a small segment of their domain, she functions as a polymorphic character. Each of the characters around her serve a single function. Even the chorus of women acts essentially as a single entity; they represent a moderate buffer to the extreme arguments put forward by any side. But Medea demonstrates so many different personality traits and skills that she becomes awesome and terrifying.
Euripides: Medea (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics)

Update 03/24/11: Jason also uses the "poetic we" at least once. I ran across this in line 451 where he refers to himself as κἀμοὶ which is a crasis of και + αμοι (from αμος, "our"). However, this is the first time it is mentioned by another character. Also, interestingly enough, Jason is being deceptive here and saying things he only half means in a typical Μήδεια style. I will have to investigate further.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Appetitive: Bread in Anicent Greece

As I abandoned my work on reading Μήδεια this morning to bake some bread, I thought I should investigate bread in the ancient world. Amusingly, most what I know about Ancient Greek cooking comes from Plato and Xenephon. In the Republic, Plato describes the healthy city, the minimalist city with which he and his interlocutors begin their discussion, as being essentially vegetarian. The feverish or unhealthy city that follows it in the discussion not only lets in actors and prostitutes but also brings in meat alongside the bread, vegetables, and porridge of the more primitive version. In Xenephon's account of the Symposium, Socrates questions a young man who takes too much "savory," which I presume is a chunky stew or stirfry of some kind, with his bread. This method of eating appears to make the eater immoderate, pleasure seeking, and troublesome in Xenephon's eyes [1].

There is actually a concise, but sadly rather short, description of the varieties of Greek bread on Wikipedia. Apparently, according to the article, Solon ordained that leavened bread should be reserved for special occasion, and bread was leavened with a yeast coming from wine fermentation.

Another random factoid from my memory is that in Ancient Greece: A Political, Social and Cultural History, the authors alledge that the ancient Greeks did not like the taste of butter. My first question was, "how would you know?"

  1. I apologize for my lack of citation but I am doing this from memory. I will hopefully come back and add the section numbers at some point.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Appetitive: Cuniform

One of my early fascinations with classics other than Hellenic studies was with Cuniform. In ninth grade my Ancient History class read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My first Greek tutor actually took classes in Cuniform, which sounded incredible.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Classics)
According to AWOL, Harvard, in connection with some other groups, have put up a digitized library of Cuniform texts and artifacts. It's quite impressive. Maybe I'll learn Cuniform at some point...

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Appetitive: Ancient Medicine

I was never particularly interested in ancient medicine. I thought it was gory and it was not really my style. However, my childhood best friend ended up deciding to get a history of science degree and she has sparked my interesting in the science of the ancient world. Interestingly enough, one of Herodotus II's major fields of interest is also the Hippocratic Corpus and she has a vast knowledge of ancient medicine.

I realized, usually because my professors or scholarship I read indicated such, that other authors beside the ancient doctors and scientists employed medical terminology. Plato certainly writes his Socrates as spouting medical metaphors and Herodotus and Thucydides both employ some of this terminology [1]. However, I had no idea the amount of medical terminology that Euripides uses in the Μήδεια until I began reading the Μήδεια with Herodotus II. As emotions, and especially the emotions of women, are tied to anatomical parts for the ancient authors, those describing Medea constantly employ this terminology. It's quite fascinating and it is a real pleasure reading the text with someone who is knowledgeable on the subject.

Speaking of ancient medicine, a recent AWOL post on the digitizing and internet access to ancient medial texts. The papyri are beautiful.

  1. Herotodus II's thesis discussed in part medical rhetoric in Plato and Thucydides.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Reasoning: The Politics of Helen

Helen was one of the most discussed characters in the Greek world. However, no ancient author seems to agree on Helen's nature, and even the portrayal of Helen in the Iliad and the Odyssey are different. I have been reading Gorgias' Encomium of Helen with Propertius II (although more slowly than I intended) and noticed that one of the defenses that he uses is that if she were seized, specifically under the will of the gods, then it is not her fault but the fault of the person who seized her (and the gods).

This immediately struck me as interesting. I remembered reading the beginning of the Histories in my fabulous Herodotus class. Herodotus introduces his tale of the Persian wars with an incredible prologue [1] and then launches into a discussion of the causes of the war: specifically a long train of young women captured by the opposing side starting with Io and moving on through Helen and finally to Medea. In each case, he blames the woman, rather than the sailors who seize her, for her capture. Gorgias makes the opposite argument. As the two wrote relatively close together, I was wondering which argument about captured women might have been more persuasive to an audience. Food for thought.
Encomium of Helen (BCP Greek Texts) (English and Greek Edition) Herodotus Book I (Greek Commentaries Series; Book 1) (Bk. 1) The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories
  1. There is an amazing article by Egbert Bakker on Herodotus' prologue called "The Making of History: Herodotus' Histories Apodexis" from Brill's Companion to Herodotus.