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Anne asked:

What is the best order to read Plato’s Dialogues in? Does it matter regarding understanding them and is it worth reading them all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The very first philosophy book I picked up was one of the five volumes of Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. That would have been around late 1971 in Swiss Cottage Library, London. I remember that it was a heavy tome, but have no recollection at all of which volume it was.

What captured my imagination was the polite and respectful way in which the participants in the dialogues spoke to one another. In Jowett’s translation, they sound a bit like Oxford dons debating in the Senior Common Room. Yet I was charmed.

Occasionally the participants get flustered or even angry. Socrates had that effect on people. But reading these conversations, some of which record actual discussions that took place two and a half millennia ago, I got a powerful sense of how important reason is, man’s highest faculty — and woman’s too.

There are no women in Plato’s dialogues, although Plato on occasion makes positive use of female imagery — for example, Socrates as midwife, or when various Greek goddesses make an appearance.

Anne, I don’t want to tell you which dialogues to read, but can only echo what Giddy said in his advice to Richard:

I could tell you that the Phaedo, recounting the last day of Socrates’ life and exploring arguments for the immortality of the soul, is a dramatic masterpiece, sufficient to move a reader to tears — and all that talk about the ‘soul’ might leave you cold.

Or I could say that the Republic is an epic journey into Plato’s ethics and metaphysics, every bit as gripping as Lord of the Rings, and you’d just get bored by the interminable length of it.

The Theaetetus is a startlingly modern exploration of the nature of knowledge and problems around relativism of truth and perception, and yet the arguments might just leave you flummoxed. Similarly the Parmenides, where Plato manages the extraordinary feat of admitting seemingly fatal objections to his prized Theory of Forms.

These days, the complete Jowett translations are available in a single volume. I’m guessing you have that, as like Shakespeare’s Complete Plays it is so widely available. Why not just start at page one? Keep a notebook of your progress. It might very well be the case that the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the ones the scholars don’t discuss so often, succeed in getting you hooked just because of their relatively modest, down-to-earth ambitions.

As a default strategy, reading a book all the way through isn’t that bad. And you have the pleasure of seeing, day by day, or week by week, how far you’ve come. Read it like a novel. As you progress, you will learn more and more about the character of Socrates, a man of charisma and passion, so very different from ‘philosophers’ (so-called) today.

As for the order, the only thing you need to know is that, although there is some debate around this, Plato’s dialogues are roughly divided in to his early, middle and late periods. The early dialogues are more like actual records of discussions that Socrates had. In the later dialogues, although still featuring the figure of Socrates, Plato is speaking directly to us.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues? How can you say that? On this forum?! — Only joking. All I can say is, Try it, you might like it.

— And if you don’t, try something else.

Jose asked:

I am interested in becoming the Superman (Nietzsche) giving that prototype a try. What would be the requirements or how could it be possible in modern times?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What a great ambition!

You will need all your strength and passion, and then some. You could start by reading all the works of Nietzsche, including the collection of writings published posthumously as The Will to Power (with caution because these were Nietzsche’s notebook jottings selected by his sister Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, who later was to become a supporter of Adolf Hitler).

But what exactly are the requirements for becoming a — no reason why there should be only one — Nietzschean Ubermensch (literally, ‘Overman’)?

Here’s Walter Kaufmann:

The Ubermensch — even if one considers Nietzsche’s reverence for Napoleon and Caesar, rather than his admiration for Socrates and Goethe… is the ‘Dionysian’ man who is depicted under the name of Goethe at the end of Gotzen-Dammerung [Twilight of the Idols] (ix, 49). He has overcome his animal nature, organized the chaos of his passions, sublimated his impulses, and given style to his character — or, as Nietzsche said of Goethe: ‘he disciplined himself to wholeness, he created himself’ and became ‘the man of tolerance, not from weakness but from strength,’ ‘a spirit who has become free.’

Kauffmann, W. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist p.316

I stand to be corrected by Nietzsche scholars, but it is not clear that for Nietzsche any historical or (then) contemporary character had fully succeeded in this self-transformation. There are stages along the way, and some progress further than others. In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche talks of a ‘rope stretched over an abyss’ which conveys the sense of danger — one can fall into the abyss at any point on the journey — but also a distance that has to be travelled, comparable (metaphorically, if not literally) to the distance between an ape and a human being.

As Desmond Morris vividly demonstrated, we are, in fact, apes (The Naked Ape). Actually, to get the best taste of this, rather than watching the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, you could read Aldous Huxley Ape and Essence, a very disturbing work which I came across in my youth.

We are apes. We share with chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutangs the tendency to get overcome by the feelings of the moment. As Freud noted, we are prisoners of our drives, which the process of civilization has enabled us only partially to sublimate. I am writing these words today, because I was in the mood to write, and if I had not been in the mood your question might have remained unanswered. I have to be in the right mood, or the words don’t come. That’s how apelike I am.

In modern times, strange as it may seem, you might stand the best chance of overcoming your ‘all-too-human’ nature by getting psychoanalysed. Once you’ve done that, in theory at least, you have become like a musician who has mastered the art of the biological instrument that evolution has created, an instrument that was never ‘intended’ to be anything but a faster, cleverer ape.

Power over others is something you might, as an Overman, acquire — if you are a writer, say, who is able to move others by the power of words, or possibly a political leader (Churchill would be closer to this model than Hitler, but still a long way off). However, in a similar way to the ‘overcoming’ of Neanderthals by Homo Sapiens, it would take significant numbers of Overmen to pose any threat to humanity. Given the present ‘decadent’ state of our culture, that scenario is a long way away from being realised.

Although the National Socialists were totally wrong in thinking that Nietzsche’s idea had anything to do with their brutally animalistic interpretation of the ‘Will to Power’, there is a sense human beings would be in danger — for example, if we were visited by an alien species who had succeeded in realizing Nietzsche’s ideal. It would be incredibly hurtful to truly see ourselves as they saw us, perhaps that alone would be enough to destroy our reason to continue living on this Earth.

Nietzsche’s vision is, in a way, brutal because in stark contrast to Kant — or indeed any ‘Christian’ reading of his works — Nietzsche sees humanity as a means, not an end. Ultimately, the only thing that gives meaning to human life, is the possibility we will be succeeded by the Overman.

Richard asked:

I’m just starting with philosophy non professionally so this site is an amazing help!

Sometimes I have a philosophical idea or question and I would like to research it and write it down. The point is I haven’t a clue how and where to start. You start with a question, ok, but how about the next step? Is there some sort of plan or standard to follow? For example ‘always start with logic’ or something? Maybe this question itself is to vague. Please let nne know if it is.

Anyway thanks a lot for this super website!

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

Mmmm… fresh meat!

Well, I could tell you a thing or two, Richard. Recommend some book that you’ll find way too difficult, and then imagine you… squirming, despising yourself for your pathetic stupidity. Not what we do here on Ask a Philosopher? Well…

Ever see the 1955 movie, Kiss Me Deadly?

Listen to me, as if I were Cerberus barking with all his heads at the gates of hell… don’t… don’t open the box! 

Every single one of us has been there. The really clever ones don’t go in for philosophy because they tend to hate open-ended problems and questions. They get impatient. They want to solve the problem and move on. Are you like that? Hope not.

(Sorry, I forgot Bertrand Russell. No doubting he was clever. He suffered from a rare condition: he ran out of problems to solve.)

Find a book, or, better, find a philosopher. It could even be Russell. It’s worth taking the time to search. Someone you can admire, even wish to emulate (in your dreams). Put your heart and soul into it, be willing to endure the pain and disappointment of multiple false starts.

No-one just starts with a question. Actually, that’s not true, the Internet is crowded with people who think that all you need to do is think about some philosophical question for a day and then post your opinion on a forum.

But if you have a question that really gnaws at you, then look for an author who has written a book on that topic that you like the look of. Difficult enough to set you a challenge but not too difficult to put you off philosophy for life. Your judgement is not necessarily reliable on this. But at least it’s your call. And that’s really important. Because your judgement is you rmost valuable asset.

Logic is more often than not a great excuse for bad judgement. ‘This follows from that… so it must be right.’ Or, worse, ‘My theory is free from any inconsistency except with the facts. So the ‘facts’ must be wrong.’

Believe me, I’ve heard almost exactly that from a professional philosopher.

Really glad you like our site. You could spend months — or weeks, anyway — just reading over twenty years worth of materials we have here. You could start with our home page https://philosophypathways.com and follow the links. Ask a Philosopher has been going nineteen years so there’s a pretty large backlog you could explore.

Amazingly, we still get questions that we’ve never been asked before. Maybe you can think up one…

Nathaniel asked:

I have a question, I’m starting to believe in determinism. but I see one small problem. say a man goes into a coma, awakes with the knowledge to speak but has no prior memory of his past (subconscious or conscious). the nurse asks him if he wants outcome 1 or 2. he has no memory of either outcomes and therefore no predetermined subconscious decision could be made. What would be the reasoning behind his choice? Please assume he cannot ask information about the two outcomes before he makes his choice as I believe his first choice would be to ask about them because he has no belief, desire, or temperament in this situation. I know this is a hypothetical situation and might be a little silly, but I believe this question to be the only one I could ask.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is a great question, Nathaniel. Don’t worry if you’ve tried on a few people and they thought it was silly, because it isn’t. It is anything but. If we can’t solve this then determinism as applied to human behaviour is a dead duck.

Suppose the man chooses 1. Why 1? What is so special or pertinent about 1 that makes it preferable to 2? Or suppose he chooses 2. Why 2? What is so special or pertinent about 2 that makes it preferable to 1?

— Actually, I think this could be a slight worry about your example. Surely, a person can have a general preference for odd numbers over even numbers or vice versa. (The Pythagoreans saw the odd and the even as having fundamentally different cosmic attributes.) The same worry would in principle apply to any two numbers. What you want is a way of referring two two options that is completely neutral.

And that’s difficult. In principle. Press the button on the left or the right? No good. Go through the door in front or the door behind? No good. Think up any method you like, there will always be some difference that, even if it isn’t relevant to the outcome of the decision, is still sufficient for making a determined choice.

The medieval logician Buridan was here first. He proposed the scenario of a hungry ass placed at an equal distance between two baskets of food. There has to be some basis for choice, otherwise the ass will die of hunger.

Except we know it won’t. There is no way of setting up the experiment that will result in a dead ass — leaving aside moral considerations. However (as I seem to remember from an answer I gave quite a while ago) you can do this with a house fly. Say, you are squeamish about killing flies but don’t like them flying around your kitchen and nibbling at your food. You can literally catch a fly with two wads of soft cotton wool. Wave the wads slightly as you approach slowly from the left and the right at the same time. The fly will try to turn. Follow it. Then close in. Carefully transport the fly inside the cotton wads to an open window and let it go.

You might need to practice a few times. There will be some fly deaths. But eventually, you’ll get there.

Why can’t you do this with an ass? Aside from he size, because the ass has a more sophisticated nervous system. When faced with the two basket scenario the ass does a little thing in its head equivalent to tossing a coin. It just chooses, for no reason.

When chess playing programs were first devised, the programmers faced a similar problem. The program will sometimes evaluate two possible outcomes as exactly the same, say, one quarter of a pawn. In that case, in order to move, the program has to make a random choice.

And that’s what we do. A lot. Think of supermarket isles with long lines of cans of beans, or TV controllers with rows of buttons. If we weren’t able to make these kinds of choices, the human race would have died out long ago.

Clint asked:

What memento mori wants to tell us? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

‘Remember that you’re gonna die!’

Glancing through the first few results on Google, you might have seen this:

…the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits…

or this:

…the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said…

(You have to click to see how that sentence finishes but I’m guessing, from my recollection of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, that it has something to do with Socrates’ belief that the body is the ‘prison house of the soul’.)

But that wasn’t what you wanted to know, Clint, was it? Why do we have to reflect on our inevitable death? Really? What’s the use of it?

As philosophers do, I’d like to consider a thought experiment, as a way of aiding our imagination, or ‘pumping intuitions’. Suppose that you found out about an evil conspiracy involving your death, or apparent death. You are going to be secretly kept alive and tortured, for weeks, months, years, incessantly without mercy or relief. But until then, you still have your life to live — supposedly?

There are various ways you might try to fight this, refuse to accept that this will happen to you, or look for ways to escape (a kind of ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario). But let’s assume that the conspirators are some powerful alien species that holds all human life in contempt. They are super beings — and you don’t have any Kryptonite.

Wouldn’t the best course of action be to forget? The time for the execution of your sentence is approaching, day by day, hour by hour. How could one think of anything else but how all this is going to end? If, maybe, you could get hypnotised so that the knowledge was erased from your memory at least you could enjoy the life you had left. That seems to me the only rational thing to do under the circumstances.

The torture scenario isn’t just something I made up. It is very real. It’s called ‘going to Hell’. And even if you are Heaven bound, there’s possibly thousands of earth years (according to one estimate) of painful Purgatory where every sin you ever committed is examined from every angle, like in a court case but a thousand times worse.

People believe this stuff, and still go on living regardless. You try to reduce your sinning to a minimum, repent and repent, etc. Personally, I think hypnosis is still the better alternative.

To me, necessary reflection on death only really makes sense if death is really death, the end of everything, no afterlife, no post mortem examination of how well or badly you lived, just… nothing.

Just Nothing. Can you imagine Nothing? Can you conceive of the possibility that at some point in the future there will no longer be any ‘you’?

Speaking for myself, some days I can and some days I can’t imagine it. I  wonder whether knowing I am going to die does, or should make me pause before spending my time in frivolous pleasures like going down the pub, or glorying in my academic achievements, or gloating over my priceless collection of early Star Trek figurines.

It’s all going to go, will be gone when Nothing comes. No more beer. No more glittering prizes. No more Star Trek.

Then again, I wonder whether my being here at all isn’t the bigger mystery, considering how vastly improbable it was that I should ever have come into existence. Have you ever considered that, Clint? It’s a doozy.

All in all, I think the jury’s still out on whether we should spend much time, or any time thinking about death and what it means. I guess part of assuming the role of the ‘philosopher’ it is inevitable that one will spend more time thinking about death than the average, and possibly more than is good for you. But there you have it.

Steven asked:

Is it true that Socrates was chiefly concerned with ethics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I was almost not going to answer this because at first sight the question seems so dumb. Saying that Socrates was ‘chiefly concerned with ethics’ is like saying that Einstein was ‘chiefly concerned with science’. Sure, Einstein was concerned with other things too, like world peace, the fate of the Jewish people, etc. But, yes, science was definitely his thing. Duh!

Then I thought, no, this is wrong. Socrates wasn’t concerned with ethics. Not as we understand that term, through the traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Greeks had no concept of a duty of loving kindness to the stranger. There is no place for altruism, although central to Greek world view was courageous self-sacrifice in battle: a good death.

It was ‘goodness’ in the sense of doing things well, that the Greeks were after. Aristotle in his Ethics gives a masterful analysis of the moral psychology of living well, as a human being should live, using all one’s powers of reason and judgement, following a well-forged path of habituation in always seeking — without any sense of inner struggle — to make the ‘right’ choice.

The Greek word is arete, which we translate by the wishy-washy term ‘virtue’ but which to the Greeks meant so much more. In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates challenges the young aristocrat Meno to give a definition of ‘arete’. The whole dialogue is about trying and failing to define ‘arete’, and yet, as a demonstration with a slave boy ‘proving’ (with a bit of help) a geometrical theorem shows, we must somehow know what arete is — otherwise, how would we be able to judge that the various proposed definitions are wrong?

What is arete? That’s one question. How do we ‘somehow know’ what it is, even if we can’t confidently say?

The arete of an archer is what gives him or her the ability to reliably hit the bulls eye. If you don’t have arete, your arrows will go all over the place. Similarly (mutatis mutandis) with the swordsman, the potter, the carpenter, and any other skill you can think of. Aristotle likes the simile of the archer, because it vividly calls to mind what we are trying to do when we make an ethical judgement. And we don’t always ‘hit the target’!

The arete of a human being is, simply, to live well. Justice, temperance, courage are all involved, and all, somehow, constitute a ‘unity’ according to Socrates. You can’t have one without the other. But why these? Why is it so great to be just rather than unjust, temperate rather than intemperate, courageous rather than cowardly?

To my knowledge, Plato states the answer explicitly just once in his dialogues, in the Gorgias where Socrates is debating with Callicles, student of the great sophist Gorgias. It’s a powerful answer. His concept is mind-blowing in its immensity:

… wise men tell us, Callicles, that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.

Don’t get it? First, you need to remember that Plato often uses allegories, so don’t be confused with all the talk of ‘gods’. This is about the cosmos (Greek word), the order that constitutes the universe, and a human being’s place in this order. There is no way, thought Socrates, to grasp what is ultimately real, that does not lead by a straight path to an understanding of how we should live, as self-moving elements in this universal order.

In simple terms, ethics and grasping the ultimate nature of reality, cannot be separate things. Ethics and metaphysics are one and the same.

And here’s the rub. If you revisit Socrates’ immense idea, with the monotheistic mindset, you get a ‘take’ on metaphysics that turns the whole subject upside down. That take was offered by the 20th century philosopher writing in the phenomenological tradition, Emmanuel Levinas, in his magnum opus Totality and Infinity.

Read that book, and let your mind be blown.

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