The Phaedo Reading Recommendation

-What is it?-

The Phaedo is a Platonic Dialogue and the last of what I’ll call the “Core Four” Dialogues—Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo—which feature Socrates as a central figure and detail the final days of his life before his execution.

This particular Dialogue, which takes place in the final hours of Socrates’ execution, centers around a discussion he has with a group of friends and students in his prison cell. The group has come to ask him questions on what he thinks about the nature of death, the soul, immortality, and the afterlife.

A few key points are as follows:

  1. Socrates is adamant in his belief on the immortality of the soul and gives several defenses of his rationalizations.
  2. These examples are numerous, and tether into each other. Not all will be explained in this summary—instead two specifically will be supplied as an example of Socrates’ thinking.
    1. Socrates believes that human beings appear to have an innate knowledge or recognition of certain principles—the ability to recognize beauty; a general sense of proportion, more specifically, the notion of equality; and a talent for recalling information of a fundamental nature they, seemingly and otherwise, would not have appeared to know. He calls this ability Recollection, and says that it points to evidence that human beings draw on knowledge they inherited from past lives—or from some place beyond the purely physical existence. This position is used to support his argument that the soul is the origin of this knowledge, as such knowledge could only come from somewhere that had previously learned it—for example, an immortal vessel that is put into human form.
    2. To contend that Recollection does indeed mean that the soul is immortal—eternal, not just prone to long life—Socrates says that such an element of life and knowledge cannot be afflicted by death, no more than something that is cold be hot, or something that is odd be even. And while it’s true that something cold—such as snow—can be melted by fire, or five can be added to itself and make ten, those examples show that opposites can exist alongside each other, but never truly assume the other’s place. Snow that is melted by fire is no longer snow; five is always odd, even if it’s added to make ten. So the soul, being the source of life in a human being, cannot die—its core nature repels death of any kind, as oddness repels evenness and cold repels heat.

Socrates goes on to further explain his conception of the afterlife—where souls who freed themselves from mortal desires in their earthly life will commune at the highest levels, while others will undergo a sort of trial period, waiting to be called to a higher purpose when the time is right.

After several hours, the old man finishes, says goodbye to his friends, and the prison guard brings him the hemlock mixture. Socrates drinks, and as he’s laying down, realizes he has a debt he has forgotten to settle. He needs to give a chicken to one of his friends in repayment for a loan, and asks Crito to carry out the settlement in his stead. Crito agrees, and asks Socrates if there’s anything else he needs. Socrates is silent—he dies minutes later.

-Why is this important?-

Phaedo is usually regarded as the closest Western Philosophy, or at least the practice of Rationalism, will ever get to logically explaining the unexplainable particulars of human life—the soul, death, the afterlife, and the qualities therein.

Because the subject material is more focused on what could be called supernatural elements, this Dialogue in particular reads more as a somewhat wistful treatise than a concrete or actionable set of ideas that can be followed and practiced. There are suggestions—such as living as honestly as possible, devoting oneself to philosophy, and trying to, throughout life, seek the highest good and not the quickest pleasure—but again, these read as more religious platitudes in retrospect than specific rational or logical guidelines.

There is also the innate issue at the core of the Dialogue—the presupposition of the soul. In the modern age, with its heavy bent towards empirical study based in physical observation and material correspondence, many may disregard Phaedo purely on the basis that the Dialogue never really attempts to prove that anything like a soul, much less an immortal one, exists at all. Instead, such an assertion is taken as natural fact—and this makes sense, given the time that the Dialogue was written. But this doesn’t necessarily excuse the oversight that the very idea human beings may or may not have a soul, or anything like it, isn’t called into explicit question.

In all honesty, the author acknowledges, understands, and even empathizes with such claims; but ultimately, he finds them as baseless as the position they are calling into question.

The idea of a soul is not founded on empirical study, but rather intuition, belief, and faith. Such impulses are not to be taken at face-value—their worth is immense, but this doesn’t invalidate opposing claims that such worth is only valuable thanks to suggested phenomena that is, as far as is known, impossible to observe or evaluate. Some might even argue that such assertions of the “soul” in the name of something as fiat as “faith” is nothing more than a shallow attempt by the human psyche to prove, by name alone and little evidence to the contrary, a kind of deified exceptionalism that exempts the human being from their relationship to all other nature and the larger creation, placing them at the head of the order, or even outside of it, rather than within it. The human being may be advanced and successful—but not so much that they are separate from the natural order, as time and history do so often remind the unfortunate who forget.

These ideas hold weight, and it would do well for many, regardless of belief, to remember the intimacy with which human beings are bound to nature and its processes, both within and without, for good and for bad.

But the idea of faith cannot be evaluated empirically, no more than an odd can be even; these two forms oppose each other, one relating to the unseen, unknown, and immaterial; the other relating to the seen, the known, and the material. Whether the impulses of religion—faith, the soul, the belief of divinity—are the muses of active minds, or in actuality some sense towards a genuine higher order of things, has no bearing on the faithful in the slightest. Faith creates and fuels the ideas, feelings, pursuits, and gods it lends itself to; it is a means and an end in itself.

Therefore, instead of evaluating Phaedo and its contents along empirical lines, a more illustrative approach is perhaps necessary. Socrates, in this text, could be regarded not only as a philosopher, but a man whose death is no longer years, but hours away. And confronted with the end, he endeavors to give his friends, his students, and maybe himself, not a comfort, but a faith. He clearly, in some capacity, feels he will be fine; at the very least, he is content with his life, and is ready to die. What thoughts come out of a mind like his, in a moment such as that, is an event that could, without this text, only be confined to the realm of speculation—and with the Phaedo, that speculation transcends and becomes something much more than what the Dialogue, its central figure, and its own ideas, began as. What that “more” is, and to a degree what it becomes beyond its time, as with the previous three Dialogues, depends entirely on the readers who so choose to encounter and carry it.

-Where can you find it?-

Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1658/1658-h/1658-h.htm

The Crito Reading Recommendation

-What is it?-

The Crito is a Platonic Dialogue concerning the individual’s relationship to their state, and it is the penultimate Dialogue centering around Socrates before he is put to death.

In the Dialogue, Socrates has been imprisoned in the jail beneath the Court of Athens and is awaiting his execution, which will take place in a few days. One of his friends, both a student and a father to one of Socrates’ pupils, Crito, comes to visit Socrates with apparently good news—he’s going to help the old man escape.

Socrates doesn’t exactly jump at the offer—instead, he comes off as more bemused, and asks his friend why he should try and run.

Crito responds by saying that Socrates has been sentenced to death unjustly, an act many Athenians do not at all agree with; because of this, Crito also fears the public backlash he might receive if Socrates is killed. The man is wealthy and has many connections, and he says he feels both friends and strangers alike in Athens will blame him and him alone for the death of Socrates, and hold him in contempt for the remainder of his life he is unable to help the old man escape.

This begins the Dialogue, where Socrates, to Crito’s surprise, argues against his own escape and instead makes a case for the Laws of Athens that put him in the cell to begin with. To make this point, Socrates personifies the Laws of Athens, in order to separate them from the men who issue them, and presents the argument that for him to go against the will of the Laws would be a supreme injustice that would transcend even the current injustice being done to him by his wrongful death sentence.

The argument Socrates makes is manifold. Below are key points:

  1. First of all, Crito shouldn’t worry about what the opinion of the many is of him. The mass public and their opinions can do no harm to the man who is dedicated to justice, no more than they can do him good.
  2. Because of this, the man dedicated to justice must also acknowledge that this commitment means he cannot engage in evil or injurious acts when he himself has been injured. To do wrong to another person, even if they have done wrong to you, is still doing wrong. Evil action in the name of good does not make the whole act good; instead, the man of justice must, as difficult and painful as it can be, act justly in all circumstances.
  3. This means that, even if one is imprisoned on dubious charges, if they consider themselves dedicated to justice, they will receive their punishment in silence—for it is not the Laws that do them harm, but the men who so abuse them. A State cannot function if its citizens don’t take the Laws seriously, and if the man of justice is truly what he claims to be, he will not simply abandon the Laws when they first injure him. To do so would be an unjust action in totality.
  4. And why would the man of justice want to do harm to the Laws in the first place? Without the State and its Laws, his parents would never have gotten married; he never would have received the education that serves as the foundation of his present knowledge; and by remaining within the State, he has agreed to follow its Laws.
  5. This is especially true for one such as Socrates, who has lived in the Athenian State for over seventy years. He has fathered his children in Athens, he has rarely ever left the State, and he has served it in many capacities. So, clearly, he has never encountered anything that so put him off he was compelled to leave Athens altogether. Which would mean that if he left now, now that he is threatened with injury, he is merely running at the first time the Laws did not work in his favor or benefit him. He would be shown then to have followed the Laws, not because he believes in them, but because they have never done him harm; this is a subtle difference, but a notable one.
  6. If he were to leave, other city-states would no doubt take him in—but at what cost to his own person? Socrates himself, as a defined man of justice, would have to live with the knowledge that he violated his core principles in order to spare himself a few more years of life. And the city-states would know this. They’d no doubt accept him, but public trust wouldn’t be on his side, because he would garner the reputation of a man who pretends to believe in one thing, but when difficulty arises, abandons it for another.
  7. So, Socrates concludes that he has no choice, and he doesn’t need one. Again, it’s not the Laws who are at fault for his injury—it is the men who have so misused them. And as it stands now, Socrates will be put to death as an innocent man; if he escaped, he would live the rest of his life as a man guilty of betraying his State and his principles.

The Dialogue ends with Socrates saying he has made up his mind, though he appreciates the sentiment behind Crito’s impulse to help free him. He will remain in his cell of his own volition and see what the day of execution brings.

-Why is it important?-

To those in the modern day, many of us having grown up in a liberal democracy, where disobedience to the state and its laws is often encouraged, Socrates’ point of view is one that could seem at the very least alien and outdated, and at the most brainwashed and suicidal.

Really, what Socrates is advocating for isn’t necessarily a blind devotion to the laws of one’s own state, but the Laws of the State—the ideal forms of both, which can really only manifest in the current structure of whatever laws and whatever state one happens to find themselves in at their given present.

One of the biggest take-aways from the Crito is the idea of devoting oneself to principles that lay beyond and above both the self and the world that self finds itself within. Socrates believes that there is a potential for a just and genuine system of laws—all it would take is the right people to bring them about.

-Where to find it-

The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html

The Apology Reading Recommendation

Art by Morgan Blair

-Reading Recommendation-

The Apology

Art Credit: Morgan Blair, http://www.morganblair.com/seinfelds.html

-What is it?-

The Apology is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, and one of the most famous accounts of Western Philosophy in history. In The Apology—whose name stems from the Latin apologia, a translation of the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning, “speaking in defense,”—Socrates faces the court of Athens and his three primary accusers, the Judges Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. He has been brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, and proceeds to give a complex defense of his actions to the court.

There are several key points of Socrates’ defense. They are as follows:

-Motivation-

Socrates begins by explaining the motivation for his actions which could have been framed by the three accusers as impious. He says that his life’s purpose is to find a man wiser than himself—this has been a quest of sorts ever since a friend of his visited the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most famous messengers of the Gods in Ancient Greece. Socrates’ friend asked the Oracle who the wisest man was, and the Oracle responded that, “there is none wiser than Socrates.” Socrates did not believe this, and set out to find a man wiser than himself.

In doing so, he came across many different types of people and ended up offending most of them. He says that he visited politicians, who were held to be wise by themselves and the public opinion; poets, who praised their own poetry more than even their most devoted fans, but could not adequately explain their own imagery and pieces; and artisans, who believed because they were skilled workmen, they understood most other things.

With each example, Socrates points out that these men, and many like them, have been blinded by their own professions and the dogmatism that results from their experience within them, and comments that while these may be knowledgeable, at times to a great extent, in their own work, they know little about anything else. But instead of acknowledging this fact, they instead insist, or at least appear to believe, that their hyper-specific knowledge of their own fields of study or practice is translatable to a larger understanding of most everything else. This is where Socrates draws a line between himself and these supposed men of wisdom, and it’s the source of a famous quote of his: “What I know, is that I know nothing.” He says that because he at least understands that he knows little, or nothing—or, in one way or another, it’s an incredible possibility that he knows nothing at all—he has a slight advantage over the men who know nothing, but believe instead that they know everything. This is, in his own conception, what makes him wise. He is not tied to an orthodoxy or dogma relating specifically to one field or another—rather, because of his admission of ignorance, he is free to examine and interrogate the ideas of many men without having to pay tribute or limit himself to any one specific school of thought, profession, or practice.

-Cross-Examination of Meletus-

Meletus is one of the main accusers of Socrates, and though he isn’t the source of the accusation, he is arguably the most prominent and vocal, and is the only one other than Socrates to have any kind of dialogue in The Apology.

The charges Meletus has laid on Socrates are that he engages in impious action and corrupts the youth. Meletus elaborates these accusations by, after being questioned by Socrates, that he believes the old man to be nothing more than an atheist, and the sole corrupter of the youth of Athens.

Socrates easily obliterates these charges by pointing out that he cannot be an atheist, firstly because he sees himself on a divine mission inspired by the Oracle at Delphi. If he was a true atheist, he wouldn’t have believed the Oracle in the first place, and he wouldn’t even be in the court to begin with. And secondly, he does believe in gods—he just believes in other demi-gods and spirits alongside the original gods, which can’t exist without the original gods in the first place. A belief in one implies a belief in the other. And these demonstrated beliefs do not at all match with Meletus’ primary charge that he is an atheist.

As for the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates says that it’s better to live among good neighbors than bad ones, and Meletus agrees. And Socrates says then that a man will not willingly seek out self-injury, and Meletus agrees. Socrates points out that corrupting his own neighbors would do nothing but bring him injury, and therefore, he can’t have been corrupting people because he would not willingly seek out his own self-injury. What’s more, the youth have influences other than Socrates—when Meletus makes the point that his teachings lead the youth to think differently about the gods and the Athenian relation to them, Socrates points out that kids can go watch plays and speeches at the local theater that do the exact same thing.

In presenting the case as such, Socrates makes the point that Meletus has convened this court in haste and poor judgment, which proves, quite ironically, he is more of a potential corrupter of the youth than Socrates, because he does not take the time to adequately prepare serious charges. Simply put, he makes the whole trial, and the legal system, look like a joke, exercised not in the capacity of justice, but of personal vendetta.

-Statement of Purpose-

One of the last parts of Socrates’ defense before the jury convenes to discuss his sentence is his his explanation as to how he views himself, and his function in relation to the state and its people, in the present day.

The old man says, simply, that he sees himself as the “gadfly of Athens,” meaning that he believes it’s his responsibility to perform actions that, while they may make the Court of Athens and other higher members of society uncomfortable, are necessary to stir the great and lumbering beast of the polis back into action and towards a more virtuous path. It’s necessary to point out that Socrates is not an anarchist or an ambling agent of chaos or Eristic discord and discourse—he does not engage in the rhetoric he practices because he wants to throw everyone off-balance and disrupt the order of the state and the lives of its people, simply to satisfy some desire for agitation.

Rather, he sees his perceived agitation as a sign that the state of Athens may be in need of a kind of jolt or wake-up call. In other Dialogues, Socrates pays tribute to the state and says he would not be the man he is without it; but that doesn’t mean that he can’t criticize, not the structure of the state, but the behavior of the people who inhabit its organs that so govern, regulate, and deliberate its functions. Socrates is engaging in this behavior because he appears to believe that the men who inhabit these positions are leading themselves astray by refusing to acknowledge their own ignorance, which in turn bleeds into a kind of frustration and unconscious, state-sanctioned abuse, an example of which can be found in the very trial Socrates is now being subject to.

Put another way, Socrates does not want to see others brought to court on the same pathological vindictive charges that have landed him in the trial. He believes the state and its various departments must operate in the highest virtue, and if the men who are installed in these positions are unable to do so, then they themselves, not the state, are unfit for their titles and the power that goes with them.

-Death Sentence-

The jury condemns Socrates to die, upon which he has a few poignant remarks.

He says that such a sentence was not unexpected, and wonders if it’s not because he lacked virtue in what he said, but rather “proper” delivery in how he said it—meaning he wonders if it’s because he didn’t suck up to them and grovel, like many others often do, begging for their lives when they come to the court.

Socrates points out as well that a death sentence holds nothing severe over him as the court may think, for two reasons:

1. Condemning someone to death is not a solution to a problem, but rather an escape from accusation. He says:

“For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.” (Plato, pg. 13).

In saying this, he means to convey an inclination of his own that some of the jurors who condemned him to death may have been coerced to do so. He seems to believes that more than a few of the men who voted to condemn him to death were doing so, not out of a sense of justice, but out of a sense of self-preservation. They passed the sentence in order to placate hostile parties present within the court, and perhaps outside of it, that may have accused any juror who did not vote in favor of the death penalty of impiety, or corruption, or any other charge that would in turn warrant a death sentence or at least exile.

Socrates understands the impulse of these jurors, if there were any who were so coerced, but says this is in direct opposition to true justice, and even more, to their own self-preservation. He goes on to say that such a sentence passed by these kinds of men—both the ones who coerce by threat of force, and those whose person and principles are pliant under this threat—is reflective of a cowardice endemic to men who know they could improve but choose not to, and release this frustration onto other by exaggerated displays of force.

2. Socrates is not afraid of death. He says that he believes it is one of two things: an endless sleep, in which case all eternity will be but one night, and who knows, he might wake up sooner rather than later. Or his soul will live on and move to another place, a higher realm where he will be able to converse with all the greatest heroes and legends of history, forever. Either way, he’s not worried.

The Dialogue ends with this line:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”

-Why is this important-

If the preceding Dialogue the Euthyphro is a somewhat paternal and gentle investigation between an old man and a precocious youth into the foundation of truth and meaning in any given social structure, The Apology is that old man’s vehement exhortation towards his colleagues of their consistent abuse and manipulation of the systems that owe their very existence to that foundation of truth and meaning which they so blatantly disregard and re-appropriate for their own selfish purposes.

In the opinion of this author, Socrates very much so comes across as a George Costanza-esque figure in this Dialogue. He is irate, passionate, perhaps somewhat misguided and a bit vulgar in his delivery and explanation of these sentiments, but he is, in some deeper emotional way—and certainly a rational one—intelligible. He is frustrated, first and foremost, that the men of the Court of Athens have lost sight of their duty to not just the law, but to virtue, truth, and righteous action, the components that are not supposed to be subordinated to the mechanics of law, but influence and guide them.

There is a definite sense, and Socrates comments on this in the latter part of the Dialogue, that the old man is fighting a losing battle. The opinions of the accusers have already been made up, and either by rumor, fear, bribery, or implied violent coercion, so have the opinions of enough jurors so as to condemn him to death. But in this, there is an example Socrates sets that is both admirable and, admittedly, suicidal: he speaks his mind.

This Dialogue is the Ancient Greek equivalent of every scene in a work of art—whether it’s literature, cinema, music, whatever—where the protagonist quits their job and tells their boss, or bosses, exactly what they think. As much as it is a logical deconstruction of the absurdity of the charges laid as Socrates’ feet, it is also an emotional appeal to all those who have been falsely accused, not just by a mere technical accident of improper evidence or poor testimony, but by a much larger, and far more severe, fault in the system of justice itself—the very people who are supposed to run it justly. Socrates’ frustration is seeing these men, who have sworn to uphold the law through virtue and true justice, become enamored with their own stations and subsequently blinded so much that they will do anything to protect them. He is, at the end of the day, a citizen of Athens who is fed up, not with the structure of the state itself, but how it is being abused by those who are supposed to be its caretakers. And despite his death sentence, or perhaps because of it, there is a certain catharsis to be found in this fifteen-page scene of an old man telling the Judges of the Court of Athens, one of the most influential and eminent legal bodies in all recorded history, that they’re full of shit.

-Where can you find it-

The Apology can be found on the Internet Classics Archive or Project Gutenberg, both of which I have provided links for here:

Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html

Project Gutenberg: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1656/1656-h/1656-h.htm

-Thanks-

Thank you for taking the time to read this recommendation. There will be another put out around this time next week on the Platonic Dialogue the Crito, which centers around a discussion between Socrates and a close friend, had in the jail beneath the Court of the Athens as Socrates awaits his impending execution, and which concerns the true value of the state and the loyalty of a citizen to their state.

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future recommendations, or critiques of past recommendations, message me through the website, or my personal Facebook, and I’ll take them into consideration. Or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of Marquette’s Lower Harbor Ore Dock. I enjoy face-to-face criticism. Even if it’s mean.

See you next week.

Live! From the Porch of the King Archon!

-A Critical Analysis of Postmodern Similarities Between The Euthyphro and Network

Socrates was a man in his time famous for stirring the pot of public opinion. The self-appointed “gadfly” of Athens, he spent most of his time—according to both historical records and the Dialogues written by Plato—wandering from place to place, proving people wrong in his—again, self-appointed—quest to find the one man in the world smarter than he was. Had he lived today, he would have made for excellent television—one could easily see him as a man-on-the-street cable news anchor, pulling aside random itinerant passersby and asking them if they truly understood what “justice” meant.

Luckily, while there hasn’t been a movie or show about Socrates made quite like that, there is a parallel to the old man that can be found in the 1976 film Network, in the character of Howard Beale—a down-and-out newsman who finds himself “preaching against the hypocrisies of our times” when either a psychotic break or spiritual revelation sends him on a quest of sorts to evangelize a modern gospel against the mass mania he sees in the world as a product of television.

These two, separated by only a couple thousand years, share more than advanced age, a proclivity for curmudgeon-ism, and a guided spiritual/and/or psychotic quest—Socrates, like Howard, believed he was in consistent contact with an ethereal voice, a daimon, that provided him at times with impetus for philosophical inquiry.

Rather, both bring forward—Socrates in the Dialogue Euthyphro, and Howard Beale in Network—a similar call to action: for their audiences to investigate the roots of meaning in their respective societies, and decide how much sway these meanings have, and whether they’re owed the weight of social currency that’s been so given to them. Both calls could be viewed almost as being oddly—in the case of Socrates—or understandably—in the case of Howard—postmodern, though the similarity in messaging may belie a greater connection than just the labeling of a mid-19th century thought movement.

The postmodern condition is illustrated by the social critic and author of Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard:

“…a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (Baudrillard, pg. 2).

What Baudrillard and many other postmodernists mean by statements like this one is that, in the postmodern conception of the world, everything is called into question, and nothing is safe from deconstruction. Whether it’s the belief in a God, the stature of the State, or even communal or individual relations, postmodernism sets out to investigate the foundations of systems of meaning, oftentimes uprooting the same systems it’s studying in pursuit of its goal. Many critics of postmodernism levy the charge that the system of thought is utterly meaningless and does not provide anything other than a cynical framework with which both radical and sloppy academics use to prove their own conclusions, and devalue the conclusions of others on a fundamental basis, with little-to-no extant evidence that confirms them.

This criticism is certainly warranted, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude the effectiveness of the methods of deconstruction that postmodernists use, nor does it abolish any apparent similarity—cosmetic, coincidental, or otherwise—between its methods of investigation, or at least its pursuits, and much older records of similar patterns of thought.

One place where such a “postmodern” strain of thought can be found is in the Socratic Dialogue Euthyphro.

The Euthyphro is a Socratic Dialogue, written by Plato, dated to have been written roughly between 399 and 395 B.C.E. The Dialogue—which reads much like a play—centers around a discussion between Socrates, who is awaiting trial on the front steps, the porch, of the King Archon of Athens, and a young lawyer—the eponymous Euthyphro—emerges, himself having just exited a trial he brought to court.

Socrates has been accused of impiety by the Athenian Court—namely, he’s been charged with corrupting the youth and teaching false gods. Luckily for him, Euthyphro is an expert on the matter, as the young lawyer proclaims, having just brought his father to court on the charge of murder, another impious action.

For a moment, Socrates is taken aback—he asks how Euthyphro could have been so sure as to bring his father to trial for murder.

Euthyphro explains the situation—his father found a worker on the family estate who had beaten a slave to death. Euthyphro’s father beat the worker, bound him, and sent a messenger to contact the local authorities. Unfortunately, by the time the authorities arrived, the worker had died from exposure, and Euthyphro’s father was in-turn—by Euthyphro himself—brought to court on the charges of impiety through murder, a capital crime.

This is an intricate table-setting for the central discussion of the Dialogue—Socrates begins an investigation, through his conversation with Euthyphro, on the nature of piety and impiety. More specifically, he wants to know whether an action is pious because it is loved by the gods, or if it is loved by the gods because it is pious.

Piety, or proper respect/worship of the gods, was a cornerstone of ancient Greek society. Cities like Athens and Sparta and many others had designated patron gods that were believed to have a special connection with the polis, the city. The observation of religious festivals was intertwined with Greek civic life, and as such, proper veneration, piety, made for a good citizen.

In the context of the Euthyphro, the wedding of religious sentiment and legal framework is more than evident—Euthyphro, as a young lawyer, not just expected to understand the basics of law, but also the basics of religious observation. He can’t just understand why a law should be followed for the sake of the common citizen—he needs to be able to interpret the will of the gods, as articulated through the laws of the city.

There is a problem, however—Euthyphro is unable to give Socrates a clear-cut definition of what “piety” is. Throughout the Dialogue, the two bounce between a number of conceits: is piety what is loved by the gods? Is it what is beneficial to them? Is it what improves them? And in each example, Socrates points out, continually, that Euthyphro doesn’t seem to be able to offer an actual definition of what a pious action would be.

For example:

“…you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.” (Plato, pg. 9).

The idea would be that piety, true piety, much like true justice or true good, would be pious through-and-through—there cannot be any variation in what makes a pious action truly pious, otherwise it must not be truly pious.

And funnily enough, Euthyphro’s very first defense of piety is as follows:


“Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting any one who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be —that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.” (Plato, pg. 7).

This idea—that the proposed definition of a principle is the name of the principle itself, or any action that anyone who invokes the principle performs—would rankle any postmodernist of slight degree. It certainly rankled Socrates at the time, mainly because it avoids a kind of deeper investigation as to what is actually being discussed. Such a broad and shallow obfuscation leads true principles into becoming conventions—articles of speech accepted on the merit of their name alone. In a more religious context, where faith must be invoked, this sentiment is permissible, and even necessary; but in the context of the law, where proof of an idea must be provided in order to substantiate claims, any kind of moral or legal convention that can be invoked and readily accepted at a moment’s notice is a deadly article easily abused. And it is deadly—Socrates was sentenced to death after his trial, and forced to drink a hemlock mixture.

Two thousand-odd years later, Howard Beale is killed in Network, gunned down on live television by hitmen hired by network executives, for the same crime of investigation against the pious convention of his time—television.

Network is a film concerned with the slow, corrosive effects a medium such as television can have on its audience and how they interact with the world, and Howard Beale is the primary vehicle for much of the film’s criticism regarding this relationship. After ascending from the lowly station of a network news anchor to the much higher calling of hosting his own show—The Howard Beale Show, with the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, Howard Beale!—he delivers several monologues over the course of the movie, many of which chastise the audience themselves for simply sitting in front of their television sets and absorbing whatever comes out as truth.

“We deal in illusions, man! None of it is true! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds…. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you eventhink like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing!WEare the illusion!” (Lumet, Network, 1976).

As aggressive as his diatribes can be, Howard’s primary motivation does not appear to be one of actual anger or rage—as much as the executives try to bill him and his show as such—but rather of a genuine recognition of a crisis he and the people he broadcasts to are facing in their time: the slow erosion of any kind of meaning, any kind of reality, any kind of humanity, that such a devotion to television can engender.

Television acts, in Network, as a kind Euthyphro-ian figure—a delivery mechanism for the conventional wisdom of the time, packaged in entertainment and advertisement—that Howard’s Socratic character remains in constant dialogue with. And, even between both pieces, the audience is essentially the same—anyone who will listen, to either Socrates or Howard, and attempt to understand what it is they’re exactly saying.

And that dual call-to-action for investigating the roots of meaning, or at least what is being taken as meaningful by pure convention alone, is a motif that is echoed by postmodernism and its practitioners continually.

However.

It is at this point that the postmodern connection between the Euthyphro and Network must itself be investigated and perhaps deconstructed—no convention must be left unturned. While one could, at a cursory glance, label Socrates’ methods as postmodern in the context of the present, it’s perhaps of worth to pose the question: are his arguments and person are themselves postmodern, or do they simply resemble postmodern thought?

From a pure historical basis, claiming Socrates to be a postmodernist isn’t just haphazard, it’s unintelligible—the man lived thousands of years before the emergence of the movement, and even if he had been alive at the time of its development around the mid-20th century, there’s no conclusive way to prove whether or not he would have summarily agreed with the assertions of the postmodernists as they developed and evolved.

At the same time, Network and Howard Beale, taken perhaps as echoes of a Socratic nature, are incredibly postmodern—not only were they produced within the middle of the postmodern movement’s development, they are resounding monuments to attitudes and investigations by various postmodern thinkers such as Debord and Baudrillard into the language of image and what happens when mass media is taken on a conventional basis to disperse truth.

So, the synthesis could arguably be made that postmodernism itself is not necessarily a novel movement—rather, as anti-establishment as it positions itself, it appears to possess roots of a potentially perennial nature, going back as far as the Classical Period and some of the most famous and infamous philosophers, not just of the Period, but in the history of Western Civilization.

This is not meant to be a proven assertion, but rather an observation of an interesting connection between what would appear to be two incredibly different time periods, societies, and works of art. And, in a kind of tongue-in-cheek fashion, it is more than a bit humorous to conceive the idea that one of the most fervent, deconstructionist, anti-establishment movements of thought and skepticism to so far evolve in the realms of philosophy, literature, and art may very well share the exact same foundations with the exact same establishments, in one way or another, that it is ritualistically attempting to re-purpose, revise, and reconstruct.

All in all, the parallels between The Euthyphro and Network may be tenuous at best, but such an examination provides a wealth of interesting similarities between the two that feel relevant in the modern day regardless. The interrogation of what truly makes meaning mean something in a society, whether it comes from a Greek, a newsman, a postmodernist, or just a member of the audience, will no doubt always possess some quality of importance in relation to both those individuals and the societies or structures they inhabit. Whether it’s the concept of piety or truth in advertising, it never seems to be bad idea—in fact, given the two pieces, it often seems encouraged by top artists and thinkers alike—to ask the question, politely: what do you mean by that?

-Bibliography-

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

“EUTHYPHRO.” Euthyphro, by Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm.

Lumet, Sidney, Director. Network. United Artists, 1976.

The Euthyphro Reading Recommendation

-Reading Recommendation-

The Euthyphro

By Plato

-What is it-

The Euthyphro is a Socratic dialogue written by the Athenian Philosopher and Statesman Plato around the years 399-395 B.C. . The short dialogue describes a meeting between Socrates, the famous Athenian Philosopher, who is waiting to be called into his trial on the porch—the steps of the courthouse—of the King Archon, what amounted to in Classical Greece as the Supreme Justice of Athens. He’s been brought up on charges of corrupting the youth by teaching false gods, or at the very least, by teaching that the gods of Athens are not the only gods that should be worshiped. This was notable in the time of Ancient Greece because the worship of the gods, taken as piety—honoring them through sacrifice and good actions—was the foundation of not only the religious and cultural lives of the Greeks, but also their system of laws as well. In essence, criticizing the gods, or saying there were different ones that could be observed, was akin to digging at the very roots that fed the Athenian society with truth and virtue and divine blessings.

Socrates, while waiting, encounters a young, promising, and precocious lawyer, the eponymous Euthyphro, who has just gotten out from a trial where he persecuted his own father for murder on the grounds of gross negligence. Several days before, his father found a worker who beat a slave to death, bound the worker, and left him in a ditch while sending for a messenger to contact the local authorities. In the time it took the messenger to find the authorities and bring them to the culprit, the man had died of exposure, and Euthyphro’s father himself was instead arrested on the charges of the capital crime.

Socrates is both curious and perturbed, and asks Euthyphro why he would think it proper or noble to prosecute his own father personally, regardless of the crime, in public court. Euthyphro responds that, being a lawyer, and a good one at that, he is bound by both the law and more importantly, the duty of piety towards the gods, to pursue a righteous action—even against his own father.

This opens the dialogue to its central discussion: Socrates begins an investigation on what constitutes piety, and being that, in his own words, Euthyphro is an excellent and intelligent lawyer, most certainly wise beyond his years, he can no doubt help Socrates with this quandary, and perhaps even assist the old Athenian in preparing his own defense for his coming trial.

“Piety”, in the world of the Ancient Greeks, was their equivalent of politically and socially accepted truth; in today’s world, we may even call it “fact”. It was something that, to many Greek citizens, was self-evident, not because they fully understood what it was, but they simply knew that it was—its own existence and function in society proved its veracity and its necessity. To criticize or question what was pious was an effort for many beyond their scope, and for even more, one deemed heretical, as it interrogated the founding myth of their culture, the universal principles of their institutions, the mechanics of their social customs, and even the more intimate facets and practices of their personal lives.

The dialogue bounces between Socrates questioning Euthyphro on what he believes piety is, and Euthyphro in turn answering what he believes – what he states he knows – it to be.

The central question that emerges is this one: is piety what is loved by the gods, or is what is loved by the gods pious?

The question is inherently convoluted and confusing, because it’s dealing with, in a way, the subatomic structure of meaning in a society. Do we believe in truths because they are in themselves true, or are truths valued and considered true because they are loved by institutions or principles which we deem to grant truth? And what is the difference, and how, if there is a way, can we tell which is which?

Ultimately, Euthyphro is unable to answer the question and leaves Socrates on the steps, hurrying away to some other engagement. Socrates waves goodbye and awaits his trial, which will lead to one of the most famous accounts in Western Philosophy—The Apology—and Socrates’ own execution, the old man being sentenced to death by the court forcing him to feed himself a mixture of hemlock, a fatally toxic berry.

-What’s the value today?-

It should be noted that the Socratic Dialogues are often considered both quasi-literary and quasi-historical accounts of actual events. Socrates was a historical figure, but the details of his life, and his most famous speeches such as the Euthyphro or the Apology, were written down by his student, Plato, who went on to teach Aristotle.

Though the text is over two thousand years old, the issues it addresses are perennial ones that every great society must eventually face at a certain point of maturity. The questions of what values a society holds, how they’ve been expressed, and where they come from—and what that means—is one that has played out in the modern era in notable escalation for almost three centuries, after the Enlightenment of the 18th century and its advancements began to categorically erode the universal trust of and belief in institutions such as religion and the dominance and first-begotten loyalty of the citizen to the State and the Nation.

As such, the challenges this text describes are ones we can see playing out in real time, right in front of our very eyes, in the modern day–the problem and/or presupposition of “alternative facts” is one such demonstration of this challenging and persistent phenomena.

And though it may be disheartening to learn that, in a way, our modern problems are neither novel nor specific to our own time as we may wish or believe them to be, it may be, in some way, at least refreshing and a bit relieving perhaps to know that other great societies have eventually come upon these challenges before, and it is at times a sign of perhaps maturity and the possibility of higher development that they mark by their entrance into the public discourse. As much as academics and thinkers and popular online personalities may decry the excesses of modernity, brought on by phenomena such as post-modernism and the fundamental challenges to the nature of truth and being that anchor our current society they bring with them, neither modernity, nor its excesses, nor even post-modernism, are truly original problems that have not had to be faced by anyone else in the history of our civilization, or the histories of others.

We so often claim to know the obvious, that we are well aware that nothing is new and nearly everything is borrowed, stolen, or inherited from the past that precedes us, but it also seems that we, just as often, use the “obvious” as a mere convention—a truth or point of piety—to avoid addressing the perennial change or acknowledgment that clearly needs to be made, and as history has shown, will eventually be made, by either man or nature, in order to move beyond arrested states of development.

Within the Euthyphro is a lesson as humbling as it is pedantic: until we face what we don’t know, we’ll never know what we can know, what we do know, or what more we could know, had we never faced the great unknown to begin with.

-Where to find it-

Luckily, because it’s thousands of years old and the Disney corporation has yet to excavate and refine ancient Greek stories in the way it has medieval European Folklore under the Iron Curtain of Copyright, you can find the Euthyphro for free on Project Gutenberg. I also recorded a podcast where I discuss the points of this reading recommendation and elaborate on some parts I thought were interesting. I will provide links for both at the bottom of this document.

Thank you for reading. There will be another Reading Recommendation on Plato’s Apology coming next week. Let me know what you think below, or message me on Facebook, or come visit me at my home in the scaffolding of the Lower Harbor Ore Dock in Marquette, Michigan.

Euthyphro Project Gutenberg Link: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1642/1642-h/1642-h.htm

Euthyphro Podcast Link:

Duds

It was of those January afternoons, where the light was fading, but hadn’t yet gone, and the sky wasn’t much more than a dull, warm gray, where everything was still and quiet, where a few snowflakes had begun to fall, feeling forgotten, a whisper of a coming storm, where Harris sat in his new spacesuit on the front porch, enjoying what would be his last beer and its accompanying cigarette. If he would miss anything after his trip, he had decided, it would be his front porch, and his chair, and getting to sit and watch the neighborhood and the fields.

His neighborhood was a fringe cul de sac at the edge of Mallory, Ohio, not much more than a few houses and a couple empty lots, circled around a little bubble of road that no one other than the people who lived there came down. Past the cul de sac on all sides were thick fields of snow; in the spring, summer, and early fall, they’d go from soft, thick white plains to lush waves of corn.

The only signal of civilization, other than the St. Joe’s steeple and Malone’s Depot, the three-story brown and red-brick department store, the tallest building in Mallory, peeking over the skeletal trees that grew through Mallory, was Pike’s Station, about two miles southeast of Harris’ home. If he leaned forward and peered around the corner of his porch, he could almost see the launchpad and its office, a structure that looked both naturally industrial and out of place in Mallory, like a marooned oil rig. He’d walked almost halfway there a few days ago, as a test, and had only fallen once.

He reached into the front pocket of his suit and pulled out, after a few clumsy attempts with the suit’s thick gloves, a crumpled pack of Blue Moon cigarettes and a chewed-up brown lighter. Harris flicked the striker for a good minute before getting a consistent flame, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and brought it up. He inhaled, puffed, and put the package and the lighter back in the front pocket. He exhaled and felt himself sink into the suit and the chair.

The suit was a replica of the V22 EMU’s, which had been standard issue since 2056 for all Orion astronauts and colonists. Unlike earlier iterations, the V22’s were heavier, bulkier, meant for extended stays in space. As the Colonial Administration had expanded its reach, more and more of its expeditions lasted far longer, and took both astronauts and colonists alike to harsher and harsher cosmic corners. Right now, a hot spot was Trident Orbital, a recently-developed mining station just off Neptune. From what Harris had been reading online, the word was that the Administration planned to turn Trident into a kind of threshold settlement, a staging ground for extra-system exploration. In less than seventy years, they’d managed to get human beings settled in or near every planet in the system. Now was the time to invest in what they had, and start making preparations to one day go beyond Sol.

An alarm chirped, and a soft digital readout of the time in pale red numbers flashed 4:30 on his helmet. He sighed and, resting a hand on his cane and slowly standing up, made his way inside.

Harris stood at his kitchen table, taking inventory on his pack. It was a brown rucksack, something he’d had for years, taken on camping trips with friends and family and the like. Most of them were gone now – either moved from Mallory, or passed. He’d loaded it with dry goods – crackers, dried fruit, boxes of macaroni and cheese – and several big jugs of water. Just in case he got time to eat.

He was about to zip up the pack when he realized he’d forgotten something. Harris went down the hall from the kitchen into his room. He crouched, with effort and phantom pains in his knees, and pulled out a box of newspapers.

The Mallory Times had been discontinued years ago, but as a kid, he’d saved most of the editions. There were headlines like FIRST ORION LAUNCH FROM HONOLULU; TRAPPED ORION CREW RESCUED ON IO AFTER THREE WEEKS; ORION LAUNCHES COMMUNITY DEPOT BRAND.

Most of them were junk. Not junk, that wasn’t the right word… but he couldn’t take them with. He sifted through until he found one, a bit yellowed. The front page was an old digital photo of an empty field that read MALLORY SELECTED FOR REGIONAL SPACEPORT. The date in the upper right corner read October, 2024.

He picked up the paper and held it for a moment, skimming parts of the article.

thirty-third Midwestern station of its kind…

…a great opportunity for the small community…

…hope to let more and more from the Breadbasket, who some say have been overlooked in past exploration efforts, join in the noble pursuit of space travel…

…local testing begins in March of 2025…

He folded it, carefully, and went back into the kitchen and tucked it in the side of his pack. It was the closest thing he had to a ticket… but it wasn’t, and if anyone found him, he’d probably be taken into custody and returned to Earth. But at least it was something to read.

Something padded against his door.

Harris went over to and opened it. A plump tabby with huge eyes and big paws was staring up at him.

“She’s not home yet?”

The cat meowed, and wended his way between his legs and into his kitchen. He didn’t know the cat’s name, he just knew that he belonged to a woman about his age who lived across the cul de sac. She let him out every day, no matter the weather, and it didn’t really seem like the thing minded anyways, because he usually found a way into Harris’ house no matter what. He’d come home countless times over the past few years to find the cat laying in his armchair in the living room, or pawing through one of the cupboards. The best way to get him to sit still was feeding him. He liked macaroni the best, that put him right to sleep.

“I don’t have a lotta time,” he closed to door and headed to the cupboards. “I’m leaving soon, you know? So you’re gonna have to find your own way out.”

The cat stared at him from the scuffed linoleum floor. It licked its lips.

“Mhmm. Right.”

Harris got over to his fridge and opened the door. He’d made some macaroni earlier in the morning and hadn’t been able to finish it all. He took out the blue plastic bowl, stripped off the plastic wrap, and set it down. The cat looked at the food, then at him. He meowed.

“I’m not gonna microwave it, you don’t touch it until it’s cold anyway.”

The cat meowed again.

Harris stood for a moment, and then he sighed, and bent down, grabbed the bowl, and carried it over to the microwave. “Whaddyou think, thirty seconds? A minute?”

The cat didn’t respond, and he keyed in thirty seconds.

He went back over to the kitchen table and took a look at his inventory one more time. He wanted to make sure he had enough, just in case.

The microwave beeped, and he came over, took out the bowl of macaroni, and set it down where the cat was. He stared at it for a moment before flicking his tail, wandering over to Harris’ chair, hopping up, and curling into a ball. In a few moments he was asleep.

Harris watched him for a moment before going back to his pack. He stared at it for a minute or so before sighing, going over to the chair, picking up the cat – who groaned with kind of absent yawn – and sat down in the chair, reclining back. He closed his eyes for a moment.

Harris woke up with a start. He was reclined in his chair, with the cat curled on his lap in a warm puddle.

Someone knocked on the door.

He groaned, and carefully got up, and made his way to the door.

It was a blonde girl, short hair, freckles, in a black coat, plaid skirt, and boots. She was holding a neatly-wrapped little package the size of a shoebox under her arm. A ways behind her, parked in the curve of the cul de sac, was a long black car with a purple flag.

“Hey, Mr. Harris,” she said, a waver of surprise under her voice. She looked him up and down. “Going somewhere?”

“Not for a while.” He looked around her at the car. “You drive that thing everywhere?”

“What?” she followed his eyes and turned back around, shaking her head. “Oh. No. But we just finished with a burial, and we’re about to close-up for the weekend, so my Dad had me stop by to give you this.”

She offered the package. Harris took it.

“He said your Mom left it for you to have after everything. We shoulda gotten it to you earlier but I kept forgetting.” Her face flushed a bit. “Sorry.”

Harris waved a hand. He turned the package over. Shook it a bit.

“How’re your exams?” he didn’t look up.

The girl’s shoulders sagged, slight, but heavy. She sighed. “They suck.”

He laughed, and looked up at her. “I remember mine. No fun.” His fingers tapped on the box for a moment. “Where are you looking at getting placed?”

“I wanna get stationed at Saturn. Maybe the C-Ring, or Cassini Station.”

“Geology?”

“Xenobiology,” she said it quiet, like she was embarrassed.

Harris nodded. “Cassini Station is good for that – that’s where Brandford started his micro-terra project. They’ve got a good reputation.”

“I know,” she said, scratching the back of her neck. “I read all his books.”

Harris got the feeling he’d just tried to give advice to someone who already knew where they were going, what they were doing, and how to get there, more than he ever would. Nothing ever made him feel like an old man more than that.

He could feel his own face flush a bit. He coughed. “Well. Then you got nothin’ to worry about. Most kids don’t even bother studying for the exams now, and you’re doing extra reading? You’re set.”

“Yeah,” she said. She looked at him. His suit. Inside the house. “Are you gonna be back any time soon, Mr. Harris?”

He felt a lump. He didn’t expect a lump, but it was there, and he cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

She hugged him suddenly. Harris put his hands up, and the small push from the girl and the weight from the suit almost made him tip over. He steadied himself on the door frame with a gloved hand.

The girl said something to him, something he couldn’t quite make out, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have known what to say. So he hugged her back, tight.

“Okay,” she pulled away and sniffed. “It was nice seeing you.”

“You too.”

She headed down the walk to the long black car, and stopped for a moment to wave. He waved back. She got in and drove down the street towards the empty town.

With his rucksack cinched and the shoebox-gift in his hands, he left a note on the woman’s door, just a short sentence explaining where her cat was.

He wandered over to the edge of the field and stared out at Pike’s Station. The rucksack was awkward, his shoulders were already sore, and his knees hurt. He put the box under his arm and leaned on his cane a bit.

The black, skraggly outlines of barren trees and copses lined the left edge of the field, but for the most part, it was a totally flat plain, boasting nothing bigger than a few hundred humps of prairie grass that hunkered down across its space like sleeping golems.

At the other end of the field, a solid two miles or so away, was the thick, dark skeleton of Pike’s Station. Steam vented in fat clouds from a dozen smoke stacks and shafts along its body. Bulbs of light, like Christmas lights, dotted it. Some were the green, soft pulsings of the launchpad; others were the red glares atop the highest points, markers of warning to potential air and spacecraft; more than few were the warm amber of offices and dormitories for the live-in crew, administrative and maintenance, of the station; and there were dozens of white-yellows that were simply studded all across its bodice. Harris didn’t really know what they did, but they looked nice.

He stood there for a while, cold beginning to seep into his fingertips and toes. A few flakes tickled the tip of his nose and cheeks. His breath came in puffs as he stood at the edge of the field, with snow that was up to halfway above his shins.

He took the box from under his arm and ripped open the wrapping. The paper was old, pale blue and white, decorated with little winter swirls and penguins with scarves.

Harris took off the cover and set in on the ground. Inside was a yellow note. He picked it up and read:

Dear Harris,

I know you won’t be around long after I go. So I wanted to give you something to keep you warm on your trip. Malone sold it to me at a discount a couple weeks ago. Try it on, spaceman!

I love you.

-Mom

Underneath the note was a small, simple, black knit winter cap. On the front was the Orion logo, a boxy spaceship with engines whooshing behind it against orange, white, and blue shield, set on a background of stars. Harris picked it up and turned it over. He opened his helmet’s visor and pulled it down on his head. A little warmth trickled into his ears.

He stuffed the note in his breast pocket, set the box down, and looked back at his house. The cul de sac. St. Joe’s Steeple, the department store, sitting above the trees. He wished he could’ve said goodbye to someone before he left.

He turned back around and started, slow, into the field. And soon he was gone.

The Prince Book Review

The Prince is a seminal work of Western political thought, written in the early 16th century by notorious pouty political bad-boy and advisor to the Florentine Republic, Niccolò Machiavelli.  The book was controversial in its time – and remains so, to a degree, in ours – for its central thesis, which is that a ruler, a prince, must approach their station of power with a shrewd, cynical, and non-moralistic eye and appetite.

The book was originally dedicated to the Medici Family, and Machiavelli intended it as a kind of new-age handbook for up-and-coming, or even present, rulers of the time.

There are plenty of juicy ideas in The Prince, but the one I found coming up more and more, either in name or reference, was this this one:

There’s no overarching “good” way to rule, but there are smart ways.

Machiavelli lived in a time where princes and other rulers were ostensibly bound by a code of morality and ethics, usually and unsurprisingly originating from Catholic doctrine, or at least influence.  It was implicitly understood that all rulers would do what was right in the eyes of a higher power, as well as in the eyes of the people they ruled.  Clearly, as history may show, this wasn’t often the case, and there are many examples of princes and other rulers who either abused this morality and manipulated it as a trojan horse for their own aims and ends, or ignored it altogether, apparently and completely content to forsake themselves in the eyes of God and history to achieve whatever they set out to do.  Because of these loopholes—it’s difficult to govern on the honor system, because who watches the watcher?—it becomes pretty clear in The Prince that Machiavelli saw this kind of moral stipulation as a hindrance to political thought – the prince ought to take things as they are, not as they ought to be.  To obey a set of abstract moral principles that viewed the world and its people idealistically was a clear path to ruin.  The only way to govern effectively was realistically, which meant, at times, undertaking immoral action to begin, further, or codify one’s rule.

This immoral action was variable in its forms, but not limited to: wiping out noble families who pose a threat to the prince’s rule; using fear and shock as a means to keep the public in line; allying yourself with that same public, not out of common charity, but necessity in case you need to use them against the noble class; joining wars on whatever side is clear to win; and perhaps most famously and Machiavellian at all, making absolutely certain that if you have an enemy, you completely and totally obliterate them:

“Upon this, one has to remark that men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” (Machiavelli, pg. 9).

All of this, at face value, is incredibly cruel, and could even, through certain contexts, be called evil.  But what I think you have to keep in mind, and what it seems Machiavelli knew as well, is that even if you behave morally, you should not expect your enemies, or even your friends, to do the same.  In this way, Machiavelli’s thought is incredibly modern—whether that’s because of The Prince’s influence even today, or because human nature can be both self-effacing and yet so fundamentally naked is up for debate.  But in our present day, which is markedly absent of any overarching moral dictum that is universally followed, it’s well understood that there are people, both in government and in the common and everyday, who will manipulate a system’s rules to gain wealth, or fame, or most important of all, power, regardless of how it affects others – and they often do this while flying the same moral banner as everyone else.

What’s notable, for me, at least in reading The Prince, was how it clashed against the view of Machiavelli as I’d heard/seen of him through cultural osmosis.  I’d always heard his name spoken in a kind of hush, or at least disdain, like he’d written against all the good and upstanding cultural values of the modern world and invariably turned politics into what it is today – a fierce and cold grab for power between individuals and entities who want nothing more than to dominate their people and obliterate their opponents.  When people hear the term Machiavellian, it connotes a sinister, shadowy figure, plotting in the background against friends and enemies alike, wringing their hands in the dark until their day in the sun comes and they’re allowed to exercise tyrannical power disguised as intelligent politics.

It doesn’t help that one of the more infamous political celebrities in European history – Henry VIII – cited The Prince in his decision to form the Anglican Church.  Later thinkers, like Rousseau, even classified The Prince as a satire, because in no way could anyone write such a work and not intend it to be a kind of exaggerated joke played on the upper classes for sport.

If there’s anything necessarily critical I can say of Machiavelli’s book, it’s that most of his examples are relatively obscure to someone not versed in 16th century Italian geopolitics.  Of course, he wrote The Prince as a handbook for the Italian nobility of the day, so it makes sense that his references and examples of what to do and what not to do would be as specific as possible, so they’d be highly comprehensible and tangible to his audience.  Nowadays, though, that specificity is a bit difficult to weed through, though I found if you try and take in the names, but focus more on what is being said, the examples become a bit more lucid. 

I’m going to end with a few ideas that I came to me while I was reading.  Whenever I’m reading any kind of book, I like to try and keep track of any ideas that come up, and either are totally separate from the content of the book, or could be, what I think, new additions to it, new ideas to add.  So, with The Prince, here are some modern addendums that can be made by porting over the concepts he uses. 

One idea is The Rule of the Bargaining Law.  Briefly stated, this means:

It is more often beneficial than not for a leader to go against their own people, without the people knowing, and under the guise of extraordinary circumstances, leverage a massive amount of power that will inevitably rankle the people to such an extent, open revolt is the only visible alternative.  At this point, the leader will begin to roll back the extreme measures they installed – to the applause of his people.  

This is a classic bargaining technique – introduce a figure so ridiculous that the other person will, by instinct, immediately recoil and demand a lower figure.  But a lower figure from something ridiculous is still expensive, and the first man, the introducer, comes off richer from this engagement.

Another is that of Singular Powers:

You should view your government as a monarch, with its own persona, and interests.  If democracies were truly dynamic, they would be prone to large-scale fluctuations and rendered nearly inoperable.

And the final is the Longrun Theory:

Political parties/movements can’t just be viewed in their present day incarnations – they must be taken on a holistic, temporal basis that allows for an evaluation of their long-term arcs.

All in all, for anyone who’s interested in political philosophy, or even just politics and its influences in general, I’d recommend The Prince.  It might be a bit obscure at times, but it’s shaped the modern political landscape for better, or for worse, and that makes it worth a read.

-Bibliography-

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Antonio Blado d’Asola, 1532.

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and the Central Metaphor

Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” is a famous work of American short fiction that is often used as an example not only of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory style of writing, but also of how a governing metaphor can underpin a story and shape the scenery, characters, and plot, giving the entire narrative a kind of depth and dimension that would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate without the implementation of the metaphor in the first place. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to review the well-known story, nor to discuss Hemingway and his Iceberg Theory, nor the use of the particular metaphor really at all. It is instead an attempt to demonstrate a personal theory of mine – the central metaphor. I will do this by re-contextualizing Hemingway’s story through my own personal interpretation, using supporting evidence, and by the end, will have hopefully shown the utility and danger of this theory.

First, what do I mean by the central metaphor?

My idea of the central metaphor is a subjective interpretation that must be supported at least somewhat adequately by its own internal logic. It is a means for the reader to truly individualize, through both creative subjectivity and a personal sense of rational connection, their interpretation and understanding of the work.

This central metaphor functions in the same way as a critical lens, i.e. a Marxist lens, a feminist lens, a capitalist lens, a Christian lens, etc., in the way that it is a particular lens that can be used to analyze, through a set of specific criteria, most any given work.

But the central metaphor differs in the sense that it cannot, and should not, fit into one category. While a Marxist lens may only approach art with the intention of fitting it into a proletariat/bourgeoisie dialectic, or a Christian lens may immediately seek to pinpoint the messiah figure, or the God stand-in, the central metaphor must be a truly personal reading of the work. Much like an individual’s own faculties of perception, the central metaphor can and most likely will involve bits and pieces of other lenses. But it can and will and must also involve that reader’s own memories, past experiences, personal beliefs and practices, as well as what and how they have learned to interpret and understand works through their own education, whether institutional, self-guided, or both.

The theory of the central metaphor is one that is not new, and the idea of a governing metaphor has existed as long as human beings have told stories to each other. However, this particular iteration, my particular iteration, is meant to be a reconfiguration and a re-purposement of that idea. It is meant to mean a more subjective, reader-based interpretation of the observed work, rather than an over-arching theory or staunch proposition. The author acknowledges that the obvious may have been restated within this conception, and they ask for forgiveness and patience if that is the case.

Simply put, the central metaphor is what you make to be the meaning of this story. This meaning must be supported, but it is yours alone, because only you could bring it into form.

As I’ve said, I understand that this is a big restatement of the obvious. Clearly, everyone has a personal interpretation of a piece of artwork – it’s the starting point for our entire understanding of art in general. And because our own personal interpretations are often flawed, or fall short of adequately describing and discussing work, we use lenses, like the ones I’ve mentioned before, to further bolster our claims.

My attempt with the idea of the central metaphor is to try and cement the PERSONAL, the READER’s own subjectivity, in the pantheon of lenses. I believe this is the most powerful lens of all, as it is the master lens from which all others derive. And in my own schooling, I’ve seen too many instances of people, students and professors alike, simply delegating the thoughtwork of analysis to the tools, and not to themselves, the craftsmen and craftswomen. It’s easy to use lenses as a comfortable surrogate for our ideas – it is much more difficult to use these lenses to augment our own theories, as our own theories are often seen as crude, or even vulgar.

With that being said, here is my effort to use my own personal lens to analyze “Hills Like White Elephants”.

I consider myself a writer. I’ve been practicing since I was young, about five years old, and writing has formed the backbone of my personality for a very long time, much like a pro-sports player’s athleticism, both practiced and genetic, would form and shape their persona as well. Because of this, I often, both consciously and unconsciously, approach subjects with the eyes and mind of a writer first.

I’d like to make the argument that the central metaphor of “Hills Like White Elephants” could be an almost allegorical account of Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, emphasized through its scene construction, characters, and overarching plot, which all serves to ultimately relate his relationship with his own writing process, and, more importantly, his stories.

A very common, almost sickeningly-repeated, phrase among writers is “Kill your babies.” This is a graphic metaphor which essentially means, “If it’s not working, even if you really like it, and a lot of times especially if you really like it, take it out.” Another iteration would be “Murder your darlings.” This was supposedly originated by the Cornish writer Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Coincidentally enough, this phrase is sometimes—erroneously, though understandably—attributed to Hemingway, most likely because of his proclivity to relatively sparse, succinct, almost barren prose. His Iceberg Theory was to cut out as much as possible from his work, in order to challenge readers, to make them look for the mass of hidden meaning that lay under the water of the visible writing.

“Hills Like White Elephants” is, again, an oft-cited example of Hemingway’s prose and his Iceberg Theory. There is little description of the scene, though what little there is manages to convey striking imagery. Dialog tags such as “he said,” and “she said,” are rarely used. The two main characters are an American man and a woman, possibly Irish, given her name—or possible nickname—Jig. The man is not given a name – this is important

For any not familiar with the overall plot, I’ll give a quick summary – pause here if you want to read it, it’s only four pages, you can find it online, I’d encourage you, if you haven’t, to give it a look.

“Hills Like White Elephants,” takes place at a train station in a barren stretch of land near the Ebro River in Northeastern Spain. Two characters, an American man and an Irish woman, are sitting, waiting for the train to arrive. In the distance across a dry brown plain are mountains; the woman remarks, to a terse response from her partner:

“ ‘They look like white elephants,’.”(Hemingway, pg. 1).

The conversation is mostly sparse, though it becomes more tense as the subject shifts to an upcoming procedure the woman will be undergoing, something the man describes as follows:

“ ‘They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’” (pg. 2).

As the story progresses, the American man continues, with a kind of quiet insistence, almost anxiously, to press the woman about the procedure. This aggravates her so much that she cuts him off at one point, saying:

“ ‘Would you please please please please please please please please stop talking?’ ”(pg. 4).

The story final lines end with the woman saying she’s fine, that, “‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’” (pg. 4).

“To let the air in,” is an older expression referring to an abortion, which in Hemingway’s time, was an incredibly shameful, almost disgusting procedure. What’s notable is that most people don’t realize this, and walk away from the story confused; when explained, it becomes clear, not only in the dialogue, but in the construction as a whole, exactly what Hemingway’s talking about. The train station is in the middle of nowhere – it is a crossroads, symbolic perhaps that the man and woman are at a threshold they will not come back from. This is reinforced by the woman’s insistence that life will not go back to how it was before, how it cannot go back:

“ ‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’”(pg. 3).

Also, the plain in the distance is barren, juxtaposed against mountains that are white, almost pale, like skin – a possible reference to the state of the womb before the procedure, and its state afterwards. There are more subtle notes – the woman decides to have a drink, despite being pregnant, which is a sign that she herself is resigned to the procedure, though it is completely against her will, something that troubles her greatly. If it did not, she wouldn’t insist the man stop talking, so much so that she eventually threatens to scream if he continues to try and comfort her more about the procedure.

This is a clear metaphor, illustrated beautifully through the simple punches of scenery and the all-at-once relaxed, wanting, and tense dialogue between two characters who are right next to each other the whole story but feel so distant. Hemingway did a fantastic job at constructing a simple scene with lean language and abundant depth.

My argument, my assertion, my personal reading, my central metaphor, is that this story and the theme of abortion isn’t just about an abortion – it’s about Hemingway’s style, and the relationship it creates between him and his stories.

The American man is Hemingway’s authorial stand-in; the woman is a symbol of his prose and his work before he puts it under the knife. She, his work – his stories – is pregnant with new life, with something more, something she wants to give him, something she believes will give them everything. Notice – it’s her observation that creates the most well-known scenic description in the story, the line that the title comes from:

“ ‘The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.

‘I’ve never seen one,’ the man drank his beer.’ ” (pg. 1).

Hemingway, as the writer, appears to disagree and disapprove of his own writing’s tendency towards the descriptive, the excessive, the more – life will be just fine with the two of them. It’s unnecessary to add a third, to add more, to the mix. Better to keep it sparse and simple rather than chance his life on excess.

In this central metaphor, the train station could be taken as a symbol of the transition between drafts. Much like the man and the woman in the story, a writer and their story, by the time the first draft is completed, have a kind of history together. This is something they’ve been working on, sometimes for months, or even years. The writing becomes a kind of personal relationship, and much like a personal relationship, there are so many private memories between an author and their work, it’s oddly and wonderfully intimate.

But you arrive at a crossroads when the first draft is done. And if you want to make something more of a book, you have to take that first step and start to cut away what doesn’t work. The time before this is one that’s often a bit melancholic, and empty, almost hollow, and lowly peaceful. You know that the thing you’ve made memories with and poured yourself into, it will have to change. You, and it, your story, will have to let go. It is a kind of cutting away, an excising – it is editing. It’s what Hemingway built his entire Iceberg Theory and his own style on.

Hemingway is especially known for his severe editing. So it would make sense that this scene, the one between the man and the woman at the train station, the writer and his story at the crossroads, is especially quiet and sad. And even a bit uncomfortable, and unfair, in regards to the woman/stories themselves, who clearly don’t want to go along with the procedure.

Of course, the woman/his stories do end up, ostensibly, going along with this – they have to, they are essentially his, but they are reluctant, almost distraught. The woman/story in the story attempts almost a sort of bargain with the man/Hemingway:

“ ‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’” (pg. 3).

I find it key to mention that many of Hemingway’s critics argue his style and stories are far too sparse. There’s too much cut away, and there are chances for imagery and description that are totally dropped in favor of the style.

One last interesting piece I’ve found is this – the American man, reading as Hemingway’s surrogate, is given no name. By the very nature of his character, he is self-effacing. He does not want to be noticed – much like Hemingway’s writing style, he does not want to draw attention to himself. The woman, on the other hand, is lively, almost childish – and her name, presumably, is Jig. Jig was, during Hemingway’s time, a side-eye way to wink at possible Irish heritage. And remember what a jig is: a lively dance, something full to burst with passion, something happily excessive Something that, by its very nature, draws attention to itself. In this central metaphor reading, the woman’s character, the stand-in for Hemingway’s stories, is the absolute antithesis of Hemingway’s authorial stand-in, the American man. They couldn’t be more different, yet they have been drawn together, seemingly by fate, possibly by luck, and sadly by misfortune.

So, a quick recap – my central metaphor interpretation of “Hills Like White Elephants” is as follows:

The story’s abortion metaphor can be read as a deeper allegory for Hemingway’s own journey as a writer with each of his stories. He is a quiet, passionate, self-effacing man and artist, who finds himself bound and invariably attracted to a woman, a muse, whose entire being, lively, passionate, and excessive, is antithetical to his own. In his pursuit of this relationship, trying to do what is best for the both of them, he always arrives at a kind of crossroads after the completion of the first draft – the train station – before the abortion procedure – his editing process. While his stories may end up eventually going along with what he says, there is always a sense that perhaps, there is something lost in the whole affair that can never be regained, i.e. parts of prose that Hemingway perhaps nixed away, which could have been wonderful segments and pieces, that he cut in order to adhere to his Theory, his sense of what writing must be.

Now, Hemingway’s voice is what makes him Hemingway – but what if he could have been more? Or better? Those are often pointless questions in totality, but I do find they bear asking in the realm of theory. I personally find Hemingway’s work enjoyable, I’ve read a few of his books and short stories and found them compelling, almost cinematic.

But one of my nagging fears with him is that he was afraid to try for more. What if his reason, or one of his reasons, for omitting so much wasn’t out of a rigid adherence to the duty of style? What if, underscoring it, was a bit of fear? What if he was afraid to try for more detailed descriptions, interior monologues, and so on? What if he was afraid of more?

I don’t know, and this speculation is just that – speculation. But the central metaphor is founded in personal belief, and if part of my personal belief is a speculation that Hemingway was flawed in such a human way, I don’t find that it devalues his prose, but rather adds another dimension to it. True or not, it shapes my own personal understanding of him and his work. Again, this is not meant to replace the original meaning or reading of Hemingway or his stories. Rather, it is meant to shade a little bit, add a personal dimension to my own particular understanding of the writer, who he might have been, and what went into his stories.

And this helps to show the benefit and danger of the central metaphor – anything, if convincing enough, can be re-contextualized by anyone at any time. This can be fantastic, because it can help us view artists and their work in different, and unexpected, lights. Artists such as Tarantino, Scorsese, James Joyce, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Frank Zappa, and so on made their careers on works of art that re-contextualized or repurposed prior materials and made them their own.

But this technique can also, if used negligently or maliciously, corrupt a work and re-orient it towards ignorant, unjust, or even cruel, ends. Real-world examples abound—see any social movement that has co-opted the Communist Fist, the Nazi’s re-purposing of the swastika and the Roman Salute, even the massive, usually unpopular re-duxes of pop culture franchises that seem to rub most of their intended audiences the wrong way. These are all examples of movements that have attempted to co-opt and re-use various symbols and signals, and either ignore, or abuse, the original’s intent for their own means and ends.

All this is invariably moot in the larger scheme of things. Everything is reused, repurposed, recontextualized, recycled. It’s very easy to feel as though we have nothing left to contribute, because in a way, there really may not be anything that anyone’s contributed that hasn’t already been said. In a sense, though, I’d like to think that particular brand of nihilism takes a lot of the pressure off of anything we might think, say, or do. So, I hope, through a demonstration of my central metaphor theory, and an analysis of “Hills Like White Elephants,” you may have found some idea, some sentence, some minor expression or inflection, that caught you and made you, even if just for a moment, feel included in some larger discussion, and inspired to say something, anything, before it ends.

-Bibliography-

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hills Like White Elephants.” Men Without Women, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997.