Trying to Convince Callicles

Plato Was Perhaps the Greatest Philosopher Who Ever Lived

In the early 20th century, something happened to philosophy: It became ever more remote from the human experience—a matter for trained professionals. Whenever I get chilled by the likes of Wittgenstein, Ayer, Heidegger, or Derrida, I like to go back to the Ancient Greeks, and most especially Plato. His dialogues are probably the height of philosophy. Given their general appeal, it is no wonder that so many of them survived some 2,500 years of war and rapine.

Today, I finished reading Gorgias, which starts on the subject of rhetoric, and which, thanks to the persistence of Socrates, turns into a dialogue on how goodness and morality are more important than hedonism and success. Ultimately, Socrates says, it is better to be the victim of another’s wrongdoing than to perpetrate any wrongdoings oneself. That is because “it takes true goodness to make a man or woman happy, and an immoral, wicked person is unhappy.” [471a]

Something interesting happens in this dialogue. One of the participants, Callicles, refuses to accept the drift of Socrates’s argument. Even when he finds himself agreeing to individual points, he keeps on backtracking in favor of hedonism over morality. He interrupts the conversation between Socrates and Polus to say:

Socrates, may I ask you a question? Are we to take it that you’re serious in all this, or are you just having us on? You see, if you’re serious, and if what you’re saying is really is the truth, surely human life would be turned upside down, wouldn’t it? Everything we do is the opposite of what you imply we should be doing. [481c]

This is a big change from the usual philosophical dialogue, when the recipient of Socrates’s wisdom is reduced to saying “Yes, that is so” or “That’s absolutely inevitable!” Callicles, on the other hand, frequently backtracks and says things like, “Tell me, Socrates, doesn’t it embarrass you to pick on people’s mere words and to count it a godsend if someone uses the wong expression by mistake?” or “You’re not being altogether sincere, Socrates.”

Without losing track of his argument, Socrates keeps trying to get through to his interlocutor, despite his contrariness.

This Socrates was certainly a dangerous man. I could see why his enemies arranged to have him tried, convicted, and executed.

If you’re interested in reading Plato, I suggest the translations by Robin Waterfield.

Madame Vleughels

Edmé Bouchardon’s Bust of Madame Vleughels

The Getty Museum in Los Angeles has been putting on an exhibit entitled Bouchardon: Royal Artist of the Enlightenment, which ends in a few days. I was enthralled by both his drawings and his sculptures, of which the above bust of Mme Vleughels is one of my favorites. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762) is not well known to most people, but thanks to the Getty, I have made another discovery.

His work that shows the same technical virtuosity of some of the great rococo painters, as in the ornately draped blouse worn by the young woman, yet retains an austere classicism in her facial features and shoulders. Below is one of his drawings:

Head of a Woman Wearing a Scarf

Here again we have a combination of simplicity and technical virtuosity, which seems to be a hallmark of Bouchardon’s style.

Visiting an art museum can be a thrilling experience. But you have to open your eyes and be willing to make comparisons.

A Jobs Plan for Trumpf’s America

Specially Targeted to Trumpf Supporters

Our president wants jobs for Americans. It suddenly hit me that he could kill two birds with one stone: Send his most vociferous supporters deep into coal mines. (And none of that sissy strip mining stuff, either!) That coal dust does things to those who are most vociferous: It gives them black lung disease. That might also be a good solution for those members of his staff that the president is forced to remove for disloyalty or, worse yet, getting caught.

Perhaps we could direct our economy into those jobs which were more typical of centuries past. It’s a way of looking forward by looking back, and paying homage to our economic heritage. Say, what about harvesting cotton and sugar cane?

Serendipity: The Allegory of the Lamp Post

Lamp Post at Hotel Jardines de Nivaria in Tenerife

I am currently reading Simone Weil’s essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties”—a subject to which I will return in a few days. In the introduction by Simon Leys, I found this splendid long quote from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

In the Rough

We’re All in the Rough Together With the Trumpfster

Say, is that a hippo wallowing in the rough? Oh, wait a minute, no, it’s our Tweeter-in-Chief! Apparently, our super-smart prexy is not a very good golfer, unless the tall grass qualifies as the green on a Trumpf-owned golf course.

Politics may be an ugly profession, but it takes some talent to avoid the sand traps and water hazards in which the orotund gentleman pictured above finds himself. Perhaps one doesn’t have to be so smart as he is: Just listening would be a good start. Do you suppose it’s the small hands that have made him unable to wield the club of state?

Bumlandia

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Calcutta

Whether you call them by the term bums or the more forgiving “the homeless,” the streets of Southern California are filling up with raggedy men (and some women) who are living off the streets, They like to position themselves near markets and convenience stores and ask for the inevitable “spare change.” Across the street from where I live, there are several more-or-less permanent tents where several bums (yeah, these guys are properly called bums) spend the night, howling at the moon.

There are food distribution programs that cater to L.A.’s street people, but they still beg for spare change. My theory is that the money they get is strictly for CBD—cigarettes, booze, and drugs. At least one of the bums across the street is a drug dealer: He has two cars parked on the curb and is frequently seen talking on a burn cellphone.

I am somewhat torn. I like the idea of helping the true homeless—those who have some chance of getting out of their present dire situation—but I absolutely refuse to help bums. It’s like putting out a cockroach feeder. I support the Salvation Army and several other charities that help the homeless, but I would prefer that the bums move on elsewhere. I can hear them all night swearing loudly at each other and sometimes fighting in he street. Every once in a while, the LAPD stops and asks them to move on, but they cannot force them unless there is a clear violation of the law.

In nearby Santa Monica, bums are not allowed to set up tents and sleep on the pavement; but Los Angeles has always been a bit more forgiving. In the meantime, there are breakins to the apartment laundry rooms where the perpetrators are searching for quarters. A neighbor’s bicycle was stolen; and other small crimes of the typr that did not happen until the bum encampment was set up.

In the Red Labyrinths

Victorian Block in London

Every once in a while, I feel I must return to Jorge Luis Borges, the man who has influenced so many of the paths my life has taken in the last forty years:

Browning Decides To Be a Poet

In these red labyrinths of London
I find that I have chosen
the strangest of all callings,
save that, in its way, any calling is strange.
Like the alchemist
who sought the philosopher’s stone
in quicksilver,
I shall make everyday words—
the gambler’s marked cards, the common coin—
give off the magic that was there
when Thor was both the god and the din,
the thunderclap and the prayer.
In today’s dialect
I shall say, in my fashion, eternal things:
I shall try to be worthy
of the great echo of Byron.
This dust that I am will be invulnerable.
If a woman shares my love
my verse will touch the tenth sphere of the concentric heavens;
if a woman turns my love aside
I will make of my sadness a music,
a full river to resound through time.
I shall live by forgetting myself.
I shall be the face I glimpse and forget,
I shall be Judas who takes on
the divine mission of being a betrayer,
I shall be Caliban in his bog,
I shall be a mercenary who dies
without fear and without faith,
I shall be Polycrates, who looks in awe
upon the seal returned by fate.
I will be the friend who hates me.
The Persian will give me the nightingale, and Rome the sword.
Masks, agonies, resurrections
will weave and unweave my life,
and in time I shall be Robert Browning.

The above photograph by Robert Freidus is from The Victorian Web.