A Timely Recapitulation, with Some Help from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle

by George Anastaplo


Our yearlong survey of all the dialogues and letters attributed to Plato ends with our Alumni seminar this morning during which we return to the Apology and the Phaedo.  This, at the end of still another academic year, also happens to mark the end of my fiftieth year as a Basic Program seminar leader.  During the second half of that period I have been as well a member of the Loyola law faculty and before that, for almost two decades, a member of the political science and philosophy faculties of Dominican University.  There have also been visiting professorships (as a fortnightly commuter) at the University of Dallas and at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

I had not wanted to seem to be tempting fate by anticipating publicly this half-century mark, especially since that service has been challenging for me personally because I have never had to miss a single class anywhere because of illness or accident.  Certainly, the books we read have been such that I have not tired of returning to them again and again – and I suspect that that has helped keep me in good shape.  Fortunately, that is, there have not had to be induced any “psychosomatic” symptoms unconsciously developed to liberate me from any academic assignments that were dreaded as oppressive.  Even so, it would not be reasonable to expect such good health to continue much longer, no matter how interesting the things I am privileged to study may remain.  Still, it is obvious that the books we talk about are always challenging – and hence constantly rejuvenating, especially when one (again and again) does see things one had not noticed before in a text.  Permit me to illustrate this by touching upon three matters, related to our books, which are currently intriguing me.



Consider, for example, one of the texts we have studied this year, Greater Hippias, a dialogue fashioned either by Plato or by someone who knew well the work of Plato.  We can see there something that I, for one, had not noticed before, that there are two quite different aspects of Socrates exposed to public view, two aspects which elicit different responses (that is, one quite friendly and the other markedly unfriendly) from intelligent associates.

Hippias, a very successful Sophist, is shown to be talented, intellectually active (though not profound), and personally friendly toward Socrates, even though Socrates keeps pressing him with difficult questions.  But these questions are not offered in Socrates’ own name, but rather as the kind of questions that would be raised by someone else (a difficult man) with whom Socrates expects to discuss these matters.

That “difficult” man is, of course, Socrates himself, but Hippias does not recognize this as he repeatedly expresses exasperation with the absent critic on whom Socrates draws.  Thus, we see, Socrates can be tolerated, and even dealt with in a friendly fashion, by someone who believe he knows Socrates “personally.”  (We can be reminded of the convention-minded Crito’s generous regard for Socrates.)  But we also see that Socrates can arouse hostility in someone who does not know him “personally,” as may be seen in Hippias’ ever-growing exasperation toward the man Socrates keeps invoking in response to Hippias’ arguments.  We can thus see two quite different responses to Socrates among people at large who encounter him one way or another.  We ourselves, in turn, may be well-disposed toward the Socrates “authorized” for us by Plato and the admiring tradition he helped establish, even as we ourselves may be hostile toward Socratic challenges (from “unauthorized” sources) to the opinions we happen to be comfortable with from time to time.


All this suggests that Socrates has always been hard truly to know.  We can be perhaps most dramatically reminded of the limits upon a complete understanding of things by the existence of incommesurability in the realm of geometry.   We can well wonder how it could be possible that there should exist, for example, two lines which cannot be expressed (counted) evenly (not equally) using any particular unit-length.  Moses Maimonides, in attempting to come to terms with what we know as irrational numbers or incommeasurable magnitudes, once wrote the following in his Commentary to the Mishnah (‘Eruvim, i.5):

You ought to know that the ratio of the diameter of the circle to its circumference is unknown, nor will it ever be possible to express it precisely.  This is not due to any shortcoming of knowledge on our part, as the ignorant think.  Rather, this matter is unknown due to its nature, and its discovery will never be attained.

It can be expected, that is, that this particular “unknowability” will always be so among human beings.  Should it be expected as well that we will never know (or even “feel”) why this must always be so?

One of the splendid jokes in the Platonic corpus is the request made by Socrates in the Meno that the Slave Boy tell him how long the sought-for line is (a line which turns out to be the diagonal of a square).  This, we know (and accomplished geometers of Socrates’ day would already have known), is not a line that can be given precisely as a number of units consistent with the units used for measuring the other lines that Socrates and the Boy had been talking about.  But Socrates does offer the Boy the option of pointing to the line sought, if he cannot tell (that is, precisely measure) it.  Should not this episode in Plato’s Meno remind us of the natural limits upon the knowability of the whole, at least by human beings?

Certainly, there can be something unsettling, if not even eerie or weird, about the fact of incommeasurability.  (Consider how disturbing we would find it if a column of numbers, when added in one direction, always gave a different sum [even if a calculator should be used] from the sum we get when the same column of numbers was added in the opposite direction.)  It is hard, perhaps impossible, for us to get a “feel” for why there should be incommeasurability.  Competent mathematicians with whom I have discussed this “situation” do not seem to be inclined to concern themselves about all this, however ultimately mysterious (and hence foundationless?) it may make much of what they do and say seem  (It can be instructive to notice how competent moderns do work around this difficulty.)  We can be reminded by all this of the Socratic caution about the importance of recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge.


This in not to suggest, however, that there is “no use” inquiring and trying to learn, however cautious one should be in affirming what one believes oneself to know.  Certainly, the books we read in the Basic Program can help us see better (even if not, ultimately, fully) what we observe all around us.  Consider, for example, a recent article in the New York Times, “Casinos Go All In To Draw Asians.” (Gary Rivlin, June 13, 2007, p. C1)  It is reported that there is an “interest in gambling among the Chinese that transcends anything you see in any other socio-economic or ethnic group.”  A Chinese-American expert has observed,

Ours is a culture that believes a lot in numbers and superstition and places a large focus on money.  So much revolves around fortune and fate and testing [thereby] whether the ancestors have blessed you with a good life.

An evident reliance upon the continued interest of ancestors in the fortunes of their descendants does seem to be critical to the Chinese tradition.

We can find particularly useful guidance here from Aristotle, Plato’s greatest student.  He in effect considers, in Chapter 11 of Book One of his Nicomachean Ethics, whether the dead (assuming that their souls remain aware of what is happening on earth) have much active interest in the fates of their descendants.  That chapter reads, in the Joe Sachs translation,

That the fortunes of one’s descendants and all one’s friends have no influence at all [on the dead] seems too unfeeling and contrary to people’s opinions, but since the things that come to pass are many and have all sorts of differences, with some of them more relevant and others less, to distinguish each of them would seem a long if not endless task, but to sketch what is said in a general outline would perhaps be sufficient.  Now if, just as among the misfortunes that surround oneself, some have a certain weight and power to tip the scale of one’s life while others seem more lightweight, so too is the same thing the case with the things that relate to all one’s friends, and it makes a difference whether each experience happens to concern those who are living or those who are dead, much more even than whether the lawless and terrible things in the tragedies are presupposed or enacted on stage, and so one ought to reckon in this difference and more, perhaps, the impasse about whether those who have done their part and departed this life have any share in anything good or the reverse.  For it seems from these considerations that if anything at all gets through to them, whether good or the reverse, it would be something faint and small, either simply or as it relates to them, or if not, at any rate so little and of such a kind as not to make happy those who are not, or to take away the blessedness of those who are.  So it appears that when the friends of the departed fare well, and likewise when they fare badly, this has an influence on those who are departed, but of such a kind and amount as neither to make the [departed who are] happy not be happy nor anything else of the sort.

Care has to be taken not to be “unfeeling” in how one deals publicly with this question.  Even so, it does seem to Aristotle, the dead care little, if at all, for what happens among the living.  (Compare the reported response of Odysseus’ Achilles upon learning in Hades of his son’s accomplishments at Troy.)

Aristotle’s assessment of this matter seems to be grounded, ultimately (as much else also is in his thought), upon his understanding of nature.  This bears upon how he would understand the condition and powers of the dead.  We can be reminded, by the place of ancestors in the traditional Chinese view of things, of how much our awareness of nature is rooted in what the Ancient Greeks happened to develop.  Such an awareness of nature has made possible the development in the West of its distinctive moral, political and scientific thought.  It may even be that without some reliable awareness of nature, and hence a sense of an ordered whole susceptible to rational investigation, the perennial challenge of something like incommesurability would be far less of a problem than it has long been thought to be.


These, then, are three illustrations of the kinds of questions, nourished by the books we read, that help to keep us truly alive.  One learns not only from personal study of the best books but also from repeatedly examining them with one’s colleagues and one’s students.  It does help here if one “believes in” what one is doing.  And it is even better if what is “believed in” is indeed worthy of enduring respect.  This can contribute to the vitality of one’s efforts, both personally and as part of a serious intellectual community.

But, as I have recognized, we are indeed mortal – and whatever vitality we have been privileged to have will naturally be used up someday, perhaps even quite soon for some of us.  I should also add something more obviously practical about how we should use the resources we are privileged to have.  It has evidently been helpful, for the health of our family, that we had to sell the last automobile we owned in order to make the down payment on the house we bought more than forty years ago.  (We have since then rented cars for cross-country drives.)  Thus, we have (for decades now) routinely done far more walking than we might otherwise have done.  (Afternoon naps have also been useful.)  But the living that really “counts,” I should repeat, is what one does with the help of the best thinking available to us in the remarkable books with which we have been fortunate enough to have been endowed.

[These remarks were made by George Anastaplo during a seminar in the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, June, 18, 2007.    (George Anastaplo was born in St. Louis, Missouri, November 7, 1925.)  He is, with Lawrence Berns (of St. John’s College) responsible for the translation of Plato’s Meno issued in 2003 by the Focus Publishing Company.  See, on Plato and his influence, G. Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen:  Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good (1975); Anastaplo, The Thinker as Artist:  From Homer to Plato & Aristotle (1997).  See, on Chinese thinking and doings, Anastaplo, But Not Philosophy:  Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (2002); Anastaplo, “What the United States Can Learn from China and Greece,” The Greek Star, Chicago Illinois, September 24, 2009, p. 7 (available at www.anastaplo.wordpress.com).  See, also Anastaplo, “If You’re as Good as You Look, Why Aren’t You a University of Chicago Professor (a talk on November 16, 2003, available at http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com).

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