Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

Translation:
The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta

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Ancient History

|Daily Tread

The Ionians

The philosophical scientist emerges in Ionia, with the epicenter being Miletus, a coastal town, now in Turkey, on the Aegean Sea.

Of its three famous philosophical sons, I’m somewhat partial to Thales. He seems to have been continually applying his intellect to all manner of sciences: geometry, astronomy, engineering. He may have been the one to coin the motto “Know Thyself.” And it seems he was the prototype for the stereotype of the absent-minded scientist.

In Theodorus, Plato wrote:

The story about Thales is a good illustration [illustrating the detachment of the philosopher from the humdrum reality of the world—ed. note, R. Waterfield, The First Philosophers]: how he was looking upwards in the course of his astronomical investigations, and fell into a pothole, and a Thracian serving-girl with a nice sense of humor teased him for being concerned with knowing about what was up in the sky and not noticing what was right in front of him at his feet.

I know how easy it is to trip, stumble, fall into a hole, when lost in hypotheses and assumptions, perhaps even overlooking the fact that what I’m seeking is right here in front of me. In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating to be so publicly hacking my way into a jungle unknown to me. Mainly it’s the knowing that I will at times hit impassable dead ends and have to backtrack to find the right path, and when I sheepishly turn around, all my followers will have to sigh and turn around with me.

As soon as I read Plato’s tale of Thales, it immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Sufi dervish tales from the 14th century. It should keep me humble.

The Grammarian and the Dervish

One dark night, a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. “What’s the matter,” he called down.

“I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized,” responded the other.

“Hold, friend, and I’ll fetch a ladder and a rope,” said the dervish.

“One moment, please!” said the grammarian. “Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.”

“If that is so much more important than the essentials,” shouted the dervish, “you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.”

And he went on his way.

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Meditation on Thales:

From Aristotle, On the Soul:

Thales too  (as far as we can judge from people’s memoirs) apparently took the soul to be a principle of movement, if he said that the stone has a soul because it moves iron…. Some say that the universe is shot through with soul, which is why Thales too thought that all things were full of gods.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
I’ve often heard it said that there can be no soul if there is no god. While I can understand why belief in God requires a belief in soul, I don’t understand why a belief in soul (energy) mandates a god.

Aristotle can put me in the category of Thales and the “Some say” in believing the universe be “shot through with soul” (at least until I’ve studied his essay on the soul).

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Meditation on Anaximander:

From Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s “Physics”:

[Anaximander] says that the original sources of existing things are also what existing things die back into “according to necessity; for they give justice and reparation to one another for their injustice in accordance with the ordinance of ‘Time’, as he puts it, in these somewhat poetic terms.

Bertrand Russell retranslates this as, “Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.” Russell warns that our word “justice” is not the same as this use.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
Whether the meaning of “justice” is a little off, I find it most intriguing that the concept results in a zero-sum game. If one thing outgrows it’s position and encroaches on other things, it must then be destroyed in reparation (even though Anaximander believed in the limitlessness of the essence of things). It took too much, so taking too little is required for balance–and it’s happy to comply.

You only get so much. Use it as you will. Don’t resist destruction, it’s natural.

I think I would be a very bad element. On the lam, still growing.

Don’t all things resist their destruction?

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Meditation on Anaximenes:

From Plutarch, On the Primary Cold:

Anaximenes says that matter in a compressed and condensed state is cold, while in a dilated and ‘loose’ state (this is more or less exactly how he puts it) it is warm. And so, he says, when people say that man emits both warmth and cold from his mouth, they are not saying anything unreasonable. For breath gets cold when it is put under pressure and condensed by the lips, while when the mouth is is relaxed the breath that escapes becomes warm as a result of its being in a rarefied state.

Tangents and Non Sequiturs From Prudence:
It’s worrisome that I’m learning basic science from someone 2,500 years ago. Does everyone else know that your breath does change temperatures when you blow through closed lips versus open-mouthed? What physical properties cause that change?

Kudos to Anaximenes for scientific explanations of his theories.

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Pre-Socratic Self Quiz:

Q2. What is Urstoff? What did each of our three philosophers today believe was the Urstoff?

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Was there a concept or quote that you found more intriguing or important to your understanding?

Tomorrow: Pythagoras/Alcmaeon

If you are just joining the Daily Tread Society and would like to see where we started and where we are headed, click on the Daily Tread tab above and scroll down to our first postings.

|Daily Tread

Introducing the Pre-Socratics

Today, we turn back the clock to 585 BC, to the time of the first philosophers.

It’s not as if no one had ever asked “Where do we come from” or “Why are we here?” before these guys came along. But scholars attribute the pre-Socratics (those who preceded Socrates) with being the first to turn it into a science.

As Jonathan Barnes writes in Early Greek Philosophy, “What, then, is the substance of the claim that the Presocratics were champions of reason and rationality? It is this: they offered reasons for their opinions, they gave arguments for their views.”

That’s a pretty low bar set for these pioneers to jump over. Many of their ideas would be considered laughable today: having all things created from air and returning to air, or all things being composed of specific numerical combinations.

Therefore, it’s tempting to just rush past them in our hurry to meet their namesake, the first philosophical rock star: Socrates. But I think that’s unfair to them and their new, raw ideas that obviously affected their successors, even if as an object of scorn.

After all, these pre-Socratics were attempting what we are doing today in our Daily Tread Society: starting a philosophical journey. Sure, their thinking is considered preposterous now, but they thought things, mulled them over, shared them with fellow thinkers who then crafted their own theories from them. They were beginners, like me, learning to crawl before they walked and to walk before they ran.

I’d like to shake off all that I know and get into their newborn mindset. To look at the world as they did, with an infant’s eyes, awakening from myths and oracles to look around and think, hey, there might be something more to all of this. I might be able to figure it out for myself.

Let’s look not just at their ultimate conclusions, but perhaps why they were thinking that way, remembering they had no solid footing under them to support them. Let’s let them inspire us to look anew at our surroundings and create hypotheses to test our new perspective. Let’s give them a chance to express themselves without ridicule, for now, because I have it from reliable sources that they are going to come into a lot of it later, especially from Aristotle.

They deserve their time in the sun, so let’s give them a little.

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As philosophy moved civilization from myth into reality, this quote from Robin Waterfield in his introduction to The First Philosophers made me consider whether we are fully divorced from myth, even here in modern 2010:

Minimally then, a myth is a traditional tale. This is a good starting point, because it reminds us that a myth is a story, and that myths evolve within traditional, often pre-literate societies. Within such societies, a myth also has clear functional relevance to some important aspect of life. But this function is not just to help the society to perpetuate itself, as one school of thought has it; it is to help explain and form consensus reality for that community, and so to help make an individual’s experience of life meaningful.

Does that quote bring a certain Southern California town to mind? You know, the one with its name spelled out in big letters on the side of a hill?

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Call for Help:

At the top of page 19, in Copleston’s volume I, he gives the definition of an intriguing concept prevalent in the pre-Socratic era that was “in close connection with the will to power.” Unfortunately, Copleston expected his readers to be more erudite than I and only gives the name of that concept in Greek.

The man who goes too far, who endeavors to be and to have more than Fate destines for him, will inevitably incur divine jealousy and come to ruin. The man or the nation who is possessed by the unbridled lust for self-assertion is driven headlong into reckless self-confidence and so to destruction. Blind passion breeds self-confidence, and overweening self-confidence ends in ruin.

Who among you out there knows the name of this concept? Please share.

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Pre-Socratic Self-Quiz

Q1. Name something factually wrong with the depiction of the pre-Socratic philospher Heraclitus in the painting above.

[Answers will be provided once we reach the end of our pre-Socratic discussions.]

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If you are new to the Daily Tread and would like to join our society, our general plan and syllabus can get you up to speed quickly. You can always click on the “Daily Tread” tab above to see the full path we have already traveled. Follow us at @DailyTread.

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UPDATE:

Per a request, here’s a scan of the Greek word I couldn’t read. (Blew it up as large as I could.) Does this shed any new light on it? Thanks!

Is this the Greek word for "hubris" or something else?

|Daily Tread

Daily Tread: Our Syllabus

Heads Up

Consider this a rough syllabus for now of whom we’ll be covering in the pre-Socratic beginnings of our study. As I am literally reading along with you, it’s hard for me to know in advance who deserves how much time. So I’d like to leave myself a little leeway on who we bunch up and who deserves their own day. That way, if once we get to a philosopher and find that he says more than we thought would be relevant, we can take some extra time with him. Or if I skip over something you consider important or inspiring, we can add it in. Therefore, this “syllabus” will just give the general order that we will follow.

There are roughly 20-odd pre-Socratic philosophers in our texts. I say we plan to take two weeks to look them over. That might be a little too long, but it will make the initial reading assignments lighter and more manageable. Plus, taking some time at the beginning here will give everyone a chance to read through the introductions in Copleston, Durant and Russell, find a comfortable study pattern for themselves and get up to speed.

By the end of the first two weeks, we will have covered through Part I (11 chapters, pgs. 1-80) in Copleston and through Chapter 9 (pages 1-73) in Russell. (Durant’s main text does not begin until Plato.)

We will also have read the works of these early philosophers. However, little remains of their actual works. What does remain is called fragments—sometimes as small as only a couple words. The rest of what we know of them is from later philosophers that quoted the pre-Socratics in their own writings, as well as in the tell-all tales that their contemporaries told. All of these fragments and references were compiled in a document called the Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels. I’ve found it available free online here. If you would like a hard copy, it is available on amazon.com (in a rather plain, self-published–style paperback). Click the title of the book above to reach it.

The order in which we will tackle the pre-Socratics will be as follows:

  1. Ionians (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes)
  2. Pythagoras/Alcmaeon
  3. Xenophanes
  4. Heraclitus
  5. Parmenides
  6. Melissus
  7. Zeno
  8. Empedocles
  9. fifth-century Pythagoreans (Hippasus, Ion of Chios, Philolaus)
  10. Anaxagoras
  11. Atomists (Leucippus, Democritus)
  12. Diogenes of Apollonia

The Ancilla was originally a supplemental book to an explanatory one by Diels. The Ancilla fragments and references for them are pretty tough reading if you have no other guide to explain or elaborate on them. Unfortunately, I could not locate a new copy of the original Diels book. Of course, Copleston provides some guidance, but not in as much detail as two books I also recommend:

Both repeat much of the same fragments, but each of them goes into more detail on the philosopher’s life and influences, as well as putting the fragments into context. I recommend using the “Look Inside” feature at Amazon.com to determine whether the books will fit your needs.

Finally, in relation to all the Greek and Roman philosophers, it often helps to understand them if you know more about them personally, about their lives. The compilation books I’ve suggested above do well in providing a cursory look at them. You can also go to the original biographer of the day, Diogenes Laertius’ The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, but be warned, this is no modern-day biography. It’s a tough read, organized in almost scripture form, and practically requiring knowledge of these people and their contemporaries to understand what’s going on. This site, ClassicPersuasion.org, provides a free, nicely formatted version of the book online. (In fact, it’s much nicer than the reprint of a poorly scanned book that I link to on Amazon.com above.)

One ancient that does, however, provide a good read and gives a great flavor of the life and times of the Greek and Roman eras is Plutarch’s Lives Volume 1 and Volume 2 (Modern Library Classics). He focused more on political figures than on philosophical ones, but it was all intertwined. If you haven’t read any Plutarch, try some online first to see if you like it. Taking a short break to read him when you’re having a tough slog through a dense philosophical text can renew your enthusiasm for the era. (He’s my choice for the old question of “If you were stranded on a desert island, what’s the one book–or two volumes–you would want to have with you?”) You can also find Plutarch for free online at MIT’s Internet Classics Archive.

Working our way through the pre-Socratics should give us more of a clue on how quickly or slowly we can move. The sequence we will follow in Copleston after the pre-Socratics is, first, the Sophists and Socrates for up to two weeks, and then we’ll burrow into Plato and Aristotle for quite a while (as in months, not weeks).

In the area of the Sophists, I wanted a bit more than Copleston and Russell, so as with the supplemental pre-Socratic guides, I found a pretty good one for the Sophists: The Greek Sophists (Penguin Classics). Note also that one of the recommended books for the pre-Socratics also included Sophists.

I also have picked up for myself Xenophon’s The Memorable Thoughts of Socrates as a counterbalance to Plato’s version of events.

Once we are closer to Plato and Aristotle, I’ll provide links of online public domain copies of their works. By then you’ll also know if you would like to have a hardback copy of them for your library. If so, here are the links to versions you may want to consider:

I know it may seem like I’m giving you a lot of books to read, but I’m just trying to give you options that you can adjust for yourself. Again, none of these supplemental books is required. I just call your attention to them in case your time, interest and bank account would allow for them.

In a similar vein, I also had a tweeter suggest to me yesterday that The Teaching Company has a good intro to philosophy course on DVD called “History of Western Thought.” I’ve never tried their materials before, so I can’t personally vouch for it, but their catalogs of educational DVDs have always been great reminders to me of things I need to learn. Watching a DVD on the topic might help reinvigorate me if I hit a particularly dull, dry patch and my enthusiasm starts to flag. I don’t see a course offers by that exact title, but here’s a listing of their philosophical and intellectual history classes. Many would be apropos to our discussions. The only reason why I’ve never made a purchase is because they are quite pricey. But it’s like getting a college professor to come to you, so…

Housekeeping

As I iron out the quirks in trying to get all of this information posted each day, some editions of the Daily Tread may be late. My apologies in advance. I will always try to have something up by 8 am eastern time. If I have been unable to complete my post by then, there will be a Open Thread placeholder to notify you of the approximate time I should have the post up on that day, as well as an open comments section so that you can post your own quote or ponderings to make up for my slackness.

If you are a tweeter like me and would like to carry on a Daily Tread conversation on Twitter in addition to the comment section here, feel free to do so. I have established @DailyTread to use solely for announcements and tweets related to our little society here. @DailyTread will be free of Prudence politics and Twitter hashtag games, but if you might enjoy those as well, please feel free to follow me at @PruPaine, too.

Speaking of hashtags, it appears that the #tread hashtag is not frequently used, and would be short enough to add to lengthier tweets. If you always add #tread to your Daily Tread tweets, then everyone can search Twitter for #Tread and see the conversational thread there. It appears that #philosophy is a popular hashtag, so you might want to use that tag as well to generate more discussion for our group.

I will tweet an announcement of each new posting to the Daily Tread at Twitter.

Finally, if you like a post or have made a good comment, please consider sharing it on Facebook and other social network sites to spread the word. There’s a few convenient buttons to assist you at the bottom of each post.

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Now, tomorrow we will begin with a general overview of the pre-Socratics, and on Wednesday, we will start with our first three philosophers: Miletus, Anaximander and Anaximenes.

Till then. Tweet, comment or email me if you have any questions.

|Daily Tread

Daily Tread: Today Arriving Soon

I’m sorry, but the monkeys in the back room have not finished typing up and linking today’s edition of the Daily Tread–which has two parts: Pre-Socratic Overview and Heads Up/Housekeeping.

I anticipate the new posts to be complete by about 9 am 1 pm and 11 am EDT.  I’ll issue a tweet alert for each post, so you may want to follow me at Twitter as well.

In the meantime, please feel free to talk amongst yourselves.

UPDATED:

The “Heads Up/Housekeeping” syllabus post is now up. Since some of you are just starting to select and purchase the study materials you want, I’m moving the start date slightly over to give you time. We’ll start tomorrow with an overall look at the pre-Socratics. Them on Wednesday, we will begin with our first philosopher.

|Daily Tread

The Daily Tread: The Road Map & Disclaimer

Recently I found myself becoming aggravated when trying to fill in the many gaps in my philosophical and historical knowledge. It seemed that when I started reading one philosopher related to my current queries, it was often filled with references to others that I hadn’t read or could only recall foggily. So I’d stop and go start reading one of them, and find the same problem—needing to stop and go read earlier sources. Before long, I saw I was getting nowhere fast.

It’s sad, really, that after an unusually large number of semesters in colleges, I’d managed to avoid classes in things that most interest me now. It has mainly been in my own free time that I have, alone, muddled through the likes of Nietzsche and Camus and Plato and Hobbes and so on. Now I realize I didn’t pay close enough attention sometimes.

So I’ve decided that the only sane way to get through 2500 years of philosophical evolution is to start at square one and work my way chronologically up to now. It’s going to take a few years, obviously, but I think the journey will be rewarding.

I’m putting my trip online in hopes that other seekers of knowledge will come join me, and test my analysis as I challenge theirs—and to tell me how to pronounce some of these Greek names that I don’t get an opportunity to hear said in a class.

People of all expertise levels are welcome. I consider myself a novice, but I hope that I still have something to contribute to a conversation, if only a fresh perspective flying free of any established confines, or a good laugh if I get it horribly wrong, as no doubt I will from time to time. When you’re digging for buried treasure, sometimes you’re just going to find dirt.

So feel free to concur or to set me straight—as good-naturedly as possible. Knowledge cannot be obtained without the freedom to ask stupid questions (or to suggest stupid answers). I’m full of both. If you are, too, I won’t judge or be disrespectful. Don’t let the heftiness of the subject scare you off. I enjoy intellectually high-brow things, but tend to discuss them in middle-brow, non-academic language. You may talk at whatever level pleases you. If need be, we’ll just get out the dictionary–or ask you to elaborate or clarify.

Politically, you may have noticed from my website that I’m fairly hardcore right-wing. But if you stumbled into this area through some non-political route, please don’t let that scare you away. All political persuasions are welcome here, because if there’s ever a good time to have a Marxist around, it’s during a philosophical debate.

There’s no obligation or commitment required. You can come and go as you please. Feel free to jump in whenever and wherever you like. If we’ve moved on, you can still go at your own pace and add to the discussion that’s there. Consider this first post in the series to be my disclaimer.

As I am no expert, I needed to find one to be our guide. In evaluating the various philosophical surveys and histories, I discovered each had their own point of view that tainted the guidance they provided. Yet I found one that seems to be about as exhaustive of a survey as possible, while also striving to stay out of the way as much as possible. That one is Frederick Copleston’s 11-volume A History of Philosophy. (You don’t have to buy them all at once, and they are available in paperback. We’ll be starting with his A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome From the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus.) A Jesuit priest and renowned proponent of St. Thomas Aquinas, Copleston is honest in stating his influences and wrote the series so that seminary students would be exposed to the full breadth of philosophy.

When he published Volume I in 1946, in the Preface, Copleston explained:

My chief motive in writing this book, which is designed to be the first volume of a complete history of philosophy, has been that of supplying Catholic ecclesiastical seminaries with a work that should be somewhat more detailed and of wider scope than the text-books commonly in use and which at the same time should endeavor to exhibit the logical development and inter-connection of philosophical systems. It is true that there are several works available…but their point of view is sometimes very different from that of the present writer…. To mention a “point of view” at all, when treating of the history of philosophy, may occasion a certain lifting of the eyebrows; but no true historian can write without some point of view, some standpoint, if for no other reason than that he must have a principle of selection, guiding his intelligent choice and arrangement of facts….

Ultimately, he says:

I do claim that I have striven after objectivity, and I claim at the same time that the fact I have written from a definite standpoint is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. At the very least it enables one to give a fairly coherent and meaningful account of what might otherwise be a mere jumble of incoherent opinions, not as good as a fairy-tale.

For non-Catholics and the non-religious, don’t worry that Copleston is going to be presenting an 11-volume religious tract. I consider myself to be somewhat of an atheist (of the increasingly rare “highly tolerant of others’ religious beliefs and practices” variety), a former active Protestant that still enjoys the family celebrations of Easter and Christmas and occasional gospel music, as well as occasional invitations to events at synagogues, temples and whatnot. But I don’t enjoy having someone try to convert me. In what I’ve read so far, I don’t feel any dogma being pushed by Copleston, and instead find it as he wished we would: “an incentive to the study of the original philosophical texts and of the commentaries and treatises on those texts by celebrated scholars.” It would take him nearly 30 years to complete the 11 volumes.

To be sure that I’m (we’re) getting varied opinion, I also selected two one-volume (!) tomes:

There’s also a couple I picked up for good measure:

So these provide the road maps for the journey. They will be supplemented, of course, with the actual writings of the philosophers, and on occasion, with a specific analysis of the trickier ones.

One good thing is that if you are short on funds, most of the philosophers’ works are available for free online, until we get into the 20th century, so you’ve got a long time to save up to purchase those.

My plan is to try to post a daily thought regarding the writings of our current philosopher–something to turn the treadmill in my brain on and give it a good workout for the day, hence The Daily Tread. There may be occasion when I skip a day. Feel free to holler at me–or provide your own thought you’d like to put up for discussion. There will always be a Daily Tread tab at the top of the page that you can click to access just this section of The Prudence Paine Papers—with the most recent post at the top. When that becomes cumbersome, I’ll figure out some menu system for us.

At the end of this trip, we’ll be smarter, more enlightened and more intellectually nimble. Who knows? They made a movie out of one woman’s experience of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, based on Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. Perhaps they’ll make one of our journey as we ponder our way through Frederick Copleston.

Tomorrow we begin with the Pre-Socratics.