Sunday, September 18, 2016

William Myrl; Letters to No One (68)

Dear No One,

I didn't finish the Republic, and I can't imagine a reason why I would. People shouldn't read Plato, they just shouldn't, except as an example of how not to argue. He isn't necessary for that though, you could get into politics and listen to the same contortionist rhetoric today that was invented long before Rome started being interesting. I made an effort because a student asked me to, but I can only go so far. I was starting to feel the same kind of upset I get from reading young earth creationism propaganda material. 

We lost someone else at the shop, they were making an unauthorized clothing repair. The strange bit is that he wasn't caught in the act, but trying to carry it out. They occasionally select a few of us to be strip searched before we can leave. Its perfunctory. Two COs have to be present while you are stripped, so whoever isn't first is left outside the little room with no one watching. He could have disposed of the garment, or even just set it aside, without issue. Instead, he waited with it in his clothes, waited for his turn. I imagine he was panicking, and not thinking. There's a trashcan within a pace of where he must have been standing. 

So I'm sitting here listening to a band called Cream n' Chrome, of all things, and waiting for the Americas Got Talent finale. More importantly, Mr Robot is on tonight. You should give it a try. 

I read Darkness Visible, by William Styron, another book recommended to me in the context of an interview. It's brief, pretty, and dramatic. One can take it as a happy omen that his swollen descriptions of depression seemed far away to me, he repeats, as I often have, that there is an insurmountable incommunicability to the illness. He was a famous literary presence, and an alcoholic who quit late in life. Defeating his addiction probably helped bring about the episode that nearly defeated him, and taking the wrong medication to help him sleep. He talked about depression being a humdrum and inadequate term for the disease, and I am inclined to agree. But any word is prone to misunderstanding, and increasing misuse over time. I still would rather they hadn't changed "manic depression" to "bipolar". Much of the stigma he and others faced, has been meliorated.

 It's 2016, and Demi Levato, one of Disney's pop princesses, appears in public health messages about living with bipolar disorder. Famous persons still commit suicide, Styron lists a number, but their struggles are openly acknowledged by the media instead of hidden. Part of that is interest mongering, but I believe it can also serve a purpose. Robin Williams' illness wasn't broadcast during his life or in his career. Perhaps it should have been. An unacknowledged disorder can be the most dangerous kind.

Styron, I think, did eventually kill himself, a sad end to a mixed story. He was eighty years into the game.


William Myrl

Thursday, September 8, 2016

William Myrl; Letters to No One (67) - Kneading Plato part III

Dear No One,

Phaedo is the dialogue that covers the death of Socrates, his last words with friends, nattering away until they reach the hour appointed for him to drink poison. His closeness to death makes the afterlife an excellent topic for their discussion.

According to Socrates, the philosopher must always be in pursuit of death and dying, because he abstains from worldly things, and seeks the pure essence of concepts and truth. Physical pleasures are to be despised, because to have pure knowledge of anything we must have quit of the body. There are echoes of eastern philosophies in Plato's writings, and I wonder how familiar he was with them, and whether they were plagiarized.

If the body and the world are corrupt, and there is such a thing as a soul, then why not commit suicide? Socrates has an answer for this (he has an answer for everything), and it is that we are the property of the gods, and therefore have no right to self destruct. This is a very strange position for him to take, given his own proximity to suicide, but like all of Socrates other hypocrisies, this issue not addressed. In the dialogues, nothing Socrates says is ever criticized in earnest, because he is the mouthpiece of the author, and the author is the only person in the room.

How do we know that there is such a thing as a soul, and that it persists after death? That is solved quite handily with the baseless asseveration that opposites always create each other, and that as death is the opposite of life, death must create life, and visa versa. So there must be a soul that exists before the body- I honestly don't know how that connection is made. Someone asked me whether I wasn't enjoying Plato because it was difficult to understand. Let us be clear, Plato's dialogues are not difficult to understand. In order for it to be difficult to understand a thing it must be at least possible to understand it. Unalloyed nonsense is not difficult to understand, it is just nonsense.

The soul is immortal because it is invisible, and all of the invisible realm is immortal. The soul is a harmony, and a harmony can allow no disharmony within itself. The soul is immortal, and immortality cannot suffer death, therefore the soul can never die. He goes on and on, this Socrates, before he finally kills himself with hemlock (because the opinions of the many don't matter, unless they sentence you to death, in which case they become the law, and you cannot break the law without destroying society and being hated by all men who love good, which makes suicide okay).

Plato's arguments tend to revolve around the realm of pure concepts, where words and ideas have an unchanging existence outside of and above the petty material world. He defines a word, like good or immortal, in a given way, and then says that we must behave in accordance with these words, reality must adhere to these words and to their perfect natures, or else we are not lovers of knowledge and true philosophers. 

Mystical claptrap is as old as mankind, and he is quite accomplished in the field of pretending to be wise. The more that I read, the more bored I become, and the more confounded. How can a literate person be exposed to Plato, read his whole body of work even, and conclude that it is something worth doing, that it is something worth recommending to others? His characters debate back and forth, bandying jabberwocks, like the emperor's attendants discussing the fineness and variety of his invisible (and therefore immortal) panoply. 

I'm not trying to be mean, I don't think Socrates and his creator are valuable or interesting enough to attack. They are ancient peoples, plagued with all the ignorance of the ancients, and they serve well as intellectual curiosities. Why do we hold them up as anything more than that? What kind of mental gymnastics must we undertake to read this collection of weird assertions and perceive them as profound?


William Myrl 
Letters to No One

William Myrl; Letters to No One (66) - Kneading Plato part II

Dear No One,

After the Apology comes Crito. 

This is a dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito who has come to persuade him to escape prison and evade his sentence of death. Socrates refuses, and they argue back and forth, but like nearly all of the characters in these dialogues, Crito uses most of his lines to agree wholeheartedly with whatever Socrates happens to be saying. Contrary ideas are abandoned as soon as they are proposed, as if they had an understanding with the great philosopher all along and merely wished to hear him put their own beliefs into words for them.

Crito begins by telling Socrates that he cannot possibly allow him to die in prison, because then all men will think badly of him for not trying to help his famous friend. This is, like much of what you will read in the dialogues, not a thing that any actual person would say, except as a joke. Socrates' response is that the opinions of the many are not to be regarded, only the judgments of the good. Not a bad piece of advice, with the understanding that Socrates himself doesn't regard the opinions of anyone but himself. Why is it that the fact that Socrates can't lose an argument is taken as a sign of his intelligence, rather than his obstinance?

In any case, the philosopher cannot allow anyone to help him escape his sentence, because doing so would violate the law, and he cannot violate any laws, because to violate a law is to violate the social contract that allows men to live together in society. If he did betray himself by leaving, it would also be a betrayal of his family, who would have to live without him or go with him and therefore be deprived of Athens, the only city in the world worth living in. In exile, any government would see him as the treasonous enemy that he was for having broken the laws of another country.

There is nothing about his position that is not ridiculous, so I will talk about something more interesting. The Socratic method, the method by which he reaches his many risible conclusions, is in need of analysis.

Socrates asks people to set their own terms, to define an idea related to what they are talking about, and then picks at that definition until his opponent is forced to agree that his original statement leads to absurd conclusions, or it supports Socrates position. It works because his opponents are all fictional straw men, and because language is ambiguous, and he exploits that ambiguity. He defines a good life as one in which no wrong is done, defines escaping prison as wrong, and finds escaping prison to be therefore impossible if he is to live a good life. All the while, Crito says whatever Socrates would want him to say, nodding or shaking his head as appropriate for a puppet. 

Human beings are not internally coherent. What this means is that our beliefs would not all agree with each other, if they were laid out all at once. Most of the time, when we are asked what we believe about a given issue, we fabricate our beliefs on the spot, rather than storing those beliefs in a memory bank that checks behind itself. It's more efficient, and it allows us to hold multiple conflicting beliefs at any given moment. 

The statements we make about our beliefs are not iron clad, they do not stand alone against scrutiny, but require caveats and codas to support them. When we have a conversation, it is difficult, impossible, to hold everything that is said perfectly in mind, topics bounce about, statements are amended or forgotten, and no one changes heart on any subject they feel strongly about. You can try the Socratic method on anyone you care to; if you keep asking questions they will eventually contradict themselves. This does not make you, or Socrates, clever, it's simply a fact that humans are not good logical calculators, and we have limited RAM. 

Socrates argues from the general (but is not life, but a good life, to be chiefly valued?) to the specific (if I disobeyed the law I would not have a life to be chiefly valued) in a convoluted and contrived fashion, and he is only capable of doing so because Plato is the one writing the story. A tenth grade seminar student would be able to cut him short. 

You may accuse me of reading Plato with an eye jaded by concepts modern students take for granted. Plato didn't have our advantages. Of course he didn't, and that's exactly why we shouldn't take him seriously. Be aware of him, mention him in a history course, fine- but stop buying into the conceit that he was prophesied to be wise. Perhaps he was wise then, and it was a sadder age. We do not live in that age any longer, and what was impressive then is not impressive now.

Plato decides that he must kill himself because he believes killing himself makes him the better man, the best of men. He refuses to live in a world where he is not right, where he cannot live by exactly his terms. I'm sure there are people who think this is nobility. I think that it is cowardice.


William Myrl

Letters to No One

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

William Myrl; Letters to No One (65) - Kneading Plato, part I

Dear No One,

One of the medical students suggested reading Plato. He told me he would bring Plato's anthologies with him onto a desert island. I wanted to know what he saw in it, so I checked out a collection from the library.

Classics can be difficult reading, translations, archaic language, unfamiliar names and references to bygone idioms all contribute to that difficulty. Ancient philosophy is actually smoother going than its modern counterpart, as there isn't a logic equation in sight. Plato's arguments can be convoluted, but they can be parsed with a little patience. There is a mystique about his work, a near sanctity, that prevents people from examining his words as they would if he were not Plato.

The pretension of wisdom is a pet peeve of mine. My apologies, No One, for what is to follow.

The Trial of Socrates

We had to read it in high school, and it's the most famous of Plato's works. It's also one of the most readable. A fine place to begin.

Socrates defends himself against a number of charges, but not before he seeks to prove to the audience that he is smarter than any of them. The oracle at Delphi prophesied that he would be the wisest man in the world. He came to believe that it was true, he says, because he went to all sorts of men (not women, of course) who were said to be wise and discovered that they all possessed the same flaw. They had opinions on matters they were not qualified to have opinions on. 

Socrates, on the contrary, knew that he knew nothing, and was therefore the wisest of men. Take a moment here. Socrates is chastising others, calling their reputations into question, as well as crowning himself wisest, because other people he happens to come upon in the city he won't leave have opinions about matters they are not qualified to have opinions on. This from a man who opines at every opportunity, on every subject, who believes himself to have the finest insight into every art and puzzle, and always insists on the last word. He surrounds himself with sycophants, and rambles on about his humble nature, being but the gadfly of Athens, but betrays himself with his actions. He is humble, yes, and knows the limits of his knowledge, and yet he will not bow his head to any assembly, or admit to any possibility of his own ignorance. 

Those of you who have read the Apology, as well as Plato's other popular fictions, may scour them as you will for lines that disprove my assertions. You will find them, and thereby prove my point; Socrates is a hypocrite. He says all manner of humble things, he is kind and generous with his words, and all of that is belied by his actual actions and beliefs. I cannot emphasize enough, Socrates calls himself the wisest man in the world because only he knows that he knows nothing. Taken out of context, its a very pithy statement. What it actually means is less dramatic or striking, a wise person is aware of the limits of their own knowledge. Even a casual reading of the dialogues should be enough to convince you that Socrates is not that wise person.

The Apology is Socrates' defense against trumped up non crimes that you could apparently be put to death for in ancient Rome. Atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens stood out to me.To paraphrase his defense against the charge of atheism: "I can't possibly be an atheist, I talk about the gods all the time."


His defense against the charge of corruption-"I can't possibly be corrupting the youth of Athens, because if my accusers were good people, they would have stopped me from corrupting the youth already, and they say they are good people, but they haven't stopped me; therefore, I am not corrupting the youth."

Absolutely no foolin', that is his argument. 

Also, he says, "If I had been corrupting the youth all this time, the youth I corrupted a generation ago would be here to accuse me now, but they are not, and therefore I am not corrupting the youth."

That's how corruption works in my book.

Socrates takes many pages to say these simple things, but they are what he says.

What shocked me the most about the Apology was how chummy Socrates appears to be with death. He acknowledges only two possibilities following the end of life, an eternal rest, or a Dumbeldorian "next great adventure." This implies a failure of the imagination at the very least. I won't dwell on this subject here, as Crito and Phaedo address it more fully, as well as the arrogance that causes him to choose death over life. 

My point, if I have one, is that nothing Socrates argues is exceptionally insightful. He philosophizes at an advanced high school level. Teenagers do better on internet message boards.

If Socrates is noteworthy because of the age in which he wrote, because of his antiquity, then wonderful, but let's not pretend the words themselves are more sagacious because they were a temporal anomaly. No one watches black and white televisions because they were amazing for their time.


William Myrl