Archive for January, 2012

On The Use and Abuse of Socrates.

Posted in Uncategorized on January 31, 2012 by pstanden


Once in a while there are these quiet events in publishing that go largely unnoticed. For example, there has been a spate of books written and published on or about Socrates in the last few years. Why? Is Socrates really the man for our times as the subtitle of Paul Johnson’s recent work on Socrates puts it?

Johnson’s book follows the publication of several works on Socrates aimed at audiences outside the academy.  This in itself is unique. Since the publication in 1989 of muckraker and sometime Vermonter, I.F. Stone’s well-received “The Trial of Socrates”,” we have witnessed a little revolution in publishing.    By my count here are most of the recent—within say, five or six years—books published on or about Socrates:

Ahbel-Rappe, Socrates: A Guide for the Perplexed;

Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life;

Johnson, Socrates: A Man for Our Times;

Rowland, Breakfast with Socrates;

Kreeft, Socrates Meets Hume: The Father of Philosophy Meets the Father of  Modern Skepticism;

Metaxas, Socrates in the City;

Miller, Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche;

Navia: Socrates: A life Examined;

Phillips, Socrates Café;

Rudebusch, Socrates;

Taylor, Socrates;

Waterfield, Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths;

Wilson, The Death of Socrates;

So a dozen books on Socrates life and thought and this list does not include the many scholarly and academic books published in that same period such as the Cambridge Companion to Socrates nor the many new translations of the works by Plato, Aristophanes and Xenophon that directly deal with and are the only written sources we have of Socrates.  A friend of mine in the film industry tells me that there is a movie in development about the life of Socrates, too. What are we to make of all this?  Just a curious by-product of the information super highway or is there something else happening here?

I will try to offer a brief answer by looking more closely at Johnson’s work, Socrates: A Man for Our Times. In Johnson’s slim work he ably presents the main lineaments to the life, times and ideas of the Greek philosopher. I read and enjoyed Johnson’s biography but found very little new or insightful in the work.  He presents Socrates as the iconoclast and seeker of wisdom that every introductory philosophy student learns about in a good survey class. Nevertheless, I did appreciate Johnson’s biography and welcomed his attempt to show Socrates as a non-academic philosopher and one who valued the women in his life. This last aspect, allowed Johnson to introduce Aspasia, Diotima and the better known Xanthippe (Socrates’ wife) and use these relationships as a foil against Socrates… In this sense, Johnson went to the extra mile to make certain that the reader knew that there are two Socrates: the historic Socrates and Plato’s Socrates.  The challenge to this position is that Plato’s work is still the only credible and reliable source of the life of Socrates. Parenthetically, in teaching Plato’s Apology this semester, I had the opportunity to read and contrast Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ trial and he does present a rather different portrait of the thinker. Xenophon’s Socrates is more of an ethically-minded thinker than the epistemologically-obsessed thinker we typically hear of from philosophy professors.

This led me to my main point, viz., that Johnson reinterprets Socrates as he needs to for his sense of our times.  Whether for Plato, Voltaire or Johnson, it seems that each historical epoch chooses a particular aspect of Socrates to adopt. Socrates becomes a kind of placeholder for what’s wrong with the present zeitgeist. Hegel wrote tellingly of Socrates as did Nietzsche, of course. In each case, writers cherry pick the ideas and motives that moved Socrates and which best fit their own times. Johnson is no different. His Socrates is a democratic moral idealist and iconoclast. A picture resembling Johnson as much as Socrates…  Let us recall that Johnson, a popular historian and prolific writer and graduate of Magdalene College, Oxford began life as a leftist and like so many of the baby boom generation moved rightward politically as he aged. By the 1970’s, Johnson had shed his youthful liberalism and was the editor of the neo-conservative “New Statesman;” and, ironically, a speech writer for the” Iron Lady” herself, Margaret Thatcher. This is ironic because under Thatcher’s administration in the 1980’s funding for state-sponsored philosophy programs in Britain were drastically cut.  In addition, he is a staunch Catholic and has condemned labor unions, liberals and is stridently anti-communist.  Or, in a nutshell, quite similar to Socrates who while provocatively posing as a philosophic revolutionary was quite conventional in religious and social practice, even archly conseravtive. In Johnson’s words, Socrates c resembles Johnson more than Socrates. I felt much the same when I read I.F. Stone’s work on Socrates except, of course, Stone’s Socrates was a   true revolutionary and radical: the first muckraker, if you will.  So here’s the nub, Socrates like Jesus and all great moral and philosophical exemplars, become handy placeholders for the values we wish to see in our times. They become a kind of lamp we hold up to our darkened days in the hopes to illumine our days and ways. They become an instrument of our criticism.  All this is possible with historic personages such as Socrates and Jesus because they did not leave a substantial body of writing behind. The absence of a body of work, allows subsequent writers to appropriate the meaning of the man. In short, Johnson does exactly what he criticized Plato for doing 2,400 years ago.


The Examined Life

Posted in Uncategorized on January 28, 2012 by pstanden

1. The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In Plato’s “Apology” Socrates tells us that the “unexamined life is not worth living as he defends himself from the accusations that he has corrupted the young of Athens.  When I ask my students what they believe Socrates means by this quote they inevitably respond by saying that he means that one should ask questions.  I don’t think this is a wrong answer; it just does not seem to capture the depth of what Socrates is saying.   Read the passage that contains the quote and I think you will concur (Jowett translation):

“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say that the greatest good of a man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living — that you are still less likely to believe.”

Socrates is clearly saying that learning and philosophy consists of asking questions but he is also saying that the daily investigation of virtue or morality is a central aspect of the examined life. Of course, he expects his judges to be incredulous and I am inclined to believe that little has changed.  My interpretation of this passage suggests that Socrates is saying that one needs to search for the ethical basis of one’s life.  And that that search is a lonely one. This is ultimately what leads to his well-known equation that wisdom=virtue. To know the good is to be wise; to be wise is to be virtuous.

The Greek” ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ” may be translated as a life lacking inquiry is not a human life and this is the part that usually disturbs students. Is Socrates saying that some people are not human?  Well, yes.  Socrates is saying, I believe, that, to be human is to learn, to inquire and to not exercise those faculties is to fall short of realizing your humanity. In a manner of speaking it is not enough to be merely born human, one need to earn it by living the philosophical life. One may be a member of Homo sapiens sapiens but one needs to grow into one’s humanity. One achieves this by daily reflection, inquiry, searching for knowledge, learning and examining ones-self and others.   This is what Aristotle would come to realize it means to be human and to come closest to the divine in realizing our true human capabilities. This sentiment is also echoed later by Thoreau when in “Walden” he writes of life’s necessaries:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically…”

We hear Thoreau affirming Socrates insistence that the VITA PHILOSOPHICA starts with ascertaining one’s practical moral outlook, to love wisdom, and turn it  into a practical life. This is what Thoreau knew would help prevent each of us from “leading lives of quiet desperation” and what Socrates warned his accusers about when they spent their  lives accruing wealth, seeking power and  celebrity. It is so much more than merely asking questions. It is also living an ethical life.   Vernon Parrington eloquently writes of Thoreau in his 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning book,” Main Currents in American Thought”:

“His life seems to have been a persistent experiment in values. A philosopher of the open air who kept his mind clear and his nerves robust by daily contact with wind and weather; a mystic who pried curiously into the meaning of nature and was familiar with Hellenic and Oriental systems of thought; a Yankee, skilled in various homely crafts, yet rather interested in proving for himself what things were excellent and taking nothing on hearsay — Thoreau’s chief business would seem to have been with life itself, and how it might best be lived by Henry Thoreau; how a rational being, in short, might enjoy the faculties God has given him, following the higher economy and not enslaving himself to the lower, so that when he came to die he might honestly say, I have lived.”

Echoing Both Socrates and Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi was once asked what was the ideal life and he is reputed to have said, “simple living and high thinking.” I think this is what Socrates is telling his judges, namely that it is the best of the human condition to “persistently experiment with values” or to live an examined life daily conversing about virtue and live the life of the road less taken… I take it in a strange way this is this why the late Steve Jobs said in the October 29 2001 issue of “Newsweek” that,

“I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”



Choosing Your Moral Theory

Posted in Uncategorized on January 26, 2012 by pstanden

In attempting to define what the”good” means you will use a normative theory.  In choosing the moral theory that best “fits,” you are trying to figure out what theory or set of practices guides you through life. It sounds cliche but you are looking for your moral north star. The guiding light that orients your moral universe.  This theory provides meaning to your considered moral beliefs. Of course, most humans never reflect on this process but students of philosophy do.  It is challenging to determine which of the available major normative theories best”fits”, but it can be an eye-opening and instructive discovery. Are you a virtue theorist a la Aristotle? As such, you would determine right and wrong by the kind of character you believe yourself to possess. In this practice, you primarily use your sense of self-esteem to guide your actions and frequently ground your beliefs in that understanding. You may frequently hear yourself say, “I’m just not that kind of person,” when confronted with a disagreeable choice. Your vocabulary is likely peopled with words such as nobility, courage, generosity, integrity and the like.

Or are you  principle-based theorist? All of the world’s religions promulgate a set of rules to guide behavior (e.g. think of the decalogue.). Modern professions are replete with codes of ethics (e.g. AMA or APTA codes)  Deontology begins in antiquity when Kung-fu-tzu (Confucius) articulated his influential “golden rule,” but Immanuel Kant is the best–even if most difficult– spokesperson for this approach. In this approach, you guide you behavior by your adherence to rules. You are a good person because you did what was right irrespective how you feel or the outcomes achieved. You stuck to your guns.  My favorite example of a deonotologist is Piggy from Golding’s “The Lord of the Flies”. Right is right and you have a duty to follow it. If you believe that adheriing to universally accepted rules of conduct, then you are a deontologist.

If neither one of these approaches fulfils your sense of moral reasoning, then you may like the sounds of consequentialism. This theory postulates that the good is achieved when you produce more beneficial outcomes for a larger percentage of individuals than any other alternative. The good becomes, then, a maximizing of the consequences.   The English political philosopher, Jeremy Bentham and his godson, the polymath, John Stuart Mill, are the two best spokesmen for this ethical theory, a theory they ultimately tagged utilitarianism.  Their approach views the good as a calculus maximizing pleasures over pains for the greatest numbers of persons involved. An ethical ends justifies the means approach.

So there you have it.  The three major normative approaches. I submit that you are one or the other. There are some minor theories and options but for the most part these three theories encompass the way humans practice ethics. Which one best “fits” you? Well, I bet you are saying: “er, all three?”

Reverend Frederick Neu speaks of maintaining a good “one-two punch” in ethics.  The pugilistic metaphor is helpful because you are probably finding it difficult to choose a  single theory. Sometimes you follow rules, sometimes your sense of character,  and at work in the ER, say, you always think like a consequentialist. Well, we probably do use different approaches for differing situations, but it is my argument that each person has a predominant ethical theory in the same way as you have a dominant hand. You may still be a switch-hitter but you sign your checks with the same hand.  Somewhat analogously, our choices in life reveal a  moral predilection, a dominant moral handedness, so to speak.  Another way of thinking about ethics is to take a page from contemporary political identities.  Many Americans today identify themselves as “independent” but their voting patterns are still predominately Republican or Democratic. We seem to fear self-identifying and confining ourselves. But is that sensible?  The problem is that we rarely reflect on where our morals come from. Most of us, just unthinkingly adopt the moral worldviews  of our parents and religions we were raised in. In and of itself, there is nothing terrible about this but philosophy is about reflecting and examining one’s ideas.  Ethical philosophers challenge us to reflect on those inherited beliefs to see if they are indeed the one’s we choose to adhere to.  I invite you to read more about these theories in learning about ethics. The place to begin is with the major theorists themselves. For virtue theory look at Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics“.  For deonotology try Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” and for consequentialism turn to J.S. mill’s “Utilitarianism”. For two very interesting modern views on morality, look at Alistair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.” or Iris Murdoch’s “The Sovereignty of the Good.”  Enjoy.

Moral Development

Posted in Uncategorized on January 23, 2012 by pstanden

In my lectures on Plato’s “Apology” this morning, my Saint Michael’s students and I followed Socrates’ method of cross examination of Meletus and asked ourselves, “who does improve the youth?” Our replies were no different than Meletus’s; but upon further refelection, we too realized that only a few actually do improve children. The few who do, and whom my students offered (specific parents, coaches, teachers, and friends), were those who could (and did) successfully teach  the virtues.  It soon became apparent that the teaching of virtue is a kind of moral development  and is a knowledge-based activity. It is an epistemological endeavor that rests on the ability to know what the “good” might truly be.  Before we knew it , we were standing at the precipice of normative ethics.  Normative ethics is the division of philosophy that seeks to define the concept of the “good” ; and, alternatively, its opposite, the “bad”. As I understand it, ethical theory tells us that there are essentially only a handful of ways of proceeding. We can define the good as the virtues we practice in our characters and communities (virtue theory), or our adherenece to certain universal and pre-established rules and principles (the deontologocal approach); or, finally, by the maximization of the social benefit (consequentialist models) our actions create. The only other approach seems to be the emotivist approach which claims that the good is what intuitively “feels” good.  So I leave you with this question, how do you define the good?

Studying Philosophy

Posted in Uncategorized on January 22, 2012 by pstanden

All philosophers are autodidacts. The true philosopher, I believe, is a self-motivated learner who seeks knowledge for its own sake.  As such, the philosopher seeks knowledge on her own terms and for her own sense of self-worth.  My suggestion to those interested in philosophy is simple: read.  Read widely! Read everything and anything that piques your curiosity.  But in this age of unlimited information, where to begin? An area that has always interested me and one that has sustained 30+ years of sustained inquiry is the history of philosophy. I liken it to the history of ideas. It’s not your typical kind of history.  To help the introductory level philosopher, here is a selection of books and resources I have found particularly helpful:

Copleston,  A History of Philosophy;

Cornford, Before and After Socrates;

Durant, The Story of Philosophy;

Miller, The Examined Life;

Russell,  A History of Western Philosophy;

Scruton, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy;

Steffens and Williams, The History of Science in Western Civilization;

Woodcock, The Marvellous Century.

I am also enjoying and highly recommend King’s College’s, Peter Adamson’s podcast, “Philosophy Without Gaps”….Enjoy!

Hello Vermont

Posted in Uncategorized on January 17, 2012 by pstanden

I am starting this blog primarily for my healthcare ethics students at UVM and my philosophy students at Saint Mike’s but invite any person interested in philosophy, literature, history, science, medicine, ethics, disability and adaptive sports to wander in, read and join the discussion and dialogue.

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