Newsletter: February 2021
It’s been exactly a month since I sent out my last monthly newsletter. Is this a coincidence? Or could there be a pattern here? David Hume has an elegant and confounding argument whose conclusion is that we are never rationally justified in making predictions about future events based on past regularities. So don’t get too comfortable with the idea of a third newsletter on March 1st…
Things have been whirring in the world of online philosophy. As a number of you know, we’re entering the second week of this winter’s offerings of online classes. In “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy,” we’ve spent this Monday and last delving into Sophocles’ great tragedy, Oedipus the King. What can the horrific fate of Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta teach those of us who aren’t especially at risk of repeating that particular error? Next week we’ll compare Oedipus with another self-made man and solver of riddles: the philosopher Socrates, who gives an account of himself in Plato’s Apology.
The Apology is also the text we started with last week in “How Should We Live? Answers from the Ancient World.” Is Socrates a paragon of wisdom? A pain in the ass? Perhaps both? In the coming two weeks, this class turns from Plato’s teacher Socrates to Plato’s student Aristotle. We’ll look to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for a systematic inquiry into the highest human good.
Galiano Island is quiet this time of year. It’s also cloudy and wet but the sun does occasionally break through, as it did brilliantly on a walk through the woods a couple weeks ago.
Among other things, February is the month in which we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Are philosophers also good lovers? Plato, ever the booster for philosophy, claims that philosophers are really the only true lovers. His Symposium dramatizes a dinner party gathered to celebrate the triumph of the tragic poet Agathon at a recent dramatic festival. The discussion turns to the subject of love and each dinner guest in turn agrees to give a speech in praise of love.
In his speech, Socrates imagines a progressive refinement in the object of our love. A lover might begin with an attraction to beautiful bodies but then come to see that the beauty of people’s minds is much more durable and enticing than their bodies. The common conception of “Platonic love” generally stops there but Socrates goes further. What the lover finds beautiful about minds is what they contain, namely ideas, so an even more refined love is directed not at people’s minds but at ideas themselves. A love of knowledge and wisdom ultimately leads the true lover to an understanding of Beauty itself, that abstract principle from which all worldly instances of beauty derive. The beautiful bodies and beautiful minds are only beautiful because they’re emanations of Beauty itself. Garden variety lovers go chasing after these instances of beauty but the philosopher, that most refined of lovers, seeks out the source.
I’m leaving out a lot here, including Aristophanes’ charming speech that describes humans as halved beings ever running about in search of their other half and the disruptive arrival of a drunken Alcibiades at the end of Socrates’ speech, who accuses the ugly Socrates of being the ultimate heartbreaker. The Symposium, in which beauty is a central concern, is arguably the most beautiful text Plato ever wrote.
Plato is hardly the only philosopher to think about love. In ancient China, Mozi makes impartial love a cornerstone of his philosophy. And India has given us the most notorious ancient treatment of love in the Kama Sutra, a text which, according to Wendy Doniger, is far richer than its scandalous reputation admits, offering a rich recounting of the art of living in a secular context.
Contemporary philosophy has hardly forgotten about love. The topic has received rich and sensitive treatments from Iris Murdoch, Harry Frankfurt, Martha Nussbaum, Stanley Cavell, J. David Velleman, Vida Yao, and others. Could it make a good topic for an online philosophy course? I have no doubt that it could. But let’s remember Hume and not get too heady in our anticipation of future events.
With best wishes to you all,