Friday, January 28, 2011

Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller

jax-freestyle-book-club-for-real-readers is going to be discussing Examined Lives on February 27th at Three Layers Cafe.  I plan to go.  Maybe you'll join us? 

Earl and I will be hosting a dinner at our home to discuss the book in March.    Let me know if you're interested.  It will be like the old philosophy club.  I will have nine topic questions that we will discuss for approximately 10 minutes each.

James Miller starts the book out with Socrates. He tells us that we only know of Socrates because of Plato BUT still...even if it is embellished, Socrates is a colorful character.  I will reduce these down to nine by the time of the March gathering:

  1. If a philosopher's life is the pits, does that damage his philosophical theories?
  2. What do you think of the use of the word erotic in regard to friendships?
  3. What do you think of Socrates' restraint with Alcibiades to steer him toward a love of wisdom?
  4. If one of your star pupils becomes an ass, does that mean you're a bad teacher?
  5. Was it admirable that Socrates took the poison calmly?  Should he have fled?  Shouldn't self preservation be important?
  6. What do you make of the myth that Plato was born of a virgin mother?  Have you heard that previously?  Have I misread that chapter?  And his mother left him at the top of the mountain but the bees saved him by feeding him honey?  Humans like to make up such things about great people?
  7. I really like the part where he says that Plato thought that open dialogue was GREAT.  It is similar to what John Stuart Mill says.  Freedom of speech.  In depth dialogue.  Good stuff, eh?
  8. What about the section where he says that Nietzsche was influenced by the discourse on immorality.  I hope the author (James Miller) talks about that more.  Plato gets his point across via various characters.  BUT I'm wondering if Nietzsche took the "wrong" side.
  9. It is interesting to me that Plato advocates the teaching of mathematics because it increases our ability to think in abstract terms.  Or at least that is how I interpreted that section. 
  10. Plato's democracy sounds more like mob rule than like our democratic republic with its checks and balances.  Is my interpretation correct?
  11. I don't like the character Diogenes.  Shitting in public?  That's freedom?
  12. It is interesting to me that different authors report different facts about Aristotle
  13. This chapter helped me a great deal in understanding the difference in Aristotle's philosophy and Plato's philosophy.  Quote at [1558]: "he was critical of the Pythagorean assumption that all that really exists is numbers"  Quote at [1742] : "Unlike Plato, he refused to entertain the theory that reality ultimately consisted of immaterial Forms.  Instead, he chose to examine perceptible things and natural bodies."  quote at [1752]: "Unlike Plato's dialogues, which are open to multiple readings that often yield inconclusive results, Aristotle treatises generally consist of authoritative statements that reflect apparently expert knowledge..."
  14. Teleological.  I wonder if Aristotle would have held onto that theory today? Quotes at [1742]: "God and nature create nothing that does not fulfill a purpose."
  15. [1853] "A primary goal of a good life accordng to Aristotle was not tranquillity but the exercise of reason or intellect"
  16. [1864] "In other words, if great wealth, or the patronage of a tyrant, helped to support a life of unfettered empirical inquiry and quiet reflection, then it might justly be judged a good thing and not an evil." ...according to Aristotle
  17. Same question as #4 for Seneca and Nero.  reference: [2205]
  18. quote at [1947] "What is personal integrity? How can one cultivate and maintain a consistently good will?" 
  19. quote [2156] "His moral essays (advising readers how to search for wisdom and attain tranquillity) were widely distributed and widely read"  Is that the purpose of philosophy? To obtain tranquility?
  20. quote [2377] "Seneca acknowledges the insurmountable obstacles that fate may sometimes place in a philosopher's path..."   We only have free will within limits, eh?
  21. [2438] Augustine--There is a part of me that longs for a contemplative spiritual live.  The part of his story where he was trying to live that life resonates with me.
  22. [2546] This rings true to me:  "without inwardly accepting any of them as true on the impeccably Socratic grounds that moral beliefs could never be known with the certainty that one can know that 2+2=4"
  23. [2592] Plotinus elaborated a set of meditative techniques to keep "his own divine spirit unceasingly intent upon that inner presence."
  24. [2600] This sounds like Spinoza to me:  "Plotinus became convinced..that...contemplation revelaed that the world was One and God exists overflowing into the Forms"
  25. [2646]  I like this.  I want friends like this.  "talked for hours on end, sometimes in the baths, at other times under a tree in a meadow, ever ready to debate the limits of reason, the nature of the soul and the quest for wisdom"  ...and here is another one around [2817] "Eschewing displays of extreme asceticism, he enjoyed a good dinner with guests, mainly for the pleasure he took in conversing seriously about serious mattters."
  26. [2768] Augustine and confession
  27. [2872] Do you think this paragraph explains Christians?
  28. [2950] And do you think this paragraph explains what went wrong?
  29. This is an interesting twist, eh?  [2994]  "My actions, Montaigne writes, would tell more about fortune than about me..It is not my deeds that I write down; it is my essence that I write down."
  30. [3306] Montaigne tries to register accrately all the little thoughts that come to his mind, however inconsistent they seem.
  31. By acknowledging what is distinctive about himself, as well as by describign the limitations he shares with every man-his ignorance, his susceptibility to pain, the unruliness of hims animal appetites and desires--Montaigne manages to console himself. He thus attains one of the chief goals of the first philosophers: tranquillity
  32. [3637] after further mediation alone in his room, Descartes resolved to adopt as well what he called a provisional moral code.
  33. [3713] Descartes as a leading advocate for the education of women adn also suported efforts to found a new college that would teach the arts and sciences to the children of artisans and not just those of noble birth.
  34. [3848] Descartes believed that other key convictions could be corroborated in a similar fashion: Whatever one can conceive as clearly and distinctly as one can conceive the propostion "I think, therefore I am" one ough to accept as true.  This view allows Descartes to argue... the immateriality of the mind and hence its absolute distinction from the mortal body.
  35. [3945] in a letter to his friend Elizabeth, Descartes had to concede that experience shows us that mind and body are interrellated, but just how, God only knows.
  36. [3951] in another letter to Elizabeth, Descartes encourages Elizabeth to learn to focus on the many goods, truths and delights of life, just like a good Stoic
  37. [4055] Is there any forgiving Rousseau for giving his children to an orphanage?  What do you think of his rationalization?  I believe he said something like "he gave his children to an institution in hopes that the institution could raise the children like in Plato's idea of a collective for the children better than Rousseau could raise them himself.  The problem was that the orphanage had a high rate of death according to the author.  BUT....Rousseau seemed to be for the common man.  Perhaps he was in favor of the orphanage getting better funding and higher skilled workers?
38. [4138] "Rousseau's most influential German admirer, Immanuel Kant, called him a subtle Diogenes"  .....   ..."Like Diogenes of Sinope, Rousseau in his prize-winning essay represented the highest good as a product of nature:  the goodman, having few needs, will by nature be content with little, but since modern societies multiply our needs, the minds of most men become disquieted and uneasy. Rousseau, like Diogenes, renounced modern society as corrupting and went in search of a truly good man."

39. [4263] "Instead, one can strengthen one's will, in order to resist the snares of civilization, and in this way attain a measure of virtue. We can also exercise our free will virtuously in concert with others, in order to change the laws and mores that lead a people to acquiesce to living under grotesque inequality"
40. [4382] "Moral freedom requires developing one's strength to resist distracting external events beyond one's control"
41. [4550] "This is a stunning volte-face, Rousseau now has to concede ....that to dare to profess great virtues without the courage and strength needed in practice to live a life in true harmony with those great virtues is to be arrogant and rash."  ...  "he simultaneously understands and resents the need for feats of Stoic self-restraint."
42.  This makes me think of deists and  Spinoza  ====>"Kant argued that laws of physics, not chance, govern the cosmos, and that God has created these laws so that the universe may unfold harmoniously without any subsequent need for divine intervention."
43 [4781] "I feel in its entirety a thirst for knowledge ...... There was a time when I thought that this alone could constitute the honor of mankind, and I despised the people who know nothing.  Rousseau set me right."
44 [4804] Rousseau worked within a recognizably French tradition of moral reflection established by Montaigne,  Although Kant admired Montaigne, his own conception of what was scientifically respectable was drawn from the German tradition of Leibniz and Christian Wolff, who both strove for a dry precision in their use of speculative reason."
45. [4811] "As Kant explained to a former student:  the gentle but sensivtive tranquility of the philosopher was infinitely preferable to the rapturous flights dreamed of by the mystics.  His would be a philosophical life devoted to calm reasoning, impervious by design to the vagaries of strong feelings and unruly impulses."
46. [4834] Unlike Rousseau, who regarded the ability to reason with suspicion and eventually resigned himself to acting on whim and impulse, according to what he believed were his natural inclinations, Kant was moving in the opposite direction, emphasizing (as one modern scholar puts it)  the dependence of moral feeling on a logically prior and independent rational principle, eventually going on to argue that only acts done out of deliberate sense of duty have moral value.
47. [4912] Kant's "Copernican revolution": his suggestion that human beings (as Rousseau had suggested) are able in practice to construct a moral and political world for themselves"
48. [4917] Kant's famous categorical imperative: Act on a maxim which also holds as a universal law offers an infallible moral compass that enables every human being to distinguish in every case that comes up what is good and what is evil, what is in conformity with duty or contrary to duty.
49. [4963] In Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he had declared that autonomy of the will is the supreme principle of morality and that freedom (not dictates of priests or kings) was the source of morality.  Kant seeks to articulate rational principles for the proper exercise of free will, placing duty over desires, obligations over emotions.  Unlike Rousseau, Kant never seriousl entertained the idea that man is naturally good.  On the contrary, Kant cautions that man is an animal, with unruly wants and passions.  Although as a reasonable being humans wish to have a lawa which limits the freedom of all, his selfish animal impulses tempt him, where possible, to exempt himself from them.
50. [5072] Like many famous philosophers before and since, Kant above all craved peace and quiet.
51. [5154] Emerson used his journals as a medium not just for self-relection and self-criticism but also for self-transformation.
52. [5288] The difficulty, Emerson continues, is that we do not make a world of our own but fall into institutions already made and have to accommodate ourslves to them to be useful at all. And this accommodation is a loss of so much integrity and of course so much power.
53. [5346] The highest revelation is that God is in every man.
54. [5369] The lyceum would narrow the gulf between rich and poor by offering a form of community education through weekly lectures, libraries, debates and traveling exhibits
55 [5418] In the beauty of nature as a whole, Emerson found an outward mirror for God within.  He could elaborate this core belief without any direct recouse to Holy Scripture or the authority of an existing church.
56. [5554] More strenuously than almost any previous philosopher, Emerson advocated self-examination as the key to liberation and well-being, the precondition for human flourishing.
57. [5633] Nietzsche, deliberately it seems, left his written corpus open to endless disputes over how to understand it.  "Tell me what you need" a german satirist uipped, " and I will supply you with a Nietzsche quote."
58. [5728] Nietzsche became familiar with the whole range of ancient Greek philosopher whose exraordinary power to think intuitively rather than logically he admired; and also Diogenes the Cynic whose notoriously dog-like shamelessness became another kind of model for him.
59. [5949] Nietzsche was more impressed by the survival of aggressive instincts and the element of complusion in many customs, evidence of what he would soon would be calling the will to power.
60. [5995]  Here Miller is quoting from one of Nietzsche's letters to a friend:  Not only is Spinoza's whole tendency like my own to make knowledge the most powerful passion--but also in five main points of his doctrine I find myself; this most abnormal and lonely thinker is closest to me in these points precisely: he denies free will, denies purposes, denies the moral world order, denies the non-egoistical adn denies evil."
61. [6198] Living an examined life for some is a means to attain happiness and tranquillity; for others a preparation for wisely wielding political power and for still others, a necessary precondition for eternal salvation.

rsvp's so far for the March dinner:
John, Joyce (will Bill be in town?), Earl,Julie, Fred, Susan

Maximum is eight  so we have room for one more..

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