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Why is Socrates so influential?

Why is Socrates so influential?

There are two kinds of responses people make to this question, because Socrates affected later philosophy in at least two ways. First of all, he must have been an extraordinary person, both charismatic and counter-cultural. He seemed to embody the values he inquired into. As a result he could ask probing questions about what a friend is without failing to be a friend. He could ask whether anyone understood courage, but ask as a courageous person rather than as a coward looking to undermine the virtue.

He struck his friends as possessing what we call a sixth sense, what he called a "sign" that a spirit brought him in certain circumstances.

That is Socrates the person. Meanwhile Socrates philosophized in a systematic way, trying to develop a new way for human beings to analyze and assess difficult concepts, and especially the concepts of moral and political philosophy. He was not the first ancient intellectual to prioritize thinking about values ahead of thinking about the non-human universe (the Sophists, to name only one group, preceded him there). But he seems to have been the first to work out methods and goals for identifying disputed terms and clarifying them through general definitions.

After his death the many friends and associates of Socrates expressed his influence on them in different ways. Some started philosophical circles, even what we today call a school -- Plato in the Academy, for instance. Others, like the early Cynics, emulated Socrates the person with (as far as we can tell) little interest in any particular doctrines or the arguments to defend them. For them Socrates was overwhelmingly the subject of anecdotes, a man in plain clothes and unadorned social presentation.

From what we know, Socrates stood out in both respects. His analytical method of definition inspired the philosophical tradition of examining and clarifying what we say and when, and it led to the development of logic. But as a human being he seems to have lived with integrity and steady virtue. (Famously, he did not escape execution despite having the opportunity to do so.) I think his unmatched status in philosophy has to do with this combination of personal magnetism and intellectual inventiveness and rigor.

There are two kinds of responses people make to this question, because Socrates affected later philosophy in at least two ways. First of all, he must have been an extraordinary person, both charismatic and counter-cultural. He seemed to embody the values he inquired into. As a result he could ask probing questions about what a friend is without failing to be a friend. He could ask whether anyone understood courage, but ask as a courageous person rather than as a coward looking to undermine the virtue. He struck his friends as possessing what we call a sixth sense, what he called a "sign" that a spirit brought him in certain circumstances. That is Socrates the person. Meanwhile Socrates philosophized in a systematic way, trying to develop a new way for human beings to analyze and assess difficult concepts, and especially the concepts of moral and political philosophy. He was not the first ancient intellectual to prioritize thinking about values ahead of thinking about the non-human universe (the...

I have been reading some of Aristotle's explanations of physical phenomena and I

I have been reading some of Aristotle's explanations of physical phenomena and I'm left wondering, "Did he get anything right?" Did he?

I don't know how broadly or how narrowly you're using the word "physical," but if your "physical phenomena" include everything that takes place in the physical world, i.e. everything biological, then the answer is clearly Yes. As an observer of animals, the parts of animals, and their internal anatomy, both Aristotle's methodology and his actual statements are impressive. This is not to say he's right all the time, or even most of the time. Sometimes he can look right at an organ, like a heart, and misdescribe it. (This is not to mention his failure to understand how the blood circulates.)

I imagine you'd rather hear the assessment from a modern biologist than from a philosopher, and so I recommend the recent book THE LAGOON by Armand Marie Leroi. Leroi is a biologist who makes clear what Aristotle observed correctly, what he missed, and where (as in his thinking about natural selection) his presuppositions prevented him from drawing better conclusions from his observations. The book is written for a general audience, and if you're really interested it's a fine place to start.

If you already know something about biology, it might be more fun to jump right into Aristotle's observations, as in his HISTORY OF ANIMALS.

I don't know how broadly or how narrowly you're using the word "physical," but if your "physical phenomena" include everything that takes place in the physical world, i.e. everything biological, then the answer is clearly Yes. As an observer of animals, the parts of animals, and their internal anatomy, both Aristotle's methodology and his actual statements are impressive. This is not to say he's right all the time, or even most of the time. Sometimes he can look right at an organ, like a heart, and misdescribe it. (This is not to mention his failure to understand how the blood circulates.) I imagine you'd rather hear the assessment from a modern biologist than from a philosopher, and so I recommend the recent book THE LAGOON by Armand Marie Leroi. Leroi is a biologist who makes clear what Aristotle observed correctly, what he missed, and where (as in his thinking about natural selection) his presuppositions prevented him from drawing better conclusions from his observations. The book is written...

Did Plato and Aristotle have economic philosophies? Or were they smart enough to

Did Plato and Aristotle have economic philosophies? Or were they smart enough to avoid the dismal science?

Sometimes when you discuss ancient philosophers it’s allright to be a little anachronistic. Sowe can discuss Aristotle and technology, even though what he would have known as technology was close to nothing compared to what we find in the modern world. Or we talk about Plato and democracy in spite of the huge differences between the democracy that he lived in and the representative democracies of the past few centuries.

There are other times when such tolerance for anachronism comes to an end, and I’d say that talk of economics is one of those times. No economic philosophy occurs in either one’s work, or in the work of any near-contemporary of theirs; and the most important reason must be that the economies they lived in were nowhere near sophisticated enough to make state economic policies possible, or to let such phenomena as employment fluctuations be studied.

Look at a city like Athens,one of the largest populations in Greece and probably the wealthiest. Its economy was based (as all ancient economies were) on farming, with food produced for mostly local consumption; but such durable commodities as olive oil were also produced in quantity, and added to the city’s wealth. For a long time Athens had been the most prestigious exporter of high-quality pottery as well. And on top of these exports, the city had its own silver mines. Then the league of allies that Athens put together after 479, before Socrates was born, brought hefty annual payments from the allies pouring into the local economy.

Even given all this substance and wealth, however, the city did not operate as even the most rudimentary modern economies do. There is no indication that it drew up a budget in advance, or borrowed money to pay for future infrastructural developments. Rather the city spent the money it had each year, until there was nothing left. Sometimes money was left over and was kept in reserve; often it was not.

Under these circumstances, an economist could not begin to study monetary policy, unemployment, inflation, or any other very elementary economic phenomenon – not to mention the more sophisticated phenomena (productivity, leading indicators) on which modern economic theories are based. And it is no surprise that, in the absence of most aspects of what we call an economy, the ancient philosophies we know of are absent most aspects of what we call economic theorizing.

You do find comments, here and there. As Socrates turns, in Book 2 of the Republic, from the primitive “first city” he has described to the more complex city that Glaucon asks him to investigate, he adds occupations and activities to the hypothetical city until it becomes rather large. At this point, he says, the city can no longer support itself on the farmland it started out with. War becomes inevitable. And there seems to be a general principle in Plato’s mind as he writes this, to the effect that any sufficiently large society will need to generate more wealth than it has just to maintain itself.

(Forget that most modern economists would say that the additional wealth is generated by a growing economy. Plato has no conception of a growing economy besides the act of seizing wealth from another city. Yet again, he’s not an economist.)

There is at least this much of interest in Socrates’ observation. The complexities of an economy are perceived as bringing about a pressure on existing wealth that can only be relieved by some collective (usually state) action, in this case war. I would call this something of an economic observation.

Another passage from the Republic: Socrates warns against leaving incomes unregulated among the good city’s large productive class. Their incomes cannot be permitted to grow too large, lest the city create an oligarchic class within its productive class; but also not too small, lest a permanently impoverished group come into existence that destabilizes the society in other ways. These may be good recommendations, even if they occur without any accompanying suggestion of how the city’s government will observe and enforce such policies.

Such observations do not add up to a philosophy of economics or a practical economic theory, but they begin to describe the subject that will later be known by such names.

Sometimes when you discuss ancient philosophers it’s allright to be a little anachronistic. Sowe can discuss Aristotle and technology, even though what he would have known as technology was close to nothing compared to what we find in the modern world. Or we talk about Plato and democracy in spite of the huge differences between the democracy that he lived in and the representative democracies of the past few centuries. There are other times when such tolerance for anachronism comes to an end, and I’d say that talk of economics is one of those times. No economic philosophy occurs in either one’s work, or in the work of any near-contemporary of theirs; and the most important reason must be that the economies they lived in were nowhere near sophisticated enough to make state economic policies possible, or to let such phenomena as employment fluctuations be studied. Look at a city like Athens,one of the largest populations in Greece and probably the wealthiest. Its economy was based (as all ancient...

Is evolution a problem for Platonists? Can there be a form for organisms that by

Is evolution a problem for Platonists? Can there be a form for organisms that by there nature change, even if individual examples of species do not? Another way of saying it is that species are organic processes, and I have difficulty imagining an essential, unchanging process.

The problem you describe is obviously a threat to Aristotle's view of nature and of the species of plants and animals (which may be why Aristotle argues against Darwin in Book 2 of the Physics). As you say, "species are organic processes" -- although you ought to recognize that this conception of biological species is our shared conception of species after Darwin. Darwin has indeed made many elements of the ancient theory of nature hard to imagine, even if the ancients found their view of nature extremely easy to imagine.

Plato differs from Aristotle, however. For one thing, Plato expects to find much less order in the natural world than Aristotle does. If you confront Plato with the spectacle of constant change in nature, he might be inclined to agree. In this particular case, a lot depends on whether or not Plato thought there were Forms for species -- a Form of human being, of dog, of oak. In some of the dialogues that speak of Forms, the description of them does not seem to include biological species; however, an open-ended discussion in the Parmenides suggests otherwise, that Forms would have to include species. The textual evidence is inconclusive. And if there are no Forms for dog or willow, the changes in dogs and willows that we see are no threat to Platonic metaphysics.

It's possible to go a bit further than this, though not to the evolution that we know after Darwin. Plato's Timaeus proposes one kind of evolution that ancient author sometimes found acceptable, namely a "devolution" to a worse kind. This is a version of the idea that humans couldn't come from apes, but that thoughtless, brutal human beings could degenerate into apes. (Mind you, the distinction makes no sense in modern biology, because the theory of evolution does not consider us higher than gorillas, or even higher than plankton. I am trying to speak as the ancients would have spoken.) And in the Timaeus, we find something like a cross between degenerative evolution and reincarnation. Male human beings who do not comport themselves virtuously enough are turned into women, and humans are turned into animals. You can't make yourself a better creature on your own, but through vicious thought and action you might be made into a worse species.

For a dozen or so reasons we are likely to find this proposal unacceptable -- morally, scientifically, metaphysically. But it does sound something like evolution. And it is Platonic. So maybe it's the best evidence for the conclusion (in response to your opening question) that evolution as such is not a problem for Platonists.

The problem you describe is obviously a threat to Aristotle's view of nature and of the species of plants and animals (which may be why Aristotle argues against Darwin in Book 2 of the Physics). As you say, "species are organic processes" -- although you ought to recognize that this conception of biological species is our shared conception of species after Darwin. Darwin has indeed made many elements of the ancient theory of nature hard to imagine, even if the ancients found their view of nature extremely easy to imagine. Plato differs from Aristotle, however. For one thing, Plato expects to find much less order in the natural world than Aristotle does. If you confront Plato with the spectacle of constant change in nature, he might be inclined to agree. In this particular case, a lot depends on whether or not Plato thought there were Forms for species -- a Form of human being, of dog, of oak. In some of the dialogues that speak of Forms, the description of them does not seem to include biological...

What would Plato say about terrorism, specifically Al Qadea? What would he say

What would Plato say about terrorism, specifically Al Qadea? What would he say about the role of religion in terrorism, as well. Thank you

As far as the use of force goes, I would be surprised if Plato would have had much to say about what we call terrorism. This is not because he would approve of the tactic of singling out civilians as targets, in the hopes of demoralizing an enemy; but simply because he would take a lot of such tactics for granted.

The histories of the time indicate two distinct forms of engagement between enemies. On the one hand, a lot of battles on land and sea were fought formally, with arranged battlefields and times to fight (mostly in the summer); on the other hand, when one state besieged another one the attackers would subject everyone within the city walls to the deprivations that were intended to drive the city to surrender. Soldiers frequently distinguished between civilians and members of an army, but there were plenty of instances in which they did not. (See the Athenian attack on the island of Melos, as described in Book 5 of Thucydides, chapters 85-113.)

You seem to have something else in mind, though. It's not just terrorism conceived as the attacks on randomly chosen civilians, but more specifically terrorism as a tool of fundamentalist religion. And here the problem is that Plato registers views toward the religion of his time as apparently contradictory as he does. He defers to religion, especially in the sense of practicing traditional rituals and consulting the oracle at Delphi. He also finds most religious stories, with their slanders about the gods' shabby personal lives, offensive to a believer. His would be a religion purged of its anthropomorphism and its suggestions that the gods ever bring undeserved harm to human beings. No more lying and adulterous gods, only wise beneficent ones. And religious motivations for acts of force might be acceptable, if -- a big "if" -- the religion they are based on is a morally acceptable one.

As far as the use of force goes, I would be surprised if Plato would have had much to say about what we call terrorism. This is not because he would approve of the tactic of singling out civilians as targets, in the hopes of demoralizing an enemy; but simply because he would take a lot of such tactics for granted. The histories of the time indicate two distinct forms of engagement between enemies. On the one hand, a lot of battles on land and sea were fought formally, with arranged battlefields and times to fight (mostly in the summer); on the other hand, when one state besieged another one the attackers would subject everyone within the city walls to the deprivations that were intended to drive the city to surrender. Soldiers frequently distinguished between civilians and members of an army, but there were plenty of instances in which they did not. (See the Athenian attack on the island of Melos, as described in Book 5 of Thucydides, chapters 85-113.) You seem to have something else in mind,...

A question about Plato's theory of Forms. From what I've read, a Form is said to

A question about Plato's theory of Forms. From what I've read, a Form is said to be something that is 'ideal' and 'perfect' due to being unchanging and that no object in the physical world (of mimes) can absolutely mimic it to the nth degree. If a Form is 'ideal' or 'perfect' does that mean 'ideal' or 'perfect' in the normative, value-laden sense of those words, or does it mean ideal as in 'abstract' and perfect as in 'precise'? With this in mind, would a person who commits immoral acts have any less of the Form 'humanness' than a person with a good moral compass? Would this apply to other attributes such as intelligence?

This question is on to something important. The language is a bit inexact, as people’s language tends to get when they discuss Platonic Forms, but that is partly because Plato himself uses broad and sometimes shifting terminology to capture the essence of the Forms. To say the Forms are “ideal” could mean too many things; and Plato doesn’t often say they are “perfect.” More often he’ll talk about “the beautiful itself,” “the large itself.”

This absolute character of Forms does not follow from their unchanging nature – although you are quite right that Plato thinks they are unchanging. If anything, their quality of being unchanging follows from their “perfect” possession of whatever attributes they have. If the Form of the Large is large, and it’s absolutely large, then it can’t change, for change might make it larger or smaller. And if it became larger, then it hadn’t been abs0lutely large to begin with; if it became smaller, it would cease to be largeness as such.

Objects we can perceive are sometimes said to imitate the Forms, more often said to have the Forms in them; to “participate” in the Forms; to have a “share” of the Forms. But whatever language we use, it’s clear, as you say, that the Form of any quality is not among the objects of our experience.

So far so good. Now you move in toward your point. Is a Form “good” in the sense of how well it encapsulates its quality, or is it morally good? If we say less about “ideal” and “perfect” Forms and more about “absolute qualities,” then you can imagine that the question doesn’t quite come up in the same terms. And yet, even without Plato’s theory, we can articulate similar questions about any standards or ideals. We call a lot of things “good” to praise them; does this way of being good have anything to do with morality?

Well, sometimes the answer seems to be a clear Yes and sometimes a clear No. If you call someone a good political leader, you’re making a normative statement. You might also be saying that the person exactly fits the definition of a political leader, but fitting that definition exactly is morally loaded.

On the other hand, if you have a pipe wrench that works exactly as it’s supposed to and you call it a good wrench, even a perfect wrench, you don’t seem to be engaged in a moral claim.

To make things more complex, other cases could be taken either way. If someone is a good soldier (fits the precise definition of what soldiers are and do), are you always praising that person? Is that a normative claim? What about a good tax attorney?

Especially in some dialogues, Plato seems interested in making the Forms function in both ways you describe, as the most exact bearers of properties we know from experience, and in some manner as normative standards. In other dialogues he doesn’t pursue this double goal with the same sharp focus.

As for your final question, which seems to be your reason for writing: Would an immoral person have less “humanness” in them than a moral person?

I hope the answer doesn’t sound like a nit-picking appeal to what is and is not found in the dialogues, but it’s not always clear that Plato thinks there is a Form of the Human. And he doesn’t speak as if an immoral person were less human. He does speak of them as corrupted versions of what the human being could be. But the link you propose feels a little too easy, as well as too counter-intuitive, namely to think that somehow the performance of wicked deeds makes a person less of an example of their species.

This question is on to something important. The language is a bit inexact, as people’s language tends to get when they discuss Platonic Forms, but that is partly because Plato himself uses broad and sometimes shifting terminology to capture the essence of the Forms. To say the Forms are “ideal” could mean too many things; and Plato doesn’t often say they are “perfect.” More often he’ll talk about “the beautiful itself,” “the large itself.” This absolute character of Forms does not follow from their unchanging nature – although you are quite right that Plato thinks they are unchanging. If anything, their quality of being unchanging follows from their “perfect” possession of whatever attributes they have. If the Form of the Large is large, and it’s absolutely large, then it can’t change, for change might make it larger or smaller. And if it became larger, then it hadn’t been abs0lutely large to begin with; if it became smaller, it would cease to be largeness as such. Objects we can perceive are...

Would Plato have supported fascism in its twentieth century incarnations? Isn't

Would Plato have supported fascism in its twentieth century incarnations? Isn't his fascism implied in his strong support of the idea of the nation state and the rule of philosopher kings?

This is an old question about Plato’s Republic, and it’s something of an evergreen, because every serious contemporary reader who goes through the Republic’s proposal for a better state will notice the similarity between some features of that proposal and features of modern totalitarian states. The guardians are subjected to a life without property or privacy that calls communism to mind. The organic unity of the state, which your question alludes to, might sound like modern fascism.

But the question is a complex one, with too many elements to be handled in this space. Let me say a few words and then direct you to a place where I consider more aspects of the issue, chapter 10 of the third edition of my Guidebook to Plato’s Republic. There I ask about paternalism, individual autonomy, and other features of the Platonic state that are relevant to the question you have raised.

The trickiest part of your question is the first word: “Would.” You aren’t asking whether Plato did describe fascism, but whether – given the political system that he did describe – he would approve of modern fascism. This question is more likely to be answered “Yes” than the anachronistic one about whether Plato described an actual fascism; but it’s also harder to settle in a conclusive manner, because we have to speculate a bit.

For example, we know that totalitarian states take advantage of and control the latest technology in order to control their populations. Plato had no technologies of mass communication or mass observation available to him even to imagine. Nor did he have tanks or machine guns. Would he have approved of video cameras on street corners and automated patrols of phone conversations and the Internet? The reality of such intrusions into people’s lives might have appalled him; or he might have thought it was the quickest way to achieve the just state. How you answer this pedestrian-sounding question about Plato and modern technology will have implications for how much of a totalitarian you take Plato to be.

To take the point further we need to cite more than one or two features of one kind of totalitarianism. In general you can say that totalitarianism 1) restricts speech, 2) denies its citizens participation in government, 3) subjects the young to an indoctrinating education, 4) selects a self-perpetuating ruling class or cadre, and 5) enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion. And there’s no denying that many of the same features do appear in the Republic’s city. The philosophers' knowledge of the Form of the Good licenses their complete domination over the other citizens' lives. Free constitutional debate makes no more sense to Plato than asking children to vote on the multiplication table. As every government does, the guardians will make laws about contracts, libel, and insult, will levy taxes and regulate trade (425c-d). But we also see them lying to the people about their births (414d-415a), and to the guardians about their breeding partners (460a); planning the reproduction of the guardians in accord with eugenic theories (459a-e); restricting the speech and poetry permitted in the city; indoctrinating young guardians. Of the five characteristics listed, these clearly account for (1)-(4).

A lot of these points of similarity are made possible by the philosopher kings. In my opinion it’s fair to say, therefore, that Plato has described an authoritarian state, and more than that a paternalistic one. Totalitarianism is a kind of paternalistic tyranny, so totalitarianism and the Platonic state do share certain features. The leader’s knowledge is presumed superior to the citizen’s, so that the citizen’s main virtue consists in obedience. The laws promulgated by the leader are said to be for the good of the citizen. If citizens like the idea of private property, that is too bad for them under totalitarianism, if totalitarianism objects to private property. Citizens will just have to be weaned from their old ideas.

But totalitarianism is more than paternalistic, inasmuch as it is imposed tyrannically. In more or less Platonic terms I would call tyranny a concentration of power for the benefit of the ruler. Totalitarianism is sustained by force, as characteristic (5) above says: It enforces its rule by punishing any citizens’ acts of disobedience or subversion.

Here we find a significant difference between the Republic and modern totalitarianism. Plato says that a good state bases its legitimacy on persuasion, not force (548b, 552e). Even the loyalty that the good city expects is not supposed to be blind loyalty. If the philosophers living under existing regimes do not owe their cities public service (520b), political obligation must be something earned by the city. Indeed Socrates says one owes loyalty only to the well-run city, or to the model of it in one’s soul (591d-e). Sensible people won’t pay attention to political affairs in cities as they are (592a-b). A theory that calls for civic sentiment only in the best of all states is not a theory demanding irrational obedience.

“Ah, but would Plato accept the kind of philosophical rule that is imposed by force, if he sees no other alternative?” This hypothetical question, unlike the question I raised about Plato and modern technology, has a clearer answer: No. For Plato knew of at least one state in his own time that resembled the one he described in the Republic, with one major difference that it sustained its government by force. This was the state of Sparta, likewise divided into a large population and a small effective army, but with the army constantly terrorizing the serf population (known as Helots). Plato did not want to duplicate Spartan government in his city. Besides anything else, he knew that such a state was always vulnerable to revolts. His aim to persuade the public is not window dressing for his political philosophy, in other words, but an essential element of it; and it seems to me this element distinguishes him decisively from totalitarian thinking.

Finally let me point out that the most intrusive regulations within the new city only apply to its governing classes, the philosophical rulers and the soldiers who support them. I can’t think of one modern totalitarianism that likewise controls the lives of its ruling classes while leaving the mass of the population living as they had been, pursuing prosperity as they see fit.

This is an old question about Plato’s Republic, and it’s something of an evergreen, because every serious contemporary reader who goes through the Republic’s proposal for a better state will notice the similarity between some features of that proposal and features of modern totalitarian states. The guardians are subjected to a life without property or privacy that calls communism to mind. The organic unity of the state, which your question alludes to, might sound like modern fascism. But the question is a complex one, with too many elements to be handled in this space. Let me say a few words and then direct you to a place where I consider more aspects of the issue, chapter 10 of the third edition of my Guidebook to Plato’s Republic. There I ask about paternalism, individual autonomy, and other features of the Platonic state that are relevant to the question you have raised. The trickiest part of your question is the first word: “Would.” You aren’t asking whether Plato did describe fascism, but...

How is Nietzsche's Will to Power related to his notion of Eternal Recurrence?

How is Nietzsche's Will to Power related to his notion of Eternal Recurrence? Wikipedia suggests a connection, but does not elaborate. thanks PS: I am not a student and this is not a homework assignment.

For a lot of people who study Nietzsche it’s not clear that a connection exists. Nietzsche himself considered these his two most important contributions to philosophy, although I’m not aware of any explicit attempt on his part to unite them. And you have to bear in mind that even though he thought these were his most important ideas, it doesn’t follow that they were. I find much deep and valuable philosophical thinking in Nietzsche’s works, but not always where he thought the best ideas were.

For instance, Nietzsche has an extremely high opinion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, while he treats On the Genealogy of Morals as if it were a mere appendix to Beyond Good and Evil. Other readers may disagree with me (although plenty do not), but in my own opinion On the Genealogy of Morals is his greatest single work, one that yields up more insights on every reading; while Thus Spoke Zarathustra is uneven and at most a supplementary part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre.

But that’s just an example, by way of illustrating the point that Nietzsche’s readers do not always consider most important within his thought what he sees as most important. The Will to Power – which we all wish Nietzsche had said more about – is a remarkable effort to steer philosophical theories about human motivations away from simple theories of self-preservation, which before Nietzsche had been the furthest that “tough-minded” philosophers like Hobbes had gone in their analyses of human action. For Nietzsche, self-preservation is too limited. We act in order to achieve, to impose our wills on our surroundings. We desire not simply so that we can attain what we desire, but because we desire the act of desiring. (This is why, in “On the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life,” Nietzsche refers to “life” – what he will later call the will to power – as “self-desiring.”) To have desires and satisfy them is what the Will to Power craves, not merely to be done with desiring.

The Freudian libido bears some resemblance to the Will to Power in its excessiveness, libido being the desire that does not aim in an accountable way merely for the continued existence of the desiring creature.

While the Will to Power is a new, modernist idea, the Eternal Return or Eternal Recurrence is almost an antiquity by comparison. It is a self-conscious reappropriation of Stoic and some pre-Socratic ideas about a universal cycle. Maybe Nietzsche uses the Eternal Return only as a test we apply to our lives – this is one interpretation of it – i.e. that life is worth living if and only if we are willing to have every moment of it return. Or maybe he literally believes that it is a true cosmic assertion. Either way it is an attempt to achieve some of the effects of immortality, like the thought of one’s continuing existence, without reference to an otherworldly afterlife. If Nietzsche puts the doctrine forward as literal truth, then he thinks we do have this form of immortality available to us. If he proposes it as a test for life, it brings some of the consolation of immortality to those rightly oriented toward their own lives.

On the reading of the Eternal Return as a test, it can be connected with the Will to Power, on some understandings of the Will to Power. Wanting this life in all its ups and downs to recur eternally is a sign that you are, as it were, expressing your Will to Power; not stopping it up. But I feel the need to say “as it were” in connection with such a sentence, because I don’t really think that Nietzsche believes the Will to Power can be stopped up. There’s no better or worse manifestation of the Will to Power; if there were, then it wouldn’t be the explanation of all actions in the way that Nietzsche thinks it is. But if all actions are Will to Power, then no test is going to differentiate between exhibitions of the Will to Power and repressions of it.

For my money, the Will to Power is irreplaceable. I read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, at least one great insight on every page, and I can see it as an explanation (among other things) of how human actions have thus far been misdescribed, not to mention human ethics. I find that book fully consistent with the Will to Power although it’s not a book about that doctrine. The Eternal Return, by comparison, is not needed for understanding Nietzsche’s Genealogy and might even contradict its closing image of a decisive new human understanding about truth and values. And if one of the two doctrines lies at the heart of what I find Nietzsche’s greatest book, while the other is quite marginal to the book, I can’t in all consistency say the two are related doctrines.

One last word. While a lot of readers would agree with what I say, many would not. I’m offering this answer as a way to think about Nietzsche, but you should not take it as a decisive claim about what everyone believes about him. You asked a good question; which means, there is no one good answer to it.

For a lot of people who study Nietzsche it’s not clear that a connection exists. Nietzsche himself considered these his two most important contributions to philosophy, although I’m not aware of any explicit attempt on his part to unite them. And you have to bear in mind that even though he thought these were his most important ideas, it doesn’t follow that they were. I find much deep and valuable philosophical thinking in Nietzsche’s works, but not always where he thought the best ideas were. For instance, Nietzsche has an extremely high opinion of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, while he treats On the Genealogy of Morals as if it were a mere appendix to Beyond Good and Evil. Other readers may disagree with me (although plenty do not), but in my own opinion On the Genealogy of Morals is his greatest single work, one that yields up more insights on every reading; while Thus Spoke Zarathustra is uneven and at most a supplementary part of Nietzsche’s oeuvre. But that’s just an example, by way of...

How did the early Philosophers view of the world differ from that of Homer?

How did the early Philosophers view of the world differ from that of Homer? Specifically, how was the philosophers’ method of trying to understand the world around them different?

That looks like a straightforward question. And a reasonable person might expect some clear statement of the criterion that separates Homeric poetry (or any other poetry for that matter) from philosophical theory. So it’s interesting to realize, at the start, that even in antiquity it took some time for a consensus to emerge on the relationship between the two kinds of discourse.

One of the first ancient Greeks to compile an intellectual history was Hippias the sophist, whom we know today from Plato’s rather unflattering portrayals of him in the Hippias Major and the Hippias Minor (titles that merely indicate, by the way, that the former dialogue is the longer of the two and the latter shorter). Socrates makes short work of Hippias in the dialogues, but in real life he was intellectually ambitious and enterprising. His history of thought is lost today, but it came before any history by Plato or Aristotle, and apparently contained philosophers and poets in comparable numbers.

Plato, for his part, was no historian; but there are some sections of two dialogues, the Theaetetus and Sophist, that sketch the general outlines of a history of philosophy. In the Theaetetus that sketch pits Parmenides and sympathetic Eleatic thinkers on one side, denying the reality of natural change, against a long tradition of theorists of nature according to whom change is the essence of nature. Socrates puts Protagoras in that tradition along with Heraclitus; and then surprisingly he says the tradition began with Homer, and a line in the Iliad about Ocean being the father of all. So Plato seems comfortable thinking of his intellectual forebears as an undifferentiated group containing both “official” philosophers and poets.

Aristotle returns to the very same quote from Homer in Book I of his Metaphysics, during his own review of the philosophical tradition. The line in Homer does not impress Aristotle, though. He is pruning the philosophical tradition so that such storytellers remain outside the mainstream. We, looking back, surely understand his motives. We have inherited Aristotle’s way of sorting writers into philosophers and non-philosophers.

But how to articulate that distinction?

According to one influential distinction, the mythic versions of doctrines given in Homer and other poets are treated as things that took place impossibly long ago. The laws of nature in Homer are different from those in operation in philosophical theories, if only because they describe a world, its objects, and the processes by which it changes that no longer exist. The world of myth operated according to principles that do not operate today. Homer said “All was water,” or as much as said so, when he spoke of Ocean and his consort Tethys as origins of all; Thales, as the emblematic philosopher, said nearly the same thing but also something entirely different when he announced “All is water.” For Thales water was still, is now, the nature of matter; for Homer water had been the originating principle when the world behaved according to laws now disappeared.

The distinction is not sustainable in those terms. It is attractively described like that, but not quite true. Something mythic clings to the thought of Thales, as we see in his statement that “all things are full of gods.” There is truth in detecting steps toward philosophical metaphysics and science in the sayings attributed to Thales; but the difference between him and Homer is not as clear-cut as simple formulations would have us believe.

My own belief, though other scholars may disagree, is that Plato and Aristotle labored to distinguish philosophy from Homeric mythic poetry. In his later dialogue Sophist, for instance, Plato has the Stranger from Elea complain that earlier philosophers spoke in stories, as if their students were still children. He seems to want the task of philosophy to be a movement out of mythic discourse into something more logical, perhaps less anthropomorphic. And yet there is still something Homeric in what that character the Stranger says in the Sophist, for all his efforts to the contrary.

If you absolutely need a simple formulation of the change from Homer to Thales, you could do worse than to say: Philosophers seek explanations and descriptions of the world that apply everywhere, at all times; Homer and his poetic colleagues imagine that some accounts were true once and no longer are. But I suggest that you use this formulation sparingly, and only as I said if you absolutely need some simple way of stating the difference.

That looks like a straightforward question. And a reasonable person might expect some clear statement of the criterion that separates Homeric poetry (or any other poetry for that matter) from philosophical theory. So it’s interesting to realize, at the start, that even in antiquity it took some time for a consensus to emerge on the relationship between the two kinds of discourse. One of the first ancient Greeks to compile an intellectual history was Hippias the sophist, whom we know today from Plato’s rather unflattering portrayals of him in the Hippias Major and the Hippias Minor (titles that merely indicate, by the way, that the former dialogue is the longer of the two and the latter shorter). Socrates makes short work of Hippias in the dialogues, but in real life he was intellectually ambitious and enterprising. His history of thought is lost today, but it came before any history by Plato or Aristotle, and apparently contained philosophers and poets in comparable numbers. Plato, for his...

After all that Plato said concerning the written transmission of philosophy, and

After all that Plato said concerning the written transmission of philosophy, and his attempt to get around it using the dialogue form, why did a devoted student like Plotinus write treatises instead?

I'm not sure there is an answer to this question. Certainly you don't want to presuppose too much about one theory or another of Plato's dialogue form. In antiquity there were many philosophers before and after Plato who wrote dialogues, whether in order to be consistent Platonists or for another reason.

But let's assume that the dialogue form is justified and accounted for by the passage in Plato's Phaedrus about the problems with writing. (A big assumption; not an assumption I would make. But it seems to be your assumption, so I'm accepting it for the sake of argument.) In that passage Socrates says that serious philosophers won't write their ideas down in a way that leaves them vulnerable to attack and misunderstanding, but at most will write "reminders" to themselves about what they think. The dialogue might then be seen as such a reminder.

But already we run into a problem. What's to say that the writings of Plotinus are not reminders as well? Why call them by the anachronistic name of "treatises"? His student Porphyry wrote a Life of Plotinus in which he speaks of regular meetings among Plotinus and other philosophers, whom we may think of (mostly) as his students. They would discuss some topic in Plato or in philosophy generally, and then Plotinus would write down his thoughts about what they had said in their discussion. That sounds to me like writing down "reminders." Plotinus did not attempt to lay out a world view in any systematic way, but appreciated the insights that came to him when discussing Plato's works; and he wanted to keep some record in case he (or someone else) ever wanted to come back and think along those same lines.

In a word: There are many ways of writing philosophical reminders. The dialogue form as Plato perfected it might be one (although, as I said, it might have other purposes as well). In no sense does Plato say it's the only way to remind yourself of philosophy.

I'm not sure there is an answer to this question. Certainly you don't want to presuppose too much about one theory or another of Plato's dialogue form. In antiquity there were many philosophers before and after Plato who wrote dialogues, whether in order to be consistent Platonists or for another reason. But let's assume that the dialogue form is justified and accounted for by the passage in Plato's Phaedrus about the problems with writing. (A big assumption; not an assumption I would make. But it seems to be your assumption, so I'm accepting it for the sake of argument.) In that passage Socrates says that serious philosophers won't write their ideas down in a way that leaves them vulnerable to attack and misunderstanding, but at most will write "reminders" to themselves about what they think. The dialogue might then be seen as such a reminder. But already we run into a problem. What's to say that the writings of Plotinus are not reminders as well? Why call them by the anachronistic name of ...

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