Book Review: The Republic by Plato

The RepublicThe Republic by Plato

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.

Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.

The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.

Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.

For a more detailed understanding:
https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

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Book review: How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern LifeHow to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m still unclear if reading for pleasure is virtuous. I’m going to pretend that it is.

The former biologist and current philosopher, Massimo Pigliucci, guides us through stoicism and lots of conversations with his imaginary friend, Epictetus. I probably shouldn’t write book blurbs, because this was way more interesting than my previous sentence implies.

Before reading this book, my only understandings of stoicism came from Bertrand Russell. That is to say, I had a snarky and somewhat dismissive understanding of stoicism because Russell wasn’t a fan. Massimo dispelled my misunderstandings and also showed how stoicism could be applied to modern life. Book title goal achieved!

There are two highlights from this book. The first is that Massimo has managed to communicate his philosophy clearly and in a way that I think most people would be able to understand and engage with. The second is that he also manages to upsell readers on the idea of becoming a stoic. I’m not saying I’m rushing out to join Cult Stoic, but there are a lot of good ideas here for people to learn.

stoic-decision-making

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Further reading:
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/bertrand-russell-got-stoicism-seriously-wrong/
https://www.reddit.com/r/Stoicism/comments/zblu2/criticisms_of_stoicism_from_bertrand_russells/
https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/9271/how-might-one-counter-bertrand-russells-criticism-of-stoicism-as-not-true-and

Book review: The Devil You Know by KJ Parker

The Devil You KnowThe Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled? Never messing with a philosopher.

Saloninus is the greatest philosopher of all time. But nearing the end of his life he wants another 20 years to complete his final works. So he does a deal with the devil. But the devil is suspicious. They might have an airtight contract for Saloninus’ soul, but there is something amiss. Is the devil about to be swindled by the greatest thinker?

A couple of years ago my uncle recommended KJ Parker to me. I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of Parker’s books. My uncle clearly has good taste.

This was an interesting and often humorous tale. After a recent letdown with an odious fantasy novel, this was refreshing. Briskly paced, world building without the laborious exposition, and characters that felt like real people, topped off a solid and interesting story. I’ll have to schedule some more KJ Parker reading for the near future.

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Book review: On Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

On Generation and CorruptionOn Generation and Corruption by Aristotle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not going to review this book. It’s a few thousand years old, I don’t really have anything to add.

What I found interesting about this book was what it got wrong. Obviously Aristotle is one of the most influential thinkers of all time, he was one of the earlier people to grapple with determinism (Democritis and Leucippus got there first). But in Aristotle’s arguments on the Four Causes and the Four Elements, it was interesting that he rejected Leucippus’ and Democritus’ Atomism, a theory that was ultimately proven correct. Which got me to thinking.

How would anyone describe fire – one of the four elements – without our modern knowledge? How would we explain or seek to understand (rationalise) the workings of fire without chemistry, physics, and all of that other knowledge we take for granted?

Reading the arguments melding the four causes and elements into an understanding of change and decay in the modern age, it is easy to point and laugh. Stupid philosophers can’t science! But as I was reading I realised I could counter the arguments only based upon the accumulated knowledge of the natural world. If I was to remove that knowledge and just go by observation, could I do better? The answer is clearly no. At best I could come up with different, but probably not better. Because I’m definitely in the same league as one of the greatest thinkers of all time….

This realisation then had me thinking about how we don’t value our modern age and modern knowledge as much as we should. As Douglas Adams noted, we are surrounded by wonders of technology and science, but could we explain it and rebuild it, or would we have to settle for being a sandwich maker from the stars?

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Book review: A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

A Little History of PhilosophyA Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If by doubting your existence you prove that your doubting thoughts exist, what happens if you then doubt your doubts?

A Little History of Philosophy is pretty much summed up by its title. It spends a chapter on each famous Western philosopher or movement (e.g. Aristotle gets a chapter; Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir share one) and takes a shallow dive into each. Nothing more, nothing less.

After recently reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy I thought I’d read a book that covered the same topic with less of the surrounding history and more of the philosophy overview. Nigel Warburton does this well in a brief, clear, and accessible manner. A strength of the overview is how he ties theories and influences together (e.g. Brentham to Mill, Mill to Russell) so that you can see how thinking has evolved. A negative is the sometimes tenuous segues Warburton uses to end a chapter. Seriously, you really start to notice it and laugh.

This was a great way to dip my toes into philosophy. Between Russell and Warburton I feel I’ve been given enough to start the journey down the rabbit hole. Made me think.

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Book review: A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

A History of Western PhilosophyA History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An important point was left out of this book: The history of philosophy is also a history of drunks.

Bertrand Russell has attempted to give a brief overview of the History of Western Philosophy. In this 900 page tome he touches on the major figures, major fields of thought, and the socio-political backgrounds that influenced (and were influenced by) them. Russell also offers up some critique on these aspects, because it wouldn’t be a philosophy book if it wasn’t doing so.

This description sounds like anathema to entertaining reading, and it would be if it wasn’t being tackled by someone like Russell. Bertrand has a very clear, concise, and accessible writing style, and is easily able to explain in plain language even the most complex of philosophical ideas. Normally reading philosophy reminds me of reading genetics textbooks, as it is overstuffed with pedantry and jargon, Russell makes it feel like he is uses no jargon or technical terms.

It should also be noted that Russell is snarky to the point that you find yourself having to laugh and share his comment with someone. His comments are withering and witty, but they also serve as a great way of highlighting the flaws with certain arguments or “great” thinkers. If there are a few takeaway points from this book it is that the great minds were way ahead of their time, but that those same minds were confined by the structures of their time. It makes you wonder how many of today’s ideas are going to look silly and biased to future peoples.

This isn’t really a book to read about certain philosophers, nor fields of thought. A History of Western Philosophy is more a cliff notes version of several thousand years of thinking. Definitely an emphasis on the history and context. And it is all viewed through Russell’s eyes, his snarky, snarky, eyes.

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Rise of the Sophists

kierkegaard

Surprisingly this is not a post about a new Terminator movie. It isn’t even a post about the rise of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson; but let’s mention them for the bonus clicks. This post is actually a short essay I wrote last year as part of a philosophy course I did on Soren Kierkegaard. As you will see there is quite a bit of relevance to the current political and media climate, although looking back as far as Socrates reveals that not much has changed: sophists have undue influence on our society.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Kierkegaard saw parallels between his time and Socrates’ time. Once again there was a rise of Sophists in society, people who knew very little but pretended they did. While it could be argued that the Socratic Method is always relevant in society, Kierkegaard came to see certain aspects of Socrates differently to his peers. He was interested in using the negative as well as drawing people into argument by asking questions from feigned ignorance. These tactics could be used to expose those who were lacking knowledge or understanding.

Kierkegaard expanded upon his interpretation of the Socratic Method and has subsequently influenced many, both in the field of philosophy and thought, as well as wider society. Notably his ideas have influenced things like existentialism and post-modernism, which have influence into such diverse areas as the arts and science. But Kierkegaard was a precursor to modern philosophical movements, as he wasn’t trying to educate or enlighten, but rather stimulate and encourage people to look for the truth.

There is a downside to Kierkegaard’s influence on society. In our modern age we have seen the rise of those who would use Kierkegaard’s negative and questioning as a tool, rather than for helping others find the truth, but for harassment. While the idea behind aporia and maeuetics is to question what we and others know, there is a point at which this stops being about questioning knowledge for understanding and starts being about someone just trying to annoy others.

Obviously this comes down to the intent of the person: are they trying to help others understand, or understand themselves; or are they more interested in having an argument, or annoying someone. But is it subtler? Is it a progression whereby someone has engaged in discussion only to run up against something they disagree with – due to whatever personal bias – and thus use the questioning as an attack or avenue to annoy others? Regardless, those who are trying to annoy are not following the intent of Kierkegaard, nor Socrates, and will miss the essence and benefits of aporia and maeuetics.

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

Much like the parallels Kierkegaard saw between his time and Socrates’ time, there exists a similar parallel today. Once again in the modern age we see the rise of the Sophists. They are our elected officials, they are our media, and through technology they have the ability to reach more people and influence the world.

With more information available more easily than ever, people have come to receive that information in bite sized pieces. Often a headline – which may have been designed more for attracting attention than providing information – will be as much as a person will read about a topic. Our leaders and elected officials are reducing their policy statements to sound bites that can be easily remembered. And while we have this overly simplistic form or information presented to us, we are seeing less critical assessment of the information.

Kierkegaard was correct to look at the rise of Sophists in his time and act to apply Socratic methods to their arguments. By taking the approach of “knowing nothing” and questioning the person presenting information, it can be revealed how little the person actually knows. This is something that our media, and we, are failing to do. By taking the negative position it is possible to force the Sophist to explain themselves.

The most interesting aspect of Kierkegaard’s connection with Socrates is how comedians are applying it today. Irony was something Kierkegaard regarded as an invaluable tool. Today we see comedians such as John Oliver using irony – and other comedic devices – to dissect topics and arguments in the public space. It could be said that the modern Socrates or Kierkegaard comes in the form of the satirist news programs. Their viewers are noted to be better informed about news topics, and this comes from the use of Socratic tools.

A little more on Kierkegaard from The School of Life: