The Socratic Prayer

Praying for free will

Yesterday, I prepared a dinner for some friends, and we recited the Socratic Prayer from the Phaedrus in lieu of grace, with someone reading the lines of Socrates and someone else that of Phaedrus.

I think I will be sticking with the Socratic Prayer, it is absolutely perfect for a dinner amongst friends.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. – Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.
Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.
Socrates: Let us go [eat].

Aristotle on Education

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. - Aristotle

The education of the citizens should match the character of the constitution, for the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy, and the better the character, the better the government. As the entire city has but one end, education should be the same for all, and should be public rather than private. Children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, but not all useful things, and in particular not those that are vulgar. By ‘vulgar’ is meant those that tend to deform the body or that lead to paid employment. All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind.

The four traditional branches of education are (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastics, (3) music, (4) drawing. The Ancients included music not for the sake of utility but for that of intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Unlike music, reading and writing and drawing do have utility, but they also have liberal applications. In particular, reading and writing can open up other forms of knowledge, and drawing can lead to an appreciation of the beauty of the human form. Leisure should not be confused with amusement and relaxation, which are the antidotes to effort and exertion. The busy man strives for an end that he has not yet attained, but happiness is the end. Thus, happiness is experienced not by busy men, but by those with leisure. That which is noble should come before that which is brutal. Courage is more a function of nobility than of ferocity, and to turn children into athletes risks injuring their forms and stunting their growth. For these reasons, children should practice nothing more strenuous than light gymnastics. Following the onset of puberty, three years should be spent in study, and only after this triennium may a youth engage in hard exercise. However, the youth should guard against labouring mind and body at the same time, for they are inimical to each other.

Returning to the subject of music, it is not easy to determine its nature, nor why anyone should have knowledge of it. Perhaps music, like sleep or drinking, offers nothing more than amusement and relaxation. Perhaps it promotes virtue. Or perhaps it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and to mental cultivation. Some say that no freeman should play or sing unless he is intoxicated or in jest, so why learn music and not simply enjoy the pleasure and instruction that comes from hearing it from others? Our considered opinion is that children should learn music so that they might become performers and critics, but their musical education should not extend too far beyond an appreciation of rhythm and harmony, and not to instruments such as the flute or lyre which require great skill but contribute nothing to the mind.

In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all … may [music] not have also some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence if characters are affected by it. And that they are so affected is proved in many ways, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise; for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

- Politics, Book 8

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.

Kierkegaard’s Three Lives

During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk. – Kierkegaard

According to the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, there are three types of lives which a person can lead: the aesthetic life, the ethical life, and the religious life. The person who leads the aesthetic life aims solely at the satisfaction of his desires. If, for example, heroin is what he desires, then he will do whatever it takes to get hold of heroin. In circumstances in which heroin is cheap and legal, this need not include any immoral behaviour. However, in circumstances in which heroin is expensive or illegal, this is likely to include lying, stealing, and much worse. As the aesthete adapts his behaviour to the circumstances in which he finds himself, he does not have a consistent, coherent self.

In marked contrast to the aesthete, the person who leads the ethical life behaves according to universal moral principles such as ‘do not lie’ and ‘do not steal’, regardless of the circumstances in which he finds himself. As the person has a consistent, coherent self, he leads a higher type of life than that of the aesthete.

Despite this, the highest type of life is not the ethical life but the religious life, which shares similarities with both the aesthetic and the ethical lives. Like the aesthetic life, the religious life prioritises individual circumstances and leaves open the possibility of immoral behaviour. However, like the ethical life, the religious life acknowledges the existence and authority of universal, determinate moral principles, as embodied in and promulgated by social norms and conventions. By acknowledging moral principles and yet prioritising individual circumstances, the religious life opens the door for moral indeterminacy. For this reason, the religious life is a life of constant ambiguity and constant uncertainty, and hence of constant anxiety. Anxiety, says Kierkegaard, is the dizziness of freedom.

For Kierkegaard, a paradigm of the religious life is that of the biblical patriarch Abraham, as epitomised by the episode of the Sacrifice of Isaac. According to Genesis 22, God said to Abraham,

Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

Unlike the aesthete, Abraham clearly recognises the existence and authority of moral principles. However, unlike the moralist, he prioritises individual circumstances over moral principles, and thus obeys God’s command to kill Isaac. As Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel appears and calls out to him,

Abraham, Abraham … Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

At that moment, a ram appears in a thicket, and Abraham spares Isaac and sacrifices the ram is his stead. Abraham then names the place of the sacrifice Jehovahjireh, which translates from the Hebrew as, ‘The Lord will provide’. The teaching of the Sacrifice of Isaac is that the conquest of doubt and anxiety, and hence the exercise of freedom, requires nothing less than a leap of faith. It is by making such a leap of faith, not only once but over and over again, that a person, in the words of Kierkegaard, ‘relates himself to himself’ and becomes a true self. Although choice is made in the instant, the consequences of making a choice are irredeemable and everlasting, and this risk and responsibility give rise to intense anxiety.

Adapted from

Aristotle on the feeling of pity

Pity is a feeling of pain caused by a painful or destructive evil that befalls one who does not deserve it, and that might well befall us or one of our friends, and, moreover, to befall us soon. Thus, it is not felt by those who no longer have anything to lose, or by those who feel that they are beyond misfortune. Pity is all the stronger if evil is repeated frequently or if it arises from a source from which good could have been expected. It may also be felt if no good ever befalls a person, or if he cannot enjoy it when it does, or if it does only once the worst has already happened. A person feels pity for those who are like him and for those whom he knows, but not for those who are very closely related to him and for whom he feels as he does for himself. Indeed, the pitiful should not be confounded with the terrible: Amasis wept at the sight of his friend begging, but not at that of his son being led to death. To feel pity, one must believe in the goodness of at least some people, which is why pity is most commonly felt by the young, and most keenly for those of noble character.

Rhetoric, Book 2, Ch. VIII

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.


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