Plato’s rejection of Athenian politics

In his alleged Seventh Letter, Plato recounts his three visits to Sicily at the court of Dionysius, the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse and his vain efforts to change his political views. However, before embarking on his first sea-journey, Plato casts his mind back to the period of the Thirty Tyrants and notes that: ‘When I considered all this, the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult ...

Is the Philosopher the best possible ruler? (Part 2 of the Allegory of the Ship)

In the Allegory of the Ship, Plato fails to raise some critical points regarding the aloof attitude adopted by his philosopher: 1) By choosing not to intervene in the various quarrels raging between the different popular factions, he is implicitly condoning any attempt to topple the captain of the ship and endanger the future of the crew itself. The philosopher’s silence underlines his rejection of the inevitable clashes taking place in democratic regimes. In fact, he seems totally detached from public ...

Plato’s Allegory of the Ship and the True Navigator (Part 1)

One of the most famous illustrations of Plato’s defence of philosophy is to be found in the section of The Republic dedicated to the Allegory of the Ship (488a-489c) in which Socrates illustrates the negative attitude of his contemporaries towards the true philosopher. On board the ship are the captain, the crew, the leader of the crew and a character called the ‘true navigator’: 1) The captain is described as ‘larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit ...

Plato’s dialectic as the exercise of pure thought

The mathematical sciences studied by the apprentice philosopher in The Republic are only a prelude to the crowning stage of the philosopher’s education, namely, the study of dialectic, leading to the intellectual apprehension of the Form of the Good. Mathematics is, indeed, the indispensable tool if students are to rise above a transient physical world and the partial information they can derive from delusive senses. Through the study of geometry, the mind reaches a conceptual understanding of plane and solid ...

Is your life intense enough?

The ancient conception of wisdom entailed a well-planned winding down of futile daily activities in order to reach a state of contentment through a life of measured soul-management. We are unfortunately a long way from the ideal of the Stoics and Renaissance humanists such as Montaigne. Instead, we cannot imagine our lives without a constant access to our close friends, remote acquaintances, work colleagues and the wider world of politics and entertainment. Nineteenth-century science opened a Pandora’s box of seemingly ...

Introspection and Action Part 2

The death of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1980 coincided with the end of a certain introspective philosophy, mainly preoccupied with the citizen’s historical place and moral obligations in a secular, industrialised Western society. Succeeding generations continued to see philosophy as an intellectual weapon to be used in new struggles such as feminist and gay rights movements. Sartre, himself, was fully aware that his legacy was precarious as new historical ‘situations’ would inevitably generate new attitudes and new schools of thought. Sartrean ...

Corrupting youth in search of the ‘true’ life

In his latest essay, entitled ‘La vraie vie’ (the ‘true’ life), the seventy-nine year old French philosopher Alain Badiou, briefly revisits Socratic philosophy for the benefit of young generations. Socrates was sentenced to death by a democratic jury which considered his teaching as too subversive and therefore a threat to the social, religious and political order of Athens. Plato’s mentor was accused of disrespect for the gods of the city and more significantly, of indoctrinating his students with his systematic ...

Introspection and Action. Part 1

When asked about the nature and purpose of Philosophy, philosophers often feel embarrassed to have to offer a univocal reply, so multifarious and contrasted are the definitions and uses of their field of enquiry. All the definitions, schools and polemics which have accumulated from the period of the pre-Socratics to the present day, revolve around the inherent dual identity of Philosophy, namely, introspection and action. Classical Philosophy is primarily concerned with what Michel Foucault called ‘the care of the self’, that ...

Camus, our Summer Companion

For those who (still) believe that Camus is a depressive thinker, obsessed with death and existential angst, I strongly recommend ‘Summer in Algiers’ (‘L’été’), first published in 1954 and available as part of the Penguin edition of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. Camus invites his reader to follow in his footsteps as he immerses himself in the seaside landscape of his younger years and recaptures part of the sensual happiness he experienced among the Roman ruins of Tipasa, in a silent ...

Nietzsche, the Inverted Platonist

For Nietzsche (1844-1900), philosophers are prophets or seers who only appear after the twilight of the gods at a time when humanity is in desperate need of new myths. These fortuitous individuals are not the bearers of truth but of their truth. They do not impose their vision of the world to compliant and gullible disciples. They do not reveal a new ‘clearing of Being’ where man would become reunited with his metaphysical half. The task of the new philosopher ...