Symposium Great Books Institute Life is short. Why read a good book when you can read a great one? Thu, 29 Apr 2021 18:12:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 16 and 17 Seminar Report Thu, 10 May 2018 19:46:07 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday May 10th 2018 at 12 EST 

“A person is as good as his faith. He is what his faith makes him.”  (Chapter 17,  line 5)

Summary of Chapters 16 and 17 

Krishna describes”two kinds in the creation of the world, divine and demonic.”  The divine leads to “release”, the demonic to bondage. At the core of the demonic are the workings of desire, anger and greed, “the gateway to hell”, the “lowest road” – the “three gates to hell.” (Chapter 16, line 20, p 135) In Chapter 17, Arjuna wants Krishna to talk about those who are full of faith, but who practice outside the “injunctions of teaching” –  that is, the prescriptions of the Vedic orthodoxy, or the brahminic path.

Opening Question

What is faith, according to the Gita?


Arjuna asked a similar question in Chapter 6 (p. 97). Here it is restated, in the context of the discussion of the gunas that has been unfolding since chapter 13.  The upshot of Krishna’s answer in chapter 17 appears to be that, while we are as good as our faith makes us, faith all by itself is not the key. As long as one stays on the level of faith, you will not obtain anything better or worse than what you already have.

For faith takes on a different form depending on the nature of a person happens to be – as articulated by one of the three gunas, sattva, rajas, tamas, or their intermixture. (Chapter 17 line 1-5) The highest askesis – offering homage to Gods, brahmins, gurus and sages, and all the good character traits that accompany them, the serenity of mind and gentleness – we might conclude on the basis of what comes before in the Gita that none of this leads to ultimate ‘release’ or liberation, but only to the best or highest limits of what the sattvic guna can offer. There is in the text a recognition that this is certainly good. However, while not stated explicitly here, but on the basis of previous chapters, we are to see that it is not the ultimate attainment. There is something yet beyond the furthest reaches of what is traditionally regarded as the highest and best.

Chapter 16 also presents a challenge. We were puzzled by the “two kinds of creation” divine and demonic – after having been presented with a encompassing vision of the whole, with Krishna at the center of it, or permeating the whole, that is intended to carry the one engaged in exclusive Bhakti (to Krishna) to the ultimate goal of realization, ‘release’ from the round of births and deaths, ‘entering into’ Krishna. So what is are Chapters 16 an 17 doing here?

A possible reading of the Gita as a whole, and in particular Ch 16 and 17, is that Krishna presents a path that transcends the tradition and the nature of things (in the Shamkyan vision), but nevertheless conserves it. In this reading, the teaching is not intended to be a corrosive to tradition, but rather something that refounds, upholds Law, and saves the world from itself, by surpassing it. It would be as if the teaching says that the Shamkyan understanding of the gunas, Prakriti and Parusa, is correct so far as it goes. There really are divine and demonic types, then – tendencies in different directions – and there is truth to the conception of the gunas.  This way of looking at the world is correct – they constitute the rules of the great game of life.

In one of our early sessions, someone brought up the analogy of a game. Pythagoras, in the ancient Greek tradition, is attributed the saying that life is like a great game – the best come as spectators. The analogy of a game is not thematic in the text, but one is tempted make use of it, so long as it is not misunderstood as settling the whole question, but rather as a way of spurring us on in an active attempt to pursue understanding that leads to a greater appreciation. A chess game resides at the heart of the Mahabharata – so reflecting on the analogy may not take us too far afield.

Krishna’s teaching seems to be this, in these terms: life is a great game that must played, and there are certain rules that the game is played by. The divine and demonic, the gunas, and dharma, the injunction of the teachings (based on the Vedic orthodoxy) are all part of the rules, writ in the nature of things, of people and of the social world.  There is no arguing with them. One has no choice but to be a player in the game: one cannot choose to stop playing, because there is no stepping outside of the game. Even attempting to stop is being a part of it. Such is life.

While we must play the game, and play it to win (Arjuna must defeat his enemies), victory in this great game, however, is not the ultimate victory. Everyone believes it to be the ultimate victory – for what could be higher than reaching the Gods, or attaining happiness that accompanies such an attainment of a blessed life? According to the Vedic teachings, the victory is obtained by sacrifices, ritual actions, homage paid to Gods, brahmins, gurus, combined with various forms of askesis – of action, mind, and speech. Krishna ‘s point seems to be that – while these things are good – there is true victory yet beyond all of this.   

Ordinarily we don’t think of life as a game. Life is far too serious, far too many things are riding on it. To play a game, means we can stop anytime, or that there can be some reference point outside the playing of the game. It is as if, up until Krishna’s teaching, there has not yet been a standpoint outside this coordinate system – even the Parusa of the Shamkyans, remains ‘inside’.

Krishna’s teaching that there is something to attain beyond the game, ‘creates’ the possibility of an awareness of what we’re doing as a game. According to this train of thought, the lack of awareness of life as a game, and the over-seriousnessness with which we live life, keeps us from playing the game to the best of our abilities. 

The rules of the game remain, including the impossibility of ceasing to pay the game.

We now go through life, doing our duties, with a sense that it is like a great game that we cannot help but play to win. What it means to be a player  - what it means to act – and win a victory has now shifted ground.  It seems the bottom line is the ability to do ones own work with greater freedom and energy, now that one is able to say what ones ‘true’ work is.


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Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 14 and 15 Seminar Report Fri, 04 May 2018 15:11:46 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday May 3rd 208 at 12 EST 

“Cut down this Asvattha so thoroughly rooted with the hardened axe of disinterest. ”  (Chapter 15,  lines 1-5)

Summary of Chapters 14 and 15 

Krishna elaborates the idea presented in the previous chapter, which says that everything rides on knowing the distinction between the “field” and “guide”, involving the Shamkyan conception of three gunas, Prakriti and Parusa.

In the beginning of Chapter 15, with respect to the conception of reality in terms of the gunas, Prakriti and Parusa, Krishna makes use of analogy of an Asvattha tree (Ficus Religiosus). The aerial roots extending down to the earth from above are the gunas reaching into the world of men, binding men to karman and rebirth. Devotion to Krishna is cutting down the tree of the gunas with the “hardened axe of disinterest”.

Opening Question

How do we understand the image of the Asvattha tree with respect to both the gunas and the act of “cutting it down”?


The Asvattha tree is a reference to a certain kind of tree found in India and other regions that have aerial roots, extending to the earth from the high branches.  Here in the text, the image of the tree indicates how deeply entwined human life and action is in the action of the three gunas.

We discussed a little the mindset that someone who is a highly skilled artisan of any sort – a gardener to name only one example. Where do we see interest and disinterest coming into play here? Om the one hand, a good gardener becomes absorbed in the work at hand, paying attention to what the work needs, and not what the gardener needs. She will take all the time the work needs to do a beautiful job.  In this sense, the gardener is disinterested.

On the other hand, to a gardener, a lump of clay and a lump of gold are not equal. (Chapter 14 line 25)  The kind of soil, the kind of plants, the sort of mulch and stones used, relative amounts o sun and shade make all the difference. Someone described this attention as ‘concentrated interest’, instead of disinterest.  

Given the nature of the gunas as presented in Chapter 13, it might seem reasonable to approach the Tree – not with an axe of disinterest, cutting it down, but with a ‘pruning knife of concentrated interest’, selecting only the sattva guna and guiding the Tree’s growth away from the other two, finding a better balance that holds between all three.

The force of Chapters 15 (after elaborating the gunas more precisely in Chapter 14) seems to reside in the possibility that there is something beyond the conceptions of the gunas – of sattva, rajas, and tamas, that beyond the light-and-dark, graces and sufferings, of the world of man – and even beyond the ‘Two Persons’ – Prakriti and Parusa. And that something beyond all – even the gods, as was claimed in earlier chapters – is Krishna.

We returned to the question of what sort of knowing is involved in devotion to Krishna, having decided that it is not necessarily intellectual knowing, the operation of the “bodhi”; and something in conception higher than study (Chapter 13 line 11 page 123). But even here, contemplation is higher than knowledge, the relinquishment of fruits surpasses contemplation, and “upon resignation follows serenity.”

Is a sort of knowing that is innate to human beings, that knows as it were from the inside?  Whether or how that knowing appears in the body or the mind is hard to say. The very possibility of “disinterest”, in the many ordinary ways it might be experienced in life, at least points to the possibility that that there is some part of us that transcends the relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, as well as  desire, anger and greed.        

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Education Quartet: Republic, Session 15 Seminar Report – Book II 369b-373a Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:44:57 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Monday, April 23rd 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“Where in it, then, would justice and injustice be? Along with which of th things we considered did they come into being?“ 

“I can’t think, Socrates,” he said, “unless it’s somewhere in some need these men have of one another.” (II.372a)

Summary of Book II 369b-373a

Following upon the brief but rich section previously, Socrates, with the help of his interlocutors, begins to watch a city “coming into being” in speech, letting “our need” make it. The first stage is the city of utmost necessity, made up of four or five men. When a constraint or limitation “one man, one job” is introduced, to produce what is “plentiful, finer and easier”, the city quickly turns into a “throng” of people, all with the aim of helping to fill the needs of the different roles in the city.

Another constraint is introduced: it is “pretty nearly impossible” for a city to be self-sufficient all on its own, and has a need for importing some things.  From this limitation, the need for exchange, buying and selling, leads to markets and an established currency. From this need produces inequalities. A certain set of men dedicated to markets (on the principle of ‘one man, one job’ by nature those who are suited to it), and then another set of men by implication, those who in their minds or nature wouldn’t be up to the level of the partnership in the markets, and who sees their strength instead, the “wage earners”.

At this point the city has grown to completeness (371e), and Socrates then asks where would justice and injustice be in this city?  Adeimantus is not sure, but thinks it must be in some need people have for each other.

Socrates doesn’t deny this, but goes on to paint a portrait of what this city is like at 372a: this is the true or truthful city, he says (372e)

At this point Glaucon interrupts, obhecting that Socrates” portrait is missing first, “relishes” and then, “couches” and other things like tables and so on, things that he says are “conventional”, “like men have nowadays.”

Socrates accepts this as now entering into a different city: “We are, as it seems, considering not only how a city. but also a luxurious city, comes into being.  Perhaps that’s not bad either. For in considering such a city too, we could probably see in what way justice and injustice naturally grow in cities.”

Opening Question

Why does Socrates make “need” – or lack of self-sufficiency – the starting point? Why this starting point?

Observations and Reflections 

In this section, we witness coming into being a city of utmost necessity, which has four or five people, to the city as it has “grown to completeness”.  Out of the constraints of “One man, one job – according to their natures “, and the further constraint of limited resources,  the city engages in trade with other cities, has a market, a currency and several ‘classes’ individuals whose roles are assigned not by fiat or arbitrary whim, nor by dint of tradition, but by their individuals natures and fitness for particular jobs they need to perform. By Socrates’ description or painting vignette of the city, after 371e, we might be tempted call this the natural city, or the city by nature.

This natural city, which has been made by “our need” – a city which Socrates says is the truthful or true city – we observed, is one in which philosophy or the need for philosophy does not appear to exist. It is also evidently one where laws have yet been made, or government.  Socrates asked where justice is in this city – it is not immediately evident where it is, unless it is somewhere in the need people have for each other.

At this point, it looks like there are two possibilities: either there is no justice here, in which case justice has only a conventional nature, and arises as a consequence  of problems that arise in a feverish city; or that justice is in fact here in this city, but it is hiding in plain sight. It would seem that justice would need to be present already, if what we are getting here has any hope of overcoming or correcting the views presented by Thrasymachus in Book I, and then re-presented by Glaucon and Adaimantus at the beginning of Book II.

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Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 12 and 13 Seminar Report Thu, 26 Apr 2018 17:49:32 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday April 26th, 2018 at 12 Noon EST.  

“When he perceives that the variety of beings have one center from which all expand, then he is at one with brahman.”  (Chapter 13,  line 30)

Summary of Ch 12 and 13

Chapter 12 begins with a question from Arjuna: Who are the foremost adepts of yoga? Those who attend to you with devotion they constantly practice, or those who seek out the imperishable that is unmanifest?  Krishna’s answer is that both reach him, but the second group has a a much more difficult task ahead of them, requiring greater toil, “for their goal is not manifest and the embodied attain it with hardship.”  We learn in this chapter what has only been indicated by implication prior to this point, that both the one who tends with devotion to Krishna, and the one who attend to the inexpressible Unmanifest,  remains “equably disposed to everyone and everything and have the well-being of all creatures at heart.”

Chapter 12, Krishna presents the Shamkyan idea of Prakriti and and Parusa to Arjuna, in terms of the “field and the guide.” This body is the field, he says, and the one who knows this field is the “guide”. Krishna is the guide of all fields. Lines 5 -10 he explicates this idea by providing different examples of what the field and the guide each are.  At the neon of the Chapter, Krishna says “Those who with the eye of insight realize the boundary of field and guide, and the mode of separation from the Prakrit of begins, attain the ultimate.” (line 30)

Opening Question

 Those who with the eye of insight realize the boundary of field and guide, and the mode of separation from the Prakrit of beings, attain the ultimate. (line 30) How are we to understand the boundary of field and guide, and why would this lead to the ultimate?

Observations and Reflections

We were left at the end of the session with more questions than we had arrived with – which we at least understand as a good thing. We’re in a better position to look freshly at the reading, now that we’re clearer about what we don’t understand. One of the things that seems to be gaining in clarity is our sense of the different paths that are made available, paths that lead to attaining the ultimate realization. In Chapter 13, Krishna explicitly names three different paths: the path of jnanayoga or introspection, the path of bhaktiyoga or the path of the yoga of action, karmayoga. Which one is Arjuna’s? He appears to us to be the recipient of either the second yoga, bhaktiyoga, or the the third yoga, the yoga of action. karmayoga. Krishna’s constant advice to Arjuna is to be intent on acting for him. At the top of p123, in Chapter 12, Krishna lays out the possibility of bhakityoga and karma yoga together.

“Fix your mind on me alone, let your spirit enter me, and ever after you shall dwell within myself. Or if at first, you cannot hold your spirit firmly fixed on me, still cherish the desire to reach by repeated yoga. Even if you are incapable of repeated application, be intent on acting for me, for by doing acts for myself sake you will also attain success. Or even if you are incapable of acting thus, though you are inclined to me, at least restrain yourself and renounce the fruit of your actions.”

It appears that there are several stages here: first the attainment of bhakti or exclusive yoga, following upon fixing the mind solely upon Krishna and “entering into him”. The passages describing sitting and placing the breath between the brows so on. But then a concession: if at first this proves to be too difficult (to hold the spirit firmly), at least stay intent on “repeated application” or practicing.  

He goes on to say: if  practicing is not possible, what can one do? While acting, or while performing all actions, be intent on Krishna. But (as in the above) if this proves too difficult, then at very least renounce the fruits of actions.  

Either being intent on Krishna in all actions, or if not that, merely renouncing the fruits of actions, would be “karmayoga”, the yoga of action.  Arjuna would be the recipient of both yogas, but in his most immediate situation in front of him, it would seem he will be following the karmayoga path.

The description of Prakrit and Parusa, from Shamkyan thought, presents yet another way of looking at the ultimate attainment, the Great Lord, Supreme Soul. (13.20)  The three paths, jnanayoga, bhaktiyoga, and karma yoga, all have the same goal.   

Next week: Chapters 14 and 15


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Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 11 Seminar Report Thu, 19 Apr 2018 15:44:19 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday April 19th, 2018 at 12 Noon EST.  

“I am time grown old to destroy the world, embarked on a course of world annihilation”                     ” (Chapter 11,  lines 30-35)  

Opening Question

Arjuna has been given the ‘divine sight’ to finally see Krishna ‘as he is in himself.’ What do we make of what Arjuna sees in light of what we have encountered in previous chapters? For example, in lines 20-30 of the Chapter 10, Krishna identifies himself with the self that dwells in all beings, in so many manifestations – supporting ‘the entire universe with but a single portion’ of his being.    

Observations and Reflections

There are two things that trouble us on a first reading of Chapter 11.  First, a human being is seeing an open vision of a god – something that in other traditions – for example Greek and Hebrew speaking traditions – might seem bizarre.  Second, what we actually see is a terrifying thing – with fangs and world-devouring mouth.  One of the things Arjuna sees are all the armies being devoured in his mouth, chewed up by his fangs and fire-licking tongue – all except himself.  Arjuna is spared. This leads back to a third question: why Arjuna in particular? 

Of course, we don’t see it; Arjuna relates what he is seeing by describing it; or rather, Samjaya, the poet relates it indirectly to the reader.        

The group had a sense that there was certainly something fitting or at least understandable in Arjuna’s response to this vision.  There are connections to be made with other texts in other traditions – for example, the Greek heroes never see the gods by themselves – their presence fills them with dread. Also, in the Hebrew-speaking tradition, awe/fear is the appropriate response to a God who is hidden to most, except for one man, Moses.

Chapter 11 of the Gita opens with Arjuna wanting to see – but it closes with him, prostrating before Krishna, asking him to return to his dear old self, his familiar human form.  One might read this moment as follows: The familiar and the everyday is preserved or conserved in this teaching, something that might prove crucial to the conservation of Law.  The unfamiliar, strange, terrifying, ‘unedited’ vision of the reality of Krishna does not overwhelm or destroy the perspective of the familiar world as such.

The question of “who Krishna really is” is thus still present in this chapter, Chapter 11.   

While the fear seemed understandable, given the circumstances, we wondered at Arjuna’s response, which was prostrate devotion. A natural reaction might be to run in the opposite direction – but Arjuna stays where he is, although he does (as we have seen) request that Krishna returns to his familiar form.

The returning to his familiar form must be important to making possible Krishna’s “exclusive Bhakti” at the end of Chapter 11, as well as the sense of “who Krishna really is.”  Krishna seems neither one (the infinite terrifying multiform entity) nor the other (the human), but both.

Several of us did have the feeling that Arjuna had still not yet seen Krishna – even if this vision of Krishna had given Arjuna a glimpse of the divinity’s true being, Krishna is also Unmanifest, as he says in other Chapters.

One of the readings that came out of our discussion was to see that the vision of a world-destroyer had a battle-like energy to it – was this vision presented in a form that was suited to the warrior Arjuna and his particular situation on the battlefield?

This would suggest, again, that what we are ‘seeing’ here is only a partial vision of the full reality of Krishna. No one else has seen Krishna like this, not even the gods. (lines 45-50)  But if someone else in another situation had been given this vision, this divine sight, would this person ‘see’ a different aspect of Krishna - perhaps one that would be no less unsettling and awe-inspiring, but of different content or context?  The are many suggestions from the text up until this point that exclusive Bhakti to Krishna might appear in different forms, as various as forms of existence; and yet to practice it is simple. According the text and its sense, as we have seen it, one is to keep ones thoughts on ‘Krishna’, that thing that supports all, and is in a way all things while being nothing in particular.

Chapter 11 leaves us with an even more expanded sense of who this Krishna we are to set our thoughts on is, and what exclusive Bhakti to Krishna might involve.  Last Chapter we sense that devotion would mean, among other things, devotion to the very problem of who Krishna is. Now we see that, in addition to this, Bhakti to Krishna involves (in a manner of speaking) walking between the worlds with Krishna – holding the problem of the relationship between the ‘two’ – Krishna’s familiar form, and his other aspect – that of the Unmanifest, the ultimate ground of being, which is necessarily disorienting, dizzying, a mysterium tremendum, beyond everything we can experience. To generalize, exlcusive devotion to Krishna might involve some sort of investigation of the ‘relationship’ between ordinary experience and the ultimate ground of being.  That there could be a relationship at all, might be wondered at, since how can the finite be related to the infinite? Yet just such a relationship between the two seems to be indicated or even made possible by the story of Krishna and his encounter with Arjuna here in the Bhagavadgita.

Next week: Chapters 12 and 13

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“Sedimentation: Taking words for granted” Part 2 Thu, 19 Apr 2018 01:46:05 +0000 Reynaldo Miranda (The following submission is re-post by a long-time participant of Symposium seminars, Reynaldo Miranda. We hope you enjoy!  It follows upon Part 1, “Keynes, the Laissez-Faire and Sedimentation”. Part 3 coming soon! )

All specific names come to be, grow, decay, and pass away–names and their articulations are naturally temporal.  When terms and phrases are coined they embody and carry the freshness of discovery.  As we become familiar with a term, take it for granted, and regard it as so self-evident as to be transparent, the term can obfuscate the insight it was intended to transmit, and so impede our understanding rather than enable it, for example clichés and other crutches.  We might say the greater a phrase’s currency over some period of time, the cheaper its valuation tends to become.  Having such a large stock of cheap, ready-made formulas at hand easily encourages a certain laxity and carelessness in attentiveness, speech, and thought.  When many people become lazy at certain points, others who are clever prey upon and exploit that laziness by passing themselves off as merchants in speech and thought.

So far we have referred merely to our own nature as speaking animals who both err and forget, in order to describe how our terms tend to lose their youthful vigor and instead become frail and palorous.  This is true of plain, empirical, common sense reflection.  Think how much more true it is in our artful and scientific enterprises.  Quite apart from our forgetful and erring nature, there is an additional peril of sedimentation:  As terms are used equivocally, as they are reformulated in differing contexts, as they are commented upon and interwoven within a universe of discourse, they may take on so many meanings, that the word’s original intentions are lost.  In order to see again those original intentions, words and sentences must be uprooted and shaken free of the sediments that have accumulated in layers over long periods of change, and the concepts such words and sentences originally named must be seen anew in their entire splendor.

For by gathering up things in speech we stretch out toward knowing and the perfection of our natures; we remind ourselves and each other of the most knowable and simple things (i.e. the ground of our being); and, we further illumine the things that to us are inexhaustible mysteries.  All of this we do by speaking and thinking, and ordinarily only by speaking and thinking, however rickety and slippery these may at times appear.  This is one main reason we should never ever compromise our consciences, but must instead struggle hard toward clarity and truth, however unpalatable or daunting that may seem.  Otherwise, how could we be sound-minded or self-possessed, or attain to our dignity?  After all, only we humans, of all the animals, have minds that can take in the entire universe–capax mundi as the perennial philosophy encapsulates it.   In order for us to speak at all we must trust in the appearances of things, and so have faith.  Our speech and thought, then, serve us as rough pointers, markers, and compasses, precisely because they are borne by faith, hope, and love.   The poet and essayist Wendell Berry has written a splendid book about this, entitled Standing By Words.

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Education Quartet: Republic, Session 14 Seminar Report – Book II 368c-369b Tue, 17 Apr 2018 02:34:08 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Monday, April 16th 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“If we should watch a city coming into being in speech,” I said, “would we also see its justice coming into being and its injustice?”

“Probably,” he said.

Summary of Book II 368c-369b

This brief but rich section sets out Socrates’ ‘opinion’, how it looks to him they should proceed forward on the question or problem of justice Glaucon and Adeimantus have posed to Socrates. Socrates proposes they ‘watch a city come into being in speech’, and by viewing justice and injustice in the bigger, the city, they might be able to learn how it is in the smaller, in the individual.  The group ‘resolves’ that this is the way to go forward, playing on the ‘resolution’ passed in the beginning of Book I that Socrates and Glaucon would stay for the party and refrain from heading home just yet.

Opening Question

The opening question for this evening is an invitation to think together about what Socrates is proposing here – a proposal the governs the rest of the book.

Observations and Reflections 

Despite the ‘resolution’, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the procedure, in the text, and in our group as well.  We reached back into Book II – and also parts of Book I – to reflect a little more closely on how this passage had arisen from Glaucon and Ademinatus’ concerns, and we wanted to especially catch Socrates’ own hesitations about his ability to help the brothers.  The brothers, we recalled, appear to want a life-changing speech from Socrates that will save themselves and others like them – the ones with the good natures – from ‘flying’ to the wrong things.

Socrates appeared to us, at least, to be making a tentative suggestion to look in this direction and see what we might learn about justice in the soul all by itself. 

On the other hand, the proposal to “watch a city come into being in speech” strikes the reader as a rather unusual suggestion, if not an utterly bold one. The way he articulates it makes it sound as if a city will be arising on its own, growing like a plant or a human being.  We are to watch something at a distance, from a position of detachment; and the growth of the city, its coming into being, will presumably be governed by some sort of necessity the way a plant appears to be. Socrates does not say, “let us build what we think is an ideal city in a speech,” but rather let us watch a city “come into being” in speech.

The presupposition underlying Socrates’ analogy is that justice in the city is the same as justice in an individual man – “if, of course, they do happen to be the same.”  Socrates gets Glaucon to agree that, in addition to there being justice of one man, there is also ”justice of a whole city”. We are not to be looking for justice within a whole city, that is, how just men show up here and there, among people who are perhaps not perfectly just, nor yet again completely unjust.

Socrates leads Glaucon to accept – in contrast to the individual – justice as a property of a whole city: the city itself as whole is just. This would seem to suggest that the city itself is independent of the individuals that comprise the city, its citizens – the good city would seem to be something more than merely a city of good men (347d). A city of good men, simply in virtue of being a collection of good people, may not necessarily bring about a good city. It hardly seems conceivable, on the other hand, that a good city could be composed of wicked people.  So there must be some  sort of relationship between a good city, on the one hand, and the goodness of its individual citizens as individuals, on the other.  But it seems at least clear that Socrates wants to contrast the city taken as a whole or taken simply, and the individual.      

If justice in the soul of the individual, results in a blessed and happy life (354a), then the justice of the whole city, we are compelled to say, results in a blessed and happy city. But we have questions about this.  In Book I, Thrasymachus’ argument presupposed that there is a tension between the happiness of the city and the happiness of one man. The only way a human being can ever be truly happy, in his view, is if he subjugates an entire city to the commands of his soul – if the city is a slave to the individual as its master.

We have already seen in Glaucon’s arguments in Book II that there is some sort of tension between the individual’s desires and the burdens that law places on him.  The happiness of a city seems to involve the curtailment, abbreviation or subjugation of the individual to the demands of the whole city. The needs of the city may not be in consonance with the needs of the individual. Is it conceivable, then, to have a just (and thus a happy) life, while living in a city that is not just? Or is not possible for an individual to live happy life in a city that is not happy, if he is also a good man? Will he be compelled, because is is good, to surrender or look beyond his own private happiness, for the sake of the good of the whole city? In this case, the just life cannot be equated with the happy and blessed life, at least not simply.

Next week: we begin to “watch a city come into being in speech”


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Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 9 and 10 Seminar Report Fri, 13 Apr 2018 16:08:57 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday April 12th, 2018 at 12 Noon EST.  

“How may I know you, yogin, in my constant meditations? In what various modes of being may I meditate on you, my lord?” (Chapter 10,  line 15-20)

Chapters 9 and 10 

Opening Question

Krishna says at the opening of Chapter 9, the “royal wisdom” he is teaching Arjuna is to be “learned from immediate evidence, conforms to the Law, is easy to accomplish, and permanent.”  We want to unpack this thought.

Observations and Reflections

This week’s reading confirmed the suspicion we had last week: in the practice set forth in this book, the mind is empty only the relative sense of being empty of all other thoughts that distract attention away from the true nature of Krishna and reality.  The question of who Krishna is becomes of paramount importance, and yet the answer lies readily at hand, in all the familiar places one might look, both in nature and in religious practices (lines 20-40). 

In this sense, what we have to learn is of “immediate evidence” and is “easy to accomplish”.

Krishna is in a way all things, or the best of all the best things. But if one is to “think only of Krishna, and none other” – as Krishna says – and Krishna is the “eternal unmanifest beyond the unmanifest, which while all beings perish, does not yet perish” (Chapter 8)…how is one to think only of Krishna? In chapters 7 through 10, Krishna appears to be saying that there are tracks or clues of traces of himself in all manifest things, and even in the gods.  One might think of those traces or tracks as leading to Krishna, or as immediate evidence of Krishna’s ubiquitous presence. But even so, one would still not quite have one’s mind on Krishna, only traces or footprints.

Devotedness to Krishna then would be devotion to this problem – which is like the challenge of ‘thinking nothing’ only on a much greater scale.

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Education Quartet: Republic, Session 13 Seminar Report – Book II 362d-368c Wed, 11 Apr 2018 16:05:27 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Monday, April 9th 2018, 8 pm Central (9 EST/6 Pacific) 

“For if all of you had spoken in this way from the beginning and persuade us, from youth onwards, we would not keep guard over each other for fear injustice be done, but he would be his own best guard, afraid that in doing injustice he would dwell with the greatest evil.” (367a)

Summary of Book II 362d-368c

This section is Adeimantus’ speech, following upon his brother Glaucon’s – adding what he believes to be “most needed but has not yet been said” -and Socrates immediate response to both speeches. Adeimantus takes up the ‘other side’ and exhibits what has been usually said about justice, by those who wish to praise justice.  

Ademinatus’ starting point is the speech of those who have care over other human beings – fathers and ‘others’ – who find it necessary to persuade the young to be just. But in all such encouragements, using the authority of poets to support their speeches (just as Cephalus in Book 1 uses Simonides and Pindar), justice is always praised for the benefits it will bring – like ‘eternal drunkeness’ – and injustice blamed for the harms – and the unjust are always raked through the muck of Hades.  But never do you hear justice being praised all by itself, for its own sake, in the soul of the hearer.

Adeimantus then turns to the poets themselves, who present another sort of message, opposing the message of the caregivers. There is a cynical view of the gods – that they can be bribed with prayers and sacrifices.

Ademinatus asks what does these speeches do to the souls of those of the young who hear them?  

“I mean those who have good natures and have the capacity, as it were, to fly to all the things are said and gather from them what sort of man one should be and what way one must follow to go through life best.” (365b) 

 He goes on to cast doubt on whether they would be able to ardently pursue those things – having been given a certain picture of justice that undermines their attempts to do so – or leads them to fly to the wrong things.     

Opening Question

At 362d/e, Adeimantus says that “what is most needed has not yet been said” by his brother Glaucon. What is that – and why is it “most needed”?

Observations and Reflections 

This section may be the first place in the Republic where the question of education begins to take sight – when Adeimantus wonders in all seriousness what the speeches about justice do to the souls of the young listeners, and then wonders if everything would be different if they had heard the correct speeches from youth, speeches that extoll justice for the sake of itself, or as it affects the soul all by itself.

“For if all of you had spoken in this way from the beginning and persuade us, from youth onwards, we would not keep guard over each other for fear injustice be done, but he would be his own best guard, afraid that in doing injustice he would dwell with the greatest evil.” (367a)

Many of us in the group were particularly impressed by what Adeimantus thinks is the outcome of hearing the speech Adeimantus wants: that is, that one would become ones own best guardian, rather than busying oneself with everyone else’s condition. This seems somehow a desirable thing to attain. We could read this as the fruit of the best sort of education, in Ademinatus’ vision, an education by the best and truest speeches about justice.

A shadow looms over this sentiment, however. Socrates in the opening of Book II doesn’t think it is up to him to persuade either of the brothers truly. Yet Glaucon and Adeimantus have a conviction that Socrates – or a certain speech – can persuade them, if only he just comes out and says it (rather than playing his question answer games as in Book I).

One person suggested that here Socrates is stung (as Meno is in the Meno, which we studied last year). Socrates says at 368b, that he is of two minds: on the one hand, he can’t help out, repeating what he had said to Glaucon at the opening of Book II.

“For in my opinion I’m not capable of it; my proof is that when I thought I showed in what I said to Thrasymachus that justice is better than injustice, you didn’t accept it from me. On the other hand, I can’t not help out. For I’m afraid it might be impious to be here when justice is being spoken badly of and give up and not bring help while I am still breathing and able to make a sound. So the best thing is to succour her as I am able.”

Taking Socrates at his word, this would suggest that Adeimantus’ education by the best or truest speeches about justice is far from adequate – in fact, it is a failure from the start – since even the truest speeches can only seem to persuade and not persuade truly.  This has raised for us the question: What is it, then, to be persuaded truly, and not to seem to be persuaded?    

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Journey to the East, Bhagavadgita Chapter 7 and 8 Seminar Report Fri, 06 Apr 2018 15:24:51 +0000 David Saussy Conversation held on Thursday April 5th, 2018 at 12 Noon EST.  

“All this is strung on me as reals on are strung on a string.”

Chapter 7 and 8 (pages 99-105 Van Buitenen) 

Opening Question

How do we read the line that says “I am not in them, but they are in me”? (between line 10-15, Ch 7)  What does it mean, and what difference does it make that Krishna adds the qualification “I am not in them…”?

Observations and Reflections

We resorted to several analogies to try to understand this statement. The first one was the ocean – Krishna is like the ocean, whereas all the molecules of the ocean are the separate beings of the universe. On this reading, the whole is not in the part, but the part is in the whole.  A reservation about this analogy was brought up that the molecules, or parts, are not not sentient – capable of being deluded about their condition as molecules, no capable of the opposite.

Another image was offered: trees rooted in the ground. The ground is not in the tree, but the trees are in the ground.  There is an essential relationship between the trees and the soil; but they are not mixed up together into something undifferentiated; they are not an undifferentiated whole.

Krishna claims the entirety of created being originates in him and is dissolved back into him. The underlying question is about the relationship between Krishna and the totality of created being.

In a striking passage, Krishna claims that he is the essences of certain created things – the light of the sun and moon; the strength in the strong, unsullied by passion or ambition; desire that does not go contrary to law. He is the “sacrificial” in the body, what makes something worth sacrificing. He is the strength of faith itself, no matter what god one is putting ones faith into.   It seemed to some that these essences might good things, but perhaps not in the sense of ‘moralistic’ goods. 

The distinction that Krishna draws between himself and created being (including the three gunas) might be important with respect to the problem of evil.  If all is one, evil comes from Krishna – or Krishna actually does bad things.  On our reading of the text, Krishna’s teaching is that evil does not have an essential reality, but arises from the action of the impersonal forces of the three gunas, as well as delusion and desire.  People who are taken in by the illusion of Krishna’s yoga are led to do bad or harmful things – or continue to remain in bondage to karman. 

“Think only of me,” Krishna says (Chapter 8 between lines 10-15).  The practice Krishna is prescribing – his “yoga” – looks one of two ways: on the one hand, there is a practice of restraining all thought, of thinking nothing else but Krishna alone. One is to sit comfortably, moderately, not in an ascetic fashion, and fix ones mind unwaveringly on Krishna. So there is a way in which the mind is empty, no thinking is taking place. But a natural question arises as we attempt to fix our minds on Krishna: who do we understand Krishna to be? Is he the man in the chariot? The first eight chapters shows us a much larger and more subtle picture of who Krishna is. For example, Krishna says he is the light of the sun and the moon (c.f. Chapter 7, lines 5-10), the clear taste of the water, and so on. Nothing outside common or familiar experience is presented in this passage. Following this, it is an open possibility for the practice of the yoga Krishna presents to set the mind on these things – on many familiar beings of the world and their essences. The mind is empty only the relative sense of being empty of all other thoughts that distract attention away from the true nature of Krishna and reality.  To get this right – the question who Krishna is - would seem to be the question of highest importance for the practice. Pursuing and answer to the question may in fact be part of the practice itself.

Next week we continue with Chapter 9 and 10

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