Symposium Great Books Institute Life is short. Why read a good book when you can read a great one? Mon, 19 Feb 2018 02:14:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Keynes, the Laissez-Faire and Sedimentation” Part 1 by Reynaldo Miranda Wed, 14 Feb 2018 19:03:22 +0000 Reynaldo Miranda The following submission is re-post by a long-time participant of Symposium seminars, Reynaldo Miranda. We hope you enjoy!

I recently ventured to participate in the virtual iSymposium on the essay “The End of Laissez-Faire” by John Maynard Keynes (English, 1883-1946). Keynes was an old Etonian, a Cambridge Apostle, and president of the Union.  His father was a distinguished fellow of Pembroke College, and his mother, also a Cambrian, was the first madam councilman of Cambridge and mayor of the city.  It is no surprise then that Keynes deploys a lively, playful and welcome wit in this five part essay of about ten pages.  His rhetoric is placed at the service of his argument, and it helps us see the argument.

For instance, in the second section he proposes a provocative allegory of a herd of hungry giraffes in order to illustrate the notion of laissez-faire economics. Keynes employs the allegory in such a way as to clarify the interweaving of libertarian economic ideology and Darwin’s random selection theory and the survival of those that happen to be fittest in an ecosystem.  Several of my colleagues during the seminar offered comment thereupon that brought to mind the peril of over-selection, as in the case of thoroughbred Arabian race horses—too narrow and selective a breeding eventually aggravates genetic weaknesses and vulnerabilities (i.e. the royal cousins who marry one another across generations).  Not dissimilarly, economists know that just as there can be too little competition, there can also be too much, and that both the insufficiency and excess are harmful and undesirable.

But I wish to attend to another element in the essay.  Most of the time we habitually (without any thought in the matter) take for granted that words and phrases stand still as it were, that is to say that definitions endure.  How untrue to a sufficiently sustained experience!  Keynes traces the shifting use of the term laissez-faire, and the changing contexts and grounds in which the phrase is intelligible.

To summarize: the first spoken use of the phrase in common memory is by the French merchant Legendre replying to the royal minister Colbert at the end of the 17th C.  Colbert had asked how the government could help him.  The plain answer is as old as man, “let [me/]us be.”  The first written use was the Marquis d’Argenson about 1751, though we could not make this attribution until his works were published under his own name in 1858.  Note that the phrase, both spoken and written, originates in the capitol of France, hardly a laissez-faire economic regime now, and still much less so then.  It does not arrive in English until Benjamin Franklin and Jeremy Bentham, neither of whom were economists.  The phrase is never used in the voluminous works of any of the earliest economic writers—not in the Physiocrats, Adam Smith, Robert Malthus, or David Ricardo.  The phrase is taken up as a convenient slogan, a rallying cry, by a certain strand of the Utilitarians, the so-called Manchester School and Benthamite Utilitarians, whence it trickles down to secondary economics textbooks, and popular, mass education textbooks (e.g. Archbishop Whately’s Easy Lessons for the Use of Young People of 1850)—hardly the stuff of scholarship in political economy.  A very few economists, some of them otherwise eminent, wax rhapsodic over laissez-faire as article of faith.  Keynes mentions the important, French economist Frederic Bastiat in his Harmonies Economiques of 1850, who begins, “I believe…” Marx made much fun of Bastiat’s enthusiasm. Still, that enthusiasm was carried on by some members of the Austrian School, and into our own days the Chicago School.  We see then a phrase first given currency by Locke as a reaction against absolute monarchy and established church and put at the service of a greater enfranchisement, become a century-and-a-half later a “dogma [that] had got hold of the educational machine; it had become a copybook maxim.  The political philosophy, which the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had forged in order to throw down kings and prelates, had been made milk for babes, and had literally entered the nursery.”

It is worth noting that politics is prior, certainly in time, to economics, and that laissez-faire, like capitalism itself, is a temporal phenomenon—there is nothing “natural” necessarily about it:  Before capitalism, Western societies organized themselves along feudal lines, and before that along mastery-slavery lines.  Indeed toward the end of the essay Keynes says, “In Europe, or at least in some parts of Europe—but not I think, in the United States of America—there is a latent reaction somewhat widespread, against basing society to the extent that we do upon fostering, encouraging, and protecting the money-motives of individuals.”  The great difference in perspective of which Keynes is well aware, and to which alludes in passing, arises from this: we here in the USA have only ever had capitalism, pretty much, and have never had kings or prelates.  The way of the cowboy and entrepreneur is almost all we know, and can therefore seem natural to us.  In Europe the state, the bureaucracy, the king’s court, noblesse oblige, shared traditions, the communities are of far greater import than over here.  There is a very humorous and great novella entitled Michael Kohlaas by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) based on a real incident in 16th C. Saxony.  The title character is a plain, simple, honest, hard-working petit bourgeois who comes up against the Prussian imperial state and aristocracy, where he is totally out of his world, and where he doggedly insists upon what seems right to his ethos and refuses any accommodation or compromise, which just dooms him all the more deeply.  Straightforward mercantile transactions are all he had ever known, not imagining a sophisticated world of reciprocal favors at the German courts.

Yet there is more the curious afterlife of this slogan: Though later “economists no longer have any link with the theological or political philosophies out of which the dogma of social harmony was born,” they, “like other scientists, have chosen the hypothesis from which they set out, and which they offer to beginners because it is the simplest, and not because it is nearest to the facts.  Partly for this reason, but partly, I admit, because they have been biased by the traditions of the subject” they conveniently start from this laissez-faire assumption.  “The beauty and the simplicity of such a theory are so great that it is easy to forget that it follows not from the actual facts, but from an incomplete hypothesis introduced for the sake of simplicity.”  No wonder then that we are saddled with “the general opinion that an individualistic laissez-faire is both what they ought to teach and what in fact they do teach.”  This opinion proliferates in the mass media and among laymen.  Aristotle, as far as we know, first pointed out that small mistakes early on compound, and can lead to many and great mistakes later—think of a wrong map, or series of instructions.  Because professors of economics privilege laissez-faire for the sake of being comprehensible to their freshmen students sitting in large lecture halls, this common sense notion enjoys an unearned presumption in its favor, and all the heavy qualifications, complications, and exceptions that are revealed to the students later come to be seen as if they were, unnatural, not ideal, unhealthy “diseases.”

So even the student of economics can stand too close to the chalkboard as it were!  But a wide, adventurous, and ever more discriminating reading can teach him things that he did not already know or hold as opinions.  Keynes has shown that the notion we wish to understand better is not a still target but a moving one.  And its trajectory is upon reflection typical.  Someone, or some group of people, makes a discovery or invention and they name it.  At first the name is on a youthful, ennobling path, but like all things in our natural world that come to be and pass away, it peters out eventually and curves downward.  Think of the things that seemed so important in childhood, but were later left aside.  Not entirely, for as G. K. Chesterton quipped, “the child is the father of the man.”  Still, we may extrapolate and generalize from Keynes probing the history of laissez-faire.  And this is what I want to talk about in my next post: one of the names given to this sort of thing is “sedimentation” by Edmund Husserl on the analogy of plants letting their dead leaves fall along with those from surrounding growths, and at once nourishing and obscuring the vital roots.

(To be continued…)

~Reynaldo Miranda-Zuniga, San Francisco, 4 December 2012

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Thucydides at the Museum: Seminar Report, Session 6 Wed, 14 Feb 2018 04:27:10 +0000 David Saussy After last week’s “performance” in the auditorium, we returned to the Hops House  for the sixth and final session of the series on Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. Despite the brutal subject matter, we approached the seminar in a spirit of conviviality and friendship, coupled with the feeling that there is something big at stake in our reading for this evening.

Summary of Melian Dialogue 5.84-116 

Sixteen years after the outbreak war, and  fifteen years after Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the Athenians started ravaging the tiny island of Melos.  Melos, a Spartan colony, had been neutral up until the point when the Athenians started to ravage their land, whereupon they became openly hostile.    

The Athenians approach the Melians insisting that they have two options: either submit to Athenian might, and be placed under subjection as a tributary city, or perish. Melos finally refuse to submit, commending themselves to the fortune of the gods, and preferring to face whatever consequences may come, such as death, on the grounds of the rightness or justice of their cause. After a skirmish, the Melians eventually surrender to the Athenians, who subsequently put to death all the grown men of Melos, sell the women and children into slavery and and send out five hundred colonists to settle there.    

Opening Question:

Following what we encounter in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, i.e. his high praises of the greatness of Athenian character and the city of Athens, what do we make of the Melian Dialogue? How do we read the two sections together? Does the Melian dialogue contradict the Periclean vision of Athens, or is it something like the real-world application of the Periclean vision?  Or is there some third way of reading both?


The conversation tonight was a powder keg of excitement, with passions running high, but everyone maintained a genuinely civil tone, a real feeling of comradery pervaded throughout.

Pericles had claimed in his oration that one of the attributes of Athenian greatness was the willingness of those who had died for Athens not to cower in fear or run away from great odds: “choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory.”  (2.42)

In a very curious turn of events, the Melians exhibit exactly this characteristic described by Pericles’ words: they “choose to die resisting, rather than to live submitting.”  The Athenians, while clearly the stronger of the two, seem to be taking a stand for the opposite – for self-preservation at all costs. They justify their own actions now by the self-preservation of their strength and their empire – that might makes right – an argument we had seen made before the outbreak of the war (1.76) Although this idea never appears in Pericles’ Oration, at least not explicitly, evidently it has great weight in the thinking of Athenians in the growth of their empire for the forty years of development. It was not, then, something that was simply precipitated by the fog of war. Some had suggested that the “gloves were off now”, things were really brutal, and all thoughts about justice were pitched out.

Now Athenian definitively argue that the Melians have no reason to fight, and urge them not be deluded by hope and honor, or fear of disgrace; and moreover claim that the whole situation reduces to a question of self-preservation (5.101): clearly the only choice is for the weaker to submit to the stronger, for the sake of survival or self-preservation. But Melos did not see it that way. Why, then, did they not?  

The conversation centered on the Athenian claim that there is “a law of nature” (5.105) that the stronger dominate the weaker (compare with 1.76). The group was divided – some thought there was something very sensible and ‘realistic’ in the Athenian claim. But others wanted to draw out the implications of this position. Where does this leave Melos? Was there not something noble in Melos’ decision, the weaker, stand up to the stronger?

We appear to be facing a genuine impasse between two standards of action. Facing what seems to be a perennial or recurrent situation – which arises in numberless particular ways – in which ‘the stronger’ tries to dominate the weaker: on the one hand, the path of ‘prudence’ might dictate that the best choice is to ‘live another day’, and submit to the stronger out of self-preservation; or, on the other hand, the better choice might be to refuse to submit, because doing so would be a violation of the right, of justice or what is noble.

All throughout the conversation and confrontation with this problem were woven threads of thoughts about our world, numberless examples of situations around the world with which this reading resonates.

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Education Quartet: Republic Book I 336b-339a, Session 5 Seminar Report Tue, 13 Feb 2018 04:25:45 +0000 David Saussy Summary of 336b-339a

Thrasymachus here bursts onto the scene. Socrates, narrating the entire dialogue, describes Thrasymachus as a wild beast who has unleashed himself on the group. Several in the group who had gathered with Polemarchus (the list of names is in the beginning of the dialogue) had restrained him up until this point, but he could stand it no longer.

After an initial confrontation between the two, and Thrasymachus’ accusation that Socrates is habitual ironist who never says what he thinks, who “gratifies his love of honor” by always asking questions and never answering, Socrates manages to get Thrasymachus to provide his answer to the question of justice: it is, he says, “nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.”  Socrates responds by testing the meaning of the word “stronger” at 338d – in what seems to be an absurd example.  Thrasymachus calls Socrates ‘disgusting’, but Socrates cooly asks for clarification. Just tell me what you mean, he says. Thrasymachus then gives it to him, and proceeds to lay out his idea that the stronger is the ruling class of any political regime, whether tyranny, democracy or aristocracy.

Opening Question

Why has Thrasymachus entered the discussion at this point? What exactly has provoked Thrasymachus to enter at this point, to throw off his restraints, and ‘attack’?


Conversations expose things, just as readings do. Our conversation tonight exposed two sharply opposed readings of the relationship between Socrates and Thrasymachus at this juncture.

The first way of reading granted Socrates a certain amount of success to begin to reign in Thrasymachus. By 338c, it would seem that Thrasymachus has officially joined the discussion, by offering his answer to the question of justice. And soon after, Socrates gets Thrasymachus to clarify himself.

Socrates’ “irony” appears to have worked (according to this way of reading) in reigning in Thrasymachus, in his transformation, as it were, from a wild beast to a tame one. To be sure, the process has not yet been completed by the end of our reading for tonight; but we might expect to see it at some point in the dialogue.

But suppose that Socrates really is an “habitual ironist”, as Thrasymachus says, and merely playing word games with people just to win an easy victory, then what Thrasymachus does and says, in word and deed, seems to make sense. He attacks the man, because the man really appears to be shameful. It is at least understandable that he might be frustrated with Socrates. Why doesn’t Socrates just come with out and say what justice is? Why does he downplay his own competence and knowledge, understating and overstating things in what appears to be an unfair, rude or absurd manner?

One person in the group raised the question – what would you do if someone burst in like Thrasymachus? How would one best deal with such a situation – someone who, by all appearances, has a chip on their shoulder. Wouldn’t irony be the best response? Wouldn’t simple un-ironic answers be the wrong response?

But the same could be said of Thrasymachus’ whole confrontational manner. He had been listening to Socrates’ “habitual irony” (Thrasymachus’ interpretation) and his habit of only asking questions and never answering himself. Was Thrasymachus’ confrontational manner, then, not the fitting response to Socrates’ “habitual irony”?

Thrasymachus’ substantive answer to the question of justice, moreover, doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable: ‘the guy who drives the bus makes the rules for the bus,’ interpreted one person. Maybe it’s not ultimately right, but it’s not a crazy answer.

Pushing this even further, Thrasymachus may even himself be a figure of irony – Socrates in disguise, someone suggested. He may not be as big and scary as he appears, but is just doing this, to push back at Socrates in a way that matches Socrates own methods, although in reverse – that is, by giving a pretense to be “unironic” and trying to say exactly what he means, he is in fact doing this to oppose Socratic irony. In this way of reading, we have Thrasymachean irony toe-to-toe with Socratic irony.

Thus the conversation comes down to understanding the meaning of “habitual (or customary) irony”. What is at stake in this qualification? The alternative might be that Socrates’ irony was deliberate, or conscious – rather than habitual or customary. In this case, he was using irony for a purpose, with intelligent use, with a specific end in mind, besides being merely habitual or customary with the ulterior motive of winning a victory (as Thrasymachus seems to think)

However we understand “habitual irony”, we have been led to the question of the nature and the value, worth or good of Socrates’ whole manner and his activity – even his existence or his life. This section has managed to thrust not only Thrasymachus onto the scene, but has brought out into open conflict the question (and even the questionableness) of  Socrates’ own life lived in “philosophizing” (as he calls it in the Apology) – even the nature of philosophy as he lived it.

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Thucydides at the Museum: Seminar Report, Session 5 Sat, 10 Feb 2018 22:32:06 +0000 David Saussy Breaking with our tradition of meeting at the Hops House behind the Museum, the group gathered in the San Antonio Museum of Art auditorium for this evening’s seminar, Tuesday February 6th, to hear one of our participants, Abraham Callahan, offer a reading of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, which is found in Book 2 of the Peloponnesian War.

Summary of 2.35-46:  

Pericles delivered the speech a year after the outbreak of the war, in commemoration of the dead.  Pericles opens his speech with a concern about two different parties of listeners. The first, the fallen’s friend, will feel that the speech will lack in sufficient detail of the fallen to praise him adequately – and would feel the memory of the fallen is wronged. The second group, strangers to the fallen who do not know them personally, will feel envy in hearing praise of someone else. Pericles’ approach, then, is to focus on the city of Athens - instead of the particular fallen men -  and particular the character of Athenian people and life, to which all would look in common. This approach enables him then to turn to the families of those they left behind and everyone else, to invite them to look to the common good they all have a share in, and to appeal to a sense of sacrifice to that commonweal, a source of strength in the struggle they were facing.

Opening Question:

 Following upon last week’s reading, given the important question that has arisen for us in those early groups of speeches – the question about the standards of justice or calculations of expediency – what do we make of Pericles’ speech? Does he seem to advocate either side? 


The first few moments of discussion always begin with a sorting though of our impressions of the reading. This is actually a very useful period in the process of discussion – we have the opportunity settle in and to put into words various impressions, and so begin to organize them. This allows us to connect the conversation to the text, to compare other people’s impressions of the text with their own, and finally help the ‘emerging text’ come to light for the conversation.

Many people found themselves reacting strongly to the reading. It is difficult not to be moved by many moments in the speech – and, for some of us, some lines even arouse a certain antipathy.  A highlight of the early stage of discussion was a spontaneous reading of the Gettysburg Address, which someone had brought to the gathering. The Address is short enough, so we asked this person to read it – and subsequently we spent a few moments comparing the two, discussing what sort of things might be appropriate for such occasions as a commemoration and encomium to the fallen war dead.

After we sorted through our impressions of the speech, the conversation began to converge around this paragraph containing the following line:

Unlike any other nation, we regard the citizen who take no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, and we are able to judge proposals  even if we cannot originate them; instead of looking on discussion  as a stumbling block the way of a action  we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. (2.40)

Reflecting together on this curious passage, someone raised the concern about dissent or disagreement.  Would disagreement have been possible against Pericles’ speech? Suppose the truly wise action is not to act at all in a particular situation, namely one that would be unjust?  Some thought that discussion may need to be stumbling-block to action under certain circumstances.

In this context, Socrates might come to mind for those who had participated in the Fall’s Plato seminar. Despite his legendary moment of bravery in war, Socrates avoided public life, and preferred to talk to people in private instead.  According to Pericles’ (or Athens’) standard, one would conclude that Socrates was quite useless.  The resentment aroused by Socrates’ questioning later in his life: was it rooted in this way of thinking about the relationship between action, deliberation and discussion? Does Pericles’ standpoint oppose philosophy as Socrates lived it?  

Returning to the opening question, Pericles says moments later:  

 It is only the Athenians who, fearless of the consequences, confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency but in the confidence of liberality (2.40)

What we find curious here is that Pericles does not oppose justice to calculations of expediency, but liberality or freedom as the alternative.  How does he understand freedom?

Penetrating further down along these lines:

Take these as your model, judging happiness to the the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war. (2.43)

In Pericle’s understanding, freedom, or liberality, as we see it here, is not rooted in justice, nor even law, but valor.

What, then, is valor, in Pericles’ understanding – that it should be the root of both freedom and human happiness – and seem to stand apart from justice?

Pericles does not appear to agree with the Corinthian view that the Athenians are coldly calculating in favor of self-interest and expediency. He seems, rather, to pose an alternative, which, as we have seen, looks easily distinguishable from a standard of virtue, nobility and justice.  It is this alternative we have to try to understand, as well as to see how it stands up to the test of experience Thucydides exhibits in his work. 

Next week: The Melian Dialogue 5.84-116




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Education Quartet: Republic Book I 333e-336b, Session 4 Seminar Report Tue, 06 Feb 2018 17:07:44 +0000 David Saussy The selection for this evening’s seminar, 333e-336b, concludes a line of argumentation that began at 331e, when Polemarchus ‘inherits’ his father’s notion about justice.

Summary of 333e-336b: 

Socrates has just turned Polemarchus’ revised understanding of justice, in particular as something useful for friends, on its head: on the basis of previous agreements, justice turns out to be useless in its use, and useful in its usefulness.

But then the argument takes a turn along a certain line that says, in effect, that the person most skilled at guarding or protecting something – whatever it happens to be, money or health – would be the very best at stealing or corrupting that thing.

Socrates gets Polemarchus’ halfhearted assent and then concludes that justice turns out to be some sort of art of stealing – and he suggests that Polemarchus must have gotten this idea from Homer. Polemarchus doesn’t find it very convincing, and he sticks to his notion that justice is doing good  to friends and harm to enemies.  

Socrates urges them to a fresh approach. People make mistakes, not the least about who their friends and enemies are. Polemarchus, agreeing to this, is forced to revise his definition, and qualify it: those who seem to be, and who are, good, are friends. And the same would be true for enemies.  This leads Socrates to make an astonishing argument about justice – that it is never just to harm anyone. A just man would not even harm an enemy because harming someone will not make them better, according to the argument established by a series of analogies with animal husbandry.

By the end of this train of thinking, Polemachus’ half-hearted assent has been transformed: “In my opinion, what you say is entirely true.”  At this point, Socrates dismisses Simonides, who, as we have seen, is one of the origins of Polemarchus’ idea about justice. But Simonides is not alone. Socrates names some others: Bias and Pittacus might also reasonably hold the same opinion. Not only does Polemarchus agree with the conclusion of the argument, but he is ready to be partners in “battle”.   Socrates then tries to link the poets to the a group of tyrants – ones to whom this idea in truth “belongs”, even more than the poets: Periander, Perdiccas, Xerxes, Ismenias the Theban  or “some other rich man who has a high opinion of himself.”

Opening Question:

This section might strike the reader as strange for several reasons.  The first movements of the argument, for example, seems incredulous, and even Polemarchus doesn’t buy it.  Let’s try to understand what Socrates is doing here with Polemarchus, and even better why he is doing it.


As was intimated in previous discussions, we seem to be witnessing a sort of genealogy of beliefs here in the opening section of the Republic. The origins of some powerful ideas are being indicated. These are not evidently mere ideas, but ones that a decent human being, Cephalus, has staked his whole life on. Despite Polemarchus’ youth, Polemarchus may be no different in this regard, as far as the ideas he has learned from his father.

Polemarchus’ ‘inheritance’ at first seemed to come from either Cephalus or the poets and orators, or a mix of both. By the end of this section, Socrates is silent about Cephalus, but names several poets, including Homer. There is not one origin; rather, there is a community of voices – who share this same idea. And then, not four lines later, he suggests even further (as we have seen) that the the real origins might not even be the poets, but rather another community, rich men who have “high opinions” of themselves.

Now Cepahlus is a rich man. But the impression we had of him, at least, is that he would not be aptly described as one having a “high opinion of himself.” He seems rather too modest – and someone one might well call a gentleman.

If Socrates suggestions are taken seriously, the discussion – which may have involved some sort of verbal “shell game” (as one of us put it) – has managed to expose something important about the origins of this powerful family’s beliefs, namely in two groups – whose relationship is not yet clear: The Poets, on the one hand, and wealthy and politically powerful individuals (‘with high opinions of themselves’), on the other.   The relationship between these two groups is a question we shall have to keep in mind as we penetrate further into the territory of this book.

Next week: An angry Thrasymachus enters the conversation – 336b-338d

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Thucydides Unsettles Fri, 02 Feb 2018 03:27:22 +0000 Abraham C Thucydides unsettles me. 

And that I feel unsettled and unsure about the dilemmas presented in his history makes me all the more unsettled.  

If I was a Spartan hearing the angry and shaming speech of the Corinthians alongside the nuanced but brutal one of the Athenians, I would want most of all more information and more time. 

But wait, I’d want to say, who started what with where over when?  No time.  Vote.  And there I see my lack of opinion both excludes me from decision and casts support towards whatever is decided.  It’s a little scary.

If we accept our historian’s conclusion on the start of the Peloponnesian War, that the true cause of the war was never “formally” mentioned (1.23.6), what are we to think of the actually stated reasons at the time?  I get fatigued by the thought alone of how many outlooks there must have been on its start–each opinion, tethered to something unspeakably violent or unfathomably kind.  How confusing it must have been to see!  How immovably certain would have been each invested party!

I would bet that a confusion like this unsettled Thucydides before the war even started.  He obviously wanted the who, what, where, and when—actually true answers, uncorrupted by malicious bias or faulty memory.

And as Óscar pointed out during the first seminar, Thucydides applied the empirical style of thinking used in the Greek mathematics and natural science of the time to human actions. The historian’s recognition of the problems in gathering data lends to his credibility.

Since Thucydides roots his inquiry ultimately in “trust” (1.1.3) that his compiled evidence accurately depicts the events of the past, he must have been aware that his readers could also only lend their trust in him, the writer.

Yet I cannot find this trust a solace, and Thucydides makes no attempt to placate.  Openly he states his work is not to win awards, but rather to serve as some sort of how-to manual for people in troubling times.  But even that description misses the mark.  Thucydides poses dilemmas in the form of speeches and states the subsequent reactions to them without stating a preference for what should have been.

It is no how-to, but maybe more a what-to-look-for.  This is not so much a compilation of specific warnings to watch out for when Corinthians mention the golden rule (1.42.1) or when Athenians again bring up their victory at Marathon.  Rather, Thucydides seems to have been focusing on themes which arise predictably under a given set of circumstances.  Although Thucydides must rest his depiction of historical events on trust, if his commentary on such themes proves recognizable to readers, all the more credible are the specific details.

Given the fact that our conversations have readily brought about discussion of the major wars of the 20th century and the current politics of this Trump era, Thucydides seems to have accomplished his mission.  All the more interesting do his narratives and speeches thus become, because they seem to be a key to understanding what can happen in the newspaper tomorrow.

But what continues to unsettle me is that, even if I grasp the keenest sense of the future, what should be might still not.

by Abraham Callahan, Reflecting on Tuesday evening’s seminar on January 30th 2018 (Thucydides at the Museum, 1/6-2/18)

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Thucydides at the Museum: Seminar Report, Session 4 Thu, 01 Feb 2018 19:05:43 +0000 David Saussy In last week’s reading, after the Corinthians and Corcyreans finish their speeches, the Athenians reach a decision to side with the Corcyreans. The Athenians commit 10 ships, but attempt to follow a policy of nonaggression out of calculated self-interest. The Corinthian preparations are complete and they send one hundred and fifty ships to Corcyra to begin taking action against them.

Corcyra, having been alerted of the development, immediately dispatches one hundred and ten ships, in addition to the Athenian group, to meet them at sea.  Thucydides notes that in terms of size, this has been the greatest naval campaign yet, implying that it is even greater than Agamemnon’s armada back in the days of the Trojan War.

Corcyra and Corinth engage in a brutal sea battle, in which heavy losses are incurred on both sides. The author observes that the battle is not notable for its science – and certain naval maneuvers had not yet been invented – but was rather one of brute force, and even rather in character more like land fighting – with hoplites attacking each from platform of the ships.

The outcome is uncertain.  Both suffer losses and both set up trophies on the shore, claiming to be victors.  The landmark event here, however, is that Athens finds herself finally committed to one side against the Corinthians, and, in the Corinthian eyes, breaking the treaty that had been forged thirty years prior to this event.

After this, a tributary city of Athens called Potidaea, also colony of Corinth, becomes the center of attention, as a local power struggles stir the city to revolt against Athens, and Athens rushes to prevent this from happening.

Both of these events are enough for Corinth to feel that Athenian aggression now warrants action. They go to the Spartans to appeal for help, and to stir them up in support of their cause.

There just so happened to be an Athenian present on other business when the Corinthians plead their case, and the Athenian stands up in to answer the charges. Archidamus follows this speech with words counseling wisdom and restraint, and the final speech is by an ephor (for the current year) who briefly recommends war. The situation is put to Spartan vote by traditional acclamation, but the shouting is too strong to tell what the outcome might be, so the ephor has them separate into different sides of the speaking area – those who agree with the charge that Athenian aggression must be stopped and action taken; and those who rather deliberate with Archidamas. A clear majority vote in favor of war, while recognizing the need to marshall support from the allies.

Tonight’s reading (1.68-1.88, page 38-49 Strassler edition) concentrated on the set of four extraordinary speeches that takes place under these circumstances. Four people in the group volunteered to read each speech, and after we finished, the conversation commenced.

One of the most important features of this set of speeches is that a tension between two fundamental motives came to sight: whether the actions of a people are guided by justice and nobility, or by calculated self-interest, and in particular, which side Athens really stands on. We’ve already seen hints of this conflict arise in previous readings, but now we can see it it emerging as thematic.

As we reflect on this conflict, trying to understand what is at the bottom of it,  we noticed how the Athenian does not even offer a defense of the Athenenian position – a point which turns the Spartans more assuredly toward war. In fact, the Athenian seem to dismiss justice altogether. What has justice got to do with it? they seem to say, in effect.

It follows that it was not a very remarkable action, or contrary to the common practice of mankind, if we did accept an empire that was offered to us, and refused to give it up under pressure of three of the strongest motives, fear, honor and interest. And it was not we who set the example, for it has always been the law that the weaker should be subject to the stronger. (1.76)

One is reminded of Plato’s Alcibiades - where Alcibiades frankly tells Socrates that no one really talks about justice in political assembly – it just doesn’t have weight. The Athenian makes such a bald and persuasive case for self-interest, some of us felt convinced that this strikes through to a truth about the world and the way peoples actually work. Others were deeply disturbed by what seems to be such an easy dismissal of justice.

The Athenians are not unaware of justice and nobility – these clearly have weight in their mind, as it has weight in the Corinthians and Spartans. As someone pointed out in the group: the Athenians were claiming a sort of natural right, that their position was just, seeing that they had claim to be defenders of Hellas against the Persian invasion, especially at Marathon – without the help of the Spartans.

The Corinthian’s opening speech, as they attempt to provoke the Spartans, points to the radical difference in national character between the two peoples, Athenian and Spartan, a difference they claimed the Spartans were hardly perceptive of.  This difference is something we had already seen early indications in the opening readings of Book I when Thucydides refers us to a little feature of fashion in men between Spartans and Athenians, revealing something of their characters. But here we have the strongest assertion yet in the book about the difference between the peoples. So the Corinthian declaims:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution…they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine…(1.70)

The Spartans by contrast “have a genius for keeping” what the have, “accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act never go far enough.” They “attempt less than is justified” by their power, mistrusting what is even sanctioned by their judgment. (1.70)

Archidamus, in rebuttal to the Athenian, and also to the Corinthian, fills out our picture of Spartan character:

We are both warlike and wise, and it is our sense of order that makes us so. We are warlike, because self-control contains honor as a chief constituent., and honor bravery. And we are wise, because we are educated with too little learning to despise the laws, and with too sever a self-control to disobey them, and are brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters – such as the knowledge which gives specious criticism of an enemy’s plans in theory, but fails to assail them with equal success in practice- but are taught to consider that the schemes of our enemies are not dissimilar to our own, and that the freaks of chance are not determinable by calculation. In practice we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school. (1.84)

For the next two sessions, February 6th and 13, we will be turning to Pericles’ Funeral Oration and the Melian Dialogue, as we continue to try to come to grips with what is at stake in the conflict here exhibited by Thucydides.


For the Gallery talk after the discussion, we examined two pieces, led by our intrepid docent and seminar participant, Geoff Leech. The first was an Athenian coin and the second a vessel with an image of an Amazon warrior.

The coin below, you will notice, has a crescent moon under the olive sprig just above the owl’s wing. It is widely believed that this is a reference to the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians faced the Persian army alone because Sparta was celebrating a religious festival associated with the crescent moon.  Was a dig at the Spartan absence, and a reminder of the greatness of Athenian character?

The next piece was a Red-Figure lekythos oil and unguent flask, the only piece in the Museum fabricated during the time of the Peloponnesian War.  The artist was known to special in making only this image, the female Amazon warrior. Amazons, we learned, are speculated to be from Scythia – a region we encountered in Herodotus’s account in his Histories last year.




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Education Quartet: Republic Book I 331e-333e, Session 3 Seminar Report Wed, 31 Jan 2018 17:41:28 +0000 David Saussy After rooting our thinking in the foundations as indicated by the opening stages of the dialogue from the beginning to 331e, the argument is handed off to Cephalus’ son Polemarchus, the ‘heir of the argument’.   From the moment Cephalus leaves and his son takes up the argument with Socrates, from 331e to 333e, the argument takes three turns: the first is at 332a, the second at 332d , and the third at 333e.

The conversation for this evening started with the first turning point, which occurs almost immediately. Socrates gets Polemarchus to repeat his initial affirmation that justice is giving back what is owed, something he has said the poet Simonides also believed. Polemarchus confirms that yes, this really is his opinion of the way justice stands.

Socrates then goes back over the hypothetical scenario he had raised at the end of the discussion with his father, point by point. He gets Polemarchus to face the implications: if it is not just to give back to someone what is owed to them, when they are of unsound mind, then Simonides couldn’t have meant this when he said that justice is giving back what is owed.  Simonides must have made a riddle, just like all the poets. Polemarchus agrees, and here occurs the first turning point: he revises his initial claim about justice. What he meant to say, Polemarchus says, was that friends owe to friends to do something good.  Socrates then offers a restatement of what Polemarchus says, to try to understand his meaning.  So, Polmarchus,  you mean to say that giving back what is good would not include gold, if it was acquired by unjust means.  Polemarchus agrees.

Our starting point, then, was to reflect on this turn and Socrates’ response, to see what it amounts to.  There are agreements made and a revision to the initial statement about justice. Are we on board with this revision?

From this point, our conversation approached several main problems or questions.

The major one is simply sorting through the impression we all have about Socrates – that something strange happens in the course of an argument with him. Some have the feeling that Socrates is just doing some kind of logic-chopping wordplay. And one person ventured a suggestion that the section 331-333e is just an “exercise” in trying out different “definitions” (apokrisis, answer or judgment on a question). Whatever it might mean for this to be an exercise, by the end of this section, Socrates has managed to turn Polemarchus’ argument over on its head – from saying, in effect, that justice is the most useful thing, to saying that justice is the most useless of things.  So precise a reversal as this is might suggest that something more is happening in the course of argument, warranting a closer look.

So many readers of Plato – and not just those in our group of twelve people – have the sense that Socrates’ behavior seems somehow like a game, that is, not completely serious. For this reason, it is hard to know how seriously to take Socrates. The fact that so many feel this way would seem to suggest that there might be something to this perception.  Thrasymachus in fact – who will be entering into the conversation not too long after 333e – is enraged by Socrates. This, taken with the fact that Socrates is eventually executed by Athens, presumably for this behavior, raises a question.  If it is “just wordplay”, then wouldn’t the appropriate thing to do be to laugh and walk away? Why would Socrates’ wordplay (assuming that is all that it is) be so threatening to people like Thrasymachus and those others who brought charges against Socrates?

Even though Plato’s dialogues are mimetic, they are nevertheless “protreptic” plays, i.e. they are in fact built for use, for activity, for participation. (It’s as if he built a playground, workspace, exercise studio – or something like that – rather than a movie to watch passively.)  This means we have to trust our first impression and our questions – and not suppress them out of shame, but rather trust the process. It would therefore be better to assume that Plato actually wants the reader to face Socrates’ arguments and his unusual way of asking questions, so that we can raise the question for ourselves – with more intimacy and urgency – “To what end, Socrates?” One of our members raised this question afterwards, and it is a question that ought to be taken with greatest seriousness.

One of the other problems we faced together concerned what difference Socrates’ ‘exceptional case’ makes to the cause of justice – the case of the man of ‘unsound mind.’  As we have seen, he gets Polemarchus to face that case again. Polemarchus evidently hadn’t considered it sufficiently.  If it is true that justice is giving back what is owed, it would hold for all situations.  But it doesn’t hold for this particular situation. We have to reflect on the tension between these two elements.

It would seem, then, that either the claim must be qualified, or pitched out as unsatisfactory. One person thought that Socrates doesn’t seem interested in qualifying the statement, but rather wants an apokrisis – a stated answer to the question of “what is justice?” – that pins the thing itself down as completely as possible.

The case is an interesting one, however, in the implications it seems to point to. As several people unpacked the sense together, it points to, first of all, the sense that a justice that doesn’t account for contingent circumstances, for plurality, is somehow less than justice. There is a need for what we would call ‘equity’. The statement all by itself does not cover the real circumstances of life, and so all on its own, it would not cover all that what justice is in the global or complete sense. 

What’s more, as someone else in the group indicated, the case involves a person of unsound mind. The implication of this is that an individual is not always of stable, single unchanging self. People suffer from fits of rage under certain circumstances, and they do unjust things as a result. This vulnerability in our natures would seem to at least suggest that there is the possibility of injustice in everyone.

We spent more time looking at the first half of 331e-333e than the second half. But we did spend some time reflecting on Socrates’ revision of the original formulation “what is owed” to “what is fitting” at 332c.  This revision takes place after Polemarchus expands his second claim to include enemies – justice gives what is owed to enemies. What is really meant, then, Socrates says, is that justice gives what is fitting to each. How do we understand this exchange of words? Again, we are tempted to feel it is wordplay, nothing more. And soon after, it almost looks as though the words are used interchangeably: Socrates takes Polemarchus (and Plato, the reader) through two analogies to set up a question about justice: the art called medicine gives what is owed and fitting to the body; the art called cooking gives what is owed and fitting, that is, seasoning, to meats. ‘Justice, by analogy would be the art that gives what to which things?’ he asks Polemarchus, which precipitates a second revision of his claim at 332a7: Justice gives benefits to friends and harm to enemies. Or, Socrates clarifies: Justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies.

Analogies like this continue holding the argument together though 333e, the end of our section for the evening.  Socrates tests this second revision of Polemarchus’ original claim, in this way, and the questioning ends by turning Polemarchus’ notion on its head, as mentioned above:  Justice turns out, on the basis of the previous agreements, to be a useless thing. Justice amounts to doing nothing very beneficial at all.

Polemarchus had stated that Justice is most helpful and useful in war (332e5); in peacetime, it is useful for contracts. But as they unpacking this further,  a certain emptiness is exposed at the heart of Polmarchus’ idea of justice.

If justice is only about doing something for someone, whether friend or enemy, this would not seem to cover the possibility that there are just or unjust human beings, distinguishable from just or unjust actions, a distinction that will have to be given attention.

At this point, we are in a better to position to reflect on a kind of lineage, following on the ‘playful’ idea that Polemarchus is inheriting the argument – a lineage that emerges in the course of the discussion, descending from the original claim made by Cephalus around 331a. The original claim or idea is first re-interpreted by Socrates as saying something about ‘justice itself’ and not about the ‘just and holy way of life’ that is actually on Cephalus’ mind.  Socrates drops the ‘holy’ and the ‘way of life’ and focuses on ‘justice itself’. He has Cephalus now saying that justice itself is giving back what is owed and being honest. He easily dispatches this idea with his very powerful and believable special case, and gets Cephalus’ affirmation. Now Polemarchus is unconvinced, and objects to Socrates’ refutation at 331a, and marshals Simonides the poet into his corner as an authority who will back them up. Then at 331e, the argument that he evidently inherits, loses even more of the original content: Polemarchus drops the ‘being honest’ part of the argument, and looks exclusively to the ‘giving back what is owed.’  So we can see the original idea offered by Cephalus has undergone three transformations before the inquiry from 331e – 333e has even gotten underway.

And how does this help us?

For one thing, what we are witnessing here by means of Plato’s art or writing is perhaps nothing more than an exhibition of the natural drifting and shifting of the of words we use, as convictions, opinions and beliefs get passed around and passed down, and become derivative.  Socrates’ reformulation may be a sharpening and clarifying, but we can’t help but notice that something is lost in the process. The question would be – is anything important lost in the process, that is, anything that ‘leaves’ with Cephalus as he departs for the sacrifices, that we should not forget?  On the other hand, could Cephalus’ idea itself be merely derivative of one of the poets he and his son love to quote – like Pindar, or Simonides or any other poet? The poets’ visions and words may be the true source of the genealogy of ideas indicated here in the speech.  In which case, Socrates ‘extraction’ of ‘justice itself’ from Cephalus’ speech may be seen as a challenge to the wisdom of the poets, not just the life wisdom of Cephalus. The poets are least likely to pin down ‘justice itself’ and give an account of the the things they say.  

It all seems to begin with ordinary conversation. That is, the starting point of the Republic appears to involve taking our ordinary speaking seriously – following up on the meanings of the words we use in ordinary speech. This surely seems to be one of the first lessons of the Republic, if not one of the more important lessons – there appears to be a much wider gap between the important things we talk about, even the most important words we live by – and what we really have in mind, or mean to say (compounded by the fact that those ideas themselves may need some care and attention) than we would perhaps be prepared to admit.

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Thucydides at the Museum: Seminar Report, Session 3 Wed, 24 Jan 2018 23:14:27 +0000 David Saussy The weather had significantly improved since last week’s frosty interlude, so it was a welcome reunion for the group, as we gathered at the Hops House along the river at the San Antonio Museum of Art.  Several people brought bottles of wine – so we poured libations to the Muses, to those who were not able to join us tonight, and to the Corcyreans and Corinthians (and, as it turned out, the Epidamnians, who seem to have bee forgotten.)

Our reading for the evening was Book 1. 32 through 1.45, which focuses on the rival speeches by Cocyreans and the Corinthians, as they presented to the Athenians.

We are still in the moments leading up to the outbreak of the Peloponessian War.  In the previous section we discussed, Thucydides points to two causes – the immediate causes of the war, and the real cause, which was “formally kept out of sight” – that is, the fear of growing Athenian power.  

As we study this particular section, which appears to be giving an account of the immediate causes of the war, we must bear both of these causes in mind.  

Tensions were running high and the Corcyreans had come to Athens beseeching the great city for help in a conflict the tiny colony faced with the Corinthians over the city of Epidamnus (For the full account, read 1.24-1.30). After the Corcyrean’s present their case, we hear the Corinthian opposing speech, warning against a decision that could jeopardize the balance of power and the preservation of peace.  The Athenians deliberate, and at first side with the Corinthians; but then public feeling changes, and they switched to the Corcyreans – but they try to adopt a compromise position, where they vowed n0t to get involved with any actual fighting, but only to provide ten ships.

We opened the session by discussing the account Thucydides provides (1.24-1.30) about the conflict between Corcyra and Corinth.  We also spent just a brief amount of time looking at a map of the region (Strassler, Map 1.26), just to get a sense of the geographic location of the two cities. A number of things were striking. Epidamnus is far north along the western coast, and Corcyra, which is situated some distance south, is an island. They are both at least several hundred miles away from Corinth – and the path is certainly not a easy one between the two cities. Corinth is also coastal – which would make sense for a naval power.  We see Delphi situated between the two cities.

After our brief orienting discussion, two volunteers from the group read each of the speeches, the Corcyrean and the Corinthian.

For the opening question, we followed the principle Thucydides appeared to be laying out for us in the prior readings – that we engage the speeches as if we were to make the decision for ourselves. Suppose we did not know what the Athenians yet decided.  How would we decide or judge this matter?  Would we side with the Corinthians or the Corcyreans?

Conversation always take surprising turns. Our conversation turned almost at once to what is not discussed in either speeches – a very interesting approach.  One thing is Epidamnus – which seems to have been lost in the conflict between the two city-states, and the larger growing conflict between the Athenians and Spartans. We also noticed that the Spartan fear of growing Athenian power appears in neither speech.

As we sorted out the two speeches, someone ventured the suggestion that the Corcyreans were making the argument of expediency or self-interest to the Athenians, whereas the Corinthians appeared to being arguing more from the vantage point of justice. The Corinthians argued, for example, that the Corcyreans were criminals in this case, and that the Athenians should turn away from this injustice:

Abstinence from all injustice to other first-rate powers is a greater tower of strength than anything that can be gained by the sacrifice of permanent tranquility for an apparent temporary advantage.(1.42)

The Corcyrean action was not only criminal, breaking the laws of Hellas, but they also were base, thinking only of temporary gain. The Corcyreans were motivated by a base love of profit, according to the Corinthians.

As we examined Corinthian position more closely, however, we saw some details that shook our faith in such a clear and simple reading of the Corinthian speech; or at least, suggested that their position was more mixed with appeals to both justice and self-interest. For example:

If you make it your policy to receive and assist all offenders, you will find that just as many of your dependencies will come over to us, and the principle that you establish will press less heavily on us than on yourselves. (1.40)

Clearly an argument of self-interest, that a precedent Athens sets by lending support to rogue Corcyra might prove to their own detriment.

After sorting out our impressions of the two speeches, comparing it with what we knew from Thucydides own account, and what the Athenian decision finally was, a question was raised about what might have happened if Athens had sided with Corinth instead of Corcyra.  This led us directly to the question about the inevitability of the war.

Thucydides himself had already stated earlier in the book that the war was inevitable.

The growth of the power of Athens, the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.

In their speech to the Athenians, the Corcyreans appeal to the feeling that it is only a matter of time before war breaks out – hoping to provoke the Athenians into calculating self-interest.

If any of you imagine that war is far off, he is grievously mistaken, and is blind to the fact that the Spartans out of fear of you want war, and that Corinth is influential with them – the same, remember, that is your enemy, and is even mow trying to subdue us as a preliminary to attacking you. (1.33)   

Remarkably, the Corinthians deny the inevitability of the war.

The coming of the war which the Corcyreans have used as a specter to persuade you to do wrong, is still uncertain, and it is not worthwhile to be carried away by it into gaining the instant and declared enmity of Corinth. (1.42)

We spent some time reflecting on what might be at the bottom of a widespread feeling of the inevitability of war, relating it to our own experiences. (We think Thucydides implicitly supports this sort of reflection with his claim to be writing for “all time”.)

Now when the Athenians weigh the matter of the Corcyreans and the Corinthians, they were first inclined to support Corinth; but then public feeling changed. As Thucydides recounts,

It began now to be felt that the coming of the Peloponnesian War was only a question of time, and no one was willing to see a naval power of such magnitude as Corcyra sacrificed to Corinth; though if they could let them weaken each other by mutual conflict, it would be no bad preparation for the struggle which Athens might one day have to wage with Corinth and other naval powers. At the same time the island seemed to lie conveniently o the coasting passage to Italy and Sicily. (1.44)

On this basis of this, Athens then receives Corcyra into alliance.

We didn’t have time to explore the implication of this alliance – but what are they? Does it appear as though Athens has also decided this case according to self-interest, and not justice and nobility? Was the Athenian inclination toward Corinth on account of the justice and even nobility of their case — and did the public feeling about the war push Athens to self-interest?  But we should test it even further – was this decision as ‘base’ as Corinth claimed it would be?  Would Athens be able to free itself from a charge of reacting to immediate interest and love of gain? Was this base choice or a noble one?

We were just warming up, it seemed, when it was time to end the discussion for the evening. But, as I like to say, it is often a good thing to leave the table hungry for more!


Continuing our conversation in the Greek art gallery, we examined two pieces – one very small and one very large.

The first piece we examined was a black-figure aryballos from Corinth, dated about 150 years before the events related in Thucydides’ book. You might not tell from the picture below, but the oil flask is quite small – only a few inches in diameter.  This piece helped to fill out a small detail of Corinth’s culture – the city in contention with Corcyra in our reading.  Notice that Corinth invented the striking black-figure style of imagery on pottery, a style we see all over the gallery with kraters and flasks over several centuries – and we see it in the next piece.


After we spent some time with the black-figure aryballos, the second piece was a black-figure column krater (bowl for wine and water).  A very large vessel holding ten gallons or more of liquid!


Some of us thought we might make good use of such a vessel in our Symposium gatherings – given our evenings libations, and the fact that Symposium’s name, derived from Plato’s Symposium, refers to a drinking party where people share speeches and talk late into the night.

The scene depicted above is one of arming for war and a farewell. A better picture than this one would show the figure on the right – which is a mother holding her child, and the figure on the left is, we thought, the father.

We felt that this scene is somehow appropriate for the vessel. And we wondered about the human significance of such a scene. We do know from works such as Homer’s Iliad – reflecting in particular on the touching farewell scene with Hector, his wife Andromache and his little son – that the Greeks did not merely romanticize warfare, but also felt the longing for home, and the sorrow of a farewell which may be final.  As we gazed upon this piece, several among us had stories to tell – personal recollections about leaving for war, or about receiving wounded warriors back home.  This process of sharing stories reminded me of a wonderful book called Achilles in Vietnam about the healing power of stories, especially as it can be used to heal combat trauma. I cannot recommend this book too highly for those interested in the healing power of stories.     

Next week, we will take on speeches by Corinth, Athens and Sparta – Corinth complains about Athenian aggression after Potidaea 1.68-1.88, page 38-49. (1.46-1.67 provides the background leading up to this confrontation).

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Absolutely un-retouched conversation between a Symposium true believer and his wife Wed, 24 Jan 2018 18:21:58 +0000 SymposiumGBI We received this little memoir from a participant of seminars at Symposium San Francisco, 2006-2009, and decided to share it with you, our readers.

“Absolutely un-retouched conversation between a Symposium true believer and his wife”  by Matthew Crain

“…and the librarian, who was 90 years old and bundled up in 3 sweaters and sitting there at the reference desk supposed to be helping the public all the while a Stephen King novel is opened for all the world to see, she starts giving me this big lecture about how Fiction–”


“About how Fiction is shelved alphabetically by the author’s last name. ‘And if you cannot find Balzac’s works, sir, it is not because the library does not have any–on the contrary: They’re under D for de Balzac, not B: you were simply looking in the wrong place.’ I thought, Good God, how tedious! But I would have done the same thing and did do the same thing when I worked at the library in Burlington. These jobs give you a petty power you get drunk on. But what I started to say was, Balzac drank 17 cups of coffee every day and died of caffeine poisoning–”

“Matthew, we have to talk.”

“–and when he was writing, which must have been constantly; I mean, Jesus Christ, the guy wrote 95 novels and left 45 unfinished; I mean, can you imagine the bump on the side of his middle finger from holding the pen? You see, he had this whole theory about ‘digestion–’”

“Matthew, for god’s sake, will you–”

“He believed that the blood sent to his stomach to digest food was blood that could have been sent to his brain to help solve a plot problem and keep his story going, so when he was hot on the trail of a story he ate only some sardines mashed in butter at 9 in the morning–and that’s after writing all night–or maybe a cold chicken wing, or maybe a pear, and then off to the percolator for 2 more cups of cafe noir–God, the guy must’ve had a cast-iron stomach to always drink it black! But when he had told the story and sent the finished proofs to his publisher, he beelined to a certain restaurant and ordered 100 oysters–can you imagine all the shucking in the cellar? Remember the 60 Erik ate at our wedding and what a pile the shells made? Well, imagine 40 more! He’d wash down those 100 oysters with 4 bottles of white wine. Then came a roast lamb. Then a ‘brace of partridges.’ Then a whole baked fish. Dessert was God knows what kind of fancy tart or gateaux or pate brisee fine, but he preferred Cormice pears, which he ate by the dozens (note the plural). He would wipe his mouth on the cloth napkin, stand up from the table, smooth his hand down the front of his silk shirt tucked into his pants, and say, ‘Garcon, send the bill to my publisher!’ That’s balls, huh. He’d eat all that and say,  ’Garcon, send the bill to–’”

“Matthew, you’re not in Symposium anymore–you have to get a job!”

“Yes, by and by Wage Labor has come a-knocking at my door–and oh I don’t want to answer! I don’t know about you but now that I finally have a house, damned if I want to leave it. Days pass when I don’t step outside and happily write my way through Dubliners (I’m in the middle of “A Painful Case”). Then the last drops of milk drip from the cardboard spout, the last nub of toothpaste comes up out of the tube, the last section of toilet paper comes off the roll, and like it or not I have to stop writing and leave the house and go to that awful place called Out.
And it is bad enough watching the shelf stocker, the floor sweeper, the barcode zapper, the courtesy shuttle driver, the school crossing guard, the Parking Regulations Enforcement Office, the waiter, the waitress, the coffee pourer, the bagel slicer, the gas pump jockey; it’s bad enough watching them and then, horribly, it’s me behind the counter wearing the name tag pinned to the company logo shirt, it’s me going through the required spiel of reminding the customer to check out the many online specials and discounts. But that doesn’t upset me half as bad as this goddamned music that’s blasted from every speaker in every ceiling tile in every store you go into! Oh to imagine how exhausted I would be to return after 7.5 hours not of doing the same thing over and over again but from having to fight against 80s Classic Rock! “Let this inspire you,” I tell myself. ” Let this be what breaks you through!”
 Well, since John Simon Guggenheim said no; since I’ve entered my memoir in all the contests I can enter it in; since Dr. Tracy McMullen, Ph.D., our old friend and recent house guest from West Hollywood, California, said that never had she enjoyed listening to anyone read stories aloud like when I do and why don’t you read books aloud for a living–this is the newest straw I’m grasping at. But what half-hearted grasps. “All I want to do is just sit on my ass and think about Dante,” Samuel Beckett said when he was 49. This year I turn 50. Change it to “James Joyce” and there I am.

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