Tag Archives: Plato

The Ring of Gyges

Image result for gyges greek mythology

For many years now, I’ve used the anonymity of internet comments as an example of the Ring of Gyges in the first book of Plato’s Republic. No doubt you’re familiar with the idea: given a ring of invisibility, would you be a jerk or not? The internet sometimes grants a kind of anonymity with regard to dialectical exchanges on the internet. If you don’t have to reveal who you are, will you write the uninhibited comment rich with all manner of ad hominem? The thought was that lots of people would.

Well, it turns out this thought was probably wrong. Research seems to indicate that internet anonymity does not contribute to debased debates. It’s (partially) something much more satisfying (to me): lack of regulation:

Clear social norms can reduce problems even when people’s names and other identifying information aren’t visible. Social norms are our beliefs about what other people think is acceptable, and norms aren’t de-activated by anonymity. We learn them by observing other people’s behavior and being told what’s expected [2]. Earlier this year, I supported a 14-million-subscriber pseudonymous community to test the effect of rule-postings on newcomer behavior. In preliminary results, we found that posting the rules to the top of a discussion caused first-time commenters to follow the rules 7 percentage points more often on average, from 75% to 82%.

This is somewhat heartening, I think. It holds out hope that people can channel their energies more productively in clearly regulated environments, like this one (so, no ad hominems, jerks).

Climate science with the Gorgias


George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Socrates and Donald Rumsfeld

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow had some poignant words the other day for the zombie tribe of war pundits:

“If you’re an architect or a conspirator or one of the primary actors in the Iraq War–in arguably the grandest and most craven foreign policy disaster in American history–your opinion is no longer required on matters of war and peace. Please enjoy painting portraits of dogs or something. Painting portraits of yourself in the bathroom, trying to get clean. Please enjoy the loving comfort of your family and loved ones, and your god. But we as a country never ever need to hear from you about war, ever again. You can go now.”

Here’s Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias:

SOCRATES: Well, then, if you and I, Callicles, were intending to set about some public business, and were advising one another to undertake buildings, such as walls, docks or temples of the largest size, ought we not to examine ourselves, first, as to whether we know or do not know the art of building, and who taught us?—would not that be necessary, Callicles?


SOCRATES: In the second place, we should have to consider whether we had ever constructed any private house, either of our own or for our friends, and whether this building of ours was a success or not; and if upon consideration we found that we had had good and eminent masters, and had been successful in constructing many fine buildings, not only with their assistance, but without them, by our own unaided skill—in that case prudence would not dissuade us from proceeding to the construction of public works. But if we had no master to show, and only a number of worthless buildings or none at all, then, surely, it would be ridiculous in us to attempt public works, or to advise one another to undertake them. Is not this true?

CALLICLES: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And does not the same hold in all other cases? If you and I were physicians, and were advising one another that we were competent to practise as state-physicians, should I not ask about you, and would you not ask about me, Well, but how about Socrates himself, has he good health? and was any one else ever known to be cured by him, whether slave or freeman? And I should make the same enquiries about you. And if we arrived at the conclusion that no one, whether citizen or stranger, man or woman, had ever been any the better for the medical skill of either of us, then, by Heaven, Callicles, what an absurdity to think that we or any human being should be so silly as to set up as state-physicians and advise others like ourselves to do the same, without having first practised in private, whether successfully or not, and acquired experience of the art! Is not this, as they say, to begin with the big jar when you are learning the potter’s art; which is a foolish thing?


Should be so damn obvious.  But it isn’t.

Sacred Band of Thebes

General Ann Coulter, to whom I won't link (see this link in the Huffington Post), has stood up to defend the now notorious GOP crowd booers.  She thinks the policy of allowing gay soldiers in the military, which is by the way the current law of the land, spells doom for our military.  Among other points, she argues:

Soldiers, sailors and Marines living in close quarters who are having sex with one another, used to have sex with one another or would like to have sex with one another simply cannot function as a well-oiled fighting machine. A battalion of married couples facing a small unit of heterosexual men would be slaughtered.

Here's Plato, in the Symposium:

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.

Anyway.  Probably shouldn't feed the trolls.

Plato on Sophistry

From the Meno:

How could that a mender of old shoes, or patcher up of clothes, who made the shoes or clothes worse than he received them, could not have remained thirty days undetected, and would very soon have starved; whereas during more than forty years, Protagoras was corrupting all Hellas, and sending his disciples from him worse than he received them, and he was never found out. For, if I am not mistaken,-he was about seventy years old at his death, forty of which were spent in the practice of his profession; and during all that time he had a good reputation, which to this day he retains: and not only Protagoras, but many others are well spoken of; some who lived before him, and others who are still living. Now, when you say that they deceived and corrupted the youth, are they to be supposed to have corrupted them consciously or unconsciously? Can those who were deemed by many to be the wisest men of Hellas have been out of their minds?

Made me think of Bill Kristol et alia.