Let’s have a Celtic tune tonight. 


Plato's Laws IX, 5

There is a whole school of interpreting philosophy, following Leo Strauss, that believes in reading philosophers ironically or without assuming they're really saying what they mean. The argument, which Strauss developed with care over many works, invokes the fact that death was always the likely fate of especially political and moral philosophers who disagreed with their society's elites. Socrates was executed; Aristotle nearly so, having to flee Athens to escape that fate; numerous Christian philosophers either were charged with heresy or threatened with it; and even in our own age, the fate of thinkers in many parts of the world has been grim. 

When Plato reaches the end of Book IX, he says something that makes me wonder if a reading like that is plausible. Strauss apparently posthumously published a book on the Laws, and perhaps when I'm done I will look it over. I am intentionally not reading other people's thoughts on the work before I've encountered the work and finished this set of notes about it; later I will compare my thoughts with those of others, to see where they provide insight or illumination to things I may have missed on my own. 

(Generally this is a good way to read serious philosophy, in my experience. You want to directly encounter Plato and Aristotle, etc., and form clear ideas of your own about the problems they are raising. Then, when you encounter scholars who have studied them with care, you will not merely assume their opinion; you will have brought something of your own out of the work as well. It is a matter for historians to decide which of you was right, if either; the work of philosophy is to struggle with the hardest problems of human life. You should do that yourself, and not simply be told what to think even by the Wise.)

Akratēs was the problem of the last section, and the Athenian's firm conclusion appears to be that all evil actions are involuntary. If one was not ignorant, seeing the truth of what was right and best, one would act according to a moral principle. Now he realizes that acting according to principle can sometimes bring harms -- a difference from Aristotle, for whom virtue as a state of character brings success, not just a principled decision. (Aristotle is proto-pragmatic in this way: you can judge the virtue of a man in part by how successful he is in noble undertakings.)

Ath. And now I can define to you clearly, and without ambiguity, what I mean by the just and unjust, according to my notion of them:-When anger and fear, and pleasure and pain, and jealousies and desires, tyrannize over the soul, whether they do any harm or not-I call all this injustice. But when the opinion of the best, in whatever part of human nature states or individuals may suppose that to dwell, has dominion in the soul and orders the life of every man, even if it be sometimes mistaken, yet what is done in accordance therewith, the principle in individuals which obeys this rule, and is best for the whole life of man, is to be called just; although the hurt done by mistake is thought by many to be involuntary injustice. Leaving the question of names, about which we are not going to quarrel, and having already delineated three sources of error, we may begin by recalling them somewhat more vividly to our memory:-One of them was of the painful sort, which we denominate anger and fear.

So the idea here -- similar to Kant, really -- is that one can only act freely when acting according to a rational moral principle. Otherwise, one is being driven along by base nature, and not really voluntarily choosing an action. Thus, all evils are involuntary in this special sense; all principled actions are good, even if they lead to harm "by mistake." 

Having established that "clearly, and without ambiguity," the Athenian proceeds into a very extended discussion of different kinds of homicide. What turns out to be extremely important to just punishment of these different kinds, though, is whether or not the decision was voluntary.

Ath. Having begun to speak of homicide, let us endeavour to lay down laws concerning every different kind of homicides, and, first of all, concerning violent and involuntary homicides. If any one in an athletic contest, and at the public games, involuntarily kills a friend, and he dies either at the time or afterwards of the blows which he has received; or if the like misfortune happens to any one in war, or military exercises, or mimic contests. of which the magistrates enjoin the practice, whether with or without arms, when he has been purified according to the law brought from Delphi relating to these matters, he shall be innocent. And so in the case of physicians: if their patient dies against their will, they shall be held guiltless...

Now remember that theft was to be punished the same way regardless of whether much or little was stolen, because all theft is of a kind: an involuntary overwhelming of the deciding capacity by some pleasure, or avoidance of pain, or passion, etc. Supposedly we've established that all wrongs are involuntary. But the very first question, and one explored at extreme length -- much too long to quote -- is all the ways in which a crime can be more or less voluntary. 

So a man who kills a fellow citizen at the warlike athletics is to be forgiven after ritual purification; that we already knew from earlier books. The city prospers by maintaining so vigorous and warlike a population, enough to justify the occasional death in training. What if you did mean to kill a fellow citizen, though? Well, one case is it might be your spouse, and done in a matter of passion; that deserves one level of punishment because of the strength of the passion (i.e., it was less voluntary because an ordinary person could be expected to be more overwhelmed in a case like this). This goes on and on. What if you used an assassin, and thus freely chose to murder, and also corrupted someone else into choosing to carry out the murder for you? Etc., etc.

It leaves me with the question as to whether the discussion of akratēs was ever serious at all. It seems to be; Plato returns to the problem over and over throughout his works. Per Aristotle, we believe Socrates took this to be a serious proposition. Is Plato here ironically refuting him, by first declaring for the principle and then showing at length that ordinary notions of justice completely reject it? That, indeed, the question of intent and voluntary choice pervades our ideas about justice?

Or are these issues somehow severable in his mind? Perhaps what he means is that 'in a way' these acts are involuntary; but 'in another way' they are obviously chosen after deliberation in some cases, and in other cases were not chosen but just happened. Even here, though, we are not in a clean binary between 'in a way' voluntary cases and complete mistakes or accidents; there are very fine degrees of voluntary choice and deliberation examined.

It's curious. See what you think of it.

Hunting Hedge Funds

So something really important happened today, and I want to talk about it a bit. 

GameStop is a company that sells physical copies of video games. It's mostly located in malls and strip malls around America. For a long time, hedge funds have been targeting it with short sales. They think its business model is dead, like movie theatres, and they're trying to rip the capital out of it a little at a time.

Short sales are not well understood. Not everyone can do them; you have to have a broker and a margin account, and have passed through various forms for gaining permission. It's a game for the rich and connected, mostly. It's not for everyone.

The way it works is that you enter into a contract to borrow someone else's shares of stock, promising to return them on a particular day. Since you think the business is losing money over time, you immediately sell the borrowed stocks. You wait until the last moment, buy the stocks again, and hand them back to the original owner. You pay a transaction fee to make it worth their while, and worth your broker's while. They make money at no risk: you borrow 500 shares (or whatever), you return 500 shares plus a transaction fee. Your broker makes money at no risk. You make money only if you can buy the stocks back for less than you got when you sold them.

What happened today was that Reddit went hunting short sellers at hedge funds. They went after the ones feasting off GameStop, American Movie Company, and a few other places.

Reddit put together a coalition of people with money to buy GameStop (etc) stocks. Now this caused the price to rise. It rose a lot.

When the contracts come due, within about six days, the short sellers are obligated to return the same number of stock shares as they borrowed -- or else make up the difference in market value. They lost, last I heard, $14 Billion today. 

When we get to the end of their contracts, they have to either pony up cash to the loaners of the stocks, or buy shares at whatever the cost is. Everyone who bought GameStop today, if they hold until that mark, is going to make a small fortune.

This model can be repeated anywhere hedge funds are shorting American (or other) stocks.

Connected firms and people panicked hugely today. They shut down trading on GameStop and AMC and others; they persisted in trading among themselves after hours (when most people are forbidden from trading) to artificially lower the prices, in the hope of scaring people who bought today into selling tomorrow. They're terrified. 


Today we learned an important lesson for fighting back against these internationalist, corporatist scoundrels. Remember it and look out for chances to do it, because you can profit by it too.

Country Music Revisited

 If we ever get to heaven, boys, it ain't because we ain't done nothin' wrong.

Akratēs Revisited

So I want to "circle back," in the current expression, on akratēs. Remember that in Laws III, the Athenian described this as the great destroyer of states

I think Plato might be doubly wrong here. I think he might be wrong to have decided that this is a sort of ignorance, and I think he is definitely wrong to think it is the worst kind. Rather, what is going on here is that a person knows what is right and chooses to do the wrong thing anyway because it is more pleasurable. This is a regular feature of country music songs about men who ought to be home being good fathers, but are instead out honky-tonking and drinking up their paycheck. (Roger Miller's "Dang Me," for example.)  It may well be ruinous behavior, but they aren't doing it out of ignorance. They know it is wrong, and are doing it anyway.

What strikes me as a worse kind of ignorance -- and properly a kind of ignorance -- is to have come to the conclusion that the base is actually noble, the bad actually good. It seems to me that the great destroyer of our nation is not the country music song case, where people are failing in what they nevertheless recognize are their duties. The great destroyer is that people have embraced a host of things that are wrong, but that they have learned and taught each other to uphold as right. Arson in our cities and riots that result in great damage to public buildings and the common peace, for example, are celebrated as the pursuit of justice. Abortion is said to be health care.

These people are often college educated, so they are not ignorant in the sense of having never been educated. They are nevertheless possessed of a towering sort of blind ignorance, which can no longer discern good from bad, but instead names the bad as good and navigates as if that were the case. 

[Example, and photo, removed]

Today the FBI arrested a guy for posting memes on social media... in 2016. They doubtless take themselves to be doing the right thing. They're trampling on our whole tradition of free speech, especially political speech, including satire; but what he said wasn't strictly true, you see. And he was on the wrong side.

D29 points out that Homeland Security is now in the business of policing wrongthink on the election. They think what they're doing is good, too.

They're also taking it on themselves to decide when your 'false narrative' beliefs might qualify as incitement to domestic terrorism. They're starting with a friendly case -- belief in lizard people, re: the Nashville bomber -- but the principle is supremely dangerous. 

So, the guy in the country music song is really wrong. He knows he's wrong; he accepts that he's sinning, and that sinning is wrong. He accepts his duties, and admits his failure in fulfilling them. He's putting pleasure in front of virtue. He plans on making some kind of account for it with God later. He may blow up his marriage; he may blow out his liver.

But how much happier would you be with America if he was the worst kind of problem we had to face? This 'country music problem' of akratēs is a serious philosophical puzzle, but my guess is that it's actually not nearly the great destroyer of states that Plato makes it out to be. If Cal Smith is your worst problem, maybe you as a nation can mind your business and let him do his thing. Even if there are a lot of Cal Smiths, they're ordered to the moral structure that undergirds society. 

We are in a much worse case.


This doesn't even make sense in terms of making trans-men more comfortable. Half the toilets in the men's room require you to stand up. If all of us non-trans-men insist on sitting down to make trans-men feel "included," trans-men who need to sit down will have to wait a lot longer to go. What's less comfortable than that?

But again, here as elsewhere, the nature of human beings is to be rejected as a source of moral wisdom; the principle of diversity and inclusion is to guide us, even where it guides us to a greater misery for all. 

Plato's Laws IX, 4: Akratēs

Akratēs is the Greek word for today's puzzle, the puzzle of someone who knows what is right but does the wrong thing anyway. This is linked with several other puzzles about virtue that Plato wrestled with all his life without solving; Aristotle came up with a set of answers to the puzzles that he found satisfying. 

One of the allied problems is whether or not virtue is a kind of knowledge. Socrates thought it was: that virtue was a kind of knowing what the right thing to do is. Since the virtuous man knows what is best, naturally he will do it, since to act as if the best thing was not really best would be an expression of ignorance rather than knowledge. 

If that is a correct account of virtue, then virtue (being knowledge) should be easily taught. Yet the sons of virtuous men often turn out bad, or weak, in spite of their father's example and all the wealth poured into educating them. (This is the subject of Plato's Protagoras.)

Also, the account seems a little insufficient. All a teacher of courage needs to do is to teach the student to know what is right to do in a dangerous circumstance like war, and that suffices. Only it doesn't, obviously. (This is the subject of Plato's Laches.)

Temperance, too: all I need to know in order to be temperate is the right amount of alcohol to drink, food to eat, etc. Knowing this, I will obviously lead a temperate life. Or will I? It doesn't seem like it always works out that way, leading to a puzzle about what it means for one to exercise self-control. How could a thing like knowledge regulate itself? Eyes see color, not 'sight'; ears hear sounds, not 'hearing'; so what kind of knowledge is this that isn't about knowing something, but about knowing what ought to be known? (This is the subject of Plato's Charmides.)

Another allied problem is the unity of the virtues. If virtue is a kind of 'knowing what is right,' how could you have one virtue without having all of them? There are many brave men who fight in bad causes. Consider this fellow, a highly decorated soldier and unrepentant evildoer. He clearly has the virtue of courage, but not the virtue justice. Now Aristotle will say that justice is 'fairness plus lawfulness,' where the laws (like the ones Plato is designing here) are supposed to be derived from human nature and seek to perfect human nature. Thus, unjust laws will lead a lawful man to injustice, because the laws themselves are inhumane. But if virtue is a kind of 'knowing the right thing to do,' how can it not be obvious to the virtuous man that the laws are unjust?

With all these background debates, the Athenian makes one last stab at trying to argue that virtue is a kind of knowledge -- only, he admits, somehow we don't always do what we know to be best. 

Ath. When any one commits any injustice, small or great, the law will admonish and compel him either never at all to do the like again, or never voluntarily, or at any rate in a far less degree; and he must in addition pay for the hurt. Whether the end is to be attained by word or action, with pleasure or pain, by giving or taking away privileges, by means of fines or gifts, or in whatsoever way the law shall proceed to make a man hate injustice, and love or not hate the nature of the just-this is quite the noblest work of law. But if the legislator sees any one who is incurable, for him he will appoint a law and a penalty. He knows quite well that to such men themselves there is no profit in the continuance of their lives, and that they would do a double good to the rest of mankind if they would take their departure, inasmuch as they would be an example to other men not to offend, and they would relieve the city of bad citizens. In such cases, and in such cases only, the legislator ought to inflict death as the punishment of offences.

Cle. What you have said appears to me to be very reasonable, but will you favour me by stating a little more clearly the difference between hurt and injustice, and the various complications of the voluntary and involuntary which enter into them?

Ath. I will endeavour to do as you wish:-Concerning the soul, thus much would be generally said and allowed, that one element in her nature is passion, which may be described either as a state or a part of her, and is hard to be striven against and contended with, and by irrational force overturns many things.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. And pleasure is not the same with passion, but has an opposite power, working her will by persuasion and by the force of deceit in all things.

Cle. Quite true.
Ath. A man may truly say that ignorance is a third cause of crimes. Ignorance, however, may be conveniently divided by the legislator into two sorts: there is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offences, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing. This second kind of ignorance, when possessed of power and strength, will be held by the legislator to be the source of great and monstrous times, but when attended with weakness, will only result in the errors of children and old men; and these he will treat as errors, and will make laws accordingly for those who commit them, which will be the mildest and most merciful of all laws.

Cle. You are perfectly right.
Ath. We all of us remark of one man that he is superior to pleasure and passion, and of another that he is inferior to them; and this is true.

Cle. Certainly.
Ath. But no one was ever yet heard to say that one of us is superior and another inferior to ignorance.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. We are speaking of motives which incite men to the fulfilment of their will; although an individual may be often drawn by them in opposite directions at the same time.

Cle. Yes, often.
Ath. And now I can define to you clearly, and without ambiguity, what I mean by the just and unjust, according to my notion of them:-When anger and fear, and pleasure and pain, and jealousies and desires, tyrannize over the soul, whether they do any harm or not-I call all this injustice. But when the opinion of the best, in whatever part of human nature states or individuals may suppose that to dwell, has dominion in the soul and orders the life of every man, even if it be sometimes mistaken, yet what is done in accordance therewith, the principle in individuals which obeys this rule, and is best for the whole life of man, is to be called just; although the hurt done by mistake is thought by many to be involuntary injustice[,]

This is Plato's final attempt at a resolution of the puzzle. Virtue is a kind of knowledge, but two different kinds of ignorance are possible. The first one is a simple ignorance of the good, which is easy to repair through admonishment and education. The second is a determined ignorance, one that has settled upon the wrong answer and pridefully refuses to be corrected. 

If that sounds familiar, it is approximately the difference between error and heresy. Heresy is a matter of the will, which refuses correction even in theory, and adamantly holds to and even teaches that the wrong thing is actually right. (This was Meister Eckhart's ultimate defense against the charge of heresy for his mystical teachings; to whit, that he believed what he believed but he was open to correction if someone could show him that he was wrong about it, and would recant anything proven to be in error. Some of his doctrines were found heretical, but he himself was not condemned as a heretic.)

Plato's solution is likewise the same as the solution to the problem of heresy: when you find someone who is determined and fixed upon the wrong answers, you must kill him. 

Plato is still trying to explain actions in terms of knowledge; obviously, if you know the right thing you will do the right thing. If you don't do the right thing, you must somehow be ignorant. 

Aristotle's account of this puzzle is in Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. (Note that akratēs is given as 'incontinence' and its variants in this translation.) He says the issue is that it is possible to 'have' knowledge in one sense and 'not have' it in another; thus, one might know how to calculate properly in one sense, but be unable to do it when drunk or asleep. You haven't forgotten how to calculate, but in certain states you can't do what you would know how to do in the correct state. 

Aristotle has a lot more to say about it than that; the first ten parts of that book are on the subject. The basic answer, though, is to introduce a new concept that Plato wasn't using: the idea of being in a state. Virtue itself will become a kind of state of character, cultivated and lasting, rather than a kind of knowledge. You must still know the right thing to do; but the virtuous man will have also cultivated the character that does it

That doesn't actually solve the puzzle either. You still need knowledge, not just a state of character. And it turns out -- Aristotle says this over and over through his work -- that the virtuous man is the right judge of the right thing to do. So it isn't just a form of knowledge, but a state of character that produces knowledge that can only be judged by someone in that state. How would you know it if you got there, then? How would you recognize it from the outside, in order to see that you still had something to learn? 

This is the point at which a professor would say:  "Discuss." 

The Smell of Gasoline

Nothing substantive today. I'm too busy doing taxes and other garbage to think any interesting thoughts.

I always liked the smell of gasoline. I remember that from my childhood, pumping gas at my grandfather's service station. 

To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

Sadly this year there is no Burns Night supper to attend, all things still being shut down and canceled here in North Carolina. I hear other states -- even California! -- are opening up, but our governor remains convinced that this lockdown concept is a valuable one. 

Like so many things, we'll have to do it virtually this year.

Clay Pigeons

Mentioned in the comments Friday, a very nice song.

Plato's Laws IX, 3

The next important topic the Athenian discusses is punishment for crimes. He has an interesting principle to propose: theft should be punished the same way, by being forced to repay double what was stolen. The effect of this proposal is that the success of the thief determines the penalty, but that there is proportionate equality for all thieves in terms of the punishment received. 

This proposal receives pushback from his comrades. I'm not sure about it either. This would seem to serve as an excuse for a lot of thievery from the citizens, who have a secure source of wealth from which they could pay fines if they were caught (and which they cannot fall below). In Ivanhoe King Richard assigns Friar Tuck only the right to take three bucks per season, "but if that do not prove an apology for thy slaying thirty, I am no Christian knight nor true king." Here too a man who was in the upper quadrant of wealth might regularly engage in wanton thefts, knowing that if he got away with it he increased his wealth; whereas if he were caught in one of them, he only had to repay the double portion and go free.

The Athenian doesn't actually defend his proposition when challenged on it.

Ath. Once more let there be a third general law respecting the judges who are to give judgment, and the manner of conducting suits against those who are tried on an accusation of treason; and as concerning the remaining or departure of their descendants-there shall be one law for all three, for the traitor, and the robber of temples, and the subverter by violence of the laws of the state. For a thief, whether he steal much or little, let there be one law, and one punishment for all alike: in the first place, let him pay double the amount of the theft if he be convicted, and if he have so much over and above the allotment;-if he have not, he shall be bound until he pay the penalty, or persuade him has obtained the sentence against him to forgive him. But if a person be convicted of a theft against the state, then if he can persuade the city, or if he will pay back twice the amount of the theft, he shall be set free from his bonds.

Cle. What makes you say, Stranger, that a theft is all one, whether the thief may have taken much or little, and either from sacred or secular places-and these are not the only differences in thefts:-seeing, then, that they are of many kinds, ought not the legislator to adapt himself to them, and impose upon them entirely different penalties?

Ath. Excellent. I was running on too fast, Cleinias, and you impinged upon me, and brought me to my senses, reminding me of what, indeed, had occurred to mind already, that legislation was never yet rightly worked out, as I may say in passing.-Do you remember the image in which I likened the men for whom laws are now made to slaves who are doctored by slaves? For of this you may be very sure, that if one of those empirical physicians, who practise medicine without science, were to come upon the gentleman physician talking to his gentleman patient, and using the language almost of philosophy, beginning at the beginning of the disease and discoursing about the whole nature of the body, he would burst into a hearty laugh-he would say what most of those who are called doctors always have at their tongue's end:-Foolish fellow, he would say, you are not healing the sick man, but you are educating him; and he does not want to be made a doctor, but to get well.

From here he departs into two of Plato's favorite arguments: a criticism of the poets for portraying unjust things in heroic persons, and the Socratic argument that no one does wrong voluntarily. The first of these we have seen often enough that I will pass it by unless any of you wish a further discussion; if so, ask after it in the comments.

The second one Plato treats differently here than elsewhere, and it will require a little time to construct a proper comparison. Thus, I will end here for today with the question (for you, if you'd like to discuss it): what do you think of this idea of formal and proportionate equality in punishment? Does the fact that there is only approximate equality among citizens in society make this unjust? (There is even less equality among slaves and foreigners; but inequality there was built into the Athenian's justice system, which formally assigns them different and lesser punishments on the assumption that they are less blameworthy because they lacked the education in virtue.)


I recommend this book (a B&N link because I'm minimizing the business I do with Amazon as much as possible. I suspect it's available there, too), by medically retired Navy SEAL Justin Sheffield.

It's a raw description of his evolution from trouble-making teenager through highly successful SEAL through heavily emotionally and physically (primarily brain) damaged SEAL through his eventual, in the main, recovery.

There was some subtext that greatly interested me, too: the heavy dependence on technology of the SEALs and of our military generally, both in the run-up to a fight and during the fight itself.

I have to wonder--and worry--about how effective our troops would be in a war when ASAT EMPs have been employed, and when battlefield EMPs have been employed both over the approach/engagement and over Division and Army headquarters. How well can our men and women function in a manual environment? How well can units of any size coordinate with each other without their electronic com?

And mind you: it doesn't take nuclear weapons to generate an EMP. Nor are any of our enemies, state actors or network entities, nearly as dependent on technology as we are.

Eric Hines