The tension between Zen and Socrates

I am becoming more aware each day of the tension between the Socratic way of life and Zen practice. For Socrates, there is in the beginning the logos, or speech saying what is the case. For Zen, there is silence before the existence of the spoken word. The tension can be plainly stated: is knowledge primordially discursive or non-discursive? I do not know.

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Boasting in Laches: Homer vs. Socrates

Nicias has just been refuted by Socrates, and Laches, who had earlier fallen prey to Socratic questioning, is gloating. Laches:

But I, my dear Nicias, felt sure you would make the discovery after you were so scornful of me while I was answering Socrates. In fact, I had great hopes that with the help of Damon’s wisdom you would solve the whole problem.

Nicias answers him:

That’s a fine attitude of yours, Laches, to think it no longer to be of any importance that you yourself were just now shown to be a person who knows nothing about courage. What interests you is whether I will turn out to be a person of the same kind. Apparently it will make no difference to you to be ignorant of those things which a man of any pretensions ought to know, so long as you include me in your ignorance. (200a)

A first reading may miss the historical ramifications of this fascinating exchange. We may agree with Nicias that Laches shouldn’t be boastful just because his friend has been put in his place, both discussants having been shown not to know what courage is. Believing this may cause us to pass too quickly over a conceptual-historical transition from the Homeric to the Socratic moral world.

Recall that Nicias and Laches are both military men. Recall also that they are children of Homer, having been raised in a culture that is steeped in the Iliad and its conceits. In the heroic Homeric world, the hero displays his courage by performing great deeds as well as, and just a surely, by boasting, taunting, bragging, and getting good and properly angry with one’s friends (stoking their courage to fight, rallying their spirits to hold fast) and with one’s enemies (poking fun at their cowardice). One’s ethical conduct is, in a broad sense, governed by loyalty to one’s comrades and vengefulness toward with one’s enemies.

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Socratic mental discipline: Laches and the question of courage

Courage is a kind of knowledge, Nicias says. It’s the kind that’s concerned with the fearful and the hopeful. But that’s nonsense, Laches replies. Because I take wisdom to be different from courage. Well, let him answer, says Socrates. And indeed let’s not just belittle our friend, Nicias. If he turns out, upon examination, to be wrong, then let’s instruct him.

And with this passage in Plato’s Laches, there is much already to be said and learned about Socratic mental discipline. Laches, having heard something strange, weird, jumps to the conclusion, based on his own assumptions, that his friend’s proposal must be nonsensical as well as incorrect. Essentially, he begs the question, and this begging the question could be said to be not simply a momentary lapse for Laches but, more damagingly, a character defect. In a discussion whose subject is courage, begging the question as a disposition (if I can be allowed to call it that) is not just foolhardy but also cowardly: cowardly because it involves running ahead of others or retreating from the examination when the thing to do is to slowly examine something odd, peculiar, vexing and to do so with an open mind.

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Obsolescence: Exiting the Market System

We have some readily accepted theories about how one good or service in the marketplace is replaced by another. The first theory is that some company providing some good or service X outcompetes another company (or companies) providing a like good or service. This victory may be owing, it is held, (i) to the improved quality of that good or service, (ii) to the cost, or (more mysteriously) (iii) to the brand. The focus of these discussions is mostly on labor, efficiency, and technology.

The second theory, proposed by Peter Thiel, holds that one company comes up with an innovation that deliberately makes the old model useless and thereby achieves, if only temporarily, monopoly status. PayPal did not outcompete other banks; rather, it invented an alternative model for peer-to-peer banking. The recent, excited talk of disruption fits this entrepreneurial picture of temporary monopolization.

What goes undiscussed and unconsidered is the question of how some products and services become obsolete not in virtue of out-competition or monopolization but because such goods have exited the market system. They become obsolete because they are unnecessary, because they are useless, because a suitable alternative is virtually free, or some combination of thereof. It is this infrequently asked question about the connection between obsolescence and the market system that piques my interest.

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‘The unexamined life is not worth living for man’ (IV): On mental discipline

As I began re-reading the early Socratic dialogues, I initially thought that the Socratic way of life would have to be supplemented by philosophical and religious traditions that have devoted considerable thought to the cultivation of mental discipline. I presumed that in these dialogues there would be no explicit talk of training one’s attention on some object or of keeping one’s attention vigilantly on that object. To some degree, I was mistaken.

As I have continued reading, what I have begun to see instead is that mental discipline is both required in order to have a philosophical conversation at all as well as cultivated, in particular ways, in and through that conversation. While I still think it is true that a fuller account of mental discipline is required and for this one would do well to look to other traditions, I now seem to be clearer about the fact that there is indeed a tacit form of mental discipline assumed most often, alluded to at times, and occasionally brought to our attention in the early dialogues themselves.

Let me explore where this tacit form of mental discipline is made explicit. I am thinking of two passages in particular: one from Euthyphro and the other from Charmides. In the first dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro have just considered a number of proposals having to do with the nature of piety (and it even seems that Socrates, noticing Euthyphro’s frustration with his lack of success in this endeavor, has started them off on a potentially fruitful inquiry), only for Euthphyro to advance again a proposal that had already been shown to be unworkable: piety is what is dear to the gods. What is brought into sharp focus is that Euthyphro is stubbornly and absentmindedly returning or coming back to a view that was already shown to be so defective as to be a non-starter. Indeed, God’s love for piety was shown to be a quality of piety, not the essence of piety. At this stage, Socrates says, ‘[W]ill you be surprised if your arguments seem to move about instead of staying put’? (15b).

Now consider his second interlocutor Critias in Charmides. While inquiring with Socrates about the nature of temperance, Charmides begins speechifying, saying that temperance is ‘minding one’s own business,’ is ‘doing the good thing,’ is ‘knowing oneself,’ as if each proposal amounted to the same thing. In this situation, it becomes impossible to fully examine any of these proposals, Socrates surmises that Critias is losing patience (and losing face before these young, attractive men), and thus Socrates tells Critias not to focus on whether he or Socrates or anyone else is being refuted. ‘Instead, give your attention to the argument itself to see what the result of its refutation will be.’ (166e), regardless of who is advancing and who defending it.

Chiefly, what occurs is that the discussions of piety and temperance move about and therefore cannot be properly investigated. To what is this owing? To lack of mental discipline. What, in these works, is brought to our attention therefore is

  • how anger, frustration, shame, the desire to impress, and other negative emotions can disable an inquiry;
  • how one’s attention can drift from the immediate question at hand to something said or thought earlier or that may come up later;
  • how, like Euthyphro, one can return to what one once knew to be the case, even and especially if that account has since been shown to yield contradictions or be implausible;
  • how, like Critias, one can move so briskly as to assume that different things are essentially the same or as to make it impossible for any one thing to be examined at sufficient length.

This marks only the beginning of what would be an interesting investigation into making the tacit forms of mental discipline displayed in the early Socratic dialogues explicit. One would therefore be more able to say with greater certainty what specific requirements there are in order for one to pursue, and to continue pursuing, wisdom.