‘Why be gentle?’

‘Why be gentle?’ my philosophical friend asked me. ‘That is a good question,’ I said.


At the beginning of Theaetetus, Socrates asks Theodorus whether there are any good young men whom he knows. Theodorus replies,

Yes, Socrates, I have become acquainted with one very remarkable Athenian youth, whom I commend to you as well worthy of your attention. If he had been a beauty I should have been afraid to praise him, lest you should suppose that I was in love with him; but he is no beauty, and you must not be offended if I say that he is very like you; for he has a snub nose and projecting eyes, although these features are less marked in him than in you. Seeing, then, that he has no personal attractions, I may freely say, that in all my acquaintance, which is very large, I never knew anyone who was his equal in natural gifts: for he has a quickness of apprehension which is almost unrivalled, and he is exceedingly gentle, and also the most courageous of men; there is a union of qualities in him such as I have never seen in any other, and should scarcely have thought possible; for those who, like him, have quick and ready and retentive wits, have generally also quick tempers; they are ships without ballast, and go darting about, and are mad rather than courageous; and the steadier sort, when they have to face study, prove stupid and cannot remember. Whereas he moves surely and smoothly and successfully in the path of knowledge and enquiry; and he is full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil; at his age, it is wonderful.

The young man Theodorus is referring to, Theaetetus, is exceptional in that he combines a ‘union of qualities’ such as intelligence with a mild temper, courage with composure, sureness with evenness. The crescendo: he is ‘full of gentleness.’

The adverbs–‘surely and smoothly,’ also ‘silently’–signal what is at stake. When I go gently, I do not go roughly or coarsely, harshly or in a shrill way, abruptly or violently or brusquely. I go slowly, softly, tenderly. According to the OED, I can be gentle-minded, gentle-natured, gentle-voiced.

Arguably, gentleness is the beautiful splendor expressive of the life of the virtues. I may relate news to someone, share an opinion, tell a story, approach an angry man, say farewell, carry a tune, touch a lover’s forehead, greet a neighbor whose car has broken down, introduce myself to a stranger, schedule something with a tentative soul, and so on. How do I go about this? To begin with, I exercise the salient virtue or virtues: attention, compassion, courage, temperance, kindness, composure, or whatever. But my success in this endeavor stands or falls, in many cases, based on the way in which this virtue is displayed. When I approach an angry man or say goodbye to a former friend, I want my compassion to be shown in a gentle way. The gentleness is beauty shining forth, softening the virtue or virtues in question. Courage too–a great power–can be gentle.


‘Why be gentle?’

First, because gentleness is the contrary of arrogance.

Second, because it is ‘world-encompassing’: to be gently courageous is to act in view of the other and at the same time to shape my character. My character is becoming gentler as I am gentle to him. My gentle courage enfolds self with other in a shared world.

Third, because it demonstrates the elevation of some virtue P beyond its ‘infancy’ to the level of beauty. No longer do I go hastily or clumsily.

Fourth, because it lets one act, speak, and demean in such a way that would go beyond withdrawal into silence on the one hand and beyond forcefulness on the other.

Fifth, because it maintains the harmony between my character and the world. Not only am I not in conflict, my soul thrown into discordance with itself; but also my soul still continues to stand in accordance with the world even though something difficult has been put before me.


Provisionally, I might argue that gentleness implies a unity of the virtues. (As Vlastos puts the unity of the virtues thesis in connection with Socrates, whoever has one virtue has them all.) About this, however, I am not sure.

A reminder to be ‘full of gentleness, flowing on silently like a river of oil.’

‘Beauty is the splendor of the highest good’

I read, ‘Beauty is the splendor of the highest good.’ Beauty is not the highest good itself but its shining forth. Anyone or anything at its best is therefore beautiful. Whatever has achieved its essence: this is beauty. That which fully actualizes its function: beautiful. A world at its best would have to be gloriously beautiful.

Someone makes a ring. It is good yet, upon further inspection, I see that it has defects that impair it. I see that it is not a good ring after all. Not, therefore, beautiful. But if there were no defects that impaired it from being a good ring, I would call it beautiful.

A person’s character likewise. I look and see no major defects. I say his character is beautiful. I admire his manifold goodness and am drawn to the splendor of his character. I am then warranted in saying that he is radiant. Kalokagathia.

Tenderness of tenderness

‘Tenderness,’ said one philosophical friend, ‘is a way that love expresses itself for oneself or another.’ We have been searching for an accurate way of understanding how one takes care of oneself properly. ‘Taking care of oneself properly’ lacks of certain ‘intimacy’ in the offing. (One may take care of one’s business affairs properly, but there is a lack of affect in all that.) Or one could not be taking care of oneself, as is evident when one is sternly cold with oneself. Or, we said, one could indulge oneself.

By being tender with myself, I am neither cold with myself nor lukewarm toward myself nor warm in the pleasures of excess. Coldness is not love but hate; lukewarmness is not love but a certain lack of partiality (I could just as well be someone else); indulgence is not love but, he said, a symbol that seeks to show that I’m worth it. Born of suspicion, selfindulgence never carries enough prove that I am worth it.

Only out of loving myself am I tender with myself.

We said that there is first-order tenderness, which has to do with how I take things in the course, say, of a day. And there is a second-order tenderness, which is concerned with how I take myself, over time, in the things that come to pass. A tenderness of tenderness involves not only taking this or that with a quality of light touch but also taking myself, over time and even when a number of things go awry, with a light-humoredness. Without second-order tenderness, one could insist upon a coldness of tenderness, and that, though comical, would also be harmful. So that I am not simply tender, when I am tender, here and there or now and again; I am becoming a tender person, a person with a tender demeanor. This is the meaning of tenderness of tenderness.

Arrogance as a paradoxical moment in philosophical life

One common excess marks the character of most good philosophical friends and conversation partners. That excess is arrogance.

The path of philosophical life is not desired by the ignoramus. And it cannot be disclosed to the self-loathing man. Nor to the complacent man. Only the arrogant man (1) relishes what is higher, (2) wants it for himself, and (3) believes himself to be worthy of possessing it.

Hence, the path of philosophical life is desired by the arrogant man for he believes it to be the best form of life and he wants it for himself. And yet, such a path cannot be disclosed to him until he is humbled. Humbling occurs not least when he recognizes that he has been a fool. For many years, a fool. Many years spent in vain. Philosophy brings him to confront his foolishness and to feel shame for having lived this way.

This turning is the beginning. Desiring would not have been possible (or, in any case, likely) without the one so desiring having been arrogant in the three respects above. But the path remains hidden so long as he remains so. Herein lies the perplexity, the paradox.

To set foot on this path is to have one’s arrogance humbled. Philosophy humbles time and again with gentle admonition. Only then is the shining path revealed to the aspirant and this for the first time. Now it is that the aspirant no longer wants to possess wisdom nor does he believe himself worthy of having it. (Wisdom cannot be possessed.) However, his estimation of its height has only increased exponentially, and he is stirred and stirred by the mere intimations of its resplendent beauty. And all this, as Benedict says of humility, is only the beginning…

Contemptu Mundi and Unity-in-diversity

The Philosophical Path

Awakening to–philosophical life.

Contemptu mundi: the belief that the everyday world is no longer a home. Worse: Revulsion. Disgust. Flooding the senses: total ugliness.

Loneliness amid or beyond the ordinary world.


Three-fold queries. Where are my fellows, my friends of virtue? Where is my beautiful soul? (Am I not also contemptible amid the muck?) Where is the beautiful splendor of the highest good?

The plight of the monk, the mystic, the philosopher dwelling in the modern city. (Not a sage.)

Intimations, yet, of illumination. Beautiful, resplendent. Look:

Once I saw the mountain. (Diversity) Then I did not see the mountain. (Unity) Now I see the mountain. (Unity-in-Diversity)