Yeah, I’m sorry I’m not keeping up with like anything that I ought to be. But I’m very busy workshopping a joke where the punch line is “and that one sentence completely changed everything I ever thought about Heraclitus!” That I’m having trouble figuring out how to frame it is definitely not because it’s too minor a jest to use as anything but an offhand remark in a professional setting. I know there’s some setup that’ll make it a killer joke when I’m just chatting with, say, the guy at Penn Station subs taking my order for a grilled artichoke and mushroom. It’s out there somewhere. I know I’m in fighting form to get this joke worked out. Just yesterday I was able to deliver “Oh, no, that’s Tiamat of Samos you’re thinking of. This is Tiamat of Ephesus”. That’s a great joke about the pre-Socratic philosophers plus dragons marred only by how I couldn’t think of Ephesus right away and had to say “that other place”. But that’s still the level I’m working at and that’s why I know it’s going to be worth it getting this Heraclitus setup figured out. Oh, Miletus would also have worked there. Thank you. Also Philosophers and Dragons should be a thing so I’ll thank somebody to work on that now. I’m busy with my project.
I love learning stuff. I always have. The world’s full of astounding things and who among us has been astounded too much? Occasionally, learning something fires my imagination in strange ways.
In November 2013, this led me to write Also, Heidegger Was A Shingle Weaver, as my love let me in on the absolutely unsecret point that Socrates had a job. And not an esoteric sort of job, rather, but the sort of job that any of us might have. Well, any of our fathers might have, since I’m from Generation X, and we don’t have jobs because Baby Boomers can’t afford to retire and Millennials oh just don’t get us started.
Learning stuff pays dividends, too, in the form of filling the hungry web pages that need stuff written. In trying to add factual precision to a throwaway line in that Heidegger piece, I found something that surprised my love. Turns out Socrates held political office, possibly just the once in his life, and we both felt more in touch with the cosmic all for knowing this, and then, well, you know how it is when you learn stuff.
And then the day after that I got to wonder about: Ancient Greece. What the heck, guys? You should have been doing better. Fount of Western Civilization and all that but they had some real impulse-control problems. Just saying.
My love is a professional philosopher. This has encouraged me to pay more attention to philosophers. It’s a group of people I mostly know because a lot of philosophers were also mathematicians. For a long stretch there they were also lawyers and priests, but that’s just what you did if it was the middle ages and you didn’t want to be a serf, a boatman, or a miller.
Back in September 2013, we got to talking about Pythagoras, who’s renowned for being a cult leader that might have done something in mathematics or philosophy or both. It’s hard to say. But in Pythagoras and the Golden Middle-Ish I was enchanted by something I hadn’t heard about Pythagoras before. Yes, it’s got Olympics content, because of course, Pythagoras. You would.
If that hasn’t satisfied your interest in philosophers, here’s a little pop quiz you can take. No fair cheating!
So I’ve been reading Jerome Friedman’s The Battle Of The Frogs And Fairford’s Flies, about the chapbook and pamphlet reporting of paranormal or supernatural events during the era of the English Civil War and Commonwealth, because why would you not read a book like that? I want to share one of its reports, from 1647’s The Most Strange And Wonderfull Apparition of Blood in a Pool at Garreton.
Apparently, for four days the pond water in the town of Garreton in Leicestershire grew ever-darker, turning, some thought, to blood; cattle would no longer drink from it, though fish from the pond tasted fine. And then, the pamphlet-writer reported, “philosophers” were called in.
I know, I know, I know what the original author meant by philosophers. And yet I can’t help figuring the decision to bring philosophers in went something like this:
John Thwapper: “The water hath turned to blood! Quick, summon a philosopher!”
Jake A-Plummet (whose family got the name for an ancestor renowned for his ability to fall): “Kantian or Neoplatonist?”
Jack O’Wort: (looking up from his meal of blood-water fish) “We … we need the cattle to drink the water, so that’s a utility. Best summon a utilitarian, eh?”
Mary Chortle: “We need the water to change. Obviously there’ll be no help for us save from a Pre-Socratic.” And when everyone around her just looks confused, she scowls at what a lot of idiots are in her town and cries out, “Thales of Miletus, ye fools!”
And I realize you’re probably not laughing at that, but somewhere I’ve made a philosophy major giggle, so this is all worth it.
Anyway, the book doesn’t say what the philosopher was able to do about it, but the pamphlet-writer concluded — with some grumbling that philosophers distracted from the wonderfullness of the event, so apparently only after they got involved did the water turning to blood kind of suck? — that the real thing to be learned from this apparition was that the English Civil War caused a lot of people to die, and more of his countrymen needed to understand this, which suggests he figured a lot of the English people had somehow missed the War. Maybe they thought it was some unusually fertile year for frogs or something.
“This is poison, isn’t it?” said our pet rabbit, as he chewed on the leafy part.
I’d had the accusation before. “It’s Swiss chard again. There wasn’t anything poisonous about it last time either.”
He hopped up and shook out a little, which is the sort of happy thing rabbits do and didn’t match his tone at all. “Why are you trying to poison me?” He sniffed and then chewed some more at the leaf.
“Why on Earth would I even want to poison you? You’re too darling to poison.”
He pulled his head up, which is some new behavior he’s picked up and exposes this adorable dark-colored patch in the middle of the white-colored patches of his chin, and it’s only his quick reflexes that keep it from being tickled. “I can’t know your motivations. If I make the a priori assumption you’re a rational agent I could expect you to inevitably come to a sufficient moral awareness to keep you from choosing to poison me, but for all I know you’ve had a partial or a defective moral upbringing. And I know you’re not fully rational because I heard that awful movie you watched Saturday.”
So this explained why the bookmarks in my Beloved’s books of Kant keep getting moved around, and maybe why there was a nibbled corner of the Critique of the Power of Judgement. I should probably mention here that not all pets kept by philosophers end up acting like. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, famously kept a pet squirrel who did little but kick the him in the shins, less because of the squirrel’s treatise on the origins of ethics and more because Wittgenstein was the sort of person who inspired people to kick him. Also in my defense I was watching Foodfight extremely ironically and felt a little bad for even doing that.
“I can’t prove to you that I’ve got a functioning moral compass” — and he interrupted with a sharp HA! — “but if you really suspect the chard is poison you don’t have to eat it.”
He stopped chewing and looked up indignantly. “You yelled and laughed when I ate that dog food!”
“We didn’t think you’d really eat it! We thought you’d sniff at it and refuse. That stuff contains meat, you know.”
“Then why’d you put a kibble out for me?”
“Well, it’s cute seeing you sniff at things you rear back from.”
“Because you figure I won’t eat poison!”
“Again, though, you haven’t suggested a reason for me to poison you. And just saying I’m irrational doesn’t excuse the need for a reason. You need an irrational reason.”
He huffed a bit, the way he does when he realizes he’s being pulled into the pet carrier. “You envy my superior lifestyle. I can just hop around the house and eat and nap all day.”
“That argument won’t obtain,” which sounds like a smart thing to say, because it’s a weird use of the word “obtain”, one I’m not sure is defensible. “I’m a telecommuter. Functionally we’re equivalent.”
“If you’re not envious then why don’t you ever name me when you write about me on the Internet?”
Ah, that. Probably best to go with the honest answer. “I don’t want people getting your name and ringing up fraudulent credit card charges. It protects you.”
“Oh.” And he started chewing on the stalk of the chard. “You could give me a stage name.”
“I can’t think of any that could capture your personality.”
And he did that little shaking hop.
“You know, when I bought that chard, the cashier asked if red or white tasted better.”
He let the stalk of the chard drop. “What did you tell him?”
“I told her I didn’t know. We just buy it for you.”
“And she asked why you’re poisoning me?” He picked the stalk back up and started inhaling it, like a log disappearing into a buzz saw.
“She asked whether you liked it.”
“And you said?”
“I said you were still working out your policy regarding Swiss chard” — he snorted again — “but you look so adorable chewing the stalk that we couldn’t resist.” And he finished the last of it.
“I name you when I write about you on the Internet.”
“If this isn’t poison why don’t you eat some?”
“The last time we ate any vegetables we bought for you you called it the end of the world.”
“Well, that’s honest at least,” and he flopped out on his side.
The link sits there, mocking me.
I want to know, but I know, they only write it that way because they know they can make me jump to their silly little tune.
I could curse my eyes and rush forward into it, but that sounds like something an ancient Greek philosopher might do along the way to decrying his appetites.
And yet … who wouldn’t want to know?
I watch the page, which never changes, and see nothing of the rest of the Internet for the day.
Is this how it destroys the usable Internet?
I won’t know until I click, will I?
So, now, some numbers for November. I hadn’t been watching them so obsessively in the middle of the month and obviously that shows, since my total views dropped to 357 (down from 370), when if I’d known this back around the 20th I might have got out back and pushed. On the other hand the number of unique visitors went from 179 up to 188, my third-highest on record, so that’s something. Mostly it’s a decrease in views per visitor, 2.07 down to 1.90.
The countries sending me the most readers the past month were, again, the United States and United Kindgom, but Australia popped in out of nowhere. A single reader each came from Austria, Denmark, Malaysia, New Zealand, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey. This is a pretty impressive increase in single-visitor countries from last time, when France was the sole lone reader.
My most popular bits from the past month were:
- Comic Strips: Math and Michigan, including my discussion of why I thought a Pearls Before Swine didn’t work (and some folks have been following up with their own thoughts).
- Five Astounding Facts About Turbo, That Movie About A Snail In The Indianapolis 500, which is probably going to be the most popular thing I wrote in my life at this rate. (I don’t mind. At least I have a most popular thing)
- Sticking In The Head, about earworms and their endangered future.
- S J Perlman’s Captain Future, Block That Kick! which I can’t begrudge him for because he really wrote an outstanding piece and that’s a forerunner to every blog that makes fun of pop cultural detritus today.
- Dream Job At Kennywood, or at least the dream job my mind worked up. I think it means something, but what?
Not quite making the top five was Also, Heidegger Was A Shingle Weaver, but I’m including a gratuitous link to that because I really liked it.
Lastly, since the comic strip Working Daze has been continuing its mock history on Sundays let me link to the November 24th strip, and the first time I think one of their past cartoonists didn’t end up dying and miserable, and the December 1st strip, which has one who did.
Another bit of the aftermath of that whole Battle of Arginusae thing: like I learned, the generals who were responsible for the victory over Sparta there were tried for failing to rescue so many Athenian boatmen. Fair enough. Wikipedia’s article reports how “all six generals [ there had been eight, but two of them ran away ] were found guilty and executed including Pericles the Younger. The Athenians soon came to regret their decision in the case of the generals, and charges were brought against the principal instigators of the executions. These men escaped before they could be brought to trial”.
The thing is, this happened all the time in ancient Athens. You could barely get the citizens together to express regret for the last time they had someone executed without their figuring they had to have somebody executed. Every gathering went like this:
Antisthenes: Boy, we were stupid to have Socrates killed.
Crowd: Yeah! Whose dumb idea was that?
Antisthenes: It was Meletus, wasn’t it? Let’s kill Meletus!
[ Two weeks later: ]
Next Guy: Man, we were idiots to kill Meletus.
Crowd: Yeah! Whose dumb idea was that?
Antisthenes: Me. Sorry, it was mine.
Next Guy: Let’s kill him!
Founders of Western Civilization and yet nobody pointed out they’re always sorry two weeks later. None of them ever gets the idea, “hey, if he really needs killing, he’ll still need it a month from now, so no rush”. I’m guessing this is what happens when your government consists of getting a couple hundred guys together where they have to shout to be heard at all while making sure they have all the wine they can drink.
I don’t mean to brag, but, I did research for that little thing about Socrates the other day. In particular I cast about for names that maybe plausibly could have been of people Socrates might have known, because it’s fun and research avoids actually having to write, and getting that sort of irrelevant detail right is the sure way to win the lifetime adoration of someone who specializes in whatever it is I’m writing about. So that’s why I picked, particularly, “Euryptolemus” as a name. My spouse wondered how I had, and I had to dig through my notes.
It’s all kind of long, complicated, and confusing, in that way ancient history just is, but he was one of the figures in the controversy over the Battle of Arginusae. This was a battle during the Peloponnesian War where the Athenian navy beat the Spartan one, and then most of the navy was sent to try relieving Sparta’s siege of the city of Conon rather than stick around picking up Athenian survivors. A storm came up, and both the attempt to relieve Conon and the attempt to pick up survivors failed, and the Athenian population naturally put the generals responsible for beating not Sparta enough on trial. This gets back to Socrates because some of the trial was done under his authority as an epistates, possibly the only time in his life that Socrates actually held a political office.
In fact, my spouse, the professional philosopher, didn’t know that Socrates ever held office. Socrates’s role in trying the Eight Generals from the Battle of Arginusae was one of moderation, because he apparently didn’t think there were constitutional grounds for the motion to just have the generals killed right then and there. This reason, if it’s true (and it’s hard to be perfectly sure as ancient historians felt more free than we do to alter facts so to make a better and more instructional story), neatly foreshadows his refusal to take the chance to escape his judicially-sponsored murder two years later, and shows his belief in the social compact binding people in a society to each other, for good or ill. It’s a fascinating peek at the historical Socrates that makes him a more real and more compelling character, and by the time we had read enough ineptly-written Wikipedia pages to we think straighten all this out in our heads, we were captivated. My arbitrary plucking of a name had given us the chance to see how a person who studied so diligently the problem of how we could come by knowledge and how we could be confident we had it dealt with the inherent uncertainties in judging human affairs, particularly in the boiling-over world of ancient Athenian politics.
Two hours later we both realized that while we hadn’t the faintest recollection what the name of the battle was, who any of the generals involved were, or what city the navy was sent to relieve, or what precisely was the name of Euryptolemus, we nevertheless were describing, in precise enough detail for scholars to completely reconstruct it, that Big Red chewing gum commercial with the marching band.
My spouse, the professional philosopher, startled me the other day while we were driving to Meijer’s by mentioning that Socrates had been a master stonecutter. That’s really the sort of thing you expect to hear on the way to Kroger’s. Up to that point I had never imagined that Socrates even had a profession. I’d assumed he had always made his living by committing acts of philosophy against the Athenian population. My mental model was that he probably had started out seeking wisdom and truth and maybe beauty around the holiday seasons. I had thought I was supported in this by Plato’s recording of Socrates’s discussion with Isocrates, which I had to read for an undergraduate history class about the Cold War, 1945 – 1963, because the professor was bored:
Isocrates: Good fellow Socrates! It has been an agora’s age. No, no, say nothing, I’ll not be engaging you in any conversations anymore. Everyone knows perfectly well how talking with you ends up.
Socrates: Everyone does? How does everyone come by such perfect knowledge?
Isocrates: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA [ continues for 26 scrolls of papyrus ] AAAAAAUGH!
Euryptolemus: Sorry to interrupt but the Spartans are invading Mytilene again.
So with a background like that you can see why I’m stunned to know Socrates ever had to do anything to pay the bills other than collect ransom for going off and talking to other people instead.
A little while ago the Three Stooges’ short Hello Pop, from 1933, was discovered. It had been lost, thought to be destroyed in a 1967 archive fire, but it turned out it was just hiding out in Australia after running up some debts with a mob of wallaroos. Happens to the best of us. Here’s the thing that captures my imagination: this was the only Three Stooges short thought to be lost. So as far as the human intellect is able to understand, there are no missing or absent works from the whole Three Stooges catalogue of films. The complete record is there.
Now what this makes me think of is the remarkable fact that, again as best we can determine, there aren’t any lost works of Plato. There aren’t any references we can find to a book he’d written that’s now lost, which is staggering considering that your typical ancient Greek writer — your Hipparchos or Aporia or Hypochondria or the like — ran about eighteen lost works to one that anyone ever actually saw. Aristophanes is thought to have pitched two or three plays into the wine-dark sea for every one he had performed just because that was the thing to do in that time. So it’s stunning we have any complete sets of any of the ancients, especially when it’s one of your name-brand greats like Plato.
So of all the things that the Three Stooges and that Plato might have in common, who would have guessed that there were any?
- I know, right?
- The hypotenuse squared over the sum of the sides.
- E = mc2.
- Pituitary glands.
- God’s too nice to make mad scientists?
- Mornings kill people.
- I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I yam.
- Oh, dear Lord.
- Just set that down and come back when you’re at least ten years older.
- Or you could start punching that book right now.
- Both (b) and (c).