resources: critical thinking & thinking critically

Socrates: the first troll

With bonus fables, irony, Plato, Atlantis, and images of justified ancient mumus drunkenness.

This is a bit of a cheat, as posts go; I wrote a draft before deciding to do something with the links that used to be down the side, and are now on pages c/o drop-down menus at the top.

Here are the pertinent selections from links: enlightened titillation:

Now that’s over with, I’ll use the rest of this space, in an even more cheating way, to tell a story. Like the characters depicted in it, I’ll cheat even more heinously by copy-pasting. You’ll see in a moment how that whole chain of reporting comes in, how it’s important to the transmission and preservation of knowledge.

I mentioned fables the other day.

Silenus-head vase, 5th c. CE

The original jarhead, 5th c. CE

Plato offers one of the oldest extant bits of writing about fables, and why they–and other things that could be called “imaginative and speculative fictions”–are interesting and important. Basically: they have a different truth-value from what can be termed, very roughly, “facts” and “fictions.”

Later expanded via the idea of narratio fabulosa–“fabulous narrative/tale”–by Macrobius, in dealing with dream- and/or prophetic interpretation: “true” and “false” dreams. We’ll all have had plenty of the latter; the former are rare special events. Then, how to interpret them: find the message through the superficial symbols, read under the surface, deeper. Which will go on to become an integral part of allegorical interpretation (and construction/writing), over the next few hundred years: a special kind of non-factual writing reveals deeper truths. Unlike “pure fiction,” which doesn’t and can’t. All lies.

Think here more along the lines of “truth is stranger than fiction”: here, “truth” doesn’t have to be “literal concrete material fact.” And some things can be truer than fact: myths, fables, parables; all that is figurative, metaphorical, allegorical.

Where does the online world fit in here? Virtual reality, internet avatars and personae, and my favourite contemporary mythical beasts: trolls? Some characteristics of the real, some of fictions, some new stuff… oh yes, and not forgetting viral advertising, guerilla marketing, and that whole insidious creep of the pseudosociety of consumption into every nook and cranny of everyday life.

I’ve got no answer to this existential conundrum of our times. Explored and investigated over the last couple of decades, already hypthesized and theorized earlier; my only suggestion is to read and reread William Gibson, Melissa Scott, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, etc. Science fiction and other speculative fictions: the closest we have, so far, to answers, users’ guides, and maps of the current state of the universe.

There remains the traditional tool of questioning, investigating, collecting information, collating and converting and commentating said data into being knowledge, and attempting to understand.

The story that follows is the key section, around the middle, of a dialogue. It’s a lovely piece of tale-telling, with a tale within a tale within a tale within a… etc., and featuring unfinished tales. From the Timaeus dialogue; Benjamin Jowett trans. c/o Project Gutenberg. It’s also to the best of my knowledge the earliest written reference to Atlantis; so a bonus for all you Atlantis-buffs.  

THE SCENE: at dinner. Some civilized people (i.e., this being ancient Athens: gents) are conversing in a civilized way, about significant lofty matters–truth, the meaning of life, the universe, the perfect (political) state. Socrates had entertained his chums the night before (talking about the ideal political system); now it’s their turn to entertain him.


  • Socrates: witty, brilliant, etc… and usually represented as a (somewhat lecherous and) quite amazingly ugly man: striking contrast between hideous exterior and beautiful interior. By “inside” we’re talking inner abstract qualities here, things of the mind and the wits, get your minds out of the gutter. Superficial appearance: a troll, avant la lettre. Even before the first written records of Scandinavian trolls.
  • Critias (Socrates says of him: “whom every Athenian knows to be no novice in the matters of which we are speaking”)
  • Timaeus (“of Locris in Italy, a city which has admirable laws, and who is himself in wealth and rank the equal of any of his fellow-citizens; he has held the most important and honourable offices in his own state, and, as I believe, has scaled the heights of all philosophy”)
  • Hermocrates (“I am assured by many witnesses that his genius and education qualify him to take part in any speculation of the kind”)

The translation is rather an old and lumpy one. I’ve tweaked the formatting for legibility. Added some hyperlinks for proper-noun-references (Wikipedia). For some bumpy bits that really bugged me, Jowett’s text has been greyed-out and I’ve added a better translation: the Donald J. Zeyl one in John M. Copper’s edition of the Complete Works.

I found a downloadable version of that here or here, but I’m not too sure. There’s a lot of incitements to play poker involved.

Keep a sharp look-out for references to “legend,” “myth,” “tale / telling,” “fiction.” Bearing in mind they’ll be used in a slippery way. Look out also for knowledge, its transmission, the role played by oral and otherwise non-/pre-literate culture, the paradoxical strengths and fragilities of non-written information, and the role of story-telling (re. Homer and Solon).

Over to a pleasant evening at a well-lubricated dinner-party, a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…



SOCRATES: […] When I had completed my task, I in return imposed this other task upon you. You conferred together and agreed to entertain me to-day, as I had entertained you, with a feast of discourse. Here am I in festive array, and no man can be more ready for the promised banquet.

HERMOCRATES: And we too, Socrates, as Timaeus says, will not be wanting in enthusiasm; and there is no excuse for not complying with your request.

As soon as we arrived yesterday at the guest-chamber of Critias, with whom we are staying, or rather on our way thither, we talked the matter over, and he told us an ancient tradition, which I wish, Critias, that you would repeat to Socrates, so that he may help us to judge whether it will satisfy his requirements or not.

CRITIAS: I will, if Timaeus, who is our other partner, approves.

TIMAEUS: I quite approve.

CRITIAS: Then listen, Socrates, to a tale which, though strange, is certainly true, having been attested by Solon, who was the wisest of the seven sages. He was a relative and a dear friend of my great-grandfather, Dropides, as he himself says in many passages of his poems; and he told the story to Critias, my grandfather, who remembered and repeated it to us [in his turn would tell it to us from memory].

There were of old, he said, great and marvellous actions of the Athenian city, which have passed into oblivion through lapse of time and the destruction of mankind, and one in particular, greater than all the rest. This we will now rehearse. It will be a fitting monument of our gratitude to you, and a hymn of praise true and worthy of the goddess, on this her day of festival.

SOCRATES: Very good. And what is this ancient famous action of the Athenians, which Critias declared, on the authority of Solon, to be not a mere legend, but an actual fact? [that Solon reported and old Critias told you about? I’ve never heard of it. They say it really happened?]

CRITIAS: I will tell an old-world [ancient] story which I heard from an aged man; for Critias, at the time of telling it, was, as he said, nearly ninety years of age, and I was about ten.

Now the day was that day of the Apaturia which is called the Registration of Youth, at which, according to custom, our parents gave prizes for recitations, and the poems of several poets were recited by us boys, and many of us sang the poems of Solon, which at that time had not gone out of fashion.

One of our tribe, either because he thought so or to please Critias, said that in his judgment Solon was not only the wisest of men, but also the noblest of poets.

The old man, as I very well remember, brightened up at hearing this and said, smiling:

“Yes, Amynander, if Solon had only, like other poets, made poetry the business of his life, and had completed the tale which he brought with him from Egypt, and had not been compelled, by reason of the factions and troubles which he found stirring in his own country when he came home, to attend to other matters, in my opinion he would have been as famous as Homer or Hesiod, or any poet.”

“And what was the tale about, Critias?” said Amynander.

“About the greatest action which the Athenians ever did, and which ought to have been the most famous, but, through the lapse of time and the destruction of the actors, it has not come down to us.”

“Tell us,” said the other, “the whole story, and how and from whom Solon heard this veritable tradition.”

He replied:

[SOLON’S TALE c/o OLD CRITIAS c/o YOUNG CRITIAS c/o Plato and various others… ]

“In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them.

“To this city came Solon, and was received there with great honour; he asked the priests who were most skilful in such matters, about antiquity, and made the discovery that neither he nor any other Hellene knew anything worth mentioning about the times of old.

“On one occasion, wishing to draw them on to speak of antiquity, he began to tell about the most ancient things in our part of the world–about Phoroneus, who is called ‘the first man,’ and about Niobe; and after the Deluge, of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha; and he traced the genealogy of their descendants, and reckoning up the dates, tried to compute how many years ago the events of which he was speaking happened.

“Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: ‘O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you.’

“Solon in return asked him what he meant.

” ‘I mean to say,’ he replied, ‘that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why.

” ‘There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes.


” ‘There is a story, which even you have preserved, that once upon a time Paethon, the son of Helios, having yoked the steeds in his father’s chariot, because he was not able to drive them in the path of his father, burnt up all that was upon the earth, and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt.

” ‘Now this has the form of a myth, but really signifies a declination of the bodies moving in the heavens around the earth, and a great conflagration of things upon the earth, which recurs after long intervals; at such times those who live upon the mountains and in dry and lofty places are more liable to destruction than those who dwell by rivers or on the seashore. And from this calamity the Nile, who is our never-failing saviour, delivers and preserves us.

” ‘When, on the other hand, the gods purge the earth with a deluge of water, the survivors in your country are herdsmen and shepherds who dwell on the mountains, but those who, like you, live in cities are carried by the rivers into the sea.

” ‘Whereas in this land, neither then nor at any other time, does the water come down from above on the fields, having always a tendency to come up from below; for which reason the traditions preserved here are the most ancient.

” ‘The fact is, that wherever the extremity of winter frost or of summer sun does not prevent, mankind exist, sometimes in greater, sometimes in lesser numbers.

” ‘And whatever happened either in your country or in ours, or in any other region of which we are informed–if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples.

” ‘Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves.

” ‘As for those genealogies of yours which you just now recounted to us, Solon, they are no better than the tales of children.

” ‘In the first place you remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones; in the next place, you do not know that there formerly dwelt in your land the fairest and noblest race of men which ever lived, and that you and your whole city are descended from a small seed or remnant of them which survived.

” ‘And this was unknown to you, because, for many generations, the survivors of that destruction died, leaving no written word.

” ‘For there was a time, Solon, before the great deluge of all, when the city which now is Athens was first in war and in every way the best governed of all cities, is said to have performed the noblest deeds and to have had the fairest constitution of any of which tradition tells, under the face of heaven.’

“Solon marvelled at his words, and earnestly requested the priests to inform him exactly and in order about these former citizens.

” ‘You are welcome to hear about them, Solon,’ said the priest, ‘both for your own sake and for that of your city, and above all, for the sake of the goddess who is the common patron and parent and educator of both our cities.

” ‘She founded your city a thousand years before ours, receiving from the Earth and Hephaestus the seed of your race, and afterwards she founded ours, of which the constitution is recorded in our sacred registers to be 8000 years old.

” ‘As touching your citizens of 9000 years ago, I will briefly inform you of their laws and of their most famous action; the exact particulars of the whole we will hereafter go through at our leisure in the sacred registers themselves.

” ‘If you compare these very laws with ours you will find that many of ours are the counterpart of yours as they were in the olden time.

” ‘In the first place, there is the caste of priests, which is separated from all the others; next, there are the artificers, who ply their several crafts by themselves and do not intermix; and also there is the class of shepherds and of hunters, as well as that of husbandmen; and you will observe, too, that the warriors in Egypt are distinct from all the other classes, and are commanded by the law to devote themselves solely to military pursuits; moreover, the weapons which they carry are shields and spears, a style of equipment which the goddess taught of Asiatics first to us, as in your part of the world first to you.

” ‘Then as to wisdom, do you observe how our law from the very first made a study of the whole order of things, extending even to prophecy and medicine which gives health, out of these divine elements deriving what was needful for human life, and adding every sort of knowledge which was akin to them.

” ‘All this order and arrangement the goddess first imparted to you when establishing your city; and she chose the spot of earth in which you were born, because she saw that the happy temperament of the seasons in that land would produce the wisest of men.

” ‘Wherefore the goddess, who was a lover both of war and of wisdom, selected and first of all settled that spot which was the most likely to produce men likest herself. And there you dwelt, having such laws as these and still better ones, and excelled all mankind in all virtue, as became the children and disciples of the gods.

” ‘Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour.

” ‘For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent.

” ‘Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.

” ‘This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes.

” ‘And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars.

” ‘But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

” ‘For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.’ ”
[that last bit could be a comment by Solon]

I have told you briefly, Socrates, what the aged Critias heard from Solon and related to us. And when you were speaking yesterday about your city and citizens, the tale which I have just been repeating to you came into my mind, and I remarked with astonishment how, by some mysterious coincidence, you agreed in almost every particular with the narrative of Solon; but I did not like to speak at the moment.

For a long time had elapsed, and I had forgotten too much; I thought that I must first of all run over the narrative in my own mind, and then I would speak. And so I readily assented to your request yesterday, considering that in all such cases the chief difficulty is to find a tale suitable to our purpose, and that with such a tale we should be fairly well provided.

And therefore, as Hermocrates has told you, on my way home yesterday I at once communicated the tale to my companions as I remembered it; and after I left them, during the night by thinking I recovered nearly the whole of it.

Truly, as is often said, the lessons of our childhood make a wonderful impression on our memories; for I am not sure that I could remember all the discourse of yesterday, but I should be much surprised if I forgot any of these things which I have heard very long ago. I listened at the time with childlike interest to the old man’s narrative; he was very ready to teach me, and I asked him again and again to repeat his words, so that like an indelible picture they were branded into my mind.

As soon as the day broke, I rehearsed them as he spoke them to my companions, that they, as well as myself, might have something to say.

And now, Socrates, to make an end of my preface, I am ready to tell you the whole tale. I will give you not only the general heads, but the particulars, as they were told to me. The city and citizens, which you yesterday described to us in fiction [in mythical fashion], we will now transfer to the world of reality. It shall be the ancient city of Athens, and we will suppose that the citizens whom you imagined, were our veritable ancestors, of whom the priest spoke; they will perfectly harmonize, and there will be no inconsistency in saying that the citizens of your republic are these ancient Athenians.

Let us divide the subject among us, and all endeavour according to our ability gracefully to execute the task which you have imposed upon us.

Consider then, Socrates, if this narrative is suited to the purpose, or whether we should seek for some other instead.

SOCRATES: And what other, Critias, can we find that will be better than this, which is natural and suitable to the festival of the goddess, and has the very great advantage of being a fact and not a fiction [the fact that it’s no made-up story but a true account is no small matter]?* How or where shall we find another if we abandon this? We cannot, and therefore you must tell the tale [speech], and good luck to you; and I in return for my yesterday’s discourse will now rest and be a listener.

CRITIAS: Let me proceed to explain to you, Socrates, the order in which we have arranged our entertainment.

Our intention is, that Timaeus, who is the most of an astronomer amongst us, and has made the nature of the universe his special study, should speak first, beginning with the generation of the world and going down to the creation of man; next, I am to receive the men whom he has created, and of whom some will have profited by the excellent education which you have given them; and then, in accordance with the tale of Solon, and equally with his law, we will bring them into court and make them citizens, as if they were those very Athenians whom the sacred Egyptian record has recovered from oblivion, and thenceforward we will speak of them as Athenians and fellow-citizens.

SOCRATES**: I see that I shall receive in my turn a perfect and splendid feast of reason. [Apparently I’ll be getting a complete, brilliant banquet of speeches in payment for my own.] And now, Timaeus, you, I suppose, should speak next, after duly calling upon the Gods.

[… etc… ]

* “it’s no made-up story but a true account”–“account” has that element of “thing that’s counted up and recounted, retold.” Which fits the context better here. [Yes, it is a niggly point; yes, I am a word-nerd.]

** quite probably drunk, by this stage.

dionysus-silenus and socratic irony

MUAers and beauty-bashers alike: look and learn.

Sociable discourse, that’s aiming at finding out the/some truth/s. The art of civilized conversation at it apogee. Sophisticated satire. Theatrical set-piece dialogue. Being two-faced and double-edged and thoroughly viciously biting. Tongue-in-cheek parody at its finest.

Not a LOL or a 🙂 in sight: it’s up to the reader to see that there’s a joke there, and it’s up to them to make sense of it. And the assumption is that readers will be equals and up to the task. That “Socratic ornery irony” thing? This is it.

One thing that impresses me about the BB board, I must say, is the absence of LOLism. Yes, it may be somewhat lacking in more usual kinds of sophistication and subtlety, but that’s made up for in other ways–masks, unmasking, multiple masks; bluff and double bluff; and sometimes really weird surrealist (and/or intoxicated) off-the-wall lunacy. It certainly has its moments.

Still: for the finest work in this sub-genre, see its masters, Pete & Dud. Children: look, listen and learn.

More topical tips at “ooh! public recognition!!” (2011-08-12), “an amusing bit of light-hearted bitchiness” (2011-08-21), and the exemplary Hyperbole and a Half.

Image at top: MFA Educators Online

Care to reply?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s