Category Archives: 1. An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education

8. St. Augustine’s The Confessions

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa from 396 to 430, and the dominant personality of the Western Church of his time, is generally recognized as having been the greatest thinker of ancient antiquity. His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy; and it was also the means by which the product of this fusion was transmitted to the Christendoms of medieval Roman Catholicism and Renaissance Protestantism. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, volume 2, page 364)

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached St. Augustine’s The Confessions. The eighth reading in the first volume of The Great Ideas Program,  A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, considers Books I-VIII of the twelve Books in The Confessions.

Adler and Wolff consider the nature and the theme of The Confessions and Augustine’s intellectual doubts, and discuss four specific questions about Augustine and The Confessions. Here I’ll sketch Augustine’s life and summarize what Adler and Wolff say about the nature and the theme of The Confessions and about Augustine’s doubts.

Augustine’s Life

Augustine was born November 13, 354, in Tagaste, a small town near what is now the eastern border of Algeria. While still a child he was enrolled by his mother as a catechumen in the Catholic Church. At eleven or twelve he was sent to a nearby town to study grammar and literature. He did so well that his father aspired to make a lawyer of him. In 370 he was able to go to Carthage to study rhetoric. While he was there, he fell in love with philosophy as a result of reading Cicero’s Hortensius and he became associated with the Manicheans (see “Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts” below). On completing his studies in 373, he chose to follow letters rather than law as a career. After teaching grammar in Tagaste for a year, he became a free-lance teacher of rhetoric at Carthage. In 383 he went to Rome in search of more satisfactory students. There he made connections which led to his being offered the municipal chair of rhetoric at Milan.

At Milan Augustine came under the influence of St. Ambrose and began reading the Neo-Platonists. As a result he decided in 386 to become a Christian (while in Rome he’d abandoned Manicheanism) and in the spring of 387 was baptized by St. Ambrose. In 388 he returned to Tagaste, where he sold his property, gave the proceeds to the poor, and with a few followers set up a kind of monastery devoted to a life of prayer and study. However in 391 while he was attending church on a visit to Hippo, the congregation chose him to become a priest and, despite his protestations, the bishop ordained him. Even as just a priest he began his sermons on the Bible and his public disputes with African heretics.

In 395 or 396 Augustine was called to become Bishop of Hippo, a position which he filled for the next thirty-five years, defending and promoting the Catholic Church in northern Africa. As well he made his monastery into something like a theological seminary and continued to write. He began The Confessions shortly after becoming bishop and the completed work was published about 400. Other works that he wrote while Bishop of Hippo were On Christian Doctrine, On the Trinity, and The City of God (On Christian Doctrine and The City of God are included along with The Confessions in Great Books of the Western World). In 426 he arranged for his successor as Bishop of Hippo, and August 28, 430, he died.

My primary source for the above is the biographical note on pages v-vi of the volume on Augustine in Great Books of the Western World (volume 18; Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

The Nature and Theme of The Confessions

Augustine’s calling this book his “confessions” suggests that it emphasizes misconduct by him, but it doesn’t. “Augustine does discuss his misconduct; but he is much less worried about his apparently quite considerable record as a libertine than he is about events which may seem much more innocent to us, such as his childhood theft of some worthless pears” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 89).

Augustine omits many things from his account of his life and includes many things that need not be in an autobiography. “Not only are the facts chosen in such a way as to serve Augustine’s purpose‒clearly the praise of God‒but the facts are also interpreted in such a way that they seem to declare the glory of God, where another writer might interpret them altogether differently” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 89).

What is The Confessions about? In light of the above, Adler and Wolff answer that it is man’s relation to God as exemplified in Augustine’s relation to God. They cite as typical an event in Book I. Augustine fell seriously ill, his mother (a Christian) wanted him baptized, but Augustine suddenly recovered and the baptism was deferred. “We know, of course, that the rest of The Confessions is nothing but a continuation of this story: baptism tentatively resolved on and yet postponed again and again” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 90). Why did Augustine continually postpone baptism? Adler and Wolff present provide quotations from The Confessions that indicate that it was because he wasn’t ready to give up his sins. They conclude that a main theme of The Confessions is sin and man’s inability to overcome it.

Augustine’s Intellectual Doubts

[Augustine] has genuine intellectual doubts that need to be overcome before he can become a Christian. His first doubt is more a matter of pride than anything else. In his initial look at the Scriptures they seem to him to say lowly and simple things and not, for instance, to be comparable in their tone and manner with the writings of Cicero…. Much more serious and disturbing to him are his later doubts, which led him toward a materialistic conception of God and toward Manicheanism. (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 91)

Adler and Wolff go on to explain that Manicheanism was a religion which held that there are two equal principles in the world, one of good or light and one of evil or darkness. The two struggle against each other, sometimes one being in ascendance and sometimes the other. When the evil principle prevails, evil comes into the world. Adapted to Christianity, evil occurs in the world when Satan (the evil principle) prevails over God (the good principle).

However, the book of Job shows that Satan is inferior to God and can cause problems only when God allows him to. This seems to leave the problem of evil‒there being evil in the world when God is good‒unexplained.

Augustine’s answer to the problem is found in Book VII of The Confessions. First he considered the idea “that free-will was the cause of our doing ill” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, in volume 18 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 44). However Augustine found this idea unsatisfactory, thinking that if God made man of such an evil nature that he would will to do evil, God was ultimately responsible for that evil.

Augustine solved the problem by recognizing that evil is not a substance: “I inquired what iniquity was, and found it to be no substance, but the perversion of the will, turned aside from Thee, O God, the Supreme, towards … lower things” (St. Augustine, The Confessions, page 49). Thus evil consists not in choosing something intrinsically evil but in choosing a lesser good than a greater good, Adler and Wolff provide an example of this from Augustine’s own life:

He refuses to be baptized, because he prefers the pleasures of the flesh. Now these pleasures, having been instituted by God, are also good; but to prefer them to the good of loving God is, of course, in the Christian view, evil.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 93-94)

However Adler and Wolff point out that claiming that there is no absolute evil amounts to saying that everything which exists is good. And they ask, “But does it seem correct that everything is good? Can dirt, disease, poverty, pain, crime, brutality, be interpreted as merely lesser goods? In what sense is pain a good? In what sense is disease a good?” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 96) What do you think?


6. Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

In my rereading of selections from Great Books of the Western World guided by The Great Ideas Program, I’ve reached the sixth reading in the first volume of the latter, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff. It considers five selections (four biographies and one comparison) from Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

In their guide to Lives Adler and Wolff illustrate how it is familiar to us and sketch Plutarch’s life, show why Lives is viewed as a book of moral instruction, and discuss four specific questions about Plutarch and Lives. Here I’ll just sketch Plutarch’s life and consider his purpose in writing Lives.

Plutarch was a Greek biographer and miscellaneous writer. Born in Chaeronea in Boeotia (an ancient district in east central Greece) about AD 46, he studied mathematics and philosophy in Athens and spent some time in Rome but lived for the most part and died in his native city (in AD 120). There he held both political and priestly offices. He had at least five children. Although his fame rests primarily on  The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, he wrote many other works besides it.

“Admired for their wisdom as well as for their information, his writings were long used as source books for anecdotes and moral exempla; they influenced the origins and development of the essay, the biography, and the writing of history; and it was from his Parallel Lives that the generally accepted images of the great historical figures of Greece and Rome were derived” (“Plutarch,” in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1974, Macropaedia volume 14, page 578).

The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans contains 46 biographies of Greek and Roman heroes in pairs chosen for their similarity of character or career and generally followed by a formal comparison. Composed in Plutarch’s later years, it displays impressive learning and research. His aim wasn’t to write history, which he distinguished from biography, but to provide his contemporaries with model examples of behaviour. However “in the course of writing he discovered that more and more it was himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from ‘lodging these men one after the other in his house.’” (biographical note in Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, volume 14 in Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page v)

“Plutarch is not just an ordinary of biography. He is uniquely the writer of comparisons which give us the liveliest understanding of ancient Greece and Rome. The men he compares are the great ones of their day‒the great bad ones as well as the great good ones. In his parallel lives and comparison of Numa and Lycurgus, we have two great benefactors of mankind‒two lawgivers. In his treatment of Alexander and Caesar, we have two great conquerors and ruthless seekers after power. And, there presenting us with their parallel lives, he leaves the comparison for us to draw.” Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 in The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 64)

7. The Bible’s Book of Job

The book of Job portrays the struggle of its main character, Job, to understand why he, a “blameless and upright” man who “feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), had lost his possessions, children, and health. Both what happens in the book and what Job and others say about what happens are relevant to what is commonly called “the problem of evil,” why there is evil and suffering in a world created and ruled over by an all-powerful and good God.

I’m considering the book of Job here guided by the study of it provided by Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff in An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, the first volume in Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Great Ideas Program (1959). Adler and Wolff divide their study into six sections: the book’s place in the Old Testament, its parts of the book, the problem that it deals with, solutions to the problem suggested in the book, a comparison of the book with Oedipus the King (considered in an earlier study in this series), and five specific questions about the book.

Here I’ll just share what Adler and Wolff say about the problem that the book deals with and the solutions to the problem suggested in the book and consider one of the five specific questions which they pose.

The Problem

Adler and Wolff open their presentation of the problem thus:

“The problem with which Job wrestles may be indicated by a very simple question: How are divine rewards and punishments allocated? Or, more agonizingly: why, in God’s universe, do the good sometimes suffer and the wicked prosper?” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 78).

They go on to demonstrate that there is no problem if there is no God, if God exists but is not always and in all respects good, or if God exists but is not all-powerful and conclude their presentation of the problem thus:

“We can see, therefore, that on the positive side the problem of divine rewards and punishments arises from the conception of one God, a God who is good, omniscient [all-knowing], omnipotent [all-powerful], and governs the universe. For such a God‒‒nd this is the God of the Old and New Testaments‒would be expected to reward the good and to punish the evil. Yet the daily experience of men shows that here on earth the opposite often appears to be the case.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 79)

Solutions to the Problem

Job’s three friends‒Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar‒solve the problem by claiming since that God punishes only the wicked but is punishing Job, Job must be wicked. Job denies that only the wicked are punished, showing that many of them prosper temporarily, and maintains his innocence (see especially chapter 31).

Finally God intervenes, speaking directly to Job. He makes two speeches, in the first enumerating the wonders of creation and in the second inviting Job to show his power. He then says to Eliphaz, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7).

Adler and Wolff comment:

“But what has God said? He said that he, Job, was just. This we know to be true, for we know that his punishment is not due to any transgression, but to God’s wager. [This is referring to God’s wager with Satan in chapters 1-2 of the book that Job would not speak evil of God even if God let Satan cause Job to lose his possessions, children, and health.] He has also said that God does not always punish the wicked; he often lets them prosper, but in the end he will cast them down.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 82)

But, as Adler and Wolff point out, this leaves Job and us wondering why God sometimes delays punishing the wicked and allows misery to happen to the just and leaves us wondering why God would engage in a wager with Satan. They add:

“If Job has spoken rightly, there is only one part of his last speech that can give us a hint: ‘Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know’ (Job 42:3). This confession of Job’s and man’s ignorance, of his inability to understand God’s ways comes, of course, after God’s speeches pointing to the many things that God can do and man cannot. They set the stage for this final admission of one more thing that God can do and man cannot: Govern the world.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, page 82)

A Question

One of the five specific questions which Adler and Wolff ask about the book of Job is, “How are God’s actions compatible with his goodness?” They answer:

“It may be that no man can be sufficiently good to deserve anything except punishment. But would it not be a surer sign of God’s goodness‒if not justice‒if God were to reward men like Job, who are as just as it is possible for men to be, rather than those who are clearly wicked?

“This is one of those shoals on which thought about God and his goodness always threatened to founder. Job did not understand the problem intellectually. Instead, when God speaks to him directly and shows him his own weakness and ignorance, he submits‒without understanding‒to God’s will (see 42:3).

“God’s providence, of course, extends beyond Job and his concerns. It takes in also his three friends; also Elihu [a young man who speaks between the conversation between Job and the three friends and God’s speeches to Job]; also Satan. Could it be argued that, at the price of the evil suffered by Job, good is brought into the world? That good might be the increased knowledge and humility of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, and Job himself; and also the humiliation of Satan.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, pages 84-85)

My personal response to “Could it be argued that, at the price of the evil suffered by Job, good is brought into the world?” is that although such could be argued, that doesn’t mean that all evil suffered by Christians occurs to bring about good any more than it occurs, as the three friends argued, as punishment for sins those Christians have committed. I think that it also occurs because of God’s allowing people to exercise free will and because of God’s allowing nature to take its course (feel free to ask me to expand on this). But how would you respond to Adler and Wolff’s original question and to their answer to it.

A few years ago the church small group which my wife and I attend studied what the book of Job says about the problem of evil. A report on our study appears at:

4. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

“Happiness is the theme of the first book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The fact that happiness is a subject of universal interest confirms Aristotle’s most fundamental insight about it: all men want to be happy, and everything else they want they seek as means of becoming happy. Among the things that men call good and strive for, happiness stands out as the one good which, if fully possessed, would leave a man satisfied and at rest. No one would call himself completely happy if anything essential to his well-being remained beyond his grasp. Happiness must, therefore, be the sum of all good things.”  (“Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics” in Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, volume 1 of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959, page 37)

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who was born in the small colonial town of Stagirus on the Aegean Sea near the Macedonian border in 384 B.C.; attended Plato’s Academy in Athens in 367-347; helped set up and taught in an academy in the newly-built town of Assus on the Asian side of the Aegean Sea in 347-44; moved to Mytilene, capital of the nearby island of Lesbos, where he studied natural history in 344-342; tutored Alexander (the Great) and studied/taught in Macedonia in 342-336; established and taught in a school in Athens called the Lycaeum in 336-23; and died in Chalcis (his mother’s hometown) in 322. Great Books of the Western World devotes two volumes to his writings, most of which represent lectures that he delivered at the Lycaeum.

Adler and Wolff devote the fourth reading in A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education to Book I of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. They compare it and the first two books of Plato’s The Republic, discuss what is the greatest good to Aristotle, and pose four questions on the reading. Here I’ll summarize the first two sections of their presentation and comment on two of the questions which they ask.

Nicomachean Ethics and Plato’s The Republic

“It will be instructive to compare the first book of the Nicomachean Ethics with the first two books of Plato’s Republic. Both are works dealing with morals or ethics; both contain the author’s best thought on these matters; and in both cases we read the introductory section.

“In spite of these similarities, there are obvious and sharp differences between these two works. The first to come to mind, perhaps, is the difference in style. Whereas Plato’s writing is always in the form of a dialogue, Aristotle’s never is. Consequently, it usually is a little harder to discern what is Plato’s thought is on a given subject than Aristotle’s. Plato never speaks to us in his own right but through the mouth of Socrates; and he usually chooses to have Socrates not as expounding a view, but as questioning others and extracting their point of view. In Aristotle’s works, on the other hand, whatever their difficulty may be in other respects, it is never unclear that it is Aristotle who is talking and presenting his views.

(Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 39)

Adler and Wolff go on to consider four other differences between Nicomachean Ethics and The Republic:

1. Plato uses the “What is justice?” as his beginning, but Aristotle uses “What is happiness?” Adler and Wolff suggest that the author’s beginning indicates what moral problem he considers most important.

2. Plato uses a political matter, the organization of the state, to explain a moral matter, but Aristotle proceeds from ethics to politics.

3. Because of its dialogue form Plato’s treatment of ethics is not systematic or complete, but Aristotle tries to treat it in a systematic and complete fashion. However, as Adler and Wolff observe, Plato’s omissions are only apparent, his treating the omitted topics in other dialogues

.4. Its division into books and chapters assures that Nichomachean Ethics has a clearer structure than The Republic with its dialogue form.

The Greatest Good

Adler and Wolff begin their discussion of the greatest good by quoting the openings of Chapters 1 and 2 of the reading:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good.” “If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for it own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 339).

But what is this chief or greatest good? Adler and Wolff answer this question by quoting the opening of Chapter 4 of the reading:

“Let us resume our inquiry and state, in view of the fact that all knowledge and every pursuit aims at some good … what is the highest of all goods achievable by action. Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness.” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 340)

But what is happiness? After quoting and commenting on three more passages from the reading, Adler and Wolff conclude:

“For Aristotle, therefore, the happy man leads a good life, he is not a man who has a good time. Having a good time, though often desirable and not necessarily bad, is a passing thing. It is a feeling of pleasure, and like all feelings or emotions it lacks just that quality of stability and sufficiency that marks happiness. “Happiness, in other words, is a moral quality for Aristotle, involving all virtues and all of a lifetime. Just because it is such a complete and completely satisfying thing, it is also hard to achieve; only the virtuous man can hope to achieve it.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 44)

Questions on the Reading

What is the role of external goods in happiness?

Adler and Wolff answer:

“Aristotle’s happiness is not an ascetic one. \he does not maintain that a destitute and sick man can be as happy as one who is materially and physically well off. This is especially interesting if we remember that happiness is an activity of the soul involving reason. It is sometimes supposed that thinking and being a philosopher are ‘other-worldly’ occupations and that a person following them will reject all worldly goods. But this is clearly not Aristotle’s view. Evidently, the happy man must have his share of each of the various kinds of goods.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 45)

Why does happiness involve “a complete life”?

After demonstrating that according to his definition of it happiness involves complete virtue and a complete life, Aristotle asks:

“Must no one at all, then, be called happy while he lives; must we … see the end? Even if we are to lay down this doctrine, is it also the case that a man is happy when he is dead? Or is not this quite absurd, especially for us who say that happiness is an activity?” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, page 345)

My response as an evangelical Christian is that although his or her life may include happiness and unhappiness, the Christian can always experience joy through the indwelling Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and moreover will have a full and joyous life after death.

3. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone

“… The deepest trait of our earthly existence may be that the element of tragedy enters into the lives of us all, even the happiest of mortals.

“These two tragedies of Sophocles help us to understand this. Though one is the story of a king and the other the story of a princess, what befalls them could befall any of us. Oedipus and Antigone are each confronted with a choice between alternatives, neither of which can possibly turn out well. Yet they must choose. There is no escaping that. Nor, having chosen, can they escape the consequences of their choice.

“… This is the tragic element which, once we see it writ large in the tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone, we can detect in out own lives and in the lives of those around us.”

Thus Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff introduce their guide to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone in the opening volume, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of Encyclopedia Britannica’s ten-volume The Great Idea Program. They go on to give a biographical note on Sophocles, consider Oedipus the King as a play, quote from what Aristotle says about tragedy, consider Antigone as a tragedy, and discuss several (nine!) questions about the two plays and tragedy in general.

Here I’ll just give a biographical note on Sophocles, identify the choices that Oedipus and Antigone had to make and provide links to the text of the two plays on the Internet so that you can find out how they chose and what happened as a result, and give one of the quotations that Adler and Wolff make from Aristotle and one the questions they pose on tragedy.

The Life of Sophocles

Sophocles was born about 496 B.C. and died in 406 B.C. Thus his life coincided with the rise and fall of Athens, his being born a few years before the victory over the Persians at Marathon (490) and dying just before the end of the disastrous Peloponnesian War with Sparta (404). When only fifteen or sixteen he was chosen to lead the Boys’ Chorus in celebrating the decisive Greek sea victory over the Persians at Salamis. In 442 he served as one of the treasurers responsible for collecting tribute money from the subject states of the Athenian Empire. In 440 he was elected one of ten generals, and he served with Pericles (the greatest leader of the time) in an expedition to bring a wavering ally back into line. He went on embassies, and in 413 (when 83) was one of the ten commissioners chosen to manage the affairs of the city after a terrible defeat in Sicily.

The Sophoclean tragedies are the most decisive facts in Sophocles’s life. He spent his last 65 years writing plays to be performed at the Great Dionysia festivals held annually in Athens. As early as 468, when he was only 28, he defeated the great Aeschylus in the festival playwriting competition. In all he wrote 123 dramas for the festival, competing 32 times (usually each competitor presented four plays at a festival) and winning at least 18 times. Only seven of his plays survive.

Sophocles’s epitaph honours his learning and wisdom and calls him “the favourite of the Graces and the Muses.”

Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King opens with a conversation between Oedipus, king of Thebes, and the priest of Zeus about the suffering which Thebes is experiencing. While they are talking, Creon (the brother of Oedipus’s wife, Iocasta) arrives bringing an answer from Phoebus (Apollo, the Greek god of the sun) to Oedipus’s inquiry about what he can do to deliver Thebes. Here is what Creon tells Oedipus:

“Phoebus our lord bids us plainly to drive out a defiling thing, which (he saith) hath been harboured in this land, and not to harbour it, so that it cannot be healed.… “By banishing a man, or by bloodshed in quittance of bloodshed, since it is that blood which brings the tempest on our city.… “Laius, king, was lord of our land before thou wast pilot of this State.… “He was slain; and the god now bids us plainly to wreak vengeance on his murderers‒whoever they be.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, in volume 5 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 100)

Oedipus tells Creon and the priest that he would seek vengeance for the land and the god. He sends a messenger to bring the seer Teiresias to use seer-lore to discover who the slayers of Laius were. Reluctantly Teiresias tells him:

“I say that thou are the slayer of the man whose slayer thou seeks. “[Moreover] I say that thou hast been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin, and seest not to what woe thou hast come.” (Sophocles, Oedipus the King, page 102)

Oedipus rejects Teiresias’s claim. However on investigation he discovers not only that he was one of the men who killed Laius, not knowing who he was, but also that Laius and his wife (Iocasta, now Oedipus’s wife) were Oedipus’s real parents. Oedipus’s being married to his mother is what Teiresias was referring to when he told Oedipus, “Thou has been living in unguessed shame with thy nearest kin.”

To find out how this could have happened and what Oedipus did on realizing it, read the play at


Antigone opens with a conversation between the two daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene, about Creon’s having provided one of their brothers, Eteocles, with a proper burial but decreed that the other brother, Polyneices, should not be buried. Antigone tells Ismene that she plans to bury Polyneices.

After Antigone and Ismene exit, the chorus of Theban elders and Creon, dressed as a king, enter. From their speeches we learn that Eteocles and Polyneices had killed each other in battle and Creon had become the new ruler. Also Creon explains his edict regarding them

: “Eteoles, who has fallen fighting for our city, in all renown of arms, shall be entombed, and crowned with every rite that follows the noblest dead to their rest. But for his brother, Ployneices‒who came back from exile, and sought to consume utterly with fire the city of his fathers’ gods‒sought to taste of kindred blood, and to lead the remnant into slavery; touching this man, it hath been proclaimed to our people that none shall grace him with sepulchre or lament, but leave him unburied, a corpse for birds and dogs to eat, a ghastly sight of shame.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 132)

Guards catch Antigone covering Polyneices with dust and bring her to Creon. She admits to him that she had done it despite knowing of the edict, defending herself thus:

“It was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the Justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven.… Die I must‒I knew that well (how should I not?‒even without thy edicts.… So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved.” (Sophocles, Antigone, page 135)

Creon affirms that Antigone will die for what she has done and, suspecting that Ismene had shared in plotting the burial, has her brought to him. Although Ismene had actually tried to dissuade Antigone from burying Polyneices, she tells Creon that she had done the deed and would share the punishment. Creon orders that Antigone and Ismene be confined while they await their being put to death.

Conversations follow between Creon and his son (Haemon), Antigone, and Teiresias (the blind prophet). Haemon, to whom Ismene is betrothed, tells Creon that the people of the city sympathize with Antigone and asks him to spare her (and Ismene); Creon refuses, and Haemon departs after telling Creon that he’ll never see Haemon again. Creon confirms to Antigone that she is going to be confined in a rocky vault until she dies. Teiresias tells Creon that the gods are displeased with his not allowing the corpse of Polyneices to be buried and that as a result a child of his will shortly become a corpse.

To find out what Creon does in response to Teiresias’s message and what else happens, read the play at


Adler and Wolff observe that Aristotle in On Poetics draws on Oedipus the King more than on any other play to illustrate his points. They quote this passage:

“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity.… It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness.… Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery, [Adler and Wolff also quote Aristotle’s explanation of how none of the three inspires pity or fear.] There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g., Oedipus … and the men of note of similar families.” (Aristotle, On Poetics, in volume 9 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 687)

Considering that according to Aristotle tragedy should arouse pity and fear in the spectators, Adler and Wolff ask why we enjoy seeing tragedies performed They answer:

“The answer must involve some considerations of the kinds of pleasure. It is clear, for instance, that enjoyment of comedy and enjoyment of tragedy are of different kinds. Perhaps it would not be wrong to say that the enjoyment of tragedy is more intellectual than other pleasures. It is certainly not a simple pleasure like a feeling of bodily well-being.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 34)

How would you answer the question?

1. Socrates in Plato’s Apology and Crito

“Plato’s report of the trial of Socrates and of his last days in prison vividly dramatizes for us one of the moving moments in the history of the human race. The charges brought against Socrates by the Athenians of his day typify the accusations which, in other countries and at other times, have been leveled against men who have been single-minded in their adherence to ideals that have set them apart from the society in which they lived.” (Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff, volume 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program, Encyclopedia Britannica: 1959, page 1)

Plato was a Greek philosopher who composed a number of dialogues in which an earlier philosopher, Socrates, discusses philosophical topics with various people. In this post I’ll consider two of those dialogues, the Apology on the trial of Socrates and the Crito on his last days in prison. In previous posts I’ve considered the first five of the ten books in Plato’s The Republic, in which he through Socrates discusses justice and the state..

I’ll base my consideration of the Apology and the Crito on Adler and Wolff’s study of them in The Great Ideas Program, the opening of which I quoted above. Their study is divided into three sections: the first on the relationship between Plato and Socrates and the background to Socrates’ trial and execution, the second on the picture that Socrates gives of himself in his defence, and the third on six specific questions about the Apology and the Crito. However I’ll substitute a sketch of the life of Socrates for their first section and include only the first four of the six questions they asked in their third section.

The Life of Socrates

Socrates was born about 470 B.C., the son of Sophroniscus, possibly a worker in stone, and Phaenarete, a midwife. His family couldn’t have been very poor because they were able to provide him with enough financial resources to serve as a fully-armed hoplite in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. However his later absorption in philosophy and his mission (see the next paragraph) made him neglect his private affairs and fall to a level of relative poverty. He probably loved philosophy more than his family, Xanthippe (whom he apparently married late in life) and their three sons.

The following description of Socrates’ mission is taken from The Columbia Encyclopedia (sixth edition, Columbia University Press, 2000):

“Socrates became convinced that his calling was to search for wisdom about right conduct by which he might guide the intellectual and moral improvement of the Athenians. Neglecting his own affairs, he spent his time discussing virtue, justice, and piety wherever his fellow citizens congregated.… In his self-appointed task as gadfly to the Athenians, Socrates made many enemies.” (page 2645)

In 399 Socrates was brought `to trial for neglecting the gods whom the city worshipped and for corrupting the young. He treated the charge with contempt and was convicted. The prosecutors asked for a penalty of death, and Socrates suggested a small fine. His claim to be a public benefactor incensed the court, and death was voted for by an increased majority. Because no execution could take place in the absence of the sacred ship sent yearly to Delos, Socrates was in prison for a month, receiving his friends daily, An escape was planned by those friends, but Socrates refused to take advantage of their kind offer on the grounds that such a course would be contrary to his principles.

Socrates’ Picture of Himself

Observing that “hardly anyone can read the account [of the trial] without feeling that a grave injustice was done,” Adler and Wolff suggest that “we may do well to examine how we ourselves would react to Socrates … if he were brought to trail in our time.” (The quotations are from Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, pages 4-5.)

Both in his defence and, after his being condemned, his response to the requirement that he suggest a penalty for himself, Socrates was uncompromising, asserting that he would never change but would continue his offensive ways.

“Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting any one whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend,‒a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens,‒are you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

“If I tell you that to do as you say [go into exile and hold my tongue] would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard to persuade you.” (Plato, Apology, in volume 7 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, pages 206 and 210 respectively)

Adler and Wolff comment:

“We may imagine, without considering the rightness of the doctrines involved, the effect such intransigence would have on a court or investigating committee in a ‘cold war’ situation where a Communist in a Capitalist country not only refused to recant but announced his determination to continue his ‘subversive’ activities; or, of course, the effect of such a position taken by a Capitalist in a Communist country.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 5)

Questions about the Apology and the Crito

Should an unjust law be obeyed?

Adler and Wolff explain that by an “unjust law” they mean a law that commands some unjust action or prohibits some just action. A contemporary example would be a Christian minister’s being required to marry individuals of the same biological sex. Adler and Wolff ask:

“What is a conscientious citizen to do about laws he really believes to be unjust? Should he disobey them? Or are there reasons for obeying even an unjust law?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

What can be done when a law is unjustly applied?

Sometimes a just and good law is unjustly applied. Adler and Wolff cite the example of the Dreyfus case in France in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully convicted of treason and condemned to life imprisonment (eventually he was exonerated, Adler and Wolff ask:

“How, first of all, can [a citizen] be certain that a law has been justly applied? … When someone has been duly tried and been found guilty by a jury, we assume that justice has been done. But juries and judges are men and men are fallible.” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 7)

“There is a second problem. Suppose that there is … no doubt that the wrong man has been accused, what are we to do? Does the duty of the citizen demand obedience or disobedience?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)

What are a citizen’s duties and responsibilities when a law is unjustly made?

A law may be just in content but imposed as a decree instead of by due legislative process. What should a citizen do?

Was Socrates justified in disobeying an explicit command, because it was unjust?

In the Apology, Socrates disobeyed a command:

“When the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to put him to death. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in word only but in deed, that … I cared not a straw for death, and that my great and only care was lest I should do an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end.” (Socrates speaking in Plato, Apology, page 207)

Yet in the Crito, he refused to disobey the laws when Crito offered to help him escape from prison (and death). Adler and Wolff ask:

“Can we reconcile [Socrates’] support of the law in the Crito with his asserted intention, in the Apology, to obey God rather than his judges?” (Adler and Wolff, A General Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 8)

14. American State Papers

The Declaration of Independence, the document declaring the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from British rule, was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, it affirms the natural rights of man and the doctrine of government by contract, which the Continental Congress felt had been repeatedly violated by King George III. The Constitution of the United States of America, the document defining the principal organs of American government and their jurisdictions, was drafted by the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, after the ninth state had ratified it, was declared in effect by Congress on March 4, 1789. It consists of seven articles and numerous amendments, the latter affirming the basic rights of citizens as well as clarifying and updating the content of the articles. The Federalist consists of articles appearing in New York newspapers from October 1897 to April 1788 urging the people of the state of New York to ratify the Constitution. Its chief author was Alexander Hamilton, but some of its articles were contributed by James Madison (whose role in framing the Constitution was such that he is often called the “Father of the Constitution”) and some by John Jay; however all of its articles are signed “Publius.”

Mortimer J. Adler and Peter Wolff conclude the introduction to their consideration of the three “American state papers” in volume 1, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, of The Great Ideas Program (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1959) with this comment about The Federalist:

“The adult who reads The Federalist for the first time will enjoy the sense of acquiring an understanding of his government which should be the property of every citizen. More than that, he will be struck by the clarity and power of both the thought and the writing. They exemplify the common level of political discourse in the days when this republic was formed. The articles which comprise The Federalist were current political journalism in the years 1787-1789. They were written for newspaper readers. If we contemplate that fact, and compare the level of their style and substance with that of political speeches, articles, or journalism in our own day, we are compelled to wonder about the education of our political leaders as well as of our citizens today.” (Adler and Wolff, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education, page 160)

Adler and Wolff go on to put the three papers in their historical context, to show how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people (favoured by Jefferson) and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power (favoured by the Federalists), to consider the remedy proposed by Madison in The Federalist to deal with faction in a popular government, to show how the Constitution provides for the separation of the powers of government, and to discuss four other questions about the papers. I opened this post by putting the papers in historical context, and in the rest of the post I’ll summarize what Adler and Wolff say about how the Constitution displays both the tendency to give power and responsibility to the people and the tendency to safeguard against the uses to which people might put such power, about Madison’s remedy for faction in a popular government, and about how the Constitution provides for the separation of powers. However I won’t share here from their discussion of the four other questions.

The Constitution a Compromise between Two Opposed Tendencies

Jefferson favoured placing power and responsibility in the hands of the people as far as possible, but the Federalists wanted safeguards against the uses to which the people might put such power. The Constitution contains many evidences of these two opposed tendencies. Adler and Wolff identify these three: (1) the Congress of the United States consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives with the House of Representatives’s being elected by the people and having its seats up for election every two years, but the Senate’s being chosen by the state legislatures instead of being elected by the people (this was changed by the thirteenth amendment) and having only a third of its seats changed at each election; (2) the President is elected by the people rather than by the state legislatures or governors, but the election is indirect with the people’s electing electors who in turn elect the president; and (3) only the House of Representatives can initiate bills having to do with money matters (presumably because taxation is to go along with representation), but only the Senate is consulted in matters of foreign policy (presumably because it is not subject to sudden and disastrous whims). Adler and Wolff explain how each of the three represents a compromise between the two tendencies.

Dealing with Faction in a Popular Government

In The Federalist, No. 10, Madison deals with the problem of internal instability, and faction in popular governments. Here is how he describes the problem:

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens…that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” (The Federalist in volume 43 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 49)

Madison blames the problem on factions, groups of citizens which try to control the government for their own special interests rather than for the common good. He says that we can prevent this either by eliminating the causes of factions or by controlling their effects. Factions can be eliminated “by destroying the liberty which is essential to [their] existence” or “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests” (The Federalist, page 50). However the first remedy is unwise, liberty’s being essential to political life, and the second remedy is clearly impossible. Thus he concludes that the way to deal with factions is to realize that they will always be with us and to concentrate on dealing with their effects.

Observing that a faction becomes dangerous when it becomes the majority in a popular government, Madison proposes a way to prevent a faction from becoming the ruling power‒having republican rather than democratic government. He points out these differences between a democracy and a republic:

“first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended” (The Federalist, pages 52-52).

And he claims that delegates will often recognize the true interest of the country better than the people themselves could and that a larger country suffers less from the evils of factions than a small one because it takes in a greater variety of parties and interests.

The Separation of the Powers of Government

The separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers is a basic provision of the Constitution. Locke mentions the separation of powers, but the doctrine that it is all-important for free government stems from Montesquieu. After explaining how liberty is threatened by the uniting of the legislative powers in the same person or body or the joining of the judicial with either of them, he affirms, “There would be an end of everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals” (Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, in volume 38 of Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952, page 70).

However, despite the importance of the separation of powers in the Constitution, there is considerable mixing of government powers (the so-called system of checks and balances). Although some mixture of powers is defensible, they should for the most part be kept separate. How can this be done? The Federalist answers:

“The only answer that can be given is, that as all these exterior provisions are found to be inadequate, the defect must be supplied, by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper place….

“In order to lay a due foundation for that separate and distinct exercise of the different powers of government, which to a certain extent is admitted on all hands to be essential to the preservation of liberty, it is evident that each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others….

“It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices….

“But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defence must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counterattack ambition. The interest of the man must ve connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” (The Federalist, pages 162-163)