What Socrates really died of

What did Socrates really die of? Stockholm Syndrome:

“Are you [Crito] so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the course and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland order, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?” (Plato, Crito 51a-b, trans. Woods and Pack)

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Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).

Stoicism’s Linguistic Turn

Yesterday I posted on the psycho-physical monism of the Stoics and the resulting, less substantive, more relational ontology it entailed.  It is this view of things as having their existence wholly determined by their divinely fated place within the causal nexus of the psycho-physical universe that is mirrored in the Stoics’ philosophy of language.[1] On the Stoics modified semantic triangle, what provides the meaning behind our words or statements are, again, not eternal “ideas” (as per Plato), nor even intellectual “thoughts” (as per Aristotle), but what the Stoics called lekta, a term whose meaning is difficult to ascertain, but which has been various described as the semantic content, the intellectual intention, or a mental linguistic utterance of the things that we verbally say or write. As such, the Stoics seems to have viewed the lekta as an intermediate or hybrid reality between words and pure thought and which as such do not properly “exist” so much as they “subsist” as intramental states of mind and what, because of their materialistic monism amounts to the same thing, “an operational modification by the human material body.”[2] On this “de-psychologized semantics,” as Umberto Eco has described it, the Stoic lekton represents not an ontologically distinct thought or idea, but an indefinite “position within a [semantic] system, the result of an abstract segmentation of the noetic field, a cultural unit…”[3] We rely upon other words, in other words, to largely determine the meaning of our words, a Stoic insight that Eco hails as an unprecedented discovery of “the provisional and unstable nature of the sign-function” and which Milbank commends as “a theory which tends to identify thought with language.”[4] Thus, just as the being and identity of things for the Stoics is a function of their ordained position and role within the divine pyscho-physical causal web that is the existing universe, so the meanings of words is a consequence of their position within the semantic web that is a given system of language.[5] This leads to a further consequence of the substitution of the Stoic lekton in the place of the Platonic and Aristotelian idea, namely a shift from viewing linguistic meaning in terms of a hierarchical and linear model of dictionary-like denotation and semantic “equivalence,” to a more indeterminate model of connotative association and semantic “inference.” As Milbank puts it, the Stoic lekton, “as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… the Stoic conception of meaning [is not one of] equivalence (of sense and object) but rather as a fated connotative or inferential ‘tension.’”[6] To bring this discussion at last to bear on the issues of primary concern in this book, the doctrine of the lekton helped the Stoics avoid the error Derrida, for example, attributes to the Platonic tradition, namely (in Milbank’s words) the “delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.”[7] Or in more modal terms, in contrast to the semantic possibilism (as we might term it) of the Platonic and Aristotelian semantic triangle, according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought or eternal ideas that supplies the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic lekton implies a semantic actualism according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence which are available to be connoted within a given linguistic or semantic system.


[1] Colish, Mirror of Language, 11, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 31.

[4] Ibid., 30, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 90.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89. Milbanks remarks here follow those of Andreas Graeser, who writes how “the Stoics conceived the total sum of existence in terms of a moving continuum and thus were not likely to conceive of the denotations of meaningful expressions as natural classes of extra-linguistic entities.” Graeser, “The Stoic Theory of Meaning,” 80.

[7] Ibid., 60.

Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.


[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

For Derrida, John Milbank writes (The Word Made Strange), human writing is actually prior to human speech: “Speech, according to Derrida, tends to make us imagine that all meaning is fully ‘present’, in the manner that the speaking self and her or his interlocutor appears to to be. It is this phenomenon which encourages the further delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.” (For an example of this “delusion” of the priority of idea over linguistic expression, see my recent post on Robert Kilwardby’s critique of St. Anselm.) For Derrida, this realization “ends the Platonic domination of Western culture in which the illusion of the fully present idea encourages the belief that we can grasp reality in its totality.” But while Derrida is therefore “anti-Platonic in the sense that he takes the signifying trace to be an absolutely original moment,” Milbank acutely observes that, in another sense, Derrida “secretly remains Platonic…” For Plato, after all, “any realization of the idea in the concrete sign is taken as a lapse from an original completeness.” For Derrida, however, the fact that there simply is no original idea, only an original sign whose meaning is itself mediated and so deferred by yet another sign, and so on, means that the same tragic “‘lapse’, involving deception and concealment” lamented by Plato in the concrete sign is held to no less infect the origin of meaning.

It was against this Platonic, but now also Derridaean tragic metaphysics that I pitted Tolkien’s own approach to myth and meaning in a post from some time back, which I repeat here. One significant point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). What thinks accounts overlook, however, is that for Plato, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine, and without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

To return, then, to the above discussion of Derrida and Plato, one might say that Tolkienian myth (not unlike the Anselmian locutio), through an understanding of the original donum that is God’s gift of creation ex nihilo, achieves a true “supplement at the origin,” and a différance that makes a difference.

Parmenides, Modal Metaphysician

The philosopher regarded by some as the first metaphysician and modal theoretician to reflect systematically on the nature of possibility, necessity, and impossibility is the Greek presocratic philosopher and founder of the “Eleatic” school of philosophy, Parmenides, born around 515 BC. His one surviving work, On Nature, is a fragmentary poem describing the poet’s mystical journey by chariot to the temple of an unnamed goddess who instructs him in the two ways in which human beings approach reality, the “Way of Truth” and the flawed “Way of Appearance” or mere “Opinion” (doxa). In her discourse on the Way of Truth, the goddess further distinguishes three ways in which reality may be thought about or conceived: “that it is and must be,” “that it is not and it cannot be,” and “that to be and not to be are the same yet not the same.”

What Parmenides meant by these three paths (along with much else in his opaque and oracular poem) has been the subject of much debate, but one interpretation relevant to the history of the possibles has seen his three-fold path as an early distinction between the three modal categories of necessity, impossibility, and possibility, respectively.[1] On this reading, Parmenides’s “what is and must be” refers to those things which are necessary, “what is not and cannot be” to those things that are deemed to be impossible, and the intermediate realm of “what both is and is not” is presumably his way of characterizing the merely possible.


[1] Merrill Ring relates Parmenides’s interest in modality to the likelihood of his mathematical training among the Pythagoreans:

If, as there is good evidence for, he did begin his intellectual career among the Pythagoreasn, he was there exposed to sophisticated mathematical thought. One clear and obvious feature of mathematical discussion is frequent use of the various modal notions. For instance, an early mathematical discovery was that the result of multiplying any integer by 2 has to be an even number. A more complicated realization was that it is impossible to construct a right triangle whose hypotenuse is shorter than iether of the other twos sides. Even possiblity is easily spotted in mathematicians’ talks: “Can (say) 2,372 be divided by 3 without remainder?”

Very probably, Parmenides’ interest in modal concepts arose from his exposure to the frequent use of those notions in the mathematical work of the Pythagoreans. (Ring 91).

Deism in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë?

Metaphysics of the Music, part 12

While there are a number of factors mitigating the inherently tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change which Verlyn Flieger finds embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery, she does draw attention to an integral and well-recognized sense of loss that permeates Tolkien’s mythology and which, as a consequence, represents an important qualification to the very different metaphysical mood I will be attributing to Tolkien in the argument to follow. Where I think Flieger goes astray, however, is when she implies that this tragic sensibility, admittedly present in Tolkien’s mythical history, is also present in his creation-myth and metaphysics. Thus, on the one hand, Flieger quite rightly observes that the “whole concept [of the world] belongs to Eru alone,” and that therefore “[i]n fulfilling his purpose, the Valar are already at one remove from his wholeness, for they bring to the world not light but lights, a variety of lights of differing kinds…” (Splintered Light 60). Going beyond this, on the other hand, is Flieger’s point, made in the context of her own comparison of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë to Plato’s Timaeus, as to how the process of creation and sub-creation involves a progressive alienation between the Creator and his ever-more distant effects. The Valar, according to Flieger, are “dividing the world from Eru, assisting in a process of separation through which Eru and the world can contemplate each other” (55, emphasis original). The theological consequence of this for Flieger is the metaphysically and theologically tragic one in which the Creator emerges as “a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” who has “little or no direct interaction in his world” and who leaves it to his sub-created vassals “to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants” (53-4).