To what extent do you think an individual’s gender and ethnic background should be considered in evaluating his or her philosophical beliefs?
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1. Do you think that all knowledge is really just a matter of opinion? (Be honest.) If you do, how do you explain scientific and technological progress? If you do not think that all knowledge is really just a matter of opinion, how do you account for the persistence of different religions, moralities, and political ideals?
2. To what extent do you think an individual’s gender and ethnic background should be considered in evaluating his or her philosophical beliefs?
1. What are some of the difficulties you might encounter by trying to follow the Eightfold Path? What, for example, might consist of “wrong livelihoods” (or “wrong college majors”)? Are there some jobs that no truly enlightened person could perform? What determines whether an occupation (or college major) is right?
2.Write a reflective essay on the concept of “unsatisfactoriness” as it relates to Buddhist teaching.
3. Which of the three sages did you find the most compelling and why?
4. Based what you’ve read so far, can you think of any contemporary examples of sages? If you can, what specific qualities or teachings impress you as sage like? How does this sage differ from Lao-tzu, Confucius and the Buddha?
5. The tension between “beliefs” and “facts” recurs throughout the history of Western philosophy and explodes in our time in the form of challenges to the very possibilities of objectivity and universality. Can you sport signs of this division in current affairs? Religion? Politics? Among your friends? Which side of the fence are you on? Do you think the problem has a solution that is fair to both sides?
6. Interestingly, the concept of a mean serves as the basis for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, one of the most influential moral philosophies in the Western philosophical tradition. Compare Aristotle’s more linear characterization of the mean with Confucius’s more holistic or poetic one. Why do you suppose two of the most influential moral philosophers of all time stressed moderation and balance as the basis for human well-being and happiness?
7. In broad strokes, human history can almost be reduced to an ongoing struggle between two distinct approaches to managing human affairs. One advocates minimal governance—managing by not managing—and the cultivation of healthy (natural) instincts. The other calls for the inculcation of formal manners and habits of repression combined with rules and regulations governing all aspects of our lives. See if you can find examples of each in contemporary politics, education, or parenting. Do you think one approach is (generally) superior to the other? Why? Do you agree that these two approaches to life seem to persist throughout history?
8. The notion of the noble or great soul has intrigued philosophers from Confucius’s time to our own. Does it have any resonance for you? Is the concept of the petty or inferior soul clearer? If it is, why do you suppose it is easier to come up with examples of pettiness than of nobility? What do you think Confucius was really saying in his reply to the rapacious official?
9. Compare what Marcus Aurelius says about “the perpetual renewing of the world’s youthfulness” with Buddha’s insight that the whole universe is “forever moving from one form to another.” To what philosophical and personal use do Marcus and the Buddha put their notions in this regard?
1. How do you think it would go over today if we treated philosophers, preachers, and anyone who professes not to value money and wealth as much as integrity, honor, God, or truth as if they mean what they say and hold them personally and legally accountable for living like they talk?
2. Make a convincing case that advertisers are Sophists. What would nonsophistic advertising be like? Do you agree that advertisers are Sophists? Explain.
3. Discuss Protagoras’s notion that disagreements can be “cured.”
4. Is there a contradiction involved in the way the Sophists present their doctrine that “might makes right”? Can you present a better version of it?
5. Is there any way to refute the idea that might makes right? Explain why or why not.
6. Suppose that relativism is true. How would this belief change the practice of moral criticism?
7. Is it reasonable—or fair—to judge a person’s philosophical claims in terms of behavior? Do we trivialize “being” a philosopher—or “being” a Christian or Muslim or liberal or conservative—when we make a radical distinction between persons and their beliefs?
1. Discuss some of the pros and cons of personal education versus commercialized education. Try to consider a variety of factors: efficiency; effects of money on pupils, teachers, teachers, and institutions; mediocrity; conformity. Do you agree that it is wrong to “sell wisdom”? Is it realistic to expect teachers (or philosophers) to teach for free, for love only? Can’t any source of financial support lead to bias? Must it? (page 76)
2. Can you think of any ways you are ethnocentric? What are some close parallels between Athens of the fifth century B.C.E. and America after September 11, 2001?
3. Analyze Protagoras’ speech. Has he convinced you? Explain. See if you can identify the trick used by both Protagoras and his pupil in the Wager.
4. Is “might makes right” the only explanation for social changes like the civil rights movements? Could other factors besides self-interest account for a shift in basic social values? What factors? Is anything lost by accepting a might-makes-right interpretation? Is anything gained? Explain.
5. Is some part of you stirred by all this talk of power and superiority? The Sophist would say that if you can be honest, you’ll answer in the affirmative. What might prevent you (in the Sophists’ view) from admitting that you agree with them? Are they correct? Even if you personally reject Callicles’ position, how common do you think it is? Lastly, what do you think of the Sophists’ overall assessment of the way society really operates? Are they onto something or not? What’s your evidence?
1. One of my college friends resembled Socrates. I first noticed him in the cafeteria. I thought he was one of the most unfortunate-looking persons I had ever seen. He knew some acquaintances of mine, and so I eventually met him. I initially felt uncomfortable even being around him because of his looks, I’m sorry to say. But, slowly I discovered an intelligent, funny, kind, strong, and courageous man. Over the years of our friendship, I lost the capacity to see him as ugly. Sadly, the converse has been true in my experience as well. A beautiful or handsome countenance that belongs to a slothful or self-centered or shallow or cruel person over time becomes less handsome or beautiful to me. Have you noticed this pattern in yourself? Analyze it, if you have.
2. What do you think of Socrates’ views on self-control? Does the current concern with healthy diets, exercise, and so on seem to be in line with what Socrates thought, or are we, perhaps, overdoing it or acting from love of beauty, not self-control? Discuss.
3. How might we explain the fact that many churches and schools are luxurious? Don’t both educators and preachers (not to mention gurus and therapists) say that material success does not guarantee happiness? Don’t many of them say that the life of the mind or soul is most important? Why, then, do they live as if they don’t believe it? There are plenty of famous examples of this inconsistency. Discuss one or two of them. If the Socratic view is wrong, why do so many people give it lip service?
4. Can you think of other paradigmatic individuals? Remember, a paradigmatic individual is more than a merely influential teacher, adviser, social reformer, or significant religious figure. Do you think that contemporary America, with its present diversity, can produce archetypal philosophers? Or must each community or ethnic group have its own human paradigms? What qualities do you think a contemporary American sophos must possess?
5. Statistically, poorer, less-educated people make up a disproportionate segment of our prison population. Just how relevant to Thrasymachus’ position is it that white-collar and celebrity criminals are often punished less severely than poor or obscure defendants are? Other studies suggest that physically attractive job candidates are most likely to be hired. Have you ever noticed how some students seem to get by mostly on cleverness and charm? Should we draw conclusions about the nature of justice from these cases or just chalk them up to the way things sometimes go? Try to separate our lip-service moral values from those we practice. Try to separate a storybook conception of life from a realistic one. Are moral realists onto something or not? Explain.
6. Do some informal research among your friends to get a sense of some contemporary conceptions of the soul. Compare and contrast what you discover with Socrates’ conception of the psyche. How might a person’s conception of the soul influence his or her response to the issue of the unexamined life?
7. Socrates claims that an unexamined life is not worth living. What do you think it means to live an examined life? Do you agree that a life with self-examination is not worth living?
8. Have you ever met a highly educated specialist (physician, biochemist, psychologist, philosophy teacher, preacher) who thinks nothing of pontificating on the economy, sex education, or how you should raise your child? Discuss in light of Socratic statements concerning human wisdom.
9. Compare Socrates’ attitude toward the soul with your own—and with that of your religion, if you practice one. What do you see as the main differences? What are some advantages and disadvantages of Socrates’ view?
10. Do you agree that no one knowingly does evil? Explain.
11. If all evil is ignorance, can we ever justly punish evildoers? Discuss.
1. As persistent voting controversies make clear, Americans have reason to be wary of requirements for voting. In the past, voting requirements have been used to prevent women and people of certain ethnic groups from voting. On the other hand, a case might be made that by not having some minimal standard of preparedness and awareness, we make a mockery of “choosing.” How can an ignorant voter “choose” anything? Does “choosing” matter? Can I be truly free if I am uninformed and ignorant? Discuss from both sides.
2. Reflect on the following objection to the preceding paragraphs: “The glass bead example is only playing with semantics. When we talk about two physical objects being ‘identical,’ we don’t mean literally identical–we mean so similar that human beings are unable to distinguish one object from the other. Obviously we can distinguish different things from each other when they’re right next to each other. But if we find no differences when we analyze them one at a time, we are justified in saying that they are identical, ‘indistinguishable’! Identical means indistinguishable to human beings; that is, so closely resembling each other that we cannot tell them apart.” How might Plato answer this objection?
3. Is it possible to know that no one does know? Is it possible to know that no one does know that no one does know? Is it possible to know that no one can know that no one does know? How do you know? Or, how do you know that you don’t know?
4. Compare Plato’s use of similes to show that there are levels of knowledge with John Stuart Mill’s more “ordinary” argument regarding levels of knowledge in judgments of quality (Chapter 12). Which approach seems most compelling, if either does? Assess.
5. The Allegory of the Cave has intrigued students of Plato since it first appeared. Do you think it fairly expresses the way we experience knowledge? For instance, in childhood, everything is black and white, but with experience, we discover rich nuances and hues, as it were. What level are you on? Society in general? The world? Explain. Do you believe in levels of reality? In enlightenment? Why or why not?
6. Consider the family as a functional system: If young children are allowed to spend the money, determine bedtimes, and so on, the whole family suffers. If the parents try to live like children, the whole family suffers. If every family member is free to pick and choose what he or she feels like doing or not doing every day, there can be no family. You might try similar analyses of marriages, churches, schools, or factories. Discuss the need for hierarchy, authority, and a governing power.
7. Do you agree with Plato that democracy is incompatible with self-discipline? What sort of self-discipline do you think Plato was concerned about?
8.Can you spot any symptoms in our society of the pattern Plato attributes to injustice in individuals and the state? Can you identify individuals or groups that “fall into sickness and dissension at the slightest provocation”? What–if anything–does justice (or a lack of justice) have to do with these reactions? Explain.
9. Do you think things like laws against hate speech and fundamentalist reactions against “the excesses of Western democracy” support Plato’s argument that the inevitable result of democracy is “too much liberty” and that widespread “abuses” of liberty lead to demands for “law and order” and, ultimately, tyranny? What other examples can you think of to buttress Plato’s case? What examples to weaken it? (As you ponder this, note that calls for restrictions on personal freedom come from both liberal and conservative thinkers.)
1. Discuss some of the common obstacles to becoming a fully functioning, balanced, individual.
2. As an example of the importance of luck in the good life, think about this Aristotelian maxim (derived from Solon): “Count no man happy until he is dead.” Aristotle taught that a good life can be marred by a bad death. Discuss this general idea and then tie it to our present attitudes toward death, dying, euthanasia, and the all-too-frequent instances of individuals kept barely alive, condemned to spend their last months or years in nursing homes. Do you agree with Aristotle that a bad death or dying can transform a good life into a bad one? Or do you think that biological life is sacred—period?
3. Consider Aristotle’s position carefully here. It might conform more closely to our true feelings about virtue than our sentimental and idealistic platitudes imply. We might be taught that “virtue is its own reward” but how many of us really think as highly of a “good” person who hides away from the world as we do of someone who has faults and makes mistakes, but gets out there and gets involved in life. Is being “good” really enough?
4. Study and discuss Table 6.1, Aristotelian Virtues and Vices, using principles from the Nicomachean Ethics and the concept of the mean. Then add and discuss your own examples of virtues and vices.
1. Stop for a moment and reflect on this: Is it possible to be calm under all circumstances? Or do certain circumstances force us to be distressed and agitated? Why do some people seem happy in horrible circumstances, while others suffer in the midst of being loved, healthy, and financially well-off? Do you think happiness is mostly a matter of attitude or not? Discuss.
2. Do you agree that the test of faith is anxiety? Are the Stoics correct in insisting that one who truly realizes that everything is governed by a divine plan will lose all fear and anxiety? Justify your position.
3. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of disinterestedness. When is it a virtue? When is it not? Give some examples and explain them.
4. Reflect on letting go in the sense of doing what seems right and then relaxing. Provide a few of your own examples of how fear of consequences and an obsession with control can affect us. Discuss ways for identifying and striking a balance between letting go in a wise way and in an irresponsible way.
5. By some estimates, 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Some 95 percent of those who try to lose and maintain a clinically healthy weight will fail. Could being obese be part of a person’s fate? Could being an alcoholic? Sexually promiscuous? Lazy? As more and more behaviors are linked to genetics, how can we distinguish between defects of character and things not in our control?
6. Discuss the preceding passage from Epictetus about relationships. What lessons might it offer regarding our relationships and the things that make us unhappy?
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