Merry Christmas

I HOPE YOU ALL having a great Christmas. Takes awhile acoming – then it’s gone in a flash!


Did you know that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was not Rudolph at all. She was Rudolphina. Yes, she was female. Why? Because only female reindeers still have their antlers (not horns) at Christmas. They grow them in the summer and lose them in the spring after giving birth.

Male reindeers also grow them in the summer but lose them around the end of November/mid-December.   There’s more: female reindeers (Cervidae) are the only female deer that grow antlers – you won’t find them on any other species of  female deer.


That means we have to rename some of the Chritsmas gang. Dasher, Dancer,
Prancer, Vixen, Comet (who can tell the difference between a male/female comet fish?) can all keep their names. Cupid – as a male god of love, the closest female version of him is probably Venus. Donner becomes Donna, and Blitzen …. hmmm …. let’s stay with that, just don’t argue with her.


There goes Santa and the girls (Rudolphina appears to be is missing)

The Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry (real name Orvon Grover Autry – yes, I’d change it as well), first made the ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ song a No 1 hit in December 1949.  Autry’s recording sold 1.75 million copies its first Christmas season, eventually selling a total of 12.5 million. Cover versions included, sales exceed 150 million copies, second only to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.  Such information!

Gene Autry

Orvon ‘Gene’ Autry (1907-98)

I wish you all a Happy New Year


FOLLOWING ON from Socrates last week, let’s have a brief look at one of his students, Plato.

Plato was born of an Athenian aristocratic family and his philosophy was a continuation of the theories of Socrates. In fact, Socrates was used by Plato as the main participant in his early dialogues and it is not always certain whether it is Plato’s or Socrates’ thoughts that are quoted (as they everything Socrates allegedly said was written down by Plato – but you knew that from last week). They were more likely developments of Socrates’ views.


Plato (427-347 BC)

Plato’s best known work is his Republic which is based on his idea of justice. The Greek word for justice is dikaiosune and it involves the idea to act rightly in one’s own dealings with others – social virtue of ‘par excellence’ – or, perhaps, ‘morality’.  Plato considered a just man will not harm anyone, in any sense. Justice was a virtue that regulated our relationship with others and we will be judged on that relationship.


“We believe in Justice”

In The Republic, Plato attempted to find a solution to Socrates’ theory that nobody willingly does wrong. He divided the mind or soul into two parts which could be in conflict with each other, to create a balance. In other words, one part of the mind knew good but it may not be able to control the other part of the mind. He clarified this by saying that, in effect, self-controlled people are those whose sense of reason was in control of their desires. However, not all people had this self-control: they may know what was good, by their reason, but their baser desires seek something else under the misapprehension that it was good. That baser desire defeated the reason and a bad action or vice was the result rather than virtue.

self control

Another theory

Plato developed the ideal within the soul and then divided it into three parts:

(i)  Reason – which is wisdom, the rational part.

(ii) Spirit – which is courage, the emotional part.

(iii) Temperance – which is harmony and justice.

One must come to terms with all three factors within oneself to discover true virtue. He regarded it as a form of physical health without which life was meaningless as it was without psychological order.  These three factors were the underlying properties essential for the possession of virtues in Plato’s mind. They were natural to a healthy existence and he suggested that goodness was the health and harmony of the personality – being that justice in society was a harmonious relationship between the classes.


Still with me?

Here he compared the three factors with the Polis or city state – showing how one could live in harmony with oneself in a similar manner as within the city state:

  • the guardian class of the state was wisdom
  • the military class or auxiliaries were the trained soldiers and therefore courageous and with spirit
  • the economic working class helped balance the temperance.

The idea of splitting the soul into three parts was to prevent a single soul running away with the mere satisfaction of immediate desires, as opposed to the idea of complete happiness which could be achieved by considering all three factors. This would allow true harmony in life and this harmony was relative to one’s knowledge of oneself and one’s world.    Get it?


Plato was responsible for the establishment of his ‘Academy’ (Academeia), which concentrated on the teaching of mathematics (from the work of Pythagoras) and philosophy.  Science was rejected and logic took its place.  His historical interest was very limited, having little time for the likes of Miltiades, Themistocles or Pericles (Athenian statesmen). He was more concerned with law and order (see his Republic and Laws) than in the actual politics of Athens. Democracy was not something he accepted (nor did his pupil, Aristotle) as he considered it irresponsible, believing that the state should not be ruled by amateurs, but by a smaller and more intellectual group, who would be groomed from birth, and whose laws would be Forms or Ideas created through their contemplation of life or intuition – an intellectual oligarchy (hence his idea of a three-part city state or Polis mentioned above).


Plato’s ‘Academy’ rejected science for maths and logic

Okay, that’s enough classical culture for the moment


NOW A BIT of classical culture for you for a couple of weeks – Socrates and Plato. Come back … you may find it interesting.

Okay, so what was Socrates all about?  Well, he did not spend his whole life considering philosophy. He was originally a sculptor and did not avoid his duties as a soldier.  However, he was, from an early age, interested in philosophy and listened to many eminent personnel. Physics was his first learning but he could see no future in it and it soon made way for ethics and virtue.

socrates sculptr

Socrates was originally a sculptor

Socrates did not take to writing down his thoughts for posterity. What is believed to be his theories stem from the writings of Plato (talk about him next week) and we understand that he (Socrates) considered that wisdom was the main virtue of life.  Wisdom was a major factor in being able to live a good and happy life as, by its very nature, it was able to distinguish between good and bad. In this respect, wisdom included knowledge. Socrates suggested that wrong actions damaged the soul and so by knowing an action was wrong but still proceeding with it, the transgressor would knowingly damage his soul. As no-one wanted to damage his soul, no-one would willingly do wrong. Therefore, if someone did wrong he must be ignorant and lacked virtue.  Simple.

Socrates (470/469 – 399 BC)

The problem with this theory was that there were few teachers of knowledge.  So who had the knowledge to teach and of what? Socrates believed the he, himself, could not teach as he knew that he knew nothing – meaning in the sphere in which he was searching.  Knowledge, here, is episteme, which is science. In Plato’s works, Socrates never directly answered any question put to him; he would confront it with questions and criticisms of his own, allowing the enquirer to come to his own conclusion.  If nothing else, Socrates was clear in his ability to be vague and non-committal (I know a few people like that today). The manner in which he was able to demonstrate the lack of knowledge of his enquirer (according to Plato), particularly with regard to their ideal of life and the gods, was to gain him many enemies who believed him to be opposing the basics of religion and morality.


“I know no wrong …. but then I know nothing”

The next best thing to knowledge, according to Socrates, was opinion – which was susceptible to change. This was a virtue in itself, provided it was accompanied by the knowledge that it was only an opinion. An opinion without this awareness was ignorance. Socrates wanted his pupils to think for themselves. His ideal of morality was based on the individual’s own conscience rather than the will of the state. He influenced the noble and the distinguished, particularly those who sometimes confused their conscience with ideals of power and glory, ideals that conflicted with the traditional virtues of the polis (city state). Unfortunately, this was to cause his downfall. In 399 BC, he was charged, found guilty, and sentenced to death for injuring the city and corrupting the young. It is almost certain that this was partly due to his association with Alcibiades and Critias (he was their teacher), who were out of favour in Athens and he was to blame for their radical and anti-Athenian attitudes.


Remember ‘Alcibiades the Lad’ (see post May 10, 2015)

Socrates could well have saved himself. He was given an opportunity to reduce his death sentence to a large fine but such oratory was beneath him. He would have to have accepted that he was wrong which he refused to do. He was convinced that he was the people’s greatest benefactor and he deserved honour not death and, least of all, the need to beg for life.  Also, as the sentence was deferred for a month due to the festival of Delos, he had an opportunity to escape as he still had influential and wealthy friends. He chose to await his death as to plead for his life or run from his persecutors would be most dishonourable for a man such as himself.


Death of Socrates (by Jaques Louis David, 1787)

Next week: Plato

Battle of Waterloo

ONE LAST anniversary before the year is out – this time the Battle of Waterloo which took place two hundred years ago on 18th June 1815. It seems to be a year of historical anniversaries.

1812-1814 saw the War of the Sixth Coalition between Napoleon and the allies which included Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Great Britain and a number of German states.  In 1814, while Great Britain, Spain and Portugal invaded France across the Pyrenees, the Russians, Austrians and their allies invaded France across the Rhine and, after the Battle for Paris, entered into negotiations with members of the French government for the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. Nobody had anything against the French – this was a ‘personal thing’ against Bonaparte.  It ended with the Treaty of Fontainebleau and the exile of Napoleon to Elba in April 1814.


Abdication of Napoleon at Fontainebleau

But not for long. Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and marched on Paris with the intention of claiming the throne from King Louis XVIII of France. Napoleon simply did not know when to quit.

The Seventh Coalition was established between allied countries with Great Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia in particular not wishing to see Napoleon back in power.  Napoleon had decided that the best course of action for success was to move before the Coalition could fully mobilise. He met the coalition armies at Waterloo (in present day Belgium).


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) – never knew when to quit!

Napoleon’s troops of some 118,000 outnumbered the Coalition’s of about 70,000 (the figures vary depending on source). Not only that but the latter were inexperienced and ill-equipped. Also, two days before the battle Napoleon had routed a Prussian force under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Things didn’t look good for the Coalition. But the allies were led by Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and he had other ideas. Fortunately for him Blücher had rallied his 30,000 (approx) Prussians and joined in the affray early in the evening and by 8.30 pm Napoleon was defeated (see link at the end for more information on the battle).


Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) – born just 3 months before Napoleon

Wellington was to describe the battle as ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.’ Around 44,000 men and 12,000 horses were killed or wounded (again these figures depend on source).


The famous image of Wellington at Waterloo

This battle brought the War of the Seventh Coalition to an end and became a defining moment in European history and the end of Napoleon’s reign as Emperor of France. Napoleon escaped to Paris but a month later surrendered on broad HMS Bellerophon on the 15th July 1815. He was sent to St Helena, and island off the west coast of Africa, where he died in May 1821.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

HMS Bellerphon (John James Chalon, 1816)

For a detailed (and colourful) description of the Battle of Waterloo click here.