Irrational Man

435-251x250Mockratease considers himself a Rational Man. He constantly mocks what he considers the Irrational, Superstitious, Metaphysical, Spiritual, and Mystical beliefs of his slightly younger acolyte, Playtoy. Playtoy considers himself an Irrationalist. Coincidentally, they are having a discussion of Irrational Man by William Barrett. This book is an overview of Philosophy to provide background and context for what has come to be known as Existentialism. While there is no precise definition of this Philosophy per se, certain writers and philosophers consider themselves Existentialists, or are referred to in that manner. They share certain attitudes, they find themselves in similar circumstances.

Mockratease is aptly named, for he tends to mock and/or tease the slightly younger though vastly less knowledgeable acolyte Playtoy. Socrates ultimately had to drink the hemlock. Mockratease already drank it, but fortunately for him, it was Mock Hemlock, or Mock Lock, as the kids on the Internet are calling it. Playtoy is also aptly named, for he likes to play with toys, and also toys with plays. The Socratic method was to teach by asking questions, so to Playtoy is like Plato, but with two “whys?” Besides the Hellenic Plato, he is somewhat akin to the Plato portrayed by Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, albeit without the tragic Mineo ending, though likewise without a cause. Apart from being a rebel, also without a cause–or a clue for that matter, Mockratease is nothing like James Dean nor the character he portrayed.

Mockratease: Your first assignment in “my philosophy course”:  read the following questions about the first two pages of Irrational Man by William Barrett and respond in writing.

“…we could wake up tomorrow morning dead—and without ever having touched the roots of our own existence.”  (p. 3)

THE story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead. It is a story that has a special point today, since this civilization of ours has at last got its hands on weapons with which it could easily bring upon itself the fate of Kierkegaard’s hero: we could wake up tomorrow morning dead-and without ever having touched the roots of our own existence. There is by this time widespread anxiety and even panic over the dangers of the atomic age; but the public soul-searching and stock taking rarely, if ever, go to the heart of the matter. We do not ask ourselves what the ultimate ideas behind our civilization are that have brought us into this danger; we do not search for the human face behind the bewildering array of instruments that man has forged; in a word, we do not dare to be philosophical.

Mockratease: What does Barrett mean by “the roots of our own existence”?  Do you consider this a meaningful expression?  To what does it refer?

“…we do not dare to be philosophical.”   (p. 3)

What does it mean to “be philosophical”?  Does it mean anything different than to “be thoughtful”?  Is this statement defensible?  Do you agree with it?

“‘Know thyself!’ is the command Socrates issued to philosophers at the beginning (or very close to it) of all Western philosophy…”  (p. 4)

Socrates says “know thyself” five times in Plato’s dialogues (as translated by Benjamin Jowett):  twice in First Alcibiades, and once each in Charmides, Philebus, and Protagoras.  Read each of these quotations in context and decide whether the above quote from Barrett (in context) is fair and accurate.  Use the Plato quotations to defend your position.  You can read the Plato texts online;

the Wikiquotes texts may be the most convenient:


Cross-examination by Socrates of Critias, who admits that the temperate man does not always know himself to be acting temperately, and then digresses into a lengthy explanation of the Delphic motto, ‘Know thyself,’ which he explains as meaning ‘Be temperate.’

I have no particular drift, but I wish that you would tell me whether a physician who cures a patient may do good to himself and good to another also?


And therefore, I said, Prodicus, he blames Pittacus for saying, “Hard is the good,” just as if that were equivalent to saying, Evil is the good.

Yes, he said, that was certainly his meaning; and he is twitting Pittacus with ignorance of the use of terms, which in a Lesbian, who has been accustomed to speak a barbarous language, is natural.

Do you hear, Protagoras, I asked, what our friend Prodicus is saying? And have you an answer for him?

You are entirely mistaken, Prodicus, said Protagoras; and I know very well that Simonides in using the word “hard” meant what all of us mean, not evil, but that which is not easy-that which takes a great deal of trouble: of this I am positive.

I said: I also incline to believe, Protagoras, that this was the meaning of Simonides, of which our friend Prodicus was very well aware, but he thought that he would make fun, and try if you could maintain your thesis; for that Simonides could never have meant the other is clearly proved by the context, in which he says that God only has this gift. Now he cannot surely mean to say that to be good is evil, when he afterwards proceeds to say that God only has this gift, and that this is the attribute of him and of no other. For if this be his meaning, Prodicus would impute to Simonides a character of recklessness which is very unlike his countrymen. And I should like to tell you, I said, what I imagine to be the real meaning of Simonides in this poem, if you will test what, in your way of speaking, would be called my skill in poetry; or if you would rather, I will be the listener.

To this proposal Protagoras replied: As you please;-and Hippias, Prodicus, and the others told me by all means to do as I proposed.

Then now, I said, I will endeavour to explain to you my opinion about this poem of Simonides. There is a very ancient philosophy which is more cultivated in Crete and Lacedaemon than in any other part of Hellas, and there are more philosophers in those countries than anywhere else in the world. This, however, is a secret which the Lacedaemonians deny; and they pretend to be ignorant, just because they do not wish to have it thought that they rule the world by wisdom, like the Sophists of whom Protagoras was speaking, and not by valour of arms; considering that if the reason of their superiority were disclosed, all men would be practising their wisdom. And this secret of theirs has never been discovered by the imitators of Lacedaemonian fashions in other cities, who go about with their ears bruised in imitation of them, and have the caestus bound on their arms, and are always in training, and wear short cloaks; for they imagine that these are the practices which have enabled the Lacedaemonians to conquer the other Hellenes. Now when the Lacedaemonians want to unbend and hold free conversation with their wise men, and are no longer satisfied with mere secret intercourse, they drive out all these laconizers, and any other foreigners who may happen to be in their country, and they hold a philosophical seance unknown to strangers; and they themselves forbid their young men to go out into other cities-in this they are like the Cretans-in order that they may not unlearn the lessons which they have taught them. And in Lacedaemon and Crete not only men but also women have a pride in their high cultivation. And hereby you may know that I am right in attributing to the Lacedaemonians this excellence in philosophy and speculation: If a man converses with the most ordinary Lacedaemonian, he will find him seldom good for much in general conversation, but at any point in the discourse he will be darting out some notable saying, terse and full of meaning, with unerring aim; and the person with whom he is talking seems to be like a child in his hands. And many of our own age and of former ages have noted that the true Lacedaemonian type of character has the love of philosophy even stronger than the love of gymnastics; they are conscious that only a perfectly educated man is capable of uttering such expressions. Such were Thales of Miletus, and Pittacus of Mitylene, and Bias of Priene, and our own Solon, and Cleobulus the Lindian, and Myson the Chenian; and seventh in the catalogue of wise men was the Lacedaemonian Chilo. All these were lovers and emulators and disciples of the culture of the Lacedaemonians, and any one may perceive that their wisdom was of this character; consisting of short memorable sentences, which they severally uttered. And they met together and dedicated in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, as the first-fruits of their wisdom, the far-famed inscriptions, which are in all men’s mouths-“Know thyself,” and “Nothing too much.”

Why do I say all this? I am explaining that this Lacedaemonian brevity was the style of primitive philosophy. Now there was a saying of Pittacus which was privately circulated and received the approbation of the wise, “Hard is it to be good.” And Simonides, who was ambitious of the fame of wisdom, was aware that if he could overthrow this saying, then, as if he had won a victory over some famous athlete, he would carry off the palm among his contemporaries. And if I am not mistaken, he composed the entire poem with the secret intention of damaging Pittacus and his saying.

Playtoy: I was only able to find these two quotations, and really I need some more direction with this line of questioning, as I read the required reading, part 1 of Irrational Man, and am prepared to discuss and debate that. Furthermore, I still have technical issues posting this to my blog.

One comment on “Irrational Man

  1. Very clever post. I hope to hear (see) your answers to the questions by tomorrow.

    A little help with the third item:

    Alcibiades I: : SOCRATES: [in part]: “But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants! O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’—not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.” SOCRATES: Consider; if some one were to say to the eye, ‘See thyself,’ as you might say to a man, ‘Know thyself,’ what is the nature and meaning of this precept? Would not his meaning be:—That the eye should look at that in which it would see itself?

    Philebus: : SOCRATES: From these considerations learn to know the nature of the ridiculous. PROTARCHUS: Explain. SOCRATES: The ridiculous is in short the specific name which is used to describe the vicious form of a certain habit; and of vice in general it is that kind which is most at variance with the inscription at Delphi. PROTARCHUS: You mean, Socrates, ‘Know thyself.’ SOCRATES: I do; and the opposite would be, ‘Know not thyself.’

    /s/ “Mocrates”


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