Monday, November 15, 2010

Stories and philosophy: the Meno, part 2

For part 1 which suggests that most Socratic/Platonic metaphors are philosophical in Steve Wagner's idiom, or resonant with many meanings, often going beyond a specific argument, or perhaps hint at further meanings or arguments for those who studied with Plato, see here. I focused first, on Meno's vision of Socrates as a sting-ray, poisoning his interlocutor, making him numb, and the dazzling strengths - abolitionism - and surprising weaknesses of the dialogue in which a slave, asked questions, proves one of the advanced theorems of Greek geometry.

In the Meno, Socrates then offers a second metaphor. These thoughts have been stirred up in the slave “as in a dream.” But if he were taught and studied for a while, learning how to ask questions himself and seek answers, he would secure them as knowledge, learning to become a geometer. The metaphor of sleep and waking has in it a quasi-Buddhist sense. Socrates is alert to the underworld (and Plato’s dialogues to Socrates's trial and death). Socrates is asleep or in a trance in the Symposium at the beginning (and in Alcibiades’ story of him entranced all day at an army encampment) and awake at the end, having talked even Aristophanes to sleep, going home, spending his day, going to sleep the next night. Meno, too, is in a dream about virtue. He is fatheaded – thinks he knows when he does not – and ends up, a mercenary and impaled. He feels at the height of life and physical power (including his homoerotic power); he is asleep and his coquetting puts the conclusion of the dialogue – that virtue cannot be taught by politicians – also to sleep (virtue is to some extent knowledge, can be taught).

This leads to a third metaphor. One could teach virtue if as in Homer’s Odyssey, one were like the blind seer, Tiresias Theban, in Hades who alone among the dead can see.

“The others are darting shadows.” (100a)

This, too, is a metaphor for Socrates, who alone, among the living, including his followers, can see in matters of life and death (being a seer though blind, Tiresias also, alone among the living, can see). Socrates can at least see that death is nothing to fear. That is all Socrates (or Plato) reveals. It is a tale. But it is not, as Strauss thinks, a tale signifying nothing. When Socrates says one must live as a good man, challenging, where one is called, injustice, and not fear death or physical harm more than doing or acquiescing in injustice, he says something great, something that deserves to be taken in. What he did in this regard is, in a later idiom, a kind of civil disobedience or, for Gandhi, founds satyagraha. The Tyranny of the Thirty – led by Socrates’s tyrannical student Critias, perhaps in the dialogues again a warning against the dangers of tyranny to Plato’s students - orders Socrates along with 4 others to arrest Leon of Salamis, to implicate them in their crimes. While the others go to arrest Leon, Socrates goes home. For this, as he says, if the Tyranny had not fallen, he would have been put to death..

In my beginning course on Socrates at Metropolitan State College, Anthony Romero, one of the students, pointed out that Socrates's counterproposal for a sentence is also a kind of civil disobedience. The accusors propose death. He proposes no punishment, not even a fine, but to be fed at the table with the Olympic athletes, for they only have athletic achievements, Socrates says, but I benefit you by holding you to high ideals, by asking you about virtue and whether the life you are living in fact lives up to the promise of Athens (Athenian democracy) and of being a good man or woman. Socrates defies the tradition of the courts that a defendant must grovel. He says what he thinks he deserves.

What is frequently said about this proposal is that it illustrates Socrates’s arrogance or what Xenophon treats uniformly in his Defense of Socrates at his Trial as “big speech” (megalegoria). In Plato's Apology, Socrates’ proposal is unusual, a sole act of pride, and some find it offputting.

In contrast, Anthony’s insight gets more the quality of civil defiance in the specific act. Yes, I am pious in accepting Apollo’s test to question. That story is a metaphor, but it says something about Socrates’ piety even though Socrates plainly also challenges the gods of Athens and thinks the stories about them often teach bad things or perhaps even need to be expurgated (cf. Euthyphro, Republic) (One might also, after many times around, think that Plato, the great storyteller, image maker and poet, is having his students on about the need for censorship). Yes, I teach virtue to Athenians – Socrates says - and deserve to be rewarded for it, not killed. No, I will not grovel, as most grovel, for even a scrap of life, in the court. Even here, I will disobey injustice about philosophy.

I had asked the question about Socrates’s founding of satyagraha (Gandhi) or civil disobedience (King) and thus, directed the students' attention to these mattes. But reading carefully, bringing a beginner’s mind, Anthony saw something that neither I nor many other students nor even other writers on Socrates and civil disobedience have seen. A good class is a conversation. Students often bring questions, make discoveries. Good teaching is not the learned lecturing at the unlearned. There is also Strauss’s good point that one should prepare carefully before any class because “someone might be there who is smarter than you are.” Actually, with the capacity for fresh insight, anyone can be (Socrates’ implication about “any slave”). It is the give and take which yields discoveries.

For the Greeks, hubris – puffing oneself up like a god, appearing like Meno all beautiful and knowing - was the opposite of animal-like behavior. To be in between was to be human, to have a merely human wisdom, to know something about the most important things that one seeks by questioning, but often not able to arrive at final conclusions (knowledge about the idea of the beautiful or the just or the good).

"Socrates: 'Gentlemen of Athens, I have gotten this name [from the slanders] through nothing but a kind of wisdom. What kind? The kind which is perhaps peculiarly human for it may be that I am really wise in that. And perhaps the men I mentioned are wise with a wisdom greater than human, either that or I cannot say what. In any case, I have no knowledge of it, and whoever says I do is lying…'” (20d-e)

Imagining oneself to be a god, to have “divine” wisdom is hubris. The opposite for the Greeks is not the later Christian humility. It is moderation (sophrosune) or, in this case, human wisdom won through questioning. The critique of pride in Christianity remains as in the Greeks, but one can be put off Socrates’ civil disobedience by his seeming arrogance. But note: he is defying the injustice of not only the conviction, but the proposed sentence. It is a specific act of civil disobedience that Socrates commits on behalf of doing philosophy, one which draws, by a narrow margin (a shift of 30 votes in a jury of 500 would have freed him) the death sentence. So actually what Xenophon, being away on campaign at the time in Persia, heard about the trial from Hermogenes, is shown, by what Plato wrote in the Apology, to be false. Socrates was trying to tell the truth about his vocation to question, to be a philosopher, without lording it over the Athenians. He challenges them, he says, to an examined life, to virtue. Is this not a good?

Now there is another potential meaning to the Tiresias metaphor about Socrates. He could be lord of the living as Tiresias seems a lord of the dead in the underworld: a philosopher-king. This idea is at the exact center of the Republic, and only there. See here. Plato wants his students to think of this, too. It is even named in the Republic, striven for, to some extent, in Plato’s journey to Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, in the Seventh Letter (if the letter is Plato’s). See here. But Tiresias does not rule over the dead; that is Hades’s job. Instead, Tiresias sees. Despite its Platonic context – question: can some ruler teach virtue to followers?; seeming answer: a philosopher-ruler can – Tiresias sees the future. Similarly, Socrates asks questions, develops arguments. The philosopher-ruler might, in the limited city of the dialogue in the Republic (just Socrates and his students, one city, a limited city of the just, among others in Athens, line 557c) teach his student Glaucon not to overthrow the democracy. Plato might teach Democrates to fight for Athens against Phillip of Macedon. The reign of the philosopher among the just might be the city of, the action from, the dialogues and their study, not some Heideggerian obsequious licking of Hitler’s boot (the putative philosopher to the tyrant, the "pure" national socialist)…See here, here, here, here, here and here. All is not as it seems in the study of the Plato even if one arrives at the grand meme of the philosopher-king…

Thus, Steve Smith, a Straussian, in a very confused series of lectures at Yale (on tape, you can download them on itunes) tries to make Socrates out as lording it over the Athenians even in the Apology. “The unexamined life is not worth living” Socrates says, meaning sneeringly to Smith, all your lives, you democrats, are worthless, and you need me (Socrates) to rule over you, to shape you up. In the lectures, Smith even tells Yale students that they are fascists, living like the privileged “golden” ones in the Republic’s schools, and is positively beside himself – has lost himself – in the image of the philosopher-ruler, of which he is, deliberately, a bad copy of Strauss who is in turn, deliberately, a bad copy of Heidegger, who is a brilliant reactionary thinker starting from a fundamental, reactionary misunderstanding of Plato. Plato’s aim was to teach aristocratic students who initially detested the democracy, to defend it against tyranny, rather than to teach them, what they already believed, what Plato himself had been tempted by, that a philosopher-ruler was, in reality, not just part of an ideal justice in the sky or a "city in speech" among a few following out an argument, but a practicable possibility. A would-be tyrant pursues a false opinion, what might be even in the Republic a badly stated argument.

Philosophical "rule" is, among the just, defending the democracy against tyranny -something not exclusive to philosophers, though in the case of Socrates, heroic - or perhaps sometimes, fighting for the democracy, as Socrates does, in the Peloponnesian war (the justice of the war might be doubted, however), rather than to become a tyrant. Not to rule over everything, but to stand, in a moment of crisis, having seen the idea of justice, for something just here and now. Socrates’s conduct at this trial illustrates a defense of a hoped for, de facto tolerant democracy of "my true judges," tolerant of philosophy as Athens had been for 70 years. It is to rule, as it were, by fighting to make the city better, or to preserve and further what is decent in it as opposed to its tyranny, i.e. putting Socrates to death or the Tyranny of the Thirty. Heidegger is the lordly philosophical student – a very original Platonist - who follows the mistaken path Plato warns against and serves Hitler.

Contra Smith, what Socrates means is that: for me, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” More generally as the Meno shows, anyone who is questioned can learn. The Meno shows vividly that Socrates, being against slavery in principle, is more egalitarian than other Athenians, more democratic than the democrats of the time, in my idiom a radical democrat. His argument that women can be philosopher/guardians and the role of Diotima, playing the role of Socrates in the Symposium, and asking questions to the bumbling and confused interlocutor Socrates – all in a tale told by Socrates – also illustrates this point. In the Athenian mystery religions as the Myth of Er reveals, the soul is once again neither male nor female nor animal nor human; it is all of these. So the “divine” zeal of the fascist philosopher a la Heidegger or Strauss is not at all Socrates, nor for that matter Plato (see here, here and here).

The Meno draws a distinction between opinion and knowledge (as does the Euthyphro). In a fourth metaphor, Socrates says, true opinions are like the statues of Deadalus. Unless “tied down” (unless through questioning, they become argument and knowledge), they get up and walk away. Here too is an emblem of this dialogue. Never defining what virtue is, the interlocutors do not ascertain whether it can be taught. But courage on behalf of philosophy or defending the city from attack is admirable. It is a virtue. But the virtue depends on knowledge. If one does not know what philosophy or aggression is, one does not recognize the virtue of courage. In Sophocles’ play Ajax, the hero steals out at night to slay the oxen, thinking they are other heroes. He exhibits madness, not courage. Achilles slaying Hector and dragging his body in the dirt, exhibits anger, vengeance (Hector had slain Patroclus who had dressed himself in Achilles’ armor while Achilles sulked) and rashness, not courage. A little thinking about virtues will reveal that what happens in Thucydides at Corcyra does turn moderation and caution into cowardice, murderousness into courage. Philosophically, contra Hobbes, words do not lose their meanings, even if they are misused by the powerful (Hitler said that his aggression in Poland was because of an alleged aggression of Poles against Poles of German extraction. LBJ made up the Gulf of Tonkin “incident “as a pretext to bomb North Vietnam).

Now the metaphor of Daedalus and teaching is also the metaphor of escape through techne (in our terms, technology) and the tragedy of unwise -one of insufficient learning, young and proud like Meno - Icarus. For to escape the labyrinth, Daedalus forged wings of wax for himself and his son, but Icarus, raising himself high in the exuberance of flight, flying too near the sun, melting his wings, held up at a last instant as he realized what had happened, fell into the sea and drowned. Technology, the Greeks thought (it is Heidegger’s passion, and Strauss’s as a Heideggerian – see On Tyranny, p. 27), was a danger. Allan Bloom speaks of nuclear weapons, and one might underline the destructiveness and self—destructiveness of American militarism. Technology – drones – rule; Petraeus or CIA leaders, or even, to a lesser extent, Obama are, in some complex way, creatures of the instruments. See here and here. Though the war complex is powerful, it does not however, contra this image, have to win. Tiresias, though in the underworld (once again, this is also the daylight world, the cave) can see. Peace and a diminution of the military are possible. Technology also produces and can produce wonders…

The Republic shows the weakness of the conclusion in the Meno. There Glaucon hungers, confronted by the austere city: where’s the relish? Later in the dialogue, the metaphor appears of a human ruler who consumes in the sacrifices a morsel of human flesh and becomes a wolf. Glaucon, Plato’s brother, son of Ariston (the best) and a military leader, could become a tyrant, a wolf. Instead, Socrates persuades him, and thus, teaches virtue. We know of Alcibiades who plays a great role as a traitor to and potential tyrant in Athens, and whose comedy/tragedy ends the Symposium. We know little historically of Glaucon, perhaps because, as his brother shows us, Socrates persuaded him not to do injustice. The Republic answers the Meno in that it shows against great challenge – the story of the ring of Gyges which Plato’s brothers both believe – that Socrates alone can see. Among the living and perhaps the dead, the philosopher alone is awake. But he or she may awaken others. The possibility of learning exists for each of us, as does that of adherence to virtue, the notion that it is better to suffer an injustice than ever to do it. Socrates’ life and death are for Plato the emblem. The complex metaphors of Plato, like dreams, defend Socrates’ course.

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