Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Apology's cave: killing lightly, part 1

At the beginning of the Apology, Plato has Socrates invoke an image of shadows, of the cave:

“Again, there have been many such accusers, and they have now been at work for a long time; they spoke to you at a time when you were especially credulous; some of you were children, some only a little older – and they lodged their accusations quite by default, no one appearing in defense. But the most absurd thing is that one cannot even know or tell their names – unless perhaps in the case of a comic poet. But those who use slander to persuade you, and those who, themselves persuaded, persuade others – all these are most difficult to deal with. For it is impossible to bring any one of them forward as a witness and cross-examine him. I must rather, as it were, fight with shadows [skiamachein] in making my defense, and question where no one answers.’ (18c-d)

The first scene of the trial is thus a memorable incarnation of what the cave is (Republic, bk. 7, 507b–509c). It is the charges of the old accusers, spurred on by Socrates’ complicated friend Aristophanes’s The Clouds. They know that “Socrates” meddles into things in the heavens and under the earth, makes the weaker argument the stronger. As we have seen, having told soaring tales of love – see here – Socrates and Aristophanes converse on into the dawn, long after the drowsy narrator, Aristodemus, has fallen asleep. He knows little, according to the tale told by Apollodorus who heard it from Aristodemus years ago, of what they spoke.

Philosophy is thus something foreign to the person in the ordinary round of life. It draws some to it, in part, because of the dullness of that round (in Heidegger’s not unPlatonic lingo, one has fallen into the “one” - das Man). It is not the celebration of that life as “authentic”, i.e. as Heidegger celebrates the German peasant – his being in the world, being with others (Mitsein) down to Heidegger’s own artificial garb. Heidegger is a profoundly reactionary (Nazi or true national socialist) Platonist, a brilliant student of the cave-metaphor (see 1943 version of The Essence of Truth here and here). But he, like his follower and fellow “true” national socialist Leo Strauss (see here, and here and here), is a pseudo-Platonist.

The malicious tales that circulate in a city brand the eccentric who has gone off and brought back something new. They have stuck to Socrates in the Apology even though one charge is “corrupting the youth,” and Socrates memorably offers the kinsmen of all his students to testify for him and challenges Meletus to produce a single example of someone he corrupted (33d-34a). It is the precise mirror of Meletus’ foolish claim, in answer to earlier questioning, that any gentleman of Athens makes the young better except Socrates (24e-25a). If they do, surely these gentlemen, quite a number in a small city, would need to speak for the charge rather than against it. It is a Platonically subtle way of revealing the argument, shown foolish at the beginning, to be wrong in yet another way in the further action of the dialogue. On one perspective, the cave is the realm of rumor, of stigmatization of difference, of attacks on those who seek justice, who speak truth to and about power.

Socrates also memorably recalls the two times he had participated in political office, once as a member of the Prytany (the judges), to challenge a death sentence of sea-captains for not picking up corpses in the midst of a sea battle, the other refusing to arrest Leon of Salamis and cooperate in his death at the hands of the Tyranny of the Thirty.(32a-33a) Both, he says, show why a man who hopes to be just cannot participate in politics for he will come to an early death. Note that this thought is about today’s mainstream or corporate politics, illustrated, for example, by even Obama’s firing of drone missiles into Pakistan, the military’s slaughter of 9 children in Afghanistan last week – see here. It does not apply, however, to the politics of later movements that challenge injustice, for instance those of Jesus or Gandhi or King or Marx (participation often results in death, but not so quickly, and sometimes has quite swift, even within the speaker's lifetime, decent results)... In Socrates’s third political encounter, however, here at the trial, he will be put – "lightly" (24c, 31a-b, Crito 48c), expediently, or frivolously, as we will see – to death.

Socrates’ reasoning about that engagement in the trial is subtle and deep. Being about to die, he speaks prophetically, for his inner voice has already told him that this is a clash to preserve philosophy that will end in death. He sees, as in Homer’s Odyssey, Tiresias, alone among the dead in Hades, sees (cf the Meno, line 100a, here and here):

"Alone among those below he kept his wits.
The rest are darting, fleeting shadows."

In the daylight world, Tiresias Theban was a blind seer; in the cave of the trial, Socrates appears the same way, blinded, among others who in the dark chase glimmerings. Yet alone, among the dead or the asleep, having turned toward the light through questioning and returned to the cave, Socrates can see. As a philosopher, however, as one who goes down, he is a friend to an ideal democracy (one where they do not kill you for questioning...).* See here.

Socrates says that he was given the command by Apollo, through the pythia (the Delphic oracle) to test others who claimed to be wise. Though these important people thought they knew many things and thus had hubris (thought themselves of more than human stature), he showed, through questioning, that those most puffed up and famous were often the most ignorant. He did this, he says, out of a spiritual challenge or commitment, in a much later language, a vocation. This profound point, in the teeth of the challenge, and mocking later interpreters of his supposed “atheism” (Strauss and his followers, though not Heidegger who looking at Hilter’s “beautiful hands,” – see here – avows: “ only a god can save us”) is that he has an inner call to do what he does. That is his daimon. It warns him of danger to who he is in proceeding in conversation. But it does not warn against the speech he gives at his trial. Death is not to be feared, Socrates says; it is rather injustice and wickedness, the quicker enemies, who have ensnared Meletus, Anytus and Lycon (Socrates’s 3 accusers) and those who vote for them. The actual Athens is fated to go down (this of course does not mean that the idea of a democratic regime, tolerating philosophy, against tyranny goes down).

Perhaps the most resonant image in the Apology is of what citizens often do. They kill lightly and would as soon, he suggests in the Crito, bring the corpse back to life if they could:

“[The charge] claims I am guilty of corrupting the youth. But I claim, gentlemen of Athens, that it is Meletus who is guilty – guilty of jesting in earnest, guilty of lightly [padios] bringing men to trial, guilty of pretending a zealous concern for things he never cared about at all.” (24c)

“If you kill me, you will not easily find such another man as I, a man who – if I may put it a bit absurdly – has been fastened as it were to the city by the God as, so to speak, to a large and well-bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused by a kind of gadfly. Just so, I think, the God has fastened me to the city. I rouse you. I persuade you. I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere. all day long. Such another will not easily come to you again, gentlemen, and if you are persuaded by me, you will spare me. But perhaps you are angry, as men roused from sleep are angry, and perhaps you will swat me, persuaded by Meletus that you may lightly kill. Then you will continue to sleep out your lives… (30e-31a)

“But as for these other considerations you raise about the loss of money and raising children and what people think – Crito, those are really fit topics for people who lightly kill and would raise to life again without a thought if they could – the multitude.” (Crito, 48c)

A crowd, even a deliberating crowd, is often frivolous. For to bring back a corpse is not within human power. The cave is war and slaughter. As my student Rich Rockwell has argued in an unpublished paper, the cave is, for instance, the quarries of Syracuse where the Athenians were slaughtered in Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War. The trial and execution of Socrates take place in 399 bc, five years after the final defeat toward which this slaughter pointed (see the end of book 6: “And this was the greatest thing civilization ever produced. Few of many returned home,” mirroring the Athenian-led defeat of the Persian empire in book 1). The cave becomes resonant with rumors of a socialist “stab in the back” [Dolchstoss] which produced a Hitler, or of “morning in America” which has produced militarism, endless wars, drone missiles (darkness in Pakistan), economic catastrophe, and an all out attack on crippled unions (darkness in America). And yet even within the cave, there is perhaps a new dawn (the Athenian democracy that defeated Persian aggression, the people in Cairo, answering the darkness of American torture, and in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Denver. shining light on the Koch brothers, the Chamber of Commerce - see here) - Fox News, Scott Walker...).

Elected rulers frequently wage aggressions. Ordinary men, even democrats, kill lightly. It is why Socrates asks questions, rather than affirming any overall view of justice (notably, that of the Republic, which is a question and a problem (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 4). Socrates’s questioning opposes Heidegger’s celebration of Hitler’s "philosophical-tyranny" as the rule of the philosopher-guardians. In his 1943 The Essence of Truth: Plato’s Cave Metaphor and the Theatetus, the core of Heidegger’s vision of the “inner truth and greatness of national socialism” surfaces:

“We must now see if what has been said can be verified from Plato’s own presentation. With this intention we turn to the final section of book VI of the Republic. In regard to the ‘state’ (as we somewhat inappropriately translate polis) and its inner possibility, Plato maintains as his first principle that the authentic guardians of human association in the unity of the polis must be those who philosophize. He does not mean that philosophy professors are to become chancellors of the state, but that philosophers are to become phylaches, guardians. Control and organization of the state is to be undertaken by philosophers, who set standards and rules in accordance with their widest and deepest, freely inquiring knowledge, thus determining the general course society should follow.(paragraph 13, p. 73)."

In contrast, Socrates defends democracy against tyranny. See here, here and here. He also enacts and defends what would later be called satyagraha – cleaving to the truth, Gandhi’s name is closer to what Socrates was about - or civil disobedience. He is alive. He sees where others are asleep (a "majority of one" as Thoreau later said). He acts up to the vision of philosophy, to asking questions. Confronted with death, he will not stop.

The city of Athens murdered him for it.

*"It [comparing his experiences with others in Hades] would not be unamusing. But the greatest thing, surely, would be to test and question there as I did here. Who among them is wise? Who thinks he is and is not? How much would one give, my judges, to examine the man who led the great army against Troy, or Odysseus or Sisyphus or a thousand other men and women one might mention - to converse with them, to associate with them, to examine them - why it would be inconceivable happiness. Especially since they do not kill you for it there. " (41b-c) There is no Hades, no authoritarian ruler, in the underworld Socrates describes; it is, as it were, a better, ultimately less murderous, Athens...


Random User said...

While I really like the imagery you've used here, there's nothing to suggest the cave metaphor in the Apology. "Skiamachia" is just a Greek term for "shadow-boxing." Of course, the cave metaphor features shadows, too, and it is independently interesting to compare the two scenes; but it is something of a stretch to think that the mere use of the a term denoting shadows must be an allusion to what is, according to all our best assessments, a much later dialogue. I'm also not sure I see the point of your transition from the survival of a just man in politics to current events. Perhaps I'm simply a natural skeptic, but I see no reason to think that *any* well-known historical figure would come close to meeting Socrates' notion of such a figure.

But again, as always, an interesting read. Thanks.

Alan Gilbert said...

Thank you very much for the perceptive comments. I didn't know about shadow-boxing as a sport, just took it to be a reference to fighting with shadows. Nonetheless, the accusation of the Old Accusers seems very much the sort of thing that the Republic indicates happens in the Cave; Plato is a writer who ties many things together; the fact that "we" think one dialogue was written much later than another does not mean that Plato did not connect one image and another (that seems a pattern in much of his writing, and he is a startlingly literary author).

On the transition, King and Gandhi too, inter alia, met deaths in politics for doing the right thing. I was trying to capture a difference between mainstream movements and later satyagraha, inter ali. King and Gandhi saw the connection (and Greek orthodox Christianity makes it strikingly visible for Jesus). I also doubt that Socrates would have found any of them an inadequate candidate to be considered a good man. One might suppose that he favored being a philosopher - and so any politician, even a nonviolent one, would not count. And if one could make such a case, then the connection would only go one way (which would still be striking; King emphasizes it but Strauss and Heidegger, misunderstanding Socrates, do not).

But I doubt that Socrates meant that a good man (and any good man who might show up novelly, say a practitioner of nonviolence) must be a philosopher. What do you think is Socrates' sense here?

Blinn Combs said...

You're certainly right that there's overlap between the Apology scene and the cave; but the cave is intended as a very general description of the arguments and actions of ordinary people; it will, a fortiori, apply to Socrates' circumstances in the Apology. (He uses the same verb, skiamacheo, tightly connected with dreaming--onar--at Rep.7.520c, to describe current cities very generally). His use is obviously in each instance metaphorical, but a general connection between falsehood or other forms of irreality to shadows, death, and dreaming is a regular feature of Greek thought well before Plato. The opening scene in the _Protagoras_, for instance, contains clear allusions to Odysseus' venture to the underworld, and uses similar metaphorical language. Further, the katabasis imagery of the cave is very likely of Orphic origin, and Heraclitus famously compared the common lot to somnambulists.

Plato was startlingly literary, and there's no reason to suspect that he wouldn't have been able to draw fascinating parallels between the two scenes. My point was merely that there's no reason to suspect that the compresence of shadow-imagery in the two works is by itself sufficient to make a case for conscious allusion. And if our chronologies are even close to correct, such allusion would only be possible via an act of rather late and curious revision. A much simpler explanation is just that shadows are commonly (metaphorically) connected with falsehood and false representation, and trials (metaphorically) with battles; As luck has it, they are. The political point merits separate comment.

Blinn Combs said...

[BTW, I'm "Random User." Apologies for the mid-stream name change. I did some blogging a while back that, at the time, needed to remain anonymous.]

Socrates' remarks about the just man having no chance for survival in politics have, as you note, a tortured (largely anti-democratic) history. Sadly, his case is not particularly compelling, even by classical Athenian standards. See, e.g. Woodruff's piece on Socratic courage.

As you also note, there is a really remarkable tension between the context of the Republic and that of the Apology is that the Republic is constantly rebuffing Socrates' denial in the strongest terms, by drawing an exact analogy between philosophy and (justifiable) political rule.

I tend to disagree that Socrates is a defender of democracy; I would instead say that his life was based around the avoidance, so far as possible, of injustice, and a practiced mode of skeptical investigation--and consequent shaming--of his contemporaries. Even his bouts with known politicians are explained, not via any concern with politics more broadly, but with the wisdom commonly attributed to politicians. His brush-ups with the state were--at least as Plato depicts them--always incidental to his Delphic mission.

Nor do I see him as a particular advocate of civil disobedience, at least as the term is commonly employed. As you note, he does refuse to follow any command to quit practicing philosophy, but that is, as he explains, driven by the imperative to obey Apollo. He follows the state's orders--so long as doing so doesn't conflict with that higher command, and there's simply no reason to think that he spends a moment's thought about, e.g., just war or the problems of Athenian imperialism. (It's curious, though, that even the portraits Plato paints of his battle heroics involve retreat rather than attack; I suspect that this is of a piece with his perplexing activity of searching in admitted ignorance, thus refusing to venture his own answers).

Unlike "civil disobedience" in the modern context, which as I understand it functions to change specific unjust state practices, Socrates' disobedience is entirely self-centered, his refusals are not of any general rule applying to everyone, but of specific edicts making demands on him. Even the case of the trial of the 10, he acted so as not to commit the very literal injustice of disobeying the standing law that each person be granted individual trial. His refusal to play along with the 30 was not so much a political objection to their actions as an unwillingness to cooperate in an unjust execution. He did not, e.g., speak out against it; he simply went home.

I think this otherwise perplexing feature of his avoidance activity *is* somewhat enlightened by a look at Plato's cave. Socrates does tend to suppose that people make decisions in ignorance of their consequences, and (obviously) in the absence of any robust sense of justice. So their individual decisions tend, ceteris paribus, to be more or less random so far as justice is concerned. Of course, how then he is entitled to his obvious hierarchy of authority, with Apollo, the state, and its laws, remains something of a mystery. Kraut takes a worthy crack at it, but I simply fail to find Plato's portrait very convincing. I suspect that he was pulled between two desires--first, to depict Socrates as a hero of a sort of acetic ideal of philosopy as he imagined it, and second, to portray him as a hero to the state. I just don't see any convincing way to square that circle. Of course, that's today.

Post a Comment