Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Apology's cave: Socrates' questioning, part 2

See part 1 here.

The remains of ancient Athens are on a hill today, overlooking the modern urban sprawl. The great places, the Areopagus or the Pnyx (where the assembly and Socrates’s trial met) or the Parthenon, are all up. One cannot go down to the Pireaus of that proud democracy which once was (Republic, line 1) even though, as in Pericles’s famous words, the democracy had much to be proud of. That Athens is long gone. Much of current Athens has a fallen, distressed feeling – in the shadow of those high, lit up artifacts. The Roman empire slaughtered the Athenians for resisting in the Acropolis in the first century BC, and the blood, from their slit throats, flowed down the PanAthenian way. Imperial Rome pursued the ugliest version of what Leo Strauss celebrated: “I think of Virgil's. "to spare those who submit and humble the proud" (Strauss to Loewith, May 19, 1933 here and here; Strauss omits Virgil’s “to preserve the law of peace”). The original Athenians went down in war even as, even though they had lifted up this city of splendid achievement and freedom. This is the cave (for imperialists, too: at the conclusion of Grandeur and Decadence of the Romans, Montesquieu asks how does all this grand history of institutions, wars and conquests end but by producing 5 or 6 monsters? He is speaking of Caligula…). I learned of this slaughter with my students from the Greek historian Athanasias Bobos in Athens. Americans and English and German scholars do not, for the most part, speak of the Athenians’ – three centuries later – terrible end.

Yet perhaps the movement of Greek workers today (and in Cairo and Madison), very strong and rebellious, is giving a new and deeper meaning to that long ago democracy, and some leadership to the resistance of ordinary Europeans – and citizens of the world – to the predatory rich.

Socrates says that crowds kill lightly (Apology 24c, 30a-b, Crito, 48c), but would as soon bring the dead to life again. They cannot. Yet in the world of thought, Socrates is still with us (largely thanks to the words of Plato). 2400 hundred years later, beginning students can read the Apology and the Crito in any humanities course. Perhaps the cooptation of American universities into business training will eliminate many of these – see Brian Leiter here and here. Yet the words are so powerful, so radiant, that those who love words will still engage with them. Alkie Olson who teaches in the English department at the University of Denver assigns the Apology and the Crito to her beginning writing students. Even in translation, in another tongue far from the original, these words, set down so brilliantly, radiate out of the darkness of the past…

In the cave of mortal life, there is the fact, as Socrates says, and Heidegger citing Socrates, gives new resonance to, that we all die, that we are each Sein zum Tode (Being towards death). There is a time to do whatever we came to do, be who we are. Socrates lives that time as fully as a human being has. Of his questioning, he says that he does not know whether death is a good or a bad thing. Death’s rumor, the fear of death, is a terrible master for most humans. In death, Dasein (being there) in Heidegger’s phrase and all that accompanies it ceases to be. Heidegger nauseatingly meant German Dasein – consuming the rest of European Dasein. But if one takes him to be talking in a more spiritual vein – his surface or exoterically meant view – then, of course, he could be speaking about any of us. Socrates, however, says prophetically that he does not know whether death is a good thing or a bad. His inner voice (daimon) does not warn him against death.

In addition, the Apology marks Socrates’s preparation for death. He says he knew that this would occur (line 36a), is surprised only that his argument brings so many to vote for his acquittal, that with more than one day, as other regimes had for such trials, and a shift of 30 votes, the democracy might have vindicated itself.(37a-b) Instead, in all of history, Athenian democracy would make itself notorious as the regime that murdered its wise man (38c). But here again, Socrates reaches to strengthen the democracy, to make a home in it for the questioner, the speaker of truth, the philosopher.* If one reads the Apology carefully, the idea of democracy is possible soaring beyond Athens, a place where a philosopher might live out his life, face mortality naturally, not be murdered by a fallen or imperfect regime.

Socrates amusingly says to the fair but fairly stupid Apollodorus [the gift of Apollo, as Socrates, too, is, in his different way as a gadfly on a great, sleepy horse, the god’s gift - 20e-22a) complaining of Socrates' unjust death: if I escape an unjust death, do you expect me not to die? Death at 70, apparently, is close for Socrates. He has fought heroically, unparallelledly, in battles as the Apology relates (28d-29a) – never forsaking his place, his duty to Athens or to philosophy. Alcibiades’s drunken truthtelling in the Symposium – Socrates saved the great warrior, told the generals to celebrate Alcibiades rather than himself, advanced Alcibiades in fame and politics rather than himself – also underline his courage. See part 2 here on the love-song of Alcibiades in the Symposium. It is not so much that he wants to help his friend and lover Alcibiades in politics – arguably, he doesn’t help Alcibiades’s soul - as that he seeks to avoid such a place, such “fame” himself. He lives in penury for the god (Apology, 32b-c, 38b), and perhaps even more strikingly, in ill rumor to pursue the god’s challenge.

In the Symposium, Alcibiades reports that Socrates meditates for a day as a soldier where others live normal camp lives and wonder at him (the Athenian army on expedition realizes Pericles’ phrase: “we do not cast censorious looks [Hobbes' translation] on one another for eccentricities so long as we come together for a common good”). Socrates can drink everyone else into the ground in the Symposium, talk them all, even Aristophanes, to sleep by dawn, go about his daily affairs and return home the following night to sleep. He is a very unusual human. But of course, Socrates is mortal.

Socrates says: "For to fear death, gentlemen, is nothing but to think one is wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows death, nor whether it is not the greatest of all goods; and yet men fear it as though they knew it to be the worst of evils. Yet how is this not folly most to be reproached, the folly of believing one knows what one does not? (29a-b)

He tells his true judges, the democrats of the here and now, those who do not kill lightly,

"For judges (o andres dikastai) - and in calling you judges I give you your right name - a wonderful thing has happened to me. Before my voice [daimon] would speak to me frequently and oppose me even in small matters if I was going to do something I should not, but now as you see, what is generally thought the greatest of evils has come upon me, but the voice did not oppose me either when I left home this morning, or when I came here to the court, or at any point in my speech or when I was going to say anything; and yet on other occasions it stopped me at many points in the midst of a speech, but now in this affair, it has not opposed anything I did or said. What do I imagine is the reason? I will tell you. What has happened to me is undoubtedly a good thing, and those of us who think death an evil must be mistaken..."(40a-c; Phaedo, 63e).

It is possible to look at this statement skeptically, and to imagine that the voice did not oppose Socrates because it was good to die to uphold philosophy - to defend those good things, questioning, which his life had been about - rather than to escape. Death would not then be "an evil" - it would be a good in terms of philosophy and the memory of Socrates - but that would show nothing about the change of state, what it means to "go to the realm of the dead," being good for Socrates as a person. What he did lives on, here in the world, in sometimes more tolerant democracies (those that live up to the shining principles of freedom of religion, freedom of speech – see here); the body and perhaps the soul of Socrates do not.

But it is also possible that Socrates really meant: I don't know, and his voice did not warn him, because on each of our separate paths to dying, there are, from within, no markers, nothing known...

At the end, he says

“But it is now the hour of parting - I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is unclear to all but the God.” (42a)

The dialogue ends startlingly on the phrase “the God.” The Laws begins from "God." The Laws is the story of an Athenian stranger, a Socrates who escapes death, an, in many ways, false Socrates. But in the Apology, Plato’s and Socrates' ending on “the God” indicates a profound reverence or holiness or dedication to the soul in what Socrates does. One doesn’t fully know the term of life – none of us knows what it is to live into death until it comes upon us; death is, perhaps – sometimes - the great and unknown adventure. Some kill and even die lightly. If one can undertake to die on one’s terms, saving philosophy, fighting for a decent democracy, having a long last conversation and then drinking the hemlock, however, it is perhaps unsurprising that, in the end, Socrates’s eyes fill with wonder.

Socrates’s self-possession, as described by Plato, is not that of an atheist. Atheists as in the case of Strauss’s last letters, are often possessed despite themselves, in the face of death, with the beauties and marvels of life; Gershom Scholem’s great book on Sabbatai Sevi, the last thing Strauss read, made his childhood and the idea of Israel – an idea even in the terms of the prophets he had fought against as a fascist – alive, made them, even the letters of words in Hebrew he wrote with difficulty (his fingers would no longer obey him, he said) glow with radiance.(Gesammelte Schriften, b. 3). These letters to Scholem are Leo’s most human and attractive moments; he had, almost despite himself, a good death...

Strauss’s death, too, is of someone who doesn’t know, fragments of whose life reappear to him in beauty, who goes forth with courage and hope. Tiresias is the tale of the collective poet Homer, Socrates, as we know him here, of Plato (and perhaps Aristophanes and Xenophon). What they see is of course something that each of us, unknowing, awaits.

*Authoritarians, notably Strauss himself, read the Apology badly.

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