Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The civil disobedience of Socrates, part 2

Blinn's next comment on my post on "The Apology's Cave" - see here for his last one - takes up matters of great political significance:

"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 philosophy 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."

First, on civil disobedience or satyagraha, Socrates was of course not a practitioner of a term and particular conceptions that emerged 2300 or 2400 years later. But Blinn decries Socrates as selfish or self-centered (something I see no evidence for) and restricts civil disobedience to mass movements to change the government. But consider Thoreau’s essay on Civil Disobedience. He is a majority of one, as he puts it, in opposing the US aggression to seize much of Mexico (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, part of Colorado) and the Constitution’s legalization of bondage. He says roughly that the Constitution which purports to be the slave’s constitution and mine cannot be mine. To be an individual resister as Thoreau is in refusing to pay taxes and going to jail, does not yet do anything centrally for others except say no to injustice and murder. That is exactly what Socrates does in resisting the command of the Tyranny of the Thirty. The tyrants Critias and Charmides (Plato's relatives) cannot implicate their teacher in their crimes. Socrates will not allow it.

But Thoreau also defended John Brown, and his efforts in Massachusetts contributed to widely publicizing Brown’s martyrdom for the raid on Harper’s Ferry and the coming of the Civil War (see David Reynolds' John Brown: Abolitionist, the Man who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War and Seeded Civil Rights, WEB Dubois, John Brown, and Stephen Vincent Benet,"John Brown's Body"). This is not nonviolent (nor was Socrates, a soldier, simply a precursor of nonviolence).

Still, Socrates’ thought “it is better to suffer injustice than ever to do it” is a far more distinctive precursor to Gandhi’s and King’s nonviolence - as both saw - than to Thoreau’s civil disobedience. In addition, Gandhi emphasized that a Hindu satyagrahi must be prepared to die to defend a Muslim against a Hindu mob. The Gandhian way of living as a civil disobedient includes preparation for or at least a willingness to die (that one takes the violence of the oppressors on oneself in order to stop them and perhaps, to change them). Martin Luther King used to say to his wife that he would never reach the age of 40. Gandhi was, in this respect, far closer to Socrates than Thoreau…

Blinn comments that Socrates “never gave a thought” to war or Athenian imperialism. I would be careful about saying what Socrates didn’t think about, since many of the mysteries of what he or Plato thought are a long time to be arrived at. Concern about virtue or a just life on which he questioned so many Athenian citizens in the Apology would seem to be centrally concerned about the city, and hence, inter alia, the justice of its conquests. In the Republic, he says that Greeks should not enslave other Greeks (Aristotle reasserted this point but then argued for an alleged, dramatically mistaken form of just war directed toward enslaving "barbarians" against Plato and Socrates in the Politics – see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). Socrates suggests that even Pericles was not so great a war leader (what should one think of a horse trainer who makes a horse more unruly?) in Menexenus, for example. Socrates probably concurred with Pericles' counsel, reported in his second speech in Thucydides' History, not to wage war on two fronts. But he may have gone further. Some thought here, too, about the justice and public consequences of war- Athenian decline - is at issue.

In addition, in the Meno, Socrates offers an argument on aletheia – un or not-forgetting (see here) – which suggests that through questioning any of us – any slave whom Meno provides – can recover, for instance, an advanced theorem of Euclidian geometry. We have this knowledge, Socrates suggests, from eternity, both when we are in human form and not. See here and here. This is a very radical egalitarian and abolitionist argument. That he would likely have been killed for organizing about it – he did not seek his death for this, but found it anyway for doing philosophy – does not mean that his thinking was only about himself in any problematic sense…

Blinn does offer the brilliant insight that Socrates is depicted in battle by Alcibiades in the Symposium (though not so much in the Apology) in retreat and that this is in some sense allied with his questioning (I am not sure skepticism is such a good term for it, since he lived a life with a strong sense of what is right, for him, to do in each situation). One might add: he most exemplifies civil disobedience when on the defensive, when tried for his life.

I might try to elaborate Blinn’s observation this way. Ordinary politics, even in the most splendid state (Athens once upon a time, the America of Barack Obama as President), is a horror. It is extremely difficult to undo extreme injustice (aggressions, a quarter of the world’s prison population held in American facilities, torture extending to Bradley Manning, unending "executive" wars with no attention to the Constitution or Congress (Barack's speech last night was focused on a precise configuration of circumstances which enabled the war to prevent a massacre at a low cost in American lives; he has, in this respect, given American militarism a rare coalitional and moral aspect, which does not alter its basic destructiveness, cf. drones in Pakistan and self-destructiveness). Most of us end up doing what we can. Only rare individuals for whom what one can turns out to be a vocation like John Brown or Martin Luther King are assassinated for it – like Socrates. One can accomplish some things – there is a resistance movement emerging from below among workers in Denver and there will be important rallies on April 4th here (at Metro at 12:30 in front of the Plaza Building across from Arts - more later this week - and at City Park at 5:30) and around the country (the "We are One" protests). But seeing what is right and being able to do something meaningful about it has been extraordinarily difficult since the time of Socrates.

Blinn draws a rich analogy between the depiction of Socrates in battle and Socrates's questioning, his not knowing (I do not know, nor do I think I know). But this recognition cancels any literal advocacy of a philosophical kingship or a philosophical tyranny (a ruler who rules wisely but without laws) here and now. He cannot, on the one hand, not know what justice is, and on the other hand, urge the hierarchical rule of a philosopher-king. In the Republic, Plato has him put the issue tentatively, seeking justice in the individual soul by analogy to justice in the polis (on the face of it, a peculiar analogy). The message is at most, one about the soul, and how an individual, discerning aspects of justice, as we will see below, might lead others to resist the worst when he has gone down into the cave of politics.

“I came to live in the world,” Thoreau says, “not to change it.” But the world comes to us. Thoreau did some powerful things including being vital in the dissemination of the story of John Brown – about Brown's death Thoreau’s colleague Emerson spoke of “the gallows glittering like the cross.” One must live one’s life, doing what one can. Like Socrates...

Centrally, however, Socrates exemplified and defended asking questions (doing philosophy). This is enormously threatening to the powerful, since the “emperor’s new clothes” disappear on the observations of a child, on a question. What Socrates was tried and executed for was doing philosophy. Some of the charges were right in some sense, Plato thinks. But he hardly agrees with the punishment so the conclusion to be drawn from the probing about the relationship of Socrates and Athenian democracy his dialogues suggest is not obvious. Strauss thinks with Xenophon that Socrates committed suicide; I think he understood that facing the trial and standing up for philosophy would have an eternal impact – something that Plato, by writing as Socrates would not except for a few poems that did not survive his death, ensured. That again strikes me as close to Gandhi's thought that going down the line for something right (something one has lived) is a worthy way to die.

Blinn goes too far with Socrates’ obedience to Apollo; Socrates formulates his method of testing the saying of the oracle (the Pythia) to Charaephon that Socrates is wisest of them all. He hears the God but what he does – and what Athens puts him to death for – is no direct command. In his appeal to Apollo in the Apology, Socrates’s provides a powerful rhetorical as well as principled answer to the charge against him of disbelieving in the gods of Athens, but it is Socrates, following his inner voice, his daimon, who, upon reflection, resolves to test out by questioning those who think they are wise, and by showing that they are not, incurs lethal enmity.

Asking questions particularly about virtue (shaming self-important people, as Blinn says) is an important public activity, serves a common good. It is in no obvious sense selfish, though it is as Socrates says amusing (and a bit cruel), That one realizes who one is in an activity - philosophizing, for example - is also not selfish. Fo instance, as Aristotle says of a good friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, book 7 (it is also in Plato’s Seventh Letter), only a person who has love of self, becomes independent, can truly see another person and thus, wish for a friend’s good. He contrasts these friendships with defective ones of less whole people, those made for the money’s or the status’s sake, which we would rightly call selfish (what is shown in the crying of the philosophy students at Socrates's death is from this point of view, an inability to take in Socrates's good; from another perspective,however, one might think, more wisely, that philosophers, too, are human...). Christianity has superimposed its misunderstanding of this contrast in later Western culture. It has opposed an image of altruism (concern for others) with selfishness so any concern with the self, as Blinn's comment affirms, is ostensibly selfish. In contrast, this now unfortunately lost, ancient insight, most developed in Aristotle, is that a healthy love of self is linked to insight into others, compassion and determined concern for others (real altruism).

It is almost the anniversary of King's assassination and, hence, his words in the "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" deserve emphasis. As King says,

"To a degree academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience."

He speaks of the movement in Birmingham as nonviolent gadflies biting a large and sluggish horse, in the somewhat ridiculous metaphor of the Apology. And he says of blaming the victim for the rapacity of the victor or the tyrants:

"...you asserted that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But can this assertion be logically made? Isn't this like condemning the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical delvings precipitated the misguided popular mind to make him drink the hemlock?"

I think King has it right. I think Strauss and the Straussians who ignore this miss the point of the Apology entirely. And I think, in a different way, Blinn does, too.

On Blinn’s second point on what philosophizing means in a democracy (whether Socrates opposes and/or ignores democracy), I do not argue that Socrates or Plato is a democrat. I argue that Socrates and Plato both defend democracy against tyranny (see my three posts on the Republic and going down here, here and here). The city in speech, created by Socrates in dialogue with a few students and listeners, is not an idea elsewhere; it is realized here, in this particular conversation or community, one within the many communities in Athens, just as Socrates speaks to his "true judges" or "men who are judges" (o andres dikastai) those who voted for his acquital at the end of the Apology(40a-c). See here. Action is here and now also (Strauss rightly speaks in the name of his last book, for example, of The Action and Argument of Plato’s Laws, even though he gets it wrong that the Athenian stranger, a pseudo-Socrates who did not take the cup of hemlock, is for Plato a positive example). Socrates is a philosopher-king not to rule over Athens and pervert it into the supposed ideal regime in the Republic, but to do right himself (or with his present and future philosophical companions) in the here and now. Since Socrates, once again, said he did not know what the idea of justice was, the story of the best regime – the tentative story offered by Plato's Socrates in the Republic – is not only not something attributable to Socrates in action - in Athenian life - so far as we know (i.e. not in the Apology or The Clouds, and doubtfully something that either Socrates or Plato thought); it was, once again, just a kind of image or idea of justice in a search for understanding – metaphorically – justice in the soul.

But what the relationship of Socrates and his students, or of Socrates and those who love philosophy, is and requires is to fight for democracy – the regime which includes the many communities, many regimes, and thus, the one of the philosophers– against tyranny. This and not to become the tyrant – for the opposite, see Carl Schmitt, “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception,” (the opening sentence of Political Theology, 1923) as well as Strauss (who speaks of "the principles of the Right - fascist, authoritarian, imperial" - letter to Karl Loewith, May, 1933 here) as well as the leading “idea” propagated by the neocons (commander-in-chief or executive power) – see Andrew Sullivan here commenting on C. Bradley Thompson's important book, Neoconservatism: Obituary for an Idea here - was what Socrates and Plato urged their students to do. (In this context, Obama ignoring the Constitution and Congress in launching war with Libya also solidifies American tyranny).

Thus, Demosthenes, Plato's student who was murdered for defending Athens against Alexander, not Aristotle (Alexander’s sycophant) was the Platonic model - he who understood. There is a "which side are you on" question here, and Aristotle, Heidegger, and Strauss, the first two brilliant philosophers, the last Heidegger's and Schmitt’s epigone, but a brilliant scholar) are all on the wrong side (and Heidegger and strangely Strauss, a Jew, pro-Nazi).

Any standard misreading of the Republic a la Popper is misguided, because Socrates stood for a democracy modified by freedom of speech in which there could be many kinds of regime, including that practiced by philosophers. That Plato also emphasizes, somewhat snootily, the putative negative (asses bump up against you in the street) in the Republic, does not mean he preferred regimes in which monsters execute you pretty much wherever you are.

This is relevant today because that America has widely supported tyrannies abroad (and is now, for instance, in Bahrain and Yemen). In Israel, it supports such a regime in the occupied territies, and increasingly – given the dangerous, steadily increasing emergence of Israeli fascism see here - even in Israel itself (currently second class citizenship for Arab Israelis, Knesset spying on human rights organizations, all the treatment of the Palestinians. Socrates plainly and even Plato fought against such things.

Blinn thinks Socrates obeyed a hierarchy: Apollo, the state and the laws.

Now, first, Apollo is the tutelary deity of Socrates’ defense in the Apology. I see no evidence that he is the God more generally referred to by Socrates, or the daimon, Socrates inner voice. I see no evidence that Socrates does not invent the test of the Pythia’s words with which he challeges others, shows they are ignorant while thinking they are not, breeds enmity toward himself...

Second, the "state" is actually the polis. The polis at the time was, at its height, a democratic city (one where citizens ruled and are ruled in turn, in Aristotle's formulation in the Politics). There was no standing army, quartered on the citizens (see Lenin, State and Revolution). There was instead an armed citizenry, centered in the rowers for the navy in the Piraeus. This experience founded the long republican tradition of which the Federalist Papers and Marx’s enthusiasm for the Paris Commune are late examples. Of course, the polis held slaves and was, for the slaves, an exact illustration of the state according to Lenin. But the Paris Commune is the hope to remove both slavery and wage-slavery, to create a real democratic regime which does not, either domestically or internationally, treat others as lesser beings. Republicanism is in a profound sense, democratic in the sense of the polis; it is an anti-state. Put another way, anarchy and republicanism including Marx unite on being anti-state (they differ in terms of social theoretical or empirical claims on what the political community, the anti-state entails or to put it differently, their complex moral and political debates begin from a common, uncontroversial moral starting point and are driven by empirical and social theoretical differences - see my Democratic Individuality).

Tyranny, on the other hand, creates a force of foreign mercenaries to oppress the people (see Xenopohon, Hiero or On Tyranny). Tyranny is like a modern state, over and above the people, and often murders them for gain with insatiable zeal…

The Apology, as I show here, underlines the possibility of modifying the democratic city. Athens could, Socrates says, have had a four day rather than a one day trial for a capital charge (a customary matter rather than a question of natural justice, as Aristotle would later say); it could have allowed Socrates to live out his “scrap of life” as he had lived till 70, and die a natural death; it could have learned to tolerate philosophy or at least not commit the crime of murder against philosophers (Aristotle left Athens to prevent a “second crime” against philosophy).

Interestingly, Plato’s writings are not meant primarily (except the Apology and, to some extent, the Crito) to convince democrats that they should tolerate philosophy. They are meant to convince would-be philosophers, after many struggles and false starts, not to become tyrants or lackeys to tyrants (i.e. Aristotle, Heidegger, and today the neocons and many Straussians). The complex method of writing Plato chose enabled some of initially reactionary sympathies, like the aristocratic boys who followed Socrates or became students in the original Academy, to curb their initial anti-democacy or favoritism to tyranny (see the opening page of the Seventh Letter), to become democrats. Plato’s writings often fail, however, to cure some, even Heidegger and Aristotle.

Thirdly, Blinn invokes the Crito and the speech of the laws. The laws are the highest human thing – the rule of law - except, as Martin Luther King says, unjust ones. Socrates will not obey the unjust decisions about or application of the laws: for instance, forbidding him to ask questions, do philosophy. The laws in the Crito say: obey or persuade us. But as Strauss emphasizes, Socrates would have been killed for challenging the laws in this way. In fact, he was killed at the trial (since he tried to persuade the people – he almost did, a shift of a mere 30 votes out of 500 - but failed). Note again however that the whole emphasis in Plato’s account, contra Strauss, is that Socrates, something surprising to him since he expected death, might have won. Democracy with, say, four days for a trial involving capital punishment, as in other cities or a shift of a few votes, could have done something different and decent. This thought provides a reason to modify unjust laws with what we now call civil disobedience. It holds up or projects an idea or ideal of democracy, even though Athenian democracy disgraced itself with the trial, the verdict and the execution of Socrates.

The arguments given by Socrates in the speech of the laws are faulty: for instance, the discussion that drives out Cephalus in book 1 of the Republic rejects the thought that what is traditional – the word of fathers, and more terrible than fathers, the laws – must be obeyed (see also Aristophanes' The Clouds; it is the point that everyone knew about Socrates, forgotten in his panic by his old friend Crito). This is the beginning of philosophy in the Republic (the discussion with Cephalus is Cephalus prating, not a philosophical argument, not questions and sometimes tentative answers, not a mirror for what Socrates and Plato do, alone, or by themselves, or in philosophical conversation. The discussion is merely relevant to philosophy - Socrates’s questioning, which is actually philosophical, disturbs Cephalus as a symbol of the obscurantist dominance of tradition, drives him out. The discussion is not yet philosophy.

Thus, the speech of the laws persuades Crito who can speak no more, but does not persuade Socrates who has other reasons for his fealty to law which one must think out for oneself. Socrates only in this dialogue tells Crito he can ask more questions, but he will not convince him (he hears the droning murmur of the argument as the Corybants, participants in the mystery religions, hear the flutes: overwhelmingly, comparable as in the mystery religions, to a drug-induced passion, but beyond this), Socrates is further along a path of arguments which the reader is invited, after the silencing of Crito, to consider…

I suggest Socrates’ reason for fealty to the democratic laws of Athens (if modified to give a philosopher a chance to die naturally) is an intrinsic relationship of each person to just or good laws. See here. Just laws are a good thing. As King suggestions in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," a civil disobedient has the highest respect for just laws. John Rawls offers a profound formulation on civil disobedience, where it is not revolutionary (as it was in Egypt or perhaps in occupying the “State” house in Madison in a fading kind of democracy):

"Civil disobedience is resistance to an unjust law within the context of overall fidelity to law." (see A Theory of Justice, sections 53-59).

This idea in Rawls is modeled on King, but applies resonantly to the Apology and the Crito.

If Socrates's notion is of philosophical kingship as leadership in doing what we call civil disobedience, going to his death for the right (democracy and toleration of philosophy versus tyranny), the difficulty Blinn emphasizes about authoritarianism or what he takes to be philosophical kingship dissolves. But that perhaps requires King to be philosopher-king. He knew a lot about philosophy, had thought seriously about Hegel, but I have no interest in qualifying King as “fully” a philosopher. Nonetheless, leadership based on insights into the right, even “true opinion” in Socrates’s terms, is more than enough to sustain civil disobedience, to make it an incarnation of what Socrates refers to as the idea of justice one might seek. Socrates, one might recall, questions and has no full answers about justice. So perhaps what civil disobedients do is close enough.

Now Blinn is right that Socrates does not normally question for political reasons or to defend democracy (nor does Plato). Philosophy for each of them is a long, complex, ultimately mystical journey (Socrates does not know what death is...see here), winding beyond what is hinted at, at most, in the dialogues. What Socrates does do is rise to the defense of philosophy within democracy against tyranny, including the tyrannical acts of a democracy, hence, Aristotle’s notion of it as a defective regime – ruled in a particular interest – as compared to a polis, which serves a common good. Socrates in the Apology rightly defines what such a democracy could be – its potential toleration of philosophy, a prototype for wider, equal freedom of conscience in the modern sense – against tyranny long ago, and here and now.

3 comments:

Blinn Combs said...

Wow! Again, thanks for the very meaty comments. Let me just dive right in.

When I tried to distinguish Socratic practice from civil disobedience, I had neither anachronism nor Socratic selfishness in mind. Nor did I intend to limit modern civil disobedience to mass movements. My point was rather about (1) the different general circumstances at play with Socrates’ putative disobedience; and (2) the different explanatory structure that I take Socrates to invoke to explain it.

There are, in essence, three acts of disobedience that Socrates admits to. He attempted to stop the mass trial of the generals; he refused to follow an order to arrest Leon; he refuses to stop practicing philosophy. In each case, what he resists are the demands of others on his individual conduct. So in the first instance, he refused to allow the maneuver that paved the way for the mass trial. In doing so, he explicitly invokes the settled law that each person is entitled to an individual trial. His fellow council-members were attempting to have him break the law, and he refused. This is obviously not a protest against settled law, but a *defense* of settled law against a very particular act of legislative insurrection. The same, I suggest, may be said of Leon. Socrates says nothing that we know of to shun the entire institution of the tyranny of the 30, but he refuses to carry out one very specific order directed at him. (As you know, there is reason to think that the jurors suspected Socrates of collusion with the 30; Stone is not the first to find Socrates’ Leon story both oddly self-serving and oddly silent about the broader injustices of the regime. I’m not agreeing with Stone, but the suspicion is worth consideration.) In both those cases, Socrates could fairly claim that he refused out of a principled commitment to Athenian law, which deemed the acts he had been charged to carry out plainly illegal.

The third instance is a bit more complicated, but the heart of his claim is that the god (whether Apollo, as I think, or not) has ordered Socrates to practice philosophy, and since the god is higher up in the pecking order than the jury, when the orders of the two conflict, he’ll follow the god. Similarly, in the Crito, when Socrates seeks to justify his conduct, he invokes an idealized, deified Law, against which escape would be an act of injustice. Here again, he refuses a plea—this time from friends—to act in a very specific way in a very specific circumstance. In none of these cases does he contest what he sees as the law; rather, he explains his refusal to act by *appeal* to the law.

Blinn Combs said...

Incidentally, this is why, to me at least, the more interesting question is what grounds Socrates’ conception of law. The distinctions we are able to draw between grounding legal documents like the constitution and later, more specific statutes, as well as between those statues and the precedent formed by their later (judicial and executive) interpretation aren’t so clearly available in the Greek world. There is no judicial notion of stare decisis, and nothing more broadly operative on rights and duties than the actions of today’s council. That is why there is a certain degree of basic incoherence in Socrates’ Crito defense. In his democracy, unlike ours, the “law” is the product of whatever enactments the citizens pass from day to day. And if, as we should, we see the sanctioned laws of the past as similar human artifacts enacted by similarly epistemically shaky procedures, there is little obvious reason to prefer the past’s law to the present’s.

In marked contrast to Socrates’ examples, Thoreau is flatly rejecting a provision in the Constitution. He can, of course, appeal to some norm of justice to explain his rejection, but he obviously can’t appeal to settled law, since that’s what he’s attacking. Given that John Brown was, by any measure, a criminal, Thoreau could also not clearly base his defense of Brown on his reverence for the law.

My remarks about Socrates’ thoughts on imperial expansion were perhaps hasty. What we do know, however, is that Socrates fought as a hoplite in several of the most bitter campaigns of the Peloponnesian war, and there is simply nothing in our texts to suggest any opposition to Athenian expansionism. The Republic is more nuanced on such matters, though there is a rather broad consensus that it is not intended to give a particularly accurate historical portrait of Socrates. So, Socrates’ counter-example against Cephalus about returning a weapon to a man who has lost his mind is very likely pointed at Cephalus himself, a foreign, well heeled arms manufacturer with ties to Athens’ democratic faction, and there is much more generally to suggest Plato’s disillusionment with imperial expansion, but that strikes me as a later (post-Socratic) development that is more difficult to square with what we know of Socrates own military background.

The Meno passage is somewhat similar to the Republic, in that both are figured as developed Platonic views. That said, I find it quite difficult to extract an egalitarian political message from an argument about learning and recollection, especially when we recall the fully hierarchical social ideal envisioned in the Republic. After all, we can surely argue that anyone, given sufficient time and resources, can come to recollect basic mathematical truths (Socrates’ proof alludes to the Pythagorean theorem; Euclid wouldn’t arrive until about half a century after Socrates’ death)—all while still strongly denying that such time and resources would be wisely spent in every case. Just consider how much of the Republic is devoted to showing both how rare, and how easily spoilt, the philosophical character is. (Dominic Scott, in his recent book on the Meno and in an earlier essay anthologized in Fine’s Plato I, gives two intriguing interpretations of the passage, according to which—simplifying greatly—Plato is either making a more Kantian point about universal rationality, or a more pessimistic point about the rarity, and broader practical disposability, of philosophical reflection. On the Kantian view, all our conceptual knowledge is gained by recollection; on what Scott calls D (from Demaratus), perception is sufficient to gain ordinary concepts, only the possibility of abstract philosophical knowledge is being explained by appeal to recollection.) And in the Republic, Eleutheria is almost a dirty word. (I find little to recommend any reading of the Republic that casts it as a defense of democracy. Such a reading could only succeed by wrecking its broader argumentative structure.)

Blinn Combs said...

Finally, a word about Socrates’ divine mission. You’re surely right that Socrates’ activity isn’t the result of a direct order. It is, rather, his considered *interpretation* of the oracle, which, at least as he presents it in the Apology, changes over time. That said, the oracle story is not the only allusion to Socrates’ divine guidance. In the Phaedo, he speaks of frequently being visited in dreams and commanded to “make music.” The Apology also makes it clear that Socrates had had Apollo’s favor from childhood (31c-d, 40a, 40b). (Reeve, 1989, pp. 21-32 does a very good job explaining why Socrates’ mission is almost certainly Apollonian.) In a similar vein, there’s no textual evidence to suggest that Socrates’ daimonian gives him any positive guidance at all. Each time it is invoked in the Platonic corpus, it is shown holding him back from a given course of action that Socrates is contemplating, without providing any explanation of its grounds for doing so. To be sure, Socrates often provides his own considered explanations of its reasons, but these are in each case fairly clearly demarcated from the daimon’s restraints. See, in particular, Brickhouse and Smith’s Plato’s Socrates chapter on Socratic religion.

There is surely quite a bit more worth saying about the final paragraphs of your post, but I find that I am in fairly strong agreement with both you analysis of contemporary political events, and your stress on the importance of philosophical inquiry. We differ primarily in the desire to recruit Socrates (or Plato) to the cause of modern democracy. King, Thoreau, Greenwald, Goodman and others seem at least much more obvious company.

That said, I hope that I haven’t thoroughly warn out my welcome, and that you’ll let me reserve the right to add or revise, time and energy permitting.

Thanks so much, in any case, for the excellent exchange. It is very much appreciated. Cheers!

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