Saturday, April 16, 2011

How to read Plato: the farcical speech of the laws

The speech of the laws in the Crito has an initially convincing aspect. Students often report at a first reading Socrates’s absolute allegiance to the laws and say that in this, he differed from Martin Luther King (Socrates, they suppose, is unwilling to break unjust laws, even though he is sitting in a cell, waiting to die, under the unjust verdict of men). King himself must be confused sitting in the Birmingham jail to invoke Socrates, 3 times in the 11 pages he scrawled on the back of a New York Times, as a precursor to his own disobedience. See "The Civil Disobedience of Socrates,part 2," March 29th at Gandhi must be a fool to think of Socrates as a predecessor to Jesus and later Indian satyagrahis…

In addition, some political theorists believe that the speech of the laws represents Socrates’s and Plato’s considered opinion. In Political Obligation (1972), Richard Flathman writes that absolute obedience to the laws – not even to the democratic laws of Athens – was the crucial concern of this speech; what convinced Crito, was also Socrates’s opinion. Now Socrates’s clearly values the democratic laws of Athens; but he does so for his own reasons. He disobeys, or plainly was taken to be disobeying by a legally sufficient number, a law against blasphemy, even if it was a law in evidence only in Athens' defeat by Sparta and decline (it had been applied but once before). Flathman, who was doing a general analysis of obligation, referred to Socrates as providing an important argument, did not think about the context of the argument in the dialogue as a whole or the series of arguments about the trial and death across several dialogues, or of what a dialogue is (he effectively took Socrates to be Plato, the speech to be what Socrates and Plato thought simpliciter).

In a lecture for undergraduates available on the web, Steven Smith, a Straussian from Yale, insists that the Crito contradicts the Apology. I might briefly elaborate Socrates’ stance in the Apology for King and Gandhi did not get him wrong. Socrates had the perspective of disobedience there - he explains that he is testing the saying of Apollo through the Pythia that he is wisest of them all by questioning those who think they are wise and are not. He proposes as a penalty, since in fact he makes Athenians attend to virtue and is poor and needs it, that the city feed him with the Olympic athletes at the Prytaneum. Athletes merely seem to benefit you, he says, but I really benefit you. A student from Metro, Anthony Romero, suggested that this is itself a precursor of civil disobedience – it is certainly in the Athenians’ face about the injustice of what they are doing. King was not wrong to see this a precursor and inspirer of academic freedom; he was not wrong to see Socrates as a nonviolent gadfly inspiring great tension to produce a change (to defend the idea of a tolerant democracy, at least for questioning and philosophy); he was not wrong to see that a misguided demos, acting criminally, made Socrates drink the hemlock for questioning. And Socrates says to them he will not stop questioning. They cannot force him, except to silence him by death, from questioning the fathers, the authorities.

In contrast, Smith suggests, Socrates simply bows to the laws in the Crito. Steve does not attempt to tell us why Plato presented these clashing arguments or if Socrates were confused, how he or Plato tried to make sense of them (Steve is confused…).

It is perhaps worth going over the laws’ speech carefully, since in fact, it is not on the face of it convincing as an argument by Socrates, would not have convinced Crito without understanding motivations some of which are not spoken, and is, by the end, pretty well made fun of by Plato. It is a kind of bad court speech, an example of sophistry, in contrast to Socrates’s philosophical defiance in the Apology. Put differently, it is good to read the speech aloud, giving inflection to what is being said, to hear how, made of differing tones, it is quite comical. Plato invited his students over years to read his arguments critically, to think out for themselves what they meant. Here is what Socrates said in Phaedrus about writings as statues, incapable of answering if asked a question (they have no father to defend them) and yet a reader who knows how to read can detect a wisdom which will generate happiness into eternity. This is a secret complexity of these glittering, multifaceted dialogues:

"Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence , but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-277a

Thus, a straight reader, looking for the one meaning as perhaps in a treatise, unwilling to take the dialogue and tone seriously, is likely to founder badly.

At the outset, the laws speak imperiously to Socrates. We are big and threatening and you owe your life to us. You are small. We are more important than your father; you have no right to complain or hit back if we beat you (the force of this assertion will not survive a moment’s thought); you should bow down to us, they demand, as our slave.

“Was there such an equality relative to your father, or your master if you had one, so that you might return whatever was done to you – strike back, when struck, speak ill when spoken ill to, things like that. Does such a possibility then exist toward your city and its laws, so that if we should undertake to destroy you believing it is just, you in return will undertake to destroy us, your city and its laws? Will you claim that this is right – you, who are so profoundly concerned about virtue? Or are you so wise that you have let it escape your notice that city is to be honored beyond mother and father or any forebears; that it is more holy, more to be revered, of greater weight among both gods and men of understanding; that you must either persuade it to the contrary or do what it bids and suffer quietly what it prescribes, whether blows or bonds, whether you are led to war for wounds or death, still these things are to be done.”(51a-c)

Such obedience to a master is of course the opposite of doing philosophy, asking questions. Consider Republic book 1, where Socrates is brought to the house of the rich patriarch Cephalus - his name means "the head" - because he and Glaucon have been “in fun” arrested and threatened with a beating, and Glaucon has insisted that they come. Cephalus is asked by Socrates about being about to die – “being on the threshold of old age” - and spouts on with poetry and sententious speeches. Socretes asks him, pointedly and rudely, “Some would say Cephalos that you can make your sacrifices and pay your debts because you are rich.” That question drives out Cephalus who bequeaths his argument to his son, Polemarchos.

Driving the patriarch out is the start of philosophical discussion. Whatever Socrates is, he is nobody’s slave, particularly for fear of a beating or fear of drinking a poison (the fear-drug – phobon pharmakon - of book 1 of the Laws). The other discussion is relevant to philosophy (through Socrates’s questions), but is not philosophy. Obedience without question? No asking: what is just?, no city in speech, no dialogues, no Socrates…

Aristophanes’s “The Clouds,” a comic send up of Socrates and philosophy, is also to the point. Aristophanes imagines a father in debt, Strepsiades who approaches Socrates thinkery to get instruction for his son in how to defend him in the law-courts and get him off without paying. From Socrates, the son Phidippides does learn to question authority. He now thinks, that it is okay to beat up his mother and father. Strepsiades is pretty upset. He eventually sets fire to the thinkery. The first thing anyone knows about Socrates is that he asks questions of the fathers, does not just accept…

With regard to philosophical questioning (and public freedom), the first issue is that one must break with tradition, with (in this case) patriarchy. This is a fact about Socrates and philosophy that no one could have missed, certainly not Socrates’ old friend and occasional interlocutor Crito. Either Crito is pretty much a fool, his head somewhere else (what Strauss thinks, analogous to Cephalos in the Republic) or something else is going on As Socrates’s old friend who has long engaged in philosophy and fears for Socrates’ life, Crito is unlike Cephalos. Cephalos is of course preoccupied by his death, a rich man, desiring to be entertained briefly – Socrates from Cephalos' point of view is, in a later idiom, a likely court jester (cf. Socrates’ remark in the Republic that most philosophers, corrupted, “sit at the door of the rich”) - but needing to get back to making his end…

In addition, the laws here purport to speak to Socrates, even more strongly, as “our slave.” Yet they then turn around and say the opposite. They then conjure a contract between Socrates, as a free person and questioner, and themselves. You left Athens, they say, less than anyone else. Except with the army, you went away but once in 70 years – to the Isthmian games (a reference here to an aspect of Socrates’ disobedience in the sentencing phase of the trail – his recommendation that he should be fed at the Pytaneum with the Olympic athletes for “they only seem to benefit you but I – ‘the gadfly’- really do”).

Socrates, the laws say, has chosen to stay with them as a free man. They gave him permission to move throughout a long life, 70 years; he strayed from Athens less than anyone else. He chose these laws, they suggest. Note that the appeal here is to Socrates, a free man who contracts with the laws and through thought and decision, renews that compact by his actions again and again throughout his 70 years. This argument contradicts, point-blank, the argument that he is the slave of the laws. They need not rule through beating like tyrants; instead, they rule through consent.

“But whoever among you stays, recognizing the way we render judgment and govern the other affairs of the city, to him at that point we say that by his action he has entered agreement with us to do as we bid. And if he does not obey, we say that he commits injustice in three ways: because he disobeys us and we gave him birth; because he disobeys us and we nurtured him; because he agreed to obey us and neither obeys nor persuades us that we are doing something incorrect – even though we did not rudely command him to do as we bid but rather set before him the alternatives of doing it or persuading us to the contrary.” (51e-52a)

Now the second argument, made in a tone of rational appeal rather than bullying. appeals to a free man (as the citizens of Athens were). It is the appeal of democratic laws. If we are not just, persuade us in the assembly, by what is just by nature (51b-c), to change. But one cannot hold both these arguments together. The freely deliberated contract argument, attending distantly to what is by nature just, rules out the argument from despotism/slavery. And even the laws point out that in escaping Socrates would have to slip off in the leather coat of a slave. It would be base, they suggest to him, to escape in this disguise and to be mocked if he were anything other than a jester in his new home. But it might then be base to be "a slave of the laws."

At the least, the appeal of the laws is self-contradictory. Crito was unlikely to have been convinced by the first argument; he may have been somewhat convinced by the second. But the latter is only an idea that Socrates owes fidelity mostly to the laws. It does not yet say, even, that he should honor what they will call – self –exculpatingly - “the unjust decision of men.”

Now, these laws are also, most importantly, the laws of a democracy. Obey us or change us, they say. As Strauss notes in his subtle discussion of this speech (he rightly does not believe that what silences Crito convinces Socrates), Socrates has already explained in the Apology why he could not engage in public life and challenge the laws. A just man can expect, when called to political office in the city or the court, to face death (he can, however, do military service, which also faces death, but not at the hands of fellow citizens or political leaders). When his deme had the prytany (the judgeship), Socrates was asked to judge the case of 12 sea-captains who had failed in their obligation to fish the dead out of the sea because they were still locked in battle. The crowd, made up mainly of the rowers, the seamen,despised the captains and called to put them to death. When Socrates pointed out that they all had to fight the battle – that this obviously took precedence - and voted against death, he, too, met calls for death. Later on, cooler heads prevailed.(32a-c)

During the Tyranny of the Thirty, Socrates was ordered by his student Critias, the head tyrant, along with four others, to fetch Leon of Salamis and bring him to be put to death. The other four went and brought Leon back. Socrates went home. For this act of disobedience, he could easily have been put to death. Socrates was not, only because the Tyranny fell. (32c-d) My correspondant Blinn Combs suggests that Socrates in this case and others disobeyed a specific command, not a law. See his comments on my "The Civil Disobedience of Socrates," part 2, democratic-individuality, 3/29/11. This is a distinction without a difference. If I sit in the street and block a traffic light or trespass in a politician’s office (entering as a matter of right, but refusing to go when asked to leave – viz. the demonstrations in Madison recently), I have broken a law. But my act does not directly confront the unjust law or policy I am fighting. It is breaking some other law to protest a law or a policy and consequent “legal” arrangements (a war and all the legal acts which make it possible). Socrates’ defiance at the trial marks how determinedly he resisted the attack on philosophy (the law against blasphemy).

The third time in public was the trial and Socrates was sentenced to and went to his death. So the evidence of Socrates’ life three times – known to every reader of the Apology - pretty well disables the thought – “Obey us or change us” - that he could have been successful in changing the democratic laws of Athens. Socrates, of all people, could not change the laws, except in the long run through his death (through imagining a more tolerant democracy and becoming a martyr for it). A good man, he says, or at least this man who seeks justice, cannot participate in democratic public life without coming to grief.

Crito, probably, being a wealthy man and a hanger on with Socrates’s mainly aristocratic students, would have been familiar with the emptiness of this appeal, its logical possibility in a democracy, but its psychological and political unreality for Socrates and other philosophers. Again, unless Crito were really stupid, it is unlikely that the laws’ democratic argument convinced him either. In addition, the failure of the laws to provide serious remedies for a man who asks questions and seeks justice, undermines the contract argument. For Socrates as a representative philosopher, the freedom the laws exemplify (and which Socrates admires and has defended in battle at the risk of his life – 28b-d) will not tolerate questioning or justice and puts Socrates to death. This is perhaps not quite the idea of democratic laws; the laws of Athens are disgraced, brought into disrepute for centuries, for the frivolous decision to put to death the city’s wise man as Plato already saw (38c).

Strauss says the laws' appeal: obey us or change us (persuade us) was unpersuasive to Socrates and shows that some other argument than what he offers in the dialogue convinces him. This point is true as far as it goes. But Strauss imagines with Xenophon Socrates’s committing suicide, provoking his own conviction. Socrates purportedly goes to his death knowing happily (being a fascist Strauss thinks, like Strauss) that Athens will suffer disrepute for killing its wise man. His is a mocking death, sneering ironically at the laws and lording it over the city. This is a picture of death without any empathy for or imagining on Strauss’s part about what could have been in Socrates’s mind. For Socrates goes to his death with peace, cheerfulness and sweetness (very unusual – see 43b), and integrity, and not snickering at the laws until the darkness closes (Strauss was lucky enough to have a better death than the one he imagined for Socrates – see "The Civil Disobedience of Socrates, part 2" democratic-individuality, 3/29/11, and his last letters to Gershom Scholem, Gesammelte Schriften, b. 3).

Instead, one should look much more carefully at what Socrates says in the Apology and the Crito, and think out what Socrates' stance on the democratic laws might be. Smith insists that it is a philosophical-authoritarian stance but without evidence in these dialogues. He is reading the idea of the philosopher-king, taken literally, intensely back into the trial and Socrates’ decision to go to his death here. But even if one reads the Republic overly literally about philosopher-kings as authoritarians (Strauss, Heidegger, more forgiveably in his time, Farabi) do, this, too, is a distortion. (See "Mirrors; the cave, Heidegger's National Socialism and Leo Strauss, part 1," democratic-individuality, 5/5/10 and "Mirrors: How Strauss 'became' Heidegger in America," part 2, 6/28/11).

Strauss cleverly says that the laws never speak of their justice. This also is not quite true. At one point they say obey us or persuade us of what is by nature just. They imply that they are interested in justice, can move toward justice. But rhetorically, this just sets off how little their appeal is, on the face of it, one of their substantive justice as opposed to Socrates’s voluntary submission to them: you agreed you are a slave and we wish now to kill you…(actually, Athens barred killing slaves, and as I learned from the historian Athanasios Bobos in Athens last summer, a beaten slave could go to the Temple of Hephaestos below the Acropolis and sit there, protesting and often be granted a new master.)* The laws’ appeal becomes, rhetorically, quite comical here.

You could, Socrates, they say, have traveled to Sparta or Crete, cities you argued were well-governed. Yet you did not. You agreed with us, whatever we are (not just, merely persuadable or changeable). You stayed in our city most of all. The city most pleased you. “And how could a city be pleasing without its laws?” (53a) This must be the backhanded and self-deprecating compliment a supposed advocate has ever paid to himself…

The laws do not appeal to their justice; they deprecate their role even in what is pleasing about the city.

This is a second point of contradiction in the dialogue, perhaps subtler and deeper than the initial one of the laws as slave-owners, the laws adopted and persistently re-ratified as a contract by free men. It is, if pursued in thought, more fruitful. Why does Socrates, defending the vocation of philosophy against a law against blasphemy – that his asking questions is not blasphemy - not think too abysmally of these laws? Perhaps they have something to do with his happiness in Athens, his fashioning of arguments each day there, his philosophizing…

Here one might think of the sentences in the Republic: Athens is a city of many communities or cities (we might say: a plural city). See "Going down, part 3," democratic-individuality,8/27/10. Among these is the city of those who seek justice (perhaps even the idea of the city in speech). That community is realized on earth in a tolerant democracy, that which in Pericles’s words does not despise its citizens’ eccentricities so long as they come together for a common good. And Socrates who holds the line as a soldier, never runs away in battle, willingly faces death, is eccentric, the incarnation of a Periclean citizen. This thought serves as the basis for his contribution to citizenship – the importance of questioning the hubris of democratic leaders who frivolously kill and would as often bring back the dead if they could – and as an entry point into philosophy.

But Socrates follows the laws about holding his place in battle only as a matter of heroic honor. For he follows Achilles more than the laws. More importantly, the command he obeys is that of Apollo in response to his democratic friend Chaerophon who rashly asks the question: is anyone wiser than Socrates? It is significant that Chaerophon asks this: the question and Socrates’s response in deciding to test it by questioning those who thought themselves wise indicate what was good in Athenian (Periclean) democracy, what is attacked by the law against blasphemy and the unjust execution of Socrates. Socrates holds his station in the Apology as the defender of Apollo, meaning his right to figure out and test what the Delphic saying meant. This implies the need for a more legally tolerant democracy than Athens, or at least one more consistent legally than Athens was (the blasphemy law was applied but twice, and in Socrates’s case, 5 years after Athens was defeated in a great war, the democracy brought to a very low point, not Athens at its best, but Athens at its least…). In this case, King would be right that Socrates held his place for a higher law (seeking the same treatment for each citizen) against an unjust law (one which was also inconsistent with the legal and customary practice of Athens).

In the Apology, Socrates imagines that with the practices of another city – a longer than one day trial in capital cases – he could have won the citizenry to acquit him.(37b) Not Athens – discredited by the verdict (38c) - but an ideal democracy, one not so far from the actual Athens which in its “splendor” tolerated Socrates for 70 years – could have, even in defeat and misery, continued to tolerate philosophy as it had done through most of its existence, been a place where Socrates could have lived out his life naturally…

Here, too, Socrates lives in the here and now, brings philosophy into the present (is, “in practice,” in Marxian or Deweyan terms, lives “in the world” as Heidegger, who spent a lot of time thinking about Socrates, said. See "Mirrors, part 1.") Thus, Socrates speaks with his “true judges,” those who had voted for his acquittal here and now, about other significances – whether death is a bad thing and whether it for him then, in particular, is a bad thing – just after the trial concludes (see "The civil disobedience of Socrates, part 2," democratic-individuality).

*Even the slave appeal, with regard to many sacrificing their lives in war as Socrates the formidable soldier risked repeatedly, holding his position – see Apology, Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium - is a metaphor. For there is a rational and not slaveholding argument to be given here, too, about why it is necessary, given politics as it is, to defend the lives of one’s family, one’s fellow citizens and oneself from being slaughtered by a conquering army or tyrannized…Democratic citizens, who are armed and sometimes fight, are not slaves...And sometimes they act, as the nondemocratic hero Achilles did, with honor. As with Socrates in this case, one still needs the argument which is not said, which must be discovered and articulated…

**The more important point is that Plato is very critical of the Stranger, as a Socrates who did not defend philosophy (the term is not mentioned in the long dialogue) or go to his death, and meant his students and readers to pay special attention to and be critical of the Stranger.

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