Sunday, April 17, 2011

A resistant adherent to democracy, part 2

For "How to read Plato: the farcical speech of the laws, part 1," see, April 16.

Note that the laws’ slavery argument in the Crito is more draconian than even Hobbes’s authoritarianism where since one most values one’s life – fears violent death - one is at least allowed to shake one’s chains. The most defective argument of the laws, affirmed more narrowly by Hobbes as a morally serious basis for his contract – it protects the lives of each of us - is the basis, with further distortion, for the fascism of Carl Schmitt – The Concept of the Political – and Strauss’s purifying remarks on it, now published with it (his remarks make Schmitt's argument more pro-fascist, and since elite German fascists, could not speak out until the Nazis took power, pro-Nazi…See "Enmity and Tyranny," parts 1-3, democratic-individuality, March, 2010, and Will Altman, The German Stranger.

In fact, in the speech of the laws, Socrates summons but one convincing argument of the laws for his accepting the unjust penalty of death. This, too, however, is not a principled but a proximate or derivative argument from something that is unsaid. Socrates, the laws point out, could have proposed exile at his trial. He could then have done with the laws’ permission what he now proposes to do breaking or “destroying” the laws, what he had explicitly then affirmed not to do. He had agreed not just to the laws in general, but to shun this very sentence, this exile. He would thus not act with integrity himself to avoid death by escaping as a private man and a coward. Escape would be an act of free decision, but not the act of a man or woman who respects the freedom of herself and others, a free citizen; he would, in fact, be mocking the very things he had said, once again, as a free man, responding with dignity, at his trial…

In the Apology, Socrates had said he would go on asking questions, doing philosophy, regardless of what the Athenians commanded. He thus left no alternative (not proposing exile) between freeing him which some 220 voted to do or killing him (what some 280 voted to do). But to do now illegally what he could have proposed and accomplished legally is thus inconsistent and corrupt personally (brings disrepute on the laws, tries to destroy them, when he could have accomplished the same thing, freely and in the light of day, while upholding them). To escape, as Crito urges, would make him a shadowy and corrupt figure, stealing away in disguise in the night and making his bold words in his defense empty, hypocritical…

He would be not Socrates, but an Athenian Stranger...

Though this is a good argument,it does not yet account, from Socrates’ perspective, for why he defied the assembly about questioning and went to his death. He could not only have shut up and stayed alive; he could have chosen exile and stayed alive. Perhaps the laws’ point helps to convince Crito that it would have been “bad faith” (in Sartre’s here anachronistic phrase) for Socrates to slink away illegally when he could have survived with the same sentence, legally, openly, in accord with the democracy, just before. But it is not yet an argument for why he publically didn’t choose exile on Crito’s grounds (he does say: I would be escaping for but a scrap of life, for a banquet. Yet on one level, the Laws is also Plato’s imagining of an Athenian Stranger, going into exile, and finding something useful to do in Crete, a resurrected Socrates, a precursor of Christ…).**

The laws seek to distinguish themselves – the idea of the democratic laws of Athens – from the unjust decision of men. Although in the literature there is the notion of the idea of the good arising later for Socrates, they are – if a bit scraggly like the clouds – nonetheless the idea of the democratic laws. They maintain that men reached the wrong decision but that the laws were okay (for how can a city be pleasing without…):

“Quite the contrary; you traveled abroad less often than the halt, the lame and the blind. So the city pleased you to a degree suprassing all other Athenians. Therefore we pleased you too, for to whom would a city be pleasing without laws?” (953a)

Again, Socrates asks no question. He also does not respond, importantly, about which (assuming there were not so many) law or laws actually pleased him.e This would be at least those which allowed philosophers as free citizens to ask questions…

But one might ask the question: how can there be a law against blasphemy toward the Athenians gods, which forbids people to ask questions, to have a different belief or even to disbelieve? As Pericles famously said: we do not cast censorious looks on one another for our eccentricieties, so long as we all come together for a common good. Is this Athens in its greatness or the fallen Athens – 399 B.C. - of a desperate and ill-considered majority (those who misguidedly force Socrates to drink the hemlock as King says, a will of all in Rousseau’s terms)? Did Athens, the first and splendid democracy, one might ask, need such a law? Did this law comport with the other laws of Athens for free men?

Socrates asks questions. To do philosophy is thus to do something threatening to the powerful. But the very idea of freedom, of being a free citien, is to ask questions. In modern terms, in King’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” a just law is one which treats all citizens alike. They have basic rights, to vote, to speak, to follow their conscience so long as they do not harm others, to associate with whom they choose…Such a thought or a law upholding it would have protected Socrates from political murder. Thus, what it is to do philosophy extends the ordinary public practice of asking questions. What it is to do philosophy grows out of freedom, the equal public freedom of a democracy for which one might give one’s life when the regime is threatened, to defend the equal freedom (or right) of each of us as an individual, to ask questions, and to say no (to be a “majority of one” in Thoreau’s phrase) to unjust commands.

Thus, citizenship and philosophy are linked. They do not simply conflict, in Strauss’s idiom, attempting to justify philosophy against democracy, the philosopher-tyrant, the man of commander of chief or executive power, Adolf Hitler for Strauss in 1933 (see "Shadings: "They consider me a 'Nazi' here": Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933," democratic-individuality, 9/9/2009), Bush and Cheney for subsequent neocons. Instead, citizenship and philosophy are also and consistently continuous. Athens could, Socrates says, have adopted the practice of a longer trial in a capital case, and then he would have been acquitted. Athens would then have remained the place where he could daily shape arguments. That would have been a shining Athens, along with its great buildings, its monuments, which did not martyr its philosopher. Socrates – on Plato’s telling in the Apology and the Crito – defends democracy, a democracy tolerant enough to allow a philosopher to live, a citizen to ask.

Why did the actual Athenians need to put Socrates to death for questioning (or even for “corrupting the youth” by questioning)?

Some of Socrates’ students were tyrants like Critias and Charmides(Plato's relatives). Some were democrats who fought the Tyranny of the Thirty like Chaerophon and Polemarchos (later referred to importantly as a “philosophical youth” in the Phaedrus). Was Socrates or Plato a would-be counselor of tyrants (Critias did not get Socrates’ cooperation to assassinate Leon of Salamis, so perhaps we should restrict the queston to Plato)? Or do Socrates and Plato counsel democratic resistance to tyranny (Socrates’ refusal to obey an order to fetch Leon to be murdered, Chaerophon’s exile with the democrats, Polemarchos’ death fighting the Tyranny of the Thirty in the Piraeus)? See "Going down, parts 1-3," democratic-individuality, August, 2010.*

Why should anyone be persecuted about the gods, a Periclean democrat might say, unless, for instance, corrupting the youth extended to unwillingness to serve as a citizen in the military? (One might add: in the Roman republic, citizens swore an oath to take part in this particular war; a willingness to serve could accompany ideally a capacity to refuse in the case of aggression and in particular, self-defeating – for democracy and individuals - wars of aggression, say, those that led to the Roman empire or the US in Vietnam, in Afganistan and Iraq….

Once again, the modern thought that freedom of conscience for each citizen – equal freedom of conscience – defends philosophical questioning and individual conscience religiously – applies quite well to the case of Socrates. The modern thought that a state is stronger which tolerates conscientious objection to wars than one which demands, as a putative slave-master, blind obedience unto death, extends this idea of freedom of conscience (Hegel, Philosophy of Right). My suggestion in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? that a healthy and serious democracy would allow and discuss publically conscientious objection to a particular war extends this thought. Such a democracy would be careful about punishing (and even whether to punish) civil disobedience about great matters – after all, the movement led by Martin Luther King of nonviolent civil disobedience against segregation is a noble and perhaps the most transformative movement in America in the latter half of the 20th century and arguably in American history. Such a democracy would thus prove its strength. It would further defend and expand this core insight about a decent regime, about its root in each citizen's questioning about important matters, about what guarantees it, that is, as Rawls’ puts it, questioning as a free person to establish institutions in a noncoercive, sovereign situation (a reflective “original position”).

Properly understood, and not in or breaking out of oppressive circumstances (Athens was a slaveholding, aggressive democracy), democratic citizenship, civil disobedience, and philosophy are continuous, not, as Strauss imagines, in conflict (Strauss never comments on civil disobedience; a German authoritarian, he had no interest in it).** In this context, the trial of Socrates is an emblem. But it is not just that of antagonism between politics and philosophy; it is also a sketching, as Socrates does, of a continuity, a possibility, in Platonic terms, an idea.

Further, if the sentence is unjust, one might ask, perhaps even the law is unjust. Socrates almost says this. He says with more than one day to try capital cases as they had in some cities, he could have convinced 30 votes to shift and been freed (35d-36a). The suggestion is a potential alteration of Athenian law with regard to the length of trials with a death sentence. That suggestion results from a comparative questioning, in the Greek context, of the laws of Athens. But Socrates (or someone pursuing, philosophically, this issue) might easily have gone further. He might have proposed tolerance for philosophers (for asking questions), that the practice of freedom of speech in Athens, as Pericles indicated, be enshrined in a law that protects it (or in defeating a law inconsistent with it). If at least the customary practice in such trial was unjust as Socrates suggests and can be questioned, perhaps the law itself is, given Pericles’s speech and Socrates’s 70 years in Athens, questionable…

The laws then desperately conclude, as if they were sophists in a court, “Don’t be persuaded by Crito. Be persuaded by us.” (54c-d) This is quite a rhetorical come-down from the lordly shouting: “you are our slave, bow down!” Plato means the auditor to hear the slightly self-deprecating bad faith of the laws' appeal ringing through their closing.

But Socrates then, alone in all the dialogues, majestically says, I hear the argument of the laws as the Corybants, the followers of the Mystery Religions of which Socrates was one, overpoweringly, hear the flutes. Ask Crito, he says, if you have more questions, but you will not convince me:

“Crito, my dear and faithful friend, I think I hear these things as the Corybants think they hear the flutes, and the droning murmur of the words sounds within me and makes me incapable of hearing anything else. Know that if you speak against the things I now think true, you will not convince me. Still, if you imagine you can accomplish something, please speak.” (54d)

Socrates is plainly here, both from the inadequacies of the laws’ arguments and from this statement itself, further along the path of arguments (the ways through the woods, in Heidegger’s idiom) than Crito has gotten or desires to get.

Crito responds: I can say nothing, Socrates.

So be it, Socrates responds. Let us act this way since so the god leads (he gives an enormous impression of being pious, if in his own way). The conclusion invokes the god. Socrates does not mechanically obey the god of Athens – though he summons Apollo in the trial and Chaerophon, his student, the democrat, acquired the riddle for Socrates by rashly asking the Pythia who is wisest of them all (the riddle is that Socrates knows particular things but does not know about the ideas: what justice or virtue or beauty or the good is). Instead, it is Socrates who decides how to test out the saying of the god.(20a-21b)

But why does Crito accept the laws' argument?

Crito is worried about losing philosophy and the pleasure of his friend’s company. He is an honorable man. In addition, and perhaps more deeply (Crito is not a philosopher), he is worried about what people will say about him, Socrates’ rich friend, who lifted not a finger to prevent his death, when he could have – as he has done – bought Socrates’s way out.

Socrates gives Crito not a coherent or convincing argument, but seemingly impressive things to say to the people of Athens about why he went to his death. These things will affirm for Athenians Socrates’ respect for the democratic laws, that he went to his death, affirming both philosophy and his innocence, and as a democratic citizen.***

Hence the citizens will think well of Socrates’ defense of philosophy which will grow in dignity against Athenian prejudice. But more importantly, he has let Crito off the hook, and one can hear Crito breathing a sigh of relief. His friend will die, but Crito will not be blamed for having not purchased the escape. Further, his friends like Crito will forfeit their fortunes if they help Socrates escape. In addition, Socrates speaks to each of Crito's other concerns. Socrates’ friends, the laws say, will surely protect his children in Athens after he goes to the place of the dead, just as they would protect them if he went into exile. Here Socrates, in the speech of the laws, calms Crito down. But the main way he does this – to give him arguments for other citizens to defend his honor in not buying Socrates’ escape –is not said.

Thus the speech of the laws is, as argument, superficially persuasive, actually contradictory in several ways, and convincing only because of what Socrates chose to affirm at the trial without revealing why he did it. Yet, Socrates could have been mistaken at the trial, for example. Thus, one must think more deeply into the motivations and justifications (if they are justified) for the actions in the dialogues. Plato intended smart students – some of his students – to read it this way. That is why the writing descends to the narrow lawyerly and unconfident appeal at the very end. One is supposed to notice the flaws in the argument.

That leaves a question for Socrates and Plato’s more philosophical and inquisitive students, then and in future: what argument or arguments actually convince Socrates to go to his death, to accept without challenge from his inner voice – daimon – that this is to be his fate at the trial which he knew before he spoke(35d-36a)?

In the Apology, it is clear that the decision of the city to execute its wise man brought democracy into radical disrepute (and for nearly 2000 years). Strauss defends the odd view that Socrates went to his death chuckling because he had disgraced the laws of the democracy. He had committed on behalf of philosophy an odd kind of suicide (the argument in the Phaedo also suggests something like this, but only because philosophers are devoted to the soul against the body, not for some narrow scorn against democracy).

But the laws say to him: you go to your death, someone who will not stop questioning about virtue, with honor here (in terms of the idea of the laws, perhaps of what the laws might become), and when you come to the place of the dead. You go with integrity. You broke a law (perhaps a bad or inconsistent law); you were sentenced (barely) by the understanding of men (laws can only be applied, sometimes wrongly, through the deliberations of men); you have been punished by a legal process in which you could have chosen some other result which you said was beneath you (groveling) or unsuited to a free man (shutting up); you must pay the penalty. If you pay with your life, you (and philosophy) will be received with honor here and in the place of the dead (history, not the survival of the individual soul, which is a more mysterious and metaphorical matter – see "The Civil Disobedience of Socrates, part 2," democratic-individuality, 3/29/2011).

King suggests, along the same lines, that Socrates was an early practitioner of questioning (the center of citizenship as well as philosophy). He was an early satyagrahi. That fits his defense of what he had done – he had done no wrong, and honored his obligations to the gods of Athens (Apollo, though of course Socrates himself figures out, once again, how to test the Pythia’s saying) but would not stop asking questions (he had broken the law against this, and straightforwardly, even defiantly explains that he would continue to break it, his proto-civil disobedience) – and was willing to pay the penalty. Death is harsh, but he made, with Plato’s help, philosophy live and we still read these words, even in the first college classes, 2500 years later.

*Blinn Combs has a long response to my last post on the Apology with some interesting claims - see democratic-individuality, 3/29/2011 - in which he also says mistakenly that this interpretation – I don’t think he has yet read it – “must” be wrong because of an unspecified structure of the Republic. This is rhetoric, not yet argument. The question: why is this law, the almost unused and then only in political cases, law against blasphemy, more backward than and in conflict with Pericles’ defense of Athenian citizenship? Why is this law a law? Pericles’s judgment and this law are not consistent; one pretty plainly is unjust and tyrannical.

Blinn's argument on civil disobedience rests on a modern stereotype about breaking an unjust law. He rightly says that Socrates often refuses direct orders. But does this difference mean that King is wrong to invoke Socrates. One might take these two essays as a counterargument to that claim…

**In his commentary on the Republic, Allan Bloom suggests that Plato wants to substitute Odysseus at the end for Achilles. In the trial, Socrates says he does not fear death but does the honorable thing like Achilles (who avenges Patroclus by slaughtering Hector but also allows Priam to mourn his son). Death before dishonor is the creed of Socrates. Are Plato and the Academy enemies of Socrates, would-be counsellors to tyrants? That would have been Bloom’s conclusion if he had ever asked himself the question, and of course, Strauss, via Xenophon, tries implausibly to make Socrates into this authoritarian image of Plato.

But suppose Plato stood, in a complicated way, with Socrates…

***As Plato repeatedly shows, Socrates asks questions, he is therefore not innocent –see Socrates' famous denial in the voice of Diotima that Eros is a god in the Symposium - "Plato's Symposium: love and beauty as image and argument, part 1" democratic-individuality, 11/28/2010; an undergraduate at Metro, Jake Austin pointed out that taken literally, Socrates at the end of the Apology, does not believe as more credulous Athenians do, that he will go to Hades after death – a blasphemy if one is a Joe McCarthy or a neocon – Bill Kristol – persecutor. Consider Kristol's and Liz Cheney's attack on “the Al-Qaida 7” lawyers in the Justice Department who had dared to defend those imprisoned at Guantanamo, to act with integrity as lawyers…So the question again becomes: are questions crimes?

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