Saturday, July 2, 2011

I.F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates: why Plato is hard to read, part 1

I.F. Stone is a very large figure in American life, a radical journalist who was famous during the New Deal and had access to the administration, was banned during McCarthyism and set up the wonderful IF Stone’s Weekly, an independent newsletter from Washington (edited/printed by his wife Esther), did the most important expose of the State Department White Paper on Vietnam and the Johnson administration's lies about the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident (perhaps the most striking piece of newspaper commentary of that era – certainly decisive in initiating the anti-war movement at Harvard where I was, in 1965), was one of the early reporters about Israel to argue that Jews and Palestinians need to live together (that the process of creating Israel must not be a continual transfer)...He was, profoundly, anti-racist in the United States and abroad. His books – roughly 10 year collections of articles – still mark out eras as a "non-conformist" who sought the truth.

Stone's method was: to read the newspapers internationally and the Congressional Record and find surprising and confirmable facts in the public record, which the government and corporations contradicted or sought to avoid. Independent, investigative reporting often relies on taking in what is in that "record." It is a form of seeing that the emperor has no clothes. In contrast, the powerful are abetted by often obsequious mainstream or corporate "reporting," which depends on access - cf. the White House Press corps as a paradigm, the use of "anonymous sources" not to protect whistleblowers but to allow the powerful to shape stories - and is a model of not reporting, of being a stenographer for the elite.

Using the public record, Stone's taking apart/making fun of political and governmental reaction, for example, notably and courageously of the bigot J. Edgar Hoover, is a model for intelligent reporting and blogging (much to the left, accurately and smartly, of most bloggers).

In American life, perhaps Noam Chomsky who has reached iconic status, is now a kind of parallel (in the world, Chomsky is better known). When Dan Nicolai, my son-in-law, was an aspiring young journalist in Wisconsin, he interviewed Chomsky who sharply depicted how mainstream Washington reporters are tied to the elite and have no interest in the truth.* Much of what Chomsky does is also to rely on public evidence, reading the papers, discerning the contradictions in the framing, about what the point of view of the elite actually is, for instance, why U.S. government sustaining dictatorships and the suppression of ordinary people, as in the 29 long years of the Mubarak tyranny in Egypt, is not contingent, a "mistake." Chomsky was a celebrated innovator in linguistics before he began writing on American foreign policy – some 30 years ago - and is more a scholar of American foreign policy than a reporter.

In exposing the abuses of power as an independent journalist, Stone is a paradigm for brilliance and wit. At the end of his life, he was widely recognized as a great voice for freedom of speech, for Jeffersonian democracy, one who had been harmed by paradigmatic American bigotry (the neo-cons and Bill O’Reilly and Fox News worked again after 9/11, to purge public American life of thought; the alternate reality authoritarians - the Republican leadership, Joe Lieberman and some Democrats - have always this possibility).

The anger and regret about how Stone was treated – few others stood up like Stone; he appeared having flown too near the sun during the FDR period, to have been an outstanding Washington reporter, to have fallen Icarus-like from his radicalism, and yet somehow survived and flown again (see D.D. Guttenplan, An American Radical). Many of his initial readers were the blacklisted; many others were willing to read something sparkling with passion and decency. Still others who had shut up, or not been able to write, or saw what was true and did not speak for it, found a deep affection for Izzy who went his own way and did. A modern Thoreau and one noticed and attacked by the elite, not just serving a day in jail for not paying taxes, a man who stood up, was blacklisted, survived, eventually flourished – I.F. Stone…

Now Izzy was also a family member (my sister-in-law’s father). I would occasionally come to my brother’s house and Izzy and Leonard Boudin, the great radical lawyer, would be sitting in the living room joking about once having been “Marksmen-Leninists” or Izzy would give me a hard time about my radicalism (having himself been a little more out there once upon a time – he was, as it were, talking with a younger self…). It is fun to look at a picture of him now. He looks like a wise old owl (like an owl of Minerva, one of Athena’s avatars). In the deepest sense, he fought for democracy.

Izzy went to Haddonfield High in New Jersey where he learned some Greek and Latin. He started at the University of Pennsylvania, but took work as a journalist and did not finish. Izzy could also, however, have been a great scholar. The talent of being an exceptional reporter, accepting nothing from conceited Emperors about their fancy clothes at face value - “All governments lie” was one of Izzy’s apt sayings and the title of Myra McPherson’s biography - is the same. When he had a heart attack and could not continue putting out the Weekly, he admirably turned back to Greek, mastered the language and set about taking on one of the great charges against Athens, the first democracy, which has resonated through history: Athens killed its wise man, Socrates. Izzy loved reading the Apology, as he says writing about it, and was moved by its last lines (greater than Shakespeare, he reports). He thinks the killing of Socrates, a crime against freedom of speech, is wrong.

Yet he makes a long hidden case for Athens, since Athenians liked to hear two sides in a debate, and the greatest voices which come down about Socrates are Plato and Xenophon, both anti-democrats in some obvious way, and the comic Aristophanes who makes fun relentlessly of his friend Socrates in “The Clouds” and “The Birds.” Athenians, and Socrates among them as Izzy emphasizes, could laugh at Socrates. There is thus much rich material in defense of Socrates and at its height on why Athens lived with Socrates’s questioning, an important aspect of its greatness, for 70 years.

Jonilda Dhamo, a long-time student of mine who comes from Athens and an organizer with me of courses in Athens and Crete, brought Izzy’s critique strongly into my course earlier this month in Matala. This was a great gift. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates is today not much used in college and graduate courses. Reactionary interpretations of Socrates – Leo Strauss’s, for example – are widely used by Straussians who teach many of these courses. Strauss’s writings are dense, replete with concealed messages, requiring insight into what Strauss named “the art of writing” to read.

In contrast, Stone’s book is very well written, witty, and breaks a lot of new stories about Socrates from a wide variety of sources. Stone read widely in Plato and Greek plays and later commentaries on Socrates for 10 years, and his learning comes across in the book – it is partly a matter of pride that he did it, partly to show up stodgy classicists and political theorists who don’t. Only the good and provocative books, really well-written, are the ones that must not be assigned: “oh, but he didn’t have a Ph.D…”. The reasons are obvious enough: Stone puts it to Plato and Socrates, and hence, to reactionary Platonists – such as Martin Heidegger the Nazi, and Leo Strauss, The German Stranger in the title of my friend Will Altman’s amusing and revelatory book.*** It is a book which is not comfortable for authoritarians to confront…

For there is no other book that captures the sense of the assembly and persuasion, the democratic life of Athens, as forcefully as Stone’s. He takes Aeschylus’s Oresteia and shows how Athena and the Athenians transform the furies through persuasion into the benign Eumenides. Stone misses how heavy the emphasis is on persuasion in Socrates’s imagining of the laws in the Crito, with its two senses, discussion in which everyone is permitted to speak, to hear or reach for the truth, and fancy words which may or may not convey truth but are at best the opinion of the moment, a will of all in Rousseau’s phrase. See here. As Thucydides shows us with the violent leader Cleon and the decisions to wipe out all the men in Mytilene and Melos, a people, persuaded wrongly, can resemble, as Aristotle says with a certain speciesism, a “herd of beasts”; alternately, persuasion can lead to a reflection, he says, wiser than a wise man, the many may see things that “the one who knows” does not. The last point is not so well shown in Thucydides, but the Athenians listening to Pericles about not waging war on two fronts early in the book or voting with Diodotus not to wipe out all the men in Mytilene, to reverse themselves and their earlier support for Cleon, to send a second ship a day later to outrun the first and stop a slaughter, are comparatively intelligent and quasi-decent decisions.

Stone’s emphasis is on freedom of speech and deliberation in Athens, and if one listens to Thucydides’s account, the fact that the people debated going to war is a large, very significant point and a deep contrast to what is allowed in modern America. Vietnam and Iraq would not have survived any debate from below in the US. To stop such wars would not even require fair debate; the elite controlled the news in both instances and allowed no anti-war voices. But even a few would have been sufficient...Thus, from the outside during Vietnam, I.F. Stone's Weekly helped bring mainstream lies into deep and lasting discredit.

Similarly, the Iraq aggression from the start had no popular support and was met by a huge, international anti-war movement. The Bush-Cheney lies about Saddam's "WMDs" and "ties to Al-Qaida" were easy to discern even in the corporate press (the analytic wing of the "CIA" became dangerous "enemy territory" for war Secretry Donald Rumsfeld; James Risen and others reported facts in the Times at p. A20 where the lies of Judith Miller and Michael Gordon, echoing the Iranian agent/Iraqi emigre Ahmed Chalabi and Dick Cheney, were given prime front-page speace...**** The talking heads from above in the corporate media strove unsuccessfully to put across the propaganda (over a couple of months in early 2003, 397 experts who appeared on CNN and MSNBC were pro-aggression, 4 moderately against in the run-up to Iraq, according to one study). The "mainstream" is often light-weight...

Before Athens emerged as a democracy, it was the godlike king or legislator who shed the lives of the people in what Kant 2000 years later would call “the pleasure party of war.” The legislator invoked the gods and his own divinity to do so. This was the point of the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws whom Stone mistakenly assumes (it is a common scholarly assumption, even among professional philosophers, including classical ones) is “Plato’s mouthpiece.”

The democracy often made bad decisions about war. After defeating Persia, the Athenians became emperors or despots abroad - cf. Thucydides in which the words to refer to the empire increasingly identify its despotism as the History of the Peloponnesian War winds on - like the Americans. (The embarrassment that every tear gas shell Mubarak fired against the young people in Arab Spring was manufactured in the United States by Consolidated Systems Inc., subsidized both directly and by military "aid" to the Egyptian military to purchase US-made weapons by the United States government, is but one example). If Izzy was skeptical of American democracy and protested unjust wars, exposed unjust interventions throughout his life, he was, ironically, largely unskeptical about Athens, the small city in which there was popular democracy, in which the citizens argued, served en masse on juries and voted. He was not simply a partisan, however.***** Izzy opposed the verdict against Socrates, but set about to understand the trial, to find the plausible reasons for majority Athenian enmity towards Socrates, to get, after 2400 years, a "scoop."

Perhaps a leading issue in Athens, as Izzy says, is that there are (at least) two sides to every question. Izzy got immediately that Plato and Xenophon do not present what moved the slim majority to condemn Socrates (the 280 out of 500 who did). In the Apology, Socrates hangs Meletus out to dry logically (Meletus accuses Socrates of believing in no gods but admits that he recognizes the children of divinities…); yet Socrates (and Plato) duck the issue. What was the other side, Stone asks rightly? Stone finds it and drives it home which is why his book or portions of it should be used in many courses.

If one reads Thucydides, the run up to the trial was the defeat of Athens in war in 404 B.C. (the trial was held in 399). The terrible circumstances of defeat, as Izzy does not emphasize, were a central reason why, after tolerating Socrates for 70 years, Athens went after its wise man. But some ten years before, the democracy had been overthrown by the Tyranny of the Thirty, led by Critias (Plato’s cousin, a student of Socrates) and Charmides (Plato’s uncle, also a student of Socrates). The democrats fled Athens. The Tyranny was frightful (1500, as Stone tells us in his New York Times Magazine article here, were made to drink the hemlock by Critias, perhaps more deaths than Athens lost in the final 10 years of the War).****** The democrats eventually came back, fought a war in the Piraeus and overthrew the Tyranny.

Critias believed in the rule of the one wise man. His murder of 1500 is quite a contrast to the democracy's making one figure, Socrates, the teacher of Critias, drink hemlock. Socrates was hated, Stone suggests, for siding with the Tyranny of the Thirty.

As Stone sees it, Plato was the master “prestidigitator,” hiding Socrates's affection for Critias. Socrates stayed in Athens, did not speak out publically against Critias, may have buckled, Xenophon tells us, to a request not to speak to students under 30.******* Izzy marshals the fact that Critias (or a grandfather of…) speaks resonantly of Socrates’s city (actually one that divides guardians from citizens, but one which lacks a philosopher-king or tyrant - h/t Peter Minowitz; the Republic is the only dialogue which features that proposal) in the Timaeus and is also the interlocutor in Critias. Izzy also points out that Critias continues to be regarded in Platonic circles seemingly favorably, except, of course, for Plato’s remarks at the beginning of the Seventh Letter. Having favored the tyranny initially as a young man whose relatives were involved – a pretty frank admission – Plato came to regard the Athenian democracy as a “golden age” (Stone corrects the translation to a more literal and eloquent “golden polis” or regime).

The point of Stone’s book, set starkly in the first chapter on ”Their Differences,” is that Socrates praises the rule of “the one who knows” (Izzy captures here exactly the inflection of Leo Strauss; see On Tyranny, p. 75 and here). “You want a navigator, not just any of the sailors, to guide the boat, a trainer of horses to improve your stallions, a trainer of gymnasts to shape up athletes; you want someone who knows about politics to lead, not mere artisans.” The Republic's sneer at a little baldheaded worker in bronze who gets himself a bath, marries philosophy, and begets sophisms incarnates this anti-democratic trend (here, it may be Plato, son of Ariston, the best, who sneers more than Socrates whose father was a stone mason and perhaps sculptor; I had imagined Socrates a stone-mason, too – Stone has investigated further and suggests something different).

As Stone puts it,

“The first and most fundamental disagreement was on the nature of the human community. Was it, as Greeks would have said, a polis – a free city? Or was it, as Socrates so often said, a herd?” (Trial of Socrates, p. 9).

He adds:

“Politics in Athens and the Greek city-states generally, as in Rome under the Republic was a kind of two-party class struggle. Both sides agreed that the city should be governed by its citizens. They divided over how wide the citizenship should be. Was citizenship to be restricted, as in the oligarchies, or widespread, as in the democracies? Was the city to be ruled by the few or the many, which also meant the rich or the poor? But for both sides, politics – the very life of the city – lay in self-government, and to oppose self-government was to be not just anti-democratic but antipolitical. This is how Socrates looked to most of his contemporaries.”

“Socrates was neither an oligarch nor a democrat. He stood apart from either side. His ideal, as we see it variously expressed in both Xenophon and Plato and reflected in what we know of the other Socratics, was rule neither by the few nor the many but by – as he put it in Xenophon’s Memorabilia – ‘the one who knows.’ This must have looked to his contemporaries as a reversion to kingship in its most absolute form.” (p. 11).

If one knows the dialogues, however, these stances sound too simple. Socrates claims not to know what the good is. In the Apology’s phrase, “I am perhaps wiser only in this. He thinks he knows but does not. I do not know nor do I think I know.“ But if Socrates does not know, he is not the “one who knows" about politics or the idea of a just political order; possibly, he thought that doubting contemporary political opinions about justice in which the democrats slaughtered the aristocrats in sanctuaries in Corcyra, the aristocrats slaughtered democrats – the story of the civil war (stasis) that arose throughout the Greek cities described in Thucydides – might make him or a philosopher-ruler a better political leader ideally. But it is his skepticism about murdering for “justice” [on behalf of opinions about justice] in which his wisdom consists…See my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch. 3. And this, I should note, is not dissimilar to the wisdom about governments of I.F. Stone...

Further, as another snippet, the city in speech in the Republic deprives the guardians of property. The reason for this is to prevent this kind of class struggle. So “the one who knows,” if that is what he knows, sets out to defend the city in wars abroad by ending the source of stasis internally. Stone never asks whether Critias made a gesture in this direction.

Both of these snippets, however, make the ideal-type of the reactionary authoritarian more doubtful than Stone allows.

Further, one would not guess from these characterizations that Socrates lived out his life in Athens, serving in the army and in office when called, and went to his death with the voice of the democratic laws of Athens murmuring in his ears overpoweringly as the Corybants, the participants in the mysteries (possibly high on opium as well as spiritally), hear the flutes. He did not, Socrates reports, participate in politics because it is impossible for a good man to participate and not be put to death. None of this sounds like he organized for the tyranny of the one.

Nor is it even clear that Socrates or Plato advocated kingship, let alone kingship in Athens, to any but a small circle, if at all. Izzy rightly brings up the conversation with Anytus, one of the accusers, in the Meno, but Socrates there merely asks who can teach virtue, and Anytus responds any gentlemen of Athens, just not you, and threatens him. Socrates, Anytus implies as Izzy shows, stayed to live in Athens under the Thirty tyrants - was not a partisan democrat - and was hated by some for this reason. But Socrates did not side with the tyrants either. For it is not clear there that Socrates urges, or could be taken to urge, “the rule of one who knows,” especially since on the misleading conclusion of the Meno, virtue cannot be taught. (In fact, the virtue that can be taught, in the action of the Republic, is what Socrates teaches Glaucon: not to become a tyrant!)

Thus, even at its barest ideal type, these claims need qualification or development. For Izzy, however, this is a pure ideal of disagreement, lifted out of the dialogues, Xenophon, and others. Unfortunately, this is the least interesting chapter in the book, and does set a theme which overly colors much of the presentation. Izzy restores and defends the good qualities of the democracy, but does not take in the shape or complexity of Plato’s and/or Socrates’s argument. He does not see that the modern fascists, who claim to follow Plato like Heidegger and Strauss, may, at the last, have misunderstood him...

Further, Stone denies that any Socratic was a democrat, even though his student, Chaerophon (according to Aristophanes’s The Clouds, Socrates’s best student) is acknowledged to be one in the Apology in a passage Izzy discusses and Polemarchos, whose name means war-leader and who performs a pantomime arrest of Socrates at the outset of the Republic, is then an interlocutor in book 1, later becomes a “philosophical youth” (Phaedrus), and who dies fighting the Tyranny of the Thirty in the Pireaeus, plainly were:

“The various followers of Socrates disagreed, often as violently as modern scholars, as to just what Socrates had taught them even – and especially – on the nature of virtue. But on one matter they agreed. They all rejected the polis. They all saw the human community not as a self-governing body of citizens with equal rights but as a herd that required a shepherd or king. They all treated democracy with condescension or contempt.” (p. 14)

Plato and Xenophon and Critias and Alcibiades might count in Stone’s way, but the case is far more complex than he makes out (and I am still, with him, doing examples and counterexamples, not analyzing dialogues in depth, as Plato invited students to do…).

Nonetheless, Stone contrasts this ideal of the one who knows with freedom of speech and freedom of deliberation. The book is beautifully written, a swift read with short chapters (each almost an edition of the Weekly). But it sets the tone instantly that Plato is to be understood in snippets, that dialogues have an obvious meaning - Plato’s Socrates speaks for Plato, the Eleusian or Athenian Strangers speak for Plato - and need no subtle analysis, have nothing to hide that one might need to figure out, except some shifty lawyering about the trial (depriving the prosecution of a case).

Izzy's scholarly/journalistic discovery or "scoop" - about that part of the case against Socrates which Plato hides - led to his stopping at that fact rather than asking a further question: what else might Plato hide and why? What is this mysterious form of writing called a dialogue?

It makes Izzy see Plato's wanting to protect his teacher and himself from the charge of anti-democracy as the same as being an anti-democrat. The charge has an analogy with the false and odious crusade against Izzy for being "pro-Soviet" in the sense of anti-democratic, for which, despite its long life (the two biographers, Guttenplan and McPherson, spend a lot of time answering it), there is not the slightest evidence.

Izzy thus infers mistakenly that Socrates was an anti-Athenian, even though he recognizes (somewhat slightingly) what Plato underlines in the Apology and the Seventh Letter: that Socrates, at the risk of his life, when ordered by Critias to fetch Leon of Salamis and annex himself to the regime's murders, went home...

In contrast to Strauss, however, Izzy underlines that some anti-democratic arguments of Socrates (and/or Plato) are right on the surface. Strauss wants to hide in the complexities of the dialogues since he was, ironically, a Jewish Nazi. See here. But Izzy wants to use the fact that Socrates does not admire the artisans speaking outside their areas of wisdom (Socrates does question the poets, like Aristophanes, hence, contra Izzy, converses with them) or that Socrates sometimes belittles them, or that he perhaps does not believe in Athenian isegoria (free or equal speech); he wants to make Socrates a teacher of tyranny, even though he also recognizes Socrates as a martyr to freedom of speech.

“The trial of Socrates was a prosecution of ideas. He was the first martyr of free speech and free thought.”

“If he had conducted his defense as a free speech case, and invoked the basic traditions of his city, he might, I believe have shifted the troubled jury in his favor. Unfortunately, Socrates never invoked the principle of free speech. Perhaps one reason he held back from that line of defense is because his victory would also have been a victory for the democratic principles he scorned. An acquittal would have vindicated Athens.” (p. 197).

The last sentence is a bit too optimistic. Athens put Socrates on trial for ideas, not acts, and this is creepy. That it would not have killed him means only that it would not have become infamous through the ages as the city that murdered its wise man. As I will show below, Socrates chose to defend philosophy and his role as a philosopher on his own terms, accepting that he might die for it. Perhaps Stone offers a wider possibility for ensuring freedom of speech for philosophers in Athens, but at the expense of what Socrates thought of as philosophy (asking questions, seeking the truth, conversing with others, including democrats and artisans, about it privately for hours, but not filling the public space with often demagogic speeches. Democracy is often, but not simply admirable; it is better than alternatives, or would be better if not perverted by hierarchical social structure and the rule of money into something authoritarian with a thinning parliamentary facade it needs to be fought for from below as in Madison and Athens...).

Socrates admired a disciplined seeking of the truth which Stone derides mistakenly as negative dialectics – Plato/Socrates are interested in showing how arguments, which are not well stated, go awry – or the search for absolute definitions which he does not find. Stone helpfully interprets these as hard cases in the law, which do not undermine but show the objectivity of core principles. The idea of the wise ruler, as I have often argued, who rules lawlessly, adjusting to particular circumstance on each issue or situation, is best addressed in a system of trials based on general principles and facts, sentencing based on specific and attenuating or aggravating circumstances , and is otherwise crazy. See here.

But Izzy misses the point of Socrates’s asking, say, what is justice? in book 1 of the Republic. This question founds political philosophy: it suggests that what is just goes beyond any particular historical realization of justice (or “advantage of the stronger”). It is always possible for each of us, citizen and philosopher, to question whether particular laws are just. This doesn’t seem absolute or abstract, but what Izzy spent most of his life doing, what people who fight for wider democracy, more decent laws, or to halt aggressions do…

It is peculiar that Izzy both does not notice and on a spurious, general principle ("negative dialectics are obfuscatory...") indicts this.

Izzy talks down Socrates’s refusal to obey Critias's order to go with four others to fetch Leon of Salamis to be put to death. Socrates would not participate, when commanded, in the regime’s crimes, the Apology and the Seventh Letter tell us. Instead, he went home. Plato holds the murder of Socrates most against the democracy, and he puts its fairly wanton brutality in the light of Socrates's disobedience to the Tyrants. He has Socrates say in the Apology that he could have been killed for not fetching Leon, just as he could have been in his one role in public life in Athens, when his deme had the offices in the court (the Prytany), and he voted against the execution of commanders who had not picked up slain Athenians during a naval battle. There was fierce, class resistance against this breaking of custom by aristocratic commanders and calls to kill Socrates for voting against condemning them, but as Socrates suggests, when the people had had time to think it over, they came around to his point of view.

Stone invokes a pointed conversation, reported in Xenophon, that Socrates had with Critias and another tyrant in which they threatened him if he continued to talk with young people (those under age of 30). Izzy points out that Socrates could have protested outspokenly then against the Tyranny as he does in the Apology against the democracy. But Socrates was not put on public trial by the Tyranny. He thus had no similar occasion. He could at most have been, quietly, martyred…

More importantly, Socrates says in the Apology that if he had participated in politics either under the Tyranny or under the democracy, he would have been put to death. The two occasions he mentions are both ones in which he was threatened, and heeded only justice, did not cling to life at the expense of becoming wicked. The third time is the very trial in the Apology when the Athenians put him to death. None of these public actions seem problematic in the light of the circumstances. Socrates did stand up for what he believed.

But in this respect, Socrates may have been more unpolitical than Plato. His inner voice (daimon) did not allow him to participate, he says, warned him against it. Socrates did speak out for an ideal democracy in the Crito, one which would have voted for him to live (if he could have swayed the people, “persuaded the laws” to change, as they say). He defended himself as a philosopher, and thus, philosophy.

But Plato appears in the Republic to suggest that a philosopher is plainly not a democrat (he escapes from the cave of politics, also the cave of Syracuse in which the Athenians invaded and in which they were slaughtered – h/t Rich Rockwell). But Socrates is a citizen – a critical one. Thus, he or she needs to go down to defend democraty against becoming a tyranny. That is what Plato’s students Demosthenes and Cicero, two Platonists, took from the Republic, who were both murdered for it by tyrants, and I lay out why they might have read Plato that way here, here and here.

This is what Izzy spent his life doing...

Along with most classical scholars, Izzy does not ask: who did Plato teach and what in the 30-some dialogues and in the Academy did he try to teach them and future readers? Plato and Socrates mainly taught smart, aristocratic, potential tyrants. Glaucon shows us how dangerous they were politically in the famous story of the ring of Gyges in book 2 of the Republic (in Tolkien, this became the ring of power in Lord of the Rings see here). But the Republic teaches Glaucon not to become a tyrant, even though he has a strong tendency in this direction. Many of Plato’s best students historically, Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Heidegger and Strauss, chose tyranny as something to defend in their lives. So democrats like Polemarchos, or Demosthenes are but examples among others. It is only if one takes Socrates and particularly Plato to be fighting an aristocratic, pro-tyrannical tendency that one sees what Plato implies.

Put differently, Plato thinks the democratic city of cities is a home for philosophy, tyranny is not. So the job of a philosopher, politically, is to go down to fight tyranny.

In any case, Plato has a profound point, against Izzy, about Socrates’s resistance to unjust orders. That resistance founds, as Martin Luther King says eloquently in his “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail”, civil disobedience. See here and here. In democratic theory, John Rawls’s formulation, based on King, that civil disobedience is resistance to an unjust law in the context of overall fidelity to the laws, was modeled in King’s own writing on the Apology and Crito. Interestingly, King's "Letter," written in his cell, brings up Socrates three times, that is, though a Baptist Minister, more than Jesus. In addition, the Jesus story would take on features of Socrates’s four centures earlier story, particularly in Greek Orthodox Christianity. Thus, Gandhi invokes Socrates and Jesus as the first two satyagrahi, followed by8 Hindus, including Mirabai, in a list of those who cleave to, are willing to go down the line and sacrifice themselves, nonviolently, for the truth.

Though Izzy was a strong anti-racist, he had not taken King's speech in in this context. Izzy does not see Socrates as the man who asks questions of authority, speaks truth to power. Instead, regarding Athenian democracy as good, he sees too easily Socrates as advocating tyranny – the rule of “one who knows,” of being against freedom of speech.

But Socrates speaks for questioning and for doing philosophy. It is not up to the democratic assemblies alone to launch pointed discussion (they often do not); Socrates, in particular, initiates questioning of the powerful, even when it drives them up a wall, makes them and their friends hate Socrates (he is a gadfly, in this respect, ironically given Izzy’s criticism, like I.F. Stone in America). They eventually put him to death. He is not to be defended by the Athenian principle of deliberation as Stone thinks; instead, his questioning - and questioning of his sort - makes that deliberation about power worthwhile. That would have been a better defense.

Izzy says amusingly that “Socrates is revered as a nonconformist but few realize that he was a rebel against an open society and the admirer of a closed.” (p. 121) The same could exactly have been said of Izzy. He rebelled against and questioned much injustice in America – admirable for democratic questioning the way Socrates was for questioning. And Izzy somewhat admired (with the sharpest qualifications about tyranny and murder) Russia****** as Socrates, admired, with qualifications, Sparta. Even the Athenian Stranger, who discusses Sparta points out many deficiencies in Spartan laws, including the absence of symposia (drinking parties). Plato wanted his students to think about and would add: philosophy.

The Spartan Megillus in book 1 of the Laws says that Athenians alone seem to be not by habit but by nature good. Plato's students might have agreed with those remarks, might then even have seen the issues of democracy and philosophy it raises (The Athenian Stranger, as Stone suggests, is odd, praises much in Athens but not the democracy and not philosophy). These students would also have noted that the Stranger is not Socrates, does not take the hemlock, does not go down the line for what he believes (in this case, the truth) but runs away, and does not mention philosophy (questioning) or being - he is much darker than Socrates - a philosopher.

Izzy does not read the dialogues in this way. He is, following wide learning in the Greeks for 10 years and delightful effort, not quite aware that the dialogues are problematic. Ironically, he does not quite hear his charge against Socrates which echoes a misguided (and odious) charge against himself.******* I will return more deeply to these issues in a subsequent post.

* In an undergraduate general education course on journalism at Macalester, Dan had been surprised to learn how "scoops" are often in the public record. If it is public, he had surmised, it must be "known." This method was linked explicitly by the instructor to I.F. Stone although the professor, surprisingly and mistakenly, left out the politics. But as in the case of Vietnam or Iraq, if the powerful are capitalists and/or the speakers of bureaucratese, the truth to be discovered in the public record will often be - broadly speaking - to the left. Of course, this is often true in so-called "leftist" regimes in power as well (note also Obama's vehement efforts to crush leaks against government abuses, his protection of torturers...). The powerful often push around the powerless. Good or objective reporting is thus linked, more basically, to decency and does not have or reflect a parti pris.

**In 2003, I participated in a Stone-like expose, reprinting such contradictory columns from the corporate press: Target Iraq, whose drafting and publicizing were organized by Omar Jabara. See also Amy and David Goodman's Exception to the Rulers, ch. 7 ("the Lies of our Times").

***Will teaches Greek and Latin to high school students in Virginia, has recently gotten a Ph.D., and published many, sometimes ingenious articles on Plato and Strauss, for instance "A Tale of Two Drinking Parties" comparing brilliantly Socrates who drank the hemlock, and the Athenian Stranger, who praises Athenian drinking parties politically in book 1 of the Laws, but did not drink the hemlock (the fear drug, phobon pharmakon, in book 1), and of whom Plato wants his students to be even more skeptical than he does the arguments of Socrates.

****The Athenian Stranger discusses laws critically with two old men, and suggests that one not speak of the laws with the young. If one knows of Socrates’s conversations with the young, as Plato's students did, and the limitations, on Xenophon’s description, Critias tried to force on Socrates, one will hardly be impressed with the Stranger…

*****In Crete, the partisans fought Hitler in the high mountains, with heroism and at great cost. The American term "non-partisan" has, in this context, an undesirable, even pro-Nazi meaning (Sartre's philosophy articulates the question:"which side are you on" and rightly avers that there is nothing admirable or "neutral" about seeing innocents slaughtered and standing by...).

******Izzy's late research was lionized by the Times, and the editor let him actally interview himself on what he found out (his questioning is sometimes, amusingly, pointed). Perhaps the editor surmised that no one, among today's reporters, could probe so effectively what Izzy was up to about Athens and philosophy back then. And of course the Times' participation in blacklisting and its weaknesses in reporting on the US government may also have nagged at him or her (in retrospect, Izzy was right about so much...). But the decision is, however amusing, also a bit jarring and inappropriate among reporters...

*******It is important to recall lynching and the segregated South (then embedded in the Democratic Party) here. The "open society" has been, sadly, competitive in brutality and genocide with any other. "All governments lie..."

******Anti-communism or anti-radicalism is the view that ordinary people are not oppressed but are duped by some mysterious and foreign other. The American radical, as Guttenplan rightly names him, must be a "prisoner of Stalin." Yes, Izzy met with a Soviet consul for lunch at a hang out of J. Edgar Hoover (to tweak his nose, as Izzy says, twinklingly). What Hoover stood for - "untruth, injustice and the capitalist way..." - has, however, a long afterlife...

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