Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Going down the line for principle: IF Stone and Socrates in context, part 4

See parts 1, 2, and 3, here, here and here.

Izzy (I.F. Stone) also makes much of how badly Socrates treats his wife and children (couples that do badly usually have problems on both sides; it is good to notice that Socrates was no joy to be married to – that corrects Xenophon’s and Plato’s sneering on behalf of Socrates – but…).

I recently published Vincent Harding’s wonderful letter as an elder to Barack Obama over his extra-legal assassination of Bin Laden. See here. Harding had written in a draft of King’s speech on Vietnam at the Riverside Church that acts by leaders teach young people. King could not, he said, have spoken to the angry and despairing young rebels in Watts without first criticizing “my own government, the most violent in the world.” Barack, Vincent suggests, is not here a decent teacher-in-chief. He does not counsel young blacks, caught up in the genocidal American prison-system (25% of the world’s prisoners), to learn nonviolent forms of resistance, but to take out their enemies. Vincent offers a profound way to think about statesperson-like political action.

What would Socrates have taught his children by garbing himself as a slave and escaping, by denying philosophy, questioning and philosophy, and thus, what is good in Athens, as well as his own integrity, and instead, saving his life by grovelling to things he did not believe in?

Martin Luther King left his sons and daughters no dream to live out honestly and fully where he could not. Dying for what he believed, in this case, the truth that the oppressed and despised are the same as any of us, he did not burden them with an unfinished task of his. The children did not have to fulfill the great ideals that a father could not quite live up to. He left them their own lives to lead (what a decent parent should do, what is an enormous struggle to do). Similarly, Socrates and his sons…

King and Socrates filled the space. King’s words live on – for instance, the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” or “Breaking the Silence,” the speech against Vietnam at the Riverside Church, that will be read as long as there are human beings on this planet with an interest in America and American English. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” joins the club, but one might think for a while about how many speeches or essays of public figures meet that standard; Barbara Deming’s “Revolution and Equilibrium” fully deserves to be there, but she is not, for the moment, so large a public figure.

Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Frederick Douglass's speech about John Brown...Not so many...

Socrates refused to write, and his words and deeds would have influenced his sons, but not come down, more than Shakespeare as Izzy tells us, through the ages, without his student and the brilliant dramatist, Plato. Izzy suggests that Plato failed as a tragedian (or comedian), but actually the dialogues are the greatest and most mysterious plays (see Phaedrus here).

Sometimes, the best education is the (shortened) life a parent leads, not being there always, sad as that is, with children. But one has many occasions or ways in which to die, in which one does not fulfill the meaning of one’s life, project decency, as King or Gandhi or Socrates did, for the ages….

In addition, as the second part of this post emphasizes, Socrates and Plato were notably for the emancipation of women, as the role of Diotima in the Symposium and of women among the guardians indicates (the fact that there are two sides to Plato's judgment, some sarcasm, the image of women and men wrestling naked together, inviting males to snicker and thus, a Platonic attack on boys and girls vaulting equally over the bull’s horns or to their death nearly 4,000 years ago in Crete – see here and here – does not take away this significance). Leo Strauss read only for the hidden meaning and always extolled it compared to a “surface” meaning. But this would make Plato formulaic and stupid and monotone - it is a formula for connecting the dots in future readings, for rendering invisible ink visible, not for being a philosophical student of Plato. There is exactly no philosophical justification for a wooden stereotyping about it. There are hidden meanings, Plato wants one to become aware of, and think about them. But questioning does not stop with the recognition of a hidden gesture...Strauss is right that there are such meanings, but not about the method of detecting them or the meanings themselves.

For instance, the surface argument about the liberation of women is startling enough in Athens, inviting a Poseidon-like wave of ridicule (see the Odyssey), as does, in democratic Athens, the idea of the philosopher king. But Strauss takes too seriously and misunderstands the idea of a philosopher-king – enlightened philosophers go down to defend the democracy, not to defeat and transform it into an ideal authoritarian regime, see here , here and here. About women, Strauss merely snickers...But the Republic's was also a prescient insight, helping to found a first Enlightenment (and as I have emphasized in Ibn-Rusd's - Averroes's - commentary on the Republic, inspiring the second enlightenment in thirteenth century Cordoba and Granada - "we are poor" Ibn-Rusd insists, "because we treat women like plants; women can contribute equally to men in all social and public activities).

Taking in and arguing about such claims as Socrates’s and Plato’s students did (example: Ibn-Rusd), not taking the conclusions far to the Right on the basis of crass prejudice, that is, starting from and elaborating an unchallenged teenage - pre-philosophical - reactionary predisposition (the move of Heidegger and Strauss, inter alia), is what philosophy is. One must take Plato as conversing with gifted reactionaries - far on the right - to see what, if he succeeds, he accomplishes. Of course the strategy itself may give a far better and more sophisticated veneer to reactionaries, i.e. Heidegger, see here and here - than they would have gotten to themselves (Plato inspired a philosophical creativity in Heidegger, but the death-cult for German soldiers, what Heidegger means by Sein zum Tode, being toward death, see here, killers on behalf of authoritarianism or Nazism. Doing philosophy is often dangerous even when it overturns the oppressive pieties and crimes of the current day...That is why Socrates's questioning and the idea of civil disobedience (that it is bad to commit injustice, that most kill "lightly," Nazis most of all) is the way to go, not a fascination with seeming belligerent answers...

As in the case of Socrates on slavery, Izzy misses Socrates and Plato on the liberation of women. But in this respect, Socrates and Plato are more democratic than Athens was, not less. It is why Izzy should have admired Socrates and, I now think, Plato rather than combating an illusion of them. Perhaps the most foolish sentence in Izzy’s book occurs at p. 129:

“The foremost examples of those ‘Socratified ‘ malcontents was Plato himself. In the fourth century BC, he carried on the same intellectual assault against Athenian freedom and democracy that his master launched in the fifth.”

Izzy fighting for democracy and going back to find out about Athens, however, inspired my friend Will Altman, who is a pioneer of a democratic interpretation of Plato (I flesh out an interpretation of Socrates as a civil disobedient, but Will and in a different way, Peter Minowitz, helped me see this point about Plato). Izzy’s passion and scholarship have set in motion much that goes beyond an aspect of Izzy’s attempted defense of Athens.

Nonetheless, Allan Bloom, the Straussian translator of the Republic, a gay man who hid his gayness at some cost, being punished even by some other powerful Straussians, never allowed to return to the political science department at Chicago (he taught with his friend Saul Bellow in the Program in Social Thought at Chicago), wrote a clever review of Izzy’s book in the New York Times: “ the News from Athens.” Bloom is intellectually a gossip who makes few arguments (he is a wonderful translator of the Republic and Rousseau’s Emile). But he found an insightful name for the indictment of Socrates: Izzy here, he suggests, speaks for the “House Un-Athenian Activities Committee.” Bloom is rarely witty, Izzy almost always so. It is amusing that Bloom tosses off at Izzy’s expense so clever and apt a witticism.

Izzy wanted to defend freedom of speech and democracy. He oddly ends up allowing insight into reactionary Athenians – persecutors – of the very sort in America who went after him. This is, nonetheless, helpful in taking in Desmond Tutu’s thought in No future without forgiveness or Thich Nat Hanh’s that one must empathize with all, seek to achieve decent reconciliation. But such reconciliation is only possible when mass movements have stopped their crimes. Izzy, oddly, imagines himself too much on the wrong side in Athens.

More deeply, Allan Bloom, a man of the Right as his friend Saul Bellow describes him on the first page of Ravelstein and of elaborate and vengeful fantasies, apparently wanting to further crush Germany (to make Versailles even more punitive) or wipe out through imperial re-invasion Hitler in the democratic Weimar Republic in 1923, has a rare moment of affirming decency (that such persecution, contra Strauss who, as his student Stanley Rosen told me, endorsed McCarthyism in seminars) was wrong.*

Bloom sometimes thought he knew the Republic better than Strauss. Although remarkably reactionary, Bloom did not think of himself as a fascist (he was, of course, a follower of Leo Strauss, a Jewish Nazi, see here and here, who was amused that those who worshipped him in America, like Bloom were confused about the roots of what he thought).

Strauss was thus really into hidden writing. And many of his followers have also been, though under the aegis of, with the sharp limitations of what they think the master taught them, of preserving the master’s image (Strauss, out of probity never denies his enthusiasm for the destruction of modernity, meaning the eradication of urban life - see here). But Strauss, too, thought, following his master Heidegger, that Plato intends to bequeath philosopher-guardians to the tyrant. The ideal Nazism Heidegger advocated was one in which the “philosophers” set all the rules for Hitler, do all the tidying up of Jews and pacifists and dissidents, a Platonic National Socialism. Strauss loves Xenophon more than Plato, recommends his not terribly illuminating Defense of Socrates at his Trial, his suggestion of a high faluting (the word megalegoria is offered 12 times in Strauss’s 11 page essay on Xenophon) suicide. See my "Do philosophers counsel tyrants?" Constellations, 2009, here.

Ironically, Strauss’s slightly hidden view of Socrates and Plato, and Izzy’s are exactly the same. Strauss primarily relies on Xenophon who, as part 2 showed, is complex, different, less philosophical than Plato, much more interested in or less ambivalent about the meaning of “philosophic” or Simonidean political rule. In the Seventh Letter, however, what Plato shows – what he learned from trying to advise Dionysius in Syracuse – is that neither Dionysius nor Plato’s best student Dion who overthrew Dionysius could become, or survive as, philosopher-kings. He turned at last against his initial hope. Hiero or on Tyranny is Xenophon’s clearest statement elaborating such tyranny (a far more open and detailed account than the hints in the Republic about a tyrant becoming a philosopher-king, see "Do Philosophers Counsel Tyrants?"). In Xenophon so far, I have found no reconsideration, no different or more attractive voice.

Leo Strauss, unlike Izzy, pioneered in the United States subtle readings of Plato’s dialogues. See Persecution and the Art of Writing. In this, he mirrored Heidegger who once gave a semester course on the first line of the Republic...

But Leo also made more explicit or “theorized” something only implied in Heidegger (Being and Time, I have suggested, practices the art of writing about Heidegger’s already fully developed Nazism – see here, here andhere). He suggested (and his daughter, Jenny Strauss Clay echoes him in a letter to the New York Timess, that his real contribution was detecting and spelling out some features of this kind of philosophical writing: he is right.

But Leo, as I have emphasized was not good at argument. He does not actually work out what Plato thought or much of anyone else. He reads very subtly and determinedly – he is a great scholar who finds many interesting pathways and points in others - but in accord with his core fascist viewpoint. There is no reason, however, to notice the complexity of the dialogues – what I call their context in the second sense here - but come to Strauss’s bizarre political conclusions about them.

King, for example, was right about Socrates. Strauss’s depiction of Socrates as the reactionary who taught Plato, simply ignores that he goes to his death with the laws of democratic Athens in his ear, murmuring with the force that the Corybants, the followers of the mystery religions of whom Socrates was one, hear the flutes (they had taken opium and learned the mysteries, including something through Demeter and Persephone of the feminine; the soul Plato tells us in the Myth of Er, was, in the mysteries, and is, psychologically speaking, neither masculine nor feminine but both…). Strauss, like Izzy, needs to bury Socrates, the first civil disobedient…

In the Phaedrus, Plato describes what a dialogue is. When people read, the written text is like a statue. Ask it questions and it has no “father” to answer. So a dialogue has two kinds of meanings, one for a sleepy reader, one for her who knows how to read. For the latter, it inspires a happiness extending into eternity. See here. There are many facets to what it conceals. One does not give up asking questions when the secret formula is unveiled...

Izzy never figured out that this was an issue in the many dialogues he read (his compass and searching are far greater than that of most scholars). His writing on Plato on Socrates teaches us a lot about the historical context - the first sense of context, see part 3 - that is otherwise buried. It teaches praiseworthy features of democracy, and thus, unintentionally, ways that Socrates was admirably a participant in democracy, and even admirably a democrat, modelling civil disobedience for the ages to come (Jesus and his followers four centuries later; Gandhi, King and Catholic/Muslim/Jewish civil disobedience inter alia 28 centuries later…).

But there is a fundamental miscasting of characters in the gadfly Izzy’s defense of Athens against the gadfy Socrates. Izzy was the great questioner who pioneered the way, against persecution, for many of us who opposed, for example, the Vietnam War or who recognize that Palestinians are human (our sisters and brothers), that the way of peace and the future of Israel pass through the refugee camps, that the state of Israel is an odious occupying power in the territories, and one that needs to make peace about the "transfer" (ethnic cleaning) involved in Israel's creation, and that the Palestinians and their supporters have every right to demand and enact their own state through mass revolutionary civil disobedience or to be full participants in a larger democracy.

Izzy is like Socrates in America. Izzy was driven off corporate media for twenty years. He did not have to pay the price of Socrates in a democracy, but as a radical or Jeffersonian democrat (Jefferson admirably praised freedom of speech, democracy and education, and authored the Declaration of Independence, but was also not so admirable if one looks carefully at the cagy slaveholder, horrified by the revolution in Saint-Domingue or his actions as President, viz. the Louisiana Purchase, the Missouri compromise), Izzy paid a heavy price. For a some wonderful short autobiographical remarks describing what independent journalism is, see here.

At the end of his life, Izzy was much admired by those who care about freedom of speech, journalistic accomplishment and wicked wit. The New York Times Magazine, its editors regretting the spinelessness of the Times during Truman-McCarthyism, printed a wonderful essay in which Izzy asks questions, sometimes hard ones, to Izzy, about why he was doing this project for ten years on Socrates in Athens and what he found out. See here. They would have done it in no other case, but it was not easy to think of journalist of that range, so why not let Izzy probe for what Izzy’s scholarship meant. It is still a lovely read…

Perhaps Izzy wanted to tell the story of Socrates so it would have a similarly happy end. If only Socrates had been more of a democrat, not looked down on the craftsmen of whom Athena was a goddess, he might have lived out his time, too, in a happier way. It was a generous thought.

But the truth is that Izzy lives on as a questioner, the one who brought the news of and fought injustice early, presciently, and often. And that sits well with no unjust regime, no regime, even when it is better than most alternatives we are likely to know, one which deserves preservation against the current fitful moves to aggression, torture and “executive power,” and the impoverishment of ordinary people, particularly the elderly and the young…

Often, great heroes are not likely to be famous. And the price of fame, even with King and Socrates and in a more modest way, Izzy, is likely to be high.

*Bloom also takes in Rousseau on the dangers of great inequalities of rich and poor; Strauss never did. Compare Bloom's chapter on Rousseau in Strauss and Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy; Strauss's remarks on Rousseau in Natural Right and History.

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