Monday, November 21, 2011

The Republic’s amusing answer to the Athenian charge against Socrates: clean up the gods!

In this post, I will explore some aspects of the problem of poetry and censorship in the Republic. The writing in the Republic is musical; it is full of beautiful stories or myths, poems whose reach extends far into the future from the story of the ring of Gyges to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey. See here and here. What does Plato the poet mean by censoring “beloved Homer” (book 10)?

I interpret the account of censorship of the gods, the heroes and the poetry which spells out their psychological states starting in book 2 as primarily an ironic answer to the charge against Socrates of defaming the gods. The poets beat him to it, Plato suggests, just as the Athenians parading for the Thracian moon goddess Bendis at the opening of the Republic beat him to it. Plato is making fun of the charge…

The linked charge in the Apology is "corrupting the youth." But the nature of Athens as a free regime and its worship and poetry is, among other things, as the poetry shows, inevitably “corrupting” of the youth, and one has to make an artificial and inhuman regime, deny the young experience as the King sought to deny Siddhartha, to make life itself incapable of “corrupting” such an “ideal.”

It is still possible, as a separate image of becoming a philosopher in the Republic suggests, that one can ascend from the cave through mathematics (in the way of Pythagoras as I will discuss in the next post). * But no political philosophy - what Socrates engaged in - is possible without experience. To eliminate poetry, to breed up ever the same dogs, with the same habits and passions, is to eliminate Socrates and Plato…

Put differently, therefore, the Republic’s answer to the charges is: let’s see what would happen if no one was to speak ill of the gods. Let’s really clean them up.

Religion means a) believing in the gods, and especially believing the gods are good (381c);

b) telling all the stories about the gods literally as they have come down.

But a), as Polemarchos might point out as he does in the first book here, is inconsistent with b). Athenian law purportedly takes the violation of b) seriously and executes Socrates for asking questions about these stories, doubting them. But it does so in the name of supposedly believing a) which would require far more extensive censorship. What the censorship of poetry in the Republic does is illustrate how glaring and bizarre this contradiction is.

So the Republic as a comedy, in this respect, takes b) deadly seriously. It shows what a scythe it would have to take to Athenian culture to believe a), to clean up the gods. It is thus a stunning, sarcastic answer to the graphe asebeias (the charge of impiety against Socrates).**

Some ideas in kallipolis are interesting and meant seriously. That women can be philosophers (Theano, Pythagoras’s wife, who discovered the golden mean, Diotima in the Symposium) and in some rare circumstance, a wise or philosophical-king are among them. But as I will underline below, in the Seventh Letter, Plato and his best student Dion seek to advise the tyrant Dionysius to introduce laws in Syracuse. That advice differs markedly from the beautiful city in the Republic and the Athenian Stranger’s vision in the Laws.***

Is this city in speech in the Republic, one might ask, really so beautiful, so “just” (the most sex to the leading warrior – an appeal perhaps to the interlocutor/warrior Glaucon whose image this city is, putting “defective” babies to death, the women and men wrestling naked together, throwing out everyone over the age of 10, and the like) or is it, pretty plainly for Plato, mainly a send-up?

Is the “beautiful city” perhaps a justification of Socrates’s thought in the Apology: that unlike the proud and puffed up, those who think themselves wise, are thought wise by others, and are not, “I neither know nor do I think I know…”

At the beginning of book 3 of the Republic, there are six brief passages from Homer which are pegged for censorship. Four of them indicate the horror of Hades, the soul slipping into the dank darkness, gibbering…They are supposedly bad for the young who are to become fearless guardians, valuing death over slavery:

‘Let us begin then,” says Socrates, “ by expunging the verse that follows and all other writings and sayings of the same ilk:

‘I would rather be a poor serf
on the land of one himself penurious
than be monarch of all who ever died’

and this

‘Lest to mortals and immortals
the houses of the dead be conjured up
dark, hideous, dank,
and abhorrent to the gods themselves. ‘

and this

‘Ah, woe! So it is true;
in Hades’ house are souls and apparitions
but all intelligence is gone’


‘He was alone with his wisdom and wit
All the others were shadows and wraiths.’


‘Shrilling and gibbering,
the soul slipped down like a vapor
and vanished underneath the earth.’


‘Like bats hanging in a darkened cave
will cling to a rock together and shriek
for the one that falls from the cluster
so their souls will screech and falter.’

We shall beg Homer and the other poets not be be angry if we ban these and all similar passages.” (386c-387b)

Note that Socrates remarks here, as in Phaedrus 242c-243b, that perhaps his sayings – his censorship – will stir the anger of the poets. A careful student or reader might, indeed, imagine that the poets would be angry, and consider whether there is some other way. Is censorship a wise suggestion?

If one listens carefully, as Plato expected his students to do, two of the quotes point in a different direction, the second markedly. For the second is the image of Tiresias the blind seer from Thebes who alone among the dead can see.* It is the image of Socrates in the cave being put to death in book 7 and in life. It is also the image from the end of the Meno where the badly posed question - can virtue be taught in the absence of a definition of the idea of virtue - leads to the conclusion that virtue cannot be taught. One could teach virtue only, Socrates says, if one were like Tiresias whom Odysseus meets among the dead (the rest are flickering shadows).

But Socrates is such a one. And the action of the Republic is Socrates' teaching Glaucon not to become a tyrant. So these lines have a completely different resonance from the other 5 citations.

But interestingly, so does the first. That citation is the statement of Achilles, better a serf to the meanest lord on earth than Lord among the dead. On an obvious level, this saying from the bravest of heroes affirms grisly fear of death and goes along with the theme: make guardians “men” by ridding them of experience and fears. He who never sees a corpse will ostensibly be brave rather than she who sees but overcomes her fear.

If one looks at the lines closely, however, the statement moves. Achilles did not fear death; he wanted to avenge Patroclus more. He had been immortal (except the heel by which Thetis held him in the waters of immortality). He is thus like Siddhartha, never to be exposed to the wasting pain of life, a warrior Dorian Grey as it were. But Hector has killed his lover Patroclus, dressed in Achilles' armor. Hector mistook Patroclus for Achilles. Disguise, the ring of Gyges, fools Hector, his fate swiftly upon him. To avenge his lover and make himself clear as a warrior, Achilles chooses the cycle of book 10 (the Myth of Er). He does not fear or avoid action because of fear of Hades. But this is not decisive.

In book 7 to explain the cave and the wrenching of doing philosophy, asking questions and turning - "being dragged" - toward the light, Socrates summons Achilles again. He who has ascended, whose eyes have cleared, who can see things as they are, Socrates says, would no sooner return to the cave than Achilles to Hades.

“Suppose there had been honors and citations those below bestowed upon one another. Suppose prizes were offered for the one quickest to identify the shadows as they go by and best able to remember the sequence and configurations in which they appear. All those skills, in turns, would enhance the ability to guess what would come next? Do you think he [the one who has ascended toward the light] would covet such rewards? More, would he envy and want to emulate those who hold power over the prisoners and are in turn reverenced by them? Or would he not rather hold fast to Homer’s words that it is ‘better to be the poor servant of a poor master,’ better to endure anything than to believe those things and live that way?” (516c-d)

Now this is the very same passage from Homer ostensibly excised in book 3, and it occurs in the most vital context in the Republic. If this passage were really to be censored, if the philosophers and would-be philosophers (Glaucon and the others, Polemarchus excepted, are shown as interested in or fascinated by philosophy, but not philosophers) were to know no poetry of “the wrong sort,” having tossed out “beloved Homer,” why would this startling image illuminate the division of the noetic world and the visible world? Why would it serve as a hint about the most important matters to us, the readers or students starting on a journey as well as Glaucon who sees “through a glass darkly” and whose interest in becoming a philosopher is unclear (Glaucon appears in no other dialogue).

After pointing to the likelihood that the one who sees, like Socrates, would be murdered in the cave (517a), recalling also the image of Tiresias among the dead from book 3, Socrates points out the scope of the new philosophical use of these lines from and, for at least Glaucon’s sake, but perhaps also in the spirit of the Apology, offers that “god only knows if it is true”

“Now, my dear Glaucon, we must apply the allegory as a whole to all that has been said so far. The prisoners’ cave is the counterpart of our own visible order, and the light of the fire betokens the power of the sun. If you liken the ascent and exploration of things above to the soul’s journey through the intelligible order, you will have understood my thinking since that is what you wanted to hear. God only knows whether it is true.” (517a-b)

The city in speech was, in fact, a satiric ideal for the benefit of Glaucon, the warrior-athlete, not a serious proposal. See the Phaedrus 252c-253c here where different types of souls love differently according to their diverse gods, their diverse goals and characters. But the images of the cave and philosophical ascent are, as I have suggested about Polemarchus in book 1 – see here – meant to be taken seriously and wrestled with by students.

In fact, the force of this image about doing philosophy in book 7 replaces Achilles’ warrior cycle (consider, again, the Myth of Er). Once one sees in the light, one will not be happy to go down. It will require some determined effort and perhaps incentive to descend (perhaps to fight for democracy and the possibility of philosophy as a way of life within a regime).

It is useful to consider where else in the Republic the figures who show up in the Myth of Er appear (and alternately who is in the cave and who is, at least partially, not). Plainly Cephalus, who spouts poetry as a rich man preparing to die, is glad to have Socrates at his house as a court jester, but is driven out promptly by Socrates’s pointed question: aren’t you using your money to try to bribe the gods?, His exit marks the beginning of political philosophy (h/t Peter Steinberger).

An unnamed Cephalus reappears in the Myth of Er as the first chooser of a guiding spirit, a good man by habit rather than philosophy or virtue, who rushes to choose the life of a tyrant. Examining it more closely, he discovers that he is fated to eat his own children, and berates the fates, not blaming himself for his choice.

In contrast, the last to choose is Odysseus, for whom the fates say, there will still be a suitable life. He is the famous and clever warrior, good at deception and appearances (the ring of Gyges) who chooses the life of a private man. He substitutes for Achilles caught on the cycle of hero and descent into Hades; Odysseus somehow exits the cycle or at least finds some steps on the path. Strikingly, Odysseus is also a counterpart of Glaucon, the imager of the beautiful military/guardian city, who is alerted not to become a tyrant and perhaps to the goal of becoming a philosopher-king (either one who rules by laws as in the Seventh Letter or a public leader for philosophy and decent democracy against tyranny****).

To put it in terms of another story, Cephalus and Thrasymachus are most in the cave (h/t Jacob Hemmerle). But Polemarchus, who starts there, begins to find a way out. Glaucon in book 2 seems to be a challenger of the cave, in and out (in in that he is the sharpest eyed of the citizens, one who sees through the shadows and is bent on doing injustice with the appearance of justice), and to be guided out (not to become a tyrant) by Socrates in terms of Glaucon's own dream (the beautiful city led by the warrior/athletes). In the Myth of Er, Glaucon, with the experience of the night’s argument, follows Odysseus, with his experience of the labors of war, to choose a private life.

But neither Odysseus nor Glaucon is philosophical. In fact, with that happy life and a thousand year journey (in soul time, not earth time), they might choose again the warrior fate. Only questioning, only philosophy as a way of life, allows further steps on the way out (consider again the hints in Phaedrus).

In Homer himself, whom the Republic seems to censor in the “city in speech” but not in the philosophical and political conversation, this is also the image of Odysseus. Odysseus finally escapes the madness of war; at the end of the Odyssey, he beats swords into plowshares, plants his sword in the soil. The implied resonance is that Glaucon may find healing in Odysseus and that Homer is restored.

Still, Glaucon has an interest in talking with Socrates, but is not yet, like Polemarchus, on the path. And aside from homoerotic play, Socrates’s interest in talking with him is to overcome the would-be tyrant, to tame him through some experience of philosophy (not that he is into doing it for himself) and thus, a distant or oblique image of what the path is. Glaucon asks of the austere city: “where are the relishes?” He is hungry, a potential tyrant. When Socrates speaks of the highest good, Glaucon blurts out “You can’t mean pleasure.” “Hush,” responds Socrates.

Whether Glaucon will come to do philosophy is not clear, as the image of Odysseus also suggests.

Nonetheless, Glaucon, Plato’s brother, son of Ariston (the best) does not become a tyrant, is unknown, outside of this dialogue, to history (he appears briefly and unmemorably in Xenophon's Memorabilia as well). So he got at least part way along the path, as far in the speech with Socrates of one night, as Odysseus did in the life of battles in Homer’s Iliad and at the end of the Odyssey, abandoning war in the soul and war at large.

The image of Odysseus coming home to Penelope supersedes Glaucon’s imagining of the ring of Gyges. Though Odysseus disguises himself to murder the many suitors with arrows, he at last achieves peace and not injustice. The Homer story is shaded with aspects of politics and the ring of Gyges: Odysseus is a master deceiver. But the resolution achieves no picture of Dorian Grey, no corruption. Odysseus moving to a private life in Homer as well as the Myth of Er thus symbolizes Glaucon’s fate as well.

Note also that Plato does not propose to excise the ring of Gyges story as poetry from the dialogue. It is the story even of the "noble" lie, even where a common good is realized, perhaps stains all political leadership, and is revealed especially in tyrants. But is the story of the ring then wholesome philosophical poetry? Or is it rather a poetic version of the challenge of politics to philosophy? If this story is not to be censored, what happened to the censorship of the supposed city in speech?

And if Odysseus, the master deceiver, the most adventurous and inadvertently (Circe, the sirens, the underworld, the cave of Cyclops, the storms of Poseidon, all to go home) experienced, shows up at the end of the Republic, what happened to the purging of “beloved Homer”?

*Plato, in his travels outside of Athens, perhaps became more of a Pythagorean than Socrates. In any case, political philosophy was most important to Socrates in the last period of his life as the contrast between the character "Socrates" in Aristophanes' The Clouds and the one in Plato's dialogues reveals. It is not, for example, Socrates but Timaeus (in the Timaeus) who proposes a mathematical theory of the universe.

**The most powerful theological question is: how can a god(s) who is or are good create a world of such incredible and unjust suffering, particularly of children, as well as beauty? Being mortal and dying is no pleasure, even for Socrates.

Buddhism escapes this dilemma to some extent with its insight that life is suffering.

***In the Phaedrus passage (242c-243a), the poet Stesichorus was struck blind by a god for speaking ill of him, though he recovered his sight through a poem of recantation. Darkness, blindness and light, words are an underlining theme in the symphony of the dialogues.

****In the Apology, Socrates fights against tyranny (Meletus) in the defeated and decadent Athens of 399 BC. He defends a reformed democracy. He says he might have been freed with a change of 30 votes, with the adoption of the conventional practice of other cities: a four day trial in a capital case instead of a one day trial. The modern modification of equal freedom of speech and conscience flows from this thought, or as Martin Luther King says in his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail": "To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience."

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