Friday, August 17, 2012

Staughton Lynd on Gandhi and Socrates, part 3

Staughton Lynd offered three comments on the recent posts on Gandhi and Socrates here and here. The essays were motivated by Gandhi's stunning translation of Plato's Apology into Gujerati and Gandhi's comments on it. I had not imagined Gandhi's close attention to the Apology before, and the translation suggests that although Socrates and Plato do not have a term for civil disobedience, Socrates's is a paradigm story, not only for King in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, but for Gandhi as well.

This post will respond to Staughton's first comment, which raises profound and complicated issues. I will respond later to the other two except for a brief note of clarification on the second: I only said that Gandhi did not look to the black poor in South Africa in his initiation of satyagraha; as Staughton's and Alice's experience illustrates, Gandhi and his followers were deeply involved, after supporting Ethiopia against Mussolini's aggression, in solidarity with blacks in the United States. See, for example, Sudarshan Kapur's wonderful Raising up a Prophet on 30 years of contact between African-Americans and Gandhi preceding the emergence of King in Montgomery.

Here is Staughton's letter:


Three comments from one who shares your basic worldview.

1. I think you don't do justice to the theme of patriotism in Socrates and Gandhi. Socrates was not only a foot soldier at Marathon. He declined to flee Athens to avoid death because "Athens bores me." Incidentally, I think the deepest expression of internationalism and nonviolence in Athens was not in Socrates but in Euripides' "The Trojan Women." As for Gandhi, not only did he mobilize Indians to serve the British as medics in the Boer War but actively recruited for the British Army in World War I.

2. You say Gandhi "did not look to the black poor in the South." Circa 1952 or 1953, shortly after Gandhiji's assassination, Alice and I attended a very small gathering at the University of Chicago addressed by Ashadevi Aryanayakam, a disciple. We spoke to her of our interest in visiting India. She said Gandhi would wish us to turn our attention to the black poor in the South, which we did.

3. About organizing the poor, I think the fundamental problem is with the conception of "organizing" the poor rather than, to use Archbishop Romero's term, "accompanying" them. I have a book coming out on this topic and would be glad to send you the page proofs if you are interested.


Staughton is right that I did not do justice to Socrates’s and Gandhi’s patriotism. A way of seeing this is to consider the speech of the laws in the Crito (see here and here).* Socrates goes to his death with the words of the laws of Athens, murmuring in his ear as the Corybants, the participants in the mystery religions of whom Socrates was one, hear the droning murmur of the flutes.

Yet what argument of the laws convinces Socrates, as opposed to Crito for whom Socrates conjures the quite contradictory speech, is left unclear. In Plato's subtle way of writing, it remains for the reader to figure out. For uniquely at the end of this dialogue, Socrates warns Crito – you may bring up any further question you have but you will not convince me. He is, in other words, further along a path of arguments, is no longer questioning, has made up his mind. But Crito is convinced by the speech of the laws; he has nothing to say. Only the reader who wants to figure out the problems, philosophically and politically, with the command of the laws to pay the price of death for continuing to question, needs to go further.

For this further, unstated argument is not so easy to see, as the Apology warns, because Socrates's decision to go to his death instead of sneaking off brings dishonor on Athens and democracy far into the future as the city that murdered its wise man. In fact, Athens' murder of Socrates helped bring about its enormous decline.

The hidden argument, I think, is that Socrates stands in an intrinsic relationship to good laws. As a just man, he must, in reality, honor them, regardless of the consequences for the reputation of Athens. By sneaking off and thus acting unjustly himself, he cannot, he suggests, save them from the consequences of the unjust decision of the Athenians. Socrates seeks to honor the laws for the most part (he will not give up questioning, however...). He seeks justly both to serve them (and to maintain philosophy) and to improve them where he must. This is, as Staughton suggests, a profoundly patriotic argument.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls modeled his subtle account of civil disobedience in a democracy on the Apology and Crito. Civil disobedience is disobedience to an unjust law in the context of overall fidelity to the laws. One has to think highly - in Socrates, patriotically - of the laws to offer such fidelity.

Note that the patriotism here derives from the overall justice of democratic laws; it is a justice-based, democratic patriotism, sometimes permitting just but often illegal actions, i.e. satyagraha, to improve the laws. It is radically distinct from mindless or chauvinist "patriotism."

Now Socrates is famed, particularly on the Right (Heidegger, Strauss), for looking down on democracy. Reactionaries neglect that Socrates went to his death with the democratic laws of Athens murmuring so powerfully in his mind that he could hear no other voice or argument...

Some democrats – certainly Meletus and others who put Socrates to death for questioning – deserve contempt and determined resistance. Theirs is a kind of deficient or tyrannical lynch-mob "democracy."

Socrates (and Plato) put forward the thought that one clever leader often knows best – one which overemphasized, leads in an authoritarian direction. Socrates also says in the Apology that a good man cannot participate in ordinary politics (even the politics conditioned by democratic laws) because he will meet a swift death. He gives two illustrations of his own participation which almost resulted in death. First, within the democracy, Socrates's deme held the prytany; he was called upon to serve as head of a trial of naval leaders. He disagreed with a crowd which sought to put the commanders to death for not picking up the dead in the water in the midst of battle (alternately, in Xenophon, the story is about a storm). He spoke justly, as most later saw. Still, shouts rang out for Socrates's death (Athenian democracy was rowdy and sometimes bullying)

The other story, however, occurs during the Tyranny of the Thirty. When Critias, Socrates's student and others commanded Socrates along with 4 others, to arrest Leon of Salamis and bring him to be slaughtered - the Tyranny murdered 1,500 Athenians - the other four did so. Socrates went home, thus initiating what we call civil disobedience. Had the Tyrants not fallen, Socrates might well have been put to death for this (Apology, 31e-33a).

The third illustration of Socrates's point is the trial itself.

One should underline that the murderous politics Socrates confronts in Athens is not simply (defectively) democratic, but also of a more explicit tyranny: the Thirty. But the attack on Socrates, though within the laws of a democracy, was also inimical to questioning or dissent, bullying, murderous, and thus, tyrannical.

In the Apology, in the sentencing phase, Socrates strives to remake Athenian democracy as a better home for questioning. He suggests that if the Athenians had the practice of a four day trial for a capital offense as other cities had (Athens allowed but a single day), he might have convinced them. He was sent to death by only 60 votes out of 500; a switch of 30 votes would have changed the verdict. He thus defends doing philosophy – asking questions – and seeks, through the public trial and submitting to the decision (going honorably to his unjust death), to create or maintain a space for it within the democracy. He seeks by suffering to shame the Athenians for their crime and make them reconsider. This was a heavy price to bring the Athenians to themselves, to their better selves. As illustrated in the Apology and Crito, Socrates's act is distinctive in founding satyagraha.

To do this is not to attack the democracy; it is to strive to make it a better, common good-sustaining regime. Democracy does not just mean one thing (i.e. sometimes, democracies are common good-based and decent). The contrast between a common good and philosophy-sustaining (or permitting) democracy which Socrates affirmed, and a McCarthy- or Meletus-like tyranny - what we might speak of as being a shadow of democracy or a deficient democracy - which he scorned is decisive.

On a careful reading of the Republic, Socrates is not shown in Plato as advocating a “philosophical king” in the sense of an authoritarian ruler. That proposal is largely a satire and in response to the change in the direction of the argument of the Republic produced by the interventions of Thrasymachus and Glaucon** and a send up of the Athenian charges (what would it take to purify all thoughts of the Greek gods? massive censorship of a sort that would also make a Socrates or a philosopher, except perhaps as a shadowy king, impossible. See here, here, here, here, here and here). Instead, Socrates is shown subtly to exercise political leadership – another sense of philosophical kingship – in the trial itself and in the vision of Athens as a common good – sustaining democracy, one that permits questioning, i.e. dissent, in the public sphere as well as in philosophy. See here, here, here and here.

The two contrasting visions, of a common good-sustaining democracy, one that has intrinsically good laws (for the most part) and a Meletus-like tyranny, mark out a central distinction, basic to political philosophy or democratic theory, between good regimes or ones that realize, in Rousseau’s idiom, a general will, and bad regimes. ones that realize a transient will of all.

Patriotism to mainly decent laws is a theme in Socrates, even as he defines in his actions, in his life and death, fighting an unjust law (the so-called law against impiety) or at least a law unjustly applied by men (cf. the Crito, 54c). He prefigures Gandhi, who translated the Apology into Gujerati, on satyagraha, as the first two essays here and here noted, or civil disobedience in Thoreau, Tolstoy and King.

As the Apology emphasizes, Socrates held his place in battle for Athens at Delium and Amphipolis. Socrates analogizes this to Achilles going down for honor as well as to holding his place to test the saying of Apollo’s oracle that he was the wisest of them all by questioning those who seemed wiser. What the Oracle said was strange since Socrates knew that about the most important things (the idea of justice or beauty or the divine), he didn’t know. To put it precisely, he knew examples of just acts, beauty, and perhaps divinity; about the idea of each fully worked out, he did not know. Socrates tests the saying of the oracle by questioning the politicians, sophists and poets and earns their enmity, through showing that they do not know what they - with hubris - as well as others think they do.

As Socrates stuck to the post assigned him by the democracy in battle, so he stuck to his post, in the way of exploring the saying of the god designed by himself, by questioning. He did, in the deepest way, what he decided on and yet, in the face of the Athenian charge, was pious to the saying of Apollo.

In the Symposium, Alcibiades describes Socrates as the soldier with the greatest presence of mind, a dangerous adversary, one who saves Alcibiades himself in battle and then, bids the generals to give Alcibiades the credit. Socrates is, on a deep level, a very serious patriot who asks little from the city for himself.

This story in the Symposium casts a new and sharper light on his statement in the sentencing section of the Apology that what he deserves is to be fed with the Olympic athletes in the Prytaneuem. For this statement, too, is a form of civil disobedience – Socrates challenges, absolutely, the expectations of the crowd that he - the philosopher, the wise man - will grovel for his life before them. But as the juxtaposed passages reveal, this is no exercise of pride. Socrates seeks no acclaim in Alcibiades' story for the greatest heroism of the sort the city admires. Instead, Socrates displays a philosophical heroism - a prototype of civil disobedience - only in a particular kind of extremity, one where a will of all or a defective democracy seeks to demean philosophy or questioning, to put it out of existence.

Socrates's act is misread by Xenophon who was away fighting in Persia at the time and told the story only by Hermogenes, as one of sneering contempt for the democracy as a way of committing an odd form of suicide. Instead, Socrates defends who he is and the integrity of questioning within a democracy. To do this, he must go to his death...

Socrates was, in fact, an egalitarian and abolitionist, as one can see from the conversation with the slave in the Meno. See the last essay here, here and here. He did not believe in Greeks enslaving other Greeks or anyone else, and was skeptical of Pericles as a war leader. Though these principles or stands are part of what we might call internationalism, nonetheless, Socrates does not explicitly affirm such a principle. He goes to his death with the words of Athenian democratic laws in his ears, a patriot. Nonetheless, considering the Meno makes Socrates's internationalism deeper.

But one might also say that many of the Atheians conquests which Socrates gives no direct sign of opposing – for instance at Corcyra or Melos – were disgraceful (and against Socrates's principles). His view, if spelled out in this way, perhaps contradicts these acts. And though he also does not explicitly discuss Melos, it is Thrasymachus who offers the words of the Athenian ambassadors that justice is "nothing but the advantage of the stronger"; "the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must" - and Socrates who questions and rejects them.

This tension in Socrates's practice can be resolved by speaking of his patriotism in circumstances where patriotism is called for. But this would be defending Athens against aggression, i.e. the war against the Persians and Xerxes, not fighting in the Peloponnesian war...So perhaps the issue remains. In this context, Staughton's invocation of Euripedes's Trojan Women is especially apt.

In any case, as Socrates's own experience and these further thoughts show, civil disobedience is necessary many times over in a democracy - as one confronts new situations, learns more deeply the meaning of principles - and to the current day (as Staughton courageously went to Hanoi as part of the anti-Vietnam war movement, his own stance is much more internationalist than Socrates's in an evident way).

Gandhi was also a patriot - if one can speak in those terms - for the British empire. As Staughton notes, he worked for the British in the Boer War, serving in the medical corps, and again in World War I. And the patriotism was motivated by trying to overcome British bigotry against Asians, and, as his Autobiography suggests, to a limited extent, it did. But his patriotism has a difficulty that Socrates does not. He served the very empire which held Indians, including Gandhi, prisoner and demeaned them. The Empire was no democracy (least of all a democracy among Indians). So arguably, his civil disobedience in World War II – he was not against England in the war against Germany, but he sought to free India in the Quit India movement and went to jail for it – is more consistent (it has the difficulty that the Nazis were a profound evil, one worse than the Boers in South Africa or the Kaiser in World War I, though not as obviously - not yet - toward India. But British colonialism in India was also evil).

Thus, it is hard to admire what Gandhi did in the Boer war and World War I. In a way, it was patriotic and there are many good things about the rule of law in England. But as Gandhi said later and more consistently when asked what he thought of English civilization, “it would be nice…”

That the British Empire in India was a decent regime and had a call on Indians to be patriotic is implausible. That the regime can be reasonably compared to Athenian claims on Socrates and other citizens is even more doubtful. So Gandhi’s patriotism is more of a problem or a confusion than Socrates’s which, in this comparison, seems more consistent, admirable, and even defining or modelling what we call civil disobedience in a decent regime (perhaps Gandhi imitated this, during World War II).

But on another level, as I have also emphasized, Athenian democracy was an empire for which Socrates fought. Serving in the Peloponnesia War was not self-defense against aggression (the standard view of decency in wars from early on, as Michael Walzer reports in Just and Unjust Wars - see also Democratic Individuality, ch. 1). It is not good to fight "patriotically" for imperial conquest over others, even for the ordinary people who serve in the conquest; the defeat and decline of Pericilean Athens is a pointed example.***

I have spent my life fighting against imperial wars. Obama’s killing of Bin Laden and the intervention in Libya, if it staved off a massacre, are perhaps the only two decent acts (both highly flawed; for Marta Soler's interesting challenge on the possibility of capturing Bin Laden and the rule of law, see here) in my adult lifetime. One might perhaps include Carter's failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Every other major use of American force including and since Vietnam has been reprehensible. So it is natural to be skeptical of the Empire, and to have thus, mistakenly understated in my two previous essays on Gandhi and Socrates a democratic patriotism which marks civil disobedience as Socrates exemplified it and ever since.

Democratic patriotism is not the last refuge of scoundrels and is the opposite of Meletus-like “patriotism.” It is this distinction and its link to civil disobedience which Staughton’s first question about my essays on Gandhi, Socrates and satyagraha raises. I hope in this response to have done his comment justice.


*Norman Finkelstein, corruptly deprived of exercising his great skill as a teacher by Depaul, gave a talk in my ancient political theory seminar last year on the Crito. This talk was mainly a series of dazzling questions to students, posing the issue of obligation sharply. Norman is fascinated by Socrates’s affection for the law and the claim it has on each person who thinks and feels deeply about a decent society. He even suggested that a black person in the segregated South might have an obligation to obey an unjust law (he was forgetting Socrates's adherence to questioning against an unjust law or at least a vote of men which unjustly sent him to death). Peter Gibbins, one of my students from Metro, talked about how the experience of segregation, under the law and down to lynching, gave black men no obligation of this sort. Peter was right.

Socrates did not defend fealty to law in general, i.e. to the laws of a tyranny. He had fealty to the laws of Athens (quite deficient laws), in the context of disobeying an unjust one - or an unjust decision of men (and a doubtful law). He founded what Gandhi calls satyagraha.

Norman has also thought deeply about Gandhi. After reading some half of Gandhi’s collected works (he said, if I recall, 55 volumes), Norman has made the point in recent times that a two state solution to the question of Israel's fierce oppression of the Palestinians is a real one on which there might come to be an international consensus.

There is much in this thought, and it shows, again, the benefit of thinking deeply about Gandhi and Socrates. Mass civil disobedience – as in the Boycott and Divisestment campaign and something stronger – must be based on a perceptible injustice, which everyone - including the Israeli government, at least under pressure - can respond to: Palestinians are human; the occupation and their continuing dispossession is radically unjust.

But Israel is unwisely expanding (further oppressing the Palestinians and driving them from the territories), and very likely, because its policy is so radically against justice, undermining itself. Whether there can be a Jewish state if this expansion succeeds is doubtful; if a mass movement and outside pressure overturns apartheid by nonviolence from below, the state could be a rights-based democracy, but not a Jewish one. Or it could be an apartheid based non-democracy as appears to be Netanyahu's intent, but such a state is a disgrace to everything decent in the Jewish tradition and the prophets led by Amos would not affirm it. Or Israel, out of fear and paranoia, could instigate larger war in the Middle East and over time, nuclear war, All these and particularly the last two are possibilities which a more sane Israeli leadership or a firmer American policy could, with a Gandhian sense in this respect, have avoided (See also Tutu’s description of his relations with Israel and Palestine in No Future without Forgiveness). The first solution is a reasonable one in the abstract, but one very hard practically to achieve (about this issue Norman has some good Gandhian points). Norman is working for a mutually livable two state solution, one far less barbarous than the other two solutions...There is a lot, one might say, to studying Gandhi and Socrates...

** From the first page, the Republic has an element of force directed at Socrates,a premonition of his trial and death. But Polemarchus, whose name means war leader and is a leading democrat, responds to Socrates's questions by beginning to think. He is shown in the process of becoming a philosophical youth even in the first book of the Republic (this is how he is characterized by Socrates in Phaedrus). See here. But the interventions of Thrasymachus and Glaucon revert to and exacerbate the bullying strain in Polemarchus's original arrest of Socrates and his quite common political idea that "justice" is to benefit friends and harm enemies.

***The ruins sit on the hills above the modern city and it is somehow a different people that made them – the Roman conquerors slaughtered the last Athenian men in the beginning of the first century B.C. Yet the recent democratic protests of working people against austerity have revived and trasnsformed earlier traditions of direct democracy – see here and here.


MorJoLee said...

Wasn't it Thucydides who said, "the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must"?

MorJoLee said...

I think Gandhi's participation in the Boer war was a means to the end that he gain in his political aspirations for which he needed the support of the British, rather than an act of patriotism.

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