Thursday, October 10, 2013

what students of Plato may learn from the Apology


Let us consider Socrates’ defense at his trial (in English, the apology, but without apologetic overtones) from the standpoint of Plato’s students. Aristotle studied in Plato's academy for 20 years, much longer than a standard undergraduate and graduate curriculum for a philosopher or scientist. Plato set up the Academy to do this kind of teaching. It is likely that Aristotle and others read Plato's dialogues with great care, looking for weaknesses in the argument, and the relation of the argument to the action - in the Apology, Socrates faces a crowd with many demanding his death... - in order to surmise what Plato was driving at.

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Dialogues are mysterious. One can no more say that Socrates is Plato than that Hamlet or Rosalind or Prospero or Macbeth or Caesar or Ariel is Shakespeare. Dialogues need to be "unpuzzled" over years.*

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Debating the texts in the Academy and thus, continuing the music of the - in important ways, incomplete - dialogues, such readers differ from those mentioned by Socrates in the Phaedrus, lines 275d-277a, with regard to the weaknesses of writing as opposed to conversation. For superficial readers, written words are "like a statue." If you ask them a question, they have "no father" to defend them. They but repeat the same thing, over and over. Misinterpretation is thus the core of ordinary reading.

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I therefore distinguish between what Plato's careful, longstanding students may understand and what ordinary readers take away and suggest that much of today's Plato scholarship is based on the erroneous assumption that the dialogues are comparatively straightforward. Never having asked what Plato expected his students, present and future, to get from them and rarely reading Plato line by line, as if there were an interrelationship in the lines and between the lines and the action of the dialogue, something meant for careful readers, many scholars, including contemporary philosophers, make false inferences. For instance, many imagine that the "city in speech" in the Republic - the city of the military leader Glaucon, hungry to become a tyrant - must somehow be meant seriously (even the remarkably sophisticated Heidegger endorses this as a kind of elective affinity or predetermined view - Heidegger was an arch reactionary and when he wrote on Plato, a Nazi (see The Essence of Truth: Plato's Cave-Metaphor and the Theaetetus - 1943 and here).

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In the Phaedrus, Socrates differentiates those who know how to read and who pass on a happiness as great as human beings are capable of from ordinary, bewildered ones...This duality raises the following questions: does Socrates speak for Plato and if so, when? And what happens if Socrates offers an incomplete or contradictory argument in response to a particular interlocutor? (See "the philosopher and the barking dog: Socrates's worst argument ever" here.) Is one to think further about where the argument, better stated, might lead?

The answers are that Socrates does not always represent Plato (one must show how Socrates does, in the context) and that incomplete or faulty arguments are planted routinely in the dialogues - often signaled by Plato as in the Crito - so they are but way stations to the truth as Plato saw it, not deliverers of the truth (there is also the issue of when Plato, a great artist and philosopher, nonetheless, makes mistakes in the argument, but that is a separate matter).

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Let us consider the Apology in this context. This dialogue is, unusually, almost a monologue. It is a long speech by Socrates with little admixture of conversation except for a brief exchange with Meletus and, in a way, Socrates brushing off jeering shouts from the crowd. Its focus - central to the Academy - is about knowing, about what one can know.

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The speeches of his accusers, Socrates says, are so compelling as rhetoric that he would believe them, except that he knows better. For what they say of him is not true. To teach thinking and questioning is not to defame what is good - the gods insofar as they are good - or to corrupt. He acts honorably, as he understands honorable action. About the action itself – as opposed to Socrates’s possessing a Socratic/Platonic idea of honorable action - Socrates's is, in one respect, a common and straightforward understanding.

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For the democrats accuse Socrates of being a clever speaker, but he is foreign to the courts, that is, to a rhetoric of mere persuasion without thought about whether the consequences are good or wicked (see the Gorgias and the Meno). He is, he says, both “atechnos” – without the technique - and more strongly, “xenos” – foreign, a stranger – to the way of speaking here (17d). In one sense, he asks questions which seek the truth, without fear or favor. And Plato’s students are meant to see this.

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In another sense, Socrates toys with the accusers, responding with piety, perhaps even a real piety. As we will see, he follows the words of the Delphic oracle; he holds his position patriotically for Athens – as a soldier at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium - and on questioning, at the command of the god. Here, despite his irony at the beginning of the speech, he seems perfectly capable of engaging in a sophistic rhetoric of persuasion. He had, after all, questioned numerous sophists though not when hauled before a court. And yet he does not believe, without questioning, in any of their seemingly beyond question, vaguely specified conclusions. The certainty of religious avowal – perhaps pretend or not very bright religious avowal - slips away.

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The rhetoric of Socrates’s accusers creates an opinion about truth or knowledge without the substance. In the case of Socrates’s trial, what they say - in so far as we can get a picture of it, since the case for the prosecution is not presented - is mainly the opposite of truth and decency. And Socrates’s speech, despite occasional rhetoric, is largely true on some important matters for the ordinary hearer (most of those who voted for acquittal), and yet, reveals the limits of merely human knowing under questioning, i.e, to Plato’s and perhaps Socrates’s students.

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Socrates speaks of the rumors that have long swirled against him from the old accusers, notably Aristophanes’s in The Clouds, to which he could not respond. The ground has been prepared for the assembly condemning him by a whispering campaign dating from when most of the jurors were children (18d, 19b-c). Combined with the recent defeat of Athens (404 b.c., the trial was in 399), these Athenians were in a much reduced and embittered state. Athens, had, after all, in its democratic strength and imperial splendor, tolerated Socrates for 70 years…

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Socrates calls this being compelled to fight with shadows – ἀλλ᾽ ἀνάγκη ἀτεχνῶς (unskillfully again) ὥσπερ σκιαμαχεῖν ἀπολογούμενόν – and to question where no one answers (18d). This is, as I have noted, a flickering image of the cave in which he is here speaking, just as he is conjured as doing in the Republic, where just as here, they kill you for it. See here and here.

Socrates invokes Aristophanes’ mocking image of him treading on air and spouting a great deal of nonsense of which “I know neither much nor little.” Here again, Socrates’s ignorance or better, lack of pretense – the care with which he approaches questioning and saying precisely what he knows and what he does not – comes to the fore. (19c)

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Socrates then speaks of the calling of a philosopher, to seek the truth by questioning, where others imbibe and echo opinion. And as a result of this process, he has perhaps "just a kind of human wisdom (ἥπερ ἐστὶν ἴσως ἀνθρωπίνη σοφία, 20d).

Socrates invokes Chaerophon, an impetuous man, who once asked the Delphic oracle: is anyone wiser than Socrates? And the Pythia answered: no.

Chaerophon was Socrates’s best student according to Aristophanes’ Clouds; he also left Athens with the democrats, when the Thirty came to power, as the Apology tells us (20d-21a).

Socrates finds the Pythia’s saying puzzling, since he fashions arguments daily, knowing that he knows very little (his phrase that he knows that he knows nothing is self-refuting, since he knows at least this and, in fact, quite a bit more about just acts as well as beautiful and good and honorable things).

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On the one hand, Socrates shows himself to be pious, obeying the command of Apollo. In fact, as an unimpetuous man and as the Crito and the Symposium - see Alcibiades's comments on Socrates's unusual courage in battle - reveal, a man of calm under pressure, he takes what Chaerophon learns and, with piety though on his own assessment of this virtue, explores it. Socrates takes on testing the Oracle's statement by questioning others as a commitment that he will not give up under the threat of or then the reality of death. Here, in one illustration of his famous - but unspecified by Plato - irony, he employs, for the audience, a canny rhetoric.

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But on the other hand, even if we grant Socrates this, Apollo may be a Greek but he is not perhaps an Athenian god (it is not clear what the accusers meant in their accusation – again we are shown only the defense of Socrates – if anything beyond worshipping Athena or, indeed, anything coherent at all).

Socrates’ brilliant, seeming defense has yet another self-undercutting aspect. For Socrates does not simply accept the oracle at Delphi. Instead, he decides, following his own devices and with no public mandate, to test the oracle’s saying by questioning those who thought themselves and were thought by others to be wise. Socrates say that he earned much enmity by showing that they were not.

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Socrates’s way of testing the oracle’s saying also reveals that he does not simply believe in the oracle. His story resembles his defeating Meletus’ claim that he believes in no gods by citing his belief, acknowledged by Meletus, in spiritual things and spirits [daimonia - a point he returns to at end about his own daimon or divine voice) as children of gods, and thus, in gods (27b-28a):

"But there is no way for you [Meletus] to persuade any man who has even a little sense that it is possible for the same person to believe in spiritual and divine existences and again for the same person not to believe in spirits or gods or heroes (ὅπως δὲ σύ τινα πείθοις ἂν καὶ σμικρὸν νοῦν ἔχοντα ἀνθρώπων, ὡς οὐ τοῦ αὐτοῦ ἔστιν καὶ δαιμόνια καὶ θεῖα ἡγεῖσθαι, καὶ αὖ τοῦ αὐτοῦ μήτε δαίμονας μήτε θεοὺς μήτε ἥρωας, οὐδεμία μηχανή ἐστιν)." (27b-28a)

For this clever refutation of Meletus also does not show that the charge – that Socrates does not believe in the gods of Athens – is wrong.

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Socrates continues the rhetoric of answering charges by modelling himself patriotically, on Achilles in the Iliad (Homer was the singer of Hellas - 28d), and invoking his military service at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium. He then adds that he will stand his ground – questioning – in relation to Apollo. This is a double rhetorical turn of patriotism and of piety against the charges. And yet the analogy of his choice about how to respond to the Delphic oracle as a divine command to the city’s telling him to go fight does not follow (the one is authorized by the city, the other eccentric). While this decision is pious in Socrates’ own way, it would not withstand questioning.(28d-e)

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Further, there is no way for Socrates to question, to pursue his goals of testing the God’s saying, and not come into conflict with the beliefs of people who benefit from current arrangements (questioning is bad for the powers-that-be who are, in every case, oppressors, exploiters - not a thought of Socrates - and killers of innocents, to one extent or another), unless they are interested – as some, under some circumstances are - in pursuing, among available alternatives that maintain their interests, a (comparatively) decent course.

But to kill people for questioning is surely unjust. And questioning itself – dissenting from harmful or unjust policies - is ingredient to the health and decency of democracy. In contrast, the decadent, bare majority at the trial abandons truth as well as any notion of a common good in a democracy.

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Through the testing of others, Socrates discovered that he is wise in this respect only: that “others think they know and do not, and I neither know nor think that I know.”

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This insight is characterized by Socrates as a merely human wisdom (the sophos of an anthropos).

"The fact is, gentlemen of Athens, that I have acquired this reputation [the one that brings him to trial, the trouble – diabole - the root of the English diabolic) on account of nothing else than a sort of wisdom. What kind of wisdom is this? Just that which is perhaps human wisdom [anthropine sophia]. For perhaps I am really wise in this wisdom; and these men, perhaps, of whom I was just speaking, might be wise in some wisdom greater than human, or I don’t know what to say; for I do not understand it, and whoever says I do is lying and speaking to arouse prejudice (diabole) against me.”(20d-e)

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Human wisdom lies between the ignorance of a beast and the supposed wisdom of a god. Politicians give themselves airs about justice – play god - and kill wantonly (consider Creon in Antigone whose forbidding of Antigone to bury her brother and walling her in a cave leads to his son's - her lover's - and then his wife's suicide - or the hubris involved in Athenian wars, accompanying decline or public corruption – a lack of concern for the common good - described in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic apes the speech of Thucydides' nameless Athenian ambassadors at Melos, asserting murderously the advantage of the stronger (that justice is “nothing but the advantage of the stronger”); the Athenians, fallen through lack of concern for a common good or public corruption in Thucydides’ terms, are headed for death in the quarries at Syracuse). In the Crito at line 48c, Socrates will of democratic politicians and their followers (the many): "Crito, these are really fit topics for people who kill lightly and would raise to life again as lightly if they could - the many ["σκέμματα ᾖ τῶν ῥᾳδίως ἀποκτεινύντων καὶ ἀναβιωσκομένων γ᾽ ἄν, εἰ οἷοί τ᾽ ἦσαν, οὐδενὶ ξὺν νῷ, τούτων τῶν πολλῶν]

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One might take Socrates as joking around in the Republic. For after all, though tentatively, seeking justice in the individual soul, he describes a city in speech, a rare, seemingly just city in the Republic. Now many take this city (again, Heidegger and Leo Strauss) as a good one, ruled by a philosopher king. But if he is advocating philosophical rule of such a structured, detailed and hierarchical place, he surely no longer knows nothing…

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Taking seriously what Socrates says he knows in the Apology undercuts a claim to know about and recommend philosophical tyranny (philosophical rule is an authority going beyond laws, something alleged to take each case fully into account, but if it goes wrong, arbitrary as well as unjust). But this city, as I have underlined, is, in fact, a satire. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It is Glaucon’s city – a city created by Glaucon’s hunger for luxuries, a “fevered city” with which he replaced the “city of sows” - rather than a Pythagorean city, a city of Socrates, of a philosopher. See here.

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Readers like Heidegger ignore the contradiction between the Apology and the city in speech. But one might, instead, concentrate on it and take seriously that Socrates knows that he really knows little (little, again, of the overall ideas of justice and the good, though much about what just action is).

In this perspective, what Socrates tries to do in the Apology is render democracy, potentially, more just through making space for questioning, and stopping this regime from killing people for it…

In the Apology, when conjuring a dream state in the other world where he could talk with Homer or Heracles, he says, poignantly, “they do not kill you for it there.”

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Ignorance and power combined – pretending to be a god - equal murderousness. And imagined wisdom, as we have seen with the neocons, and as Socrates underlines, is a form of ignorance.

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If Socrates knows nothing, i.e. does not possess the idea of an overall just city, has only the thought that questioning can sometimes make existing arrangements better, allow democracy to protect philosophy as one small city among the many in the larger city – see here, here, and here - then the city in speech cannot be a just city (it plainly isn’t in many of its details, and Socrates’s seeming recommendation of it becomes far more implausible once one reads the Republic with care).

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What Socrates faces, Plato’s close readers learn, and what each of us must face, with no knowledge about the experience except that no one comes back, is dying. No one who has died can share an experience of their personal fate with us, except, perhaps, in dreams or visions. That is the shocking extension of this theme of knowing and wisdom at the end of the Apology which Plato’s students are meant to take in. For Socrates asks whether death is a bad or a good thing. And he suggests that it may not be bad. His daimon, his inner voice or guiding spirit, does not warn him against it.

These beautiful and terrible lines end the Apology:

"But now the time has come to go away, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to the better place is known only to the god (42a)." "ἀλλὰ γὰρ ἤδη ὥρα ἀπιέναι, ἐμοὶ μὲν ἀποθανουμένῳ, ὑμῖν δὲ βιωσομένοις: ὁπότεροι δὲ ἡμῶν ἔρχονται ἐπὶ ἄμεινον πρᾶγμα, ἄδηλον παντὶ πλὴν ἢ τῷ θεῷ."

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That there is a powerful piety in Socrates and a profound untruth in the verdict is indicated by Plato’s finishing with the words: "to the god."

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Now, the Laws begins with the word the god; the Athenian stranger asks if a god or some man gave the two other strangers their laws. There the gods become, for the Athenian Stranger, only political instrumentalities. But the Stranger is a not-Socrates, the one who did not go to his death to preserve questioning….

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Here the point of questioning about knowledge and its distinction from widely accepted opinion (and ordinary reading) is at its most powerful. And Socrates says that he honors his inner daimon (his guiding spirit, what leads someone who follows it to eudaimonia, spiritual wellbeing over a lifetime and perhaps beyond as Aristotle suggests in the Nicomachean Ethics - that our eudaimonia, he says, is affected by what happens to our children... - what we peculiarly and inadequately name happiness - or his divine sign, ton daimonion, ton theon semeion - 40a-b) in speaking as he did.

"For judges - and in calling you judges I give you your right name - a wonderful thing has happened to me. For before this the customary spirit spoke to me very often and opposed me even in small things, if I were about to do something I should not; but now, as you yourselves see, this thing which might be thought and is generally considered the greatest of evils has come upon me, but the divine sign (theon semeion) did not oppose me either when I left my home in the morning, or when I came here to the court, or at any point in my speech...What then do I suppose the reason? I will tell you. What has happened to me is undoubtedly a good thing, and those of us who think death is an evil must be mistaken..."

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Socrates's daimon or semeion did not seek to prevent his death nor warn him against the course he was taking.

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But careful students are supposed to read and question the argument that follows about death. Consider the claim that a dreamless sleep is the best night one ever had, so the big sleep must be better than all the others. To dream or, alternately, not to recall our dreams is something that each of us, as it were, chooses, when our souls are in our bodies. Whether dreamless sleep is possible for those who have no body, whose personal existence has vanished, is unlikely, and at best, a mystery. That a story is told does not mean that the story is true…

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And would the conversations of Socrates with the great heroes produce more wisdom than his ones with the heroes, sophists and poets of his time? Would Homer (actually a collective of poets) really tell him more about poetry and knowing than the poets he has already questioned? And Heracles, would he really so different, even chastened by death and a better interlocutor, than Glaucon or Callicles?

Perhaps Socrates had already had his conversations, fulfilled his mission for the oracle here. Perhaps many days and nights, many wakings and trances are, in fact, many lives. And perhaps his making space for questioning and philosophy in the democracy, through dying as he did, is a great accomplishment, one which echoes down the 2400 years. For 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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The really poignant line, however, in Socrates’ exploring of these alternatives is the uncomfortable: “since at least they don’t kill you for it there.” (41c)

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It is not clear to me however, that we should say, from this account, with Strauss, that Socrates is an atheist. He seems deeply to be involved in a human quest for the divine, to reach, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, through questioning, toward the truth…

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What is true of Socrates is that he lives a life of integrity. He knows who he is as a questioner and follows that path, dissenting and defending a better idea of democracy as well as fashioning arguments philosophically until he drinks the hemlock. That commitment, that possibility is what he powerfully adds, though by implication, to the rhetoric of the democratic laws of Athens in the Crito and thus, seeks to bring out in them. His consideration of their arguments in his actions is more promising than his representation of their speech – see "How to read Plato: the farcical speech of the laws" here and the post "The Crito: How Plato subtly taught his students to read Socrates’s agency," forthcoming. For the laws are rhetorical and self-contradictory – the puffed up and silly: “you are our slave” assertion versus the more plausible: ”you agreed to us as a free man" though accompanied by the vaguely hysterical "and longer than anybody else, to boot” - and need help. What Socrates has them say is primarily to silence Crito, to frighten him that he will be dispossessed if he helps Socrates escape and give him persuasive – largely sophistic, that is, for the courts of public opinion - things to say to the Athenians.

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But what the laws say is not what persuades Socrates himself...Protection for questioning – they are putting Socrates to death for questioning – is exactly what Socrates hopes to forge in a future or ideal Athens and elsewhere in the future. That makes Socrates’ action or sacrifice central in bettering the laws (he is, as it were, a Boddhisattva, sacrificing himself for the benefit of others - see here; Buddha was meditating a few hundred miles away, and there are important commonalities between what became Buddhism and the Eleusinian mysteries in Athens…).

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The determination to strengthen a space for questioning in Athens is what Socrates brings to knowing in the Apology. Socrates suggests to his students that what one can do is to stand up for arguments, based on reflection. Questioning reveals that each of us knows something of the good and just, but does not and can not fully know (cannot know a Platonic idea of justice, let alone of the good, "the sun in the noetic universe" greater than the sun in the visible universe, as Socrates says in Plato's Republic).

One can live, as a seeker or lover of wisdom, a life of integrity, and die in defense of that life for herself and others, as Socrates did. And perhaps, that is a good death along with Oedipus’s at Colonnus, if there is one. For Socrates quaffs the poison calmly – like a cup of sherbet, says Gandhi in his 1908 translation – see here and here - and perhaps even happily (with eudaimonia). But the theme of not knowing gives Socrates's experience of dying its uncanny power, one that has lasted 2400 years in Plato’s dialogue, and will extend for careful readers, as Socrates says in the Phaedrus, spreading seeds of the highest happiness in their souls, onward...

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In the dishonor of putting Socrates, its wise man, to death, the Athenians who voted for conviction went to a bad place. They were wicked, and luckily, their names have mostly been forgotten (Meletus and Anytus appear in the Apology and Meno, but even Lycon, the third accuser, has slipped somewhat away…).

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In going about their lives as the “friends of Socrates,” having voted for acquittal, others did a good thing, but are also forgotten.

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Socrates’ perished. His body was taken by the flames.

Socrates did not write. He believed that writings were easily misunderstood and that like Tibetan or Navajo sand paintings, one has the conversations, in the moment, that one has and then they are gone. He was, in this respect, a devotee of impermanence...

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But the writing of Plato has given Socrates a place, both in democracy and philosophy. For we know of Socrates, wonder over his words and fate, think about martyrdom, satyagraha and less fatal forms of civil disobedience in the light of his experience. His lasting imprint, his spirit, is with us and with the future, and thus, he has, in one important sense, gone to a better place…

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*Plato's Pheadrus on the double nature of dialogues:

“Socrates: Writing Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and it is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak and to whom not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled, it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

…in my opinion, serious discourse about them [justice and similar subjects] is far nobler when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless but yield seed from which there springing up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever and which make their possessor happy, to the furthest possible limit of human happiness.” (275d-277a)

2 comments:

the new liberal said...

Reading The Apology brings to mind another book that I have been reading recently, This Town. It's about how there aren't as many significant ideological differences in Washington as people think, but how politicians and lobbyists, and journalists all try to get in on the revolving door with allows them to be part of the club of the powerful and then allows politicians and lobbyists and others to make millions of dollars by supporting causes which sometimes they have spent their entire careers fighting. This just reminds me of how much Socrates was outside of the club of the powerful in Athens, and I think, perhaps, it's because he spent so much time fighting the "club" that in the end they felt the need to kill him.

Alan Gilbert said...

That is often the case. What is new and decent is also profoundly dangerous to and feared by the powerful.

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