Thursday, December 31, 2015

Socrates’ Achilles Heel

   Socrates’ Achilles Heel

The Paterfamilias of Western philosophy is none other than that loquacious, intrepid Greek, Plato. His writings, called Dialogues, are more enshrined in scholars’ minds than the Lincoln Memorial. No college course in the history of philosophy would be worth its value without a Dialogue or two.
 Plato’s canonization, however, is mostly a modern invention.  Now the problem with erecting pedestals is that adorers look askance upon anyone that might dare subject their idol to criticism. Needless to say, messengers with audacious comments, plausibly true, supposedly have short careers.
 Plato’s hero in the Dialogues is a chap called Socrates. A moot question among scholars still is whether he truly existed or plays Plato’s alter ego? In either choice, the reader finds him graphically portrayed as an everyday sort of fellow, a badgered spouse, always willing to raise a pint at the Pub, and not drawing attention to himself except that once you invited his responses to your declarations on timely subjects like law, friendship, love, politics, deities, happiness, etc., you were caught in his rapier of replies that eventually probed and lured you into contradicting yourself to admit your embarrassing ignorance on the matter that you so recently proclaimed professional knowledge. He seemed to go out of his way to find discussions down around city square. Hence the various Dialogues on major ideas that enthralls us.
This gentle, self–effacing individual, once a soldier, who always apologized for his unknowing, no doubt with a wink, became such an embarrassment to the public, according to the beleaguered City fathers, that he was indicted for leading the citizens astray with his interminable ability to expose publicly their pompous paucity of knowledge. How dare him profess ignorance, only a “midwife” was his term for himself, and then dismantle his interlocutors’ insipid arguments and turn them inside out in such a way that the inevitable question arises in their minds: who were they ever to conceive such vacuous ideas. In getting these gentlemen to reexamine the logic of their ideas, he inexorably forced them to pierce their stately splendor for what it was.

 “I have no concern at all for what most people are concerned about: financial affairs, administration of property, appointments to generalships, oratorical triumphs in public, magistracies, coalitions, political factions. I did not take this path…but rather the one where I could do the most good to each one of you in particular, by persuading you to be less concerned with what you have than with what you are; so that you may make yourselves as excellent and as rational as possible.”

           Of course he endeared himself by repeating:
“What? Dear friend, you are an Athenian, citizen of a city greater and more famous than any other for its science and its power, and you do not blush at the fact that you give care to your fortune, in order to increase it as much as possible, and to your reputation and your honors; but when it comes to your thought, to  your truth, to your soul, which you ought to be improving, you have no care for it, and you don’t think of it.”  

Ancient Athens in the 5th century was praised for it democratic institutions and its fostering of cultural arts. In this atmosphere, humane living and philosophy, the quest for wisdom, walked hand in hand for Socrates. Yet the citizens, especially the leaders of the community, wasted their innate endowment. As he puts it:

”I don't know anything that gives me greater pleasure, or profit either, than talking or listening to philosophy. But when it comes to ordinary conversation, such as the stuff you talk about financiers and the money market, well, I find it pretty tiresome personally, and I feel sorry that my friends should think they're being very busy when they're really doing absolutely nothing. Of course, I know your idea of me: you think I'm just a poor unfortunate, and I shouldn't wonder if you’re right. But then I don't think that you're unfortunate - I know you are.”

Without self-scrutiny, then one lives for whims. Philosophy or not, Athens’ democratic vision still led it to a twenty-seven years war of expansion with Sparta. Along its way, when the Melians on the island of Melos would not submit to Athens, they were massacred and Thucydides, the historian of the war, wrote:

"The Athenians thereupon put to death all who were of military age,                            
and made slaves of the women and children."

Even then democracies have a hard time resisting the call to an imperial destiny. Liberal at home is one thing, so much for democracy abroad.
 Athens lost the war. Meanwhile, the gadfly’s career was decades old, yet curiously, in the midst of the country’s recovery, he now became too dangerous. The city fathers brought charges of relentlessly undermining their religious beliefs and being far too influential with the younger generation. His critical assessments were ‘corrupting the youth,’ as they put it. Speaking your mind on certain topics makes one an outlaw. He’s gone too far. Shame, he wasn’t politically correct. The powers at large became infuriated with him for molesting their pretentious minds. He was indicted as a threat to the state’s safety. His civil disobedience can’t  be tolerated. Off to the hemlock and death.
 Into this intellectual skirmish, let us parallel a nineteenth century fellow philosopher who, likewise, was a dauntless appraiser of society’s follies. Henry Thoreau differed from our Greek curmudgeon in that his preferred sauntering was less the hurly, burly hub of the city than the seasonal beauties of the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. A solitary man, the author of Walden was a joyful self-explorer who drew immensely upon Nature for his inspirations while keeping a critical eye on the civic scene.

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts            of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to            discover that I had not lived.’

Simplicity of life was crucial. He would thoroughly concur with Socrates that the unexamined life ain’t worth living. Equally, he would agree with him that government is an improvable thing yet within the border ‘that government is best which governs least.’ Perhaps the gadfly might refrain from going that far.
 Thoreau was outraged at the government policy fostering slavery and its preemptive invasion of Mexico (seems familiar?). Government exhorted among citizens the grand mania of “Manifest Destiny,” a self-righteous piece of propaganda whereby it entitled itself to expand unopposed across the continent and beyond. With God on our side, the question of right or wrong was incidental.
Among his fellow citizens, his personal, unconventional appraisals on these matters appeared almost radical. He opposed taxation to support the government’s unjust mandates, as well as any Church assuming it could tax. He was jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax. While incarcerated, a friend paid the penalty so that our author stayed but a night. Unembittered by those hours, that very evening, amazingly, birthed a shooting star of human liberation called “Civil Disobedience.” In this manifesto, he renders his vision for responsible citizenship.
 Since Thoreau believes that government is basically self-serving with their policies enforcing expediency, he nuances, "It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” For him, it is not the needed absence of government so much as a more responsive government that does not attempt to dictate individual morality.

He states: "Let every man make known what kind of government would command his       respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." What makes the unexamined State so dangerous is that in its essence it “…never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.”
Would Socrates pause at this point?

The word got out on his unorthodox stance. In calmly discerning his neighbors’ reactions,             “I saw to what extent the people among whom I lived could be trusted as good neighbors        and friends; that their friendship was for summer weather only; that they did not greatly   propose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions.”
Yet no cynicism for this man, instead he pondered: (1) Why do some men obey laws without inquiring if the laws are just or unjust; and, (2) why do so many obey laws they think are wrong? In his observation, it is the unwarranted respect for the law that motivates citizens unthinkingly to comply and soldiers to fight in wars against their better judgement. Would not Socrates applaud?
Condemned, Socrates awaits his fate. Interestingly, he could have just walked away, lenient as the guards were, or taken advantage of his students’ aid to escape.
            Pierre Hadot, a French scholar on the Ancients, sees Socrates refusal to depart “…as his duty and that to which he must sacrifice everything, even his life, is obedience to the laws of the city.” Along with many other modern scholars, he would herald Socrates for his undeviating compliance. In fact, the scholars’ hero went even further; he voluntarily took his own poison before the state had its chance.
 Since Socrates willingly submits to fulfilling the state’s laws as being virtuous, then one wonders how he could cheat the government of doing its duty? Where did the scholars’ role model get the right to preempt the Officials by committing suicide? For someone who so imperatively insists on submission to the laws—verbatim—is not his choice guilty of hypocrisy?
Socrates’ suicide compounds the state’s injustice. His self-demeaning death matches the state’s fatuous ruling. His maneuver has not cheated the accusers, as the Dialogue implies, but saved the elitist government the meager price of execution. An obvious reaction of the aristocracy is to gloat over his demise. The Officials got their way. The gadfly is no more.
By his death, Socrates confirms himself a conventional, indiscriminate volunteer to the service of government dictates. Instead of accepting exile and thus continuing, with shrewd foresight, his protest for the unexamined life, his suicide stands in utter contradiction to his proclaimed lifestyle. Heretofore stood the dauntless challenger in his passion for truth in action relentlessly exposing his opponents self-serving assumptions, now genuflecting to their verdict. Thoreau proposes, in contrast, that "Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary." No revolutionary here in Athens. To the dismay of his comrades and citizens, his suicide acquiesces to the state and thus diminishes any spark for the citizens’ intelligent revolution against the injustice of the corrupt government.
The gadfly cross-stitches patriotism with morality. This equation is repeatedly emphasized in history to this day by edacious governments who arouse the citizens to do its bidding. Socrates embraces it wholeheartedly. Easily, the mindless slogan: ‘Love country, right or wrong,” would be his banner. On this basis, citizens should be suppliant conformists to the pragmatic declarations of government. The price for this compliance merely deteriorates individual integrity. By forfeiting conscience to the legislator, one assumes the state an absolute.
            Plato, ala Socrates, wants nothing less than monarchical patriotism wherein the state can do no wrong. In the Crito Dialogue, he assures his students that he owes the state:

“…I must obey the law. True, Athens has committed an injustice against me by ordering me to die for speaking my mind. But if I complained about this injustice, Athens could rightly say, ‘We brought you into the world, we raised you, we educated you, we gave you and every other citizen a share of all the good things we could…Are we not, first of all, your parents? Through us your father took your mother and brought you into this world.”

Lest we forget, he reminds us,
“Are you too wise to see our country is worthier, more to be revered, more sacred, and held in higher honor both by the gods and by all men of understanding, than you father and your mother and all your other ancestors; that you ought to reverence it and to submit to it…and to obey in silence if it orders you to endure flogging or imprisonment or if it send you to battle to be wounded or to die!”   

            Any lingering doubts whom are his real parents? Hardly, they are the ones sending him, on a tromped up charge, to his demise. Ergo, how could anyone say no to such loving custodians?  With blind allegiance to that sublime artifice—the state---he now becomes the apostle of civil obedience. Would not Thoreau slowly shake his head, musing how could there be an enlightened State until it recognize the individual as a higher and independent power from which all its own power and authority are derived?
            So Socrates leaves the shackles of his body for the realm of Plato’s gods.

 And near the end of his life, Thoreau was asked,
 “Have you made your peace with God?”
 He replied, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

            Sorry, Socrates, you possess rhetorical skills, but you lack what it takes to be a full-fledged philosopher---an unyielding sense of sovereign integrity.

                                                                                                                           The Wanderer
Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life
Plato. Dialogues
Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience
Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home