Saturday, August 7, 2010

Plato's Apology

Plato's Apology is a short piece which is Plato's account of Socrates' defense during his trial and execution.  As is so often the case with Plato, Socrates is the narrator and Plato doesn't appear much, except that since we have no writings of Socrates himself, we don't really know how much is Socrates and how much is Plato.  As you can well imagine, scholars have frittered countless hours of their precious lives speculating on the matter.  I prefer to take the non-conspiracy, Occam's Razor route and say that it is probably Plato's retelling of the words of Socrates to the best of his ability and attempting the greatest accuracy.

I was working through Plato's Apology, Phædo and Crito, but, as you know, I will be taking a break from the Ancient Greeks to spend some time with a Medieval Italian in much warmer climes.  But I finished the Apology  yesterday and wanted to put down a few thoughts before I forgot them.

Socrates was put on trial for "impiety" and corrupting some young people (He said things like "I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private." Money doesn't like that kind of talk.)  The charge of impiety was a little obscure to me, mainly because I don't really understand their theological system.  His accusers claimed that Socrates denied the gods that the city affirmed and created gods of his own (which I guess he wasn't licensed to do.)  Of course, we have great sympathy for Socrates, especially those of us in a society that enjoys freedom of speech and intellectual thought.  Surely, in our enlightened age, we never put someone to death for believing the wrong thing (what's that punctuation mark that indicates bitter sarcasm?  Why doesn't my keyboard have that?)

It becomes increasingly evident that he is being put to death because some powerful people don't like him.  Which is terrible, although Socrates doesn't back down.  If he did, we probably wouldn't be reading about him.  Instead, he even seems to add fuel to the fire at times:
"And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you."
Socrates works his questioning magic (possibly another link in the chain of things that got people so upset about himI ) on Meletus, his accuser.  He stumbles Meletus into admitting that he is accusing Socrates of both atheism and believing in false gods.  In spite of knowing how the story ends (somewhere at the bottom of a cup of hemlock), I was rooting for Socrates and, as I read, I actually thought he was winning.  This should raise a lot of questions about mob mentalities, majority rule, justice, and establishing fences to make sure popular opinion doesn't lead to gross injustices (oh, say, some kind of a Constitution.  As an interesting side note, some have actually called the piece "anti-democratic" because of the outcome.  I wouldn't say that myself, but I certainly think it is a real life cautionary tale.)  

While cross-examining Meletus, Socrates questions him on specifics of what beliefs and teachings of Socrates he finds objectionable.  Meletus expresses a few points which Socrates reveals are not teachings of his, but rather teachings of Anaxagoras.  Why the confusion?  Well, turns out a popular playwright named Aristophanes wrote a play called The Clouds in which Socrates, or rather a monsterous misrepresentation of him, is a character.  For the sake of the play (and, most likely, the agenda the play was pushing), the fictitious Socrates spouts a lot of teachings which Aristophanes lifted from Anaxagoras.  So, we see that Socrates has been mischaracterized and demonized by the mainstream media and people have run with that mischaracterization instead of finding out the truth for themselves to the point where they are willing to (and indeed do) kill a man.

Socrates calls their bluff.  In fact, most historians seem to agree that Socrates could very easily have escaped the punishment if he had backed down and agreed to shut up, amend his ways to please the nobility.  Nothing doing.
"A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong- acting the part of a good man or of a bad."
He goes on to wax philosophic on the subject of death, perhaps as he is becoming increasingly aware of where the trial is going (he was no dummy.  Just ask the Oracle at Delphi.)  He offers some hope in the face of death for those of us who have chosen a wrestling match over the traditional chess game with that grim spectre:
"For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no on knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."
This was a very intense 20 pages of writing and I'm sure I will be turning it over and over in my head for a long time to come.  We'll return to Socrates soon.  But for now, I understand the importance of the work as far as philosophy and dialogues in civilization is concerned and I do not with to take away from the value of that one jot.  But I find myself more consumed with reflections of man's inhumanity to man and that most discouraging of realizations "twas ever thus."

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