Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Plato's Crito and Phaedo
Let's begin with some baseless speculation (which, in case you didn't know, is more than half of scholarly work. Also, it's the part that people tend to like best and talk about most.) There are a number of ways to interpret the "execution" of Socrates. One is that he was sort of a hippie guru whose choice in disciples may have been injudicious for one who wishes to live out a natural lifespan. He taught that seeking a life of virtue, knowledge, and wisdom was far more important than seeking worldly wealth. He seems to have had a number of disciples who were young men from wealthy families. So, it's entirely likely that he was put to death for that. It's also been suggested by some scholars that he may have simply been put to death for annoying people. He had a habit (a method in fact) of leading people to his point of view by asking them questions which would lead a person to answer their way into his mode of thinking. People are loath to loosen their doberman grip on their paradigms and opinions one jot even on a good day. I find this an ugly but plausible explanation. It does not tax my reason to suggest that some humans might put another human to death because they dislike his style. I remember High School.
Also in the speculation column, I actually read a scholar who suggested that Socrates may have accepted his death to avoid the pain and indignities of aging. I have to say that this seems to reveal more about the worldview of the scholar than to have been exegeted from any of the actual text.
Which leads us to poor Crito who goes before his master on death row and begs him to let them find a way to pay off his accusers or help him escape, and implores him to think of his children. It's a short piece. Socrates' responses are simple. Why on Earth would he pay those people for what they've done, escape is cowardly, and he is considering his children in the example he is leaving over the importance of truth, tranquility (Crito marvels at the beginning of the piece that Socrates is sleeping like a baby with rum rubbed on its gums), and integrity. Socrates says that a good life is equal to a just and honorable one. He believes that a good life is to be valued above life in and of itself. I would add that I am reading an account of the words of Socrates in the year 2010. If they had burrowed out through the latrine and scampered off to Spain disguised as women or Barbary apes or something like that, I doubt Socrates would have been deemed worthy of such careful posterity.
Socrates also gives an argument over the relationship between the individual and the State which I imagine would grate on a lot of modern readers. He talks about how one reaps the benefits all through one's life from the State and therefore the State has rights and position over that individual in certain spheres, including when it deems capital punishment appropriate. The citizen agrees to obedience to the commands of the State. The Quaker in me would rail against this were it not the words of a man about to be put to death by the State. The Contemporary American in me would rankle at this argument too were it not outweighed by my admiration over his tranquility and integrity. The philosophy student in me wonders how Nietzsche missed this when he blamed slave morality on Christianity.
As I'll come back to in a moment, one of the frustrations of reading the ancients is having a bunch of questions you would like to ask.
Phaedo starts with Phaedo explaining that we are waiting for a boat to arrive to signal the end of a religious ceremonial period where executions don't take place in order to avoid polluting the city (which raises the question in my mind: why do them at all?) Socrates and his students seize this opportunity to speak of many things, chiefly on the existence of the soul after death. He starts with what everyone except the reader took as a solid, logical argument for the pre-existence of the soul: the understanding of equality and opposing forces from infancy proving knowledge gained before physical existence. I would mention that this struck me as very similar to C.S. Lewis' opinion that the universals of right and wrong point toward the existence of God or words to that effect. I'm not saying that I agree or disagree, but I am not convinced that that is the necessary and only possible conclusion from this data. In fact, it was highly problematic for me when he got the section of how bad people might reincarnate as donkeys and the vice-ridden are clearly ghosts bound to the world they so loved, while his students replied "Yes, of course!" The argument for the existence of the soul after death is along the lines of this:
That which the soul possesses bears life. The soul flees the body at death. Death is the opposite of life. The soul will not bear the opposite of what it brings. That which does not admit death is what is known as the immortal. The soul does not admit death. Therefore the soul is immortal.
I appreciate the thinking and certainly the line of logic, but I have to admit that, for me, it didn't put the final nail in the coffin of the 4 am, staring at the bedroom ceiling, sweating from the palms of my hands, thinking "My gosh, what if it's all just chemicals and biological processes terminating in oblivion?!!?"
I think I take away from the piece the lines of reasoning which are very well done, along with a few bits of quite profound wisdom (e.g. "The wise man will will want to be ever with him who is better than himself" or "few are the good and few the evil, and that the great majority are in the interval between them.") But there was a moment of disappointment for me when he came to the "okay, let's prove the immortality of the soul" section of the piece and left me with a lot of questions and objections long after Socrates had convinced his audience. So, I must content myself with what I've gained from this reading and, in fact, mourn Socrates over 2 millennia late.
In fact, in spite of all of his reassurances, Socrates death was a terribly sad event to read. I find this to be a natural reaction of the living to the loss of life, especially the loss of a loved one. I end up feeling a bit like Dante, rebuked by Virgil for feeling compassion, but unable to shake it in spite of all of the good reasons I'm given. Much like Crito, I still feel the loss in spite of being told that it's not a loss and, a credit to the work of Plato, 2000 years later I'm missing a teacher I never met.