There be dragons!

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

An exchange on Plato

This is an excellent email exchange I had today with a recent grad. Aren't our alums great?
Mr. Lasseter – I hope that everything is going well at Providence this year. In a Humanities class that I am taking this quarter ... we are reading several different texts, among which are Plato’s Apology and Crito. I was wondering what you thought about the following question – is it unreasonable to suppose that regarding his trial, Socrates is actually trying to provoke the jury rather than defend his case? In supporting a negative answer to this question, I am in an overwhelming minority.
Also, most of the members of the class seem to view Socrates as arrogant, pompous, and annoying. (Although many also admitted having no previous exposure to him.) I, on the other hand, found many things he says hilarious, especially when he suggests that as an alternate punishment to the death penalty, he should receive free meals. If you have a few minutes, I was wondering what your view would be on these two separate issues – the class brings back a lot of memories of the Republic. (I think when I mentioned in passing that I had studied it in high school, the prof’s response was, “The whole thing? The whole entire thing?!”)
Thanks,KO
Dear KO,
Good to hear from you. I chuckled at the account of the reading of Plato. Yes, I’ve many times before heard the rather unoriginal and uninspiring reading of Plato that makes such a claim about Socrates. I’ve also heard that Socrates meant none of what he said in the Republic and was just making it all up to toy with his audience. I’ve heard that his philosophizing was intentionally done to throw other people off the right track, to disrupt the society, to seduce his interlocutors. I’ve heard that he was a socialist, a feminist, a Straussian. There are numerous readings out there of Socrates, one more ludicrous than the next. As Socrates himself might suggest, let’s look at the mode of reading itself and judge whether it makes sense.
Socrates, having contempt for his judges and knowing that theirs was a kangaroo court intentionally eggs them on. Is it reasonable that he have contempt for all his judges? The text itself shows that he has contempt for some, but honors others. Why? B/c some were honorable men and others contemptible. The jury was actually split rather ½ and 1/2. Thus he’d have a hard time ticking off the honorable men, and wouldn’t have to do much to tick off the dishonorable. So is it reasonable that he would spend his time saying things to make the dishonorable men issue a more severe sentence or is it more likely that he’d say something which would both show his contempt for the dishonorable and also bear a message to the honorable? That sort of ambiguity holds with Socrates’ (and Plato’s) knack for ambiguous speech. So perhaps his egging on the court is more complex than the one-dimensional read of “trying to provoke the jury” for a more severe sentence.
Regardless, to what end would he be provoking them were he to do so? That they might kill him? Why, that he be an example to others? To really piss them off? To defy them recklessly? Is Socrates in love with death? Is there any evidence anywhere else in the texts that Socrates wanted to die? The answer is, no. There is no other evidence. Moreover there is contrary evidence that he enjoyed life, wanted to live, and found suicide (or self-destructive behavior) to be ignoble. Thus to throw away his life in order to spite the jury seems ridiculous. To throw away his life to make a point doesn’t seem to fit either as he would be more effective being alive and able to speak + he didn’t want to die. What seems most likely, then, is that what he is saying provokes the jury not b/c of Socrates but b/c of the jury. In other words, when Socrates says that he ought to be put up by the state, he means it. When he says that he is the most beneficial asset to the state, he means it. When he says that they ought to reward him for his work, he means it. The other texts confirm that Socrates really does think the philosopher to be the best and noblest benefit of the state (a view reiterated by the Church in their support of contemplatives). Does he not know that such words will piss off half the jury? Of course he does. He even says so when he expresses surprise that so many had voted for him. So what he says is said b/c it is true, and truth provokes the ignoble men on the jury. Socrates doesn’t say these things in order to provoke, but he says them b/c they are true and they provoke.
The real thing to consider, though, is not whether he’s arrogant or provocative or what have you… that’s all irrelevant and counterproductive to a real understanding of these great works. What Plato is saying (and he, after all, is the authority we should consider even more than Socrates) is that good men need to speak the truth, hold fast to the truth even when that truth threatens their life and provokes bad men. Socrates knows his interlocutors will be enraged by his words b/c he knows their character and their characteristic response to the truth. But though he does not desire death Socrates is willing to accept death rather than sacrifice the truth. That’s a far more productive read of the work and it allows one to see some of the truly funny sections of Socrates’ humor to which you allude. The biggest drawback to reading the Apology either as a lesson in arrogance or else as a cynical attempt to prod the jury is that both impart to the character of Socrates a hardness of heart incapable of making jokes or enjoying beauty. Thus the reader (about whom such criticism is actually addressed), suffers the same mercenary tendencies he imputes to Socrates. It’s not that Socrates is mercenary enough to provoke his jury it’s that the reader making such a claim doesn’t possess the cleanness of heart necessary to take a joke.
I wouldn’t sweat too much the stupidity of your fellow students. I remember once having a girl tell me she didn’t like Dante b/c she didn’t believe in Hell. As though her personal beliefs mattered squat in the understanding of great literature.
Anyway, hope this helps.
Must toddle along.
WjLasseter

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