Delight Springs

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Socrates

It's Socrates and the Socratics (including that dog Diogenes) today in CoPhi. Socrates, they say, was firmly devoted to argumentative reason as a better method than revelation or hope. Should we call his devotion "faith"? Not if that means an unwavering refusal to seek and ponder all evidence, to entertain challenging questions, even to welcome those that question the utility of argumentative reason itself. His fabled humility, his ignorant form of wisdom, officially invites every challenge.

But unofficially, Socrates was definitely betting on reason against superstition and tradition for their own sake. His trust in reason was firm, his delight in philosophical argument was inextinguishable. He drew his dying breath in the middle of an argument his successors have continued to this day, as to the meaning and practical value of a life committed to virtue, curious inquiry, and intellectual integrity. He died in contempt of what he considered the misplaced presumption of fearing death more than vice, "which runs faster than death."

That's how we've come to see him, as a pedestal-mounted figure larger than life, gazing across the centuries in reproach of small-mindedness and irrational fear. We downplay his personal shabbiness and eccentricity, forgetting the actual figure he must have cut as the ancient Athenian equivalent of a street person. How did such a vagabond manage to ingratiate himself with the upper crust elites of his city? It was his spellbinding gift of gab, tiresome to many but entrancing ("bewitching," said the smitten Alcibiades) to many more. People looked beyond the pug nose and the ugly-ass mouth ("more ugly even than an ass's") to the beauty within.

His conversation was compelling but it was not personally revealing. His version of dialectic withheld affirmative assertion, instead soliciting others' definitions and demonstrations in order to trip them over their own inconsistencies and send them (and us, peering over their shoulders) back to the philosophical drawing board.

Athenian democracy had just been overthrown by the Spartans and decimated by their Thirty Tyrants, as Socrates went to trial. His own anti-democratic leanings were well-known. 
If you were heading out on a journey by sea, Socrates asks Adeimantus in Plato's Republic, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, says Adeimantus, so why then, responds Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? Socrates’s point is that voting in an election is a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.  Why Socrates Hated Democracy, SoL
But did he really hate democracy? Gottlieb says no, he was in fact too democratic for his time and place. He was an ultra-democrat, committed to the examined life for all. This may have sounded to some like an endorsement of "exaggerated individualism" but for Socrates the examined life is also the collaborative conversational life. "Philosophy is an intimate and collaborative activity: it is a matter for discussions among small groups of people who argue together in order that each might find the truth for himself. The spirit of such a pastime cannot accurately be captured in a lecture or a treatise." It's best captured in talk, preferably while walking. Hence Plato's dialogues, and ours.

Not even the Delphic Oracle's authoritative declaration of Socrates' wisdom could stifle the gadfly's appetite for rational argument and inquiry, provoking him to "check the truth of it" for himself. Can we possibly take literally, then, his claim to philosophize at the behests of God or his daimon? No. He just did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. 

He also thought it best not to weep and wail for our finitude, even at death's door. "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing..." Maybe he'll get to meet his "heroes of the old days." Or maybe he'll just have a nice long sleep. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him to worry about an unpleasant or hellish alternative. He was ahead of his time, and Epicurus's, in this regard.

Socrates and Plato were both "unworldly" but in different ways, the former in his shambling indifference to social status, hygiene,and finery, the latter in regarding carnal existence as a form of incarceration in the shadow of eternal essences and Ideas. Socrates kept a sharper focus on the duties and blessings of this world, "not simply a preparation for something else." And he thought we could all do that. "For Plato, philosophy was the ladder to this elevated world of the Forms, but not everyone could climb it." For Socrates, "anybody could examine his own life and ideas and thus lead a worthwhile existence."

The paradigmatic Socratic question: Is something good because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it's good? The Socratic answer: it can't be the former, that's arbitrary. Real gods don't play darts with the universe. Hypothetical gods shouldn't, either.

What would he say about people who achieve wealth and success by behaving badly? Or about the state of our democracy? Would he agree with William James regarding "our national disease"? Would you?

We know how it ended for Socrates. They told him to shut up. He persisted (like Elizabeth Warren, and like Paul Kalinithi), until the hemlock shut him down. It's up to the rest of us, now, to persist when we're told to "shut up about the bad stuff."
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Happy Birthday  to Alice Walker, who said “no person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow”... and to Irish rebel Brendan Behan, who said "Never throw stones at your mother,You'll be sorry for it when she's dead, Never throw stones at your mother, Throw bricks at your father instead." On this day in 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time... 

5:40/6:42, 32/40/26, 5:20

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