Tuesday, September 6, 2016

William Myrl; Letters to No One (65) - Kneading Plato, part I

Dear No One,

One of the medical students suggested reading Plato. He told me he would bring Plato's anthologies with him onto a desert island. I wanted to know what he saw in it, so I checked out a collection from the library.

Classics can be difficult reading, translations, archaic language, unfamiliar names and references to bygone idioms all contribute to that difficulty. Ancient philosophy is actually smoother going than its modern counterpart, as there isn't a logic equation in sight. Plato's arguments can be convoluted, but they can be parsed with a little patience. There is a mystique about his work, a near sanctity, that prevents people from examining his words as they would if he were not Plato.

The pretension of wisdom is a pet peeve of mine. My apologies, No One, for what is to follow.

The Trial of Socrates

We had to read it in high school, and it's the most famous of Plato's works. It's also one of the most readable. A fine place to begin.

Socrates defends himself against a number of charges, but not before he seeks to prove to the audience that he is smarter than any of them. The oracle at Delphi prophesied that he would be the wisest man in the world. He came to believe that it was true, he says, because he went to all sorts of men (not women, of course) who were said to be wise and discovered that they all possessed the same flaw. They had opinions on matters they were not qualified to have opinions on. 

Socrates, on the contrary, knew that he knew nothing, and was therefore the wisest of men. Take a moment here. Socrates is chastising others, calling their reputations into question, as well as crowning himself wisest, because other people he happens to come upon in the city he won't leave have opinions about matters they are not qualified to have opinions on. This from a man who opines at every opportunity, on every subject, who believes himself to have the finest insight into every art and puzzle, and always insists on the last word. He surrounds himself with sycophants, and rambles on about his humble nature, being but the gadfly of Athens, but betrays himself with his actions. He is humble, yes, and knows the limits of his knowledge, and yet he will not bow his head to any assembly, or admit to any possibility of his own ignorance. 

Those of you who have read the Apology, as well as Plato's other popular fictions, may scour them as you will for lines that disprove my assertions. You will find them, and thereby prove my point; Socrates is a hypocrite. He says all manner of humble things, he is kind and generous with his words, and all of that is belied by his actual actions and beliefs. I cannot emphasize enough, Socrates calls himself the wisest man in the world because only he knows that he knows nothing. Taken out of context, its a very pithy statement. What it actually means is less dramatic or striking, a wise person is aware of the limits of their own knowledge. Even a casual reading of the dialogues should be enough to convince you that Socrates is not that wise person.

The Apology is Socrates' defense against trumped up non crimes that you could apparently be put to death for in ancient Rome. Atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens stood out to me.To paraphrase his defense against the charge of atheism: "I can't possibly be an atheist, I talk about the gods all the time."


His defense against the charge of corruption-"I can't possibly be corrupting the youth of Athens, because if my accusers were good people, they would have stopped me from corrupting the youth already, and they say they are good people, but they haven't stopped me; therefore, I am not corrupting the youth."

Absolutely no foolin', that is his argument. 

Also, he says, "If I had been corrupting the youth all this time, the youth I corrupted a generation ago would be here to accuse me now, but they are not, and therefore I am not corrupting the youth."

That's how corruption works in my book.

Socrates takes many pages to say these simple things, but they are what he says.

What shocked me the most about the Apology was how chummy Socrates appears to be with death. He acknowledges only two possibilities following the end of life, an eternal rest, or a Dumbeldorian "next great adventure." This implies a failure of the imagination at the very least. I won't dwell on this subject here, as Crito and Phaedo address it more fully, as well as the arrogance that causes him to choose death over life. 

My point, if I have one, is that nothing Socrates argues is exceptionally insightful. He philosophizes at an advanced high school level. Teenagers do better on internet message boards.

If Socrates is noteworthy because of the age in which he wrote, because of his antiquity, then wonderful, but let's not pretend the words themselves are more sagacious because they were a temporal anomaly. No one watches black and white televisions because they were amazing for their time.


William Myrl

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