Thursday, September 8, 2016

William Myrl; Letters to No One (66) - Kneading Plato part II

Dear No One,

After the Apology comes Crito. 

This is a dialogue between Socrates and his friend Crito who has come to persuade him to escape prison and evade his sentence of death. Socrates refuses, and they argue back and forth, but like nearly all of the characters in these dialogues, Crito uses most of his lines to agree wholeheartedly with whatever Socrates happens to be saying. Contrary ideas are abandoned as soon as they are proposed, as if they had an understanding with the great philosopher all along and merely wished to hear him put their own beliefs into words for them.

Crito begins by telling Socrates that he cannot possibly allow him to die in prison, because then all men will think badly of him for not trying to help his famous friend. This is, like much of what you will read in the dialogues, not a thing that any actual person would say, except as a joke. Socrates' response is that the opinions of the many are not to be regarded, only the judgments of the good. Not a bad piece of advice, with the understanding that Socrates himself doesn't regard the opinions of anyone but himself. Why is it that the fact that Socrates can't lose an argument is taken as a sign of his intelligence, rather than his obstinance?

In any case, the philosopher cannot allow anyone to help him escape his sentence, because doing so would violate the law, and he cannot violate any laws, because to violate a law is to violate the social contract that allows men to live together in society. If he did betray himself by leaving, it would also be a betrayal of his family, who would have to live without him or go with him and therefore be deprived of Athens, the only city in the world worth living in. In exile, any government would see him as the treasonous enemy that he was for having broken the laws of another country.

There is nothing about his position that is not ridiculous, so I will talk about something more interesting. The Socratic method, the method by which he reaches his many risible conclusions, is in need of analysis.

Socrates asks people to set their own terms, to define an idea related to what they are talking about, and then picks at that definition until his opponent is forced to agree that his original statement leads to absurd conclusions, or it supports Socrates position. It works because his opponents are all fictional straw men, and because language is ambiguous, and he exploits that ambiguity. He defines a good life as one in which no wrong is done, defines escaping prison as wrong, and finds escaping prison to be therefore impossible if he is to live a good life. All the while, Crito says whatever Socrates would want him to say, nodding or shaking his head as appropriate for a puppet. 

Human beings are not internally coherent. What this means is that our beliefs would not all agree with each other, if they were laid out all at once. Most of the time, when we are asked what we believe about a given issue, we fabricate our beliefs on the spot, rather than storing those beliefs in a memory bank that checks behind itself. It's more efficient, and it allows us to hold multiple conflicting beliefs at any given moment. 

The statements we make about our beliefs are not iron clad, they do not stand alone against scrutiny, but require caveats and codas to support them. When we have a conversation, it is difficult, impossible, to hold everything that is said perfectly in mind, topics bounce about, statements are amended or forgotten, and no one changes heart on any subject they feel strongly about. You can try the Socratic method on anyone you care to; if you keep asking questions they will eventually contradict themselves. This does not make you, or Socrates, clever, it's simply a fact that humans are not good logical calculators, and we have limited RAM. 

Socrates argues from the general (but is not life, but a good life, to be chiefly valued?) to the specific (if I disobeyed the law I would not have a life to be chiefly valued) in a convoluted and contrived fashion, and he is only capable of doing so because Plato is the one writing the story. A tenth grade seminar student would be able to cut him short. 

You may accuse me of reading Plato with an eye jaded by concepts modern students take for granted. Plato didn't have our advantages. Of course he didn't, and that's exactly why we shouldn't take him seriously. Be aware of him, mention him in a history course, fine- but stop buying into the conceit that he was prophesied to be wise. Perhaps he was wise then, and it was a sadder age. We do not live in that age any longer, and what was impressive then is not impressive now.

Plato decides that he must kill himself because he believes killing himself makes him the better man, the best of men. He refuses to live in a world where he is not right, where he cannot live by exactly his terms. I'm sure there are people who think this is nobility. I think that it is cowardice.


William Myrl

Letters to No One

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