Plato’s Symposium, Part 1: Beginning “The Symposium”

Last year, I re-read Plato’s Symposium, a delightful piece of literary philosophy that takes its title from an ancient formalized type of dinner-party. And of course, this being Plato, I had hoped I’d have some particularly ground-breaking, thought-provoking, and especially deep insights into this sublime, short work. Then again, there’s been nearly 2,500 years of continuous analysis, and since I lack enough Greek to read the Symposium in the original, that seems unlikely. But even to accurately summarize such an important work seems daunting!

Part of the problem is that my several re-readings of the Symposium occurred many months ago; for this post, I’ll be working from my scratchy notes on blank, unlined printer paper. Like Apollodorus (see below), I’ll basically be hitting the highlights that particularly struck me, for whatever reason.

The dramatic date of the Symposium is thought to be very roughly around 400 BCE–though there is a framing device which supposedly took place around fifteen years later. The scene begins with one Apollodorus being asked about a particularly famous dinner-party that had taken place some years earlier. Apollodorus hadn’t actually been present; he had relied for his account on one Aristodemus, who had been. Aristodemus had been walking with Socrates, who was invited to a party at the home of the famous homosexual and playwright Agathon (a pun on the Greek word ἀγαθός, meaning “good”).

At the dinner party itself, Socrates presents himself an odd figure–waiting on the neighbour’s porch until he felt like arriving, and he was already late. Once he arrives, the characters sing a hymn, and then Agathon’s partner, Pausanias, says, “I’m tired of drinking how about y’all?”–for the characters had all been drunk the previous night, when Agathon won first prize at a festival of tragic plays. Aristophanes, who is well-known to this blog’s few readers for his works of Old Comedy, agrees. And then comes a bit of humour.

The field of medicine was in its early stages, at this time, and it so happens that we have an up-and-coming doctor at the party, one Eryximachus, who proceeds to caution against too much alcohol, saying that he wants to share “the real facts about getting drunk.” He comes off as a pompous nerd–unintentionally funny.

But Eryximachus then proposes that they dismiss the flute-girl, who was part of the evening’s entertainment. Let her play for herself, or for the women in the house (the party was males-only), he says. This agreed, Eryximachus goes on show off his learning by quoting a single half-line from a now-lost play of my personal favourite Euripides, the Melannippe: “not mine the story.” The point is that what he is going to say is not original to him, but to a friend of his, who had often remarked how “terrible” it was “that the poets have often composed hymns and paeans to other gods, but none of them has ever composed a eulogy of Love, though he such an ancient and important god.”

Now right away, I noticed a few things. Just like in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s cave in the first Star Wars movie, when the droid C3PO shuts himself off prior to Obi-Wan’s revealing of the secrets of the Force to Luke, we are meant to prick up our ears at this point–the dismissal of the female servant-girl. Get rid of the women, and then we men-folk can talk seriously. It’s obviously misogynistic. (Not unlike the US Republican Steve Southerland, but that’s beside the point! Curiously, Socrates remembers the flute-girl later in the piece–as does Xenophon in his account of the same dinner-party.)

The second thing I noticed is that the playing-down of women’s roles continues in the very next utterance: the part that names “Love” (Eros) as male. Aphrodite would have been the obvious personification of Love.

At this point, the various members of the symposium give speeches to eulogize Love (sometimes associated with friendship, sometimes with goodness, sometimes with erotic love), and they all have their own take.

At this point, our narrator, Apollodorus, says “Of course, Aristodemus didn’t remember all that each speaker said and I don’t remember all that he said. But I’ll tell you the speeches of the people he remembered best and that I thought most important.”

Incidentally, this would seem to indicate that this particular dinner-party was actually really quite famous (and indeed, Plato’s is not the only account of it–Xenophon has given us one, too, though it is generally dated after Plato’s).

The Symposium features, of course, a significant focus on homosexual relationships and ideals. More of that in the next posts.

America as Athens, America as Sparta

Back when I read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I wrote the following paragraph, in which I briefly compared the situation of America and China to that of Athens and Sparta:

As I read Thucydides’ work, I couldn’t help thinking about the geopolitical situation in the South China Sea. I actually tend to see China in terms similar to Sparta. China, like Sparta, has been in the last few decades very slow to war–unlike the quick Americans (paralleling the Athenians). It is also a great land power–again, like Sparta. It has a tendency to be inward looking, unlike America, where foreigners are welcome to study and do business, something that perhaps contributes to America’s own happy “addiction to innovation.” Finally, American naval and air power also back up an empire of sorts, the chief difference being that Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and Guam are not itching for independence. But China, like Sparta, is moving slowly, if decisively and methodically, to reduce American influence on her south and eastern fronts while America, like Athens before her–wearies herself in conflicts all around the globe (the morality of which is beside the question for the moment, since the question is how America can sustain its economy like this). Furthermore, China, like Sparta, has been slowly building up her navy. And of course, China is an oligarchy while America is a democracy. It would not be prudent to stretch the similarities too far, but I believe, like Niall Ferguson, that the twenty-first century belongs to a determined China. Better start learning your Mandarin!

After the many shootings of unarmed Black men by White police–who were never charged–and after the three-ring circus involving the scandalous betrayal of their principles by certain members of the NYPD when they turned their back on their chief at a funeral, I have thought of another political entity from Thucydides to compare America with: Sparta.

Reading Charles M. Blow of the New York Times, and other writers, including Paul Krugman, has taught me much about how America (and especially its South) treats its Black people. State after State–all of them controlled by Republicans–has passed unnecessary Voter ID laws that make it harder for African-Americans to vote. States have gerrymandered the votes of African Americans into districts that are then underfunded so that voting lineups can last for many hours on Election Day. State after State has done nothing to prosecute police departments that engage in racial profiling, prosecuting young Black men for minor things like drug possession when statistics indicate that drugs are abused equally by Whites. America has more prisoners behind jail walls than any other nation on earth–and many of those prisons are owned by for-profit companies. America has elected a Black President, but in the years after that election, so many of the attacks on Obama appear motivated by an almost religiously racist hatred. Take Rush Limbaugh, for instance. He can’t even stand the idea of a Black James Bond. And then there are the constant shootings of unarmed Black men by White police officers who are never held accountable for their actions. And that’s to say nothing of how the White Walton family underpays their many workers, many of whom are Black. Walmart pays its employees so little that many require food stamps from federal and state governments to make ends meet. Of course, Republican governments all over America have been busy getting rid of those very food stamp programs! Finally, to make matters worse, the mostly-White Republican leadership in so many places does nothing to make good secondary and post-secondary education available to the poor, ensuring that the poor will remain poor. Perhaps worst of all, earned income is taxes highly while the wealthy find ways to keep their inherited and invested income largely untaxed. And these White Republicans then have the gall to lecture the poor about industry, hard work, and morality!

In other words, seen from this perspective, America is a race-based oligarchy in which powerful Whites use cheap labour from Blacks (and Whites, on occasion) to become obscenely rich. Regardless of whether the Whites are the owners of powerful corporations relying on cheaply-paid slave labour (like Walmart), or the owners and operators of prisons receiving government contracts to imprison young men for what most civilized countries would consider health issues, rather than criminal ones; or whether the Whites are the owners of companies who foul the air and the water and the land when their executives can afford air and water filters while the poor cannot–it would seem that the legacy of the cotton plantation system is not only alive, it is thriving.

But back to Sparta. We would do well to remember that Sparta, too, had a hereditary system of power. The Spartiates were the hereditary nobles and warriors. Helots were the remnants of the pre-Spartan populace who were enslaved in perpetuity. One of the “coming of age” rituals in Sparta involved the training of young Spartiates to kill helots at will in the secrecy of night. Of course, not too many helots were killed in this way: just enough to keep their numbers from becoming more than the Spartiates could handle while allowing the Spartiates to indulge their sadistic penchant for violence.

Sparta didn’t last. Because of its penchant for wars, the number of the Spartiates continually decreased to the point where Sparta was unable to field the armies it needed. In one of the more humorous ironies of history, the macho Sparta collapsed under the burden of its own corrupt, immoral policies: it was decisively defeated first in the Battle of Leuctra by enlightened Theban forces (which included a homosexual army unit known as the “Sacred Band”–it comprised couples whose partners were unusually willing to fight bravely for and with each other), then later by Macedonian forces, and finally by Roman forces under Lucius Mummius, who actually annexed Sparta itself.

The widening gap between the rich and poor in developed countries, including my native Canada, worries me, but it is especially bad in a country that calls itself “the indispensable nation” and that holds up its “American Dream” as an example for the world. The most recent edition of the American Dream can in some ways be seen as an interlude between the reforms of the New Deal and the beginning of Reaganism. It’s dead. But the cotton fields and their owners are very much alive. On that note, Happy New Year!

Autumn Colours 2014: Cell Phone Pics from a Vancouver Street

Autumn Colours 2014 in Vancouver, BC from cell phone camera 4

It’s been a long time since I posted any photographs here. Unfortunately, because I took these with my cell phone camera, the clarity and other features leave much to be desired. Still, hopefully you can get the sense of this very pretty Vancouver street.

Autumn Colours 2014 in Vancouver, BC from cell phone camera 5

Stately - Autumn Tree and Brick building in Vancouver, BC

The last picture, below, was taken by accident, but I thought it looked quite interesting:


Two Links, or Slowly Coming into the Twenty-First Century

On climate change, many on the political Right in the USA (and to a lesser extent here in Canada) don’t get it, but the Pentagon does. “Immanent security threat” no less. On the modern family, many on the theological Right don’t get it, but Pope Francis does. “Living in sin” now becomes “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation” and, in regards to gays, that they have “‘gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,’ and that some gay couples provide one another ‘mutual aid to the point of sacrifice’ and ‘precious support in the life of the partners.'” Pope Francis and others may say that he’s not changing the theological underpinnings of Catholic teaching on human sexuality and family life, but I very much disagree: the practical outcome of the new papal teaching is very much a new thing. Francis is being as revolutionary as he realistically can be. He just can’t admit it.

Lucy: A Critique

For whatever reason, I just watched the film Lucy, directed by Luc Besson. My most basic problem with Lucy is film’s underlying and oft-repeated premise: namely, that humans use only ten percent of their brains. This ten percent figure, unfortunately, is a myth. Not a single scientist today holds to such a belief, but Luc Besson takes it as gospel truth somehow. This is a great shame, and it ruins the movie even before it gets started.

Lucy tries to get nearly as gut-wrenching as The Butterfly Effect, but lacks that movie’s far stronger premise. (For the record, while I appreciated the philosophical nature of that movie, I found it so revolting that I would not watch it again.) Lucy pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but lacks 2001‘s ingenuity and insight. Lucy gives us a strong female character, like Besson’s Columbiana also did, but Lucy the character has even less compassion that the serial tag killer trying to avenge her dead parents did in that film. (For the record, with some reservations, I loved Columbiana.)

What Lucy did remind me of, above anything else, was actually Christopher Marlowe’s play Faustus. Marlowe’s Faustus, of course, has made a pact with the devil for unlimited power for a time. He begins by dreaming big, but in the end, after playing a bunch of silly tricks on various people, he departs the scene for the final judgment on his soul. With her brain supposedly so much better and more advanced than any other humans, Lucy’s first action after escaping her evil captors is to to shoot an innocent man merely because he cannot speak English. Later, all she can do when she is in a hurry is to resort to a ridiculous high speed car chase that causes numerous fatalities. At the height of her power, she fails to save dozens of good men from death at the hands of the dastardly Korean gangsters. Essentially, Lucy becomes God, and with that, the theological issue known as “the problem of evil” really began to bother me in a way it never did in the far more successful and intelligent 2001.

But back to that taxi driver who couldn’t speak English, and so was murdered for it. It turns out that that is something, unfortunately, shared with Columbiana and many other films and works of fiction: a kind of demonization and reduction of “the Other”–in this case, the East Asian Other. (I have seen Korean films in which Caucasian Americans are evil incarnate, so this phenomenon even in the twenty-first century really does work both ways, but I wish that it would stop.) Furthermore, unless a story-teller has empathy and wisdom, I basically think he or she should forego the authorial tradition in literature and film-making of placing characters in far-away places around the world in order to make use of the setting for one’s own ends. Besson places Lucy and her other expat friends in a Taiwan dominated by Korean gangsters just as Lost in Translation places its central characters in Tokyo. The danger of this is that the setting because an extension of “our” (supposedly Caucasian) prejudices, which then reinforce those same prejudices in those who may be watching. I disliked it when Albert Camus put his characters in his short story The Guest into an Algeria that never really felt like Algeria; Graham Greene put his own characters into Mexico in Across the Bridge rather more successfully, but still I didn’t really warm to the story. Some might say that Shakespeare put his characters into Italy successfully enough in Romeo and Juliet and other plays, and if the device was good enough for Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for Besson. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

What Shakespeare got so right about the human condition is what Besson forgot: the necessity and the wonder of empathy. Even Shakespeare’s evil villain in The Merchant of Venice–a villain who happens to be Jewish–gets his chance to ask us:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

If you’re an anti-Semite watching that play, the next line about wanting revenge comes as no surprise, but if you are using your brain fully you might start to ask yourself why Shylock wants his revenge so badly, and the answers are quite plain: he has been taken advantage of, scorned, and abused by Christians all his life. When a Christian steals his property and runs off with his daughter, of course he’s angry. An astute student of The Merchant of Venice realizes that without empathy, he or she is nothing more than a clanging cymbal, nothing more than a revenge-driven Shylock–or perhaps worse. When you realize that, and you recognized the Other that you have loathed as just as fully human and worthy of rights and dignity as yourself, that’s when you unlock the supposed secret of the human brain.

There is a movie that unlocks empathy as the secret of human potential, and it’s not the action-flick Lucy or the epic science fiction 2001–though it does allude to the latter: it’s the 1979 classic Being There. But I fear an audience addicted to car chases and exploding pistols may have little use for its subtle and deft use of humour, or its wry Taoist and Zen-like wisdom.

Addendum: I couldn’t quite work this in above, but Lucy–and I hate to use the moralistic phrase, but it’s true–needlessly glorifies violence and drugs. It almost reads as a Hollywood ode to its favourite pastime.

Addendum II: The Atlantic has a great and very harsh review on its site. The title: “Lucy: The Dumbest Movie Ever Made About Brain Capacity.” I concur.

Socratic Writings Journal: The Figure of Palamedes in Gorgias, Plato, and Xenophon

This is a postscript to my previous post on the two “Defenses” of Socrates–one published by Plato, the other by Xenophon. I thought it a curious thing that in both defenses, Socrates likens himself to Palamedes, a mythical figure from the Trojan War thought to have been wrongly accused by Odysseus of treason. In one major version of the story, Palamedes was executed.

Now it is interesting that some sources, Socrates is indicated as having been a pupil in rhetoric of Gorgias, who outlived him. Both men died old: Socrates at age 70 in 399 BCE, and Gorgias, who lived until his mid-nineties, in 380 BCE. Now Gorgias is famous partly for his Defense of Palamedes, which is a real tour de force and a remarkable work well worth reading.

I do not know the various scholarly estimates for the dates for Gorgias’ Defense of Palamedes in relation to Plato’s Defense of Socrates and Xenophon’s work of the same name, but I found it highly intriguing to consider the possibility that Gorgias was actually alluding to Socrates when he wrote his speech.

Since both Xenophon and Plato have Socrates mentioning the figure of Palamedes in his own speech, it seems to me very likely that the historical Socrates, perhaps thinking of a recent play about Palamedes by his friendly acquaintance Euripides, really did mention the figure of Palamedes at his trial. Some time later, Gorgias wrote his Defense of Palamedes both as a memorial to Socrates, and as a stirring defense of his own legacy as a teacher of rhetoric. Socrates died not just because of certain nefarious Athenians, Gorgias is implying, but rather, because he refused to use the tools of rhetoric that Gorgias had–according to some reports–taught him, and which in any case Gorgias was famous for teaching. Later, an embittered Plato wrote his Defense of Socrates in which–if James Coulter is to be believed–was an implicit rebuttal of Gorgias’ methods and ideas pertaining to rhetoric.

I posted my interpretation as a question to the Classics-L listserv earlier today. If I get any good responses, whether dismissive or accepting, I’ll post them in this space as updates.

“Socratic Writings” Journal: Xenophon’s and Plato’s Defenses of Socrates

Note: The Greek word Απολογια that is the basis of the English word “apology” denotes not a statement of regret, but rather an argued defense. The title of each book in English is often “Apology,” and I may refer sometimes to this word rather than the word “defense.”

Now that I’m finally done reading the pre-Socratics, it’s time for me to return to the central figure of Socrates himself. Socrates is, of course, far better attested than any of his contemporaries, thanks to the tireless efforts of Plato–about whom, it has been said, that western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes him.

Unfortunately, there is every indication that Plato’s Socrates is really a mouthpiece for Plato, rather than vice versa–and the same to some extent is true of Xenophon’s Socrates, too. In terms of establishing something approaching a “historicity” test, the earlier Socratic dialogues of Plato are held by mainstream scholarship to be more historical than his later dialogues. Xenophon is not held to be directly reliant on Plato, for the most part. This means that where Plato–especially his earlier works–and Xenophon agree, we can conclude that we are probably getting close to the “historical” Socrates–to the extent that Socrates is recoverable at all. (Similar problems exist with the historical Jesus and the gospels, of course, about which scholarship has conventionally held that a source–which may have been oral rather than written, and which is known as “Q,” was–along with the Gospel of Mark–used by the writers of both Matthew and Luke when writing their gospels. This is the dominant solution to the so-called “Synoptic Problem,” and it has much to recommend it.)

There were other sources for Socrates, but most of these exist only in fragments, nowadays–with one notable exception: Aristophanes, who lampoons Socrates in his play Clouds. The portrayal of Socrates there is largely satirical, as well as unfair, but there are some historical nuggets to be gleaned from it.

Xenophon’s Defense of Socrates, true to Spartan form–for Xenophon was exiled from Athens and lived the life of a country gentleman in Sparta–is shorter than the Athenian Plato’s work of the same name. Xenophon was probably fighting with the 10,000 when Socrates was executed, and so he gives us the name of his source, Hermogenes, and then covers the time leading up to the trial, the trial itself, and the reaction to the death sentence. Plato’s Defense of Socrates focuses exclusively on the trial itself, and Plato presents a much fuller defense speech than Xenophon does.

In a nutshell, Xenophon’s Socrates is convinced that he will die, and so there is no point making any real struggle against this. Xenophon makes this acceptance of the unavoidability of death into a kind of programmatic thesis statement, right at the beginning of his Defense, and proceeds to support it throughout the brief piece. In fact, Xenophon’s Socrates sees his death sentence as a blessing, since he will be spared the troubles and indignities of old age: deafness, blindness, weakness and senility. Xenophon’s Socrates says that “the divine” opposed him when he sought to make a good speech to persuade the Athenian jury of his innocence, or at least, his worthiness to escape serious punishment. Consequently, his actual speech in his own defense is very short, resigned to his own death–and, frankly, provocative.

Xenophon’s Socrates brings up what the Dephic oracle said of him, namely, that he was “the most free, upright, and prudent of all people”–but then Socrates says that this compliment is nothing compared to the Delphi’s words regarding Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta’s laws. To the Athenians recovering from the Peloponnesian War, this was a raw reminder of their sufferings, and to hear their enemy’s history extolled in this way must have goaded them.

Furthermore, Xenophon’s Socrates claims that he has a direct link to “the divine” in a way that other men do not; I was reminded, at this point, of Jesus’ claim that “I and the Father are one.” In both cases, the statement that an individual–whether Socrates or Jesus–had a privileged and unique access to the divine was the cause of their respective downfalls at the hands of their critics.

To conclude this discussion of Xenophon’s Socrates in that writer’s Defense, I would like to point out that Socrates rebuffs the charges against him: namely, that he did not recognized the gods of the city or corrupt the young. Socrates says that he often could be seen at the sacrifices to the Olympian gods, and he also says that no one can say that any young people became drunkards, lazy, or womanizers because of him–and he was an acknowledged ascetic (as even the seemingly-hostile Aristophanes grants).

Socrates does, however, admit to having a kind of private access to “the divine,” which was the root of the charge that he brought in strange new deities to the city. Furthermore, he admitted to persuading young people of the city to listen to himself, rather than to their parents, since he was (as he described it) a leading expert on education. These were the two grounds for his conviction and subsequent death penalty.

In contradistinction to Xenophon’s plain and peaceable, if self-assured picture of Socrates is the character drawn by Plato in his on Defense of Socrates. This Socrates is far wittier than Xenophon’s Socrates, and has rather more to say of an actual philosophical nature. This Socrates says nothing about the avoidance of old age as a reason to die now. Rather than giving up with a very brief speech, full of resignation and provocation, he goes all out with a full-throated defense of his methods, though without the slightest hint of (in the English meaning) an apology for them.

Two of the charges in Plato are the same as those in Xenophon: namely, that Socrates introduced strange new gods to the city, and that he corrupted the youth of the city. But Plato has another charge brought against Socrates by Meletus, the private citizen who took it upon himself to prosecute Socrates in the Assembly: that of outright atheism.

First, though, the corruption of youth. Plato’s Socrates here says pretty much what Xenophon’s Socrates does: namely, that he is an expert on education, and as a specialist in this area, he ought to be trusted like specialists in other areas, e.g. wagon-building or ship-building.

Socrates refutes the more interesting charge of atheism (made, not only here in a legal way by Meletus, but also more creatively by Aristophanes in Clouds) by saying that he believes in divine things, which “everyone knows” are the “sons and daughters” of the main deities, so that if Socrates believes in divine entities, then he necessarily believes in gods, just as much as men who acknowledge the existence of mules must believe in horses and donkeys. Socrates then shows how this charge contradicts the other, namely, that he has brought in new gods. Curiously, Socrates does not come right out and say “I believe in Zeus, Hera, and the like, as they are described in Homer.” He only says the equivalent of “What? You mean that I don’t believe in the sun and moon as gods like everybody else?”

In regards to this last point about bringing in strange new deities to the city, Socrates elaborates:

Someone may wonder why I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you the reason of this. You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything

This is a direct parallel to what Xenophon’s Socrates says when he speaks of “the divine” that stopped him from working on his defense speech–except that Socrates doesn’t say that this “divinity,” or “sign” stopped him this time.

Now it is possible to read this not as being about a privileged access to the world of the divine, but rather as a general statement about conscience. In that case, it looks like Socrates’ statement about believing in things “divine” is really a kind of subterfuge, a kind of spirituality without religion as it were.

But the idea that individuals could have individual consciences was apparently considered very dangerous in the context of the polis that was Athens. Athens had in the last century fought off the gigantic Persian empire twice, succumbed to Sparta in a long and violent war, and suffered the installation of an oligarchic junta that was loyal to Sparta and disastrous for Athens. After having finally ousted the junta (known as “the Thirty”) and returning to full democracy, Athens needed unity. But Socrates brought a kind of unwanted individualism–and the simple fact was that so many of the members of Socrates’ circle were either dangerous demagogues or members of the Spartan-controlled oligarchy (especially, respectively, the powerful Alcibiades, who was the prime suspect in a series of blasphemous attacks on the cult of the Elysian Mysteries, and Critias, the murderous leader of the Thirty, who had once written a play that shocked with the accusation that religion was a mere tool to keep people from disobeying law). Even Plato himself was a relative of Critias.

Thus Socrates dispenses with the charges against him. The real reason he has been arraigned on a capital charge, he asserts, is because the Delphic Oracle had declared him the “wisest” of men. And this is a notable difference from Xenophon’s version. But Plato’s Socrates knows that he doesn’t know much, and so he goes around asking people who are esteemed wise various questions that are designed to trip them up and make them realize that they are not actually so wise after all. Plato’s Socrates, then, is wisest of all only because he knows he is not wise. Socrates asserts something that most likely got him in trouble here: namely, that this was his special mission from “god”–his personal divine, as it were. He likens his “divinely-sanctioned” activities in Athens to those of a gadfly sent to sting into action a lazy and slow horse.

Socrates describes himself in terms very reminiscent of the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. (Not “foretelling,” as so many people think of prophecy, but “forth-telling,” which is the far more accurate characterization.) Think Isaiah going head-to-head and “speaking truth to power” to King Ahaz, or Jeremiah rhetorically skewering King Jehoiakim or King Zedekiah for their wickedness. Socrates himself uses the term “prophesy” here quite explicitly, and thus claims the mantle of a religious prophet. It seems a desperate stroke, sure to annoy everyone present. And thus, I think that the editor of the Penguin Xenophon edition I am using (Xenophon: Conversations of Socrates, edited by Robin Waterfield) claims correctly that Socrates was, in fact, guilty as charged under proceedings that gave him due process.

So much for the charges and Socrates’ attempts at rebuttals. Ancient Athenian custom allowed a convicted defendant to propose an alternative penalty. Plato’s Socrates, facing the death penalty, argues that what he really deserves is to be fed and housed at public expense in the Prytaneium with the heroes of the day, the winners of the races and other contests. But then Socrates says that a fine will do, and mentions a sum of thirty minae that his friends have promised to allow him to use. This seems like a partial hedging of his bets, and it is a quite different picture than what we get in Xenophon, where Socrates refuses to propose anything realistic at all. (Funny that bit about the thirty minae: it parallels in number the thirty pieces of silver promised and delivered to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus in the New Testament.) But Socrates still refuses the possibility of exile, and furthermore says that he will continue his personal mission of being a stinging gadfly to Athens. As his conviction and then death sentence are spoken, Sophocles–and this is surely Plato here–promises that his work will continue, and that the next wave of stinging flies will be far severer than he was.

Plato’s Socrates then leaves the trial with these words, on the subject of death:

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: – either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain . . . . Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain*; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.

*I think the translation here was likely influenced by the English rendering of Philippians 1:21: “to die is gain.” I wonder slightly if Paul (or whoever wrote Philippians) were consciously echoing Socrates.

On a personal note, what a lovely line!–“eternity is only a single night.”

Plato’s Socrates is then, a very different creature from Xenophon’s. Where in Xenophon, Socrates is simply a virtuous and helpful man, in Plato, he is a prophet, a kind of Cassandra from Troy, someone who loves humankind and is rejected by it–though only on the narrowest of margins, for had thirty out of five hundred people changed their votes, he would have lived. Plato’s Socrates is a preacher of the doctrine of humility who argues that it is vitally important that we do not have puffed-up opinions of ourselves–we must not, he says, think we are something when we are nothing. Similarly, we must learn to think for ourselves, rather than simply accept what we are taught. For these germs of modernity and decency, Socrates was executed.

“Final” Thoughts on the Pre-Socratic Philosophers

I just finished reading the last of the pre-Socratic philosophers: Leucippus and Democritus. They are noteworthy for being the first to put forward a theory of atomism, but I found Democritus more interesting for his aphorisms.

So that’s it, then, and Socrates will be next–though I’ll probably start with Xenophon rather than Plato, whom I’ve had some exposure to in the past. So what of the pre-Socratic philosophers?

First, a lot of what passed for “philosophy”–especially “natural philosophy”–was actually rudimentary science, or at least, attempts to answer questions that we now know to be answerable by science. Is the world round? How big is the sun and what is it made of? What makes the moon shine at night? How many planets are there? What is the relationship between our senses and what we (think we) sense? These are questions for astronomy, physics, chemistry, and even psychology; they are no longer questions for philosophy. In that regard, I can’t help feeling that the development of philosophy actually parallels that of religion. That is to say, just as there is a “God of the gaps,” so, too, there is a “philosophy of the gaps.” There is just so much less for philosophy to do nowadays thanks to the advances of science.

The pre-Socratic philosophers’ predilection for trying to get at what they thought must be the physical foundational element of the universe comes across as partly silly, partly ingenious, whether that element be water, fire, air, “the limitless,” or an opposition of Love and Strife, all solutions propounded by these intriguing men. But the questions themselves, and the manner in which the pre-Socratics chose to answer them, indicate a profound sense that the universe is intelligible and that humankind is intelligent enough to puzzle the problems out, without any recourse whatsoever to magic, on the one hand, or the gods of organized religion, on the other. Thus, Iris becomes merely the reflection of the sun in the clouds, and the clouds themselves become mere condensation rather than semen from a sky-god (as in, for instance, ancient Levantine religion). The pre-Socratics were heroes for trying to see the world in a rational way that precluded both superstition and religion.

Oddly enough, another strand of ancient Greek thought led in a very different direction, and I refer, of course, to Tragedy. In the world in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother (as in the myths and in Aeschylus), in a world in which a temporary and divinely-sent madness takes hold of Hercules (as in Euripides), causing him to kill his wife and children before becoming his normal self–in such a world, there is very little that can be reasonably deduced by the senses of limited, fragile humans. Perhaps that is why certain pre-Socratic philosophers, such as Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno, came ultimately to distrust the world of sense-perception completely. It is this line, rather than that of the more rational philosophers going through Socrates and Plato, that ultimately leads to the likes of Albert Camus and the philosophical tendency known as Absurdism.

I believe in the Absurd, which is to say, everything I can perceive and logically deduce about the universe tells me that there is no intelligent and benevolent being with an ultimately happy purpose for the universe. What I do see is pain, blindness, and selfish competition. Bugs eat bugs, birds eat bugs, and people eat birds (and tragically, sometimes, even each other). I can conceive of a far more moral universe than what I get to live in, which is a world of violent crime, devastating theft, slander, poverty, and slavery. Good people are victimized, and the evil can prosper. In an advanced democracy, such as the one I live in, many of these problems can be mitigated; we are, after all, under the rule of law, with freedom to choose our government–both concepts wrestled with very early by the ancient Greeks. But there are still elements of the absurd. Life does not make sense as a narrative, at least the kind we’d like to have. Unforeseen tragedies happen. Happy endings happen more often in fiction than in real life.

The problems the pre-Socratics experienced in their own lives are still with us, collectively–as a planetary collection of civilizations–and personally, in our day-to-day experiences. Perhaps one logical outcome of this is what is known in philosophy as “coping.” The only problem is, in the face of day-to-day adversity–and today I received a particularly distressing bit of news–it can often be very hard to cope. Here philosophy meets psychology, as life is too often for me a daily choice between self-induced oblivion and–coping.


With the notable exception of Xenophanes, I enjoyed the pre-Socratics much less than the Sophists. For me, all the excitement is with the Sophists–with their modes of rhetoric, yes, but even more with their ideas, their liveliness, their sense of debate. Gorgias, in particular, is my hero, with his defense not only of Helen of Troy, but also of Palamedes. He could have composed speeches to show that someone was guilty who wasn’t (and there was an answer to his defense of Palamedes in the body of works composed to a student–and that text puts the blame back on Palamedes), but he didn’t. Based on the little I learned about Gorgias, I believe that he had a social conscience and that he cared very much for social causes, and especially, for underdogs–very much like Euripides, must be said. Meanwhile, so much of what passes for “philosophy” with the so-called natural philosophers is really bad science, as mentioned above. Humankind is much more central to the Sophists, which is probably one reason why Socrates got lumped in with that crowd. But it wasn’t such a bad crowd at all, and I think the Sophists’ negative reputation in some quarters entirely undeserved.