2.08.2010

Apology and Crito by Plato

So, you may have seen my beloved wife the other day link to a list of books we got at the library sale, including a big box of old boring books from Encyclopedia Brittanica I picked up. I will not talk much about the series itself (though I could) here, but just wanted to say real quick AMANDA DOESN'T WANT TO READ ANY OF THEM AND THEY HAVE BIG MARGINS AND BEAUTIFUL PAPER SO I CAN WRITE ALL OVER THEM AND THAT TOTALLY KICKS TEH BUTT HURRAH! Okay. That's out of my system.

So, quick fact: I have never sat down and read any primary source in philosophy, ever. Not ever. This is what happens when you flunk out of college and go back for computers - you never read these things. I picked up bits, pieces, here and there, sure. But I've never actually READ a philosophy work, ever. So this is my first. So, if I talk loud and silly, plese just understand that I'm ignorant and doing my best.

Apology is actually Plato's transcription of the defense that his mentor, Socrates, made for himself before the Athenian court, where he was accused of corrupting the youth of the city. If there is a spoiler in this, here it is:



He loses. And they sentence him to death by being forced to drink hemlock.



Crito is a meeting in the prison between Socrates and his friend, Crito, who has come to say he has gathered up resources to bribe the guards so that Socrates can escape. The two discuss whether that is the best moral decision.

This sounds surreal and unrealistic, I know, two guys sitting going 'so, Socrates, do you think you ought to stay in prison or die, or leave prison, and not die? Just askin'...' But it isn't. It's actually, weirdly, human, so much so that I'm either impressed with Socrates writing skills or convinced that the transcripts are, at least in part, taken from life. There's also something immediate and powerful about reading philosophy that ISN'T just people abstractly discussing what they ought to do. The guy is living with real, palpable, extreme consequences of his convictions, and explaining why he won't abandon them anyway.

It's also creepily prescient of today. When Socrates talks about his accusers, and then about politicians, he says:

How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was -- so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth. But of the many falsehoods told by them, there was one which quite amazed me; -- I mean when they said that you should be upon your guard and not allow yourselves to be deceived by the force of my eloquence [when I'm obviously not eloquent]... unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for if such is their meaning, I admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!

Socrates is an interesting man to read, because one can imagine him as any number of men - arrogant or humble, pompous or self-deprecatory, playful and strident, detatched and intimate. The reason for this, is that he's none of these things: he simply always speaks the truth. When Socrates says he is wiser than the people he meets, it is, genuinely, because he met them, spoke to them,and saw their foolishness. There's no other agenda behind it, he's not trying to impress his listener, or demean the fool, he's simply stating a fact: I got a reputation for being wise, because the people I could find who said they were wise were fools and liars.

This is particularly interesting to me, because this way of living is so reminiscent of some of the powerfully intelligent left-brained people that I love in the technical industry today. I know, boring, feel free to skip this paragraph. But, the people who made the internet and technology what it is today were, in their roots, hippie philosophers (as was Socrates). Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Wall, Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, the very culture of the technorati, in it's seminal, and still central, form, is very much the reasoning idealist, who believes that if humans would analyze themselves enough, they'd learn to be happy and make the people around them happy. They call a spade a spade, because there's no benefit in telling it that it's a pitchfork, no matter how much it might wish to be one. Reading the interchanges between these people, they are acerbic, playful, arrogant and humble in turns. This is why it's so easy for the media to paint disagreements as great battles, to paint leaders as jerks. IT both is and is not that simple.

The real strength, after all, of Socrates is not in his answers, but in his questions. He has certain basic principles ("I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonourable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil." or "For wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger;") and they are powerful principles, but this isn't the Bible, and Socrates' goal is not to lay down laws - his laws come from his secret voice, an internal compass that tells him when he is doing evil. It is his own work in the world then to analyze these laws, to understand them, and then to make good choices from them.

It is the reader's work to look at the questions he's asking, and ask them to him or herself, to look at his premises and ask if they are sound, and if they aren't, to say what is sound - to have a dialogue with Socrates, though Socrates is dead and gone. Reading Socrates logic about whether we avoid humans who do evil led me into a long reverie about why I both agree and disagree with him, and why this speaks to, for me, the impossibility of an entirely benevolent god - not probably an interesting discussion here, but the sort of question I need to ask myself sometimes, the sort of thinking that I need to do.

As a teacher, Socrates is beautiful and almost perfect. As an ethicist, as a book to live by, this endless belief in reason and absolute law that makes him such a good teacher leaves him somewhat short to me. PErhaps perfect reason can be perfectly moral, but this is the same problem that the Utilitarians run into in my book - the assumption is that we are capable of making those decisions. I don't think it's possible for us to know sufficient information to make a fully informed decision on anything, ever. So decisions are endless combinations of reason and emotion, of knowledge and intuition, simply because we are not capable of a perfection of either faculty. And in some sense, even, I wonder if Socrates was right to die. I believe for him he WAS right, but I don't believe he HAD to be right, if that makes sense. But that's the paradox that Socrates life is in my mind - how can a thing be right (or wrong) if we cannot know perfectly what it's consequences will be? If Socrates had been killed and then forgotten (which could have happened simply by luck - it happened to so many of the great thinkers of the ancient world) then would his standing for his principles have been the most good he could have done for the world? We simply cannot know - it is impossible to know. To study knowledge in a world where the most basic knowledge is impossible to pin down is both terrifying and exciting - just like to study To the Ligthhouse is an exhilerating and terrifying view of the unknowable depths of human emotion and attachment. Socrates is a beautiful man to read and learn from - as long as we don't begin to feel compelled to agree wtih them. And given the choice between a Book of the Answer and a Book of the Question, perhaps a Book of the Question is better...

6 comments:

Rebecca Reid said...

So interesting! I have not read Plato but it sounds like I should. I'm glad to hear that for you it was delightful to read. (I don't think you used that word, but that is how it sounds.)

Amanda said...

I had no idea you'd never read any primary source materials. For some reason I'd gotten the impression that you'd read many of them. I loved Plato. He's one of the only very old classics that I actually enjoyed.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Reid - these two were a really gentle way to get started - it helps to have a plot, for me. :D It was, indeed, delightful.

Amanda - See, you consistently forget that you're actually much smarter than me...

Valerie said...

I know virtually nothing about philosophy! I wonder what book(s) would be a good intro to basic concepts? I think it would be too much for me to try to go to the original sources first.

Trapunto said...

It's great to talk loud and silly about Socrates! He would have liked it.

That's an interesting parallel. I know (a little) more about Socrates than I do about the technorati, but it fits somehow. No accident that the Greeks were the source of Western science.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Valerie - I'm the WRONG person to ask! But, honestly, this is a really easy read - I'm not sure it'd be easy to write a 'primer' on it - again, the points he makes are sort of beside the point - it's the questions.

Ms Trapunto - Same strengths - and same weaknesses. Steve Jobs is a case in point :).