Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Year That Changed the World

Michael Meyer's The Year That Changed the World:  The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (2009) goes beyond Berlin to look at regime changes throughout eastern Europe during the year 1989.   As a Newsweek

He reports on the famous demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, where the throngs in the street changed from the acceptable chant "Wir sind das Volk!" to "Wir sind ein Volk!"  Meyer translates these slogans as "We are the people!" and "We are one people!"  Though Meyer does not stress the fact, the German demonstrators by proclaiming themselves ein Volk were making an ethnic affirmation.  By the shift of a grammatical article, they overthrew the Marxist worldview.

Furthermore, it is interesting to consider that in German, in addition to das Volk, there is der Poebel, which Cassell's German-English dictionary translates as "mob, populace, rabble."  In English, we have been sold on using the term "the people," almost to the exclusion of "the folk."   Indeed, folk survives, seemingly, only in folk culture or folk music, two areas which the political left has appropriated for its own purposes.  

In John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), the Jewish leftist liberationist Myrna Minkoff goes to the Library of Congress, transcribes the lyrics to folk songs which are deposited there in the archives, and then proceeds to tour the country, singing those songs to working people.  Far from being of working class origins herself, she gets it precisely backwards.  Toole's Myrna Minkoff, of course, is a not too distorted caricature of the kind of New Leftists who swarmed over the university campuses during the 1960s and 1970s.

Meyer suggests that the regime change in Rumania was really only a coup d'etat.  The personality cult which was built up around the Rumanian dictator Ceausescu was, of course, nothing new to Marxist regimes.   What one must wonder about is why it occurs at all in regimes which deny the influence of the individual as a force in history.  A similar paradox exists in the ostensibly Marxist country of North Korea where the ruler inherited his position from his father and has designated his son as his successor.

Meyer's views of the regime change in Poland are unremarkable, but most compelling is his thesis that the liberation of eastern Europe began with reformers in the leadership of Hungary.  Regarding the first Hungarian revolt, I particularly recommend David Irving's Uprising!  One Nation's Nightmare: Hungary 1956 (1981).


Pascal's Thoughts on Religion

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  June 24, 2007  ]
Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton had more in common than being famous mathematicians and physicists who were active during the 17th century.  Both turned to the study of religion, drifting away from science, Pascal having a decisive mystical experience in 1654.  Newton gradually gave more attention to religious studies, being particularly interested in Old Testament prophecies.  Only recently have Newton's private papers been released to the public.  A few weeks ago,  one was released which predicts the end of the world in 2060.  Pascal's interest in prophecy was rather less newsworthy.  He was most deeply involved in formulating a Christian apologetics which would answer the skeptics who were rising in influence even during his lifetime.
Dover Publications recently reprinted the W. F. Trotter translation of Pascal's Pensees, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot.  The Trotter translation, without Eliot's remarks, is also available in the "Harvard Classics," most readily accessible online by going to  Although inflation has had an effect on Dover's prices, I could not resist the impulse to buy a copy, which meant that -- adhering to my (sometimes violated) principle of reading any book which I buy -- I once again, after 45 years,  read Pascal's thoughts on religion. 

These thoughts, published posthumously in 1670, are a series of aphorisms.  Numbers referred to in the following refer to the numbered sections in the Trotter translation.
Aphorism #233 is central to the Pensees.  This presents Pascal's famous wager.   According to the wager, the best bet is to believe in God.  If one believes in a God who does not exist, one loses nothing.  If, however, one chooses not to believe in God, and God does exist, then one loses everything.   
The wager is central to Pascal's argument for the existence of God, but the body of Pascal's Christian apologetics arises from his examination of the prophecies and the miracles.  The importance of fulfilled prophecies, by which Pascal refers to the prophecies in the Old Testament, is outlined in #692 and detailed in the following chapter.  Unlike Newton, Pascal makes no attempt to calculate dates.  Indeed, he does not look to the future at all.  He is totally amillennial, again unlike Newton.   He notes that Mohammad called himself a prophet, but that he offered no prophecies which came to pass.
Mohammad also offered no miracles.  Christ did.   His miracles are the subject of a chapter following the chapter on the prophecies.
Of all of Pascal's comments on the prophecies, I find most moving #735, on the book of Zechariah.
"The Jews, who have been called to subdue nations and kings, have been the slaves of sin; and the Christians, whose calling has been to be servants and subjects, are free children" (#670).   Indeed, the Christians, today, who have been left in the world, a world of which the Devil is the regent, are like lost children,  a prey to those who subdue nations and kings.  
Pascal sees the danger to the faith in those classicists who honor the valor of the ancient Greeks.  Only the valor of the Christian martyrs should move Christians, he notes in #481.   This is an exclusivity quite contrary to to the trans-ecumenical spirit that seems to prevail today.
In #205-206, Pascal dwells on the terror inspired in him by the prospect of infinite, empty space.  This is the aspect of Pascal in which 20th century commentators see a foreshadowing of existentialism.  Again in #72, he refers to the devastating impact of our sense of infinity.  Man is a wretched. lost being  without God.  Regarding reality, "It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere."  (Jorge Luis Borges, in a fascinating essay known in English as "Pascal's Sphere," wrote his observations on this thought, but to dwell upon it here would be to digress too much.)
Pascal quite obviously loathes those thinkers who promote skepticism.  He, accordingly, lambasts Montaigne (#18, #63-65) and even Descartes:  "I cannot forgive Descartes.  In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God.  But he had to make him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God" (#77).  In his lengthy attack on skeptics in general (#194), there is an implicit suggestion that such skeptics are not uncommon and are unusually obdurate in their skepticism.  What makes this observation interesting is that Pascal is writing in the middle of the 17th century.  Perhaps the age of skepticism began sooner than is commonly believed.  



Why I Ignored the RSVP of the TEA Party

  [ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  Jun 17, 2009 ]
Like millions of other people on the edge of the conservative movement, I received an invitation to the local TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party.  The following excerpts taken from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of June 16, 2009, tell why I declined to attend:
" [Tom] Cox, 45, told a crowd of 600 at Little Rock's second Arkansas Tea Party rally that he intends to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., by seeking the Republican nomination."
So far, so good, but further on in the article we are told that "Cox discussed his goals of cutting payroll, small-business and capital-gains taxes."  Note his emphasis on the taxes that businessmen pay.  This is not surprising because "Cox owns Aloha Pontoon Boats and Waco Manufacturing, Inc."
Yet further along in the article, this item leaps out:  " In July, Cox's Waco Manufacturing plant  at 3700 Crutcher St. in North Little Rock was raided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.  Thirteen employees, mostly from Guatemala and Mexico, were arrested and charged with using fraudulent identification documents to get jobs.  At the time, Cox said he didn't know the employees were illegal aliens, and he was not prosecuted. "
Mr. Cox, who is identified as the leader of the Arkansas TEA Party, is all too typical of the kind of conservatives who control the GOP.   For them, conservatism is limited to conserving an economic system.  They are even willing to expedite the ongoing destruction of whatever ethnocultural  identity remains of the historic USA.  What Sarah Palin called "the real America" is a matter of indifference to them as long as their businesses are not threatened.  In their eyes, illegal alien workers are preferable to workers from Palin's "real America."

Anyone who is interested in finding out what a true conservatism is should read the anthology of the writings of the late Samuel T. Francis entitled Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1993).





Friday, July 20, 2012

Rousseau's Legislator

[ Originally written on May 27, 2007 ]
After reading again Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), it seemed to make sense to read again his great foe, Jean Jacques Rousseau, specifically Rousseau's The Social Contract (1762).  It has been more than 40 years since I first read Rousseau's work.  Out of the many paragraphs in that work which are worthy of comment, the following (taken from G.D.H. Dole's translation) particularly attracted my attention: 
" Wise men, if they try to speak their language to the common herd instead of its own, cannot possibly make themselves understood. There are a thousand kinds of ideas which it is impossible to translate into popular language. Conceptions that are too general and objects that are too remote are equally out of its range: each individual, having no taste for any other plan of government than that which suits his particular interest, finds it difficult to realise the advantages he might hope to draw from the continual privations good laws impose. For a young people to be able to relish sound principles of political theory and follow the fundamental rules of statecraft, the effect would have to become the cause; the social spirit, which should be created by these institutions, would have to preside over their very foundation; and men would have to be before law what they should become by means of law. The legislator therefore, being unable to appeal to either force or reason, must have recourse to an authority of a different order, capable of constraining without violence and persuading without convincing.
" This is what has, in all ages, compelled the fathers of nations to have recourse to divine intervention and credit the gods with their own wisdom, in order that the peoples, submitting to the laws of the State as to those of nature, and recognising the same power in the formation of the city as in that of man, might obey freely, and bear with docility the yoke of the public happiness.
" This sublime reason, far above the range of the common herd, is that whose decisions the legislator puts into the mouth of the immortals, in order to constrain by divine authority those whom human prudence could not move.
" But it is not anybody who can make the gods speak, or get himself believed when he proclaims himself their interpreter. The great soul of the legislator is the only miracle that can prove his mission. Any man may grave tablets of stone, or buy an oracle, or feign secret intercourse with some divinity, or train a bird to whisper in his ear, or find other vulgar ways of imposing on the people. He whose knowledge goes no further may perhaps gather round him a band of fools; but he will never found an empire, and his extravagances will quickly perish with him. Idle tricks form a passing tie; only wisdom can make it lasting. The Judaic law, which still subsists, and that of the child of Ishmael, which, for ten centuries, has ruled half the world, still proclaim the great men who laid them down; and, while the pride of philosophy or the blind spirit of faction sees in them no more than lucky impostures, the true political theorist admires, in the institutions they set up, the great and powerful genius which presides over things made to endure. "
What is intriguing about this passage is Rousseau's deprecating judgement of "the common herd."  Here he sounds, resonates, almost like Nietzsche, though, as an egalitarian, it is always supposed that Rousseau is the antipodes to Nietzsche.  One must suspect that Rousseau cannot be an egalitarian in any comprehensive sense. Still more questionable seems to be any idea that he sees unalloyed good in natural man; i.e., man before he encounters a lawgiver.  If Rousseau was not truly a believer in egalitarianism in the widest sense and not a believer in the inherent goodness of man, then he was obviously something other than his popular image,  the image lauded by his followers and execrated by his opponents (such as Irving Babbitt).
More intriguing still is Rousseau's concept of the legislator, the primal lawgiver,  who is obviously someone like Lycurgus or Moses or Muhammad, not an elective official serving in a parliament.  There is also the suggestion that the legislator, the primal lawgiver, begins with a conscious deception, an imposture, albeit a successful one.  There is something Machiavellian in this, Nietzschean even.  Rousseau's lawgiver is a figure of or approaching the magnitude of Carlyle's Hero if not Nietzsche's Uebermensch.  Perhaps Rousseau in his works is not always and everywhere the Rousseau of the popular image.  As Marx said, late in life, speaking of those among his followers who made use of his method in a hasty and slipshod manner, "I am not a Marxist."  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Two Smallest Books

[ Originally written on  Apr 28, 2007 ]

The two smallest books in my, admittedly, modest home library of approximately 1,000 volumes are only 14 and 16 centimeters in height.  (Measuring books is one way that cataloguers in libraries describe them.)   Now and again, I will take one or both of these small books with me when I travel.   The smallest book is a copy of the New Testament, the next smallest an anthology of writings about Socrates.
The anthology, published by Barnes & Noble in their Essential Thinkers series, contains those writings by Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon which concern Socrates.  Neither Jesus of Nazareth nor Socrates wrote anything, at least nothing that has survived.  Both of them, however, so impressed their disciples that they left to posterity their most famous teachings.  Aristophanes, however, became more of an adversary of Socrates than a disciple.  His account of Socrates in his comedy "The Clouds" is a hostile caricature.  There are numerous, extra-canonical books about Jesus, the contents of which many would dismiss as similarly inaccurate if not hostile.
Both Jesus and Socrates had powerful adversaries in their communities, enemies who plotted against them and who brought about their humiliation and execution.  Socrates, of course, was given the alternative of drinking poison hemlock or being executed and chose self-destruction.  Jesus certainly knew his fate and did not turn away from it.  Socrates was given an offer of escape by his disciples, but he refused what to him would have been a dishonorable option.  Jesus could have had himself delivered by legions of angels, but chose not to call upon them for rescue.   When one of Jesus's disciples drew his sword and cut off a solder's ear, Jesus forbade further violence and miraculously healed the soldier.  Both Socrates and Jesus quietly accepted what later generations have seen as great acts of injustice.

In today's increasingly secular world, those who honor Socrates most often do not honor Jesus and vice versa.  Thomas Jefferson was a rare person in giving equal honor to both.  Socrates is a hero to the American Humanist Association, but he is never even mentioned in the churches.  Needless to say, the Humanists have little to say about Jesus that is positive.  Humanists, at most, will praise Jesus as a type of early social reformer, a reading of his life that is a great distortion.  (On this point, see Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which convincingly refutes the thesis that Jesus preached a "social gospel.")   Socrates, moreover, was not quite the rationalist that persons such as Voltaire made him out to be.  He was as much a spiritual, otherworldly teacher as was Jesus.  

Jesus's greatest teaching was of our need to separate the sinner from his sin.  That means giving up all ideas of revenge.  We cannot achieve revenge for the same reason that we cannot step into the same river twice.  Situations constantly change.  Forgiveness must begin somewhere. Without it, the whole world will go up in flames.
Socrates' greatest teaching was the principle of evaluating a man's ideas apart from our evaluation of the man.  If Politician X says that global warming is a reality, we are not (logically) excused from considering his thesis on its own merits apart from the fact that we may oppose Politician X.  Just because Hitler said something, that does not make it untrue.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

A New Translation of Nietzsche's Zarathustra

[ Originally written on    Mar 24, 2007]
It was a pleasant surprise, upon recently visiting the local Barnes & Noble store, to discover, alongside the stacks of "Barnes & Noble Classics" by such expected authors as Herman Melville, J. M. Barrie, Jane Austen, and others, a new edition and translation of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra.   This welcome addition to the "Barnes & Noble Classics" series is introduced by Kathleen Higgins and Robert Solomon, both of whom are professors of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and is translated by Clancy Martin.   (Although Martin obviously did most of the heavy work in producing this edition, there is no data regarding him on the cover or elsewhere.)   The notes to Zarathustra, contributed by all three, run to a scant 13 pages.  But, then, whenever have we seen an adequately annotated edition of this complex work?
The introduction by Higgins and Solomon is worth careful reading because they, judging by the quantity of their bibliographic output, are the leaders in Nietzsche studies in the U.S.A.  They believe that the concept of the Uebermensch does not have the significance in Nietzsche's work that other scholars have attributed to it.  The concept of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche's answer to the problem of nihilism, is, they believe, much more important.   Eternal recurrence forces humans to affirm and value life in itself, whatever it may be.  As an answer to nihilism it has long seemed to me to be as mystical as Albert Schweitzer's guiding principle of reverence for life.   If the individual's life recurs precisely in every detail again and again an infinite number of times throughout eternity, what is the meaning of that for humans who can know only this existence?  (Eternal recurrence has always seemed to me to be something comparable in its impact to the doctrine of reincarnation, according to which I have been another person in another existence only I will never know who that other person was.)
Clancy Martin contributes a note on his translation.  He wisely decides to render Uebermensch as Uebermensch, all other translations having promoted one or another misunderstanding of the concept.  Martin cites the translation by Thomas Common, the earliest, appearing in 1892, and the translation by Walter Kaufmann as models for his work.  He believes that Kaufmann yielded to the temptation to be an editor of Nietzsche as well as a translator, primarily because he was particularly concerned, working around 1950, to put distance between the image of Nietzsche and the Nazis.  Kaufmann introduces terms into his translation that cannot be justified, Martin believes.   (Clancy Martin confirms what I had always suspected about the Kaufmann translations.)
Nietzsche could not be completely useful to the Nazis, especially without the skillful editing inflicted upon his works by his sister,  because, I believe, save for the area of religion, he was too conservative for them.  In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche clearly rejects the anti-Semitic movement, then arising in Germany, for the same reason that he rejects socialism and anarchism.  The anti-Semites, he argues, express envy and resentment, the driving forces behind "slave morality," while their followings are drawn from the rabble, the lower classes.  Nietzsche rightly recognizes the anti-Semitism of his age as a socialist movement.   (When I read Nietzsche's denunciation of the anti-Semites, I think of a not altogether unparallel situation in the U.S.A. in which upper class whites rejected phenomena such as the George Wallace candidacy and the Ku Klux Klan because they saw in such movements a menacing uprising on the part of the lower class of whites.) 
In other words, Nietzsche rejected anti-Semitism because of who the anti-Semites were.  His attitude toward the Jews themselves seemed to be often ambivalent.  This conclusion is sustained by the mass of material assembled by Siegfried Mandel in his book Nietzsche & the Jews: Exaltation and Denigration (1998).   Especially after his collapse in 1889, which began his ascent to international fame, many of the anti-Semites, socialists, and anarchists attempted to claim Nietzsche as one of their own.  In our own century, on the left, Herbert Marcuse attempted to claim Nietzsche for the left,  but the Stalinist Georg Lukacs, another figure who had much prominence in American academic circles,  insisted that Nietzsche was the ideological forerunner of fascism.  Down to this day, there are those on the left who would claim Nietzsche.  After all, perhaps they reason, he could never have been a member of the Christian Right.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Darwin on the Cattle of the Falkland Islands

[ Originally posted on July 20, 2009 ]

The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the births of three great men:  Edgar Allan Poe,  Charles Darwin,  Abraham Lincoln.   Notice has already been taken of Poe and also of Darwin, if only indirectly, but his three major works are definitely worth reading again.  A hundred years ago when Charles Eliot compiled the set of 54 volumes that came to be known as the "Harvard Classics," Darwin's significance was recognized by including in the set  two of his works, The Origin of Species (1859) and The Voyage of the Beagle (1838).  Only his much-longer work, The Descent of Man (1871), was left out, probably because of its length.  Of the three works, The Descent of Man is most worthy of a second reading, although one might not want to read through again all of the examples of sexual selection, a portion of the work which comprises more than half of it.

The Descent of Man is the most controversial of Darwin's works, for obvious reasons.  Even in The Voyage of the Beagle, however, controversy is not absent.  Consider, for example, Darwin's observations on the cattle of the Falkland Islands.  The cattle, like the horses, were imported into the Falklands.  While the horses grew smaller in size, the cattle seemed to thrive.  The following is Darwin's account of them:

" The cattle, instead of having degenerated like the horses, seem, as before remarked, to have increased in size, and they are much more numerous than the horses.  Capt. Sullivan informs me that they vary much less in the general form of their bodies and in the shape of their horns than English cattle.  In colour they differ much; and it is a remarkable circumstance, that in different parts of this one small island, different colours predominate.  Round Mount Usborne, at a height of from 1000 to 1500 feet above the sea, about half of some of the herds are mouse or lead-coloured, a tint which is not common in other parts of the island.  Near Point Pleasant dark brown prevails, whereas south of Choiseul Sound (which almost divides the island into two parts), white beasts with black heads and feet are the most common: in all parts black, and some spotted animals may be observed.  Capt. Sullivan remarks, that the difference in the prevailing colours was so obvious, that in looking for the herds near Point Pleasant, they appeared from a long distance like black spots, whilst south of Choiseul Sound they appeared like white spots on the hill-sides.  Capt. Sullivan thinks that the herds do not mingle; and it is a singular fact, that the mouse-coloured cattle, though living on the high land, calve about a month earlier in the season than the other coloured beasts on the lower land.  It is interesting thus to find the once domesticated cattle breaking into three colours, of which some one colour would in all probability ultimately prevail over the others, if the herds were left undisturbed for the next several centuries. "        

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Under the Enemy's Radar: The 10,000 Year Explosion

Cochran, Gregory and Henry Harpending.  The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution.  (New York: Basic Books, 2009), ill., 288 pp., hardback, $27.00.

Here is another one that just flew in under the enemy's radar.

The popular concept of Darwinian evolution is that it involves the slow accumulation of mutations over periods of millions of years.  But evolution can also move quickly, assert Cochran and Harpending, a fact that has been overlooked by people working in the humanities and the social sciences who assume that humanity has gone unchanged since its emergence “out of Africa.”  Cochran and Harpending, both professors of anthropology at the University of Utah, amass data to prove that “A burst of innovation followed the expansion of modern humans . . . . the pattern became much stronger in Europe some 20,000 years later, after anatomically modern humans had encountered and displaced the Neanderthals” (p. 64).

Evolution has accelerated in recent millennia because mutations have greatly increased in number with the increase of population.  Most of these mutations were detrimental to survival and soon disappeared, but others, beneficial, were soon dispersed throughout large populations.  The authors assert that “In fact, history looks more and more like a science fiction novel in which mutants repeatedly arise and displace normal humans – sometimes quietly, simply by surviving, sometimes as a conquering horde” (p. 67).

The mutant gene for light skin color among Europeans “came into existence about 5,800 years ago.”   A different gene explains light skin color among East Asians. “The genetic changes underlying light skin in Europe and East Asia are almost entirely different” (pp. 93-4).   Biblical fundamentalists should note that caucasoids came into being about the same time that Adam and Eve were created, according to Ussher's biblical chronology, around 4,000 B.C.  It is at least a remarkable coincidence that the biblical account of the Adamic creation matches in time this evolutionary theory of the origin of European man.

Note also the final sentence of the following:  “A number of the new, rapidly spreading alleles found in the recent selection surveys have to do with the central nervous system . . .  And there are new versions of genes that play a role in brain development: genes that affect axon growth, synapse formation, formation of the layers of the cerebral cortex, and overall brain growth.  Again, most of these new variants are regional: Human evolution is madly galloping off in all directions” (p. 98).

The rise of agriculture displaced the old rough-and-tumble egalitarianism that prevailed in hunter-gatherer societies.  Stratified societies came into being.  “ Since the elites were in a very real sense raising peasants, just as peasants raised cows, there must have been a tendency for them to cull individuals who were more aggressive than average, which over time would have changed the frequencies of those alleles that induced such aggressiveness ” (pp. 11-2). “ Selection for submission to authority sounds unnervingly like domestication.  In fact, there are parallels between the process of domestication in animals and the changes that have occurred in humans during the Holocene period ” (p. 112).

Cochran and Harpending refute Jared Diamond (p. 121)and frankly assert that  “ the biological equality of human races and ethnic groups is not inevitable: In fact, it’s about as likely as a fistful of silver dollars all landing on edge when dropped.  There are important, well-understood examples of human biological inequality: Some populations can (on average) deal far more effectively with certain situations than others ” (p. 157).

A survey of the origin and dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans (pp. 175f.) is followed by a lengthy final chapter which considers how the Ashkenazic Jews (i.e., Jews living in Europe) developed their intellectual preeminence in so many fields.

“The majority of the Ashkenazim seem to have been moneylenders by 1100, and this pattern continued for several centuries. Such occupations (trade and finance) had high IQ demands, and we know of no other population that had such a large fraction of cognitively demanding jobs for an extended period” (p. 197).  (How selection for intelligence occurred among Jews is summarized on pp. 222-4.)

It seems euphemistic for Cochran and Harpending to refer to moneylending and finance as "white-collar jobs" back in the medieval period, but the authors are remarkably frank in other areas.   They do not belabor the backwardness of sub-Saharan Africa, but they refuse to dismiss it as simply a matter of cultural lag.  Other, interesting inferences can be drawn from their work.  Thus, does international finance Jewry have the implicit goal of domesticating the masses of the world the way that the feudal elites sought the domestication of the peasants?  Indirectly, Cochran and Harpending would seem to offer support to Kevin MacDonald’s thesis that Judaism is “a group evolutionary strategy.”

The 10,000 Year Explosion has gotten into more public libraries than academic libraries.  It belongs in both.  It is also a book which is worth buying.



Saturday, July 7, 2012

Robin Waterfield on the Death of Socrates

Robin Waterfield is remarkable as a prolific author who maintains a high quality in his work.  A classics scholar, he has translated numerous works from the Greek.  Especially to be noted is his annotated translation of Plato's Republic.   Waterfield has produced an interesting biography of a third-rate figure, Kahlil Gibran.   More noteworthy is Waterfield's Why Socrates Died:  Dispelling the Myths (2009).

Waterfield believes that the move to condemn and execute Socrates arose from Athenians who were angered by the deeds of his most famous pupils, Alcibiades and Critias.   Alcibiades is notorious, while the lesser-known Critias was the leader of the Thirty, a group of oligarchs who led a coup against Athenian democracy.

Waterfield gives essential background information regarding the Peloponnesian civil war, the Athenian system of government, and the Athenian legal system.   The trial had to be completed in one day.  This temporal limit for trials reminds one of the temporal limit for classical tragedy.

Waterfield helps us to understand Aristophanes' representation of Socrates in "The Clouds," as well as the differing accounts of the apology of Socrates which have been left to us by Plato and by Xenophon.  It is unexpected, though, to learn that Socrates was on the side of the oligarchs and opposed to Athenian democracy (limited democracy though it was).   This seems to run counter to Nietzsche's perception of Socrates as a champion of the decadent democratic forces.

Socrates' death appears to be a type of martyrdom, according to Waterfield's account.  The last paragraph of his book strongly suggests that Socrates gave his life to save the city he loved:

" Socrates' last words, uttered to his old friend Crito from his deathbed in prison as the poison took hold of his body were, ' Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.  Please make sure you pay the debt. '   Asclepius was the healing god, whose worship had been introduced into Athens less than thirty years previously.   These famous and mysterious words have attracted numerous interpretations.   I would like to add one more.   Playing on the close link between pharmakos and pharmakon, ' scapegoat ' and ' cure,' Socrates saw himself as healing the city's ills by his voluntary death.   A thanks offering to the god of healing was due. "