Another Look at the Apology of Socrates
One great advantage of reading a classic work again, outside the classroom, is that such a reading, outside of school, liberates one to wander and meander through the work seeking meanings and messages as one will. Even trivia, upon the second or third reading of such a work, may loom up suddenly and provoke one's thought. One such item emerges in reading again Plato's account of the trial of Socrates, the Apology. Socrates boldly defends himself against the accusations of the Athenians, but admits that some of his friends wanted him to indulge in what is known today as plea bargaining. They suggested that he offer to plead guilty and agree to pay a fine of thirty minae, a kind of silver coin then extant in Greece, the name of which, interestingly, according to Webster's unabridged dictionary, was derived by the Greeks from a Hebrew term. The association that looms up in one's mind, of course, is with the thirty pieces of silver received by Judas Iscariot. Any association lapses, of course, when one considers that Socrates was being tempted to betray himself by giving thirty pieces of silver to his tormentors.
Socrates says that he would offer only one mina, not thirty minae, had he any intention of offering anything. He thus dismisses with contempt any grovelling or show of contrition, much less any admission of guilt. He will not attempt to save himself from the death penalty by turning himself into a person that he is not. He asserts that he could no more retreat from his search for the truth, and be true to himself, than he could have fled when he was sent forth on the battlefield as a soldier. Socrates in his role as a truth seeker reminds one of Jesus in his proclamation that "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32). He will make no pretense of recanting anything, not even to save his life.
One of his accusers, Meletus, says that Socrates is "a complete atheist," but Socrates several times refers to God, one God, during his defense, and closes his speech with an appeal to God. Although accused of denying the gods of the city, he affirms that he never denied the divine. He dismisses as not relevant to him the claim that he had taught that the sun and the moon are not gods, only stones suspended in the heavens. That is what Anaxagoras taught, he says. Aristophanes, in his comic drama, "The Clouds," portrays Socrates as having so taught regarding the heavenly bodies, a misrepresentation that gave life to the accusation that Socrates was "a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause."
At the end of his defense, facing the death penalty, Socrates shares his views on death. He again shows himself to be a truth seeker, making no claims to know definitely what may follow one's death. Death may be a state of no consciousness, of dreamless sleep, or there may be, after death, "a change and migration of the soul from this world to another." He speculates on what a delight it will be to communicate with the worthy people he will meet in the realm of the dead, assuming that there is such a life after death. The final words of the Apology (according to the translation by Jowett) are these, the words of a truth seeker: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways -- I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows."
[ Originally posted on MySpace on Aug 19, 2007 ]
[ Originally posted on MySpace on Aug 19, 2007 ]
De Quincey on Plato, Judas Iscariot
Of the three major English essayists of the Romantic period, -- Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Thomas De Quincey, -- I find myself most attracted to the work of De Quincey, who is little-known today except for his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey's work is fascinating, while Lamb and Hazlitt are merely delightful. This quality of being both intriguing and profound is probably what Jorge Luis Borges found most appealing in De Quincey.
Reading again De Quincey's essay on "Plato's Republic," I am impressed by his great good sense. He denies the title of systematic thinker to Plato, awarding it to Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. One reason for his denial of a top rank to Plato is obvious, but is rarely elsewhere mentioned. De Quincey raises the question of what is Plato's true thought on any subject since he presents his explorations in thought as dialogues in which the interlocutors assume opposing viewpoints. How can one speak of Plato's system when it is open to argument what viewpoint on almost any topic is truly Plato's?
De Quincey challenges the ready assumption that Socrates represents Plato's viewpoint in the Republic. In the first book of this dialogue, in which an attempt is made to define justice, it could be, De Quincey argues, that the true viewpoint of Plato is rather more that of Thrasymachus than that of Socrates. It is interesting to note that this is the contention of Leo Strauss, writing almost a hundred years later in his essay on the Republic in his book The City and Man.
De Quincey examines only the first five books of the ten books which comprise the Republic. He raises most serious questions about the caste of warriors who are to maintain and preserve the ideal republic for the benefit of the philosopher-rulers. The warriors are to have no property and to raise their children in common. How can they be expected to be ready to give their lives in defence of the republic? What stake can they have in its preservation? De Quincey also finds unnatural the denial of marriage among the warriors and especially repugnant the custom of exposing defective neonates to death by the elements (as was the practice of the Spartans).
"Judas Iscariot" is another intriguing look at its subject. De Quincey offers a reasonable explanation for the seeming difference between the accounts of the death of Judas as given in Acts and as given in the Gospels. He also considers what was the motivation of Judas in his betrayal of Jesus. How much were the thirty pieces of silver worth? De Quincey concludes that Judas was a Zealot who wished to push Jesus into launching an open rebellion against the Roman authorities.
In what seems to be a digression, De Quincey considers why Jesus began his ministry as a kind of medical missionary, a Hakim or Therapeut. The explanation he offers is again founded on good common sense. He considers how Jesus delivered his message. The press did not exist. The theatre was not available as it was in Greece. The oracles of Greece were also unavailable. (In any event, the endorsement of the oracle at Delphi did not suffice to save the life of Socrates.) The only method of publicity open to Jesus was to speak to crowds of people, a method of ministry which always aroused great fear among the authorities, both Jewish and Roman. Were such crowds about to become the focal point for a rebellion? The only way that Jesus could win the indulgence of the authorities for his mass meetings would be to offer himself as a physical healer before he offered himself as a spiritual healer. The authorities did not dare to deny to the people access to a medical healer.Thanks to the Google digitization project, it is now possible to read all of De Quincey's essays without darkening the door of a library. Most medium-sized public libraries are likely to have only the Confessions, one of the less interesting, but stylistically most memorable, of the productions of De Quincey.