Sunday, September 2, 2012

Three on Socrates

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  Dec. 2, 2007 ]

"Phaedo": Socrates on Death 

In the Platonic dialogue "Phaedo," we are given a final account of the wisdom of Socrates, who is in prison awaiting death by ingesting the poison hemlock, and who tells his disciples that, for the philosopher, death is a true liberation.   The following is only a small portion of his argument (excerpted from Jowett's translation), one in which he tells why life in which the soul is united with the body is a kind of imprisonment:

"And when real philosophers consider all these things, will they not be led to make a reflection which they will express in words something like the following?   'Have we not found,' they will say, 'a path of thought which seems to bring us and our argument to the conclusion, that while we are in the body, and while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire will not be satisfied? and our desire is of the truth.  For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being:  it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all.  Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth.  It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body--the soul in herself must behold things in themselves:  and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things follows--either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death.  For then, and not till then, the soul will be parted from the body and exist in herself alone.  In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion with the body, and are not surfeited with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.  And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth.'  For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure.  These are the sort of words, Simmias, which the true lovers of knowledge cannot help saying to one another, and thinking.  You would agree; would you not?"

Further on in this dialogue, Socrates says that souls which have been contaminated with worldliness are doomed to wander the earth, especially areas such as tombs and cemeteries, being unable to break free from the earthly world which they love.  They become the beings known to us as ghosts.  Those who are great of soul, however, are immediately released.  Those who are partly contaminated are doomed to appear again on earth in another body, perhaps an animal body.  The teachings of Socrates belong to the Indo-European tradition, not the Semitic tradition.  The religions that began among the Semites (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) all teach that the soul survives only because it is resurrected by God.   According to the Semitic, monotheistic faiths, eternal life or eternal damnation is a gift of God.   Contrary to this, the Indo-European faith of our ancestors teaches that our souls are free and independent on their own, free to sink into carnality and reincarnation into grossly animal bodies or free to rise above the earthly realm, to break free from all wordly contamination.   Obviously, the Indo-European view damns this world, while the Semitic view, especially in Judaism, does not totally condemn this world,  seeing the world as being evil only because of man's sin.

Jumping back into the center of Socrates's discourse, it provides interesting evidence that the ancient Athenians were very much part of a monetary economy.   Philosophy is closed to those who need money.  Moreover, money is the cause of war.   Here, Socrates seems to be very modern, even more modern than Jesus.  Although Jesus does look upon the coin of the realm and consign it to Caesar, and although he does condemn those who are rich, he does not attribute the origin of war to the lust for money.

It is obvious that "philosophy," according to Socrates, means simply the love of wisdom.  Philosophers in the world of Socrates had little to do with today's professors of philosophy, though the Sophists who taught for money might be said to have come close to the contemporary academic role.

Early in the "Phaedo" Socrates says that he gave up his interest in learning the nature of the world, in what would today be known as natural science.  At the end of the "Phaedo", however, he presents a description of the nether regions of the earth or the world which seems to be a renewal of his interest in the natural world.   Since these nether regions are the destination of the liberated souls, his description is, of course, an essential part of his account of what happens to the soul after death.   Nonetheless, what he offers here also seems to be a kind of meta-geography.   His account is not simply allegorical. 

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on Nov. 17, 2007 ]

James Thomson on Socrates and Jesus

James Thomson (1834-1882) is now all but forgotten, remembered, if at all, only for his long poem "The City of Dreadful Night."  His book Essays and Phantasies (1881) has been placed on the Internet Archive, making available some of his delightful satiric essays, almost all of which make more interesting reading than his poems.  Among these essays is "A Word for Xantippe," a defence of the second wife of Socrates, who is usually represented by the historians as a shrew.  Thomson, however, quotes (from the Phaedo and other Socratic dialogues of Plato) open admissions from Socrates which prove that he could only be considered to be a neglectful husband and an indifferent father.  Particularly telling is Thomson's quotation from the episode in the Phaedo, the dialogue in which Socrates reflects on his imminent death via hemlock, wherein Socrates asks that his wife and child be removed from his presence because their grief is unseemly.  Thomson compares this to Jesus's dismissal of his mother and brothers, his open preference for the company of his disciples to that of his grieving family.   Among Thomson's observations are the following:

"We reverence Socrates and we adore Jesus. In our age and country, however, Xantippe would be obliged to go to the workhouse, and the parish authorities would prosecute her husband for not supporting her and his family ; as for Jesus, he would be  brought before the magistrates as a vagrant, and assuredly on examination be forwarded to a lunatic asylum. Those heathen Greeks put Socrates to death soon after he was seventy : those unbelieving Jews, sharper than the Greeks, got Jesus crucified when he was only thirty-three: we Christian English are too enlightened and tolerant to make such men glorious martyrs ; a parish prosecution and a doctor's certificate would extinguish them much more effectually; and no heroic fortitude, no sublime enthusiasm, could elevate the victims and cover the prosecutors with infamy.

"We have perhaps one living writer with genius and learning and wisdom and fairness enough to picture truly the conjugal life of Saint Socrates and shrew Xantippe :  need I say that .this writer is George Eliot ? One would give something for the picture. "

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on Oct. 12, 2007 ]

Socrates and Civil Disobedience


Recently, I read again  Plato's dialogue "Crito," in which Crito visits the imprisoned Socrates, who there awaits his imminent execution.  Crito tells Socrates that his friends can enable him to escape to Thessaly by bribing his jailers, that he must not accept the unjust sentence of being condemned to death.

The reply of Socrates to Crito is noteworthy because he insists that he must obey the law, that it would be wrong to "go forth returning evil for evil, and injury for injury," which he would be doing if he escaped.  There seems to be a foreshadowing of the ethical principle of "The Sermon on the Mount" in these words.  At the end of the dialogue, Socrates also speaks as a monotheist, pleading with Crito to "let me follow the intimations of the will of God."

Socrates argues that he owes obedience to the law under which he was born and has lived all of his life, even when it results in a manifest injustice to him.

This little dialogue, if assigned as reading for students, would introduce an element of balance into the discussion of civil disobedience in the typical American college or university classroom.  Again and again, I have taught freshman English composition using a "reader" which included Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," but never "Crito."   The students were left to assume that the case for civil disobedience is unanswerable.

Of course, Thoreau and King practiced civil disobedience in support of causes that the liberals on campus find to be good.   Often I have wondered what those same people would think about the civil disobedience of Vivien Kellems.  Kellems was an employer in New England who refused to withhold income tax from her employees' pay envelopes.  She insisted that she should not be compelled to act as a tax collector for the Internal Revenue Service.

Thoreau, King, and Kellems all went to jail.  [ I ] believe that all three of them should have obeyed the law, all the while seeking a lawful way to campaign for a revision of the laws to which they objected.   The words of Socrates, as related in "Crito," are worth reading again.

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