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Apr 24, 2014
Frederic Raphael on Socrates
Posted on Jul 31, 2009
The execution of Socrates has often been seen as prefiguring the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Both became emblematic: Democracy would forever be tarnished by the former, the Jews by the latter. It was convenient for reactionaries to make a secular saint of Socrates. He then became a pious reason for denouncing democratic law-making, majority decisions and the political machinery that takes authority away from the best people/people who know best. Philosophers have been regularly contemptuous of the caprices of the masses. Their appetite for certainty gags on the fluctuations of popular taste and the ambiguities of vulgar language. If society were governed by immutably defined concepts, philosophers would be unarguable kings. Considering the world sub specie aeternitatis (Spinoza’s recipe for a life untroubled by futile emotions), they would be able to keep everything precisely as it is, which would be identical with what it should be: the caesura between is and ought would be repaired; paradise regained.
Is it just that Socrates became a poster boy for anti-democrats? He was a participating citizen in democratic Athens, fought in its wars and honored its verdict (instead of going into exile, as his friends could have arranged). He avoided the grand manner and, with a puckishness that can be tiresome, even on the page, insisted that he knew nothing and had no doctrine to propagate. He was at ease in aristocratic company, but he did not belong to it by birth. His father was said to have been a stonemason. Socrates lived frugally and, it may be, on the income of his wife, Xanthippe, whose horsy name implies, so Robin Waterfield tells us, that she came from a classier background than the husband who rarely came home (Roger Scruton’s “Xanthippic Dialogues” is a marvelous exposition of Socrates’ character, and a brilliant parody of Plato, from the point of view of the philosopher’s put-upon wife, who is given a tongue at least as sharp as her husband’s).
Socrates played the simple soul, but he was also a responsible citizen who, on military service, could afford the shield and armor with which the middle class had to supply itself. When he philosophized, it was as an amateur who took care to distinguish himself from the mendicant sophists: They took fees, he never did. Socrates was a long-running, peripatetic chat show. The old academic joke accuses him (and Jesus) of one major mistake: He never published. But if he left no account of himself, he is vividly represented in the works of both Plato and Xenophon. In addition, he was held up to memorable ridicule by Aristophanes, especially in “The Clouds,” a play first produced over 20 years before Socrates was put on trial. The playwright—for whom Plato reserved a privileged cup in his “Symposium”—is alleged to have generated abiding popular animus against the man whom he depicted (contrary to what we know of the authentic Socrates) teaching pupils how to “make the worse appear the better cause.” The satirist’s juiciest targets are generally below the belt.
Keener on award-winning than on truth, Aristophanes made his Socrates the very type of amoral opportunist whom Plato, in his turn, lampooned in the Thrasymachus who puts Socrates on the back foot, in “The Republic,” by defining justice as the “will of the stronger.” After Thrasymachus’ forceful intervention, the whole dialogue turns into an attempt, never quite convincing, to establish what should be true (justice is the reflection of eternal values) against what, in practice, seems to be the case: Those with power administer justice in their own interest.
Socrates described himself as the Athenian “gadfly.” Some years ago, I.F. Stone, an American gadfly who stung only to the right, learned Greek in order to understand what still puzzles Waterfield: why the Athenians made a landmark celebrity, and then a scapegoat, of the cranky troublemaker whose unpaid service to the community was to prod citizens into taking a close look at themselves and their ideas. Socrates also claimed to be “maieutic,” a midwife who helped people in the difficult business of giving birth to the truth.
Xenophon’s account is affectionate and unaffected. A decent right-wing landowner and retired general who made no secret of his admiration for Sparta, Xenophon was obliged to live in exile, once democracy was restored in Athens. He depicts Socrates as sparky and provocative but without any political agenda, a Mr. Chips of the old Athenian school. Plato, by contrast, appropriated him as the spokesman of ideas which, in the end, were too elaborate to fit plausibly in his mouth. When Plato wrote his last major work, “The Laws,” Socrates was replaced by anonymous and notably less entertaining interlocutors.
If Plato’s earlier dialogues give the truest impression of the historical Socrates, it seems that his long career as tease and teacher centered on a wish to elicit the essential meanings of words in order that moral standards could be based on eternal Ideas of which our own are only approximations. “The Republic” is an attempt to imagine a society in which morals dominate politics, and a static ideology determines the citizens’ conduct and status (with a nocturnal Gestapo to take out those who disagree). The dangerous consequences of this ambition were spelled out, in a polemical style that affronted Platonists, in Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” Robin Waterfield refers to “The Republic” as “magisterial, wonderful,” which conveys nothing of its political menace, its satirical acuteness or its elimination of the arts.
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