Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apology: death and the single daimonion

This post looks at the section of Plato’s Apology from 28a to 34b, wrapping up the last of Socrates’ formal defense. In this section Socrates turns to what he really wants to talk about—what makes Socrates Socrates and what Athens should be doing. This section builds slowly but surely as Socrates explores the virtues to which people should aspire while talking about a tension between the justice, piety and the law. I’m going to quote and paraphrase Plato’s presentation based on G.M.A. Grube’s translation.

Socrates begins by highlighting that he will not be undone by the charges of “Meletus or Anytus but the slanders and envy of many people.” He had addressed these charges in 18a – 21a, introducing them and adding to the formal charges against him. Socrates puts additional charges in the jury’s mouth: he should be ashamed for his actions since they bring him before the court and threaten his death. Socrates brushes this aside by stressing that what a man does—is it right? is it good?—is much more important than taking “into account the risk of life or death”. Socrates turns this hypothetical charge of worrying about death into a viewpoint that means “all the heroes who died at Troy were inferior people, especially the son of Thetis who was so contemptuous of danger compared with disgrace.” Is Socrates comparing himself to Achilles? If so, it won’t be the last time that Socrates or Plato invokes a Homeric hero as the best likeness for such a philosopher. Layers of irony continue to pile up (I’m not going to attempt to mention more than a few) as Socrates appropriates religious imagery to support his actions in response to impiety charges.

Socrates likens holding his position as a hoplite to the piety and wisdom he displays in maintaining his mission from the god to “live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others”. Mentioning he served at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium serves several purposes, not the least is the duty he performed for Athens—how could he do anything to undermine the city? While elevating his purpose and mission (not to mention the oracle’s judgment), Socrates also implies he is just a citizen that did his duty. If he had abandoned his post, “That would have been a dreadful thing, and then I might truly have justly been brought here for not believing that there are gods, disobeying the oracle, fearing death, and thinking I was wise when I was not.” It seems clear where Socrates is going with the topic of obeying orders and laws—those of human and of gods—but it will be interesting to see how consistent he is.

Notice that Socrates has provided three possible actions that would actually qualify as impiety (disobeying the oracle, fearing death, and wrongly thinking he was wise), replacing the three actions that he said others informally described him performing that would lead someone to believe he was impious. The earlier defamations were studying things in the sky, studying things beneath the earth, and making the weaker argument the stronger (not to mention teaching these things to others). Socrates redefines piety with values he deems important instead of what influenced the Athenians.

“No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” In other words, fearing death is a subset of thinking one wise when really not. And yet…Socrates just paraphrased Achilles’ speech from Homer’s Iliad. He and the jury would not have forgotten Odysseus visiting Achilles in the underworld in the Odyssey, where the dead hero said he would rather be a live servant to a poor man than a king of shades in Hades. (Socrates might counter that we get that report from Odysseus, a known liar.) Regardless, Socrates stresses that he differs from most men because he understands he does not pretend to know what he doesn’t know. He does know “it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man” so the virtues that man should strive for continue to accumulate.

Socrates raises the possibility that if the jury acquits him but forbids him from the “practice of philosophy” upon penalty of death he could not follow that restriction. He would “obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy”. Thus arises a tension between piety (and philosophy?) and the law—Socrates says his higher duty lies with the god. It seems odd that Socrates talks about the penalty phase before being formally convicted, but it gives him the opportunity to cover ground he thinks important. Not to mention goad a few jurists into convicting him. He would also exhort his fellow Athenians as follows: “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” So this is what Athens had to look forward to with an acquittal—Socrates accosting people and testing them on their wisdom with a Socratic version of “tough love.” Socrates’ initial interpretation of the oracle was to test those he thought smarter than him. Socrates feels his mission has expanded to include all Athenians, not just to test if they are wise but exhorting them to be virtuous. “I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god.” In his exhortation he makes a strange statement: “Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.” Several translations say the benefit is publically and privately, which makes more sense for the dichotomy he is about to introduce.

Socrates affirms his dedication to his mission while declaring that if anyone says his concern for the state of the soul corrupts the youth or that he gives different advice they are “talking nonsense.” He makes clears he will continue his current course if acquitted—the decision for him is between right and wrong, which was his earlier charge to the jury, too. But “if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves.” As usual, the qualifiers determine how truthful a statement Socrates makes. Now Socrates can turn the defense, such that it is, from him to the city in order to keep them from unjustly executing a man. His imagery and reasoning to sway the jury, though, might not help his cause. “[I]f you kill me you will not easily find another like me.” Which may be exactly the idea. Especially when he uses the famous gadfly image: “I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly.” This is the function he sees as his mission from the god and he will “never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long”. Rouse from what? Sleep? Torpor? Socrates will later use sleep imagery to mean death so maybe the implication is to rouse them from a death of virtues they no longer strive to achieve.

Socrates makes sure the city knows that if it is going to commit a wrongdoing it does so willingly. In addition, Socrates sets up a test of his earlier implication that people don’t willingly commit harm to themselves. He assumes, and presumes the jury agrees, that anyone doing wrong suffers more than the target of their wrongdoing. There are several times Socrates appeals to virtues such as justice, wisdom, courage, or piety, assuming the Athenians on the jury understand him yet he makes it clear his mission is to educate them on such matters. He can’t be acquitted based on an approach that relies on what he still has to teach them. Using poverty as a “witness” has little to do with the gulf between Socrates and Athens (although it helps address the ‘earlier’ non-official charge of being a Sophist).

Socrates describes his “divine or spiritual sign,” his daimonion. Based on what I had read about it I had imagined the daimonion would be something like his conscience but on repeated readings I see that is not correct. Socrates’ daimonion only “turns him away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything.” This inner voice prevented him from taking part of public affairs (I guess beyond what he is about to describe). Socrates uses his talk about his inner voice to rile the jury even more: “[N]o man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city.” By saying anyone “who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive” and explaining why he leads a private life, Socrates lines up on the side of justice. That would put him into opposition with democracy only when the government performs unjust acts.

Socrates gives two examples where he stood up against those in charge in order to do what was right. The first occurred in the last years of the Peloponnesian War when the Athenian generals did not rescue survivors or dead from the battle of Arginusae. Socrates makes it clear that the generals were being railroaded and he opposed such actions that were clearly illegal. A democracy may allow passions to overwhelm the ‘crowd’ and lead it to commit unjust acts, but Socrates says he will err “on the side of law and justice” rather than commit such acts. He cuts no slack for the oligarchy in his second example, though. Socrates defied an order of the oligarchy to assist in bringing a man in for probable execution. Instead, Socrates refuses to help out. Socrates seems to say it doesn’t matter the form of government, rather that justice is “the most important thing” regardless of the form it takes.

Even though it may be obvious to some readers, because it took me a couple of times to catch it I wanted to highlight the major difference between the oracle and the daimonion. There are minor variances, such as when they began, who could hear them, etc. But the biggest variance lies with the daimonion turning Socrates away from doing things that would be bad for him, thus protecting him. The oracle prodded him to question those he thought wise, leading him to create powerful enemies that eventually bring him into court. The mission he interprets from the god can be presented as private but that doesn’t make it so—grilling political figures in front of their friends and followers, embarrassing them before others, has quite the public aspect. The daimonion was right—avoid the public life if you don’t want to be destroyed. One last note: Socrates makes no mention of the daimonion in his two examples of standing up to the two governments. My guess is that he implies such a divine voice is not necessary to do what is just.

Socrates turns the subject to his so-called students. He established fairly well that he isn’t a Sophist but he hasn’t really addressed whether he was a teacher (only that he didn’t take money). He denies that his purpose was to have pupils although he never begrudged anyone listening in on his conversations. As I mentioned in the post on the oracle about unspoken charges, Socrates’ association with Alcibiades and Critias as their so-called teacher was a political liability (even with political amnesty). Socrates directly addresses such charges without mentioning names: “And I cannot justly be held responsible for the good or bad, conduct of these people [those he questions], as I never promised to teach them anything and have not done so.” He can be unjustly held responsible, of course. Socrates also emphasizes he does not teach privately.

Socrates repeats why “some people enjoy spending considerable time” in his company, which is to watch those being questioned (who think they are wise) get taken down a notch. He stresses he doesn’t do this for fun but because of his mission for the god. He asks if any of those present, whether they followed him while younger or any of their family members, wished to testify against him regarding the teaching charge. Socrates even challenges Meletus to bring in witnesses to do so and will yield some of his time. Apparently there were no takers and Socrates claims this reinforces he has told the truth.

We’re finished with Socrates ‘formal defense’ but one last word before going to his conclusion. In this section Socrates repeatedly stresses his adherence to justice and piety, which wouldn’t be a bad defense except he says such virtues override his duty to Athens. Implicit in this preference (and explicitly touched on, but only briefly) lies a criticism of Athens’ distance from such virtues, at least in administration of its laws.

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