Saturday, April 23, 2011

Apology: forget it Socrates, it’s Athens

This post looks at Plato’s Apology from 38b to the end at 42a. The jury returns with Socrates’ sentence of death and he gives his last speech in the Apology following a three-part construction, similar to many other parts in the work. In this instance he speaks to those that condemned him to death and/or convicted him, to those that voted to acquit him, then returns to the first group. I’m going to quote and paraphrase Plato’s presentation based on G.M.A. Grube’s translation.

To those that condemned him
Socrates begins by pointing out that nature would have soon passed the same sentence as their vote for his death, yet he seems energetic enough to provide such a defense. He points out that Athens will have the reputation of having killed Socrates for those “who want to denigrate the city”. In other words they have provided ammunition to Athens’ enemies, although he never seemed to worry about the ammunition he provided to his enemies by his actions. Socrates echoes his sentencing speech by saying he was not convicted for what he said but because he wasn’t shameless enough to entertain the jury with groveling or tears. As usual, there are other options available he doesn’t mention or choose but he lays out the choice he made: “I did not think then that the danger I ran should make me do anything mean, nor do I now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind.” Death can be avoided much easier than wickedness, “for it [wickedness] runs much faster than death.” The quicker of the two caught his accusers while the slower caught him. While he has been condemned to death by these jurists, his accusers have been “condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice.”

Socrates prophesies (using the belief it’s possible when close to death) that those voting to kill him will receive “a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me.” He continues by prophesying they will continue to be tested and reproached “for not living in the right way”, which Plato helps happen with this and other dialogues.

To those that voted for acquittal
Socrates addresses those that voted for his acquittal as the true jurymen. He tells them that his daimonion, which normally prevented him from doing or saying something harmful, had not visited him before or during the trial. “What do I think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken.” Now might be a good time to revisit the role of the daimonion and the oracle (which I didn’t go into detail at the time but Socrates undermined the importance of the oracle in 33c by grouping it with many other “divine manifestations”). As I mentioned in a previous post, “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.” Maybe the daimonion simply kept him from doing wrong…more along the lines of a conscience (which I ruled out in that post). With the ever-shifting Socrates, it’s hard to tell. This is the first of three reasons Socrates provides why he thinks death might not be a bad thing.

Socrates then speaks about the second reason:
Let us reflect in this way, too, that there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place. If it is a complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage…, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night. If, on the other hand, death is a change from here to another place, and what we are told is true and all who have died are there, what greater blessing could there be, gentlemen of the jury?

There is so much to say on this passage but I’ll pick a couple of items surrounding ‘death as dreamless sleep’ on which I haven’t seen much discussion (probably for a good reason). The ellipsis in the quote goes into detail about why Socrates thinks a sleep without dreams is better. I realize this is a minor point, but he made clear that dreams are a divine manifestation (in 33c). Combine this with such actions as testing the oracle and you get, as Allan Bloom stated, “an odor around Socrates of impiety.” I know this is minor point but there is an accumulation of these points throughout the Apology. Another item involves his earlier metaphor as his role as Athens’ gadfly, rousing everyone in the city. This imagery as I put forward in the daimonion post implies he is rousing them from a type of death, a loss of virtues and knowledge. But this leads me to question why a dreamless sleep would be acceptable to Socrates since it seems to represent a conscienceless experience.

Socrates muses on the second option where he would keep company with the heroes of old. He believes “it would be pleasant. Most important, I could spend my time testing and examining people there, as I do here, as to who among them is wise, and who thinks he is, but is not.” I have already talked about the pleasantness of Hades as detailed in the Odyssey when Socrates talked about Achilles. As mentioned, Socrates could counter that the grim picture is described by Odysseus, a known liar. But the second part of the quote…it may be heaven for Socrates to continue his questioning but it sounds like it would be a hell for everyone else. How he would love spending time examining “the man who led the great expedition against Troy, or Odysseus, or Sisyphus, and innumerable other men and women one could mention”. While he is careful to list only humans here, he earlier listed several characters with a divine lineage. Does he propose to test them, too? Again, a minor point but adds to the impiety odor.

He ends his address to those who voted to acquit him an odd quote: “They are happier there than we are here in other respects, and for the rest of time they are deathless, if indeed what we are told is true.” Happier? Obviously not as told by Homer, so his source is uncertain. And while it is true he qualifies it at the end, it is a weak qualifier after so much rapturous speech about this option. Not to mention after his initial defense speech praising his own wisdom because he knows what he does not know. (To which Socrates would probably play his trump card—the ability to prophesy by those close to death.)

To those that condemned him
Socrates repeats his earlier argument that “a good man cannot be harmed either in life or death” and adds “that his affairs are not neglected by the gods.” Since Socrates believes himself a good man then his death is not a harmful event (the third reason why death might not be a bad thing). The accusers deserve blame for the fact that they intended to harm him, but Socrates makes a strange request of them. He asks them to reproach his sons if they grow up caring “for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody.” While partly an insult (don’t let my children be like you), his request continues his mission not just for his accusers but, through Plato, to us. All these options in the afterlife get pushed aside in Socrates’ closing lines, demonstrating once again that his ignorance is the source of his knowledge: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.”

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