Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Apology: prejudice, sophistry and the oracle

This post looks at the section of Plato’s Apology from 19a to 21a which addresses the old prejudice against Socrates, gives his view of teaching sophistry, and presents the Delphic oracle on his wisdom. I’m going to paraphrase Plato’s presentation since this section is longer using G.M.A. Grube’s translation and add comments as I go.

(19a – 19d)
Socrates begins his defense by looking at the additional, earlier accusations “from which arose the slander in which Meletus trusted when he wrote out the charge” against him. The slander would go something like “Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others.” Socrates mentions that Athenians had seen such a charge in Aristophanes’ comedy (The Clouds), to which Socrates says he knows nothing about these things. While Socrates doesn’t “speak in contempt” about such knowledge he claims to not know about such things. Socrates asks if anyone in the jury has heard him talk about “such subjects to any extent at all.” Since there is no reply, Socrates points out that the other things said by “the majority” (the earlier accusations) “are of the same kind”—that is, false.

It takes me a while to unpack everything in Plato, so bear with me. Just a reminder—the accusations from long ago are not the same as his current charges of not believing in the Athenian gods and corrupting Athenian youth. In the previous section Socrates says that such charges lead others to believe he does not believe in any of the gods. Keep in mind Socrates says these charges started a long time ago, which is corroborated by his inclusion in The Clouds from many years earlier. Even though Socrates denies knowledge of such things, and no one on the jury can claim to have heard him do so, in an upcoming dialogue he says he had investigated such matters when he was younger (so I’m “bookmarking” this for now). Investigating isn’t the same as knowing about them, as Socrates will make clearer in his defense, so it is possible he talked about topics like this when younger. Also, just because no one on the jury had heard him talk about them does not disprove the accusations. By this time, according to Socrates, the point is moot since such charges have prejudiced everyone against him. One last point—Socrates mentions that the expanded charges can be seen in The Clouds but he doesn’t mention his character in the play also claims not to believe in the gods. It’s probably better he doesn’t mention that fact.

(19d – 20c)
Socrates denies he undertakes “to teach people and charge a fee for it”. (Note the use of “and”) He thinks “it a fine thing to be able to teach people” like many of the Sophists do. The irony and disdain oozes from his statement that “these men [Sophists] can go to any city and persuade the young, who can keep company with anyone of their fellow citizens they want without paying, to leave the company of these, to join with themselves, pay them a fee, and be grateful to them besides.” Socrates doesn’t say he disdains the Sophists—his scorn seems to be saved for those willing to pay for the “privilege” of “learning” from them. In other dialogues the contempt is for the sophistic tricks that masquerade as knowledge. If nothing else, the Sophists are good at persuasion. Education? That’s another matter.

Socrates tells of his interaction with Callias, the “man who has spent more money on Sophists than everybody else put together”. Callias pays Evenus from Paros to educate his two sons. Socrates: “I thought Evenus a happy man, if he really possess this art, and teaches for so moderate a fee.” Socrates “would pride and preen myself if I had this knowledge, but I do not have it, gentlemen.” He appears to reference the knowledge of human and social excellence when he says he does not “have it”, but he might also mean, or at least include, teaching for a fee. One last note: this is the second time in this post that “if” has appeared when it comes to knowledge or teaching. The first referred to not speaking in contempt of such knowledge #if# someone is wise in these things. Here he casts doubt on Evenus possessing the art of teaching. There seems to be a theme building for what people think they know, versus the knowledge they really have.

(20c – 21a)
Socrates puts questions into the jury’s mouth: “But Socrates, what is your occupation? From where have these slanders come?” If Socrates did nothing wrong, these rumors and slanders should not have arisen. Socrates thinks he knows the cause of the accusations: “[A] certain kind of wisdom. … Human wisdom, perhaps. It may be that I really possess this, while those whom I mentioned just now are wise with a wisdom more than human”. He can’t explain this wisdom and doesn’t claim to possess it. However, he relays a story of a friend of his (now dead, but his brother can testify to its validity) who asked “the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such.” The friend asked the oracle “if any man was wiser than I, and the Pythian replied that no one was wiser.”

The implications of this pronouncement and how Socrates proceeded with this information will be the subject of the next post, but I wanted to mention it here. Since Socrates quiets the jury a couple of times while relaying this story while also offering his friend’s brother to vouch for its veracity, this seems to be the first time this story has been told . Socrates touches on a political element as well, noting Chaerephon (the friend) shared many of the jury members’ exile and return to Athens. All of these topics deserve more time as the defense unfolds.

I notice Socrates directly addressed only one part of the earlier/expanded charge of “studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others”. He directly addressed the charge of teaching, although he qualifies it by saying he does not teach #and# does not charge a fee. In addition, he confronts the jury and asks if anyone had heard him teach of such topics. He indirectly addressed the study of the sky and earth by claiming ignorance of these topics, which does not preclude studying them. The charge of making the weaker argument the stronger Socrates does not address here other than to say that if he can prove one charge false then they all are untrue. As I keep mentioning, these accusations are not part of the official charges though Socrates says they lay the foundation leading Meletus to make the official charges.

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