Monday, May 10, 2010

An Irresponsible Question

Why, you may wonder, do I repeatedly, in this reflection on the twentieth century, reach to the twelfth, and even beyond, to Socrates? Is this an intellectual fetish?

I would explain it this way. What does not change in human relationships are the basic choices that repeatedly face us. Those basic choices can be affected by material conditions, but they are neither created nor destroyed by them.

The basic opposition that lays out most of these choices was put in place during the heyday of Athens. It was and remains the opposition between Socrates and Plato. Socrates -- oral, questioner, obsessed by ethics, searching for truth without expecting to find it, democrat, believer in the qualities of the citizen. Plato -- written, answerer of questions, obsessed by power, in possession of the truth, anti-democratic, contemptuous of the citizen. Socrates, the father of humanism. Plato, the father of ideology. Plato's greatest flaw is also the secret of his ongoing political success. He managed to marry Homer's inevitability of the Gods and Destiny to the newly discovered mechanisms of reason.

. . .

What does all this mean for us in the late twentieth century? Well, it means that the humanist, individualistic, democratic argument has come to us in a direct, unimpeded line from the very first century of our civilization. With each successful expression of this argument over the centuries the language is clear, the idea of the disinterested public good is reinforced, the citizen is identified as the source of legitimacy. And this ethical, humanist, democratic line stretches across 2,500 years, free and independent of the evolving specifics of economics, technology, intellectual elitism and military force, among ther periodic expressions of the Western experience.

In Socrates's own words, his goal is "to determine the conduct of our life -- how each of us should conduct himself to live the most advantageous life." "What is the way we ought to live?" "Let no day pass without discussing goodness."

. . .

...let us ask an irresponsible question. If Plato had been Socrates's age in 399 B.C. -- that is, 70 years old -- and had been chosen for that jury of 501 citizens, how would he have voted?

--From J. Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization (1995)

(Note: I have corrected errors in the use of the apostrophe from the original Free Press edition -- shocking! You'd expect a reputable publisher to know.)

(Image: A section from Raffaello's School of Athens of 1510-11)


Algernon said...

A friend tried to post this comment and could not, so I am posting it on his behalf:

"J. Ralston Saul doesn't know how to read Plato. First of all, Plato didn't write treatises in which he openly stated his opinions, he wrote dialogues (plays, if you will), in which Socrates was simply one of his characters. Socrates says different things to different people at different times. It can be assumed, then, that everything Socrates says is provisional, and doesn't at all necessarily represent Plato's own view. Plato's own views, if he had them, have to be deduced from a subtle, not to say esoteric, reading of his dialogues, realizing that he was making his readers "do philosophy" in order to ascertain his true teaching.

"In other words, Plato's dialogues are like kong-ans. We don't say that Shakespeare believed that life is 'a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,' just because his character Macbeth said it so. Instead we realize what kind of person Macbeth became, after all of his terrible actions, that he was reduced to saying such a thing. Plato can be read like Shakespeare.

"These arguments are not my own but I learned them from Leo Strauss, who unfortunately is much maligned these days due to the actions of some of his students. In my view, they read him incorrectly. I read Strauss to argue that one must find a true, living great teacher, and I found my Socrates in Dae Soen Sa Nim. That aside, if you read one of Strauss' books, say, What is Political Philosophy?, you will find a wonderful way to open yourself to the reading of great books, especially the writings of the classics.

"Just some thoughts."

Algernon said...

Saul's dichotomy seems fair to me. Plato did present his own views in some of his important works. I've never heard anyone claim that the views expressed in The Republic belong to anyone other than Plato.

Saul is influenced by the scholarship of Gregory Vlastos, who documents his theory that the earlier, younger Plato presented a Socrates closer to what his old master actually expounded whereas, in the mature Plato, Socrates is more of a dramatic persona for Plato.

This dichotomy, however, is not original to Saul or to Vlastos for that matter. The distinction between the Socratic elder who felt he possessed no wisdom and was a gadfly, constantly objecting on behalf of the politically weak, is not controversial. And Plato's rejection of Athenian democracy in favor of a wise and experienced elite is not in question, either.

(I haven't read Strauss, so I'll leave the question as to whether his idea of vanguards has a parallel in Plato's philosopher kings to someone else.)

So I'll close by reiterating that I think the dichotomy is fair and does make a picture of an unresolved kong-an in western history.