Plato, “Apology of Socrates” 19b-c

[Note: Blogging more about lesson plans because “course goals” and “course objectives” do not quite capture the conversation I’m trying to start. I do not like straight lecturing. I try as much as possible to read together as a class, ask questions, get everyone to speak. This means I need a really good grasp of the landscape of ideas I’m covering: I can’t just make a point and argue it, sometimes illustrating it. I need to be able to generate and guide a discussion about themes rarely encountered, much less discussed.]

“What is Philosophy?” will be supplemented with excerpts from Plato and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. I need students to have a working definition of “philosophy”—one they’re comfortable using—and some idea of what Socrates’ life, inquiry, and death were like. I also want them to begin to appreciate the larger use of the terms “tragedy” and “comedy,” as well as how that use curiously comes from trying to navigate the space between religion, politics, and entertainment. The assignment for the next few classes is Antigone, which gravely considers the tension between city’s civic and divine foundations. Antigone is meant to be popular—not just accessible to many, but revered by many.

Plato, Apology of Socrates 19a-23b is part of my plan. There, Socrates states the accusation against him, says it comes from a comedy (!) lingering in the public imagination, and then tells the story of how one of his followers asked the Delphic Oracle about Socrates’ wisdom, receiving the answer that no one was wiser than him. Socrates then challenges Apollo’s wisdom, searching for someone wiser than himself, but despite his questioning of everyone in Athens who are all now eager to put him to death, cannot find anyone wiser.

The challenge for the majority of students comes from the text being translated Greek. That I’m using a public domain translation makes it a bit harder, but this still would be a pain even with a contemporary translation. It takes a moment to process what’s being said—the Greek names are also stumbling blocks—and it can be discouraging if someone seems to “get it” before you do, as if reading isn’t your thing.

So I think I need some takeaways from this excerpt. The takeaways need to center on a passage, and I need to paraphrase that passage for the sake of accessibility, providing additional context and information. The idea is that if there are, say, three takeaways from the excerpt, that’s at least three reasons to revisit the text and reinforce what you know is there, if not find something more.

Here is the one passage I hope will stay with the students, which concerns the strange juxtaposition of science, justice, & comedy:

(19b-c): What did those who aroused the prejudice [against me] say to arouse it? I must, as it were, read their sworn statement as if they were plaintiffs: “Socrates is a criminal and a busybody, investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Something of that sort it is. For you yourselves saw these things in Aristophanes’ comedy, a Socrates being carried about there, proclaiming that he was treading on air and uttering a vast deal of other nonsense, about which I know nothing, either much or little.

Socrates says people have “prejudice” against him—I hope that’s clear enough, but if not, imagine everyone, everywhere you go, thinking of you as the worst. I mean, all of us want to feel like we belong, and we can invest too much in wanting to be liked by other people. We can feel crushed if we don’t hear from who we think we want to hear from. This is different, though there are some similar feelings in play. What if everyone and their parents and their family and their friends said “eww, don’t be around him/her, not if you want to continue hanging out with me!” or “Not if you want to continue living in this house!” I’m not saying Socrates was totally dehumanized, but the “prejudice” means he’s become a joke to an entire city and is subject to further dehumanization. Which is one reason he’s on trial: if people are treated as jokes, as clowns, bullies will put that much more pressure on them.

Now look closely at the prejudice, which Socrates frames as the complaint against him. Socrates is a “criminal” and a “busybody;” we get what those words mean. He’s good-for-nothing, worse than useless, not fit to be part of society. Jason Stanley’s “How Fascism Works,” if you’re interested in how certain tropes and propaganda have become more commonplace, makes a powerful case that fascism will paint some groups and individuals as useless, parasitic, living off of “hard-working” citizens. We might say that Athenian democracy is not in the healthiest shape before Socrates’ trial; the blame Socrates gets—for what, exactly?—is disproportional, like being thrown in jail for a parking ticket. Plato, the author of the Apology and other dialogues featuring Socrates, develops a line of thought a number of scholars see this way: Socrates, as philosopher, has a radically different vision of the good life than that of the city. The “city,” or you could say political life, holds that if you obey its laws and embrace the spirit of its laws, you’ll be happy and moral and honored. Because the philosopher does not see this as necessarily true, he’s in fatal tension with the city. If you take this latter approach, where the philosopher and the city inevitably conflict, you get a rich, thoughtful problematic: to what degree do all political things, rightly or wrongly, obscure or hinder the search for knowledge? But the very strength of this approach means you can miss the warning signs of when a society is breaking apart, when people can’t see each other as human beings.

The complaint, as Socrates puts it, charges him with “investigating the things beneath the earth and in the heavens and making the weaker argument stronger and teaching others these same things.” Investigating the things beneath the earth? That’s Hades’ domain, the domain of the dead. The heavens? That also belongs to the gods–Icarus was not meant to fly so high. The charge has a certain poetry, but the intent is unmistakable: don’t ask scientific questions, don’t try to understand what is underneath us or above us. Let us have our traditions, our gods, our laws which stem from both. Two things here are exceptionally hard for us to understand—we, who believe ourselves scientific and enlightened. First, how could a society so bluntly assert that science has no value? It’s not hard for us to imagine public opinion turning against science, but it is hard for us to think of society’s starting point as a real reverence and fear of the law itself. This isn’t to say we don’t hold law to be powerful or even sacred: we certainly do, in our own way. But we don’t see lawfulness as automatically making fun of science, holding science to be useless from the start. Someone like Stephen Hawking, whose interest was the “heavens,” who wondered about the origin of the very universe, is held in great esteem by us.

Second, what does the practice of science have to do with “making the weaker argument stronger?” Socrates is accused of being a scientist who wants to meddle with our notions of the divine and a shady lawyer who teaches ways around the truth. The complaint is breathtaking in its arrogance—it accuses Socrates of wanting the truth, searching high and low for it, while accusing him of manipulating the truth and teaching that manipulation to others. But the complaint, if Socrates’ rendering of the prejudice is accurate, is not about “truth.” It’s about Socrates’ injustice. Socrates does injustice to gods and men: he tries to dethrone the gods, he tries to displace truth in favor of liars. The funny thing is that this prejudice does render the nature of justice correctly. Justice is concerned with not exploring the truth in the case of the gods and defending the truth as an exclusive basis for faith among men. Justice’s stance toward the truth itself is incoherent.

This doesn’t mean “nothing matters” or “society’s just a big lie, man.” It indicates that justice is a different kind of claim than that of knowledge. But it also indicates only one sort of person is going to see this problem clearly: a lover of wisdom, a philosopher, who tries to see the truth for what it is. You’ll note that this passage is part of a longer sequence, where Socrates investigates whether he is indeed the wisest of all men in order to disprove Apollo, and finds that he cannot disprove god. That sequence you could call “comic.” It’s meant to be a joke, but not a joke dismissing Socrates and what he stood for, but one showing how crazy our moral intuitions—our “gut instinct,” if you will—can be.

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