The intimidation factor here is terrible. It is one thing to offer appreciation and critique of semi-forgotten Quakers. It is quite another to give opinion on Plato, founder of Western thought.
Volume 2 of The Harvard Classics focuses on the Stoic school, which, put very simply, argued against emotion. It’s the classic “old man’s philosophy.” A survivor’s stratagem: you’re sick of paying for the world’s screw-ups with your own private distress, so you stop buying into it. Everyone then calls you heartless while they run around with their hair on fire, trying to tend every garden but their own. I have some sympathy for this mindset. Why get upset over what the rest of the world is doing? It’s how I’ve managed to keep politics out of this blog since its inception.
Socrates (469-399 BC) left nothing to posterity in writing, leaving us completely at the mercy of his more ambitious disciples, the most famous among them being Plato (roughly 428-348 BC). Plato liked to use his teacher’s voice in dialogue and it’s never clear how much of the theory Socrates talks of is his own, and how much Plato’s, especially in later works. The Apology is meant to memorialize the death of Socrates and is thus more likely to be faithful to the philosophy he espoused than any other writing. If he’s what you’re looking for, this is it. Luckily, the Apology happens to be a masterpiece, such that if you’ve never read any philosophy and are intimidated (I’ve been there), start here, with the movement’s founder. It’s less than thirty pages long and the Benjamin Jowett translation is both elegant in style and in the public domain.
Socrates laid the cornerstone of philosophical thought: I neither know nor think that I know. As a sweeping statement I prefer it to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” A person could spend all their life practicing this humble epiphany. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?
As well as being an important document of intellectual honesty, the Apology is a fine work of dramatic narrative. After all, it deals with matters of life and death, fate and state, righteousness, cowardice and self-interest. Even if you’re not keen to debate ethics or ponder the pursuit of knowledge, it remains impactful as the story of a curmudgeon goading the judicial court to kill him. Put it all together and it makes a Classic of the first order. The Apology is short, dramatic and colourful and it contains Socrates’ most famous saying: The life which is unexamined is not worth living. However, if you want ethical food for thought, you’ll actually get more out of Crito.
Crito is only a little over ten pages. Socrates’ long-time friend of that name stops by his jail cell and pleads with the old man to escape and flee Athens while there is time. Socrates harangues him on the reasons this would not be a good idea and Crito has no words to argue the point. This is psychologically perceptive – how many of us have been on the receiving end of an impassioned rant, helplessly silent, only finding words of refutation long after the moment is gone? Poor Crito…doomed to think back on that day imagining how it might have gone if he’d thought of another tactic…hence the practice of stoicism.
Socrates, having argued that we must do no wrong for wrong is evil and even doing wrong for wrong is evil, proceeds in a lecture on state obligations that is based on iffy principles. Here is the state speaking: …did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begot you … Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands? – you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies?
Culture clash is really hurting here. This is propaganda of the worst sort; “slave of the state” authoritarian bullshit that severely damages the Crito‘s intellectual merit. I don’t usually mind culture clash but philosophy is a very different medium to fiction. It tells people how to think, offering what each philosopher deems to be the truth. What an author of fiction believes is just another point of view, as valid as any other in the art of storytelling. Thinkers should be responsible; writers should just write well. This is why misogynistic statements from Rousseau and Nietzsche piss me off while equally misogynistic quotes from Miller and Bukowski don’t get more than a raised eyebrow.
This in turn leads to another criticism – the Platonic dialogue was named after him but at this early point in his career, Plato wasn’t actually very good at it. The form is an elegant one, allowing the author a chance to prove that A: he understands the opposition to his argument and B: that he can defend himself, employing a steady logic to refute the opposition and convince his readership that his conclusion is the correct one. For his dialogues on the death of Socrates, Plato does not do that.
The Apology is a brilliantly conceived and executed courtroom harangue. Crito and Phaedo are traditional dialogues and neither of them work because Socrates is preaching to the choir. His disciples apologise for their rare disagreements with him and so most of the “opposition” reads like this:
That is very true.
That’s lifted straight from a random page of Phaedo. It’s not all that bad, but a lot of it is. I think it’s meant to show that Socrates’ logical method was so watertight it could brook no argument. So why make it a dialogue when only one half has anything to say? In Crito there is no opposition to Socrates’ claims, no counterattack to be successfully blocked and the reader is left unsatisfied. Possibly Plato was aware that he was making his master look like a tool, because he didn’t end it on that note but on a much more persuasive one regarding honour. Honour is each man’s inarguable choice, to which each must ascribe their own value. Socrates believed it would be dishonourable to cheat death in his old age, so remained in prison.
Phaedo is a later work, a surprisingly sophisticated argument for life after death that reminded me of Buddhist ideas of reincarnation and enlightenment. However, it is longer than the first two combined and too often dull. Plato loved the absolute and when he gets his cast started in on defining absolute equality (in pursuit of the idea that idealization must be recollection of a prior state), he makes his case in the most repetitive prose imaginable, methodical to an extreme of boredom. It also makes it really hard to pull quotes from, since Plato fancied the slow build argument. If I tried an extract, I’d be here all day with stuff like this: I mean to say that a harmony admits of degrees, and is more of a harmony, and more completely a harmony, when more completely harmonized, if that be possible; and less of a harmony, and less completely a harmony, when less harmonized.
One of Socrates’ more enjoyable traits was his whimsicality, which went hand in hand with his staunch belief in the gods and his peaceful, reasonable demeanour. When this side of him is on display, the writing shifts from sluggish advances in logic to the enlivened colour of folk tales and myths:
O Simmias, how strange that is; I am not very likely to persuade other men that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune, if I am unable to persuade you, and you will keep fancying that I am at all more troubled now than at any other time. Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god whose ministers they are. But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to lay a tune of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo and have the gift of prophecy and anticipate the good things of another world, therefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than they ever did before. And I, too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans.
Other excellent moments crop up in parenthetical arguments, as when Socrates talks of misology, the misanthropy of ideas. And the text ends with a flourish straight out of C.S. Lewis (remember Professor Kirke’s “it’s all in Plato?”). Socrates’ description of heaven tallies with the Narnian one remarkably well and is a fun bonus if you grew up on The Chronicles of Narnia.
Socrates, according to his pupil, actually thought he knew quite a lot. Therefore, I would only recommend the Apology to the casual reader. It gives you the Socratic legend at its purest. But the nice thing about Plato is that it’s easy to forget the boring bits. He’s an oddly addictive philosopher. I’ll never regret reading him and have the Republic and the Symposium waiting in the wings.
Up next: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus.