19 March 2017

Not always where you expect it

Reading Gorgias and Meno in close juxtaposition has been quite interesting.

The interrogation of an incredulous Callicles in his own home by Socrates after his having done the same to Gorgias and his student Polus, leads Socrates to the conclusion that it is difficult – and yet, at the same time, needed – for wealthy and powerful men to live and die virtuously. Having the means to satiate the fleshly appetites, and needing to develop the skill of resisting and taming them, places a great spiritual burden upon the holders of power and wealth. As Socrates says in the Gorgias:
You praise the men [whom] people say... have made the city great, not seeing that the swollen and ulcerated condition of the State is to be attributed to these elder statesmen; for they have filled the city full of harbours and docks and walls and revenues and all that, and have left no room for justice and temperance. And when the crisis of the disorder comes, the people will blame the advisers of the hour, and applaud Themistocles and Cimon and Pericles, who are the real authors of their calamities.
And again:
Homer witnesses to the truth of this; for they are always kings and potentates whom he has described as suffering everlasting punishment in the world below... No, Callicles, the very bad men come from the class of those who have power. And yet in that very class there may arise good men, and worthy of all admiration they are, for where there is great power to do wrong, to live and to die justly is a hard thing, and greatly to be praised, and few there are who attain to this... But, in general, great men are also bad, my friend.
These are but the conclusions. Through his own eristic method, Socrates again and again returns to the moral inadequacies of the powerful and wealthy of Athens, and even those thought to be ‘great statesmen’ – and he points particularly to the failures of these last to educate their own children to be virtuous in the same way they themselves were (if virtue is indeed a form of knowledge which can even be taught). Callicles speaks up as a voice of desire and cunning, defending the principle that it is right for the powerful to take what they please and to satisfy themselves according to their power… and Socrates, thinking he has at last found an interrogator on whose honesty he can rely, answers Callicles in earnest and attempts to push this logic to its conclusion – but Callicles shies away from the implications of his own thinking, and returns to sniping at Socrates’ techniques of speech. It is thus left to Socrates to draw the distinction between those who can (like cooks) sway the appetites and desires of the masses, and those who truly have their interests at heart, and can (like physicians) prescribe the harder medicines of justice and moderation.

And then in the Meno we find one of the students of Gorgias – like Alcibiades, a high-born and perilous young beauty with full awareness of his physical advantages – who (rather unlike Alcibiades) has difficulty even responding cogently to Socrates’ questions about what defines colour and shape, let alone extrapolating those insights by analogy to questions of virtue. And yet it is Meno’s slave – a young boy who has never been taught and who was raise all the time inside Meno’s house – who proves himself to have the powers of humility and self-reflection by which true knowledge (and thus true virtue) can be attained. To a classical Greek audience, which would have considered Meno the superior of his slave in the capacity for virtue by reason of his birth and upbringing, this would indeed have been a scandal. And the appearance of Anytus at the end, who takes offence at Socrates’ teaching and makes veiled threats which foreshadow his trial, drives this point quite nicely home. Plato is propounding a very radical view of virtue in between these two Dialogues, which are tied together, ironically, by Socrates’ having conveniently ‘forgotten’ his conversation in the Gorgias (the lessons of which we are called upon to remember, just as the slave-child ‘remembered’ how to produce a square with exactly twice the area as the one Socrates showed him).

The deliberate (and ironic) juxtaposition of these two Dialogues in Plato’s canon, Gorgias and Meno, is not meant merely to show us that it is immensely difficult for wealthy citizens like Callicles or Meno to attain to true knowledge and virtue (one might even say, easier for them to pass through a needle’s eye than to attain this knowledge), or merely to show that true knowledge, and thus also virtue, is accessible as well to common people and even slaves. There’s something deeper going on here, whereby Plato is attempting to show that the desires, the will and the instincts of the Athenian citizenry are ruling tyrannically over their powers of reason and their humility, just as Meno does over his slave. And just as Meno has left his slave unlettered and untaught, so too the Athenian citizens have neglected their higher natures. There is a specific form of ‘remembering’ to which Plato is calling those Athenians with ears to hear – a remembering that has only analogically to do with geometric figures.

Because it’s clear, between the arc that runs between the Protagoras and the Gorgias, and between the Gorgias and the Meno, that Plato is getting at the idea that beauty and justice and truth are realities that have an existence surpassing any of their specific instances, an existence which runs parallel to shape and colour and mathematics, these realities can be known but not directly taught. Most importantly, these realities are not always where you expect them to be found. (Indeed, very rarely so!)

There is indeed a great deal in Plato’s writings that is not directly compatible with Christianity, but at the same time the overlap is noteworthy! It’s clear that the Early Church Fathers made his works an object of study and selective use, for a very good reason.

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