16 June 2018

Who knows?

One of the complaints that Socrates’ critics – especially the elder Athenian statesmen and Sophists, and this is particularly significant – had of him was that he was constantly carrying on about ‘shoemakers and carpenters and smiths’. This was particularly true of the tyrant Critias, who has a half-dozen ready answers to the question Socrates asks him about moderation in the Charmides. This looks like knowledge of truth, of course – but it isn’t. Critias understands enough of rhetoric to appear as though he has gnōsis, but he doesn’t actually have it. Which is particularly frustrating coming off the end of that first tetralogy of Plato’s, where all he does is raise aporias which deflate all our readerly pretensions to knowledge. Critias has the answers! we want to cry. Just let him give them to us! But Plato wants us to see and understand, through Socrates’ cross-examination of Critias, the danger in that.

Let me put this another way. Plato is an élitist insofar as he distrusts the wisdom of ‘the many’ and believes the government should be in the hands of the wise and virtuous. But his élitism is often badly caricatured by his late-coming readers. He is by no means an apologist for the wealthy or propertied, for the status quo. He is actually most eager to deflate the public intellectuals of his day, the Sophists and their students, the ‘serious men’ of the Athenian ship of state – the sort whom Alcibiades was wont to be wooed by. He raises the questions among the statesmen like Critias. He goes to the ‘wisest’ and ‘worthiest’ teachers of the men of means he can find: Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias and Polus. Each time he leaves mostly unsatisfied, in the dark, more confused than before.

So where does Socrates go to find the truth? Well, ultimately, he dies for it. He goes to trial before the Athenians and is judged for his doubts about democracy and about the gods, for corrupting the youth – but most of all, for making the intelligent and ‘serious men’ (the Friedmans and Krugmans, the Pinkers and Chaits, the Coateses and Fukuyamas of his time) look like the fools they truly were. For Plato, the first glimpse we get of the truly true and the really real – the nous bending itself to ‘remember’ some kind of formal wisdom which transcends it – is actually in the Meno. But it’s not Meno himself who utters it! It’s not Meno who experiences metanoia. It’s Meno’s slave!

This is an important point, and these reflections are actually thanks to Rebecca Bratten Weiss and her excellent take on the ‘Western canon’. She points out, with no small degree of well-intentioned mischief, that Plato delighted in subverting the expectations of his audience. She cites Plato’s Symposium and how it’s the voice of Diotima ‘breaking in on the sausage party’ to deliver the most convincing of the tributes to erōs. Or when Socrates uses a scandalously feminine analogy for himself, likening himself to a midwife in the Theætetus (and, by extension, his male students to mothers of thought). So when we see Meno’s slave committing and then correcting – by and from himself – a mathematical error in calculating the area of a square, it must be taken both symbolically (that in Meno the ‘noetic’ faculty is enslaved to the will and to the animal ‘mind’), but also literally. For Plato, the philosopher can come from anywhere. The philosopher might even be a cobbler or a smith or a carpenter. Or a foreigner or a woman or a slave.

In the Apology, Socrates lambastes, each in their turn, the statesmen, the sophists, and then the poets, and then the common workmen of Athens. The statesman earns the harshest and most absolute of rebukes, the full brunt of Socrates’ mockery, followed by the sophist, whose pretensions to philosophical wisdom are even higher than the statesman’s. Socrates has a bit more patience with the poets, but he ultimately dismisses what they have to offer of ‘wisdom’ because he finds that they are merely intuiting it rather than knowing; their ‘wisdom’ comes as a kind of irrational ‘genius’ or ‘inspiration’, and the Muses may bestow or take it at their pleasure. It’s actually the working men, the craftsmen, who come off the best in Socrates’ Apology; even though he judges that the artisans ‘fell into the same error as the poets’, at least in this case Plato’s Socrates softens the blow, saying this error is actually based upon a real form of knowledge. A cobbler makes good shoes; a smith makes good pots; a carpenter makes good chairs. Among the Athenians they are the ones closest to the Good, but they don’t yet quite have it. They are removed from the Good as far as a painter is removed from the craft of the material he paints.

Socrates clearly demonstrates the ability of the hoi polloi (like Meno’s slave) to love wisdom, even though this ability is for the most part latent. And yet… Socrates largely speaks with, and attempts to teach, the ‘perilous young men’ of Athens, the privileged sons of the aristocracy. These are the ones he is charged by the Athenian assembly of ‘corrupting’. These are the ones who are – in his view – most in danger of the real corruptions of a Critias (who, you will note, gets very close to the ‘beautiful’ youth Charmides). The ‘élitism’ of Socrates and Plato is one which acknowledges the deep dangers of élite rule! The failures of Socrates – the ones for which he must truly be ‘tried’ – are those in which his students remained strangers to his teaching and flocked instead to the rhetorical promises of the tyrants.

Though I suspect his philosophical sources are more Bergsonian than they are Platonist (and this is certainly a topic I will have to come back to at a later time, given Bergson’s influence on Liang Shuming and the Arab nationalists), Metropolitan Georges Khodr of Byblos and Botrys has this to say: ‘Spiritual discernment does not acquit a person of his own political responsibilities. In order to build the perfect city, it is necessary to handle bricks, stone and steel.’ I must wonder if Plato wouldn’t agree.

When Socrates attempts to lead his two interlocutors toward discerning the nature of justice, and viewing it in ‘large print’ in the ‘city in speech’, Adeimantus begins with the producing class and the question of labour – this is the ‘city of utmost necessity’. Justice does not yet appear in Adeimantus’ necessitarian city of producers, but at the same time, justice cannot appear without it. And when a workable notion of justice finally does appear in the Republic, it is expressly in connexion with work. Justice cannot be done without doing. I have said it before, but once again: it is grossly unfair to Plato to paint him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist or a gnostic who tried to build up a world of pure ratiocination. It’s true that he wanted us to ‘forget the body’ temporarily when considering justice, but he was equally insistent that we can’t forget it forever! And that is why, in the second half of the Republic, Socrates must talk Adeimantus and Glaucon down from their spiritual vision of the Good at the mouth of the cave, shared in silent awe, and back into the cave where they must work to enlighten others. It’s left as an open question whether Glaucon in particular is up to the task.

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