Socrates & Plato

Western philosophy began well before Socrates, but we’ll leave the pre-Socratics to themselves for now and pretend that Socrates was indeed the first (western) philosopher. We’ll also soft-pedal Bertrand Russell’s judgment (later shared by Izzy Stone) that the Platonic Socrates is “dishonest and sophistical in argument… smug and unctuous… not scientific in his thinking… [guilty of] treachery to truth” and so on. If the esteemed Socrates-as-paragon and personification of intellectual integrity (“I’d rather die than give up my philosophy” etc.) didn’t exist we’d have had to invent him. Perhaps Plato did.

In the southern part of Europe is a little country called Greece… the Greeks have lived in it for more than three thousand years. In olden times they believed that before they came to the land it was the home of the gods, and they used to tell wonderful stories

And then Socrates came along to challenge some of those stories. (There actually were some important pre-Socratics like Thales and Democritus already challenging what everybody knew, but we’re jumping ahead in our Little History.) And that’s why, from a western philosopher’s point of view, the Greeks matter.

The old Parthenon must have been lovely, but I think ours is prettier nowadays. And btw, our Parthenon’s city (“The Athens of the South”) is hot (as in cool) lately. 

??????????

[There’s a new theory about the old Parthenon, btw. Horses and riders, youths and elders, men and women, animals being led to sacrifice: What is the Parthenons frieze telling us?”… more]

Socrates, from Alopece, near Athens, asked a lot of questions. Like Gilda Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna. Like Bertrand Russell:


In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.


Did curiosity kill the philosopher? No, a narrow plurality of 500 jurors did. (His unrepentant attitude during sentencing didn’t help, either.) They convicted him of “impiety” (atheism) and corrupting the youth of Athens. One more reason I’m lucky to live in the 21st century: I don’t like hemlock. I’m like Woody Allen, that way. (But if shocking new allegations are true, hemlock may be too good for him.) Steve Martin (did I mention that he was a philosophy major?) had a go at it too. Here’s a good Discussion Question: what would you do, in Socrates’ cell?

He was “snub-nosed, podgy, shabby and a bit strange,” says our text. “He was ugly,” says podcastee Mary McCabe. But brilliant and charismatic too, as gadflies go.  Said he had nothing to teach, but those around him (including young Plato) said they learned plenty from him, especially how 

to discuss with others in this open-minded, open-ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think, without dictating, without dogma, without insistence, and without imperative… to be true to themselves: to be sincere about their beliefs and to be honest… and to have some respect for their companion.

 If that’s not good teaching, what is? 

The annotated and hyperlinked Last Days of Socrates is a gripping and inspiring tale, whether or not its hero was really as heroic through all the days of his life as Plato and his other admirers would have us believe. The honored pedestal version of this gadfly remains a worthy ideal for philosophy.

http://ift.tt/1sZg2H0


Plato, they say, could stick it away…” –they being Monty Python. And the late great Hitch sang it too, sorta. But Plato was a serious and sober fellow, in Reality, usually capitalizing that word to distinguish it from mere appearance. The everyday world is not at all what it appears to be, he said. If you want Truth and Reality and the Good, get out of your cave and go behold the Forms. He seemed to think that’s what his hero Socrates had done. I’m not so sure. But read the relevant Platonic dialogues telling the tragic and inspiring story of the last days of Socrates and see what you think.


He also had interesting thoughts about love and eros, as expressed through his constant dialogue character “Socrates” (who may or may not have spoken faithfully for his martyred namesake) in Symposium.  Angie Hobbs says Plato rejected Aristophanes’ mythic notion that we all have one unique other “half,” formerly parts of our hermaphroditic spherical selves, that would complete us and make us happy. But he defended a view some of us find equally implausible, the idea that the true and highest love spurns (or spins upward from) particular persons and embraces the Form of Beauty.

The Form of Beauty “is always going to be there for you,” but on the other hand “it’s never going to love you back.” Unrequited affection is hardly what most of us think of as Perfect Love. There’s a myth for you. This really was an early foreshadowing of the phenomenon recently deplored in the Stone, our modern turn to abstraction and virtual experience in lieu of immediacy and reality and touch. (“Losing Our Touch“, nyt). Reminds me, too, of Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away.

We romantics (as Angie Hobbs pronounces herself, and as I confess to being too) should know better than to seek a perfect match. We should know better than to think that any enduring relationship can be wholly free of “pain, fragility, and transience.” Those are inevitable parts of the story and the glory of human (as against Ideal, Platonic, Perfect) love, no? Just ask Cecil the Butler about Sidney Poitier. 

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