Socrates must die

Socrates was a peculiar person, possessed of uncanny powers of attentive focus that enabled him to ignore all kinds of weather – whether meteorological, emotional, or socio-political. He was indifferent to outer circumstance, a man out of time, regarding the nationalist politics of exceptionalism as irrelevant to the personal pursuit of excellence. In times like ours this may be the best possible news.

How can we best imagine his predicament, going against the tide of popular sentiment in 4th century BCE Athens, insisting on asking his own questions and charting his own path to virtue? Goldstein suggests a parallel with “those in our own day who are at a loss to say how there can be virtue independent of the word of God.” They can’t fathom being good without god, just as Socrates’ accusers couldn’t grasp the point of his “examined life.” 

He disingenuity didn’t help, pretending to bask enthusiastically in the light of his contemporaries’ conventional pieties while setting verbal traps to catch them out in their un-wisdom. His encounter with Euthyprho was especially consequential for subsequent generations of freethinkers, “persuasively arguing that a belief in god(s) cannot provide the philosophical grounding for morality.”

Why does Plato “relegate Socrates to the sidelines” in The Sophist? Goldstein speculates that he’s trying to make a point about the non-indispensability of any one philosopher, and to warn against the infatuated bias of those who specialize in just one historical figure – Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, whoever – and cannot then consider alternative possible worldviews. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” That’s over-compensating, if you ask me.

Did Plato really believe in immortality, as in eternal life to come in a temporal boundless heaven? He probably envisioned a “less Christian and more Greek” form of infinitude, involving an infusion into one’s natural life of “the vastness of beauty outside ourselves” and a corresponding shrinking of ego to fit a wider impersonal identity. 

That may not satisfy most of us, whether we aspire to a heavenly afterlife or not. As Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” But Woody should read Samuel Scheffler‘s Death and the Afterlife.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Indeed. Plato’s about to encounter a boatload of it in the next chapter, when he meets an O’Reilly-like talking head. We should pay close attention to how he wades through it, dignity intact. Our era is anything but a no-spin zone, and we need to prepare for heavy weather.

6:13/6:27, 40/76, 4:36

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