Friday, November 28, 2014

‘An honest man is always in trouble’

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David, oil on canvas, 1787.
On exhibit at the Met, located only three blocks from our meeting.

“When I leave this court I shall go away condemned by you to death, but [my accusers] will go away convicted by Truth herself of depravity and wickedness. And they accept their sentence even as I accept mine.”

It is not intentional, but I really have been remiss in updating The Magpie with news of recent events—Masonic, Rosicrucian, and other experiences of recent months. This one took place at the School of Practical Philosophy on East 79th Street the Sunday before last. “The Trial of Socrates” was the day-long program, involving readings from Plato’s Apology, lots of group discussion, and watching a brief couple of scenes of a relevant film. Plus a surprisingly great Greek vegetarian lunch midway, and a wine reception afterward. The best Sunday I’ve had in some time.

So what is Plato’s Apology? First, an understanding of the word. Here it does not signify any expression of remorse. “Apology” derives from the ancient Greek word “apologia,” meaning a formal rebuttal tendered by a defendant in court.

My own copy of the text comes from one of those Walter J. Black Classics Club books from 1941. (I haunt used book sales in the hope of assembling a complete 44-volume set.) Apology actually is a chapter in the book Five Great Dialogues by Plato, as translated by Professor Benjamin Jowett, a luminary at Oxford University in the nineteenth century. Here is the Introduction, penned by Professor Louise Ropes Loomis:

It is the year 399 B.C. Four years ago Athens drove out the bloody terror of the Thirty, which the Spartans had set up to govern her after their victory in the Peloponnesian War. She has restored her democratic constitution, but hardly yet begun to recover from the shock of her terrible defeat and humiliation. Her citizens are embittered, suspicious, eager to blame anyone and everyone for the mistakes and failures of the past. In this year Socrates, now seventy years of age, is accused by three men, Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, of the formidable crimes of corrupting the youth of the city and professing to disbelieve in the ancestral gods. Of the accusers themselves we know almost nothing. Meletus and Lycon, we hear, resent especially Socrates’ attitude toward the current fashions in poetry and other literature. Anytus is angered by Socrates’ outspoken criticism of the narrow commercial training he is giving his only son. But the charge they bring is such as to stir up superstitious fears of sacrilege and moral uneasiness in the popular mind. Several of Socrates’ old pupils have indeed been involved in the disgraceful events of recent years. His case comes before a citizen court of five hundred and one jurors, a majority vote being sufficient to convict.

The Apology is Plato’s version of his master’s speech in his own defense, written down possibly within two or three years after its delivery. That Plato was present and heard it we know from Socrates; allusions to him [are within the text]. How nearly he has reproduced Socrates’ very words we cannot, of course, judge. As it comes to us, the Apology is actually three speeches. In the first, Socrates, fearlessly and with much play of ironical humor, refutes not only the formal charges contained in the plaintiffs’ immediate indictment, but also the slanderous stories circulated about him by his enemies in years past. He explains and justifies his way of life and religious beliefs, and in a sharp bit of cross-examination exposes the insincerity of the quickly befuddled Meletus. At the close, the court votes him guilty by the comparatively small majority of sixty. The penalty for his offense has next to be determined, since it comes under no existing law. The accusers demand a verdict of death. By rule of court, however, the culprit may propose a counter penalty, the jurors then to choose between the two. In a short second speech, Socrates, less conciliatory and more hotly defiant than before, proposes that instead of punishment he receive the reward of a distinguished citizen, honorable maintenance at the public expense. If he must pay something, he may with his friends help scrape together enough for a moderate fine. The court, annoyed, we may suppose, by what seems his obstinate frivolity, votes to approve the death sentence. In his final words, Socrates, now calm again, accepts the decision and bids his judges and fellow-citizens farewell.

I cannot reproduce here the entire text, which runs about twenty-seven pages in the book, but I’ll share some of the passages that got our attention during the group discussions. If you ever have caught hell for telling the truth—I mean really paid a price—then this is a must read, but everyone should be familiar with this Socratic Dialogue. We didn’t begin at the beginning, but we did start early on. Here Socrates explains to the court how he came to be renowned as the wisest of men:

And here, O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit, and will tell you about my wisdom—whether I have any, and of what sort—and that witness shall be the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether—as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt—he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.

Why do I mention this? Because I am going to explain to you why I have such an evil name. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, What can the god mean? And what is the interpretation of this riddle? For I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men? And yet he is a god and cannot lie; that would be against his nature. After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him—his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me—the word of God, I thought, ought to be considered first. And I said to myself, Go I must to all who appear to know, and find out the meaning of the oracle. And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!—for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better.

So, it’s a good way to make enemies. Assess the big shots you see in life, and usually see them rightly as empty suits. After spending some time conferring with politicians, poets, and artisans to gauge their knowledge, assuming each to be far more knowing than himself, he found them to be lacking in “high matters.”

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god.

Addressing the nature of the punishment that awaits him, Socrates invokes a stoicism that would be familiar to Master Masons:

Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong—acting the part of a good man or of a bad. Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mother said to him, in his eagerness to slay Hector, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself—“Fate,” as she said, “waits upon you next after Hector.” He, hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor, and not to avenge his friend. “Let me die next,” he replies, “and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth.” Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.

In the end, Socrates is left to face his death sentence, and to ponder the nature of the afterlife. Twenty-four centuries after, we still study Socrates, but his persecutors are unknown, long forgotten, except as their names appear in this ancient literature.

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things: Either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king, will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too! What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions! For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.

Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth: that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance. But I see clearly that to die and be released was better for me; and therefore the oracle gave no sign. For which reason also, I am not angry with my accusers, or my condemners; they have done me no harm, although neither of them meant to do me any good; and for this I may gently blame them.

Still I have a favor to ask of them. When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

The title of this edition of The Magpie Mind comes not from Plato or Socrates, but from Henry Fool. Google it, and go to your favorite source of movie downloads.

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