Plato and that crowd…

This happens regularly: Somebody with a fleeting or better acquaintance with Plato or Socrates will mention how crazy they were about something, and that, while maybe paying lip-service to the ongoing need not to neglect history, will say that, really, we’ve got it all a lot better figured out now-a-days.

Don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.

Couple examples: One gentleman on a discussion group I’m in is just positive than Plato via Socrates is a deceitful apologist for the Athenian elites, using his wiles to seduce people into trying to behave virtuously in some pure, abstract sense that happens to play into the hands of the people who have power. His proof-text is the Republic. He also thinks the Socratic Method is a fraud, because Socrates always leads his interlocutors by the nose wherever he wants to go.

Another: today’s NYT has an opinion piece dragging Socrates into the current fray over censoring excessively graphic and violent video games in California. Socrates, again in the Republic, speaks in favor of heavy censorship of – of all people – Homer, for the harmful way the Iliad and the Odyssey portray heroes and gods. The comments section contains a whole bunch of Plato-bashing, or worse, Plato-dismissing. (You bash somebody who’s views you care about at least on some level, granting them in the process some degree of respect; you dismiss inferiors.)

The text of the Republic reveals, in that mysterious way the written word has of conveying information, that it’s not as simple as all that. Read a bunch of Socratic Dialogues (I’ve read them all at least once), and it gets more curious – that Socrates guy is not above pulling somebody’s leg, or even toying with people who imagine they’re in his league, but aren’t. His major goal, when he has one, is to leave people not so sure about what they were sure about before they spoke with him. As far as imparting a coherent philosophy to his talk-buddies, that doesn’t seem real high on his to-do list. The overall impression is: this is a really, really smart guy who is picking his spots – he’s  way too smart to read some rote summary of his views to all comers. regardless of where they’re coming from. He uses whatever it is that his interlocutor is interested in as a means to – what? Getting them to think a little, maybe?

Further, while I loathe the whole ‘deconstruction’ thing with every fiber of my being (see: Sokal Affair), it doesn’t hurt to ask: what was going on in Athens when Socrates wrote this stuff? A little context can often shed a whole different light on things.  Surely it is not a coincidence that he describes an ‘ideal’ city in the Republic that is a purified and glorified reflection of Sparta, which happened to be occupying Athens at the time this dialogue is set? Every Athenian child took in with his mother’s milk that Athens was glorious, free and brave, inhabited by the most god-like men yet to walk the earth – and here it is, under the heel of Sparta, always caricatured by the Athenians as a bunch of thick-headed rubes whose only claim to fame was success in war.

( BTW, the Athenians had been winning the war with Sparta they had just lost for years before they overreached (hey, just like in those Greek Tragedies!) and screwed it up with hubris. Maybe, you know, this whole ‘is Sparta really better than Athens?’ question was on everybody’s mind.)

So Socrates, in keeping with his behavior in *virtually every other freakin’ dialogue* uses what’s on everybody’s mind to get the thinking going – he premises his arguments on *Sparta’s* premises, purified so as to appeal to his audience. He then takes his buds through the long path to where those premises lead. Where they lead is NO FUN AT ALL. No Homer. No families. No freedom. Nuthin’

And leaves it at that. Because, again, he’s a really smart guy.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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