Saturday, 27 April 2013

Apology of Socrates


Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot? asks Yeats. To which we reply, ‘well no Willie’ not really and we break into the great lines of Auden:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
(In Memory of W.B. Yeats)

Prose, plain and fancy, can make things happen and the words that call words into question have wrought mischief. Philosophers seek to interpret the world and so on and so on. If anyone was wordy it was Socrates, the word on the street of Ancient Athens. That word seemed a token that we might spend in our own talking shops here:
- Can I have a kg. of imponderables, and a definition? That one should be cheap, it’s bruised but good enough. Throw it in as a tilly.

Last week I bought second hand, €2, a Socrates source book compiled by John Ferguson put out by the Open University (1970), a cheap production, shoddy cover, shoddy paper with that unmistakable whiff. It is like something you might find in a pile on the pavement of a book bazaar in Bombay and the seller saying as he dusted it with strips of cloth attached to a cane:
- Socrates, aatcha, philosopher wallah, like Gandhi, satyagraha.

All the ancient authors that had some observations on the man are included and they do what Socrates himself would have approved of - they disabuse us of simplisms and received opinion. Diogenes Laertius, Xenophon, Libanius etc. Ferguson includes citations from a great many Christian writers who are in general approving of Socrates as a pagan who strove against the fog of error and depreciated the gods.

In that particular approach they are being misled by Plato’s Apology which stresses the dissing the gods part of the indictment. What is elided in that selective document is the corruption of youth not in the sense that some of the Christian authors took it but as understood by the Athenians of the day. Boys were initiated into political and cultural life by older free men of their own upper class. Sex, generally non penetrative, was possibly part of ritual humiliation, to put you in your place and make you receptive. It is difficult to understand from our perspective but this mentoring had a moral dimension to it. One was responsible for one’s youths, they reflected your influence. Critias and Alcibiades had both been ‘influenced’ by Socrates and therefore their doings were damming. There was no point trying to get out of that so the best strategy was to divert the jury by lopping off one limb of the charge and indicating that he was no creature of the tyrants or Critias in order to cast doubt on the corruption of youth which was the gravamen. It was a close majority verdict and that explains why he did not use the public exposure that the trial gave him to give a speech from the dock in the Wolfe Tone manner. He might have got off. Once condemned however he became insolent in order to make his mark. Make no mistake about it, Socrates was an anti-democratic figure and used his death to say for all time - this is judicial murder, this is what your fine demos gets up to, and my accuser Anytus a tanner, really. His son was a spirited boy though.

7 comments:

skholiast said...

Socrates was indeed highly ambivalent, at best, about democracy. But (assuming we trust him) Plato has Alcibiades complain that Socrates declined to "influence" him, despite his rather insistent willingness. "Making things happen" is certainly not a laurel Socrates would have denied to the poets, and though he seems not to have cared much for some of what happened, he grants poets a share of the divine madness. In any case, "corrupting the youth" seems semi-plausible if we grant that kids those days were probably looking for a reason to question their elders; "atheism" is a different matter though. I think Socrates makes a good case for being the most religious one in the city. In some ways I feel like these two charges match Socrates' two claims of knowledge ("I know i know nothing;" "I know about love.") But I can't quite decide which matches which.

ombhurbhuva said...

His caste system in the republic, souls of gold, bronze etc. and the eugenical rigging of the lots, the aristocratic system that Socrates (Plato’s) espoused all I think put him near to systems that we would not characterise as democratic.

The charge of atheism was easily countered in the Apology but he did not really address the corruption of youth which was the gravamen. Four quotes from Homer are mentioned in his defense but Libanius who probably had the Accusations by Polycrates before him refers to 6. Significantly the two that were left out showed him hearkening back to the high handed ancient ways before democracy, Hector beating up a soldier for questioning him, if I remember rightly, was one.

Obviously we are going on Plato’s portrait which may be self-serving as he was a scion of the aristocracy.

leighandharriet said...

I do see what you mean about the doings of Critias and Alcibiades, and that they were linked to Socrates, and therefore were somewhat damning to him. But I'm not convinced that the "corruption of youth" charge was meant in the way you're talking about, as the sexual use of young men for the pleasures (sexual and egotistical) of the older ones was par for the course. In other words, why on earth would the Athenian men have prosecuted Socrates for something they were all doing, and thought was perfectly legitimate? I believe that the "corruption of youth" charge had more to do with the way Socrates was openly questioning the status quo, and encouraging the young men to do the same. I think that the corruption was more intellectual and possibly spiritual, and less sexual. This may be the later, more Christian reading, but again — I have a hard time envisioning Socrates being prosecuted for a perfectly normal Athenian activity.

ombhurbhuva said...

Hi:
I think you’re misreading me. Here’s the significant element:
 Boys were initiated into political and cultural life by older free men of their own upper class. Sex, generally non penetrative, was possibly part of ritual humiliation, to put you in your place and make you receptive. It is difficult to understand from our perspective but this mentoring had a moral dimension to it. One was responsible for one’s youths, they reflected your influence. Critias and Alcibiades had both been ‘influenced’ by Socrates and therefore their doings were damming.

The actions of Alcibiades that were disapproved of were not his sexual relation to Socrates but his political ones. The Wikipedia article on him is clear on that point. Socrates was blamed for not having trained him properly.

leighandharriet said...

I definitely understood what you meant about Socrates influencing Alcibiades and Critias! The introduction to Robin Waterfield's translation of the Symposium has a great explanation of how the erastai/eromenos relationships functioned in ancient Greece (though he mostly focused on Athens). I was more wondering what the reasons are for interpreting the "corruption of youth" charge that way, since, as skholiast mentioned, Alcibiades couldn't even talk Socrates into "influencing" him (though certainly Socrates taught him; I just don't think it goes without saying that they had sexual relations), and I haven't come across other evidence to suggest such a reading.

I've only ever read Plato on these subjects - i.e., I haven't researched what other contemporaries might have said about the corruption of youth charge against Socrates. The Wikipedia article you mentioned (which was very helpful, by the way) only quotes one scholar as suggesting that Alcibiades' behavior "strengthened" the charge against Socrates. I see two issues here. The first is that, according to the same article, scholars are heavily divided about Alcibiades, so it would seem unwise to rely exclusively on Meiggs. And the second issue is that Meiggs isn't suggesting that Alcibiades' behavior was even the cause of the charge, only that it strengthened the charge.

I'm not exactly trying to say that I think you're "wrong" in your suggestion on the corruption of youth charge. I was more wondering whether this is your interpretation, based on what we know about the erastai/eromenos relations of ancient Greek aristocrats, or if it was something that was widely accepted by scholars and I just wasn't aware of it.

ombhurbhuva said...

Leigh:
After the year of the 30 Tyrants (404-403 B.C.) during which Socrates stayed in Athens and during which Critias one of his pupils purged the population , when the Tyrants were defeated an amnesty was declared and no one could be prosecuted for crimes committed during that time. Resentment against Socrates could not be expressed directly so a device had to be found. Not of course that there was no basis at all for the charges, Socrates was openly anti-democratic.
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/socratesaccount.html
is a lucid account of the proceedings.

Leigh Bell said...

Wow. I just realized I never replied to your last comment. I only mean to write back and say that I did read the link to the famous trials website, and it was fascinating. (Also nice to get an angle that isn't from the academic philosophy realm.)