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:
(In Memory of W.B. Yeats)
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.
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.