Author Archives: jacob clark

Forget John Galt, Who Is Socrates?

Originally, my idea for this post was going to be somewhat angry. Not annoyed, mind you. I was thinking up a full on, bile-spitting rant of hate directed at Plato and the mob of spineless sycophants he transparently manipulates to make his opinions seem sagacious and effective. There’s a clear basis for this, especially with Adeimantus, a thoroughly uninvolved and transparent character whose only real lines are booming approval, even willingness to vote on, the arrogant and pseudointellectual convictions of a supposedly ignorant man. No joke, several of the many Post-Its in my copy of the text are just telling him to shut up. For a man who wants his disciples to live the unexamined life, Socrates seems to be fine with blind obeisance to his dictums, and maintains that almost all literature containing any kind of emotionally reactive (and therefore perspective-inducing) potential be eliminated, so as to better ensure that the citizens of his kallipolis adhere mindlessly to their niches under the watchful eye of a philosophical ruling class. And as I was preparing to wind myself up to deliver this rant, I realized something very important. Specifically, that Plato, as the writer, is using Socrates as a mouthpiece.

Not an earth-shattering revelation, certainly, but it raises some interesting questions. Socrates exists entirely out of context for us save for the writings of Plato and Xenophon, both of whom identified as his students. Both men recounted his discourses, his relationship with his students, his wife, the sophists, and the Athenian government that ultimately ordered his death. In considering this, I’m given to a bizarre conjecture – did Socrates actually exist?

Plato and Xenophon were similarly inclined, in the philosophical sense. Both were dyed-in-the-wool elitists, with Plato’s ideal state being a caste-based dictatorship and Xenophon being an outspoken supporter of Sparta, an authoritarian nation even by Ancient Greek standards. Today, we take them seriously, but I’m a suspicious man not inclined to trust such obviously self-aggrandizing text, and I theorize that Socrates never existed. He was a collective construct, made to express the views of a demographic that knew the price of speaking one’s mind. His identification with the gadfly is essentially an admittance of this purpose, which both used to make him a martyr in their renditions of the Apology.

Basically, I’m thinking Plato, Xenophon and a few other aristocratic lads created a philosophical Dread Pirate Roberts. The wisest man alive (Plato), or the most free, just and sound of mind (Xenophon), who accomplishes his brilliance through feigned ignorance. I can picture Plato, the young ideologue, expounding on his slant of the ideal city, and somebody (possibly a still-surly Thrasymachus) standing to challenge him, only for the caviling worm to lay his argument at the feet of that great unwashed genius, Socrates, of whom he is just a student. The trial could’ve been complete fiction, and once the written account is circulated, I’m guessing a few citizens could recall sitting in on the trial of some youth-corrupter who could have been Socrates. If there were refutations, they’ve been lost to time, as have many of the period’s texts. Socrates, as a character, was a legend in his own time, but not a public figure (he was pilloried by Aristophanes, but was never recorded as challenging him on it), and lived in vagrant-like conditions according to some accounts. It would be easy to say you’ve missed him, or didn’t peg him for a great philosopher, but Plato here will be glad to fill you in on his opinions.

I’ve grown to truly resent Plato’s views for over the course of this reading, especially given the modern context of totalitarianism that Russel and Popper railed against. He’s elitist, condescending and openly hateful of democracy. For a man so hell-bent on temperance (a word that reminds me of Prohibition, a concept that I just hate to my core), his views are pretty absolutist. His idea of government is you ceding your freedom to him and his ilk because you’re too stupid and uncontrollable to use it. I’ve gone past wanting to refute his arguments and more into the territory of having imagination segues involving confronting the man with a lumber ax. Now, if I’m right, he’s also a huckster and a coward. If I’m wrong, well, at least I’m least I’m making that conjecture under my own name.

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Six Obols None the Richer

C.S. Lewis was mentioned in the lecture today, which reminded me, of all things, of a song from a 90s teen movie. The movie is She’s All That (Pygmalion in high school, not stellar), and the song is ‘Kiss Me’. It’s a silly love song (…and what’s wrong with that?…), but I like it and find it touching. Anyway, the band responsible for this ditty is Sixpence None the Richer, and they are named after a passage from Mere Christianity, a book that set the man we know and love as the creator of Narnia in the role of lay theologian. The passage, in this case, is a metaphor. A boy asks his father to give him sixpence, so he can buy a present…for his father. The father is happy to receive the gift despite gaining no corporeal benefit by it. Lewis’s analogy is that man should serve God humbly, because He is the source of their ability to do so in the first place (giving us the resources to serve just as the father gives his boy the sixpence). Which brings me to lines 1105-1159 (pg. 62-63), where the Chorus waxes contemplative about the gods.

Now, I read this passage as the Chorus coming to a painful realization about fate, divinity and life itself (I’ll try to refer to it/them in the singular from here on in, as they’re more of a construct representing the older, male, established citizens of Athens that defined the culture). The Chorus starts by invoking the laws made in heaven, not earth, controlling and limiting their actions, laws made not by men, but deathless gods. Think about this for a second: the laws that govern the lion’s share of expectations and standards, to which dozens of rituals and sacrifices are made, and to which the penalties include both human damage (exile, death) and the looming fear of divine retribution (lightning strikes, plagues), are being made by immortal dilettantes who rarely if ever are in a position to feel any of their consequences.

If you think this sounds like tyranny, it seems like the Chorus agrees with you, as in the next set of lines they describe the arrogance of these dictators and hope for their fall, and quickly back up to ask for solace as honest men. The supplication to Apollo (the god of medicine and plague, who would be theologically responsible for the illness ravaging the city) seems more sarcastic at this point, as these (presumably) honest men get riled up about how evil men can escape retribution, while they’re living in terror.

Then, the chorus has its Batman moment. The realization where they look at the situation and go ‘hey, I can do something’, specifically just refuse to waste their time on the gods that are jerking them around. They even go so far as to question the authority of Zeus, which is miles past stupid and verging into suicidal in a world where divinely-empowered lightning strikes are a justified fear. The ending line is the ultimate challenge: ‘nothing of the gods stays’. If immortals aren’t capable of making their actions last, what does that say about their competency, or their existence?

The Chorus’ impression of faith, then, seems like the reverse of Lewis’. They pay their tributes, sacrifice their animals, give their time to rituals of devotion, all to continue going about their lives, constantly praying for boons from entities to whom they may as well be overgrown mayflies. They give and they give, and the gods may not even care, because what can humans do? I read this as the kind of life-shattering revelation that comes with questions like “Have I ever really loved my wife?” “Have I wasted my life on this job I hate?” “Have I failed as a father/husband/brother/son?” The Chorus has paid their tribute, and from this passage, it seems that they want their money back.

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Screwed Either Way

My impression of the story of Oedipus, at least at this point, is that the man starts the play in a situation of immense pressure, and that makes his demise is circumstantially inevitable. As a benevolent king, he cares about his people, and takes it upon himself to solve their problems. It would make some sense, then, that at least one of the issues that would surface down the road would be the death of his predecessor on the throne. After that, it’s all downhill…

In many ways, he’s a victim of the expectations he’s set for himself. When your debut involves sending a riddle-loving monster to Hades without lifting a finger, people are going to put stock in what you say even without the office of absolute monarch. I’m not sure whether to argue for fate here; Greek drama favors influences beyond the sphere of human influence (either through all-powerful fate or godly intervention), but I personally don’t, and the text is deeply rooted in the ambiguity of fate and free will. Oedipus is offered at least three solid outs: first by Kreon asking if he would like to discuss the oracle’s prediction in private, then Teiresias’ obstinacy, and finally Jocasta’s attempt to cool him off after she puts things together just ahead of him. I wouldn’t count the shepherd, because Oedipus is monomaniacally committed enough at that point to use violence to find the answer he’s looking for; still, both Teiresias and Jocasta know what situation they’re objecting to, and so does the audience. Oedipus has a few reasonable points on the side of letting things be, but he doesn’t (well, really can’t) take them. Fate or not, his position dooms him.

In Professor Crawford’s lecture earlier today, he brought up the point that there is a negative side to enlightenment, which Oedipus personally experiences at the catharsis. He experiences this because he finds the truth. He finds the truth, more or less, because he’s got a fair bit of brainpower and an at least equivalent amount of arrogance, essentially situational tunnel vision. Thebes seems to have a bad run with stupid monarchs (Pentheus from The Bacchae has his head so far in the sand he hears the ocean in surround sound), but Oedipus counterbalances his foolishness with the drive and intellect to actually follow through on proposals, which are made as if to a god. Assuming the oracle is an accurate source of information, some ill of Thebes, plague or not, would be blamed on Laios’ death and the apparent stain that left on the city’s fate, and the limping king would have to play detective. Refuse, and fail as a monarch (although it’s doubtful that his pride would even allow the option); follow through, and lose everything. Oedipus dug his own grave well before the start of the play, and by the end, he’s ready to jump in.

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