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Optical Illusions

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Okay, I’m going to try something of a tricky maneuver here.  It’s tricky mostly because I want to start in what is probably going to seem like left field, make an enormous loop around a couple of millennia of history, and end up–well, we’ll end up where we end up.

Let’s start with this

         m) Xenophon.  “Apology: Socrates’ Defense To The Jury.”

For those of you who don’t know, Xenophon was a writer, thinker, politician, and military professional who lived in Greece at the same time Socrates did, and who was at least an acquaintance and probably a friend of the more famous man.

I knew of Xenophon for the same reason most people of my age or older would know of him–and, okay, because my brother and one of my uncles were named Xenophon.

Leaving out the family connection, though, the thing about Xenophon is that he wrote a long treatise on a war, called, I think, the Anabasis.

The war was not a particularly glorious or famous one, and my guess has always been that the Anabasis would have retreated into the world of forever to be forgotten books, if it wasn’t for one thing.

For close to two centuries, the Anabasis was the text used for translation in first-year textbooks meant to teach British  public schoolboys how to read Greek.

The reason that mattered to me was because American classics programs used those same textbooks to teach American college students to read Greek.

I have no idea if this was true in the days when American colleges and universities required Greek and Latin for admission, but it was certainly true when they got to me.

I think the people who wrote the textbooks for English schoolboys probably thought  that translating a work about fighting and battles would be less boring to eight year olds–and yes, they went to school at eight–than Plato or Aristotle, and they were probably right.

Not being a British schoolboy and having no interest whatsoever in battles of any kind, anywhere, the thing bored me senseless.

And since Xenophon never came up in any other course I ever took–not in philosophy, not even in later Greek courses–I dismissed Xenophon as “the guy who wrote that boring war thing” and left it at that.

At least, I left it at that until a short while ago, when two things happened very close together:  I got a copy of Xenophon from the Loeb Editions as a present, and I got into a discussion about what had really happened in the death of Socrates.

Now, here’s the thing about the death of Socrates.

There is no getting around the fact that the decision of the Athenians in 399 BCE to put to death their most famous citizen is a seminal event in Western civilization, the sine qua non of vast strains of Western intellectual history.

A book I read a few years ago–and I can’t, for the life of me, remember either the title or the author–argued that Western civilization as we know it is founded on two deaths and the ways in which we understand and interpret them:  the death of Socrates, and the death of Jesus Christ.

I think the author made a very valid case. 

But the event as an event was never something I found very interesting.

When I was younger and reading philosophy on my own and without guidance, the whole thing seemed to be an exercise in stupidity.

The Athenians did not actually mean, I thought, to actually put Socrates to death.  That  had to be the reason why, after he was condemned, they seemed to be bending over backwards to give him opportunities to escape.

What’s more, Socrates had plenty of friends who were more than willing to help him escape and who had the means to make sure he got somewhere safe and was reasonably set  up.

When I finally got to college and broached this interpretion to a professor, I got vigorously and indignantly refuted.  And I am willing to stipulate that I probably got it wrong.

And I will also admit that, as I got older, the central argument of the Socrates of Plato–that he owed his life and soul to the Polis and that it would be wrong to obey her only when it suited his interest–seemed less fatuous to me than it did when I was 14.

Still, even now, reading through the material again, I get the same impression.  Socrates is sitting there waiting to drink hemlock, and I’m going: leave already.  Go.  You’re being an idiot.

Okay, let’s face it.  I’m never going to be the heroine of an epic poem.

Xenophon’s account of Socrates’s reasons for drinking the hemlock disagree fundamentally from Plato’s, although the two accounts are not mutually exclusive.

Xenophon’s Socrates does not die because of any noble reasoning about what he owes to the Polis, what all citizens owe to their socieities.

Xenophon’s Socrates dies because he thinks that such a death is preferable to suffering through the defeats and indignaties of old age.

We all get to a point where our powers fail, he says, and then it’s all misery and unhappiness and (maybe worse) a loss of stature and dignity. Dying now would be the equivalent of quitting while he was ahead.

This is an argument that is alive and well today.  I’ve heard many people voice it, and I’ve known a few who have acted on it.  It was the reason Carolyn Heilbron (scholar, activist, Columbia  professor and author as Amanda Cross of a series of mysteries) gave her friends for her suicide at the age of 77.

It is not an argument that appeals to me, or that I find convincing. But I am a good libertarian in this as in most things.  I think if it’s the choice  you want to make, you ought to be left alone to make it.

What I am looking at here is that a Socrates who made this argument about why he didn’t run away when he could have run is a different exemplar than the Socrates who spoke of the duties a citizens owes to his Polis.

What’s more, the Socrates who dies because it’s better than enduring the indignities of old age is not a man whose death becomes a foundational moment in the rise of Western, or any other, civilization.

The question becomes, for me, whether it matters which of the two versions is true, assuming only one of them is.

Even if Plato invented all of his accounts of the death of Socrates, nothing can change the fact that they have been accepted as true for over two thousand years.

And having been accepted as true, those accounts have established a standard of courage and  integrity that  has been integral to Western ideas of the best of what a human being can be.

Those ideas are embedded in our lives now to an such a significant extent and in so many different ways that there would be little point in debunking the event unless your sole purpose was to provide  people with an excuse when they wanted to behave badly.

(Nah, I’m not going to do THAT.   You know all that stuff about Socrates?  It’s a lie.)

But of course, people often do have as their motive giving themselves and other people an excuse to behave badly,  and not only the death of Socrates can be “debunked.”

The scare quotes are intentional.

This brings an end to the left field.

I’ll get to the loop next time.

Written by janeh

July 16th, 2013 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Optical Illusions'

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  1. It matters which is believed.

    One Socrates looks outward; the other inward. One points to others (as represented by the polis) as being more important than himself; the other points to himself as the most important part of the world. You probably have both extremes in most societies, but which is emphasized and praised is going to have a big influence on the structure and culture of the society and the roles of peopel in it.

    And debunking ‘established’ histories and truths is a very popular way to give the debunkers support in their efforts to behave whatever way they want to, which will be supported by their new histories and truths.


    16 Jul 13 at 11:06 am

  2. I’m not sure why either scenario is assured to be true. Both might be equally wrong, with the truth somewhere between, or truly off in left field. Such as…Socrates was packing to leave, but an enemy slips him a hemlock drink under the guise of a farewell toast, then makes up the whole “heroic patriotic death” thing to avoid suspicion.


    16 Jul 13 at 12:20 pm

  3. Side issue first.

    Uh, Jane? If you’re not a Philosophy major–if you’re, say, a Classics or Pol-Mil History major, the Anabasis is VERY famous. A Greek mercenary army marched 2,000 miles into the heart of the Persian Empire, then, with most of their commanders killed by treachery, marched about another 2,000 miles out. It’s the critical event in the Greek-Persian wars between Salamis and Gaugamela–or, in a strictly Greek context, between the Syracusan expedition and Chaeronea. Pretty much any anthology of great battles and campaigns gives it a chapter. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard of Xenophon and the Anabasis.

    On Socrates’ motivation–well, we only have the statements of Xenophon and Plato, and I have my doubts about their honesty. Certainly Socrates was intensely attached to the polis. He fought in three campaigns, but otherwise never left home–not during the reign of the Thirty, and not when the supporters of the Thirty moved to Eleusis. When he was given a chance to propose his own punishment, he offered a fine, not exile. But death rather than exile might have been an easier choice in 399 than it would have been in, say, 439. The empire was gone. A quarter of the population was dead. His star pupils, one after another, had taken service with the enemies of the polis, and he was seventy years old. Dying in accordance with Athenian law might refute his accusers, set an example to his disciples and be something of a relief all at once.

    Socrates didn’t have to have a single motivation, so we don’t have to choose.


    16 Jul 13 at 6:21 pm

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