Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Dialogues of Plato (Book Review #86 of 2014)

The Dialogues of Plato (Jowett translation) are the recorded dialogues of Socrates in his defense (Apology) against charges of atheism and of corrupting the youth of Athens. This book introduces Socrates' dialectic, and it was great to read the original example of the "Socratic Method" of teaching by asking questions that demand logical answers to lead the pupil to a particular point or defend his own position. It is not hard to find what appear to be echoes of Socrates' dialectic in the New Testament, and statements that are comparable. Some modern scholars find quite a few (too many, really) but some of the noted quotes below seemed familiar but I am aware that I'm reading a modern English translation and not the classical Greek. 

From his dialog with Euthypro, I enjoyed the thought that wisdom is only dangerous when it develops a following.
"For a man may be thought wise; but the Athenians, I suspect, do not much trouble themselves about him until he begins to impart his wisdom to others, and then for some reason or other, perhaps, as you say, from jealousy, they are angry."

Socrates introduces the logical problem of how we can define something as right or wrong, "envious or pious." Euthypro defines "pious" as anything pleasing to the gods, and considers himself pious in bringing a lawsuit against his own father for what he sees as an injustice. Socrates draws out of Euthypro an admission that the gods may not agree amongst themselves which acts are envious or pious, as by their legends they quarrel, lie, steal, play favorites, etc. It is further on Euthypro to convince a jury that Euthypro knows the will of the gods in the matter. Euthypro essentially says "gotta go now" and we're left with no solid conclusion to the matter.

Socrates' apology against Meletus makes up most of the book. Meletus is making an ad hominem charge against Socrates of being an athiest corruptor of youth. In reality, other enemies are using Meletus to bring about Socrates' demise rather than charge him themselves. It's believed that Anytus was the mastermind and simply found Socrates' ideas dangerous for Greek democracy and did not like Socrates' relationship with his son. Socrates (and his student Plato) is no fan of democracy, so that charge is not without foundation.Some good quotes come out of his apology:

"And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others:  but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing." 

Socrates considers himself wise because he understands that he knows nothing.
"I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know. After that I went to another who was thought to be wiser than the former, and formed the very same opinion. Hence I became odious to him and to many others."
...
"even the best workmen appeared to me to have fallen into the same error as the poets; for each, because he excelled in the practice of his art, thought that he was very wise in other most important matters, and this mistake of theirs obscured the wisdom that they really possessed."

To him, to live was to philosophise and death was nothing to be feared. Note his comment when speculating as to his punishment before the jury:
"(I)f you say to me, Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus, and you shall be let off, but upon one condition, that you are not to enquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing so again you shall die;--if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy."

On the fear of death:

"For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good."

Socrates did not fear death because as a philosopher he had loved justice and truth. Only those who care about their bodies and temporal passions should fear punishment in the afterlife. In his dialog with Phaedo on the subject we learn that Socrates believes our souls must be immortal and eternal. They existed somewhere before birth and had perfect knowledge. Our life is spend re-acquiring that knowledge. As explained later in The Republic, nothing that can harm the body can harm the soul, therefore even though the body perishes the soul does not. Socrates could face the afterlife with joy because he expected to be reunited with the gods and perfect knowledge. He were see only Forms of the truth, there we will see the truth. (I find this similar to the Apostle Paul's comments of in this life we see as in a mirror, darkly.)

Plato/Socrates see the body as inherently evil. The spirit-body dichotomy is very clear both in Dialogues and The Republic. It was Augustine and the Roman Catholic church's adoption of this philosophy that has created so much trouble in the Church today and a false belief in a sacred-secular dichotomy.

"For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also is liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body?  For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost."

The quote above also brings to mind Jesus' comment on the love of money being the root of all evil. Socrates (and later Augustine and monks thereafter) thought the best life was one in contemplation, in reading and studying. Anything to do with the body was mostly folly. 

"I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible concern or interest in the body, and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but remain pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere; and this is surely the light of truth. For no impure thing is allowed to approach the pure."

The thoughts on the body are later refined in The Republic, where Plato/Socrates opine that sex and love cannot go together.

The book ends with the story of how Socrates accepted his fate and took poison, while his students and friends wept at their loss.

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