Month: October 2016

83. Crito by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

83. Crito by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Socrates is languishing in gaol – his death postponed until a ship returns to Athens from Delos, in annual celebration of Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur. Crito, a friend of Socrates, has bribed the gaoler to allow him to sit with Socrates in his cell, and is trying to convince him to escape.

Crito entreats Socrates to reconsider escape and fleeing to another city, that there are friends with money enough to pay off the guards and support him. But Socrates, true to form, examines the situation in his usual philosophic style, and decides he must act in a just and honourable way regardless of the palatability of the result, which is to remain in prison until he is justly released or put to death according to law.

To make his point clearer to Crito, Socrates personifies the Laws of Athens and has them asking him the questions which he must answer (a role reversal indeed). As Socrates was born, raised and educated in Athens and has lived his entire life in the city, he must admit being satisfied with the city and its Laws, and cannot justly try to run away now and destroy the Laws because they are now inconvenient to him, and jeopardise all his beliefs and works in upholding virtue and law.

The text is included in the Penguin edition of Socratic dialogues The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (ISBN 0140449280)

Favourite lines/passages:

“The really important thing is not to live, but to live well” (page 87)

Personal rating:   6

Next :   The final part of Plato’s story of the last days of Socrates, The Phaedo.



82. Apology (Socrates on trial) by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

82. Apology (Socrates on trial) by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Plot:  Plato recreates Socrates’ Apology (meaning Defense) in court regarding the charges brought against him  – corruption of the youth and disbelief in the Gods – which are answerable by death.

The text is included in the Penguin edition of Socratic dialogues The Last Days of Socrates by Plato, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant (ISBN 0140449280)

My thoughts:  Plato shows us a slightly more personal picture of Socrates at the beginning of his address to the court : he is seventy years old, and has never appeared in a court of law before. Nevertheless he is confident of success as he will rely on the truth. We also see his usual ‘modest’ claim of not being a skilled speaker, and he begs the jury to overlook his manner of speaking as it is all he is used to.

He begins not by immediately defending himself against his courtroom accusers (although he does claim everything they said was lies) but by defending his reputation against the prejudice of numerous people who have spent years talking about him, accusing him of investigating the causes of physical phenomena (instead of believing in such things are actions of the Gods) and even makes mention of the image painted of him by Aristophanes in The Clouds. He claims that his behaviour in questioning others and seeking the truth in all things is due to his search for wisdom in others, as he has trouble accepting that the Delphic Oracle has pronounced him (Socrates) the wisest man in the world. In testing the wisdom of politicians, poets and craftsmen, and finding them lacking, he has earned their resentment and enmity.

Socrates then directly cross-examines his chief accuser Meletus. His tone is much more defiant and he often does not wait for Meletus to answer his questions before storming ahead with his arguments, and becomes arrogant in saying that the Gods have assigned him to Athens to goad and stimulate them towards goodness. (Yes, he is actually saying he is God’s gift to Athens)

On the charge of corrupting youth of Athens, Socrates does make an excellent point in noting that Meletus has not produced a single witness to attest to such corruption, or any witness to show Socrates charged a fee for any education he may have offered.

Socrates is found guilty by a reasonably narrow margin, and is then asked to propose an alternative sentence to the death penalty requested by his accusers. His remarkable response is to suggest that he should be provided free meals by the State for the private good he has tried to do the citizens of Athens! What excellent bravado!! Rejecting imprisonment or banishment, he finally suggests a fine which his supporters including Plato will pay, but that is not satisfactory and Socrates admits he will continue his philosophizing so the sentence is death.

Interestingly, Socrates mentions several times a supernatural voice which has guided him since childhood in his decisions. Not mentioned before now, and possibly a device to prove to the jury that Socrates was divinely directed in his quest?

Many  of the editor’s comments throughout the Apology, while useful in understanding the text as always, were quick to demonstrate where Socrates has made a mistake or was likely to get the jury offside with him, where I could not always agree.

Favourite lines/passages:

“When a man has once taken his stand, either because it seems best to him or in obedience to this orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger, taking no account of his death or anything else before dishonour.”  (page 54)

“So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and indicating the truth for everyone that I meet. … I am not going to alter my conduct, not even if I have to die a hundred deaths”   (pages 55-56)

“Nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death”  (page 70)

Personal rating:  A lot to like here, and it would be hoped we could all face death with such dignity.  It will be interesting to compare with Xenophon’s version of the same apology.  A 7 from me.

Next : Socrates in prison awaiting his death in Crito by Plato

81. Euthyphro by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Socrates has been called to answer for charges of impiety (disbelief in the Gods) and the corruption of the youth of Athens. While waiting on the magistrate’s porch for his trial to begin, he encounters Euthyphro, a religious man and seer, who is prosecuting his own father for the murder of a farmhand, who killed another man in a drunken rage. The farmhand was bound and left in a ditch where he died from exposure and starvation before officers of justice could collect and arrest him. Euthyphro’s father and family believe his prosecution of his own father on behalf of a murderer is unholy. The dialogue has Socrates seeking a definition of holiness.

Euthyphro offers his current action of prosecuting his father as a holy act, but Socrates does not want one or two examples of holiness, but an understanding of what common feature defines all holy things and actions.  Euthyphro obliges with the observation that whatever the Gods think agreeable is holy, whereas what they find disagreeable is unholy, but Socrates soon tears this down by reminding us that the Greek Gods of Homer and Hesiod rarely agreed on anything and were often in conflict over the actions of men, and therefore some could approve of a certain act which other do not, so that act could be both holy and unholy according to Euthyphro’s definition. The definition is refined to that which all the gods approve is holy, while that which they all disapprove is unholy, which then dissolves into a circular argument about the Gods’ approval of a holy thing because it is holy or because it has been approved as holy.

Giving up on that, Socrates asks Euthyphro if the holy is a subset of the just, and if so, to describe on that basis, to which Euthyphro suggests that the holy is that part of the just which looks after the gods, while the rest of the just looks after men. This leads to Socrates questioning how men can “look after” the Gods and to what divine service do we contribute? An excellent question! Euthyphro counters by saying that our prayers and sacrifices please the Gods, not just individually but collectively, so that failure to worship by an individual impacts on the whole city, and we start to see why Socrates’ views on the Gods will bring him into peril.

Euthyphro is the first of four works often associated together depicting the trial and death of Socrates. These versions of events are written by Plato, one of Socrates’ students, but were also covered by other authors of the time such as Xenophon, in his Apology.  My version is the Penguin Black Classic The Last Days of Socrates, (ISBN 0140449280) containing Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, as translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant.

Favourite lines/passages:

Euthyphro : “But Socrates, I have no way of telling you what I mean; whatever explanation we set down, it always seems to go around in circles somehow, and not to be willing to stay where we positioned it”  (page 22)

Personal rating:  While I still got lost in some of the circular logic about defining the holy, I enjoyed and felt in tune with Socrates over this discussion, which means I probably would have been up for a hemlock cocktail as well.   5.

Also in that year: The actual trial and execution of Socrates took place in 399 BC. Plato is obviously writing some time after that, probably within ten years, so say 389 BC. The Athenian navy is rebuilding strength and gaining territory for Athens by then. while the Gauls have sacked Rome in 390 BC but retreated after being paid off.
Next :  Socrates faces trial in Plato’s Apology.

80. Wealth, by Aristophanes (388 BC)

80. Wealth, by Aristophanes (388 BC)

Plot: The God Wealth has been blinded by a jealous Zeus and cannot tell good men from bad, thereby bestowing his gifts on undeserving criminals and politicians. A poor farmer Chremylus and his slave Carion give him shelter and take him to the Temple of Asclepius where his sight is restored, and the good people of the city are finally rewarded.

The final play in the Penguin edition of Aristophanes’The Birds and other plays
My thoughts:  Like The Assemblywomen before it, Wealth comes from Aristophanes’ later years, and the magic has definitely faded. There is the trademark vulgarity intertwined with political comment, but the play comes across as half finished and tired, although I liked the fantasy aspects of the personifications of Wealth and Poverty. You can see the author has lost some of his skill as Poverty presents good arguments why she should be allowed to continue her rule, but the other characters cannot manage any comeback except to harangue her and banish her from the city.

Also like the previous play, there is not the strong sense of dramatic or comedic buildup to the storyline throughout, but an initial setup followed by several short vignettes which barely sustain interest. The role of the Chorus is further reduced, which is not unwelcome to me personally.
Favourite lines/passages:  Nothing magical lifted itself from the text.
Personal rating: 3, which is a disappointing conclusion to a great series of comic plays
Next : Back to Plato with Euthyphro, but I suspect in a darker vein, as we approach the trial and death of Socrates.

79. Euthydemus, by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

79. Euthydemus, by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Socrates enters into a discussion with two sophists, Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus, who claim to be the best teachers of virtue alive, when what they really practice is the ability to trick people with the different meanings of words. They start by tricking Cleinias (a young friend of Socrates) by getting him to agree firstly that only ignorant people learn, and once he agrees, they tag-team the explanation and convince him the reverse – that only clever people learn – by not distinguishing between beginning to learn and succeeding in learning (understanding). When Socrates comes to debate with the brothers, he frustrates them by qualifying his answers to avoid their entrapment.

This was the last of the chapters in the Penguin edition Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor Saunders.
My thoughts:
The Sophists’ style of argument is to make the student choose between two options then change the definition of the words to display their cleverness. They seek to win the argument regardless of the outcome of what they say, whereas Socrates claims to only be interested in reaching the truth. But truth to tell, I find they use a similar argument as Socrates, just more condensed and ludicrous.
Favourite lines/passages:
Socrates reassures Cleinias by saying that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are only playing with him, but describes their behaviour as if they were bullies (as they are)
“I call it playful because mastery of even a substantial amount, or even the whole, of this sort of stuff would by no means lead to increased knowledge of how things are, but to the ability to play games with people, tripping them up and flooring them with different senses of words, just like those who derive pleasure and amusement from pulling stools from under people when they are about to sit down, and from seeing someone floundering on his back”
And I also enjoyed a comment on speech-writers
“Speech composition …. After all, it’s an aspect of enchantment, and a close second best to it. Enchantment is the bewitching of wild animals, and pests like snakes, poisonous spiders and scorpions; speech-writing is in fact the bewitching and calming-down of assemblies – legal, political and so on.”
Think of that next time you hear a politician make a speech!
And finally,
“Really Socrates, you shouldn’t answer questions with questions!….. You persist in being an unnecessarily reactionary old windbag!”
Personal rating : This one gets a 5 as I got a few laughs from Socrates with this confrontation. I will never be a Greek philosopher though.
Next : Aristophanes’ last surviving play, Wealth

78. Hippias Minor, by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

78. Hippias Minor, by Plato (c.399-387 BC)

Plot: A very brief dialogue (< 20 pages) between Socrates and the sophist Hippias on the ability and disposition to lie. Hippias initially compares Homer’s heroes Achilles and Odysseus (The Iliad and The Odyssey) with Achilles as the better man due to his honesty, while Odysseus is crafty, complex and deceitful. Socrates demonstrates that anyone expert in their field can choose to be honest or deceitful, so therefore these two traits can exist in the same person, and Achilles could tell lies just as Odysseus can tell truths, so questions Hippias further on why Achilles is the better man. The dialogue ends by comparing intentional versus unintentional wrongdoing, with Socrates claiming that their argument has led them to the impasse that only good people can be criminals.

My thoughts:  Hippias is again shown as arrogant and immodest in his claims of his own superior knowledge in every subject, making Socrates’ badgering even more humorous. Yet Socrates’ claims of his own ignorance and slow-wittedness are really also a form of immodesty, as the reader is left in no doubt that Socrates thinks pretty highly of himself, and wears this thin cloak of modesty to not seem to openly insult Hippias and encourage him to continue the debate. I must admit to a certain fondness for Hippias the boaster over Socrates’ smug and dishonest posturing and “intellectual bullying”, but then I am reacting to the characters more than the argument.

Diversions and digressions:  Another 4

Next :   Wrapping up Plato’s early Socratic dialogues with Euthydemus