Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Socrates Exits

Among the earliest dialogues written by Plato are four which report the arrest, trial, and execution of Socrates. Although they are more historical than some of Plato's later dialogues, and give up a relatively life-like impression of Socrates, we are hesitant to rely on their details for factual history. And although they give us good examples of characteristically Socratic argumentation, their philosophical valued is often sadly overshadowed by the drama surrounding the death of Socrates.

The dialogue called 'Euthyphro' recounts a discussion about the exact definition of 'piety' - placing the matter of precise definitions in the spotlight, typical for Socratic thought, and a great contribution to the history of philosophy. Piety is central to the narrative across the four dialogues, because one of the charges brought against Socrates, at least in Plato's version of the trial, is impiety.

Second in the series is the 'Apology' - a defense speech made by Socrates at his trial. Here the dramatic nearly drowns the philosophical. Important issues are raised, but the dialogue is written in such a way that one wonders if Plato's main purpose was to create sympathy for Socrates, rather than ponder abstractions. The defense is not much of a defense; Socrates continues his habit of critiquing or even insulting certain prominent Athenians, even some who are part of his jury. One may speculate that Socrates wanted to be convicted. There are good examples of ironic 'Socratic ignorance' - a sort of epistemological humility - and he accuses Athenians of loving money more than justice. He denies the charge of impiety, points to the lack of any monetary gain from his activities, claims that he's being accused because he exposes the ignorance of others, shows that he lacks any motive for the additional charge of corrupting his fellow citizens, and - intriguingly - speculates that the charges brought against him may be a cover-up. Indirectly and implicitly, questions are raised about the democratic government of Athens: can democracy be so good, if it yields the manipulated verdict for Socrates? What might be covered up? This dialogue has been fuel for the view a Socrates as a martyr for the cause of free speech, and for comparison with the trial of Jesus.

After his trial, Socrates awaits his execution in jail, which provides the setting for the dialogue called 'Crito' - friends offer Socrates a chance to escape from prison and live elsewhere, but he declines, not wanting to live the rest of his life as a fugitive. The dialogue wrestles with the tension between deontological and teleological ethics, with definition of justice, and with the search for a rationalist foundation for ethics. Several propositions contain embryonic forms of a social contract theory. Socrates also advances a paternalistic view of government. By declining the offer of escape, Socrates effectively chooses death a second time - the first time having been his calculated behavior at his trial - and again invites comparison with Jesus. The dialogues is structured nicely, inasmuch as one can list precisely the arguments given for and against the notion that Socrates should escape.

Finally, the dialogue entitled 'Phaedo' gives us a discussion of the immortality of the soul, as Socrates faces his death. Here again the argumentation is definable, with four separate arguments for immortality.

These dialogues, taken as a group, do indeed offer some insight into the specific nature of Socratic philosophizing, and raise powerful questions; the delivery is marred, however, by Plato's tendency toward drama. Later Platonic dialogues tend to be more sober, less popular, and deliver a keener, more intelligent, philosophy.