Saturday, August 23, 2014

Plato's Apology from an Aesthetic Point of View

When read straight Plato's Apology is an ethical work and has nothing to do with aesthetics.  So to read it from an aesthetic point of view is to read it against the grain.  If you are a student coming across this post in an effort to understand Plato's great work, be forewarned: what I am about to say may be considered at best an example of creative interpretation, at worst, a distortion.  My question is, how can the practice of Socrates as described in the Apology be illuminated from the perspective of aesthetics of everyday life and how the aesthetics of everyday life can be illuminated by this text.

Let us begin with theology.  In earlier posts I have advocated something I have called aesthetic atheism.  Let's say, as a kind of hypothesis, that Plato's Socrates (that is, the Socrates that is portrayed in the Apology....whether or not this Socrates is consistent with the real Socrates, no one will ever know...I'll just use "Socrates" for short from now on) was nearly an aesthetic atheist and that his philosophy can be helpfully or interestingly interpreted in this way.  On the face of it, of course, Socrates claims to believe in God and even in the traditional gods worshiped in Athens.  He does so in opposition to those who are attacking him, charging him with atheism.  Meletus, the accuser with whom he engages in dialogue during the trial, definitely believes that he is an atheist.  Note however that Meletus believes that Socrates is an atheist of the sort that Anaxagoras might have been, i.e. someone who believes that science can better explain things like the sun. Anaxagoras believed the sun to be a large molten metal body and not the god Apollo with his chariot.  For this, Anaxagoras was charged with atheism.  (He was notably the most famous philosopher prior to Socrates to be charged with atheism in Athens.) Socrates claims that he has no interest in such matters.  He was more appropriately charged with introducing new gods (this was one of the formal charges, specifically "not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things" 24c) and that Meletus is contradicting himself when he says that he, Socrates, is an atheist and that he introduces new gods.  The point of course is that the new gods Socrates introduces really come down to his personal daemon, an internal spirit or voice which tells him when he is doing something wrong.  Socrates seems to identify this spirit with the oracle at Delphi which had said that Socrates was the wisest of all men and, which saying, Socrates interpreted to mean that he had an obligation to act as a gadfly constantly questioning men concerning their claims to wisdom or knowledge and showing them that they are not actually wise.  The oracle is supposed to represent Apollo, although Socrates simply refers to it as "the god."  One gets the feeling that Socrates, despite his protestations, only believes (at most!) in one god who is represented both by this oracle and by his personal daemon (a kind of inner voice that seems to manifest the will of that god.)  This of course does not make him an atheist.  However, note that Socrates has no trouble with the notion that he is introducing new "spiritual things" and, of course, a religious atheist of the sort I have called "aesthetic atheist" can feel comfortable with "spiritual things" without believing in any actual spirits.  It is ironic, and perhaps a bit disingenuous, that Socrates refutes Meletus with the sentence "if I believe in spiritual things I must inevitably believe in spirits." (27c) After all, one can believe in spiritual feelings, experiences, places and times without believing in spirits, and I suspect that that was the case with Socrates.  Moreover, there is no reason to believe that Meletus was as complete an idiot as he is portrayed:  Socrates was quite likely some sort of atheist.  His new god was no traditional religious god, and really no god at all.  But again, this unorthodox reading is easily refuted by the text...Socrates literally says he believes in, unless we take him to be outright lying, he is no atheist.  Still it is easy to see him as one.  Generations of students have interpreted the daemon as a form of personal conscience, even though this is a contrary to the text --- it is a easy and useful move to make.  And what, practically speaking, is living "in service to the god" for Socrates other than engaging in a certain practice, i.e. a life of questioning? 

One still might ask where aesthetics comes in here.  Note what happens as Socrates engages in his daily task of questioning.  The young men who follow him about (his audience) "take pleasure in hearing people questioned" (23c) and they often imitate him in questioning others, thus leading to the second charge against him of "corrupting the youth" although this charge is also based, presumably, on his teaching them to believe in new gods.  So the practice Socrates engages in and which is the source of all the trouble is one of shared pleasure.  Pleasure is downplayed in the Apology.  It is not the goal of the activity, but its presence cannot be denied.  Moreover, it is at the causal root of the problem at hand.  Pleasure, on my view, is core to aesthetics:  it is not an absolutely necessary condition for aesthetic experience, nor is it sufficient (as there are non-aesthetic pleasures), but the pleasures gained by Socrates' audience are similar to those gained by the audience of Greek comic plays.   So I find myself with the unconventional hypothesis that Socrates can be (usefully) seen as an atheist, but not of the modern exclusively science-centered sort, i.e. of the sort promoted by Richard Dawkins, but rather one that is also at the same time deeply religious.  I say this because he is replacing the gods with an inner daemon that, practically speaking, represents a way of life that is, at its core, aesthetic insofar as it involves performances, audiences, and pleasure.  (If you do not believe that Socrates is deeply opposed to traditional religion ready his Euthyphro.)

It can be immediately replied that the view I am expressing here would mae the practice of philosophy (which Socrates may have originated, or at least developed from earlier philosophers) a form of art, which, many would argue, is patently false, especially those who would see it as a handmaiden of science.  Socrates, however, would block the handmaiden of science move.  Further, in Book X of the Republic Socrates makes clear that what we consider arts are not arts at all and that a true art would be something that contributed to the good of society, for example what Solon accomplished through the Athenian constitution, so that, ironically, Socratic philosophy would probably be seen by him as an art although not of course in the sense of "fine art." Whether it involves aesthetic experience is, however, the point at issue here.

One way to see Socratic philosophy as an art is to recognize two points:  first, that it involves a form of education in which the object is to make the interlocutor (and perhaps the audience) more excellent or virtuous, and second, it is clearly not, for Socrates, a form of knowledge (and hence not a science or even a craft).  The Socratic artist is in fact much more like the inspired imitative artist discussed in the Ion than like a good craftsman.  So perhaps Socrates did believe that Socratic philosophical practice was an art in something closer to the sense of "fine art," and this is why he was so determined to destroy his competition in the same field, i.e. Greek Tragedy and Comedy.  There is no denying that Socrates believed that it was not only of the "greatest importance that our young men be as good as possible" (24e) but that the conventional ways of doing this based on imparting words of wisdom to the young (by the sophists, usually for a fee, or by the politicians through speeches, or by poets through their productions) was deeply wrong. 

Socrates aims to transform everyday life.  The "examined life," which is the only life worth living, is dialogical intercourse with other mean and women, intercourse that improves us by showing us that what we think to be wisdom (common sense and science-like knowledge) is not wisdom at all.  Wisdom, in fact, is whatever comes gradually (whatever happens) in a successful dialogical process.  

This might not apply well to the analogy of the horses.  One could argue that in his dialogue with Meletus Socrates is promoting the idea that men should be improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve men just as horses are improved by the one kind of expert who knows how to improve horses.  The problem is that Socrates consistently refutes the sophists' claim to be these experts, and denies having this expertise himself.   There are no experts in improving men in the way that there are of improving horses.  Improving men cannot be a science or a craft.  It can only be a poesis, i.e. an art based on inspiration.  The two competitors in this domain are Greek theater and Socratic dialogue.  Greek theater is not a practice of everyday life:  what is distinct about it is that it separates itself from everyday life.  Socratic dialogue however it something practiced every day by Socrates and his followers as a way of life.  It is not the presenting of a fictional world but an achievement of beauty (as described in the Symposium and the Phaedrus).  And so it is deeply aesthetic.


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