Sunday, September 16, 2012

Plato Revisited

For my philosophy electives I’ve started the year, as any good teacher should, by dragging out and dusting off Plato. I’ve not bothered to read him since I was in college, five years ago this September. At that time I was taking Ancient Greek Philosophy, which was rather silly since I’d already taken some rather advanced courses, and read most of Plato and much of Aristotle on my own.

In previous years I’ve had my students read two selections of Plato, it’s true. They’ve tackled part of the Meno, which is tricky, and the Apology, which details Socrates' trial, and is not.

So I started the semester with the Euthyphro, which asks what is pious and what is just. The Apology I’ve now done in full, and the concept of being a martyr for truth has been established in the classroom.

My ethics were carefully manipulated in my high school experience. Here’s a list of books we read for Western Civ, taught not coincidentally by the fellow who also taught Philosophy:

Apology (Plato) – About dying for the sake of the truth
Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare) – About killing for what you believe is right
Barabbas (Par Lagerkvist) – About Barabbas’ struggle to do right after being freed in place of Jesus
Becket (Jean Anouilh) – About the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket standing up for his beliefs
St. Joan (George Bernard Shaw) – About Joan of Arc’s quest to do what is right for country
Galileo (Berthold Brecht) – About Galileo’s choice not to die for what he believed in
A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt) – About Sir Thomas More’s execution for what is right


And now I’m passing it on to a new generation. It’s a very dangerous, and scary, belief. As the Apostle Rufus said: “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…People die for it. People kill for it.” The willingness to die for something must be a belief. As Socrates himself affirms, we have no idea what to expect for the life hereafter, if anything. Brutus understood it. Henry II understood it. But Meletus, the young man whom history would despise for his precedent, did not understand. He only believed that his indictment of Socrates was right.

This makes Meletus, now on my third pass of the Apology, a very interesting character. We only see him in glimpses, and he is clearly an ignorant and brash young man. He tries Socrates for things he didn’t do. But he thought it worthwhile to take the time to condemn a seventy year-old man. Did he think he was doing right, or did he believe it? Either way there must have been a powerful conviction to choose such a course of action.

As Paul Tillich begins his powerful book on the subject, “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” He goes on to distinguish between faith and belief, the latter of which is simply holding an unsubstantiated claim as true. Fifty-five years later I’ve not seen anyone write a better set of definitions. Experience after death is the realm of belief for most. We can't substantiate it. For some it is their ultimate concern, the ancient Egyptians are a nice example, but this is not the typical case. Meletus' desire to see Socrates put to death - what drives this, then?

Meletus could not know the repercussions of his suit, or even its outcome. That his actions were right must have been a belief. This reframes the Apology’s trial in a new light: It is not the grandstanding of Socrates to show how he is right, and will sacrifice himself for truth. It is a clash of beliefs; one that truth knows no boundaries, the other that the well-being of the many outweighs the invective of a societal gadfly.

Plato’s dialogues are often laughed off as simplistic intro stuff. A hook to get people interested in philosophy, and then, once the secrets of the upper castes are learned, rejected and despised. Yet the struggles between Meletus’ and Socrates’ views is no different, in essence, than whether or not you think Bradley Manning should be tried for leaking uncomfortable state secrets.

When in high school I began saving my written works. An essay I wrote for Western Civ, eleven years ago as a young Sophomore, compares Jesus and Socrates, asking which is more courageous. I reached the following conclusion at the time:

“If Jesus was actually just the historical Jesus and not a divine entity, then Jesus may indeed be the more courageous, to be killed by his followers. But wasn’t Socrates killed by the people he was trying to teach as well? What is the difference between the two? Socrates, however, had a message that was never heard before and attempted to let the people he taught figure out the deeper meaning for themselves. Jesus’ message was radical and told them what to do. If both are mortal and both achieved the same tasks and suffered equally and had similar personalities; it is my belief that both were equally courageous.”

It’s a cop-out. I don’t think I got a great grade. Suggesting crucifixion is the same as the convulsions and vomiting from drinking hemlock…not an apt comparison. But it shows where my mind was at the time, that I thought Socrates to be essentially an equal of Jesus.

That’s a heavy worldview to pass on to kids. For years I’ve wanted to teach philosophy. I thought starting with Plato would warm me up, and be easy – a prejudice of my initiation into the philosophic upper echelons. I knew the students would go through a weighty experience. I never realized how much of the weight is placed on the teacher for introducing such ideas and beliefs to young minds, even if it's just Plato.

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