Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

PLATO: The Apology 2011

Almost every student of Western philosophy begins his studies by reading Plato’s Apology. There are good reasons for this. It’s easy to read and gives the impression that it’s easy to understand. A wise man has been unjustly accused by a jealous mob. He’s put on trial and unjustly condemned by an ignorant mob. Then he’s offered exile instead of capital punishment by a fickle mob. But to the mob’s surprise this wise man refuses exile and forces them to follow through with their decision. This is high drama. But The Apology is also inspiring. Socrates chose a noble death instead of a safe exile. He defends himself in a way that reflects well on the study of philosophy. In fact, it makes the reader want to learn more about this subject we call “the love of wisdom.” This is all exactly as Plato intended. We have to remember that this is a STORY about Socrates. It’s not a transcript of the trial. We get a view of heroic philosophy at its best and philosophy’s critics at their worst. Here’s a test: read The Apology and then put it aside. Read it again a year later. This time you’re likely to get a different reading than you did the first time. That’s the kind of story this is; many-sided, complex, and worth re-reading for a whole lifetime. That’s why it’s a Great Book. One interpretation is that Socrates is indeed a hero just as Plato portrayed him. And Socrates certainly does appear heroic at first reading. But other interpretations are possible. After years of experience a reader who first encounters Socrates in college may later read it with a different perspective. A mature reader may pause to ask: what’s really going on here? There’s more at stake in this trial than the innocence or guilt of one man. A whole society is on trial. In fact, WE are on trial. The real question put to the jury is this: what are your values? This man is undermining your way of life. He teaches a philosophy that can (and does) corrupt some people, especially young people. What are you going to do about it? Socrates starts his defense by saying: These men, I claim, have said little or nothing true. But from me Gentlemen you will hear the whole truth… Here’s a delicate subject: truth. In another famous trial the judge asked the accused man: what is truth? Now we’re on to something. What is truth? What’s at stake in this trial is not merely establishing the guilt or innocence of Socrates. The important question is: what is truth? Or to put the same question in modern terms: is there such a thing as “truth?” The way we answer that question is literally a matter of life and death. At his trial Socrates asks this question: Callias, if your two sons were colts or calves we could get an overseer for them and hire him and his business would be to make them excellent in their appropriate virtue. He would be either a horse-trainer (for the colts) or a farmer (for the calves). But as it is, since the two of your sons are men, whom do you intend to get as an overseer? Who has knowledge of that virtue which belongs to a man and a citizen? In our previous reading On Happiness Aristotle’s whole philosophy is built on the assumption that we want what is good. For Aristotle that means all lifestyle choices are not the same; some are better than others. Put another way, some are “true” and others “false” in this sense: they’re true if they are an activity of the soul in conformity with virtue. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle teaches us. There’s a long tradition in Western literature of searching for the truth. That search begins with The Apology and Socrates is the model Western philosopher. In the Great Books series this reading is wedged in between Aristotle’s On Happiness and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Aristotle says happiness is striving to achieve excellence. Socrates says we should pursue truth. In Heart of Darkness a man named Kurtz tries to do both: achieve excellence and also find the truth. He’s spectacularly successful in business and he does find out the truth, but it doesn’t enlighten him; it destroys his mind. Socrates and his critics were both right: the stakes in philosophy are high. It’s not a game.


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