I divert my course of reading in a manner not planned. Rebecca Goldstein's (see prior post) argument that Plato remains relevant has prompted me to pull a volume off the bookshelf that has rested there a long time. Purchased a dozen years ago to be consumed on a trip to Greece over several weeks, the Oxford History of Greece never saw the light of day on that trip. Instead, I consumed a fictional Greek mystery --- a re-read of John Fowles' The Magus, one of the great novels of the 20th century.
I am in search of context to gain a better appreciation of Socrates and Plato. There is nothing in the Oxford History of Greece to meditate on (at least yet) nor is there a story to tell (yet). Just some notes and quotes from the book about Socrates and Plato that provides some context. This context will not be found in just one book on the bookshelf, but what follows is a start.
"Socrates (470-399) was an ordinary Athenian citizen belonging to no philosophical school; he may have had an early interest in cosmology, but if so, he abandoned it. He wrote nothing, and our reports of him come from sources (Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes) that give widely divergent pictures. If our interest is philosophical, however, we have no choice but to follow Plato; and although we have always to remember that the Platonic Socrates is Plato's creation, we can form some idea of what it was about the historical Socrates that led Plato to use him as the main spokesman of Platonic ideas. The most important facts about Socrates were that he lived, uncompromisingly, for philosophy; and that he was put to death on anti-intellectual grounds, the charges being that he introduced new divinities and corrupted the youth. It is plausible that behind this lay unspoken political motives, since Socrates had associated with many of the aristocrats who had overthrown the democracy, but the dislike was in part genuinely anti-philosophical. Socrates remained for Plato the prototype of the person unconditionally committed to philosophy; his conception of philosophy changed, but never his conviction of the importance of Socrates' example.
"The later cliche about Socrates was that he turned philosophy from science to ethics; but there had already been plenty of ethical and political inquiry. What he did was to make philosophy personal again. He ignored Protagoras' theories about society as much Anaxagoras' theories about matter, and instead went around picking on individuals and addressing to each of them the disconcerting and unpopular question, 'Do you understand what you are talking about?' This naively direct refusal to take at face value claims to philosophical and other expertise marks a return to Heraclitus' kind of concern: scientific and sociological inquiries are rejected until we have the self-knowledge to understand the proper use to make of the results. Until we do, the most urgent task for each person is to turn inwards rather than outwards; and in keeping with this Socrates refused to write down any teachings or speechify in any way. Whereas Heraclitus did think he had access to the truth, Socrates represents himself as ignorant, superior only in argumentative technique and self-awareness; he is, he says, merely the gadfly that stings people out of their complacency. But he has much more intellectual conception of understanding and its requirements than Heraclitus. He argues people into realizing what an undefended mess their view are. ***"
"Plato (427-347) was an aristocratic Athenian who followed Socrates' example in devoting his life to philosophy, but did not follow him in his rejection oft he permanent written word in favor of personal encounter. However, although he did write, a great deal, he retained some Socratic suspicion of writing: Phaedrus 274b-277 is a famous passage where he warns us that written words are dead and cannot answer back, where true philosophy is always a live activity and interchange of thought. Plato's early writings are designed to avoid these dangers; he rejects the established media of prose (or verse) exposition for what must have seemed at the time an amazing choice --- the dialogue, which had hitherto been used only for fairly low-grade entertainment. Some of Socrates' other followers, such as Antisthenes and Aeschines of Sphettus, wrote Socratic dialogues, but only with Plato can we see the form put to philosophical use. He employs it to present philosophical arguments in a way that ensures that the listener is stimulated to participate and continue, rather than passively learning off doctrines. Plato never needs speaks in his own person, and this makes a certain detachment inevitable; we have to make what we can of the picture of Socrates arguing. No message is forced upon us, but we are made aware of a problem, and of the need for argument and thought to get further with it.
"***But a rough grouping of the dialogues forces itself on us: the middle and late dialogues are radically different from the early ones. They are much longer, mostly undramatic, especially in their use of Socrates, and above all are didactic. The stylistic changes reflect a shift away from the personal urgency of Socratic inquiry: from the middle dialogues on, we are in no doubt that Plato does have views of his own which the figure of Socrates serves merely to present. When he gives us a theory of society (in the Republic) or a cosmology (in the Timaeus) or a long set of arguments about the Eleatic One (in the Parmenides) the dialogue form is serving merely to make the argument ore accessible. *** The dialogue form, and the use of Socrates, become strained to the breaking point as Plato becomes ever more engaged in straightforward philosophical debate, often with contemporary positions. All the same, Plato never wholly abandoned dialogue, and clearly continued to value its detachment, and the avoidance it necessitates of more than a mild degree of technicality and systematization of different positions.
"One of the most disputed questions in recent Platonic scholarship has been whether Plato himself came later to criticize his earlier indiscriminate acceptance of Forms. In the first part of Parmenides young Socrates puts forward what looks like the middle dialogues' conception of Forms, only to have it torn to shreds by the unhistoric, but symbolic figures of Parmenides and Zeno. And in other later dialogues there are many arguments which do in fact undermine some of Plato's earlier uses of Forms. This certainly looks like self-criticism; but Plato draws no explicit morals. The ideas which for a time he held together in passionate conviction are quietly allowed to fall apart again, and in the late dialogues he pursues different interests for their own sake without over-ambitious synthesis.***
"*** Most strikingly, perhaps, the nature of his interest in ethics and politics changes considerably. In the early dialogues he is concerned with the personal achievement of virtue, and this is still the theme of his most famous middle dialogue, the Republic. In that dialogue his interest has spread sufficiently to society for the account of the just person to be placed against a background of a just society; but it is made clear that this is a society which is ideally just, an ideal which has no practicable political application. However, in the late dialogues we find Plato returning at length and several times to ethical an political questions from a changed perspective, one that has much in common with the formerly despised approach of Protagoras and the other sophists. In the Statesman, the Critias, and the Laws he returns to fifth century questions about the origins of society, takes history and prehistory seriously, and investigates from several angles the issue of what social arrangements actually work and produce a stably functioning real society. The study of ethics and politics is no longer seen from the viewpoint of the individual concerned to become just, but is carried out from the external viewpoint of the investigator, impersonally and historically."
These select paragraphs suggest, in the same vein that Rebecca Goldstein intimates (see June 29, 2014 post), it is difficult to know exactly the views of Plato. It seems unlikely, however, that Plato's prodigious writings were merely wandering meditations, without some commitment to the views of some of the speakers in his dialogues.
Context: Pre-Socratic cosmogony, War, and Democracy
Benchmark dates for contextual reference: Socrates was born in 470 BCE. Plato was born in 428 BCE. Socrates was 42 years old when Plato was born. Socrates died in 399, executed by drinking a cup of hemlock. Plato was 29 years old when Socrates died. Plato died in 348 BCE at the age of 80, fifty-one years after Socrates died.
Socrates and Plato were certainly not the first Greeks to "reason" about the nature of the universe, mathematics and its relationship to the physical world, ethics, society, and our knowledge of reality. More than 100 years before Socrates was born, Thales of Miletus was active in contemplating the origins of the physical world, and he was followed by two other 6th century Milesians Anaximander and Anaximenes a few decades later. Thales is the subject of a prior post (see November 20, 2011 and March 28, 2010 posts), and as noted in the later post, "Milesians of antiquity posed a question that had never been previously asked in either Greek or Middle Eastern culture: "what is the material origin of things---the single and simple underlying reality that can take on a variety of forms to produce the diversity and order behind chaos?" And importantly, Lindberg adds, "in the answers offered by these Milesians we find no personification or deification of nature; a conceptual chasm [that] separates their worldview from the mythological world of Homer and Hesiod. The Milesians left the gods out of the story. What they may have thought about the Olympian gods we do not (in most cases) know; but they did not invoke the gods to explain the origin, nature or cause of things." In this Oxford History volume, it is added, "Thales taught that everything is derived from water and that the earth rests on water." Thales left no writings behind, but "perhaps he was attracted to these tenets, as Aristotle conjectures, from seeing that the nutriment of all things contains moisture, and that heat itself comes from this and is sustained by it." I cite this because we can see in Aristotle's "conjecture" an early example of philosophers speaking across the centuries (see June 29, 2014 post) to each other. And it is also an example of how philosophizing acted as a bridge between our senses and intuition and understanding of the physical world (albeit an incorrect understanding as we know now). The author of this section of the Oxford History of Greece notes that it is hard to divorce Thales' view of the world from Egyptian and Semitic creation stories, and with respect to Anaximander he observes that much of his cosmogony appears to have been inspired by Iranian cosmology. "The Milesians were unable to free themselves from the preconception of the myth-makers of the pre-philosophical age that something so complex as the present world must have originated from something simple; that the earth is finite in extent and more or less circular, with something different underneath it; that the sky is a physical entity at a definite distance from the earth; that there are immortal sources of energy which are the moving or directing forces in the universe. Their new, philosophical assumptions were that these forces operate in a perfectly consistent way that can be observed in everyday phenomena; that everything can thus be explained from the working of a few universal processes in a single original continuum; and that there is no such thing as creation from nothing or decay from nothing, only change of substance. They tried to account systematically for all the most notable features of the world about us: the movements of the heavenly bodies, phases of the moon, eclipses, lighting, thunder, rain, snow, hail, rainbows, earthquakes, the annual inundation of the Nile."
Just a decade before Thales was active in Miletus, in another part of Greece, the first Greek "lawgiver," Solon, a leader in Athens introduced the Laws, and instituted political reforms in 594, 125 years before the birth of Socrates.
"It is vital to insist that this opening of the Greek mind is much more important than the particular forms of government which were produced by the opening. Here there was 'tyranny'; there 'oligarchy'; here 'a constitution'; there 'anarchy'. Common to all of the more flexible societies is turmoil, and common to all is the achievement in the end of some sort of what we are prepared to describe as the constitutional government of the city-state.
"But the routes were indeed diverse. In Sparta in the early seventh century a great lawgiver, Lycurgus, it was said, laid down the rules for a system of military training (one could call it education) which turned Sparta into the most efficient military power in Greece, helping it to hold ruthless mastery over the southern half of the Peloponnese, and by stages to acquire a more subtle control over the rest of the peninsula. At the same time he formalized and thus reformed Sparta's social structure and produced a constitution which guaranteed to all Spartans some form of political equality the like of which had not been imagined by Hesiod and was not to be realized elsewhere for many a day.
"It is against this background that we must see the development and, after Lycurgus, the freezing of Spartan institutions. If her position was rare, her solutions made her unique. Most Greeks retained some traces of a state-imposed military training for the young; in Crete for example, many close similarities to Spartan customs can be seen. But only in Sparta, so far as we know, was a child completely robbed of his home and family between the ages of five and thirty and even thereafter compelled to to devote his days to military training and his evenings to the company of his messmates. Most Greeks entered the archaic age with aristocratic attitudes, and in most some faint elements of these attitudes long survived. *** In its constitution Sparta stood apart, but here in a different way. The kings were the military commanders; with the aristocratic council, the Gerousia, they initiated most political and took most judicial decisions. But there was also an assembly of all Spartan citizens which met at fixed times and passed final judgments on most things that mattered--- all Spartan citizens, that is, as defined by the great Lycurgus, all who had survived their training, who had been allotted state land in the conquered territory with helots to work it, and who continued to obey the rules."
"Some states tried a third route to the new world, constitutional, like that of the Spartans, but less idiosyncratic, very much more humane. The setting up of a colony invited, if it did not demand, some conscious thought about the character of the new settlement, some element of self-consciousness even where the desire may only have been to reproduce what had been left at home (a desire that cannot have been profound, since most colonists left home because they did not like what they had experienced there). Thus a new need was added to the instinct for change, or at least dissatisfaction with the existing order, the need to formulate; and (yet again) eastern experience will have shown that formulation was possible.***
"But all this is shadow. It is only in mainland Attica that the translation of the desire and the idea into fact can be followed. Attica had survived post-Mycenaean turmoil better than most, but here too there had been economic collapse and only gradual redevelopment. When things settled down the city of Athens was at the head of whatever association Attica may once have been, not, like Sparta, a city of 'equals' surrounded by perioikoi or helots, but the center of an Attica riddled throughout with inequalities. There were aristocrats, free men, and dependents in and around the city as there were in Eleusis, Marathon, or Sunium. It is not the least of the Athenian achievements that she contrived to diminish or delete the distinctions across the country while building up the city as acknowledged capital, preserving at once local pride, national identity, and individual dignity.
"In Athens the first changes came after some twenty-five years. There arrived a moment of crisis, or near-revolution, when it was decided to appoint an arbitrator to produce a second, very different definition. . . Out of the background of discontent (with tyranny) came the choice of a revolutionary leader, Solon, who , fortunately for us, was not only a politician, but a poet, albeit a somewhat self-centered, self-righteous, and just a trifle pompous one.
Solon, elected chief-magistrate for 594, had one weakness. He did not like killing people." ***
"***existing debts were cancelled and personal security was forbidden. Share-cropping ceased to exist and no Athenian could henceforth suffer the indignity of enslavement for debt. *** Politically too some element of equality was sought. The assembly won new w\authority, perhaps in some was of which we know nothing. *** Solon's assertion that the assembly was to be the ultimate court of law. An Athenian could appeal to the assembly or a committee of it against a magistrate's verdict in his court.*** All Athenians deserved freedom from the threat of slavery, a guarantee against legal oppression, some voice in the direction of the city. But some Athenians, chief among them Solon's supporters, deserved more in the way of real political power. Solon, no less than Cypselus, had had some big men behind him, and they wanted a reward. The solution was simple, but very radical. Access to major political and military office, the archonship, previously restricted by convention to a limited group of families, the Eupartridae, was to be determined by wealth in land. All Athenians were divided into four classes. To the top class or classes went the top offices, to the lowest, the thetes only membership in the assembly, with consequent judicial influence. So far as can be judged the potential member of 'those with power' was doubled --- no mean change.
"Solon had opened government to new men, but had done nothing positive to diminish the aristocrat at local level beyond robbing him of legalized mastery over the poorer around him. Now he had either died in the last battle against Pisistratus or thought it prudent to go into exile or, even if he stayed, knew that he had to acknowledge the existence of someone more powerful than himself. Thus the rest either lost their master or realized that he did not matter so much as before. To change allegiance from one master to another may not seem to us a momentous step, but it is a first step towards a sense of being one's own master.
Just before the end of the 6th century BCE, Cleisthenes introduced further reforms in 508 BCE, just 38 years prior to the birth of Socrates. "The essence of the new system was the recognition that small local units, country villages or townlets, wards of the city, should control their own affairs independent of the local aristocrat. Each chose it mayor and council, and minded its own business."
"The polis was essentially a male association: citizens who were men joined together in making and carrying out decisions affecting the community. The origin of this activity doubtless lay in the military sphere and the right of warriors to approve or reject the decisions of their leaders; the development of the polis is the extension of this practice to all aspects of social life, with the partial exception of religion. Politics, direct participation in the making of rational choices after discussion, was therefore central to all Greek cities. In Athens and Sparta all male citizens participated at least in principle equally; elsewhere particular rights could be confined to certain groups, richer or better born, thereby necessarily creating conflicts and a hierarchy of rights within the citizen body. Nevertheless, the forms of political life, mass citizen assembly, smaller council, and annual executive magistrates were general, though the powers and attributes of the different elements varied widely."
"Even more important to the ordinary Athenian than these central and local government organizations was the phratry, the group of phrateres. This is the sole context in Greek of the important linguistic root common to most Indo-European languages, found for instant in the Celtic brathir, German Bruder, English brother, Latin frater, or French frere; in Greek it designates the non-familial type of 'brotherhood' (there was a quite different for blood relationship of brother). These brotherhoods were originally perhaps aristocratic warrior bands, but once again the democratic state had reorganized them to make them open to all: every male Athenian belonged to a phratry, and it was his phratry which dominated his social life." ***
"This type of association was common in the Greek world, and had developed for different ends in different cities. Sparta is the most striking example: the male citizen body was divided into syssitia or mess groups on which the entire social and military organization of the state depended. Here the normal practices of the Greek world had been transformed to create a military elite. From the age of seven, boys were given a state-organized upbringing, and brigaded into age groups. They lived communally from the age of twelve, taught all sorts of skills useful to self-reliance and survival, and provided with inadequate clothing and food to toughen them. At twenty they joined the syssitia where they must live until the age of thirty, and even thereafter they were required to eat daily those common meals to which they had to contribute from the land allotted to them and formed by state-owned slaves, who were in fact enslaved descendants of the neighboring communities, constantly rebelling and requiring suppression. The theoretical elegance of this solution (soldiers make slaves, slaves make soldiers, slaves need soldiers to suppress them), and the way it built on traditional Greek social customs, much impressed ancient political thinkers, and offered a counter-ideal to the Athenian democracy. The two examples show how differently similar institutions could develop in different states, and produce societies with utterly opposed characteristics."
By the time Socrates was nine years old, the first Peloponessian war between Athens and Sparta began and would last for ten years until 451 BCE. Pericles was the most influential of the ten generals of Athens at this point. Twenty years of peace would ensue before the second Peloponnesian war between Sparta and Athens began in 431 BCE. A year later, a plague would consume Athens and Pericles was among the plague's victims in 429. Plato is born a year later in the early years of the second war. Twenty years into the second Peloponnesian war, Athenian democracy collapses and the political system is replaced by a governing oligarchy for one year before a democracy is restored in 410. Athens capitulates to Sparta in 404 BCE and the Thirty Tyrants are installed as leaders of Athens. The Thirty Tyrants maintain power for only one year before democracy is again restored at Athens in 403. Plato is 25 years old at this time. Four years later in 399 BCE, Socrates would be accused by the democratic leaders of corrupting youth and executed. Just a few years later, Plato would become active as teacher and philosopher.
Plato was not in attendance at the death of Socrates, but he would write about it and become the principal source of information about the death of Socrates. Consistently during the first half of the 4th century BCE, wars between Athens, Sparta, Persia and Thebes (another Athenian rival) arose. And then Macedonia entered the picture from the north, conquering Athens by the mid-4th century BCE. It is at this time that Plato dies in 348 BCE and Alexander the Great is born.
This is roughly the the "Greek" historical context from which Plato and Socrates communicate across the ages to us. This context says very little about the impact of external influences, particularly Persian and Phoenician influences that possibly, if not likely contributed something to the Greek view of the world in the centuries preceding the 5th century BCE. In terms of context, one cannot ignore the Athenian experiment with expanding democracy from the time of Solon to Pericles is significant. One can't help but surmise that the freedom to philosophize (see December 12, 2012 post for a discussion of Spinoza's views on democracy and the freedom to philosophize) is incidental to this heretofore unfamiliar form of government where voices and votes are relatively equal are related. In contrast, the oligarchic Spartan form of governance and collectivized social system, just to the southwest of Athens during the same period of time, where the government managed and dictated most aspects of social and even personal life contributed almost nothing to philosophy and culture. It is surprising, then, that Plato should find in Sparta a model, of sorts, for the ideal government and social system led by philosophers that he proffered in The Republic.