quinta-feira, dezembro 02, 2004

Athenian Politics: "Essential Thinkers" by Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes

(Original Review, 2004-12-02)

There was no other sphere in which to be popular: Socrates places himself right at the heart of Athenian politics, that's the point of being Socrates. He attracts pupils and supporters who will play a decisive role in the unfolding tragedy which results in the downfall of his city.

Just as he stood in the line at Delium, a foot-soldier, with his spear and his shield, the arms of a free citizen, he stands in the city and fights with words. In the Apology, Plato has Socrates make the connection explicitly: those who think the threat of prosecution would make him stop his enquiries after the truth must also believe soldiers should run away from the battlefield. The problem for the Athenians - and for Socrates - is identifying the enemy in this war. His method is such that it's only going to unmask the enemy at the end of the process.

In any event, I think it is difficult to get an idea of who Socrates was and what he believed without looking at the historical context: without the Melian dialogue, without the expedition to Sicily, without the revolt of Mytilene. Without the synthesis of ritual state-religious festivals, and daring political drama. You can take Socrates and Plato, and see where they filter into Christian theology: but you can't reverse engineer it. You need to start with what it meant to be an Athenian in the lost world of Plato's youth. Only then can you try and work out what he thinks caused his teacher's death and what he thinks might have prevented it.

The island of Melos tried to stay neutral in the war, but the Athenian position was that there was no such pose: either you were with Athens, and paid the tribute, or you were with Sparta and an enemy. Thucydides casts the debate, uniquely in his work, in the form of a dialogue arguing the case for neutrality, and the case for surrendering to Athenian force. The Athenian party argues that power is the only morality you need: city-states do what is to their advantage. The Spartans would be just the same, and the Melians, too weak to resist invasion, should abandon illusions and choose a master.

What actually happened was that the Melians said they would fight to defend their island, but preferred to remain neutral and on friendly terms with Athens. Athens invaded, and exterminated every male inhabitant, and enslaved every woman and child. This was in 416 BC when Plato was about ten years old. As he grows to manhood, so the atrocities on both sides mount.

I mentioned Sicily, where the Athenian army is captured and the prisoners starved to death in the open-air quarries outside Syracuse: where Plato later tries to influence the tyrant Dionysus, through Plato's great friend Dion, to become a model ruler.

These are threads in Plato's life that suggest questions about his mentor Socrates and the picture he gives of him. The subjects of the dialogues are not always as straightforward a pursuit of an abstract pedagogic truth as they seem. The characters are important actors in the vanished world of his youth and it seems to me that Plato is often trying, in his writing and his life, to make things right again. You need to know where he's starting from.

There is another reason why all this is of urgent political relevance today. NATO policy for the whole of the Cold War was based on a reading of Thucydides: as Donald Kagan says in his "The Pelopponesian War" - "Generals, diplomats, scholars and statesmen alike have compared the conditions that led to the Greek war with the rivalry between NATO and the Warsaw Pact."

The issues of the Melian dialogue still inform politics today. What we do in Iraq and Afghanistan re-enacts the same arguments. We have our own Sicilian expeditions, and brutal atrocities on all sides, some sanctioned by our own version of the Athenian democracy. I am an ageing Classics student, so I am biased: but I think Plato is still at the cutting edge of our political life, not just an element in our academic games. And I am still not sure where Plato leads us: to tyranny, or to freedom.