Tuesday, January 17, 2023

After Socrates

I've been watching John Vervaeke's new series, After Socrates. I appreciate Vervaeke very much, and I'm finding the series very worth watching.

My problem is that I roundly dislike Socrates, and have from the moment I met him. He is a humble-braggart and a busybody, minding everyone's business but his own: on his own showing he neglected his family and let them fall into poverty while he spent his time gadflying about town and picking quarrels with anyone reputed to be wise. What kind of conduct is that? 

And so often, such pettifogging, nitpicky arguments! Such sophomoric glee in mere triumphs of words! That sort of thing is forgivable in an undergraduate, but a man in his prime ought to have moved on. He should be listening to the heart by then, not to the words: and he should care more about the person he's speaking to than about scoring points in a debate. But Socrates just loves to win arguments, and to rub his opponents' noses in their defeats. I have been trying to read him fairly. Starting again, and making every assumption I can in his favor. Suppose he really does believe that God called him to this task. Suppose it wasn't particularly congenial to him. Suppose he really was trying to understand reality, with all the resources he had. Suppose he really thought he was supplying exactly what his city desperately needed, and what only he could supply. I'm trying. It's tough going.

At the same time that I find my antipathy intractable, my respect for Socrates (and the Platonic and Aristotelean tradition he begot) keeps increasing. The standpoints from which I used to despise them have proved even more fragile than theirs: the liberal, individualist ideology I was raised in has crumbled; the  projects of the Enlightenment have come to grief; the Buddhist philosophy that I once adopted now seems to me inadequate. We're back at square one. It doesn't matter whether I like him. What matters is what's true, and what it means for how we ought to live.

So I go on. I have my old college penguin paperback: I've read the Euthyphro and and the Apology; I'm making a good-faith attempt to actually understand what he means by "soul" and "God": I am taking into account -- as I couldn't, when I was an innocent undergraduate -- that translating arguments that turn on exact nuances of the source language is fiendishly difficult, and the points made almost always turn out looking either more obscure or more obvious than they do in the original. 

It's not hard to discover ways in which this Socratic argument or that are inadequate, after 2,400 years of l'esprit de l'escalier. But if I have demanded more of Socrates, I should demand more of myself: I should be listening to the heart.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ahh the questions we ask
And weave through our lives