The Good and the Philosopher’s Life

Euthyphro, Apology and Crito (8/31/20 – 9/4/20)

This week marked our course calibration to the study of ancient philosophy, politics and society. We will do a series of dives into some of the classic texts from the ancient Greeks and Romans. We’ll examine conceptions of the good life and how this was woven into the political thought of the time through that prism. Specifically, we begin with differing conceptions of the good life emblematic of a tripartite disagreement still with Western Civilization. We begin with a fight between a professional class of orators, rhetoricians, speakers and persuaders – the sophists – and the lovers of wisdom, seekers of truth, and noted ascetics, the philosophers. Their subject of disagreement is of fundamental importance to both Athenian society and our own. It concerns large questions such as “what is the good,” and “how ought we live our lives?” These questions are vital to understanding political organization at the time as conceptions of justice are grounded in disagreements over the construction of a moral-political ethos – a way of living – debated between the philosophers and sophists. At bottom is a disagreement over the use of force and social violence through the powers of language and representation of knowledge. Should people and society listen to the voice of reason alone and can people and their institutions be trusted to abide by reason? Should the most persuasive argument carry the day, even if it resorts to fallacious reasoning and trickery? These are the questions considered in your reading this week, whether consciously stated or not.

Plato is one of the most important figures in Western intellectual history and has enjoyed an enduring presence over our thoughts, actions and organization with writings dating back to 380 BCE. We’ll see that his philosophy is far from cut and dry and that it is concerned with, among other things, the just state and the good life.

We open our discussion with Socrates. He is considered widely as the father of Western philosophy despite the long history of enquiry that preceded him. He is a master of the Reductio ad Absurdum argument form and routinely pesters people of high standing in Athens for definitions of terms in their fields of study. Socrates is not a good looking man – already a problem for Athenians – he’s not wealthy but has a lot of wealthy friends, and he spends his time, we gather, in the agora discussing philosophical matters such as the nature of truth, nature herself, morality, justice, social organization, reality, knowledge, mathematics, beauty, memory, and logic. He has already built a reputation for himself within Athens, and is somewhere around 70 years old when we find him in Euthyphro

Scholars know about Socrates and his life through the works of his student, Plato. Plato is a wealthy disciple of Socrates’ and comes from Athenian high society. Socrates was not fond of writing anything down and it is Plato who gives us the dialogues we read. There is disagreement over the reality presented in Plato’s dialogues and this has led to interpretive battles within the academic community over whether some of the people – Socrates notably – actually existed. Regardless, we can read Plato through Socrates most of the time, and it may be that Plato is simply using his characters as mouthpieces. It is fun to wonder about these details lost to history, but I will leave them aside here. We’re going to read a few dialogues that flesh out and address the disagreements between philosophers and sophists and the dialogic style is something with which the contemporary philosophy student might be unfamiliar.

There’s an old philosophy joke (most of them are ancient) that goes something like this: How many people does it take to do philosophy? Two. One to do it and the other to say “Yes, Socrates. Of course Socrates.” Silly as it is, this highlights a point or two worth mentioning when approaching Plato’s dialogues. 

Socrates is Plato’s hero in much of his writings. He’s the archetypical philosopher wandering around and upsetting powerful Athenians by exposing their ignorance in the subjects where they are publicly expert. Socrates is also a war veteran having fought in the Peloponnesian War for Athens, and a trained sculptor and mason. He has, we gather, a family though little mention is made of them in our reading this week aside from Apology and Crito. We gather from this week’s readings that Socrates is attempting to fulfill a quest in his life given to him by the Oracle at Delphi – a soothsayer and an important player in Athenian society. The Oracle has made the claim that Socrates is the wisest man in Athens. In typical fashion, Socrates disagrees and claims that he is not wise – that he is ignorant – and he sets himself to the task of proving the Oracle wrong. He does this by questioning powerful Athenians – sophists, poets and statesmen alike – on broad topics such as “What is the good life,” and “How ought society be organized to produce a just one?” These questions span many sectors of Athenian life at the time, and most of the dialogues we have from almost 400 years before the emergence of Christianity are conversations Socrates supposedly had with supposed experts on their subjects. 

The style of a dialogue can be confusing for fixing philosophical and theoretical interpretation. Taking a wider view and trying to see what the conversation is about can be difficult, but is often the best way to approach reading these things. Additionally, grabbing information about the dialogue under consideration can be helpful and one can usually get away with a good encyclopedia entry for a fuller understanding of the topics under consideration. Another way (and one that should be combined with almost any other method) is to look for bigger blocks of text within the dialogues themselves and carefully unpack them as they are usually full of philosophical exegesis. Apology has very little dialogue in it, so finding the important bits can be harder than usual, but it is forgivingly short and a good portion of it is less the philosophical discussion and more about Athenian society and Socrates’ life. Crito is also relatively straightforward and brief but you’ll notice Socrates’ argumentative style there as well as in Euthyphro. As above, Socrates is a master of a style of argument called Reductio ad Absurdum – to reduce to absurdity – and this style is not only powerful, philosophically speaking, but also frustratingly funny to read.

Sometimes it will appear as if Socrates is leading his interlocutors in a circle. Most of the time, this is not the case as he tries to get them to generate a contradiction within their own reasoning. The example above is a clip from Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. The film depicts a reality closer to home than is comfortable, however, it is instructive in fallcious reasoning. Above, displays a circular argument regarding a fictional Gatorade-type beverage, Brawndo, the idiots have been using to water their crops. Luke Wilson, who plays the smartest man in the world, presses the other characters for a definition only to find circular reasoning. The logic displayed by the idiots shows a fallacy in reasoning called “Begging the question,” and shows both how question-begging is animated and that we as a society are drifting closer to idiocracy – the rule of idiots – because the people on the TV, (and in academia!) misapply “begging the question,” or “begs the question,” almost every time they employ the description.

You’ll find that Socrates routinely frustrates and pesters his interlocutors with questions. Most of his discussants are recognized experts in Athenian society and Euthyphro – the subject and title of the dialogue – is a poet of high standing in Athens. Poets are who you went to to understand questions pertaining to the gods. A polythesistic society at the time, Athens had many gods – their patron being Athena, goddess of war and naval expertise – and relied on interpretations of poetry that contained the gods and their exploits. One only need consider The Odyssey by Homer to see how the gods were woven into the fabric of Athenian reality. Socrates is on his way to court – open court composed of judges and jurors within an amphitheatre populated by Athenian citizens. “Citizen,” here, is reserved for landowning males who are the Head of the Household. The Household is more than it is today, and refers to what we might recognize as a working farm or some other type of homestead directly linked to an agrarian economy. We see in Apology that they are the jurors at Socrates’ trial and vote on his fate. 

Socrates strikes up a conversation with Euthyphro who is also visiting court that day to accuse his father of murder. Agast, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain his decision and both come to the understanding that Euthyphro is committed to his father’s condemnation and possible execution as an act of piety – a religiously faithful and devoted act related to the will of the gods themselves. Piety, here is in the orbit of justice and one can see how the two overlap and intersect in Athenian society. Notably, Euthyphro believes that in bringing the attention of the court to his father’s manslaughter of a serf he is doing a justice to both Athens and to the gods themselves. It seems almost as if Euthyphro – so convinced of his pious action – is performing a duty as a divine command. In a subtle twist of Platonic irony, Socrates, himself in trouble for following the wishes of the Oracle (a divine commander), meets Euthyphro outside of court and begins pestering him for a definition of the pious, or piety more generally. 

Euthyphro attempts to define piety three times throughout the dialogue and the dialogue itself ends in aporia – philosophical frustration and confusion typified by throwing ones hands up in the air and shouting “agree to disagree,” or “it is what it is,” and then walking off or changing the subject. You can see this in the text rather clearly and it exemplifies the Reductio argument employed by Socrates. Reductios go something like this: Assume your interlocutor is right and get them to define the thing under discussion (you’ll see Socrates do this almost every time you read him). Then probe your opponent for further elaboration by trying to draw out inferences from their definition (if piety is X, then we can infer Y), and get them to agree to your inferences or elaborations. Go through this process until you get them to generate a contradiction or an otherwise unpalatable conclusion. Then show them that they have contradicted themselves, accuse them of putting forward an invalid definition of the thing you’ve asked them to define, and pester them for another definition. 

Philosopher, Dan Dennett speaks to the Reductio as part of the philosopher’s toolbox that has wide application in the sciences.

Socrates leads Euthyphro through at least three reductios throughout the course of the dialogue. If you notice, Euthyphro becomes increasingly unsettled and frustrated with Socrates throughout the dialogue. Reductios are sometimes called “indirect arguments” and one can readily see why in Euthyphro. Socrates never puts forward his own definition of piety though you may be able to detect that he disagrees with Euthyphro. He is indirectly unsettling Euthyphro’s expertise on piety, the thing he’s supposed to understand better than most in Athens and this is shaking Euthyphro to his core because he’s at court to condemn his father for an impious act! In this way, Socrates has quietly accused Euthyphro of impiety, or, at the very least, acting without properly understanding what grounds his action. Socrates, in many ways, is concerned with what we’d call epistemology – the study of knowledge or knowing – and his approach to epistemology involves publicly embarrassing people of high standing by unseating their “solid” understandings of things through reductios

Knowing one’s limits through understanding one’s ignorance is the core of Socrates’ quest and he considers his role within Athenian society as a gadfly – an annoying insect that impels larger creatures to action. He makes this clear in Apology as he is addressing the court and dealing with his accusers. Again, in a funny twist, apology here, means “defense,” and Socrates is supposed to be defending himself from the accusations that he is a corruptor of the youth and makes the weaker arguments appear the stronger (read: he uses reductios to make important people look like ignorant assholes), and that he worships false gods, or is just generally impious. Stringing together Euthyphro and Apology paints a picture that shows his accusers are close enough to the reality of his behavior to warrant concern from the court. Socrates is unapologetic for his behavior and flings his own accusations against his accusers whom he believes are under the employ of three powerful sectors of Athenian society associated with sophists and the practice of sophistry. 

Sophists, as we’ll see, are professional orators or debaters – akin to today’s lawyers – who could be bought (at no small expense) to defend someone publicly, or instruct the youth in rhetoric. They are not concerned with a search for truth, as Socrates is, but about “winning” the argument – that is, garnering the public will. Socrates is and has been fighting the Sophists over their picture of reality and we’ll see how they conceive the good life and public service throughout the course. Here, however, in open court and in front of the masses Socrates loses.

His accusers carry the day in Apology and Socrates is asked what he believes his punishment should be for his crimes. He claims that he has done and is nothing more than a public servant to Athens. He loves his city and has fought for her in battle and has tried to do nothing more than develop her philosophically. For these services he insists that his punishment should be living in the Prytaneum – the Hall of Heroes in Athens – where he would be cared for in his old age. The court rejects this proposal and orders a hefty fine, exile or death. 

Despite Plato’s presence at the trial and his wealth, he is unable to raise the fine necessary to free his teacher. The citizens of Athenian democracy have spoken, and Socrates must choose either to live in exile – never to return to his home and the city he loves – or to drink hemlock and end his life by state ordered suicide. He chooses hemlock and is locked away to await death. It would seem that the Sophists have won the final argument, but Socrates is not finished discussing goodness or how one ought to live and Crito elaborates some of these notions.

Rick Roderick lectures on the philosophical pursuit of knowledge and the life and death of Socrates. Please keep “knowledge” and “fact” separate in your minds. The quest for knowledge and truth may be different from fact and science.

The unexamined life is not a life worth living! Socrates is convinced of that maxim and cannot do anything but search for truth. He does not, so he says, enter into debate merely to win the argument and show his cleverness. His project is to examine every facet of life and the living and subject it to rigorous critique. He is interested in producing liveable knowledge about things generally construed such that one can understand one’s place in the universe. His life is not simply a series of motions repeated for the sake of living in the humdrum of the day but a personal quest for wisdom.

The Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers we examine in this course do not, generally, make a separation between the study of ethics and the study of politics. To them, a personal ethic, or ethos is a way of living to produce a happy and good person and this person fits into the patchwork of society thus influencing the whole. Perhaps ironically, Socrates has been on a quest for goodness, and has tried to live his life in accordance with his mission handed down from the Oracle. This transformed him from a former soldier and sculptor (he claims he is descended from Daedalus) into a philosopher-as-public-servant, as he went about Athens agitating the powerful who would lead people astray with their false knowledge and sophistry for the sake of personal power and wealth. Apology shows that Athens was convinced by sophistry to condemn a man to death who claimed to have loved them dearly. Crito, I think, shows the depth of Socrates’ love for Athens and his commitment to living in accordance with reason itself in the quest for a good life. 

Crito opens in the prison chamber where Socrates’ is inturned. Crito, a friend and student of Socrates’ (many Platonic dialogues are named after Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue) has bribed the jailor for Socrates’ freedom and has planned an escape for him into exile. Depending on who you read, the conversation between Socrates and Crito is either just the two of them, or in front of a larger group of friends who are supposed to aid Socrates in his escape to Thessaly –  another region and city in ancient Greece. Crtio implores Socrates to leave and save his own skin as the court was clearly in error in their condemnation but Socrates refuses on the grounds that his exile would not be a good and just action.

Socrates reasons that Athens has given him everything in his life. He thinks of the State – the governing apparatus for our purposes here – as his alma mater (his generous mother) and owes his existence to Athens. His children and wife have benefitted from living in Athens and for him, there is no other city. He is loyal to her citizens, he has fought as a soldier and served as a senator for his district in her interests and the interest of its citizens. He cannot imagine living anywhere else in disgrace and refuses to live outside of the wishes of the city that made him. It wishes him destroyed and he accepts his fate on the grounds that to live and die by her hand concludes his debt to her and is preferable than defying the wishes of his generous mother. This may, again, produce another irony for us, in that we will see that Socrates (Plato most probably) was distrusting of democracy and had problems understanding whether it would produce justice and goodness in its organization. However, in Crito, Socrates is resolute. He will not bring his life into contradiction with his philosophy and believes, as a matter of living a good life, he must not show himself to be an opportunistic sophist and must obey the wishes of the Athenians. He drinks hemlock (again depending on the translation) in the fulfillment of a just and good life.

There are a few troubling things about the series of dialogues we read for this post. One, it shows that the philosopher may never be accepted into society as their role of critic. Two: reason does not always carry the day and sophistry is a powerful tool for directing the will of the masses; and three, that the philosopher – the lover of wisdom – must endure the burdens above if they pursue philosophy as a matter of praxis, or as an ethos. Socrates puts forward a quiet social contract theory in Crito, mostly basing his argument for why he should obey the State within the notion of tacit agreement and participation. We could have pressed Socrates, if we had been there for an explanation of why he should listen to the dictates of an unjust state – one that allows false witness to murder the innocent – but the message from Socrates is clear. To live any other way would be to live his life in a self-contradictory limbo and to live outside of the good life and thus to live unjustly. 
We will see the disagreements over the just state and the good life in the coming weeks. Philosophers, sophists and statesmen alike are all interested in the intersection of these questions and they make a deep connection between personal morality and a moral social organization. The disagreements had in ancient Greece are with us today as we try to interpret our changing worlds and how we fit in them, and these perennial matters cannot be ignored by the student of politics. Despite so-called realist attempts to distance the functions of state from morality (Waltz or Morgenthau for example), this division may not hold firm under the weight of philosophical discussion and the search for Truth. Truth, as we will see, is deeply connected to the concept of state and the good life in the mind of the philosopher and their disagreements with the sophists will be repeated to our time.