Friday, October 27, 2006

Socrates was probably called an asshole

Wherein not like you

ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE,The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone is a book I'll probably pick up. Don't know much about him, but what I've heard sounds interesting. I am currently rereading a book of his I first read in 1989: The Trial of Socrates. A NY Times Magazine interview from 1979 offers a pretty good overview of Stone's research that he'd eventually turn into a book.

This quote is taken from Chapter 4 as Stone is discussing the "second basic divergence between Socrates and [Athens]." Quote:
Real knowledge, Socrates taught, could be obtained only through absolute definition. If one could not define a thing absolutely, then one didn't really know what it was. Then Socrates demonstrated that such knowledge was unobtainable, even by him. Modestly, he claimed that, in this sense all he knew was that he didn't know. Virtue was knowledge, but real knowledge was inaccessible. Even this much of the truth could be grasped only, if at all, by a very few. So behind his immeasurable modesty there lurked an equally immeasurable conceit.

It followed -- at least for Socrates and his disciples -- that since virtue was knowledge and knowledge was unattainable, ordinary men, the many, had neither the virtue nor the knowledge required for self-government. By this labyrinthine metaphysical route Socrates was back to his fundamental proposition that the human community was a herd, and could not be trusted to govern itself.

To understand the contrasting Athenian view, which was the general Greek view in the time of Socrates, we turn again to Aristotle. The basic premise of his ethics as of his politics is that virtue is arete politike. The first word means virtue and the second word means political but the better English equivalent, as we have seen, is civic or social. For Aristotle as for most Greeks every citizen possessed -- by his very nature as a social animal -- those elementary virtues required for communal life. He didn't have to be a master of metaphysics. But he had to have that necessary modicum of reason, the logos, and with it the ability to distinguish right from wrong. This "political virtue" gave men a sense of justice, and sufficient consideration for the rights of others, to make the polis -- the civilized community -- viable.

Of course, then as now, not everybody measured up to this requirement, but most did. Otherwise even the primitive community could not have come into being and grown into a city-state. This was the basic ethical premise of the Greek polis, whether its citizenship was restricted to a relative few or extended to all freeborn males. By refusing to recognize this modicum of basic virtue and of basic knowledge, the Socratic teaching struck at the very core -- the necessary premises -- of the polis. The dominant Greek view gave dignity to the common man. The Socratic view demeaned him. This was an irreconcilable divergence.


Blogger Lord Floppington said...

So did Aristotle and most Greeks come to the conclusion that every citizen possessed the elementary virtues, and people who weren't citizens, whoever they might be (doesn't sound like women were included, at least) and however that might be decided, didn't possess those virtues?

But how could it be only Greek citizens, if the people of primitive, pre-city-state communities (by definition not Greek citizens) also possessed these virtues? Seems like it couldn't be, and that pretty much all people, Greek citizens or not, would possess the same virtues.

How would that square with keeping slaves? Or was that just an ethnocentric version of "some are more equal than others?"

10/29/2006 05:21:00 PM  

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