The Apology, Phaedo and Crito of Plato
The three Platonic dialogues that begin Volume Two of the Harvard Classics comprise a kind of passion of Socrates. They begin with his trial and sentencing for corrupting Athenian youth. Then his disciple Crito attempts to convince Socrates to escape from his cell into exile, which prospect Socrates examines with rational disinterest before abandoning. Lastly, Phaedo recounts Socrates' last moments with his followers before he stoically accepts the hemlock that will kill him.
While the Republic is probably more important to the history of ideas, these are Plato's greatest narrative works, and they are the ones from which our popular image of Socrates stems. It helps, of course, that they have a built-in plotline lacking from most philosophy texts. But mostly they work as literature because of Socrates himself. Whatever his relation to his historical counterpart, the Socrates of these pages is a wonderful literary character, the kind of sly ironist we tend to think of as a particularly modern type.
The most powerful (and most famous) lines in these dialogues are Socrates' parting words to the court that has sentenced him:
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways--I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.
God only knows seems like a pretty good summary of Socrates'
worldview, at least as laid out here. By his own account, Socrates knew
nothing, except that he knew nothing, but this one bit of
knowledge put him ahead of most. His philosophy here is remarkably
negative; he sets himself to "cross examination of the pretenders to
wisdom," rather than to testimony on wisdom's behalf.
All this is to say that Socrates is intent on tearing down
systems, but little troubled to build something in their place. Of
course, this complaint is still leveled at ironists today (hence the
short-lived, wishful insistence, after 9/11, that the
Age of Irony
had passed, as if irony were only as old as Joe Isuzu). Nobody wants to
have their old truths destroyed, least of all if nothing is offered in
their place. This may be Plato's most impressive literary achievement:
however much we admire Socrates, we know just why certain Athenians
wanted to put him to death.
There's probably no other writer whose place in the Classics is as secure as is Plato's. In fact, he seems like a logical starting point for the project, and so his presence here in Volume Two makes the decision to begin Volume One with Benjamin Franklin only more curious. At this point it's too early to tell what, if any, significance will be found in the order of the Classics, but already I see some connections between the first two volumes -- less obvious than those between the individuals works within each volume, but unmistakeable nonetheless.
The Golden Sayings of Epictetus bears surface resemblances to the maxims of Franklin and Penn collected in Volume One. But Epictetus -- a freed Roman slave and Stoic philosopher -- bears an obvious, acknowledged debt to Socrates and Plato.
Throughout his life, Socrates had a voice, an "oracle or sign," that spoke to him:
The sign is a voice that comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything.
Sometimes Epictetus sounds rather like this sign:
What then? do I say man is not made for an active life? Far from it! ... But there is a great difference between other men's occupations and ours ... A glance at theirs will make it clear to you. All day long they do nothing but calculate, contrive, consult how to wring their profit out of food-stuffs, farm-plots and the like ... Whereas, I entreat you to learn what the administration of the World is, and what place a Being endowed with reason holds therein: to consider what you are yourself, and wherein your Good and Evil consists.
Admittedly, he does command us to do something ("to learn" and "to
consider"), but he cannot tell us what we are after in the end, cannot
tell us wherein our Good and Evil consists.
Man can embody truth, Yeats said,
but he cannot know it.
This seems to me one of the central lessons of Socrates and of those,
like Epictetus, who follow him faithfully: that knowledge is a process,
not an object.
If that seems too abstract (or itself too objective), I'll add that the difference I'm talking about is roughly the difference between when Franklin says:
Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
and when Epictetus says:
Above all remember that the door stands open.
Marcus Aurelius seems to have spent much of his life considering wherein his Good and Evil consisted, and his Meditations represent the product of that consideration. He was a philosopher in the line of Plato by way of Epictetus, and he references both men frequently. To be sure, there's a good deal more in the way of positive injunction here, but it's always directed at Aurelius himself. As emperor of Rome -- the most powerful man in the known world -- he took great pains to remember "How soon will time cover all things, and how many it has covered already." If there is a single message to the Meditations it is this -- Before long, you'll be dead; for a short time after that, you might be remembered; then those who remember you will all be dead, too. Or, to put it more poetically:
Lucilla saw Verus die, and then Lucilla died. Secunda saw Maximus die, and then Secundus died. Epitynchanus saw Diotimus die, and then Epitynchanus died. Antoninus saw Faustina die, and then Antoninus died. Such is everything.
Almost two thousand years after his death, Marcus Aurelius is still remembered. All the more bracing to know he was probably right about his eventual obscurity. As I turned the pages of the Meditations in my hundred-year-old edition, they crumbled around the edges, leaving a kind of dust on my lap. Plato wrote about Socrates, and then Plato died. Epictetus wrote about Plato, and then Epictetus died. Aurelius wrote about Epictetus, and then Aurelius died. So here I am, writing about Aurelius. Such is everything.
--CRB, January 14, 2007