Friday, February 04, 2005

On Socrates' Death. An allegory concerning Eli Siegel and an unimportant liar.

A Dramatic and Cautionary Tale about an Unknown and Very Unimportant Person

There once was a young man of ancient Greece named Milos. And Milos knew Socrates. He did not like Socrates because the great man asked far too many questions. And even worse, though he said he knew nothing, he knew more than Milos.

Now Milos had a mother who regarded him as a gift to Greece. And she thought of Socrates as a much-overrated busybody and heretic. And Milos was not immune to either the praise his mother gave him or the blame she laid upon others.

Milos was interested in power. And when he attended the Dialogues of Socrates he felt he should be teaching the students, not that old philosopher. Listening to Socrates made him sleepy. When the youths would exclaim “What a great man!” and eagerly discuss new ideas, as they came from afternoons when Socrates conversed freely with all, Milos was angry. He wanted them to say “That Milos! What a great mind!” and discuss his exploits at gaming and not the arguments of Socrates. But they didn’t. “I should be the toast of Athens,” thought Milos, and grumbled to himself while looking as pleasant as he could.

“He forces them to attend,” he would say about the people who couldn’t get enough of listening to Socrates, the people who came again and again, the people who felt a man like Socrates was born once in a hundred years (if that often). “It’s expected of them to come,” he grumbled. “If they don’t come to 9 out of 10 dialogues they are chastised. It’s that infamous student of Socrates named Plato that makes them come. Perhaps if I blacken the name of Plato they will stay away.” And he tried.

In the Dialogues, when the students in their turn questioned Socrates, and he answered even the most difficult questions with depth and sweetness and thorough (and modest) logic, it made Milos angrier than ever. “How could he know so much,” he would say under his breath and grit his teeth.

“Perhaps,” thought Milos, “if I remove my garments and run naked through the marketplace people would see the originality of my mind.” And so he did. But the people of Athens went on buying their vegetables and fruit, and fish, and bread as always and were neither sufficiently scandalized nor sufficiently impressed to suit Milos. “Never mind, I’ll try it again another time,” he said comfortingly to himself.

Milos began to lie in earnest about Socrates. He made up offenses which had never taken place, for the great man who only had spoken to Milos a few times wished him well. He’d tried to teach Milos, but without success. Unfortunately, in asking Socratic questions of Milos, a person was addressed who hated to learn from another. “Too many questions!” said the young man sneeringly to his mother, meaning, “Too many questions for me to maintain my usual level of narcissism.”

Milos sought revenge. He told everyone he could, in the council, the marketplace, the homes of friends, that Socrates was trying to tear down the great tradition of Greece: the worship of the living gods—Apollo, Zeus, Dionysius. He told the priests how the old man believed in a higher power and had questioned the gods’ very existence, despite the fact that everyone could see them, made of marble and wood and gold and paint, in the city’s “cultus” temples of worship. He accused Socrates of leading a new and heretical cultus in which he was the object of worship himself.

There is no record as to whether the lies of the young vermin, Milos, had an effect or not. For there were already some local officials and jealous intellectuals whose lust to be superior had spurred in them a sullen and restless anger at the brilliance and plentitude of ideas coming from the philosophic school of Socrates.

And so, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, more than 2000 years afterwards, Professor Edward Taylor of Oxford and Edinburgh tells how a "half-witted" and "fanatic" prosecutor indicted Socrates for “impiety.” And at the trial vague charges like "corrupting the youth" were made. And the court, “incensed” at the great man for telling them truthfully that he “merited the treatment of an eminent benefactor”—and not a trial for crimes he did not commit— sentenced him to death by drinking the cup of poison hemlock. The greatest philosophic innovator of Greece was to pay with his life.

In the famous depiction of Socrates by the French painter David, the man of thought, condemned to death by suicide, discourses serenely in prison with his friends and students—the poisoned cup in his raised hand. In the Dialogue Crito, his friend begs him to escape, to flee Athens, and not take his life as the law has dictated. But Socrates cannot not bring himself to flee. He has done no wrong and will not break the law now.

After Athens mourned the loss of the man who reasoned nobly about beauty, ethics, life and death, and equality—the man who believed knowledge was happiness—Milos continued his campaign of revenge. He wanted to demolish utterly the contemporary who dared to know more than himself. And so he started in on Socrates’ posthumous reputation. He would whisper to known purveyors of the lowest gossip; he would grasp the collar of whomever he could in the marketplace and say, spitting ever so slightly, “How great was Socrates, really? He said self-knowledge made for a happy life. But how happy was he? He committed suicide.”

Yes, Socrates is safe in the bosom of history. And Milos is no longer remembered. The perfidy of ancient Athens, however, is remembered; and it always will be. Now, in our time, we have to ask: How much is this injustice, oh this murderous injustice, in action this very day?