Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Fine Art of Self-Indulgent Moralising (II)

Imagine this.

You live in a country governed by one of those despotic, totalitarian regimes with which no liberal democratic government would have any truck if it weren't for the fact that countries and nations have neither friends nor values but only allies and interests. One day, along with a group of your close friends, you are summoned to the palace of your ruler where you are presented with a choice. Either you go and arrest some poor bastard you've never even heard of and turn him over to the authorities or you will be executed. What, as they usually say when posing this sort of question, will you do?

This sort of thing has been going on for about as long as people have lived in organised societies, so it's not exactly a new problem:

... When the oligarchy came into power, the thirty Commissioners in their turn summoned me and four others to the Round Chamber and instructed us to go and fetch Leon of Salmis from his home for execution. This was of course only one of many instances in which they issued such instructions, their object being to implicate as many people as possible in their wickedness. On this occasion, however, I made it clear not by my words but by my actions that death did not matter to me at all (if that is not too strong an expression); but that it mattered all the world to me that I should do nothing wrong or wicked. Powerful as it was, that government did not terrify me into doing a wrong action; when we came out of the Round Chamber the other four went off to Salamis and arrested Leon, and I went home. I should probably have been put to death for this, if the government had not fallen soon afterwards. There are plenty of people who will testify to these statements.

the Last Days of Socrates, Penguin Clasics p 65.

Re-reading this particular passage set me thinking about a lot of things. Who were the Thirty Commissioners? Who the hell was Leon of Salamis? Who were the anonymous four Athenians who went off to Salamis and arrested him? Did Socrates get lucky, or what, that the government fell before they got around to executing him? And just what the hell was he thinking anyway?

One possibility is that Socrates was in the throes of a mid-life crisis, so that his thinking had gotten a bit woolly. It wouldn't surprise me; Socrates career and public life are a sorry indictment of the state of vocational guidance counselling in ancient Athens:

... one day [Chaerophon (a friend of Socrates) went to Delphi and asked this question of the god ... - he asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself. The priestess replied that there was no-one.
(op cit)

As we know, inspired by this prankish answer, Socrates embarked on a career of pestering men who had acquired a reputation for wisdom, cross-examining them mercilessly and generally showing them up as fools, much to the delight of the youth of Athens. The footnotes in my Penguin Classics copy of The Death of Socrates suggest:

The only 'natural' explanation about [the oracle's] reply about Socrates is that it was well aware of his true charater and ideals and thoroughly approved of them.

On the other hand, it's possible that the Oracle was having a lend of Chaerophon:

[Backstage at Delphi. Phyllis, the duty crone, returns to the dressing room she shares with her good friend, and fellow sybil, Beryl.

Phyllis: Well, that's that over. Another day, another drachma. Crack us an amphora, love.

Beryl: Busy shift?

Phyllis: Gods, yeah. The questions some of these tossers come up with. "Who makes the best shoes in Athens" ...

Beryl: That's an easy one. Everyone knows it's Blahnikos. Same old shit, then, basically.

Phyllis: Yeah, same old, same old. Did get one malaka asking if anyone was wiser than Socrates.

Beryl: Who's Socrates?

Phyllis: Fucked if I know. Some Athenian, I think. So I said no-one was wiser than Socrates. They can make what they like of that. Malakas.

By the time he was summoned by the oligarchs, Socrates had spent several years annoying people, so we can't rule a mid-life crisis out of the question. We tend to forget when we read Plato that when he wasn't pestering his friends with questions about the Good, Socrates had to live the life of an ordinary man like the rest of us. Little is recorded of this, beyond the fact that his wife, Xanthippe, is reputed to have been a termagant. Perhaps when Socrates heard the order of the Thirty, he had a serious attack of the middle-aged stuff-its and decided that enough was enough. Not simply because there are some things that we should fear more than death - although this was obviously a convenient way to present the issue at his trial - but because of a feeling that life hadn't delivered. Did he attempt to persuade the anonymous four not to go to Salamis? Or did their conversation after they left the Round Chamber go more like this:

Socrates: Stuff this. You blokes can go to Salamis if you like, but I'm going home.

Anonymous Athenian: You sure that's a good idea?

Second Anonymous Athenian: You'd be better off coming to Salamis with us. Xanthippe's going to give you a right bollocking when she hears about this.

Socrates: Right now, I couldn't give a bugger. With any luck she'll have gone round to her mother's place.

But what if she hadn't gone round to her mother's place?

Xanthippe: What are you doing back here so early? Couldn't you find any Sophists stupid enough to argue with you?

Socrates: The oligarchs wanted me to go to Salamis to arrest Leon.

Xanthippe: Who's he?

Socrates: Some bloke from Salamis they want to execute. Anyway, I've had it with the oligarchs and all their bullshit. I think I'll stay home today.

Xanthippe: If you think you're going to mope around here all day, you've got another think coming. It's about time you fixed up that shutter on the front window. You've been promising to do that for weeks.

Socrates: Oh, alright, but first I'm going to crack an amphora.

Xanthippe: Like hell you are. Every time I ask you about that shutter it's always "alright, but first I'm going to crack an amphora". I'm sick of it. Shutter first, amphora later.

Socrates: You know, the oligarchs could be sending someone to arrest me tomorrow. Not that I expect that to bother you, the way you're always going on about how you should have married Blahnikos.

Xanthippe: At least Blahnikos has done something with his life. Maybe if you'd turned your hand to a useful trade instead of getting carried away with the idea that the oracle called you the wisest man in Athens, you wouldn't be in this mess. God knows me and the children would have a better life.

It probably wasn't one of Socrates best or happiest days. It's also unlikely that the immediate sequel was a good time for him either. True, the oligarchs were overthrown so, instead of the execution he anticipated (and perhaps started to dread), Socrates lived on, with plenty of time to find a way to portray himself in a heroic light:

[Chez Socrates. Someone knocks on the door]

Socrates (from the broom closet): Gods, no! They've finally arrived. Tell them ...

Xanthippe: Shut up you bloody fool! I know what to tell them. [Opens door] If you're looking for that worthless husband of mine, he's not here ... Oh it's you Plato. So the Thirty have got you doing their dirty work now, have they?

Plato: Haven't you heard? The Thirty have been thrown out. Athens is free again.

Xanthippe: Did you hear that? You got lucky. Now you can come out of that closet.

Socrates: How do I know this isn't a trick?

Xanthippe (on seeing Plato's hurt look): Don't mind him, Plato. He's been like this for days. Soon he'll be telling everyone who'll stand still long enough to listen that he would rather have died than work for the Thirty. You know what he's like.

Socrates (opening the closet door a crack): Well, now that you mention it ...

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