Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Socrates in Plato and Xenophon

Burnet’s attempt to give the Phaedo back to the reader failed miserably, but his discrediting of Xenophon as a source of information on the historical Socrates one the day. K. R. Popper writes: ‘It is to Burnet that we owe our insight into the following principle of method. Plato’s evidence is the only first-rate evidence available to us; all other evidence is secondary.’

Popper identifies the historical Socrates with the Apology – ‘I always assume, with Burnet and Taylor, that the Apology is historical’ – and then he maintains that the Socrates of the Apology cannot be reconciled with the Phaedo; in the Phaedo ‘Socrates appears as a Pythagorean philosopher of “nature”,’ whereas ‘the Socrates of the Apology very impressively repeats three times (18b-c; 19c-d; 23d) that he is not interested in natural philosophy (and therefore not a Pythagorean): “I know nothing, neither much nor little, about such things”, he said (19c); “I, men of Athens, have nothing whatever to do with such things” (i.e. with speculation about nature). Socrates asserts that many who are present at the trial could testify to the truth of this statement; they have heard him speak, but neither in few nor in many words has anybody ever heard him speak about matters of natural philosophy (emou peri tȏn toioutȏn dialegomenou, 19d4-5) … any doubt of Socrates’ veracity in the Apology makes of him one who lies for the sake of saving his skin.’ (The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and Henley, 1966, repr. 1977, vol. I, n. 56 to Ch. 10, pp. 307-8.)

If Socrates’ dialegomenou means ‘speaking about’, then Popper is right. But if this were so, Socrates was lying in the Apology itself. For when Meletus accuses him of claiming that ‘the sun is stone and the moon is earth’, Socrates ridicules him for mistaking him for Anaxagoras ‘whose books (ta Anaxagorou biblia) are full of these doctrines (gemei toutȏn tȏn logȏn) … which are so absurd (houtȏs atopa onta).’

Socrates’ dialegesthai does not mean ‘speak about’, it means to search, to try to find out by means of logos, through discussion. To understand this point better, we must go to Xenophon. For his Socrates was saying that Anaxagoras ‘in declaring the sun to be fire, ignored the facts that men can look at fire without inconvenience, but cannot gaze steadily at the sun; that their skin is blackened by the sun’s rays, but not by fire. Further, he ignored the fact that sunlight is essential to the health of all vegetation, whereas if anything is heated by fire it withers. Again, when he pronounced the sun to be a red-hot stone, he ignored the fact that a stone in fire neither glows nor can resist it long, whereas the sun shines with unequalled brilliance for ever.’ (Xenophon, Memorabilia IV. vii. 7, tr. E. C. Marchant)

Socrates was a much better observer of the sun than Anaxagoras, he reflected on what we can learn about it with the help of our senses, and this is why he realized that he did not know and could not find any ways of knowing what the sun truly is, what causes it to be the way it is. Xenophon says that Socrates ‘did not even discuss (oude dielegeto skopȏn) that topic so favoured by other talkers, “the Nature of the Universe” (peri tȇs tȏn pantȏn phuseȏs); and avoided speculation on the so-called “Cosmos” of the Professors, how it works (hopȏs ho kaloumenos hupo tȏn sophistȏn kosmos ephu), and on the laws that govern the phenomena of the heavens (kai tisin anankais hekasta gignetai tȏn ouraniȏn) … Moreover, he marvelled at their blindness in not seeing (ethaumaze d’ ei mȇ phaneron autois estin) that man cannot solve these riddles (hoti tauta ou dunaton estin anthrȏpois heurein); since even the most conceited (epei kai tous megiston phronountas) talkers on these problems (epi tȏi peri toutȏn legein) did not agree in their theories [with one another, J.T.] (ou t’auta doxazein allȇlois) … Some hold that What is is one (tois men dokein hen monon to hen einai), others that it is infinite in number (tois d’ apeira to plȇthos); some that all things are in perpetual motion (kai tois men aei hapanta kineisthai), others that nothing can ever be moved at any time (tois d’ ouden an pote kinȇthȇnai); some that all life is birth and decay (kai tois men panta gignesthai te kai apollusthai), others that nothing can ever be born or ever die (tois de out’ and genesthai pote ouden oute apolesthai).’ (Xenophon, Memorabilia I. i. 11-14, tr. Marchant)

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