Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Would Socrates Do?

Mark Rowlands at "Secular Philosophy":

If Christians ask themselves ‘what would Jesus do?’ philosophers should, it seems, ask themselves, ‘What would Socrates do?’ It’s a long time since I read any of the Platonic dialogues, but if my memory is not deceiving me, Thrasymachus didn’t break down when Socrates cast doubt on his claim that ‘justice is the advantage of the stronger.’ But even if he had, I don’t think it would have stopped Socrates.

(HT: Philosophy, et cetera)

It's an interesting idea, and a good one, I think; but asking 'What Would Socrates Do?' is a heftier responsibility than it might seem. In my intro course I've just started teaching (for the ancient philosophy section of the course) Plato's Gorgias, which in its own way is precisely about what Socrates did, about what a Socrates does, in the face of people like Thrasymachus (except, of course, that it's Callicles rather than Thrasymachus). And the point is twofold: rather than merely chattering about justice, Socrates lived a just life and taught justice that way, and he did not shirk doing so even when they killed him for it. I think it's a great thing to ask the question, "What would Socrates do?" But as St. Justin Martyr hints in reflecting on Socrates, if you are really taking the question seriously you have to be willing to die for the answer, the whole answer, and not just the parts that are convenient. If justice is the better part, and you follow Socrates, it is in the most fundamental sense the better part even if by every ordinary standard it is the worse part; even if the absolute triumph of injustice is guaranteed. It is something to which you must stick even when the Sophists are clearly going to defeat you -- and sooner or later they always do. As Boethius muses in the Consolation, the victory of the partisans of Lady Philosophy is often one of "victorious death." You know you are a philosopher when your view of true victory makes you yourself completely expendable in the cause of truth and justice.

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