Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gods among Men

I was reading Plato's Apology today (okay, listening to an audio text, honestly) by the pool. In case you don't know it, it describes the trial of Socrates, who ends up sentenced to death or exile for something like heresy (he chooses death by hemlock). In his own defense, he summons the testimony of the legendary Oracle of Delphi. Check it out:
O men of Athens, I must beg you not to interrupt me, even if I seem to say something extravagant. For the word which I will speak is not mine. I will refer you to a witness who is worthy of credit; that witness shall be the God of Delphi -- he will tell you about my wisdom, if I have any, and of what sort it is. You must have known Chaerephon; he was early a friend of mine, and also a friend of yours, for he shared in the recent exile of the people, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether -- as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt -- he asked the oracle to tell him whether anyone was wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered, that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of what I am saying.

Socrates says that "the God of Delphi" will witness in his defense. Later Socrates responds to Meletus' accusation that he is an atheist by saying, one who has a particle of understanding will ever be convinced by you that the same men can believe in divine and superhuman things, and yet not believe that there are gods and demigods and heroes.

This is sort of the punchline to Socrates' argument that no one would be so foolish as to believe in horsemanship, but not horses, or flute-playing, but not flute-players. Because he belives in divine and superhuman things, he argues, he must believe in "gods, demigods and heroes." And heroes? Something fishy is going on here with words.

Socrates comes to us through the centuries as an eccentric, but not a madman -- in fact, most people think of him as a light in darkness. If nothing else, Socrates took great care in dealing with definitions and language. Because he was in court, and because his entire life and work were on the line, he tried to use language that would be as intelligible in the court as it had been in the market, or in the streets. And keep in mind, he was trying to prove that he did believe in superhuman things--he was on trial for disbelieving, or for having different gods than the state.

But how are heroes superhuman? And how can the Oracle at Delphi be called "God?" The powerful "men of Athens" before whom Socrates is made to defend himself were loosely polytheistic--we know that from the history books. But could that signify something to us that it did not signify to them? What if I suggest that we have our own gods?: Franklin, Jefferson, Emerson, Edison, Oprah.

Socrates' great heresy, his major intellectual contribution, was to collapse these gods, to recognize in them a single light--to discover the One. Refusing to pay homage to the conventional, state-sanctioned "gods," Socrates bravely declares,
Some one may wonder why I go about in private giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you why. You have heard me speak at sundry times and in divers places of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician.

This voice within is Socrates' One and only God. It is not external, but internal. As Emerson said 2,000 years later, "Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment." I'll only add: I think we need to begin thinking about a new terminology, something that captures this insight, but represents it in a new package. What was once the virtue of Odysseus exists in all of us. What was once called God we all know as love. What we have known as love has passed as beauty. In his turn, Emerson almost managed to get away with calling it "self."

When, in (about?) the 1960s, someone in San Fransisco described his hallucination-experience as "awesome," he meant precisely that: the vision inspired awe, was grand, transcendent. Others may have picked up the language. By 1970, a young woman in Indiana returned from a rare trip to the ocean to describe what she saw to her friends: "awesome." Soon (1995), however, teenagers were using the word to describe a keg-stand they did on Friday night. In less than four decades, the word went from meaningful to meaningless. And so what words Whitman chose, "I celebrate myself," we rightfully mistrust. Too much interest in the Self is a vice in our culture, not a path to transcendence. Randall Jarrell, through Brian, taught me this: "The darkness from the darkness. / Pain comes from the darkness / And we call it wisdom. / It is pain."

Ask: why is there so much more scholarly interest in beauty than there is in ugliness? What makes us prefer love to hatred? What is the thing--what shall we call it? With Plotinus, I might start calling it the "intellectual-principle" for a while, just to freshen things up. Or, I might call it "Randall Jarrell" or "Brian."

Darkness comes from wisdom and we call it pain. It is darkness.


brian said...


Casey said...


Daniel said...

Brianist Movement (where to put your homeland?).

Aren't heroes literally and literarily half gods half men, like Hercules and Achilles?

Casey said...

I thought those were demi-gods? I really don't know. I just know that my feeling about Greek gods has always between condescendingly "interested" and total disbelief... until a few years ago, when I realized that these Greek people were living human beings who were at least as smart as me. They wouldn't be tempted to believe the literal truths about their gods any more than we believe in the literal truths of their gods. Then it becomes our task to figure out not "did the Greeks believe in their gods," but "how did they believe in their gods?" Far from diminishing the stature of these gods, however, I find that thinking of them as legendary humans whose deeds were preserved in oral tradition makes it all pretty "real." And of course, at the far end, with characters like Sisyphus or Zeus himself or even Prometheus, I imagine the Greeks writing imaginative history, which is as real as anything we have when it comes to a)what happens after you die, b)who's in charge here, and c) who discovered fire.

But whoever that guy is -- the one who figured out fire, we should keep a spot in our historical memory for him. So what if we don't have his "real" name. He was Prometheus.

Concerning the homeland: in the Empyrean with the Archons.

Daniel said...

I was reading "In Praise of Shadows" by Junichiro Tanizaki again while waiting for my food at a restaurant, and this quote seemed to have a different take on your postgraph?:

"The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends."

Casey said...

That's a sweet passage, Daniel--however it relates to what I wrote.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Remember Aristophanes' The Clouds, which depicts Socrates as a flighty sophist. Isocrates refers to him as a sophist as well. Another reading of the Apology is not actually as an apology, but rather a "I would rather fucking die then bow before you assholes." Had Socrates played nice, and not delivered such a condescending slap in the face (similar in style to Gorgias' defense of Helen), they probably wouldn't have killed him.

Which means, of course, he's either an intellectual hero (bordering on demi-god?) or an absolute idiot.

I also think we still worship gods, but they have descended from the sky and made homes in labratories. Whether the death of (capital H) Humanism (read:Rationalism) will catapult the gods back into the sky, or whether they will relocate to somewhere yet unseen, remains to be seen. I hope to enjoy the ride.

Casey said...

I haven't read The Clouds, but I know what you're saying... and I agree with you. Either he was an intellectual hero or a bizarre kind of idiot.

But I have to wonder -- ask yourself, sympathizing with sophistry as you do: would you be willing to die for any of your intellectual convictions? Would Derrida? If yes, in my judgment, that is a kind of intellectual heroism in itself.

In other words, in some way, Socrates must have at the very least believed himself to be right, or he wouldn't have died for his ideas...

Hmm... come to think of it, you know who else is willing to die for their ideas? Terrorists. I don't know. This is confusing.