Thursday, September 19, 2019

Socrates questions, a contemporary philosopher answers

  • >>Peter Libbey, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-04-14 00:14:07 BdST

Michael Stuhlbarg, left, and Austin Smith in “Socrates” at the Public Theater in New York, April 2, 2019. “If Athens had had our technology, I’m sure Socrates would have been widely blocked on social media,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor, after seeing the play. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times).

Almost 2,500 years after his death, Socrates continues to fascinate. The Greek thinker is seen, by some, as the father of philosophy, a martyr for the cause of freedom of speech and even as a kind of secular saint.

But Socrates also repels. We know of him only from the work of others, and even Plato, who seemed to have held him in high regard, paints him as a pugnacious and ironic figure — someone who insistently dispelled comforting notions and sought to overcome the tendency to mythologise.

This complicated man, and how he was received by later generations, is the subject of Tim Blake Nelson’s new play, “Socrates,” now in previews at the Public Theater as a part of the Onassis Festival in New York City. Running through April 28 at the Public Theater and La MaMa, the festival offers theatre (including “Antigone” staged as a comedy), music (like a concert exploring the songs of refugees) and talks that focus on this year’s theme: democracy.

After attending an early performance of “Socrates,” Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor and the author of The New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist,” spoke with me about the philosopher, the sometimes strained relationship between philosophers and society, and how to deal with critics of democracy.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

PETER LIBBEY:Were you surprised to learn that there is a new play about Socrates? Our society doesn’t tend to celebrate philosophers.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I can’t say I was super surprised, because people write plays about all kinds of things. The challenge in writing a play about Socrates is that Plato already wrote more than a dozen episodes of Socrates talking to people. In a way, you’re in competition with Plato.

If somebody was going to write a play about a philosopher, Socrates would be an obvious one to pick, because he had this interesting life in which his philosophy and his philosophizing came into the public life of his society and led to his being condemned to death.

LIBBEY: But wasn’t Socrates an enemy of the arts? In Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates banishes poets, including dramatists, from the perfectly just city. Do you think that philosophy and theatre are in some kind of tension with each other?

APPIAH: I think they can be. It’s brought out in the dialogue with the poet in Nelson’s play. One way of thinking about this philosophical scepticism about the arts is as a conflict between logic and rhetoric. The scepticism about the arts is that they will lead us away from the truth. This is true, of course. Poetry isn’t just about saying what is so. It’s about saying it in a particular way.

I don’t share this Platonic scepticism about the arts, but you can see how you get there. One worry is just that Socrates is preoccupied with truth, and fiction doesn’t even aim at truth directly. The other worry is — and this is why Socrates, in this new play, argues with the Athenian politician — is a worry about fiction as being something that can be used to confuse us, to get us to go along with things or believe things that aren’t so. The problem isn’t that it’s not aimed at truth, it’s that it can be used to assist in the propagation of falsehoods.

LIBBEY: We tend to credit ancient Athens with the invention of democracy and also with the birth of philosophy. But are these two things even linked? After all, Socrates was condemned to death by democratic Athens.

APPIAH: I don’t think it’s terribly helpful to try to say when philosophy begins. But I think that this play brings out the fact that there can be a conflict between the philosopher and the polity. Socrates thinks that the search for truth is the search for how to live, because he thinks that if you know the truth, it will tell you how to live. For him, the search for truth is an ethical thing, it’s about guiding the conduct of your life. But, as you can see in the play, he’s interested in understanding for its own sake.

Now, if you’re trying to get on with things — and politics is a practical art — having someone stop you and say, “I know that works in practice but I want to understand the theory of it,” is not very helpful. So philosophers can be an irritant in any political system but especially in a democracy, because they’re likely to seem, as Socrates does, to be looking down on the ordinary citizen who doesn’t have what the philosopher considers a decent understanding.

LIBBEY: Socrates was viewed as dangerous because he questioned his city’s most fundamental norms and values. Can a democratic society accommodate those whose questioning goes so deep?

APPIAH: You have to have the confidence that democracy is sturdy enough that even the critics of democracy cannot undermine it simply by raising questions. If you don’t have it, then you’ll want to silence people who, by their questioning, seem to undermine democratic institutions. My own tendency is to think that our democracy is robust enough that we don’t have to worry about that, that we can allow people to make arguments against our fundamental assumptions and institutions and the institutions will survive.

Athens is just starting out on this. They’re emerging from a period of nondemocracy, and you can see why you might be worried that someone who questions democracy could end up undermining respect for the institutions. That might lead back to tyranny or oligarchy. They don’t have full confidence that the system can be given a rational defence. And I think it’s true that a lot of politics does depend a little bit on magic and mystery.

LIBBEY: It is easy to admire Socrates from afar. But is it fair for us to assume that we’re so different from and better than the Athenian citizens who put him to death?

APPIAH: Some very thoughtful and decent people loved him, so he must have had something endearing about him. Plato, while certainly disagreeing with him about certain matters, admired him enormously. But Socrates must have been intensely annoying, in ways Nelson’s play brings out.

Execution isn’t our response to people who try to unsettle our cherished beliefs, but we don’t have a huge amount of patience. If Athens had had our technology, I’m sure Socrates would have been widely blocked on social media.

LIBBEY: How do you think Socrates would conduct himself at a panel discussion in Manhattan in 2019?

APPIAH: You wouldn’t be able to get him to make an opening statement, because he would say, “I don’t know anything.” But as soon as anybody started saying anything, he’d be asking you to make your arguments clearer — he’d be challenging your assumptions. He’d want us see that the standard stories we tell ourselves aren’t good enough.


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