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Cynthia B. Cohen THE TRIALS OF SOCRATES AND JOSEPH K. No two trials could have been more unlike than those of Socrates and Joseph K. As portrayed in Plato's Apology,' Socrates was the conscience of Athens, a thoughtful and courageous man whose life was devoted to the pursuit of wisdom. He challenged others to examine themselves and to transform themselves into lovers of truth and goodness. This gadfly of Athens was put on trial by those whom he had stung and was dispatched with a final slap. He died the bravest, wisest, and most upright man of his time. By contrast, Joseph K., the protagonist of Kafka's novel, The Trial, was an ordinary bank clerk locked into a life of unreflective routine. His arrest one day by the agents of a Court he could not comprehend failed to change his rote approach. Like a fly stuck fast to flypaper, he was glued to the details of his immediate experience, and would not rise above these to find meaning in his dreary life, or even in his shameful death. Socrates was an original and constructive thinker who died rather than deny the purpose that he found in human life; Joseph K. was a leaden bureaucrat whose life was one long moment of guilty hesitation before a broader vision of things. Or is it that Socrates was an arrogant, peculiar, conniving failure who was engaged in an insidious attempt to undermine the moral and political values of Athens? And is it that Joseph K. was a successful young businessman who had established himself as a conscientious, decent, and eminently reasonable man struggling bravely for justice against an alien and capricious authority? Or perhaps these two trials should be seen as very similar. Each man was tried on charges of which he claimed to be innocent; each wanted to restore order and meaning to a disintegrating world; each led a life that became the cause of his death; and each was condemned for claiming that the unexamined life was not worth living. Or is it that Joseph K. was condemned for maintaining that it was the examined life that was not worth living . . .? 212 Cynthia B. Cohen213 Difficulties in the interpretation of works of literature are to be expected when their subjects are complex and subtle individuals set in an atmosphere in which basic questions of human significance are raised. Both the Apology and The Trial are such works. Socrates initially seems a model of clarity to the interpreter. He responds to his accusers in a form of direct discourse that can be taken at face value. He presents his arguments openly and cogently. There can be no doubt that his general position is coherent, consistent, and reasonable. Yet the interpreter 's initial satisfaction fades as Socrates' irony creates confusion about what Socrates professes to know. His lines of reasoning seem to intersect in paradox; his answers to questions about the meaning and purpose of human life curve around to miss each other. The interpreter emerges confused and perplexed. These transformations of perspective and significance are repeated in The Trial. Joseph K., too, is described in a straightforward manner that is clear and quite detailed. His reactions and arguments appear sensible and well-reasoned. Yet on closer examination, his simple statements turn out to have hidden meanings; his responses often contradict one another; his logical arguments appear pointless. His answers to questions about the meaning and purpose of human life are immediately challenged by a horde of competitors. To the interpreter, The Trial metamorphizes into a model of intentional obscurity. The problem of interpretation is compounded in the case of Socrates by the question of the accuracy of our information about him. The "Socratic problem" is well known. Each of the four major sources about his life and thought, Xenophon, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle, presents a somewhat different person. There has been strong support for the view that the portrayal of Socrates in the earlier dialogues of Plato is essentially sound, even though this earlier Socrates seems at variance with the later one. The resolution of this problem is irrelevant to this endeavor. Our purpose is to consider the life and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 212-228
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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