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Hannah Arendt Philosophy and Politics THE GULF BETWEEN PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS OPENED HISTORICALLY with the trial and condemnation of Socrates, which in the histoiy of political thought plays the same role of a turning point that the trial and condemnation of Jesus plays in the history of religion. Our tradi­ tion of political thought began when the death of Socrates made Plato despair of polis life and, at the same time, doubt certain fundamen­ tals of Socrates’ teachings. The fact that Socrates had not been able to persuade his judges of his innocence and his merits, which were so obvious to the better and younger of Athens’ citizens, made Plato doubt the validity of persuasion. We have difficulty in grasping the importance of this doubt, because “persuasion” is a very weak and inad­ equate translation of the ancient peithein, the political importance of which is indicated by the fact that Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, had a temple in Athens. To persuade, peithein, was the specifically politi­ cal form of speech, and since the Athenians were proud that they, in distinction to the barbarians, conducted their political affairs in the form of speech and without compulsion, they considered rhetoric, the art of persuasion, the highest, the truly political art. Socrates’ speech in the Apology is one of its great examples, and it is against this defense that Plato writes in the Phaedo a “revised apology” that he called, with irony, “more persuasive” (pithanoteron, 63B), since it ends with a myth of the Hereafter, complete with bodily punishments and rewards, calcu­ lated to frighten rather than merely persuade the audience. Socrates’ point in his defense before the citizens and judges of Athens had been© 1990 The Hannah Arendt Blucher Literary Trust. Reprinted with permission of Jerome Kohn, Trustee, Hannah Arendt Blucher Literary Trust. ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN SOCIAL RESEARCH VOL. 5 7 , NO. 1 (SPRING 1 9 9 0 ) social research Vol 71 : No 3 : Fall 2 0 0 4 427 that his behavior was in the best interest of the city. In the Crito he had explained to his friends that he could not flee but rather, for political reasons, must suffer the death penalty. It seems that he was not only unable to persuade his judges but also could not convince his friends. In other words, the city had no use for a philosopher, and the friends had no use for political argumentation. This is part of the tragedy to which Plato’s dialogues testify. Closely connected with his doubt about the validity of persuasion is Plato’s furious denunciation of doxa, opinion, which not only ran like a red thread through his political works but became one of the corner­ stones o f his concept of truth. Platonic truth, even when doxa is not mentioned, is always understood as the veiy opposite of opinion. The spectacle of Socrates submitting his own doxa to the irresponsible opin­ ions of the Athenians, and being outvoted by a majority, made Plato despise opinions and yearn for absolute standards. Such standards, by which human deeds could be judged and human thought could achieve some measure of reliability, from then on became the primaiy impulse of his political philosophy, and influenced decisively even the purely philosophical doctrine of ideas. I do not think, as is often maintained, that the concept of ideas was primarily a concept of standards and measures, nor that its origin was political. But this interpretation is all the more understandable and justifiable because Plato him self was the first to use the ideas for political purposes, that is, to introduce absolute standards into the realm of human affairs where, without such tran­ scending standards, everything remains relative. As Plato him self used to point out, we do not know what absolute greatness is, but experience only something greater or smaller in relationship to something else. TRUTH AND OPINION The opposition oftruth and opinion was certainly the most anti-Socratic conclusion that Plato drew from Socrates’ trial. Socrates, in failing to convince the city, had shown that the city is no safe place for the philosopher, not only in the sense that his life is not safe because of the truth...


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