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Battle for the Soul of Ignorance Rhetoric and Philosophy in Classical Athens Charles Marsh For nobility and pathos, not many moments in the history of philosophy rival the apologia and death of Socrates. Calm, deliberate, Socrates stood before his accusers and—he who incessantly interrupted opponents throughout the Platonic dialogues— begged not to be interrupted. But his defense failed, as he knew it would. He wouldn’t play to the jury, scorning “the artificial language of a schoolboy orator” (Plato 1989a, 17c [Apology]). The jury’s sentence, we know, was death. The charges, Plato tells us, were corrupting youth and worshiping false gods. Of those charges, we might say, paraphrasing Professor Higgins of My Fair Lady: “How tragic! How heartrending! How . . . accurate.” Accurate? Socrates corrupting youth and worshiping false gods? Such a contrarian charge requires an explanation. The clarification will lead us from Socrates to Plato and then to Aristotle and Isocrates, all of them struggling in the dawn of philosophy to define the soul of ignorance and how it should function in civilized society. plato’s socrates and the soul ignorance The explanation begins with Chaerephon—“You know Chaerephon, of course,” Socrates tells his accusers (Plato 1989a, 21a [Apology]). A boyhood friend of Socrates’, Chaerephon had long ago sought the oracle of Delphi and asked whether anyone were wiser than Socrates. And the oracle had replied no. No one was wiser than Socrates. 152 Charles Marsh Confessing that he had no claim at all to wisdom at the time of the oracle’s assertion, Socrates tested the oracle by visiting wise, accomplished Athenians. He began with politicians, then moved to poets and skilled craftsmen. With each alleged wise man, he came to the same conclusion: “He thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.” And from this repeated discovery he discerned the true meaning of the oracle’s utterance: “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless” (Plato 1989a, 21d, 23b [Apology]). Here, surely, is the ideal platform for the adoption of ignorance as a worldview, as a framework for social debate. Why not nominate Socrates as the poster boy of a humble, deferential approach to the gathering of knowledge? Unfortunately, Socrates—at least the Socrates in Plato’s dialogues—didn’t stop there. Socrates believed that ignorance was curable. He believed that in its soul, so to speak, ignorance was finite and conquerable. According to Plato’s Socrates, philosophers were the conquerors of ignorance. In using this word—philosopher—Plato expanded its meaning beyond, simply, “a lover of wisdom.” “Philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging,” he writes in the Republic. “Those who . . . wander amid the multiplicities of multifarious things are not philosophers” (1989c, 484b). In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper (1966), no fan of Plato’s, writes: “Plato gives the term philosopher a new meaning, that of . . . a seer of the divine world” (145)—of God’s mind, in short. To add spice to this notion of philosophy—to move philosophy beyond some esoteric backroom debate—we should note, as does Harvey Yunis (2003) in Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece, that in classical Athens “science and philosophy . . . constitute a single intellectual enterprise” (12). To cut to the chase, Plato’s Socrates is telling us that wise men can discover absolute, unchallengeable scientific truth. In the best Socratic tradition, we should challenge this new definition and ability of philosophy and science. “So, Socrates,” we should ask, in the question-and-answer wrangle that he loved, “how can philosophers reach the mind of God and find absolute truth?” Socrates’pupil Phaedrus asks much the same thing as he and Socrates stroll outside the walls of Athens. As the teacher and student recline in the shade of a plane tree, Socrates may injure his reputation with some of us by de- Battle for the Soul of Ignorance 153 claring: “I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do” (Plato 1989b, 230d [Phaedrus ]). But Phaedrus lets this pass unchallenged, and he eventually asks how true wisdom is acquired. Socrates answers by discussing “the dialectic method,” a “discourse” that involves “the processes of division and bringing together, as aids to speech and thought” (Plato 1928, 276e, 266b [Phaedrus]). Philosophers engaged...


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