22 January 2010

The location of power as the difference between Greek and modern philosophy [part two]

This is a continuation of a previous posting.

We may perhaps best bring to a point our necessarily short consideration of the power of essence within Greek philosophy by ending at the end of Republic, in the tenth and final book. Here we see powerfully the manner in which the beginning controls the end. Socrates, after an ambiguous condemnation of the work of the tragic poets, proceeds to expound a mythic account of the doings of the soul after death, which acts as the Socratic counterpoint to the Glaucon’s story of the ring of Gyges. What is particularly remarkable in this account is the manner in which the soul is determined in advance of itself. After death, persons are sorted on the basis of how they acted when they were alive. The just went on to their reward, while the wicked experienced torment in the abyssal depths of the earth. Here we see already that the essence of what one will be after death is determined in advance by one’s actions during life, just as idea determines image and as the necessity of justice determines discourse. The worst punishments of all are reserved to those who had acted impiously towards their “gods and parents and for murder” (615c, p.298). These crimes are precisely the worst sort of crime because they violate the fundamental debt owed to the origin as the source of life for the human person. The allegorical depiction of essence as the primally powerful wellspring of action becomes even more greatly reinforced towards the end of the myth, when Socrates describes the manner in which souls have their destinies assigned to them before their births. Lots are cast, and each man has laid before him “patterns of the lives” that they may live (617e, p.300). These patterns inscribe the destiny of each man in advance of their lives, containing within them the entirety of the conditions that will help determine the life that will be lived. All that is missing is “an ordering of the soul,” absent so that each person can creatively constitute their existence in response to the destiny that has already been laid before them (618b, p.301).

This explication of Republic in light of the relation of the nature of justice and philosophical discourse to the predetermining nature of essence as the ultimately powerful sovereign of all existence has necessarily been highly inadequate. Platonic dialectic does not lend itself to being disentangled except by dialectic itself, and our attempt to focus on one strand of the dialogue has thus forced us to touch upon many others to even come close to justly articulating our thesis. Even in this exposition we have perhaps acted unjustly, since we ourselves did not quite begin at the beginning, and neglected to show the importance of the dialogue’s opening scene, where Socrates is arrested by Polemarchus and his companions. Though the dialogue in this scene is openly comic, with Polemarchus jokingly forcing Socrates to come with him, the scene takes place against the backdrop of the Athenians bringing a Thracian goddess into their city. They are thus impiously abandoning their ancestral worship, even introducing the novelty of “a torch race on horseback,” a non-Athenian practice (328a, p.4). While all this may seem remarkably unimportant to us now, when set against the historical backdrop of the disastrous ending of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens lost because they had corruptly exceeded the appropriate measure of the polis and had instead sought to become an empire, the events take on a much darker hue.

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