June 17th, 2012

Reading Plato, The Apology (The Defense of Socrates)

Plato, The Apology (The Death of Socrates)

irst of all, i clearly need more background than i have, about the Athenian legal system, about Greek mythology, and about ancient Greece in general.  I will have to acquire this at my leisure, of which i have plenty.  I do know that Juries in capital cases had 1001 to 1501 jurors, in addition to plaintiff(s), defendant(s) and their witnesses, there must have been a crowd of interested onlookers.  Socrates mentions a dozen or more of his supporters who were present; and we can assume his accusers had many more than that.  It must have been quite a noisy and chaotic scene!  Socrates was convicted of blasphemy, immorality, and corrupting youth (which all amount to treason, i think).  The vote was 530 to convict and 471 to acquit (or perhaps 780 to 721).  Today we would call that a hung jury, but in Athens it was enough to convict (and kill).

What a remarkable text this is!  And how much about Socrates' life and thought i get from it.  That should be no surprise, but it was.  It has been many years since i read The Apology, and i am not sure i ever read it in its entirely.

It occurred to me, perhaps it was already stated by amaebi, that the tone and pace of the speaking cannot be determined from the written text.  The appearance of bullying interlocutors is reduced by reading the text aloud, slowly and leaving space (ten seconds, forty seconds, or ninety seconds) between unanswered question and first prompt.  Ninety seconds would be a meditative pause giving an even semi-prepared interlocutor plenty of time to reflect on the question and a possible answer.  Question, long pause, can you give me an answer, long pause, either give an answer or say you don't know.  Short pauses would be bullying..

I get a feeling that we are reading a lot of the real Socrates here.  I know this disagrees with Jowett  (whose introduction i read after i read the Apology --i hesitate to say "dialogue" because there is almost no dialogue in the text). If he sounds too good to be real maybe this is our problem (and the problem of the Athenian jury) rather than Plato's.  This is the testimony of a man admittedly possessed (he would have said "committed" but how do i tell the difference?).  I have never been good enough at anything to think i was good, so how can i tell whether i person is a megalomaniac or simply a person who has taken a proper inventory of himself?  Was anyone in fifth century b.c.e. Athens wiser than Socrates?

He admits that his foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the foolish.  (They are ignorant but think that they are knowledgeable; i am ignorant and know that i am ignorant), and reading his defense 2400 years later, i can't say he is wrong.  Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person; virtue is better than riches: you must know yourself before your knowledge of anything else can be worth much to you or others;  We need self criticism and if  we are not able to criticize ourselves, somebody else needs to do it for us.  Poetry is the job of a poet but philosophy is the job of a human being.  

Truth telling and a public life are, in my pessimistic opinion, as irreconcilable in modern America as they were in ancient Athens.  

If the Apology had been written four hundred years after the Gospel According to St. John, i might have accused Plato of trying to make Socrates into a Christ figure, but our species has produced some truly remarkable people, perhaps Socrates was one of them.  

If i had been on that jury, i would have voted, i hope, to acquit.

Vanishing Voices, by Russ Rymer -- National Geographic, July 2012

Enduring Voices Project, Endangered Languages, Map, Facts, Photos, Videos -- National Geographic

he map at the link above doesn't show it but the largest population of endangered language speakers live in---
not the Pacific, not the Americas, not Africa, not even Asia, but-- Europe!!!  This goes against linguistic study and common sense, but there it is in the most recent copy of National Geographic.  Even though Europe is not even mentioned in the article the statistics are clear,  Though only a small percentage of endangered languages are European, nearly half of all speakers of endangered languages live there.

     Area                    Endangered Languages*     Speakers     Speakers per language
   Europe                         177                           66,400,000      375,141
   Asia                             933                           48,000,000       51,447
  The Americas                866                           16,000,000        18,706
  Africa                            234                             5,400,000        19,014
  Pacific Ocean                210                               322,000          1,533

  Total                          2,420                         136,415,000         55,228
Total minus Europe       2,293                           69,222,000          4,723

Language extinction comes in five stages:
1)  Vulnerable - Language spoken by children rarely outside the home.  628 languages
2)  Definite - Another tongue is the official language.  681
3)  Severe - Language spoken only by older generation. 554
4)  Critical - Language rarely spoken by a few oldest members. 607
5)  Extinct - No speakers since 1950, 254* 

The average number of speakers of an "endangered" language in Europe is 79+ times the average number in the rest of the world.  The threat level for languages in Europe is far less than in the rest of the world, so the common sense view is correct.  The truly endangered languages of Europe are already long dead  (e.g. the last speaker of Dalmatian died nearly 150 years ago).  An exception is the Caucasus region where the conflict between Russian and Arabic speakers threatens the indigenous languages (See "hotspots" at the link above.

Treasure the languages of others, especially the smallest, there are truths spoken there that you cannot even imagine.

Daily Tao - 36

To make something smaller,
you need to appreciate its size.
To make something weaker,
you must recognize its strength.
To get rid of something,
you need to hold it tight.
To take something,
you must give it up entirely.

To put it another way:
Sensitivity and weakness
overcome unfeeling strength.

The Beatrice Tao.

Daily Tao - 36