Crito

Crito, one of Socrates’ Athenian friends, comes to visit him just before he is to be executed. The purpose of the visit is to make one last attempt to persuade Socrates to run away and leave Athens before the sentence is carried out. An escape can be arranged with little trouble and expense. Socrates friends may be blamed for abetting his flight and may be punished but they are more than willing to accept any penalties. Crito goes further, insisting that he cares little for any such legal penalties but that he fears he’ll be widely censured for allowing his friend to die and caring more for money than his friend’s life.

This introduction grounds the dialogue in time and place, and Crito has mentioned that he fears the bad opinion of most of his fellow citizens. By bringing in the ‘many’ Crito has guided the dialogue into one of Plato’s favorite themes. In the next exchange Socrates establishes that we should hearken only to good opinions and not worthless ones. By the terms themselves, this is tautological and understandably conceded with no objection.

And in the next step, it’s proposed that the good opinions are held by the wise, and worthless by the foolish. He doesn’t say merely that good opinions are wise opinions, and that worthless opinions are foolish opinions, which would be synonymous and again tautological, but slips in the assumption that one set of men hold wise opinions and another set hold foolish opinions. From this, he falls back on another of his favorite devices, and asks if a man who is in training consults all men or a single expert. Crito quickly avers to both these assertions, either because he doesn’t detect that new premises are being put forth without being proven, or because he agrees with them.

It may be thought that some men are wiser than others by proportion. Some men may be wise and correct in half of what they believe and wrong in the other half. Some men may be considered foolish, holding a few wise opinions but most of what they believe is foolish, while others may be wise, correct in most of what they think but still often mistaken. Men are wise and foolish by degree and most fall somewhere in the middle.

Plato’s Socrates will have none of this. He holds that most men are foolish and wrong about nearly everything while only a very few are wise and know the truth. Firm in this conviction, he therefore holds the many in contempt. How then can Socrates love and revere Athens when he despises nearly all of her citizens? Plato answers this difficult question in a curious manner:

Suppose the laws and the commonwealth were to come and appear to me as I was preparing to run away (if that is the right phrase to describe my escape) and were to ask, “Tell us Socrates, what have you in mind to do? What do you mean by trying to escape but to destroy us, the laws and the whole state, so far as you are able? Do you think a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are of no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals?”

Socrates says that the commonwealth appears to him, and so he doesn’t merely hear a voice as did Samuel, but he actually sees the commonwealth, and since it speaks to him, we can only conclude that while it is discarnate, it is yet in human form. Readers are prone to imagine a figure towering and majestic like Phidias’ great statue of Athena.

As vivid as this image is, the notion that Athens is something above and apart from her many citizens is a category mistake. Gilbert Ryle described a visitor touring a university, walking by the dormitories, stepping into classrooms, and peeking into offices, who complains that he’s seen the dormitories, classrooms, and offices but has not been shown the university. Similarly the laws and the commonwealth of Athens are nothing more than the many granting powers to the few, all binding themselves by the law, and punishing the one who transgresses that law. The university is a body of people dividing themselves into teachers, students, administrators and staff, each taking on one role in that body and all working in concert. The commonwealth is likewise a body of citizens dividing themselves into legislators, magistrates, leaders, functionaries, taxpayers, and law-abiding private citizens, those in government working within the bounds of the constitution and those in a private station living within the constraints of the laws.

This figure goes so far as to insist on the rights of a parent and a master, claiming that through them his father took his mother and brought him into the world. As to this strangely derived parenthood, men sometimes will bed women even when not legally obligated to do so. As to mastery, Socrates has lived his whole life within the borders of Athens, choosing to obey her laws and abide by her customs when he may have gone away to live in any other state either Greek or barbarian. Socrates may not have been barred from leaving, but as millions of refugees throughout history may testify, every emigrant is by necessity an immigrant as well, and those who flee their homeland may find every border and every shore barred to them. Denied any refuge, they are left to wander the earth or perish.

The flight of talent and capital does serve as a salutary check on misgovernment and despotism, but it should not be the only means of redress. The figure of Athens condemns Socrates’ contemplated flight as the base actions of a slave, trying to run away and breaking the contracts and agreements he made. Yet slaves are held in durance not by will, and it is free citizens who make contracts and agreements, and these are binding on both the rulers and the ruled. If Socrates had been set upon and lynched by a mob he would have been the victim of the injustice of men, but he was tried in a court and sentenced to death, and so he is the victim of the injustice of the laws.

It’s commendable to resist unjust laws, and it’s allowable to flee their penalties, but the object is not to flout these laws but to overturn them. If it is Phye and not Athena who has appeared to Socrates, he has a duty not merely to disobey her but also to expose her. It is better to suffer injustice than to perpetrate it, but it is also better to end injustice than to resign oneself to it and condemn others to follow and suffer the same fate.

Tyrion Lannister and three other Silenuses

For most who watch Game of Thrones or read the books, Tyrion Lannister is their favorite character. A dwarf, with a jutting forehead, a squashed in face, and mismatched eyes, Tyrion is often disliked or mistrusted by the other characters because of his ugliness. George R. R. Martin does everything he can to sharpen the contrast between the hideous face and the great mind behind it. In much the same manner, Plato wrote of Socrates in The Symposium:

I shall try in this way, men, to praise Socrates, through likenesses. Now he perhaps will think it’s for raising a laugh; but the likeness will be for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of the laughable. I declare that he is most strictly like those silenuses that sit in the shops of herm sculptors, the ones that craftsmen make holding reed pipes or flutes: and if they are split apart and opened up, they show that they have images of gods within. And I declare, in turn, that he bears a likeness to the satyr Marsyas. Now, that you are like them at least in looks, Socrates, surely not even you would dispute;

Like Tyrion, Socrates was remarkably ugly, and if we are compiling a list of great men with unsightly faces we must not omit Abraham Lincoln or Henry of Navarre. Lincoln characterized himself as the homeliest man in Illinois, and Henry was the ugliest man in the French court. All these men have come to be revered for their wisdom and compassion. When the generals had returned to Athens from the Battle of Arginusae and were going to be put on trial for the lives lost, Socrates serving as president of the assembly for the first and only time in his life, stood against everyone and refused to put the measure to a vote, and the generals were unconstitutionally and illegally tried and executed in spite of his opposition. Lincoln was famous for pardoning deserters who were to be shot, and Henry went so far as to pardon men who’d just tried to assassinate him.

The four men are also alike in being unfortunate in their marriages. Xanthippe is reported to have been a termagant. Neither Socrates nor his wife ever wrote anything down, but Plato and Xenophon wrote a great deal about them and the picture handed down is of Socrates as the patient, afflicted husband and Xanthippe as the shrew. The Greeks believed that a good wife should be submissive and perhaps Xanthippe was merely forthright and independent but she’ll never get to tell her side of the story.

We know a great deal more about Mary Todd Lincoln and while we must feel pity for a woman coping with mental illness and suffering the loss of a child, her fits of rage and prodigal spending were hard to bear.

Tyrion so repulsed his second wife, Sansa, that, too proud to endure her revulsion and too kind to force her to submit to a touch she found so distasteful, he gallantly forewent his conjugal rights. Despite his intellect, wit, wealth and station, he’s always been denied any female affection or intimacy. Never knowing the tenderness of a mother, sister, or lover, he’s always resorted to prostitutes.

Henry became estranged from both his wives, and Marguerite of Valois and Marie de’ Medici hated him in the end, but he was a faithless husband and the fault was his own. An enthusiastic, in fact a compulsive philanderer, he adored beauty and many of the most ravishing women in France welcomed him in their beds. Even if he were not a king, it’s hard to believe that a man with his wit and charisma would stay lonely for long.

Socrates, the ugliest man in Athens was pursued by Alcibiades, the most beautiful man in Athens. In another part of the Symposium, Alcibiades tells of his flagrant yet unsuccessful attempts to seduce Socrates. The other Silenuses found love, and it’s hard to believe that some woman won’t come to love Tyrion for his wisdom and kindness and see past his grotesque appearance. Perhaps Sansa will come to appreciate him for the man he is and they will reunite to live as man and wife. Millions across the world fervently wish for Tyrion to find the love and happiness he so richly deserves.

There is one respect in which Tyrion is very different from the other three men. Socrates, Lincoln, and Henry all enjoyed good health and were gifted with great bodily strength. In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail splitter and legends abound testifying to the tremendous strength of his long arms. Socrates was famed for his indifference to cold and fatigue, and it is said that he never became drunk no matter how much wine he drank. It is difficult to credit that he was unaffected by alcohol, but his vitality and endurance were obviously exceptional. Henry was renowned both for his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In contrast, Tyrion’s stunted body brings him terrible pain and he walks long distances and climbs stairs only with great difficulty and discomfort.

As we review the great benefactors of mankind down through the ages, not all the saints and sages of history are physically repulsive. Galileo, Ashoka, FDR, Pasteur, Hillel, and many others are unexceptional in looks and indeed some are quite handsome. Yet as a rhetorical species, we delight in paradox and antithesis, and for this reason were fascinated by the idea of a Silenus, a twisted, grotesque figure hiding something wondrous and divine within.