Saturday, 17 January 2015

Socrates and Charlie Hebdo

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid got shot down in twitter-flames this week for referring to Socrates' writings, when defending freedom of speech following the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The thing is, as any classically-educated fule kno, that Socrates didn't write anything; that was Plato.  Cue lots of sneering. 

Well, fair enough, though the two philosophers are more or less identical for all practical purposes: Plato didn't write anything but dialogues in which Socrates was the speaker, and Socrates' philosophy is only recorded in Plato's writings.

More interesting, to me anyway, was the thought that even if Socrates was executed by the Athenians for his atheistic opinions, and his 'corruption of the young', he was far from being a believer in democracy and free expression (indeed, his association with shady oligarchs may have been one of the factors that led to his downfall).

For example, Socrates would almost certainly have banned Charlie Hebdo.  In his discussion of the just city, The Republic, Socrates presents it as one governed by a paternalistic 'guardian-class' of warrior philosophers.  Later in the book, Socrates expounds his theory of ideals (sometimes 'forms', but I think 'ideals' is less confusing).  Put very simply, everything that we see in the universe takes its identity from its imitation of, or resemblance to, a metaphysical ideal.  A table is a table in as much as it resembles the ideal Table; something is good in that it resembles the ideal Good.

This theory explains why, controversially, Socrates exiles poets (and depending on your reading, other artists) from his Republic.  Their art is an act of mimesis, imitation, but worse than that - it is an imitation of an imitation.  My depiction of a table is a poor copy of a poor copy of the ideal Table.  Socrates also suggests that art, particularly effective art, inflames the passions, and is therefore inappropriate material for his serene and ascetic guardians.  Anyhow, one way or another, the artists have to go, and certainly the publishers of satirical magazines would have had to go with them.

Socrates' conclusion troubled Victorian admirers (who had been happily going along with the rule by warrior philosophers up to that point), and it worried his interlocutors too; Socrates admits uneasiness with his conclusion, and challenges them to find counter-arguments.

I was reminded of this stipulation when listening to a man being interviewed about the prohibtion on images of the Prophet Muhammed last week.  Generally, this prohibiton is understood in terms of the strictures against idolatry found in the Old Testament - we shouldn't confuse workshipping a God with worshipping an (imperfect) image (like the Golden Calf or the Fish-tailed God Dagon, whose followers are so enthusiastically smitten in the Bible).

The interviewee went further, explaining the prohibition in strikingly Platonic (or Socratic) terms: Muhammed was such an excellent, virtuous and handsome man, indeed the ideal Man, that any attempt to portray him is bound to fall short of the reality, and will therefore represent a slander on him.  Plato (or Socrates) could hardly have put it better himself.

To be honest, I'm not sure what this shows.  Perhaps it is a) that if you throw enough classical education at people, some is bound to stick (however imperfectly) even 25 years later; b) that if you follow any metaphysical theory far enough, logic will lead you down some curious cul-de-sacs; c) that those who die because of expressing their views are not necessarily liberals; and d) that irrational prohibitions are not the exclusive preserve of the abrahamic religions, but can be found in 'rational' Greek philosophy too.