Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Socrates Exits

Among the earliest dialogues written by Plato are four which report the arrest, trial, and execution of Socrates. Although they are more historical than some of Plato's later dialogues, and give up a relatively life-like impression of Socrates, we are hesitant to rely on their details for factual history. And although they give us good examples of characteristically Socratic argumentation, their philosophical valued is often sadly overshadowed by the drama surrounding the death of Socrates.

The dialogue called 'Euthyphro' recounts a discussion about the exact definition of 'piety' - placing the matter of precise definitions in the spotlight, typical for Socratic thought, and a great contribution to the history of philosophy. Piety is central to the narrative across the four dialogues, because one of the charges brought against Socrates, at least in Plato's version of the trial, is impiety.

Second in the series is the 'Apology' - a defense speech made by Socrates at his trial. Here the dramatic nearly drowns the philosophical. Important issues are raised, but the dialogue is written in such a way that one wonders if Plato's main purpose was to create sympathy for Socrates, rather than ponder abstractions. The defense is not much of a defense; Socrates continues his habit of critiquing or even insulting certain prominent Athenians, even some who are part of his jury. One may speculate that Socrates wanted to be convicted. There are good examples of ironic 'Socratic ignorance' - a sort of epistemological humility - and he accuses Athenians of loving money more than justice. He denies the charge of impiety, points to the lack of any monetary gain from his activities, claims that he's being accused because he exposes the ignorance of others, shows that he lacks any motive for the additional charge of corrupting his fellow citizens, and - intriguingly - speculates that the charges brought against him may be a cover-up. Indirectly and implicitly, questions are raised about the democratic government of Athens: can democracy be so good, if it yields the manipulated verdict for Socrates? What might be covered up? This dialogue has been fuel for the view a Socrates as a martyr for the cause of free speech, and for comparison with the trial of Jesus.

After his trial, Socrates awaits his execution in jail, which provides the setting for the dialogue called 'Crito' - friends offer Socrates a chance to escape from prison and live elsewhere, but he declines, not wanting to live the rest of his life as a fugitive. The dialogue wrestles with the tension between deontological and teleological ethics, with definition of justice, and with the search for a rationalist foundation for ethics. Several propositions contain embryonic forms of a social contract theory. Socrates also advances a paternalistic view of government. By declining the offer of escape, Socrates effectively chooses death a second time - the first time having been his calculated behavior at his trial - and again invites comparison with Jesus. The dialogues is structured nicely, inasmuch as one can list precisely the arguments given for and against the notion that Socrates should escape.

Finally, the dialogue entitled 'Phaedo' gives us a discussion of the immortality of the soul, as Socrates faces his death. Here again the argumentation is definable, with four separate arguments for immortality.

These dialogues, taken as a group, do indeed offer some insight into the specific nature of Socratic philosophizing, and raise powerful questions; the delivery is marred, however, by Plato's tendency toward drama. Later Platonic dialogues tend to be more sober, less popular, and deliver a keener, more intelligent, philosophy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Better Way

Although old textbooks still sometimes view feudalism in bad light, current scholars have come to see how it provided a better societal structure than either the Roman Empire which preceded it, or the Renaissance absolutism which followed it. Feudal structures were decentralized and therefore more flexible and responsive to local conditions; they involved mutual obligation rather than autocratic authority, allowed for negotiated outcomes rather than arbitrary decrees. Historian Irma Simonton Black writes that

In the High Middle Ages, the feudal system worked like this. A great and powerful lord loaned to one of his noble followers a tract of land to plant and to use. The follower, or vassal, had to pay for the use of the land by furnishing fighting men when his lord needed them. He promised loyalty by kneeling and placing his hands between those of the lord. The vassal's chief service was to fight for his lord, but in peacetime he owed other services. Usually he attended his lord's court for a certain time each year. And he had to make a gift of money on special occasions such as the marriage of the lord's oldest daughter, or the coming of age of the lord's oldest son.

Almost every lord was a vassal, and almost every vassal was a lord. There was only one person in the entire nation who was not under a lord: the king or queen. But even the king or queen did not have absolute authority; rather, he or she had to negotiate with lords, or barons, of the nation. This prevented the despotic imperialism of Roman Empire from returning, and prevented the absolutism of later ages from starting. Most vassals were also lords: as they had pledged to help their lord, so their vassals had pledged to help them. Only the serfs had no vassals below them:

Even the greatest lords were vassals of the king, who was in theory the owner of all the land in the kingdom. The whole system was supposed to be an elaborate network leading to the king. But in practice, the king was very often at the mercy of his powerful vassals, who had their own armies an courts to compete with his.

To maximize freedom, it was necessary that the king or queen not be high above everyone else in the society; otherwise, the royal ruler would be tempted into autocracy. The existence of powerful nobles provided a sort of check and balance, or a division of powers.

A vassal inherited his his right to use land from his father, and in turn he passed it on to his oldest son. In time, noble families forgot that their land had originally been loaned to them by their lord. They held control over their enormous holdings and administered them as their own.

Naturally, most of the economy revolved around agriculture. Although there were trades, like working with wood and metal, and even banking systems, most people were involved in farming. Most of the farming was done by serfs:

The main duty of a serf was to help his fellows take care of the noble's broad fields. In addition, nobles allowed their serfs little strips of land to plant for themselves. On this they raised food for themselves and their families, and perhaps a little extra to sell.

Although serfs were economically dependent upon, and bound to, their lords, the ability to raise extra crops to sell provided a measure of autonomy; the ability to raise crops to feed their families provided a measure of motivation. This prevented Medieval Europe from facing some of the agricultural problems which had faced the Roman Empire.