Socrates, yo

A couple of weeks ago a seven o’clock appointment a few blocks from work forced me to have an early dinner at a cheap Mediterranean place downstairs from my office. The only other customers were three college-age guys who were halfway through their meal. Their accents marked them as working-class, from some outer borough or other, first- or second-generation immigrants, very common at the branch of City College near my office.

As I sat eating my falafel sandwich and reading my book, I couldn’t help over hear their conversation, especially since it happened to be about one of my favorite topics: college philosophy classes. One of the guys was apparently enrolled in one and was telling his friends about it, the words tumbling out almost breathlessly in his blunt syntax.

“Yo, and so Socrates, he was going to be executed, and he could have escaped, his friends were going to bribe the jailers to let him go, yo, and he said he’d rather stay and be executed because he wouldn’t break the law. And he had this spirit that told him he should ask people questions about what’s good. And he asked people all these questions to get them to define things, but it turned out none of them knew anything, like how to define things like ‘good’ or ‘truth,’ but they just got confused. And so Socrates told them they were ignorant, but he was ignorant, too, except at least he knew he was ignorant and they didn’t know they were ignorant, yo.”

I could hear the kid’s excitement about what he had learned, but he was also trying to keep his cool; it sounded like he was dumbing things down from what he’d just heard in lecture, realizing his friends might not find it as fascinating as he did.

But I could relate. I had, by chance, a life-changing encounter with a Platonic dialogue in high school.

My junior year I ended up with a free period a couple of days a week because of an internship on the other days; without a car or other viable way to leave campus, I ended up sitting around in the “gifted” classroom playing chess with a guy named Victor or reading books from the shelf. I spent a month with Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, understanding a little of it but really not much. Then I found a little volume of Platonic dialogues; I don’t remember, but it was probably The Last Days of Socrates, the Penguin Classics edition of the dialogues that depict the events surrounding, well, the last days of Socrates.

The first in narrative chronological order is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates meets the young Euthyphro near the law courts. Socrates is at the beginning of the judicial process that will lead to his execution; Euthyphro is prosecuting his own father for murder. Euthyphro claims he’s taking this unusual course of action out of piety, about which he claims to be an expert. So Socrates casts himself ironically in the role of the student, asking Euthyphro a series of questions to find out what piety is.

The reader is in on the joke; Euthyphro is a self-satisfied fool who has no idea what piety is and never admits his own ignorance, even when Socrates has demolished though gentle questioning every claim Euthyphro has put forward. And in that first reading, I was completely drawn in by the intellectual drama: Would Socrates finally tell us what piety was? No, it turns out. Socrates doesn’t usually answer questions.

But in the course of the dialogue, Socrates asks a question that took my breath away, wannabe-pious religious kid that I was. “Is what is pious pious because it is approved by the gods, or is it approved by the gods because it is pious?” I immediately grasped the radical import of the question. Put in Christian terms, Socrates’ question separated the concept of the good from God, then asked which came first, which was logically prior. But either way you could answer the question seemed to lead to disaster: If the good was good because God made it so, then he could change his mind and declare that a previously monstrous act was okay, even obligatory. But if God approved of the good because it was good (independently of him), there wasn’t any obvious need for God in considerations of the moral life. I felt that the cosmos I had taken for granted had started turning crazy cartwheels.

It took years, but the power of Socrates’ question began a process that would completely redefine my intellectual world, leading me among other things to pursue graduate studies in philosophy and to become an atheist. Corrupting the youth, indeed.

These thoughts formed a reverie in the falafel shop, but I was shaken out of it by some further discussion of Socrates among the City College boys. The first guy had apparently found his friends less than interested in his discussion of Socrates’ philosophical methods, so he had switched to Socrates’ sexual activities, covering up his previous enthusiasm with revulsion.

“And yo, Socrates would sleep with his students, and there was this young guy Alcibiades who wanted to sleep with Socrates, but Socrates wouldn’t do it because he wanted to talk about philosophy, so they just lay in bed together, yo.”

“Those guys were all fags, man,” said the second young man.

“Yeah, they were all fuckin’ fags,” agreed the first, relieved to have found a line of conversation that didn’t mark him as a nerd.

The second voice continued to display what he’d retained from his Western Civ class: “They all just fucked their students, yo. Fuckin’ fags. Socrates fucked Plato, and then Plato fucked his student, Aristotle, and then Aristotle turned around and fucked his own student, Alexander the Great.”

At this point, a third voice spoke up: “Yo, Alexander wasn’t fuckin’ gay, man. That’s just some Hollywood shit they made up.”

“No, his teacher was Aristotle and Aristotle totally fucked him. And Alexander was always fucking boys and shit, yo. He wasn’t even interested in his wife.”

“No way, yo. Alexander wasn’t a fuckin’ fag.”

“Yeah he was, yo. The movie didn’t even show most of it, yo”

And at last I was able to place the accent: In addition to being New York, outer-borough, working-class, it was slightly … Greek. Say what you want about Socrates, but don’t make the national hero gay.

9 responses to “Socrates, yo”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    Funny that these guys will support Alexander over Socroates, when Alexander didn’t consider him Greek (nor did the Greeks of his day consider him Greek).

    I would put forth that these young men were troubled by claims that Alexander was gay because, as a warior, he was someone that they all wanted to identify with. (How could someone so fuckin’ badass yo, be a queer?) Just think how it turns society on its ear when some athelete or somone comes out — Aren’t fags supposed to be…well, faggy?

    To them it’s, perhaps, acceptable that someone who sits arond all day thinking about alegories of caves and whatnot is gay.

    At any rate, this isn’t the only part of your post I liked. I loved the whole mutha fuckin thing, yo.

  2. Stephanie Wells says:

    Sorry, “when Alexander didn’t consider him Greek,” is supposed to be “didn’t consider himself Greek”

  3. Dubya says:

    Once again, I find myself wishing I knew you in high school (though I didn’t have a car junior year, either and living in the South Valley made it hard to “drop in”). But you could’ve come to Greek day at Academy, when we all wore togas to school. I think my toga was made from a draped Return of the Jedi sheet.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    What were you thinking, eating falafel around blue-collar workers. I’m surprised they didn’t kick your ass just for that! Anyway, it’s facinating to listen-in on conversations (a whole lot like lurking); airports are the best. What is falafel anyways…

  5. Lisa Tremain says:

    Loved this post, yo.

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    Reminds me of overhearing some of my students talk about my assigned texts through the lens of their realities: “Gatsby is like fully a stalker! He is like completely sick and psycho. And Daisy is obviously bipolar or maybe has been abused as a child.” So many diagnoses, so little actual interpretation . . .

  7. nathan says:

    ahh, makes me miss my former classmates.

  8. ah, marleyfan, ye poor landlocked northwesterner. beautiful views you do have, but you need to come visit us more often for diversified eatin.

    on falafel

  9. PB says:

    “If the good was good because God made it so, then he could change his mind and declare that a previously monstrous act was okay, even obligatory. But if God approved of the good because it was good (independently of him), there wasn’t any obvious need for God in considerations of the moral life.”

    The axis around which a compelling post turns. Brilliant.