Part 1 of 2
The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of a lecture  on Plato’s Crito. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness. I have also added a few lines.
The quotes are from Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates , trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984).
The Crito is really an extremely subtle meditation on the nature of political order. It’s a very short dialogue, and it’s ostensibly about Socrates’ refusal to escape from prison and go into exile. But underlying it is a schema about the nature of human association. There are three levels of human association, which I shall call pre-political, political, and trans-political association.
Pre-political association is found in the smallest organic communities and has three dimensions. First, there is kinship, which is primarily a biological relationship but also involves erotic love of one’s mate and “love of one’s own,” which is based in the spirited part of the soul. Second, there are personal attachments to friends and neighbors, which involves spirited love of one’s own. Third, there are economic relationships based on self-interest, whether mutual (trade) or exploitative (slavery), all of them rooted in the desiring part of the soul.
Generally, within the pre-political realm, the relationships that exist between families, friends, and neighbors are governed by affection, whereas the relationships between strangers are governed by self-interest. The ethics of pre-political association boils down to: “a good man is one who helps his friends and harms his enemies.” And, of course, this view of justice is talked about in the first book of the Republic.
The Greek city-state was imposed upon these pre-political forms of association—including families, clans, and tribes—and existed in uneasy tension with them throughout its entire existence. These pre-political forms of justice are present in Euthyphro in the distinction between civil and criminal laws. If someone was murdered, it was treated as a civil case, meaning it was for the family, for the victim’s own clan, his pre-political associates to handle. The state took no interest in the matter. The state had an interest in it only in the sense that it gave a legal form to private vendettas, which is basically what civil law does today. If you were murdered and no one was left to bring a case on your behalf, the state wouldn’t do it. That wasn’t their job.
The first example of pre-political individuals that you’ve encountered so far in these is Strepsiades in the Clouds. Strepsiades is entirely concerned with his family and himself. He has a very tenuous sense of what it is to be a good citizen. So, he’s willing to cheat his fellow citizens. He’s willing to twist and break the law, except, of course, when the laws are in his own interest. Then he appeals to them loudly. Strepsiades has no unconditional attachment to the law, no civic spirit. That’s entirely absent. His only relationship to the law is self-interested. So, he’s for the law when it’s in his interest, and he’s against it when it’s not. That’s a purely pre-political attitude toward the laws. He’s not so much a citizen as just a legal consumer or shirker, depending on his interest.
Political association is different. Political association, first of all, requires a certain scale. You’re never going to have a polis or a political society in a group of people who all know one another and interact face-to-face. Why? Because you don’t need it. You can pretty much keep everything on the level of inter-personal ethics and ties of personal attachment. So, hunter-gatherer bands, for instance, are pre-political associations. They’re extended families or two or three extended families that exist together and have a certain bond.
But once you start getting to a certain size of community, then you find that you have to pass from pre-political to political association, and that is always entailed by the fact that you don’t know everybody in your city anymore. So, your relationships with your fellow citizens are no longer personal relationships. Therefore, impersonal interactions between people in a political order have to be mediated by something more than just self-interest or sentiments of attachment. They have to be mediated by impersonal laws. You need impersonal rules in order to allow strangers to interact with one another in a frictionless and just fashion in a political society.
Once you start having laws, it is in principle conceivable that there’s no limit to the size of political society. You could have a political society with hundreds of trillions of individuals as long as all the laws function, because through these laws you can relate to billions of other human beings with whom you could never form a personal relationship. You might not ever see them. So, we have not only the political order that you find in nation-states, but political order that exists across nation-states, too, through treaties and the like. That’s an extraordinary achievement, and the political interaction that takes place is becoming more and more global and homogenous every day.
The reason that I raised the possibility of global political society is that I want to distinguish it from trans-political association, which is different. If you were to have a global polis or a global state, that would still be a form of political association. It wouldn’t be what I call a trans-political association.
What is trans-political association? Trans-political association leaves aside laws that are made by human beings, conventions that are created in order to coordinate the interactions of strangers in political society. Instead it’s regulated by an appeal to the laws of nature. In the light of a notion of an unchanging and common nature, and an unchanging common natural right or justice, humanity appears to be one. In a radical sense, it’s different than saying people would be one if they were all citizens of the same global state, because the laws are natural rather than conventional.
Politics is always conventional, and, although you can conceive of a global polis, there are many distinct political societies. This is why the concept of a global society is an odd thing. You can only get to it by eliminating all the fundamental distinctions that exist between the political societies in the world today. But that would lead to a world unrecognizable as our own. Political association involves a plurality of different political orders distinguished by different sets of conventional rules or norms for integrating and harmonizing people’s actions.
Trans-political association requires the development of rationality to a high degree, because one comes to know nature only through reason. You don’t need highly developed rational faculties, or any rational faculties at all, to be a good citizen. You just have to have the sentiments that attach you to your own group, to your fatherland, to your fellow citizens. People with those sorts of attachments don’t need much going on upstairs at all in terms of rationality. But one of the conditions of trans-political association is the cultivation of rationality to a high degree.
The cultivation of reason leads to the notion of a life of the mind that transcends conventional distinctions. People with opposed political loyalties can associate harmoniously on the trans-political plane. My favorite example is Alexandre Kojève, the Stalinist, and Leo Strauss, the ultra-conservative, who were fast philosophical friends. How? Because their form of association was trans-political, based on the life of the mind. Within the life of the mind, a lot of the distinctions of the Cold War era melted away. Neither one of them saw that big a difference between Western capitalism and communism, when they viewed them from a suitably distant perspective. But, of course, they were always able to slip back to their political selves and take up opposite sides in the Cold War. But that wasn’t their main form of association, and they would just agree to disagree on the Cold War.
Now, if Strepsiades belongs down on the pre-political level, Socrates truly belongs up on a trans-political level. He orients himself by what’s right by nature. Euthyphro is somewhere above the political, but not far enough above it to orient himself by what is right by nature. Euthyphro wants to get beyond a political level of life, and when Socrates encounters him, Socrates tries to get Euthyphro to turn around and resubmit himself to more conventional forms of association. He wants him to be a better citizen and a better son, to be more pious in terms of the conventional forms of Athenian piety.
You have to understand the Crito in terms of the distinction between the three levels of association. Crito is very much like Strepsiades, a totally pre-political individual. But in the Crito Socrates educates him. Socrates tries to lead Crito up from pre-political association to political association, and that requires teaching him to respect conventional laws. Even though Socrates himself can look to natural law for guidance, he’s trying to teach Crito to be concerned with conventional law and guide himself by that, rather than by the dual ethic of pre-political life which is helping your friends and harming your enemies. This is what happens in this dialogue.
Crito was an old friend of Socrates, and, appropriately enough, their form of friendship is entirely pre-political. They grew up near one another. They were members of the same deme, which was a pre-political division that existed in Athens, or, more precisely, a political division that took into account pre-political tribal distinctions that existed long before Athens existed as a city-state, in the manner of the different US states, which used to be considered sovereign entities but today have no real sovereignty whatsoever. But the same borders still exist for many of them, and they have their capitals and so on and so forth. In that sense, we still recognize a status that they once had but no longer enjoy. The deme had the same status for the ancient Athenian.
Crito is quite conventional, and his friendship with Socrates is not based on the life of the mind, but simply on propinquity. They were born near one another; they grew up together; they’ve known one another all their lives; and they have a certain fondness for one another. But it’s a pre-political kind of fondness. Crito is no philosopher.
Crito did write some Socratic dialogues. I really wish they had survived, because they probably were fairly unimaginative reports of actual discussions that they’d had, because Crito wasn’t the kind of guy who would depart too much from what had actually happened, and if he did, it would probably be easy to detect. But these texts haven’t survived.
The setting is this: Socrates has been condemned, and he’s being held in prison. However, he’s been held in prison for some time because there was a custom that a barge would be sent from Athens to Delos every year to pay respects to the god Apollo. One of his cult centers was on the island of Delos. The rule was that there could be no executions in the city while the barge was away, but the barge had not returned. It had been delayed for some time because of adverse winds. So, Socrates had a stay of execution. But the ship is returning, and Socrates soon will die.
Crito comes to him before daybreak. Socrates wakes up, and Crito tells him that he has made preparations for Socrates to escape so he can go into exile. Socrates says he’s not going to do this, and they have the argument that transpires here. Crito is convinced not to oppose Socrates, so Socrates simply stays for his execution.
Let’s look at the actual text. It’s before dawn. It’s dark. There is no indication in the text that the sun ever breaks over the horizon in the whole course of the conversation. In fact, there’s no indication that Socrates even gets out of bed during the whole conversation.
Socrates begins by relating a dream that he’s had, and near the end of the text he relates a speech that the laws of Athens would give to him. Socrates says, “What if the laws and the community of the city should come and stand before us who are about to run away?” (p. 108). The note says that dreams were frequently said to “stand before” the person dreaming. So, his discussion of the laws has a dream-like quality. It’s an imaginary dialogue with the laws that is framed as a dream-like apparition of the laws. Thus there’s a somnolent quality about the whole dialogue from the beginning where Socrates reports his dream to the end where he has this dream-like encounter with the laws.
Later Socrates says, “Know well, my dear comrade Crito, that these things [namely, what the laws say] are what I seem to hear, just as the Korybantes seem to hear the flutes, and this echo of the speeches is booming within me and makes me unable to hear the others” (p. 114). At the bottom, in a note: “In connection with the worship of the goddess Cybele, a rite was developed to cure nervousness and hysteria by means of dancing to frenzied music played on the flute and kettle drum. Participants in this psychiatric exercise were called Korybantes. The present passage suggests that the music echoes, probably with a calming effect in the memory of those who have undergone the cure.” This suggests that the laws have an aspect of enchantment, possession, beguilement, and enthrallment. The authority of conventional laws is not, like the laws of nature, based simply on reason. The laws appeal to our non-rational nature.
Everything in this dialogue is woven with the symbolism of dreams and darkness. This is extremely important, because we have to recognize that this is a conversation down in the cave, if you want to use the Republic’s metaphor. The cave refers to the world of opinion, of society. In this case, the cave is a pre-political opinion. It’s the worldview of Crito.
Crito is a deeply unenlightened fellow, if you will, and this shows in his preferences. Socrates wakes up and says to Crito, “How long have you been sitting here?” And he says, “Oh, quite some time.” “Why didn’t you wake me?” “Oh, well, you seemed to be sleeping so pleasantly.” Socrates’ preference is to be awake, but Crito can’t think of anything more pleasant than being asleep. This is an indication of their characters. Crito is a person who likes sleeping and dreaming. He’s a somnolent individual, and that’s a wonderful symbol of a relatively unenlightened state of consciousness. Whereas Socrates wishes to be awake all the time, and that’s an indication that his philosophic nature always seeks and prefers enlightenment.
Although Socrates wishes that Crito had awakened him rather than let him sleep, it is remarkable that Socrates is sleeping at all, for he is in prison and will soon die. When Crito says, “How can you sleep so well,” Socrates says, “That’s because it would be discordant, Crito, for someone of my age to be vexed if he now must meet his end” (p. 100). What’s the opposite of discord? Harmony. There’s a sense in which there is a capacity to sleep like this as a result of the deep, composed harmony of soul that Socrates has. This, of course, is very clear with Cato, too, and with any person whose mind is made up. They don’t dither.
So, Socrates relates his little dream, and then Crito says, I paraphrase: “Well, let’s talk about avoiding this fate that you’ve got in store for you. I’d like to talk to you about getting you out of here.” Crito has bribed the guard. The first act we hear about is Crito breaking the law and corrupting its servants. Why is he breaking the law? Why is he corrupting the guard? He’s doing it for a friend. Crito’s preference is to always take care of his friends, and the laws really don’t make that much difference for him.
When Crito appeals to Socrates to think about his duty to his sons, to his family, he never says anything about Socrates’ duty to his fatherland, to the laws. Those sorts of duties don’t exist in Crito’s mind, or they’re very tenuous. Again, the only time that Crito would probably appeal to the law is if it would be on his side. In that way he’s just like Strepsiades.
But daimonic Socrates, even now obey me and save yourself, since if you die for me it is not just one calamity. Apart from being deprived of such a companion as I will never discover again, it will also seem to many, those who don’t know you and me plainly, that I would have been able to save you had I been willing to spend money, but not to have cared. And yet what reputation would be more shameful than to seem to regard money as more important than friends? For the many will not be persuaded that you yourself were not willing to go away from here although we were eager for it. (p. 101)
So, the key to his motivations here is very clear. He’s very concerned about the opinions of strangers, and not so much their opinions of what really went on, but their opinions of what seems to have gone on. He thinks it would be awful if strangers thought that he didn’t care enough for his friend to spend his money to help him escape. This is an interesting motivation. He’s very much concerned with the opinions of strangers. Again, the priority of helping his friends is central in his mind. Helping his friends, harming his enemies: that’s Crito’s ethic.
And Socrates says, “But why do we care in this way, blessed Crito, about the opinions of the many? For the most decent men, whom it is more worthy to give thought to, will hold these things to be done in just the way they were done” (p. 101). Socrates immediately makes a distinction between types of opinion. There’s the opinion of the many, and there’s the opinion of decent men. The only opinions that anybody should be concerned with are the opinions of decent human beings, the people who will know that things have been done properly. Crito has nothing to fear from them, because they’ll know that things were done properly.
Crito responds: “But surely you see that it is necessary, Socrates, to care also about the opinion of the many” (p. 101). And, of course, the question is: in what sense is it necessary to care about the opinions of the many? He says, “The present situation makes it clear that the many can produce not the smallest of evils, but almost the greatest if someone is slandered among them.” The necessity of paying attention to the many is that they can kill you, in other words.
Socrates’ response is extremely rich and interesting. Socrates says, “Would that the many could produce the greatest evils, Crito, so that they could also produce the greatest good” (p. 102). Now, this reply depends on the Greek premise that if you have an art it gives you power over opposites. The art of the doctor gives one the capacity to cure or to kill. The same with the art of the pharmacist. The pharmacist can be the wiliest of poisoners or the person who can give you the curative dose. He’s saying that there’s an art, in a sense, that the many don’t have. It’s an art of creating the greatest of goods and also the greatest of evils.
What are the greatest of goods and the greatest of evils? He says, “Well, that would indeed be noble to have that art, but as it is they can do neither. For they aren’t capable of making someone prudent or imprudent.” Now, the Greek word for prudence is phronesis, and another translation for that would be “wisdom” in the practical sense of wisdom. There are two Greek words for wisdom: sophia and phronesis. Sophia is generally used to refer to either wisdom in a generic sense or theoretical wisdom, the kind of wisdom that Socrates in the Clouds possesses. Phronesis refers specifically to practical wisdom, the kind of wisdom that Socrates doesn’t have any shred of in the Clouds. In fact, Strepsiades has more of it than Socrates.
The greatest good, apparently, is to be prudent, and the greatest evil is to be imprudent. The greatest good is to be wise, and the greatest evil is to be foolish. Does this mean that Socrates has no concern anymore for sophia, or wisdom in the theoretical sense? Well, not necessarily, because we could interpret the absence of a reference to sophia as something explained by the fact that he’s addressing Crito. Crito is a deeply practical man, so the only face wisdom would show to Crito would be practical wisdom.
So, it is possible that Socrates still has a concern with theoretical understandings of things, and it seems clear that he did. He continued to theorize throughout his life, but he also came to recognize at a certain point that not only is practical wisdom important, but in a sense practical wisdom is more important than theoretical wisdom, because theoretical wisdom without practical wisdom really isn’t wisdom at all. It’s just the kind of extravagant foolishness that you see the Socrates of the Clouds involved in.
The greatest good is to be wise, and the greatest evil is to be foolish, and the many can’t produce either one of them. Put it this way: theoretical wisdom without any ability to make right use of it really isn’t wisdom at all. It’s just a kind of comprehensive knowledge, and knowledge by its nature doesn’t have to be good or evil. It needs to be given that direction by a kind of practical wisdom. But the best thing is to have both kinds of wisdom.
What Crito then says is, I paraphrase: “Well, look, Socrates, if you’re worried that we’ll get arrested, that the informers will turn us in, that it will produce a great source of trouble for us, don’t worry about it. We can handle that. We’re wise in the ways of the world. We can take care of these things.” And Socrates says, “Well, I was worried about that, Crito, but I was worried about many other things as well and really more important things, too.”
It’s very interesting. Crito sees Socrates’ primary concerns as being practical concerns in this matter and he says, “Let me assuage you that if your objections are this then that’s taken care of.” Which, again, is an indication of the kind of man Crito is. He’s very much caught up with the practical, and Socrates isn’t disdainful of that, by any means, but at the same time he thinks that there are other more important concerns, and those concerns come out fairly quickly. There are moral concerns about the proper care of the soul.
Then, in effect, Crito puts Socrates on trial again, accusing Socrates of doing a number of bad things and telling him that he’d better defend himself, and if he can’t defend himself, then he has to leave prison with him. He charges Socrates with betraying himself by allowing his enemies to get the better of him. He charges him with betraying his sons, not sticking around to educate and nurture them.
Now, the second charge really isn’t that much of an issue, because if Socrates left, he probably couldn’t have taken the children with him anyway to educate and nurture them. And even if the trial had never happened, given that he was a 70-year-old man in a time before modern medicine, chances are he wouldn’t be around much longer anyway to oversee their upbringing.
Instead, one should choose what a good and manly man would do. [Manliness, or andreia, means courage for the Greeks. Manliness and courage were the same word.] Particularly if one has claimed to care for virtue throughout his whole life. For my part, I am ashamed for you and for us, your companions, that the whole affair concerning you will seem to have been conducted with a certain lack of manliness on our part. The way the law was introduced into the law court, even though it was possible not to be introduced [This is very interesting. Socrates could have avoided the trial to begin with.], the way that the judicial contest itself took place, and now this the ridiculous conclusion of the affair is something comical even to hear will seemed to have escaped us completely because of a certain badness and lack of manliness on our part because we didn’t save you nor did you save yourself although it would have been possible and feasible if we had been of even a slight benefit. (p. 103)
So, Crito is saying, in effect, “Socrates, you’re betraying yourself, you’re betraying your sons, you’re making your friends look bad, and you’re making yourself look bad. You’re not acting in a manly and courageous fashion, because no man would let his enemies get the better of him.”
Socrates replies: “Well, dear Crito, your eagerness is worth much if some correctness be with it. If not, the greater it is, the harder it is to deal with. So, we should consider whether these things are to be done or not since I, not only now but always, am such as to obey nothing else of what is mine than the arguments which appear best to me upon reasoning” (p. 104). He’s being led by his arguments and led by his reasoning, not by Crito’s concerns with the opinions of strangers and things like that, but by the best argument.
It is interesting to compare Socrates’ last words in the dialogue: “Then let it go, Crito, and let us act this way since in this way the god is leading” (p. 114). If the god is leading and reason is leading, then, in a sense, you can say that for Socrates what is divine is reason, or the right thing to do by reason, or what’s right by nature. The moral truth discoverable by reason is what is divine. This fits in perfectly with what we know about the Euthyphro.
First, Socrates argues against Crito’s excessive concern with opinion. He says, “Is it not the case, Crito, that you and I have always said that one should pay mind to some opinions and not others?” “Exactly” (p. 104). The way that Socrates conducts this argument is interesting. Socrates is constantly saying, “Crito, do you and I agree or not that this is the case?” He’s trying to build upon past agreements. Now, what are agreements between human beings? They’re conventions. Socrates is, in a sense, trying to lead Crito by getting him to submit himself to conventions that have been established between him and Socrates. That is a sort of foreshadowing of what goes on later in the text when Socrates tries to lead Crito to a reverence for law, which consists of conventions that have been established by an entire society and consecrated by tradition and use. He’s trying to lead Crito towards a submission to law, conventional laws of political association. The way he argues foreshadows that.
Socrates raises the question of what sort of opinions should be heeded. Socrates says, “To honor the upright opinions but not the villainous?” Crito replies, “Yes.” “And of the upright ones, those of the wise and the prudent, of the villainous ones, those of the imprudent or foolish?” Yes” (p. 104). So, the only opinions you’re supposed to pay any mind to are the opinions of the wise. These are the only opinions that really matter.
Then Socrates uses us an analogy from craft. He says, “What if a person is an athlete? Whose opinion should they listen to? The spectators on the sideline, or the trainer, or the doctor?” (p. 104). There’s a lot of ghoulishness among spectators. They wouldn’t mind seeing great sports disasters. So, you go to a horse racing event, the jumping event, and the spectators are egging somebody on. If a person falls and breaks his neck, the audience would really get their money’s worth. They would be shocked by it, but there’s a certain voyeurism that people have about disasters. I love hockey. It’s the only spectator sport that is fast enough for me. People in the stands are screaming “Kill! Kill!” People go to boxing matches, and if one of the guys gets killed, that’s even more memorable. So if an athlete listens to the opinions of the spectators, he might be ruined. They don’t necessarily have his best interests in mind. So you should listen to the opinion of your trainer, the person who knows your limits. Trainers and doctors are the wise in the case of anything athletic.
What does the athlete destroy when he listens to the cheers of the many rather than to the expert opinion of the one? He destroys his body, of course. Is life not worth living with the corrupted body? Of course. So, if you listen to the many rather than the one, you’re going to lead a life that’s not worth living because your body will be corrupted, it will be ruined. (p. 105)
Then Socrates asks, “Aren’t the other things also like this?” He’s moving now from talking about the body to talking about other things. He continues:
So that we don’t have to go through all of them. In particular, concerning the just and the unjust, and the shameful and noble, and the good and bad things of which we are now taking counsel, must we follow the opinion of the many and fear it rather than that of the one, if there is such an expert whom we must be ashamed before and fear more than all the others? And if we don’t follow him, we will corrupt and maim that thing which as we used to say becomes better by the just and is destroyed by the unjust. Or isn’t there anything to this? (p. 105)
Now, the question is: what is that thing which we used to say becomes better by the just and is destroyed by the unjust? It’s the soul! It’s very interesting though that Socrates circumlocutes around using the word “the soul.”
Socrates then asks, “But is life worth living for us with that thing corrupted which the unjust maims and the just profits?” (p. 106). It’s a very obvious and wordy way of not saying “the soul.” Again, from the point of view of Crito, the soul isn’t on the map. The soul is something that philosophy knows and Crito isn’t really a philosopher. Socrates knows the soul, but Crito doesn’t, so there’s a kind of talking around the soul here indicating maybe the kind of audience that Crito represents.
“But is life worth living for us with that thing corrupted that the unjust maims and the just profits?” That thing is the soul. So, is life worth living for us with a corrupted soul? The answer would be clearly no. Socrates is studiously avoiding his technical term of trade. The thing that he claims to know the most about, the soul, he’s not speaking of.
Compare this to the Theages, in which the soul is also not mentioned directly. I believe that in both dialogues, this indicates that Socrates is speaking to a non-philosopher. Socrates is speaking of philosophical matters to a non-philosopher in a non-philosophical manner. If he were speaking to a philosopher, or someone with philosophical potential, he would speak of the soul explicitly.
Now let’s look more closely at this passage: “And in particular concerning the just and unjust, and shameful and noble, and good and bad things about which we are now taking counsel, must we follow the opinion of the many and fear it rather than that of the one if there is such an expert whom we must be ashamed before and fear more than all the others?” He’s saying if there is an expert on what’s shameful and not, what’s good and bad. Like the soul, the expert on the soul, is not named here. Instead, he is occluded in an odd way. He is put into question. He is under a shadow, in the same way that the soul is hidden in the shadows. And, of course, everything in this dialogue is in the shadows because it’s before dawn.
The point is that the soul doesn’t appear in the darkness of a political or pre-political life. It only appears once you’ve moved to the trans-political level, because the key to natural law is understanding the soul. We understand the whole of the cosmos and nature through the understanding of the soul. This is the position of the mature Socrates, and this is entirely different from the Socrates of the Clouds.
When we read the excerpts from Phaedo for next week, we’re going to see Socrates talking about how at first he was fascinated by nature, but that made him blind to certain things, including “how men grow,” which refers to education and that which is educated or cultivated: the soul. He was blinded to the soul by his concern with nature, but now he has a different way of looking at things.
He begins with knowledge of the soul because that’s closest to us. And now he’s only willing to venture out into the cosmos at large and make claims about the nature of the whole through the lens of the human soul, if you will. So, he’s making sure that he never forgets about the human things by searching for what’s natural, because he’s only going to approach nature as a whole, or the cosmos as a whole, through the human realm, through the soul.
Another way of putting it is that he’s only concerned with nature insofar as it can show up to the human being. This is the meaning of the humanistic dimension of Socrates in Plato. We can attain greater certitude in our knowledge of the human soul and human things. Insofar as the larger cosmos can show up to a human knower, then they’ll speak about that, too. And they’ll even use the moral and practical needs of the human soul as a basis for making speculations about the whole cosmos.
But it is very clear that knowledge of the cosmos and knowledge of the soul have different statuses and that we know the soul with greater certitude than we know anything else. We know the cosmos only insofar as it shows itself to human knowers. Thus only by knowing human beings and the limits of our knowledge first can we then venture out into the larger world and try to make claims about how it all fits together.
This approach is designed to avoid the problems of the Socrates of the Clouds who thinks he has expert knowledge. He asks, “You want to know divine things exactly?” in the Clouds. He claims to have an exactitude and rigor in his knowledge about the cosmos, whereas in Phaedo he doesn’t claim that anymore. But he does claim to know, spectacularly well, the nature of human things, and the primary thing that he knows is the human soul.
But that only becomes apparent once you move beyond the level of pre-political life and political life, which are ruled entirely by convention, to this trans-political realm where the life of the mind is carried on. However, it ultimately becomes clear to us that when you move up to this level and speak about the soul and nature, it’s occasionally useful to dip down into the world of convention and bring back certain likely stories or myths that can help us make speeches about things of which the limits of reason do not allow us to have any proper or exact knowledge.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say, based on certain paleo-ontological discoveries, that actual myths are older than the human race itself, because if you look at our nearest prehumen ancestor, the Neanderthal, they buried their dead along with their possessions. Whereas if you look at previous hominid types, they apparently just discarded the bodies of their own dead in the same way that they discarded the bodies of the animals that they ate. Some take that as an indication that that Neanderthal believed in an afterlife in some sense, and they had a respect for the dead. So, the primal human institutions that Vico talks about—burial, religion, and family life, too—seem to be pre-human. The point is that myth is maybe older than the human race itself, and that maybe the actual stories at the core of mythical tradition are older than the human race as well.
1. Montaigne has an essay on sleep where he talks about the amazing capacity of certain wise men to sleep, as recorded by various ancient historians. Although he is not really a perfect example of a wise man, the Roman Emperor Otho, who was one the ephemeral emperors who followed Nero in A. D. 79, the Year of the Four Emperors, was going to commit suicide, and before he committed suicide he took a nap. He fell into a very deep sleep waiting for some messenger to arrive, and they had to really shake him to wake him up. The capacity to fall into such a deep sleep at such a critical stage in life is remarkable. Montaigne talks about how Cato, before he disemboweled himself, got a good night’s sleep. It’s a remarkable characteristic that you find with certain individuals. Napoleon was remarkable in this way. Napoleon could turn his body off just like that and fall asleep. Even in the most high tension situations, in which you and I would be climbing the walls, he could just fall asleep and be completely unperturbed. I think it has everything to do with temperament. There’s a certain temperament that’s just more capable of that than others. I’m totally incapable of that. I lose sleep over the slightest worries.
2. I guess that’s my problem. Once I could make up my mind that there was going to be no mail on Monday then I can fall asleep. Here I am trying to teach people philosophy, and I’m kept awake at night by little things like that. This is why I need stoicism, going back to the Stoics. Eventually I’ll be able to disembowel myself, but in the short term I hope to at least be able to fall asleep without knowing whether or not there will be mail in the morning.