Total Pageviews

Friday, February 29, 2008

What would Achilles do?

Preparing to teach my intro to philosophy course again, I was impressed in a fresh way with what Socrates was trying to say in behalf of his reasons for doing philosophical inquiry in such life threatening circumstances in his Apology. I have been exploring this in several ways, including making it the centerpiece of a role-playing campaign I'm refereeing on my Facebook page.

In order to explain to the Athenian court the rational for his risky behavior, he holds up the example of Achilles, the great Greek hero of the Trojan War, recounted in Homer's Iliad. Achilles mother, a prophetess warns Achilles that if he kills Hector he himself will also die. But Achilles decides that not killing Hector would be to dishonor his friend who was killed by Hector, and that it would be far worse to live on with dishonor than to die with honor. He kills Hector and is killed himself.

The important point to get from Achilles example for Socrates is that he thinks that Achilles decision is rational, and that what makes it so is that the outcome of death is inevitably uncertain. Socrates had previously explained that his mission from the Oracle at Delphi was to disclose to all who held a pretentious faith in their own wisdom that in fact they were not wise at all through testing their "wisdom" through questioning. Now Socrates argues that one of the ways people claim to be wise when they are not is in thinking that they know what death is when they really don't. It seems clear that what most people think that death is the cessation of human existence, but this is what is in fact not known. Death might mean continued life somewhere and somewhen else, for all we can tell. if it does, then the things we do in this life may have consequences in the next and an act of dishonor in this life may mean moral retribution in the next, while acts of honor in this life might be recognized in the next.

Given that we don't know, it is more reasonable to live honorably even if it means death, since the value of what we miss out on if we act as if death is not the end and are wrong pales in comparison to the value of what we miss out on if sacrifice honor to live longer believing that death is the end and turn out to be wrong. In other words, it is rational to choose death before dishonor in the same way that taking Pascal's Wager is rational. Following Achilles example then, Socrates says that it is rational for him to go on questioning men and improving their souls even if they threaten his life, than to passively neglect their well being in order to escape death and that Socrates will serve God rather than man.

We can be persuaded that this reasoning is right even while disagreeing that what Achilles did was in fact honorable. That depends on how Homer describes the case, whether is Achilles pursuing his own vendetta of whether Achilles is acting properly as a court of necessity and not taking the matter personally. But it is reasonable to see life as a probation of character rather than try to hold on to it no matter what, given the uncertainty of death's outcome. And this is a bit of common grace exhibited in the thought of Socrates.

No comments: