A Dialogue Not Recorded By Plato

I waited until the other aristocrats stopped
asking him questions and then, while the
fire still burned and before the mind had
gotten dull enough to fall asleep, I came
and asked him something that had been
on my mind for hours.  “Why did you tell
that bullying youth that it was better to be
a victim of tyrants than to be a tyrant for
oneself?”  He looked at me with a quizzical
eye, and not unkindly, and then he asked me
something in return as was his fashion.  “What
is your name and where are you from?” he
queried me.  I told him my name and then
mentioned that I was from the cities of Ionia
that had long been under the Lydian and
Persian yoke.  “So you ask me because you
have some experience of what it is like to be
subject to tyranny and abuse, and not because
you secretly long to be a tyrant?”  I affirmed that
this was so.  He paused again and asked me
what I thought, and what could make it better
to suffer abuse than to abuse others in turn.  I
answered that it seemed as if those who were
preyed upon by others were very attentive to
the world around them, very knowledgeable about
the goings on of other places, and the ways and
cultures of the world about, and thought very
seriously about how their lives could be better
once the tyrants were overthrown and they were
free to live as they knew best, but that those who
were tyrants did not seem to care about anything
except for holding on to power or who to oppress
in particular at a given time to satisfy their carnal
appetites.  He said he agreed with me in part but
then wondered if some of those who might have
suffered tyranny and learned from it would then
become tyrants themselves if there was no one else
to tyrannize them from outside.  I agreed that this
was often the case, for how often did one see a son
grow up in a household full of violence only to
become a bully like his father before him when he
had the means to establish his own household. And
was it not so that the elites of a colony, though they
had started out as humble equals, quickly found
unequal benefits from the chance at starting anew
and soon were as unjust and unequal as the polis
from which they had so recently sprung.  He nodded
his head in agreement, and asked me why I did not
speak up earlier, when everyone else had been trying
to prove themselves wise.  I told him I had no interest
in trying to prove myself wise in the eyes of a crowd
that was obviously not wise, but that I would rather
try to demonstrate myself wise when a quiet word
would be heard and when everyone else was not trying
to show off their wisdom like a garment they had
bought for too much in the agora.  He smiled and said
that I was wise to be so patient and so discreet, but
that it was a shame that no one would ever write
the dialogue down into words so that others could
remember the wisdom that springs from those who
have endured the tyrant’s abuse and remained men.

***

For me, one of the most interesting dialogues recorded by Plato has been Gorgias, which contains the memorable discussion of why it preferable for a man to suffer tyranny than to be a tyrant.  Among contemporary thinkers this is definitely an area that has been thought about and written about considerably.  One sometimes gets the sense from those who feel as if they have been victimized by others that being a victim is a matter of identity politics, but predictably the ancients showed little interest in such matters.  They were, by and large, aristocratic citizens of various Greek cities, and had little interest in pondering about how much advantage they had already.  By our standards, they were tyrants in at least a few ways.  They were citizens in areas where most people were women or slaves or resident aliens.  They gratified their desires with young boys and slave women and elegant courtesans, in situations where consent was not really something they had on their mind.  Of course, they thought about tyrants as being those who could oppress them and were not so keen on thinking about the ways that they took advantage of others.

And that is not something that we can simply point fingers at Socrates or others of his generation or culture for.  The same thing happens now.  People who claim that others are bullies on identity grounds seldom feel the bullying that they commit against others.  Those who feel themselves oppressed and taken advantage of show little restraint in their own actions if they find themselves with a momentary political advantage [1].  At least Socrates, for all of his faults, seemed to question his own wisdom and certainly the received wisdom of the time.  So it is fairly easy to imagine there being people who might not have been willing to engage in the rough and tumble of the philosophical world of Socrates but who would have wanted to talk with him anyway and figure out where he was at concerning a given issue, and one would think that Socrates would have answered the questions asked with a question in response, to try to draw out the person talking to him without having to commit to anything.

Of course, those who are shy and timid about putting themselves out are often people whose views and opinions never make it into history.  The world is full of people who push their opinion out and try to force it on others, make it nearly impossible, unless one lives under a rock, to ignore what they are trying to get across.  Yet there are a great many people who are wise and who have a lot that they could share except that they are unwilling to share it where they believe it will not be welcome.  And so maybe they write what they think and put it in the wallboards of their houses for fear of exposing themselves to ridicule or abuse or worse, and maybe decades or generations or even centuries later by chance someone finds out what was written and comes to respect it as something worthy of attention long after it was created without being known by anyone at all.  Or maybe one’s wisdom is known only to heaven above in one’s prayers and in one’s outpouring of concern for a world in such a state as our own.  One can hope that in the time of Socrates and others that there were people who had some conception of wisdom and its complexity, even if they were too shy to share it in the rough and tumble world of democratic Athens, or even if such people are sometimes unwilling to speak out loudly today.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/03/22/the-bully-in-me-and-the-bully-in-you/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/12/16/book-review-hot-buttons-bullying-edition/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/27/something-to-ponder/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/11/27/all-of-the-lights/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Dialogue Not Recorded By Plato

  1. Pingback: An Imaginary Failed Book Proposal Conversation About The Didache | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World: Part 3 | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Last Days Of Socrates | Edge Induced Cohesion

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