Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LB: Robots and Us

"Great strides have been made in recent years in the development of combat robots. The US military has deployed ground robots, aerial robots, marine robots, stationary robots, and (reportedly) space robots. The robots are used for both reconnaissance and fighting, and further rapid advances in their design and capabilities can be expected in the years ahead.

One consequence of these advances is that robots will gain more autonomy, which means they will have to act in uncertain situations without direct human instruction. That raises a large and thorny challenge: how do you program a robot to be an ethical warrior?"- Michael Carr, from "The Artificial Morality of the Robot Warrior” at the Britannica blog

I was struck by how Carr’s observations here, in a piece about real robots being used right now to fight real wars, tied into the themes and plot of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy and, more recently, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. I invite you all to check out Carr’s article whether or not you elect to read this recent review of Urasawa’s Pluto I’ve posted to one of my other blogs.

Pluto Volume 1
By Naoki Urasawa adapted from material by Osamu Tezuka
Viz Media
200 Pgs, PC, SC, $12.99
ISBN# 1421519186

By the time that manga pioneer, Osamu Tezuka was beginning to react creatively to the more sophisticated gekiga manga that had developed in the wake of his own influence, he was largely finished with the property that, fairly or unfairly, defines his legacy both in Japan and abroad, Astro Boy. This is not to say that Astro Boy lacks in gravitas or moral complexity. In contrast, however, to later works Phoenix or Buddha, Tezuka shows less of an impulse to drive the often grim foundations of his boy robot story to the extent of their logical, ethical conclusions. Fundamental inequities persist between humanity and machines because they must in order to justify the next story and then the next one after that. These realities may be enough to throw a slight damper on the emotional timbre of yet another otherwise triumphant victory for Japan’s most revered boy robot but it is certainly not enough to make him question his obligations to either his robot brethren or the often-flawed humans that created him.

In Pluto, the reader is offered the chance to change history or, at least, to view it from a different perspective as provided by artist and creator Naoki Urasawa. While one might be tempted to see this as a cultural analogue to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (National Icon Undergoes Radical Reimagination at the Hands of Contemporary Proponent of Bad-Assedness; Creators Roll in Grave.), the opening volume suggests that it is anything but by the ways that Urasawa’s differentiates Pluto from its source material in Astro Boy.

It begins with a question of scale. The story is drawn from a single episode among thousands that make up the Astro Boy series. If the work is to be a long-form serial, this necessitates first that Urasawa’s pacing be positively glacial in contrast to Tezuka’s frenetic original. The question then becomes: With what do we fill the extra space? Urasawa’s choice is two-fold; first, to explore in greater depth the ethical questions posited but never fully explored by Tezuka in the original and, to give every character in the story the same depth of backstory as its original protagonist, Astro (Atom) enjoyed.

Urasawa’s unique storytelling voice (comparable here to another of his works available in English, Monster) is on display to devastating emotional effect. His segments tend to build tension slowly, grounding in the often mundane aspects of ordinary life, but always progressively moving towards some event of unspeakable horror that is more often felt in its impact than witnessed directly. Where Tezuka imagines that the world would have Great Robots like it does Wonders of the World, Urasawa dwells on the relationship each one might have with the people who created it to save them. He appropriates Tezuka’s underlying theme for the Astro Boy series as a body of work, the elusive nature of consciousness, and uses it as the fuel to drill into the socioeconomic ramifications of thinking machines returning from a brutal war to reintegrate into the countries that have deified them as war gods.

With only one volume from which to pronounce a judgment on Pluto, the best I can really say is, “More, please.” Having established his credibility with English-translated manga readers with Monster, Pluto’s uniform excellence and savage drama come as no surprise. The only question lingering as I opened the book was whether Pluto would read like a loving but unnecessary retread of a time-honored classic or something vital unto itself. For me, the answer was resounding and unmistakable and I’m now very enthused, lord willing and if the creek don’t rise, to let Urasawa kick a hole in the top of my head as often as Viz will put a new volume of this out on the market.

Monday, February 23, 2009

LB: Michael Pollan on Mother Jones


Michael Pollan has written quite a few interesting books on food and eating that I would definitely describe as being written for the general reader rather than the specialist. Check out this article on Mother Jones and then check out The Carnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire at the book retailer of your choice!

Mother Jones: What surprised you as you researched In Defense of Food?

Michael Pollan: One surprise is how deeply the food system is implicated in climate change. I don't think that has really been on people's radar until very recently. Al Gore didn't talk about it at all; 25 to 33 percent of climate change gases can be traced to the food system. I was also surprised that those diseases that we take for granted as what will kill us—heart disease, cancer, diabetes—were virtually unknown 150 years ago, before we began eating this way.

"Michael Pollan Fixes Dinner" at Mother Jones

Friday, February 20, 2009

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Crito

Crito by Plato

The unabridged text to Benjamin Jowett's translation of Crito can be read in its entirety online at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/crito.html

In Crito, the titular character comes to Socrates in the last days before his impending execution with the unenviable task of convincing his mentor to flee Athens. By adding but one extra voice to Apology’s bombastic monologue, Plato transforms the ongoing saga from a philosophical screed into a haunting portrait of Crito’s helplessness in the face of his teacher’s inarguable logic—the same logic that has condemned Socrates to death. Say what you will about the dialogue form but there is unmistakable poetry in Plato’s opening.

SOCRATES: Why have you come at this hour, Crito? It must be quite early?

CRITO: Yes, certainly.

SOC.: What is the exact time?

CR.: The dawn is breaking.

SOC.: I wonder that the keeper of the prison would let you in.

CR,: He knows me, because I have often come, Socrates; moreover, I have done him a kindness.

SOC.: And are you only just arrived?

CR.: No, I came some time ago.

SOC.: Then why did you sit and say nothing, instead of at once awakening me?

CR.: I should not have liked myself, Socrates, to be in such great trouble and unrest as you are—indeed I should not: I have been watching with amazement your peaceful slumbers; and for that reason, I did not awake you, because I wished to minimize the pain. I have always thought you to be of a happy disposition; but I never did I see anything like the easy, tranquil manner in which you bear this calamity. [43:1-22]

It is easy to imagine Crito, sitting silent in the early morning light, wondering to himself what possible argument he could construct to change his teacher’s mind; knowing that Socrates’ very life depended on his success or failure. Failure to try to is not an option, though he knows he is destined to fail. Failure to succeed is not an option, though he knows he is destined to fail. And so he sits, in the dark of the prison, formulating the arguments he knows can’t work and, as Socrates awakens, sets out about his task anyway. This sense of drama, it should be remembered, is of Plato’s construction and may bear little resemblance to the reality experienced by the original players.

Crito bases his argument for Socrates’ escape primarily on the Great Idea, Duty. He frontloads his argument with several elements, perhaps hoping to wear Socrates down with the frenetic pace of his accusations. Socrates, he first argues, cannot throw his life away on principle because of the obligations he has to those he leaves behind. “People who do not know you and me,” Crito argues, “will believe that I might have saved you if I’d be willing to give the money but that I did not care” [44:22-24]. When Socrates rightly dismisses the opinions of the uninformed as unimportant, Crito changes his tactic, appealing to his teacher’s sense of familial obligation. “You,” he accuses, “are deserting your own children…No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education” [45:38-41]. One may assume that Crito refers not only to Socrates’ actual children but also to the many followers and students he leaves behind, of whom Crito is one.

Socrates nonetheless ends Crito’s opening salvo of arguments by identifying his only real obligation left unmet, noting that “I am and always have been one of those natures who must be guided by reason…and now that this chance has fallen befallen me, I cannot repudiate my own words” [46:17-22]. His duty is to the integrity with which he has conducted his life and to see that it end in a manner consistent with his principles of living.

Having defused Crito’s initial barrage of arguments, Socrates begins his rebuttal by re-framing it as a question of Good and Evil, the second of the Great Ideas under consideration. Interestingly, the contrast between the two poles turns almost immediately into a contrast between the individual and the many. “We must not regard,” Socrates notes, “what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say” [48:7-10]. He circles back briefly to Crito’s opening arguments, stating outright that, “the other considerations which you mention, of money and loss of character and the duty of educating one’s children are only the doctrines of the multitude, who would be as ready to restore people to life, if they were able, as they are to put them to death—and with as little reason” [48:32-38].

Socrates’ commitment to identifying and then acting according to the good lays the groundwork for his refusal to flee Athens. Even under the conditions that the judgment was evil and Socrates himself, good, he argues that the good is never justified by evil to commit evil in retaliation. Socrates points out the radicality of this position to Crito, noting that “this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ” [49:49-55]. The logical extension of this is that those determined to commit evil will always seem to triumph over those they murder who in turn refused to return the evil perpetuated upon them.

As logically sound as this argument is, the abstract victory of principle over petty mob politics that Socrates’ execution would symbolize is not powerful enough on its own to win over Crito’s grief at losing his teacher. To accomplish this, Socrates turns to his most compelling argument and the third Great idea under examination, the duty of the Citizen. One must admire the unflinching clarity with which Socrates outlines his responsibilities to the state of Athens as a free person, whether enjoying the benefits of its largesse or the unbridled fury of its judgment. Again, one feels Plato’s narrative hand at work in the irony of Socrates immaculate defense of his city’s right to destroy him on a whim; in a sense, imposing the authority of the state on to the impeccable reasoning of his teacher to construct a trap from which there was simply no escape.

”’Tell us, Socrates,’ they say; ‘what are you about? Are you not going by an act of yours to overturn us—the laws, and the whole state, as far as in you lies? Do you imagine that a state can subsist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law have no power, but are set aside and trampled upon by individuals?’ What would be our answer, Crito, to these and like words?” [50:11-18]

Note how Socrates speaks as if the laws themselves accuse him, manifested as the state, but elevated to a status seemingly coequal to the gods—invisible but unmistakable in both the protection they offer and the punishment they promise to those who break faith with their contract. This equivocation is made explicit when Socrates describes the state as, “to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and either to be persuaded, or if not persuaded, to be obeyed” [51:11-14] with only the “or we will destroy you” left to the imagination. Playing devil’s advocate, Socrates goes on to identify the state’s investment in the individual as three-fold: first, in sanctioning the marriage that produced them; second, in mandating an education appropriate to their station in life; and lastly, in offering them the freedom to leave with their property at any time they should choose as long as they live in accordance with the state’s laws while within its sovereign territory.

Crito’s final heartbreaking moment comes as Socrates equates the degree of his culpability with the depth of his undying love for Athens. “’Of all Athenians you have been the most constant resident in the city, which, as you never leave, you may be supposed to love. For you never went either to see the games, except when you went to the Isthmus, or to any other place unless when you were on military service; nor did you travel as other men do…your affections did not go beyond us and our state; we were your special favorites, and you acquiesced in our government of you; and here in this city, you begat your children, which is proof of your satisfaction’” [52:14-28].

Though delivered in the voice of his accuser, Law as manifested in the flesh by the State, Socrates’ reasoning is no less sincere or ill-reasoned than ideas presented as his own and, indeed, Plato presents them as one in the same. His refusal to flee is the last virtuous act of a virtuous man who, having made his bid to persuade the state of his innocence and, having failed, stands ready to obey its edict on principle unto his death. The historicity of this death cannot be questioned and so Crito leaves the reader wondering only to what degree Plato’s narrative influence heightens our ability to relate to this otherwise private conversation between two old friends saying goodbye.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

New Liberal Artistry

As discussed in this previous blog entry, one of the difficulties in writing about the liberal arts comes from coping with the lingering meanings buried within each new cultural interpretation and appropriation of the phrase. In honoring the longevity of the phrase’s usage, we must acknowledge that each aspect of its meaning is at once fundamental and fundamentally incomplete in describing its full meaning and potential. In this sense, the modern phrase ‘liberal arts’ (ie a certain kind of university or college) has become so divorced from its original meaning that it is in danger of becoming a vestigial idea, the final step before verbal extinction.

So what, then, does it mean to be liberal? The word’s modern usage is nearly always pejorative. Politically, it is the word of the opposition. The whole notion of Liberal and Conservative as labels are an implicit statement about how one supposes they’ll handle the nation’s money; those who will spend it liberally and those who will conserve it for future generations. Victorious Democrats are never liberal, but Progressive. Liberal is a way to criticize laxity of discipline as in “So-and-so is liberal in the way they raise their kids.” It can also used as a back-handed criticism of over-indulgence as in “My that is a liberal portion of bacon-sausage loaf.” Given the number of ways that liberal is presented in the modern lexicon with a sum negative tone implied in its usage, one might assume that it has its roots in some kind of awful Druidic ritual. Or something involving castration.

What kind of surprise then is it that liberal first and once commonly meant ‘in the manner of those who are free?’ Its antonym was not ‘conservative’ but ‘slavish’. Setting aside the obvious question of who might benefit in the refraction of this particular word into a meaning it was never meant to carry, the value in recalling the fuller definition of liberal is in understanding how this meaning informed the original meaning of the phrase ‘liberal arts’. But to appreciate this, we must recall not only the roots of freedom inherent to liberality but the expanded meaning that the word, ‘art’ carried in its classical incarnation.

In the modern worldview, art is generally viewed as a creative expression intended to engage the observer and evoke some kind of response. It is a noun; something you can often point to and, in many cases, produce or consume in either its original or reproduced form. Formulated along these modern lines, ‘liberal arts’ can be interpreted (and often are) as ‘the study of (fill-in-your-own-negative-adjective-here) things’. Some modern usages of the word ‘Art’ do still retain some of the original meaning, such as when we talk about the Art of Archery or the Art of Diplomacy. Ancient Greek peoples so highly valued arete (often translated into English as ‘virtue’ or ‘excellence’, but better understood as a full expression of a thing’s potential through a masterful execution of its function) that it was, at times, personified in divine form as the sister of Harmony and daughter of Justice.

In this same sense, we still profess the belief that an action performed by someone who has mastered that action, is capable of being elevated to the realm of art though, in less skilled hands, it might be seen as merely craft or labor. This ability to transform action into something transcendent might then be thought of as Artistry and its practitioners, as Artists. This expression of Art, Artistry, and Artist still well encompasses the much narrower definition of modern times but reconciles not only the outlying usages in English but the common understanding of the word still held in many Asian cultures.

Considered in this context, the liberal arts regain their original meaning and importance; namely, the body of knowledge and skills necessary to freed persons who wish to remain so, transformed through artistry into action that reflects and amplifies the values of freedom. Toppling inconvenient foreign regimes will never release the peoples of the world from bondage. Only the truth sets any of us free.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

LB: The New Liberal Arts?

Just when you thought it was safe to come out and start blogging about Ye Olde Liberal Arts, clever people on the Internet have begun a conversation about the New Liberal Arts (or LibArt2.0 if you are texting it to your Twitter account). While some might see this as a reason to air up the old hackles and practice “harrumphing,” I’m finding it as yet more validation that this is the moment in history when we, as a culture and, more broadly, as a species, need to gather the sum of our knowledge and wisdom to overcome the obstacles we’re facing.

It’s probably going to be valuable here to draw a distinction between the three different ideas about liberal arts that we might be bringing to the table as we begin a discussion of what the latest version of any one of them might look like.

Historical- The historical meaning of liberal arts was the education appropriate to a free man as opposed to a slave. I like to think we’re all on board with retroactively giving personhood to women and re-crafting that to read, “the education appropriate to all free persons.”

Pedagogical- The term liberal arts was most often applied to the sum two complementing bodies of knowledge, the trivium and the quadrivium. The archetypes of the seven liberal arts remained roughly unchanged from the time of Plato’s Academy until the Renaissance though the texts considered fundamental to an understanding each did accrue over the span of that time.

Modern- The modern term liberal arts is used to describe to a specialized type of university that is more often defined by what it doesn’t do (cram 150 people into a classroom with a single professor, allow the majority of its lower level classes to be taught by graduate assistants or adjuncts) than what it does. This, in my opinion, represents not only a failure to make the most of what liberal arts education is available but a cynical narrowing of the phrase’s meaning from its much richer and descriptive origins.

In his original introduction to the Great Books series, Robert Hutchins underscores the importance of the relationship between the liberal arts and freedom with an urgency that is, perhaps, more relevant today than it was in 1952.

“It would seem that this is the education for everybody, if it is the best for the best, provided that everybody can get it. The question, then, is: Can everybody get it? This is the most important question in education. Perhaps it is the most important question in the world.

If leisure and political power are a reason for liberal education, then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it. If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world.” [54]

I’m sure Hutchins would not be surprised to discover that fifty-six years later, democracy and industrialization have spread far beyond their ambitions of the mid-20th century and that the United States now finds itself as a nation almost magically incapable of educating its citizenry either as youth or adults despite the best efforts of many who make it their vocation to do just that.

President Obama made the point repeatedly in his campaign that the problem was that we were preparing children for the 21st century in classrooms designed to prepare them for the 20th. But when pressed on what those new challenges might be, the answer is always the same.

“More science. More math.”

Pragmatically, I understand, confronted by catastrophic problems like global warming and peak oil, that the urge to produce a nation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and other helpful producers of specialized information products is, well, urgent. But it seems meaningful to point out that many of these man-made problems that we must now urgently solve were CREATED by mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc.

Before people start hurling Bunsen burners at me, please accept at face value when I say that I personally love math and science. I believe, wholeheartedly, that there is an amount of both that are absolutely essential to any free person who hopes to function in this increasingly complex world. For those who are gifted in these areas and wish to pursue this kind of information, I wish nothing but unending vistas of knowledge for them to explore.

But for the full potential of all this freedom and all this technology that we are exporting to every habitable square inch of this world to result in anything but utter and total human ruin, it’s time to pay more than lip service to the ways that non-scientific and non-mathematical avenues of study might be not just useful but essential.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Great Books: Plato's Apology

Apology by Plato
Time: generally thought to have been written by Plato in the first decades of the 4th century BCE.
Place: Athens, Greece
Great Ideas: Wisdom, Truth, and Life and Death

The unabridged text to Plato’s Apology can be found online at http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/Apology.html

Plato’s Apology is an account of the public trial of his teacher, Socrates that famously resulted in a death sentence. Even as Apology avoids Plato’s more familiar dialogue form in favor of a monologue delivered essentially in soliloquy to the reader, Socrates’ defense, as Plato describes it, is not typical of a man working diligently to save his own life. The question of whether Apology was read in its time as an journalistic account of a recent historical event, a polemical screed against those who had wronged an influential teacher, or a meticulously crafted piece of propaganda ignores the possibility that it may have been read, at once, as all three and more, against the complex cultural background of 4th century Athens and beyond. Given that knowing Plato’s own intention for writing the piece is impossible, it seems prudent to acknowledge the indisputable historicity of Plato’s eyewitness account of Socrates’ trial while recognizing that he, like all writers, was in possession of a particular worldview and a particular agenda through which his interpretation of what he saw must have been filtered. For this reason, we should remember that it is ultimately Plato who addresses the Great Ideas here, regardless of how much the doctrine considered is informed by that of his teacher.

Apology is broken into three sections; the first, Socrates’ defense, being considerably longer than the second, the Penalty Phase and the third, Socrates’ final rebuttal to the court. The monologue begins after the prosecution had already made its case and Socrates is called upon to defend himself against charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and being, at once, loyal to foreign gods and an atheist. Plato opens this defense by invoking the first of the Great Ideas that dominates Apology, Truth. Having heard the jury warned against his gifts as an orator, Socrates contrasts his relentless quest for the Truth against the tools of persuasion which his accusers suppose are the source of his influence. Truth is also unique among the Great Ideas central to this piece in that it is presented as something that humanity can actually understand, whereas Wisdom and the meaning of Death, if they can be said to exist at all, are property, if not, properties of the Divine.

Socrates begins his defense in earnest by segregating his accusers into two camps and the distinction between them begins an explicit conversation within Apology about the tension between the spoken and written word. Though his life has been placed in jeopardy by a very real set of angry folks in the here and now, Plato shows Socrates as addressing his reputation among Athenians as the most difficult obstacle to overcome in clearing his name.

"Far more dangerous are the others, who began when you were children, and took possession of your minds with their falsehoods, telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above and searched the earth beneath and made the worse appear the better cause. The disseminators of this tale are the accuser whom I dread; for their hearers are apt to fancy that such enquirers do not believe in the existence of the Gods." [18:13-21]

The importance of Truth takes a greater precedent in the second half of his defense when he addresses the specific charges facing him. It is clear from the manner in which Socrates presents his own defense that he is more concerned with uncovering truth than he is in proving his innocence. Should his Socratic method of inquiry reveal that he was, in truth, corrupting the youth and, in truth, magically encouraging both the worship of strange gods and atheism, one gets the impression he would demand for the harshest penalties allowed under the law. Yet, even after the guilty verdict is rendered and Apology moves into its second phase of Penalty Negotiation, Socrates is portrayed as unwilling to cede the moral ground to his now vindicated accusers that the Truth affords him, willing only to admit that he “sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his personal interests and to the state before looking to the state’s interests…What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing [36:26-33].”

It seems only natural that the reenactment of a trial should be interested, if not fixated, on a quest for Truth. Socrates, in contrast, spends more of his defense talking about Wisdom, his star character witness who never shows up to testify but whose presence is amplified by its absence. In answering the critics of his reputation, Socrates tells the jury a story that demonstrates his piety but also implicates the Gods in his endless quest for Wisdom, the very same quest that earned him enough enemies in Athens to lose his life over words. A friend, he explains, went to the Oracle at Delphi and asked if any man were wiser than Socrates to which the Oracle responded that there was, in fact, none wiser. This declaration from the Oracle (an historically difficult assertion to prove as true or false from this distance) presents Socrates with a moral dilemma that involves both Truth and Wisdom. As Apollo is a God and cannot lie, then his assertion that there is no man wiser than Socrates must be true. Socrates, who insists that he is the bearer of no wisdom beyond that which comes from knowing that one has no wisdom, devises an ingenious solution to his problem by deciding that he will question men who are considered wise by reputation and, when he finds one, present him to the Oracle as a rebuttal of their claim.

Hilarity ensues as Socrates goes through a wide-range of purportedly wise people and finds none that convince him of their wisdom or impress him with their anger at being so exposed. Socrates’ very premise ranges over absurd ground. Suppose that he is successful and finds a wiser man to present to the Oracle. What, then, has he proven along with the idea that Gods cannot lie? He would have proven that either that Gods may not lie but their knowledge is not infallible or that the Oracle itself was an imperfect instrument of Apollo’s valued advice for mortals below. He is lucky, given this logical extension of his premise, that he is unable to find anyone in possession of wisdom, thus sanctifying not only his quest to continue his practice of inquiry (as Apollo has instructed in presenting him with his paradox) but his piety in obeying the Gods over the protestation of the aggrieved parties.

It is Socrates’ almost Taoist interpretation of Wisdom, though, that proves his greatest obstacle in infecting the jury with the urgency of his mission. Wisdom, it seems, is apparently in such short supply among mortals that is nearly impossible to describe. Though he invokes its absence relentlessly throughout his defense, Socrates offers very few insights as to what Wisdom might look like so the jury (or the reader) might know whether or not they might have some, thus refuting his argument. His final interpretation of the Oracle’s meaning offers a more descriptive passage on its nature, asserting that “God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the Wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” [23:5-7].

Later, in expounding the virtues of doing what is right over what is safe, he insists that “the fear of death is the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretense of knowing the unknown” [29:6-9]. One might infer from this statement that the Socrates divides reality up into two categories, the knowable and the unknowable and assigns mortal knowledge to the former and divine wisdom to the latter. Whatever portion of the jury was present to pass judgment based on the merit of the arguments presented (a portion we are led to believe may have been quite small) might have found it difficult to acquit Socrates on the basis that no form of mortal wisdom exists whatsoever. By tying his fate into that philosophical argument instead of refuting the otherwise ridiculous charges he was facing, Socrates offers up his life as a wager that humanity (as represented by Athenians serving as his jury), when confronted with Truth about Wisdom, will recognize it as such and spare him accordingly. This makes for an excellent moment to recall that this is Plato, a masterful writer, creating a sympathetic fictional character based on someone well-known to the public. Socrates was dead before Plato began shaping even the first words of Apology and we must not ignore his influence on our interpretation of a foregone conclusion, namely Socrates’ execution.

As this trial is a capital trial, questions about Life and Death become progressively important; receiving at first only a few token acknowledgments in Socrates’ defense before taking greater precedence in the negotiation over his punishment and, finally, an almost central role in his capitulation to a sentence of death. It isn’t until Socrates is nearly finished with his defense when he describes the ideal life as one not wasting, “thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul” [30:8-12]. While cagey in his initial defense about precisely how one might enact said improvement or by what criteria it might be measured, Socrates elaborates further in his Penalty negotiation phase, noting that “daily discourse about virtue…is the greatest good of man and that the unexamined life is not worth living” [38:2-5].”

With the threat of a death sentence looming, Socrates is inspired to comment more directly on death and dying. Proclaiming the dignity of his defense at the expense of his freedom, Socrates exhorts the jury, explaining that the “difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness” [39:6-8]. Consoling those on the panel who voted against his conviction and then against the death penalty, Socrates mentions for the second time the presence of an inner oracle that tells him the difference between right and wrong. Though it is now obvious that he was fated to die, Socrates proclaims that his inner voice never once told him of an impending wrong, leading him to believe that “what has happened to me is a good and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error” [41:1-4]. It is only through the authority of his inner (perhaps divine) voice that Socrates is able to defend this claim as, by his own admission, what happens to us beyond death is unknowable and in his worldview, the province of divine wisdom and not mortal knowledge.

In surveying the two possibilities that his knowledge and his belief present, death is either a permanent and absolute unconsciousness (which he sees as akin to a good night’s sleep that never ends) or death is journey to a place where Divine wisdom reigns in place of its feeble mortal counterfeit. Both, in his humble estimation, seem alluring in comparison to the tragedy that has befallen him right here on Earth and Socrates resignedly accepts his sentence noting that “[t]he hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows” [42:3-5].

Plato’s account of Socrates’ final hours on Earth continue into Crito and Phaedo but it is the unique narrative qualities of Apology that makes it stand out among the three. By having Socrates address the jury (and thus the reader) directly, Apology enjoys an urgency quite unlike the greatest portion of Plato’s writing. It is a compelling story beyond its historical significance; a man of great virtue and careful deliberation arguing for his life against a government of laws that finds itself at odds with his socially subversive message. It is also a familiar story that we will hear again (in quadruplicate) in the Trial of Jesus before Pilate though Plato is, in nearly every way, a more reliable narrator than the authors of the Gospels. There is also a provocative parallel between Socrates and Plato and Paul and Jesus that can already be seen, from this vantage, in Apology. Socrates and Jesus were both informal teachers that, for whatever reason, disdained to write down their message in favor of transmitting it orally. There is little evidence that either man was illiterate so the decision to speak, rather than write can be assumed to be one of choice and not of necessity. In both cases, it was the hearsay nature of what they’d said and done, coupled with their unwillingness to argue for their life on the merits of the cases presented against them that doomed them both to execution. Finally, the only reason that we have the ability to ponder on the virtue of their lives and deaths today is because a writer seized upon the vacuum of permanence left by their oral teaching and bound it into written form for the ages. The precariousness of this transaction invites one to wonder how many other oral teachings, perhaps no less profound, perhaps no less transformative, never found a way to pen or chisel and remains suspended somewhere back there in time.