Socrates in the Underworld

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224 pages, 6" x 9", introduction, notes, index

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Socrates in the Underworld

On Plato's Gorgias

Ranasinghe, Nalin

This is the first full-length monograph to address the religious, ethical, and political dimensions of Plato’s Gorgias. The third longest and most serious dialogue has long been neglected because of the disconcerting moral and psychic demands it makes on its readers. Yet such a personal appropriation, equivalent to taking the uncanny daimon of Socrates back to one’s cave or body, is the key to understanding the philosopher’s paradoxical claim that nobody deliberately chooses to do evil. The dramatic action of the Gorgias shows how angry and insecure men can be led by demagogic rhetoric to perform violent and thoughtless deeds. The repeated performance of such actions has the effect of blinding their judgment to the extent that they truly know not what they do. Deliberately using the disastrous demagogue-driven Peloponnesian War as the backdrop for the Gorgias, Plato suggests that only Socrates practiced the true political art. This art seems to consist of undoing the insidious effects of rhetoric and making persons aware of the great potential for virtue and beauty present in their souls. Indeed, Socrates must be recognized as the discoverer of the human soul’s strange power to transcend mimetic coercion and physical necessity. Lacking this vital self-knowledge, men live like dead souls in Hades – ruled by slanderous stories and seductive shadows. The Gorgias gives us Plato’s fullest speculative re-construction of the worldview presupposed by Socrates’ ironic words and noble deeds.

Socrates’ model of the cosmos, as a four-fold interactive process between god and man, heaven and earth, is strikingly compatible with Pope Benedict’s call to reverse the “De-Hellenization” of Christianity and rescue the world from the twin threats of suicidal fanaticism and hedonistic materialism. Central to this task is a power first discovered in the Gorgias: the divine Logos. The miraculous harmony between human rational speech and the beauty of our natural habitat is menaced by the silent violence of technology and the imperatorial tones of a false voluntaristic god – a deity who never seeks to persuade but kills those he cannot frighten. Today, it is increasingly clear that Athens and Jerusalem must combine forces and march to the relief of civilization from the joint assault of these barbarisms – old and new. It is only fitting then, that the West should return to its Socratic origins at this crucial kairos.