Among other component parts, the Modern world is irreversibly marked by the heritage of the Enlightenment; this Enlightenment strain inclines people and cultures to a very fraught relationship with the accumulated goods of their own history. What is the relationship between these accumulated goods, goods that have roots, as well as a people’s having roots, and the kind of forward-looking freedom and rationality that our Enlightenment inheritance champions and promises? I love the Liberal project, and I love my several heritages, but the two, it must be admitted, live in a kind of tension.
It could be argued that part of the reason why America is a bastion of the Liberal project is because it is not located geographically in a place where ancestral identities call from the earth to stifle it; even without this, we are not always clear about how to engage with, or remember, events that we all share, such as September 11.
It saddens me that there are symptoms of people flirting with abandoning the Liberal project. Consumerist formation leaves us unfit to the task of negotiating a common identity that is not pre-packaged by others, certainly. More than this, the seeming escalation of terrorism (the most violent imposition of ancestral identity) and the amplification of xenophobia (the fear-driven in-group trend by which people huddle with some ethnos or heritage for comfort instead of negotiate shared identity) hammer at many Liberal polities at the moment. Quite alarmingly, some major figures have said that democracy is merely a train that one takes until one arrives at one’s destination, at which point one exits. The reader should find such comments frightening. Ergo, this post seemed to be warranted, for what little it’s worth.
Lying to Smuggle the Tradition-Hoard
There was a two-part article (Part 1 & Part 2) in the Road to Emmaus journal several years ago that, as I recall, detailed the trials that an Orthodox Christian community went through under Ottoman rule — and some of the tricks they employed to endure with their identity intact while it was still rather perilous, penalizable, to be openly Christian. As I recall the article, some lied and pretended to be Islamic so as to escape difficulties with the Islamic authorities, building (or delaying the building of) Mosques, chanting Christian hymns at safe hours among the adults behind closed doors, strictly observing the feasts and fasts in private, and keeping the children in the dark about all of this until they were old enough to keep the secret themselves. Again, if I recall correctly, there were situations in which the elites of other neighboring truly Islamic communities would try and arrange a marriage to the children of the faux-Islamic, crypto-Orthodox Christian community.
I mentioned this article to my friend John Bremer once, because of his interest in the ancient Greeks; my thought was that he would be interested in the fates of the heirs of the ancient Greeks under a regime that was not hospitable to them and their culture. I was surprised at his response: he was clearly saddened and disappointed at this duplicitous behavior of the Orthodox to escape Islamic penalties. “I’m sorry, but that’s simply dishonest”, he stated with a dismay that pained him to admit, just as it clearly pained him to hear the story. I’m not exactly sure what was behind this comment. I think he expected some Socratic heroism, such as we see in the Apology.
The Boston University professor David Roochnik, in his Teaching Company lecture on Plato’s Republic (available cheaper on Audible.com), notes that Plato’s Socrates is always quietly happy, and his happiness is stable. This is because Being is stable (or The-Good-Beyond-Being is stable), and Plato’s Socrates loves Being (or The-Good-Beyond-Being). No tyranny can undermine Being, or the Good. It simply is. It cannot be lost, for it holds sway over all things, determining them. (This joy is constant, despite Plato’s ultimate skepticism about the fate of political regimes and the destiny of most souls, who will eventually choose the tyrant’s life.)
Now, it might be said that the Christian idea of God is very much closer to the Platonic idea of the Good-beyond-being than the Homeric Greek idea of the gods as beings, so much so that they are not easy to distinguish casually. If the cult of the gods is left unattended, if the gods are not propitiated, it might spell disaster in the Homeric universe. Plato seems happy to revise the cults and the myths in light of the Good. It is difficult, to understate things, to imagine him fighting to preserve cultic rites. I ask the reader simply to grant the greater similarity between the Platonic Good and the Christian God than that between the Christian God and the Homeric gods. Still, even with this granted, this Socratic approach must still be strongly contrasted with the crypto-Orthodox Christians’ attempt to lie to protect the goods that are being kept by them under Ottoman rule — namely, their tradition.
This leads to a situation that could be seen as not unlike that of the now-elderly Cephalus from Book One of The Republic. Cephalus’ father had lost much of what he had inherited from Cephalus’ grandfather; Cephalus shows signs of worry that the wealth he has inherited, acquired, and accumulated will be snuffed out, and taken from him: Cephalus wants to leave his children with more than what he inherited. In Cephalus’ case, the ethical activity that entails upon having more is rapaciousness, avarice, even brutality (at least, when he was in his prime). One might suggest, that, in this Orthodox Christian community’s case, the ethical activity that follows from maintaining the tradition is not something that is attuned to being, but something that maintains these hoarded goods, and is willing to manipulate and lie to protect it. Fidelity to being, like fidelity to Christ, would seem, if we were to follow John’s brief comments, to demand honesty, regardless of the consequences — even if it brought one to the Hemlock, or to martyrdom, and the annihilation of the accumulated and carefully-preserved goods of one’s tradition, along with one’s community.
Socrates would never lie from this motive to preserve a historically contingent good. He has no need to. There is nothing he has to perpetuate that is not perpetually available. All tradition is subject to, and modified by, the interrogation of the dialectic, which does not die. Thus, the truth cannot die with Socrates. If he lies, it is to prod others into motion through half-true images or half-true answers, half-truths that are the only amount of truth that certain interlocutors are able to handle. He does not lie to protect something precious that he has, which might be lost forever if he does not protect it. I might ask whether the arts that he imagines in a community, however, are basic functions that emerge spontaneously anywhere that humans get together, or whether they are technical skills in the modern sense that need institutions to preserve, improve, and perhaps even perfect the arts via the deposited experience of generations. Certainly mathematics is known by recollection for Plato’s Socrates: it will not die out through a flood, so long as there are thinking beings. Political configurations can devolve, corrupt – but they cycle around, and return again. They are not pure historically accumulated contingencies. To read Plato through Plotinus (in a manner that I do not believe can be seriously contested): the Good, which holds sway, is not known by a historically-contingent disclosure; rather it is known everywhere, by all: in all things, it is implicit, and presented.
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