A piss-up with Socrates
Preparations are now apace for our TLS debate in Oxford tomorrow: would you accept a dinner invitation with Socrates? Beard, in case you didn’t already know/guess, is on the NO THANKS side (along with fellow sceptic Tom Holland). Those thinking that they would reply with a YES PLEASE are Oliver Taplin and MM McCabe.
I am already, I must confess, resigned to defeat. For a start I have never been known to win in debates like this (not enough punchy, simple , populist rhetoric??). I managed to lose when I was standing up for the Parthenon in a head to head with the Alhambra, championed by Robert Irwin. His pitch was that the Alhambra was very very beautiful indeed. Mine was that the Parthenon not only stood for the whole of western culture, having been pagan temple, church and mosque – but that it also affected us more qua ruin, than any complete building ever could. True – but not a winner in the rhetorical cut and thrust.
Then last year I managed to lose in the Greeks versus Romans debate at Cheltenham. I lost so badly in fact that the Greeks registered more votes at the end of the session than they did at the beginning. In other words my inventions actually lost the Romans some of the votes they already had. The problem is that Hellenophiles find it so easy to stand up and bang on about well springs/originary moments of Western culture: QED. (It is what I should have done when speaking for the Parthenon….)
So what am I going to say about Socrates?
Not sure yet (I write carefully, in case the opposition take a peek).
There’s obviously the points about the lack of women, the aggressive homosociality, the dreadful food and ghastly wine. Easy hits. Anyone with an eye to food would choose dinner with Trimalchio before dinner with Socrates. Then of course there is the dire political legacy…”Our” Socrates wasn’t a nice cuddly Western liberal.
But I think that I want to convict the man from as near to his own mouth as we can get. So my first port of call will be Xenophon’s Symposium – an account of dinner with Socrates that offers a different sort of anecdotage from the usual Platonic stuff.
I shall also be dipping into Emily Wilson’s book on The Death of Socrates – because she is more honest than most on what an irritating creature the old guru was.
But if anyone has got some particularly pointed darts that I might use, please let me know…as soon as possible, please!
I’m hoping by the way to get in the wonderful Monty Python ditty, the Philosophers Drinking Song . . “David Hume could out consume/ Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel./ And Wittgenstein was a beery swine/ who was just as sloshed as Schlegel…etc etc..” Its rousing finale is most memorable of all, and relevant to this occasion: “Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed;/ A lovely little thinker, but a bugger when he's pissed.”
I was so taken with this when I was a young lecturer in London (obviously already working up to tomorrow, without knowing it) that I once recounted it to Arnaldo Momigliano at dinner. He didn’t think it was half as funny as I did.