The Return of Socrates
The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion
By Peter Kreeft
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Review Author: John F. Maguire
In his Operetti Morali Giacomo Leopardi describes Socrates as having been “endowed with a very gentle temperament,” but as being “immeasurably ill-starred in his bodily form.” In Hellenic culture, a culture which had blended together the ideals of physical beauty and moral beauty, the misfortune of being disproportioned and “squat-faced,” as Socrates was, weighed heavily. And so it was that, born into a city “full of clamor, of passions, of business, of pastimes, of wealth and other good things,” this marginal, sharp-witted, equivocal Athenian “very likely even in his youth despaired of being loved.”
A eugenic question mark, Socrates compensated by becoming a master of conversation, a virtuoso of dialectics. (Thus was born Greek moral philosophy, from which modern moral philosophy arose.) Ironically, the playful but exacting spirit that animated Socrates in his probings ultimately resulted in his falling under the official judgment of his own — the ruling — class: Socrates, unwanted tumor in the body politic.
In the modern world as in the ancient, the spirit we have come to call, “socratic” is suppressed. Today most institutional forms of civil discourse preclude the socratic mode of dialogical inquiry. Besides, people don’t have the time. “However much more patient the moderns may be than the ancients were,” writes Leopardi, “one would find no one today prepared to answer a thousand questions without pause, and listen to a hundred conclusions.”
But, happily, now comes Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, who has in hand, yes, some new dialogues in which Socrates figures centrally — dialogues, as it happens, just recently tape-recorded, for it appears that Socrates — thanks, I guess, to the favor of the gods — has returned to his native city, once again to gossip, dawdle, pose questions, nettle, and provoke.
In contemporary Athens, however, Socrates (as Leopardi gave us reason to expect) has trouble getting a hearing. On one occasion as a guest at an international conference on law and morality, the sage of Atticus hears a speech in which the slogan “Every Child a Wanted Child” is bandied about. Of course Socrates wants to unpack the meaning of the terms “wanted” and “every child,” and so asks some questions from the floor, only to be told, stiffly, “We have a ten-minute time limit. Questioners are requested to confine their remarks to two minutes each.” “Ah,” says Socrates, “it is indeed as the myths say: Kronos is the cruelest of all tyrants.”
On another occasion Socrates wanders into an abortion clinic. An abortionist on the premises, after a long exchange of views with Socrates, allows that he does not know whether the fetus is a person or not. This confession of ignorance, he hopes, will pacify Socrates, for does not the height of socratic wisdom consist in knowing that one is ignorant? Does it not consist in the “dissolution of knowledge into nothingness,” an “absolute negativity,” as Kierkegaard thought? The answers is No: Kreeft’s Socrates, like Plato’s, “does not shelter — by means of irony’s disconcerting approach and perpetual denials — a joy of subjectivity conscious vanity of the world of objective knowledge freed of all hope of conquering the being of things,” as Jacques Maritain puts it. On the contrary, it is the actual being of the fetus that is the point of inquiry. The question of “is-ness,” as Kreeft’s Socrates calls it, is inescapable.
On the other hand, there exists a kind of carelessness with respect to the question of the being of the fetus (or unborn infant). “Let’s see,” says Socrates to H., the abortionist at the clinic, “You do not know whether the fetus is a person, correct?”
Socrates: “And your work here is to kill fetuses, correct?”
H.: “Socrates, I am continually shocked by the language you choose to use. I abort unwanted pregnancies.”
Socrates: “By killing fetuses or by something else?”
H.: (Sigh.) “By killing fetuses.”
Socrates: “Not knowing whether they are persons or not?”
Socrates is practicing here his distinctive art — maieutics, the art of delivering minds — but this for the moment only insofar as he wants to show that those who justify lethal interventions in the normal delivery process of pregnancy display an abandoned or reckless disinterest in the question of the ontological status of the fetus.
But Socrates goes on to put his maieutics to affirmative use. Against the proposition that a fetus is not a person because it is not rational, Socrates affirms a difference between being something and functioning as something. The human person, he points out, is that which functions (reasons); it is not this functionality itself. Nor is the human person identical to its genetic code; “the code is of or for something” — and this something is properly called the human person.
On the basis of this distinction between being and function, between person and life, Kreeft’s Socrates argues that “the fact that the fetus does not yet function as a person does not prove it is not a person.” It seems to me, however, that for the sake of precision Socrates should have argued that the fact that the fetus is not yet functioning rationally does not prove that it is not a person. In actual fact, there is a sense in which the fetus always functions as a person: as, precisely, a person in the fetal stage of development. Personality is the very being of the developing man; all human functions belong to the human person, because, as Kreeft and his Socrates say, it is the human person who properly is.
As drama, Kreeft’s dialogues are not high poetry. The decision to call one of the discussants (the abortionist I have called “H.”) “Doctor Rex Herrod” (intentionally spelled thus by Kreeft) is a mistake both dramaturgically and philosophically. Truly Herodian men are beyond dialogue, as Martin Buber once said of Hitler and his ilk; against them, we turn to the weapon of prophetic denunciation.
This leads me, however, to speak of a point at which socratic rationalism seems to be wanting in caution. It elides the element of malice. It tends to reduce morality to knowledge, with the upshot that it is assumed that every fault comes from ignorance. Malice, as I say, is missed. It is possible, I am saying, that one’s heart can be too hardened to participate in dialogue. It seems that today’s Herodian slaughter of the innocents involves something more than intellectual blindness.
An intriguing book, Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates is easy reading. Most of the arguments for and against abortion find their way into the dialogues. The tyrant Kronos will not waste away the reader who ponders these exchanges.
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