Socratic Citizenship: Plato’s ‘Apology’ and ‘Crito’

Marble statue of Socrates, Athens / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Steven B. Smith / 09.15.2006
Alfred Cowles Professor of Government and Philosophy
Yale University

Important Links:

The Apology


The Apology


We start with Plato’s Apology of Socrates. This is the best introductory text to the study of Political Philosophy. Why? Let me give you two reasons. First, it shows Socrates, the reputed founder of our discipline, the founder of Political Science, and I will say a little bit more about that later on today, explaining himself and justifying himself, justifying his way of life before a jury of his peers. It shows Socrates speaking in a public forum, defending the utility of philosophy for political life. And, secondly, the Apology demonstrates also the vulnerability of political philosophy in its relation to the city, in its relation to political power. The Apology puts on trial not merely a particular individual, Socrates, but puts on trial the very idea of philosophy. From its very beginnings, philosophy and the city, philosophy and political life, have stood in a sort of tension with one another. Socrates is charged, as we will see, by the city for corrupting the youth and impiety toward the Gods, right? In other words, he’s accused of treason, a high capital offense. No other work of which I am aware helps us better think through the conflict. I would even say, the necessary and inevitable conflict, between the freedom of the mind and the requirements of political life. Are these two things, are these two goods as it were, freedom of mind and political life, are they compatible or are they necessarily at odds with one another? That seems to me to be, in some ways, the fundamental question that the Apology asks us to consider. Okay?

Portrait replica of John Stuart Mill by George Frederic Watts, oil on canvas, 1873 / National Portrait Gallery, London

Now for generations, the Apology has stood out as a symbol for the violation of free expression. It sets the case for the individual committed to the examined life over and against a bigoted and prejudiced multitude. The clearest statement of this view of, again, the individual set against the mob in some ways, is found in a work of a very famous civil libertarian of the nineteenth century, a man named John Stuart Mill. In his famous tract called simply On Liberty, Mill wrote, “Mankind can hardly be too often reminded that there was once a man named Socrates between whom and the legal authorities of his time there took place a memorable collision.” Over and again, and Mill is a kind of a famous case of this, Socrates has been described as a martyr for freedom of speech and he has been somewhat extravagantly compared at various times to Jesus, to Galileo, to Sir Thomas More and has been used as a role model for thinkers and political activists from Henry David Thoreau, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King. So, Socrates has become a very central symbol of political resistance and resistance to political power, and, of the dangers to the individual of unchecked rule.

But, this reading of the Apology as you might say, is a kind of brief for freedom of expression and a warning against the dangers of censorship and persecution. Although this has been enormously influential over the centuries, at least over the last century and a half, you have to ask yourself: is this the reading that Plato intended? Did Plato want us to read the dialogue this way? As a teacher of mine used to say, “You read Plato your way, I’ll read him his way.” But, how did Plato intend this dialogue to be understood? Note that Socrates never defends himself by reference to the doctrine of unlimited free speech. He doesn’t make that claim. He doesn’t make the claim about the general utility of freedom or unlimited speech. Rather, he maintains as he puts it near the end of the defense speech, that the examined life is alone worth living. Only those, in other words, engaged in the continual struggle to clarify their thinking, to remove sources of contradiction and incoherence, only those people can be said to live worthwhile lives. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates confidently, defiantly asserts to his listeners, to his audience. Nothing else matters for him.

His, in other words seems to be a highly personal, in many ways, highly individual quest for self perfection and not a doctrine about the value of freedom of speech in general. But, even though you might say, Socrates seems to be engaged in, again, this highly personal quest for self perfection, there is something, which one can’t avoid, deeply political about the Apology and about his teaching. At the heart of the dialogue or at the heart of this speech rather is a quarrel, a quarrel with his accusers over the question, never stated directly perhaps, but over the question of who has the right to educate future citizens and statesmen of the city of Athens. Socrates’s defense speech, like every platonic dialogue, is ultimately a dialogue about education. Who has the right to teach, who has the right to educate? This is in many ways for Socrates the fundamental political question of all times. It is the question of really who governs or maybe put another way, who should govern, who ought to govern.

Remember also that the city that brought Socrates to trial was not just any city, it was a peculiar kind of city, it was Athens. And Athens was, until only fairly recent times in human history, the most famous democracy that ever existed. I say fairly recent times until, you know, the American democracy. But it was, until at least the eighteenth or nineteenth century, the most famous democracy that ever existed. The speech of Socrates before the jury is perhaps the most famous attempt to put democracy itself on trial. It is not merely Socrates who is on trial. Socrates intends to put the democracy of Athens itself on trial. Not only does the Apology force Socrates to defend himself before the city of Athens, but Socrates puts the city of Athens on trial and makes it defend itself before the high court of philosophy. So, the ensuing debate within the dialogue can be read as a struggle again over who has title to rule. Is it the people? Is it the court of Athens, the d?mos, to use the Greek word for “the people,” or is it Socrates the philosopher-king who should be vested with ultimate political authority? That is, of course, the quest and it’s taken up in a very vivid way, much more explicit way in the Republic, but it runs throughout the Apology and you can’t really understand the Apology unless you see that this is the question that Socrates is posing throughout.

Political Context of the Dialogue

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787, oil on canvas / Metropolitan Museum, New York

I want to talk a little bit about the political context of this dialogue. One can of course read, there’s nothing wrong with reading the Apology, again, as a kind of enduring symbol of the plight of the, you might say, the just individual confronted with an unjust mob, or an unjust political rule. It’s, again, a question that Plato takes up in the Republic when a character in the book named Glaucon who happens to be, as it were, the brother of Plato, asks Socrates if it is actually better to be just or simply to have the reputation for justice? And Socrates says it is better to be just, even if that results in persecution and death. But the trial is not, again, just an enduring symbol of justice versus injustice, it is an actual historical event that takes place in a particular moment of political time and this bears, I think, decisively on how we come to understand the case both for and against Socrates.

Let me talk a little bit about that context. The trial of Socrates takes place in the year 399 and all of these refer to before the common era, 399. Some of you will know that that trial follows very quickly upon the heals of the famous Peloponnesian War. This was the war related by Socrates’s slightly older contemporary, a man named Thucydides who wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War, a war that took place between the two great powers of the Greek world between the Spartans and their allies and Athens and its allies. The Athens that fought this war against Sparta was an Athens at the height of its political power and prestige under the leadership of its first citizen Pericles, whose name is also up there at the very top. Under Pericles, Athens had built the famous Acropolis. It had established Athens as a mighty and redoubtable naval power and it created an unprecedented level of artistic and cultural life, even today known simply as Periclean Athens.

But Athens was also something completely unprecedented in the world, it was a democracy. And, again, even today the expression “Athenian democracy” connotes an ideal of the most complete form of democratic government that has ever existed. “We are the school of Hellas.” This is what Pericles boasts to his listeners in the famous funeral oration told by Thucydides. “We throw our city open to the world and never exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning and observing, even though the eyes of an enemy may profit from our liberality,” Pericles boasts once again. The question maybe you want to ask about this is how could the world’s first freest and most open society sentence to death a man who spoke freely about his own ignorance and professed to care for nothing so much as virtue and human excellence? Now, at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates was just under 40 years of age. And, we learned from the speech that Socrates himself served in the military and served in defense of his country. The war, the Peloponnesian War, was fought as you can see over a considerable length of time, on and off for almost a period of 30 years and was concluded in the year 404 with the defeat of Athens, the installing of a pro-Spartan oligarchy, a pro-Spartan regime known simply as the Thirty Tyrants who ruled Athens for a year. The next year, 403, the Tyrants, The Thirty as they were called, were driven out and a democratic government was once again reestablished in Athens.

Just three years later, three men named Anytus, Meletus and Lycos, all of whom had been part of the democratic resistance movement against the Spartan oligarchy, brought charges against Socrates. The charges against him were: corrupting the young and disbelieving in the Gods that the city believes in. So, you can see that the charges were brought by people who were themselves, again, part of a democratic resistance movement and the names of Anytus and Meletus as you’ve read, you know, appear in the speech itself. So, the charges brought against Socrates did not simply grow out of thin air. Maybe we should rephrase the question. Not why did the Athenians bring Socrates to trial? But, why did they permit him to carry on his practice of challenging the law and the authority of the law for as long as they did? Okay? Add to this the fact that when Socrates was brought to trial again, the democracy had only recently been reestablished but that many friends and former students of Socrates had been themselves implicated in the rule of the hated Thirty Tyrants.

Among the members of The Thirty was a man named Critias, and there’s actually a platonic dialogue named after him, a man named Critias, who was a relative of Plato’s and another man named Charmides whose name is also the title of a platonic dialogue, Charmides who is Plato’s uncle. Plato himself, he tells us much later in life in his famous Seventh Letter, Plato himself was invited by his relatives to help to form a part of the government of The Thirty and later Plato said, “That so abhorrent did they become that they made the older democracy look like the Golden Age.” So, the point I’m suggesting is that many of Socrates’ students and associates, including Plato himself, had some connection with this oligarchical government that had ruled Athens for a brief time. And, Socrates was himself not above suspicion. We often, don’t we even today yes, we often judge teachers by their students, by the company they keep, yes, don’t we? No one is above suspicion. Socrates himself had been a close associate of a man named Alcibiades, probably the most prominent Athenian in the generation after Pericles. Alcibiades was the man who engineered the disastrous Sicilian expedition and later ended his life as a defector going to Sparta. His complex relationship with Socrates is, by the way, recounted in the drunken speech that Alcibiades gives in Plato’s dialogue, Symposium.

So, you can see that the trial of Socrates, the little speech that you have read, takes place in the shadow of military defeat, of resistance, of conspiracy and betrayal. Socrates was 70 years old at the time of the trial. So, this was a highly charged political environment. Far more volatile than for example the kind of partisan quarrels we see today in our republic, I hope. Okay?

Accusations Leveled Against Socrates

Bust of Aristophanes, 4th-1st century BCE / Uffizi Gallery, Florence

So, let me talk about the accusations, let me move from the political context of the speech to the accusations. And, I say accusations because there, as you read, if you read closely you will see there were actually two sets of accusations leveled against Socrates. Early in the speech Socrates claims that his current accusers Anytus and Meletus, again, the democratic resistance fighters, the charges they have brought against him are themselves the descendants of an earlier generation of accusers who were responsible for, he claims, maligning and creating an unfavorable prejudice against Socrates. “These charges are not new,” he tells the jury, and many members of the jury, he says, will have formed an unfavorable opinion about him. This was the day before there were intense forms of jury selection, where they would ask people: “Do you have a view of the case?” Many of the jurors would have known Socrates, or certainly would have heard of him and, he says, would have had already an unfavorable opinion formed about him by this earlier generation of accusers.

Reference he makes to a comic poet, yes, a comic poet, an unequivocal reference to the playwright Aristophanes, whose name I have put up on the board. Aristophanes is the one who created the original or the initial prejudice against Socrates. What was that prejudice that Aristophanes, this comic poet, had created? The allusion to Aristophanes and the comic poet is a part of what Plato calls in Book X of the Republic, the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. This quarrel is a staple of Plato’s dialogues, is a central theme, not only of the Symposium in which Aristophanes and Socrates are actually shown at the same dinner table with one another. But, it is also a key feature of the Republic which we will be reading in a week, where Socrates offers an elaborate proposal for the censorship and control of poetry, if it is to be made compatible with the demands of political justice. In fact, in a way you cannot understand the Republic unless you understand the poetic backdrop to it and Socrates’s long standing engagement with the poetic tradition and this back and forth between himself and the man he calls this comic poet.

The core of this quarrel between the philosopher and the poet, between Socrates and Aristophanes is not just an aesthetic judgment or it is not simply an aesthetic quarrel it is, again, deeply political or at least has something very political about it. It gets to the essence of the question of who is best equipped to educate future generations of citizens and civic leaders. Are the philosophers or are the poets, you might say, the true legislators for mankind, if you want to use Shelley’s dictum? Which one legislates for mankind at the time of Socrates? The Greeks already had a century’s long tradition of poetic education, going back centuries to the time of Homer and Hesiod that set out certain exemplary models of heroic virtue and civic life. The Homeric epics were to the Greek world what the Bible is to our world that is to say, in some respects the ultimate authority, regarding the way of the Gods, their relation to the world and the type of virtues appropriate to human beings. The virtues endorsed by the poetic tradition of which Aristophanes is the great representative here, the great inheritor and representative, the virtues of this tradition were the virtues of a warrior culture, of war-like peoples and men at war. These were the qualities that had guided the Greeks for centuries and contributed to their rise to power. It contributed to Athens’ as well as Sparta’s rise to greatness from a small dispersed people, to a great world power and, again, allowed them to achieve a level of artistic, intellectual and political accomplishment akin to Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England and Thirties Weimar.

So, what is at stake in this quarrel between Socrates and the poetic tradition that he alludes to? First, Socrates’s manner of teaching is markedly different from the poets, right? Does anyone know here the opening line of the Iliad? Homer’sIliad, does anyone know the first line? Anyone remember that from high school? “Sing Goddess the wrath of Achilles,” right? “Sing Goddess the wrath of Achilles.” The poets are oracular, right? They call on Gods and Goddesses to inspire them with song, to fill them with inspiration to tell stories of people with super-human strength and courage and anger. By contrast, you could say, the method of Socrates is not oracular. It is not story telling; it is conversational, it is argumentative, if you want to use the word he applies to it, it is dialectical. Socrates makes arguments and he wants others to engage with him, to discover which argument can best withstand the test of rational scrutiny and debate. There are no arguments in Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey. You hear strong and compelling stories but no arguments. Socrates makes, in other words, continual questioning and not the telling of stories and the recitation of verses, the essence of this new political education. He questions the methods of teaching of the poets.

But, secondly, again, Homer and the poets sing the virtues of men at war. Socrates wants to replace the warrior citizen with a new kind of citizen, a whole new set, you might say, of citizen virtues. The new Socratic citizen, let’s call him that for a moment, the new Socratic citizen may have some features in common with the older Homeric warrior. But, Socrates ultimately wants to replace military combat with a new kind of, you might call it, verbal facility, verbal combat, in which again the person with the best argument is declared to be victorious. The person with the best argument, let the best argument prevail. The famed Socratic method of argumentation is basically all that remains of the older pre-Socratic culture of struggle and combat. The new Socratic citizen is to be trained in the art of argument and dialectic, and we will talk a little later about what that means.

Clouds: Debunking Socrates’s New Model of Citizenship

Engraving of a scene from Aristophanes’ Old Comedy play ‘The Clouds’ in which two of the characters speak while Socrates hangs in a basket in the air, 1564 / Public Domain

So, it is a challenger to the poets and all they stand for, the century-long tradition of poetic education that Socrates asserts himself, that Socrates presents himself. The Apology shows Socrates as offering a new model of citizenship, a new kind of citizen. His challenge to the poets is in a way the basis for the resentment that is built up against him, in that Aristophanes and what he calls the earlier accusers have brought to bear. In fact, you might say, so seriously was Socrates taken by Aristophanes and the poets, that Aristophanes devoted an entire play, he wrote an entire play, about Socrates called the Clouds, devoted to debunking and ridicule Socrates’s profession of learning. Aristophanes’ play sometimes is even included in certain editions of the book you’re reading, like this one, it has the edition of Aristophanes’Clouds in it, along with the Apology and Crito. The existence of that play shows to all of us just how seriously Socrates was taken by the greatest of his contemporaries and Aristophanes was, along with Sophocles and Euripides and others, among the greatest of the Greek playwrights. The mockery, you might say, mockery of Socrates, remains one of the sincerest forms of flattery; they took him very seriously.

Let me just say something about the Clouds, this comic play, this satire on Socrates, because it is part of that initial accusation that Socrates says is leveled against him. Here, Aristophanes presents Socrates as an investigator, and this is part of the first charge, remember an investigator of the things aloft and the things under the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger. That’s the argument that Socrates says Aristophanes brings against him. In this play, Socrates is presented as the head, the leader, the director of what we might think of as the first think tank known to human history. It’s called in the play itself the Phrontisterion which means, or is sometimes translated as the Thinkery or the Thinketeria or simply a kind of think tank where fathers, Athenian fathers, bring their sons to be indoctrinated into the mysteries of Socratic wisdom. And in the play Socrates is shown hovering, flying above the stage in a basket in order to be able to better observe the clouds, the things aloft, right? But, also in many ways symbolizing Socrates’, at least on the Aristophanes’ account, Socrates’s detachment from the things down here on earth, the things that concern his fellow citizens. Socrates is a kind of what in German people would call Luftmensch. He’s a man up in the air, you know, he’s so detached, he doesn’t have his feet on the ground.

And Socrates is shown not only mocking the Gods in doing this, but he is shown by Aristophanes to teach incest and to teach all of the things that violate every decent, human taboo–incest, the beating of one’s parents, all these kinds of things. Socrates is presented as exhibiting kind of a corrosive skepticism which is at the core of Aristophanes’ charge against him. To make a long story short, the play concludes with Socrates’s think tank being burned to the ground by a disgruntled disciple. An object lesson for all later professors, I would say, who teach nonsense [chuckles]. Right? Don’t get any ideas. Take a match to the department. So, how accurate is that picture of Socrates, the man who investigates the things aloft and the things under the ground? The Clouds was written in 423 when Socrates was in his mid-forties and the Aristophanic Socrates is essentially what we call a natural philosopher. Again, investigating the things aloft, under the ground. He is what we would call today a scientist, a natural scientist. But, this seems quite removed, doesn’t it, from the Socrates who is brought up on charges of corrupting the young and the impiety in the Apology.

The Famous Socratic “Turn”; Socrates’s Second Sailing

Ruins at Delphi / Wikimedia Commons

And here is where Socrates actually tells the story, very important in the course of this speech; he provides a kind of intellectual biography of an incident that occurred long before the trial and set him on a very different path. He recalls the story, don’t you remember, of a man named Charephon, a friend of his, who had gone to the Oracle of Delphi, and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates and was told there was not. Socrates tells us that when he was told this he expressed disbelief in the Oracle. He didn’t believe it and in order to disprove the Oracle’s statement, he says he began a lifelong quest to find someone wiser than himself. A quest, in the course of which lead him to interrogate the politicians, the poets, the craftsmen, all people reputed to be knowledgeable, and his conversations lead him to ask questions, not about natural scientific phenomena, but questions about the virtues, as he tells us, the virtues of a human being and a citizen, what we would call today perhaps moral and political questions.

That incident that Socrates tells here represents what one could call the famous Socratic turn, Socrates’s second sailing so to speak. It represents the moment in the life of Socrates where he turns away from the investigation of natural phenomena to the study of the human and political things, the moral and political things. The Delphic story for what it’s worth marks a major turning point in Socrates’s intellectual biography. The move from the younger, we could call him, Aristophanic Socrates, the Socrates who, again, investigates the things aloft and under the earth, to the later, what we could call platonic Socrates. The founder of political science, Socrates is the founder of our discipline who asks about the virtues of moral and political life. Socrates’s account of this turn, this major turn in his life and career, leaves a lot of questions unanswered, that maybe even occurred to you as you were reading this dialogue, reading this speech. Why does he turn away from the investigation of natural phenomena to the study of human and political things? The Delphic Oracle is interpreted by Socrates, at least to command engaging with others in philosophical conversation. Why does he interpret it this way? Why does this seem the proper interpretation to engage in these kinds of conversations?

It is this Socrates who is brought up on charges of corruption and impiety, yet none of this quite answers the question of what is the nature of Socrates’s crime. What did he do? What did corruption and impiety mean? To try to answer those questions we would have to look a little bit at what is meant by this new kind of Socratic citizen. Who is this citizen? The charges brought against Socrates by Anytus and Meletus we see are not the same exactly as those brought against him by Aristophanes, the comic poet. Anytus and Meletus talk about impiety and corruption, not investigating the things aloft and making the weaker argument the stronger. What do these terms mean? Impiety and corruption, in what sense are these civic offenses? What could impiety have meant to his audience and his contemporaries? At a minimum, we would think the charge of impiety suggests disrespect of the gods. Impiety need not be the same thing as atheism, although Meletus confuses the two, but it does suggest irreverence even blasphemy toward the things that a society cares most deeply about. Yes? To be impious is to disrespect those things a person or a society cares most deeply about. When people today, for example, refer to flag burning as a desecration, as desecrating the flag they are speaking the language of impiety, right. They are speaking the language of some kind of religious or quasi-religious desecration. Meletus, whose name in Greek actually means care, accuses Socrates of not caring properly for the things that his fellow citizens care about. So, the question is: “What does Socrates care about”? What does he care about?

Consider the following: every society, which we know, operates within the medium of belief or faith of some kind. Take our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, all men are created equal, that we are endowed with inalienable rights that all legitimate government grows out of consent and the like. These beliefs form something like a kind of national creed, you might say, American, national creed, what it means to be an American and not someone else. Yet, how many people could give a kind of reasoned account of what makes these beliefs true, or what grounds these beliefs? Most of us, most of the time, hold these beliefs as a matter of faith, as a matter of belief, because we have learned about them from childhood, because they were written by Thomas Jefferson or some other reputed high authority. To question those beliefs would seem to exhibit a kind of lack of civic faith, faith in our ruling opinions. In short you might say a lack of civic piety or respect.

Socrates clearly believes that piety or faith is the natural condition of the citizen. Every society, no matter of what kind requires a kind of faith in its ruling principles, in its fundamental beliefs. But belief seems to be threatened from at least two sources. One is simple disbelief or unbelief, a kind of rejection of ruling opinion simply because you don’t like it. You know, when you see the bumper sticker on the car “Question Authority,” this kind of rejection of ruling opinion. But the other source of conflict with ruling opinion is from philosophy. Philosophy is not the same thing as simple disbelief or rejection, but the two can be easily confused. Philosophy grows out of a desire to replace opinion with knowledge, opinion or belief with reason. For philosophy, it is not enough simply to hold a belief on faith, but one must be able to give a rational account, a reasoned account for one’s belief, its goal again is to replace civic faith with rational knowledge. And, therefore, philosophy is necessarily at odds with belief and with this kind of civic faith. The citizen may accept certain beliefs on faith because he or she is attached to a particular kind of political order or regime. But, for the philosopher this is never enough. The philosopher seeks to judge those beliefs in the light of true standards, in the light of what is always and everywhere true as a quest for knowledge.

There is a necessary and inevitable tension between philosophy and belief, or to put it another way, between philosophy and the civic pieties that hold the city together. From this point of view, I want to say, was Socrates guilty of impiety? On the face of it, the answer to that seems yes. Socrates does not care about the same thing his fellow citizens care about. His opening words to the jury seem to convey this, “I,” he says, “am simply foreign to the manner of speech here.” This seems to be a statement of his alienation or disaffection from the concerns of his fellow Athenians. I know nothing about what you do or what you care about. Yet it certainly doesn’t seem right to say that Socrates does not care at all. He claims to care deeply, perhaps more deeply than anyone has ever cared around him, before or since. And among the things he cares deeply about, he says, is this calling to do nothing as he says “To do nothing but persuade you, both younger and older, not to care for bodies and money, but, how your soul will be in the best possible condition.” That concern with the state of one’s soul, he tells the jury, has lead him not only to impoverish himself, but to turn himself away from the public business, from the things that concern the city to the pursuit of private virtue.

And, here are the words of his that I want to leave you with today from section 31d of the Apology. Socrates writes, “This is what opposes my political activity. And, its opposition seems to me to be all together noble for know well, men of Athens, if I had long ago attempted to be politically active I would long ago have perished and I would benefited neither you nor myself. Now do not be vexed with me when I speak the truth. For there is no human being who will preserve his life if he genuinely opposes either you or any other multitude and prevents many unjust and unlawful things from happening in the city.” Rather, he says, “if someone who really fights for justice is going to preserve himself even for a short time, it is necessary for him to lead a private, rather than a public life.” Think about that, if someone who really fights for justice is going to preserve himself, it is necessary for him to lead a private, not a public life. How are we to understand Socrates’s claim that the pursuit of justice requires him to turn away from public to private life? What is this new kind of citizen, again, concerned with this kind of private virtue, this concern for the virtue of one’s soul?


Was Socrates Guilty or Innocent?

You should ponder the following question: Do you believe Socrates was innocent and should be acquitted, or do you believe he was guilty and more or less got what he deserved?

The Socratic Citizen

Socrates stood before a jury of 500 people at his trial / Wikimedia Commons

I want to explore what the trial of Socrates means and I want to begin by going back to a problem or a paradox that I ended the class with last time. That is to say that Socrates proposes, right, a new conception of what it is to be a citizen, he opposes, we have seen, the traditional, you might say Homeric conception, of the citizen, certain notions of citizen loyalty and patriotism, created, shaped by the poetic tradition going back to Homer. He wants to replace that with a new kind of, I want to call it rational citizenship, philosophical citizenship. A view of citizenship that, again, relies on one’s own powers of independent reason and judgment and argument and in the course of defending this point of view, Socrates says, in an interesting passage, that he has spent his entire life pursuing private matters rather than public ones and has deliberately avoided public issues, issues of politics and that raises a question. How can a citizen, how can this new kind of citizenship that he is proposing, how can any kind of citizenship be devoted just to private matters and not public?

Citizenship seems to require even the public sphere, the public realm. What does Socrates mean when he says his way of life has been devoted almost exclusively to private rather than to public matters? Well, the first thing we might think about is whether that’s entirely true, whether he’s being entirely candid with his audience; after all, the kind of investigations, the kind of interrogations that he has been pursuing since going to the Delphic Oracle and then following at least his interpretation of its mandate, these investigations of the politicians, the poets, the craftsman and the like. He says these have been carried out in public, he has gone around in the market and in the open and in the public forum questioning, interrogating and obviously making a variety of people look foolish. So this is hardly simply a private question or a private way of life but perhaps he means simply that by pursuing a private life that again he’s going to rely almost exclusively on his own individual powers of reason and judgment, not to defer or rely on such public goods as custom, as authority, as tradition, things of this sort. But I think Socrates means more than that, more than simply he wishes to rely on the powers of private individual judgment.

When he says that his way of life has been private, he means that he has pursued a policy of, let’s call it “the principled abstinence from public life.” Socrates is a great abstainer, he has abstained from participation in the collective actions of the city, actions that he believes could only entail a complicity in acts of public injustice. His own motto, if you want to ascribe him a motto, seems to be a variety of the Hippocratic Oath, you know, that doctors are famous for: “do no harm.” And to do no harm he has required of himself a kind of principled abstention from public life. If George Bush described himself not long ago as the decider, you might call Socrates the abstainer. But what does he mean by or what do I mean by referring to his policies of abstention from political life? Do you remember he gives a couple of examples of this sort? One of them, remember, concerned his refusal to join in the judgment to condemn and execute the ten Athenian generals who had failed to collect the corpses, the bodies, of the men lost in a particular battle during the Peloponnesian War? This was a mark of great shame and disgrace. This was an actual event. There was a kind of judgment of collective guilt and they were all executed there, the leaders, the generals of this particular battle and Socrates tells how he refused to engage in that kind of–to join the court in the judgment of their collective guilt, a true incident.

The second story was reminding the jury how he refused to participate. He was ordered by the Thirty, the hated Tyranny of the Thirty, he was ordered to assist in the arrest of a man known as Leon of Salamis, an arrest that would have and did in fact lead to Leon’s execution and Socrates tells how he at considerable risk to himself refused to participate in the arrest of this man. In both of these cases, I take it, Socrates’s point is that his own individual moral integrity stands as a kind of litmus test, you might say, for whether to engage or disengage from political life. “I was the sort of man,” he tells the jury, “I was the sort of man who never conceded anything to anyone contrary to what is just,” no doubt also reminding them of his, again, his refusal to bow to the Thirty Tyrants in the case of Leon of Salamis.

Principled Disobedience to the Law

Henry David Thoreau, photograph from a ninth-plate daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856 / Wikimedia Commons

But this raises, I think, the central or a central point about Socratic citizenship or Socrates’s view of citizenship, this kind of principled disobedience to the law, something like Thoreau’s model of civil disobedience. Does this policy of principled disobedience, you might say vindicate or indict Socrates of the charge of corruption and impiety that has been brought against him? Can a citizen he affirms, I will ask though, can a citizen put his own conscience above the law as Socrates seems to do? This is a problem that we will see considerably later in the term that vexes a very important political thinker by the name of Hobbes about whether an individual can somehow put their own sense of conscience or moral integrity even above the law.

What would a community of Socratic citizens look like, each one picking and choosing, you might say, the laws or the rules to obey or to follow or not to follow. Socrates is so concerned, it seems, with his individual, his private moral integrity that he says in a sense to the city of Athens, to the court, to the Athens, to the Assembly or the courts that he will not dirty his hands with public life and again this is a question that we will see later on that Machiavelli takes very seriously–the question of whether or not politics, political life requires one to dirty one’s hands in the world. What kind of citizen is it, is he or she who abstains from, maybe even rejects, the harsh necessities, requirements of political life? Socrates seems to be in some respects an example of what Hegel in the nineteenth century described as a beautiful soul, you know, someone who and he used that term ironically I should say, someone who puts their own private moral incorruptibility above all else and we all probably know or have read about people like this.

How does Socrates answer these charges of, in a way being not just an abstainer but he kept putting his own private moral conscience or integrity over and above the law? He tries to defend his point of view by arguing in a famous passage that his policy of abstinence actually carries important benefits to the city. He brings with it important benefits and in the passage that I’m referring to, he defines himself as a gadfly, everyone will remember that, the gadfly who improves the quality of life in the city. In section 30d, Socrates writes, let me read the passage. “So I, men of Athens are now too far from making a defense speech on my own behalf, I do it rather,” he says, ” on your behalf. What I say, I say for you,” he appears to say, “so that you do not do something wrong concerning the gift of the god,” referring to himself, “the gift of the god by voting to condemn me. For if you kill me,” he continues, “you will not easily discover another of my sort who even if it is rather ridiculous to say so, has simply been set upon the city by the god as though upon a great and well-born horse who is rather sluggish because of his great size and needs to be awakened by some gadfly. Just so in fact the god seems to me to have set me upon the city as someone of this sort. I awaken and persuade and reproach each one of you and I do not stop settling down everywhere upon you the whole day.” So here we have the example of Socrates telling us not only declaring himself to be the gift of the god who is brought but he is a great benefactor of the city, that his example of the man, of individual moral conscience, brings with it great, as it were, public benefits. It is not on his behalf, he tells the audience, but yours, his fellow citizens’ that he does what he does.

“You may not like me,” he says to the jury, “but I am good for you and furthermore he claims in this what can only be described as sort of quasi-religious language that he has no choice in the matter. This is not something he has chosen to do. He is, as he says a gift from the god, he has been commanded, he argues, to do this. “Men of Athens,” he says, “I will obey the god rather than you and as long as I breathe and am able to do so, I will certainly not stop philosophizing.” He seems to envelope himself and his way of life with a kind of religious imagery, the Delphic Oracle, the gift of the god image, he envelopes his conception of citizenship within this religious language and this will or should lead any reader of the Apology and any reader of Plato to ask an important question about Socrates’s use of this language. We will see it again in different ways in the Republic. Is he sincere in saying this, in making this point or his he somehow being ironical in his use of the religious tone or the religious register? He is, after all, on trial for his life, for the charge of impiety. Would it not seem that in order to rebut the charge of impiety that he would use or adopt a kind of religious language that would resonate with the jury and rebut the accusation, perhaps even suggesting that he is the truly religious and pious one and not the ones like Anytus and Meletus who are bringing charges against him?

Socrates seems, or could be seen, to be speaking not just ironically but provocatively in describing himself as a gift of the god. In a sense, you might ask what could be more ludicrous, Socrates declaring himself or anyone declaring themselves to be a gift of the divine. But, right, who would make such a claim? But in another respect he seems to take the divine calling very seriously, right, I mean does he not? It was only when the Delphic Oracle replied to Charephon, he tells that story, that no one was wiser than Socrates, that Socrates undertook this second sailing as it were, his turn away from the investigation of purely natural phenomena to the study of the world of moral virtue and justice. He repeatedly maintains that the path he has taken is not of his own choosing but the result of a divine command. He is under some kind of divine edict and it is precisely his devotion to this divine command, to this particular kind of calling that has led him to neglect his worldly affairs. He reminds, at various points, the audience of his extreme poverty, his neglect of his family and his obligations to his wife and children as well as to suffer the disgrace and the abuse that is directed against him by various public figures, he tells us. All of this is the result of his devotion to the divine command. He presents himself, in other words, as a human being of unparalleled piety and devotion who will risk life itself rather than quit the post that has been given to him. It’s a very tall order that he claims for himself.

Do we believe him in this respect, I mean an important question, do we believe him again, is he being sincere in this or is he using this as it were a kind of rhetoric with which to envelope himself? What is this peculiar kind of piety that he claims to practice? In many ways, in replying to the jury’s verdict in the request that he cease philosophizing, Socrates explains himself in the following terms. Let me just quote one other passage briefly from the second speech that he gives to the jury after his conviction. “It is hardest of all to persuade you, to persuade some of you about this,” he says, about his way of life. “For if I say that this is to disobey the god and because of this it is impossible to keep quiet, you will not be persuaded by me on the grounds that I am being ironic. And on the other hand,” he says, “if I say that this even happens to be a very great good for a human being that is to make speeches every day about virtue and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, you will still less be persuaded by me.” In other words, what he seems to be saying in that passage at around 37c and d is that he realizes he is on the horns of a dilemma.

On the one hand, he says, his reference to a divine mission, he explicitly says there, will be taken by his audience as being just another instance of Socratic irony and insincerity. But, he says, if he tries to persuade people of the goodness and the justice of his way of life on simply rational grounds alone, to persuade them that the examined life alone is worth living, he says he will not be believed. So, what you might say is a Socratic citizen to do, he will either be accused of being ironic and not be believed or he will simply be disbelieved if he attempts to defend himself on rational or philosophical grounds. That raises the question, I think, that I began the class with today. Should Socrates be tolerated, would a good society tolerate Socrates? This is the question raised by this dialogue in the Crito as well. How far should freedom of speech and that is to say speech that borders on, even verges into, civic impiety, how far should such speech be tolerated? It’s been an assumption of readers of Plato over the years that the trial of Socrates, that the execution of Socrates, presents the case for the fullest liberty or freedom of thought in discussion in the evils or the dangers to a society of trying to persecute or suppress freedom of speech. But is this right, in other words, is that really Plato’s teaching?

Among the things Socrates says he cares deeply about is his calling, as he puts it, to do nothing but persuade you both younger and older not to care for your bodies and money but how your soul will be in the best possible condition. How are we to understand this case about toleration and freedom of speech? The Apology presents Socrates right as presenting the most intransigent case for the philosopher as a radical critic or questioner of society. Socrates demands that the Athenians change not simply this or that aspect of their policy but he demands nothing less than a drastic, I would even say revolutionary, change in Athenian civic life, in Athenian civic culture. He tells his fellows citizens, right, that their lives are not worth living, only the examined life is worth living and you are not living examined lives therefore your life cannot possibly have any value to it. Even when presented with the option to cease philosophizing, he refuses to do so on the ground that, again, he is acting under a command, divine command and cannot do otherwise.

Crito’s Apology: “Companion Dialogue”

The platform on the Pnyx hill where speakers stood to address the Athenian democratic assembly in the 5th century BCE. The space dedicated for the assembly could hold 6000 people.

Is Plato asking us to regard Socrates as a man of high principle, standing up for what he believes in the face of death or as a kind of revolutionary agitator who cannot and should not be tolerated by a society whose basic laws and values he will not accept? To some degree, I am inclined to answer that both of those questions have something to them. Maybe the answer, or an answer, to this question is revealed in the Crito, the companion dialogue, the companion speech that goes along with the Apology, although it typically gets much less attention than the Apology. In part, because I think the dialogue presents, as it were, the city’s case, the case of the city against Socrates, I mean to consider some of the following. If the Apology presents the philosopher’s case against the city, Socrates’s case against the city, the Crito presents the city’s case against the philosopher. Here, Socrates makes the case against himself, you might say he makes the case against himself better than his accusers in the courtroom did. So in the Apology, the speech between Socrates and the laws that form, as it were the kind of central action of the dialogue, presents the case that Meletus and Anytus should have made against him. While the Apology seems to denigrate the political life as requiring complicity in injustice and Socrates says he will have no part of laws or policies that entail injustice, the Crito makes the case for the dignity of the laws, the dignity or majesty of the city and its laws. While the Apology defends, again, a politics of principled abstinence or disobedience to the political life, the Crito makes the most complete and far-reaching case for obligation and obedience to the law that has perhaps ever been made. So how do we reconcile, if we can, these two apparently contradictory points of view in these two dialogues?

These two dialogues, it should be evident, I mean, differ not only in content but in their dramatic context. Just consider, again, some of the following. The Apology is a speech given before a large and largely anonymous audience of over 500 persons, the Assembly, the Court. We see Socrates addressing, the only time in any platonic dialogue, an audience of this size. The Crito, on the other hand, is a conversation between Socrates and a single individual, only one person. The Apology takes place in the Court of Athens, the most public of settings, while the Crito occurs within the darkness and confinement of a prison cell. The Apology shows Socrates defending himself and his life as a gift of the god that most truly benefits the city but in the Crito, we see him bow down to the authority of the laws that he seems to have previously rejected and finally if the Apology presents Socrates as the first martyr for philosophy, the first person to die for the cause of philosophy, the Crito shows Socrates’s trial and sentence as a case of justice delivered. These huge contrasts, again, they force us to ask a question, what is Plato doing in presenting these two very different points of view, what is his point in presenting these two works with two such sharply contrasting perspectives on the relation of Socrates to the city? Was Plato confused, was he contradicting himself, was he–what was he doing? Big question. I hope I have time to answer it.

So let’s look into the Crito just a little bit. Crito is named for a friend and disciple of Socrates who at the outset of the dialogue is sitting as a watchful guardian over his mentor. He urges Socrates to allow him to help him escape. The jailers have been bribed and escape would be made easy but rather than trying to convince Crito directly, Socrates creates a dialogue; actually, you might say a dialogue within the larger dialogue, a dialogue between himself and the laws of Athens where he puts forward the case against escape, that is to say the case against disobedience to the law and the argument could be summarized as follows. No state can exist without rules. The first rule of any state is the rule that citizens are not free to set aside the rules, to choose among them which ones to obey and to disobey. To engage in civil disobedience of any kind is not only to call this or that rule into question but it is to call into question the very nature of law, the very question of the rules. To question or disobey the law is tantamount to destroying the authority of the law. The breaking of so much as a single law constitutes the essence of anarchy, constitutes the essence of lawlessness, it is a far-reaching argument for obedience to the law. The breaking of even a single law calls into question the authority of law as such. It’s a very powerful argument that, in a way, Socrates makes against himself, putting that speech in the mouth of the laws. But he goes even further than this. The citizen, he says, owes his very existence to the laws. We are what we are because of the power and authority of the laws, the customs, the traditions, the culture that has shaped us. The laws, he says, have begat us and the use of the term “begat” in our translation is clearly intended to resonate with something you might say we might think of as something biblical about it. The citizen is, in a word, created, begat by the laws themselves, they exercise a kind of paternal authority over us such that disobedience to any law constitutes an act of impiety or disrespect of the oldest things around us. The laws are not only like our parents, they are like our ancestors, the founding fathers, as we might say, who are owed respect and piety.

In many ways, the Crito, in some respect, is the platonic dialogue about piety. Socrates seems to accept here entirely the authority of the law; he does not offer arguments for non compliance as he does in the Apology, so what happened all of a sudden to Socrates, the apostle of civil disobedience, Socrates the apostle of principled abstention? He accepts entirely, or the laws force him to accept entirely, the covenant that every citizen has with the laws that binds them to absolute obedience. The question is, why does Socrates exhibit such proud defiance and independence of the laws in the Apology, and such total, even kind of mouse-like, acquiescence to the laws in the Crito? What happened to him, I mean why does he all of a sudden become so humble and acquiescent? What happened to his language about being the gift of the god? Well, that’s something I want you to think about and maybe I’m sure you’ll want to talk about in your sections, but let me propose something like the following to answer or at least to respond to this paradox, this question.

The Apology and the Crito represent a tension, they represent even a conflict between two more or less permanent and irreconcilable moral codes. The one represented by Socrates regards reason, that is to say, the sovereign reason of the individual as the highest possible authority. It is the philosopher’s reliance on his own reason that frees him from the dangerous authority of the state and safeguards the individual from complicity in the injustice and evils that seem to be a necessary part of political life. Here is Socrates, the principled abstainer, but the other moral code is represented by the speech of the laws where it is the laws of the community, its oldest and deepest beliefs and institutions, its constitution, its regime as we would say, its politea, that are fundamentally obligatory on the individual and even take priority over the individual. The one point of view takes the philosophic life, the examined life, to be the one most worth living; the other takes the political life, the life of the citizen engaged in the business of deliberating, legislating, making war and peace as the highest calling for a human being. These constitute two irreconcilable alternatives, two different callings, so to speak, and any attempt, I think, to reconcile or to synthesize these two can only lead to a deep injustice to each.

Plato seems to believe that each of us must choose somehow, must choose between one or the other of these two contenders for the most serious and worthwhile way of life. Which do we take, which is the matter of ultimate concern or care for us? Which? But we cannot have both and I think that distinction to some degree captures the differences set out when I asked at the beginning of the class about who believes Socrates is innocent and should be acquitted and who believes he is guilty and should be condemned between a philosophical and a political point of view. And, in a sense, one could say maybe this is not Plato’s last word, I mean why does Socrates choose to stay and drink the hemlock? After all, if he is committed fundamentally to the principles of his own reason, still why should he care that much about the laws of the city, why not let Crito help him escape and go to Crete where he can drink the good wine of Crete and enjoy his old age? And in fact, Plato wrote another dialogue, his largest dialogue, a book called The Laws, where you see a man simply designated as the Athenian stranger living in Crete and carrying on a conversation with representatives of that society and that might be, although he is not identified as Socrates, it is sometimes thought here is the kind of speech or discussion Socrates would be having, had he escaped. But it gets back to the question, are the reasons Socrates gives Crito for refusing to escape, the reasons he puts in the mouth of the laws of the city of Athens, are those Socrates’s true reasons? Does Socrates believe that speech that he constructs between himself and the laws or is it simply a fiction that he creates for the sake of relieving his friend of the guilt he evidently feels for being unable to help Socrates?

Crito is, of course, very concerned with what people will think of him if it becomes known that he has somehow not helped Socrates to escape. Is that speech for the law, with the laws, really intended for the benefit of Crito, rather than an expression of Socrates’s deepest opinions about the questions of obligation and obedience? Is he, in that speech, bestowing as it were a kind of justice to Crito to reconcile him to the laws of the city and to give him reasons, you might say rational considerations, for continued obedience to the law? In many ways that would seem to make a certain sense of the apparent discrepancy between these two dialogues. It demonstrates not only Socrates’s sense of his superiority to the laws of Athens. In the first speech of the Apology, he defies the city to put him to death by expressing indifference to death and then in the Crito, he very much expresses that indifference to death by refusing to allow Crito to let him escape. Socrates seems to remain, even until the end, very much a kind of law unto himself while at the same time, again, providing Crito and others like him an example of rational and dignified obedience to the law.

When we look at the death of Socrates, do we think of it as a tragedy, as a moral tragedy, a just man sentenced to death by an unjust law? I don’t think so. Far from it. Socrates’s death at the age of 70 was intended by him as an act of philosophical martyrdom that would allow future philosophy to be favorably recognized as a source of courage and justice. In one of his later letters, Plato refers to his depiction of Socrates, as he says his attempt to render Socrates young and beautiful, that is he consciously set out to beautify Socrates, presenting a man, fearless before death, refusing to participate in any active injustice while dispensing wisdom and justice to those who will listen. We don’t know the real Socrates, all we know of Socrates is what we read in Plato and Aristophanes and a small number of others who have sketched various different pictures of him. But Plato’s Socrates is necessarily poles apart from Aristophanes’ Socrates depiction of him as a sort of sophist who makes the weaker argument the stronger.

Plato’s dialogues, the Apology as well as the Republic and the Crito are in the broadest sense of the term, an attempt not only to answer the charge against Aristophanes but also defend the cause of philosophy as something of value and merit.

Applying Lessons from Fourth-Century Athens to Our World Today

Restored illustration of Athens / Wikimedia Commons

Where does that leave us today? What are we to make of all this? We, who live in a very different kind of world from that of, you know, fourth-century Athens, what can we learn from the example of Socrates? Most of us like most of you earlier, find ourselves instinctively taking the side of Socrates against the city of Athens. Those who might defend the city of Athens against Socrates, those who believe in the value of civic piety are very few among us. Perhaps only those of you who might come from a small town in the south or from certain areas of Brooklyn would understand something about the supreme value of piety as a way of life. We, by and large, tend to accept the picture of Socrates as a victim of injustice. We overlook, we conveniently overlook a number of facts about him, his hostility to democracy, we’ll see that in theRepublic but we’ve seen it already to some degree in the Apology. His claim that the lives of his fellow citizens are not worth living and his claim that his way of life has been commanded by a god that no one else has ever heard or seen. None of these seem to make any difference to us and yet I think they should.

Given Socrates’s claims, ask yourself what would a responsible body of citizens have done, how should they have acted? One answer might be to extend greater toleration to civil dissidents like Socrates. Individuals of heterodox belief but whose own views may stimulate others to question and think for themselves, all to the good, Milton, John Locke, people like Voltaire argued something like this. But is that to do justice to Socrates?

The one thing that Plato does not argue is that Socrates should simply be tolerated. To tolerate his teaching would seem to trivialize it in some sense, to render it harmless. The Athenians at least pay Socrates the tribute of taking him seriously, which is exactly why he is on trial. The Athenians refuse to tolerate Socrates because they know he is not harmless, that he poses a challenge, a fundamental challenge to their way of life and all that they hold to be noble and worthwhile. Socrates is not harmless because of his own professed ability to attract followers, a few today, a few more tomorrow. Who knows? To tolerate Socrates would be to say to him that we care little for our way of life and that we are willing to let you challenge it and impugn it every day. Is that good, is that right? The trial of Socrates asks us to think about the limits of toleration, what views, if any, do we find simply intolerable? Is a healthy society one that is literally open to every point of view, freedom of speech is naturally a cherished good, is it the supreme good? Should it trump all other goods or does toleration reach a point when it ceases to be toleration and becomes in fact a kind of soft nihilism that can extend liberty to everything precisely because it takes nothing very seriously. And by nihilism, I mean the view that every preference, however squalid, base or sordid, must be regarded as the legitimate equal of every other. Is this really tolerance or is it rather a form of moral decay that has simply decided to abandon the search for truth and standards of judgment? There’s a danger, I think, that endless tolerance leads to intellectual passivity and the kind of uncritical acceptance of all points of view.