PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

Lecture 2

 - Socratic Citizenship: Plato, Apology


The lecture begins with an explanation of why Plato’s Apology is the best introductory text to the study of political philosophy. The focus remains on the Apology as a symbol for the violation of free expression, with Socrates justifying his way of life as a philosopher and defending the utility of philosophy for political life.

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Introduction to Political Philosophy

PLSC 114 - Lecture 2 - Socratic Citizenship: Plato, Apology

Chapter 1. Introduction: Plato, Apology [00:00:00]

Professor Steven Smith: Today we start with Plato, 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?

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.

Chapter 2. Political Context of the Dialogue [00:09:31]

So, I have some names put on the board and some dates, because 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?

Chapter 3. Accusations Leveled Against Socrates [00:19:19]

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.

Chapter 4. Clouds: Debunking Socrates’s New Model of Citizenship [00:27:51]

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.

Chapter 5. The Famous Socratic “Turn”; Socrates’s Second Sailing [00:33:31]

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 Delphic Oracle, who had gone to 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? That’s the question I want us to consider again for next week as we finish the Apology and move our way up to the Crito. Okay? We’ll do that for next week.

[end of transcript]

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