Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield

The roll-call of contemporary critics of Athenian democracy, during its flourishing in the fifth and fourth centuries, is impressive. It includes not just men of action, such as Alcibiades and Critias, but just about all the intellectuals who come to mind: the playwrights, both comic and tragic, the orators, the historian Thucydides, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Isocrates and Aristotle, and pamphleteers such as the anonymous author of The Constitution of the Athenians who is familiarly known as the 'Old Oligarch'. They had a limited number of points to make, and they made them more or less forcefully.

First, some argued that the masses were innately stupid and over-emotional, and remained so thanks to lack of education; moreover, since economic circumstances largely determined human behavior, the fact that the masses worked made them less moral than the rich; therefore democracy was the perverted rule of the morally inferior over the morally superior.* Democracy was by definition the rule of the working class, whose members had neither the money nor the leisure nor the education to do the kind of long-term and objective thinking that government required. The idea that mass decision-making could be superior to individual wisdom was a joke. This is still a live issue in political philosophy: a recent book takes as its starting point the fact that 'Democracy is not naturally plausible'. Why turn such important matters over to the masses of people who have no expertise?* In ancient Athens, the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the elite felt that they did have such expertise, handed down from generation to generation ever since the good old days of aristocracy.*

Second, they felt that the democracy was a kind of tyranny of the weak over the strong, a violation of the natural hierarchy, too egalitarian and open. Democracy made laws in its own interest and gulled the credulous by calling this "justice". Democracy tended to confuse freedom with lack of restraint, lawlessness and anarchy, or at least promoted the sovereignty of the people rather than the law, with attendant dangers. As a kind of tyrant, democracy favored flatterers and yes-men, and exploited the wealth of others for its own purposes; it governed by whim, and the masses were therefore fickle and easily led by demagogues and self-interested speakers, especially into over-confidence or vindictiveness (but even the critics often wryly acknowledged that the Oligarchs served themselves in precisely the same fashion).

Third, democracy's preference for committees over individuals, and for the annual change of administrative positions, made it inefficient. It stifled initiative, favoured the average and failed to make use of experts in government. Democracy had too much power for its own good: elite fear of chastisement by the democracy made them less inclined to put their abilities in the service of the state. And in particular, democracy was hopeless at foreign policy: witness the follies and the final catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War. The masses were more likely than the elite to be belligerent, because the elite were linked by hereditary relationships to their peers abroad, had a better understanding of foreign affairs and naturally wanted to protect their foreign estates ( the 4th and 5th century 'Global Economy').

Fourth, the people mishandled public money. This mismanagement manifested above all in paying the poor for public service in the courts and Assembly and for military service, and in an ambitious programme of enhancing the city with monumental buildings and other public works. As if these measures- depriving the rich of resources they could have spent privately- were not enough democracy had also taken the state into a crippling expensive war (The Oligarchs didn't have a nifty banking system to turn such liabilities into rich reward.)

Curiously, it would be hard to draw up a similar list of counter arguments by democracy's supporters. Only a few isolated passages develop in a piecemeal fashion anything like a theory of democratic virtues, while others (such as Pericles famous Funeral Speech in Thucydides) are too complacent to contribute much ammunition to the debate ( it is a eulogy to Athens, not political theory). Dmocracy was more performance than theory, and was constantly evolving. Nevertheless, various ideas and arguments crop up here and there: the egalitarianism of democracy, and the idea that the possession of common goals reduces discontent and increases concord, without any need for hierarchy; the belief that almost every citizen has the mental capacities necessary for socialization and contribution to debate, so that there is such a thing as collective wisdom. Those in favour of democracy denied the equation of pluralism with anarchy, and claimed that accountability was self-evidently a good discipline for a community's officers to work under.

The debate was won by the democrats, not because they had the best arguments, but because their opponents had the worse track record. The scandals of 415, Alcibiades's arrogance and, above all, the brutality of the Thirty Tyrants were plain facts that needed no theoretician: if this is what oligarchy was like, democracy was clearly preferable. Oligarchs never fully recovered the moral high ground. Active dissent fizzled out in the fourth century and took with it much of the social crisis. After the rule of the Thirty, it was left to philosophers to formulate criticisms; the men of action had been silenced and democracy had been restored. There was only one loose end: Socrates.

* I personally heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach against this notion used a justification for Jim Crow in the early 1960s.

* The U.S. Senate routinely ignores the the desires of the majority of Americans when legislating such issues as Health Care, Banking and Tax Policy.

* The "Wisdom of the Founding Fathers" is often invoked whether very relevant to the current social, economic or political situation or not.


  1. This is something like what the prosecutor Anytus said at Socrates' trial, according to the pamphlet composed by Polycrates, long dismissed but now re-credited:

    " Gentlemen, I will not take up much of your time. My friend Lycon, whose record on behalf of the city is known to you all, has yet to speak. Besides, you have already heard Metetus speak, and demonstrate that this man before you, Socrates of Alopece, is an out-and-out atheist, the leader of a weird cabal, and a sophist who teaches young men corrupt and subversive skills- teaches them to bypass honest citizens such as their fathers and their family friends in favour of his new-fangled, impious and immoral notions. He is no true citizen, but an acolyte of a god not recognized by the state. But I will say no more about the charge of impiety, so ably covered by my colleague, and will focus on the charge of corruption.

    I do not need to take up your time because in all likelihood you already know what kind of man Socrates is; you have seen him in the Agora, surrounded by a gaggle of effeminate, lisping young men, and a scattering of emaciated older men. He also hangs out in the gymanasia, but I doubt many of you have seen him there, because you have better things to do with your time than ogle boy's bodies. And what does he do? What how does he put on for his audience? He latches on to one of you and forces you to submit to his questions. And these are not innocent questions. No, he does not ask you the time of day or the way to Taureas's wrestling-school. To the great amusement of his disciples, he ties you up into sophisticated knots and shames you, claiming to demonstrate that none of us knows what goodness is. He cleverly gives the impression that he himself does have such knowledge, though no one has ever heard him say what it is.

    He supports his slippery arguments by reference to the anti-democratic poets, and by these means he claims to show that our inherited values, which have nursed our fair city to greatness, are so riddled with inconsistencies as to be worthless. He perverts the ideas of our most noble poets, making out that Hesiod claimed that one should commit crimes in order to make a living, while our forefather Homer made Odysseus out to be a thief, said that the very Trojan War was a form of theft, and encouraged the thrashing of poor people- of you, the honest citizens of Athens. Well, let me remind him of what the great Hesiod said: 'Often all the citizens of a community suffer as the result of one bad man."

    And there can be no doubt that this man has harmed our community. Our city is founded on the values of our fathers- yet Socrates teaches young men to ignore their fathers as useless, as incapable of teaching virtue, and encourages them to despise the laws and traditions...Socrates says that clever sons should restrain their ignorant fathers, in case their ignorance leads them to harm themselves. He equates ignorance, as a form of mindlessness, with insanity, and so calls you all insane!.. It is hardly going too far to say that this man is solely responsible for the inter-generational conflict that so afflicted our city a few years ago. He and he alone plunged the city into the crisis from which it is only now recovering. We must make sure that he does nothing to undermine this recovery."

  2. "It is well known that he mocks, and teaches other to mock, the lottery (offices in government were filled by lottery), the basis of our democratic egalitarianism and token of our trust in the gods. As if he were a loyal citizen, he says that the lottery actually harms the city. He wants to see a few men of knowledge in charge of the city- and what would we call that if not oligarchy? He has been know to favour Sparta and Spartan practices, which brings us back to the elitist pederasty that he perpetuates. He is so far from encouraging his followers to play a part in the public life of our city, that by his very example as well as his words, he gets them to prefer idleness to undertaking their civic duties.

    So far I have spoken in general about his followers. Let me know be more specific. Socrates was the teacher of Alcibiades and of Critias. I scarcely need to remind you of Alcibiades deeds. This was the man who aspired to tyranny himself, instigated the oligarchic coup twelve years ago, profaned our most sacred Mysteries and may well have desecrated the herms. This was the man who aided both the Spartans and the Persians in their military efforts against us. This was the man who was cursed and banished, as a monster of impiety, and who was scarcely restored by you, in your lenience, to our city, when his tyrannical ambition again raised its vile head and you rightly saw fit to banish him once more. Alcibiades was responsible for almost all the terrible things our city suffered during the war.

    As for Citias, the terrible events he masterminded are too recent for you to need any reminders. He wanted to turn us into a satellite of Sparta; he wanted to wipe the slate clean of democracy and start again. In pursuit of his vision, he mercilessly killed fifteen hundred citizens and stole the property of many more, whom he sent into exile. All Athenians of sound hearts and minds rose up in rebellion against him. What did Socrates do? He stayed in Athens; he stood by and watched as Critias drove Athenians out of the city, stole their property and murdered their kinsmen. And why did he stay? Because Critias was one of his pupils- as were Charmides and Aristotle, men of scarcely less evil repute. Indeed, it would probably not surprise you to learn that many of Critias's ideas were gleaned from his master.

    He will tell you that he is no teacher, and so that he never taught Alcibiades and Critias. He will call on his famous poverty to witness that he has never accepted any money for teaching- when it proves only his utter eccentricity. He will tell you that a teacher should not, in any case, be blamed for his students' views. He will tell you that his views are not subversive or atheistic- and in fact that there is no one in Athens more moral and upright than him, a claim I will not even bother to address. But is it just a coincidence that Alcidiades and Critias held views that were so similar to those of their master? Did they pluck them out of thin air? Everyone believes that teachers- not teachers of facts, but teachers of opinions, as he was- are responsible for their students' views. If he denies this, it is just another example of his contempt for what we, the common people, believe.

  3. "Along with the rest of the Three Thousand, he was offered the chance to retire to Eleusis, with no further retaliation for his wickedness. He did not have the common decency to take up the offer and avoid this trial; since he chose to stay and to appear in court, he deserves the death penalty. If you do not kill this man, you connive at the moral malaise that has gripped our fair city and which we are now doing our best to combat, and you will fail to deter future oligarchic revolutions, masterminded by this man or yet others of his circle. Look, even now he counts among his followers at least one relative of Critias, young Plato. It is up to you to protect our youth, the future of the city, by condemning this man to death."

    Socrates was persecuted as a scapegoat, as prime figurehead in the inter-generational conflicts that arose in Athens during his life. and as a representative of the anti-democratic, oligarchical political factions whose machinations almost destroyed democracy and brought much ruin to the city of Athens.

    "Why Socrates Died; Dispelling The Myths" by Robin Waterfield; W.W. Norton, 2009